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With this first text, Ascending City section would like to start the discussion on the topics related to this section of the exhibition. Texts,essays, interviews by different contributors will be published on a regular basis to enlarge the theoretical scope of the research on the future of urban/technological innovation and its impact on mankind.

Is mankind ready for the biggest challenge of our times ?

Fabio Cavallucci

What drives human actions? Needs and desires above all. Needs are the expectation of satisfying the basic instinctive necessities. Desires are more evolved interests, not essential for survival, connected to the various nuances of our psyche. Often there is no clear division between the two spheres. Some needs tend to take on nuances of desire; sex cloaks itself in love, or the need to assuage hunger materialises into the refined dishes of the chefs of the most recent nouvelle cuisine.
On the other hand, in particular cases certain desires tend to metamorphose into needs; what else is the addict’s desire for drugs? The fact that some courts have now recognized the cell phone as a primary need tells us a lot about how technological development too contributes to modifying human expectations.

Fears too induce us to create technologies which are mostly for defence, control and protection. Speed limits and the relative control systems or customs checks sometimes annoy us, but they are the tools we give ourselves to limit the risk of accidents or to prevent dangerous criminals from circulating freely. Although the unknown may hold a certain fascination for some people, it is usually something we would like to have information about before dealing with it.

Technology, as an expansion of our faculties, is developed by us precisely to satisfy needs and desires, and to hold our apprehension at bay in the face of the unknown.  There is no such thing as a purposeless technology; even the satellite ploughing through space among the stars is created to satisfy a desire, the desire for knowledge.

But technology produces a kind of addiction; the more it develops and spreads, the more necessary it becomes. How could we live today for example without electricity, which actually appeared in people’s lives only in the final decades of the 19th century? What would we do without cars, which did not exist until a little over a century ago, and which at a certain point came to occupy such an important position in the list of human desires that it could be compared to a “mechanical bride”. Technology is like a drug; it produces addiction.

It is not only a question of not being able to do without certain commodities. The most widespread technologies affect social dynamics to such a great extent that they force everyone to be part of them and make it impossible to remain outside them. While a few hundred years ago for example it was normal for a piece of news to take several hours or days to cross vast territories (at least the time required to run or ride the distance, as in the famous cases of Phillippides of Marathon or Paul Revere from the American war of Independence), nowadays the editor of any online newspaper would be fired on the spot if they let even a few minutes go by without publishing it. Communication systems have made news transmission immediate, forcing everyone to keep up. And now, anyone deciding to stay outside the system of instantaneous connection becomes a sort of hermit isolated from the world.

We must not interpret the compulsion to follow the direction indicated by technology as coercion. Most people actually wish to go in the very direction the technologies are pushing them along.

In the long run it is always we ourselves who choose whether to use them or not, and only those with a broad consensus establish themselves. In any case, in this way we are turning into servomechanisms. Humankind invents machines but then ends up losing its power over them, to the extent that it cannot control their use and propagation any more. Italo Svevo already sensed this in the last magnificent pages of Zeno’s Conscience: “the bespectacled man invents devices outside of his body….the first devices seemed extensions of his arm…..but by now the device no longer has any relation to the limb. And it is the device that creates sickness….”.  The inability to dominate technology, the projection of it outside of ourselves without recognising it as an extension of human abilities: all this produces existential angst. Most of the culture of the last two centuries, from Decadentism to Existentialism, was determined by this aspect, the anguish generated by the inability to adapt to an imposed way of life, which on close analysis however is actually determined by the technologies humankind itself has invented.

Moreover, it seems clear that they do not only produce modifications in external behaviour. The dominant, broadly-used technologies change people’s very perception of the world. The Futurists already recognised this: if the world moves fast, human perception is obliged to base itself on speed, consequently our whole aesthetic approach must be adjusted. Futurist aerodynamics was an anticipation of the streamlined aesthetics of Boeing planes and high-speed train engines.

By changing our perception of the world, technologies also act on the social structure. Con-temporary man lives in a completely different relational context from that of the Middle Ages, for example. In tribal societies (and also still in the Middle Ages) human beings were part of an extended family, a tribe, a guild. Individuals’ actions affected not only themselves but the whole group. It was with the modern age that the concept of the individual as an independent entity became dominant and the idea of privacy was born. And it was only after the invention of movable type printing that reading was transformed into a silent, solitary, hence individual, activity. Technologies influence not only our way of acting, our philosophical and ethical views, our social structures, but also our self-awareness.

The new contemporary technologies too are producing huge changes. The simultaneous nature of electrical and electronic tools tends to destroy the historical point of view in favour of a concentration on the present. A different world view is advancing, and it is that which places us in a condition of uncertainty and instability.

Obviously it is not easy to understand the events which concern us at the precise moment in which they take place. Like Stendhal’s Fabrice immersed in the battle of Waterloo, we are unable to understand which side the winner is on. The rapidity of the changes today tends to diversify even the mental approaches of co-existing generations. There is for example much talk of the millennials, those young people who were born between the end of the second and the beginning of the third millennia, and who have grown up with PCs and the social networks and been weaned holding mobile phones then, immediately afterwards, smartphones.  Many people think they have a very different way of relating to the world even as compared to the generation which began to use these technologies as adults. There are frequent descriptions of digital natives as bearers of a “smart” but superficial and fragmentary knowledge which tends to eschew social participation.

I have no wish to accuse a whole generation. Personally, I do not believe that such clear barriers can be placed between co-existing generations. I believe we are all moving towards a more superficial and fragmentary relationship with the world. Richard Sennet connects this aspect to the spread of user-friendly technologies: the more a technology hides the complex system it conceals behind its functions (the less “attrition” it has, as Bill Gates put it), the more it spreads a flippant, superficial type of behaviour. But I believe that the time we assign to our actions also conspires against the possibility of giving them depth; the contemporary system of information necessarily leads us to be rapid, to brush over the surfaces of things, to feed our knowledge in a fragmentary way. Since we no longer go deeply into things, our ability to apply the traditional systems of logical connection (succession, cause/effect) is weakened, and these systems are frequently substituted with horizontal associations and Pindaric connections. We are also losing the ability to conceptualise, to think organically, to form long-term visions. Apparently, the average IQ has diminished by 7% over the last few decades.

There is another aspect which seems to characterise human behaviour today: a reduced sense of individual responsibility. The ability to take decisions based on reasoning and not on instinct was the faculty which, for better or worse, once made man a special being able to discern, to decide in fact.
The doctor decided the treatment the patient should receive; the craftsman reinvented the object to be created each time; if you showed you were desperate, the bus driver might decide to let you on even if he had already closed the doors and was moving off. There were rules but it was always possible to re-negotiate them in the light of particular situations or needs. This is how bargaining developed; this is how rhetorical systems for debates evolved; this is how the art of negotiation came into being.

The gradual pervasion of the new technologies into every aspect of human action and the need to keep the various systems connected lead to ever greater standardisation. More and more precisely defined rules, a widespread control system, and the threat of negative consequences in the case of error, have turned the majority of people today into mere executors rather than individuals able to take responsibility. Procedures dominate. A doctor dare not diagnose any illness without prescribing a precise series of tests in methodical succession. Craftsmen apply standard principles to what was once their particular virtue, the special quality of the handmade item. Bus drivers do not for a moment consider risking safety (and their job) to let you on late twenty metres beyond the stop. Any personal margin of intuition or error tends to be cancelled. In a certain sense, the artistry of many activities is disappearing.

In this way relationships too are becoming more and more mechanical. While once people’s word was enough, today nothing can be done without the most detailed of contracts. Somehow the numerical system pervades all the aspects of human action. Even marriage tends now to be regulated by a contract, the regulations for its termination being included in the very moment when this highest relationship of love is mutually pledged. Some people have called this “relational consumerism”; we no longer love people, we only use them.

The increase in rules leads to every person’s life being defined in a more and more bureaucratic way. We are in the age of “airport freedom”. We are free, certainly; each of us can decide our own direction. But all our movements are programmed, channelled into predefined queues and lanes: check-in, security check, passport control, gate… Of course in the middle of it all we have hundreds of metres of offers of consumer goods, endless duty-free shops, but our apparent freedom is actually already wholly codified.

This happens above all in the towns, where increasingly automated services and the need to correlate the various systems impose pre-established models of movement and action.
Some time ago an artist recalled an experience which each of us has had when trying to catch a coach in a developing country. “When does the coach leave?” she asked. “When it’s full”, was the reply. A creative idea developed from there, from that reply. Our original behaviour was very different from today’s. Our current transport system is more and more precisely timed and coordinated. I am not denying that it is all perfect, but there is no room for even the slightest change of scenario.

While procedures are being imposed on human activity, the word which is being more and more frequently applied to machines is “algorithm”. Algorithms are today the tool for solving all problems. Do we want to develop a software which can meet all the demands of a specific activity?
We create an algorithm. Do we want a social network to identify certain features of its participants rather than others? We modify the algorithm. Do we want an online sales site to suggest particular products to potential purchasers? We develop an algorithm.

Behind this high-sounding word in fact lies a very simple concept; an algorithm is a precise succession of elementary procedures. In practical terms, nothing more than a cooking recipe. The difference from the recipe lies in the fact that actions like “salt to taste” or “medium cooking” are inconceivable. Every step must be precisely specified, free of any ambiguity. The transformation of every action into numerical quantities is what current technological systems require and expand.

Artificial intelligence is nothing more than the multiplication of these mechanisms to the nth power. Billions of choices in succession to give faster and faster responses to more and more complex questions thanks to the speed of the processors (which work via electrical exchanges, much faster than the chemical exchanges of our brains). All ambiguous aspects, from feelings to instincts, are pushed more and more into the margins. Or they are numerically defined.

Using the tools of science fiction, we might imagine that the human mind is preparing itself for the advent of artificial intelligence. We do not explore in depth, we delegate responsibilities, we regulate all interpersonal relationships, we marginalise non-numerical aspects, we become more and more unable to take important decisions. Is this because AI will do all this for us soon? Great historical changes in fact do not happen by chance.
The expansion of trade created the need for paper money, to reduce the weight of gold in caravans and to discourage robbers, and the birth of paper money further developed trade. Changes are in some way motivated by their effects.

The present system of connections is leading to the concretisation of the intuition expressed by the great McLuhan as many as 50 years ago: “for the first time a central nervous system is being formed outside human beings”. I would not call it exactly “outside”; at least for the moment human beings remain partially interconnected. Let us say that a biomechanical brain is being created of which human beings are only a part. Certainly, the fact that AI may take over and that humanity may become a valueless residue of the past system is an ever-present risk. The question as to the function of mankind in this process seems to me to be one of the overriding issues.

Bi-City Biennale of UrbanismArchitecture (UABB) is currently the only biennial exhibition in the world that is based exclusively on the set themes of URBANISM AND URBANIZATION. Co-organized by the two neighboring and closely interacting cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, UABB situates itself within the regional context of the rapidly urbanizing Pearl River Delta, concerns itself with globally common urban issues, extensively communicates and interacts with the wider public, is presented using expressions of contemporary visual culture, and engages in international and avant-garde dimensions as well as discourses of public interest.