Offworld Colonies of the Canadian North

[Image: Fermont’s weather-controlling residential super-wall, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

An earlier version of this post was published on New Scientist back in 2015.

Speaking at a symposium on Arctic urbanism, held at the end of January 2015 in Tromsø, Norway, architectural historian Alessandra Ponte introduced her audience to some of Canada’s most remote northern mining towns.

Ponte had recently taken a group of students on a research trip through the boreal landscape, hoping to understand the types of settlements that had been popping up with increasing frequency there. This included a visit to the mining village of Fermont, Quebec.

Designed by architects Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers, Fermont features a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket, and even a tourism bureau—for all that, however, it is run entirely by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means that there are no police, who would be funded by the Canadian government; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.

The town is also home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather.

[Image: Wind-shadow studies, Fermont; courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Known as the mur-écran or “windscreen,” the structure is nearly a mile in length and shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, a fortification against the sky built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.

In any other scenario, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But extreme environments such as those found in the far north are, by necessity, laboratories of architectural innovation, requiring the invention of new, often quite radical, context-appropriate building types.

In Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city—and has been since the 1970s.

[Image: Fermont and its iron mine, as seen on Google Maps].

Offworld boom towns

In a 2014 interview with Aeon, entrepreneur Elon Musk argued for the need to establish human settlements on other planets, beginning with a collection of small cities on Mars. Musk, however, infused this vision with a strong sense of moral obligation, urging us all “to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization.”

Humans must go to Mars, he implored the Royal Aeronautical Society back in 2012. Once there, he proposed, we can finally “start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big”—where really big, for Musk, means establishing a network of towns and villages. Cities.

Of course, Musk is not talking about building a Martian version of London or Paris—at least, not yet. Rather, these sorts of remote, privately operated industrial activities require housing and administrative structures, not parks and museums; security teams, not mayors.

These roughshod “man camps,” as they are anachronistically known, are simply “cobbled together in a hurry,” energy reporter Russell Gold writes in his book The Boom. Man camps, Gold continues, are “sprawling complexes of connected modular buildings,” unlikely to be mistaken for a real town or civic center.

In a sense, then, we are already experimenting with offworld colonization—but we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north. Our Martian future is already under construction here on Earth.

[Image: Fermont apartments, design sketch, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Just-in-time urbanism

Industrial settlements such as Russell Gold’s fracking camps in the American West or those in the Canadian North are most often run by subsidiary services corporations, such as Baker Hughes, Oilfield Lodging, Target Logistics, or the aptly named Civeo.

The last of these—whose very name implies civics reduced to the catchiness of an IPO—actually lists “villages” as one of its primary spatial products. These are sold as “integrated accommodation solutions” that you can order wholesale, like a piece of flatpak furniture, an entire pop-up city given its own tracking number and delivery time.

Civeo, in fact, recently survived a period of hedge-fund-induced economic turbulence—but this experience also serves as a useful indicator for how the private cities of the future might be funded. It is not through taxation or local civic participation, in other words: their fate will instead be determined by distant economic managers who might cancel their investment at a moment’s notice.

A dystopian scenario in which an entire Arctic—or, in the future, Martian—city might be abandoned and shut down overnight for lack of sufficient economic returns is not altogether implausible. It is urbanism by stock price and spreadsheet.

[Image: Constructing Fermont, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Consider the case of Gagnon, Quebec. In 1985, Alessandra Ponte explained, the town of Gagnon ceased to exist. Each building was taken apart down to its foundations and hauled away to be sold for scrap. Nothing was left but the ghostly, overgrown grid of Gagnon’s former streets, and even those would eventually be reabsorbed into the forest. It was as if nothing had been there at all. Creeks now flow where pick-up trucks stood thirty years ago.

In the past, abandoned cities would be allowed to molder, turning into picturesque ruins and archaeological parks, but the mining towns of the Canadian north meet an altogether different fate. Inhabited one decade and completely gone the next, these are not new Romes of the Arctic Circle, but something more like an urban mirage, an economic Fata Morgana in the ice and snow.

Martian pop-ups

Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing. We are more likely to build a second Gagnon than a new Manhattan at the foot of Olympus Mons.

Of course, instant prefab cities dropped into the middle of nowhere are a perennial fantasy of architectural futurists. One need look no further than British avant-pop provocateurs Archigram, with their candy-colored comic book drawings of “plug-in cities” sprouting amidst remote landscapes like ready-made utopias.

But there is something deeply ironic in the fact that this fantasy is now being realized by extraction firms and multinational corporations—and that this once radical vision of the urban future might very well be the perfect logistical tool that helps humankind achieve a foothold on Mars.

In other words, shuttles and spacesuits were the technologies that took us to the moon, but it will be cities that take us to new worlds. Whether or not any of us will actually want to live in a Martian Fermont is something that remains to be seen.

Infrastructural Voodoo Doll

For the past few months, on various trips out west to Los Angeles, I’ve been working on an exclusive story about a new intelligence-gathering unit at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2014 Los Angeles World Airports—the parent organization in control of LAX—hired two intelligence analysts, both with top secret clearance, in order to analyze global threats targeting the airport.

There were many things that brought me to this story, but what particularly stood out was the very idea that a piece of transportation infrastructure could now punch above its weight, taking on the intelligence-gathering and analytical capabilities not just of a city, but of a small nation-state.

It implied a kind of parallel intelligence organization created to protect not a democratic polity but an airfield. This suggested to me that perhaps our models of where power actually lies in the contemporary city are misguided—that, instead of looking to City Hall, for example, we should be focusing on economic structures, ports, sites of logistics, places that wield a different sort of influence and require a new kind of protection and security.

From the article, which is now online at The Atlantic:

Under the moniker of “critical infrastructure protection,” energy-production, transportation-logistics, waste-disposal, and other sites have been transformed from often-overlooked megaprojects on the edge of the metropolis into the heavily fortified, tactical crown jewels of the modern state. Bridges, tunnels, ports, dams, pipelines, and airfields have an emergent geopolitical clout that now rivals democratically elected civic institutions.

For me, this has incredible implications:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

There are obvious shades here of Keller Easterling’s notion of “extrastatecraft,” where infrastructure has come to assume a peculiar form of political authority.

As such, it also resembles an initiative undertaken by the NYPD in the years immediately following 9/11—a story well told by at least three books, Peter Bergen’s excellent United States of Jihad, Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City, and, more critically, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.

However, there is at least one key difference here: the NYPD unit was operating as an urban-scale intelligence apparatus, whereas the L.A. initiative exists at the level of a piece of transportation infrastructure. Imagine the Holland Tunnel, I-90, or the M25 hiring its own in-house intel team, and you can begin to imagine the strange new powers and influence this implies.

In any case, the bulk of the piece is focused on introducing readers to the core group of people behind the program.

There is Anthony McGinty, a former D.C. homicide detective and Marine Reserve veteran, kickstarting a second career on the west coast; there is Michelle Sosa, a trilingual Boston University grad with a background in intelligence analysis; and there is Ethel McGuire, one of the first black female agents in FBI history, who undertook their hiring.

There are, of course, literally thousands of others of people involved, from baggage handlers and the LAX Fire Department to everyday travelers. LAX, after all, is a city in miniature:

At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

However, the actual space of the airport—the built landscape of logistics—is probably the main potential source of interest for BLDGBLOG readers.

For example, at the western edge of the airfield, there is an abandoned suburb called Surfridge, its empty streets and sand dunes now used as a butterfly sanctuary and as a place for police-training simulations. The runways themselves are vast symbolic landscapes painted with geometric signs that have to be read to be navigated. And then there are the terminals, currently undergoing a massive, multibillion dollar renovation campaign.

At one point, I found myself sitting inside the office complex of Gavin de Becker, an anti-assassination security expert who has worked for celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents. Protected behind false-front signage, de Becker’s hidden complex houses a full-scale airplane fuselage for emergency training, as well as ballistic dummies and a soundproofed shooting range.

I had a blast working on this piece, and am thrilled that it’s finally online. Check it out, if you get a chance, and don’t miss the speculative “case files” at the end, brief examples of what might be called infrastructural security fiction.

(Thanks to Ross Andersen and Sacha Zimmerman at The Atlantic for the edits. All images in this post from Google Maps, filtered through Instagram).

Infrastructure as Processional Space

[Image: A view of the Global Containers Terminal in Bayonne; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

I just spent the bulk of the day out on a tour of the Global Containers Terminal in Bayonne, New Jersey, courtesy of the New York Infrastructure Observatory.

That’s a new branch of the institution previously known as the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, who hosted the MacroCity event out in San Francisco last May. They’re now leading occasional tours around NYC infrastructure (a link at the bottom of this post lets you join their mailing list).

[Image: A crane so large my iPhone basically couldn’t take a picture of it; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

There were a little more than two dozen of us, a mix of grad students, writers, and people whose work in some way connected them to logistics, software, or product development—which, unsurprisingly, meant that everyone had only a few degrees of separation from the otherworldly automation on display there on the peninsula, this open-air theater of mobile cranes and mounted gantries whirring away in the precise loading and unloading of international container ships.

The clothes we were wearing, the cameras we were using to photograph the place, even the pens and paper many of us were using to take notes, all had probably entered the United States through this very terminal, a kind of return of the repressed as we brought those orphaned goods back to their place of disembarkation.

[Images: The bottom half of the same crane; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Along the way, we got to watch a room full of human controllers load, unload, and stack containers, with the interesting caveat that they—that is, humans—are only required when a crane comes within ten feet of an actual container. Beyond ten feet, automation sorts it out.

When the man I happened to be watching reached the critical point where his container effectively went on auto-pilot, not only did his monitor literally go blank, making it clear that he had seen enough and that the machines had now taken over, but he referred to this strong-armed virtual helper as “Auto Schwarzenegger.”

“Auto Schwarzenegger’s got it now,” he muttered, and the box then disappeared from the screen, making its invisible way to its proper location.

[Image: Waiting for the invisible hand of Auto Schwarzenegger; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Awesomely—in fact, almost unbelievably—when we entered the room, with this 90% automated landscape buzzing around us outside on hundreds of acres of mobile cargo in the wintry weather, they were listening to “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.

“Ground control to Major Tom…” the radio sang, as they toggled joysticks and waited for their monitors to light up with another container.

[Image: Out in the acreage; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The infinitely rearrangeable labyrinth of boxes outside was by no means easy to drive through, and we actually found ourselves temporarily walled in on the way out, just barely slipping between two containers that blocked off that part of the yard.

This was “Damage Land,” our guide from the port called it, referring to the place where all damaged containers came to be stored (and eventually sold).

[Image: One of thousands of stacked walls in the infinite labyrinth of the Global Containers Terminal; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

One of the most consistently interesting aspects of the visit was learning what was and was not automated, including where human beings were required to stand during some of the processes.

For example, at one of several loading/unloading stops, the human driver of each truck was required to get out of the vehicle and stand on a pressure-sensitive pad in the ground. If nothing corresponding to the driver’s weight was felt by sensors on the pad, the otherwise fully automated machines toiling above would not snap into action.

This idea—that a human being standing on a pressure-sensitive pad could activate a sequence of semi-autonomous machines and processes in the landscape around them—surely has all sorts of weird implications for everything from future art or museum installations to something far darker, including the fully automated prison yards of tomorrow.

[Image: One of several semi-automated gate stations around the terminal; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

This precise control of human circulation was also built into the landscape—or perhaps coded into the landscape—through the use of optical character recognition software (OCR) and radio-frequency ID chips. Tag-reading stations were located at various points throughout the yard, sending drivers either merrily on their exactly scripted way to a particular loading/unloading dock or sometimes actually barring that driver from entry. Indeed, bad behavior was punished, it was explained, by blocking a driver from the facility altogether for a certain amount of time, locking them out in a kind of reverse-quarantine.

Again, the implications here for other types of landscapes were both fascinating and somewhat ominous; but, more interestingly, as the trucks all dutifully lined-up to pass through the so-called “OCR building” on the far edge of the property, I was struck by how much it felt like watching a ceremonial gate at the outer edge of some partially sentient Forbidden City built specifically for machines.

In other words, we often read about the ceremonial use of urban space in an art historical or urban planning context, whether that means Renaissance depictions of religious processions or it means the ritualized passage of courtiers through imperial capitals in the far east. However, the processional cities of tomorrow are being built right now, and they’re not for humans—they’re both run and populated by algorithmic traffic control systems and self-operating machine constellations, in a thoroughly secular kind of ritual space driven by automated protocols more than by democratic legislation.

These—ports and warehouses, not churches and squares—are the processional spaces of tomorrow.

[Image: Procession of the True Cross (1496) by Gentile Bellini, via Wikimedia].

It’s also worth noting that these spaces are trickling into our everyday landscape from the periphery—which is exactly where we are now most likely to find them, simply referred to or even dismissed as mere infrastructure. However, this overly simple word masks the often startlingly unfamiliar forms of spatial and temporal organization on display. This actually seems so much to be the case that infrastructural tourism (such as today’s trip to Bayonne) is now emerging as a way for people to demystify and understand this peripheral realm of inhuman sequences and machines.

In any case, as the day progressed we learned a tiny bit about the “Terminal Operating System”—the actual software that keeps the whole place humming—and it was then pointed out, rather astonishingly, that the actual owner of this facility is the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, an almost Thomas Pynchonian level of financial weirdness that added a whole new level of narrative intricacy to the day.

If this piques your interest in the Infrastructure Observatory, consider following them on Twitter: @InfraObserve and @NYInfraObserve. And to join the NY branch’s mailing list, try this link, which should also let you read their past newsletters.

[Image: The Container Guide; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Finally, the Infrastructure Observatory’s first publication is also now out, and we got to see the very first copy. The Container Guide by Tim Hwang and Craig Cannon should be available for purchase soon through their website; check back there for details (and read a bit more about the guide over at Edible Geography).

(Thanks to Spencer Wright for the driving and details, and to the Global Containers Terminal Bayonne for their time and hospitality!)

Military Cave Logistics

[Image: “Humvees are stored inside the Frigaard Cave in central Norway. The cave is one of six caves that are part of the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway, which supports the equipping of Marine Expeditionary Brigade consisting of 15,000 Marines and with supplies for up to 30 days.” U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Marcin Platek].

Norwegian caves are being stuffed full of U.S. military equipment, including armored Humvees, tanks, and cargo containers full of weaponry, all part of a vast and semi-subterranean supply chain maintained to help wage future wars around the world.

The Marines have “stashed weapons and equipment in the Norwegian countryside since the 1980s,” War is Boring explains, in sites that include artificially enlarged and fortified caves. It’s all about logistics: “With this setup, Marines can fly in and be ready for a fight in no time.”

[Image: “Rows of front loaders and 7-ton trucks sit, gassed up and ready to roll in one of the many corridors in the Frigard supply cave located on the Vaernes Garrison near Trondheim, Norway. This is one of seven [see previous caption!] caves that make up the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway facility. All the caves total more than 900,000 sq. ft. of storage space, full of enough gear to outfit 13,000 Marines for up to 30 days.” U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Matt Lyman].

These facilities are commonly described as “supply caves,” and they hold warfighting gear in a state of indefinite readiness, “reserved for any time of crisis or war.”

Marines can simply fly in, unlock their respective caves, and grab the keys to one of hundreds, if not thousands, of combat-ready vehicles, all “gassed up and ready to roll in one of the many corridors” of this subterranean empire on the edges of American influence.

Among many other points of interest, the Marines identify six such supply caves in the caption of one image and seven caves in the caption of another, as if—assuming this is not just a minor clerical error—the Marines themselves don’t even know how many caves they have.

Instead, there’s just Norway, some faraway land of underground voids we’ve stuffed full of combat gear, like emperors stocking our own tombs in advance of some future demise—the actual number of caves be damned, for who will be left counting at the end of the world?

[Image: “Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacements, High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles and trailers, which belong to Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway are staged in a storage cave at Tromsdal, Norway, Feb. 24, 2014. Marine Corps began storing equipment in several cave sites throughout Norway in the 1980s to counter the Soviets, but the gear is now reserved for any time of crisis or war.” U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Sullivan Laramie].

On one level, I’m reminded of Marcus Trimble’s old joke that France has been constructing a back-up version of itself in China. It is a frenzied act of “pre-emptive preservation,” led by the cultural ministers of that sclerotic nation of well-tended chateaux who realized that la belle France could only survive if they built immediately ready copies of themselves elsewhere.

Only, in France’s case, it wasn’t willful self-burial in Norwegian caves, but in the real estate free-for-all of urban China. After all, Trimble suggested, that country’s “construction industry seems perfect for the task of backing up bricks rather than bits—cheap and powered by the brute force of sheer population. Copies of places may be made in a fraction of the time that it took to create them. If, in the event of a catastrophic episode, the part of France in question could be restored and life would go on as it was before.”

[Image: “China: ample space for a spare copy of France”; image by Marcus Trimble].

Militarize this, secret it away in a cave in Scandinavia, and you have something roughly approximately what’s called the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program.

However, I was also reminded of a recent paper by Pierre Belanger and Alexander Scott Arroyo at Harvard’s GSD. There, Belanger and Arroyo describe the U.S. military as a kind of planetary logistics challenge. (A PDF of their paper is available here courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense).

Specifically, it is the problem of building and often violently maintaining “logistics islands,” as Belanger and Arroyo describe them, that now characterizes much of the U.S. military’s global behavior, an endless quest for finding and protecting “a secure staging ground adjacent to the theater of operations,” in an era when adjacency is increasingly hard to define. As they explain:

While logistical acquisitions are managed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), logistical operations in the field are predominantly coordinated by USTRANSCOM. On average, the command oversees almost 2,000 air missions and 10,000 ground shipments per week, with 25 container ships providing active logistical support. From October 2009 through September 2010 alone, USTRANSCOM flew 37,304 airlift missions carrying over 2 million passengers and 852,141 tons of cargo; aerially refueled 13,504 aircraft with 338,856,200 pounds of fuel on 11,859 distinct sorties; and moved nearly 25 million tons of cargo in coordinated sea-land operations. DLA and USTRANSCOM and their civilian partners are responsible for the largest, most widespread, and most diverse sustained logistics operation in history.

The largest, most widespread, and most diverse sustained logistics operation in history.

The obvious and intended resonance here is that military operations perhaps now most closely resemble complicated UPS deliveries than anything like actual ground combat. However, we can also infer from this that establishing new and ever more convenient logistics islands is vital to U.S. national security.

A literal archipelago of shipping hubs is thus key to the country’s global military activities, and this not only requires sites like Diego Garcia, which Belanger and Arroyo specifically write about, or even the “mobile offshore bases” they also describe, where the pop-up urbanism of Archigram has been inadvertently realized by the U.S. military, but artificially fortified caves near the Arctic Circle where truly daunting amounts of military materiel are now kept on hand, as if held frozen in some imperial freezer, awaiting the day when global tensions truly heat up.

Read a bit more at War is Boring.

(This is more or less irrelevant, but you might also like Kiln, earlier on BLDGBLOG).

The City and its Periphery

If you’re in the Bay Area at the end of month, consider attending an event called Macro City, organized and hosted by the Infrastructure Observatory. Its purpose is “to explore the vast, often overlooked networks of infrastructure that surround us,” and, in the process, “to celebrate the numerous people whose countless efforts shape the built landscape every day.”

Probably the most interesting part of the whole event is the ambitious program of local field trips, all of which take place on May 30th. They include guided tours of everything from the Zanker landfill & recovery facility down in San Jose to one of San Francisco’s wastewater treatment plants, and from a construction aggregate terminal and a kayak trip to an activist walking tour of the city’s many surveillance cameras.

[Image: The Dutra Group‘s extraordinary San Rafael rock quarry, a Macro City field trip site and striking reversal of the figure-ground relationship; photo courtesy of baycrossings/Macro City].

Tickets are available at various levels of price and access—and I should point out that I am also speaking at the event, alongside Nicola Twilley, so my opinion betrays some bias—but the conference has a great and important interpretive mission, and seems well worth attending: “We rarely see in full the cities that we live in,” the organizers write. “Focused on our daily lives, urban dwellers are often only dimly aware of the numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible.”

Come tour and talk about those hidden systems on May 30 and 31, at SPUR and the Brava Theater in San Francisco. See the Macro City site for more details.

The Planetary Super-Surface of San Bernardino County

A surprisingly interesting business article in the Los Angeles Times this past weekend pointed out that an “industrial real estate boom” is underway east of the city: “Nestled on the windy plains at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains,” we read, “once austere stretches of agricultural land have morphed into the country’s most desirable industrial real estate market, and it is growing faster than any other industrial region in the U.S.”

[Image: Construction work at a future Amazon.com warehouse in San Bernardino, courtesy of NBC Southern California].

What’s at stake? Eager buyers are snapping up “vast warehouses—some are bigger than 30 football fields under one roof—where they can store, process and ship merchandise such as clothes, books and toys to ever more online shoppers and handle the rising flood of goods passing through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.”

It’s a logistics rush “so intense” that “developers are erecting more than 16 million square feet of warehouses on speculation, meaning they are gambling that buyers or renters will rush forward to claim the buildings by the time they are complete.”

As it happens, though, huge volumes of empty space framed by walls and ceilings are something of the ultimate testing ground for robot intelligence: “Once upon a time, a warehouse was where you stored things for weeks or months, such as toys and canned food that retailers would grab to restock their shelves. Sorting, organizing and moving the inventory was a constant challenge.”

However, now, in this age of empty architectural airspace, “Tracking goods in the modern age of bar codes, scanners and computers is a comparative breeze. The location of every widget can be identified with pinpoint accuracy and fetched by robots that can lift and carry 3,000-pound loads with ease.”

[Image: An unrelated warehouse photo from CCI Flooring].

I’m reminded of something novelist Zachary Mason said in an interview with BLDGBLOG three years ago. Mason, who has also worked in the field of artificial intelligence, pointed out the spatial problems faced by any truly emergent A.I.:

One of the problems with A.I. is that interacting with the world is really tough. Both sensing the world and manipulating it via robotics are very hard problems, and solved only for highly stripped-down special cases. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, work well, because maneuvering in a big, empty, three-dimensional void is easy—your GPS tells you exactly where you are, and there’s nothing to bump into except the odd migratory bird. Walking across across a desert, though, or, heaven help us, negotiating one’s way through a room full of furniture in changing lighting conditions, is vastly more difficult.

The prospect of Artificial Intelligence finding its way into the world not by way of unmanned aerial vehicles flying in Mason’s “big, empty, three-dimensional void” but, instead, in the vast and echoing elsewhere of speculative warehouse space built in the desert outside Los Angeles is an incredible, and even somewhat frightening, thing to contemplate.

However, I started this post actually hoping to point out one small thing mentioned merely in passing at the end of the L.A. Times article.

One of these warehouses, it turns out, is actually so huge it must be laser-leveled against the curvature of the earth.

[Image: A laser-leveling target used for calibrating car scales, taken by someone named “Butt Dyno,” via an evolutionm.net forum].

The building in question “has 32-foot ceilings and enough doors to load or unload 124 trucks at the same time,” presenting insane combinatorial possibilities that would make the bridges of Königsberg blush; but, even more unbelievably, this “480,000-square-foot facility recently built for Quaker Oats Co. on land that used to be part of Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino… is so long at 1,000 feet that contractors laying the concrete floor used lasers to gently follow the curve of the Earth and keep the floor level.”

Of course, this means that you could also work in reverse, and thus deduce, from the precise leveling of the warehouse floor, the curvature of the planet it rests on, which, bizarrely enough, makes studying this building—an empty warehouse in the California desert—an unexpected subset of astronomical calculation.

Last week, for instance, we looked at various “benchmarks” that have been used for measuring the circumference of the Earth, but perhaps future generations will simply drive out to a cluster of warehouses somewhere on the fringes of Los Angeles—next century’s Stonehenge, a new Solomon’s Temple, or Superstudio meets Eratosthenes—ritually laser-level the floor on a hot summer afternoon, and thus deduce the limits of our world itself, all by way of the most “fundamental” of architectural interventions: the floor.



The logistical super-surface as planetary analogue.