Of Alpha Males and Algorithms

I realize this is off-topic even for a blog that has dwindled down to one or two posts a month for the past year, but recent events have posed too much of a distraction to avoid commenting on them at least briefly. Nevertheless, feel free to skip this—it has nothing to do with architecture or design.

I: “we are the alpha males”

There was an article in the Washington Post last week about a man—the son of a Maryland police chief—who allegedly took part in this month’s siege of the U.S. Capitol building. In case you missed it, there was a violent attempt to overturn the most recent American presidential election, performed by a mob of misinformed people from all over the country who had been encouraged and openly lied to every step of the way by their own elected officials, from the president himself to representatives from Missouri, Texas, Arizona, and other states.

Allegedly amongst that mob was this son of a Maryland police chief. The Washington Post mentions, in passing, a text message exchange in which the man appears to think that, if the big coup really arrived, the military would have stood behind the president—our twice-impeached now-former commander-in-chief publicly known, even many decades prior to his stint in the White House, for dishonesty, nepotism, corruption, and bankruptcy. Cops, those text messages claim, would also have backed the president—after all, one message says, “we are the alpha males.”

What’s interesting to me about this comment is that self-described “alpha males” have come to overlap almost perfectly with the most gullible people on the internet. From Jade Helm and Birtherism to “spirit cooking” and Pizzagate—and, now, QAnon—it is, again and again, the men quickest to oil themselves with a sheen of masculinity who fall for the dumbest, most obviously false stories they can find. I do not mean men, in general, or that masculinity somehow lends itself to being hoaxed, but that there is a kind of security vulnerability inherent to self-professed alpha males: beings so tough, they don’t need to ask questions. This makes them easy marks.

One such alpha-influencer, allegedly a real man’s man, has dubbed this approach to life the “gorilla mindset”—inadvertently giving the game away in terms of its intended intellectual acuity. This same guy, back in 2016, heavily pushed Pizzagate, with its secret Egyptoid pyramid symbols (slices of pizza are triangles, dude!) and Beavis and Butt-Head levels of coded-message interpretation, as well as the inane “spirit cooking” conspiracy, in which an internationally known performance artist was believed to be secretly, actually, really performing Satanic rituals with prominent celebrities.

This alpha-unwillingness to parse information became all the more obvious when the stupidest storylines imaginable began coming out about the 2020 election: it was all rigged, you see, by secret Venezuelan algorithms somehow programmed by a dictator who has been dead since 2013, or, no, it was a CIA-connected German server farm that, incredibly, had been tallying the real results on election night, or, no, it was actually advanced equations “broken” by an unexpected Trump landslide so numerically extreme that math itself could not keep up, or, no, it was an apartment in Rome somehow tied to the Vatican—this is an actual theory!—from which overseas operatives had uploaded encrypted malware to U.S. voting systems by satellite link, or, no, it was an elaborate Chinese information warfare campaign that somehow combined all of the above into one devastating super-attack. Stop the steal!

Time and again, it was the self-professed alpha males—the online persuaders and the Crossfit gurus and the retired cops and a 6’6″ Olympian and a disgraced former general who admitted lying to the FBI and even a Zoolander-adjacent pillow salesman advocating martial law—who fell for every single word of it. Every single stupid theory, swallowed and swallowed again by gullible alpha males—men with apparently no ability to protect themselves, their friends, or their own children from obvious hoaxes and stupidity.

Surely the least masculine thing you can do is fall for everything you see, swooning and fainting in front of every titillating Reddit thread—and I’m not saying this in an attempt to outflank these guys, to say I am the true alpha male, which, for anyone who has ever met me, would be a statement verging on surreality.

Throughout all this, I have found myself thinking about a catchphrase associated with an author and podcaster whose primary skill is speaking very quickly and who has infamously claimed that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” This is intended as a devastatingly rational, hyper-masculine jab at what he perceives to be an ascendent cultural femininity: after all, only the spineless and the beta, only women, would prioritize their feelings over alpha male facts.

It was thus utterly laughable to watch elected U.S. representatives, trying to wash their hands of an attempted coup that they had publicly supported mere days earlier, say that, well, sure, the election may have been legitimate—who really knows?—but what the nation needs to accept, those same representatives quickly added, is that millions of Americans feel as if the election was rigged, they feel as if their votes didn’t count, they feel as if Biden simply could not have won. They feel as if secret Venezuelan algorithms uploaded by Vatican insiders had somehow been deployed by Chinese cyberwarfare teams—don’t you get it? Their feelings don’t care about your facts.

My point here, to be clear, is not that cops or their sons are, by definition, easily duped—or that men, conservatives, or former Olympians are, by definition, easily duped—or even that having “feelings” or being accused of femininity are somehow actual insults. They’re not.

Rather, if social media has been good at one thing, it has been at revealing the unnerving extent to which considering yourself an alpha male appears to mean being duped by everything you see. The hypocrisy at the heart of “alpha maleness”—men oversensitive to their own “feelings” about politics, falling for theories so absurd they sound like adventure stories written by 10-year-olds—is both frustrating and obvious.

Strong silent types, growing their coup beards and wearing Oakleys, their biceps ripped, bellies roiling with porterhouse, dreaming of custom lug nuts, muttering with an air of conspiratorial authority about secret adrenochrome farms, covert Vatican uplink teams, and the imminent return of JFK Jr. “This is a man’s war, son,” he says, driving off to combat an obviously fake threat that exists only on his aunt’s Facebook page. “We are the alpha males.”

II: Submission

Having said that, I should state the next most obvious thing: it is not only men wrongly measuring themselves as alphas who have fallen willy nilly for these online conspiracy theories. One need only look as far as a certain recently elected representative from Georgia; a young Pennsylvanian woman arrested by the FBI for allegedly stealing “Nancy Polesis” [sic] laptop; a Manhattanite who apparently thinks that Trump has “secretly dethroned” the Queen of England; or any number of bikini-clad New Age influencers who have progressed without pause from unattributed Bob Marley quotations to peddling theories about chemtrails and Chinese 5G.

But rather than erroneously pin the blame on some illusory haze of alpha-masculinity or toxic femininity—in fact, rather than assign gender characteristics to gullibility at all—what instead sets the stage for being duped by con after con after con is a misapplication of faith. If you truly believe that celebrities have been invisibly arrested in a massive government crackdown, if you instinctually feel that Chrissy Teigen must be wearing a tracking anklet because she is part of an international cabal of child traffickers, if you know in your heart that global elites have been eating kids, or if you just trust that this secret plan you read about on the internet is real, then the idea of pausing even for a moment to assess some new piece of information before going all-in with your entire identity is not an option. You do not wait or ask questions—because you have faith.

Some insane new variation of your primary conspiracy theory arrives—it was the Vatican, not Venezuela, it was a coded message, not a concession speech—but no problem: this is just another piece of the puzzle you’ve been assembling and to question the truth of its final form would be to reveal you’re unworthy of solving it.

While the hypocrisy of the internet-addicted alpha male, chasing rumors in a cloud of political feelings, is infuriating, the near-instantaneity with which faith—trust, instinct, intuition, just knowing—can be hijacked and attached to nefarious, obviously wrong things is arguably more concerning. Worse, these two things often overlap: to be alpha is to trust one’s raw battlefield instincts, uncorrupted by the yammering of feminine experts, and to have faith is to know through intuition, without question or nuance, that the path you’re walking is a righteous one. In many situations, these can be exactly the same thing.

What’s particularly sad here is that masculinity obviously does not mean that you can’t ask questions or seek expert guidance, any more than being a person of faith means that you must deny any doubt or hesitation. In fact—to put this in explicitly theological terms—this is a total misunderstanding of what faith demands of us, which is not that we abandon ourselves and rescind all agency to a hidden superpower, but that we learn to live and work critically with forces larger than ourselves.

Alas, in today’s cultural climate, real men act rather than dwell on things, and people of faith simply trust the plan rather than questioning that mysterious voice they hear, apparently never realizing it might be hoaxing them.

III: Algorithmic Pygmalion, or “a sharp rise in engagement”

But there is at least one more reason why so many elaborate and inane theories have taken off lately, and it has nothing to do with gender stereotypes or blind faith.

Engagement algorithms on social media have thrown people’s ideological and cultural orientations completely out of whack—or, seen another way, people have willfully distorted their own personalities in order to boost their metrics on corporate social media. (I have no illusions I am somehow immune to this.)

As an article in the New York Times explored last week, people with seemingly no real political passions, let alone partisan loyalties, saw their online engagement levels spike as soon as they began posting about QAnon or #StopTheSteal—so they posted more about QAnon and #StopTheSteal.

“Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform—rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric,” we read. (Of course, this article is explicitly limited to “far right” internet causes, but it would be just as interesting to read how, for example, a loner with virtually no interest in politics found themselves suddenly wearing all black and participating in a multi-month left-wing siege of the federal courthouse in Portland.)

Instead, a system of positive feedback and a quest for social validation together mean that we all risk actively remaking ourselves not into someone we ever wanted to become, but into something—an act, a minstrel show, a parlor game—that performs better for the dominant algorithms of our time. Do you even want to be doing this new thing, going to this particular tourist destination, or assuming this new identity, or have you been conned into choosing it by a system of gamified feedback? Next thing you know you’re storming the U.S. Capitol building, espousing conspiracy theories you don’t even really believe—but your social media metrics have gone through the roof.

It is neither a surprise nor a coincidence that many of the people arrested after this month’s Capitol raid were found through their social media, oftentimes clearly and deliberately identifying themselves on camera as those sweet engagement metrics kicked in. (It seems all too likely that we’ll see the first armed revolution in which half the participants are only doing it for the ’gram.)

Everything I’m saying here, of course, is obvious, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see how this has been so dramatically ratcheted up in the past few years. From something presumably harmless—like a friend of yours going out for lunch more often because his photos of well-plated food have attracted new followers on Instagram—social media has instead become an engine for totally remaking people’s personalities and politics, up to and including insurrection.

To put this another way, that suburban alpha male out there hand-blueing his own rifle barrel and eyeing the U.S. Capitol building, despite no personal history of political interest, is just a remake of Pygmalion: an ironic Eliza Doolittle letting himself be sculpted by flattering algorithms.

The more ominous take-away from this is that we can’t just blame alpha males, the Goop-to-QAnon pipeline, or people of faith for the most recent tide of conspiracy theories drowning public discourse in the United States. Instead, through the Althusserian magic of social media engagement, dark, conspiratorial versions of ourselves are being conjured into existence, post by post, algorithm by algorithm, like by like, until we are all but unrecognizable to ourselves (whatever those selves were in the first place). That this experience of being scrambled is then sold back to us as a quest for meaning and significance—a literal solving of puzzles and an interpreting of clues—seems almost willfully cruel.

No wonder our dads, brothers, and sons, our moms, aunts, and sisters, our bosses and colleagues—no wonder we, some of us, most of us, maybe you—are so depressed and atomized, espousing nonsensical beliefs we don’t even really have, tracking ideas and conspiracies that have led to nothing at all like delight or joy, even as our new selves appeal evermore to algorithms we neither control nor know how to challenge.

[Update: Going all-in on obvious cons and conspiracy theories is the new mid-life crisis for alpha males seeking meaning in their otherwise empty lives.]

Geomedia, or What Lies Below

[Image: Courtesy USGS.]

I love the fact that the U.S. Geological Survey had to put out a press release explaining what some people in rural Wisconsin might see in the first few weeks of January: a government helicopter flying “in a grid pattern relatively low to the ground, hundreds of feet above the surface. A sensor that resembles a large hula-hoop will be towed beneath the helicopter,” the USGS explains—but it’s not some conspiratorial super-tool, silently flipping the results of voting machines. It’s simply measuring “tiny electromagnetic signals that can be used to map features below Earth’s surface,” including “shallow bedrock and glacial sediments” in the region.

Of course, the fictional possibilities are nevertheless intriguing: government geologists looking for something buried in the agricultural muds of eastern Wisconsin, part Michael Crichton, part Stephen King; or CIA contractors, masquerading as geologists, mapping unexplained radio signals emanating from a grid of points somewhere inland from Lake Michigan; or a rogue team of federal archaeologists searching for some Lovecraftian ruin, a lost city scraped down to its foundations by the last Ice Age, etc. etc.

In any case, the use of remote-sensing tools such as these—scanning the Earth to reveal electromagnetic, gravitational, and chemical signatures indicative of mineral deposits or, as it happens, architectural ruins—is the subject of a Graham Foundation grant I received earlier this autumn. That’s a project I will be exploring and updating over the next 10 months, combining lifelong obsessions with archaeology and ruins (specifically, in this case, the art history of how we depict destroyed works of architecture) with an interest in geophysical prospecting tools borrowed from the extraction industry.

In other words, the same remote-sensing tools that allow geological prospecting crews to locate subterranean mineral deposits are increasingly being used by archaeologists today to map underground architectural ruins. Empty fields mask otherwise invisible cities. How will these technologies change the way we define and represent architectural history?

[Image: Collage, Geoff Manaugh, for “Invisible Cities: Architecture’s Geophysical Turn,” Graham Foundation 2020/2021; based on “Forum Romano, Rome, Italy,” photochrom print, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.]

For now, I’ll just note another recent USGS press release, this one touting the agency’s year-end “Mineral Resources Program Highlights.”

Included in the tally is the “Earth MRI” initiative—which, despite the apt medical-imaging metaphor, actually stands for the “Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.” From the USGS: “When learning more about ancient rocks buried deep beneath the surface of the Earth, it may seem surprising to use futuristic technologies flown hundreds of feet in the air, but that has been central to the USGS Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.”

[Image: A geophysical survey of northwestern Arkansas, courtesy USGS.]

What lies below, whether it is mineral or architectural, is becoming accessible to surface view through advanced technical means. These new tools often reveal that, beneath even the most featureless landscapes, immensely interesting forms and structures can be hidden. Ostensibly boring mud plains can hide the eroded roots of ancient mountain chains, just as endless fields of wheat or barley can stand atop forgotten towns or lost cities without any hint of the walls and streets beneath.

The surface of the Earth is an intermediary—it is media—between us and what it disguises.

(See also, Detection Landscapes and Lost Roads of Monticello.)

Xolographic Biology

[Image: Plankton via the Seattle Aquarium.]

The description of this new 3D-printing technique, published in Nature, is immensely evocative. The process “relies on chemical reactions triggered by the intersection of two light beams,” using that light “to rapidly solidify an object in a volume of a liquid precursor.”

Its developers call it xolography “because it uses two crossing (x) light beams of different wavelengths to solidify a whole object (holos is the Greek word for whole).”

But the whole thing sounds like some weird new metaphor for the origins of biology: light shining into susceptible chemistries in a warm little pond somewhere, synthesizing into slowly-growing forms. From the Miller-Urey experiment to photosynthetic 3D printing.

The ensuing mechanics are hardly poetic, but are nevertheless worth reading:

A rectangular sheet of light with a set thickness is shone through a volume of a viscous resin. The wavelength of the light is chosen to excite molecules known as dual-colour photoinitiators (DCPIs) dissolved in the resin by cleaving a molecular ring in the backbone of the molecule; this reaction occurs only within the sheet of light.

A second beam of light projects an image of a slice of the 3D object to be printed into the plane of the light sheet. The wavelength of the second beam is different from that of the first and causes any excited DCPI molecules to initiate polymerization of the resin, solidifying the slice. The resin volume is then moved relative to the position of the light sheet, which is fixed. This changes the position of the light sheet in the resin, so the activation and initiation processes can begin again at a new position, thereby building up the object slice by slice.

Forms emerging as if from nowhere, out of intersecting planes of light—or beams passing through one another in the shallow waters of a sea, materializing into bodies. Tiny little plankton drifting in the sun.

Anyway, to use such an interesting process simply to 3D-print new children’s toys or architectural parts seems both anticlimactic and strangely on par with our world, which is already so good at hiding interesting metaphors in the everyday objects around us.

My True Love Gave to Me…

[Image: U.S. Army soldiers “provide security while clearing an underground complex during dense urban environment training,” photo by Captain Scott Kuhn.]

I had missed this “urban warfare Christmas wish list” posted back in 2018, complete with specific but speculative tools for intra-architectural combat. Who doesn’t think about urban warfare on Christmas?

The list suggests developing a military-grade “industrial foam thrower” (perhaps suggesting a future black-market for used rave equipment). “I want an industrial foam-throwing gun,” John Spencer writes, “that will seal each opening as I find and move past them. Foam is already used to lift concrete house foundations, streets, and sidewalks in the private sector. Adapting this tool to the needs of the urban warrior would pay huge dividends.”

Spencer’s wish list continues: “I would want a mining robot that could drill or punch holes in walls in advance of my movements. The robot would have the software, data, and sensing capability to know where to go through walls most easily and with the least amount of damage.”

In fact, this gives me the perfect excuse to post something I’ve had bookmarked for years: remote controlled demolition robots. Husqvarna, for example, makes “a small and very versatile demolition robot that can be transported inside a van.” Surely, a militarized line of portable, remotely controlled demolition robots is just one purchase-order away from becoming reality.

The list continues. Spencer calls for wheeled barriers, allowing “concrete walls to roll directly off of a flatbed truck into position”; giant, grenade-launcher-deployed curtains for blocking entire streets and buildings from view (what he has elsewhere referred to as “an invisibility kit for urban combat”); and, among other things, military-grade jumper cables for tapping into the batteries of ruined cars left junked out on the street in order to power a unit’s portable electronic gear.

[Image: From Tenet, courtesy Warner Brothers.]

Spencer also hosts a podcast called the “Urban Warfare Project,” one episode of which adds another, somewhat Tenet-like piece of gear to this list: air tanks for prolonged missions in underground spaces. (In Christopher Nolan’s recent film, Tenet, the characters need to wear air tanks so that they can breathe while moving back in time.)

In any case, as I write in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, one of the reasons for studying these sorts of tools—whether they are military or criminal, whether they are used by firefighters or by demolition crews—is to understand both how works of architecture are internally connected and how those same structures can be dismantled.

Indeed, nearly every tool on Spencer’s list would also be of use for a sufficiently ambitious burglary crew—firing curtains across the street to hide entry and exit points, using demolition machines to break into vaults—but whether you pay attention to this stuff purely as an academic exercise or as a spur toward designing works of architecture that can resist, confuse, or baffle such equipment is up to you.

Check out the rest of Spencer’s list over at the Modern War Institute.

(Very vaguely related: Nakatomi Space.)

Acoustic Archaeology

In her new book, The Bird Way, Jennifer Ackerman describes Australian lyrebirds as audio archaeologists, birds capable of keeping lost songs and soundscapes alive across multiple generations even as local ecologies change.

She describes a group of lyrebirds captured in one part of Australia and later released in Tasmania. “The birds continued mimicking birdcalls from their old landscape for many years,” Ackerman writes. “Thirty years after they were released, their descendants were said to be imitating birds never present on the island, such as pilotbirds and whipbirds,” thus offering what Ackerman calls “compelling proof of cultural transmission, one generation passing on knowledge to the next.”

For Ana Dalziell, a lyrebird-expert Ackerman meets out in the field, this makes lyrebirds “archivists of soundscapes.”

[Image: Painting of a lyrebird by John Gould, courtesy archive.org.]

The idea that the acoustics of no-longer-existing landscapes are being passed down socially through generations of songbirds is incredible, as well as suggestive of a possible tool by which landscape historians could attempt the sonic reconstructing lost environments.

The sounds of old elevators or HVAC systems in a now-destroyed building—perhaps even a demolished work by a globally renowned architect, her building now known only through acoustic after-effects, its buzzes and whirs still passed tree to tree—still being imitated by local songbirds; or the sounds of wind passing through now-extinct trees, or trees lost to recent wildfires, still being reproduced by local songbirds; or the sounds of ground-dwelling predators who are not extinct, but have nevertheless moved on to other parts of Australia, still popping up as acoustic imitations: an audio archaeology based entirely in the communal surround-sound of social singers.

You want to hear the sounds of lost buildings or extinct landscapes, and merely need to head deep into the trees, listening to lyrebirds along the way.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for giving me The Bird Way!)

The Gosling Effect

[Image: Curtains mistaken for Ryan Gosling; original image supplied by Jomppe Vaarakallio, courtesy PetaPixel; click through to PetaPixel to see the Gosling’d image.]

While processing an image using AI-assisted software, a photographer named Jomppe Vaarakallio unexpectedly found actor Ryan Gosling’s face in the resulting image file. The software apparently mistook some window curtains, featuring just the right geometry of shade and folding, for the Canadian actor and thus inserted his face.

According to PetaPixel, this “shows you what happens when computer vision gets tripped up by what looks like a blurry face”—but, of course, it is also what happens when we put too much faith in pattern recognition as a viable form of analysis, whether it’s visual, textual, or otherwise.

Like playing Led Zeppelin records backward in the 1970s and straining to hear subliminal messages pledging allegiance to Satan in the noise, we could feed all our photos through AI programs and see what secret scenes of celebrity rendezvouses they uncover—famous faces hidden in tree leaves, carpets, and window shades, in clothes hanging inside closets and in the fur of distant animals. Use it to generate scenes in films and novels, like Blow-Up or The Conversation for an age of post-human interpretation.

In fact, I’m sure we’ll see the rise and widespread use of authoritarian AI analytics, fed a constant stream of images and audio recordings, finding crimes that never happened in the blur of a street scene or hearing things were never said in a citywide wiretap—call it the Gosling Effect—resulting in people going to prison for the evidential equivalent of faces that were never really there.

(Spotted via @kottke.)

Men in Space

[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (c. 1818).]

[NOTE: I have dozens of posts—from book reviews to news items—sitting in my drafts folder that I never published for some reason. In re-reading this, from summer 2019, I thought I’d publish it.]

The tone of a new piece by Matthew Walther in The Week hits just shy of satire, but it makes an interesting—and, I would suggest, valid—point about the Apollo moon landing as more of an art historical event, a direct extension of European Romanticism, than it was a scientific one.

“What Goethe began at Weimar in 1789 ended on August 15, 1969,” Walther writes. “Apollo 11 was the culmination of the Romantic cult of the sublime prefigured in the speculations of Burke and Kant, an artistic juxtaposition of man against a brutal environment upon which he could project his fears, his sympathies, his feelings of transcendence.” Note the use of the word man.

The primarily aesthetic nature of the first Apollo mission becomes clearer when one considers it from the perspective of both the participants and the spectators. The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million.

I’m reminded of Kathleen Jamie’s critique of Robert Macfarlane’s work, published in the London Review of Books several years ago. There, Jamie mocked the current state of nature writing as a genre of the “lone enraptured male,” in her words, who she instead portrays as a figure of mythic delusion seeking self-aggrandizing solitude amongst inhuman things.

“What’s that coming over the hill?” Jamie asks. “A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.” Of course, to boldly go is clearly a sarcastic reference to a particular kind of explorer’s impulse “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In this context, consider Walther’s own comment that much of modern expeditionary literature—such as Antarctic diaries or the records of long ship journeys—was often written by “hard men” who “put their will in the service of a literary mania for feelings of remoteness, hugeness, and brooding oceanic emptiness. What a shame that we have been able to produce no great lunar literature to succeed the writings by Byron, the Shelleys, Tennyson, and Melville that both immortalized and inspired the great hypothermic pioneers.”

Men sending themselves to the moon, men climbing mountains, men staring down glacial landscapes alone or moving into mountain huts and man-caves.

I remember waking up from a dream once, maybe ten or twelve years ago*, in which I had been the author of a novel called Space. In that dream, my (purely imaginary) novel was about a man who abandons his family—leaving his wife and kids without notice—to find “space” for himself elsewhere, an ill-considered quest for solitude that was emotionally and financially devastating for the people he left behind, but a feeling of “space” he valued so much that he could not bring himself to worry about the pain it might cause to others. In other words, it was space refigured as a kind of masculine cruelty, a weapon for solitude-seeking men who can afford to walk away—space as freedom from consequences masquerading as self-sufficiency. (I wrote a description of the dream down the next morning and thus still remember it.)

In any case, I will say—perhaps because I am blinded by my own demography—that the idea of expeditionary solitude as a kind of landscape project, something that can lure hikers into remote national forests or pull unaccompanied astronauts into deep valleys on the dark sides of distant worlds, needn’t necessarily be gendered and needn’t necessarily have any scientific value at all. Humans alone in an experience of awe, surrounded by geology, can have nothing more than aesthetic value—of course, whether it’s $152 billion worth of aesthetic value is another question entirely.

*UPDATE: Looking back at my notes, I actually had this dream in September 2014.

Structural Audio

[Image: Photographer unknown; spotted via Medium.]

A design constraint I would sometimes use while teaching was to throw in an unexpected change to the project brief: this cluster of buildings you’re designing is now sponsored by Netflix, REI, Philips, etc. The point would be to think about how this might affect the resulting project—its streets designed as an open-air prototype of smart-lighting techniques, say, or an office campus now featuring climbing walls, artificial rivers, or small-group cinema projection booths. (In turn, the purpose of this was simply to remain flexible as one pushes ahead on a particular assignment.)

The prospect that always seemed one of the most interesting to me, though, was a company such as Dolby Laboratories: an audio services firm who might sponsor or commission an entire building or suburb, a new community somewhere designed for how it sounds. Six new houses pop up down the street from you next year and they’re a cross-platform collaboration not in high-end embedded speakers and such like, but in actual structural audio, like Joel Sanders’s Mix House scaled up.

For example, recall Nate Berg’s piece on the design history of roadside noise barriers. Although there is an almost Coen Brothers-like comical subplot to Berg’s story—as industries throughout Los Angeles, from homebuilders to classical music performers to Hollywood film studios, confronted the deafening and ever-growing roar of all the damn freeways being constructed everywhere, like some urban-scale act of self-inflicted hearing impairment, people screaming on telephones, What?!, no one sleeping at night, a city gone insane—the primary takeaway is simply that overwhelming sound sources inspire structural changes elsewhere. You build a freeway, in other words, then someone will build that freeway’s acoustic opposite, a shield or dampener.

In any case, it was thus interesting to read about what the New York Times calls “a pair of giant noise-canceling headphones for your apartment” designed by researchers in Singapore.

The system uses a microphone outside the window to detect the repeating sound waves of the offending noise source, which is registered by a computer controller. That in turn deciphers the proper wave frequency needed to neutralize the sound, which is transmitted to the array of speakers on the inside of the window frame.

The speakers then emit the proper “anti” waves, which cancel out the incoming waves, and there you have it: near blissful silence.

If you read the full New York Times piece, it seems clear that the system currently has several drawbacks: it is visually ungainly, for example, it cannot counter human voices, and it still lets in a lot of sound.

Nevertheless, the idea of a new building, town, or entire city offering its residents sonic amenities beyond just Bang & Olufsen speakers or similar seems long overdue. For that matter, combine luxury frequency-reduction techniques with seismic wave-mitigation and perhaps you’ve just designed the future of architecture in global earthquake zones. At the very least, someone’s living room will sound better at night.

(Related: Body Sonic / Coronavirus Surroundsound.)

Spaces Unknown By Other Means

After tweeting a link to a recent story about a Connecticut man who fell through a patch of weak floorboards into a previously unknown well hidden beneath the house, someone replied with the story, above.

I’m always a fan of undiscovered architectural spaces coming to light in a mysterious manner—whether that be through secret passages, old floorplans, forgotten maps, trapdoors, or even dreams—but this suggests a new method, of deducing from the state of one’s own moldy clothing that there might be hidden rooms nearby, wells and cellars unknown to you by other means. Architectural detection garments.

Body Sonic / Coronavirus Surroundsound

[Image: A shot of “Carl Craig: Party/After-Party” (2020), by Don Stahl, via Artforum.]

There’s a great moment in a recent article by Jace Clayton, who reviews an installation by DJ and musician Carl Craig for Artforum, where Clayton talks about music’s relationship to empty space.

There is something of “a sonic axiom,” Clayton writes: “Amplified music sounds terrible in empty rooms. The less stuff there is in any given space, the more sound waves will bounce around the walls and ceiling and glass, losing definition as they both interrupt and double themselves. The resulting audio is smeary, muffled, and diffuse. However, when the same space fills with bodies moving around, those waves are absorbed, dampening those irksome reflections and allowing us to hear the sound more powerfully and in far greater detail.”

The effect is such that “the only thing that could make [music] sound better is people.” Bodies make music better—a second sonic axiom, as well as an optimist’s call for more social listening. In other words, your music will sound better the more people you experience it with. Hang out with others. Be bodies. Share.

In any case, Clayton’s piece went online a couple weeks ago but I find myself thinking about it almost daily, as the acoustic effects of the coronavirus lockdown become clear in cities around the world.

“As the pandemic brought much of the crush of daily life to a halt,” the New York Times reported, “microphones listening to cities around the world have captured human-made environments suddenly stripped of human sounds.” To put this in Clayton’s terms, cities are now spaces without bodies.

Think, for example, of Francesca Marciano describing “the new silences of Rome” in an age of coronavirus, or the New York Times itself pointing out how, in Manhattan, “the usual chaos of sounds—car horns, idle chatter and the rumble of subways passing frequently below—[has] been replaced by the low hum of wind and birds. Sound levels there fell by about five decibels, enough to make daytime sound more like a quiet night.”

There is an interesting paradox at work here, though, in terms of a widely reported belief that birds appear to be singing louder than ever before: birds are actually quieting down now, as they have less competition to out-sing. As the NYT writes, this is “because they no longer have to sing louder to be heard over the racket of the city, a behavior, known as the Lombard effect, that has been observed in other animals, too.”

[Image: Gowanus, Brooklyn; photograph by Geoff Manaugh.]

I’ve written at length about sound and the city elsewhere, but one of my favorite pieces on this was a short profile of acoustic engineer Neill Woodger, then-head of Arup’s SoundLab, published in Dwell way back in June 2008.

There, Woodger made the point that, as we transition to electric vehicles, which will remove the sound of the internal combustion engine from our cities, we are being given a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime acoustic opportunity: to redesign urban space for sound, highlighting noises we might want to hear—birdsong, bells, distant train whistles—and helping to excise those we do not.

The coronavirus, it seems, has inadvertently set the stage for another such sonic opportunity. Our global urban lockdowns have all but stripped our cities of “bodies moving around,” in Clayton’s words, such that our streets now sound quite eerie, as if replaced by uncanny muted versions of themselves, or what Marciano calls “an atmosphere of peaceful suspension, as when it snows and everything is wrapped in cotton wool.”

Much has been made of how temporary design interventions in response to COVID-19—things like wider sidewalks, outdoor cafes, streets liberated from cars and opened up to children, families, and the elderly—might become permanent.

In this context, what permanent acoustic shifts might we hear coming from all this, as well?

(Consider picking up a copy of Jace Clayton’s book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.)