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.]

Geometries of Sovereignty

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº3, Area: 100 m², Border: square, 10m side, defined with rope tied to pickaxes around a square of crushed rye, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.298691º, -3.400101º, Start: July 30, 2015, 19:15, End: July 31, 2015, 11:38,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Minimal Republics is an interesting and wonderfully titled project by artist Rubén Martín de Lucas. As Sophie Wright explains in a feature for LensCulture, each “republic” follows the same set of basic instructions: “appropriate 100 square metres of space, outline a border, and inhabit it for no more than 24 hours. From parking lots to empty agricultural crops, anonymous segments of land are transformed by these actions into what the artist describes as ‘ephemeral micro-states.’”

These minimal republics are exactly that, in other words, just geometric forms marked in some fashion on the surface of the Earth, temporarily patrolled and inhabited by a lone individual, a series of micronations that then disappear from history.

(This also raises the question of what an archaeology of performance art might look like—whether projects such as this leave permanent historical traces in the landscape. Will the location of a Martín de Lucas republic ever be archaeologically discernible in the future? If so, will whatever once happened there make any spatial or political sense?)

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº2, Area: 100 m², Population: 1 inhabitant, Border: equilateral triangle, side 15.19 m made of wooden slats assembled, Location: 40.039637º, -5.1146942º, Start: July 23, 2015, 12:21, End: July 23, 2015, 21:48,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Minimal Republics falls somewhere between theatrical performance, video installation, landscape photography, and instructional art, suggesting a kind of pop-up sovereignty available to all, given sufficient fidelity to a set of artistic-political specifications.

Like a territorial algorithm or even like a magic spell, the project promises that, if only you can follow these three simple steps, remaining inside your sovereign sigil, new political worlds can be conjured into ephemeral life.

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº8, Area: 100 m2, Border: circle of 5.64 m radius of stacked stubble, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.4152292, -3.3632866, Start: September 8, 2017, 18:41, End: September 9, 2017, 18:40,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Of course, Wright is also quick to emphasize that the project’s sense of the absurd is very deliberate: “Searching for locations with little appeal or resources, these ‘minimal republics’ are unlikely spots for a new nation, amping up the nonsensical gesture of Martín de Lucas’ temporary occupation.”

There are many more examples from the project over at LensCulture, as well as a longer write-up.

(Related: “The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations: An Interview with Simon Sellars.”)

The Spatial Politics of Geofencing

[Image: From Code of Conscience.]

Another project I meant to write about ages ago is Code of Conscience, developed by AKQA. It is “an open source software update that restricts the use of heavy-duty vehicles in protected land areas,” or what they call “a cyber shield around natural reserves.”

The basic idea is to install geofencing limits on heavy construction and logging equipment, based on “data from the United Nations’ World Database on Protected Areas, constantly updated by NGOs, governments and local communities. Using vehicle on-board GPS, the code detects when a protected area has been breached. When a machine enters a protected area, the system automatically restricts its use.”

There’s a bit more to read about the project over at AKQA, including the group’s strategy for getting the software out to global construction firms, from John Deere to Caterpillar, but one of the most interesting points of conversation for me here is simply the very idea of geofencing used as a political solution for problems that seem to exceed the capabilities of legislation. And, of course, how geofencing could be used to develop positive new tools for landscape conservation—as we see here—or much darker, nefarious techniques for political domination in the near-future.

You can easily imagine, for example, a dystopian scenario in which geofenced medical prostheses cease to operate when they cross an invisible GPS boundary into an unserviced region—perhaps as a way to protect the host company from the illegal installation of black-market, security-compromised firmware updates, but with immediate and perhaps fatal health effects on the user. Or, say, regions of a metropolis—perhaps near centers of governance or military installations—where civilian vehicles or unregistered photographic equipment of a particular resolution can no longer physically function.

Just as easily, you could imagine something like the spatial opposite of Code of Conscience, where, for example, future GPS-tagged hunting rifles only work when they are located inside permitted wilderness areas. The instant you step outside the field or forest, your gun goes dead.

In any case, you could no doubt write an entire book of short stories that consist only and entirely of such scenarios—the geofenced future of legal probation and house-arrest, for example, or dating apps that only work inside particular rooms or buildings. But one of of the most interesting things about Code of Conscience is simply how it attempts to imagine geofencing as a positive political tool, a new technique for landscape and cultural preservation both, and how the project thus joins a larger, ongoing conversation today about political geography seen through a new, technical lens.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Electromagnetic Fortification of the Suburbs and Geofencing and Investigatory Watersheds.)


The political situation in the United States has been disheartening for a number of years. At least part of this is due to the fact that utterly trivial—and, more to the point, purposefully distracting—provocations are being mistaken, over and over again, for states of emergency, worth responding to at any cost.

I often find myself thinking about Slavoj Žižek’s writings on Stalin’s show trials: Žižek specifically highlights moments during those politically fake events—which were not trials in any real sense, but dramaturgical productions, literal theater, administrative stagecraft—wherein Communist Party members broke out in laughter at the earnest replies of people trying to defend themselves against imaginary accusations.

Part of that laughter, if you will permit me to paraphrase Žižek from memory, was directed at the sheer absurdity of seeing someone take the trials seriously, of watching a person genuinely and truthfully engage with the charges—disloyalty, treason, betrayal, whatever. Party members witnessing these acts of earnest self-defense correctly perceived them as a perverse and comedic misunderstanding of the position those defendants found themselves in. It was the laughter of embarrassed disbelief: wait, you think all this is real?

We—that is, huge sectors of the U.S. electorate—seem stuck in almost exactly this scenario today, one of humiliating misperception. Just this weekend, for example, “news” broke that the current U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, implied that Mary Louise Kelly, a veteran reporter from NPR, had misidentified Bangladesh as Ukraine. This set off a still-ongoing, grotesquely earnest attempt by hundreds of Twitter users to defend the NPR reporter’s cartographic awareness, saying that, no, she studied abroad, she has been a journalist for decades, she is Ivy League-educated; she clearly doesn’t think that Bangladesh is Ukraine. Satirical maps have been produced, entire articles written. (To be clear, Kelly all but certainly knows the difference between Bangladesh and Ukraine—it was a childish and idiotic thing for Pompeo to imply.)

“There is no way [this reporter], who has a master’s degree in European studies from Cambridge, confused Bangladesh and Ukraine,” one person tweeted, wasting their time (and getting 2,000 retweets). “The notion that [this reporter] would confuse Ukraine with Bangladesh on a map is so ludicrous it doesn’t even merit comment,” one person commented, wasting their time (and that of 518 people who quickly retweeted her). “Is this the Secretary of State / the top U.S. diplomat, 4th in line for the presidency / claiming that [this reporter] / a Cambridge-educated journalist who’s covered Europe, the Pentagon & the intel community / was asked to identify Ukraine on a map / and pointed to Bangladesh?” another person wrote, where my slashes indicate the use of annoyingly stylized Twitter formatting, not only wasting his time but that of 660 people who retweeted him (and, now, my own, spent writing this post).

Hold on—to be honest, I’m still not clear I really get this. Could someone repeat it? Again and again? “So let me get this straight,” another person tweeted, hoping to drop the mic once and for all (alas…). “Pompeo accuses [this reporter] – a former national security correspondent with a degree in government from Harvard and a Masters in European studies from Cambridge – of misidentifying Bangladesh as Ukraine.” Wait, did he say Harvard? As in Harvard University? (Never mind the absurdity of this entire line of argument. George W. Bush went to Yale, for God’s sake—yes, Yale University, an actual college—he was governor of Texas, and he was President of the United States for eight years, yet many of these same people would immediately—and, in my opinion, justifiably—believe a story that Bush had misidentified the location of Ukraine. I mean, Mike Pompeo went to Harvard! This entire argument is ridiculous.)

Anyway, if you want to feel your brain being slowly sucked out of your head, have fun.

At the end of the day, hundreds of professional journalists and random opinioneers have spent hours—an entire weekend—arguing whether or not a specific person at NPR knows the difference between Ukraine and Bangladesh. The stakes of this argument are so low as to be imperceptible, the waste of time involved both astonishing and sad, the earnestness in defending this person so out-of-tune with the initial provocation that the only reason not to laugh is sheer despair at the fact that many of these same people will do it again and again—and again and again—endlessly falling for what amount to social-media show trials. (In fact, there is already a new controversy; it is already happening again.)

There seems to be a fatal misbelief that minor symbolic events, almost like voodoo dolls, can be used to trigger larger systemic changes on a higher, more important layer in the political sphere. This is only rarely true, unfortunately, and it is really not politics but a form of performance art resembling ritual magic.

In the process, an endless landslide of trivial distractions has been steadily eliminating the ground needed for systemic political change. People who might once have been an opposition—or, even better, people who might once have been leaders capable of articulating a clear way forward, rather than a muddled, shy, often weirdly apologetic way to resist someone else’s initiative—are left genuinely believing that if only Mike Pompeo could be forced to admit that an NPR reporter knows where Ukraine is, then some sort of symbolic, magical goal will be achieved.

At its most basic, imagine that this NPR reporter did, in fact, misidentify the location of Ukraine. Imagine that she totally and truly botched it. The pillars of the world would crumble! Like that day Obama wore a tan suit—total chaos. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.

Imagine that, with everything going on today, this is what you care about.

It’s as if the U.S. polity—sadly, including people who share my voting record—is under an almost literal distraction spell. Donald Trump could tweet that Bernie Sanders doesn’t know the difference between a soup bowl and the Super Bowl, and, my God, man, didn’t you know that Bernie went to the University of Chicago? (889 retweets)

New Spatial Contract

The theme of the next Venice Architecture Biennale has been announced by its curator, Hashim Sarkis.

“We need a new spatial contract,” Sarkis writes. We need to “call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together: together as human beings who, despite our increasing individuality, yearn to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space; together as new households looking for more diverse and dignified spaces for inhabitation; together as emerging communities that demand equity, inclusion and spatial identity; together across political borders to imagine new geographies of association; and together as a planet facing crises that require global action for us to continue living at all.”

You can read the full statement at the Biennale website. The Biennale itself will open next year, in May 2020.

Prodigal Congress

[Image: Federal lands near Boulder, Utah; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The incoming Republican Congress has redefined U.S. federal lands as being “effectively worthless,” making it easier to return those lands to state control, and then to auction them off to private ownership or future industrial use.

“In a single line of changes to the rules for the House of Representatives, Republicans have overwritten the value of federal lands, easing the path to disposing of federal property even if doing so loses money for the government and provides no demonstrable compensation to American citizens,” the Guardian reports.

“Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.”

As such, “federal land is effectively worthless.”

That people who voted for this party to be in power will be amongst the hundreds of thousands of Americans who drive west every summer to experience the natural beauty of the United States is so politically absurd that it is worth pointing out here, however briefly.

This is what those same voters rejected at the ballot box in November: “As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public, strengthen protections for our natural and cultural resources, increase access to parks and public lands for all Americans, protect species and wildlife, and harness the immense economic and social potential of our public lands and waters.” Their votes have also made it far more difficult to declare future National Monuments and National Parks, let alone to maintain the ones we already have.

Those same people will come home next summer with their smartphones and digital cameras full of images of extraordinary landscapes their own party just sold off the table for scrap.

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).

Covert Cartographics

[Image: Map Measuring Tool, CIA].

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has uploaded a massive set of images from their historic mapping unit to Flickr.

[Image: Triangular 24-Inch Engineering Scale, CIA].

The collections include state-of-the-art graphic tools for producing maps and other measured cartographic products, as well as the maps themselves. Organized by the decade of its production—including batches from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—“each map is a time capsule of that era’s international issues,” as Allison Meier points out.

[Image: Terrain map of the Sinai Peninsula (1950s), CIA, CIA].

“The 1940s include a 1942 map of German dialects,” Meier writes, “and a 1944 map of concentration camps in the country. The 1950s, with innovative photomechanical reproduction and precast lead letters, saw maps on the Korean War and railroad construction in Communist China. The 1960s are punctuated by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, while the 1970s, with increasing map automation, contain charts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Arab oil embargo.”

[Images: The Austin Photo Interpretometer, CIA].

But it’s the mapping tools themselves that really interest me here.

On one level, these graphic devices are utterly mundane—triangular rulers, ten-point dividers, and interchangeable pen nibs, for example, any of which, on its own, would convey about as much magic as a ballpoint pen.

[Image: 10-Point Divider, CIA].

Nonetheless, there is something hugely compelling for me in glimpsing the actual devices through which a country’s global geopolitical influence was simultaneously mapped and strategized.

[Images: Rolling Disc Planimeter, CIA].

As the CIA points out, their earliest mapping division “produced some 8,000 hand-drawn maps and 64 plaster topographic 3-D models in support of the war effort. Many of their products played crucial roles in the planning and execution of major military operations in the European, North African, and Asian Theaters. On display here are just some of the many tools that OSS cartographers employed in their production process.”

[Image: Dietzgen Champion Drawing Instruments, CIA].

In a sense, it’s not unlike seeing the actual typewriter with which a particular author wrote her novels, or the battered, handheld sketchbooks a painter once carried with him to a distant mountaintop—only here, in art historical terms, we are looking at the graphic tools and visual documents through which a country’s overseas influence was realized and maintained.

It is a narrative of covert state power as relayed through cartographic objects, the outlines of an imperial nation-state arising from them like a ghost.

[Image: Stanley Improved Pantograph, CIA].

I’m reminded of one of my favorite books on the subject of geopolitics, literally understood: Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.

Among other things, Hewitt’s book reveals the often deeply strange tools—including surreal glass rods—through which British mapmakers and other agents of terrestrial exploration measured their nascent empire, helping to transform landscape into a mathematized system of coordinates and, in the process, conveying to British authorities the exact volumetric extent of their political domain.

There was the empire, in other words—but there were also these exotic objects of measurement through which that same empire was conjured, as if through cartographic magic.

[Image: Keufel & Esser 20.5-inch Slide Rule, CIA].

In any case, check out more at the CIA’s “Cartography Tools” Flickr set.

(Originally spotted via Alessandro Musetta).

Transnational Corporate Sovereignty

With the expected nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to the position of U.S. Secretary of State, the recent book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Columbia University dean of journalism Steve Coll seems newly relevant—so much so that, following Friday’s news about the nomination, Amazon has been temporarily sold out.

Coll has also just published a new piece over at The New Yorker looking at Tillerson’s legacy with the global oil firm. There, Coll describes ExxonMobil as resembling “an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy.”

Exxon’s foreign policy sometimes had more impact on the countries where it operated than did the State Department. Take, for example, Chad, one of the poorest countries in Africa. During the mid-two-thousands, the entirety of U.S. aid and military spending in the country directed through the U.S. Embassy in the capital, N’Djamena, amounted to less than twenty million dollars annually, whereas the royalty payments Exxon made to the government as part of an oil-production agreement were north of five hundred million dollars. Idriss Déby, the authoritarian President of Chad, did not need a calculator to understand that Rex Tillerson was more important to his future than the U.S. Secretary of State.

Should Tillerson be confirmed, Coll suggests, his new role “will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.”

The Guardian agrees, suggesting that, “In a very real sense, Tillerson has been a head of a state within a state. Exxon Mobil is bigger economically than many countries. It has its own foreign policy and its own contracted security forces.”

Consider picking up a copy of Private Empire and read more from Coll over at The New Yorker.

“500 Years of Utopia” Opens

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

There are two quick thing coming up this week that I wanted to post about:

1) At 7pm on Wednesday, November 9, I’ll be moderating a public conversation with an amazing group of Los Angeles-based designers, architects, and critics at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. This is part of a larger evening, organized around the theme of “500 Years of Utopia.”

2016, after all, is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book, and we’ll be launching a small exhibition looking back at More’s influence on political, urban, and even architectural thought—but more on that, below.

[Image: “500 Years of Utopia” title card; design by David Mellen].

Kicking things off at 7pm on Wednesday evening, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne will be interviewing Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century; they’ll be discussing the relationship between émigré composers in Southern California, the music of exile, and “utopian thought.”

This will be followed by a panel discussion featuring urbanist and landscape architect Mia Lehrer; games designer and critic Jeff Watson; architect and writer Victor Jones; and critic Christopher Hawthorne.

We’ll be looking at the role of utopia in contemporary design, with a specific focus on questions of access. We can talk about utopia all we like, in other words—but utopia for whom? In other words, if utopia is already here, who has access to it? Who has the right to design utopia? Who has the right to critique it?

[Image: Early type experiment for “500 Years of Utopia”; design by David Mellen].

Last but not least, we’ll hear from journalist and critic Claire Hoffman, who will introduce us to her newly published memoir Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood.

The event is free and open to the public; however, please RSVP if you hope to attend. More information is available at that link, including parking, street address, and more.

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

The second thing I wanted to mention, then, is in the same place and on the same evening, but at 5:30pm. We will be kicking off our brand new exhibition, in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, called “500 Years of Utopia.”

For 500 years, utopia—a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe the ideal city—has been used as popular shorthand for a perfect world and lies at the heart of the Western political imagination. But what does it really mean today in the context of 21st-century urbanism, especially in a megacity like Los Angeles that has been the setting for utopian and dystopian thinking almost since its founding? A new exhibition of materials from the USC Libraries’ collections explores these questions, the history of utopian thinking, and the fine line between utopia and dystopia.

In addition to a wealth of utopian/dystopian material taken directly from the USC Libraries, we’ve used an interesting graphic approach of overlaid, differently colored exhibition text, one (in red) offering a utopian interpretation of the media and objects on display, the other (in blue) offering a dystopian spin. Decoder glasses will be on hand to assist…

Please stop by for our opening reception at 5:30pm on Wednesday, November 9. It, too, is free and open to the public, and it segues directly into the event that kicks off at 7pm.

More information is available over at USC.

500 Years of Utopia

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia. More not only coined the term now used interchangeably with visions of an ideal society, he also linked the concept of just government specifically with the management and administration of a well-designed metropolis: the perfect society in Utopia is also an urban one.

There are many moral, political, and—for that matter—architectural flaws in More’s work, but it has nonetheless, for half a millennium, served as a synonym in the West for a perfect world. What does “utopia” really mean today, however—and who has access to it? Is utopia already here—but, to paraphrase novelist William Gibson, it remains unevenly distributed?

For the next few months, I’ll be working with the University of Southern California’s Doheny Memorial Library, to explore 500 Years of Utopia. An exhibition at the University will open in November 2016, including a gorgeous 16th-century edition of More’s work, and it will be joined by a series of public events discussing the legacy of Utopia today and what it means for the future.

The first of these events takes place this coming Saturday, October 15th, on the subject of “Governing Paradise.”

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

At 1pm that day, we’ll be hosting Santa Monica city manager Rick Cole, planning historian & USC Price professor David Sloane, and researcher & curator Aurora Tang from the Center for Land Use Interpretation to discuss the peculiar relationship between the city of Los Angeles and the linked concepts of utopia and dystopia.

What role should government play in bringing about a state of Earthly paradise—or is utopia precisely a condition in which government is meant to play no role? From heroic works of public infrastructure to intentional private communities, and from limited natural resources to visions of infinite prosperity, Los Angeles has long been emblematic of the difficulties and rewards of governing paradise.

On November 9, meanwhile, we’ll be hosting “Designing Utopia,” looking at the architecture and landscape of the ideal city, and on February 7, 2017, we’ll discuss “Utopian Representations.” Both of those events are going to be fantastic, and I will have more information about them soon.

So stop by on Saturday—more info here—and please also mark your calendar for Wednesday, November 9, when our exhibition, 500 Years of Utopia, officially opens.