The Digital Renaissance

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Designing for a Digital World on 29 March 2002

So often we hear people using the word ‘revolution’ to describe the current overwhelming cultural shift fostered by technology and new media. However overwhelming it might be, can we really describe the current transition as a revolution? For me, the word ‘revolution’ evokes images of a violent upheaval and guillotined heads. There’s certainly very little progress implied by revolution; it’s simply someone spinning around in circles.

Digital culture may be marginally revolutionary in the sense that it is characterised by what so many companies and institutions have called ‘thinking outside the box’ - a willingness to challenge conventions and consider meta-narratives. But this notion of thinking outside the box and gaining perspective is not simply moving in a circle. We are coming to a new understanding of what had always been considered literal reality: we are seeing it instead as a picture of reality. Our new tools are also leading us to feel empowered enough to adjust the frame around that picture. Such an upscaling of perception, intention, and design is better described as a ‘renaissance’.

Literally ‘renaissance’ means the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. It is a reconfiguring of the constructed ways we experience the world in order to reconnect with it, and the adaptation of our cultural lenses to conform to our changing vision. In the original Renaissance, a number of discoveries and inventions changed our most basic experience of the real. Perspective painting allowed us to create representations of reality that simulated dimensionality. The discovery that the world is round and the ability to circumnavigate it radically redefined our notion of space and our sense of agency. Furthermore, the development of calculus allowed us to relate planes to spheres and spheres to four-dimensional fictional objects, performing conceptual calculations never before possible. The printing press allowed the widespread distribution of ideas and data, connecting people in expanded social and political communities. The first signs of globalisation and the resulting cross-cultural pollination emerged. Coffee from Morocco, which began trickling over to Europe during the next century, encouraged people to stay up late at night and talk, giving rise to a ‘bohemian’ culture and the Enlightenment, which were dedicated to challenging conventional models of reality through new perspectives.

The late twentieth century brought discoveries and inventions, the collective impact of which could be considered a renaissance of at least equal magnitude. While perspective painting allowed Renaissance artists to create two-dimensional images, the holograph now allows us to create three-dimensional representations that approximate our vision even more closely. By manipulating the laws of perspective, some Renaissance painters created deliberately skewed or ‘trick’ representations of reality, challenging the reliability of our vision and suggesting the possibility that illusion exists in reality as well. The mechanics of the holograph offer a similar challenge, because when a holographic plate is shattered into many pieces, the image is not fragmented. Each shard of the plate contains a smaller image of the entire original, suggesting that fractal relationships may underlie many of our illusions as well as much of our reality. The underlying technology of holographs further extends our understanding of dimensionality, and has been used to understand everything from society to brain anatomy.

While Renaissance explorers discovered that the world was round, modern scientists discovered atomic energy and took us to the Moon. Having already mastered the Earth through exploration, we were now able to explore beyond it, to see it as an object from another position in space, and even to destroy it. Meanwhile, chaos maths and systems theory opened up complex conceptual possibilities in much the same way that calculus had for Renaissance mathematicians.

The computer and the internet changed communication, publication and the idea of community to a degree comparable with the printing press. LSD and psychedelics, like the coffee beans of the Renaissance, had people staying up late together and experimenting with the status quo.

A renaissance is a shift in perspective, the shift from living within a model to moving outside of it; or, as video gamers might express it, from game to ‘meta-game’. Young people who spend a lot of time immersed in video game environments understand this phenomenon well. There are two ways one can learn to play a game. The first is to read the rules, practise, and use old-fashioned trial-and-error. The second is to find the magazines and websites that share the secret codes to help one avoid traps, win levels and gain special advantages in the game. Are the people using these ‘cheat sheets’ really playing the game? Certainly, but the game they’re playing is the meta-game.

Likewise, there are moments when we, as society, as a culture, or even as individuals, shift from simply playing the game by the rules to playing the meta-game and changing the rules. These are renaissance moments. Renaissance moments happen when we experience a shift in perspective so that the stories, models and languages that we have been using to understand our reality are suddenly up for grabs. But these renaissance moments are transitory, because almost as soon as our perspectives are shifted, we settle into new conventions. Alas, the possibilities opened by our new perspective close up, and we once again mistake the map for the territory. We forget that the new stories and metaphors we have developed are just that, and we mistake them for literal history.

But before things have been locked down, ideas compete for consensus. The challenge, and the opportunity, during these moments is to make a positive impact in that struggle. For me, this means preserving the notion that the ideas that win consensus approval may be useful, but they are still arbitrary.

I would argue that we are currently in a time of renaissance, still in the process of assimilating the results of a shift in perspective caused by remarkable technological progress. We are still aware that the shift is going on, and hoping to preserve some aspect of our new-found sensitivity into the next phase of human society. It’s akin to the realisation many people have in the heightened state of awareness caused by a mystical or psychedelic experience: the person on his visionquest wonders how he will be able to remember that state of awe or insight once the experience is over. He wonders how he can plant a seed or landmark of some kind that he will remember when he returns to waking state consciousness.

Likewise, those of us aware of the power of the current renaissance are attempting to preserve and extend the notion that much of reality itself is open source, and that the ‘codes’ by which we organise our experiences are more accessible than we generally assume. For artists, cultural producers and, of course, architects, there is an imperative to influence what will become the new consensus, and to mark it with a sense of possibility that will help us maintain a sense of agency over our own collective and individual perspectives.

A lucky beneficiary of the digital renaissance, I have been encouraged to believe that our reality is, indeed, open source - or at least that much of what we have been regarding as permanent ‘hardware’ is, indeed, only ‘software’ and subject to change. For me, the most important insight of cyberculture is that we all have access to its codes; we are all potential reality-programmers.

Media is the realm in which our access is negotiated. I used to stay up nights wondering: what is media? It was a perplexing question. A zipper is media; open, it means one thing and closed, another. A face is media; we read people’s appearance and expressions for information about them. Even our DNA is media, arguably the best media nature has developed, capable of sending codes through the millennia. Ultimately, the only thing that isn’t media is a person’s most essential consciousness - one’s agency, will and intention. As consciousnesses swimming in media, we create and control narratives to negotiate reality and our places within it. Through competing stories we can negotiate over ‘what’ is going on. But by making up rules and creating tools through which those stories will be told, we negotiate about the ‘how’, the meta-story.

Renaissances are, in part, the moments when we pull out of a particular story for long enough to consider the way in which it is being told.

The game and the meta-game, the stories and the way stories are told, have largely been regulated and controlled for the last few centuries. As Aristotle well understood, stories work by creating a character whom the audience likes and having that character make a series of decisions which put him in terrible danger. This brings the audience into a heightened state of tension about this poor character who has made all these wrong decisions. Then, once the audience can’t take it any more, the storyteller invents a solution. In a Greek play that solution might have been Athena coming down to save the day.

This same storytelling technique has been honed for centuries, and perhaps has been perfected by the advertising industry which has exploited the mainstream mediaspace for its ability to tell very influential little stories called commercials. In 28 seconds, we identify with an aggravated executive, following him into his hellish day, up the incline plane of tension. Because we are a captive audience, with no access to the tools of storytelling, we must take that pain-relieving pill with him at the end of the commercial to relieve our anxiety. The storyteller chooses which pill the listener has to swallow at the end of the story - whether it is a new president or an old religion.

Cyber culture, based on an ethic of interactivity, releases the captive audience from the spell of the story and offers them the opportunity for active participation instead.

The television remote control represented the first in a series of liberating interactive technologies. Imagine a man sitting in his La-Z-Boy chair in 1958, with popcorn on his lap, watching a painful commercial. The TV programmer is dead-set on throwing this poor man into a terrible state of anxiety. If the viewer wants to get out of that imposed state of tension, he’s got to move the popcorn off his lap, lift himself out of his chair, walk up to the TV and turn the channel - using perhaps 50 calories of human labour. If he sits through to the end of the commercial, however, only ten calories of anxiety may be used up. The brain is lazy; it makes the lazy decision. It will take the ten calorie option and submit to the programming.

After all, the material on TV is called programming for a reason; it’s designed to program us as we sit passively in our seats. But the remote control changes the equation. Imagine a 14-year-old today, watching a commercial and feeling the first signs that he’s being put into an imposed state of tension. With the .0001 calories that it takes to press a button, he’s out of tension and out of the arc of that story. Kids with a remote control watch TV in a new way, following ten stations at once, surfing back and forth through different stories. When they experience TV like this they’re not watching television at all, but watching the television, deconstructing it as television.

The second liberating interactive device was the videogame joystick. For most of us, the inaugurating videogame experience was Pong. And, perhaps amazingly, we probably still remember that first moment we played. Pong was a simple game based on ping-pong, with two white squares on either side of the screen that moved up and down in conjunction with movements on a control knob. People remember their first time playing Pong the way they remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. This isn’t because Americans loved table tennis so much and were so happy to have the convenience of practising it on TV. It wasn’t about the literal meaning of the metaphor; it was about experiencing something on the television as metaphor. It was a thrill just to move the little white square up and down on the screen, to control the pixel. We had never had control of the pixel before. The TV screen was the holy and inaccessible realm of newscasters and movie stars, a magical place where things just appeared. But, just as the remote control deconstructed television’s stories, the joystick demystified its technology, making it an accessible medium and rendering it safe.

Finally, the computer mouse and the keyboard turned the receive-only monitor into a portal through which we could express ourselves. The mouse and keyboard spawned a do-it-yourself or ‘DIY’ internet culture in which people created, uploaded and shared their own content. In a sense, people were the content; we used technology to connect with other people.

The resulting cyberpunk culture was a renaissance culture. It was a chaotic space, where new ideas could spring up from almost anywhere. It was a gift economy in which new programs were created and shared for free. It was a community, where new members were introduced and escorted around as if they had just bought a home in a fantasy suburb. Best of all, internet users came to understand that the mainstream mediaspace no longer represented their reality. From now on, internet users would represent their own.

But almost no one was making money on the internet. Not that this bothered any of the internet’s actual users, but families with internet connections were watching three or four hours less TV a week, seeing fewer commercials, and buying less TV-advertised products. Further, people who are having fun and feeling connected to other people are less easily coerced into purchases. So the effects of the remote control, the mouse and the joystick had to be undone. In the interests of the investment community, the internet was restyled as an online mall.

First, the mediaspace deconstructed by the remote control had to be put back together. Companies developed concepts such as stickiness, attention economy and eyeball hours in an effort to keep people glued to websites as they were once glued to TV stations. In response to panic-inducing articles from the mainstream media about a channel-surfing culture and decreasing attention spans, attention deficit disorder diagnoses and Ritalin prescriptions went up over 100 percent. Children’s ability to enact renaissance was curtailed through drugs.

In order to regain control of the pixel, first liberated by the joystick, professional designers re-mystified the computer’s interface so that it was no longer two-way. Users were forced to rely on the ‘wizards’ built into their software programs to work magic they didn’t understand. Consider the increasing opacity from DOS to the Macintosh, and Macintosh to Windows 2000. Look at the colourful and confusing interfaces used on the World Wide Web compared with the text-only bulletin boards of the early internet. The only way to participate on the Web is through the mouse; the only opportunity to use the keyboard is to enter one’s credit card information. The increasing and deliberate opacity of new interfaces is designed to keep us out.

Finally, in order to undo the DIY culture that had grown out of the keyboard and the mouse, commerce replaced community and content replaced people as the soul of the net. It was announced that, rather than a communication age, we were in an ‘information age’ because information is data that can be bought and sold.

No longer able to deconstruct, demystify or do our own media, we ended up succumbing to an entirely new story about the promised new media: money.

The new story competing for consensus approval was based on the idea of a pyramid. Some young person comes up with an idea - a business plan. Then a pyramid with different levels of investor fills in beneath him. Angel investors take the top position; lower down are a few rounds of ‘qualified’ investors and investment banks and, finally, at the very bottom, an Initial Price Offering (IPO) on NASDAQ. This final ground level is called ‘going public’. Of course, by the time the general public was buying shares online, the people at the top of the pyramid had executed an ‘exit strategy’ and disappeared, taking away their money as the pyramid collapsed beneath them.

In the flux generated by our technological renaissance, e-commerce and the speculative market were reduced to a business fantasy: NASDAQ’s claim to the meta-narrative. The pyramid schemes eventually failed, because all pyramid schemes eventually run out of money. Their collapse was aided, in part, by the internet’s own structure and function. It is so organic and interactive in its make-up that it shrugs off interventionist government controls and, with a bit more effort, the corporate attacks that follow.

So, now that the pyramid scheme has failed to establish itself as the overarching metaphor of the digital age, digital reality - and perhaps our social reality - is once again up for grabs.

As long as we can maintain our renaissance sensibility and our awareness of the implications of the open source reality in which we live, we have access to enormous opportunities for cultural progress. These opportunities suggest profound implications for artists, designers and architects.

People who have been exposed to the internet and to interactive and virtual systems are more conscious of how any system is designed and constructed. We understand that our world is made up of intentionally designed interfaces. Spending so much time in virtual space, we are more aware of real space and the way it shapes interaction. We are more sensitive to the power, deliberateness and sacredness of interacting with real objects in real space.

We want a building to express a sense of our relationship to it. We want a room to be made for how we use it. With so much taking place via phone, fax and email, we want to be able to appreciate the live proximity of other people; we want to sit together on comfortable furniture and hear each other clearly. We are more aware of how spaces coerce us and more resistant to that coercion. We don’t want to be induced to eat faster by brightly coloured walls or to walk faster through intentionally claustrophobic hallways. We recognise the way mirrored lobbies make us self-conscious or the way that pillars and façades declare power or opulence. We are more fluent in the codes and less easily convinced by them. We have a new appreciation of the authentic. An old railway station or carriage house becomes valuable for its authentic connection to the past, as a stable landmark in a time of flux and disconnection.

Right now, as a result of our renaissance sensibility, the definitions and conventions of our reality are becoming the component parts of a new language. Nothing is just itself, because its identifying characteristics become a self-conscious manifestation of its underlying essence. Listen to the way young people talk: ‘That house is so house!’ ‘That library is so library!’ Exactly what’s going on there? It is a conscious reframing of our reality as iconography.

It’s a form of self-protection, really. A defence. We are trying to focus on the mediated feeling of things. We want to stay awake in renaissance awareness as long as possible before the next reality template concretises and the self-conscious similes become tight metaphors. We now see that ‘this is like that’, ‘sort of like’ that it is ‘as if’. But we know that eventually ‘it is like’ and ‘it is as if’ will collapse into ‘it is. The world is that. It is transparency and accessibility lost yet again.

At the same time, however, there is a great longing to let go, to trust that the world is not trying to do something to us. People long to walk into a space and feel that, for once, they are not being manipulated. Can architecture do this? It can try. Artists in other media have been working on this problem for centuries. Shakespeare often writes prologues for his plays in which a character lets the audience in on the metaphor: ‘Oh pardon gentles all, that we would presume that the stage would represent…. It’s a modesty and honesty that give your audience permission to relax. They are not going to be messed with. If we can communicate this sort of goodwill in ritualised contexts, we should be able to do it in the real world of buildings and plazas as well.

It is the responsibility of architects in particular to realise that genuine social engagement and genuine discourse are what will keep people out of the traps and trances they are now at pains to avoid. If you can create spaces that foster this kind of interaction and discourse, spaces that facilitate people as people rather than subjugating them to other intentions, it will prolong our sense of freedom and possibility.

We must create buildings and spaces that serve people, rather than the other way around. The pyramids in Exodus provide an example of what happens when people are made slaves to buildings. They are dehumanised. Similarly, first and foremost the design of a bank building or corporate headquarters is meant to serve the corporation, the non-human icon of the ‘brand’, and the credo of the corporate mission statement. That’s why the architect is hired and the articles are written. It’s why the money is spent. But, in reality, that building will provide the spaces where hundreds of people spend the majority of their time, all day, five days a week, sometimes for years. Should they serve the building and the brand it represents, or can the equation be reversed?

Can these spaces support the human beings working within them on levels beyond their roles as employees? Can they facilitate more than just a sense of obligation?

How can the current shifts in perspective, developments in technology and experiences of interactivity be applied to this field in order to empower people and make them a priority? Can an architect make a career out of challenging metaphors rather than enforcing them? Given the cost of real buildings, who would pay for buildings that functioned in this way?

I’d like to see architecture that looks less like theme parks, temples or monuments and more like living communities of people. So far, at least, this architectural renaissance has been limited to the internet space. And, even there, it’s been a struggle.