On Forgetting: Some Similarities between Architecture and Social Media

Both architecture and social media provide structures through which people interact and those interactions are encouraged in certain ways. They also share a tendency to be recognised less by the social action which go into making them what they are, but by their identification as things: buildings in one case, platforms in the other. Their social production is often forgotten.

This blog post by Mark Carrigan on some of the implications of this for how we think of and use social media is short but pithy and well worth reading. He draws on Jacob Silverman to argue that “social media” is a linguistic badge of sorts

through which we gloss a complex set of changes in which technological possibilities are only one causal factor. By exceptionalising social media in this way, we “fail to relate this communication system, and everything that happens through it, to the society around us”.

As I understand it, his point in part is that social media become thing-like and we misrecognise them as various platforms, detached from the social action which goes into constituting them, in making them what they are.

In a similar way, the aesthetics of architecture often stand in for people’s socially produced space. It’s this forgetting of the social and political dimensions of space that interests me. There are lots of ways to approach this forgetting but to focus on two for the moment.

The first is simply to say that space is difficult to appreciate, to be aware of and to represent, similar perhaps to the ways in which understanding social media-as-things makes it harder to remember how they are constituted.

The architect and architectural historian, Peter Blundell Jones, explained how space comes to be forgotten. In a chapter on schools, he makes a general point that spatial setting ‘always makes some patterns of use easier and others more difficult’ but:

We become blind to this once habituated in the use of a building, for it seems just to be there, and we have to make an imaginative leap to envisage how it might be otherwise (2015:13).

It’s a point that Jane McGregor makes too – space has ‘a “taken-for-granted” quality that blinds us to the fundamental ways in which the school is spatially constituted’ (McGregor, 2004:6).

However, there’s a second, slightly more ‘sinister’ side to this forgetting (see also Neil Selwyn’s (2015) discussion of Henry Giroux’s ‘organised forgetting’). The forgotten background to space and the ways that it is both put to work (by those with greater power e.g. school managers, architects etc) on the one hand, and produced through social action on the other, helping to constitute spatiality, recall how Lisa Gitelman discusses media in her book Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture:

Just as science enjoys an authority by virtue of its separation from politics and the larger social sphere, media become authoritative as the social processes of their definition and dissemination are separated out or forgotten, and as the social processes of protocol formation and acceptance get ignored (2006:6-7).

Thinking about forgotten protocols and the social (inevitably historical) processes of their formation shows how architecture too relies on them, as Umberto Eco was at pains to make clear:

All the ingenuity of an architect or designer cannot make a new form functional (and cannot give form to a new function) without the support of existing processes of codification… (original emphasis and ellipsis, 1997:178).

These codifications (or protocols) aren’t simply about making spaces more usable. They are always, already doing social and political work. They precede any particular building’s construction and so partly condition how it might and can be used, one reason why ‘the interpretation of radical departures [in architectural style and form] must be tied to an analysis of norms’ (2012:389) as Dana Cuff, an architect and anthropological thinker of architecture, puts it. This, in turn, helps to explain how real architectural, spatial innovation goes much deeper than superficial change and why it is inherently risky.

It is also why classification work is so important in architecture – different spaces are used to separate and order a building’s users, linking them to particular functions, embedding them in systems of production or in schools tying them to expected outcomes through setting and streaming (also to inevitably spatial and temporal practices). As well as these effects, they help to give an institution a sense of rightfulness or obviousness, even part of a kept-forgotten mission statement as Mary Douglas suggests:

The incipient institution needs some stabilizing principle to stop its premature demise. That stabilizing principle is the naturalization of social classifications. There needs to be·an analogy by which the formal structure of a crucial set of social relations is found in the physical world, or in the supernatural world, or in eternity, anywhere, so long as it is not seen as a socially contrived arrangement. When the analogy is applied back and forth from one set social relations to another and from these back to nature, its recurring formal structure becomes easily recognized and endowed with self-validating truth (my emphases, 1986:48).

Perhaps this is stretching things a little far but social media employ structuring mechanisms to classify, order and arrange data, and relate data to other data. Algorithms of course but also their html structure and closed circuit groups of friends and followers who, of course, aren’t really friends and followers but restricted connections on parts of the publishing platform that gain some of their power ‘friend’-ness and ‘follower’-ness from ‘analogy’ as Douglas, above, has it. And, like architecture, this structuring often goes on behind the scenes or at least attention is drawn away from it.

Architecture (in its more-likely-to-be-forgotten role of organising space) is a potentially powerful tool to help with naturalising the social classifications that, in turn, help to define the logic and stability of school as an institution. Indeed, school as a whole itself needs to play this game, making it logical, obvious, natural to even have schools by making (or at least contributing to, confirming) the ways in which children become students, knowledge into subjects, activities into learning and work and play. Again media do this too – who gets blocked, followed etc are all examples of classifying in action and the creation of different spaces.

There are more architecture-social media similarities but to note a few in bullet-point form, before focussing on architecture more specifically:

  • One way of thinking of space is as a medium – not so much an already existing platform but the result of what gets made through social interaction. Doreen Massey is probably amongst the many most associated with this but in architecture, Herman Hertzberger too.
  • As Massey points out, a common problem here is with representation and how representations of space are commonly understood as space. But, if all space was, was ‘that business of laying things out side by side’ (2005:27) then space would be easy, cleansed of the social action that goes into making it, paralleling the way it is easy to focus on social media and their highly visible platform-ness at the expense of their much less visible, social production.
  • In some ways, it might be more helpful to think of media and designed space as artefacts of social action but ones where time hasn’t frozen, where they are always being made. I’m not sure about this, but the point involves thinking about the ontology of both, something Mark Carrigan again has urged here. In short, what are these things we call media and architecture, of what are they composed and how can they do the things they appear (or are claimed) to do?

I’m drifting a bit but to give an example of how all of this ‘forgetting’ might work its way into how we talk and think about architecture and school design, consider “flexible learning spaces”. For a number of reasons I’ll explore more fully in future posts, I don’t think flexible space is possible. However, even if it was, I’m not sure it would matter. What matters for people (I think) is whether they can use a space flexibly or not. It matters little that a space is flexible in name, in theory or in design. Turning things on their heads then, it’s use that counts. And use is a very different ‘thing’ from flexibility. For example, for teachers, using a space flexibly is work and it needs to be recognised as such.

Misrecognising flexibility as a property of space means that flexibility is now not work, it’s politics-free, un-unionisable, a constant, something that can be bought (by design), built (by bricks), facilitated (by moveable furniture) and claimed to be a feature of a classroom or whatever. And if we don’t recognise flexibility as being part of teachers’ achievements (their work) then it is both much harder to appreciate how flexibility might (not) happen and we are encouraged to forget the behind-work that involves far more than the design of space.

As so often, the architect and theorist Herman Hertzberger has something useful to say on this:

The greater flexibility of action inherent in a greater flexibility [sic] mainly concerns the organization, in other words the work. Whether this greater freedom has anything to offer the people who have to do the work is doubtful (Hertzberger, 2000:94).

I’ve drifted again. My point is simply that very often the way we discuss and think about architecture shares a common blindness with what we think social media are. The ‘bits’ that are harder to see – the social and political making and ordering of medium-ness – are often ignored. It’s not simply a question of ‘doing right by politics’ to at least try and make them more visible, it’s part of our job in understanding what they are.


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