Bureaucratic Structures and the Collapse of Modern Society

<em>Triple Canopy</em> interviews architectural historian Kazys Varnelis about the importance of city data, the difficulty of building new infrastructure and how best to react to a stiflingly complex society.
January 1, 2010, 5am PST | Nate Berg
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"Triple Canopy: You've argued that it's no longer possible to rebuild existing infrastructures or, for that matter, to build better ones. And you've proposed 'social engineering' and 'human hacking' as keys to changing how we think of and how we use infrastructure. On the other hand, a quarter of the counties in Michigan are converting paved roads to gravel to save money. Do you still believe in the prospect of technology enabling us to salvage our increasingly chaotic, dilapidated built environment?

Kazys Varnelis: I've been thinking about this a lot lately. On the one hand, I still believe that a government initiative to bring infrastructure into the twenty-first century by opening data to everyone-not just leaving it in the hands of the technocratic elite-would make things better for everyone. We can see this in the ability to monitor traffic conditions in real time on Google Maps. If there is a jam in a certain area, our navigation system should route us around it.

But as I've been studying such possibilities over the past year, it's become clear to me that there's a danger to putting too much faith in the bottom-up model. During the past decade, there's been a lot of fascination with bottom-up forms of organization. If these work at certain levels, they don't work at others. In particular, they are unable to provide adequate structures of authority. This has been the typical lesson of revolutions: In the process of creating new governments, the revolutionaries fail or resort to authoritarianism."

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Published on Wednesday, December 30, 2009 in Triple Canopy
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