A techno-booster nano manifesto

Rowan Wilken reviews Neil Spiller’s Digital Dreams

A popular means of grasping life online has been via the lexicon of architecture. Given the overwhelming presence of architectural metaphors in describing cyberspace, it is inevitable that architectural critics should in turn reflect on the extent to which cyberspace is transforming architecture and its relationship to the human body. Digital Dreams by Neil Spiller (1998) is one of a growing number of architectural texts that maps this change.

Spiller is unequivocal in his assessment of this change. The architectural profession, he argues, is facing a future in which “advanced technologies, such as cyberspace, molecular and tissue engineering, genetics and the theories of complex systems, will drastically change our environment—and therefore our architecture.” However, unlike more skeptical architectural critics, such as M Christine Boyer, who regard this future as something of a crisis for architecture, Spiller embraces it as an “opening-up of a series of new spatial frontiers.” Moreover, in sketching these frontiers, Spiller foresees a range of metaphysical philosophies as the keys to building a future ‘online.’

Digital Dreams is Spiller’s ‘laboratory’, a textual space in which to examine this technologised future. Yet, like so many books purporting to chart a future in which “technological advances are currently contorting space beyond all recognisable limits”, Digital Dreams must first come to terms with the technologised space of the book.

Digital Dreams is structured in a ‘dialogic’ format with intersecting textual strands. The intention is a symbiotic relationship between the textual strands, with the meaning of one strand informed by a reading of the other. Unfortunately, though, for the most part the dialogic structure of the book does little in the way of “blurring the conceptual boundary between the two texts”, as is the stated intention. Even the overlaid titles sometimes read like naff Gen-X anti-advertising slogans—“Meaning in architecture is dead.”

The images that accompany the text are more successful. While primarily architectural in content, stylistically these images approximate digitally created Manga illustrations. This correlation is interesting in the light of Steven Johnson’s observation that computer games (and here one can add Anime) are where the future of virtual reality technologies are located. Whether or not this affiliation was a conscious design choice, the result is suggestive of Spiller’s greater comic book vision—the convergence of the technological and the biological in a future world, however absurd this vision might be (“nanotechnology will be able to produce Spidey and the Hulk for real”).

Like the formal aspects of the book, the content of Digital Dreams offers the reader a similarly mixed bag. As a commentary on future challenges to existing tenets of architectural theory and practice, Digital Dreams offers much that is thought provoking and fresh. For example, Spiller claims that the architect’s ability to “morph, mutate and hybridise” three-dimensional representational images in the ‘cyberspace’ of computer software renders obsolete the ‘form follows function’ dictum of architecture.

A second, equally charged suggestion is that emergent spatial environments (and architectures) will ultimately explode the classical notion of the Vitruvian ideal of the body. “Architecture as we know it is to a large extent influenced by the scale of our bodies,” he writes. “In the future this scale will not remain consistent.”

While the challenges faced by architecture in a technologised future are ostensibly the topic of the book (and one that, for the most part, is competently handled), the real theme is actually the technologised future itself. Digital Dreams is in equal parts a prediction of the manifold and untold ways in which ‘advanced technologies’ will transform the future, and a celebration of these changes. Unfortunately, however, it is as a soothsayer of a technologised, cyberspatial future that Spiller is at his least convincing. Spiller’s position on spirituality and cyberspace is a revealing example.

It is a curious irony of the computer age—an age closely aligned with postmodern philosophies that blithely proclaim the ‘death of (Enlightenment) God’—that so much attention should be paid to defining some sort of metaphysical, or spiritual dimension to cyberspace. Much recent work explicitly examines this, including critiques by Barry Sherman and Phil Judkins, Michael Heim, David Whittle, Douglas Rushkoff, and the more traditional Douglas Groothius. Add to these Spiller’s Digital Dreams.

The (non)place of traditional, Western religion in a post-human digital future forms a leitmotif in Digital Dreams. “As the body changes, so will religion”, Spiller claims. In rejecting traditional, organised Western religion, Spiller (after Rushkoff) suggests that the best (spiritual) guide to cyberspace is nevertheless one who is fully immersed in some sort of transcendental aesthetic. Unfortunately, however, all that Spiller can offer as a religious alternative amounts to little more than a cobbled-together amalgam of voodoo, shamanistic teaching, Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology, and alchemy. As a paradigm for a new metaphysics (read religion) of cyberspace, it is ill conceived and unconvincing—little more than a high-gloss, repackaged form of pop religious pluralism. For a new and uniquely ‘cyberspatial’ religion, we are still waiting.

Moreover, Spiller merely pays lip service to the aforementioned philosophies. The true religion of Digital Dreams is Spiller’s unabashed ‘techno-boosterism’ (to borrow Steven Johnson’s phrase). And, if techno-boosterism is the religion, then nanotechnology is the church, Eric Drexler the prophet, and Drexler’s Engines of Creation the bible through which Spiller divines the future. Spiller believes that when it comes to the future of architecture and humanity “Nano holds the key.”
Indeed, the second half of Digital Dreams reads like a veritable nano manifesto in which Spiller extols the virtues of nanotechnology for shaping the future. “We are on the cusp of the Nanolithic Age: at the beginning of Nanotime.” The transformative potential of this technology reaches its apotheosis in the end-time—what Spiller terms the Protoplasmic Age, a Promethean vision: “when virtual reality becomes real, the liberation of the bit is complete.”

Spiller’s ‘digital dreams’ openly embrace the possibility of a post-human, cyborgian future—even to the point of describing those who balk at some advances in surgery and robotics as ‘flesh chauvinists’ and ‘flesh Luddites.’ Needless to say, according to Spiller such a post-human future will only be possible if we are prepared to participate in “visceral escapology”—escape from the prison of the flesh.

Digital Dreams is not short on dogma or polemic. While certain minor qualifications are made, the fiercely techno-boosterist line that is pushed in Digital Dreams leaves little room for critical evaluation or circumspection; it is this lack of critical distance that is the book’s main weakness. As an architectural text, Digital Dreams offers much; as a blueprint for the future, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Neil Spiller, Digital Dreams: architecture and the new alchemic technologies, Ellipsis, London, 1998

RealTime issue #29 Feb-March 1999 pg. 24

© Rowan Wilken; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1999