I'd like to start by asking why you are here in Naples?
I always prefer to be physically present in a space and to interact with people face to
face, but of course travel is difficult and expensive and it takes time. We have a
situation in the world now where we can have low-cost, inexpensive, fast electronic
telecommunication but you lose something; or you have the more expensive, much better
possibility of face to face communication and direct physical connection. So I was able to
come here physically and I'm delighted to be here.
In your last book you described the city of the future, the city of bits. How do you
imagine this city?
The city of bits is a city in which interactions are not just face to face but also
electronic; where commercial transactions are carried out electronically; where a certain
amount of social interaction is carried out electronically; where the culture is supported
electronically, as well as physically. One is not a replacement for the other but the two
work together, the physical and the electronic. Much of what happens in the electronic
world is not visible, at least not to the naked eye. If you think about the financial
world, for example, capital is moving around the world at incredible speed, having an
enormous affect on our daily life, but we don't see any of this; none of this is visible.
The world is much more interconnected because of electronic links, so one place cannot
be independent from another distant place. We really do have a situation of globalization,
of global interconnection, and so one's connections electronically in many contexts become
at least as important as one's immediate physical context. I don't mean that it is no
longer important where you come from, but there's another thing that is important as well.
It is not a simple replacement, it is a much more complex, a kind of complex dialogue
between the physical and the virtual, where you come from and how you connect - these
things all come together to make up our lives now. Our lives are being transformed by the
digital telecommunications revolution. But I don't believe that the future is determinate.
I don't believe that it is simply a matter of inexorable technological development. I
think it is possible for us to try to understand what's happening, to organise, to try to
define the future that we want, rather than be passive spectators or even passive victims
of the transformation.
What about areas of the world where people are still struggling to survive? How can they
have the same optimism about new technologies?
First we should distinguish between the long term and the short term. In the short term,
it seems that a large scale logical transformation inevitably creates inequities,
difficulties, stresses. We are beginning to see this in the digital telecommunications
revolution: there are haves and have-nots and there's some evidence that the technology is
increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots rather than decreasing it. That is
a cause for concern, of course. But in the long term it seems that, for example, in the
field of education the digital telecommunications revolution is a tremendous force for
equalising opportunity for education, for enhancing connections, breaking down isolation
and so on. I see a lot of long-term good coming, but in the short to medium-term I think
there are some tremendous problems for us to deal with, particularly for the developing
world. I think there is an enormous danger of increasing the gap between the rich and the
poor, between the privileged and the marginalised.
As places become virtual, what is the role of the architect to project space?
I think architects have always been fundamentally concerned with understanding human
activities and creating structures to support human activity. In the past we did it with
stone and brick and concrete, the kinds of things that we see all around us. Today and in
the future the means are changing, so it is not only physical means but also electronic
connections and software that form part of the architect's repertoire. But I believe the
fundamental function of the architect remains exactly the same: that is, to understand
human activities, understand human culture, and try and make the kind of structures that
support those activities. We have to expand our repertoire of means at this point, not our
objectives, not our fundamental social commitment. These remain the same, but the means
What do you think of "pulp architecture", the organic architecture that tries to
make fluid and organic shapes as representations of body shapes? Do you think this means a
total rejection of the traditional forms of architecture?
I think there are different factors involved here. If you take Frank Gehry's Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum for example, which I think is the most interesting and exciting recent
example of very geometrically complex free-form architecture, this is connected very much
to the digital revolution, but not perhaps in the way that you think. What has happened is
that computer technology has been used firstly to allow the design of free-form shapes
that would be impossible to design using traditional techniques of drawing and modelling
and so on. Secondly, new manufacturing technology is being used; CAD-CAM technology that
is based on the direct connection of computing, computer-aided design technology to
manufacturing technology, to allow the fabrication of free-form shapes, non-repeating
shapes, curved surfaces and so on. So something intensely physical has been made in a new
way by taking advantage of computer technology.
In the "city of bits" the human being has a new idea of the space-time
dimension. What is this space-time dimension in the virtual era?
It becomes more complicated. Our daily lives used to be lived in a totally circumscribed
space. They were ordered by the rhythms of the sun, fundamentally, and the rhythms of the
town clock and church bells and so on. Now, if I take my life as an example, every day I'm
connected to people all over the world - through e-mail, video conferencing, the telephone
and so on - so my set of spatial connections are global not just local. Secondly of
course, all of those people are in different time zones, connecting to their daily lives
at different moments simultaneously when I'm talking to them, so we can no longer assume
the kind of unified temporal and spatial framework that we had in the past: it is much
more fragmented, much more complex. We can no long rely on the old kinds of orderly
rhythms and spatial patterns that existed before. I think that this makes architecture
even more important than in the past, because architecture provides a kind of ordering
framework, a way of comprehending the world. I think that the challenge that architects
face in the 21st century is in making places that enable us to live in this complex,
fragmented world that have now.
And this also affects human perception. In particular because technological needs are
expanding the human senses. So how do we define human perception now? How does it change?
It has become cyborg perception. It is not just the unaided capabilities of our bodies: as
Marshall McLuhan said many decades ago, we have to think of the electronic media as
extensions of the body and extensions of our sensory organs. And that is becoming true in
some extraordinarily dramatic ways. For example, if I log into the WWW, I can pull-up a
bunch of windows that are web-cams, that are connections to cameras scattered all over the
world, so I can see windows into a dozen different cities simultaneously, at the same time
as I look out of the physical window and see what is outside the room that I'm sitting in.
So in a very direct and clear sense my visual connection to the world is being
extraordinarily extended. We can all think of lots of examples of this kind. But we are
not longer simply reliant on sensory organs; we are electronically extended globally. We
are all global cyborgs at this point.
You say in your book that it is no longer necessary to be "there" to act, in
general. Does this mean that we have a new consciousness of power, that we can act without
being where the action is taking place?
Yes. This is a relatively recent thing, of course. It goes back to the 19th century when
human beings learned to harness electromagnetism and learned to deal with action at a
distance, which was always thought to be an impossible thing. What has been happening in
the late 20th century is the combination of our command of electromagnetism with our
command of information technology. So our capacity for action is physically extended too,
and I think this fundamentally changes our subjectivity.
So let's examine the different places that we can find in the city of bits. First, the
schools of the future.
When I think of the school of the future, I think of my father's classroom. My father was
a country schoolteacher in Australia. He had a one-room schoolroom in a very isolated
location and a small group of children with a small number of books and nobody in that
small community had ever been outside of that community. It was very restricted. If you go
into a well-equipped schoolroom now that has electronic connections, independently of its
location, there's access to all the intellectual resources of the WWW; it is possible to
connect to children in other parts of the world and so on. An expansion of
interconnectivity and of access to educational resources of enormous cultural importance
has taken place in just one generation. There are huge inequities of course. There are
some people in the world who have access to all of this opportunity and some who have no
access whatever to it. Nonetheless, I think we are starting to see the beginnings of a
fundamental change in education that is based on the electronic expansion of opportunity
and the creation of much wider access to materials and to cultural resources.
How does this change the relation we have with the material book, buying for instance
through the Net?
We have a very curious hybrid condition at the moment and this may continue for some time.
I certainly find in my experience that if I know the book I want, I much prefer just to go
to Amazon. It is quick and convenient: even in the middle of the night I can order the
book and it comes the next day. If I want to go to a place where I can engage in some
discussion about books and meet people who have similar interests, if I'm looking for
something unique like an old book, a rare book or something like that, I much prefer to go
to the physical space and to become part of the culture of that physical space. So I don't
think we are going to see one thing replacing the other. I think we are going to find a
kind of segmentation where both survive and play different roles. The movies did not
replace the stage and television did not replace the movies. All of these things are
playing different roles in relation to each other. We'll have physical bookstores and
virtual bookstores: they will exist simultaneously and complement each other.
And it is possible to think about this simultaneous existence for other aspects of this
Exactly. But not simple simultaneous existence, some redefinition of roles instead. Again,
I'll take the example of film and television and the stage. When film came along the role
of the stage was redefined; it occupied a different niche in society. I think we are
finding the same kind of theme with the entry of electronic possibilities of supporting
human activities. If your take electronic commerce, for example shopping. Certain kinds of
commerce work very well in the electronic world and other things do not. Books work very
well, for example, because it is possible to examine the contents of a book
electronically. And books are small, easily transportable, high-value objects, and this
makes a great deal of sense for electronic commerce. On the other hand, if you want to buy
an automobile, you may do some preliminary examination on-line but eventually you want to
go and physically experience it before driving it. So I think we will find that those
things that work well electronically are going to be supported electronically, those that
really demand physical space are going to continue to exist in physical space.
What about virtual museums? How do you think they will change our relation to the world of
A very good example of what I think is happening exists in the new Sainsbury Wing at the
National Gallery in London, where you have both the physical paintings in the major part
of the museum and then right at the entrance there is a virtual museum with computer
workstations and you can surf through the collection electronically. The virtual museum
part enables you to move through the collection very quickly, to examine interconnections,
to explore some of the background material and so on. Then, when you've finished going
through the virtual part, you can get a map printed out that shows you the physical
locations of the materials to look at and you can go through the physical museum and come
face to face with the actual objects. So there's a kind of complementarity there. That is
very important. You get speed, you get convenience, you get interconnection from accessing
these materials in their virtual form, but there are other kinds of values you get form
accessing them directly in their physical form. I think that is the kind of complementary
relationship we are going to get, not a simple replacement.
In your book you also talk about theatres and the transformations that we can imagine in
the relation between the artist and his audience.
There are many interesting things happening in the theatre. One is that you can have
performances where the performers are not all assembled in the same place. Of course we've
seen this for quite a few years in the radio and the television world. You might have a
radio interview, for example, a discussion among a group of people, and in fact those
people may be scattered all over the world, but the illusion is created of them being
together in one place and holding a discussion.
In a Greek theatre all the performers came together in one place on the stage and the
audience was in direct acoustic and visual connection to the performers, that's the
classical idea of the theatre. Ever since the development of radio, we've had a condition
where the performers may be scattered, the audience may be scattered, but the electronic
medium pulls it all together into the virtual equivalent of the physical space. We are
also seeing some very interesting hybrid conditions and combinations of the physical and
the virtual and the live and the recorded. For example, karaoke, which is live performance
combined with recording in a very interesting way.
You also talk about new kinds of prisons, prisons without walls and cells. Can you talk
about this and explain the real and objective possibility of distant control of prisoners
becoming a reality?
You can answer that question on a number of different levels. Certainly, it is a reality
now in the United States, and I think in some parts of Europe, where physical prisons are
being replaced in some contexts by electronic monitoring of the incarcerated. People wear
a kind of electronic bracelet that enables surveillance and continuous tracking of where
they are. Instead of physical walls confining people, there is a kind of electronic system
to find them. Now of course you can generalise that discussion in the way that Foucault
generalised it. He spoke about surveillance and the knowledge of surveillance being a mode
of an imposition of power. Clearly, that can happen electronically much more effectively
than it can happen physically. So I think there's certainly a sinister side to all of this
and something we ought to be very concerned about. One of the fundamental questions about
the electronic world is the question of how much surveillance it allows, can we control
the surveillance, who does the surveillance, how can we preserve privacy, how can we
disconnect from the electronic world if we want to and so on?
To have this control and the ability to disconnect and to preserve our privacy we have to
know the technologies very well, to learn how to use them so we can control them instead
of being controlled.
This is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, it is one of the most important cultural
questions that faces us now. And I'd emphasise that it is a cultural question and a social
question, not a technological question. We can understand the technology quite easily. We
are very good at inventing the technology but understanding the social implications,
understanding what it means culturally, and contesting the issues is the fundamentally
important thing that faces us. Unfortunately, the pace of technological change is so fast
that it is very difficult to develop the kind of critical discussions that are necessary
in order to take control.
Do you think that there will be a pause in which technology will give us the time to think
about the cultural and social problems?
No, I don't think so. In fact, the pace of change is probably going to continue to
increase. We are just at the start of a curve of rapid acceleration. So the fundamental
condition we have to understand is the condition of not only rapid change but rapidly
accelerating change. That is what we are going to have to learn to deal with. That is
extraordinarily difficult, it seems to me. And nostalgia for stability is not going to be
a useful strategy.
How will teleworking change the way we work and also the time of work, in particular in
relation to free time?
Since the industrial revolution we have seen a kind of formalisation of working hours for
most people - most people now work nine to five, as the English phrase goes. And
formalisation of the workplace too: people go to specialised places to work. There are
different legal conditions in the workplace as opposed to the domestic space, for
instance. This was not always the case. Before the industrial revolution lots of people
worked at home - the craftsmen worked and lived in the same place, the merchant lived
above the store and so on. These were common social patterns. The industrial revolution
caused a separation and a formalisation of the workplace. What we are starting to see as a
consequence of the digital revolution is a blurring of those boundaries again and a
reconnection of the workplace and the home. That is having some very interesting
consequences for many people, for academics like myself, for example. I work fairly
continuously and almost anywhere. I just carry my laptop on the road and it makes no
difference where I am, really. I write in hotel rooms and I write in cafés; I connect up
to my office electronically. The workplace means nothing and neither do working hours. We
are starting to see that more generally in commerce and industry, and this is a condition
for lots of people. It has some important architectural implications. It means in the
design of the home, for example, you have got to make provision for the workplace as
something very serious. And it has a lot of implications for the way that organisations
work, the supervision of workers and so on. It opens up possibilities for exploitation. I
would say it is a very complex, new condition that we have to try to understand.
So it is very important to reorganise houses for teleworkers?
Not only teleworking; many other functions are shifting back into the home as a result of
the digital revolution. We are finding a lot more entertainment, of course, taking place
in the home. This began with radio and television and is accelerating with the new digital
forms of entertainment. We are finding that commerce is shifting back into homes -
electronic home shopping, home banking. A tremendous range of functions are shifting back
into domestic space and domestic space has to change to accommodate this. You cannot have
everything happening through a television set in the living room. You cannot
simultaneously have education and work and entertainment all happening with the same
electronic device and within the same space. I think it means more space in the home. It
means greater differentiation of space for different functions. That's relatively easy to
accomplish in new housing stock . Of course it is very difficult to transform existing
housing for these new conditions. This is a big challenge for architects and for urban
Vinton Cerf thinks that microchips for the Internet will be in all the technical
instruments in the home so that everything can be connected and you can save energy. Is
this an example of the city of bits?
Exactly. Right now most people think of computers as being devices in plastic boxes with a
keyboard in the front and a monitor on top. That is an obsolete view. Now, every kind of
object is starting to become intelligent. We have processors and memory and
telecommunications capabilities being embedded in everything that you can imagine.
Automobiles, for example, are really robots now: they have a huge amount of computer
functions. Domestic devices: your microwave oven probably has more computational
capability in it than the first computer that I ever used. We are finding that something
like a telephone is really like a small computer too, particular cellular telephones -
very complex electronic devices. So we have to anticipate a world in which almost every
kind of artefact has some computing and telecommunications capabilities. These interact
within the framework of a pervasive network to create an environment of things that think.
Imagine the whole world consisting of things that think, creating a kind of pervasive