THE NEW NORMAL Words by Allan Gardner
Swiss collective PIN has recently designed the catalogue for Strelka Institute’s think tank “The New Normal,” which from 2017–2019 served to investigated the impact of planetary-scale computation on the future of cities.
We keep hearing about “the New Normal.” It’s a nebulous phrase, one we see applied (mostly online) to any state of being that relates directly to the experience of living now. Lockdown was the New Normal. Our protests in favor of Black Lives and ending systemic racism were the New Normal. California burning, the sky turning orange and ash raining down on the cities, was the New Normal. This phrase has been used to describe the action of social change, either catalyzed or in motion—a point after which, or indeed because of which, things had to change, and beyond which we could not return.
The Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (Moscow) is looking beyond the right-now for its approach to what our New Normal could be, focusing on new perspectives for functional urban development. Their postgraduate study program of the same name brings together architects, city planners, game designers, academics, software engineers and more with the aim of conducting research on what can be done to ensure that urban development in the coming years is sustainable, effective, and humanitarian.
They work under the premise that the rate at which revolutionary technologies are produced makes it impossible to consider the evolving urban environment without the implementation of these emerging processes. Their research is underpinned by an emphasis on intersectionality and interdisciplinary practices, and the awareness that the new urban environment will have to consider user communities in a way that previous iterations did not have to—and indeed, would have been incapable of doing.
Headed by Benjamin H. Bratton (author of the Strelka-published book of the same name), their program is committed to a diverse reassessment of our environment. My earlier mention of the indefinable (albeit endlessly communicative) nature of the New Normal is addressed by Bratton early on in his book. He describes it as “Slipperiness,” which is perhaps another equally nebulous concept: something slippery is hard to catch, hard to hold onto, but also equally inconvenient, dangerous, or playful. This last word, “playful,” is an important one to consider in relation to Bratton’s text and the program he’s spent the past three years heading. The work is characterized by a refusal to be held in place. It moves with fluidity and will not hold form. It is slippery.
This emphasis on the fluidity of language is no accident. Bratton identifies the evolution of language as necessary, crucial both in terms of our development of/relationship to AI technologies as well as our ability to define the terms of our experience. His example of horseless carriage as “car” versus pocket-sized-super-computer-camera-payment device as “mobile phone” is indicative of the pragmatism through which language changes: it’s less gesamtkunstwerk and more “bullet train.” We don’t need to invent new words for things—new things are being invented and they need to be described.
Part of what makes their take on this type of research interesting is the way that it actively desires engagement with the layperson. Bratton (and by extension, his cohort of researchers) want to create something functional. They employ humor, avoiding sci-fi cliches on the world of tomorrow in favor of sardonic takes on the remorseless march of time, which they recognize as inevitable. If that sounds dour, it shouldn’t. Look at it from the perspective of Strelka’s researchers: this provides us the opportunity to develop new ways of living, with ourselves and within our communities, that address the needs of contemporary society through technologies and philosophies in their embryonic stages. It’s underpinned by a palpable sense of optimism—the idea that we are capable of making things better, that a world that truly meets our needs is possible, without falling all the way into sci-fi utopianism. This all comes with an unwavering awareness that the march of technological progress is as inevitable as the march of time. This is just our chance to make it work for us.