Revealing and understanding dark matter:

Abstractly, you can think about going from digital to physical as going from boundless to bounded. A space without implicit edges to one composed entirely of edges.

When I first read this from Craig, something stuck.

There’s a feeling of thinness that I believe many of us grapple with working digitally. It's a product of the ethereality inherent to computer work. The more the entirety of the creation process lives in bits, the less solid the things we’re creating feel in our minds. Put in more concrete terms: a folder with one item looks just like a folder with a billion items. Feels just like a folder with a billion items. And even then, when open, with most of our current interfaces, we see at best only a screenful of information, a handful of items at a time.

Perceptually, beyond some low threshold, data becomes boundless to us. Cloud storage compounds this: we don't even worry about HDs filling up anymore! Even when digital streams have clear beginnings and ends, I think we — humans — do a bad job at keeping those edges in view. In trying to reflect upon vast experiences or datasets captured entirely in bits with most standard interfaces, we run into the same wall as in trying to imagine infinity: we can’t.

Then I crashed upon a set of readings that helped this make more sense, from a larger scale.

My interest in plotting out the pattern of emails picks up on the ‘new smokestacks’ theme I’ve been developing here, here and here - how to capture the essence, identity or character of knowledge-based work. The emerging thesis goes like this: heavy industry and physical trade once helped define the character of a city and its people through its sheer presence; it helped create a local identity. As that work has shifted to globalised service- and knowledge-based work in many cities, so it has become invisible or homogenous, and so part of the identity of a place has also become ephemeral, intangible, imperceptible.

These differences are perhaps largely expressed through data rather than built form, and leaving aside the glowing possibility of a return to manufacturing in the city (a theme I’ll keep returning to here) we can nonetheless discern a character, rhythm and pattern to this new work. We simply have to look for it through the lens of data. While we could probably discern the new built forms relating to this work - the equivalent of the factory, terrace, docks, slag heaps, mills, warehouses, etc. - but we can certainly glean the essence of the work by assessing the digital traces it leaves.

This data-visualization of the origin and endpoint of emails during a project is one way to extract forms that can represent a project.

Craig's book for Flipboard is another.

via Craig: And so what projects like this speak to is the unique and increasingly important value we can give data by abstracting physicality. Jumping back and forth. Creating that space. Capturing a journey effortlessly in bits, and then giving it edges. This dance makes our digital experiences more understandable, parseable, consumable.

I would argue, however, that for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the book simply formalized much of what they already knew. Their work benches were covered in schematics, file cabinets filled with correspondence between farmers and governments and architects and textile manufacturers and engineers. In other words — to them the magnitude and grandiose nature of their work was present all around their home, their work space. It manifest physically in those files and papers and cabinets. For them, a monster book like this didn’t illuminate the enormity of their undertaking — they were aware of The Umbrellas’ bombasity every time they opened their studio door.

But what is dark matter, exactly?

We (or others) can't see the actual processes and decisions, so like a compass to the Earth's magnetic field, we need objects to reveal what's invisible.

But, the greater use of that?

Scientists had used “gravitational lensing”—a favourite, new, and admittedly not understood concept I’ll be using a lot—to detect some evidence of the essentially imperceptible dark matter; that which Must Be There For Everything Else To Be There. As explained here, and thanks to Gill Ereaut for the link, “something invisible with mass, like dark matter, is bending the light from the cluster of galaxies. So although we can’t see the dark matter, we can see it affecting the light’s path and take a pretty good guess it is there.”

In this case, it’s this very imperceptibility combined with its fundamental influence which attracts me to it as a concept. For the last year or so, I’ve been using the concept of dark matter as a metaphor in strategic design to describe the often imperceptible yet fundamental facets—the organisational cultures, the regulatory or policy environments, the business models, the ideologies—that surround, enable and shape the more tangible product, service, object, building, policy, institutions etc.

Usefully, it gives a name to something otherwise amorphous, nebulous yet fundamental.

With a product, service or artefact, the user is rarely aware of the organisational context that produced it, yet the outcome is directly affected by it. Dark matter is the substrate that produces. A particular BMW car, say, is an outcome of the company’s corporate culture, the legislative frameworks it works within, business models it creates, the patent portfolio that protects, the wider cultural habits it senses and shapes, the trade relationships, logistics and supply networks that resource it, the particular design philosophies that underpin its performance and possibilities, the path dependencies in the history of northern Europe, the culture of the mittelstand and so on.

"It is the material that absorbs or rejects wider change."

Big words! But hear Dan out.

Without addressing dark matter, and without attempting to reshape it, we are simply producing interventions or installations or popups that attempt to skirt around the system. This is a valid tactic, but not much of a strategy. A strategy would focus on delivering the intervention whilst also enabling the positive energy it creates to be easily drawn into the system, to shape it over time.

This is a balancing act, as too much time spent immersed in dark matter can lead to nothing being produced, and change is best enabled through prototyping, through making, through demonstrating—through, yes, working with matter. Traditional consultancy tends to only deal with ‘dark matter’ exclusively, rather then synthetically produce an alternative or tangible iteration, and so its effects are hugely limited as a result. So it's the balance of matter and dark matter that, well, matters.

You can draw two lessons from this; either you say “it’s all random, it’s all context, you can’t do anything”, and you’re a slave to context. Which for an architect is a death sentence, it’s very depressing. Whatever you do is irrelevant, it’s all determined by external factors. But you can also draw another lesson – and I hope that this is the real lesson – which is that something that doesn’t work here does work there, and there are real reasons for this. So there are ways to really use architecture to change, to give a real alternative, to have a real effect, to be visionary.

If you really want to change the city, or want a real struggle, a real fight, then it would require re-engaging with things like public planning for example, or re-engaging with government, or re-engaging with large-scale institutionalised developers. I think that’s where the real struggles lie, that we re-engage with these structures and these institutions, this horribly complex ‘dark matter’. That’s where it becomes really interesting.

Trying to use dark matter

Funnily enough, that kind of response is partly why we pursue strategic design at Sitra, as Stephenson is describing a kind of practice with includes redesigning contexts—in this case, organisations, insurance and legislation—rather than solely addressing “technology”. And few people are genuinely trying to connect these things together; to understand, clarify and address complex opportunities holistically. Stephenson understands that the problem is never technology—or “the idea”—but it is the context around it that makes it happen. Or not. And we need to design that context if we want, say, large scale solar production to happen.

given that we are approaching these new kinds of issues—these deep stress fractures in our established cultures of decision-making—in exactly the same way we approached older, simpler problems, we should not be surprised that they are no longer working. Should we not be exploring different responses, developing frameworks more attuned to thinking holistically, to collaboration, deploying synthesis rather than simple analysis, to prototyping? What approaches might be productive when there are no precedents?

To return to the book:

The advantage of presenting work via print-on-demand is that it gets noticed. I know this small book was read within the client group and the project team, more than if it had been simply a PDF. Although, ironically, I would guess its impact was greater within Arup than anywhere else. This wasn't intended, but in retrospect, I was helping to build a new business area (what we called “Urban Informatics” at the time) and this distillation of work from Low2No was very useful there. It made the work real. It helped turn an idea for a new area into something akin to a new discipline within Arup. The book become a token in that exchange.

What's different with POD is this ability to iterate within a format, making it particularly valuable for lengthy, often stop-start built environment projects, which require punctuating with statements of progress every few months.

It's difficult to trace the effects of the books, just as its difficult to trace much of our work in this area. We don't know how far they've gone, and who’s read them, and to what effect. We simply know that they are having some effect, as people tell us so, and things seem to change. In this sense, we see it as a “dark matter” probe (Bryan expands on that here), sent in to different contexts flush out responses and reactions.

The physicality of the thing was also important—pulling the book out of your bag was almost the platform for a conversation, a bit of a show, the introductory token (no more) for what is actually the most important outcome; the dialogue and the relationship.