Skip to content

Cults, Teams and Shutterbugs

May 24, 2013

The Internet is the reincarnation of the Tower of Babel. In trying to create an elevating access to universal communion, we seem to have facilitated explosive division. Each and every POV has become an F U. The unfiltered open flood gates of raw reactions and self righteousness has not allowed for communication as much as it has radicalized the loudest voices. While most of us sit and watch the cyber road rage with annoyance or mystified distance from the snarky flaming hatred, there has been, to me, a defining of ourselves that is both clarified and dangerous.

There have always been Teams – affinity groups we gravitate to –  to be with those who like what we like. Book clubs, March Madness betting brackets, those who fish, golf or watch Downton Abbey. You volunteer to be a part of it, you can leave as desired, it is all  based on shared, versus imposed, values.

There have always been Cults – superteams where affinity has transitioned to messianic prescription:  Cultists often believe that if you have a different set of values than theirs you are best ignorant or at worst, dead wrong and dangerous in your denial of The Truth. You are recruited, you are signed up, you are committed to the Cult’s survival and ascendancy. Think most old timey religion, new timey politics and Red Sox fans. And if you leave the Cult, if you betray the Truth, well, you are both damned and dangerous.

The Internet, technology’s ground game, has rendered many Teams into Cults as the loudest voices that were once muffled by paper and phone line transmission are broadcast at Level 11, ear-splitting radicalization, worldwide, 24/7/365.

Our culture has seen some Cults flow to Team status. In the northeast religion has become completely optional, with no negative connotations to disbelief, let alone nonattendance, likewise marriage. Our military has become better as it has become voluntary. Choosing to do something makes the doing a reflection of your values, being compelled to do something usually reflects someone else’s.

Today, cultural dissonance seems newly invigorated by its unfettered platform of technology. Just like those descending the Tower of Babel, the loudest voices in cyberspace talk more, listen less, and seem to understand no perspective but their own.

But occasionally technology renders Cults into Teams…

This new pulpit has created some problems for professions that traded on the perception of value as much as in the value they offered those who might purchase their services. The bright light of debunking pretense and affect that is the mother’s milk of the flash-mobocracy of the Internet age and has eroded the mojo of many professions. Lawyers need to confront Legal Zoom with the most aggressive advertising since Crazy Eddy. Every doctor has millions of second opinions on WebMD. And architects have lost the mystic power of the pen with every click of Sketch Up.

Architects have traditionally had all the bravado of someone who has low-self-esteem. Like the fashion model who never feels pretty, or the bully who is scared of being found out as a wimp, we have pushed our profession forward on a tide of cool. While I think of us as a Team, many, if not most architects have the sensibility of a Cult – where the importance of what we do is absolute, and its lack of acknowledgement is evidence of personal or cultural stupidity.

The black garb, groovy eyewear, and syntax that has all the pretension of fine artists smothered in the pseudo-scienctific jargon reminiscent of economists or social scientists confirm architects’ desperation for validation from the world. In its absence, we settle on conferring to each other – with lectures, awards, books and magazines we simultaneously create and are the audience for.

Architects have had a growing sense that their role has been threatened by a sea of competing professionals – LEED barkers, Interiors Experts, Design-Build technocrats, and any number of unlicensed, unregulated, un-AIA’ed “consultants”, “designers”,  “managers” –  who can essentially do the generalist job of architect by slicing off a thousand cuts of the pie bit-by-bit. The fear is palpable in the circling  wagons of academia, media and AIA chapters to staunch the bleeding that most obviously is due to economic collapse, but, in truth is the fruit of a changing world – fruit that other professions have been poisoned by as well.

That fear of losing gravitas is compounded by the uncontrollable world change of universally accessed and user friendly technology, the present day version of the steam engine rendering millions of oxen irrelevant. It has made architects deeply disturbed that what they do will die because technology facilitates pale, soulless mimicry of our craft by those who do not know the full impact of their software manipulation.

We have a stark warning sign in the allied profession we all use, and sometimes participate in as part of what we do: photography. The profession of photography has seen technology degrade its Cult into a Team. Photographers had the keys to the kingdom of making images that are in focus, color-corrected, bright, clear and vibrant. It once took years of education, apprenticeship, technological facility and a real level of dexterous craftsmanship to create reliable photographs that represented the real world in two dimensions.

The Fine Arts Cult took a long time to embrace photography because of its craftiness and technology, and the irony is that just when it was unquestioned that photographers can be fine artists at the highest level of expression, the mystical techniques that enhanced their Cult have been rendered toothless by technology.

My brother tried for 2 hours to teach me how to use his Leica in 1970. It was impossible. Now my iPhone takes better images than my brother ever could (he is now a dispatcher for a transit company – despite his knowledge and skill as a professional shutterbug). The Brownie or Polaroid was able to freeze a memory, but it was one in a million that the results could be so error-free and lustrous that anyone could be moved by your personal image. That has changed and camera ads now show everyone as a National Geographic hero of photo documentation as the equipment that cost tens of thousands of dollars and decades of experience to use has become a $200 purchase and a 20 minute tutorial.

Architects see their collaborative friends, photographers, those whose ascendance rode up to the heights of Mid Century Modern Hubris, brought low by the microchip… fees falling, copyrights impossible to protect, every human who can push a button making undeniably “perfect” two-dimension captures of the temporal world. In the absence of the Cult of exclusive access, the art of great photographers shines on, but with the back ground distraction of zillions of competing random images by the rest of us.

Architects see our friends in free fall, as we are stumbling ourselves. Are we making buggy whips, or do we have the innovative courage to take our gifts into relevant viability? Will our abilities, like the abiding inspiring appeal of religion, marriage and the military for some of us, shine through the software alternatives to us? Will a Team survive if a Cult can’t? Everyone can snap a shot – and perhaps soon, anyone can design a building…

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2013 9:17 am

    … cooking, making movies, writing.
    It is so true. But is it not also true that the democratization of the “Guild” encourages participation? Isn’t the opposite, the removal of access and consolidation of power and authority also historically fraught? The trick, it seems to me, is to give access to all, and education and recognition so that the good and the best are rewarded proportionally.

  2. Vlad Zeman permalink
    May 25, 2013 11:37 am

    Great read on a rainy Saturday morning with coffee in hand. You have really neatly summarized a dynamic that I have been watching with great interest and also with anxiety.

    On the one hand, as a consumer of professional services, I think it is really cool that I can check the diagnosis from my doctor by going online, and then email him follow up questions. It is also great that I can do my own taxes (personal and small business) for $59 using TurboTax rather than $1,200 I used to pay an accountant.

    On the other hand, as an IT professional, I can tell you this phenomenon is just as threatening to technologists as it is to doctors/lawyers/architects. I often wonder about the future of the CIO, and how to keep that role relevant as corporate staff now have quicker and cheaper access to technology and information at home than inside most corporations. I can see in many corporations this drive towards everyone becoming a general manager while the specialists are gradually being devalued.

    There is one more link in your cult-to-team chain, and that is the scary one:


    All professions are somewhere along that path and moving towards the right. Doctors still closer to the left, and photographers and air traffic helicopter pilots well to the right.

    I personally have zero time for the many doctors who are still operating as a cult. I have a GP now who operates as a team and I love it. When I am there with my son for a knee injury, this doctor pulls out a book with pictures of the knee, explains why he thinks it is one thing and not something else. Gives me a photocopy of the knee diagram and some strengthening exercise, and sends me an email link to a page online with my diagnosis and a place I can ask follow up questions via email. He is staying engaged and relevant. The problem is that he gets paid the same amount by my insurance company as the cultish doctor who sees me for 1.5 minutes, then slaps me on the back and says “take it easy for 2 weeks and come and see me if it acts up again”. Now that really sucks!

    For those of us who strive to operate in the middle as a team, we have to embrace the new technology and keep finding new ways to add value, because we certainly are not going to be retiring wealthy any time soon. 🙂

  3. May 25, 2013 11:59 am

    We live in a time with much evidence and few conclusions….

  4. May 25, 2013 8:24 pm

    Nicely put Duo! I was just talking with a former client yesterday about how there’s no respite in this era of constant technological development. To stay relevant as an expert in the field one has to keep working with sustained intensity from internship to whenever (no such thing as retirement anymore). Resting on one’s accomplishments isn’t an option…

  5. May 25, 2013 11:37 pm

    On the other hand – architects with engineering over-zeal – reminds me of a story Edgar Tafel used to tell about one afternoon in the drafting room at Taliesin. They were detailing the reinforcing for Fallingwater. Old man Wright walked through and barked at Edgar “That’s too much steel – take out half the bars.” Lloyd Wright, waiting ’til his father had left, followed with “but make them twice as big.”
    By the time Fallingwater was restored the biggest cantilever had developed 17 inches (!) of creep.

  6. May 25, 2013 11:39 pm

    Close, but not close enough. I am convinced that “the problem” stems from the 70s and those disastrous litigations – first AIA vs DOJ, in which we lost the “price fixing” allegations; and then the huge cock-up at John Hancock in Copley Square.
    We now know that the reason the glass failed at Hancock was the differential heating up of iron inclusions in the glass. Or of architects dreaming big dreams without assuming sufficient authorship of the technological issues to ask the right questions. Hugh Stubbins’ Citicorp tower was a very close shave – were it not for an engineering student asking about wind patterns and harmonic vibrations – which even the engineers hadn’t thought to investigate – that thing might have, probably would have, shaken to bits in the first big windstorm.
    In other words, the institutional aversion to “responsibility” because that means “liability” drives many of us still. There are some amongst us who won’t even design fucking window details without consulting an engineer as to anchoring, which is ridiculous. Too much cool artiste and too little “hey I can calculate that” bravado. Nevermind the engineers, we’ve been tested (the ARE) in engineering and we so can do it – is my attitude.
    We have no authority because we avoid responsibility. And that’s shameful.
    But I know I’m preaching to the choir. You’re preaching to the Liebeskind Clan, yes?

  7. Debbie permalink
    May 26, 2013 9:12 am

    As someone who has taught myself sketchup and loves the new world of creativity it has easily given me access to I can see your concern. On the other hand, I am not so stupid to consider myself anything close to a licensed architect. I think technology is raising the collective bars of creativity and that’s a good thing for the masses. It just simultaneously raises all other bars -professionals need to be that much better and smarter.


  1. Welcome to Saved by Design! | Saved By Design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: