Benjamin Bratton’s talk was another absolute highlight for me, and indicated the value of having someone on hand to pick apart, delineate and articulate the theoretical landscape emerging around the event. I also value his saving me from what would’ve been a particularly tricky write-up by sending me the talk and letting us post it here in full (see below).
I hugely appreciated his contribution. Benjamin had spent a few days soaking up Postopolis! LA by the closing day, and so was well-placed to be performing a kind of ‘summing up’, speaking as a sociologist rather than a designer as such. But he went beyond that, placing the talks in a fundamentally important wider context, politically and theoretically.
Despite being prepared for it, I’d been fascinated by the quantity and ferocity of attention focused onto the ‘global financial crisis’ in the US, from the mainstream media’s news channels certainly but also as a pervasive topic of conversation and concern amongst most I met - it’s way more so than in Australia (which could be because it hasn’t hit Australia fully yet; or because it won’t to the same degree) and although I saw more signs of it in the UK recently, the concern in the US is more so than there too. It appeared to be gripping almost everyone and often with a paralysing effect. (Though there were also healthy signs of the apparently innate American drive to reinvent a way out of dead ends, fresh shoots in unlikely places, and Postopolis! LA was far from pinned down by gloom. Wandering around the city, too - rather than watching CNN - I feel more confident for its future. And in the context of Bratton's talk, the dizzying depth of the crisis here might actually be constructive.)
Bratton quickly and usefully outlined some broad brushstrokes of what this all means, exploring the vocabulary of ‘post-’ in numerous contexts, and then went at least one better by outlining a few key ideas that might move us forward. I was drawn to three in particular. Firstly, that of using subtraction as a design principle rather than addition (a theme that LA is well-placed to explore, having both an over-abundance of macro-scale infrastructure in the first place, which could be pared back in interesting fashion, as well as an endemic informal creativity at a micro-scale). This alongside an openness to accidents and informal improvisation (something I’ve explored over the years around the idea of adaptive design). Secondly, that we should “resist the recovery”, as ‘recovery’ necessarily implies going back to something, trying to recreate conditions which would then merely set us up for the fall again. So we need a new way of thinking about moving forward from this place, rather than looking backwards or thinking we are post- yet. Thirdly, that the political - including governance in all its forms - is something we cannot allow to simply disintegrate, but we must actively engage with, including (perhaps especially, though he didn’t emphasise this) from a design perspective.
His talk was deeply serious - perhaps we’ll soon be post-irony, and not before time - without being soporific or sanctimonious. It was also deeply learned, and pinned up on a complex latticework of useful references, yet accessible and entertaining in a fashion that’s often beyond academics. This, despite his laconic performance comprising of simply reading out his printed-out talk, leaning against the lectern in the late-afternoon sun - “I want to be precise” he said.
(Somewhat interestingly, in addressing the ‘post-’ in the Postopolis! title, he became only the second person out of over 50 speakers across both events so far to take on this idea, along with James Sanders in NYC. Although as Geoff later pointed out, the Postopolis! name is derived from the ‘posts’ that bloggers produce - almost imagining a city composed of so things - rather than implying it necessarily concerns a condition ‘after the polis’ as such. I personally like the ambiguity of the title, and both Sanders and Bratton took the idea for a walk in interesting directions, and both quite differently, amidst different global conditions.)
Bratton later said modestly that there’s an “inherent advantage in batting last”. Well, you still have to step up to the plate and knock the ball out of the ground. Which he did.
So here below and in full is Benjamin Bratton’s talk from Postopolis LA!, entitled Pre and Post, and which he’s releasing under a Creative Commons ‘attributions no derivatives’ license. I've added contextual links where I felt appropriate.