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Architecture, Data and Super Users

In “Super-users: design technology specialists and the future of design” Randy Deutsch argues that the Architecture Engineering Construction (AEC) industry needs a new type of professional skillset called, yes you guessed it, a “super-user”. On first reading, it is clear that the adverb “super” describes the ability to achieve things outside of the normal, but the noun “user” is harder to place in an architectural context, a user of what? Deutsch’s previous writings, BIM and Integrated Design, Data-Driven Design and Construction and Convergence: The redesign of design, offer some clues, they are users of digital technology.

Super Users

Deutsch argues that as technology seeps into all aspects of architectural practice, a new professional actor will solve the AEC industry’s problem of optimising productivity. This actor’s primary focus is to unleash the capabilities of technology and help architects navigate the future of automation. Super-Users suggests that Deutsch’s version of a future architectural profession is one where Silicon Valley’s techno-optimism transfers onto the workflows and processes of the AEC, this is after all where the term “user” originates. However, while the “user” in Silicon Valley shapes products around the desires or intended behaviours of people, Deutsch’s “super-user” relocates the site of design onto the human. These skills involve creating and manipulating digital tools, put simply, the super-user is a designer who can code.

While all of Deutsch’s books explore technology and data in architectural practice, “super-users” takes a different approach positioning the human at the centre of design action rather than technology. This change in attitude is significant and reflects broader concerns around the impact of unchecked Artificial Intelligence in all professional domains. In Data-Driven Design and Construction, Deutsch argues that Architecture must address the demands for optimisation and efficiency in professional services, by removing human intuition from decision making. Data analytics, the statistical basis of the data-driven enables a calculation of architecture. In “super-users he changes tact, placing greater importance on human intuition on design, but assigning technology a role of augmenting rather than replacing the human. I presume Deutsch’s change in position stems from a realisation that while a workforce tasked with servicing technology produces better profits, it ultimately reduces the agency of humanity. Superusers, therefore, represents a move in architecture to realign with its humanist origins, rather than its increasingly corporate tendencies.

“super-users” is not detached from political-economic ideology though, far from it. Deutsch’s research interests are around the future of the architectural profession, particularly in the United States. To contribute to the built environment and hopefully achieve commercial success, architect companies must either participate in the AEC industry or take matters into their own hands. To pursue alternatives requires devising alternative funding strategies, business structures and construction techniques, there is much to gain but also to lose in any attempts of reformation. In participation, architects must negotiate the modern context of development, and the critical role capital and profit have in its functioning. As Jon Goodbun et al. point out, the AEC industry is unashamedly capitalist (Goodbun 2014). Development is a business model that encourages buildings to become desire creating commodities at an extreme scale, which in the process absorbs the economic surplus from the creativity of architects. Rather than challenge the status of architecture as a commodity Deutsch embraces it presenting the “super-user” architect as the one able to deliver the quickest, cheapest and highest quality. In doing so, Deutsch inadvertently places the architectural profession in the capitalist race for the bottom, or what Rifkin refers to as the tendency of the market to converge on zero-marginal costs (Rifkin 2012). Rather than challenge the economic status quo, the super-user helps maintain the story of capitalism which Harvey links to an increase in extreme inequality over the last thirty years (Harvey 2014), and a reason housing affordability is such a problem in western capitalist economies (Parvin 2019).

It is easy to lament Deutsch’s hesitation to recognise the super-user’s role in increasing the architect’s subservience to capital accumulation; I currently do not practice architecture commercially. Instead, I read Deutsch’s Super-Users from an academic research perspective and have concerns with the way he claims for a new type of skill set required in architecture. Its almost like he needs to sell a book. Deutsch describes the skills as, interpersonal, collaboration, conversational, problem identifying and solving, entrepreneurialism, teachability, knowledge sharing, storytelling, question asking, ability to think in 3d. These skills condense into five attributes, design, communication, research, work ethic, and tool agnostic. In this move, Deutsch doesn’t describe a new professional actor; he simply describes the modern architect, with a slight difference. This difference is that being “tool agnostic” redirects the super user’s knowledge from the basis of architecture to technology.

This alignment of the super-user to tools draws parallels with Stewart Brand’s praise of Hackers in 1972. Brand identified the hacker as a class of people who were producers rather than consumers of technology, creating a counter to the “rigid and unimaginative technocrats” (Brand 1972). But as Evgeny Morozov points out, rather than the hacker disrupting, the hacker became the prize employee for employers seeking extreme productivity (Morozov 2014). In Brands ethos, hackers had the future skills to accommodate themselves into the system rather than try and reform it. Just as the technological independence of the 1970s Hackers became absorbed into the neoliberal economic machine, super-users set up a similar mastery of technology for the benefit of capital.

References

Brand, Stewart, 1972, Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums, Rolling Stone 7th December 1972. Goodbun, Jon, Klein, Michael,Rumpfhuber, Andreas, Till, Jeremy, 2014, The Design of Scarcity, Strelka Press, Moscow Harvey, David, 2014, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Oxford University Press Morozov, Evgeny, 2014, Making It, The New Yorker - http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/13/making-it-2 Parvin, Alistair, 2019, A New Social Contract, Medium - https://medium.com/@AlastairParvin/a-new-social-contract-359c426e0f61