There is a characteristically funny essay by George Saunders which starts by asking us to imagine an average party, and at that party, a Guy with the Megaphone. It would be funny that is, if it were not so painfully to the point about our contemporary political and informational predicament. The Guy with the Megaphone, fairly average to begin with, but in the possession of this technology that amplifies his statements, starts to exert social, aesthetic and eventually political influence upon the (once)merry party-goers. Fairly quickly, and with just a tiny bit of coaxing, the room divides, and gets meaner. Whether those party goers liked it or not—were aware of it or not—the sheer volume and repetition of his voice insinuates his messages into their conversations, their language, their attention, and eventually their reactions. His messages get simpler and louder—simpler because louder—and vice versa; consequently, the thoughts and feelings of those formerly curious and social party-goers follow. Their priorities and reactions are gradually rewired.
This contemporary allegory, “The Braindead Megaphone,” was part of an eponymous collection of essays published in 2007, working through those years (the W. Bush years in the US) and anticipating an even larger territory for multiple, similarly motivated, and perhaps even shrewdly self-aware (or not) megaphones. Saunders dated the beginning of these stupefying media and cultural patterns back to the televising of OJ Simpson’s run across Southern California, citing the financial and entertainment pressures that would, and continue to, govern journalism, publishing, and culture with ever-increasing capability. Whether or not there was indeed such an easily figurable origin point to be found, it all just kept—and keeps—going. Now add to it the overwhelming and confusing effects of that which artist and writer James Bridle has more recently dubbed “data overflow,” along with its various concomitant symptoms: from “algorithmic radicalization,” through conspiracy theories, surveillance (in both military and more benign forms), radically simplified historical and nationalist narratives, and “plausible deniability,” to the AI glitches that have caused financial crashes and evolved racist twitterbots, hilariously dubbed “artificial stupidity” by the artist Hito Steyerl.
Conversations about architecture and cities conducted in this context can hardly avoid the fate of all other data and utterances. Distortion, simplification, inflation, bling to cover up the vapor trails of meaning, end of criticism and extreme specialization—all diminishing, in different ways, the quality of public discourse in the field. Acknowledging the complexity and inevitable implications of every reader, consumer of data, of the audiences in the above processes, Saunders offers the essential tactics of resistance: 1) keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself, 2) turn our own megaphones down, and 3) insist that what we say through them is as “precise, intelligent and humane as possible.”
The Critical Broadcasting Lab, launched in 2018 by Ana Miljački at MIT Architecture, is dedicated to operating in the cultural landscape so vividly rendered by Saunders’ story (and in opposition to its tendencies). As a small, but vigorously active, site of resistance the key objective of the Lab is to cultivate, seed, and multiply awareness about 1) the media economies we inhabit, and 2) even more importantly, the myriad contemporary and historical entanglements of architecture and politics—the politics of architecture. Historically, architecture’s own discourses have been indebted to—and operated through—forms of erasing, sanitizing, and making palatable, crafting through the act of erasing erasure itself, narratives of what scholar, urbanist, and Professor in Inequality and Democracy, Ananya Roy has called “innocent modernity.” The Critical Broadcasting Lab aims to chip away at these narratives of “innocent” disciplinary and technological progress through research and curatorial work, experimenting (against the grain) with contemporary media of broadcasting (including web presence, Instagram, podcasts, print media, discussions and exhibitions). The Critical Broadcasting Lab intervenes through curatorial work at and beyond MIT, providing a base at MIT for formally engaging architectural exhibitions and all other forms of making public, of broadcasting.
It matters that the Critical Broadcasting Lab’s home is in academia. While it addresses a broader public, its role at MIT is pedagogical, providing a space of reflection, collectively shared and shaped, that is carved out of the time dedicated to, and packed with the elements of, a professional education. It teaches tools for producing the distance necessary for critical operations—for the understanding of complexity, nuance, and implication. Because its existence is tolerated in academia, its broadcasting and curatorial products are not indebted to special interest, nor to popularity algorithms built on the mining of visitor data, at least not yet—at least not directly. Its members exercise academic freedom of speech, freedom to be critical; its projects are unsolicited and thus motivated by urgencies that are felt privately by those who participate in their research and explication. The Critical Broadcasting Lab also reserves the space for thinking politically and critically with an open-endedness towards the aesthetic and critical outcomes of that thinking. It aims to cultivate an experimental attitude toward making architecture (and the things that makes it possible) public; to produce robust criticism of the discipline’s contemporary, historical, and future entanglements with forces beyond its safe academic outlines; and to thus recover the role of the public intellectual in architecture.
As its inaugural work, the Critical Broadcasting Lab launched two initiatives, both supported in part by the CAST Mellon Grant: the Agit Arch series of workshops, part of Pedagogical Experiments in the Department of Architecture celebrating its 150th anniversary, and “I Would Prefer Not To,” an ongoing, two-chapter oral history project.