The Knowledge Playground
By the end of October 2001, the first iPod device was launched. It was not the first mp3 player on the market, but it marked a before and after in the way playing music was conceived. The first version, with a storage capacity of 5 GB, was announced in the United States with the slogan ‘A thousand songs in your pocket’. Less than two decades later, we no longer have to increase the physical memory available in our devices, because everything can be found in the cloud.
Knowledge is a curious thing. It is immaterial, intangible, but it is undoubtedly the most powerful tool available to human beings. And its evolution depends to a large extent on its transmission capacity. It does not cost us less to learn than in other stages of history, but we have managed to possess the ability to transmit knowledge effortlessly, instantaneously and globally. Knowledge must be transmitted in order to exist. The good news is that we have shortened the production-transmission time practically to elimination. In this scenario, what sense do libraries still have? They are useful when we want to access stored knowledge, but are they when we want to access the knowledge that is beingproduced? They should be.
Here we depend on the speed. On the acceleration. It is easy to install screens in your building. The concept of a ‘connected’ library is not new, but it is often limited to just having a screen on your desk. I already have screens at home, why would I go to the library for more? This situation raises more questions than answers, but the limited speed of action available to architecture means that technology is understood as an accessory rather than an opportunity, implanting gadgets instead of motivating connections. Technology allows us to share knowledge instantly and libraries allows us to access it, therefore, it seems that its architecture should become a space generating connections between past and present knowledge, trying to turn it into an organism, a mechanism of living heritage.
For this purpose, we need to have people on our side. Not ‘the people’ as a romantic concept like ‘the community’, instead we need people that generate knowledge, or rather, generators of exchange. From now on the word knowledgecan be replaced by the word exchange. Middle English knouleche, is equivalent to know+ –leche, perhaps akin to Old English –lācsuffix denoting actionor practice, which transforms its definition into “the instrument, means or result of knowing“. This triple definition is important because, although in the collective imagination ‘knowledge’ is presented as a canonical form of ‘result’, it turns out to be rather a process, a means rather than an end.
If the purpose is not to acquire knowledge just by the fact of storing it, but to use it, to share it in order to reach new goals, libraries should also be exchange machines instead of book warehouses. Some of them already are. But the long-term goal would be to change the idea of library in the collective imagination, discard the idea that they are places where people only go to read, and enhance their image as catalysts of connections.
However, it is not as simple as hiring a preacher and having him shout down the street: knowledge will set you free!For an idea to succeed, it must seduce. The seduction can be subtle, or it can be obvious. We choose the obvious: the lights, the colours and the moving images. How much noise should you make if you want to be heard? We choose luminous signs of the Strip, posters larger than façades and intermittent-neon arrows that indicate you where you want to enter.
‘Ugly and ordinary over heroic and original. Because this is not the time and ours is not the environment for heroic communication through pure architecture. The iconography and mixed media of roadside commercial architecture will point the way, if we will look.’
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Learning from Las Vegas, 1972.
There is a language that we know works, so let’s use it. The shopping centre has established itself as a basic pillar of family leisure throughout the world. People are not going to libraries much anymore, but they keep coming every weekend to fast food restaurants and clothing stores, although we cannot come up with any logical reason of why one prefers to pay for a bad hamburger instead of reading a book for free. So, from the procedures of visibility and globalization strategies of large companies, we will take and use them for our own purpose. Small eco-stores and folk-politics are not working. The ‘think global, act local’implies a withdrawal, but we think global and act global, with the purpose of building a counter-hegemony, a movement that goes beyond the local scale, which puts knowledge in the hands of people and the media so that it can be used and shared. We do not need automatic doors or fingerprint readers, we need a library that can become the town square if the people demand it.
The Internet is much bigger than the world.
Knowledge has not always been transmitted in the same way. At the beginning it was the spoken word, but with writing it was endowed with a material form. And for practically all of history the form has had a common characteristic: it has always been a physical medium. We not only talk about writing, parchment and paper, we should add the different devices that have been emerging to transmit ideas in the form of songs, films or images. But at this moment, for the first time since prehistory, the physicality of the medium is again in danger. This has changed not only the way we read or consume music and movies, which we have, no doubt, but also the formats of the transmission themselves. Gifs, tweets and memes today are channels as valid as books have been all this time. Not only that, they give the ideas a speed and an adaptability that until now had not been possible. This dizzying acceleration of the processes of change is pleasant in many ways. It is not the story of how smiling-Kanye gifs will kill the novel as we know it but rather a question of how we can make use of all the available channels of transmission to bring our ideas to their maximum development. Including, of course, books.
129,864,880 different books have been published throughout history, according to Google. Every day content is produced on Twitter to fill a 10-million-page book and 269 billion emails are written. Last year more information was generated than in all of humanity’s previous history. The conception of the network as a partor an aspectof the world has ceased to make sense. You can argue the uselessness of much of the content generated, but you cannot argue that the connections do not add up; they multiply.
Let us recover the desire to experiment and create a playground for knowledge.
Perhaps the mistake is in trying to use technology as an accessory, or in understanding the internet as an extension of the physical world. Online magazines and digitized books are not all bad and may be the way to ensure democratized access to content, but we must understand this opportunity to connect as a sociocultural multiplier, as a platform that exponentially increases our possibilities to create. Unlike the innovative but orthodox models already proposed, we do not want to use the internet as an extension of the library. What we really want is to understand our library as an extension of the internet.
The library has ceased to be a building and has become a process.