• hannah wood

new ground ii countryside 2030

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

new ground ii, the second instalment of archinect’s two-part feature series on the contemporary countryside, is playfully set in rural California in the year 2030. Certain trends Christine Bjerke and I dug into in last month’s feature, New Ground I: Advancing the Countryside, have been extrapolated to present a future pastoral landscape, recognizable yet markedly different than that which we might encounter today. We discuss this future outlook with Benjamin Bratton, director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diegoand author of The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty and Martin Abell from the agricultural robotics firm Precision Decisions, the first company to farm a field without human intervention.

“Come work at the biggest & most advanced factory on Earth! Located by a river near the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains with wild horses roaming free”, tweeted @elonmusk to a frenzy of followers. “Thank you for the invite. Packing my bags, looking for my passport & will promptly organize my visa/green card & security clearances”, wrote @tiina_ison. “Perhaps time to buy real estate in Reno-Sparks, Nevada ;)”, commented @vancoverpunekar. “Can we get a pony as a sign on bonus?” joked @solarinmass.

Zoey never saw the job advert. Nor would she, as since the big tech reforms of 2026, now four years ago, jobs were now automatically allocated to your online experience profile day to day, or week to week depending on the size of the project. It was 08:12 and she was making her way to the local make-it-yourself cafe for her morning coffee hit when she received the notification. ‘Hmm,’ She thought to herself as her Siri dictated her auto-generated schedule for the day, ‘not another job out of town. I’m always so tired in the evenings and what about that second date with Liam?’ Dutifully, she signaled down a nearby roaming AV and hopped in.

Luckily Zoey was the only passenger that particular morning as she really didn’t fancy awkward small talk with another ‘like-minded professional’ selected for her by the app that day. ‘Mind you’, she thought for a moment, ‘that is how I met Liam…’ her train of thought was stopped abruptly by the AV interface as it began to project the day’s weather forecast inside the car — the thunderstorm which was due to hit California that afternoon. Zoey shivered. ‘I really should change those weather app preferences’, she thought, ‘it was kind of funny when the sun was shining but this sucks’.

Zoey pulled out her work device and began to read up on the day’s task, aware that it was at least another two hours until the AV meandered beyond of the outer-outer suburbs of San Jose. Due to an ongoing shortfall in investment in public transport infrastructure networks in the States, most on-ground traveling was now done in AVs. The simplicity and affordability of these AV journeys in addition to the appeal of the calm suburbs to a stressed out millennial generation, now in middle age, had fuelled urban sprawl and created a ‘work-commuting’ culture, with some employees regularly traveling more than five hours a day whilst working remotely onboard.

As computer maintenance engineer with a number of years experience under her belt, tasks Zoey often worked alone, feeding back to a wider team online. Her work assistant buzzed to inform her that it had blocked three personal messages due to in-office hours. Hoping she would find out it was Liam when she regained access later, she loaded up a manual onto the device screen and stared dreamily out of the window.

Back in 2017, at the showcase of the New Normal programme, professor Benjamin Bratton suggested, “the countryside is part of urban systems in ways that it hasn’t been before. It’s not a site of nature, it’s where the interfaces of the most complex forms of cultural globalization are taking place.” While at the time the statement was divergent in a discourse focused upon the urban, some interesting events happened next. By 2020, the US government had made the popular decision to widen and extend the Infinity Highway straight through the American dust bowl and beyond, which not only lowered food prices and generated short-term construction and mining jobs, it also opened agricultural practice up to increased automation as unmanned vehicles could now quickly access the most remote regions.

The move was a great success for the expansion of self-learning interfaces and the tech industry. Driven by their proven industrial applications and increased yields for automated farms, funding was poured into developing machine learning interfaces with applications which stretched far beyond the agriculture industry. Automated machines farming the ground in many advanced rural districts, such as those surrounding San Jose, can now handle workdays of up to 19 hours and manage their own self-charging schedules.

Back in 2018, Martin Abell from the farm machinery company Precision Decisions put forward that high-value crop farming had the potential to become the first agriculture sector to adopt high levels of automation, initially through performing tasks which were challenging or not yet performed by humans. Abell anticipated that if automation in farming was to have wide-scale uptake, it “could require the form and function of a farm to change considerably.”

However, he anticipated that smaller robots may present more of a challenge, as “the logistics required to keep smaller robots supplied with required energy and inputs pose one of the largest problems as smaller machines inherently have a smaller payload and the requirement to refill or empty more frequently.” To this day, little research has been done on the interaction between farmers and the robots, or storage solutions for the robots when they are not at work in the field.

The most pronounced hardware shift in the agriculture industry since 2018 has been the use of drones — multi-purpose drones now map every square inch of countryside terrain, updating models in real-time. This has enabled most farmers to now work remotely from desk interfaces. Back in 2018, Abell noted that drones we predominantly used within the farming industry as a tool for gathering data, typically on crop performance but new use cases were emerging even even at that point, such as monitoring livestock in remote locations. In the past 12 years, drones have taken on an altogether new role — interacting with their surroundings rather than solely monitoring them. For example, the use of spray drones for targeted applications is now commonplace, as was using drones to reach areas rendered inaccessible for conventional machines, unlocking new corners of the American landscape.

As the AV swung out to join the highway, Zoey saw field after field of farm crops stretch out as far as her eye could see. She thought how beautiful it was that the gradients of the fields shifted as planting alternated. While she watched a cluster of scanning drones swoop across the sky, Zoey barely noticed the AV driving, the journey was so smooth. In fact, she rarely noticed AVs even when they navigated urban areas. Since the decommissioning of traffic lights and complex human-navigated ‘traffic systems’ of the past, the AVs had developed a perfectly manicured and efficient road transport system all by themselves.

Neither AV monitoring technology nor wide-scale farm automation could have been possible without the wide-scale uptake of big data in the 2020s, both in the US and in pro-digital societies across the globe. Back in 2018, while masses of data was available to rural communities concerning agriculture and other areas of their livelihood, it went untapped as much of the technology required to process and analyze it simply didn’t exist. The large tech companies since provided tools to take advantage of the increased resolution and volume of data, now refined through automation and the continued upgrading of remote sensing technology.

Zoey swiped right, annoyed that the AV, sponsored by a well-known milk company, was trying to download the company app to her device. “Can you open the back window?” she asked it’s OS, and the computer replied by winding it down very slightly. “Is that all ya got?”, she joked, fully aware these corporate computers would probably never grasp irony. Outside, she noticed the fields abruptly ending as she approached a new land-use zone — it must be the edge of the industrial park.

She had never been commissioned at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Park before, but she assumed it was easier for the company if workers didn’t get too attached to a specific remote work location. Anyway, it didn’t matter too much as all the parks and their gigafactories were laid out in a similar way, supposedly stemming from a master blueprint. Her thoughts were cut short by two stallions galloping across the plain, which turned and ran parallel to the road, as if challenging the AV to a race. Zoey smiled to herself and thought that the landscape inside the industrial parks must be her utmost favorite.

While there was no real ‘wilderness’ these days, tech industry leaders had pooled financial resources in a colossal philanthropic push to save America’s wildlife within the industrial parks. The move was a last-ditch attempt to save many large and migratory animals from extinction. Due to the biological assets they contained, the Parks were bounded by an intricate network of virtual fences, programmed remotely and adaptable were a new plot to be leased out. In Tahoe Reno, there were lakes and pockets of wild grasses and trees where animals could rest and feed within the dusty and somewhat barren landscape. While the animals were for the most part left to their own devices, they were constantly monitored by drones with the ability to swoop in with additional food supplies or injections were the animals to fall below optimum comfort levels. Zoey wound down the window to get a better view.

In The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, a book authored in 2016 by Benjamin Bratton (then director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California), he suggested that contemporary technologies and genres of machine should not be considered as spinning out of control on their own, but instead forming the body of an accidental megastructure — the Stack.

When Christine and I caught up with Bratton, we questioned whether he imagined the layers of the Stack would extend out to rural regions. He agreed, suggesting the layers would not only cover, but defy conventional geographies to instead set their own socio-technical relations. “This idea of the countryside is where Rem [Koolhaas] and I diverge”, he told us, “as I don’t see a hard and fast distinction between the two, just that the terrain of the city has adjusted its distribution logic — while one might witness front-of-house functions such as the entertainment of humans in the city, other formerly urban functions such as distribution, energy production and storage, for example, are increasingly located in rural regions, to continue to operate at economies of scale”.

Tahoe-Reno was first developed back in 2012 following a land auction, with some plots going for as little as $1 per square foot. That price would be laughable today — with the largest names in tech there and the military-level security boost they brought with them, a potential buyer would be looking at a price well over $700 per square foot. Smaller companies could not access a plot at Tahoe-Reno as they did not possess the ad revenue to make the leap. In the day-to-day operations, in what might at first appear as a remote and unlikely location, distance from the city was low down on Tahoe Reno’s priorities as very few consumers ever needed to come out to the park itself. Similar industrial parks could be found in any pro-digital society around the world, and were now considered stateless under international law for tax purposes.

As the AV pulled alongside the gigafactory, the white, windowless facade appeared endless to Zoey as it dissolved into the dusty background of the nearby factories. She remembered watching a live stream of the press conference in Nevada back in 2014 where the ‘diamond shape design’ of the building was presented. A few of her friends, all architects, didn’t seem to give it much notice even though the building would become the largest in the world by footprint.

The gigafactory represented open plan taken to the absolute — a building complex so large it formed its own interior microclimate. “These buildings can be understood as geoengineering in a petri dish”, suggested Bratton, “for which the design task is closer to systems design and composition than it is to architecture.”

The door of the AV slid open and Zoey exited after confirming with the interface that she was satisfied with the ride. As soon as the door closed behind her, the AV turned and disappeared off into the horizon. The lack of signage challenged Zoey to locate the entrance to the building. However, she figured that the only glass door within reach had to be for the reception area and as the mirrored glass panels facing her zipped open, she stepped inside.

The double height atrium was impressive. The large space was empty, making it immediately evident that the building was for housing machines and not entertaining people. The uniform walls and floor were finished in crisp, white anti-dust paint. Zoey gave herself a few minutes to take it all in before a loud ‘beep’ from the security unit signaled that she was required to be scanned in.

Although she had gotten used to it by now, Zoey remembered being puzzled at first by the lack of human-related requirements in her job description. Instead, it exclusively focused on how she should be able to maintain the production machinery in proper operating order through preventative troubleshooting, repair, and improvement. She got to the task immediately, applying her engineering knowledge to check settings, gauge readings and test sensors. It was crucial the tech and tech maintenance robots were maintained properly to keep everything working at optimum specifications.

As Zoey entered the main hall of the factory, the automated lights flickered on. The robots inside would generally operate in the dark as it made operation costs of the gigafactory cheaper. She was wearing her hard hat, respirator, gloves, eye protection, and steel toe boots to protect herself against the heated and noisy environment. In some ways she didn’t feel that different from her robotic colleagues, the AGVs.

Although they were Automated Guided Vehicles, equipped with sensors and lasers, they nevertheless seemed to pay Zoey some attention. That was in stark contrast to the AIVs (Autonomous Indoor Vehicles) also roaming the factory floor without offering her any recognition. While the AGVs were mainly used in the manufacturing settings for moving items from one point to another, the AIVs were much more complex. This was reflected in how they freely — almost dancing — navigated the factory via a digital map, liberated from the floor magnets and navigational beacons the AGVs were dependent upon. The AGVs appeared suspicious of Zoey as they perceived her as a potential upgrade.

Walking around the long stretches of the factory halls had made Zoey hungry. Since she was not allowed to bring food inside the factory, she opened up the ‘FoodByDrone’ app and selected a lunch pizza. As the data allowance within the building was restricted, Zoey climbed the back stairs that lead up to the roof of the gigafactory, guided by projected signage. She remembered hearing the news about the first commercial food delivery back in 2016 when a Domino’s chicken and cranberry pizza was dropped off at a customer’s door outside Auckland, New Zealand. Now the urban lunch hour sky was often swarmed by autonomous drone deliveries.

Zoey could just make out the drone carrying her pizza approaching from the distance. It probably came the whole distance from Reno, but with the high flying speeds of up to 200mph that didn’t really matter. While glancing over the roof, she was almost blinded by the glossy solar panel surface covering, a colossal input supplying a colossal demand.

Energy production is now one of the most vital exports of the countryside to the city. Overruling a momentary ‘back to coal’ drive of the late 2010s, the US government followed suit with other nations to push for 100% renewable energy, in part due to rising respiratory illness and oil instability. Almost all of the industrial parks and autonomous agricultural machinery charging stations were now fuelled by ‘green energy’ and Tahoe-Reno, as with many other industrial parks, had its own wind farm. In this sense, the countryside had continued to ‘power the city’: but in electrical energy over food.

After lunch, eaten quickly on the roof, Zoey headed back into the factory to perform her afternoon production line checks. Realising she was not going to meet her daily point goals, she made her way to the atrium to take an additional Telemeeting with some of her colleagues on another project. Now time to fill in the digital paperwork, she thought. Completely absorbed in checkboxes, Zoey was brought back to reality by a notification that buzzed through her body, causing physical panic. For a moment she felt very alone in an automated universe. The company had signaled it was time to leave the industrial park as her passenger drone was already on its way.

Back in 2018, it had only been possible for passenger drones to carry a person airborne for 23 minutes, however, revolutions in battery life had made airborne drone journeys as common as AVs. Zoey made her way up to the roof, in the knowledge that the drone would already be geolocated ready to pick her up. She spotted it just a hundred meters away. After navigating her way through the solar panels on the roof, the drone’s door popped open allowing her to enter and, gracefully avoiding other drones, they soared up into the sky.

As she surveyed the landscape below her, Zoey could just make out the extent of a lakeside community once built for digital nomads, a demographic predicted to migrate out to the countryside who never came. Despite the utopianism of the 2020s digital back-to-the-land movement in California, the excitement was short-lived, but nobody really seemed to notice. Back in 2018, while not keen to predict the future, demographer Ken Johnson from the University of New Hampshire suggested to us, “due to the diversity of rural America, some parts of it will grow and others will diminish. And though rural America is important to the environmental, economic and social future of the country, much of the change that goes on in the vast regions of the country that are rural, will be largely invisible to those who reside in and focus on urban America.”

While the Californian countryside of 2030 we put forward here appears to have changed significantly from that of 2018, none of the scenarios we imagine are created with technology which doesn’t already exist. In this sense, this ‘Stack’ bears striking resemblance to that of our own time.

In this future, one of a possible many, automation and digital realities have become part of the daily experience of the countryside as much as the physical reality, what Bratton refers to as a hyper-efficient ‘back-of-house for robotics and automation’. In such a vision, an earth read and programmed by a cluster of airborne satellites and drones, where is the lived reality? And where are architects in this future scenario?

If we put forward that the participation of architects within the technological transformation of rural sites might go a long way towards improving the experience of these environments, we might have missed the point altogether. “Fundamental changes would need to be made to bring these discussions into theoretical discourse in a meaningful way,” Bratton suggests, “as many of these tasks are dismissed as ‘industrial architecture’. Designers deemed unable to draw urban art galleries might instead work for construction and project management companies. Yet these questions are at the cutting edge of research and technological development. When speaking with Rem [Koolhaas],” he continues, “we thought that it would be interesting to make a coffee table book on Bechtel.”

The split of the architecture profession into ‘design architects’ and ‘industrial architects’, which seems to correlate to a large degree to that which occurs in urban or in rural areas, should not be dismissed lightly. The first pick of powerful tech companies might be the industrial architecture firm they employed to design their gigafactory. “It may become more apparent when architects are instead employed in-house by tech companies”, suggests Bratton, “marking a shift in designer-client relationships. As tech companies move more into the space-making business, such as Tesla’s space-building capacity, or the internal design team for Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, changes barely making a mark now may have far-reaching consequences.”

As the passenger drone whizzed back into the urban region, Zoey noticed the increasing density of clustering data centers on the urban fringe, a layout noticeably different to how they peppered the industrial park. She also caught sight of the first trickle of AVs migrating towards the countryside, where they would rest and charge up during the night before returning to the city in the morning. As her drone descended back towards the city, Zoey’s devices beeped with personal messages about her date with Liam that evening.

Interested in what is affecting the countryside now, in 2018? Read our prequel, New Ground I: Advancing the Countryside.

In 2019, the Countryside: The Future of the World exhibition will open at the Guggenheim in New York.

This article is from a monthly feature column for the online platform Archinect which explores architectural developments within wider cultural and political discussions. Read the original article here: https://archinect.com/features/article/150052196/new-ground-ii-countryside-2030