How Algorithms Shape the Landscape

Is the work of artist Michael Najjar, which splices the images of landscapes with the peaks and troughs of indexes like the Dow Jones, a metaphor or a prophecy? Leading his TEDTalk with this question, Kevin Slavin, the chairman and co-founder of game development company Area/Code, demonstrates how algorithms are starting to impact our landscape at the grand scale. “The landscape was always made by the weird, uneasy collaboration of nature and man. There’s now a third evolutionary force,” Slavin says.  

Slavin walked the audience through concrete examples of how algorithms are not only driving financial trading but also shaping culture and the physical landscape. The public, especially since the financial crisis, knows that algorithms are the foundation of the financial system. But Slavin also demonstrates their growing influence in other areas of our lives: they provide the underlying logic for cleaning robots and “destination control elevators,” and allow Netflix to analyze movie plots, which makes them better at serving up movie recommendations. Slavin calls this the “physics of culture,” and then introduces the way the way these efficiencies are “terraforming,” or taking physical shape.

In an effort to maximize the earning power of algorithms, landscapes are being altered in both subtle and dramatic ways. The hidden “carrier hotel,” for example, is a building gutted to host telecommuications and data networking service centers by companies like FiberNet and Google. Wall Street financial firms now vie for spaces closer to these buildings so their financial transactions can occur just that much faster than their competitors. The landscape of firms in Wall Street is subtly shifting to gain advantage using this new infrastructure.

And now the physical landscape is actually being altered: Spread Networks dynamited paths through mountains in order to create a 825 mile trench from New York to Chicago for higher-speed fiber optic cables, which can transfer one signal 37 times faster than you can click your mouse. “When you think about this, that we’re running through the United States with dynamite and rock saws so that an algorithm can close the deal 3 microseconds faster all for a communications framework that no human will ever know, that’s a kind of manifest destiny. We’ll always look for a new frontier,” Slavin said.

Studies show that the drive to make money may lead to grander landscape transformation. Slavin says, “it’s not the money that’s so interesting, actually, it’s what the money motivates –that we’re actually terraforming the earth itself with this kind of algorithmic efficiency. And in that light you look back at Michael Najjar’s photos and you see that they’re not metaphor. They’re prophecy for the seismic terrestrial effects of the math that we’re making.”

Slavin predicts how financial industries and telecommunication infrastructure will increasingly shape of our landscape and built environment. But is anyone discussing how these enormous infrastructure projects could impact our ecosystems, our original networks?

Watch Kevin Slavin’s TEDTalk. Check out Michael Najjar’s High Altitude Series.

This guest post is by Amanda Rosenberg, ASLA 2010 Intern.

Image credits: (1) Chicago to New York ICT infrastructure / Spread Network, (2) High Altitude Series / Michael Najjar

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