Chips are our new walls. I realized that recently when I arrived in Amsterdam, where public transport has now switched to digital access passes you hold over a reader when you enter and leave the tram or bus. Soon the whole country will be part of this system, so you will be able to glide from a bus in Maastricht, all the way in the south of the country, onto a two-hour train ride to Amsterdam, and then onto a tram to your favorite MVRDV building on the western outskirts without ever talking to a human or, what is more important, encountering a turnstile. Barriers are so 20th century, so reminiscent of old-fashioned capitalism and urbanism. Little gold-colored chips let you cruise through urban sprawl without ever stopping.
There is a price to pay for this freedom, quite literally: your movements are registered and accounted for. If I were to drive from Maastricht to Amsterdam, along certain stretches of the highway cameras would register my average speed and bill me for every kilometer I drove over the speed limit. Soon they will also bill you for riding during rush hour. In America, tolls are now deducted from your bank account every time you enter New York with your EZ Pass. Another kind of price you pay is that of privacy: in return for letting the U.S. government check me out, I obtained a sticker in my passport that lets me check in at an automated kiosk every time I enter the country, instead of waiting in line and talking to a customs agent.
What does this have to do with architecture? It changes the way you move through and thus perceive space. Instead of encountering barriers that mark different stages in your journey, all you notice now are different speeds of movement, and soon even that will disappear. Sometimes the difference is more absolute: you might be able to look right into a space, but you can only enter it if you have the right code embedded in your security pass. The bigger question of course is that of invisible social exclusion: only those who can afford to enter are with you in that space, and that space is thus designed for you, and not “them.” It is an intense and immediate version of the sort of social segregation sprawl has produced. In my native Cincinnati, people think there are no Hispanics because most of them live beyond the highway belt that circles the city 15 miles from the downtown.
I enjoy the card that lets me on the tram, into the country, onto the subway in New York, and into the building where I work. I believe that we should create architecture that is more in tune in this movement of fast and slow, rather than moving and stopped. I also think that, if we are going to make a critical architecture, we should design what and who these chips exclude visible. As we move without barriers, we should be aware of what and who we are missing. Everything has a price, even invisible architecture.