The authors wish to thank Laura Lotti, Erik Bordeleau, Patrick Rawson, Oliver Klingefjord, Chris Harris and Helin Can for their critical insights and precious perspectives. Credits for the cover image go to ADAGP, Paris.
In 1956, Western countries were at the dawn of a magmatic period that would reach its peak in the socio-political turmoil of 1968. During that year, the avant-garde Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys started to work on an utopical project named New Babylon: a radical attempt to re-imagine the urban landscape and to question fundamental principles of architecture. New Babylon was a speculative city envisaged through media like collages, litographs and maps. This imaginary city was designed as:
“A decentered, multi-layered space for living, with underground and ground levels, as well as numerous layers above ground and terraces as the final icing. Configured as a rhizomatic network of huge links, it was made of a series of interlocking platforms raised above the Earth’s surface upon pilotis. These were built into various autonomous yet connected units—called sectors.” (Source)
This vision was born from a milieu of different perspectives, such as early cybernetics, 60’s urban subcultures, and artistic avant-garde movements, such as the Situationist group, to which Constant belonged to. New Babylon was planned for a ‘ludic’ society, where humanity is free from waged work and free to engage in all kinds of creative activities.
Constant interweaves public and private spaces to articulate a rhizomatic commons. New Babylon was to take shape through the will of its unknown inhabitants: macro-structures would be modular and transformable in their organization of space; micro-environments as well would be shaped by the aesthetic desires of their inhabitants in the form of climatic conditions, light, sound, smell and colour. Its absolute composability is also the reason why New Babylon’s concept was accused of being too ambiguous and utopian. Constant was convinced by the idea that New Babylon could be shaped into its intended form only by New Babylonians themselves. The architect’s project was secondary to the citizens’ movements and the consequent expression of their desires. This reduction of the planner’s role was an heretic move from the point of view of canonical architecture. Yet, for Constant, this was a logical conclusion given his opinion on the role of individuals and collectives in arts:
“This dream, that I call New Babylon, is born out of the dissatisfaction of a modern artist who no longer believes in superior individual creativity.”
From this disappointment, the provocative and liberating idea of an architecture without architects was born. Constant's overarching vision emphasized the power of plural imagination and coordination, envisioning a future where the autonomous desires of people could literally generate a city. Constant wanted his imagined spatial infrastructure to encourage playful, experimental dynamics in the construction of itself: a ludic path to architecture. The idea of play is central in Constant’s dream:
“Automation has opened the way to a massive increase in the number of Homo Ludens. Huizinga nevertheless had the merit of pointing to the Homo Ludens dormant within each of us. The liberation of man's ludic potential is directly linked to his liberation as a social being.” (Source)
Indeed, some of the traits of New Babylon are prescient of the contemporary digital age. As the previous quote showed, New Babylon exists in a post-scarcity environment, gesturing toward a world in which automation liberated humans from the compression of labor, thus enabling them to enjoy free time and creativity on an unprecedented scale. Also, the idea of embodied connectedness is foundational in Constant’s utopian conception, where relationships are not limited by physical proximity, and is interpretable as a curious precursor of the World Wide Web, with its global, interrelated communication system.
New Babylon was never realized. Constant’s attempt to project a new model of urban landscape and to empower collective creation remained on paper. Yet, its futuristic intuitions still resonate with the emancipatory promises of our networked society.
While Constant’s vision was at odds with the realities and the status quo of the architecture of his time, could there be another future for these intentions at the convergence of new forces? One that doesn’t care about physical constraints, making Constant’s utopian failure a premature vision for a new internet?
“For us, social space is truly the concrete space of meetings, of the contacts between beings. Spatiality is social.”
- Constant Nieuwenhuys (Source)
”The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.”
– Etel Adnan (Source)
The 2020’s opened with a proliferation of virtual worlds and with a renewed interest in the idea of the metaverse. According to Matthew Ball, the core characteristics of the metaverse include the interoperability of data, the presence of a fully functioning economical system and an experience that moves between the virtual and the analogue world. What is a virtual world? Mark W. Bell’s Toward a definition of Virtual World provides us with a simple and operational definition:
”[A virtual world is] a synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers.” (Source)
Scholars like David Banis and Tommaso Guariento showed that the idea of the virtual world has an old lineage and it is a recurrent ambition of digital pioneers. This idea lives at the intersection of many technological dreams expressed in famous sci-fi novels like Snowcrash, Ready Player One or the manga Sword Art Online, and also in analogical phantasmagories like luna-parks. Furthermore, videogame history offers plenty of examples of engaging virtual realities: from sandbox games like Minecraft and Roblox, to gated gardens such as Animal Crossing New Horizons or Fortnite.
The aforementioned cases are among the most compelling actualizations of the idea of the metaverse. The new metaverse cycle aims to use these design and architectural trajectories to build the new internet, where everything will be experienced in an immersive, game-like environment. In this perspective, gamification is just the beginning: the next round of technologies will allow games to eat the world, and be the force to shape it.
Considering that these virtual environments will harbor massive cohabitation and co-creation, the stakes are sky high for all stakeholders involved to govern its infrastructure and its design philosophy. If the metaverse is architected in the image of Web 2 tech giants, it will be the future land of corporate colonization with unprecedented levels of data hoarding, privacy infringement, monolithic aesthetics, gatekeeping, and rent-seeking practices. In order to counter the Silicon Valley apparatus and its hyper-growth and value capture models, peer-to-peer visions for the future for networks of co-presence must be articulated.
In this bubbling transmutation of virtual arenas, the utopian project of Constant illuminates a possible pathway for digital co-presence. The distributed and modular architecture of New Babylon was planned to co-evolve with/through its inhabitants, according to their relationships and desires, without the supervision of a central authority. Could the virtual hyperspace be conceived in the same way? The New Babylon of the metaverse can be described as a peer-to-peer metaverse, based on a decentralized infrastructure, where individuals and groups enjoy the spatiality of their mutually conjured architecture.
This is not only a desirable and hopeful project as much as it is a future necessity. If the metaverse is to become the gateway to most digital experiences, it is critical to learn from the mistakes of the past:
“The Metaverse, championed by Facebook (now Meta Platforms, Inc.) and their peers, allows and celebrates monopoly of digital space, taking what was once collective and ensuring it is privatized and parcelled out to the highest bidder. Their Metaverse expands as a homogenizing monoculture, assimilating ecosystems, displacing extant species, and enclosing digital abundance into enforced, artificial scarcity. Allowed to grow, this proposed Metaverse will be a monoverse.” (Source)
To escape this grim evolution of all too familiar business logic, a new (meta)political imaginary is needed. A virtual world intended as a public good played into existence through its inhabitants through a convivial creative economy. This term, public good, originally coined in the context of commons governance, has experienced a new popularity in the blockchain community as a way to differentiate itself from corporate technologies and the digital private goods which they produce. The brilliant essay Positive Sum Worlds by Other Internet does a great job at clarifying and expanding the notion of public good. Their effective definition is that a public good produces positive externalities. A common question in this research area is the following: for which public, or publics, are we designing this space? According to the essay’s authors, the designation of a specific public will inevitably lead to a certain level of exclusion and under-representation. The designation process should be composable and truly permissionless, allowing users to design the public space(s) themselves and to participate in the public good’s activities. Is it possible to achieve this level of universality by design? No, and it’s also not necessary. Another route, following Constant’s inspiration, would be to not answer directly to the public’s question and instead to create a fluid infrastructure able to respond and adapt to the people’s fluctuating needs, designing adaptivity instead of universality.
Constant himself drafted a description of such a structure in a 1974 text for the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague:
“There are no a priori links between anyone. The frequency of each man's movements and the distances he will cover depend on decisions he will make spontaneously, and which he will be able to renounce just as simultaneously. Under these conditions social mobility suggests the image of a kaleidoscopic whole, accentuating sudden unexpected changes -- [...]. In our case, the urban must respond to social mobility, which implies, in relation to the stable town, a more rigorous organization on the macro level, and at the same time a greater flexibility at the micro level, which is that of an infinite complexity.” (Source)
Here, the Dutch artist suggests a design pattern that is relevant also for the peer-to-peer, meta-structure in question. On one side, the macro-level - the computational infrastructure - has to be rigorously organized with an open source, permissionless, and public architecture to be the base layer on which everything else can be built. On the other hand, the micro-level is the heart of the public experience of this virtual universe and will be ruled according to the principle of endless variation. This design objective takes us further away from the mode of production of the monolithic architect as no single center can effectively compute and respond to the complexity of the intertemporal landscapes of desires, besides those who generate them. Human interactions can fuel a constant re-modeling of the space itself, changing parameters of trust and transparency according to their desires. In a time of metaversal imaginaries, it is crucial to have the capacity to inhabit the digital space we truly desire and encourage granular, diverse associations. The ideal public good space is not singular and it will be assembled by this diverse association instead of being projected a priori; thus, the emphasis is on locality and how a convivial virtual world can emerge just from the federation of different regions. Other Internet’s write-up is again useful in highlighting the local nature of public goods:
“[...] no matter their claim to universality, instantiations of public goods are always local. Locality is created and felt through shared space, time, or experience. Without the assumptions and norms that develop out of this shared context, it would be impossible to identify and make space for things that are in the public benefit. So public goods, even as defined by economists, will always be a reflection of some group's shared context, common beliefs, and moral sensibilities; in other words, their value system.”
A plurality of shared contexts and spaces could then grow to be an inclusive public good, where differences and experimentations are welcome.
By exploring Constant's work, it was possible to reach two principles around which to design a new digital world: macro-persistence and micro-mutation. Where is it possible to find the right analogues which effectively reflect this vision? A good candidate for the infrastructural level is the Ethereum blockchain and the vibrant ecosystem that surrounds it. Ethereum has shown to be fertile soil for innovations such as storage (IPFS), community infrastructures (DAOs), cultural assets (NFTs), reputation systems (Coordinape, Soulbound Tokens) as well as zero-knowledge proof applications (zksync) and scaling solutions (Optimism). Ethereum is a permissionless structure, where participation is not bound to permission from a certain authority, and it acts as a base layer providing the tools and the standard to create new frames able to serve different use-cases. This model stands in contrast to monopolistic entities like app stores or social media platforms which exercise control through permissioning the economic flows on their systems, inhibiting free creation in order to maximize private interest. If the future digital universes are to be designed and populated by users and their creations, it is crucial that their possibilities are not limited by rent-seeking practices and governance of private interest.
To reach a better understanding of these design features, let’s take a look at Ethereum through another lens. Indeed, Ethereum can be defined as an hyperstructure, to use the bold term coined by Jacob Horne in a popular essay to define ZORA protocol. Among different features, hyperstructures are defined as unstoppable and user agnostic. It is really hard to stop a blockchain from running, as it is planned to maintain its integrity even when running from just one node of the network: “They can continuously function without a maintainer or operator, and they can run for as long as the underlying blockchain is running—which can be at the very least a decade.”
Furthermore, blockchains like Ethereum are agnostic towards their users, which means to be credibly neutral and fair by design: no discrimination or ambivalence is allowed in the code. These characteristics enable Ethereum to be a reliable, permanent base level for the digital universes we are summoning, providing a common ground for variations and integrations to be built upon.
Let’s turn now to the local and mutant aspects of the digital New Babylon. The inhabitants of this shared universe will have the ability to summon their own space. Again, Constant’s words open our techno-imagination:
“New Babylon is a gigantic labyrinthine complex raised above the earth on tall pillars. All forms of transport circulate below it. The various tiers of the city can be reached via lifts and stairs and are almost entirely roofed-in and climate-controlled. With their many levels and terraces, they form a vast multi-layered space that constantly offers new surprises as a result of its functional flexibility, climatic variability and light and sound effects. New Babylonians can wander around like modern nomads, in search of new experiences and unknown sensations.” (Source)
A way to reach this ambitious vision could involve directing the datastreams of users toward a generative process that allows for the emergence of a spatial architecture for individual citizens and collectives. A spatial infrastructure of this kind will unlock new design affordances, imagination conduits, and interaction possibilities. The perception of human relationships and interactions can be expanded once we represent them in a different, architectural way. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard investigated at length The Poetics of Space and how the subjective and emotional perception of the spatial dimension is relevant for human beings: “For a knowledge of intimacy, localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than determination of dates.”
To grow this intimacy and not be lost in a formless, corporate digital arena, these social spaces need to embody unique personalities according to their creators and thus be projected as autonomous worlds. This expression is used by ludens in the eponymous essay to describe a world that adopts a blockchain as a substrate to emphasize the permanence of the chain infrastructure (on which we touched upon before). Going back to the root of the word autonomy, it is possible to recall a deeper meaning. The term is composed of two Greek words (αὐτο-, auto-, "self"; νόμος nomos, "law"), that when combined mean "one who gives oneself one's own law". To be autonomous does not mean to abandon a shared context, but to create each own rule inside such a context. As the Italian thinker, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi stated: “autonomy is the self-regulation of the social body in its independence and in its interactions with the disciplinary norm.” If Constant envisioned an autonomous city, our imagination can evoke an autonomous ensemble of digital worlds, where self-regulation and self-governance set the condition for full expressivity and freedom. However, it is important to not forget how individual autonomy can only be forged through collective organization and infrastructure (Source). Like the sections of Constant’s city, here the worlds coexist one next to the other in their own individuality while at the same time sharing a common ground and orbiting together to form a greater constellation.
In conclusion, we need to remember that virtual worlds are philosophical tools (Source) and can be used “to materialize philosophical concepts, perspectives, and thought experiments”. Given the relevance of such tools, it is important that we grow a system that can host autonomous, experimental, and intimate virtual worlds. In this way, it would be possible to hijack the metaverse moment and direct it toward a radical transformation and democratization of media where worlds are built by their inhabitants rather than starchitects of the digital realms. More in general, this would also be a moment of proliferation for bottom-up culture and self-made digital craftsmanship, breaking the rules of top-down worlding where contents are created by Hollywood or influencers and delivered to the masses as simulacra that dominate their desires and impulses for consumption.
How do these spaces communicate with each other to create a federated pluriverse? In the previous instance of this series, the self-discovering cryptographic protocols like PGP were analyzed, among the issues of open networks and trust. WoT represents a possible model to federate the network with a relatively simple, yet effective algorithm. In a time of metaversal imaginaries, it is crucial to have the capacity of inhabiting a digital space shaped by our desires and to encourage granular, diverse association. Decentralization here can be conceived as a distribution of autonomy where collectives are able to self-determine their own openness through access control, seizing the means of algorithmic parametrization and conceiving their own architecture as a living being.