Simulation and global crises

Daniel Davis – 30 March 2010


rior to the 1980’s it was not obvious that computer simulation would drive architectural change. As Sherry Turkle explains in Simulation and its Discontents, this was a time of batch processing before the development of the immersive environment of computer simulation. Simulation and its Discontents follows the introduction of computer simulation at MIT, exposing the still present tension surrounding our understanding, control and seduction by simulation. Those early debates at MIT seem to foreshadow our current situation; a period where the two major events – the global financial crisis and global warming – exist in, and as a result of, simulation. A situation that was not obvious prior to the 1980’s.

Reading Simulation and its Discontents, the global financial crisis appears to be caused by economists “drunk with code.” A large part of the cause (although I am no economist, and even economists disagree on this) seems to be the ‘black-boxing’ of assets into mortgage backed securities. These securities are a way to collectively value to highly risky assets, however hidden inside them is assumptions regarding the default rate on mortgages. Architecture was black-boxed in a similar way during the introduction of simulation. Engineering equations were hidden behind on-screen buttons, which caused architects to worry that a generation of students would not understand the limitations of these calculations. They were probably correct to worry, and they should have certainly worried about the economists who had black-boxed assets to the point where they became so “complicated that the authorities could no longer calculate the risks” according to George Soros.

Complexity and black-boxing is not the whole story. The financial intuitions all had a big incentive to understand the simulation, even if it was hard, complex and obscured. The reason they did not understand the complexity is likely to be an equally complex story and some have even speculated the institutions understood the risks, but thought they were too big to fail. One reason not to follow up on the complexity is given in Simulation and its Discontents: “Simulation makes itself easy to love and difficult to doubt.” This is true if the simulation is returning pretty renders, but I imagine it is especially true if the simulation is making you billions. And by not doubting Turkle warns that “it can be hard to remember all that lies beyond simulation, or even acknowledge that everything is not captured in simulation.” Clearly much lay beyond the financial simulations, but they worked exceptionally well for a long time, making it hard not to be “drunk with code” on the success of these simulations.

The global financial crisis is more than a source of unemployment for architects. It should be a warning about our ambivalence towards simulation. That is not to say we should reject simulation, but rather we should, as Sherry Turkle has done, re-examine our relationship to, and dependence upon simulation. The concerns of architects at MIT in the 1980’s are still true today and the tension between understanding, control and seduction is present.