Chemistry as Architecture

futurelab default header

by: Danah Boyd

Jo Guldi and I were musing last night about architecture and I got to thinking about Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. He lays out a framework that there are four regulatory forces operating in society: law, market, social norms, and architecture. The core of his argument is that code (the programming matter that makes up all things digital) is architecture.

One of the things that he points out is that when all regulatory forces align, change happens effectively and efficiently. A good example of this (not in his book) is domestic violence. The concept didn't exist 50 years ago, but in the 1970s, social norms and law teamed up against domestic violence. The role of the market and architecture is a bit more of a stretch, but in some states, wages were withheld for domestic violence (in conjunction with divorce) and that rethinking of the home as a space that law could regulate was part of the puzzle. Still, I got to thinking about what made domestic violence spike back up in the 1990s. Domestic violence has long been associated with alcohol… and then, in the 90s, with crystal meth.

So I started thinking that there's a third element of Lessig's architecture:

Objects: architecture of space
Code: architecture of information
Chemistry: architecture of people

It is easy to discount chemistry as an architecture of humanity if we assume that it's out of our control. But as we increasingly live in a world of DNA programming, pharmaceutical manipulation, and mood-altering substances (from the crap in Doritos to crystal meth), we must start accounting for the ways that chemistry serves as an architecture of human behavior and, thus, a force in regulating peoples and practices. I don't think that it's a distinct force, by a third leg of what constitutes "architecture."

Part of why I think it's important to highlight the role that chemistry (and to a certain degree biology) play as an architectural force is that it seems to me that there's too little attention payed to the ways in which chemistry & social norms and chemistry & the law connect (while there's a lot concerning objects and code). There are some great STS scholars in this area, including Cori Hayden (author of When Nature Goes Public) and Joe Dumit (author of Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (In-formation)). Because of Big Pharm, there's a lot of public talk about chemistry & the market, but I'm not aware of a lot of broader discourse about how chemistry is a regulatory society force (although Quinn Norton's Bodyhacking Talk is fantabulous on this).

If we do conceive of chemistry as another aspect of architecture, how must we think of its regulatory powers and the needs to regulate it? In what ways is chemistry similar to and different from code or objects? (Or am I totally off base?) Anyhow, just some musings for the weekend…

Original Post: