A famous inscription above the temple of Apollo in Delphi reads: “Know thyself, you, that walks down this hallway.” It implies responsibility and the weight of agency. And that’s the thing: I always felt responsible for my actions, opinions and tastes. It is what I was always taught, probably because it encouraged a more ethical and autonomous existence. It’s just that, I can’t know myself, without knowing the hallway I walk.
The connection between the designed spaces I inhabit, the hallway I walk, my deeper sense of self and the shallower thought patterns these spaces produce has been known since the Apollo of Delphi was built. And the hallway I walk, with its numerous chambers, is a winding maze, so where does that leave me?
I am lost, but my breathing is even and slow. I try to track my steps. I remember that one time I was told that to find my way out of a maze I must keep my right hand on the wall as I walk, so I lift my hand, and glide it along the surface as I continue. A labyrinth is different from a maze because it has only one possible path, which leads directly to the center. A maze on the other hand has multiple choices of path and direction and a variety of ways to maneuver from the entrance to the exit. So, to be clear: I am stuck in a maze. What is not clear about the maze is where it is located and what exactly it is made of. It feels material, and the walls seem solid under my hand, but the structure could easily be mediated by a more fluid interface, a convincing mirage. I want to know more about the media and interface I am dealing with. I want to explore the chambers of the maze and examine the objects they hold which solidify their existence and character. I want to see if the maze is real while finding my way toward the exit.
In the Autumn of 2022, I lived in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I subleted a very small, dark and old apartment in a rundown neighborhood close to the river Kura. It was a one-room brick circular hut, with a shower that was a simple shower head located above the toilet. It was rented out by an old man and his mother, squeezed into the shadowy garden of their larger and nicer house. In that period I purposefully started reading literature on how architecture affects mood, creativity, focus and even health. One of the books I came across was called Medium Design written by Keller Easterling, an architect, urbanist, and professor. Easterling uses a spatial lens to explicate bizarre and contemporary connections between me, the individual, us “the community”, and the media we negotiate daily. She writes; “Media are vessels and environments, containers of possibility that anchor our existence and make what we are doing possible.”1
I could track in real-time the constriction of my possibility spaces, based on how I felt in this tiny, dark house: how low my energy levels were, how long I slept, how the shadows seemed deeper on the ground floor and how deeply disconnected I felt. It was the first time I longed to live high above the city, the first time I understood the appeal of skyscrapers. This is the clearest time my privileged self experienced the effects of economic and architectural segregation, the first time my network had not compensated for my net worth and how in turn this affected my sense of self.
“The sealing of the lifeworld explicates how technologies, by constantly extending their application to us, seal, that is shrink and condense, the possibility spaces encountered in our life-worlds. As our existential space becomes more and more sealed by technologies (via engineering, design, and architecture), so is the space for our possible self-interpretations.”2 The only things that anchored my self-interpretation and identity in this dark hut were my favorite objects I brought along, like this amethyst stone that belonged to my grandmother and a special tray I place my creams and perfume on.
I saw how I am constantly confronted with instructions on how to auto-poetically define myself through design, architecture and objects. It is not only physical architecture that affects and defines my possibility spaces, my attitude, opinion, stance and taste, but also the virtual architecture I spend time in. The identity-constructing items and memory anchors that I fill them with co-create my self-interpretation, and these items can be found in both the physical and virtual chambers I inhabit. On a micro level, the segregation of virtual chambers is discernable in my references, my memes, my knowledge and sources, as well as the selection of sponsored content I witness. These too can be counted as objects and declarations, weaving in and out of physical and virtual spaces, morphing along the way with each translation. They are experienced quite differently based on where in the process of transmutation I catch them and in which chamber of the maze I am located. “A maze continually presents you with disturbing choices, dead ends, and new territories. You do not know how long the solution will take or how many twists and turns will get you out.”2
Filip Čustić, 2022
The virtual chambers I inhabit remind me of a digital metropolis. Cyberspace is spatial in how it is perceived and named, and it influences me in similar ways that urban spatial design does. The extension of virtual architecture into physical spaces and the hardware of the physical into the construction of the virtual is so deeply ingrained that often problems that are discussed concerning one sphere can easily and immediately be transferred into the other. Alfredo Mela, a researcher of social exclusion and built environments, describes the physical separation between specialized fragments of urban public space aimed at different social and consumer groups. It reminds me of the sorting mechanisms search engines use and the individually tailored content targeted at specific groups of users on social media platforms. These groups are delineated by economic class, taste, access to space or lack thereof and consequential access to power.
Mela continues to explain the capsulization of metropolitan areas by their fragmentation into a series of closed, controlled and specifically accessorized zones defending the occupants from unwanted stimuli and regulating their behavior. 4 This same concept could be applied to the fragmented virtual sprawl with its digital enclosures and insulated chambers that function as binary feedback loops of information.
Both the architectural plains of the physical and the digital are heavily splintered, isolated into a series of separate loops of reference and sectors of existence, each equipped with a particular set of items to reinforce and support the chamber walls. These items are often public lifestyle references and projected objects of need and belonging, like music festival promotions, vacation location discounts, specific political party slogans, home appliance commercials, or brands that encapsulate a desired way of life. Members of different virtual chambers or urban areas rarely converge because of the design of the given media and infrastructure, showing that the ideological and aesthetic sealing of lifeworlds and possibility spaces is an architecturally encouraged form of urban organization.
On a macro level the most obvious example of how digital and physical architecture are codetermining and more importantly polarizing agents and conduits for ideological narratives and lifestyles, is the classic case of Cambridge Analytica. Digital thought chambers were identified using behavioral data, which is essential data on how people maneuver the virtual maze and what content they consume and produce. Members of these separate thought chambers were targeted by how convincible they were evaluated to be, and how possible it was to push their opinion in a predetermined direction, in this case towards radicalizing and voting pro-Brexit. This is a concrete and well-documented case of how virtual design and architecture affect citizens sense of self in society and the possibility spaces of change. In turn, this has an effect on further spatial polarization whereby the negative economic effects witnessed after Brexit resulted in businesses shutting down and leaving England, construction projects halting, and policy towards migrants completely changing which affected the design of infrastructure dedicated to housing, administration and integration. The resulting fiscal and political fiasco is also one of the reasons the UK continues to be one of the most unaffordable places to live in (ex)European countries. This particular chain of events remains a perfect demonstration of how using digital strategies targeting specific thought chambers affects virtual and physical divisions.
Ken Isaacs, 1962
I decide to peek into the next room I come across, hearing the murmuring of a dinner party and a flickering light reflecting on the floor in front of the entrance. Inside the chamber, I see a group of figures who seem to be in the process of consuming themselves.
The self-consuming figures are interested in their symbolic flesh. They only desire themselves and have never been curious about much else. Of course, self-consumers try at times to taste other things but the taste is too different, both bland and bitter. Bland because no network of memories, histories, or emotive past experiences connects them to the new taste. Bitter for similar reasons: it does not resonate and comfort. And so self-consumers decide against diversifying their palette. It is easier, self-consumers conclude, to remain in their comfort zone. And the question arises, of course, as to why self-consumers should push their boundaries. Self-consumer know what they like and what they don’t like, and have a whole company of other self-consumers who do the same, side by side, and share their time of self-consumption. And what a pleasure it is because there are no disputes. They lounge in the chamber and contort themselves to reach their juiciest bits. The chamber echoes with the sounds of contemplative consumption and low laughter. The feeling of friends spending time together, reinforcing and amplifying each other’s beliefs. A never-ending feast.
Withdrawing in astonishment I recognize a pattern of consumption that I often replicate. The scene leaves a coated milky taste in my mouth as I continue down the hallway.
Klara Debeljak, 2022
Often, I find myself being in a room of people I mostly agree with, talking about things we mostly agree on, with enthusiasm and righteousness. The institutions I engage with are so narrow in their diversity of opinion and positioning, I am in a constant state of self-censorship, despite having similar political orientations. Thus, I find myself stuck in a self-referential, naval-gazing virtual and physical chambers full of echoes, where I need to find elaborate metaphors to hint at some of my unconventional questions. Which is unfortunate, because I find that I cognitively evolve most during an unfiltered discussion, by cultivating a sense of understanding for the position of someone I do not agree with completely and who shares less of an overlap with my stance.
As Easterling writes; “Favoring successive rather than coexistent thoughts or practices, the new right answer must kill the old right answer. The newest redemptive technology will make you free, but the freedom of one group must rob another of its freedom.”5 The obsession with producing, consuming, and distributing content that directly relates to me, my image, my opinion, the aesthetic I believe to be my unique and chosen one, an assumption I seldom question, are habits that are infrastructurally and spatially encouraged. Such closed-off chambers are titled echo chambers, functioning as binary feedback loops of self-enforcing information that form radicalized media bubbles. Self-consumers consume what they and others in their chamber produce, which is an understandable inclination, regardless of its architectural conditioning. The issue with radicalized self-consumers is that they are caught in a particular echo chamber and cannot see beyond, or perhaps are not even aware of the closed confines of the chamber but imagine it as the totality of the world.
Echo chambers are digital enclosures that increase social and political polarization and extremism by amplifying beliefs through communication and repetition inside a closed system. This closed binary feedback loop is what Keller Easterling describes as an ideological narrative and also as a reinforcing group behavior where only compatible or convenient evidence is circulated. The insular environments have also been described as a “patchwork” of theme-based, closed-off, and ultimately safe spaces with mini-audiences that produce the “ideological chaos” of the web. The problem is that the diverging opinions that would have to be discussed and debated to build an inclusive and equal future are more than just simple disagreements but rather “different ways of making sense of the world”. No wonder it seems increasingly difficult to, first, find spaces where people from polarized and opposing sides of the political spectrum could converge, confront each other, and discuss ideas of communal reconstruction and development, and second, to avoid the so-called “dialogue of the deaf” that is the result of existing in insular environments where alternative viewpoints are demonized. 6
The fragmented “ideological chaos” of the web calls for a robust public sphere where these echo chambers can be made more porous and the process of identifying a common foe can start, rather than insular political bubbles blaming each other for the degradation of their possibility spaces. But once challenged to find the virtual and physical public sphere I find it difficult to cohesively locate it. I realize physical public space is available mostly to people who are passing through and don’t want to inhabit it or use it for convening and communicating, with resting areas and benches often designed in a way that prevents loitering. Most activities in the public sphere, especially if communal and in larger groups, must be announced and confirmed. In Italy and Spain, new regulations have been rolled out in 2022 that prevent large congregations akin to protests and parties with penalties including years of jail time.7 It seems that the public sphere is managed in a way that is not conducive to any type of multi-chamber gatherings.
The “dialogue of the deaf” does not go unnoticed and nor does the cracked and blurred public sphere. There are plenty of attempts to bridge this chasm or reinvigorate the public sphere, especially in the art and critical theory world, although no attempts go as far as to address or facilitate a communion of diverse chambers, short of so called democratic elections and referendums. There has also been an increase in community-based art projects and participatory creativity but often by artists for artists. It could be argued that projects which encourage public dialogue are constructed within and for insular interest zones and specific political orientations, and thus do not succeed in bringing together diverse spheres of the population. However, the sentiment they express can be powerful, especially when the works are displayed and accessible in the public sphere. It’s the triggering of the thought processes that reverberate; “A parlor can transform into a cage, and a tent into a palace.”8
Andreas Angelidakis, 2018
Andreas Angelidakis, a Greek artist and architect who “doesn’t build” works with urban memory, architecture, and the bridge between physical and digital media. Angelidakis and his work confront the degradation and fracturing of the public sphere, both virtual and physical. Angelidakis was at the forefront of Internet urban planning and some of his projects in the 1990s involved making online spaces where his colleagues and friends could draw and design buildings, and users could visit each other’s drawings mid-construction, walk around the space giving feedback or just chat.
Later, he started building real life spatial installations titled “Soft Ruins”, to accommodate gatherings reminiscent of discussion platforms in ancient Greece. These installations straddle the disciplines of art, architecture, and psychology and are flexible spaces that can be adapted to participants’ needs. They are made out of light foamy blocks that can be easily moved around and arranged in a variety of ways, perfectly fitting together into the different sitting formations that Angelidakis designed, but also enabling visitors to construct their own spaces in countless ways, even if at times all the blocks are simply piled in the middle of a room like soft Tetris ruins. He designed different iterations of his so-called “soft ruins” over the years, but the idea remains the same. 9 The blocks are covered in material printed in pink marble, gray stone, or army print, depending on the context, and are meant to be used in a participatory way, with viewers building a discussion arena where they can come together as citizens and collectively address political matters and in this act, in theory, battling “the dialogue of the deaf”. In practice, of course, the arena of debate is accessible to a particular echo chamber and the debate is thus either self-referential or self-censored.
The digital public sphere is perhaps easier to define, as it is “available” and there seems to be more open-source communication than in real life. But when thinking of the digital public sphere it seems indistinguishable from my private one. I am faced with the notion that not only is there an architectural fragmentation of society along economic and political fault lines but the cracked public sphere has started to blend in with my private one. The intimate environment of my phone, my YouTube selection, my Google searches, and the online portals I frequent as spaces to bond and communicate, essentially my living spaces and the declarations, objects and accessories that fill them, have become commercial and regulated environments.
Hans Hollein, 1969
My virtual would-be public sphere is simultaneously my private one, with a purposefully designed interface to encourage and direct consumption of information, ideological narratives and material products which are tailored to my tastes and accessibility based on the digital enclosure I am in. It is not unlike the ballooning real estate prices forcing me further and further from the city center and into industrial zones where similarly economically situated vagabonds make their home. My private sphere is the public sphere and it is micro-managed by the government but primarily commercial enterprises to maximize profits and regulate the masses. The boundary between citizen and consumer in this context is by name only. Divide and conquer type of thing, but also make money. That is how insular ideological thought chambers also have economic advantages for commercial and media enterprises; an impassioned and avid target audience with a delineated and narrow set of preferences and access, easy to serve and take advantage of. Perhaps a step in the right direction and an acknowledgment of the polarizing and damaging effects of the digital echo chambers is a new set of regulation the EU announced in the summer of 2023. Users of social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram will have the option to disable the ‘for me’ personalized content feed and advertisements that rely on AI profiling and surveillance-based attention targeting. It is important to mention that the option to disable the personalised content feed does not apply in England. 10
Echo chambers and self-consumption refers to informational and content-related self-consumption rather than literal, physical auto-cannibalism of course. Although there is an additional element of visual self-consumption in the negotiation of the digital spatial sphere and the (echo) chambers of the maze. Thinking back to when I felt uncomfortable and poor in my humble rental in Tbilisi, and how my self-soothing process was channeled through the beautiful objects that solidified my sense of self and rooted my identity, an aesthetics-oriented and slightly narcissistic core emerges. The objects I used are innocent memory anchors on their own, but when emulating a certain idea and class, there is a deeper aspirational aspect to their presence.
I think of a Guardian article I recently read about how members of the younger generation have “lost the plot” with people in their twenties overdoing cosmetic treatments, Botox, and fillers, in an attempt to recreate filtered social media aesthetics in real life. 11 This trend arose during the Covid pandemic as people mostly worked online, meeting on Zoom, while constantly looking at their double-chinned reflections. Starting with purchasing physical or projecting digital backdrops of full library shelves, or a sleek office space with panorama windows of Swiss mountainous scenery, the parallel rise in cosmetic enhancements seems almost logical. What an unusual chain of events. I cannot help but be reminded of the close connection between self-consumption, narcissism and the echo.
John William Waterhouse, 1903
Finally, I encounter another chamber that I hear before I can see it: the sound of a trickling stream and the buzz of a forest. My step quickens. Once in the chamber, I am faced with a much larger space than the one with the self-consumers; a huge hall with ceilings so high and rounded they give the impression of an artificial sky. The air is warmer and thicker here. There is a mossy forest with a stream and a small pond between the trees.
I sit on the mossy ground and lean against a tree, suddenly hearing a shimmering voice reverberating in the space, introducing herself as Echo. She says she will guide me through the history of this particular chamber, the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus.
Echo was a forest nymph, who lived in the forest bathing in the pond with her sisters. Sometimes though, Zeus came down from his mountain to disturb their peace, chase the nymphs and fuck them on the soft moss. Because of her fluid and endless ability to chat Echo was assigned the task of distracting Hera, Zeus’ wife. Soon enough Hera found out and became angry with Echo for purposefully distracting her, so she cursed the talkative nymph with what she imagined would be the most painful affliction: the inability to talk. Henceforth, Echo was only able to echo the last sentence she heard. Worse still, not long after her words had been stolen, she saw a young hunter riding through the woods and fell deeply in love with him. His name was Narcissus. Ah, the adrenaline that flooded her body as she hid behind a tree and watched him. He was calm, and confident, with beautiful skin and a straight back. She watched the curve of his neck and shoulders, the hollow between his collarbones, and imagined the words she would like to whisper in his ear. Her skin prickled with excitement.
Unfortunately, Narcissus, like many hunters, was proud and vain. He sensed that someone was watching him, and called out: “who’s there?”. Echo felt this was her opportunity and came out from behind the trees, but she could only repeat his words: “who’s there?”. She tried to embrace him but he recoiled from her touch, put off by the echoed words and her spying ways. She felt ashamed and rejected, and miserably mourned her curse. Echo retreated into the caves above the edge of the forest where she suffered in silence as her bones turned to stone, only her heartbroken echoes lingering in the air. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, observed the story unfold and decided to curse the self-absorbed Narcissus by making him fall in love with his reflection. When Narcissus leaned over the pond to wash himself, he saw his mirrored image and fell in deep and obsessive love with himself. He could not move from the edge of the pond, could not eat, could not sleep. He stared at his reflection, gliding his fingertips on the surface of the pond, dipping his nose and mouth into the cool water. Eventually, he realized that his love and adoration would not be reciprocated and he slowly and sadly transformed into a white and golden flower, delicate and elegant, dripping over the edge of the pond. Narcissus bloomed every spring, reminding the remaining nymphs of the beautiful hunter, their lost sister Echo, and the danger of infatuation, narcissism and the echo.
In her essay “Beyond Representation” Mexican writer, lecturer, and translator, Irmgard Emmalhainz describes the echoes and the narcissism, the visual and symbolic self-consumption as a process that is closely linked with digital enclosures in the context of a neoliberal capitalist order. “This process occurs and repeats to the point that our ‘normal’ now consists of living in a world in which we all have the right to retreat to our private worlds of meaning, tailored by the algorithms of digital interfaces that constantly adapt to each user’s individual needs. The possibility of a world in common has been replaced by myriad niches for the private consumption of digitalized content.” 12 My position in the maze and my exposure to particular chambers construct my agency and influence the feeling that my opinion, my taste and that of my friends and colleagues in this chamber is the only correct one, and a chosen one at that. The corporate significance of my aesthetic and political orientation has been addressed in various ways in the past, but this knowledge has not managed to initiate agency or empathy. The deepening of divides through tailor-made algorithmic realities makes it difficult for users to lift their heads above the walls of the maze.
I think it is important to emphasize the need to transcend final declarations and right answers. Keller Easterling in Medium Design describes the need to be right: “In the most general terms, maybe the modern mind is addicted to a common, stubborn desire to be right or to ‘know that’. In the earliest moments of development, adults hammer into the minds of children the need to provide the right answer, just as they themselves go to bed every night telling themselves that they are right all along.” It is not about collapsing the walls of the echo chambers or flattening the maze into a uniform experience, which would be a futile task anyway. This text is not dedicated to reinstating some type of universalism or preventing people from spending time with communities they identify with and objects they like. Rather, it is about analyzing the structures that affect the radicalization of the chambers we exist in, which in turn prevent mutual debate and understanding, the very definition of the public sphere.
Mark Sealy, a curator and cultural historian who explores image-making and social change is particularly good at framing the radical, multi-modal existence that provides the agency we seek. He describes the less rigid space of a more flexible maze, which necessarily implies the coexistence of multiple realities, as external and internal multiverse spaces. He describes the state of embracing and loving all that is unfamiliar, cultivating respect and hospitality as an act of restorative care. 13 Indeed, unexpected demonstrations of empathy and support is truly when the physical and virtual public sphere comes alive, and is perhaps the only way to invigorate it.
Trying to imagine a more peaceful future, one in which empathy can be a mode of existence that is not extended only to people within one’s particular echo chamber, demands a certain adjustment of the structure of the maze. We must reintroduce agency by bending the maze into a more fluid and porous structure, joining adjacent chambers, lowering the walls of the maze in certain areas, digging connecting tunnels, and constructing alternative methods of finding our way.
>>If you want to know more about the author you can reach out here: https://www.instagram.com/klara.deb/
>>If you want to read this text in the Slovenian translation it is avalible here: https://www.disenz.net/ukrivljanje-blodnjaka-o-arhitekturah-digitalnih-ograd/
1 Easterling K. (2021) Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World. London: Verso Books.
2 Ed. Hauptmann D., Neidich W. (2010) Cognitive Architecture: From Biopolitics to Noopolitics Architecture & Mnd in the Age of Communication and Information. Delft: Delft School of Design Series in Architecture and Urbanism.
3 Sternberg M. E. (2009) Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. Harvard, Massachussetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
4 Melo A. (2014) Urban public space between fragmentation, control and conflict. City, Territory, Architecture 1, 15. //doi.org/10.1186/s40410-014-0015-0
5 Easterling K. (2021) Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World. London: Verso Books.
6 Badouard R., Mabi C., Monnoyer-Smith L. (2016) Arenas of Public Debate: On the Materiality of Discussion Spaces. Translated by Dickinson R. Questions De Comunication, 30. //doi.org/10.4000/questionsdecommunication.11000
7 Giuffrida A. (2022) ‘Freedom-killing monster’: illegal rave crackdown in Italy draws criticism. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/02/freedom-killing-monster-it...
8 Ed. Hauptmann D., Neidich W. (2010) Cognitive Architecture: From Biopolitics to Noopolitics Architecture & Mnd in the Age of Communication and Information. Delft: Delft School of Design Series in Architecture and Urbanism.
9 Axel N. (2019) Letting Go, Andreas Angelidakis. E-flux, Architecture. www.e-flux.com/architecture/positions/287537/letting-go/
10 Emma Roth (2023) The EU’s Digital Services Act goes into effect today: here’s what that means. The Verge. www.theverge.com/23845672/eu-digital-services-act-explained
11 Bryant M. (2022) ‘They’ve lost the plot’: leading cosmetic doctor says under-30s are overdoing Botox and fillers. The Guardian. www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/dec/18/cosmetic-surgeon-botox-fill...
12 Emmelhainz I. (2020) Can We Share a World Beyond Representation? E-flux, Journal. Issue #106. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/106/314167/can-we-share-a-world-beyond-re...
13 Sealey M. (2022) Photography – Race, Rights and Representation. London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd.