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Sentient City Survival Kit

artifacts for survival in the near-future sentient city

Archive for urban computing

Serendipitor Public Beta Released

After some back and forth with Apple, the Serendipitor is now available as a free download from the App Store.

Thanks to everyone who helped out with the beta testing! Keep the comments/suggestions coming…

Antennaware technical notes

Antenna design is part art, part science – an alchemy of sorts.

Virtually any conductive loop will pick up some turbulence in the electromagnetic fields surrounding us. Yet there are specific engineering specifications that detail design criteria and parameters for tuning antenna designs for specific frequencies (such as UHF RFID). But what criteria and parameters are relevant if you want to sew RFID antennas into clothing?


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Antennaware material study


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Serendipitor – paper version

Settling in @ V2_ in Rotterdam and – working with Rui Guerra – just completed the first paper testing of the routing directions for the Serendipitor. The aim was to see how people responded to different ways of augmenting directions generated by a routing service (in this case, the Google Maps API) with instructions for action and movement inspired by Fluxus, Vito Acconci, and Yoko Ono, among others.

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Concept Sketches

Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug

Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug
Travel mug designed for creating ad-hoc “dark” networks for communication along a morning commute.

CCD-Me-Not Umbrella

CCD-Me-Not Umbrella
An umbrella studded with infrared LEDs visible only to CCD surveillance cameras, designed to frustrate object detection algorithms used in computer vision surveillance systems

GPS Serendipitor

GPS Serendipitor
An alternative GPS navigation software application for mobile phones that determines a route to a destination that the user has not previously taken, designed to facilitate finding something by looking for something else.

RFID Under(a)ware

RFID Under(a)ware
His and Hers undergarments designed to sense hidden Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Tag readers and alert the wearer to their presence by activating small vibrators sewn into bras and boxer shorts.

Ambient Awareness, Hertzian Weather Systems and Urban Architecture

When it is raining in Oxford Street the architecture is no more important than the rain, in fact the weather has probably more to do with the pulsation of the Living City at that given moment.

Culled from the catalog for the 1963 exhibition “Living City” organized for the ICA in London by the young British architecture group Archigram, this quote by Peter Cook remains remarkably relevant for contemporary urbanists. In place of natural weather systems, however, today we find that the dataclouds of 21st century urban space are increasingly shaping our experience of the city and the choices we make there. These Hertzian weather systems are becoming as important, if not more so, than the formal organization of space and material.

In his recent Sunday New York Times Magazine essay Brave New World of Digital Intimacy, Clive Thompson describes a new kind of “ambient awareness” emerging out of social web media such as Twitter and Facebook status updates. Individually, these short strings of text are relatively meaningless, providing quotidian updates on the minutia of the daily lives of friends and acquaintances. Yet by skimming these short bits of information, Thompson suggests, we construct a peripheral awareness – a co-presence of sorts – with these absent others.

As I’ve written elsewhere, questions concerning attention/distraction and the influence of ambient informatics on the perceptual conditions of urban space and the cognitive states of those who live in cities are longstanding. Benjamin’s oft-cited observation in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that architecture is primarily received collectively in a state of distraction and Simmel’s discussion of the origins of the blasé attitude in his seminal essay The Metropolis and Mental Life were both written almost a century ago.

More recently Kazys Varnelis revives this discussion in relation to Thompson’s essay to argue that “the ambient awareness of our architectural environment that Benjamin described is waning, as we find ourselves distracted by other media”, and asks “If architecture cedes the ambient environment to technology, what of architecture’s ambitions?” Yet while this does enable him to question the efficacy of architecture’s neo-avant-garde’s “ecstacy of form” – indeed a critical question – it does so at the expense of reifying architecture as a material practice.

What if, instead, architecture’s ambition was to become like the weather? Hertzian weather…

Archaeologies of the near-future

In their paper Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision, Bell and Dourish point out that while most computer science research has traditionally focused on elaborating technical problems based on past results, ubiquitous computing research has always been organized around a shared vision of the future. This vision is by now more than two decades old, and today we inhabit the future the field’s pioneers imagined, just not in the way they originally foresaw. The future “originally envisioned by Weiser, and still motivating much research in ubiquitous computing,” they write, “is one that is firmly entrenched in its own particular moments, locations and cultural contexts, a vision as much of the past as of the future.” Calling for the refocusing of ubicomp’s vision on the messy, present day realities of everyday life, the authors frame three lines of argument:

First, the centrality of ubiquitous computing’s ‘‘proximate future’’ continually places its achievements out of reach, while simultaneously blinding us to current practice. By focusing on the future just around the corner, ubiquitous computing renders contemporary practice (at outside of research sites and ‘‘living labs’’), by definition, irrelevant or at the very least already outmoded. [...]

Second, the framing of ubicomp as something yet to be achieved allows researchers and technologists to absolve themselves for responsibilities for the present; the problems of ubiquitous computing are framed as implementation issues that are, essentially, someone else’s problem, to be cleaned up afterwards as part of the broad march of technology. [...]

Third, the seamlessly interconnected world of future scenarios is at best a misleading vision and at worst a downright dangerous one. Homogeneity and an erasure of differentiation is a common feature of future envisionments; the practice is inevitably considerably messier, and perhaps dealing with the messiness of everyday life should be a central element of ubicomp’s research agenda.

Anthony Dunne has taken a different position with respect to the tactical employment of the near-future within a design research agenda. Less focused on projecting utopic visions of near-future seamlessness, Dunne posits a form a “critical design” that looks upstream at near-future technology research and development in order to produce present day artifacts that explore some of the messy social and cultural implications of this research and its applications within everyday life. As a designer focused on the cultural debates surrounding these technologies, Dunne is concerned with the messiness of implementation issues less from a technical perspective than a social one. Rather than attempting to predict the future and getting into the technology forecasting business, design serves to facilitate a public debate on what kind of future we want.

Julian, Nicholas and crew over at the Near Future Laboratory have been at this for some time. Here’s a project that examines “slowness” at a time when Moore’s Law promises unfettered acceleration:

Slow Messenger

Product Prototype: Slow Messenger

Slow Messenger is an instant messaging device that delivers messages exceptionally slowly. Built into the device is a messaging technology that unfolds its content based on an interface that borrows from the traditions of long-form letter writing, hand-carried mail sent through the post. The instant messaging device connects digital information channels —� such as the Internets — to physical information channels — such as streets, hands and the friction of human contact. [...]

In this “digitally networked era” communications mechanics are designed to take advantage of the efficiencies of electronic networks. In this way, contact is perpetual and ubiquitous, often resulting in nearly meaningless communiques and dispatches. By “slowing down” the instantaneous message, the device saves time by allowing one to avoid inane drivel and focus on a meaningful connection to one special person.

Pathetic Fallacies & Category Mistakes: making sense and non-sense of the (near-future) Sentient City

Sentience” as a concept has long been a flash point of controversy between the humanities and sciences when non-human actors are concerned. Ruskin coined the term “Pathetic Fallacy” in 1856 to signify any description of inanimate things that ascribes to them human capabilities, sensations, and emotions. His translation of the Latin phrase “natura abhorret a vacuo” (nature abhors a vacuum) is widely known, and even deployed (relatively) recently by a military general as a reason for NATO’s swift entry into Kosovo following the withdraw of Serbian Forces in 1999.

Within literature anthropomorphism is by now an accepted literary device, yet within the natural sciences, for example, it is still considered a serious error in scientific reasoning if taken literally. Latour suggests that the difficulty lies in describing agency in the absence of anthropomorphic actors, that there is a lack of accepted vocabulary to address the non-human agency of “things,” technological or otherwise. His “actant” is but one contribution to building such a lexicon. Anne Galloway’s recent post on “lacking words to describe non-humans, and what this means if we try to account for relations between humans and non-humans” is essential reading.

As Keller Easterling points out in her essay Only the Many (Log 11, Winter 2008), the term Category Mistake, introduced by Glibert Ryle in The Concept of Mind, describes a seemingly nonsensical mixture of logics. “For instance, one mistakes a part for a whole, or inverts levels in a hierarchy”, she writes. “Or a child thinks a division is a smaller part commensurate with a battalion or a squadron, when it is the overarching category for those of smaller divisions”.� Beginning with Jesus and extending to messianic characters in general, she shows how category mistakes are markers for dominant logics with universal claims, but goes on to suggest how they can also serve as an escape hatch out of the monotheisms of logic and discipline. “In order to find the trapdoor into another habit of mind, one would not quarrel with, but gather evidence in excess of” these dominant logics. She closes with a quote from Gregory Bateson’s Metalogues (in Steps to an Ecology of Mind):

D [daughter]: But you said that if we always talked logically and did not get into muddles, we could never say anything new. We could only say ready-made things. What did you call those things?

F [father]: Clichés. Yes. Glue is what clichés are stuck together with.

D: But you said “logic,” Daddy.

F: Yes, I know. We’re in a muddle again. Only I don’t see a way out of this particular muddle.

Non-human sentience is no stranger to the science fiction community. From Clarke and Kubrick’s HAL (sentient machine) and Stanislaw Lem (and Tarkovsky’s) Solaris (sentient planet) to DC Comics’ Ranx the Sentient City, Gibson’s sentient cyberspace as portrayed in Neuromancer, the sentient programs of the Matrix, or Bruce Sterling’s spime (to name but a few), science fiction has imbued a range of inanimate “things” of all scales with forms of agency that do not map neatly to those of ordinary humans.

Five years ago, the Economist published an article – “The sentient office is coming” – that described then current research in augmenting computers and communication devices with sensors to enable them to take into account their environment and adapt to the changing conditions of their use. Here the aim was to create “convivial technologies that are easy to live with”. Yet as the article points out, cohabitation with sentient things is not without dilemmas. What happens when we the toaster in your home gets bored of always making toast, or the fax machine in the office thinks the tone of your fax doesn’t jive with that of the firm?

Achieving “sentience” in the domain of Artificial Intelligence (AI) research is both a serious research agenda with a long history as well as a good ploy for securing corporate sponsorship. ATT/Cambridge University’s Sentient Computing project (1999), which attempted to “combine sensors and computers to monitor resources, maintain a computational model of the world, and act appropriately.” Combining sensors and computers was at the time nothing new, but the broad attempt to “maintain a computational model of the world” proved daunting. As of 2006, the project was re-focused on tracking and location systems for “sentient” vehicles and sports.

Today the focus appears less on trying to maintain a proprietary computational model of the world, and more on using the world itself as “model” and letting ordinary people contribute to its making. Recent projects in Urban Computing and Locative Media have focused on crowdsourcing metadata by enabling people to markup and annotate digital maps with notes, images and media objects geocoded to specific places. A recent article by Kazys Varnelis and Leah Meisterlin of Columbia University’s Netlab explores some of the implications for designers in an age of such “intelligent” maps.

With the specter of peak oil looming globally, the general public is finally beginning to register that as a planet we need to negotiate our way of life with those of the various actants and ecosystems we depend on, be they environmental, political, economic, social or technological. Crang and Graham’s recent paper “Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space” does a great job at outlining how corporate and military agendas are driving the technological ecosystems we’re likely to cohabit with in the near-future. Yet Crang and Graham’s analysis of the role of artists working with Urban Computing and Locative Media as one of “re-enchanting urban space”–of making visibile the invisible traces of things past, a “haunting of place with absent others”–renders artistic practice in relatively conservative and familiar terms, casting art in a reactionary role vis-a-vis technological development. What other roles might artists, architects and designers play in shaping how we inhabit the near-future Sentient City?