Over on the programmable city website there’s news of a new paper by Jim Merricks White on the anticipatory logics of smart cities… I have previous here so it’ll be an interesting read!
Interesting stuff detailed by the inimitable James Bridle. Lots to explore here…
I wrote an outline for a paper/chapter for a proposed book and related conference edited/convened by F. Xavier Olleros and Majlinda Zhegu at Université de Québec à Montréal which they have kindly accepted. So, I will be fleshing out the following over the summer. Obviously, I owe an intellectual debt to Rob Kitchin here but I’d like to think that I am substantively developing some of the themes of his code/space work (with Martin Dodge) through my own reading of Bernard Stiegler’s philosophical project. In particular, I am developing some of my ideas about the politics of anticipation (from my PhD work) through Stiegler’s theorisation of the ‘industrialisation of memory‘ and the ‘eventisation‘ capacities of increasingly data-driven commercial industries.
This paper addresses the transformative sense in which computation has become an infrastructure upon which has been founded mechanisms to both support and intervene in how we live our everyday lives. The past two decades have witnessed a steady movement of the capacity of digital computation away from spaces dedicated to housing the apparatus of computing—such as the computer centre and the home office—towards a diffusion of that capacity into a variety of everyday places (in the global North). A number of authors have both predicted and described the ways in which computation has moved from dedicated places for bulky apparatus into a capacity available through interconnected devices and systems in an increasing number of contexts (Greenfield, 2006; Kitchin, 2011; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011; Mitchell, 1995, 2000, 2003; Shepard, 2011; Rheingold, 2002; Weiser, 1991). Large-scale computing apparatus have not been eliminated, in fact they have increased in number in the guise of data centres, server farms and so on, but the capacity for the interconnection of those resources through international telecommunications infrastructures to large numbers of portable and embedded devices has transformed the scope and reach of computation (Graham and Marvin, 2001; Graham, 2004, 2005). The purpose of this paper is to interrogate the ways in which this widespread infrastructure of computation is being used not only to both support and surveil increasing amounts of everyday activities, through the collection and retention of vast quantities of data, but also to anticipate and intervene into how we perform the everyday.
Increasing amounts of information about ourselves and others is harvested and stored using electronic devices and we volunteer even more information to email providers, search engines and social networking systems. Many aspects of our everyday lives are now gathered in a range of contexts and recorded (via CCTV, cellphone networks and so on) and retained in databases (Agre, 1994; Graham, 2002; Haggerty and Ericson, 2000; Murakami Wood, 2008), as a growing system of memory of life otherwise forgotten or unthought. These systems are increasingly involved in the ways in which we convene and perform a sense of place. If places are spatial contexts that we convene and give meaning through particular kinds of activities or arrangements of various people and things, then the ways in which we perform that sense of place can be understood to be increasingly mediated by digital technologies. We use mobile devices to search commercial systems for information about and navigate to locations, relying upon travel instructions and databases of past experiences of those places. We allow those systems to use data about ourselves to recommend the ways in which we might act in those locations, where we might eat, shop or socialise. Furthermore, especially in urban environments, we are subject to the regulation of particular locations through real-time analytics based upon infrastructures that gather data for city governments. Infrastructures of software and hardware thus have a growing agency in how we collectively communicate, remember and conduct ourselves socially.
The gathering and recording of data and volunteered information through the expanding computational infrastructure facilitates the ordering of time both as forms of history, and thus the sharing of knowledge and culture, and as the means of anticipating, planning for, and perhaps preventing, futures. The logic of retained knowledge is thus ‘programmatic’ and has arguably become more so with the advent of software programmes, which have augmented our capacities to remember, process and act upon information. Furthermore, these infrastructures increasingly anticipate, in real-time, the ways in which we will behave in order to inform how commercial and governmental organisations intervene in and regulate how a variety of urban environments function. The production and performance of cities, then, increasingly ‘takes place’ in concert with a host of quasi-autonomous computational agents, regardless of whether or not we are aware of it.
To investigate the transformative nature of the anticipatory capacities of a growing number of computational infrastructures embedded within our everyday lives this paper proceeds in three parts. In the following, second, section several technology case studies are explored as means of capturing & retaining and anticipating & operating upon our everyday activities in ‘industrial’ scale systems. Particular attention is paid to the quasi-autonomous agency of these systems, that appear to operate at a scale and speed that exceeds a human capacity of oversight. In the third section the mnemonic and prognostic capabilities of networked infrastructures are brought into focus to be examined, through the work of the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (1998, 2009, 2010b, 2010a), as ‘mnemotechnologies’, technologies and technical supports that both support and reterritorialise what we collectively understand about our everyday lives. The conclusion of this article addresses the ways in which the informatics of an ‘industrialisation of memory’ that operates at a scale and speed that bleeds into apparatuses of anticipatory intervention both challenges and transforms the ways in which we negotiate what are private and public activities and spaces.
Postscapes have an annual ‘Internet of Things‘ awards, with projects nominated under various categories for which the viewing public (with net access) are invited to vote. This is the third year of the awards and the second in which I have been aware of a ‘design fiction‘ category.
Postscapes identify/define design fiction in the following way:
Grounded as much in imagination as reality, design fiction is about bending the rules. It’s about asking “What if?”, and using the remains to probe the edges of our changing world.
The results may only be props or prototypes — but the best ones, as recognized by the Design Fiction award, end up helping us navigate our near futures and the stories they share.
Last year (in the awards for 2012), the ‘design fiction’ category was ‘won’ by the slightly creepy and maybe a little bit flawed ‘ear hacking’:
In which we are asked to believe that there is a direct correlation between basic features of audio playback and our activity – in particular as runners. Anyway, it serves to demonstrate that humour works well in fostering and audience for design fiction. Notably, this ‘beat’ Google’s now infamous ‘project glass‘ video which, of course, was the forerunner for ‘glass‘.
In the running for the 2013 design fiction awards are a few interesting projects, you can see the whole list on the posts capes website but here are a couple that I think are in some way provocative…
Anne Galloway’s Design Culture Lab investigations of the Merino wool industry (see ‘counting sheep‘), with the lovely ‘bone knitter‘ that produces custom knitted casts for knitting back together broken limbs, and the rather unsettling ‘PermaLamb‘, vision of custom GM lamb production. Check out the ‘counting sheep‘ website for more, its worth exploring.
James Bridle’s ‘surveillance spaulder’, a pithy and playful imagining of a device that viscerally reminds the wearer of their being surveilled:
Spike Jonze’s soon-to-be released film ‘Her’, in the tradition of various imaginings of AI (e.g. Brian Aldiss):
[NB. posting them here doesn’t necessarily mean approval…]
Shawn Sobers linked to a funny comment piece by Stewart Heritage on the Grauniad riffing on the idea of the ‘Internet of Things‘, with the main schtick being that there is such a lack of imagination behind the implementation of such ‘things’ that if we extrapolate then surely the interlinked ‘things’ will do us a mischief… Now, this is humorous, of course, but humour is also a good way to get us to think about why on earth we’re letting ourselves in for a vision of such ‘things’. I am not ‘anti-‘ technological innovation, I am merely arguing that we need to be critically reflective of the motivation behind the development of some of these systems and devices. The same kind of critical reflection we have seen in relation to the ‘MOOC revolution‘…
Here’s one of the funny bits from the article, extrapolating from actually existing technologies into the more ridiculous:
The Internet of Things has already produced some cool-sounding devices. There is the tennis racket kitted out with motion sensors to help you improve your game. There’s the parking sensor that directs your satnav to an empty spot. The basketball that, when bounced on the floor, automatically tells your home entertainment setup to start playing basketball-related content. The bridge that tells people when it’s about to collapse. The smoke alarm that switches itself off and works in conjunction with your electrical outlets to burn you to death in your sleep because it has become jealous of your capacity for love. The remote cave that fills itself with bears and poisonous snakes whenever it detects that someone has started sleeping in it because they’ve convinced themselves that their entire house has grown sentient and suddenly turned against them. All sorts, really. It’ll be fun.
Its strange when you come across work that significantly overlaps your own and both the author of that work and you have been doing the work for a while and yet not consciously encountered one another… something about particular disciplinary contexts or discursive regimes going on perhaps (which is quite sad).
Anyway, through the wonders of twitter, I ran across the work of Laura Forlano in the guise of an article on ethnography matters, who is at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and, of course, has done the obligatory visiting scholarship with the Comparative Media Programme at MIT (discursive regimes, see?). Forlano attempts to conduct ethnographic research around future technologies. In many ways Forlano’s work echoes that of ‘futurologists’ like the commercial researchers at Institute for the Future, sniffing out ‘signals’ of potential futures and then working these up into articulations of a possible world. What is interesting about where Forlano goes with this work is that she is looking towards how to engage prospective ethnographic work around emergent practices and technologies with speculative design practice.
At the end of the article in ethnography matters Forlano makes some interesting assertions about the uses of ethnography and political importance of making one’s work relevant to, or the basis of, interventions in the world – its worth quoting at length here:
As ethnographers, it is not enough to describe social reality, to end a project when the last transcripts and field notes have been analyzed and written up. We must find new ways to engage and collaborate with our subjects (both human and nonhuman). We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large.
This is not to suggest that every ethnographer should do it all, or that ethnographers are not already traversing the boundaries between analyst, activist and artist. Most likely, our best work will be (and is already being) done in teams where description and analysis can inform design but at the same time, we can innovate within our own skillsets and practices. We can compare across our many field sites and topics and create design fictions that interrogate the issues and themes that come to the fore.
This will require new venues for publication (targeting both scholarly audiences and the broader public) and new criteria for gaining credit for our work. For example, how will an ethnographer’s work of design fiction be presented, peer-reviewed and published? Will it be in the form of a textual narrative, a series of photos or an exhibit of artifacts? As ethnographers from the future, it is our responsibility to find ways to move beyond existing social realities through the probing of alternative socio-technical realities in order to affect positive change in society and this, it seems, is a perfect job for speculative design.
What strikes me about Forlano’s interesting provocation here, beyond the echo of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, is two things:
1) I think this work is definitely already being done, which is in and of itself quite interesting. Design fiction and other speculative work has a good foothold in the academy around the world. For example, Anne Galloway’s recent work concerning speculative design practice for the New Zealand wool industry (see Anne’s own contribution to ethnography matters) and Chris Speed’s formulation of what he calls ‘design informatics‘. Furthermore, work by Lucy Suchman and others (who have worked in both/between academic and industrial research) around ethnomethodologies of prototyping and other speculative design practices offers a fairly rich conceptual basis to explore. Equally, this has fed into (activist) pedagogical innovation like the work of my colleague Ian Cook et al. with “follow the things“.
2) To ‘move beyond existing social realities… in order to affect positive change in society’ does, very much, need alternative means of engaging with the world, the means by which it is delineated and disciplined and this is requires more than dissemination and publishing of research results. To take Forlano’s provocation seriously we need more co-design, more contributive systems of working together, bridging disciplinary and other delineations, to forge action-research and knowledge exchange projects. I would suggest that this is exemplified in the working methods of the Pervasive Media Studio. Rapid, collaborative projects that act as a means of co-producing knowledge and new things in the world blur the kinds of disciplinary and discursive boundaries by which people and activities can be commonly categorised and separated. The co-production of knowledge in this way is more than ‘just’ publishing articles or patents, it is about making that knowledge operational [Both Simon Moreton and Jon Dovey have blogged about this on the Research and Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technologies (REACT) knowledge exchange hub website].
At the RGS-IBG annual conference at the end of August I presented a paper in the session ‘Smart Cities: discourses, policies, and technologies in the making’, convened by Ola Söderström and Francisco Klauser. It was an interesting a energetic session of critical discussion and analysis of the ways in which the idea of the ‘smart city’ is being freighted into marketing, policy, corporate strategy and, of course, into building projects.
My own contribution was a little divergent from the main thrust of the discussion, still focussing on the discursive regimes of the smart cities agenda(s) but looking at the kinds of spatial imaginary enacted in research and development that attempt to lend some materiality to the not-yet (potentially never) built. The presentation stems from some of my PhD work, which resulted in a paper called ‘Representing things to come‘. On the back of that work and a critical engagement with ideas around ‘design fiction’ I was invited to participate in a project for the ‘Open City’ strand of the European Capital of Culture Guimarães 2012 programme. Working with folks from the Pervasive Media Studio and filmmaker Geoff Taylor, we held a workshop with the citizens of Guimarães to think about ways of imagining alternative future ‘smart cities’. The result was a ‘design fiction’ film based on scenarios imagined during the workshop. You can find the film on the Open City website.
I have put a PDF of the conference paper up here.
The Conditions of Mediation conference held at Birkbeck on the 17th of June 2013 was an excellent, if very condensed, occasion for a variety of people interested in media theory, philosophies of/for media and in particular phenomenological understandings of mediation.
There was a series of interesting, and rather diverse, keynotes, including Graham Harman, Sean Moores and Lisa Parks and two slots of parallel paper sessions. I was pleased to be able to give a paper as part of this really interesting event, in the ‘Technics, Interface and Infrastructure’ paper session.
I spoke in the same session as James Ash, who presented a great paper synthesising a reading of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology, Jean-Luc Nancy’s vocabulary derived from music, and understandings of optics to interrogate understandings of ‘interface’. I was also hoping to speak alongside my former colleague Patrick Crogan, who spoke on a similar theme to my own paper. Patrick and I both addressed Bernard Stiegler’s reading of Husserl in relation to understandings of the perception of time and the processes of memory. Patrick has posted his excellent paper on the technophilia blog.
For those interested, I have provided a slightly cleaned up, and referenced(!), version of my paper below.