March 14: Observing + Operationalizing Spatial Intelligences II: Illustrations + Interfaces, Kits + Guides

Ruben Pater, Drone Survival Guide


(Sorry there’s so much of me! I just happen to have collected lots of relevant examples in these essays.)



Lab: In today’s class, we’ll split into small groups to study and critique a few projects (you needn’t review the following materials before class):

Imaginaries + Interfaces

Gadgets, Kits + Guides


Supplemental Resources:

  • Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  • Carl Abbott, Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2016).
  • Martijn de Waal, The City as Interface: How New Media Are Changing the City (nai010, 2014).
  • Carla Leitão and Ed Keller, “Drive,” Volume 49: Learning Network (November 2016).
  • Shannon Mattern, “Methodolatry and the Art of Urban Measure,” Places Journal (November 2013).

14 Replies

  • “Every time we send a message, make a call, or complete a transaction, we leave digital traces behind.” As Ratti describes it, we are amassing a variety of data all the time that, if more thoroughly understood and classified in more transparent detail, could lead to many helpful, educational, or even life saving new technologies. With projects like Treepedia and HubCab, opportunistic data can be turned into emissions-curbing studies to inform future projects and decisions about urban design, planning, transportation, and growing climate needs.

    However, if we are also subsequently producing “a complete digital copy of our physical universe,” are there things we cannot use sensors and bluetooth trackers to measure that might be left out of our “memory of the world?” As Jane Rendell suggests, recent shifts in the study of architectural design and other fields are now incorporating techniques and methodologies borrowed from anthropology. In particular, the recent “ethnographic turn that has reoriented so many disciplines” could potentially be understood as a response to the data culling that is writing the complete works of our world’s memory. While the methodologies and ethics of ethnography studies will surely be useful for surveying the field of data being collected and reflected in our new technologies, what if this ethnographic turn is merely a remedy for the symptoms than it is a cure for the disease? What is and is not included in our memory of the world is currently defined by what can be sensed, measured, or digitally archived. Therefore, ethnography plays the role of providing a voice to the voiceless, working with communities, underrepresented or overlooked populations to include their history, work, and voices in our digital copy of the world. But, if the issues of accessibility, representation, and implicit bias are not addressed in the concurrent designing of our digital world, won’t the problem continue in new designs and technologies? Isn’t the application of ethnography methods, no matter how sophisticated or well informed, just a band aid for a fatal wound?

    • Thanks, Kathryn! You’re right: ethnography is often presented as the antidote, or supplement, to data-driven methods. And as you point out, both methodological approaches have to grapple with issues of representation and bias. What’s more, ethnography itself has often been fetishized and aestheticized, as discussed in some of our articles for this week.

  • Is an overabundance of data just as paralyzing as a paucity of data? Carlo Ratti invokes the great Italo Calvino, whose novels often showcase metanarrative, and brings up the premonition of ‘a complete digital copy of our physical universe’. This theme was touched on again in the recent film Annihilation where, without spoiling anything, the human subject becomes unsure whether she truly exists or is a facsimile produced by a sentient, weaponized ‘smartness’. Humans have been skeptical, quixotic, pollyannish, you-name-it about the nature of our existence, our reality – but in a world where the digital is rapidly engulfing the analogue, what does this mean for humans, corporeally and mentally?

    David Cameron said he could run his government from a smartphone. Cities all over the world are opting for the ‘dashboard’ model of city governance, relying on data either mined or generated by citizens. While reducing everything to an easily monitored, quantifiable metric would make for a much easier task at City Hall, the tension between analogue and digital isn’t going to be mitigated with a keystroke. I think of our subway in New York, driven by obsolete technology but still (mostly) functional. Massive overhauls would benefit New Yorkers, but the monetary, structural, and implementary issues keep us married to the status quo. Can city dashboards, with endless streams of data, be boiled down to a consumable, day-to-day ‘intelligence’ that will benefit individuals, rather than just those with the ability and access to decode this data? Will the ‘fetishization of data as a monetizable resource’ (Mattern) reconstitute our humanity – will we become more ‘valuable’ for our data readings than our individual agency? Is our modern walk ‘through the cloud’ our modern version of Meursault walking on the beach? Alexa, who am I?

    • Thanks, Tim! I’m glad you highlighted the issues of fetishism and egocentrism — and how our data displays serve as as “proxies” for our values.

  • In 1971, Salvador Allende (then Marxist and President of Chile) allocated unprecedented capital to establish the first fully cybernetic governing technologies. In an attempt to coordinate the management of the nation’s economy, “Project Cybersyn” networked communication and information, systematized across utilities, localized to one control room of dashboards, monitors and buttons. Cybersyn ideally would control the daily routine of the economy – able to detect failure across, yet more importantly to predict outcomes of certain economic interests. The map continues to become the territory: leveling out inconsistencies, the cybernetic network’s ability to “steer” the flows of the economy was apt for the dispersed Chilean economy of resource mining, factory production; while the economic extraction/production was not under question, the communicative apparatus of information was: shortages (droughts, famines) – man-made and random – all haunted the Chilean landscape, already on shaky geopolitical ground, Allende (the good socialist he was) needed investment in the future…

    The integration of the dashboard – its stationed mobility and compatibility across platforms – gave rise to many interface effects: proximity, pleasure, immediacy, kinesthetic, tactile. But arguably as necessary, the Telex devices – nearly 500, as Eden Medina writes, ‘pre-fax machines’ – were vital to looping information from the nodes to “the Opsroom” – incidentally appearing as on-set of the then recent Kubrick’s “2001.” Perhaps at this moment, cybernetics on the ground + a politics, was not as futurist as Kubrick, Gibson, Baudrillard et. al. lead on – not yet designating something immediately different than the present, but consolidated to a language of the analog. to think of this Chilean cybernetic as analog, Shannon writes:

    “The final “data” wall featured a large metal surface, covered with fabric, on which users could rearrange magnetic icons that represented components of the economy. The magnets offered an explicit means of analog visualization and play, yet even the seemingly interactive “datafeed” screens were more analog than they appeared. Although the screens resembled flat-panel LCDs, they were actually illuminated from the rear by slide projectors behind the walls.”

    Even in the most futurist of scenarios in the 1970s – of which the entire economy is controllable in one computational room – the digital is yet to appear. What is the relation between orienting oneself to the future, its efficiency, immediacy, connectivity, and “the digital” ? Arguably unthinkable today, a futurist analog has no place. (which connects to the previous piece on the analog in “Code and Clay, Data and Dirt” but also mid-century examples from Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think.”) How can we think communication, analogical? Cybernetics has never not iterated communication and control, a universal language to study the machine and the human’s place near it. Somewhere else, but near to the timeline of Cybersyn, philosophy will annotate cybernetics as the completion of metaphysics in how it orders systematization and predicts possibly potential. Yet in this 1970s burnt-orange, earth-toned and rusted room, cybernetics was not much more than a prefiguration of dial-up Internet.

    • Great, Leo. Thank you! Your comments here continue some of the themes you addressed last week, particularly regarding the past, present, and future of furturism itself — and what role media, both analog and digital (from architecture to dial-up modems to haptic interfaces), play in those imaginaries.

  • From the implications for citizenship through passport designs, to the role of visualizing complex systems for public civic engagement, to deconstructing the invisible cloud through material infrastructural tourism to ground ourselves in its process, this week’s readings all discussed the role disseminating information, and how this disseminated information reflects certain ideologies depending on the mechanisms used. As someone who seeks to understand ‘design’ from an outside perspective of design, I hadn’t given much thought towards the methods of relaying a visual or invisible message. For example, when considering the ideology of dashboards, it’s very interesting to consider the immediate sci-fi vision of progress that has melded a once dirt-covered object into one of marketability. Instantly, I associate the future of dashboards (within my already colonized mind) with sci-fi visions of invisible dashboards in which the virtual data is completely integrated into the built environment, such as Google Glass. In this way, the aggregation and data collection is as much a part of the environment as an extension of it. Layered. Yet, invisible. The permeability of this data seems to suggest an inherent transparency, despite it possibly only being a surface level interpretation of the data, omitting its sourcing, aggregation, and use. We demand an increased transparency to give institutions accountability, but what does this actually mean? As Kitchen notes in Shannon’s piece, having data for the sake of data at our fingertips is empowering, but how useful is it without the education and understanding of these metrics and instruments? These readings all reflect an understanding that the invisible ideology is just as important as what is physically represented or subjectively conveyed, whether through the cloud mechanisms or the design of a passport. The perception and interpretation (very subjective and human components) have a paramount importance within this context. Within this very “mutable, portable and transient infrastructure” ((Mattern) (such as, “the internet of things”) it becomes even more important to understand the degree of interpretation, and possibly the role of AWARENESS involved in this system.

    Even as I type these thoughts, from my brain synapses, into my fingertips, onto my keyboard, into the software and through the hardware, into my Notes which is synched to my phone and then shows up in the comments of a webpage, I have already traversed a world of conflicting ideologies from the physical material supply chains to my conception of what virtual even is and means. Yet, this entire moment is so engrained into my daily life I hardly ever take a moment to step back and understand how engrained these processes are, and how the transmission and role of invisible ideologies or information are helping to shape this cultural landscape even in this moment. Super interesting to pause and think about the role of awareness within all of this transparency and yet buried information.

    • Fabulous, Irie. You’ve highlighted the importance of recognizing the whole “stack” of hardware and software and codes and protocols that determines what “intelligence” we can harvest from the world, and how we can render it intelligible and make it “actionable.” I’m glad this week’s readings gave you an opportunity to think about the ways in which your quotidian digital tasks draw upon this whole global network of “smart” machines 🙂

  • There were several interesting projects discussed in the readings this week. As someone who used to study nationalism, I found the Citizenship by Design project a really interesting way to articulate the differential rights accorded to different passport-holders, and it reminded of the Stateless Passport project Elektra KB exhibited in the Armory show.
    The discussion of Chile’s failed Cybersyn system is also fascinating – a sort of Potemkin data visualization where seemingly digital screens have to be manually updated and projected onto a screen. This makes me wonder how much of the interfaces and widgets we look at today are similarly Potemkin visualizations that obscure muddy data. The dashboards claim to provide information gathered from quantified data documenting the social world (without accounting for the difficulty in operationalizing social phenomena with numbers) but they don’t provide any assurances of the quality of the data. As Mattern points out, we lose a lot of context that is important for meaning-making when we exclude the muddy data.
    I also find it interesting that many widgets provide very simplistic, qualitative information (an engine light turning on or off, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down for a state’s performance) derived from quantitative data. What is lost, added, obscured, or invented in the move from qualitative to quantitative and back again? How can this be communicated, or why would it be excluded from dashboards? This seems particularly salient as “toolbox” dashboards are being created and spreading to different data environments where users may have very limited understanding of the bias built into the dashboard w/r/t the type of data it can process.
    Finally, the use of dashboards changes notions of expertise in really important, if not yet fully understood ways. Mattern notes the importance of “a cultural receptivity to data-driven methodologies and modes of assessment” for the successful adoption of dashboards, but this cultural shift towards a belief in the superiority of decisions informed with objective data directly opposes the logic of professionalization and expertise, which is essentially a bias developed through training and practice in the field. Presently, experts are using the dashboards to make decisions rather than a completely automated data-driven decision-making, and there are certainly problems of narrowed vision in expertise, but the shift towards greater reliance on data-driven decision-making could potentially reduce accountability – how would we hold a machine responsible for a faulty analysis leading to the wrong decision?

    • Excellent, Zoe. Thank you. I’m glad you raised these questions about expertise. What happens to experience and expertise when professionals delegate responsibility, and accountability, to a machine — or when highly specialized tools are sold as user-friendly kits, or when major tech companies sell “AI as a service.”

  • I was interested in this week’s discussion of the urban dashboard and the ideologies of observation that go with it.The fixation on hyper-visible data streams in the smart city lies somewhere between being interesting and being creepy, to me. One concern is that about panopticism and surveillance, but there’s also the unsettling “fetishization of data as a ‘monetizable’ resource and a positivist epistemological unit”- the desire to record all important variables in order to ‘optimize’ them most efficiently. This can be seen on the scale of the city, as in the urban dashboard, but it can also be seen at the scale of the human body, which I find interesting and unsettling.

    We’re in an era where recording granular data about the functioning of your own body is increasingly possible and increasingly valued. Every night I have my phone record my sleep cycles so that it can wake me up at the most optimal time. Any number of smart watches and fitbits can be connected to apps that will help you optimize your fitness. You can even get a pavlovian bracelet that shocks you in order to help you build better habits.

    These devices can be helpful, sure. And monitoring my sleep cycles is kind of fun. But I’m also wary of the type of positivist thinking they put into place at the scale of the human body. Like cities, bodies are messy things – not linear, not easy to read or to optimize. As André Lepecki writes about an art project I love, Prospectus for a Future Body, bodies (and cities) are made of “inevitable deviation, unavoidable disturbance, permanent noise.” A joyful thing to remember about bodies is that “sometimes bodies do break apart, are always breaking apart, that all dancing is break-dancing, and that all minds forget, and that forgetting is the precondition for the unexpected, the crack through which irresistible wishes and improper desires creep in.”

    Both on the scale of the city and the scale of the body, I think its important to have ideologies that counter the rhetoric of the urban dashboard. Visualized and highly visible data streams can be useful and interesting. But my ideal urban environment is one in which things never become too optimized, and in which cracks and irregularities remain.

    • Beautiful, Julia. There’s a long history of theory connecting bodies and cities. This might be an interesting area to explore for your final project 🙂

  • It is impressive how everything we do, think, talk about or create becomes part of an immersive universe full of data. The statement done by Shannon where she recalls that this is not the first Information Age is something I was thinking throughout all the readings for this week. Data discoveries have always existed in every culture around the globe. The creation of new civilizations and the evolution of the same ones create a source of data and it is because of this information we have been able to grow as communities and increase our culture and knowledge. I do believe that we are in an era where data is not only being discovered, but it’s being used for the first time. A big discovery of our era is how any data can be used to discover or work on new things. But how far can that data take us?

    The reliability of visual data can be either part of a great discovery or just moving us backward. The visualization of not only monitoring the current situation but also taking actions and make provisions is the right way of taking advantage of all the data we are producing. It is true that during 2016 alone we produced as much information as it was created on human history, but how much of this information is worth looking at? We are living in a time where most of our data is just trash. Weather is about a social media post, or the journalism war where everyone wants to be the first one on giving the news, we are just filling the virtual cloud full of needless information. I think Richard Buckminster Fuller was very accurate at calling it a world of “utopia or oblivion”. If we don’t control how our information is being produced and shared we are going to end up floating on trash data. Whether it is opportunistic data, user-generated or purposely sensed, we have to create better filters to save all that information. The creation of constant data has helped to develop better researches and to engage deeper in investigations. The way we acquire information has become more effective and active for users. But how easy will it be to find any piece of information if we fill our clouds with unnecessary information in a future? We have to be more selective with the data we preserve to continue creating a could full of reliable data.

    • Thanks, Rose! I’m afraid this is coming a bit late, so I won’t be able to include your comments in our handout today. You raise some important questions about the archive-ability, find-ability, and use-ability of all the data we’re generating. Maybe, as you propose, not everything’s worth preserving.

      I’d also be curious to hear a bit more about this: “I do believe that we are in an era where data is not only being discovered, but it’s being used for the first time.” What about early scientific research, the eugenicists of the 19th century, all those historical urban design and management projects we discussed in week 4? Do you not think they were using the data they discovered?

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