[iDC] Architecture and Situated Technologies - September Overture

Mark Shepard mshepard at andinc.org
Mon Sep 4 16:47:09 EDT 2006

Since the 1980s, computer scientists and engineers have been  
researching ways of embedding computational intelligence into the  
built environment. Researchers at Xerox PARC began to look beyond the  
model of personal computing, which placed the computer in the  
foreground of our attention, to one of “ubiquitous” computing that  
takes into account the contingencies of human environments and allows  
computers themselves to vanish into the background. As embedded  
microprocessors, GPS modules, RFID tags, environmental sensors, and  
material actuators are becoming available in ever smaller packages,  
this research agenda is fast becoming an implementable reality.

 From the NYPD using E-Z Pass records to track suspects on the run,  
to companies like Levi Strauss, Gillette, and Tesco pursuing item- 
level RFID tagging of their products, to New Songdo in South Korea -  
the $25 billion dollar ubicomp city being constructed 40 kilometers  
south of Seoul, the applications of embedded, networked computation  
are by now nothing new.

So what do we make of it? How might our discussions over the past two  
months around Responsive Architecture, Locative Media, and  
Participation in the Networked Public Sphere help "situate" our  
thinking about these emerging conditions?

With the dawn of the age of an "Internet of things", new challenges  
emerge for how we both design and inhabit the built environment. In a  
near-future world where everyday objects and spaces are networked  
with computational intelligence, where the “users” of the Internet  
are projected to number in the billions and where humans quite  
possibly become a minority as generators and receivers of  
information, where "things" (be they products, automobiles, building  
facades, or cities) become imbued with agency, identifying the  
opportunities and dilemmas for design in this speculative future is  
more important than ever.

To the extent that corporations and federal agencies are responsible  
for developing these new technologies, we can expect to see new forms  
of consumption and control gain momentum. The current power struggle  
over file-sharing, copy-protection and regulation of the wireless  
spectrum highlights the dilemma. To what degree will people be  
empowered to share, participate and create using these technologies?  
To what degree will their power be limited to consumption? What new  
forms of control are enabled?

Of course, this future could also turn out to be simply not that  
interesting. Finding ways to debunk the hype and hysteria associated  
with these coming techno-socio-material assemblages is as important  
as projecting alternate future possibilities. If anything, as Eric  
Paulos has suggested elsewhere, perhaps most tragic would be that  
this future turns out to be quite boring. Who really needs a more  
optimal, efficient life? Who needs yet another confectionary spectacle?

As we enter the third and final month of the Architecture and  
Situated Technologies discussion, I propose mapping out a near-future  
design agenda for a world of networked objects and spaces. How do we  
avoid the traps of a utopic futurology? Taking up Bruce Sterling's  
call for a "Metahistory" with an expiry date, and recalling Usman's  
charge that the architect's ability to think meta-systemically is  
"both a bug and a feature", what new sites of practice, research  
vectors, and working methods can we stake out for the confluence of  
Architecture and Situated Technologies?

Building on the past two months of discussion, one way to start might  
be to dig deeper into the threads on:

+	Responsive Architecture, the current status of the material object,  
forms of embodied interaction, and the role of second-order  
cybernetic theory as a means to engage both the environment and the  
occupant as participants in the design and production of the built  

+	Locative Media and its focus on mobility and play in urban  
environments, on collaborative authoring and its relation to an  
archaeological understanding of place and context, and on engaging a  
"mass" audience by working with consumer technologies and redirecting  
their power,

+	Social Media and the Networked Public Sphere, how certain  
participatory structures can either enhance or inhibit how people  
connect, share and engage through network technologies, how is this  
networked sociality is different for wired and wireless modes of access.

By mining the claims, aspirations, successes and failures of these  
related practices, how might we distill some of the salient fault  
lines and lines of flight into a not-to-distant future reality?

mark shepard

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