SIGNALS

Signal 001: The Tree of Life Shooting

I started writing this signal about IBM’s Cognitive Candy device … but trying to care about a device that decides whether to give children candy or not based on cute conversations was a bridge too far for my cognitive machinery as I watched the events unfold on Saturday.

I’ll start by acknowledging that my fundamental aim here, to describe the Tree of Life shooting as a signal of connected homes and smart cities is a pretty tenuous place to start which must stretch the limits of your ability to suspend disbelief. Thanks for being patient and taking this journey with me, it is something I need to do.

In order to maintain at least a semblance of sticking to the intent of this assignment, I’ll focus on the way that the event penetrated and pervaded my life through the unavoidable mass of communications infrastructure that has embedded itself in every part of my life.

Relentless Accessibility

I woke up and went to the gym like it was a normal day. But on the way, I received a series of texts from the CMU alert system. Now realistically, I completely ignore these 100% of the time. But something caught my attention this time: “Tree of Life Synagogue” … “Active shooter”. Wow that’s really close, in fact I’ve been there several times when I’m trying to still maintain some semblance of my former life before grad school crushed all social and community activities that I participate in.

I’ll flag this as the first evidence of a “signal”. Without my participation, approval, or consent of any kind, the school is able to access my consciousness anywhere, at any time, for any reason.

Now, I’m not complaining about that. In this case they’re using it to keep me safe and informed, what makes this relevant to what I want to talk about in this class is the fact that I can’t avoid it. The school, and as we’ll see a great many others, have a direct link to my mind that I can’t get away from.

Pervasive Information Flow

I get into the gym, feeling disturbed, but the news is so fresh and I’m on autopilot so strongly that it doesn’t really derail my momentum. I hop on the stair stepper to warm up and the TV is showing PGH SWAT rolling up on the outside of the synagogue that I know. They’re not there to fuck around either, full combat armor, M4s, UMP-45s, battering rams, breaching equipment, heavy explosive shields, and armored vans are in evidence as another part of the story hits me: 2 policemen and two SWAT team members are down. I’ve never even seen SWAT team members in action before, let alone heard of them being taken down. I look outside and see Pittsburgh PD officers standing outside the gym. The school is locked down … right … that’s what it said in my text. Wow.

The Communication Network

The point of this isn’t the drama, it’s the fact that there is an inescapable, fully coordinated flow of information which is perfectly in sync with real events as they unfold. Access to the story appears in complete lockstep with the actual events as they unfold. I knew that this was the world we lived in, but it’s different when it involves people and a place that you know. The communication pervasion just seems different. It’s crazy. Unearthly.

Personal Connection

At this point my day mostly fell apart, I didn’t know what to do really. But then I received a text from a close friend “Vigil for the victims of the shooting earlier FYI, Murray and Forbes.” This is from a friend of mine who is quite politically active, I would hazard to say that activism dominates his life. Usually I don’t participate in the things he suggests but I didn’t really know what else to do, so I hopped in my car and went. I just wanted to be around people who understood what I was feeling.

The Watchers

There was a huge crowd of people, some of them clearly jewish like me, in shock about what happened. But there were so many others, so many who clearly weren’t. I hadn’t expected that. As I was wandering confused down the middle of Murray avenue surrounded by candle holding people that I had never met, I heard an extremely loud voice. Standing on a rise in the 6th Avenue Presbyterian was a reporter yelling into the camera describing the scene with gusto, confidence, and a complete lack of regard for the quiet mood of contemplation which clearly had ahold of every other human being there. I remember glancing at someone standing near me as we both stared at the reporter continuing his non-stop, invasive narration. I guess the world has to have to some way to be a part of this from the outside? That’s what our connected city and connected life is built on. The entire mass of humanity able to penetrate even the most sacred moments at will. On a whim. For passing entertainment ... now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to look down on that reporter and the hungry masses of watchers behind the camera lens. He’s doing his job, and I’m sure this is interesting to watch from the outside. That pervasive level of access is just a disturbing reality of the post-modern city I guess. It’s weird to be the news.

Haunting Echos From the Past

Before the speakers went on, I heard a soft unified noise start to build in the crowd, a strangely familiar tune. “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ecḥad…” And I remembered. I know those words. I know that tune. I know that song. I sang it every week from the time I was a child until I was sixteen years old. Sung by strangers I’ve never known in the middle of a street in Pittsburgh, organized by a grassroots network of people that I don’t understand how I’m related to that I happened to hear about through a text, being filmed for national consumption by squads of reporters hoping to boost their failing business with dramatic footage. I was transported back to the soft multi-colored light filtering through the colored glass bricks in the wall of my home temple in Maryland, a child singing words that I only partially understood, words that have been sung by my ancestors for so many generations that it’s not possible to document. And I remembered them all. Every word, every tune, every prayer. Songs that I didn’t even know I knew. Brought back to me through this strange post-modern panopticon.

What Are We Here For … ?

Toward the end of the ceremony, I remember someone getting on the mic and screaming “Now go out there and vote! This is why we need to vote, right?!” The crowd was completely silent. No response. I remember feeling confused. What does 11 jews and 4 first responders being shot have to do with voting? Is this a political event? Wasn’t the man who shot those people rabidly anti-trump? How is it even possible that I know the political beliefs of the person who committed the crime? Why does everything have to be an expression of politics, a moment for your side to get ahead in the midterm?

Is there any human expression left for us to experience that isn’t exploited by technology, journalism, media, and politics?

I don’t know the answer, but looking around at the confusion, distaste, and silence emanating from my fellow mourning strangers in the crowd, I knew that they needed a sense of humanity which simply cannot be provided by mass media, yet is inextricably tangled in it. How did we all know to come here to be together? The same thing that leaves us feeling disturbed now.

transformative lampshade from the Morphing Matter Lab

SIGNAL 002 LIVING AND MOVING

I’d like to try to kludge together several recent(ish) things in order to think about what smart means in the context of environments. Below are four things: the Morphing Matter Lab Thermorph project, HOK’s drone portable pod hotel, Penda’s expandable bamboo hotel, and WSP’s TetraPod hotel.

I like all of these things because they’re all a bit weird. But I’m actually interested in the idea of weird squared, or how strange can we make things one day and what would that look like?

Intelligence and Movement

What brings these four projects together is movement. Each of the hotels features some kind of interpretation of a moving architecture. Whether it’s expanding and collapsing or literally flying to new and rarified environments, they are each an answer to the question: what if living spaces could move?

I include the Thermorph project because it gives me solid footing to stand on to say that things can get much weirder than the level of crazy that these other admirably strange visions have managed to achieve.

The idea of hotel pods is fine, but I’m thinking about these as models for personal homes actually. If you wanted your home to move, possibly in an intelligent(..?) manner, what would you want it to do?

Unfolding

Perhaps it could burrow underground at night and cover you in layers of soft, audio dampening opaque material to help you sleep. Unfolding and turning transparent in the morning, like an odd flower or seed pod opening in super fast motion.

Flying?

Or maybe you’re into the lazy and whimsical dirigible home which wafts you to work or school in the morning so that the entire idea of commuting is eradicated from your life. You just wake up, make breakfast and walk straight out of your home front door into your office.

Morphing

Or perhaps we could have a fully flexible space which could shape itself to any position or arrangement of your body in order to fully enable reading, or viewing, or interaction.

Most of the time, when we talk about something being smart, we mean that has computation involved. But I wonder if movement can’t be a form of intelligence as well. If it is, how do we want our things to move?

SIGNAL 003 CUBE ROVER

Authority or Agency?

This week we watched Fahrenheit 451 and The Hunger Games, and we talked about truly titanic robotic ventures with Red Whittaker. I was trying to grasp what the connection between these two classes might be. I’m sure they’re presented together mostly because of the contingencies of scheduling but I wonder if I can construct a commonality of some kind between dystopia and Red Whittaker, it should be fun even if unsuccessful.

At a high level, the most obvious connection is a polar contrast of agency. In the worlds described by the two dystopic films, the central forces are on a mission to use technology to crush individual human agency, to standardize, mold, and dominate the human will. Red’s presentation was a exhibition of the human will unleashed through technology.

Both of these visions hold possible dangers. It’s useful to imagine the dystopic version of Red’s world where the worst impulses of human nature are materialized through technological democratization. Being able to design and print your own bacteria seems like such a charming capability to give people until you imagine it in the hands of terrorists bent on tearing our civilization apart.

It is also possible [pronounced unlikely] to imagine the benevolent centralized techno-authoritarian regime. In some ways I think this is the future that our prized big tech companies imagine that they work towards. “Just trust us, we’ll build the world you want, all you have to do is come play and live in our ecosystem.” But it stretches the limits of my cognition to imagine a world in which so few have so much power and manage not to abuse it. All of human history argues that this future is highly improbable at best.

So my signal this week is about the Cube Rover, which I think is good example of the uncertain but potentially beautiful future that awaits us. The idea of democratizing access to research opportunities on the moon is beautiful. But sometimes I wonder what we would end up choosing to use that power for? Is it a good idea to give people access to other planets? How will our lives change when we have this access?

We’re rapidly moving toward an era in which access to other planets is no longer the dominion of just national space agencies. The cube rover is a tiny, and weirdly cute harbinger of the flood of humanity that awaits the silent planetscapes throughout our solar systems.

SIGNAL 004 AMAZON HQ2

New York and Crystal City were chosen as Amazon’s new HQ locations, and although there’s lots interesting to consider in the relationship between Amazon and these locations, I’d like to take a quick look at what the losing cities were willing to offer. I believe there is something telling in the rejected proposals.

Mongomery County Maryland

MoCo, the lovely place that I grew up in offered 6.5 billion in tax credits and 2 billion in infrastructure to renovate the White Flint mall. Aside from the mind-boggling amount of money involved here, I also find it fascinating that Maryland offered White Flint mall. Were they planning to just terminate all of the businesses that currently inhabit the space? I’m not saying I’m a huge fan of White Flint mall, but this does seem to be akin to the way the Sidewalk/Toronto deals got made. Behind closed doors, affecting large numbers of people, and with 0 genuine consideration for the needs of the population already in place. Currently this seems to be a defining feature of smart cities and tech companies in general: zero consideration need be given to the lives of the affected population at large.

Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Philly offered 5.7 billion dollars total in tax credits and “tax increment financing” in addition to 100 million for transportation revamping. This offer is enjoyably nebulous and brings up some interesting political territory. Some of these offers clearly indicate that the money is in the form of a tax credit. This is dubious for sure, but I can see how there is an argument that this is just because theoretically the company will bring great value to the city. However it starts to get a little more sketchy when the plan says “tax increment financing”. I’ve googled that and I still have no idea exactly what it means, which I presume is on purpose. But it’s clear that this is actually a payment to the company itself. This might seem fine on the surface, except when you start to ask “where does that money come from?”. The government is paying Amazon, which means that the government is taxing citizens to pay Amazon, which really means that the local population is being forced to pay for the privilege of having Amazon live in Philly. Philly locals would have simply learned about this after the fact with no input. It must feel quite amazing for those politicians to be able to pay for things they want with other people’s money and not even have to consult them.

The Pattern

So I won’t go through all of them, I think MoCo and Philly are probably the most telling. There’s a larger pattern here that relates to our smart cities topic overall. Molly Sauter described a situation in which the populace of Toronto are just pawns being used by both Google and the Canadian government. Unfortunately I see the same thing here with Amazon. Elected officials both Democrat and Republican just falling over themselves to offer the spoils of their own citizens to rich tech companies who simply buy whatever and whomever they please. It’s disappointing to see that this is the philosophy that the smart cities of the future will be built upon.

SIGNAL 005 TESLA 3 FEATURES

I know that Tesla is a little overhyped and over discussed, but I drove the model 3 for the first time and it’s actually crazy! Aside from being genuinely dangerously fast, it had some interesting features that caught my eye in relation to the topics that we touch on in this class.

Summon Mode

The car can be activated remotely (unremarkable) and drive itself to you using your geolocation (very remarkable!). It can even unpark itself from a parallel parking spot to come get you. Planned future improvements include the ability to park itself on autopilot, which relieves the user of the need to deal with any of the nonsense of parking, which is honestly pretty delightful. I imagine a strange cityscape of cars forlornly parking themselves and waiting for their masters to be finished with fancy brunch.

Street Signs

It’s all well and good for the vehicle to park itself, but how will it know about the zones and various byzantine rules that govern parking? I can’t even figure this out myself frequently so this seems like a non-trivial challenge. This is where another interesting capability of the car comes in: it can read street signs (!!!). Currently it can only read speed limit signs, at first I thought the dashboard UI was using geolocation and maps to look up what the local speed limit is, but I was wrong. The car uses computer vision to recognize the physical signs in the world and then reads them out to you, it’s pretty wild. I don’t think it can do parking signs yet, but there’s no reason it couldn’t in the future.

This raises some interesting points: could you hack this system in the future? What if I want to stop everyone from parking on my block, so I put up some decent looking renegade street signs? That might be fun (and probably highly illegal and dangerous).

Addendum: Response to Michael Robinson

Do you need to know how to code in order to make a contribution as a designer to AI driven autonomous vehicles? Michael says no, but he also mentioned that in spite of being ahead of his time, a lot of his ideas did not get any traction. I wonder if part of the problem was that he was only able to manifest his ideas as sketches, as opposed to higher fidelity prototypes? Currently, my point of view (subject to revision at any time) is that as a designer, the more you know about computation and code, the more relevant you can be to the conversation when it’s time to decide what to do. Knowledge of material is a critical designedly capacity, and since we’re talking about coded artifacts, it must be critical for designers to know as much about code as they are able to.

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Adrian Galvin

Adrian Galvin

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design • science • visualization • illustration • jiu jitsu