FROM THE GUARDIAN
There are two cities. There’s a city of people and cars, and a city of ones and zeros. This second city, this invisible city, grows with every tap-in, opt-in, jump-in, check-in, sign-up and tick-off. Every added location, pinned photo, Uber ride, Twitter post, every Tinder date builds up the city’s roads, nodes and alleyways. With every byte the invisible city swells.
How can we make the data-driven city a place for humans? How can we make sense of invisible structures and use technology to not only increase productivity and efficiency, but challenge power structures, foster communities and make space for individual voices? An increasing number of writers and artists are exploring these questions, in ways that range from telling stories through location tracking to using smartphones to infiltrate the financial industry.
In 2013, Sam Hill’s company Pan Studios, co-run with Ben Barker, set up a project called Hello Lamp Post in Bristol which lets people have SMS conversations with post boxes, bus stops and other street objects. To do this, the company hijacked the existing infrastructure of reference numbers found on the objects and used it to relay text messages.
“A lot of our ideas were founded upon an observation,” Hill says, “that many street objects have maintenance codes or serial numbers on the side – and that these could be used as analog, but tangible, location markers. From there we started thinking about space, memory and sharing – and that’s how we came to the idea of conversational objects.”
Chatting to street furniture proved popular, with more than 25,000 text messages sent over eight weeks. Last year the company followed this up with a project called A Fork in the Road, once again using a pre-existing system – this time the layout of the city itself. When A Fork in the Road ran in Indianapolis, players would use the grid system like a choose-your-own adventure storybook, with roads “re-appropriated as a platform for branching, forking storylines” and choices in the narrative made physically with choices in direction.
Mapping a playful alternative
Both Hello Lamp Post and A Fork in the Road take the city and add a playful layer of digital integration. They’re examples of a tendency towards appropriating systems of data, be it utility objects or road mapping. “The modern city is already so reliant on us collectively buying into a series of complex, interlinked beliefs and narratives,” Hill explains. “So why shouldn’t we opt in to some alternatives if they promise to be more fun?”
Weaving playful experiences into the fabric of the city is one thing, but what about confronting systems so complex that it’s hard to comprehend where they begin and end? The interactive theatre company Coney is aiming to do exactly this with Adventure 1, an immersive experience that encompasses email, smartphones and corporate infiltration to explore our relationship to the financial system.
“We’ve had a crash, an ideology of austerity that is being delivered to us now,” says co-director Tassos Stevens. “It has a massive impact and influence over all of our lives, yet we know very little about it, and our own positions in relation to it as a system.
“The market is becoming increasingly abstract and algorithmic and removed from the original idea of the market, where people trade face to face. We’re increasingly removed from something that’s real and about people.”
Using a smartphone both as a source of information and as a prop for blending in, players of Adventure 1 receive texts and audio files with instructions to tail someone who programmes code for the server rooms and data centres at the heart of the financial system. Players need to blend into the city around them, so that they don’t draw attention.
“It happens in a location, somewhere in the financial district of London,” Stevens explains. “We don’t have permission to be there and we would never get permission if we asked.”
This language of espionage frequently pops up in projects that intervene with the data-driven city. Coney’s infiltration adventure is one example, another is Dead Drops, a project set up by Aram Bartholl in New York that involves cementing USB drives into the walls of buildings. There’s a subversive pleasure in using technology in this way, both public and secret. Spies and detectives are, after all, power fantasies – figures able to command the city, make it comprehensible and use surveillance for their own ends.
‘We need to reconsider the data-driven city’
It’s understandable that projects seeking to subvert invisible systems of data will want to tap into these desires. And yet these fantasies, from chatting with lampposts to playing hide and seek with city bankers, are focused on individual empowerment. What happens when we look at digital empowerment on a community level?
Mara Balestrini, an expert in Human Computer Interaction who has worked on technological interventions with communities in both London and Barcelona, says we “need to reconsider what a data-driven city might mean, and how to better collect and represent data that’s meaningful to individuals and communities”.
While the idea of a smart city tends to revolve around using interconnected devices to increase the productivity of things like traffic management and rubbish collection, Balestrini’s approach focuses instead on how urban technologies can foster social interactions and community cohesion through playfulness, reflection and collective memory.
“I’m working with local communities to deploy off-the-shelf and affordable networks of sensors to collectively monitor the environment and tackle local issues like air quality or noise pollution,” Balestrini says.
“In other projects, such as CrowdMemo, I’ve worked with communities to use mobile phones and lightweight tech to preserve local heritage by embedding memories onto the facades of buildings, which are important for the community.”
Balestrini makes it clear that storytelling is a crucial part of her job. As Tassos Stevens noted about the financial system, we’re increasingly removed from something that’s real and about people. Storytelling is an important way to preserve that sense of humanity in the swelling mass of big data.
As the internet blurs the boundaries between communities bounded by geography and distributed communities of the post-internet world, projects like Balestrini’s CrowdMemo are encouraging social cohesion through cloud computing and collective memory.
Good old-fashioned psychogeography
One thing that connects all these projects is storytelling. As long as people live in it, the city will be a house of voices. Writers from Pepys to Dickens to Baudelaire to Iain Sinclair have sought to map cities on to pages, with the basic conviction that walking is narrative. Can we say the same thing about the digital city? How should writers map a city that’s unbound by physical geography?
Academic Tom Abba and artist collective Circumstance touched on this question in 2013 with These Pages Fall Like Ash, a project that used 15 Raspberry PIs to create an offline wireless network across Bristol. Readers received a physical notebook with a narrative, and filled in missing sections by visiting specific locations in Bristol and connecting to hidden computer networks.
“When people connected to it they were disconnected from their regular internet access,” Abba tells me. “By almost locking the data into physical locations we wanted to remind each person of their presence in the world … The more digitally mediated our lives become, the more we need to be reminded that those lives are made of people, and human connections.”
Combining digital dead drops with good old-fashioned psychogeography is one solution to mapping the invisible city, but Abba tells me it isn’t so much a question of chronicling either the digital or the physical, but the overlap between the two. “We all live between the digital and physical worlds – an ephemeral digital existence that records everything we do and preserves us in a kind of data-amber, and the physical world that the digital relies on in order to exist,” he says.
As Abba suggests, our modern city is an overlap between two cities: between the visible and invisible, the pavements and the hidden server rooms. This overlapping is at the heart of it all, perhaps at the heart of our century in general. We overlap webpages, images, messages, communities, stories and maps. Making our surroundings a better place means using this overlap to challenge, provoke and humanise, because we don’t live in one city or the other but somewhere between the two.
- Mara Balestrini and Pan Studio founder Ben Barker will both be talking at A Smart Portrait of London on 17 June as part of the Open City Documentary festival.