One area full of possibilities for exploration within media studies is the incorporation of technology into the physical environment that surrounds. The constant connectivity of modern (or postmodern) life presents unique challenges when attempting to harness the technology to improve the spaces we inhabit in the “real-world.”
Many of the pieces in “Toward The Sentient City”, currently an exhibition on display at The Architectural League in New York, imagine an interaction between ubiquitous computing and architecture that is based on future techno-social questions and the conflicts that may arise out of them.
Of the all works on display one of my favorites has to be “Too Smart City,” an astutely designed and philosophically rigorous installation, investigating a world where public street signs and benches have become intelligent robotic systems.
The contemporary street furniture comes fully imbued with a futuristic sense of ambient infomatics and augmented reality, offering a window into possible applications of a more interactive and solutions based real-time environment. The Smart Bench, responds to the problem of vagrancy by being able to literally dump people who sit on the bench too long.
Meanwhile, The Smart Trashcan analyzes trash and intelligently, albeit rudely, throws the recycled material back at the offender.
Finally, The Smart Sign displays legal code and responds to passerby’s with direct response warnings or prompts.
In theory all three pieces are intelligent situated technologies designed to provide public services in an incredibly efficient and unbelievably personalized way. Whether it’s solving urban problems of homelessness, lack of recycling, or personal public safety, enforcing normative social codes for the betterment of society seems the ultimate affordance built into each piece of furniture.
At first glance the street furniture seems to appear benign at best and mundane at worst, technology interacting and ultimately improving the surrounding environment. However, a closer look at the exhibit presents the systems as authoritarian, non-functional, and ultimately politicized. Initial approval is soon turned into reproach as the technologies assert too much control over their environments and present a public space gone wrong when designed by optimistic technophiles.
The work, developed by JooYoun Paek and David Jimison, is ultimately successful because it erects a future physical environment in which the technological and social are put at odds despite the overwhelming desire to connect.
Clearly, “Toward The Sentient City” curator Mark Shepard was interested in
presenting arguments beyond techno-determinist binaries that “either champions or laments” the future projected impact of situated technologies. By including “Too Smart City”, the show crafts a clever message asking us to consider the design criteria needed for interacting with an urban mediated environment that could be too smart for its own good.