“Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” On art, smart cities and bringing people together

Voiceover in action in East Durham. Image: Richard Kenworthy.

As our world becomes increasingly influenced by data and networked technologies; as real time sensors stream from buildings, streets and mobile devices, informing us about what’s happening right now; and as our micro-decisions interact more and more with the micro-decisions of others, being meaningfully and consciously engaged with each other and the world around us might seem increasingly elusive.

The volume of data, and the variety of decisions that need to be made, can seem almost overwhelming. And so, introducing technological systems seems like an obvious answer.

Technologies like smart thermostats are supposed to help our homes decide, on our behalf, the right moment to switch on the heating. Automation systems driving our cars, or executing trades on the stockmarket, or managing our city infrastructures, or distinguishing criminals in crowds, or guiding our economies... All of these deal with masses of data, and complex interactions between all sorts of phenomena, much more quickly and, in a sense, more accurately than humans can.

But each of these technologies was designed. That means that somebody somewhere, some group of people, with their own perspectives and worldviews, made the most important decision of all – they decided, defined and designed the goals each of these systems should strive for.

The plan for VoiceOver. Image: Richard Kenworthy. 

Somebody somewhere decided on a definition for optimisation, or a definition of efficiency, or a definition of safety, of risk, of certainty. They decided how to evaluate progress towards a goal. They also decided precisely how goals would get encoded into algorithms – the set of rules used to derive solutions, or make decisions.

But goals are designed – they’re crafted, if you will – and crafting means that they reflect something about their designer, and the designer’s own worldview.

All too often the design of such technologies is done behind closed doors. Whether it’s driverless cars, or smart homes in smart cities, or curated news items in social media – other people, in companies driven by their own commercial requirements or organisations with their own unspoken objectives are making countless non-consensual decisions on our behalf.

The case for togetherness

We, the citizens, need to be involved collectively in helping shape the technologies that govern our lives. They are going to affect how and where we live, and what we do from minute to minute and so we all need to be part of the conversation. There is no single definition of “efficiency”, or “optimisation”, or “convenience”, or “comfort”. Or “terrorist” for that matter.

Technology is equally an outcome of, and a defining factor in the development of our social structures: it both affects and is affected by the societies we live in and the ones we want to create. The kinds of technology we hear about today are often good for doing things quickly, for controlling things or responding to large volumes of data. That means they are good if you have a clear definition of efficiency, and if you have decided that efficiency is what you’re after. In many cases that makes them good, unintentionally or not, for surveillance.

But the other thing that they are good at is bridging distance: connecting people and places and things and experiences and environments and neighbourhoods to each other in real-time. They’re good at shrinking the scale of the planet and making us more aware of how what we do relates to others, both human and non-human. They’re good at linking things that are far apart, or connecting people that don’t know each other. They’re good at helping us discover new perspectives.

So the goal, in my work, is to use networked technologies, not to make things more efficient or to optimise, but to see things differently so that we can make decisions together. Not to make decisions better (whatever that means) but to make them collectively; not to remove inefficiency and complexity, or iron out wrinkles and seams, but to embrace that complexity and build value from the unpredictability, serendipity and creativity that you find in messy situations. I look for ways to deploy infrastructure that gets taken over and repurposed by other people, so they develop a shared sense of technological enfranchisement and ownership in civic outcomes.

Take our project VoiceOver, sited in East Durham in the north of England. We’re deploying a chain of interactive light and sound that weaves its way round local streets of Horden to connect residents, in ways that we hope they’ve never been connected before.

It’s a communication infrastructure, designed and deployed in collaboration with local residents and organisations, that everyone can listen in on, and whose spectacular luminescent path explicitly depends on which residents have elected to host a node of the mesh network. As sound passes up and down the streets, each fragment lights up in response to the different voices and sounds passing through it, making explicit the lines of communication.

VoiceOver in action in East Durham. Image: Richard Kenworthy.

It’s not an “efficient” communication tool: a phone would have been better for one-on-one conversations, and Telegram more private. But the aim was to get as many people as possible together at the same time, communicating with others they might not even know, and meaningfully involved in creating, installing, supporting and bringing to life a cultural infrastructure – one that actively encourages performance, sharing and storytelling. The project has already uncovered the fact that three cousins, who've never all met, have been living near to each other all along.

It’s not that “together” is better than “efficient”. But it certainly has different outcomes. When people work together, my experience is that they have a greater sense of agency and accomplishment, as well as more responsibility and ownership in outcomes.

As we plan for technological interventions in our cities, installing networked technologies and infrastructures for managing the complexities of our lives, let’s evaluate these systems on more than just how efficient they are. Let’s evaluate them on how much they connect us together in new ways, and engage us in meaningful decision making.


The architect Cedric Price once said, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” Well, the question has got to be about more than just how to be efficient.

Usman Haque designs interactive architecture systems and researches how people relate to each other and their spaces.

VoiceOver is a new public art commission produced by Forma Arts and created by Umbrellium for East Durham Creates.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.