“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.

 
 
 
 

A judge in Liverpool has recognised that the concept of ‘home’ exists even for the homeless

The most ironic stock image of homelessness in Britain available today. Image: Getty.

Stephen Gibney, a Liverpool man, was recently sentenced to eight weeks imprisonment for urinating on homeless man Richard Stanley, while he slept rough in Liverpool City Centre. District Judge Wendy Lloyd handed down the sentence not just for degrading Stanley as a person, but also for attacking his home. Justice Lloyd condemned the offence, calling it:

A deliberate act of degradation of a homeless person… it was his home, his little pitch where he was trying to establish himself as a human being… apparently, to you and your companion this was just a joke.

By recognising that a homeless person can have something akin to a home, the judge acknowledges that home is an abstract, nebulous and subjective idea – that the meaning of home can differ between people and contexts. People who are homeless in the legal sense often feel as if they have a home, whether that be a city, a particular neighbourhood, a family or a friendship group. Some even understand their home in connection to the land, or as a content state of mind.

By making these comments, Justice Lloyd affords Stanley the dignity of having a recognisable defensible space, marked out by his possessions, which to all intents and purposes is his home – and should be respected as such.

A changing city

Since the early 1980s, Liverpool has been undergoing economic, physical, social, political, reputational and cultural regeneration. These processes have picked up pace since 2003, when Liverpool was announced as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. This accolade proved to be the catalyst for a range of initiatives to clean up the city, ready for its big year.

Like many other cities across the globe – New York, during its 1990s drive to shake off its title of “murder capital of the world”; Sydney, in the run up to the 2000 Olympics and Glasgow in its preparations for its own European Capital of Culture year in 1990 – Liverpool’s authorities turned their attention to the city centre.

In Liverpool, rough sleepers, street drinkers and any other groups identified as “uncivilised” impediments to regeneration were singled out and subjected to a range of punitive measures, including the criminalisation of street drinking and begging, designed to clear them from view. It was all part of the bid to present the city as prosperous and cultured, and to free it of its previous reputation for poverty, crime and post-industrial decline.


Scorned, not supported

Views of rough sleepers as anathema to prosperity and progress stem from the false belief that they must, by definition, perform all bodily functions – from urination and defecation to sleep and sex – in public spaces rather than a private home. Because of this, rough sleepers are seen as uncivilised – and consequently unwelcome – by authorities determined to attract business and tourism.

This has led, in some quarters, to the vilification of “visible” homeless people – particularly where their homelessness is seen as a “lifestyle choice” – on the basis that they wilfully stand in the way of social, economic and cultural progress. They are a social element to be scorned, rather than supported: a view which may have led Gibney – a man with a home in the conventional sense – to perform the kind of bodily function on Stanley, which is more often unfairly attributed to rough sleepers.

Once it is recognised that the idea of “home” applies beyond a formal abode of bricks and mortar, many more violations come to light: from the clearance of informal settlements, to the enforced displacement of whole populations.

For example, consider the forced removal of the population of Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean, to nearby Mauritius because the US military needed a refuelling base. The phenomenon is so widespread that it has even been given a name – domicide. The “-cide” suffix connotes murder: the deliberate, calculated and wilful killing of a home.

The ConversationBy thinking of the destruction of “home” as an act of killing, we recognise the its true value – home means so much more than simply a place or a building. And, although the meaning of home varies from person to person, those who lose their home – for whatever reason – almost universally experience shock, grief and bereavement. Justice Lloyd’s comments on handing down Gibney’s sentence reflect two vital but overlooked truths: that home has meaning beyond bricks and mortar and that being homeless does not necessarily mean having no home at all.

Clare Kinsella, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Edge Hill University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.