John Thackara | Essays

Danger: Disappearing Computers [June 2003]

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The mission sounds innocuous enough: "to see how information technology can be diffused into everyday objects and settings, (leading to) new ways of supporting and enhancing people's lives". But a visit to Greece, for the Disappearing Computer conference, left us disconcerted - even scared. These three stories from Santorini made us uneasy.

One paper looked forward to "anthropocentric interfaces" that, enabled by "cognition technologies", will "enhance or substitute for our senses". Context-aware and proactive systems will "hide overall system complexity, and preserve human attention, by delivering to us only information which is rich with meanings and contexts". Faced with a "tera-world" filled with "open, unbound, dynamic and intelligent systems", we will soon need to "provide them with learning, and gracefully evolving capabilities, as well as self-diagnosis, self-adaptation, and self-organisation capabilities". Now maybe we are missing something, but to us this translates as: build systems that are too complicated to understand and then, after they are deployed, find ways to master their complexity. Hmmm.

Greger Linden, a Finnish expert in "psychosocial computing", anticipates that, when direct brain-computer interfaces are implemented, "people will be the problem. Rather than concentrate on one thing at a time, which suits the software, people tend to think about other things. This messes up the results". Linden, who leads a large "proactive computing" consortium, is undeterred by 20,000 years' of human subtlety: he plans to develop models for "disambiguating" users' vague commands, and anticipating their actions. Alas, poor Yorick.

Other researchers are developing machine vision systems that will scan us for "psycho physiological signals" and "sense and understand human actions". Eye-gaze, pupil-dilation and contraction, gaze direction through time, blinking, facial ticks, breathing and heart rates, will all be monitored remotely by systems designed to "understand our cognitive and emotional state of mind". Serious dangers are often created by individuals who try to carry out critical activity when they are "not in a fit state to", said a fresh-faced scientist. "Agents will monitor these users and decide on behalf of them for their welfare". He mentioned driving cars while under the influence, and drowsing at the wheel of a bus - but we see no reason why the system could not be re-calibrated to detect other impure thoughts. Tales of the disappearing computer is (are) edited by Achilles Kameas and Norbert Streitz at:

Convivio, the network for people-centred design of interactive systems, is organising a design summer school in Rome on the theme, "mixed realities". The School, which runs September 1 - 12, 2003, will be directed by Riccardo Antonini, Consorzio Roma Ricerche, and Yngve Sundblad, KTH, Stockholm. As well as young designers, Masters and PhD students in computer science and technology, psychology and anthropology, industrial design, architecture etc, are eligible.
Email: [email protected]

Giles Hogben from the European Commission fears that "loss of sensory privacy" can indeed become a nightmare. The Pentagon, blissfully free of such Old European qualms, wants to develop a digital super diary that records heartbeats, travel, Internet chats, indeed, everything a person does, which could lead to powerful software to analyse behaviour. Known as LifeLog, the project aims to capture and analyse a multimedia record of everywhere a subject goes and everything he or she sees, hears, reads, says and touches. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has solicited bids and hopes to award four 18-month contracts beginning this summer.

Plans by Benetton to weave RFID (radio frequency ID) trackable chips into its apparel have run into opposition. A group called CASPIAN (Consumers Against Privacy Invasion And Numbering) has launched a website, boycottbenetton.org. "Anytime you (go) near an RFID reader your identity will be revealed to anyone with access to a database - all without your permission."

Computers may disappear, but they are unlikely to go quietly. Research into the "sonification of hybrid objects" proceeds apace. The words mean the use of sound to display data, monitor systems, and provide enhanced user interfaces for computers and virtual reality systems. A conference in Boston on auditory display covers such topics as sonically augmented artefacts, auditory exploration of data via sonification (data-controlled sound) and audification (audible playback of data samples). A European group, Sounding Object, has made an intriguing website. ICAD 2003, July 6 to 9, Boston.

Great news! Marcel van der Drift has won a Webby - an "Oscar of the internet". If you came to Doors of Perception 7 last November, it was Marcel's mini-movies that opened each session. Dutchman Marcel's Webby is for best personal website in the world this year. Considering that there are supposed to be one million such sites in New York City alone, that's quite an achievement.

The catalogue of Mobility reaches us from Rotterdam. Mobility's curators drove around Dutch motorways in a car. It contained four cameras. Does this mean that architects care more about what things look like, than about the processes that lie behind them? Having set out "to come to grips with the issue of infrastructure," this large project does the opposite. It does not question the causes of mobility, still less ponder how to modify its rapacious growth. Highways are "the most intensively visited public space in the Netherlands", says Mobility; the experience of driving along them should be more carefully designed. Nevermind the environment, let's improve the experience, implies Mobility - and much vaporous talk about the aesthetics of mobility follows. Architects have truly become slaves to the machine.

Travelling by high-speed train is the epitome of a light, modern, ecologically positive way to move, right? Wrong. A total of 48 kilogrammes (about 100 pounds) of solid primary resources are needed for one passenger to travel 100 km by Germany's high-speed train, ICE. The energy demands of the traction process - actually moving the train - dominates the system's life cycle, but the construction of tunnels, and heating rail track points during winter, are also a significant cost. Researchers at Germany's Martin Luther University used Material Flow Analysis (MFA) and Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) during their remarkable study of the construction, use and disposal of rail infrastructure. They measured everything from the running costs of train retrofitting factories, to the petrol used by passengers getting to the station - even the provision of drinking water. They add these to numbers for the CO2 emissions, cumulative energy demand and so on, to derive a "material input per service unit", or MIPS. These guys should have been in charge of Rotterdam's Biennale. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, Vol 8 No 2, February 2003.

Only five per cent of us have embraced sustainable consumption life-styles. Messages from governments and green groups are often too guilt-laden and disapproving - and don't work. A welcome shift of emphasis, then, from KIA, the Korean car manufacturer, whose campaign in the United Kingdom urges people not to use cars for short journeys, only long ones. It provides a mountain bike with every new car purchased. And it helps organize networks of parents who assist in escorting children to school on foot. Three cheers for KIA.

An interesting new magazine, 032C, from Berlin, has the theme "Shanghai Desire". It includes photography architecture, technology, and the following facts. Fifty per cent of Shanghai's 13.5 million citizens feel "exhausted" - but fewer than two per cent of them feel lonely, and only 2.2 per cent find life to be meaningless. 60,000 mobile phones are discarded by Shanghaians each year.

Having added feral robotics to the engineering curriculum at Yale, Natalie Jeremijenko has now started a new project, OOZ - that's "zoo backwards and without cages". Ooz is a series of experiments with animal models - geese, horses, badgers, and bats - that test our assumptions about social organisation, animal cognition, and human-animal interaction. "The human/animal interface has two components" says Jeremijenko. "An architecture of reciprocity, in which any action you direct at an animal, it can direct at you; and an information architecture of collective observation and interpretation."

Jeremijenko has also coined the useful term, blogservatories. These have been added to her on-going One Trees project in San Francisco. One Trees is a public experiment that plants pairs of genetically identical trees - clones - throughout the San Francisco Bay Area's diverse microclimates and social contexts. Because the trees are genetically identical, as they grow they reveal the social and environmental differences to which they are exposed. A One Trees bicycle conference is planned for October. Participants will use dynamic maps, designed by Terraswarm, "for one-hand operation at 15mph while riding a bike, visiting trees, watching birds and avoiding traffic." The maps show, amongst other things, the heat island effect - a problem caused by heat reflected off the sealed surfaces of the built environment that can make city blocks up to 12 degrees hotter than vegetated areas. Other topics include flight paths of the common hawk, and toxic release inventory sites in the Bay area. "The goal of this project is a collective one," says Nat. "The environment is complex, and if we are to understand it, then we need to exploit the distributed intelligence of the larger community."

"Technology for everyday life and culture," is the theme of a seminar at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, Italy. The state of interaction design is analysed by Bill Moggridge, co-founder, IDEO (Palo Alto), Joy Mountford, IDBias (Palo Alto), and Nathan Shedroff, experience designer (San Francisco). A second seminar, on how future-concept projects spark innovation, features your correspondent John Thackara, Kazuto Mugura from Sony Design Centre Europe, and Peter Hohmann, Senior Designer, Hitachi Design Centre Europe.

The organisers hope - we trust not too optimistically - that 1,400 designers will attend Visualogue, a congress on visual design that takes place in Nagoya this October. A strong line-up includes media artist Masaki Fujihata, information architect Richard Saul Wurman, and designers John Maeda, Armand Mevis, and Stefan Sagmesiter. A special session features designers from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. October 8 to 13, Nagoya.

Although human knowledge will very likely continue to grow, and with it human power, "the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive." So concludes John Gray in a remarkable book, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Animals. Gray reminds us The days when the economy was dominated by agriculture are long gone, he writes. Those of industry are nearly over. Economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production. To what then is it geared? "To distraction: Humans have always sought relief from their lives. Many of their oldest institutions are tributes to the need for make-believe."
Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Animals, is published by Granta, London.

By the year 2020, close to 50 per cent of Europe's adult population will be aged 50 or over. This statistic reveals one of the most profound social changes of our time. In addition, the 40/40 contract - 40 hours a week for 40 years - is breaking down in society. Business change is ending the idea of jobs for life. New thinking is also emerging around the possibilities of seamless integration of public and private, personal and communal forms of travel. Awards for design inspired by this agenda - Design For Our Future Selves - are announced June 30, Royal College of Art, London.

About one minute after Sars broke out in Hong Kong, citizens were seen wearing face masks printed with Louis Vuitton logos. Now fashion forecaster Li Edelkoort has curated a design exhibition called Armour on the theme, defence. Belgian designer Walter van Beirendonck contributes a combat suit. Job Smeets has made white designer porcelain swords. Marina Abramovic has made a film called The Hero. Rare body armour from the Stibbert Museum in Florence completes an intiguing event. It's at Fort Asperen, which is part of the historic Dutch water defences and located close to the city of Leerdam. Until September 2.

Is intellectual life in terminal decline? Ideas can define and transform society, but how healthy is intellectual life today? A weighty bunch of speakers will debate knowledge, the university system, media punditry, the rise of think tanks, the demise of peer review, and the rise of public experts. "In a period when Big Brother refers not to George Orwell, but to a reality TV show, and when bright young things are developing gameshow formats rather than scribbling essays, is intellectual life in terminal decline?" June 20 to 22, Goodenough College, London.

If so many eggheads in one place are too much for a summer's day, try Ambient Orb instead. It's a frosted glass ball, about the size of a grapefruit. You plug it into any power outlet, set it on a desk or bookshelf, and it glows any colour to give you a glanceable view of data: weather forecasts, pollen forecasts (good for allergy sufferers), instant message status - and (soon) traffic, email accumulation, and more. The orb's creator, David Rose, president of Ambient Devices, is speaking at TEDMED. http://www.TEDMED.com

A former industrial area producing gas, Amsterdam's Westergasfabriek has re-invented itself as a cultural district - the procedure is called brand extension. A new designer park, opens in September, so they are staging an international conference, 'Creativity and the City',that features best-of-class projects to do with the redevelopment of industrial areas and cultural enterprise. September 25 and 26, Amsterdam.

Beyond Media considers the impact of publishing, television, cinema, satellite devices, information and mobile communication networks, control and surveillance instruments, on public and private space. This year's theme: "intimacy." October 2 to 5, Florence.

We're not convinced that Washington D.C.counts as an edge city, but don't hold that against this year's Supernova conference. It's about the decentralisation of communications, software, and media. Speakers include Jonathan Schwartz, software supremo at Sun; Joichi Ito, blogger and venture capitalist; J.C. Herz, CEO of Joystick Nation; Tom Hawk, general manager of grid computing at IBM; Marko Ahtisaari, Insight & Foresight eminence at Nokia; Mena Trott, CEO, Six Apart (the company behind Movable Type personal publishing systems - ie blogs); Nikolaj Nyholm, Founder of "name technology provider" Ascio; Gigi Sohn, of Public Knowledge, the advocate of an "information commons". July 8 to 9, "Washington DC Area".

Amsterdam is full, so the city has built a new town for 45,000 people. IJberg sits on seven islands, freshly made of sand. At last weekend's open day, 15,000 people - most of them seemingly pregnant, or carrying infants - admired the engineering and architecture, built sandcastles on the recently unloaded beach, and ate execrable hot dogs. It felt like a breeding farm for Hollanders, but at least it's well-designed. If you're feeling broody, check out:

"Under our old design rules matter and energy costs are not calculated; things and "tech" are more important than services; and people are regarded as a cost, to be eliminated. New "power laws" are needed to inform the ways we design things, places, communications, and contexts, in an era of networks and webs". To find out more, go to Tokyo for John Thackara's lecture on July 4, 1600-1900h, JIDPO. To reserve a Tokyo ticket, email: [email protected] Or book the speaker:

Jobs | June 14