The City | Data | Future exhibition: Themes
The view from above and from below
In the fictional future cities in this exhibition, technology is everywhere, it is embedded and ubiquitous. It can read citizens’ minds, control their movements, communicate feelings, and it is accessible to everybody.
People become elements within the vast mesh of information.
They are living sensors, emitters or receivers of data in the hybrid city network. Systems are planned, designed, implemented and regulated, but still it can be hard to predict what happens when they meet the real, social world. When we consider the officially sanctioned and authorised systems, we also have to consider scenarios that describe reactions to these systems. Whether these activities are hacking and abusing, or modifying and appropriating, depends on your point of view. In the hands of a few motivated individuals these activities taking place at the edges can be both disruptive and powerful.
In the film Chupan Chupai, the near future is heavily influenced by the imminent boom of the Indian subcontinent. Within this emerging technological and economic superpower a new digital city has developed. The scenario shows us a group of young children as they play a game of hide and seek in the bustling streets of this strange yet familiar, smart city. Through their play the children reveal the city control mechanism, and discover how to hack the city, opening up a cavernous network of hidden and forgotten spaces behind the scenes of everyday streets. The film blends dreamlike images of digital interfaces, the built environment, and wild organic undergrowth. The children move seamlessly between these worlds, at home in the physical and the virtual space that surrounds them. The children in Chupan Chupai seem to accept their world as it is, perfectly at ease as they explore their city.
In contrast, in the Future Cloud is Buried fiction, the citizen is portrayed as a more active and questioning agent, challenging our notions of what “the cloud” really is and how this understanding shapes our choices of what we save and where we save it. In this story, the city has decided to bury all its local, most valued data in an off-grid cloud just outside the city. A personalised, DNA activated, physical interface allows future citizens to access only their own precious data from the past, but hackers work out ways to plug in and experience immersion in forbidden data. This underground approach to accessing illicit data gives birth to a new pirate tourism industry as well as a new drug scene. Acting with more overt political motivations, the Ministry of Misinformation is an emergent digital movement that also aims to subvert the reality that is imposed from above by distorting real-time urban data. These City Hackers act as a collective, and use the trust implicit in the digital layer to subtly change the flow, behaviours and perceptions of how others interact and perceive the city. They play with data, they like to create confusion and serendipity, to destroy but also to inspire.
The public domain
Negotiating use of public space within the city was the focus of the project Coordination of Urban Busy Areas (CUBA). Here the city authorities are collaborating with a big tech company to optimise all its resources with the objective of being on the list of Data Improved Certified Cities and increasing the tourist economy. Citizens are encouraged by tax incentives to avoid the better micro places in the historic city centre – the shady bench, the pretty street – at the busy times of the day, leaving them free for tourists to enjoy. This system is managed in real-time according to specific regulations and software algorithms, managed by the CUBA programme.
These fiction is raising question how these top-down optimisations will prevent us from exercising free choice over our public city spaces.
By contrast, in the Ministry of Misinformation scenario, the grassroots movement focuses on use of (mis)data as a tool to re-empower communities to address these issues of public interest. Tobias Revell’s film The Monopoly of Legitimate Use takes the very physical notion of inhabiting a space or territory into the technological world, where networks can form political territories and places where people can gather and align themselves to particular ideological beliefs. Blackspot looks at how moving through physical space can also mean moving through networked space, and in an age of privacy concerns and overt sharing, the use of this space will become more important.
The exhibition reflects on the expanding trends of Big Data, the Quantified Self and the Internet of Things.
The exhibition scenarios are attempting to understand where Big Data resides and who gets to know it’s there, let alone make sense of it or use it.
We are particularly exploring the places where data collects at the boundaries of the physical and the digital. The projects ask questions about what will the toolkits of “data hunters” contain, and how will they mine the data sediments between and beyond buildings as they seek to understand the urban environment through interaction.
In Eutropia the city authorities have signed an exclusive agreement with a consortium of mega corporations trading the vast amounts of data generated by its citizens. In return Eutropia has been provided with the latest infrastructure for data collection. In Eutropia “privacy” is just an ideological delusion. The Future Cloud scenario also questions how we place value on data, in this case it is so precious to its owners that it is taken off-grid and stored locally in our very own cloud, buried underground. BetaCity tracks citizens’ movements through the urban space. In this scenario, the citizen is just a node in the network, an individual, identified unit travelling in the crowd. The city is harvesting these data trails, making their presence known, shared and visible. BetaCity knows who everyone is, but the city is in control, choosing what to reveal. This may seem transparent to the city’s inhabitants, but the motivations and purpose of this vast data gathering remains unclear, and the city keeps those reasons to itself.
What about the people among all this quantifiable data collected and processed to maximise the efficiency of the city?
Will this human element of the smart city fall through the cracks in the bricks and mortar during the digital age?
These projects are also striving to understand how to make meanings from the urban data store.
In Aural Fixation, privacy amongst residents is maintained through the rare art of conversation. This analogue form of data cannot be detected or processed by the smart city’s digital sensors. Friends and families share their personal thoughts within the closed walls of intimate spaces – their own home, a friend’s living room, a favourite bar. But by using special hacked devices, new city voyeurs roam the streets peering into the windows of these intimate spaces hoping to catch glimpses of these secret stories. In Blackspot, a businesswoman leaves the City in search of a blackspot, a near-fabled place where network coverage drops out so that she can receive a secret and important message over an independent mesh network. In Chupan Chupai we see children’s street games, this rapidly disappearing activity, as a way of revealing city control structures, and discovering secret, organic, parts of the city.
The Hybrid Citizen
How does the city look through the eyes of people who live in the hybrid city? They are not only just humans living in an environment that comprises both the tangible and the virtual, they are also becoming hybrid citizens themselves – technologically augmented humans.
Hybrid Citizens are struggling to reclaim the city as a site for human interaction and expression.
In Aurora the desire for efficiency and optimisation firstly leads to the development of highly sophisticated sharing systems that preclude social interactions. As a reaction to this dystopia, the second wave of technological development, brings back social interactions, where even memories can be shared. To ensure maximum social connectedness, this data is only unlocked when two or more users reach certain levels of specific neuromodulators, through close contact.
The projects exhibited also speculate about new economies, new systems of organisation and new policies.
In the city described in the Coordination of Urban Busy Areas (CUBA) scenario, citizens can use the most valuable city public spaces according to their ownership of Usage of Public Space units. The individual UPS will be calculated according the taxes paid for the maintenance of the public heritage, but also with the participation in restoration or touristic support programs. Citizens will be also able to exchange local currency with UPS. The time spent in pleasant public spaces becomes a tradable commodity.
The Aurora scenario presents the sharing economy as new hope for humankind, supporting encounters, trust and social capital. In a society that relies on data sharing for most of its processes, reputation needs to be quantified. Personal Aura points determine people’s aggregated reputation and whether others can trust them for sharing or not. Aura points are the new social capital in the Aura City. In Eutropia, during the Great World Recession of the 21st century, the City authorities signed an exclusive agreement with a consortium of mega corporations trading the vast amounts of data generated by its citizens. The result has been the creation of a new economy based on the gathering and exportation of data that has secured the independence and well-being for the City and all its inhabitants, but the cost is personal privacy.
More about exhibition and methodology in The City | Data | Future catalogue.