Sunday, 4 December 2011

an attempt to build a bridge with a view to public discourse

Our reliance on digital media and technology in combination with increasing time spent in digital/ online spaces has begun to change how we interact with the world around us. The emergence of two contrasting worlds has entered a new, slightly surreal environment, with the rise of social networking websites that dominate day to day interactions and in turn shape our actions and behaviours towards others and in turn begin to shape our built environment. As we drift inevitably towards Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer prize winning vision of the future of social media and an erosion of face to face interaction, we will attempt to tackle some of the changes through a project, influenced greatly by how these worlds both imitate yet conflict with one another, while considering the beginnings of their polarisation and the effects this move will have on us from a sociological/ architectural point of view. We will start with the project brief which asked us to: 

“Consider a place of your choosing as an index to a database. Through this you should produce a schematic of your place as though it was a database“

If we take the city we live in as an index to a database we can start to view the project as a genuine way for inhabitants of any city, to re-engage with their surroundings. Combining the immediacy and ubiquity of a digital world with the tangible physical advantages of a real world we can attempt to link the two. Digital/ social networking has created a social vacuum in the physical world in recent years that has arguably led to a complacency in society. A simple face to face chat with a neighbour has become an online complaint to no one in particular. With information from all over the world so readily available online our public spaces have become devoid of real public debate and discourse. This shift has had repercussions in social, architectural and political terms. This project works with this new relationship between people and technology to achieve a reconnection between a too often pair of 'seperrate spaces'. To this end, we have begun to work with the advent of increased uptake in NFC and RFID technologies. Radio Frequency ID Tags (RFID) are small receivers containing an antenna, These receivers lie dormant until activated by a scanner. The scanner sends a radio signal to the tag which in turn replies with a code. This code can then be used to call up almost any desired effect with the use of computer software and hardware. The most interesting fact from our point of view was that the most common RFID tag scanners (currently being installed into the next generation of Smartphone’s) can only work within 1-2cm range. New technology is rarely known for its limitations however, and it is the simplicity of Near Field Communication (NFC) that has reigned in the massive expanse of the digital world into one point while simultaneously creating huge opportunities for social and cultural bridges. Most importantly, it creates a physical meeting point for an associated digital space, a meeting point that can be embedded in any place in the real world and, unlike the sometimes textureless atmosphere of the digital world, can be rich in embodied history and emotion. A journey through these historically and culturally rich places can have a positive effect on how we feel and interact with others. A romantic whisper on the spanish steps is, I would argue, a richer experience than an instant message. If we can bridge these separate spaces we can create a bridge in the physical world in which the history of place is able to trickle through to the digital world. Alternatively, the bridge may also provide a focal point to the bottomless pit of online information. A number of texts have been influential in the development of our concept. In the text Driving in the city Nigel Thrift studies how the invention of the car revolutionised how people interact with their cities. He quotes the book The Sociology Behind Society where John Urray remarks:

“the car’s significance is that it reconfigures civil society involving distinct ways of dwelling, travelling and socialising in and through an auto mobilised time-space“. 

This quote interestingly retains almost all of its validity if we were to replace the word “car” with “computer” or "smartphone". Thrift goes on to talk about how the new form of socialising began to shape the physical world around it :

“large parts of the landscape near roads are being actively moulded by formal techniques like viewshed analysis so that they make visual sense to the occupants of cars as they speed by” 

The adaptation of the physical landscape throughout countryside’s and cities all over the world was merely a by-product of the sociology of the time, a by-product one could argue that had long lasting benefits as well as disadvantages with regards to economic expansion,national development, cultural diversity, artistic movements and all associated progress. The physical benefits of a digitised world however, are more difficult to determine. Steve Pile’s text Spectral Cities talks about the effect that the city can have on its inhabitants. As time passes, streets and buildings around us take on different shapes and meanings that effect the route we take through our world. Piles argues:

“… we cannot understand social senses of space unless there is a place for feelings, emotions and affect.” 

The idea that a social space requires a physical space to embody it, starts to suggests that an immaterial or digital social space will inevitably leave its inhabitants dissatisfied or continually searching for more. One could argue, just as the arrival of the automobile irreversibly changed our physical environment, the digital world has now also begun to have a similar effect. New private developments being constructed all over the UK bear a striking resemblance in materiality and control to the digitalised social world that the population now operate within. Gated communities such as ExCel in London or the QuarterMile in Edinburgh are becoming the norm with an emphasis on security and a prominence given to retail. Twenty four hour surveillance is heralded as a means to shield their inhabitants from anything unexpected. Could this be a by-product of our time spent online where security and privacy are so elusive? The digital imitation however can be more clearly seen through the materiality of these new developments. Texture-less and atemporal, they relate little to their surroundings or historical context. Can this be attributed to a a similar materiality or lack thereof in the digital realm? If so, a dialogue can be seen to exist but is hard to pin down and monitor yet results in real world physical changes in the urban fabric of our cities. New, city developments would benefit from a clearer understanding of this loose dialogue between two separate spaces.
“The coming of the space of flows is blurring the meaningful relationship between architecture and society. Because the spatial manifestation of the dominant interests takes place around the world, and across cultures, the uprooting of experience, history, and specific culture as the background of meaning is leading to the generalisation of an ahistorical, acultural architecture“. The Space of Flows - Manuel Castells 

As privatisation of cities becomes more and more common, the embodied emotions of our city's streets is altered. As people continually socialise from the comfort and safety of their own home, an insulation from real world activities breeds a distrust and lack of understanding to how we can interact in public and the benefits of such interaction. A media bombardment of crime and unrest coupled with high amounts of surveillance throughout our urban centres results in an underlying fear. In her book Ground Control Anna Minton remarks:

“There is mounting evidence that far from promoting the feelings of reassurance and safety promised in the developers brochures [for private communities], it is the blatantly security conscience environments themselves which are responsible for growing levels of fear, for those behind the gates and those outside. Fear creates unhappiness” 

The delicate embodiment of memory and emotion in place can become muddied by this fear and has begun to influence not just how we experience our cities but how we plan them and what kind of architecture we see as appropriate. The privatisation of urban centres can also influence how people interact with a place. Cities take centuries to establish themselves as cultural or business centres and only through a deep understanding of what works and does not, can they prosper. As land developers purchase ever larger urban blocks in a city, important social and cultural developments can be wiped out over night . In his article The Emotional City, Adam Caruso makes the point: 

“While planning authorities may argue about facade materials and the survival of medieval street patterns in the master plan, several city blocks, that once housed thousands of tenants and was in the ownership of hundreds, is now controlled by one owner backed by international financial institutions. Do not be fooled by the medieval street pattern or the well maintained squares, these developments constitute a serious erosion of democracy and of the public realm“. 

Today's protest movements are a good example of how the lack of personal interaction coupled with an erosion of genuine public space has led to frustrations in society. First Reclaim The Streets and now the Occupy Movement have tried to tackle some of these problems. Digital communication has given a voice to everyone but in doing so has diluted the impact of criticism to a point where people need to declare their existence , shouting “we are still here!”. Socially, as we start to replace the normal, physical interactions of life with online substitutes, a large part of our subconscious decision making based on our relationship to our built environment, that allows us to adapt and deal with the unexpected, becomes useless. Will it's lack of use result in a diminishing in its powers? The complexities of physical interactions could therefore, be overly intimidating for people who rely heavily on the digital world for social interaction and debate. This “fear” of the real world can then lead to a rise in antisocial and reclusive behaviour. An aim of this project is to create a bridge from the digital world into the physical world in an attempt to reconnect people with their place. 

“Unless cultural, political, and physical bridges are deliberately built between these two forms of space, we may be heading toward life in parallel universes whose times cannot meet because they are warped into different dimensions of a social hyperspace.” Manuel Castells - The Space of Flows

An attempt to bridge.
With the advent of increased uptake in NFC and RFID technologies through the current/ next generation of smartphones in mind we decided to embed a series of RFID tags into the urban fabric. We want to build the missing bridge between the online and physical world through a series of fixed points around Edinburgh where we hope people will exchange digital information giving rise to a place to share and debate ideas. We hope to stimulate a controlled and methodical public discourse, that is tied to a specific place, with the belief that these places will become public forums. A series of digital/ real world speakers corners, thus kindling progress through discourse while addressing the erosion of public space and promoting the foundations and driving forces upon which our public spaces were built. 

View CITY NODES in a larger map

Scottish Parliament Node.001

The parliament is a beacon of our democratic ideals that is used to debate and plan for the future but it works best when operating in tandem with a healthy public appetite/ space for public discourse. This was something Enric Miralles had intended with its wide open and covered spaces intended for demonstrations.

Quartermile Node.002 

Quartermile has become a largely private space that constitutes a significant area of the city. We chose a small square surrounded by retail units where we feel an intervention is needed to address the lack of genuine public space.

Festival Square Node.003 

Despite Festival Square's obvious landscaping failings it is ideally situated as a gateway to the UK's second largest financial district. How interesting it would be to hear the thoughts and ideas of the demonised bankers and compare them to that of other node locations.

Andrew Square Node.004

Andrew Square has in recent months become the focal point for the Occupy movement in Edinburgh. It has also played host to numerous protests and gatherings and is an ideal location for a controlled public discourse helping to sculpt a more coherent conversation from an often disjointed set of aims.

Bristo Square Node.005

Bristo Square is an excellent example of a public space with many user groups who communicate very little. The Parkour kids and skaters might have a lot to say to the students of Edinburgh University.

We have also embedded a node in an example concrete block located in our studio to demonstrate how it works as well as in the footpath outside Minto House. Each RFID tag or Node is about the size of a penny and has been embedded into the ground or wall in our chosen locations. The tags can be scanned using one of roughly 30 phones currently on the market with as many planned for release in the next 6 months. We are using a standalone reader called a PHIDGET RFID Reader. The readers emit a radio frequency that bounces back off the tag to give a unique code. 

This unique code can then be used to signal any number of programmes on the attached Phone/ Computer. We decided to use the code to launch the devices browser and direct it to a unique page online that corresponds to only that tag. We designed a site to host this interaction using a combination of dropbox's API and our own html/css. Once the page is accessed the user has a choice to download the previously deposited file and to upload a file of their choice should they wish to do so. We hope this will create a chain of dialogue that can only be accessed by physically going to the node's location. This controlled methodical discourse differs from online exchanges in it simplicity and real world location/ relevance. Online file sharing continues to offer more of everything whereas the information nodes offer a completely different exchange based on geography and local knowledge with the potential to grow into something that has so far proved elusive online. A meaningful public discourse where conviction is a journey away as opposed to a keyboard.Initial reaction to this project is usually along the lines of "why not just exchange files online" but the physical process is key. Imagine, if you will, an RFID embedded in a headstone. It's unique code could direct the scanner to an online space where memories and stories about the deceased could be shared and discussed. Now imagine this concept without the physical node and it becomes a slightly morbid hypothesis. If we are willing to visit a grave we are doing so because we feel the physical act of journey and all of its associated thoughts and emotions are as important a part of life and death as the gesture of remembering our dead is in itself. Therein lies the significant difference between the online and physical world. A less gloomy prospect for these bridges lies as usual in art and music. Imagine a band releasing a new album with each city node containing a song. Fans could race around the city together on the day it is released. The less enthusiastic will still download but there is beauty in the collective effort expended in an urban treasure hunt.

What impact could powerful imagery have if deposited outside a parliament? Could it stimulate debate and help promote a healthy public discourse on issues that seem to be decided within an ever detached political system.

Our ever expanding pool of information available online has also left us prone to an online laziness. Imagine all public planning permissions requiring its own tag, on display as legal a requirement as the site notice. On it are plans and drawings of the proposed development as well as a comments section. Of course this information is available online but is only accessed through a search function hidden in a council's website. If the aim of such planning regulations is indeed to make the public aware of all changes to our built environment, a tag with all relevant information located on site would promote a very interesting public discourse. Large scale urban developments could be viewed and commented on in person at a specific location.

Commercial uses are harder to fathom but a brand loyalty enforced by a kind of geographical proof could be used to offer discounts and promotions to the skater kids who have scanned the tag located at the suburban skate park the inner city skate shop endorses. Skate in that park and we will treat you with a respect reserved for only their finest customers.

But these are all imagined possibilities. This project is a small attempt to bridge an ever widening gap that may have important sociological and cultural impacts. It is limited to an immaterial and tech heavy palette in it's attempts. A simpler solution may lie in an architecture that intervenes with all of these changes in mind. A large part of the problem/ solution goes deeper than file sharing and urban planning. These in fact are only the tools which we use to address the inevitable good/ bad change as best we can.

"You can't stop what's coming"

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