Serendipity, ubicomp, and “over-coded smart cities”: an interview with Mark Shepard, creator of Serendipitor

Mark Shepard is an artist, architect and researcher whose post-disciplinary practice addresses new social spaces and signifying structures of contemporary network cultures. His current research investigates the implications of mobile and pervasive media, communication and information technologies for architecture and urbanism. His current project, the Sentient City Survival Kit, [which includes the iPhone app, Serendipitor] has been exhibited at the Center for Architecture, New York; the International Architecture Biennial Rotterdam, the Netherlands, LABoral Center for Art and Industrial Creation, Gijon, Spain; ISEA 2010 RUHR, Dortmund Germany, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

What was your trajectory into this kind of art practice?

I come from a background in Architecture and Media Art, and have been experimenting with alternate trajectories for what has come to be called urban computing for about ten years now. I have always been fascinated with cities and technology, and my practice has emerged out of a curiosity regarding how forms of mobile and embedded, networked and distributed computing can shape our experience of the city and the choices we make there.

Most location- and context-sensitive apps are about making things faster and more efficient. Serendipitor slows things down and disrupts the flow. Why do you think this is an important thing to do?

Computer science and engineering are practices that hold optimization and efficiency as important design challenges. And that’s all well and good when we’re talking about relatively instrumental applications of these technologies in urban environments. But artists frame questions in ways scientists and engineers do not, and when considering the implications of these technologies for urban life, one has to wonder what other criteria could be relevant. Who really wants a faster, seamless, more optimal and efficient life?

Projects like this are inherently multiple — even paradoxical. As you write on your website (quoting Deleuze), “AND is neither one thing nor the other, it’s always in-between, between two things.” Why does this kind of instability inspire you?

Well, as Deleuze says a little further on in that quote “it’s along this line of flight that things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape.” Much of my work looks for ways out of static dichotomies that serve to maintain the status quo. Destabilizing tactics often reveal the more subtle and nuanced forces at play in a given situation, and help open up lines of thinking that can help us move beyond established belief systems.

How have people been using the app? What kind of feedback have you received — and what kind of data have you gathered?

The feedback has been surprisingly positive. People seem to really enjoy the app, and have been using it around the world. Many have suggestions of their own, ideas for new instructions, ways to share their routes, etc. Much of this is anecdotal in nature, however, and I do think that the plural of anecdote is not data.

What were you looking for when you set out to design Serendipitor? And what did you end up finding?

Serendipitor is one component of a larger project called the Sentient City Survival Kit (http://survival.sentientcity.net), a project that explores the implications for privacy, autonomy, trust and serendipity in this highly optimized, efficient and over-coded “smart” city heralded by ubiquitous computing evangelists for some time now. With Serendipitor, what started as an ironic proposition – that in the near-future, finding our way from point A to point B will not be a problem, but maintaining consciousness along the way might be more difficult, and that we would need to download an application for “serendipity” from the App Store – turned out to be quite popular when implemented as an app. I didn’t expect to find that the irony could be so easily lost in the process!

What’s next — for you, and for smartphone-enabled humanity?

Smartphone-enabled non-humanity, of course. 😉

Radiation cats and atomic priesthoods: the Human Interference Task Force

The question of how to mark the places where we store nuclear waste such that people in the distant future won’t do things like build towns or nurseries or farms on top or inside of them is one of my favorite transmedia design challenges. It’s a thought experiment that asks us to imagine a way to communicate with a diverse and unknowable range of cultures and attitudes across a vast gulf of time. Nuclear waste can take upwards of 20,000 years to decay.

Solutions to the problem, such as those proposed by the Human Interference Task Force, a workgroup formed in 1981 by the US government, include the construction of monumental reinforced concrete architectural elements (obelisks, pyramids, and so on, all inscribed with a range of frightening DANGER! symbols), the breeding of super-friendly genetically-engineered cats that change color in the presence of radioactivity, and the establishment of a multi-millennium-scale religious order or “atomic priesthood”.

More info: Wikipedia: Human Interference Task Force, Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia

Revel: a geolocative app with an emphasis on play and public space – call for participation

PEG-LA co-conspirator Sarah Brin is one of the coordinators of Revel, “a public invitation to participate in fun, social, and adventurous challenges on streetcorners, in parks, and in all parts of town. [The Revel] iPhone app organizes missions by type and by location, deepening your connection to your neighbors and your city.” Revel is looking for creatives to propose challenges that will be incorporated into the experience. From the call for participation:

WHO CAN PROPOSE A CHALLENGE?

Everyone! We’re looking for a broad range of missions in a variety of fields. Challenges can be as simple as a set of instructions written for one person, or more complex, involving multiple people in different roles. No technical knowledge is required.

CAN I PROPOSE MORE THAN ONE CHALLENGE?

Absolutely. Submit as many as you like under as many topic headings as you like.

We’re looking for challenges that relate to the following topics: Appreciation, Exploring, Fitness Training, Neighbors & Networks, Leadership, Photography, and Storytelling.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?

Aside from excitement of giving tens of thousands of people an experience they won’t forget, there’s $20,000 in prize money available to the authors of the challenges that generate the highest number of positive experiences.

WHEN IS THE DEADLINE?

The deadline for entries is July 15, 2011. (getrevel.com)

Groundcrew is the creative force behind Revel.

Trionfi.com: a massive, rambling archive of playing and fortune cards

Trionfi.com has got to be one of the most confusing and messy websites on the whole internet. It’s also a pretty amazing archive of thousands of playing and fortune card scans dating back to the 14th century. If you can deal with all the broken links, database errors, and circa-1995 web design, you’ll be rewarded with scans of beautiful and unusual card designs.

Enter the labyrinth: http://trionfi.com/m/

When games break (beautifully): the 1994 Caribbean Cup anomaly

One little change in a complex system can lead to a cascade of unpredictable outcomes. This is why play testing games is so important. But sometimes there’s just not enough time, and you’ve got to go with what you’ve got. That’s when the real magic can happen, as it did in the qualifying match between Grenada and Barbados at the 1994 Carribean Cup:

There was an unusual match between Barbados and Grenada. Grenada went into the match with a superior goal difference, meaning that Barbados needed to win by two goals to progress to the finals. The trouble was caused by two things. First, unlike most group stages in football competitions, the organizers had deemed that all games must have a winner. All games drawn over 90 minutes would go to sudden death extra time. Secondly and most importantly, there was an unusual rule which stated that in the event of a game going to sudden death extra time the goal would count double, meaning that the winner would be awarded a two goal victory. Barbados was leading 2-0 until the 83rd minute, when Grenada scored, making it 2-1. Approaching the dying moments, the Barbadians realized they had little chance of scoring past Grenada’s mass defense in the time available, so they deliberately scored an own goal to tie the game at 2-2. This would send the game into extra time and give them another half hour to break down the defense. The Grenadians realized what was happening and attempted to score an own goal as well, which would put Barbados back in front by one goal and would eliminate Barbados from the competition. However, the Barbados players started defending their opposition’s goal to prevent them from doing this, and during the game’s last five minutes, the fans were treated to the incredible sight of Grenada trying to score in either goal. Barbados also defended both ends of the pitch, and held off Grenada for the final five minutes, sending the game into extra time. In extra time, Barbados notched the game-winner, and, according to the rules, was awarded a 4-2 victory, which put them through to the next round. (Wikipedia)

More info: snopes.com

News canisters

Once upon a time, news was delivered by ship. It was a piece of cargo like any other. It took up space. It weighed something.

Cape Race was a landfall beacon for ships from Europe travelling to US and Canadian ports. The AP paid shipping companies to bring the latest news from Europe in watertight canisters and drop them over the side as they steamed past Cape Race. The company kept a steam launch, a boat crew and lookouts at the Cape. When a ship had news to transfer she would signal with flags or flares and the lookout would alert the boat crew. The news canisters were brought ashore to a telegraph operator who would put the news “on the wire” to New York—four days before the ship arrived in port! It was a great business for Associated Press, and the “Via Cape Race” byline soon became well-known all over North America, including St. John’s. (edgeofavalon.ca)

News canisters were the main method of transporting news between Europe and North America in the middle part of the 19th century. News agencies furiously competed with one another to find the fastest means of shipping breaking news across the ocean, as exemplified by the dramatic story of the record-fast delivery of the news of Lincoln’s assassination. In July of 1866, after much difficulty (including several instances of sabotage), a transatlantic telegraph cable connected Newfoundland to Ireland, affording the transfer of news and other data at a rate of 8 words/minute (approximately .25 bytes/second). An additional cable was laid in August of 1866, effectively putting an end to the news canister business.

More info here.

Contemporary equivalent: sneakernet, e.g. pigeon-based file transfer.

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