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. 😉

Serendipity with an edge: A chat with Benrik about Situationist App

Situationist is an iPhone app that injects surprise and serendipity into everyday life. The app uses geolocation and push notifications to alert members to each other’s proximity, then challenges them to interact in random “situations”. As the artists state on the app’s website, “Situationist is not for the timorous . . . in fact it is a protest against the demonisation of strangers encouraged by the media. Fear not!” Benrik, the creative partnership of Ben Carey and Henrik Delehag who created the app, spoke with me about their project via email:

Situationist App really messes with my day sometimes. It makes me uncomfortable and interrupts important meetings. It fragments moments that would otherwise have been continuous. Is it all about breaking things, or does it put something together, too?

We’re quite comfortable with creating uncomfortable moments. Part of the idea behind what we do is to create counter-routines, to highlight and question the structure of your everyday life by imposing an alternative that clashes with it – our “Diary Will Change Your Life” book series is based on the same principle. It’s serendipity with an edge. Of course you could always just ignore the app’s notifications…

One thing I really appreciate about this App is that it’s somehow about an urbanism that’s not rooted in any particular city — or even in any particular kind of city. It works great here in LA, at least when it comes to gathering-places like bars and restaurants and workplaces. I imagine it works quite differently in London, what with people actually walking around everywhere. Is there anywhere it wouldn’t work? Or, put differently, what would a city look like that didn’t need an intervention like this?

That’s an interesting point. It does presuppose a certain kind of city, and in fact it sets out to foster it – a city where people walk around at some leisure and spend time in open communal spaces where they can see and find each other, like cafes. It also requires a certain kind of urban being and community, a city-dweller who trusts his or her fellow citizens enough to interact with them at random. We think subconsciously the model must have been Paris. Unsurprisingly, the app has done very well there, and we get lots of emails clamouring for a French version.

Do you get any kind of analytics on the back-end about where and how people are using the app? Do have a “master map” of unfolding situations to ponder?

The app was created on a shoestring, so we don’t have google-like levels of back-end data, although it would be very useful. We do know the most popular tasks / interactions – the most popular is ” Wave at me like a long-lost friend”. The least popular is “Help me rouse everyone around us into revolutionary fervour and storm the nearest TV station”, which is a shame as it’s our favourite. We also discovered something interesting when examining successful situations – when you pair up the photos of the strangers who’ve interacted, a disproportionate number look very similar. At first we thought our designer must have somehow mismatched the data. But what this must reveal is that people are much more prepared to interact with a complete stranger if they look like them. It probably makes sense in evolutionary terms, but it’s still uncanny to discover this through the app.

Constant wrote, “We are in the process of inventing new techniques; we are examining the possibilities existing cities offer; we are making models and plans for future cities. We are conscious of the need to avail ourselves of all new inventions, and we know that the future constructions we envisage will need to be extremely supple in order to respond to a dynamic conception of life, which means creating our own surroundings in direct relation to incessantly changing ways of behavior.” Is this what you’re up to, then?

Yep. The original situationists pontificated at great length about situations, but didn’t actually come up with many – the derive, detournement, and not much else frankly. We see ourselves as continuing their work – although in very different historical and political circumstances obviously. Debord also foresaw new technologies would lead to new situationist techniques. This app is one of the first to explore geolocation technology as a means of remodelling urban relationships. Most geolocation apps seem to focus on providing coupons for cheaper coffee, which makes us despair ever so slightly.

You’ve got to have a touchstone quote or two. Hit me.

Hmmm. We do have a slogan for Benrik: “Your values are our toilet paper”. Or in French: “Vos valeurs sont notre pecu”.

What’s the next step? Is there a Commune App in the works? Will you be expanding or updating Situationist App in any way?

Not sure what our next app will be yet. The market for proto-Marxist apps is no doubt huge and very lucrative. We’ll update Situationist at some point, but the idea was always to keep it extremely clean and minimal. We’ll probably add tasks suggested by our users.

Thanks again…much appreciated.

More info: http://www.situationistapp.com/

Situationist App developed by: Turned On Digital

Deadmau5 iPhone app

img_0069

I think the albums-as-applications concept will probably go a lot further than just a simple track-mixing app like this one by electronica artist Deadmau5, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Deadmau5’s iPhone app ($3 on iTunes) lets you load any of 10 quantized Deadmau5 tracks into its dual-track playback engine, which works pretty much like professional DJ software while being easy enough for anyone to experiment with.

You can change BPM, control up to four concurrent effects, skip to the next phrase or back to the last one, loop a phrase, and cross fade between the two tracks, or from one to the next. When some albums cost $18 on CD, a $3 album that includes the ability to remix it each time you listen seems like a pretty good deal. And since the tool is so easy to use, it lets anyone DJ a dance party by plugging their iPhone or iPod Touch into a stereo and letting ‘er rip. (wired epicenter)

(See RIAA, it’s all going to be all right… just a little less linear and with a lot less packaging to throw away.)

Sekai Camera: Tagging Physical Space

Tonchidot defines their amazing Sekai Camera–in Japanese, World Camera– as a "social tagging device" for the iPhone. It combines most technologies in the iPhone 3G, from the camera and the GPS to the internet connectivity and its microphone. When you start it, the application first checks where you are using the built-in GPS in the iPhone 3G. (gizmodo)