Funk Up Your Window

Again following up on my windows of the future post, just imagine that you could hook up your window to play an audio visualization to suit the music that you are playing in the enclosed space. This would both be neat on the inside and really interesting on the outside.

Distributed Ventilation System

Below I found myself imagining that the ventilation purpose of the window had been extracted from it, miniaturized and distributed across the envelope of the building. This could provide something like 'task ventilation', similar to 'task lighting'. A central computer could sense which activities are going on in which part of the buildng and provide conditioned air to suit. A smart system would also be able to take into account the air-pressure on different sides of the building so as to design ideal ventilation patterns. Such patterns could be helped along by small turbines built into the distributed ventilation units themselves (which I am also imagining would contain micro heating and cooling filaments).
Anyways, the above sectional diagram is meant to illustrate how this might work (while maintaining adequate sound isolation of roms).


Catherine Richards and the Codification of Romance

I was recently surveying some work by the Ottawa-based artist, Catherine Richards. In particular I was diverted by a piece of hers called Method and Apparatus for Finding Love, 2000. For this project Richards has chosen the patent as her site, locating the work of art actually within a patent application. The patent applied for is a sort of machine that, using very simple metrics, purports to a) determine your attractiveness, and b) match you up with acceptable mates (ie. about your level of attractiveness, quantifiably ascertained). This kind of codification of ‘romance’ would seem bizarre if it weren’t so consistent with actual available technologies ranging from biosensors reading skin conductivity, heart rate and pupil dilation, to people-matching programs such as lavalife, etc. This brutal simplification of such central human experience has two principal effects on me: a) it saddens, and b) I feel its straight forward pragmatism to be kind of liberating. If neither my romantic attractiveness, my capacity for romance, nor this deep beehive of emotions and desires are either special or mysterious, then what am I?

Sociology and psychology have been observing the repeated and predictable patterns in our behaviour for over a century now and they perform a similar function of reduction, demystifying the human shell. Am I, as the psychologist Guattari declares, just the result of ‘forces of subjectification’? An individual, yes, but not a subject, per se, at all?

Yet as disconcerting as it is to be such a straightforward, predictable, and codifiable thing, it carries with it a great deal that is of comfort. As we know from cybernetics, codification is great for making things work together: it’s really the whole point. If two machines are operating in the same language then you can plug them into each other, you can network them. It’s the same with humans: our great systems depend on our predictable and understandable behaviour, or perhaps, if you will, our performance.

Which, of course, is not new. Authoritarian powers have always imagined their subjects to be regular and consistent. All systems of organization and domination have required a certain regularity to their parts, implicitly or explicitly, and of course this is one of the purposes served by our institutions such as psychiatry and even more obviously, law. We have Michel Foucault to thank for making this so clear back in the 1960s.

What is striking for me is that it is also kind of comforting! Realizing that we are but simple machines, engineered to network with other machines, removes a great deal of the burden from our shoulders, after all. If we malfunction we can be fixed. ‘You are not alone,’ as the large banner above Main Street reads here in Cambridge in a bid to spread awareness of depression, which frankly I’m not sure if I should find comforting or terrifying in a Big Brother kind of way. Perhaps the real driving force behind all ‘human science’ is just to render us more appropriate for this vast networking project we call civilization. And maybe the best solution to alienation would really be just to give in to the insidious forces of codification and quantification: there is safety in numbers, no?

With thanks to N. Katherine Hayles for her insightful commentary on Richard's work which inspired these thoughts, which can be found in the catalog for Richard's Excitable Tissues exhibit from 2003


Windows of the Future!

Despite saying to people for a long time that my thesis was about 'cyborgs', I realize that this is not entirely the case. Speaking about cyborgs gives me an easy way to reference the politically engaged writing of Donna Haraway which has contributed greatly to the lens through which I am composing this thesis. So that's one reason I've been talking about it as a cyborg thesis. Also, talking about cyborgs sounds good. And it's also a little bit funny to say you're studying cyborgs ... to me anyways.
The text component of my thesis (when it's written!) will indeed engage with cybernetic organisms both as depicted in fiction and as they are emerging in reality (or should I maybe say we?). Although I am considering diagramming what the 'cyborg subject of the future' might look like as one aspect of the thesis, the design components will not deal with the cyborg subject, per se, at all (by which I am referring to the typically imagined, Terminator-style cyborg).
If, however, we consider all apparatae to be extensions of the human body, and the house to be an apparatus, then the infusion of cybernetics into this 'second skin' does constitute an example of our cyborg-becoming. At any rate, that is what I have chosen to concern myself with. Rather than dealing directly and solely with how the senses of space and place so central to who we are are changing as we incorporate technology into our bodies, I am looking at designing instances in which the architecture itself becomes 'plugged-in'. For example, rather than imagining and describing how we could wear a portable computer which gives us direct retinal access to every document ever published, I am more interested in investigating how we could use a coffee table to interact with that same database. This interest is predicated on two observations: 1st, that our current manner of interacting with computation and information is impoverished and unfortunately biased towards the visual, the most disembodying of the senses; and 2nd that, as Hiroshi Ishii has said, quoted by James Geary, "to actually physically feel something enriches our perception of it and allows us to interact with the environment as we were meant to." By distributing computing throughout the entire house we are no longer 'fixed' to the computer, allowing us to use both our mind and our body simultaneously in navigating a layered world of bits and atoms.
Below, I imagine a window:
As a means of setting up the experiment, here is a 'regular' window
Freed of the traditional structural constraints of lumber or of masonry (for instance by using structural insulated panels or some other distributed structural system) the window could be any shape. What shape should it be? Here, being a window seat, it is intended to fit the human body on the one side, and allow the 'user' to interact with information on the other side. It's also, I noticed, the shape of a 'D'.

Alternately, the functions of the window (light, communication, ventilation, etc) could be miniaturized and distributed. Above I have attempted to miniaturize and distribute the ventilation function of the window. Ventilation could be controlled very accurately this way, for particular tasks. I have a sketch that shows how this would work on the scale of the house that I will post soon.
Here is the window seat in perspective. On the one side and on the bottom the unit is lined with foam, while on the other side and the top are two curved lcd screens. The screen opposite the 'user' is to give them access to things like social networking, weather, etc: augmentations of the traditional uses for a window.
The panel to the right of the glass gives access to various functions. The large black pieces are scroll-surfaces which the 'user' can use by brushing their hand against it: brushing one of them up opens the window; brushing it back down closes the window. The other two black surfaces are for controlling the opacity of the window and the density of the screen. Liquid crystal layered into the glass allows for information to be layered over the world outside. The buttons along the bottom control what information is being displayed - in the image above the weather forecast is being displayed. The reddish panel to the right is a temperature simulator, also for the forecast of weather.
Above: traffic conditions for local neighbourhood displayed on the window

As I have described elsewhere, architecture can be described as the engineering of boundaries between scales of ecological networks. This is fancy-talk for the fact that architecture locates or 'places' us in relation to systems of distribution and production, literal ecological networks (shedding rainwater, keeping the bugs out, growing a garden), and informational networks (a phone number or an ip address for instance). Windows are about permeable, controllable boundaries. Window seats are all about inhabiting these boundaries and this window seat is about inhabiting several boundaries at once.


Beds for Cyborgs, Beds for Hermits

The following are a couple of fanciful bed designs that I developed recently. They are very roughly rendered I am afraid, but I hope get the ideas across. They are very different sorts of designs, one very permanent, the other miniaturized and portable. If you want to see them you should definitely click on the image or else they will be too small!


Images From Harvard Medical Guide

Here's a couple of images I just dug up from the 1999 edition of the Harvard Medical Guide (as far as I know the most recent rendition of this mighty tome).

These images are found at the very end of the 1280 pg book. Up until that point the book focuses on describing the human subject (object?) in detailed terms (primarily anatomically with a few excursions into mental manifestations and traits as well), potential irregularities in the form and performance of this subject, and suggestions as to how these irregularities may be ameliorated, suppressed or corrected. The very last section before the appendices is the 4 page section that contains these images, entitled 'Replaceable Parts of Irreplaceable You'. And it seems appropriate that this is the last section as it seems to represent, for me anyways, the way forward towards the unspoken telos of the whole work, perhaps the whole project of medicine. In the end, if the parts of the human object are not corralable back into an easy fit with the initial description (normalcy I think we would call it), then they may be replaced with parts that if not formally consistent with the ideal parts at least conform in their performance.
It's a controversial point, but, seen from this angle it seems like the final cause of medicine could be described this way: the remaking of the human object towards an ideal form, a form notably not defined in physical terms but in terms of performance. In which case, these images of cyborgs are just a step along the way to the ultimate goal which, supposedly, would actually be robots! Now there's a perverse and contentious thought for you: could the essential telos of medicine actually be the design of robots? Well, the title of the section would seem to imply that this is not true with its declaration that 'You' are in fact 'Irreplaceable'. But, as James Geary has pointed out in his lovely The Body Electric, the word 'irreplaceable' here does seem rather forced, to be expressing a thinly concealed anxiety as to exactly how irreplaceable we are.


A Curious Cabinet

Cabinets are objects deeply imbued with value. They are the holders of secrets. And medicine cabinets especially - think of the big deal made in sitcoms like Seinfeld regarding the taboo of looking in someone elses medicine cabinet. But in addition to being such vulnerable components of our psychic environment, medicine cabinets are also supportive of our health and well-being. In a way it's their very role in supporting us that makes them points of sensitivity.
What happens as the medicine cabinet changes, becomes embedded not only with meaning but with 'intelligence'?
Here I have imagined a cabinet of this sort, the surface of which can display information from three realms - an internal realm (by becoming transparent), your realm (by becoming reflective) and an entirely external realm (by offering news results pertinent to your health, etc).
A cabinet of this sort both ramps up its role in supporting our health and also is exemplary of a sort of remystification of the environment that seems to be happening as pervasive computing becomes more . . . well . .. pervasive.


Some Pieces of Things

The work that I'm doing right now ostensibly has to do with the creep of computational technology into everyday objects, objects that already resonate with emotional and psychological values and are implicated in all of our projects of self-creation and definition. As these participants in our everyday becoming, our partners in assemblage become 'smart', what are the consequences?

In pursuit of this question I am doing some design work on paper which, when it is better developed I will post here, and I have also started taking some things apart with a thought to re-assembling them in new and hopefully 'evocative' ways. So far I haven't really got into the 'assemblage' phase, but here are some of the results of the 'disassemblage':

The circuit board of an old CRT monitor I picked up at the dump
the rest of the CRT monitor
A medicine cabinet from which I have removed the glass
a chair


Thesis Abstract Update

I updated my masters thesis abstract that I had posted on here - you can find it here