Friday, May 7, 2004

On mobile cities, Archigram, invisible networks and ubicomp

I gave an informal presentation on my research to some fabulous engineering/art/technology students this morning. I started out by talking about Archigram's take on mobile cities, and specifically Peter Cook's 1963 Plug-in University (a version of the Plug-in City) and Ron Herron's 1964 Walking City. In stark contrast to the historical and material heaviness of Trinity's campus, the plug-in university would comprise skin-covered frames and decks, or a sort of temporary "nomadic plain" on which students would move from place to place. The Walking City is probably my favourite Archigram project, not least because it provides a means to contextualise our current mobile technologies and shifting landscapes.

When I return later in the month to give a more formal (i.e. to more people) presentation, I want to spend more time talking about David Green's 1969 L.A.W.U.N. project. As described in the Archigram exhibit I visited on the weekend, "Green speculated that eventually it would be possible to create a 'fully serviced natural landscape', or Bottery, in which the natural world looks just as it should but is serviced by unseen networks, otherwise known as L.A.W.U.N. - Locally Available World Unseen Networks ... Green's Logplug could provide all the utilities and communication links a modern traveller out exploring the wilderness might require, while leaving the beauty and serenity of the natural surroundings undisturbed."

Certainly this brings to mind Mark Weiser's vision for ubiquitous computing and calm technology, as well as Don Norman's invisible computer. (Note: Weiser warned against being completely seduced by the idea of seamless computing - a point that is often overlooked in current pervasive computing and mixed/augmented reality research, with the exception of work by Matthew Chalmers and Ian MacColl. See also Andrew Odlyzko's article The Visible Problems of the Invisible Computer.)

The one concern I keep returning to when I use Archigram to help me manoeuver mobile cities is their focus on expendable architectures. Now, don't get me wrong: I think the idea of modular and adaptive cities is brilliant. But Archigram wasn't considering global scales of production, consumption and disposal of mobile technologies. These networks include - but are not limited to - tantalum mining, international telecommunications policies and recycling and disposal procedures. You may be familiar with thinking about technologies from cradle to grave - or from cradle to cradle - but I think it is also important to look at technological intimacies in terms of the people/objects/places/activites/ideas are brought together - brought into intimate relationships - in the design and use of mobile technologies. Like African mining communities, American manufacturers, EU telco regulators, and Japanese cell-phone users.

The question of responsibility and accountability gets sticky here - especially if we consider that technologies are too often viewed as neutral tools or isolated artefacts. If we draw out these flows, these networks, these interconnections, we find ourselves faced with the possibility of being connected to people/objects/places/activites/ideas that we may never see. And with intimacy always comes risk.


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