Monday, March 24, 2008

Underground aesthetics and ethics

SeeShell by Johanna Brewer

"SeeShell is my new project, an augmented Oyster Card (the RFID-enabled Underground ticket) holder which displays, over time, the journeys a rider has taken.

When a user passes their Oyster card (which is inside the SeeShell) over the touch-in point at the gate to the station while they are entering or exiting, the SeeShell, using RFID, senses which station the user just passed through and over time a map of the stations they have visited begins to emerge on their Oyster Card holder.

When you purchase an Oyster card it is not necessary that you give up your identity, but you must register the card if you want to purchase a monthly or yearly pass. Registration allows you to recover a lost or stolen card, but obviously comes with the trade-off of having all of your journeys (which are traceable) linked to your name. The Oyster system already tracks users' journeys but there is no convenient way for the users to access or make use of that data.

By building SeeShell on top of an already existing system, I hope to show how lived patterns of mobility might be leveraged in new ways and placed back into the hands of their creators."

In a paper on underground aesthetics (pdf) for IEEE Pervasive Computing last year, Arianna Bassoli, Johanna Brewer, Karen Martin, Paul Dourish, and Scott Mainwaring explain how Londoners used to give their paper day-travel tickets to strangers at the tube station when they were done travelling for the day and wouldn't need them anymore. They also describe how free newspapers are commonly left behind so that other passengers can read them. While the authors recognise these material objects as "potential interaction points" that "acknowledge current and future passengers," I think they underestimate the ethical implications. Whether or not there is any direct (i.e. conversational) interaction, in both scenarios people act as though they are socially obligated to each other. The ethic of this paper-based aesthetic involves collective action. In political terms, we could call it community or citizenship.

The SeeShell project works within the framework or system afforded by the Oyster card. Since the RFID-based card is a personalised and reusable device, there is no opportunity or need to share it in the same way as the day-travel card example above. We might even go so far as to say that its use encourages personal rather than social relations. By positioning agency in terms of how "users can conveniently access and make use of data," the SeeShell project may indeed offer the individual new means of self-awareness and aesthetic expression. But this kind of parasitic or participatory surveillance does nothing to encourage a social ethic that binds people to each other, or a sense of citizenship that challenges the surveillant assemblage and its atomising effects.

I'm not saying that I don't like the project, or that all projects need to be social and political. What I'm saying is that as new technologies attempt to shift from interaction models to participation models, we might take a closer look at what we mean when we describe design in terms of user empowerment. What kind of agency or power is this?

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OpenID dp said...

Interesting. I can see certain kinds of social value developing from this, some of which are like the display of airport (or further back in time, seaport) stickers on luggage. Am I where I have been, and can I badge my travels? How many Londoners would it take to represent the entire tube map?

More interesting though is the idea of 'social' as that which gives people a feeling of control over the data, the way it is used.

Anonymous anne said...

hmm. i'm not sure that people feel more in control that way, but i do think there's something really important about being bound to each other.

Blogger panoply said...

my interest is currently with ubiety, place and "whereness". i wonder how lived patterns can become interactions can become social networks? and how can these tools be integrated with eachother, not just badges or another distraction in our already fatigued society?

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