Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Toward the Sentient City: When Urban Technology is "Too Smart"

A few notes on The Architectural League of New York's exhibit "Toward the Sentient City"

The project that stuck out the most for its wit and (almost) cynical take on the idea of a city complete with the “benefits” of ubiquitous computing interlaced with architecture within urban spaces was Too Smart City, a project funded by Eyebeam Arts & Technology Center and the Georgia Tech Digital Media Graduate program. All five of the projects in the exhibit incorporated technology and architecture, but this was the one project that seemed to make a comment on the idea of an urban space literally being too sentient and too intelligent for its own good. Too Smart City included three different pieces of urban “furniture”, all of which functioned as a comment on what happens when technology takes over the role of a city official, a concerned citizen, or law enforcement and the possible negative effects of a city being “too smart”.

The three different pieces of furniture – The Smart Bench, The Smart Sign, and The Smart Trashcan – all tackle the fault of technological enthusiasts who think that any advancement is a good advancement, and, much like Adam Greenfield suggests in his interview with Mark Shepard in the Situated Technologies Pamphlet “Urban Computing and it’s Discontents”: “just because we now have the technological ability to, say, correlate lighting levels to the average blood pressure of everyone on the floor, should we?”

Here's a video proposal of the project:

Too Smart City from David Jimison on Vimeo.

Possibly the one piece that acts as being the most counter-intuitive – or, as the artist statement suggests, as a “[failure] rather than…progress” – is The Smart Trashcan, a device that acts essentially as an urban dweller’s Jiminy Cricket, spitting trash back out of the receptacle that more properly belongs in a recycling bin (glass, paper, plastic, etc.). The sociological reasoning behind the construction of this technology would seemingly be to teach individuals what does and does not belong in a trash can, and to make the urban dweller aware of the differences between the myriad objects they are discarding while simultaneously allowing for simplicity in waste disposal. But, unlike Trash TrackMIT’s project involving a system of tagging trash that allows one to follow what happens to their waste – the urban dweller who relies on a sentient trash bin to do their work for them does not think about the fact that if their garbage is not granted access to the interior of The Smart Trashcan, the can spits their garbage onto the street either to lie dormant in a pile or be swept up by manual labor.

The Smart Trashcan also does not provide the urban dweller with other options like a recycling receptacle; instead, the sentient can spits the trash onto the ground below, since the person who discarded the object in the first place has seemingly moved on to their next destination, already being too busy to be bothered with finding a recycling bin. As a comment not only on the fast-paced ideology of the urban dweller but also a reflection of the project’s “Too Smart” title, The Smart Trashcan initially seems like a fantastic idea, until it is actually used in something other than a hypothetical or fictitious urban setting.

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