Articulating Countercollectives

The Natural Fuse project provides an example of ubiquitous computing in the home, but ubicomp is not limited to domestic environment. Urban environments—cities—are also lively sites of ubicomp research and design. In part, this is due to increasing numbers of wireless data networks within cities. In fact, many of the advances and problems of ubicomp have emerged in tandem with the increased availability and capacity of wireless data networks. These networks provide access to various devices that enable the exchange of data between users, devices, and the applications running on them. Although these urban wireless networks provide access, they are not all open spaces. They are regulated and monitored channels of transmission and communication. Whether the access is provided by a municipality or a commercial vendor, the data that flow across the network are subject to the laws and ordinances of the providers, and open to their surveillance. The extent of covert electronic surveillance of network communications is unknown. The notion of electronic surveillance, however, is now part of the public consciousness. We hear about governments that monitor online terrorist chatter, mail that is intercepted in national or corporate espionage cases, and media companies that track, identify, and prosecute those who download or distribute copyrighted materials.

The Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug by Mark Shepard (2009a) is intended to address issues of network surveillance by providing an alternative means of network connectivity and exchange (figure 4.5).9 This ubicomp system allows users to surreptitiously send short text messages to one another across a closed network, using travel mugs that are input devices, displays, and network routers in disguise. Through its design, the system articulates a collective of resources that enable users to avoid, even momentarily, network surveillance systems without having to forgo the uses of networks for simple social communication.

The functionality of the system is based on a design that, like Natural Fuse, illustrates the fundamental notion of ubicomp: at its core, it is a design of connectedness achieved by embedding computational technologies into everyday objects and then networking those objects together. The primary component of the Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug is a common aluminum mug, the kind used to keep drinks warm as one travels

Figure 4.5

Mark Shepard, Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug (2009a)

to and from work, school, or play. What is different about this mug is that it functions as node within an ad-hoc mesh network—a particular kind of digital network in which each node can function as a router, transmitting data to other nodes along the network. As the coffee mugs/nodes move through space, the network changes in size and capacity as users carrying the mugs come into and drift out of range of one another. When enough Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mugs are near each other, they form a closed network of data transmission and exchange. This network is "dark" not because it is related to coffee but because it is run as a clandestine parallel network that is outside of the reach of electronic monitoring by municipal or commercial networks.

Each mug is outfitted with a wireless ad-hoc mesh network module, a microprocessor that communicates with other modules via radio frequency (RF), an LCD screen for display, and a microcontroller that runs the necessary software for establishing and maintaining the network and providing basic output via the screen. Software on the network module and microprocessor sends out a repeating signal via RF, which announces its presence and availability to other modules. It also listens for the same signal as it comes from other modules. When one module detects another, a connection is established, and when enough connections are established, a network is formed that allows the transmission and reception of data. When one module leaves the configuration and is no longer within range of any other module, the network registers that module as unavailable and routes the data among the remaining available modules. In addition, a button embedded on the side of the mug picks up tapping sequences by users. These taps are procedurally transformed into alphanumeric codes, which are transmitted to other mugs within the network, enabling a basic messaging system.

The Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug is part of a larger project by Shepard titled the Sentient City Survival Kit (2009c), which uses design to explore the possibilities and consequences of ubiquitous computing in the city. For this project, Shepard has created a series of concept designs and working prototypes. Each concept and prototype offers a novel experience with ubiquitous computing and engages issues of "privacy, autonomy, trust and serendipity in this highly observant, ever-more efficient and overcoded city" (Shepard 2009c). The notion of sentience that Shepard uses to frame his project highlights the ways that computation as a theme is intertwined with contemporary discussions of the city. This is not surprising. Cities have always been shaped by and reflexively shaped technology, from the Roman aqueducts and arcades of Paris to the highways of Los Angeles and Atlanta. Today the city as a "networked society" and as "spaces of flows" is influenced by the qualities of computational technology.10 The space, place, and experience of the city are now shaped by information and communications technologies infrastructure and services, from cell towers to Internet cafes. New topologies of a city can even be based on degrees of data access and data service usage. Likewise, the qualities of the city reflect back on technology research and design, evidenced by the invention of phrases such as "urban computing" and "urban informatics," which apply perceived qualities of the urban to computational media, products, and services.11 In such design domains, distinctions are made in the design of computational systems for use in the city versus the rural, suburban, or exurban.

Just as with the data networks themselves, the physical space of the contemporary networked city is a space of pervasive monitoring. In fact, nowhere has the idea of the networked city been more fully realized than in systems of urban surveillance. Networked communications surveillance of the kind that the Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug seeks to counter is one such mode of surveillance. But perhaps the most common mode is video surveillance using charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras—digital systems that produce images without the use of film or tape, usually recording the image data to hard drives. In their simplest forms, contemporary networked surveillance systems combine hundreds or even thousands of

CCD cameras distributed throughout a city to provide a glimpse of the city as a whole and a record of the city to be searched and referenced. So pervasive is this surveillance that in some cities, such as London, it is unusual for people to be out of the view of a CCD camera. More advanced tracking and monitoring systems use a variety of sensors to produce finer-grained data and a heightened awareness and documentation of the city. For example, the ShotSpotter Gunshot Location System recognizes and locates gunshot sounds by using a network of audio sensors distributed throughout the city.12 Through these and other distributed sensing systems, the city becomes a feed of digital data as sounds, air quality, traffic flow, and other factors are observed, registered, and recorded. The data can be used to initiate real-time responses or be stored and analyzed to serve as the basis for some action in the future.

As these monitoring and tracking systems continue to be developed, they will continue to affect how we perceive and live in the networked city. Geographer Stephen Graham has theorized this confluence of technology and urbanism since the 1990s, and his work is influential in the cultural studies of ubicomp and design. In "Sentient Cities: Ambient Intelligence and the Politics of Urban Space," Michael Crang and Stephen Graham (2007) theorize that society may be moving toward a notion of "anticipatory" cities. In an anticipatory city, sensors and video cameras are distributed throughout the urban environment and are combined with data-mining and pattern-recognition techniques so that users can predict the behaviors of individuals and groups of people.

Shepard himself references Crang and Graham in his Sentient City Survival Kit project (Shepard 2009c), and his CCD-Me Not Umbrella (2009b) can be taken as an attempt to address and counter pervasive video surveillance and the use of computational vision systems as part of that surveil- lance.13 The CCD-Me Not Umbrella is a standard umbrella with an array of infrared LEDs studding the umbrella canopy, powered by a stack of batteries housed in the handle (figure 4.6). These lights are not there to illuminate the environment but rather to distort the scene as it is perceived by CCD cameras and to confound the computational vision algorithms that are used for object detection in surveillance systems.

Imagine that users want to avoid CCD surveillance, either because they have something to hide or perhaps because they oppose the practice of surveillance. As they walk down the street carrying the umbrella, they turn the umbrella lights on and off repeatedly. This generates visual effects that are perceptible only to CCD systems (distortion in the captured scene) and frustrate the process of object detection, thereby thwarting effective

Figure 4.6

Mark Shepard, CCD-Me Not Umbrella (2009b)

surveillance. A single person equipped with a CCD-Me Not Umbrella could thus counter individual monitoring, while a crowd of users with CCD-Me Not Umbrellas might compound the effects, resulting in images of city streets that are nearly unrecognizable (figures 4.7 and 4.8).

Although the CCD-Me Not Umbrella is not a computational artifact, it is designed to interface with a computational system—that is, as a component of a ubicomp system, albeit a disruptive component. Its design is based on an astute understanding of the technical capacities and limitations of computation and the ways that other objects and their qualities (such as LEDs and the infrared wavelength of light) might combine to work together with or, in this case, against computational technologies. As a common feature of computational vision systems, object detection and tracking uses algorithms to read an array of pixels in a digital image and from that reading identify and follow particular shapes. Through these systems, it is possible to isolate individuals from a crowd, distinguish among people, automobiles, and buildings, and even track and analyze facial expressions, gesticulations, and gait. The array of infrared LEDs in the CCD-Me Not Umbrella, however, would frustrate many algorithms used

and 4.8

Figures 4.7 and 4.8

Mark Shepard, CCD-Me Not Umbrella (2009b). These images show a computational vision system attempting to monitor the umbrella. The umbrella is progressively disrupting the image so that the person is no longer singled out. The software is confused and is tracking light traces in the image.

within these systems. Repeatedly turning on and off the infrared lights could affect the registration of pixels that are stored in system memory and that separate the foreground (the individual who is surveilled) from the background. As a result, the computational vision system would lose track of the individual because it would be unable to separate him or her from the total scene.

As a device of articulation, the CCD-Me Not Umbrella produces what I call a countercollective—a collective that operates in a manner contrary to another collective. For example, the capacities, resources, and qualities brought together in the design of the CCD-Me Not Umbrella work to undo the capacities, resources, and qualities of many advanced video surveillance systems. In this way, countercollectives exemplify and engage in a particular task of agonism that Mouffe (2007) refers to as "disarticulating the existing order." In both a discursive and a material sense, countercollectives work by unhinging the joints that bind another collective together. In doing so, the countercollective disables or thwarts the capacities of that other collective. The collective produced by the CCD-Me Not Umbrella is articulated for the purpose of disarticulating the collective of the surveillance system. This notion of articulating a countercollective provides one more example of the distinctive political potential of ubicomp that is made possible by leveraging qualities of connectedness and the interrelated dependencies that characterize connectedness.

Just as a series of dependencies can be traced through Natural Fuse, so too can the unhinging or disarticulation be traced through CCD-Me Not Umbrella. This unhinging can be understood as a series of dependencies undone by the design of CCD-Me Not Umbrella: the light emitted by LEDs on the umbrellas makes the video collected from the cameras unreadable by the computational vision systems, and thus the computational vision systems are unable to provide the monitoring and tracking they were intended for. The CCD-Me Not Umbrella thus provides an example of an agonistic encounter between systems or collectives in which one collective does the work of agonism by attempting to disarticulate another collective. Returning to the dual notion of articulation as both an engineering and political endeavor, the CCD-Me Not Umbrella exemplifies articulation as something more than just a discursive maneuver. The disarticulation that the CCD-Me Not Umbrella attempts to perform occurs on a material level by leveraging the material design qualities of one collective against the material design dependencies of another. Here articulation in the engineering sense is also an instantiation and form of political articulation.

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