It took awhile for my brain to formulate the words “science fair” as I walked through Toward the Sentient City, now on view at the Architectural League of New York, but once there I couldn’t shake them. The two words weren’t meant as derogatory or judgmental, quite the opposite. Curator Mark Shepard brought together five projects that embed the urban environment with the technologies of ubiquitous computing—sensors, RFID tags, and networks—and the result is a welcome familiarity.
Here, technology wants you to engage, not just with it, but also with the people and critters in the world around you. Amphibious Architecture, a collaboration between The Living and Natalie Jeremijenko, dunks an array of interactive tubes in the East River and the Bronx River. Equipped with sensors, the tubes collect water quality readings and monitor for fish. In the gallery, viewers are asked to text the fish a watery “What up?” and the fish report back on the state of their ecosystem. The architecture here is not just amphibious but anthropomorphic; I sent the fish a message and the fish wrote back “Underwater, it now loud,” signaling the presence of marine life, and urged me to text friends AhoyAnchovie and HeyHerring.
The National Science Fair, first founded in 1941, rose to popularity in the 1950s under the shadow of the cold war. Meanwhile suburban kitchens filled with appliances and ever more complex chemical solutions, science fairs served a double purpose. They trained American youth and offered the public a perceived transparency to the scientific and technological developments. If a high-schooler could build a crystal radio set, then the country’s future is in good hands. In many ways ubiquitous computing a similar model. The complex networks that provide the underpinnings of daily life are made visible; as seen in Trash Track that uses RFID tags to map garbage or Breakout! an experiment in co-working in the city’s café, parks, and public space.
There’s comfort in that.
Or discomfort, if we use the street furniture developed by JooYoun Paek and David Jimison as an example. Capable of making vagrancy judgments, their Smart Bench uses movement sensors and a hearty robotic system to boot sitters if they lounge too long. Wall text describes all three of the Too Smart City projects (bench, trashcan, and street sign) as “overly enthusiastic”—a phrase that captures and critiques the blind deployment of computational technology in the urban realm. Are Paek and Jimison suggesting that we shouldn’t get too comfortable with these technologies? As our actions in public space are tracked and monitored is the correct response acceptance, awareness, or action?
Just as mid-century science fairs’ optimism was colored by atomic fear, Toward a Sentient City has its own specter: the fate of the environment. Natural Fuse by Usman Haque, Dot Samsen, Ai Hasegawa, Cesar Harada, and Barbara Jasinowicz, comes across at first as a cheerful, hands-on learning station. Designed to call attention to carbon offsets, houseplants are hooked up to devices that tracks their CO2 output. That local system is then tied into a city-wide network of other houseplants which regulates energy usage and carbon absorption. Sounds friendly enough, the plants thrive when everyone in the network gets along. But, if not “then the network starts to kill plants, thus diminishing the network’s electricity capacity.” Users have the option of being “selfless” or “greedy.” Plants live or plants die on collective decision. It’s a grim opposition. But such darkness embedded in the brightly lit gallery is just as welcoming as any sanguine accessibility.