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evolving ecological media culture(s)

Week 12: Seedbombs & sentient cities

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The Boston Marathon bombing forced us this week to reconsider the name of our class project, “Seedbomb Burlington.” We decided to stay with the name for two reasons. First, all of our PR materials — press releases, social media sites, et al. — are well in motion and can’t be recalled at this point. (And even if it wasn’t too late, the obvious alternative — “Seedball Burlington” — just doesn’t sound the same.)

But secondly, we had a general consensus that seedbombs have little to do with real bombs. The only thing they share is a certain incendiary image, which comes from the term’s historical connection to the guerrilla gardening movement. That image, we decided, can be toned down, even if there was some diversity of views about its usefulness. (We were still deciding on our posters, and had good ones to choose from that were less, well, bomb-like. Above is the one being postered around town.)

The goals of the two kinds of bombs are, in any case, antithetical.

Bombs of a military nature — such as those used last weekend in Boston — aim to harm, maim, or kill: their immediate goal is death, or at least the production of a state of fear involving potential death or its close cousins (injury, etc.). By contrast, seedbombs aim to create life and its flourishing, and to generate the enhanced awareness and appreciation of life. They are deconstructions, transmutations, and reclaimings of the very idea of a bomb and what it might be good for.

And unlike even the kinds of utilitarian explosives used in mining or other industrial activities, seedbombs do not even literally explode. Their explosion is poetic, metaphorical, ecstatic. Seedbombing itself is a seeding, a dérive, a way to make one’s way around the urban environment so as to see that environment explode into wonder.

Enough, then, on justification. On this coming Earth Week Sunday and Monday, the class will host two teach-ins. These will include demonstrations of seedbomb (seedball) making techniques (and, if we get it together in time, of moss graffiti making to mark out some of the sites as SBB, a.k.a. SeedballBTV, Seedball Burlington, sites); and distribution of informational leaflets on how, why, and where one might wish the “seed” the city with them.

The class has broken up into four committees: Materials, Media, Art, and Legal & Location. Each is working on a variety of tasks this week, and our social media sites are indicating a growing interest in attending the two events.

These events, however, are only the first stage of the longer-term project — a “seeding” of the terrain for what could follow. We are preparing guidelines on the use of seedballs in relation to agro-ecological considerations (what will grow, what should grow — as in what kinds of seeds/plants/trees are locally and regionally appropriate — and how to take care of it) as well as legal and ethical considerations (what is legal, when seeding property that does not itself belong to the seeder; what isn’t legal; how to deal effectively with grey areas, community standards, local regulatory bodies, and the like).

The goal is a strategic one of seeding the idea into the Greater Burlington community and beyond, of sending out groups of seeders and land use revisioners equipped with seedballs, hands and eyes (able to scan the landscape for objects that may be useful to floral reconstruction, and to recognize signs of congenial territoriality), and smart phones (to upload photographs of sites and markers, to navigate the city with an eye for its seedability), and of generating momentum among citizens and land use planners in making an already reasonable city (as cities go) much more wildly green.

The project grows out of our class insights that new media activism works best in the context of a spatially politicized movement, and that locative media represents one of the most interesting frontiers for media development. The latter is my idea, which I’m not sure I’ve convinced students of yet; so we’re reading more on it this coming week.

Among our readings for this week is the article “Sentient Cities: Ambient Intelligence and the Politics of Urban Space” by geographers Mike Crang and Stephen Graham. A related article is Martijn de Waal’s “The Urban Culture of Sentient Cities“. And see Mark Shepard’s quirky Sentient City Survival Kit (one or two of the things there are pretty funny).

Our discussions on these topics began here, and will continue below. You can follow the project on its Facebook page.

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6 thoughts on “Week 12: Seedbombs & sentient cities

  1. If you changed the name, the terrorists (whoever they are) would have won.

    Meanwhile, in some places, animals can do the seed-bombing.

  2. Crang’s “Sentient Cities: Ambient Intelligence and the Politics of Urban Space” is a fascinating analysis of the deployment of ubiquitous computing from three different likely domains. What is meant by this term is something of a not-so-distant future omnipresent transparency of information. Achieved through global internet connectivity and digital media as well as physical urban environments Crang argues that De Certeau’s vision of a no longer opaque public vision where all knowledge is available to everyone is perhaps becoming true.

    The author explains in the reading the different dimensions that ubiquitous computing is beginning to and could offer us. First explained is its ability to augment space for the receiver of information. Beyond the natural physical constraints to perceiving reality and data through senses and basic communication, electronic media overlays a virtual reality on a screen which allows the user to witness the real world in places normally impossible. This effectively creates an augmented reality and connects the user around the globe. The second dimension explained is the enacted environment. This refers to the integration of computing ability and digital media into everything in our environment. This includes computing ability into our cars, phones, and city streets as well as into our own flesh through biotechnology. This dimension empowers and informs everyone and everything constantly through the network of computing ability. While this dimension is not a complete reality presently, it could be argued that we are moving towards it with smartphones and other common computing technologies we hold so dear. The third and final dimension explained that is offered by ubiquitous computing is transducting space. What is meant by this are the abilities and capacities of ubiquitous computing such as technicity, or “the productive power of technology to make things happen”, and transduction, or the “constant making anew of a domain in reiterative and transformative practices”. This refers to the actual functions capable of the technologies such as the instrumental benefits to humans besides cognitive connection and things like the possibility of identifying objects or people through coding. It also could be thought of as the “technological unconscious” where action is enabled through the integration of code and space in which they are so fused that space cannot function without the information provided by code.

    In the reading the three domains are analyzed as well as their attempts to manipulate or disrupt ubiquitous computing. First discussed are the commercial fantasies of markets and “friction-free” consumption, in which modern actions of websites such as Amazon remembering what you were shopping for or made a wish list for are expanded into businesses of the future knowing exactly what you want before you know you want it along with where and when you will buy it. The second domain analyzed is the authoritative control through military and security to conduct “the war on terror”, where modern government technologies and tactics are expanded to these powers effectively creating the panopticon and exercising asymmetrical warfare and surveillance on whomever they deem an enemy threat or terrorist. Lastly, Crang discusses a third domain of artists and activists seeking to return opacity and to interrupt perfect urban control and influence similar to modern day hacktivists as well as elaborating on concepts of future artists seeking to uncover hidden or forgotten truths and myths lost once all were connected through ubiquitous computing through means of locative media and animating spaces, among others.

    While much of the concepts included in this article may be science fiction or nowhere near reality, I believe that this reading could also be taken more so as an allegory for modern technology blown out of proportion. Many of the similarities discussed are striking especially regarding the military and security section. While technology certainly is useful to us it is also good to be reminded the more sinister possibilities and implications it could be used for such as the ones described by Crang.

  3. Adam Johnson
    Blog Post
    The power of technology is broken down very categorically in this article, and I agree with much of the application theory of this technology. It all sounded very real when Crang discussed the natural world never becoming just a background for humans. There is an obvious distance between the way your brain acts in nature and when you’re in front of a screen or surrounded by man-made infrastructure. My take-home message here was that the natural world cannot be replicated, and all technology came from the natural world, so the power of technology is within the realm of Earth and the universe. It is a mere distraction of focus and connectivity that removes us from nature, only to be hurled back in when you lift your head from a cell phone. I experience this after every video I watch.

    We are now interacting with technology on a level that has yet to be seen by our eyes. Consumerist theory has incorporated algorithms to track spending habits, just as the military has used video recognition to distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield based on recognizable traits.

    The discussion on information overload, and the complexity that large data banks pose was very interesting to me. It seems that the more efficient the computers get, the less we actually understand about them. We are making them faster and smarter but we are still thinking at relative paces that of 100+ years ago. The confusion that can arise from this lack in translation can leave many people giving up on their product and simply moving on to the next. My cell phone breaks and I immediately think of when I can get another device where as my lawn mower breaks down (same price) and I am optimistic that it can be fixed by a common handyman at a reasonable price. Often times I have been told “It’s really not worth fixing and you should probably just buy another,” when it comes to technology and that ideal has been imbedded in our technological world.

    The focus and advancement of technology is allowing us to keep it very prominent in our lives, with shopping, national security, art, etc. We are not bored of it because of the sensory overload that companies give us by having new products that are bigger and better than the last. The day that we retreat back to the natural world is when capitalism fails, as it is just a distraction from where life really thrives.

  4. Though, like Andrew mentioned above, most of the ideas explored in Sentient Cities are somewhat far off or unlikely, they’re based on pre-existing trends that will lead us to a place that probably isn’t too far off from the vision described. In a class I was in last semester, we discussed M.T. Anderson’s young adult fiction novel Feed, which took place in a world similar to the one in Sentient Cities. While the current state of things is not quite so overtly frightening, personal data is already being collected and traded by Google, Facebook, etc so that we might be better marketed to.
    What interested me about this concept is summed up by Crang in the conclusion, which reads, “we may find the production of myriads of little stories—a messy infinity of ‘Little Brothers’ rather than one omniscient ‘Big’ Brother. Some of these may be commercial, some personal, maybe some militarized.” The one all-seeing eye, therefore, is probably not going to be a reality. As information continues to be coded and stored in servers around the planet, it might prove too abundant to be useful in achieving full transparency for the powers that be. Also, as tracking technologies develop, as will technologies that can be used to subvert them, as described in the “art” section. So, luckily, we might not end up living in some awful techno-fascist world.

  5. I found the discussion about technologies relationship with urban environments to be very interesting. Having grown up in a small town in Vermont the concept of being “seen” every where you go is unnerving and not realistic, but as I read Sentient Cities I understood how it could be a real thing for those living in cities. The section covering terrorism and monitoring caught my attention because of the events that have transpired in Boston in the last week. The technology that Crang discusses here sounds very appealing, but I am also very skeptical about its implementation. Ultimately the goal of intense monitoring would be to prevent terrorist attacks by keeping track of movements and behaviors and predicting an outcome. Crang argues that future technologies will be able to do just that all on their own. My first thought about this was that it would never be established because of the American drive towards freedom. Although the monitoring systems would be focused on identifying insurgents, Americans would see it as an attack on their privacy (I would have to agree). The only way I can see something of this nature being successful is after an attack or terrorist threat (there needs to be something to open the window, but even if its opened it will never remain so for long). My second thought is that a program designed to recognize red flag behaviors would have to be able to adapt. Human behavior is flexible and very capable of adapting to an added security measures. I’m just not sure that something like a monitoring system will ever be efficient enough to be 100% correct in threat identifications. In this instance I think that technology is masking an issue that should be addressed in a technology free manner. There are places that don’t require such intense monitoring and they manage to not suffer from terrorism. Although being able to keep an eye out for dangerous individuals would be a benefits for everyone, it seems to me that technology wont be in the be all end all, something else is going to have to change.

  6. WikiLeaks exposures can be explained as the consequence of the dramatic spread of IT use, together with the dramatic drop in its costs, including for the storage of millions of documents. In a sense we had created a perfect storm so to speak for this explosion beyond traditional politics. Wiki has been largely successful in part as remaining ambiguous in their roll – declared as some to be a content provider or by others as a simple conduit for leaked data. Regardless Wiki has become a tremendously powerful “organization” defying previous laws of non-state and non-corporate actors, where scales, times and places are declared largely irrelevant. Wiki has been further aided by the new world type of media, acting themselves as an outsider and relying more on individual DIY reporters – many times citizens with a camera phone. They merely publicize other people’s information and in essence have created a new brand of open access. Some due to the well-established military-industrial complex calls this type of media info war – because although we have worked towards open access information computer scientists and programmers have developed extreme encryption, closing access to many.
    In a way wikileaks greatly resembles the type of gorilla agriculture that we have been talking about lately as they are operating outside the traditional strategies and working towards a goal that is met with great opposition.

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