The Devil is in the Details

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An essay for “Volume 28 – The Internet of Things (July, 2011)” published by Archis, Amo and C-lab (p. 14-15). It was written for designers, architects and other “creatives” and is anything but an academic paper. There are no references and its style is very polemic. You can read a revised version here:

 

The devil is in the details: Critical knowledge about emerging information technologies.

by Shintaro Miyazaki

The complexity of a ‘thing’ and the network that connects each one to another is not only complicated in its organization but as well in its fundamentals. We are not surrounded by static elements; the earth, the cities, their buildings and elements as well as the residents, the traffic and finally the data-scapes, are all dynamic. Our environment is, has always been and it will always be dynamic. This dynamism can be seen from different vantage points. One such perspective is through rhythms and sound, or, algoRhythmics.

Within twenty years the idea of ubiquitous computing descended from the highly elite realm of Xerox PARC (Marc Weiser, 1991) in California to the level of international regulation at the ITU in Geneva (Strategy paper ‘Internet of Things’, 2005), and down into the more earthy fields of design, architecture and everyday creativity. This is usually how technological evolutions happen. In order to understand these new developments it is important to cultivate habits of analytical thinking, acting and designing in regards to the so-called ‘Internet of Things’.

Let me start with a short critique of the term ‘things’. The concept of an ‘Internet of Things’ is an euphemism at the highest possible level. It reduces the complexity of current technological developments – at least for Europeans – to a pre-scientific, pre-18th-century mental state in which everything was more or less ordered and static. This persistent idea became finally untenable around 1800 when scientists like Ernst Chladni, Alessandro Volta, Jean Baptiste Fourier, and Johann Wilhelm Ritter dissolved this view as things became increasingly dynamic, vibrational, time-dependent and sometimes even sonic.

Returning to the connotations attached to the idea of a thing: A thing is an object and therefore a static entity. Things can’t communicate, store, transmit or compute anything. In fact they cannot do anything of their own accord. For the act of doing, external forces are necessary. Since the dawn of pneumatics and mechanics people have made things move together in predefined ways. Such assemblages of things were called automata—again at least in Europe. The most elaborated among these were complicated clocks and musical automata, which can be considered precursors of modern computers as they performed predefined algorithms: small pieces of software.

With the discovery of electricity the scientific perspective on physical matter changed from a static to a dynamic model. Things were no longer treated as things anymore. They must be considered wobbling, oscillating or, put poetically, singing, dancing or drumming matter. To put it simply, the seemingly static molecules that make up any physical object are actually in oscillation. Thus everything is in an intermediary stage of rhythmic change. Even an ‘Internet of Things’ must be considered dynamic. Its tremendous dynamism must be described using terms like orchestration, ensemble, rhythm and signal processing. It is highly organized, temporal, computational and always vibrating, fluctuating and working. Therefore the notion of ‘things’ in the context of such a complex system is completely inadequate and shuts out all underlying, technological unconscious (Nigel Thrift) processes that define and constitute the way they are perceived and created.

It is not necessary to understand all the details of their dynamic character, but for an analytical understanding it is important to grasp at least some fundamental concepts of the hidden processes in data storage, transmission and computation (Friedrich Kittler). One can then consider that the ‘Internet of Things’ is made possible by three factors: wireless connectivity, sensor networks and computational power. Instead of using the metaphor of flow, I suggest that of rhythm or to be more precise of algoRhythm.

Smartphones, RFID-Tags, Netbooks and intelligent objects are all recursive, programmable, but as well interruptible drum machines that send out inaudible radio and/or electrical pulses, waves and oscillations. Digital gadgets are mostly programmed and consist of software and hardware components, thus they are made with algorithms – step by step programs – and sequences of electric pulses – rhythms. Considered poetically, we are surrounded by inaudible algoRhythms. Smartphones are calm drum machines programmed via several extremely complicated loops and instructions. Their inaudible algoRhythms are both in the air as well as in the device itself. The real meaning of ‘Calm Technology’ is the annihilation of all disturbing noises (audible or inaudible as electromagnetic) hi-tech gadgets make.

We live in an era of precisely controlled electric and electromagnetic signals meaning that it is possible to control real physical phenomena such as radio, electric power, light, sound waves and vibrations as we would control letters or signs. This is the real nature of digital technology. To put it more directly, almost all processes, which can cause effects of perception become matters for software and of pure mathematics: algebra, stochastics, non-linear equations, chaotic systems. It is possible to synthesize many of these types of signals in a manner similar to how music synthesizers work. As algorithms, the abstract versions of software, produce these concrete, detectable and rhythmic signals, these real-world signals should be called algoRhythms.

It is not difficult to make these algoRhythms audible. All one needs to do is buy an audio mixer with preamps and an audio amplifier and turn the audio amplification up to maximum volume with no input. One will then begin to hear strange noises. If somebody then uses an old GSM-mobile near the experimental system you will hear the dactyli of the GSM. Or to express it differently, one will hear what would seem to be a lo-fi version of the beginning of the main rhythmic motif from the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony. If you are lucky and hold the device very close to the mixer you will also hear some tick-tacks of the process scheduling and battery power management system of your smart phone and even the noise of your multi-touch screen. One could also use an old portable radio receiver and put it into the AM-mode. Hold the device to a laptop or any digital device and it lets you hear a variety of rhythms and noises. Of course I cannot take responsibility for any damage to your hearing this might cause.

As Rob van Kranenburg explains, with the ‘Internet of Things’ the environment itself becomes an interface and ‘computational processes disappear into the background – into everyday objects.’ These processes can be learned and understood, since software and hardware engineers designed them and their knowledge is accessible. Sometimes a Google search is sufficient to find simple explanations of the underlying technologies, for example with RFID.

An advanced design should also be able to reflect the effects, concepts and mechanism of design itself. This means that neither designers nor architects cannot ignore the need to understand at least a bit of the engineering and computational aspects of creative technology; these are part of the design process and part of the technologies of design. In order to be able to create new intelligent products, environments or their narratives it is helpful to understand how protocols—the rules of orchestrations of the inaudible pulses which are transmitted between the things—are arranged and work. How do those protocols work and play together via wireless networks? There is already a lot of knowledge about new technologies available and a lot of software and hardware platforms are open source, which not only means that they are free, but that the source, thus the knowledge about the inner workings and processes of technology is made public and reusable.

Artists such as Marc Boon pioneered playful workshops at which interested people learn about RFID technology, the fundamentals of card paying, cash cards, library book tags, shop tags, electronic passports, etc. Hardware open source platforms such as Arduino provide easy to use tinkering kits to play with sensors to measure pressure, temperature, acceleration, light, sound and all the other processes a standard smartphone (like an iPhone or HTC Desire) can do as well. Connect this with a wireless network adapter and you can experiment with your own sensor system and computational power. You could create an intelligent playground for small children or a new, adaptive light arrangement and these are very simple examples. Both Arduino and the material Marc Boon used are available for less than 100 euros. There is no need for big budgets to buy materials at least. Hiring the specialists is another matter, but much of the required knowledge is easily accessible.

As more and more spin-offs of politically controversial technologies for citizen surveillance, commodities control or the optimization of the rhythm of capital become available for normal citizens, these citizens should act not only as users and consumers, but as well as producers and consumers: ‘prosumers’. Thus adaptation and fast analyzing, not only simple negative critique is needed, since the progress of technology and the accompanying catastrophes are inevitable. It is the work of designers, artists, architects and other ‘creatives’ to mis- and re-use such dubious technologies for better purposes. Then it is even possible to build counter forces to unbalance the rhythms of power and their effects.

Some fundamental concepts of the ‘Internet of Things’ were constituted when the Internet was composed, in the 1960s. One of these was ‘Packet Switching’, which described how data networks should work. Basically a message is chopped into packets which not only hold the data of one part of that message, but also its source address, its destination address and a number, so that the whole message can be put together in the right order. Between a sender computer and a receiver computer there were ’switching stations’ which were computers as well. Each data packet could take different routes in the network since one station could be blocked, nonfunctional or under repair. This system was called a distributed network as there was no longer a central station through which each data packet must pass. Which means that power relations were as well distributed. Each node of the network was counting. Similar principles and algoRhythms are applied to a wireless network. Mesh networking—also called ad-hoc networking—still applies some of the principles of the 1960s packet switching concept. Another  idea was ‘time-sharing’: multiple users simultaneously shared one computer. It was a form of digital resource sharing. Much like the notion of sharing a pencil would seem strange, this system was regarded as odd. The computer revolutionized another kind of sharing, that of jet aircraft. The Internet catalyzed the sharing of knowledge and information. Similarly, the ‘Internet of Things’ could create new possibilities for sharing, possibly providing positive effects for sustainability, democracy and social equity.

With the right intentions, effort and responsibility by designers, tinkerers and thinkers the ‘Internet of Things’ could create not only surveillance systems, but new ways of creative usage such as the ‘Bricophone Project’ the initiators of which describe it as a ‘Low Cost/Low Energy/Open Hardware/Open Source Community-Oriented Mobile Phone Infrastructure.’ It doesn’t use static infrastructures like antenna stations or digital data centers and as such ‘permits special uses as equipment in poor areas, mass rescuing in disaster ridden areas, cultural and social activities like festivals or mass events. As an Open Source project, the bricophone is intended to be built by yourself or by digital artisans.’

The realization of the ‘Internet of Things’ will be really hard work and the devil lies in the details. As the pc revolution was formed by tinkerers, hackers and later designers—in general by users—the ongoing revolution will be made by designers who don’t just wait to consume new devices and systems but who create them on their own initiative. Just as composers – in the past as well as in contemporary computer music – need to know how music instruments sound and which kinds of melodies, rhythms, sounds and noises they can produce, designers and architects interested in new potentials of technologies need to learn the technical details of its processes and algoRhythms. To play the game you need to know the rules and of course as well the history of the game.