Design Fiction Chronicles: The Dark Knight's Ubicomp Mobile Phone Sonar

Here’s that scene from The Dark Knight where Batman has secretly installed a surveillance system that traces the legal, moral and ethical contours iconic to ubiquitous computing networked devices of this sort. What’s going on — as explained in the short bit of dialog — is that all of the mobile phones used by all of Gotham’s citizens have been secretly connected to this rig that is able to produce sonar-like visualizations of their surroundings to such a level of resolution that one can *see and *hear everything. Batman is asking Lucius Fox / Morgan Freeman to man the rig and listen out for The Joker and direct Batman so he can capture him and end his felonious shenanigans. Lucius plays the moralist here, drawing issue to the fact that Batman would be invading people’s privacy and, moreover, misusing the system that Lucius constructed.

As pertains the Design Fiction motif, what I enjoy about this scene is how quickly it is able to center the pertinent extradiegetic debate on surveillance technologies. Whatever one feels about ubiquitously networked devices and their implications for issues such as the possibilities for over-arching surveillance, state control, and so on — this one scene and its spit of dialogue, together with a suggestive and fairly easily explained and dramatic apparatus — together all of this is able to summon forth the debate, frame its rough contours and open up a conversation. Nice stuff.

Listening Post

Parenthetically is this device shown above. Called, suggestively, Listening Post, one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a prototype of the surveillance device in The Dark Knight which it may be, or not, or may be both a *real prototype and a probe or a propmaster’s prototype for the film. Or something. In any case, it is a sculpture done by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin. Listening Post “is an art installation that culls text fragments in real time from thousands of unrestricted Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards and other public forums. The texts are read (or sung) by a voice synthesizer, and simultaneously displayed across a suspended grid of more than two hundred small electronic screens.”

It’s quite curious and depending on what is going on in the world — lovely to listen to. When I first saw it at The Whitney in New York City it was in February of 2003 very shortly after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster — and the tone of the snippets of chat room conversations were echoing the sentiments of that event. In a sense the device anticipates the aggregation of *chatter that comprises or can be cohered into *trends or *trending topics as the year of Twitter has made increasingly legible.

In any case, the similarity of these two devices — The Dark Knight apparatus and Hansen and Rubin’s “Listening Post” are clearly in some sort of conversation with one another, both provoking similar discussions and considerations, whether or not anyone except me is raising these points.

Why do I blog this? This is a useful example of the way a small, short scene — barely even a story — can help raise an issue to a more tangible and more legible level, making it perhaps more intriguing to grapple with abstractions like the ethics of surveillance. It provides a hook for these conversations in material form.


Sunday September 20, 17.43.18

A curious interoperability protocol, wherein the address for some weird place in Seoul has been found on an iPhone and must now be entered into the GPS of the taxi. A simple affair, with minimal bumps often enough, particularly because the map on the iPhone shows the address and streets in Korean, which is great for the taxi cab driver, but miserable for the the traveler who can only hope that the locale on the map is actually where he would like to be.

Why do I blog this? This are useful moments to capture, where language, culture, objects, data come into conflict and must work their way around one another. I am told the iPhone isn’t available in South Korea at the time of this photo, so you have this foreign object — one that is probably quite legible as the iPod Touch was spotted around the city — and a baroque assemblage of devices, machines, transaction mechanisms, remote controls, identity stickers, car controls, radios, etc. I would have to contrast this with the notion of seamless perfection and interoperability that is often the image of the future transportation dashboard.
Continue reading Interoperability

Meet The Disabler: Ubicomp Futures Now


Dashing off into the ubiquitously connected crisis of effects. Montreal, with two chums in the back seat educating me on the consequences of a world of ubiquity — one in which everyone is connected.


Aaron and Raph poke around the topic — consequences of everyone connected with Aaron attempting to emit laser beam communications networks from his eyeballs.

From the vantage point of the “credit crisis” (really a crisis of trust, but it’ll take the perspective of historical reconsideration in the inevitable Ken Burns documentary 10 years hence to deliver that with some more authority than my just writing it) we meet a couple of near future design fictions. Two excerpts. First, read this one, which is likely familiar to you, if you’re one of my 4 regular readers.

The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. “I’ll pay you tomorrow,” he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. “What I pay you, ” he informed it, ‘is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”
“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.”

In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.

“You discover I’m right,” the door said. It sounded smug.
From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.
Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”

This from Philip K. Dick’s hysterically prescient Ubik It’s like a near future design-gone-absurd style guide for the Ubicomp wonks. Read it, immediately, if you have not already.

Okay. Now, read this one, from a little known writer called Jonathan Welsh.

Jamie De Lisle’s Buick had been warning her for days, first with a flashing yellow light, then a flashing red light. But the 31-year-old mother of two from Collinsville, Ill., was too busy to heed the distress signals. It was only when Mrs. De Lisle began hearing an incessant beeping that she took notice: If she didn’t make her car payment that day, the vehicle wouldn’t start the next day.

The repo man has found a new hiding place — inside your car. Increasingly, used-car dealers are installing remote disabling devices that keep the cars from starting if the buyer gets too far behind on payments.

These so-called disablers, palm-sized devices that are placed under dashboards and wired into ignitions, once were limited to what industry insiders call the “buy here — pay here” segment: the kinds of small used-car lots that line state highways, strung with lights and multicolored pennants. But as the economic downturn deepens, larger, more mainstream dealerships are using the devices as a condition of financing.

That’s from a story by a fellow called Jonathan Welsh titled Meet the Disabler found in a collection of short stories also known as news articles in the fascinating Wall Street Journal.

Why do I blog this? An excellent instance of correlate design fictions — things that have anticipated and sketch out the on-the-ground, everyday, quotidian experiences of possible near futures through science fiction. And, another reason to possibly read some science fiction as design sketches of these possible futures. In the first instance the P.K. Dick design scenario of a ubiquitously networked “smart” door that is able to express itself to the door’s leasee.

This sounds ridiculous, of course. But the backdrop, if we extend the failure scenario, is, say, the Simpson Door Company finding its course of resonance with people’s expectations about what previously “dumb” things become. They decide to explore networking their doors for, say, home security that is embedded within the objects proper (doors, windows, door knobs, etc.) rather than separate devices put in door jambs and window sashes. So, Simpson Door Company makes smart iSecure line of doors and windows with embedded smart computation and voice xml processors so you can talk to your doors — and they can talk back. They’re all hooked up through a nice, comfy-sounding creative commons protected open source API, with REST-ful networking so you don’t have to articulate the door to get it to change its color. There’s a built-in Asterisk telephony server so your phone calls follow you as you move around the house, with the doors and windows acting as large surface sound transducers. Your house, is a speaker-microphone. Then, there’s the rock-bottom edition for more dicey installations, like in shitheel day rental apts because the economy has really tanked and lots of people work day-to-day jobs that come with bunkhouse housing paid for with a bit of government stimulus to keep 1/3 of the population from being officially, certifiably, miserably homeless. Nothing stops the taskmasters from installing pay-to-egress and pay-to-ingress Simpson Door’s. So..they do.

The lines between the science of fiction and fact are like a gradient. Speculation is not forecasting, it’s making weak signals legible as possible near futures.

What is intriguing here is that the “perfect” operational scenarios hardly consider the frankly more likely scenarios that are quite a bit grittier than what gets “pitched” as the beautiful, perfect world. But, there’s a rut that is difficult to get out of, which is that people won’t buy into things that have these gritty potentialities to them, if the gritty potentialities are used as the design baseline. I find the bumpy edition of design scenarios far more compelling, perhaps because of this generally critical, sideways glance I take on these things. I want nothing of Pink Ponies and this sort of kempt future world of perfectly manicured lawns and delicate flower beds behind walled and gated borders. Terribly boring. On the other hand, pointing out the failed scenarios is also useful for talking through larger contexts such as — what experiences and circumstances yield things like The Disabler and the Door That Sues. It’s not the technical artifact that is at the heart of things. Rather the technical artifact — the ubicomp door and car — provide a way to tell stories about larger social systems and the consequences of, in this case, this financial/credit/honesty/trust crisis, which is more significant than the individual instrumentalities like these positively intractable, illegible financial instruments which were instruments of deception more than any sort of legitimate risk mitigation algorithm.
Continue reading Meet The Disabler: Ubicomp Futures Now

Eric Paulos' Open Disruption

Monday February 09, 23:51:43

Discarded Maneki Neko, resting comfortably in Madrid, Spain.

This is the most important thing you will read this year if you have any interest in or passion for ubicomp, design, making-things. I’ll quote a bit, then send you to the source. Eric wrote this on the centenary of The Futurist Manifesto, bringing these sensibilities into the context of ubicomp in particular, but I read a lot into this in terms of approaches to making things that provoke, that make us think, and that can create new or refigured and more habitable near future worlds. Spend a minute. Spin it in your hand. Re-read it. Share it.

Ubiquitous technology is with us and is indeed allowing us to communicate, buy, sell, connect, and do miraculous things. However, it is time for this technology to empower us to go beyond finding friends, chatting with colleagues, locating hip bars, and buying music.

While we should celebrate our success at delivering many vital aspects of Mark Weiser’s original vision of ubiquitous computing, we should also question the scope of this progress. Step back for a moment. What really matters? Everyday life spans a wide range of emotions and experiences – from moments of productivity and efficiency to play, reflection, and curiosity. But our research and designs in ubiquitous computing do not typically reflect this important life balance. The research we undertake and the applications we build often employ technology primarily for improving tasks and solving problems. While these are indeed noble and important areas of research that we must undertake, we claim that the successful ubiquitous computing tools, the one we really want to cohabitate with, will be those that incorporate the full range of life experiences. We want our tools to sing of not just productivity but of our love of curiosity, the joy of wonderment, and the freshness of the unknown.

From Eric Paulos’ Manifesto of Open Disruption and Participation.

Why do I blog this? There are strong sensibilities towards new practices for new ways of living in here. The deliberate undisciplinary approach of doing unexpected, far-reaching, unknown things outside of the now-bankrupt realm of commodity fetishism and me-too product lines. The time now seems right to do things differently, to bolster the growing force of productive creativity, making the things that are our own, rather than those things that are least-common denominator, designed for everyone else so that all of our sensibilities, expectations and hopes are normalized to the least inspired amongst us. Yes. Maybe we should plant our own gardens, form local energy production collectives and tar-and-feather bank executives. But, then lets also make our own imaginations, materialize the things that we only think about rather than grousing about the crap that the bad-old, decaying manufacturing industries force upon us. Make weird things.
Continue reading Eric Paulos' Open Disruption

Ubicomp is like a 5 year old wishing for a pink pony

Complete Ubicomp fail. I mean..they can’t even get this most simple of scenarios straightened out and they want to put my refrigerator and toaster oven on the network? WTF. Seriously. Anytime I hear the alpha futurist-y featurists get all excited about some kind of idea for how the new ubicomp networked world will be so much more simpler and seamless and bug-free, I want to punch someone in the eye. They sound like a 5 year old who whines that they want a pink pony for their birthday. Ferchrissake. Just think even once about all the existing hassles that pink pony wishers have brought into the world and be happy that you can still breath the air around you.

Okay. Fancy hotel with all the bells and whistles. Sensor in the bathroom because some over competent architect/engineer or other member of a hubris-heavy discipline assumes I can’t find a light switch because I’m stupid/drunk/tired. Sensor detects my buffoonish/loaded/sleepy body in the bathroom and turns the light on for me. End of “use case.” Only, this sensor just cuts the light on whenever it pleases. In the middle of the night.

Solution: Door closure.

Result: Less sleep and a resentful blog post.

Why do I blog this? Observations about why Ubicomp is done better in sci-fi movies than in real life.
Continue reading Ubicomp is like a 5 year old wishing for a pink pony