Eye To Eyebeam: A Conversation With Mark Shepard

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Security cameras, RFID scanners, and GPS tracking have become ubiquitous to the point that privacy can be an imagined concept. According to one popular statistic, the average New York City resident is caught on surveillance camera 75 times a day. Eyebeam Fellow Mark Shepard has created the Sentient City Survival Kit, a toolkit of apps, gadgets, and tactics that anticipate and creatively counter-act urban environments that will soon be capable of predicting not only one’s location, but possibly actions or even thoughts. The smartphone application Serendipitor, playfully challenges the efficiency of GPS directions by deliberately guiding the user in a circuitous path. As a member of Eyebeam’s Urban Research group, Mark aims to explore the use of control technologies - not only security cameras and RFID scanners, but also concrete architecture - as an influence on the psyche of city and civilian. Eyebeam intern Katherine DiPierro interviewed Mark through the not-so-secure medium of email and discussed the implications of security and control technology.

Katherine DiPierro: Recently, you presented at XLab 2011: Design of Location, which was held at Eyebeam this past November. What research and projects did you present?

Mark Shepard: At XLab 2011 I presented two projects related to my research in urban computing and locative media: the Tactical Sound Garden, an open source software platform for cultivating virtual sound gardens in urban public space, and Serendipitor, an alternative navigation app for the iPhone that helps you find something by looking for something else. Both examine the implications of mobile technologies for urban experience, and address how we locate ourselves within hybrid material and immaterial contexts that constitute the urban experience today.

KD: You began your career as an architect, and the majority of your projects, particularly those related to the “Sentient City,” relate to past, present, and future digital architecture. In a recent meeting of Eyebeam’s Urban Research group, you mentioned a focus on control technologies, not just near-invisible security cameras and RFID readers, but also very visible road barriers such as the ones around Wall Street. How do you think control technologies, like other forms of architecture, influence every-day life?

MS: Contemporary technologies for the control and management of urban infrastructures influence how we move through the city and the choices we make there in at least two ways. The first is more direct and evident: physical barriers that block access to streets or prevent access to buildings, subway systems and the like. The second is perhaps less obvious and harder to identify. Walter Benjamin has described architecture as an art appropriated collectively in a state of distraction - something that we experience habitually over time, at the periphery of our awareness, throughout the course of our daily lives. This repetitive conditioning - be it the constant rise-to-run ratio of a stairwell or the pacing of swiping a metrocard to gain access to a subway platform - is something that influences us on a deeper level, one where we become attuned to different rhythms and intervals without conscious awareness that it is happening.

KD: The items in the Sentient City Survival Kit, from the smartphone app Serendipitor to the wearable RFID detectors cleverly termed Under(a)ware, subvert the presence or efficiency of mobile and GPS technologies. Given how difficult it has become to live off the proverbial grid, do you think awareness is the next best step?

MS: With the Sentient City Survival Kit, my interest is less to subvert or resist these technologies, but to offer more subtle and nuanced trajectories for their development. To the extent that business interests and government agencies drive technological innovation, we can expect to see new forms of consumption and control emerge. Raising awareness of the transformations taking place around us is a critical step, but I think we need to go further. I'm interested in how artists, designers and technologists might occupy the imaginary of urban systems and infrastructures and redirect their transductive capacities toward entirely different ends.

KD: Many of your past projects (Tactical Sound Garden, Hertzian Rain) allow participants to manipulate broadcast material, either through virtually “planting” sounds or simply directing them. Within the next five to ten years, do you think there will be the same degree of freedom in the kind signal broadcasts individual civilians are allowed to broadcast?

MS: Both projects operate within what is known as the ISM bands of the radio spectrum. ISM bands were originally allocated by the International Telecommunications Union for Industrial, Scientific and Medical devices designed to tolerate interference from other devices broadcasting within the same frequencies. Today technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, and cordless phones operate over these frequencies, which do not require a license to use and are largely unregulated. As such ISM bands are "quasi-public" zones within the RF spectrum. As with other aspects of the physical world such as land, water and air, the RF spectrum is a limited resource. Garret Hardin’s essay "Tragedy of the Commons" illustrates the dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in her/his own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even when everyone knows this is in no one’s long-term interest. So as we become more dependent of wireless communications between networked things, for instance, changes in the way the radio spectrum is allocated may become necessary to maintain the freedoms we enjoy today.

Thanks so much for the interview, Mark! For the latest on Mark Shepard's current and future projects, be sure to visit his Eyebeam profile, personal site, and the official page for the Sentient City Survival Kit.