Our urban environment is saturated with digital technologies such as high resolution screens, surveillance camera and automated road signals. From this perspective, the city looks like a programmed and programmable machinery; its behavior can be predicted and controlled according to the principles established by some well-intentioned technocrats. AI, it is said, will turn urban structures into Smart Cities. But what we often fail to acknowledge is the crucial role that other technologies, such as non-digital infrastructure, vegetation and plants networks, the proliferation of urban animals etc.. play in making the city not only a functional engine but also a living and livable entity.
[Re]thinking the technological city interdisciplinary: infrastructures, media and more-than-human networks is a course offered as part of the New College NEWONE program (UofT).
The course was designed as an experiment in interdisciplinary thinking: It invited students to reconsider dismissed aspects forming our urban technological “jungle” as crucial and concatenated variants when studying technological innovation. Students were exposed to critical readings examining various aspects of the city from the perspective of computer science and engineering, infrastructure studies, human geography, and plant biology. In addition, they were asked to conduct practical experiments to observe and visualize, map and compare technological and biological systems as they intersect within the urban environment.
The goal of this course was to encourage students in their first year to re-consider the city as a complex network and as a super-organism, rather than just as a conglomerate of self-contained and disconnected digital technologies, exhorting them to view the organic and the inorganic, and human and non-human inhabitants interacting in the city, those computationally structured and those biologically thriving within the city of Toronto as coexisting and in a relation of symbiosis.
Opening these events to the public at large is crucial, as a practical demonstration of the great variety and diversity comprising complex technological and more-than-human networks in and outside the city.
We considered four broadly defined (and re-defined) topics
- The City we don’t see
- The invisible Army
- Infrastructural Network
- Superorganism city and more-than-human networks
THE CITY WE DON’T SEE
With this exercise, we considered a small stretch of the UofT campus as active part of the city of Toronto. Students walked in groups of 2-3 and observe how the campus is configured. The goal was to pay particular attention to technologies, apparatuses and other functional items that we tend to take for granted but that we often use during our everyday routine.
A list of items was collected and located on a map of UofT.
list of items:
water fountains, garbage bins, plugs, light switches, routers, surveillance camera, flat screens, accessibility buttons, food trucks powered by independent generator
THE INVISIBLE ARMY
Located in the basement or in well hidden areas of university buildings lie utility closets and janitors’ offices. These are the headquarters of those who make sure that the university is cleaned and well lit; that trash cans are regularly emptied; that bulbs are changed and things are fixed; that routers and modems and consoles are in proper order etc.. it took us a tour of the basement of New College to find these places. Why are the people in charge of these vital tasks hidden? Why is our society so obsessed with innovation instead of focusing on fixing or improving what we have? are we losing our ability torepair?
We read “Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi and check when the next Repair Café will be up
Where do our data go? The whole idea of the cloud is misleading, especially when we are faced with the magnitude and the cumbersome presence of a data centre.
Locked down in a super secured location in the heart of the university, the data centre is a massive structure: the sheer amount of cables, servers and drawers, ports and pipes allow information, electricity and air circulation flow seemingly and in unison to make sure that different types of administrative data, students recording and research are kept safe and easily reachable.
The connection that this space has with the city is immediately apparent: it takes in electricity, and uses its infrastructure (in addition to using its own) . The space this data centre occupies is non-trivial: its impact is obvious. The cloud is just a metaphor.
SUPERORGANISM CITY AND MORE-THAN-HUMAN NETWORKS
During the last week of the course, interdisciplinary scholar and artist Heather Barnett conducted a special workshop focused on the city as a Superorganism. The workshop drew on notions of complex networks and involved the use of physarum polycephalum (slime mold), a protist used in theorizing network-based systems in computing. The workshop (on Thursday, during class) was followed by a collective experiment (on Saturday) specifically geared towards performing mapping of the nearby neighborhood that considered two different perspectives: a human-centred approach that used streets, human needs and goals vis-à-vis barriers and accessibility, and a slime mould perspective that used these streets and barriers in completely different ways and for different purposes. The participants consisted of students from New College, local artists interested in interspecies relations, a mycologist, a computer engineer, a performing artist and a group of kids attending with their parents
Special Thanks to Heather Barnett, the Students of NEW113 Technology and Society, Alexandra Guerson de Oliveira, and Nancy Dragicevic
Special thanks to Sarah Shoukah for tending to Physarum and documenting the event
Thanks Physarum Polycephalum for once again collaborating with us human participants!