Smart as in Smart Bomb, Tactful as in Human

This article was originally posted (May 13, 2015) as part of A Manifesto for Digital Messiness — Rethinking the Digital by Default Agenda, which was a short series of articles supported by the Communities and Culture Network+ (CCN+). See also the final report of the project.

Broken Robots
A broken stair-safety robot (projection) in Leeds Railway station collects empty cups.

Companies and governments talk about making our cities smarter through digital connectivity and data processing. Our experience of smartness in a city is often in the form of street architecture or personal devices. These objects become envoys of the smart city vision, and we can start to ask questions of the smart city through them. Smart in what ways? And smart for whom?

We watch a parent with two young children in a buggy try to negotiate up the main highstreet in my neighbourhood in Leeds. The road is busy at rush hour, and the pavement on the corner of the street becomes narrow, making it hard to push the buggy past. The pavement is overly narrow because a large robot is in the way and will not move. The robot is clearly being rude. This robot happens to be a surveillance camera, but I have seen similar pavement hogs working as controllers for telephone-masts or cable TV. The surveillance robot has a large metal base, very sturdy and solid – Secure By Design™. It has a long neck, like a giraffe, to reach up and look down on the bustle and life of the street. The robot can move its tiny head to view the street and the pavement below it, but is otherwise fixed in place. If we think of smart objects in our cities as robots most are still stationary ones, locked in place because they cannot be relied upon yet to move around. However these ‘very slow’ robots suggest the social norms we will expect of them in the future when they do start to move more quickly. Thinking of a smart object as a robot allows us to imagine the intentional agency it might have – the considerations of its own in addition to the rules set out by its employer.

We see another stationary ‘slow robot’ in a car park. A flustered shopper approaches, several bags in each hand. As they near the car park robot, one of the bag handles snaps, scattering shopping to the floor. The shopper stops to pick up their things before continuing to the robot to pay for parking. The shopper is now one minute past the hour for their parking, and must pay for an additional two hours. If this were a human parking attendant, we would expect them to take notice of the spilt shopping, and perhaps be lenient with the interpretation of the rules. The robot refuses to acknowledge compassion or social norms (and its ruthlessness is profitable for the car park company).

The ability to negotiate complex social situations, balancing and struggling with the roles and desires of those involved, is a vital part of civic living. Even the simple act of walking through a busy street is made up of many such negotiations of intention and compromise. Robots are not yet suited to moving through pedestrian areas partly because they cannot handle the subtlety of social negotiation. Robots have very high data-intelligence – recall of information and logical speed – but have little, if any, capacity for emotional-intelligence.

The smart city infrastructure currently on offer is smart like a smart bomb. It can carry out a task with ruthless focus but with no ability to consider or act on human consequence (as smart bombs have shown us, high-tech smartness often does not guarantee intended outcomes). Such task-driven smartness is an uncomfortable fit with the messiness of actual civic life. Our street robots are data savants, that appear unwilling to engage with even the simplest form of understanding or compromise.

It is useful to think of smart objects in terms of tact. Erving Goffman used tact to describe the social negotiations of situation, including tactics of inattention, withdrawal, and sensitivity to hints of unacceptable behaviour. Currently smart systems use vast resources of interconnectedness and processing to fake context awareness through simple pattern matching. However massive connectivity often leads to context collapse, as offhand or private information resurfaces in inappropriate situations. Perhaps what we need then is a call for Tactful Cities rather than Smart ones. A robotic data savant – bent on the rules it has been given by advertisers or traffic wardens at the cost of all else – is simply not tactful enough to negotiate the real-world situations it will find itself in.

The Time Breath – Everyday Daemon

Time BreathThe Time Breath is a diwata that can compress or stretch time at the key moment you are trying to communicate urgently with someone. They can stretch out the last moments of phone battery when you have an important call to make, or slow the loading of an email attachment for a looming deadline to punish insolence. Time Breaths are rarely seen, and work their mischief and magic by singing in high tones audible only to electronic circuits and dogs. If you ever meet one, you will know because they appear to be made entirely of fingernails.

This everyday daemon is documented as part of a contribution to the Hannah Festival 2014 Directory launch week.

Floral Genii – Everyday Daemons

gallery geniusYou will probably know many Floral Genii in your life, although children are usually better at seeing them than adults. They take their name from the floral prints and curtains in which many of them are found. But not all, by any means, are high-born of Morris prints, many more can be found in cheap shower curtains or tablecloths, and in natural forms like cut stone and peeling paint. Once you have spotted the face of a Floral Genius in your bedroom ceiling, or while staring at the wall in the bath, they are usually easy to see again. Floral Genii try to bring feelings of warmth and familiarity to rooms, whether they are floral or not.

This everyday daemon is documented as part of a contribution to the Hannah Festival 2014 Directory launch week.

The Conifer Huldra – Everyday Daemons

Conifer HuldraThese front-garden dwellers appear at first to be seductive forest creatures, and can often be glimpsed through gaps in net curtains. They try to tempt the unwary to thoughts of bigotry and mistrust of outsiders. For each unfounded thought a Conifer Huldra can trick from you, another branch of conifer is left dead as a marker. A Conifer Huldra will always face towards you because they have cow’s tails and hollow newspaper-mache backs.

This everyday daemon is documented as part of a contribution to the Hannah Festival 2014 Directory launch week.

The Pipe Barabashka – Everyday Daemons

catfishUnlike their larger common cousins, pipe barabashka are small and mostly benevolent. They live in household pipes, swimming from room to room. They get very excited when the temperature changes, and can often be heard knocking out an ancient ritual form of stochastic minimal techno on the pipes in celebration of someone turning the heating on or off again.

This everyday daemon is documented as part of a contribution to the Hannah Festival 2014 Directory launch week.

The Vengeful Printer Spirit – Everyday Daemons

Vengeful Printer SpiritIt is thought that all household printers (along with many corporate copy machines) contain at least one Vengeful Printer Spirit. These onryō are bent on violence towards all living things and wreaking havoc by causing earthquakes, fires, storms, drought, famine and pestilence. Luckily the Vengeful Printer Spirits are trapped in the two-dimensional world of the surface of printer rollers, and so are destined to spend eternity venting their anger in the form of corrupted print jobs and inaccurate toner level warnings. However, if you look closely on the print-outs of many printers, you can see tiny yellow stab marks from the spirits trying to break through in to our world. It is said that if you ever catch sight of a Vengeful Printer Spirit it will tempt you to place your hair or tie in to the printer rollers, you will be crushed horribly and your spirit will be sucked in to an eternal print roller limbo.

This everyday daemon is documented as part of a contribution to the Hannah Festival 2014 Directory launch week.

The Cooker Klick – Everyday Daemons

TCooker Klickhe Cooker Klick is a fire kobold that lives primarily in kitchens and tends to the flames of gas cookers. A Klick will offer the human inhabitants of its home many years of loyal service, but must be fed scraps of pasta sauce and part-fried vegetables left out on the cookertop by way of a tribute to the household sprite. Over- or under-feeding a Klick can cause it to abandon a cooker, leaving the humans to suffer with matches. Like R2D2, a Klick is not readily understood by humans, but can speak easily with flames, kitchen robots and boilers.

This everyday daemon is documented as part of a contribution to the Hannah Festival 2014 Directory launch week.

Decode FACT: Where do you go to?, workshop, Liverpool, Feb 2014

Workshop from Claire, Bridget and I following on from our CX Where do you go to? project looking at all of the digital connections from FACT on a single day. Here’s my description:

Ben Dalton introduces Decode FACT, which will be taking place in the Co-Working Space this week.

At one end of the Hybrid Lives Co-Working space in the foyer of FACT is a tall, thin wall. Pinned to the wall are photos of desks and other spaces of work. If you look at the photos at eye-level, you see someone has been working at a cafe table, a garden, a train table, the step of a house, public spaces. If you look further up the wall, you can see office desks and workshops. Higher still, and you can glimpse kitchen tables, bedroom desks, private spaces. The photos were taken using a phone app called ‘Where do you go to?’. The app is a prototype, designed to let small groups of people who work together share images of where they are working. The aim of the app is to make a working ‘status update’ that isn’t about written notes or pictures of faces. The images are displayed on a timeline of work across the wall, and sorted by privacy up the height of the space.

We have tested this app with several work teams including the Creative Exchange group designing the co-working space and researchers at the BBC R&D lab in Salford. These teams were rarely in the same room at the same time, so much of their collaboration happens through digital spaces. They share notes online, send emails, occasionally video call, share files they are working on, and so on. But our research suggested they were lacking a ‘sense of place’ while working together. If they were all in one office, it would be easy to wander past a colleague’s desk, see what they were working on, know how busy they were without interrupting them. But in digital space, ‘wandering past’ is harder, a video call must be scheduled, or a specific question edited in to an email and added to the ever increasing inbox pile. And so we set out to design a ‘desk sharing’ app prototype to see what happens when collaborators can share ‘where they are’ rather than just ‘what they want’.

From the images people share using the app we can see that their working patterns move through lots of physical spaces. Digital tools allow lots of types of work to be done anywhere, organising tasks with tools like email or digital production with text editors or creative software. The app often captured work in transient public space, like public parks or trains. It also captured work in private space when people were layering their working life in to their home life. The images of cafes that pop-up in the timeline of a project made us think about the work that happens in FACT, in the temporary co-working space, and elsewhere in the cafe, cinema and gallery. Every worker in a public space like FACT is actually connected digitally to many collaborators in other places. They may be checking an email from work across the other side of Liverpool before a film starts, or calling a supplier in another UK city over lunch from the cafe, or sharing a document with someone across the globe sat at a co-working table. The office has become many different physical locations at once, linked or ‘overlayed’ through unseen digital space.

Our drop-in workshop (Thursday 6 Feb) will look at decoding how big the FACT workspace really is. We will be asking visitors to help us build a map of all the places in the city, country and world that FACT connects to through the individual work people are doing in the building. We will try to map where and who each email, each document, each amazon order, each podcast connects to in the world. Liverpool has always been a city of work built on connections around the world. The traditions of global trade have shifted from docks, to desks, to digital space, and continue to define the city’s outward-looking focus in the digital age.

Decode FACT: Where do you go to? post on FACT site

As an Elf, I’m disgusted my greedy colleagues are threatening to strike

Hello, I am an elf. I am writing to complain about the Elf Protest workshop, which is helping some elves to protest for changes to their working conditions. I will not be joining the elf protest on Saturday (14th December 2013) because I don’t think elves should be taking industrial action at this important elf time of year. Myself, I work as a Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) Yule Elf. My work is very traditional and well respected. I follow children in order to steal their candles so I can eat them.

A new mood of militancy is sweeping through the elf communities —  an unjustified aggression that threatens to result in the first international strike by elves since 1451. The trigger is that the contagion of casual worker discontent has now spread to elves. If elves were to strike it would be for purely self serving reasons, betraying those who trust and rely on them.

Over recent months, some elves have remorselessly cranked up the pressure on the issue of working hours, indulging in increasingly hysterical propaganda and whipping up a sense of resentment against Christmas. Indeed, in recent days, I have received up to four emails a day, urging me to reply to an elf worker survey. But I have refused to participate, because I think the indignation over working conditions, so eagerly fomented by some elves, is grossly misplaced. If elves do take industrial action on this issue, it will be one of the most disgraceful and self-serving disputes in elf history.

Even the very threat of a elf strike is a grotesque act of irresponsibility, where crude blackmail masquerades as concern for elf welfare. And this attempt to protect some elve’s narrow vested interests will do nothing to improve elf standing with the British public.

Indeed, the traditional spirit of goodwill has already been badly dented in recent years by increasing avarice in parts of the profession, such as the outrageous Heinzelmännchen (Kitchen Elf) walkout in 2004 by which family kitchen elves have negotiated substantially more for doing significantly less. Given how well-rewarded most elves are, particularly those in Christmas workshops, a dispute over working conditions would sound the death knell for the profession’s reputation.

The elf world is not meant to be like this. Working as an elf is not a mere occupation. It is a vocation —  one built on compassion for the most vulnerable in society. That is certainly the way elves used to be viewed in this country. The elf was seen as reliable, selfless, trustworthy — a pillar of the local community.

elf protesting
Tragic: There is precious little sign of responsibility from the elves now. They have become reckless, bent on self-service rather than self-sacrifice.

There has been no dramatic increase in productivity or flexibility that might justify this colossal increase in worker demands. The opposite is true. Where elves once had to provide 24-hour work and conduct regular home visits, now they essentially work office hours. Out-of-hours and weekend work is largely conducted with overtime only. For all the incessant bleating about elf conditions, too many elves do not have a clue about the real world. Unlike those who have to earn their living in the competitive marketplace, elves enjoy an effective monopoly, where their work is guaranteed.

I would like to warn parents and children against this weekend’s ‘family fun day’ workshop about helping elves think about what the future of work should be like. Designing posters for elves is making light of a serious issue.

“There is nothing child-friendly about industrial action.” – Michael Gove


everything but the first and last paragraph is taken directly from:  with the context changed for elves rather than doctors.

14 December / 12-4pm / FACT Connects Space / FREE just drop in!

Pop into our temporary Co-working Space and help the festive elves protest.

We all know elves help make toys, but do you know what working as an elf is like? There are many different types of elf, who do different hidden jobs. Some of the holiday elves want to change the work they have to do every year, and they need your help to make banners and protest signs.

Stop by and help the elves decide what their work should be like, and help them make elf-sized banners and signs to let everyone else know.

This workshop offers a chance to:

  •     Talk about what sort of work festive elves do
  •     Help the elves to imagine what their future work should be like
  •     Plan and decorate an elf-sized banner or sign
  •     Take away a cardboard elf to show off your elf protest sign, or leave it in the workshop with the other protesting elves

Ben Dalton is a researcher and artist from the RCA helping to run the Co-working space at FACT. He’s interested in the future of work, micro-unions, and how to create voices for hidden work and connections between workers who are far away.

short paper presentation: Spaces and Flows: An International Conference on Urban and ExtraUrban Studies 2013 – co-author

On Friday 22nd November, Karen Martin presented some of our work on designing playful public spaces at Spaces and Flows: An International Conference on Urban and ExtraUrban Studies 2013 in a short paper presentation as part of the Pedestrian Movement and Mobility strand.


Disrupting Pedestrian Movement through Playful Interventions: What Does Experimental Evidence Suggest?

Prof. Marialena Nikolopoulou,
Karen Martin,
Ben Dalton

The authors present the results of a series of experiments designed to disrupt people flow and pedestrian movement in various types of public space. The hypothesis investigated is that playful, non-obstructive interventions foster a positive social experience yet can be used to shape pedestrian movement. Shaping pedestrian movement is desirable for a range of purposes including security, commerce and entertainment.

The interventions employ a range of media from floor patterns to large digital screens in indoor and outdoor environments. They aimed to influence pedestrian movement by disrupting the routine use of space or by triggering playful behavior. Observation demonstrated that playful interventions are able to create zones of attraction and exclusion, engage people’s curiosity and elicit playful actions. The influence of increased cognitive load at personal level and goal-directed behavior was also considered.

The results suggest that increased understanding between environmental and interpersonal stimuli and behavioural responses can provide guidance in using socially acceptable design interventions to influence use of space in different operational contexts.

Keywords: Pedestrian Movement, Design Interventions, Material and Immaterial Flows
Stream: Environments
Presentation Type: 15 minute Paper Presentation in a Themed Session in English

Prof. Marialena Nikolopoulou
Professor of Sustainable Architecture, Centre for Architecture and Sustainable Environment, Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent
Canterbury, UK

Karen Martin
Centre for Architecture and Sustainable Environment, Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent
Canterbury, UK

Ben Dalton
Faculty of Art, Environment and Technology, Leeds Metropolitan University
Leeds, UK

Ref: F13P0168

Spaces and Flows:
Fourth International Conference on Urban and ExtraUrban Studies
Spaces and Flows in a Time of Economic and Political Uncertainty