What is real Reality? AI might tell us

Last year I went to the National Gallery in London to see Francisco Goya’s exhibition. I did enjoy the painter’s mastery on giving human character to his portraits by balancing the relationship between the background, often solid colour, and the subject. Goya doesn’t draw a border between the two; he blurs the boundary so that the subject emerges from the background. Such simple operation gives a sense of the character’s personality; the balance of colours – and chiaroscuro – that gradually progress from the background to the the face and the body returns to me (the interpreter) the experience of the subjects’s personality.

Current research on AI is moving towards giving machines a sense of space, by teaching them what is space (as we do). Through Deep Learning machines are growing the sense of reality. They are developing a form of knowledge that is capable of understanding objects in real space, by means of image pixelation. In this article from MIT Technology Review it is described how machines are capable to detect physical objects via digital images; pixelation is the language they employ. The differential between the background and the given object is indeed in the focus of attention. On the opposite of the poetic skill Goya used to give a sense of the subject’s personality, the understanding of “border” is the key element used to teach machines space. The intention is to teach machines to “see”, and I suppose think, like us. Digital image pixelation is the vehicle that machines use to understand the real as we do.

What is the real?

Quoting Slavoj Žižek’s:Every field of “reality” is always-ready enframed, seen through an invisible frame. The parallax is not symmetrical, composed of two incompatible perspectives of the same X: there is an irreducible asymmetry between the two perspectives, a minimal reflexive twist. We do have two perspectives, we have a perspecive and what eludes it, and the other perspectives fills in this void of what we could not see from the first perspective“.

In other words we, human, don’t see things as our eyes do. There is a gap in between that constructs our sense of the real. As quoted from Žižek, there is a void in between that we fill with our imagination. Imagination is a form of expectation of the real, which is linked to our past experience that, in our mind, has been stored in the form of memory.

How can such a random and complex fluctuation be translated to a machine? What we call “real” is nonetheless a specific frame of our perception, which doesn’t make any distinction between digital and physical, as everything gets stored in our mind in the form of experience. It kinds of makes me think back to the Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which machines desperately need pictures to be acknowledged as humans.


Žižek, Slavoj (2006), The Parallax View, Cambridge MA: MIT Press

The Innovation of the Everyday at Different Scales

Scale is a concept I’ve got familiar with since my first year in Architecture. I am been taught that drawings have to be in scale in relation to the context. What are you trying to communicate? Scale is quite crucial because it defines the resolution of the drawing.

In design practice scale is indeed a very important tool, as it renders intentions in function to context. The understanding of scale change is a skill designers need to master, as it is an intangible infrastructure that crosses and overlaps networks, which context might not be related. Scale makes analogies among diverse territories; of course it is important to understand which  analogy enables connections.

The complexity of our society claims for feasible and transferable analysis that modifies over time. Social changes fluctuates at a too high speed for a stiff infrastructure.

I am on my way back from a two days debate over urban globalisation. The LSE/LSECities/Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft organised an incredible conference, Shaping the City, on global urbanism. Under the roof of the Venice Biennale Foundation and the support of UN Habitat the conference clustered around proposals that will be taken to the Habitat 3.

The word conflict looked to me the continuous thread that linked the many contributions. Conflict is an interruption, which can trigger positive reactions if channelled towards directions where the contrasting factors negotiate a common territory. Like scale, conflict is as universal as local. Nonetheless when conflict meets scale noise is remouved and attention is kept at core factors. It then follows that scale makes conflict a chameleon entity, as it can be interpreted and tackled via different methodologies, in relation to the specific key factors that draw any analysis.

Scale gives conflict resolution and, by connecting different territories, it helps to see beyond peculiarity to find similarities in other related territories that help find solutions.

I believe scale is a key factor in the contemporary process of design. To  understand solutions, that challenge and innovate the existent, is a dynamic fluid process of scaling up and down. One problem doesn’t match one solution but an array of proposals rendered at different scales and resolutions.

Society is far too complex to be looked by stiff systems. As design is the closest infrastructure to people’s everyday, there is an exciting medium to be employed to draw innovations through people’s everyday.

Once Upon a Time the Bell Rang

When life didn’t know what Internet was and the most advanced technology was based on horses, the rhythm of the everyday in the western Christian world was marked by the bell in the city tower. You can still experience it in some remote villages lost in the Italian countryside.

From morning odes to vespers time had its phased, organic rhythm that organised the day. The pace of the everyday was perceived as much linear as circular. The linear sequence of events made one look forward towards the future; the circular loop assured the possibility of something better to come because of the sense of continuity; the present was perceived as an extension of the past; the future as projection. The perception of time as linear loop belongs to humanity: it protects from the “unknown” and makes one look forward: “Next year by this time I will be….”

In my PhD I looked at the disruption that in 1920s technology provoked to the rhythm of the everyday. Mechanic production was detached from the reassuring linear loop. Modernist life appeared broken in fragments: there was no sense of beginning and, equally, no end. Just a series of random fragments that can be meaningless arranged in a plethora of different sequences on the conveyor belt. Bucolic time is over. The mechanic rhythm of the everyday upset the relationship humans have with nature.

Globalised humanity is reshaping the way Romanticism shaped the concept of nation, borders and belonging. We live an uninterrupted time, which crosses east to west, north to south. We communicate with people living in any corner of this world, as long as there is a device connected to the internet. There is no day, no night. The dystopian sense of time, as shaped by machines that can operate at any time, is our reality. The value of time, as a sense of dwelling space, is perceived as a network of connected points; space, and the sense of belonging, is a cloud haunting our bodies. Do we feel to be anywhere?

In ancient Roman society leisure was an important moment of the everyday. It was the time to think, to talk, to debate and argue. In other words it was a very social event, although part of private life. For the rule of pausing negotium (the time for business), leisure helped the acknowledgement and understanding of the surrounding. Leisure time can be still experienced in Italy when people sit on the streets and squares and argue about local and global politics, or observe passers-by.

The value of a city and its vitality don’t rely on any aesthetic quality, but on its citizens’ engagement and the power of connection.

Technology is a medium that enables and supports human behaviour. Nonetheless the experience component is currently the main offer we get, which makes us feel always connected. Being always connected is perceived as sense of belonging; we exists, thus we tap, pinch, and so on. To be connected means to dwell space. However when we live the digital space there is no time to think; information takes continuously our attention, with no break. The experience of information, via technology, is an uninterrupted flow of data, which rarely transforms in content. Information is just noise that catches our attention, for the time which is good enough to induce a particular behaviour.

Experience is no longer the notable event of our life, which we remember as memory; experience is a form of entertainment, which contemporary capitalism needs to get people behavior. To step back and think what we really remember is quite difficult, even though we have our Facebook timeline that recalls what happened in the Facebook past. Is it our lived life what social network reflects to us? Is there a life that transcends the photos we post, the information we share and the activity we engage with the internet?

Still don’t think it’s a technological problem, but human.

Material Perceptions

Verba volant, scripta manent.


The human perception of the surrounding passes via materials. We acknowledge forms via materials; touch enables our mind to remember how tangible forms feel. By crossing the way we perceive any given material, our expectation of it and its physical properties, we give shape in our mind to what we understand as tangible. It is a complex process where we interface different kinds of “bits” of information.

For any human mind materiality is not physical. It is an interwoven entity that qualifies as such via a process that crosses the physical world and human imagination. Since digital reality is part of our everyday, this complexity is even more clear . Since social networks, like Instagram, became a form of communication, images left behind the passive rule of remembering, to enter the active process of “verbal” communication (I analysed the topic of digital “thickness” in this paper). If in the past we mainly used images to record events to be remembered, now images are part of our communication, as much as words. Our language sees words and images playing equal roles. The realm of “speaking” is no longer an exclusive of words; images help us to communicate globally, which meaning of course shifts from culture to culture.

As designer I am working on a design process which intents to use the role images have as “material” language; it is a process that employs human imagination and the perception of touch, but under the influence of digital modelling .

As wrote at the beginning of this post, materiality is an interwoven entity made of different factors, which embrace information stored from the past with new ones, which we acknowledge via human senses, touch for instance. The physical or digital image helps with giving a context; it guides human to move from familiarity to imagination. My intent is to employ our familiar understanding of materials – how they feel and how they look – to shape a form of hybrid tectonic. I call such process oxymoron tectonic. I borrow the meaning of oxymoron from poetry , and I use it as guideline that helps human creativity in the design process that sees the physical and the digital interfaced in the poiesis of art.





The Infrastructure of the Urban Cloud and the Dichotomy of Private and Public Space

The intricacy of the city is deployed by the system of streets, cables, people. Similarly the Internet is based on connections, which allow information to circulate and get exchanged. The challenge that private network companies, economists, politicians and policy makers are facing is the concept of “interface”. It is not only a matter of interfacing information, but interfacing people that use information, likewise streets, cables and people do in physical space. If people are happily interfaced – with other humans or machines – it is possible to generate information derivatives, which are more valuable than the original primitives. The interface is then the key. The interface is real, it is not abstract, as “data”. It is something that you can interact with, touch it. Nonetheless the interface is a gateway that facilitates information traveling through it. What is the relationship between the world of interface and the urban space?

If looking at the scale of the city, smart city studies are generally looking at big data and, most importantly, at data consume/production variables. The way people and things consumes information is the contemporary commodity. The consumeristic data society  generates markets and, also, political patters. As “The Economist” describes, data are currently key values to win elections. “Democracy” doesn’t happen any longer in the polls but in Twitter or Facebook.

Similarly Alphabets is investing capital on connecting the city, physically and digitally. The Sidewalk project is a platform that aims to design the infrastructure 2.0. Urban data are the system by which cities render their social section. By combining and interfacing many aspects of the everyday – from commuting, to shopping and meeting friends or family – it is possible to understand new directions, and, most importantly, how to “drive” them.

The ubiquity of data  is possible through the interface and, most importantly, to the personal relationship we have with it, which is scalable. We hold an object in our hands or in our wrists but the scale is just apparent. The object can scale up and down by means of the connection it is enabling, which happens in any time and any space.

The question I would like to ask is, who owns my private space, if any is left? While writing I am in a specific space, physically. Digitally I am in many spaces, which are facilitated by the number of interfaces I am using and help me to organise my day. From the exhibition I would like to see, the trip I would like to make or the food I would like to eat.. Is this “space”? Is this private or public? Is space defined by my interface?

This lecture from the LSE gives a very interesting perspective on the subject. Professor José van Dijck describes what a platform society is by looking at the private and public. I cannot agree more. If we want to talk about cities, the concept of the private V public is one of the most important elements to be analysed. Urban space looks at the dicothomy between private and public space since its origin. The relationship between them renders the quality of society and politics. The way people coexists together is quite pivotal. An unbalanced system might lead towards social decay, that does affect society. To affect what people are allowed to wish, hope and desire for their life affects urban space and, with it, innovation, curiosity and any of the human qualities which has been driving human being towards a better world to live.

Cities are not made of buildings; city are made of people. Urban form is given by the way people interact. Indeed the space of the public and the space of the private need to understand diversities, whether physical or digital.

In this blog post I zoomed in and out, with the intention to look at infrastructure from a different perspective. The cloud infrastructure can enable urban innovation in the specificity of people interactions.

Cities are made of streets


Ragusa Ibla, Italy 2013 ©Laura Ferrarello

Different kinds of factors – like economy, climate change, career opportunities, education, etc. – transformed contemporary cities in megacities. The freedom we achieved last century through cars transformed dense urban agglomerates into spreads of houses that blurred the border between the “inside” and “outside” of our cities. Concrete have been poured horizontally, thus transforming the environment. Cities like Los Angeles are no longer an anomaly; LA, indeed, became model for those contemporary cities that need to cope with the problem of scale, and how it does impact the quality of everyday life. Public transportation is on the agenda of LA mayor Garcetti, who is tackling the problem of mobility through infrastructure improvement. You can travel to Downtown by taking the Metro from Culver City, which will be soon extented to Santa Monica.

Nonetheless I don’t believe that infrastructure only can help with improving the everyday of our cities. I grew up in the fringe of a small city in southern Italy, Enna. The contrast between historical centre and suburbia was, and still it is, quite clear for the possibility of moving around. Once at the centre car is pointless – although people use it for habit. You can reach the extreme parts of the city by walking for 20 minutes max. Once out of the centre distances are still small, but car is the most used means of transportation. What is the reason? Shops. The centre is a sequence of small and medium size businesses that crowd the streets and make them alive. Daily groceries can be moved on small trolleys; you can go for shopping, taking a coffee or a drink with friends in 5- 10 minutes. The fringe is a no-place. Old style urbanism, and bad administration of public space, affected the quality of urban extensions. Cars crowds the small pedestrians looking for small spots to park the car. No many shops around. When I walk I look like a weirdo. Paradoxically I can compare this small city to LA. Completely different scales. Mobility culture quite similar.

Everyday we witness more and more problems with health, which causes have many factors; mobility is on top of the list. Our bodies have been designed to move; we need to balance the quantity of energy we feed our body with. Nonetheless the design of the streets has a tendency to detach housing with services; it makes cars the most used medium to reach even the basics – like water, milk, bread. I find quite interesting some current urban studies that look at the relationship people have with “mobile” food, i.e. food that happens on the streets. Food truck journeys have been analysed in LA and Washington DC. The geo location of Twitter data revealed that food trucks cover badly served areas. Location became the litmus paper of low service areas.  However the network of food trucks increased the presence of people on pedestrians. This article from The Guardian Cities describes the relation between mobility and diabetes. Bad quality food and time spent on cars are key factors that need to be tackled to think a solution.

Scale is not a problem that concerns the territory as whole; micro scale at the local dimension can trigger solutions. If our streets get more crowds of “stuff” – shops, grocery, cafes, etc –  which distance is perceived manageable, it would possibly make people walk. Possibility it would be a nice experient to try out.




The Res Publica of Data


The literature on “smart cities” inflates everyday. The syntax and visualization of data yield custom meaning out of citizens’ life, which is mainly trusted as truth. We consult our pocket oracle, then we follow directions. The detached engagement that governments have in the politics of data leave communities in the mist of information. Do we share? Can we share? What is left to my own “authentic” decisions? Every single interaction with the World Wide Web requires few minutes of strategy, which aims to preserve the ghost of privacy.

Cities are the origin of human civilisation; the idea of coexisting in the same place, with the common intent of organising common space with systems and rules, aimed to make life better when together.

The sense of community is the first element that makes us part of it. We create the form of our spaces by participating to its organisation and management.

The experience of data dwells between a coat of mystery and fear. Nonetheless data can help to understand the contemporary machine of the real. Data are an achievement of our society, the management is the failure. In an ideal world, the democracy 2.0 would like citizens engaged in the everyday politics by sharing, discussing and editing data, as substance of contemporary politics. So far the trend didn’t exactly follow this way.

I believe that something might change though. Helsinki looks to follow this direction via a ticket. Small steps are indeed the beginning to test big ideas. If politics steps in the administration of the contemporary res publica via citizens opinions (based on needs and wishes), which are regulated by an old democratic system, we might speculate around the contemporary form of politics that adapts, directs and suggests people’s trends.