Piazza 3.0

The brand new AmazonGo is a great metaphor of the state of our the real, digital and physical. The detail that Amazon caught quite well is that, indeed, the physical and the digital look as part of the same “whole”. When we describe our interactions with the digital we quite often make a distinction from the physical. AmazonGo represents that this is not true; our interactions with technology tell a different story. To be in the digital is equal to be in the physical; from social interactions, jobs, getting things done, etc. The Seattle based company found, and well combined together, the technological infrastructure to make this happen.

Amazon understands that humans are made of bones, and they like stuff; stuff you can show, share, touch. Even though you make your shopping online you do like the thing. There is not any VR that can generate the same satisfaction of buying a very cool brand new pair of trainers and show them to friends in (at) Instagram or at the pub. The bound we have with stuff is ontological. I don’t believe there is any technology capable of replacing such bound. Even though VR engages the body by simulating other senses – like smell and touch – our physical relationship with our stuff wins. Maurizia Boscagli’s book “Stuff Theory” frames quite well such relationship.

On the other hand the possibility that AmazonGo opens relates to the way we interact with people and space. What can the retail world learn from this? Is it only about retail or it can also extend to our house, place we work, exhibitions we visit, etc. ? What is the opportunity that our everyday space can take from it?

The reason why I used the word ontological to describe our relationship with stuff is because we associate a “human” value to the things we own. Once we get possess of our stuff, whether home or shoes, we assign a value. Value is not universal and it’s not about the stoke market. It is the literal human quality things have for us. It is related to the memories we associate to the object, the kind of experience the object represents to us. There is an embodied process of events encoded in the objects we own. I think it is not projected, as Walter Benjamin described in the Arcade’s Project. What does this mean for our everyday infrastructure? What does it mean for our experience of the physical/digital world? What can the AmazonGo model trigger and generate in terms of the physical experience we have with humans and things? Which consequences are related to the use of technology to smooth, and blur, our digital/physical interactions with humans and things? I believe these are questions to address in order to generate new forms of social opportunities. Where “people” should be?  Is it about a special meal you want to cook for a special occasion? Is it about joining a talk of a new book?

The over celebrated model of the Italian piazza was at the beginning a market. People met for a reason. There was an embodied system of exchange that called other factors, which over time became what we know as “piazza”. What is the piazza3.0?

 

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The space in between

The National Gallery in London is currently exhibiting a selection of Caravaggio’s paintings. The exhibition includes also those that imitated Caravaggio’s style. As I was given the space to compare Caravaggio’s work to his followers I understood which is the factor that glues me in front of any Caravaggio’s work: “the space in between”. When I stop in front of any of his work I have the feeling that the painting is meant to fill the space between myself and the canvas. The scene looks as a suspended action, not a frame, but something that is meant to continue . A looping tableau vivant that never gets completed and it is open to a plethora of interpretations. The way light, colours, characters are composed together makes the scene extend beyond the space of the canvas; time and the subject become relative. The space in between doesn’t have any shape; it is an intimate place that each viewer can design through observation. The space transcends any subject, wether religious or mythological. The subject is the pretest of a superficial interpretation; once indeed the subject disappears, the tension of the space in between bounds the viewer to the painting. The tension is made of different factors: light, position of the character, emergence of part of the scene that hides others, etc.  The effect of the painting reaches my senses without any specific reason. The ability of the painter consists indeed in the creation of a suspended place that leaves any viewer the freedom of interpretation. Caravaggio must have been a good observer of street dwellers. His characters’ eyes, facial expressions and body’s posture are his language through which he designs theatrical scenes of chiaroscuros. I suppose that the universality that Caravaggio’s paintings give to any society is given by the freedom each of us has to imagine what we see in it, without any guideline. When visiting the exhibition try to have a go without audio guides!

The Language of AI

In this article from the Harvard Business Review it is recommended to not swear at any form of AI; as they are learning from us it may cost our career. In other words we should start treating AI with respect. Please do not use inappropriate language and think them as kitties.

With Tay Microsoft had quite an experience in learning what happens if you leave your AI follow Internet trends. Humans, we know, are not always nice. In particular the Internet gives us many examples of how human interaction is not always for the good of knowledge.

I would like to reflect on another point though, which calls AI speech improvements. One of the best features Google Pixel offers is Google Assistant. Assistant learns from you and your interaction with the phone, hence the world around you. By learning your behaviour Assistant can anticipate your actions, can join your conversations and interface with third parties like Uber. Google AI relies on an improved “understanding” of human-like thinking and language. As its human resolution gets better you might end up establish an empathic relationship with your AI and treat it as human.

Nonetheless do we need to create different kinds of humans? What can they offer to us, more than mimicry our actions to the point of believing them alive entities? Chatbots are currently used to replicated our beloveds when they pass away, by learning “language styles”. What is the ontological social role, and value, of AI? Do we want them to give us immortality? Do we want them to replicate us? Do they need then to develop human empathy? For which reason? I suppose one way to analyse the context is language. Language, indeed, is the first human vehicle, whether written or spoken, that helps with establish relationships. We do need a form of language to establish any form of connection with the other party. As AI navigate the blurred threshold of quasi-human, as we do, we can acknowledge their “being”, hence their social presence, by giving them a language. Such action blurs the human-AI threshold and makes us, human, look like machines. Is this what we want?

On another hand can machine have their own language, based on the skills and opportunities they cab open for us to live a better world? By changing the way they speak I suppose human perception and understanding of AI might take another route and open different kinds of opportunities for human-machine collaboration.

When Design is the “Shell” of Technology

One of the projects exhibited at the Oslo Architecture Biennale – which is described in The Guardian – tells the story of Mark and the experience he provides through Airbnb. Mark’s homes stage family everyday living. You will find family’s pictures and anything that will satisfy your imaginary of renting a family home. Well, it’s all fake. Mark’s business hacked the Airbnb’s keystone value: dwelling the everyday of anybody’s home with all the memories, artefacts and memorabilia that each of us collect along our life.

Airbnb’s strategy, indeed, uses the human’s perceived meaning of intimacy into a business value (which Mark flipped into the core of his business). The more the host makes you feel home, the more the accommodation will provide the experience – and good rating- you are expecting to live visiting the place, whether you ever been there or not. Intimacy is no longer a private sphere of our being, which takes shape through a series of objects we relate to. Intimacy is something you can sell. Your life goes on market (and rated), as much your image does with selfies.

Airbnb is not the only company “looking after” people’s interiors – with the collection of objects and memories; Amazon and Google are also on the same page. Amazon Alexa is indeed an artificial intelligence capable of sensing the environment. Alexa learns from you, about your taste, what you read, the music you listen, the place you visit, the friends you see,.., the list is quite long; Alexa absorbs your life, so that it can “suggest” Amazon what to suggest to you. Whether in Airbnb your intimacy mimics the social masks you need to wear to perform the character your house is placed in (romantic, modern, family, etc), Alexa moulds the character (you indeed).

Similarly Google is shifting its business approach by changing what made them very successful: search engine. According to this article in the MIT Technology Review Google is ready to introduce Assistant to the public. Assistant is a “third person” that reads you and the environment you are in (physical and digital) to make suggestions. The ambition is to turn Google search from a general page you can type in to a custom, interactive character that suggests information, whether asked or not. Assistant can enter a conversation you are having with friends and make suggestions on the topics of discussion.

Alexa, Assistant and Airbnb make design the Shell (under Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour’s perspective) of technology, at different scale of course. What does design propose more than decorating technology’s performances (both aesthetically and technically)? Is there any value that design adds, besides embodying sensors that can connect you to the Internet? Interiors and products are interfaces at different scales that provide information. We interact with spaces and objects through algorithms that “learn” our behavior to loop information back to the private company, then us. What we achieve is a chewed digested information. If interiors will be probably designed to satisfy the best AI scanning (as currently shopping mall are designed to give shops the most of visibility) and objects to keep us “busy”, what can design do? Probably I need to define what I mean with design. The human passion for making and working with materials, thinking about mechanism, sorting problems, satisfying needs. Does design still performe a service to society?

 

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.

Material Perceptions

Verba volant, scripta manent.

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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.