It’s about time that I posted something on a very impressive exhibition which I went to see last weekend at the Cornerhouse Gallery – Rosa Barba’s Subject to Constant Change. Dealing with many of the themes currently preoccupying me as I delve into explorations of technology, Barba’s work thoughtfully and coolly expresses much of what 21st century academics are busy analysing – the essence(s) of digital and “post-digital” environments. Viewing her work, we are invited to consider materiality, memory, technology, technique, the relationship between past and present and the problematic nature of linear narratives. Complex relationships between text/performance, reader/viewer, the fixed and the slippery, are all considered, for instance in Time Machine, which is part script, part novella, part invention, and which looks like a projection although really it’s a print.
In one darkened gallery space, colour films run on projectors modified so that the speed and intensity of their wheels and their light alter in ways not possible on the unmodified original equipment. A series of statements and phrases apparently detached from all context appear flickering on the wall – and as I enjoyed the playful hints of meaning evoked by their flowery italic script, I also found myself fascinated by the mechanics of the projectors themselves. How much does the technology used to display these words contribute to their possible meaning and our interpretation of them? What associations are created when new and old approaches are combined? When rhythm varies and intensity is altered? Can we appreciate the past more fully by melding it with the present? At the same time we realise how both will forever evade being cemented.
In the second gallery, a pair of projectors work together to show us the two parts of Subconscious Society. A crowd of local people dressed somehow “timelessly” appear to haunt the neglected interior of the Manchester Albert Hall, moving around it as though defiantly detached from some imagined authentic context and accompanied by a soundtrack of fleeting observations. One staff member (who was very keen to get feedback and discuss the installations with us) revealed with a little amusement that some visitors have been puzzled. “Why are you not doing it all on digital? Why are you using this old equipment? Isn’t it more difficult and expensive?” Well, yes. And there have been some problems – bulbs overheating, projectors stalling, film getting caught. Such difficulties are in themselves a thought-provoking part of the exhibition. The medium is as much a part of the message as is the content. Really. Barba’s refusal to embrace a lazy and straightforward “logical” modernity is what gives her exhibition its power.
Former configurations of society – and technology – may appear to be obsolete but the point is that their imprintings and patterns remain to resonate in our own time, reimagined, reasserted, reinterpreted. Using such techniques will be less possible for artists in the future. It’s hard to find not only the spare parts and the film – she is using some of the last of Kodak’s old stock apparently – but also the technicians able to handle and maintain them. In an era where digital technology lets amateurs do almost everything at the touch of a button (this blog is just one example!), it is nice to reflect on the highly skilled and patient operators/artists of the past who understood both the physics and the metaphysics.
“Things” is probably one of the least specific terms you will ever hear in the context of sophisticated cutting-edge computing technologies, which probably makes the concept “Internet of Things” more memorable. Furthermore, it was coined (doubtless during some kind of blue-sky brainstorming session) by a man Wikipedia call “a British technology pioneer”, Birmingham born Kevin Ashton. If you’ve not heard of the Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology that he helped to standardise and promote, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a part of your everyday environment. In fact, that might just mean it’s on its way to becoming discreetly ubiquitous. If you’ve come across those funny little micro-chipped stickers with the concentric squares when checking your books out of the library – or just used them to accidentally set off security alarms – then you’re using RFID.
As for the Internet of Things, much of which revolves around RFID, it’s pretty “futuristic” and something which I got to learn a lot more about at the PhD Summer School I attended back in August. Yesterday, I submitted a summary of what I learned on the course and (bearing in mind I am no expert) I thought it would be interesting to share with you this section on “The Internet of Things” – not least because it is already on its way and is an excellent demonstration of how technology can both solve and create problems for society in ways that have far-reaching implications.
A computing concept that describes a future where everyday physical objects will be connected to the Internet and will be able to identify themselves to other devices. The term is closely identified with RFID as the method of communication, although it could also include other sensor technologies, other wireless technologies, QR codes, etc.
To give some examples of use, there are clearly benefits in terms of commercial supply chains and logistics; stock from a warehouse or the fuel consumption of delivery drivers en route can be more effectively tracked and monitored using RFID chips and broadcast networks. In the home, a consumer might be alerted by their fridge, via their mobile phone, that they need to remember bacon. Every object, addressable via internet protocols, would have a unique identity and an active online profile, developing what seems to some people a “personality”. It might be perfectly possible for your guitar to find other musicians in your area with the same taste in music as you or the shop that sells its type of strings. On the streets of a city, the lighting might automatically dim to save resources when sensors detect that there is nobody nearby requiring illumination or, in a combination of art, engineering and science, change colour depending on the measured physiological responses or the stated (online) preferences of a pedestrian.
For this, a complex architecture is required to support a global network of programmable and addressable “smart” devices (both physical and virtual) capable of being part of the IoT. These devices would be context aware, with embedded sensors, processors, tracking, monitoring, and (possibly) visualisation capabilities; they would capture and store commercial and/or personal data and respond in ways both pre-programmed and calculated in ways apparently intuitive to serve a user’s need or supposed need. This might involve “thing” to person (t2p), machine-to-machine (m2m) or “thing” to machine (t2m) communication paths. Such interactions extend the kinds of data exchange already taking place between objects, systems and intelligent devices like “smartphones”, the hardware and operating systems of which having in many ways suggested or laid the frame for the development of the IoT. Much of what is needed for it has already been or is currently being developed in R&D or manufacturing sites around the world.
Of course there are a plethora of potential economic and social benefits associated with the implementation of the IoT, particularly in the area of health care or for improved energy efficiency and waste management. But it’s vital also to have debates here about technological determinism and the tendency by technologists to narrativise – in a linear “step-wise” fashion – supposed “inevitable” progressions of innovation and societal advance. The move from fragmented network technologies to cloud computing certainly appears compellingly logical; but we must not forget that ultimately, we decide the ends to which technologies are put and the values placed upon them. Having the rather “Science Fiction” style IoT vision become reality is not unproblematic. Issues include privacy, security, a lack of demonstrable benefit beyond industrial efficiency, and possibly low consumer acceptance in civil society. RFID chips are thought by some to be “spychips”, the processes and implications of which will be mysterious to most consumers who will not know exactly what data is being gathered about them or who it is being accessed by.
More prosaically, there are technical and functional issues that need addressed such as “data flooding” – when much of the data gathered and subsequently read from an RFID tag is not useful or meaningful to the organisation or individual accessing it. Further, there are the usual problems of a lack of standardisation of formats, frequencies and communication protocols to allow the interoperability required for a global Internet of Things. Connecting smart devices, software and systems in the cloud will of course require new and flexible business models and the identification/creation and capture of new business opportunities and markets within sustainable economic sectors. Whatever your perspective, new skills, new attitudes, and a fundamentally different philosophy will be required of us if the IoT is to be safe, successful, and opt-outable of.