On Immaterials

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Immaterials: The ghost in the field – the magnificent new film from Timo Arnall and BERG’s Jack Schulze, in which they make visible the ordinarily imperceptible fields around RFID devices. (If you haven’t, click this link immediately; I’ll wait for you to get back.)

Anyway, Timo and Jack are putting together a Newspaper Club publication around the film, and asked me to contribute a “brief” essay. As usual, I’m afraid I’ve gone on a bit long, but I hope they’ll be able to use this anyway. And for whatever it’s worth, you get to read it…right now.

Since its 2006 publication, I’ve given perhaps a hundred talks in various places around the world expanding on the themes of my book Everyware, talks dedicated to exploring the quality of everyday life in a world of ubiquitous computing. As I see it, the essence of what we can expect from this set of circumstances is a way of interacting with the technology around us I describe as “information processing dissolving in behavior.”

In my talks, to illustrate this rather arcane idea, I very often tell the story of something I saw in Hong Kong almost ten years ago now: young women moving briskly through the turnstiles of the MTR subway system, swinging their handbags in the air with an all-but-balletic grace as they did so.

What were they doing? They were using Hong Kong’s RFID-equipped Octopus farecards brilliantly and intuitively, but in a way that system’s architects had never foreseen.

The designers of the Octopus system most likely imagined that people would use their cards in the conventional manner – by tapping the card neatly against a turnstile-mounted reader. At some point soon after the system’s introduction, however, one or another canny passenger obviously figured out that they didn’t have to do this: because the reader was powerful enough to acquire and read an antenna tens of centimeters away, even through layers of fabric, they could leave the card wherever it was most convenient for them, and never have to fish it out at all.

The result wasn’t merely the elegant gesture I’d seen enacted time and again. Because the elaborate interaction between card and turnstile, turnstile and database, database and barrier had been compressed into the third of a second it might take someone to swing their handbag through a reader field, each one of the women I’d seen was able to move through the process of fare collection and into the subway without breaking her normal walking pace. And this, in turn, markedly improved the number of passengers the station could accommodate in a given period of time, what traffic-analysis engineers call “throughput.”

Things got even more interesting when I gave this talk in Tokyo a year or so later. During the Q&A, someone in the audience pointed out that one of that city’s major public transit systems, JR East, also offered its customers an RFID-based smartcard, called Suica…and yet he’d never seen women in Tokyo making the handbag gesture I’d described. And he asked the obvious question: Why not?

I had to confess that I didn’t know. As it turned out, though, someone in the audience that day did. As she explained it, the designers of the Suica system, acting out of concern over the long-term health implications of radio-frequency fields for human users, had deliberately lowered the power of their readers, and therefore abbreviated their system’s range. No range, no handbag ballet, no enhanced station throughput.

And here we get to the crux of the issue: in both Hong Kong and Tokyo, the consequences of decisions made by engineers about the properties of a technical system cascaded upward not merely to the level at which they could afford or constrain individual behavior, but that at which they affected the macro-level performance of the entire subway system…and maybe even the community’s long-term well-being.

The primary trouble with this, from my point of view, is that in both cases, the tradeoffs involved remained opaque to by far the vast majority of the people implicated by them. Perhaps Hong Kong’s subway riders would have had similarly pressing concerns about health and safety; perhaps Tokyo’s would have been willing to accept some level of risk in exchange for more efficient commutes.

The point is, we’ll never know. Unless you understand a little bit about what RFID is and how it works, you have no way of assessing how a system built on the technology is designed, and whether you wish to accept or reject the propositions embedded in it. And this is just as true for all of the other imperceptible technologies we are increasingly exposed to.

This is why I believe the work that Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze and their colleagues are doing is so very important. By depicting the ghostly traces of invisible radio fields so elegantly, they help engineers, designers and system architects to understand the particularity of their materials, even as they help us ordinary users grasp just what’s going on in these magical-seeming transactions.

Among other things, what this means is that design is finally able to take these devices seriously, phenomenologically. Rather than asserting “an RFID” as some eternal given, something that will produce the same linear, determinate effect each and every time it is deployed, Immaterials reminds us that the choice of material, shape, size, direction, orientation and power rating of the components involved have distinct consequences for the uses to which those components can be put. And as we’ve seen, these choices can produce effects on levels seemingly entirely removed from the interaction itself.

In a recent piece for Wired UK, I argued that the pre-eminent need in the networked city would be for translators: “people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them.” Timo and Jack are among the very first to take up this challenge, and that they’ve done so so artfully and with such sensitivity sets a very high standard for all those who would follow.

6 responses to “On Immaterials

  1. The Necromancer says :

    The idea of the “long-term health implications of radio-frequency fields for human users” is of interest to me as a medical historian. Perhaps even more interesting is the regularity of the field as it is rendered less “immaterial” through great camera work. That it could thus become a symbol for the technology is even more fascinating. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to echo the hazmat symbol for dangerous radioactivity…

    Nothing is truly immaterial here, though. That much is clear.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Wortfeld - 17 October 2009
  2. GroupeChronos - 18 October 2009
  3. Responses to ‘Immaterials’ - 26 October 2009
  4. LocalLab - 6 November 2009
  5. Mohammad Irshaid - 28 February 2010

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