L.O.S.T. Stone

L.O.S.T. Stone

The ‘stone’ project is an idea that grew from various discussions, around the Urban Organism and its immune system.

We explored the idea of Social Friction – the idea being that the small seemingly inconsequential interactions between (semi-) strangers builds up systems of common exchange protocols, i.e manners and etiquette. It’s a self-organising system, with local interactions leading to global behaviour patterns and a social aspect of the larger phenomenon of how cities manage to function. With so many living in such close proximity, despite only having the mental capacity to have meaningful relationships with around 150 people or so we have developed a myriad of ways to navigate this teeming social sphere. This is in part the set of mechanisms that don’t use an individuals capacity for long linguistic exchanges but instead use the subtle and brief non-verbal communication methods we have developed; the smile, the glance, sub-conscious body language and so on.

There are outcomes to these interactions. Jane Jocobs wrote in the 60’s about the dense urban settlements making them selves safe. Jacobs wrote in protest as the loss of sidewalks meant a loss of safety, as people were taken off the streets.

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intimacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement of change… The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations”

Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of American Cities.

To quote Steven Johnson’s interpretation from his book ‘Emergence’, “Cities, Jacobs understood, were created not by the central planning commissions, but by the low-level actions of borderline strangers going about their businesses in public life…[sidewalks] are the primary conduit for the flow of information between city residents”.

It might be more pertinent to now say streets were the primary conduit for the flow of information. From Adam Greenfield’s blog post ‘Serendipity Cities: Of services and situations‘ about positive chance encounters in the city

“This is André Breton, in 1924: ‘The street I believed was capable of causing surprising turning-points in my life; the street, with its restlessness and its glances, was my true element: there, as in no other place, I received the winds of eventuality.

To my mind, this is just why we celebrate the street in the humanist-urbanist tradition. Canonically, it functions as mixing-chamber, randomizer, instigator of situations par excellence. I wonder, though, if this can fairly be said to be the case any longer.

If I’m to be honest, it’s only rarely that I experience that kind of charged moment on the street anymore, or in public space more generally. Mostly, I’m head-down and on my way somewhere — and at that, one of a very few consistent places — and if I can judge fairly by their outer demeanor, so are most of the people around me who might have furnished a great measure of the potential ‘turning-points.’

By contrast, it’s fair to say that something like this happens to me all the time when I’m online: I’ll follow a series of links and wind up somewhere completely wonderful and, equally, unexpected, or get sent a link to some article, image or video that takes me on a similar journey. When the ‘winds of eventuality’ find me these days, I’m generally sitting in front of my laptop.”

Cairn Stones are a physical mnemonic in the landscape that signify a human presence in places that presence is rare – they denote and thus share an experience, or transfer information, glances in the wilderness that travel through time. Cairn Stones obviously wouldn’t directly translate to the urban environment, so we thought about something that might work in the context of the city, signifying or enabling shared experiences. This device would aim to counter the geographically distant nature of online networks by being off-line – using local only interactions to share information.

In parallel to the Sticky Data device that renders virtually located online data as physically located experiences, The LOST (Local Only Shared Telemetry) device or LOST Stone would send and receive data only with other LOST Stones within a small range (of about 30m). A decentralised system the owners would never need or use an Internet connection. The devices would allow you to sense only what is around you. You would only reveal information about yourself in a non-identifiable non-specific way – the devices wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the exact locations of other devices. Additionally, like the Sticky Data Device it would out put this data in a haptic way e.g. warming and cooling the skin…

To use the self-organising systems of ants, who leave and sense pheromones to find food, we might give the device the following properties; the device would transmit a list of the owners ‘likes’, which they pre-programmed the device with, wirelessly and encrypted (or not), to an area of 30-40 meters or so and also receive lists of words from other nearby devices; if there is a match the user is made aware by the ‘stone’ warming on their skin; the device wouldn’t tell the user where the matches are precisely, apart from that they would have to be in the local vicinity and it also wouldn’t say what the match was but if it found a lot of matches, from one or many others, the output would be higher.

Or perhaps in the same vein it might leave ‘pheromone’ trails of where you have been, by matching, collecting and retransmitting SSID’s that you have passed, leading others to those locations.

Or this device might measure biometric data such as heart-rate or galvanic skin response and so on. In the future the sensing of these types of chemical and neurological data by measuring devices that are unnoticeable, you can imagine the LOST Stone used as a way to feel the average heart rate of everyone around you, or the emotional (hormonal) state of the nearest person to you.

There are GPS enabled social networking applications that are available for a similar purpose such as Foursquare. However, such apps perhaps give away too much information and demand too much attention.

The underlying technology is simple so the task is to imagine what configuration would supplement the experience of public places, the self-organising systems of the street, that as Jacobs philosophised and now science has documented, typically only ever use simple local interactions that lead to amazingly complex behaviour, cities and the human brain being the prime examples. How might the LOST Stone give us a new Umwelt or social protocols that lead to an altered city life? Would it be safer, or more dangerous? Would the device enable the occasional social exchange that hitherto wouldn’t have happened, or perhaps only ever as navigational device, or would it simply be a strange kind of talisman, an urban divining rod? The LOST Stones acronym is an accurate description but also plays on a use of the Cairn stone as way-finder and reverses it for the city. As our cities grow ever more mapped in many diverse ways, can a device help us feel lost again, to explore and discover something unexpected?

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