A sentient environment for a subjective realm

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Our lifestyle as much as our economic and social model, have brought us to build environments that are completely disconnected from the space we live in. We now live in a territory that is ubiquitously paralleled by a digital realm, and increasingly fragmented in the physical realm. Our environment has become a complex, unstable and multi-layered phenomenon, that is no longer structured according to independent entities – metropolises, cities, towns, villages – but into networks of interconnected nodes and individuals.

SOCIAL digital environment

“Psychologists and sociologists spent years wondering how humanity would adjust to the anonymity of life in the city, the wrenching upheavals of mobile immigrant labor — a world of lonely people ripped from their social ties. We now have precisely the opposite problem. Indeed, our modern awareness tools reverse the original conceit of the Internet.’

– ‘Brave New World of Digital Intimacy’, Clive Thompson | New York Times, Sept 5, 2008

Nowadays, the public space where the most relevant models of collective creation and self-management are found is beyond doubt Internet. For years we considered what is Digital as Virtual, as something away from reality, or at least as an alternative to reality. We confused what is real with what is physically present, forgetting how quickly web-based technologies became part of our daily life.

The digital network has boosted social identity and collective interest to become a source of significant power and impact, questioning the existing structures of indirect democracy and vertical communication. Meanwhile public space is increasingly cornered and controlled by more and more regulations, and consequently devoid of social interaction, Internet is boosting it. Some case studies even argue that our permanent social connexion through social media is improving community values such as confidence, tolerance, and collective commitment, redefining social networks into sociable networks. Internet is the most democratic space, a platform where anyone has the capacity as an individual to express an equally valued opinion, and interact with others in a direct and horizontal way.

The digital environment has altered the relation to our ambient environment by providing an ubiquitous site of mediation outside of the place it mediates. Internet has cleared the physical obstacles in building a network of interconnected individuals of globalized awareness. Our social relationships are growing disconnected from our immediate physical surrounding, increasingly further from our street, neighborhood and immediate environment. Paradoxically, we even tend to create an imbalance in getting closer to what is physically further. This glocal condition allows us as individuals to be equally aware of the social movements in Wall Street and our neighbor coming home from work. In other words, it allows us to be equally aware of peers of physical proximity, and peers of the digital globalized realm.

Particularly notable in social media, the perpetual online contact synthesized in personal ‘notifications’ on Facebook — “what’s on your mind” — or ‘tweets’ on Twitter, constitutes real time updates of our present activity. While some people still consider this ambient intimacy as a modern egocentrism taken to a ‘supermetabolic extreme’, they are actually very similar to our natural behaviour in picking up people’s mood when we are physically near: body language, sighs, tone of voice, stray comments…small hints of information that together define our ambient awareness. Each of these little updates is absolutely insignificant on its own, but taken together and over time, the little snippets of information coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated and real time representation of our environment, may they be places, friends, family members or even complete unknowns.

NETWORKED physical environment

‘Today space is fragmented, it’s continuity escapes us. The city scares us because we fear to slide to one of its edges, to fall into its gaps and suddenly find ourselves in a no man’s land, between two neighborhoods, two cities, in a undefined place in between a familiar landscape and one we must inevitably ignore and transform in traveling time.’

– Against Architecture, Franco La Cecla, 2012

We no longer apprehend space as a continuum. We consume space in an intermittent way, moving from one node to the other — from where we live, to where we work, to where we consume — without considering the ‘in-between’. This phenomenon, commonly associated with cities where this paradigm is part of daily life, is fractal; may it be on a hyperlocal, urban, metropolitan, territorial or global scale, our environment is increasingly reduced to in-between spaces of transit, and nodes of concentrated activities and social density where we can easily access to new nodes, building networks of hyperconnectivity at all scales.

‘The world has never been so small’. Paradoxically, it is not the distances from one point to the other that have been reduced — the perimeter of Earth hasn’t changed — but the distances that have become durations, and the latter that exponentially grow towards immediacy. Real time is overcoming real space, and ‘what is actually globalized by immediacy is time itself’¹, not space. Globalization in other words, is a phenomenon based on a structure of globalized networks of punctual spaces and according to a single global time system.

This networked structure causes an increasing consumption of space and vice-versa, while rushing a need to move from one point to another faster and faster. And the faster we achieve moving from one point to the other, the more we fragment space into centralized and concentrated poles of global influence, and the less we have awareness of our immediate environment. Moreover, this model involves relying on important infrastructures — freeways, railways, airways — and consequently implies both huge expenses of building and maintenance, and a significant impact on our physical environment. Two prominent consequences that question the evolution and sustainability of such lifestyle, especially when we consider transmission of information has generally become instantaneous and will always transcend physical movement.

Meanwhile transport technologies tend to consume space and fragment the physical environment into concentrated nodes of exponential development, social media succeeds in building networked communities, and in recreating collective interest and ambient awareness. The recent debate around smart cities, defined as an ‘urban performance depending not only on the city’s endowment of hard infrastructure — physical capital — but also, and increasingly so, on the availability and quality of knowledge communication and social infrastructure — intellectual and social capital’², aims to highlight the growing importance of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and social media in increasing local prosperity and social sustainability. They foster new opportunities of e-participation, such as online consultation and deliberation, to promote the democratisation and direct communication of policy making, allowing citizens to be involved in the building of their environment.

SENTIENT hybrid environment

‘The debate about the Sentient City can be understood as a dispute concerning the public sphere. On the one hand, the rise of sentient technologies is said to contribute to the (already on-going) demise of urban public spaces [...]. On the other hand, there is a hope that those same sentient technologies could enable new forms of publicness and exchange [...] performed and commissioned by divergent actors, all with their own motivation and implicit understand­ing of what a city is or should be.’

– The Urban Culture of Sentient Cities: From an Internet of Things to a Public Sphere of Things, Martijn de Waal

As the physical and administrative limits of the territory no longer condition the potentials of action, reaction and interaction, it is essential to question the traditional dichotomy between the physical and digital environments, and its impact on society. Indeed, meanwhile our physical environment is increasingly fragmented and abstracted from its spatial condition by a totalitarian global time system, the digital realm has taken advantage of immediacy to recreate environments of globalized ambient awareness. Meanwhile the networked models still focus on the development of interconnected globalized nodes, increasingly devoid of identity, social media have succeeded in focusing on subjectivity as a means to foster collective interest.

Could we see in the real time connections defining our digital awareness an opportunity to regenerate the potential of our physical ambient environment ? Could we look away from the globalized networked structure of nodes, to promote a network of individuals of globalized awareness?

Today, thanks to Situated Technologies (smartphones, tablets PC, sensors, RFID chips,…), we have the ability to remain connected to the digital realm at all times — in the same way as we are to the physical realm. Our digital identity follows us, fostering the opportunity to establish a permanent connexion between all the information of our physical and digital environments that defines our ambient awareness in real time — and space. This ‘sentient identity’³, understood as the real time synchronisation process of our identities, would focus on our capacity to act, re-act and inter-act, according to our immediate hybrid — physical/digital — ambient environment, and brings forth a new paradigm: the sentient environment.

Across the world, our environment is about to enter the next phase of development, based on a layer of digital connectivity on top of existing individuals and entities — the ‘Internet of Things’. A global network where ‘things’ — individuals, objects, buildings, places, devices — have hybrid identities made of physical attributes and digital personalities, and operate through intelligent interfaces to connect and communicate in real-time. The sentient environment takes root on the latter to settle a new social frame of instantaneous and spontaneous connection, based on physical proximity rather than common interests or degrees of friendship, as it is in the well-known social networks.

At the rise of sentient technologies comes forth the opportunity to question the established hierarchical models in the building and management of our environment. If sentience refers to the ability to feel or perceive subjectively, the sentient environment fosters a peer-to-peer network of individuals. Beyond a centralized hierarchy and decision-making, beyond a decentralized network and democratic consultation, it promotes a distributed network of stakeholders, where individuals act, re-act and inter-act in a horizontal way, and become real actors in the building and management of their environment.

Assuming real time as an opportunity to assume a hybrid ambient awareness of our surrounding, the sentient environment becomes part of a dynamic and interactive process, based on the connectivity of the different stakeholders that compose it at all times. Potentializing one’s awareness of his immediate surrounding, the sentient environment fosters horizontal models of enterprise and self-management in its performance. A new paradigm, promoting a subjective realm where what defines an environment is no longer a generic name or conditioned node, but the individual.

1 Speed and information: Cyberspace alarm!, “Le Monde Diplomatique”, Paul Virilio, 1995

2 Smart cities in Europe, “Vrije Universiteit, Faculty of Economics and Business Administration”, Andrea Caragliu, Chiara Del Bo, Peter Nijkamp, 2009

3 Sentient Identity: a real time synchronisation of digital identities, Smood | Sentient Research Lab, Think Tank, 2011

Text by Domenico Di Siena and Manon Bublot, photos by Domenico Di Siena. Originally published in Monu Magazine #16.

Domenico Di Siena (@urbanohumano) is an architect, consultant and investigator focused on Network Thinking. His research and working fields include themes such as Sentient City, Sentient Identity, Commons, Learning, Open Government, Open Innovation, P2P Urbanism. Researching and working on possible synergies of physical networks (public space) and digital networks (internet).

Manon Bublot (@heterotopie) is an architect of the absurd and investigator in the framework of public space and commons. Rather than considering architecture as a spatial challenge, time is the key word of her reflection in designing processes of sustainable value and unpredictable evolution. Her interests include various fields of sociopolitical nature, from placemaking, urban actions, and open workshops to social media, photography and writing. She collaborated with various organizations like ecosistema urbano, zuloark, ouvre-tête, la friche la belle de mai, collectif etc… always claiming a subjective approach for collective intelligence and engagement.

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