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A Lamppost Is A Thing Too

Tom Armitage (Freelance)
Society
Location: Fleet Room
Average rating: *****
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“Connected Object” brings to mind white consumer goods with an Ethernet sockets or Wifi antennas. But that’s a narrow way of thinking that’s perhaps unhelpful: whatever you may think of the term, an “Internet of Things” should embrace the diversity of Thingness.

Perhaps a better model for understanding what connected objects can and could be is the furniture of a city. It’s public, shared, and represents a relationship not only with an object but with services or infrastructure. Connected Objects aren’t just going to be devices we own: they’re going to be public objects we share. And they can’t just work with bespoke apps for niche smartphones: public Connected Objects will need to be far more democratic in their technology choices.

For two months in the summer of 2013, I (along with PAN Studio) made it possible to speak to every street object in Bristol via nothing more than SMS, in a project called ‘Hello Lamp Post’; we were the first winners of Watershed’s “Playable City” award. We made the city space to share perspectives, to see how other citizens engaged with it. The Playable City was very much a counterpart to notions of Smart Cities: instead of observing citizens from afar, they spoke directly to it – and it asked them how they were.

That may sound playful and inconsequential – but I’d argue it’s an important exploration into the tones that connected objects can take; the relationships we might have with shared objects; other ways to mediate an instrumented city. People don’t have relationships with the City As A Whole: they have it with the services, platforms, and places they use. They’re going to engage with those places much like they might a single domestic object.

Before many citizens own a smart fridge, they might live in an instrumented city, full of connected objects. Not one big system, but many objects with legible seams. What could those relationships be like?

This talk will initially examine Hello Lamp Post, before using it as a lens for the design and ethos of connected objects, large and small, looking at public objects as a way of understanding our relationship with connected objects – and as a space to design those relationships within.

Photo of Tom Armitage

Tom Armitage

Freelance

I’m a freelance technologist, designer and writer living and working in London.

I make systems, tools, toys, and art out of hardware, software, and the network. I’ve worked on everything from a large-scale website to aggregate and visualise UK schools data to giant, multi-part games that span a Parisian art gallery; from bridges that talk on Twitter and cities that speak over SMS to laser-cut sculptures of actors’ movement.

I’ve spoken at conferences around the world (including ETech, Reboot, LIFT, Webdagene, and Develop) on design, technology, and games.

I maintain a long-running personal blog at infovore.org