Summer Research Dispatch: Noura Howell on Biosensing

30 Aug, 2018

Summer Research Dispatch: Noura Howell on Biosensing

Each year, the Berkeley Center for New Media is thrilled to offer summer research awards to support our graduates in their cutting edge work. Below, Noura Howell describes how she used the funds to work on his biosensing project.

Exploring Critical Alternatives for Biosensing in Urban Space

Biosensing is increasingly present in daily life, measuring our behavior, physiology, and the environment. For example, Sidewalk Labs plans to revamp 800 acres of city living on Toronto waterfront with smart city sensing and technology. It is well worth being cautious and critical of these plans: What widespread surveillance and normative categorizations underlie such data-driven visions of ‘the good life’? ‘Smart city sensing’ is a glossy term for widespread biosensing surveillance. Surveillance is intricately tied up with reifying racial boundaries and policing blackness. Broadly, the normative categorizations underlying many biosensory data-driven insights are especially problematic for those in the ‘other’ category. Too often Otherness or difference is framed as bad, potentially criminal or dangerous, or at least suboptimal and in need of correction, improvement, or control. To explore critical alternatives, I ask,

How can biosensing foster more ethical encounters with Otherness?

BCNM’s grant enabled me to devote my summer to exploring this.

Iteration 1: Feeler/Crawler/Octopet

I initially proposed Feeler/Crawler/Octopoets. These strange sensing creatures would wander the environment with a human guide, inviting playful reflection on human and nonhuman perception. An initial paper prototyping workshop with faculty and students seemed engaging and fun. Participants shared stories of highly varied experiences on Berkeley’s campus, each stemming from their own interests and perspective. Yet, with one or two notable exceptions, these reflections were not the kind that I was hoping to foster, and I began to doubt whether this form was most suitable for my designerly goals.

Feeler/Crawler/Octopoets encouraged people to explore biosensing of the natural environment, but I am more interested in engaging the politically and ethically fraught space of people biosensing other people. This design does not seem well suited for encouraging ethical encounters with Otherness. If one person is holding a Feeler/Crawler/Octopoet and they encounter another person who does not have one, the situation could rapidly become intrusive as one person becomes the sensing ‘subject’ and the other person becomes the sensed ‘object’ of that interaction.

Iteration 2: Pulsing Benches

With the same goals and questions, I shifted to a bench form. In a simple way, benches in public space foster encounters with Otherness. We might choose to share space with a stranger on a bench, or we might be aware of the strangers who have occupied the bench before. Benches also challenge the normative value of efficiency, instead supporting a moment of rest, pause, and reflection. Benches are more reciprocal than handheld sensors; whoever sits on the bench can both sense and be sensed.

While sitting at one end the bench, one can choose to place a finger on a pulse sensor and listen to a meditative realtime sonification of one’s pulse. After a few moments, sounds of a different pulse play from the other end of the bench, echoing the presence of previous sitters. Moving one’s finger disconnects the sensor and cuts off the sound, at which point a printout emerges from the bench. The printout provides information about one’s pulse followed by the question, “How are you feeling today?” One can keep the printout or paste it in a guest book on the bench. One can also browse through the guest book looking at others’ responses and writing notes.

This project is still in the prototyping phase. As a critically oriented design research project, its aim is to foster critical reflection and probe speculative futures around biosensing in urban space. I am curious to see what happens! References