July 12, 2015

Metafoundry 42: Shadow Botafogos

Infra vision; I see faces; three commutes.

COORDINATES: On the couch under the ceiling fan in my apartment in Cambridge, where I am home for a couple of days in between trips. Most of this newsletter was drafted in Donostia-San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain, where we presented some of our research and I co-facilitated some workshops at a conference on engineering education. We hiked up the coast from Donostia to the next town over in a light drizzle, and it looked and felt remarkably like the Pacific Northwest (unsurprisinglyit's the same latitude as Oregon), until we stumbled over the ruins of a Roman aqueduct or saw, far below us through seemingly impassable terrain, the foundations of a building. As I've written before, it's the temporal bathyscaphe of being a North American in Europe. Speaking of which, this newsletter is going out 'early' because tomorrow is a travel day as I head to Dublin for another conference (I'm wrapping up a research grant, so we're in the phase where we're sharing our work with the rest of the engineering education community). As I write this, it’s 26C with picturesque fluffy clouds in a blue sky in the rose-coloured light of this long summer evening.

INFRA VISION: If you enjoyed the newsletter that Charlie Loyd and I co-wrote a couple of months ago about visiting California water infrastructure, then I commend to you this Rhizome article by Adam Rothstein on ‘How to See Infrastructure’, with pointers to great work by lots of folks including Ingrid Burrington, James Bridle, and Nicola Twilley. 

I SEE FACES: Google’s new Photos software misidentifies black people as gorillas. I think only the Google spokespeople were surprised, after digital cameras that don’t see black people (beautifully satirized by the underrated and short-lived television show, Better Off Ted), cameras that insist that East Asian people had their eyes closed in the shot or, you know, how camera film is optimized for white people (because that’s who it was created for and tested on). In fact, how the entire history of photographic technology is one that ignores (and thus excludes) people of colour. The only new bit is that it’s photographs married to algorithms, which have their own history (and future) of reifying racism.

One: “Shit!”, I exclaim to myself, on seeing the time. It’s almost eight am, and my car’s parked at a meter as usual (it saves searching for a residential spot in my busy urban neighbourhood when I get home), so there’s always a risk of a ticket if I’m not on my way before they come into effect for the day. I dump some cat food into bowls, give Zoe a quick skritch, grab my bags and hoof it out the door to my car. As I make my first turn, I’m already scanning the left side of the street for someone who might pull out in front of me to turn right; fifty metres on, I give my horn a quick tap to make it clear to the driver on the cross street that they have a stop sign and I don’t. On the main one-way road that leads to the highway, I keep an eye out for cars that might ignore the new jog in the lane markings and cut me off. Across the bridge, a left onto the riverside road, watching for the infrequent pedestrian as I turn onto the reverse-cambered on-ramp, and then through the toll booths and onto the highway. I move over into the leftmost lanes; outbound traffic in the morning isn’t usually too bad, but I know this stretch of I-90 like riverboat captains knew the Mississippi and at this time of day, the Newton on-ramp will clog traffic across all the lanes adjacent to it, so my best bet is to stay on the far left until I’m through, then work my way back to the rightmost lane to exit through the tollbooths for the I-95 interchange. Today the transfer to 95 isn’t too jammed; I stay to the right, yielding to the traffic coming from I-90 inbound, then merge into I-95 southbound traffic, only staying on to the next exit. As I pull off the highway, I’m already keeping an eye out on my right for cars that might not yield on their way to the on-ramp to my left, then I negotiate my way to and through the intersection (the road is between one and two lanes wide, for three lanes at the light, all going different directions). As usual, I slow right down for the two school zones, but I take a particular joy in it today, since I’m being followed by an especially aggressive driver. Through the four-way stop by the country club—today I tap my horn at a driver as they start to follow the car in front of them through the stop sign, and am ignored. Down the hill and through the awkward half-intersection, half-roundabout onto the main road. At least today no one is gridlocking my turn. Up the main road for a bit, turn into the College, up the hill, and park.

Two: A quick glance at the clock tells me that I have a few minutes to get to my car before the meters kick in. I get my lunch, tuck it into my bag, make sure the cats aren’t underfoot, and head out the door. Into my car, around the corner, through the lights, and yep, there’s someone at the stop sign who doesn’t believe that I don’t have one too. Warning tap on the horn, around the corner onto the main road, over the bridge and onto the I-90 on-ramp. I move over into the left-most lane and my car chimes at me. “You are entering the high-speed lanes. Please confirm.”, mirrored in text on a dashboard display. Today I say, “Affirmative, computer,” but I think the only variant of ‘yes’ that I’ve tried that wasn’t accepted was when I tried an affirmative grunt—I was impressed that it picked up not only French and Spanish but also my atrociously-accented Hindi “Hahnh-ji”. A green light pops up on my dash, the pleasantly-modulated voice says, “Autopilot on”, and I feel the wheel move under my hands as I release it and my car accelerates smoothly into the High-Speed Vehicle lane on I-90. I remember my heartrate spiking the first few times I did this—it seemed impossible that I wouldn’t just crash into the cars zooming past bumper-to-bumper at twice the (human) speed limit—but of course my car is networked into the cars around me and they open up a gap for it to slip into. A screen is blinking at me, “I-95 Exit 95B / Other destination”. I touch the first line, see it accepted, and then pull out my tablet. If I were more focused, I’d start working through my e-mail, but since I only have about ten minutes, I just scroll through my social media feeds. For a while, I wasn't sure if it made sense to use the HSV for such a short trip, but commuting is sufficiently stressful that cutting out twenty-five minutes of careful high-stakes attention, twice a day, made a noticeable difference to how I felt. I look up, as I always do, as the car navigates the high overpass to I-95, and then back down at my tablet to poke at one last thing before I need to be back on the wheel. That soft chime again, then “Transfer of control in one minute. Please confirm.” Half a minute later, “Viewing test: Please state the colour of the sign that is appearing…now.” An LCD screen outside the left-hand window is a deep cobalt today as I pass. “Blue,” I say, and then I rest my hands on the wheel as the car pulls out of the HSV and into the transition lane, wait for the countdown, and then grasp the wheel firmly and turn it slightly to the right and then back to the left, just enough that I'm registered as back in control. I once decided to go to work the morning after having taken a redeye home after a long few days in California—I fell asleep, dreamed of flying through the air in a fully-rigged sailing ship that could talk to me, and woke up to find myself several stops past my exit, en route to the holding area in Westwood, with my car asking me loudly, “Is this a medical emergency?” But today my exit from I-95 onto surface roads is uneventful, and I navigate my way through the suburbs to campus, mostly thinking about what I need to prep for my class later in the day.

Three: Home from a morning trip to the gym, showered, and dressed, I eat a tamale and look at the news on my tablet. I finish, put the plate in the sink, get my bag, rub Leroy’s insistent furry head, and head out to the T stop. It’s eight-forty-five in the morning, and my corner is a mass of rush-hour pedestrians on the wide sidewalk, cyclists on the bike lanes, and a few pods gliding down the narrow central lane of the road, most with 'MBTA Mobility Access’ markings, but there's odd emergency or delivery vehicle. I head down the steps into the subway and straight onto a train—since the signal and networking upgrades, it’s rare to wait more than a minute or two at this time of day—and scroll through my phone for the few minutes it takes to get to South Station. At South Station, I transfer to a commuter podtrain, making sure to get onto one of the Needham-bound cars, and pull out my tablet to get some work done. I always figured Boston was called the Hub in part because it’s at the centre of a roadmap that looks like a web created by a somewhat inebriated orb-weaver. Today I’m on one of the new tracks, zooming down the centre of a repurposed road that spokes out from the city. I still haven’t figured out all the different routings that the podtrains take as they work their way out to the suburbs—there’s a finite number, presumably, but the exact route any train takes depends on what else is happening on the network, and the podtrain cars separate off at different points accordingly. But soon enough I recognize the spur that goes into Needham, and a few minutes later I disembark at Needham Center. I debate with myself about running an errand in one of the stores in town, but decide to do it later and instead head straight for the cluster of waiting pods. I open a door and sit down, and as the pod says, “Good morning, Professor Chachra. Is Olin College your destination today?”, I’m already reaching out to tap the ‘Yes’ button on the display, my attention back on the tablet by the time the pod pulls onto the main road and heads off towards the College. A few minutes later, it decelerates to a gentle stop in the turn-around circle by my building. It’s a beautiful fall day and, as I get out, I can see students and one of my colleagues testing little autonomous robots by running them up and down the tiered fields that used to be the massive multi-level parking lot. There’s a few private human-driven cars in the vestigial remaining lot, mostly my mechanical engineering colleagues who like cars and driving and who live outside the I-95 ring road that demarcates the Boston city pod-only zone. I wave to the students and head in to my office.

Coda: I've written before about self-driving cars in urban environments and the last-mile problem for cars in most of North America. Charlie Loyd and I coined the term ultrastructure, for the cultural, political and regulatory systems around infrastructure, and I wrote these three narratives to think about what my commute would look like with a different ultrastructure, rather than the current default of ceding self-driving cars to private companies and the road to individual vehicles. I live in the city and I work in the suburbs, and I only drive to work because I effectively need, say, 10,000 other people to give up their cars too in order to get good public transit. Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, designed a house that's so energy-efficient that it's effectively a phase change; rather than just reducing the energy costs, it requires no HVAC at all. The dream is not self-driving cars. The dream is a system of public transit that obviates the need for private cars entirely (of which self-driving cars may be an integral part, admittedly). I spend thousands of dollars a year on having a car (payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, tolls, parking...); whenever people present public transit as expensive, I think about multiplying my yearly car-related spending by the number of people in the greater Boston area who have cars. What kind of transit system could that purchase, and what kind of phase change would it be?

It turns out that not only humans display handedness; almost all kangaroos are southpaws.