The Internet of Things: A Revolution in Life and Art

How art demonstrates the power of the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a coming revolution. “The real and the digital worlds are converging,” The Economist article, “It’s a Smart World” perceptively acknowledged in 2010, “thanks to a proliferation of connected sensors and cameras, ubiquitous wireless networks, communications standards and the activities of humans themselves.” Sensors attached to machines and devices, from cellphones to cars to refrigerators, will be connected, or “smart”: increasing machine to machine interaction, connecting people and things and generating a vast amount of data. Since the IoT is widely accepted to be transformative, in what ways will it impact life — and art?

“One of the biggest advantages of smart technologies is the ability to predict and prevent problems from anywhere,” says Daniel Burrus in his 2014 WIRED article, “The Internet of Things is Far Bigger than Anyone Realizes.” The IoT may prevent calamities. For example, sensors on building structures could detect cracks and stresses before disaster strikes. It will also bring convenience and practical solutions to our lives. According to Mike Kavis’s 2014 Forbes article, “Don’t Underestimate the Impact of the Internet of Things,” sensors on appliances and devices can monitor temperature or humidity, a person’s health and the state of a machine. In fact, there are already hints of the IoT today. Smartphones, which The Economist describes as “packed with sensors,” are prime examples. Indeed, smartphone apps can gather streams of information, from gauging how many steps a person takes in a day to providing directions based on their current location. That said, the IoT will infiltrate many aspects of life; the arts are no exception.

Art on the Brink of Change

If the Future Cities Lab is anything to go by, the IoT is already influencing the arts. This San Francisco-based “experimental design studio, workshop and architectural think tank,” as the organization describes itself, uses cutting-edge technologies, social media and the IoT in their projects. The interactive installation “Lightswarm” in the lobby of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), a contemporary art center, is one example. Recognizing the profusion of sound in cities today, the Future Cities Lab raises the question: “How could buildings sense and respond to this data?” “Lightswarm” uses sound-activated sensors, an algorithm and light models to find out.

This site-specific installation includes 430 light modules adjacent to a glass panel facade. Sensors affixed to the panels collect data from sounds, which change the vibrancy and shade of color for each light. Laughing with friends, for example, will cause “Lightswarm” to change, as will city sounds from outside. In short, it is a “smart surface that can sense, compute, respond and interact with its surroundings,” as the Future Cities Lab website puts it.

“Lightswarm” is not alone. “Murmur Wall,” another Future Cities Lab project, incorporates advanced technologies and keeps with the cities theme. Although devoid of sensors, this outdoor site-specific installation at YBCA uses data and connectivity through a different lens. Consisting of sculpture, light and an assemblage of data, “Murmur Wall” digitally displays gathered “murmurs,” or data, from nearby online activity — social media and online searches — on its wall. By exposing hopes, dreams and fears, it reveals “what the city is whispering, thinking and feeling,” according to Future Cities Lab, thereby “anticipat[ing]” topics important to the city’s people.

This piece connects and engages people physically and virtually. Some may read, debate and contemplate the ideas and concerns expressed by fellow citizens when visiting the YBCA; others can virtually contribute “murmurs” online, which are added to the wall.

At first blush, “Lightswarm” and “Murmur Wall” may raise caution on the ability to collect information from others — a concern also demonstrated through art. Christopher Baker’s “Murmur Study” from the 2012 Zero1 Biennial did just that. Using control software written in Java, thermal receipt printers monitored Twitter for messages with emotional utterances. Deviations on words such as “argh,” “meh,” “grrrr,” “oooo,” “ewww,” and “hmph” were printed on receipt paper and streamed into the gallery space. According to the Zero1 Biennial, this piece aimed to investigate the increase of micro-messaging technologies, and the consequences of seemingly harmless, transitory thoughts by tacitly asking: how is information collected, recorded and used by institutions?

Data: it’s a Good Thing

Although Baker poses a valid concern, “Lightswarm” and “Murmur Wall” collect data that are used effectively. This matters because “gathering data and leveraging it” is what makes the IoT valuable, according to Burrus. Both pieces collect data to explore the city, albeit in different ways: visually revealing the city’s sounds and bringing people together to share, express and read about topics that will soon concern the city’s citizens, respectively.

That’s not all. Gathering the correct amount of data is imperative. “Strategies should focus on bounded scenarios,” argues a May 2015 TechCrunch article, “The Internet of (Some) Things,” “where a small collection of intelligent or connected devices can solve old problems in news ways or solve brand-new problems.” That is to say, companies — and artists — should target data collection efforts to find solutions and be productive, easing the concerns expressed in “Murmur Study,” instead of collecting endless amounts of data.

Gathering the appropriate amount of data and using it productively points to TechCrunch’s logical conclusion: “The solution lies not in the internet of everything, but rather the internet of some things.” Despite the content and quantity of information collected, what can be agreed upon is that the Internet of Things — or some things — will radically upend life and art as we know it.

Programmer and Writer | | @amymhaddad |

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