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Geoff Manaugh
is In Wild Air

Geoff Manaugh is the author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City (2016), optioned for television by CBS Studios, as well as the long-running website BLDGBLOG. He has taught graduate design studios at Columbia University and lectured around the world, including the Australian National Architecture Conference, the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, the Bartlett School of Architecture, and the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles.
Intensely committed to unique collaborations against all odds, Jessica acknowledges that the deepest beauty comes from the mysteries discovered through connection.


Roomba Surveillance

In the emerging menagerie of domestic machines we often refer to as the Internet of Things, the Roomba robot vacuum is an oft-seen presence. Roombas are charismatic circular robots programmed to follow algorithmically defined routes through the interiors of homes and offices, sucking up dust and dirt as they go. Every home and office is different, however, which means that every Roomba also follows a slightly different path.

As The New York Times reported recently, however, all along Roombas have been digitally mapping the interiors that they clean—and this spatial information might now be sold to interested third parties. “Your Roomba may be vacuuming up more than you think,” The New York Times wrote.

While this might not seem particularly threatening—it is, after all, just the locations of walls, rugs, couches, and kitchen tables—these maps of our everyday environments could easily be misused by burglars, law enforcement officials, and even data-savvy home goods companies hoping to sell us new furniture for that empty space in the living room.

It’s worth noting that the CEO of iRobot—the technology firm behind the Roomba—quickly denied these claims, but the company’s own terms of service appear to permit such transactions. We’ll soon find out if our mechanical servants are actually spying on us.


Rose Ferraby

In a paper called Geophysics: creativity and the archaeological imagination, Rose Ferraby, a researcher in Classics at the University of Cambridge, describes how advanced imaging technologies can affect how humans imagine their relationship with the underground.

Ferraby draws particular attention to the field of geophysics, whereby the magnetic presence of buried architectural ruins or ancient disturbances in soil chemistry can still be detected, made visible, and brought into our own 21st-century understanding of what lies hidden in the ground beneath us. Ferraby goes on to suggest that artists can—and should—engage with these sorts of representations, emphasizing that “archaeology” is not just an academic discipline but an important and evocative metaphor for all of us in helping to locate ourselves in the contemporary world.

“For those who understand the language of geophysics,” Ferraby writes, “the work is a process of coaxing out stories; of experimenting with possibilities and meaning.”


Sackville A Town Haunted by Radio

The remote northern village of Sackville, Canada, has played host for the past seventy years to a cluster of radio-transmission towers. Filmmaker Amanda Dawn Christie wanted to know how these monumental pieces of communications infrastructure have affected the lives of local residents, so she produced a 2016 documentary called Spectres of Shortwave.

In the process of making the documentary, Christie found that the towers’ radio transmissions permeated nearly every aspect of local life; “the transmission site affected the appliances, homes and even dreams of local residents,” the CBC reports. Kitchen sinks became accidental antennas, picking up voices from elsewhere in a town haunted by the electromagnetic spectrum.

Christie recorded “stories about the broadcasts, people hearing radio coming out of their fridge, kids coming home from school and being alone and being afraid that there was someone in the house because it sounded like someone was talking in the basement… People would be convinced that they’d dream in other languages and then call up the technicians to find out how that happened.”


Big Glass Microphone

The San Francisco-based digital cartographers at a firm called Stamen recently explored the fact that everyday communications infrastructure, such as buried fiber-optic cables, has remarkable observational capabilities. To prove their point, they worked with California’s Stanford University on a project called Big Glass Microphone to reveal how unexpected sources of information are being continuously captured by the school’s underground telecommunication network.

Fiber optic cables, it turns out, are constantly bombarded by background noise created by everything from earthquakes to passing delivery trucks. After compensating for and cleverly eliminating unwanted sources of stimulation, Stamen has shown that these buried networks act as an inadvertent microphone—a “Big Glass Microphone”—effectively spying on local events.

“Infrastructure is listening to us,” Stamen managing partner Jon Christensen explained to The Mercury News, “but how much do we want our infrastructure to be monitoring us at the same time that we’re monitoring it?”


The Language of Ice

Writing for The Paris Review, Marissa Grunes explains that early Antarctic expeditions lacked not just a vocabulary but even a conceptual basis for understanding the brutal frozen landscape they encountered.

Unable to describe the ice for what it was, she suggests, explorers saw mountains and islands, a “romantic sublime” amidst these labyrinthine lumps of ice so fundamentally different from the landscape features of Europe. “Architectural fantasies,” she writes, “also gave legible shape to these icy masses.” Struggling to comprehend or model what they were seeing, ship captains and their on-board scientists described drifting icebergs as castles, cathedrals, even ruined towns. In the process, terra australis became terra australis incognita, Grunes suggests, a world for which they had no pre-existing ideas.

Like mistaking robots for animals or radio signals for our own thoughts, European explorers gazed dumbly at vast walls of ice—or were they cliffs?—unsure of how to engage with the forms of a new world they could not have anticipated.


“The future of military robotics looks like a nature documentary"

In a headline I will forever regret not writing myself, Gregory C. Allen suggested that “the future of military robotics looks like a nature documentary”. As Allen goes on to explain, U.S. military technology is currently being designed to flock, swarm, herd, and disappear; it will do so semi-autonomously, perhaps even entirely self-controlled, to the extent that witnessing future military operations will be indistinguishable from watching a documentary about non-human species.

“Every type of animal, whether insect, fish, bird, or mammal,” Allen writes, “has a suite of sensors (eyes, ears, noses), tools for moving and interacting with its environment (arms, beaks, wings, fins), and a high-speed data processing and decision-making center (brains).” Today, he suggests, military engineers are busy redesigning their weapons and surveillance gear to mimic theses same wild characteristics.

While, on one level, this is evidence of a genuine conceptual breakthrough in how technicians interact with computational devices, it is also a sobering—even terrifying—glimpse of where war is headed. People under siege will soon look to the horizon with hope, only to see gathering flocks of autonomous aerial weaponry, modeled after exotic birds, swelling against the clouds for their final attack.