Jo Scott created Wanders in the (wild) smart city, a sound walk through central Manchester, exploring the networked digital processes that are happening all around us, through technologies which are embedded in the urban environment, but which often remain invisible to us.
When I started creating a sound walk which aimed to reveal the presence and processes of smart technologies in Manchester city centre, in the UK, I wasn’t fully aware of the challenges I faced.
Those challenges became more evident as I gazed at sealed yellow boxes on the sides of roads, possibly containing cameras, and craned my neck upwards to look at ‘nests’ of sensors high up on lamp-posts above the street, wondering what data they were collecting and where this data was going, as I walked for hours through the city looking for physical evidence of the embedded technologies that I knew were there… somewhere.
Manchester is a smart city – indeed it markets itself in that way – focusing on an ‘innovation corridor’ just south of the city centre as ‘a test-bed for a number of Smart Cities projects that use technology to improve the city’s transport, health, environment and energy’ (Oxford Road Corridor, 2022). Manchester City Council also partnered with Cisco from 2016-2018 on the ‘City Verve’ project, which used ‘Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to help Manchester City Council improve the way it designs and delivers services for the people who visit, live or work in Manchester’ (Royal Academy of Engineering, n.d.).
As this indicates and as Vincent Mosco (2019) states, smart cities are about ‘embedding monitoring and data-gathering technology into roads, sidewalks, buildings, streets and their lighting, as well as throughout homes, schools and workplaces’. Mosco points out that ‘wherever they are located, these sensors form a network of things that accumulates vast amounts of data’ (P.60). In addition, partnerships with technology companies mean that these companies are able to move ‘from their dominant positions in cyberspace platforms to the physical places that make up smart city platforms to gather information on residents, workers and visitors, and use the data to improve their own digital platforms and also sell it to third parties’ (P.36).
Though Mosco acknowledges that concerns about surveillance in the digital era are not new, the smart city, he says, ‘marks a significant leap from capturing online activities, which typically requires user consent. […] Even this form of consent disappears when information is gathered as people walk down sidewalks, drive through streets, park their cars, shop, work, play or simply sit on a park bench’. As a final stinging salvo to urban walking artists, he states that ‘the smart city threatens to reduce the flaneur or passionate urban observer […] to little more than a marketable data point’ (p.219).
Unfortunately, none of this conceptual knowledge about the growth of smart technologies, their undoubted presence in Manchester, and my concerns about what data such technologies are gathering about citizens, was really helping me in making this walk. This is because the majority of what that smart tech is and what it is doing is hidden – it is not evident in the physical environment and the data it is capturing is not revealed or made visible to us. There was a gulf between my understanding and awareness of such technologies in Manchester and my ability, through the creation of a sound walk, to open those up to participants.
How do you guide people on a walk to reveal technologies you effectively cannot see and whose workings are hidden? How do you open up what something is and what it is doing if you’re not even sure where it is?
A response came in reading Nigel Thrift’s (2014) account of the smart city, with sensors and data gathering capacities embedded into its built environment, as gaining sentience – the ability to feel and respond to those feelings. Thrift also references ‘data spirits’ or ‘sprites’ as a way of conceiving of the smart city processes happening around us, suggesting that ‘practices like divination are more likely to be found when there is so much data that rational techniques alone are unable to provide reliable guidance’ (p.12-13).
These more playful and poetic perspectives of the smart city linked with my work as a live media performer, where I use song in looped refrains as part of the mixes I create. What if I could sing the data spirits into visibility and ‘raise’ them in our consciousness through song? What if, rather than a walk that guides participants through city spaces in order to show and reveal things, I created a walk that could function as a kind of treasure hunt?
Chasing digital spirits down streets where underground cables beneath our feet set those spirits dancing ahead…Taking a route towards an underground data centre whose presence remains uncertain, but whose cooling systems we can hear buzzing around our heads… Engaging with a set of erratic and playful movements through a new privately owned public square to find sound seeds buried there, which release songs to the smart city… Following a prompt to cross a road and really feel the presence of hoards of busy data spirits around us through their insistent song.
All of these creative tools for building the walk emerged directly from the challenges associated with the slippery presence and obfuscation associated with the smart city and its technologies. I still don’t know exactly where the sensors and cameras are in Manchester or what data they are collecting about me and other citizens, but through making this walk, I can feel the presence of those data spirits – I know they are there, I hear their songs.
Jo’s insight is the first in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2022 Awards talking about their work.
- Mosco, V. (2019). The Smart City in a Digital World. Bingley: Emerald Publishing.
- Oxford Road Corridor (2022). Digital and Smart Cities.
- Royal Academy of Engineering (n.d.). CityVerve Manchester: a platform of platforms for smart city data sharing.
- Thrift, N. (2014). The ‘sentient’ city and what it may portend. Big Data & Society. 1-21.