The Spatial Politics of Geofencing

[Image: From Code of Conscience.]

Another project I meant to write about ages ago is Code of Conscience, developed by AKQA. It is “an open source software update that restricts the use of heavy-duty vehicles in protected land areas,” or what they call “a cyber shield around natural reserves.”

The basic idea is to install geofencing limits on heavy construction and logging equipment, based on “data from the United Nations’ World Database on Protected Areas, constantly updated by NGOs, governments and local communities. Using vehicle on-board GPS, the code detects when a protected area has been breached. When a machine enters a protected area, the system automatically restricts its use.”

There’s a bit more to read about the project over at AKQA, including the group’s strategy for getting the software out to global construction firms, from John Deere to Caterpillar, but one of the most interesting points of conversation for me here is simply the very idea of geofencing used as a political solution for problems that seem to exceed the capabilities of legislation. And, of course, how geofencing could be used to develop positive new tools for landscape conservation—as we see here—or much darker, nefarious techniques for political domination in the near-future.

You can easily imagine, for example, a dystopian scenario in which geofenced medical prostheses cease to operate when they cross an invisible GPS boundary into an unserviced region—perhaps as a way to protect the host company from the illegal installation of black-market, security-compromised firmware updates, but with immediate and perhaps fatal health effects on the user. Or, say, regions of a metropolis—perhaps near centers of governance or military installations—where civilian vehicles or unregistered photographic equipment of a particular resolution can no longer physically function.

Just as easily, you could imagine something like the spatial opposite of Code of Conscience, where, for example, future GPS-tagged hunting rifles only work when they are located inside permitted wilderness areas. The instant you step outside the field or forest, your gun goes dead.

In any case, you could no doubt write an entire book of short stories that consist only and entirely of such scenarios—the geofenced future of legal probation and house-arrest, for example, or dating apps that only work inside particular rooms or buildings. But one of of the most interesting things about Code of Conscience is simply how it attempts to imagine geofencing as a positive political tool, a new technique for landscape and cultural preservation both, and how the project thus joins a larger, ongoing conversation today about political geography seen through a new, technical lens.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Electromagnetic Fortification of the Suburbs and Geofencing and Investigatory Watersheds.)

Tactical Geography

[Image: A map of the Battle of Villmanstrand (1741), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

A vast collection of old military maps has been made available online through the UK’s Royal Collection Trust, taken from the collection of King George III, thanks to the exhaustive work of Yolande Hodson. While the troop positions and tactical maneuvers they document are fascinating, the maps are also a spatial survey of building types, terrains, and urban plans, including star forts, walled villages, protected natural landscape features, from bays to river valleys, and other strategic environments.

As the blog Ian Visits explains, “Maps were an important part of George’s early life and education, and he built up a huge collection of more than 55,000 topographical, maritime and military prints, drawings, maps and charts. Upon the King’s death, his son, George IV, gave his father’s collections of topographical views and maritime charts to the British Museum (now in the British Library), but retained the military plans due to their strategic value and his own keen interest in the tactics of warfare.” The new website apparently documents a mere 3,000 of those documents.

The whole thing is searchable by conflict, which means that you can look specifically for maps related to, say, the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-59, including the Siege of Cremona (1648)—seen below—or, say, the Russo-Swedish War of 1741-43, which included the Battle of Villmanstrand (1741), the image that opens this post.

[Image: A map of the Siege of Cremona (1648), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

Perhaps even better, however, you can also click on maps by region, from North America to India to, of course, all over Europe and the Caribbean. This includes, among the thousands of examples, an incredible map from the American Revolution depicting New York City in all of its topographic glory.

[Image: Long Island, New York and Staten Island (1776), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

Indeed, as Ian Visits notes, “Highlights of the collection include two-metre-wide maps of the American War of Independence. These vast maps were probably hung on purpose-made mahogany stands in Buckingham House, enabling the King to follow the steady erosion of his hold on the American colonies.”

The collection is spectacular. The Siege of Memel (1757). The Siege of Olmütz (1758). A view of Gotha (1567). The Siege of Prague (1757). I could go on and on. The Plan of Pilau (1757). The Siege of Bangalore (1791)…

Check out the guide to the online catalog, then dive in.

(Vaguely related: Feral Cities, Indirect Streets, and Soft Fortification.)

Class Action

[Image: Still from the end of Garbage, Gangsters and Greed.]

I have a long new feature up at The Guardian this weekend that tells the story of an English teacher at Middletown High School, in upstate New York, named Fred Isseks. In the early 1990s, Isseks was given the task of instructing teenage students at the school in how to use a bunch of new video cameras the school had acquired.

To the school’s surprise—and to some administrators’ long-term political frustration—Isseks’s students quickly formed an investigative journalism unit, taking on local politicians and the New York Mafia, and producing a feature-length documentary about the illegal dumping of toxic waste in local landfills.

The resulting film, called Garbage, Gangsters and Greed, made it as far as the Clinton White House, helped turn public opinion against the landfills, leading to their closure, and helped to reinvigorate official New York State hearings, run by Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey, on the subject of organized crime families and the illegal hauling of toxic waste.

The story of the students is pretty incredible—involving death threats, threats of arrest, trespassing onto contaminated land, and more—and I was thrilled to be able to meet or speak with several of them, even to tour the old high school with Fred Isseks in tow. It is not an exaggeration to say that Isseks’s class changed the direction of those students’ lives, as many now work in environmental law or film and television. (One former student, Rachel Raimist, even has a media center named after her at the University of Minnesota.)

The whole thing really pivots on Isseks’s belief that teenagers need to be given projects of true meaning and significance, not simply assigned more tests to take. Indeed, Isseks himself later went on—while still teaching at the high school but after a final cut of the landfill documentary had been completed—to earn a Ph.D. at the European Graduate School, studying under Wolfgang Schirmacher.

His thesis would later be published under the name Media Courage: Impossible Pedagogy in an Artificial Community, and it includes a chapter that, as I describe it in the Guardian piece, advocates for “the philosophical potential of the American high school system. [Isseks’s] belief that teenagers need to be given work with genuine meaning and consequence in the world would shape his entire teaching career and, in the process, change his students’ lives.”

Of course, the rabbit hole of Mob connections to toxic waste in the United States is bottomless, and the true consequences of illegal disposal—particularly, the long-term medical and environmental effects—are yet to be fully accounted for.

I will undoubtedly come back to this topic, but, for now, check out the Guardian piece online (or in this weekend’s print edition), watch the students’ film in its entirety over at YouTube, and click through to Fred Isseks’s blog, where I first read about all of this. His long post putting the landfills into a deeper historical and geological context is superb.

(A brief note from the small-world files: my awareness of Fred Isseks came entirely through a friendly tip from my friend, Ed Keller, who had read an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG called “Terrestrial Warfare, Drowned Lands.” The “Drowned Lands” are not only the area of New York State where Ed Keller lives, but are the same region where the toxic landfills explored by Isseks and his students are all located. I owe a huge thanks to Ed for the heads up!)

Geoarchitecture

[Image: “Dolmen du Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

I’ve been enjoying looking at these photos of ancient dolmens in the French countryside, taken by Eugène Trutat, after reading about them as part of a forthcoming exhibition here in L.A. called Rude Forms Among Us.

[Image: “Dolmen de Cap del Pouech,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

“Over a span of several decades, the 19th-century photographer Eugène Trutat documented the Dolmen de Vaour,” the show’s curator, architect Anna Neimark, writes. “Three stones form the perimeter of a nearly rectangular interior; they are called orthostates. One orthostate is long, presenting a sort-of wall, while the other two are chunky and can be read as truncated columns. All three are set in from the perimeter, allowing a rather peculiar capstone to appear to float above them.”

Geology rearranged becomes architecture; the built environment is just the surface of the Earth, spatially amplified.

[Image: “Dolmen de Brillant, Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

There is an opening reception and event with Neimark tomorrow night—Friday, January 31, at 7pm—for those of you near Los Angeles.

A Process Rather Like Launching A Ship

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

I should have posted this a million years ago, but there was an interesting story last month in the Washington Post about a Canadian island being shut off from the national grid, leaving anyone there who has yet to leave almost literally stranded in the dark.

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

“On Dec. 31, the government will cut off all services to the community,” we read, “including electricity, snow removal and ferry service. Residents may keep their homes but will have to use them off-grid.”

One couple, interviewed by the paper, has chosen to stay. They have “spent more than $38,000 on solar panels, generators and other items so they can live off-grid. They’ve stockpiled goods and completed first-aid training.”

A Canadian Gothic remake of The Shining comes to mind. In fact, potential fictional storylines about winter caretakers on remote islands—whether they be science fiction or horror, about international espionage or even a medical thriller—are seemingly infinite.

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

As the article also explains, resettlement programs such as this—where the Canadian government pays for residents to move away from particularly remote, difficult-to-service areas—have “a long and controversial history in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

When the former British dominion joined Canada in 1949, Premier Joey Smallwood struggled to provide services to the 1,200 outposts that dotted the coast. In 1954, he started the first of several centralization programs that gave cash to households from villages with “no great future” to move to government-selected “growth centers.” From 1954 to 1975, roughly 28,000 people from nearly 300 remote outposts were uprooted and resettled, many of them dragging or floating their houses to their new communities.

It’s this last line—“many of them dragging or floating their houses to their new communities”—that leads to the images you see here, screen-grabs taken from a 1961 film called Moving House. “Here,” the narrator says, “moving house means just that… a process rather like launching a ship.”

[Images: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

The full film is embedded over at the Washington Post.

Secret Telephone Buildings

“In harmony with its residential location,” we read in a paper called “Radio Relay and Other Special Buildings,” originally published in the Spring 1950 issue of Bell Telephone Magazine, “this building serves nevertheless as a voice-frequency repeater and coaxial main station.” An empty suburban house, inhabited only by machines and spectral voices.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Transformer Houses.)

Norwegian Dream Tunnels

Almost exactly five years ago, I was in the Norwegian town of Tromsø to speak at a conference called “Future North,” part of the annual Arctic Frontiers event.

One of the most interesting parts of my visit—and I do not say this to downplay the conference, but to indicate my enthusiasm for infrastructure—was this odd bit of traffic design: to get back and forth from Tromsø to its local airport by car, you have to pass through a sprawling underground tunnel network, complete with at least one subterranean roundabout carved into the roots of the mountain, a journey that, for someone newly arrived and jet-lagged like myself, seemed surreally endless (it probably took three minutes).

At the end of the journey, though, it gets stranger: you pop out of the ground floor of an otherwise nondescript building and turn directly onto a normal, open-air town road, passing through an opening that looks like an entrance to an underground parking garage.

These images, taken from Google Street View, show that building from the Tromsø side, peering into the mountain depths within. (Here is the tunnel entrance on Google Maps.)

While we’re on the subject of Norwegian tunnels, however, it would be a mistake not to mention the Lærdal Tunnel, allegedly “the longest road tunnel in the world.”

The tunnel is so long that, to address potential adverse effects on human neurology, it includes artificial caverns lit to invoke the Homeric glow of dawn.

[Image: The Lærdal Tunnel, photo by Patrick Reijnders, via Wikipedia.]

From Wikipedia:

The design of the tunnel takes into consideration the mental strain on drivers, so the tunnel is divided into four sections, separated by three large mountain caves at 6-kilometre (3.7 mi) intervals. While the main tunnel has white lights, the caves have blue lighting with yellow lights at the fringes to give an impression of sunrise. The caves are meant to break the routine, providing a refreshing view and allowing drivers to take a short rest. The caverns are also used as turnaround points and for break areas to help lift claustrophobia during a 20-minute drive through the tunnel. In the tunnel, there is a sign on every kilometer indicating how many kilometers have already been covered, and also how many kilometers there are still to go. To keep drivers from being inattentive or falling asleep, each lane is supplied with a loud rumble strip towards the centre.

As another site mentions, “Since 1990, research has been carried out to study driver behavior in long road tunnels.” Of course, one wonders how extreme this research has gotten, perhaps suggesting a new story by Nick Arvin or J.G. Ballard. (The construction of the tunnel is also fascinating, involving lasers, GPS satellites, and computer-controlled drilling platforms.)

Tunnels that mimic sunrise, built to accommodate human neurology using artificial stars as reference points, emerging from the ground-floors of buildings in coastal towns.

Dream tunnels, perhaps just one floor beneath by your apartment, leading deep into the mountains beyond.

(If you just can’t get enough Norwegian road tunnels, check out Kiln, previously on BLDGBLOG.)

Light in the Time of a Digital Sun

[Image: “Gnomo” by Jonathan Enns.]

There’s a cool project in the most recent issue of Site Magazine, by Jonathan Enns, an architectural designer and professor at the University of Waterloo.

In a short text written for Site, Enns describes the project as a proposal for a 12-meter-tall solar clock, a monolithic sandstone pillar whose sculpted form would combine ancient methods of timekeeping with digital fabrication.

“The resulting parametric script,” Enns writes, “which begins with the hourly solar location data and subtracts a channel of sandstone from the column for each hour, produces a complex Swiss cheese of voids that are unique to the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the design site.”

[Image: “Gnomo” by Jonathan Enns.]

It would be incredibly interesting to see this approach applied to blocks of sandstone of varying heights, depths, and dimensions, producing what I imagine might be complex, vertebral stacks of perforation and shadow, alternately as broad and imposing as medieval watch towers or as diminutive and fragile as flutes of ornament hidden on the corners of existing buildings.

As the chronographic marks surrounding the pillar also seem to indicate, the graphic possibilities for telling time with this are presumably endless—colors, patterns, arcs, loops, textures, materials.

For now, the newest issue of Site is not online, but click through to Enns’s own portfolio for a bit more.

(Earlier, this post wrongly claimed that the University of Waterloo is in Toronto; it is not. It is nearly an hour west of Toronto.)

Brainglass

Given the right geological circumstances, brains can become glass. During the 1st-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, for example, one fleeing victim’s brain was allegedly vitrified, its soft, thinking tissues transformed into “small, glassy black fragments that were just attached inside the skull,” the Washington Post reports, like shards of a broken window.

[Image: Brainglass, via the Washington Post.]

These reflective fragments—little black mirrors—“contained proteins common in brain tissue, researchers found, and had undergone vitrification and transformed into glass.” That made this “the first time brains from any human or animal have been found fossilized as glass.” This, of course, could be because we haven’t been looking: what other deposits of obsidian lying around on the Earth’s surface are actually fossilized animal brains? Vitrified neurology.

In any case, I was reminded of an exhibition last summer at the Getty Villa here in Los Angeles called Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri. Among the artifacts on display were these incredible “carbonized papyri,” or scrolls—ancient books—that had been turned into seemingly useless lumps of charcoal.

[Image: Carbonized papyrii on display at Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

The amazing thing was that, by using advanced medical imaging equipment to peer inside the lumps, researchers discovered that these previously illegible objects could be made readable again, virtually unrolled using X-ray tomography and character-recognition algorithms, to reconstruct the scrolls’ lost content. They were “able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact.”

To be honest, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen—the “noninvasive digital restoration of ancient texts… hidden inside artifacts.” Otherwise mute objects given technical legibility. (A similar technique inspired one of the greatest New York Times headlines of the past few years: “Scanning an Ancient Biblical Text That Humans Fear to Open,” combining, at a stroke, H.P. Lovecraft, X-ray imaging technology, and possible Christian apocrypha.)

Stepping away from realistic technical applications for just a moment into the world of pure science fiction, it is fascinating to imagine a team of future researchers using 21st-century medical imaging techniques to scan, Jurassic Park-style, for lost thoughts lodged inside pieces of obsidian, black glass fossils of animal brain tissue, almost like the reader of unicorn skulls in Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The idea that some of the rocks around us might, in fact, be glass brains—brainglass, a new mineral—neurological apocrypha awaiting decipherment, suggests a thousand new novels and storylines. Neurogeonomicon.

Black and ancient brains dreaming inside what humans mistook for geology.

Auditory Hallucinations from Offworld Megafarms

Although I’m only slowly coming around to the music itself, it is hard not to be impressed by the level of narrative engineering that went into Luke Sanger’s 2019 album Onyx Pyramid.

The music, Sanger writes, is a kind of fictional soundtrack for a landscape of offworld megafarms, where a human skeleton crew has been reporting “auditory hallucinations” amplified by the effects of an artificial atmosphere. Audio scifi.

The combination of a worldwide shift to GM crops and rising global temperatures led to a series of global disasters, destroying many natural resources and causing a permanent environmental imbalance. Earth’s leaders make the choice to outsource all food production to off-world corporately owned farm planets, known as ‘flatlands’.

These giant artificial orbs contain vast crop fields and are operated robotically. A handful of human ‘farmers’ are required to oversee operations and perform maintenance tasks. Although the environmental conditions are engineered to mimic 21st century Earth, there is no wildlife. Farmers have been reporting strange experiences of auditory hallucinations, nicknamed ‘flatland frequencies’, these are most likely a byproduct of the chemically engineered atmosphere combined with extreme isolation.

You can buy or stream the full album over at Bandcamp.