Thesis presentation transcript

Hi! my name is Viola Leqi He, welcome to my thesis presentation.

So I was born in 1996 in Shanghai, China, right here, in this area. This was me, spending a lot of my excited baby hours, running around, exploring my neighborhood. In fact, up until leaving for the US when I was 18, my life has been within this 20 mile radius. We moved three times, but never out of bound from this little map. My mom works right there, all my friends live nearby, my schools, my ping pong coach, my percussion band, all here, in this neighborhood. And now as I spend most of my time in digital spaces, which are highly centralized and surveilled, I start to think back on being in a “neighborhood”, depending on the physical proximity and loose connections, scattering nodes in a small network, and adopting it as a digital communication framework.

…which leads us to my thesis, How about talking to neighbors, a research project about protocols and communications, and a technical experiment through creating with small-scale wireless protocols that are independent to large infrastructures as a form of radical resistance. This project searches for a techno-future for surveillance resistance by using small technologies within small networks.

Part One, all my internet friends.

The year when I was born, my family also had our first computer with a dial-up service. I grew up with the internet, quite literally, and let me tell you it was the glorious age of early internet. I connected with so many people— strangers — on fan sites, forums, and other digital communities. I was not just a “user”, but a participant and moderator. Using these premature platforms that afforded potentiality in using and changing through interactions was how I informed a huge part of my identity.

I try to understand this techno-nostalgia, which I often make works about. What is it about the older interfaces, systems, communications methods that makes us always want to look back, that makes us feel like it was better back then?

In her beautifully written book the Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym wrote: Sometimes nostalgia is not directed toward the past, but rather sideways… In a broader sense, nostalgia is rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. While romanticized nostalgia can be weaponized by state apparatus, the “good old days” as a propaganda narrative, it can also be a powerful resistance force against the false connotation of unrepeatable and irreversible time. The nostalgic experience can go any direction, constructing its artifact is almost like finding a utopia. 

I actually think Utopia is a good analogy, as they often operate in a small town model, which is exactly what my early online communities felt like. This image shows the map of Sea Ranch, an unincorporated community north of San Francisco, one of the most vital architectural experiments in communal, ecological living in 20th century America. Though like many other utopian communities, it ended in decline due to unstable infrastructure, it continues to inspire in thinking about harmonious co-living among small groups of people. 

Unlike suburban experiments, contemporary urban-living can also provide inspirations with small network topologies, but focusing more on their relationships to the larger infrastructure at play. Shenzhen is a good example. It’s a Chinese city in rapid expansion with a growing tech industry. To adjust to its development speed, Shenzhen left behind many unique “villages within the city” that houses 60% of their population, believing that these small structures are better suited at taking care of communities than the larger infrastructure of the city, while still acting as a functional, integral part of the city itself.

Well, this is not an urban planning program, let’s talk about digital technology.

Part two, small tech for a small future

I first learned about networks and wireless connections at ITP in a class called Connected Devices and Networked Interaction, where we started with Bluetooth and ended with wifi. Everything always ends up on the internet, which as we all know, has now become the extension of control. The data we generate is forever stored in huge data centers in Arizona, or some other remote places, consuming billions of dollars and earth’s energy. While Big tech, the centralized carriers of online access, has dominated our digital existence, I think, sometimes, it’s good to find some smaller tech to rely on for our small networks.

This is where the two parts intertwine. I want to design something with small networks in mind, my friends, my minority groups, older folks abandoned by new technology, communities that need a safe communication portal. And instead of making chrome extensions, or tools that intend to obfuscate data, I want to start from scratch, to investigate in protocols not interfaces, creating with small technologies, which I define as: protocols that don’t rely on, or are sideways from, often heavily surveilled *mass superstructures – By which I mean, the internet.

I was very inspired by the creativity of youth in revolt, particularly, Hong Kong protestors who used Airdrop to spread information while protecting their anonymity. Well, airdrop has its limitation, for starters, you gotta have an iPhone, but this idea of relying on physical proximities for data transmission can be applied to other technologies.

So I fell into a dark hole of Internet of Things, or IoT protocols. I first made a morse-code transceiver with Digi XBee modules, but the range was only about 6 meters, and it was expensive!! 23 dollars on Adafruit. Then I made the same transceiver with LoRa, stands for Long Range, ideally should be able to go as far as 10 km. And it’s so much cheaper!! Only 10 dollars on Adafruit. There’re some cool correlations to be drawn about IoT technology and the states of neighboring relationships, like how much those small sporadic data resembles our loose social connections with our neighbors.

From there, I designed Whisper phone, a DIY, battery-operated communication device using LoRa. A Whisper Phone sends simple text messages to one or multiple devices from as far as 10km away! Although in testing on this floor it only went a couple hundred meters, but it’s not bad. I designed, milled, and assembled this board by myself. LoRa technology is relatively new, but I still used it as a “small technology” example because of how not scalable it is. It is mostly intended to be used in IoT applications, for example, sending environmental data once every hour. 

LoRa technology is relatively new, but I still used it as a “small technology” example because of how not scalable it is. It is mostly intended to be used in IoT applications, for example, sending environmental data once every hour. 

While making this I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents who live alone in Shanghai, currently in lockdown, and that if they had an emergency, calling my mom or me wouldn’t help, but instead they needed to inform the people near them, their neighbors who then can connect them to whatever system that they have access to, and this device would be of great help. I’d like continue working on it, develop a simple language system for it, and add more nodes into the network.

Part three, how about talking to neighbors

What does neighborhood mean to us now? Chinese anthropologist Xiang Biao believes that the disappearance of the “nearby” is a curse of modernism. With digital technology, we’re easily connected to the rest of the world, and therefore the layers of spaces in between “home sphere” and “global sphere” starts to peel away. The in between layers, these third spaces, desaturated by digitization, is not just about physical closeness. “neighborhood” contains variety, adaptability, potentiality, versatility. In urban living, neighborhoods can be abstract, regarded as a way of seeing and connecting with infinite meanings.

For example, eruv is a wire boundary which symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, allowing activities which are normally prohibited during Shabbat, the day of rest. The thin wire boundary marks the borders of imagined courtyards, visualizing complex human communities sharing and inhabiting in urban spaces.

We kind of live in a dystopian world right now. A lot of what informed my last year at ITP has been living under COVID, being in New York during the height of the pandemic, and having my family stranded in Shanghai in strict lockdown, trading goods with their neighbors because of shortage of food. I think a lot about how the systems and infrastructures have failed us, and how much of our lives and safeties depending on our connection with people, in our own bubbles.

Despite being from a big city, I’ve always felt like a small town kid, being aware more of my immediate surroundings than what’s out there; which I think partly summarized what neighborhoods mean to me. A space that feels safe, but also curious to explore. A community to give back to. A place of returning.

Readings & References

My first impressions of web3 – Moxie Marlinspike

The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs 

The Futhre of Nostalgia – Svetlana Boym

The Tyranny of Structurelessness – Jo Freeman

The Web We Lost – Anil Das

Self as Method – Biao Xiang, Qi Wu

Speculative Everything – Fiona Raby, Anthony Dunne

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