Urban Technology at University of Michigan Week -39

In the pandemic era it’s a special treat to see friends and colleagues in person, but when they bring you something as spectacular as the Dee Double Dub zine written by Marc Ngui (downloadable link here) there’s even more reason to celebrate. Marc’s zine is part of an exhibition in Detroit called Future Present that blends design, science, technology, and community. That’s a mix we can get down with!

I’m Bryan Boyer, Director of the Urban Technology degree at University of Michigan. This newsletter is about cities, technology, and design. While we launch the program, we’re detailing the process of working toward the day when we welcome our first students, now 39 weeks and counting. Thanks for reading.

♻️ Dee Double Dub

Flipping through the pages of Dee Double Dub by Marc Ngui

Marc’s zine imagines Detroit 200 years from now as an “urbiome” in Waawiyaataanong, the Anishinaabe name for this part of Earth. The pages illustrate how living patterns can be made sustainable by adopting a circular economy—one where waste is eliminated through reduction and reuse. But since this is Detroit, the story is about about culture, and specifically music. One of my favorite details is Marc’s imagining of a “bass destroyer” that could vibrate industrial waste apart into smaller, more easily reusable pieces. All while carrying a nice beat, obviously.

As a narrative format, zines are a useful way to think about the future of a city because it gives you the space you need to describe different systems and how they overlap and interconnect. It’s a great way to communicate a systems perspective. He doesn’t go into the details of exactly how mushroom-powered environmental remediation would work, for instance, and there are no statistics to back up the claims, but there’s a rich imagination of the possible and it’s communicated in a clear and engaging way. All the nitty gritty details can come next, but if we can’t dream we can’t mobilize.

Which reminds me, “Be able to make a great zine” should be on the long list of desired capabilities for the students who graduate with a degree in Urban Technology from the University of Michigan.

👁🚁 Oh, this wont be hacked immediately!

This week the internet is scratching their heads at Amazon Ring’s announcement of their plans to sell an indoor security drone. The device itself looks like a TV remote glued to a levitating fan. Or maybe like an exploding air filter? It’s a drone with a Ring security camera attached, which allows the device to patrol your home’s interior and provide visibility throughout.

The stated beginning of this idea was the frustration of Amazon’s customers that they have stationary, remotely-viewable cameras in their home, but those cameras have blindspots. So what if you could have a camera that is autonomous?! If you’re at the office when the rain starts and can’t remember if you closed the windows, let the drone check on it. That use case sounds pretty helpful actually, though building an internet connected drone camera to solve it feels akin to getting into a massive SUV to drive a block down the street. Alternative ways to solve the same need include: calling your spouse or roommate, texting a neighbor, putting a reminder to close the windows by your keys, or even automating the building’s windows.

Ring Away Home Cam

There are all sorts of thorny privacy issues to deal with if this goes forward. Don’t think it brings up many new issues, but it will certainly privacy questions already in play. Can the footage be requested by law enforcement, which has already been attempted for Alexa audio recordings? If so, are police enabled to retrieve pre-recorded video or can they also access live video? Can they control the drone and navigate the home? Can they access derivatives of the video stream, such as a digital map created by the drone to help it navigate inside? What are the limitations on the use of this data and if it’s accessed by anyone other than the owner, will the owner even be made aware?

Below are two images of my brother’s house, as seen by his Roomba autonomous vacuum. The left half of the image is a map of his house created shortly after getting the Roomba. Right is the same map redrawn some weeks later, now showing a more refined perimeter of the rooms.

Either my brother lives in a very architecturally avant-garde home, or the Roomba’s understanding of the space is limited (hint: it’s the latter). This image tells us a couple things. First, Roomba knows your house better than any realtor does. With your help to put names on the map, the vacuum knows how many bedrooms and bathrooms, and it can probably also make inferences about how utilized those rooms are based on the amount of dirt and cruft it collects. Roomba has already announced their plans to sell this data. The nefarious (or just plain disappointing) uses are easy to imagine.

Second, the pair of these maps gives us a hint about the way that sensors like those embedded in the Roomba allow smart devices to build an understanding of the world over time. Roomba’s map of my brother’s house gets better with each cleaning. After some years, will it know to expect the Christmas tree to show up and where it will be located? Does it anticipate a pile of my niece’s soccer gear on weekdays? If so, what does it do with that data, the data that tells a more precise picture about the people who live here? And to whom does it tell those stories? Roomba is already selling info to advertisers, almost certainly, but how could the same data be put to use by the occupants of the home? If you had access to the data, how would you visualize it? What would you code?

That’s how we come back to the Ring Away Home Cam. If we think past the problems (of which there are many) what can we do with a flying indoor camera that is enabling to the occupants of the home, first and foremost, without necessarily producing any collateral opportunities to sell more advertisements? Can it use the camera and computer vision to index your books and remind you on which shelf you stashed a copy of Rob Goodspeed’s, Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures? Can it entertain your cat with a built in laser pointer? Could it water your plants? Could it annoy your elderly family members until they take their pills, as the London-based design studio Superflux have imagined?

You wont be able to do any of those things with the Ring Away Home Cam unless it’s an open system or someone figures out how to hack it. If it’s not open and/or hackable, when Ring Away Home Cam eventually goes the way of Amazon’s Dash Buttons (i.e. unceremoniously discontinued), all of those devices will be useless and destined for the landfill. Or if we’re lucky, a Bass Destroyer! 🎸🔊♻️

Imagine 100 years ago if the automotive revolution that happened in America—that started right here in Detroit, in fact—involved vehicles that could only be repaired and modified by the companies that created them. Imagine car culture without tinkering and maintaining; imagine it without a right to repair! Cars would almost certainly have been less of a cultural force in this country. No hotrods or drag races, no lowriders or art cars. (Frankly, cars probably would have also been slower to catch on too, which would have been one positive outcome.)

Closed technologies are only a means to an end, but open technologies are a starting point for indeterminate future economic, social, and political happenings. Closed technologies are extensions of power. Open technologies are empowerment. When you see the word “Technology” in “Urban Technology at University of Michigan,” please know that we’re far more interested in open technologies than closed ones, and we hope you will be too.


👩‍💻The gender history of COBOL, an early programming language

🦺Formerly incarcerated programmers build an alternative to 911 - would love to have been a fly on the wall during their design sessions

📍Taubman College alum Frank Romo is mapping Black Lives Matters protests, artwork, and contested statues

🎭COVID public health posters that remind us government also produces beauty

🟡Tokyo cityscapes drawn using only stationery store dot stickers

This week: John and Cezanne delivered a beautiful zine and chat. Upali Nanda gave us a shoutout at Ann Arbor SPARK. Platforms and power with Kevin Webb. Privacy and bodies in Detroit with Rebecca Smith. Rob offered counsel on next steps for our curriculum development work. We got a new webpage up that’s feeling more accessible than the first one. Memos were drafted. Sample schedules were created, revised, and then revised again. Usman Haque phoned in from another timezone to remind us that power is a primary ‘material.' 🏃‍♂️

P.S. OK but seriously, what would you use the flying security camera thing for? Wrong answers only.