Paris


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Flyers left under windshield-wipers for the car’s owner. This practice assumes a relatively tight correlation between user and object (that is, leaving a flyer on a car is the same as handing it to someone) and a relatively small temporal lag (that a flyer left on a car will be received the same day or so).  Our automobiles as proxy for our selves—a metal body standing in not for our flesh-and-blood incarnations, but for us. The car becomes our body, the windshield wiper no different than a hand. 

In this way, the car is like a part of our data shadow. A data shadow is the mass of information that follows us around—bank records, social security information, voter records, tax returns, phone numbers, email addresses. It is the shorthand for a system too large to process people and which must instead process information. We are not authenticated—at the airport, at the bank, during a credit-card transaction—our data shadow is. The data shadow acts as proxy, and the system assumes a tight (or tight-enough) correlation between us and our data shadow that each may stand in for the other. The system reveals itself in its breakdowns: Minors are able to buy alcohol not because they are 21, but because they can manipulate their data shadow through borrowed or forged ID to say they are 21. The data, not the person, is authenticated. (And even our proxies have data shadows—the car has its VIN, license plate number, automated toll boxes. Or are our proxies’ data shadows a part of our own?)

The more central and integral things become in our day-to-day lives the easier they are able to act as our proxies: murder suspects are exonerated by their MetroCards or their cellphones. How long before these proxy assumptions are hacked, and a bank robber, say, is caught on security camera in Manhattan at the same time his cell phone and MetroCard place him in the Bronx? When do proxies cease to be trustworthy?

Or more directly, what qualities keep proxies trustworthy? Security researchers have proposed all manner of proxy tests, from the “security questions” we have to jump through to get at our bank accounts to the PINs that have been with us since the checking card reared its plastic head. But these rely on the user providing a second set of information—a second key—to authenticate the first, which reduces abuse but does nothing to solve the root problem that information is itself a proxy. One of the more interesting proxy tests does not ask for information but instead asks decision-based questions: Would you do this or that? People can forget information, the system reasons, but they are unlikely to fundamentally change how they make decisions. 

As more and more proxy services converge in a single device—email and telephony on my iPhone, or library, dining, print/copy, and door-access services on my school ID—the value of that device increases. Will we soon realize über-devices—devices that integrate every proxy service, every data shadow link we need? This tightens the data shadow and strengthens its link to the shadow’s owner, but does nothing to solve the critical failing of a data shadow: regardless of how tightly it fits its owner, it is still separate from its owner. The flip of an über-device is a world of ultimate disposability, where we have no proxies and our data becomes a part of us. Might biometrics be the answer?

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Funereal architecture is hard to analyze without falling into cliché. (“Is this for the dead or for the living?”) So I’ll stick to what I know: The mini-mausoleum type was dominant in the two Parisian cemeteries I visited. This is very different from the typical American graveyard—is there such a thing?—but similar to the graves of the wealthy in older graveyards (such as family graves in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery) and similar to the graves in most of the big old New Orleans cemeteries. (In New Orleans I think the prevalence of type had more to do with placing graves above-ground and less to do with building mini-mausoleums. High water tables, and what not.) 

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Some flat graves, mostly newer. The changing texture of stone, from rough to smooth, is interesting: A shift enabled by technology, but perhaps also caused by it. As sedate as we might pretend funereal architecture is, it is also a type bound up in its own styles, its own currents and rhythms. Is this discomforting to acknowledge? Does seeing stylistic changes somehow lessen the gravitas of the gravestone? Funereal architecture is interesting precisely because it is so conservative and changes, when they do build up, are slow to do so. These changes in technology call to mind translucent cast-glass headstones, which are such a radical departure from the usual granite headstones that many cemeteries refuse to allow them. These nicely illustrate the design principle MAYA: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. 

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Roads and pathways of the necropolis, the circulatory space of an entire city of dead.

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The things we leave behind. A metro ticket, left on Jean-Paul Sartre’s grave.

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Lions. Animals and death. There’s a pet cemetery outside of Paris, devoted wholly to household animals that have passed on.

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Just as theme parks and restaurants can act as revenue envelopes, perhaps cemeteries act as disposal envelopes. The architecture, the grounds, the details and delicacies are all, at their core, masking the basic purpose of cemeteries. The ancillary benefits we derive from cemeteries—urban green space, a moment of peace, spaces for reflection, places to grieve—are kind of piled on top of this central purpose, in the sense that there is no reason that a cemetery itself need fulfill all those ideas. 

Cemeteries are interesting because we feel strongly about them, in a way we don’t necessarily feel about that brownstone or highway overpass. They are a rare manifestation of the built environment where it is easy to see the often-submerged ideas and arguments that structure the world around us.

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A mobile coat rack, deployed in support of a game of boules in a Parisian park. Domesticated space, the park as literal urban living room. Proprietary, appropriateness: The metal chairs “belong” outside, but something meant for soft and fuzzy coats does not. Coats, like their humans, are inside creatures. The places and spaces where things are “supposed” to happen, the invisible rules that guide our existence, the benefits we accrue from occasionally disregarding them. (Some friends of mine buy a sofa at a rummage sale every summer and keep in the back of a pickup as comfortable seating for trips to the drive-in movie theatre.)

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At BNP Paribas, an animated ATM within your ATM. Not so different from the incorrigibly peppy first-person of Washington Mutual ATMs. (“Hi! How should we talk today? English? Español?”) As graphics technology evolves, the more complicated the story that may be told. Remember those ugly yellow-on-black UNIX-terminal style ATMs? Or the ones with the most basic graphics and a perpetual bank-logo burn-in?

Abstraction, caricature, anthropomorphization, all in support of a financial transaction. Do these serve to more effectively replace a human teller or to augment an electronic transaction?

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Domino’s Pizza in Paris. Another layered, Pico Iyer-esque moment: Italian food, American interpretation, French audience. (Note also the Coke machine lurking in the back of the restaurant.) Somehow, this Domino’s has managed to skirt French laws requiring advertisements to be presented in French—if you squint, you can see that they’re still billing themselves as “The Pizza Delivery Experts.” (This claim dubiously, if ingeniously, avoids any sort of claim on the quality of the pizza itself.)

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A herd in support of pizza-delivery. These scooters have identical end-goals to their cousin, the American automobile; the surmountability culturally-based differences in transportation and delivery.

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Herds on the streets of Paris. As I was preparing this post, sorting through the photos I have, I started thinking about what constitutes a herd and what doesn’t. A herd, I decided, is a group of similar objects that have chosen to gather together. (Or their respective owners have chosen to gather them together, as the objects lack agency.) This excludes merchandise for sale (one common owner; a herd represents compound decisions) and things that operate as indivisible objects (a metro train can be thought of as a herd of cars, but properly the train, while divisible, is an indivisible object—it needs all five cars to operate) and short-term high-turnover clusters of objects (buses arriving and leaving—there is something static to a herd.)

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These photos, on the other hand, show proper herds: Static groups of diffuse, divisible objects that have clustered together through the actions of disparate owners. The motorcycles are an exemplar of the proper herd; these herds of police and medical vehicles are a little harder to define. If the place they gather is formally set, and not ad hoc as the motorcycles’ is, do they still constitute a herd? I would argue they do: Much as herds of animals can cluster out in the field, they can also cluster inside a defined corral. The motorcycles in this example are “out in the wild”—away from their respective home bases—and the emergency vehicles are “in the corral”.

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The definition of a herd also assumes a lack of purpose and agency: A farmers’ market isn’t really a herd of humans, because the farmers have chosen to gather themselves there with an explicit purpose. These herds just are—waiting, in most cases, for their owners to return or for them to be pressed into use. The point of a herd is that it is inactive, that when active it is necessarily diffuse

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Herds, lines, groups, order: The ways in which we organize our common existence.

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“WANTED” brand tortilla products at Le Grand Epicerie De Paris, a high-end grocery store connected to a department store, Le Bon Marché.

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How do we define ourselves abroad? Are these chips and tortillas American because they tilt at Old-West stereotypes? Because they’re in English? Because tortilla chips are un-French?

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The layers of filtration: Mexican food, packaged as American, advertised using American stereotypes of Mexicans, to be sold to a French/European audience. 

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Pico Iyer would have a field day.

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Instead of asking passengers not to take luggage carts up or down escalators, CDG airport simply makes it impossible for users to perform this action. This is an interesting case of a constrained-choice system because it is rare that the system is so overt in communicating its end-goal(s).

(Note also the innovative up escalator/down escalator pictograms, in place of the DOT standard [and easier to understand?] up/down pictograms.)

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A standard no-parking sign in Paris: The “not” symbol is understood to mean “no parking,” and “jour et nuit” translates to “day and night.” No Parking, Day or Night.

This system relies on interpretation and conscious action. People must follow the rules, must heed the signs, if the signs are to be effective. This is an open-choice system: We may follow the sign’s instructions, or we may not. The physical environment does not constrain us in any way. Contrast this with a constrained-choice no-parking system, which simply prevents users from parking in certain places or certain ways. Open-choice systems are significantly more flexible than constrained-choice systems, leading to their deployment in places like no-parking zones.

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The ways in which we segregate items from our realities. Sudden discrete herds.

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How items are grouped, made indiscrete, and removed to storage or disposal. Objects not in use.

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Leaves, chairs: A Paris park prepares for winter.

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