Proposals for ubiquitous computing have taken a variety of forms, from “utility fogs” to “pervasive networks.” This chapter considers smart dust as a hypothetical and actual proposal made for pervasive computing in an urban context. Proposals for smart dust have been developed in the form of tiny wireless sensors that could be released en masse, so that countless machines are in constant relay, coordinating information about an environment. Wireless sensors, distributed and embedded in environments, move the “information city” from a zone where digital media is produced and circulated by media workers, to a space where the city itself is a site of information generation – an urban information ecology. This sensor technology is less concerned with increasing computing power and more attentive to reducing the size of hardware, a technological shift that would allow millions of tiny machines to be deployed in drifts of simultaneous communication.
In order to examine further the modalities of machine-to-machine communication, this chapter engages with the notion of telepathy, or literally, “remote sensation,” which could be seen to be invisible and instant communication beyond the channels of human sense. This is a process of displaced sensation, of sensing in an extraordinary capacity, or of communicating impressions beyond the reach of usual communicative practices. Wireless sensors – particularly in the more hypothetical form of smart dust – perform this removal and rerouting of sensation. Urban ecologies are monitored, programmed, and made into transmittable information, but this sensory information transpires through relatively opaque machinic spaces – and the messages circulated may be decoded as much through conjecture as clear communication. Originally written in 2004, this chapter considers urban environments as spaces of informational correspondence, and discusses early notions around the Internet migrating to environmental operations.
Published in Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture, edited by Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw (Montreal: McGill-Queens Press, 2010), 48-63.
Developed through the Culture of Cities project.
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