'Orwellian' is a word used too much these days, but it's hard to deny there's something sinister about the proliferation of technology in modern cities. That was the thinking that has led Mark Shepard (a former architect and Fellow of New York's Eyebeam Arts and Technology Centre) to create the Sentient City Survival Kit. Currently on show at the Dutch Electronic Art Exhibition, the kit imagines some street-level solutions for life in a near-future of constant digital observation.
Already, as we move through a modern city, we are sharing information - with CCTV cameras, Oyster card readers, mobile phone masts and many more digital snoops. Shepard intends the kit to monitor these systems and interdict the information they can capture. While some of it may look like the imaginations of a cyberpunk-obsessed teenager, each piece in the 'kit' has been designed to deal with a specific real-life source of technological snooping and, more importantly, to raise awareness of the kind of digital spies already beginning to infiltrate urban life.
Shepard's Under(a)ware is underwear designed to alert the wearer to hidden Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag readers by discreetly vibrating whenever they are scanned. It does seem slightly preposterous but you only need to look at the ever-increasing use of RFID technologies in major cities - already essential in systems such as travel cards and contactless bank cards (and increasingly in passports) - to realise that being notified when a device you're not aware of tries to scan your devices might not actually be such a mad idea.
Indeed, the whole kit combines a playful approach with cutting-edge technology (as the Under(a)ware demonstrates). The designs may be tongue-in-cheek, but the thought behind them is anything but. Shepard says his intention was to 'flirt' with the issues - to retain some mystery but also encourage people to regain some power over the increasing prevalence of monitoring technology.
It's not just the hidden digital spies that Shepard is focussing on; there can be more obvious threats to civil liberties too. With Britain increasingly choked by CCTV cameras, it's not only your electronic signals that are being watched. Night-vision cameras can identify you and follow your movements, and while they obviously fulfil a host of security and health and safety obligations, one need only go back to that Orwell fellow to see the potential for misuse.
Enter the CCD-Me-Not Umbrella. Again, clearly designed to illustrate a point more than be a prototype of something you might actually buy, this umbrella is laced with infrared LEDs that are only visible to Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) surveillance cameras. It's been designed to frustrate the object-detection algorithms that computerised surveillance systems use to track you - the infrared LED lights blaze like the sun on night-vision sensors, blinding the camera.
The Ad Hoc (dark) Roast Network mug is designed to highlight another issue; the increasing official and commercial monitoring of private communications. With governments, police and, to a lesser extent, companies such as ISPs taking ever more interest in the content of your tweets, emails and web-browsing history, basic personal privacy is increasingly under threat. This mug hides a wireless network in the base of a travel coffee mug, creating a temporary un-monitored communications method for a small group.
Using a screen set into the lid of the mug to send short messages over the wireless mesh network, commuters can form a temporary, train carriage-sized network for the duration of their morning journey. Some might argue that the avoidance of 'monitored' networks in this way could of course be used for criminal purposes. But then so can writing. Or talking. And we wouldn't suggest that the government should monitor all spoken conversations...would we?
Rounding off the Sentient City Survival Kit is something more familiar; a phone app that offers a more playful way of navigating your city. Less concerned with the security phones of the future, the Serendipitor is more about making use of the spaces around us; helping to reclaim our surroundings and a sense of adventure that's perhaps been lost by the A-to-B automation of traditional sat-navs.