In the middle of January during a particularly cold spell in Torino we went to meet our friends at Casa Jasmina. With Vladan Joler, his lovely family and friends, and the brilliant Davide Gombe who leads the Officine Innesto crew, we met to talk about what we wanted 2017 to be. In two short days we made our own Vermouth, gave an impromptu ‘lecture’ to the fabulous students from the Masters in Journalism at the University of Torino, and explored the interface between decentralised IoT, invisible labour and the materiality of the networked society (yes bits means real atoms) .
Let’s begin with a quote I tend to use a lot these days, a quote which keeps on resonating the more I explore an open internet of things.
The door refused to open. It said, ‘Five cents, please.’ He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. ‘I’ll pay you tomorrow,’ he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. ‘What I pay you,’ he informed it, ‘is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.’ ‘I think otherwise,’ the door said. ‘Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.’
Philip K Dick (1969), Ubik
Ubik by Philip K Dick is a 1960’s sci-fi novel. I’m assuming you’ve read it. If you haven’t, I would advise it. We spend way too much of our time thinking we’re original. The more you read the more you find out you’re not thinking anything new (says I who is perhaps talking to myself here, or more likely to my 13 year old son who really really should read more). It is a book about privacy. The privacy of our minds. It is a tale of the endgame between our preservation of self and the all-knowing – the Ubik. Something that fiction has always done to enable us to imagine alternate lives, people and places. Let me back up from the book review and talk more about what I wanted to talk about. I guess you can’t help channeling the inner sci-fi nerd when you’re visiting the experimental house of a scifi writer… A ‘house’ in a disused factory block on the banks of the railway tracks from Torino Porta Nuova – Torino’s station at the end of the line.
The house of Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tešanovic, Casa Jasmina is an apartment – it has walls, floors, heating, a kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms and a lounge.” As they describe it:
Casa Jasmina is actually a combination of lab, gallery space and B&B, so it needs dynamic management. Casa Jasmina is not merely a kitchen, library, bedroom, and bathroom. It’s a public interface for a larger Internet-of-Things process of building things, acquiring installing things, removing things, repairing and maintaining things, storing things, recording and linking to things, and, last but very importantly, getting rid of things.
But I disagree.
Well, I agree with how they describe it, but I think this massive undersells it. I think it is a frontline bunker. I think it is bunker against everything that is wrong with the ‘disruptive tech’ movement of today. The grossly irresponsible greedy practices of Silicon Valley and its friends are pushing the boundaries of acceptable business practices. I think it’s wrong for a tiny region of the world to dominate technology as it does. I think it’s wrong that so much is being kept and controlled by so few. I see Casa Jasmina as one of the few beacons or bunkers of hope that is practically providing an alternative. It is where the rebel alliance would hole up in the winter planet of the Empire Strikes back. An alternative that is aiming to boost local resources, to add local value and increase local businesses and to share learnings and technological advancement in the open. And it’s a very special place. How many kitchens do you know with a 3D printer on the benchtop?
There are a few really special places in the world. Places I think of as headlands. A place where my head lands somewhere good. These are places that I feel connected and at home in. My home in Anstruther is one such place and the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad is another. Don’t get me wrong my #myYearInBerlin is amazing (i’ll talk more about that soon in another post – and genuinely feels one of those times later in life that I’ll ‘blink’ myself back to – but it’s not the same as these few places – my year in Berlin is about a time in my life – Anstruther and NID are about places). There is just something that clicks when I’m at the Chai Gate in NID. Or when I’m floating in the freezing winter waters of the north sea just outside Cellardyke Harbour. And last week I found a third such place to add to my headlands. That place is Casa Jasmina. It feels like more than a house. It feels like home. Home to something that the world needs right about now.
So what does the world need right now?
I think the world needs to find a way to connect to people and for people to connect to each other. I think that the disparity between the people who have and the people who don’t have, and the increasing gap between the two is a very unhealthy thing for the world. We only have to feel the icy chill of Brexit and Trump to know that this is not an imagined thing. It is real. And we can’t separate how the tech giants have played their part in all of this. Fake news being “good for business but bad for democracy” , racial bias in algorithms and gender equality are just some of the issues, and we could go on here (perhaps we should in the comments? . Living in isolation and the bubble of Silicon Valley isn’t healthy for the rest of the world. The world needs something new. Casa Jasmina is that new.
And here’s how.
A responsibility to place
In Casa Jasmina, we respectfully acknowledge Giovanni Antonio Porcheddu and his client Carlo Garrone as our our spiritual ancestors. We are aware that we live in the shelter of their deeds, and that their civic struggle in Torino is also ours. We are in exactly the same place — just at a different time.
Bruce Sterling, Casa Jasmina, the grand-daughter of the Fonderie Carlo Garrone
Casa Jasmina is built in the shell of a disused foundry. It hasn’t been done up as a shiny renovation, it has kept the building as it is (graffiti and all) and added what it can inside to make it habitable. It doesn’t feel like an imposing architect’s ‘dream’, which can so often be a neighbour’s nightmare, it feels like a practical re-dressing to make a space useful and liveable. It feels supportive to the locale and is a humble way to breath new life into a building and a community. It has grown out of the place rather than landed upon it. This sense of place is something that increasingly is something that I care about and is very much a value of the Open IoT Studio and going to ‘real’ places is at the heart of our approach. Casja Jasmina is REAL.
When Vladan opened the door to Casa Jasmina on Friday morning after a night making our very own vermouth the night before.
It had the feeling of a family home. Coffee was made, his brilliant and super sweet kid was chasing the house’s pet vacuum cleaner robot, and the kitchen table was a family table (I go on a lot about kitchen tables and their place as the heart of social networking – http://webwiththings.tumblr.com/ ) . I loved the way that the family home switched to being a classroom, a workshop space, an office, a cafe, and back to a family home in the space of a single day. A stray bottle of wine on the outside windowsill is one of those clues that this space is made for living in.
Connected things aren’t always on
It really struck home that this was a place of experimentation. Prototypes were everywhere.
And not all of them worked. And this is important. Prototypes are just that and we can become obsessed that the lab is a showroom of perfection. For me, showing things in their honest state, which might mean broken, is refreshing. It takes the pressure off thinking “I can make something for this house”. We’re so used to having consumer items that are built for public testing, which can take years of ‘in-house’ testing before they come into your home or into a gallery. Of course things need to work when you buy them and there’s nothing more frustrating as visiting a museum of broken things (unless of course that’s what you’re expecting to visit!). Yet a working lab as Casa Jasmina is should be just that. Sweeping the reality of prototypes into our lives rather than presenting gleaming perfection is charming and reassuring.
I loved the way that Casa Jasmina is not a house in isolation, that it co-habits a shared space with the offices of Officine Innesto, Fablab Torino and Toolbox co-working space. And I get the sense that more people will move in. A place where like minds and shared values gather. This is such a clear indicator of the health of a place – that it’s diverse, it’s shared and it’s multi-cultural. I guess that’s a fundamental difference between working in the open as opposed to creating closed secretive competitive places and places.
IoT is poised to be in both an exciting and a frightening place right now. The possibilities of what IoT can do is considerably more powerful than just being about an individual accessing and interacting with their own things – that the cloud and remote servers collecting enormous amounts of data about our lives and storing it forever is quite another thing. In another scene in Ubik the lead character tries to bribe his fridge to give him cream for his coffee. I wonder if Philip K Dick had been writing now, I wonder whether his fictional discussion with the fridge would have looked a bit different? That perhaps it might be about a person trying to bribe someone else’s fridge to give them access to their data? Perhaps every object has its price? Perhaps it’s not a case of making something secure of private in a binary way, that it’s much more about making things reflective of real life – that you could set the ‘bribe’ level of your appliances to provide data for the right cost. That you are fully in control with nuanced, delicate controls rather than absent or blunt tools we have right now? If the IoT devices that are constantly recording and understanding what we say, there is the very real practicality of them being called into the courtroom to act as witness to a crime as recently happened in the US. Ah well, that’s good – let’s catch murderers I hear you say, but what about when it’s about a series of appliances being called into a divorce hearing to help the court decide who has rights to the children? Or to a pet? Or your medical insurance company suing you for not following the correct diet? What happens then? Do you want your data to be accessed without your consent -would you then not wish that you had the rights and ability to have control over what data is collected, where it is stored and who has access to it?
The debate for the future of our home needs to happen in a trusted place. Open source technologies and ways of working provide practical safe environments for conducting research and development of trusted technology in a way that opens up not just the source code, but the very debate of the future of technology. The open, welcoming and very human experimental home of Casa Jasmina is the place that I want to see this happening. It’s why it’s a very special place. A place where I feel at home and a place where I want the future of the home to be.
Find out more – go and visit! Go and make something there. Go and be a part of it. If you want to come and do something with the Open IoT Studio – then get in touch. If you’re in the UK you can go and find out why I nominated it for Designs of The Year.