Looking at my neighborhood with fresh eyes

my building

Street parking

Street parking

Estefanía Tocado

While I was walking around my newly discovered neighborhood, I could not have been more surprised by how ambient intelligence is full of invisible data traces (Starbucks Wi-Fi, smart phone signals, street parking paid from your smart phone, and hidden recording cameras).  This entire invisible infrastructure erases the boundaries between the public and the private spaces, integrating both in the urban space (Offenhuber-Ratti 39).  Many of these recording systems were functionally integrated into the architectural structure of street lights, traffic lights, and façade decorations of embassy buildings. As the integration into the city space is so well achieved, they are disguised under ornamental features that complement buildings, street lights, and windows.  So the first layer of visible distributed cognition were the Wi-Fi signs on Starbucks and Books a Million windows which offered their costumers free access to the Internet.  Other less accessible signs of the distributed cognition were hidden cameras in bank cash machines, under the traffic lights that regulate the traffic of Dupont Circle, as well as in the street lights and the corners of the buildings facing the intersection such as those at the Hotel Dupont.  Besides security reasons, traffic light cameras could potentially record traffic patterns and identify traffic problems and approaching vehicles as Carlos Ramos et al. suggest (16).


Diane J. Cook says that ambient intelligence has great benefits for the users by customizing their environments and unobtrusively meeting their needs, but she also raises the question of whether there is a bad use of data collection or when ambient intelligence performs corrective actions that are wrong (286-7).  In relationship to her statement, it is worth mentioning that for the first time this last Sunday I realized about the number of cameras that follow me in my building, starting from the front and back entrances to other cameras placed in the ground floor.  I was also surprised by the amount of distributed cognition on the buildings on my street.  The majority of them had hidden at least one camera at their front entrance, and they had others integrated in the gardens as in the case of the Moldavian embassy.  After my discovery I experienced a bit of the “big brother” syndrome that Cook adequately mentions in her article as well as issues of personal privacy and security.  As Ramos affirms, ambient intelligent environments involve real world problems so they deal with cases where some information may be correct, some other incorrect or missing (16).  Therefore, the potential loss of information and how it is managed is a fact to question or to take into consideration.  However, people navigating thorough Dupont Circle’s multiple street intersections did not seem to be concerned about it or even aware of it.  Most of their attention was directed towards reading their smart phones as opposed to being aware of what was happening around them.  Even less attention was paid to other forms of distributed intelligence.   Surprisingly enough, many of them continued texting while crossing the crosswalk.  The accessibility of an internet signal (e.g. Wi-Fi) was not even a question.  Distributed cognition and ambient intelligence has silently become such an integral part of the city lifestyle that most of its inhabitants do not even observe it.

hotel dupont

Works Cited

 Cook, Diane J.,  Juan C. Augusto, and Vikramaditya R. Jakkula. “Ambient Intelligence: Technologies, Applications, and Opportunities”” Pervasive and Mobile Computing 5, no. 4 (August 2009): 277-98.

Ramos, Carlos, Juan Carlos Augusto and Daniel Shapiro, “Ambient Intelligence-The Next Step for Artificial Intelligence.” IEEE, Intelligent Systems, 2008

Offenhuber, Dietemar and Carlo Ratti, “Reading the City: Reconsidering Kevin Lynch´s Notion of Legibility in the Digital Age” in The Digital Turn: Design in the Era of Interactive Technologies, ed. Zane Berzina, Barbara Junge, and Walter Scheiffele (Zurich: Weissensee Academy of Art, Park Books, 2012), 216-224.