Daniel Tompkins
Bachelor of Architecture, Cornell University, 2017
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master in Design Studies
Art, Design and the Public Domain
At the Harvard University Graduate School of Design
January 2019
Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Tompkins
The author hereby grants Harvard University permission
to reproduce and distribute copies of this Final Project, in
whole or in part for educational purposes.
Signature of the Author
Daniel Tompkins
Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Certified by
Allen Sayegh
Associate Professor in Practice of Architectural Technology
Harvard University Graduate School of Design
FM radio headphones
were given out at the door. Each
set was tuned beforehand to receive
broadcast from my programmed
Visitors were then invited to walk
around the room, contemplating the
artifacts of the exhibit. A V-dipole
at one end of the room captures the
broadcast and displays a real-time
spectrogram of the radio waves on a
small display.
Across the room, a satellite dish points
back, creating an alignment across
the projected GOES-16 "full-disk" im
age animation of the Earth. Along the
back wall, a few dozen images show
demodulated signals from the NOAA
15/18/19 satellites as they passed over
Cambridge, Massachusetts in the
months of October and November
The experience demonstrated my
interest in tapping into an invisible
(wireless) environment of digital infor
mation. A USB, software-defined radio
(SDR) dongle helped me reach the
Signs of Life
NOAA 18, November 18th at 8:29pm over Massachusetts.
Classmates Nadia and Qian tune their
headphones to 77.7MHz for broadcast
transmission of exhibition narrative.
Spliced NOAA satellite signal creates new “generative” landscape
GOES-16 satellite image was captured by Pieter Noordhuis. Photo of exhibition-goers with
headphones, projector tripod and exhibition by Daniel Tompkins.
In listening to the transmission, the visitors are engaging in
a shared experience, but are somehow still alone and unable
to communicate while wearing their headphones. The per
formance of the exhibition is designed to be a place which
simulates the real disconnection of techno-humanity. The
"reflecting pool" of the earth spinning on the floor might pro
vide a metaphorical reflection of humanity and progress.
Narrative for
Signs of Life
Read by Steve Ervin
Assistant Dean for Information Technology at Harvard Design
School, Director of Computer Resources, and lecturer in the De-
partment of Landscape Architecture, at the Harvard Graduate
School of Design
Written by Daniel Tompkins
Narrator: So it was after 7 o’ clock
he said he had just gotten
home from work; he was tired and was sitting down to take his
shoes off and, of course, the phone rings-- right then-- and I’m
sure he was thinking:
1: “What now... who needs my attention right at this moment,
right as I’m sitting down...”
Narrator: He’s a bit of a grouch, but he deserves his time off.
He said he didn’t recognize the number, but for some reason he
picked up:
1: “Hello?”
Narrator: He said “hello” like he had something important going
on-- like this person was really wasting his time. I think he was
expecting one of those recorded telemarketers. I know he hated
those telemarketers... He said they didn’t respond at first. I’m
sure he was already thinking about cracking a beer and turning
on the TV...
2: “Hello?”
1: “Hi. Can I help you?” He said impatiently.
Narrator: He thought he recognized the voice, but he couldn’t
hear them very well through the receiver.
2: “Um... Is this... 8... 8, 1 ,5, 3, 0, 7, 6, 2, 2... 2?”
1: “That’s my number... who is this?”
Narrator: And right then
right as he’s asking that question,
all of the lights go out
just like that. His cellphone too!
The lights, the heat
even the streetlamp outside his window.
Everything’s dead; but he looks outside
it’s just his block, the
houses further down the street still had power. Everything there
went completely black, though.
He likes watching a little TV after work, so I’m sure he was
frustrated... Moreover, he had no idea what that person on
the phone was calling him about! He told me that he’d had a
strange feeling about it. It felt like they were about to tell him
something very important. I remember him saying that.
So, he’s looking around for a flashlight; and he finds one-- but
it’s dead too. He thinks, maybe a lighter and some candles. So
he’s sitting there-- sitting in the dark with a few candles burning
in his living room. It was freezing out. So, he doesn’t want to go
outside; but he can’t even read a book with these dim candles
he has.
He can’t talk to anybody, can’t check Facebook, can’t even
check his cellphone to find out what’s happening... He remem
bered a little portable radio that he kept by his bedside. So he
carries a candle into his room, sets it down on the side table,
sits on his bed, and flips on the radio...
It doesn’t turn on either! I think at that point he realized some
thing strange was happening; but he was so tired and aggra
vated at that point I think he just dismissed it all. He was on his
bed then, and he just fell back across the middle and laid there.
He was thinking about the call then.
It was Saturday the next day
he had fallen asleep. He told
me he woke up to the radio playing
it was the Christmas
station, I think. He shut it off, and found that all the lights in the
house were back on again; but his cellphone was still dead. He
plugged it in, and turned off the lights
the sun was coming in
through the windows at that point; and he made a pot of cof
fee. He got a good amount of sleep
said he felt well-rested.
I asked about the candles
said he should be careful falling
asleep with something burning.
I think he had just finished breakfast around 10 in the morning.
He pulled his laptop out at the kitchen table and was checking
his email. There was something from his supervisor at the office,
a few things to have ready for Monday. He tells me these
he didn’t really have anyone to talk to there; so he had
to tell me every little detail about his day anytime we got on
the phone.
Anyways, he says he’s responding to somebody at work about
some project deadline, or something, happening later that
and it happens again! Same as before, he’s finishing up
his email and
*pop*, his laptop screen freezes, glitches out,
and fades black. He stands up, goes over to the wall, flips the
light switch up and down, up and down
nothing. It’s the mid
dle of the day, so he can’t just sleep through the outage like he
did before. It was some kind of surge too, so the battery didn’t
seem to have any charge.
He calls the power company, but they seem as clueless as he
did. So, he went out on his front porch
sipping his second cup
of coffee; and he just sat there. He had his car
he could have
come to my house or run a few errands... but I guess he didn’t
really have anything he needed to buy.
So he just sat on this old wooden bench he has, on his front
porch, sipping his coffee. He said it was the first time he’d
had a moment to just SIT. He told me how much he enjoyed
it was an unusually nice day for December. He just
sat there, watched the leaves scratch along the sidewalk, heard
the neighborhood children
laughing and playing, listened
to a dog bark, watched the cars going by, the clouds moving
overhead, and just sat there
taking it in.
He finished his coffee, but stayed seated on his bench and just
breathed the air for hours. Eventually he went back inside
that point the power was back on. It might have been on for a
while, but he had lost track of time. He sounded a bit odd when
he told me about it... like he had something else to say. But
that’s all he told me.
In fall of 2017, I was accepted to the group
Art, Design, and the
Public Domain
(ADPD) at Harvard's graduate school of design with
this straightforward mission:
Dataists, examined in Yuval
Noah Harari's book
Homo Deus
, believe that life can be regard
ed as the flow of information
of data. Consequently, the Dataist
would equate death with a lack of data. The ultimate goal of the
Dataist should be to attain a state of total connectedness: simultane
ous access to all data at all times.
In a Dataist sense, the present epoch is defined by connectivity.
David T. Hill, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool, compliments
Harari's diagnosis of human development by laying out a thesis
of cognitive labor in
The Pathology of Communicative Capitalism
Here, Hill elaborates on the communicative economy and how con-
nectivity has enabled the expansion of a first-world Dataist society.
Hill is quite concerned with the resulting psychological distress of an
immaterial economy
an "always not-offline" society. His disturbing
conclusions aren't new. In 1959, in fact, Peter Drucker in
The Land-
marks of Tomorrow
coined the term "knowledge worker", saying:
"The most valuable asset of a 21st-century
institution, whether business or non-busi-
ness, will be its knowledge workers and their
As the economy shifts to consider knowledge
the product of diver-
gent and convergent human thought
as the dominant commodity,
machines will likely subsume most other forms of physical, tedious, or
otherwise "unintelligent" labor. Both authors share an anxiety for this
progressive revolution, the pinnacle of which would be the resolution
of a credible theory of mind and the inevitable technical understand-
ing of consciousness.
Already, as pointed out by Harari, scientists and engineers have
succeeded in rat mind-control, mentally-activated robotic prosthetics,
and helmets that can directly manipulate your neural activity (pro-
ducing or inhibiting feelings similar to a psychoactive drug). Dataism
is based in pattern, purpose and process. When machine intelligence
surpasses human intelligence, we will be forced to either continue
augmenting our biological, carbon-based selves or face some sort of
apocalyptic extinction.
In recent decades, humanism has expanded to become the new
global doctrine, rooting society
despite its cultural, religious, and
Signs of Life
technical diversity
in the core belief that human life is sacred.
Additionally, most people still collectively believe in the existence of
a soul and some form of afterlife. In
The Landmarks of Tomorrow
Peter Drucker also wrote:
"It is almost frightening how fast the obvious
of yesteryear is turning incomprehensible."
Rapid advancements in technology challenge our most ancient and
dogmatic beliefs in what it means to be conscious, feeling, living
creatures. At the point that a machine can imitate the complex
algorithms of the human mind well enough to replace us
even in
creative roles
what then will be the value of Homo sapiens?
I am an artist, a creative technologist, a researcher, an architect, a
designer, a media theorist, an anthropologist, and sociologist
first of all, we are all human beings. I have written extensively on net
works, their behavior and protocols, and on my newfound knowledge
of connectivity (refer to Data can be used for
political manipulation as easily as it could facilitate the collective
assembly of alternative community networks like the Cuban street
network (SNET), or the nation-wide
network in Italy.
Connected objects and environments (the Internet-of-Things, or
"IoT") can automate your experience at Starbucks, eliminate traffic
with autonomous vehicles, and keep our air conditioned from home
to work and back. However, these might also enable mass surveil
lance, put hundreds of thousands out of work, or unsustainably con-
sume precious natural resources.
Collectively, my ADPD group has concerned itself with politically-en
gaged interventions in the built environment
especially those which
are accessible in the public domain. Through this program, I have
had the opportunity to perform an interdisciplinary role
many unique academic communities. In this way, we've each conduct
ed thorough research on human culture, behavior and history with
unique academic perspective. Simultaneously, we engage this under
standing to inform thoughtful practice.
Technology is enabling new forms of media that have the ability to
augment our experience of space. In this regard, my research is often
concerned with the hybridization of architectural, urban, and formal
language with existing and emerging
spaces, artifacts, and
algorithms. Using my experience, I'd like to engage in the production
of new connected spaces, intelligent environments, and physical com
puting systems; and to assure my creative, professional relevancy in a
rapidly evolving economy.
Special thank you to Pieter Noordhuis, creator of
the GOES Python library for receiving and
translating signals to images
for letting me borrow
his “full-disk” images for the projected animation. Also
a thank you to Steve Ervin, for his voice in recording
the FM broadcast narrative. Lastly, Allen Sayegh for
being my advisor and helping me realize this Qualifying
Projector tripod emits a sheet of fog across the image of the Earth through a series of holes drilled along the interior of its PVC tube base.
The projector is suspended from the tripod by aircraft cable that has been threaded through holes in the PVC cap ring. It can be
easily tilted for adjusting the image. Here too, an image of the Earth is depicted as it bounces off the circular mirror.
Full-disk image of the earth from the Western hemisphere, geostationary satellite, GOES-16. Images for animation intercepted
and demodulated by Pieter Noordhuis. During the exhibit, no one stepped over or upon the image.
NOAA 18, November 21st, 2018 - 7:54pm | Somerville, MA
NOAA 18, November 16th, 8:52pm | Somerville, MA |
NOAA 19, November 15th, 2:46pm | Somerville, MA |
NOAA 18, November 18th, 8:29pm | Somerville, MA |