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
Signs of Life
Spliced NOAA satellite signal creates new 'generative' landscape
Spliced NOAA satellite signal creates new "generative" landscape.
Photo of exhibition-goers with headphones, projector tripod.
GOES-16 satellite image was captured by Pieter Noordhuis. Photo of exhibition-goers with headphones, projector tripod and exhibition by Daniel Tompkins.
FM radio headphones were given out at the door. Each set was tuned beforehand to receive a broadcast from my pre-programmed station.

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" image 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 2018.

The experience demonstrated my interest in tapping into an invisible (wireless) environment of digital information. A USB, software-defined radio (SDR) dongle helped me reach the satellites.
Classmates Nadia and Qian tune their headphones to 77.7MHz for broadcast transmission of exhibition narrative.
Classmates Nadia and Qian tune their headphones to 77.7MHz for broadcast transmission of exhibition narrative.
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 performance 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 provide a metaphorical reflection of humanity and progress
NOAA 18, November 18th at 8:29pm over Massachusetts.
NOAA 18, November 18th at 8:29pm over Massachusetts.
Narrative for Signs of Life exhibition

Read by Steve Ervin
Assistant Dean for Information Technology at Harvard Design School, Director of Computer Resources, and lecturer in the Department 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 *snap*— 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 remembered 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 something strange was happening; but he was so tired and aggravated 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 coffee. 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 things— 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 week— 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 middle 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 himself— 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, dogs barking, the cars going by, saw 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— at 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.
Signs of Life
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: connectivity. Dataists, examined in Yuval Noah Harari's book Homo Deus, believe that life can be regarded 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: simultaneous 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 connectivity 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 Landmarks of Tomorrow coined the term "knowledge worker", saying:

"The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity."

As the economy shifts to consider knowledge— the product of divergent 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 understanding 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 (producing 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 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— but, first of all, we are all human beings. I have written extensively on networks, their behavior and protocols, and on my newfound knowledge of connectivity. 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 Guifi 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 surveillance, put hundreds of thousands out of work, or unsustainably consume precious natural resources.

Collectively, my ADPD group has concerned itself with politically-engaged 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— bridging many unique academic communities. In this way, we've each conducted thorough research on human culture, behavior and history with unique academic perspective. Simultaneously, we engage this understanding 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 digital spaces, artifacts, and algorithms. Using my experience, I'd like to engage in the production of new connected spaces, intelligent environments, and physical computing systems; and to assure my creative, professional relevancy in a rapidly evolving economy.
Special thank you to Pieter Noordhuis, creator of goestools— 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 Project.
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.
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.
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.
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 18th, 8:29pm | Somerville, MA | Re-stitch
NOAA 18, November 18th, 8:29PM | Somerville, MA | Re-stitch
NOAA 19, November 15th, 2:46pm | Somerville, MA | René-Levasseur
NOAA 19, November 15th, 2:46PM | Somerville, MA | René-Levasseur
NOAA 18, November 16th, 8:52pm | Somerville, MA | Snowstorm
NOAA 18, November 16th, 8:52PM | Somerville, MA | Snowstorm
NOAA 18, November 21st, 7:54pm | Somerville, MA
NOAA 18, November 21st, 2:54PM | Somerville, MA