The Lamplighters Guild

For this week’s Internet of Things project, we explored interfacing our Raspberry Pi’s with an Arduino using the serial port. The serial port can send bits or strings of information to and from the devices, allowing them to communicate. While the Raspberry Pi does now have its own GPIO pins, the serial method is a great way to easily talk to your Arduino without having to set up a somewhat complicated looking relay.


Continuing my Thesis explorations in Speculative Design, I wanted to create a prototype to test assumptions about the inclusion or exclusion  of fictional narrative with the produced artifact.

From my research, I have found that the application of fictional narrative varies widely, from objects with short product descriptions or operating instructions to short stories with paired scale models and a range of artifacts. In one extreme, the fiction is the main cultural artifact of the future, the physical artifacts complementing and bringing aspects of it to life. In the other extreme, the artifact is the centerpiece, with the fiction providing just enough information to provoke the audience into thinking about its implications.

Last week, I created Public Information Box to test assumptions around the quick turn-around of a fiction concept into an artifact prototype. I found that it can indeed be done quickly using the available fabrication tools, justifying my assumption that the creation and iteration through objects as I receive feedback on their usability, aesthetics, and provocation is a possible avenue. This project was very much the first type, a detailed artifact with a short piece of narrative to set the mood. This week I wanted to try the opposite.

According to my research, one way to provoke thought is through making objects evoke feelings of uncanniness and cognitive dissonance in the audience. This is done a variety of ways, but one way is to ground them in the familiarity of the artifact through a fictional narrative, showing how it might touch on aspects of their own lives.

In this prototype, I wanted to try writing a longer narrative as the focus, creating an artifact that would complement it by showcasing experiences from the story. To this end, I created a diorama that represented a cross-section of my future fictional city where pieces of the city are controlled by the user through a computer interval. I wanted users to both reflect on the object as a representation of the future, but more importantly, to reflect on their interaction with that future and how it might relate to changes in employment and cultural norms.

The Lamplighter’s Guild

Given the requirements of the project were to observe sensor data from the Arduino and to manually turn lights on and off using commands, my first thought was how pointless that process was. Why would you ever wait around to get sensor data and have to respond to it manually? The great think about using code is that you can program intelligent automatic responses to most stimuli – say turning on the lights when it gets dark, or recording someone when they walk by. Having to wait around to check on sensor readings and sending out the correct response via interacting with the system would be mind-numbingly boring after a while.

Yet, the very automation of processes like these is causing socio-economic and cultural changes in the ways we live our lives. Jobs where humans once monitored and responded to data have mostly been eliminated in favor of algorithms and increasingly rely on a network of technologies to extend our senses into the digital, collecting and responding to stimuli both manually and automatically (like getting a notification on your phone and responding to it versus automatically sorting emails into filters for a supervisor).

This led me to ask…

What If… in the future, automation runs most everything, yet the most well-to-do can afford to do without it, paying humans to take over the roles of automation and algorithims?

What would this do to humans as they performed this type of boring and manual work?

The Lamplighter’s Guild is a speculative design about a future class of workers whose sole job is to wait around for sensors to tell them it is dark out so that they can manually turn on the lights around the city, or receive commands from civilians to do special shows on demand.

Reminiscent of an anachronistic job to light actual gas lamps, the lamplighters guild is one of many guilds that have evolved to fill this unique niche of services, replacing computers in organizing smart interfaces for the very rich. I could perhaps imagine this happening for privacy or security reasons in the future. But most importantly, it raises questions about the role of humans and machines in performing tasks for living in the future.

The Story

To be read with or before seeing the design. 

As machines marched on, replacing most of the functions humans had once performed, it felt like we were becoming machines ourselves in the few roles we had left. Never before were we as aware of the world around us as now, senses augmented by a far-flung network of public sensors that could measure every force known – and increasingly some unknown.

Yet humans have always resisted progress in their own small ways, nostalgia and longing for contact from their own kind driving them to create inefficiencies in the system, diminishing marginal returns on their own productivity.

It was from this inexorable drive that the Lamplighters was born, the first of many similar guilds to come. They were created in response to a desire to bring a piece of humanity and discernment back into our mechanized lives – for the rare few who could afford it.

Naturally, street lamps had been abolished centuries ago, now reserved for ornamental parks where they could burn amongst a similarly anachronistic setting.

Even streetlights had gone from manual to automated , turning on as soon as it got dark enough. Sensors only extended this automation, allowing computers to check which lights were on and off, programming them to use less energy and stay lit in high-crime areas. They became more and more efficient at their work.

Yet the well-to-do valued privacy, security, and above all, the frivolity disposable income brings.  So the Lamp Lighters guild was created to control all of the public lights in their enclaves, workers waiting in small cramped rooms for signals to flash across their displays so they could respond accordingly. Each day they waited to see that the sun had risen and set, turning the community’s lights on and off in accordance. Occasionally, requests would also come in from community members, to turn off or on certain sectors, or to run programs for fun displays in parks, atriums, and even across the entire enclave. While this was unnecessary, the power of making a call and watching the lights go out for blocks provided a rare appeal for those whose power was already absolute at so many other scales.

And what about the lamplighters themselves? The members of the guild? While lucky in their employment – which paid a decent wage in an age of extreme job scarcity -they ended up being fundamentally unlucky in their profession. For as they sat their day in and day out, waiting for that signal that it was time to turn the lights on, waiting on the whim of a particular person to see a light show in a public square or fountain, waiting for a signal that something was broken, they started to merge with the machine themselves.

You see, machines are more than just material assemblages of hardware and software running together. They are an idea, a philosophy about using a non-human other, an algorithm, a program, to make things replicable and efficient. By replacing the digital connections with human ones, we no more changed the machine than replacing hardware for wetware, the humans becoming just another movable part in the system, another function in the algorithm. And so even in this small arena, automation marched on. Perhaps not as efficient or quick as the purely digital systems around it, but just as mechanical.

And so even in this rebellion, automation marched on. Perhaps not as efficient or quick as the purely digital systems around it, but just as mechanical.

The Code

This program’s code is written in both Arduino and Javascript. The Arduino script takes the input from the photoresistor (lit sensor), calibrates it, and maps it to a range of 0 – 250. If it is less than half of that range, it sends a signal to the javascript that it is dark out, if above it, that it is light out.

The javascript code then receives the sensor data and handles inputs from the users to turn the lights on individually for the 4 buildings (Hall, Atrium, Wall, Plant), turned on/off all together, or to make them blink in a fun patterns.

To prototpye this, I would have users sit at my computer and sit and manually change the configuration based on the information coming in.

You can find my code on GitHub.

The Build

I wanted to build out a small diorama for this, showcasing the lights and related future buildings in a wealthy community. I also wanted to test the speed at which I could develop a first-round prototype for testing, and use mostly recycled materials for the objects – since budget is a huge consideration for my thesis process!

First, I wired up all of the circuits together to test them, and when they worked, soldered the lights directly to resistors and long wires. I also did the same for the photoresistor.

Next, I  put the lights into the cardboard base, glued them to the bottom and retested everything. It still worked! From here the project came back to Brooklyn with me for some final decoration (or “skinning” as I call it).

At home, I started designing the buildings and decided to model a town square type of scenario, with the lights sticking out of certain structures to look more realistic. I then redid my code commands to match the parts of the city I had created in order to turn off and on lights in specific quadrants.

Finally, I attached everything together and tested it all again before gluing anything down. It still worked! Huzzah!


Final Product!

Here are some pictures of the final product in action!

Next Steps

Using this and last weeks prototypes, I will now conduct user testing to see what the resonse is to the ideas and futures I am trying to display. This will allow me to create a new prototype of one or both for the midterm presentation.

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