Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

Infrastructural Voodoo Doll

For the past few months, on various trips out west to Los Angeles, I’ve been working on an exclusive story about a new intelligence-gathering unit at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2014 Los Angeles World Airports—the parent organization in control of LAX—hired two intelligence analysts, both with top secret clearance, in order to analyze global threats targeting the airport.

There were many things that brought me to this story, but what particularly stood out was the very idea that a piece of transportation infrastructure could now punch above its weight, taking on the intelligence-gathering and analytical capabilities not just of a city, but of a small nation-state.

It implied a kind of parallel intelligence organization created to protect not a democratic polity but an airfield. This suggested to me that perhaps our models of where power actually lies in the contemporary city are misguided—that, instead of looking to City Hall, for example, we should be focusing on economic structures, ports, sites of logistics, places that wield a different sort of influence and require a new kind of protection and security.

From the article, which is now online at The Atlantic:

Under the moniker of “critical infrastructure protection,” energy-production, transportation-logistics, waste-disposal, and other sites have been transformed from often-overlooked megaprojects on the edge of the metropolis into the heavily fortified, tactical crown jewels of the modern state. Bridges, tunnels, ports, dams, pipelines, and airfields have an emergent geopolitical clout that now rivals democratically elected civic institutions.

For me, this has incredible implications:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

There are obvious shades here of Keller Easterling’s notion of “extrastatecraft,” where infrastructure has come to assume a peculiar form of political authority.

As such, it also resembles an initiative undertaken by the NYPD in the years immediately following 9/11—a story well told by at least three books, Peter Bergen’s excellent United States of Jihad, Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City, and, more critically, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.

However, there is at least one key difference here: the NYPD unit was operating as an urban-scale intelligence apparatus, whereas the L.A. initiative exists at the level of a piece of transportation infrastructure. Imagine the Holland Tunnel, I-90, or the M25 hiring its own in-house intel team, and you can begin to imagine the strange new powers and influence this implies.

In any case, the bulk of the piece is focused on introducing readers to the core group of people behind the program.

There is Anthony McGinty, a former D.C. homicide detective and Marine Reserve veteran, kickstarting a second career on the west coast; there is Michelle Sosa, a trilingual Boston University grad with a background in intelligence analysis; and there is Ethel McGuire, one of the first black female agents in FBI history, who undertook their hiring.

There are, of course, literally thousands of others of people involved, from baggage handlers and the LAX Fire Department to everyday travelers. LAX, after all, is a city in miniature:

At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

However, the actual space of the airport—the built landscape of logistics—is probably the main potential source of interest for BLDGBLOG readers.

For example, at the western edge of the airfield, there is an abandoned suburb called Surfridge, its empty streets and sand dunes now used as a butterfly sanctuary and as a place for police-training simulations. The runways themselves are vast symbolic landscapes painted with geometric signs that have to be read to be navigated. And then there are the terminals, currently undergoing a massive, multibillion dollar renovation campaign.

At one point, I found myself sitting inside the office complex of Gavin de Becker, an anti-assassination security expert who has worked for celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents. Protected behind false-front signage, de Becker’s hidden complex houses a full-scale airplane fuselage for emergency training, as well as ballistic dummies and a soundproofed shooting range.

I had a blast working on this piece, and am thrilled that it’s finally online. Check it out, if you get a chance, and don’t miss the speculative “case files” at the end, brief examples of what might be called infrastructural security fiction.

(Thanks to Ross Andersen and Sacha Zimmerman at The Atlantic for the edits. All images in this post from Google Maps, filtered through Instagram).

Totemic Elevator

[Image: The Barakka Lift, Malta, by Architecture Project; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

While in Malta last week, I stumbled on the Barakka Lift outdoor elevator, a project I’d written about here but had forgotten was in the city of Valletta. It was a pleasant surprise.

Designed by local firm Architecture Project, the lift connects two very different vertical levels of the metropolis, rising like a fortified tower to bring visitors to and from a small garden on the walls of Valletta.

[Image: The Barakka Lift by Architecture Project; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

One of my favorite urban sights is the unfinished concrete elevator cores of under-construction high-rises. Monolithic, sharply defined, and almost always undecorated—such as this random example—they are pure concrete geometry rising above foundation piles and machinery—elevators that appear before their buildings have arrived.

The Barakka Lift is obviously different, in that it adds an exterior skin of perforated metal to hide the shaft of the lift itself, but it also divorces the idea of the elevator from any building it would normally be contained by. It connects two outsides, sewing one level of the city to another.

As such, it suggests that lifts, like bridges, are just another possibility for urban transportation—vertical pedestrian movement through space—and that lifts are not really interiors at all, in fact, but public spaces we can all use or inhabit.

There’s also something so interesting in the notion of a 21st-century elevator shaft stylized to look more like a 17th-century fortification by way of a near-future science fiction film.

In any case, better photos of the project can be seen in this earlier post. If you’re ever in Malta, be sure to check it out; you’ll find it here.

Shrink-Wrapped Superloads and Monumental Processions

rock[Image: Michael Heizer’s rock; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I audited a class about Archigram taught by Annette Fierro at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of many things I remember from the class was a description of how the Centre Pompidou, a building designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, was constructed.

Apparently, in order for the building to be assembled, huge pieces of structure had to be rolled through the streets in the middle of the night, long after traffic had died down and after almost everyone had gone to sleep.

Whole boulevards and intersections were closed to make way for the passage of these massive objects, as if the ribs and thigh bones of some colossal creature were being painstakingly assembled in a distant neighborhood, in the dark. The building began as a distributed network of large, chaperoned objects.

You can imagine Parisian insomniacs of the late 1970s, wandering the streets before—lo!—these oversized, monumental spans moving at a crawl through the city would come into view. It would have been as if Paris itself had somehow been caught dreaming new buildings into existence at 2am.

The Space Shuttle in front of a doughnut shop; photo by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Don Bartletti, courtesy Los Angeles Times].

This same sort of awe at the mis-fit between an object’s size and its urban context arose a few years ago when a somewhat underwhelming art project by Michael Heizer was hauled, street by street, to LACMA; and it then happened again when the Space Shuttle made its slow way through Los Angeles back in October 2012.

I remember talking to architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne around that time, and he compared the Shuttle’s 2mph roll through the city to a Roman Triumph, as if Angelenos were celebrating an imperial event of extra-planetary importance, this grand object—this throne room—being paraded out in public for all to see.

It’s worth recalling how Cambridge classicist Mary Beard described the Triumph in an old interview with BLDGBLOG. “Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism,” she explained:

The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after—but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.

Moving the Space Shuttle—or, for that matter, Heizer’s rock—gave not just Los Angeles but the entire United States an unexpected “way of thinking about itself,” in Beard’s terms, not just of the city’s historical relationship with the U.S. space program but of the country’s larger, and not necessarily perpetual, impulse to explore beyond the planet.

shuttle[Image: The Space Shuttle Endeavour in Los Angeles; photo by Andrew Khouri, courtesy Los Angeles Times].

These sorts of mega-objects, transported at great expense across urban infrastructure, are what the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) has described as “big things on the move.”

CLUI suggests that Heizer’s rock was “a bit like a religious procession, with acolytes in hard hats and safety-vest vestments walking alongside the sacred monolith, all lit up and flashing.” When the Space Shuttle hit the street, however, “Much was said about the irony of a craft that had circled the earth 4,700 times at speeds up to 17,000mph taking three days to get through L.A. traffic.”

As CLUI points out, Heizer’s rock and NASA’s Shuttle were both dwarfed by the actual largest “superload” to move through L.A.’s nighttime streets.

This third object “had little in the way of promotion,” they write; “in fact, the owners of it were hoping it would pass through the city as unnoticed as possible,” despite being “the largest and heaviest vehicle to ever pass through the streets of Los Angeles.”

The cargo was a steam generator from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the coast just south of Orange County, which was being hauled to a disposal site in Utah, 830 miles away.
Though it was junk, it was radioactive, so cutting it into smaller pieces would just generate more contaminated material. A custom superload truck was made, with a total weight for the truck and load totaling 1.6 million pounds. The generator was covered in thick paint so pieces would not flake off.

To be absolutely sure of its safety, “armed guards stayed with the truck all the time, especially when it was parked for the day by the side of the road and the rest of the crew were sleeping in motels.”

I mention all this after some photos were published this week in the Northwest Evening Mail, featuring huge, shrink-wrapped parts of a British Astute-class nuclear submarine being transported through the city of Barrow.

[Image: A shrink-wrapped section of a nuclear submarine; photo by Lindsey Dickings via the Northwest Evening Mail].

The newspaper warned that, while the “superstructure” made its sectioned way through the city, “car parking will be restricted.”

[Image: Photo by Lindsey Dickings via the Northwest Evening Mail].

In a sense, though, the sight of this dissected weapon of war is more artistic than an art project. A dream-like sequence of shrink-wrapped superstructures, abstract and white, channeling Christo or perhaps even the sculptures of Rachel Whiteread, inches forward street by street, shutting down secondary roads and sidewalks while waiting to be assembled in an eventual future shape, somewhere further down the road.

(Spotted via @CovertShores).

The Infrastructural Fever Dream

Streetcar[Image: Rendering by Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, via The New York Times].

Brooklyn might be getting a waterfront streetcar system. It would connect Sunset Park all the way to Astoria, Queens, offering “a 16-mile scenic ride” and becoming the de Blasio administration’s “most ambitious urban engineering project to date,” the New York Times reports.

The plan, to be unveiled on Thursday in the mayor’s State of the City speech, calls for a line that runs aboveground on rails embedded in public roadways and flows alongside automobile traffic—a sleeker and nimbler version of San Francisco’s trolleys.
By winding along the East River, the streetcars would vastly expand transportation access to a bustling stretch of the city that has undergone rapid development—from the industrial centers of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to the upper reaches of Astoria, Queens—but remains relatively isolated from the subway.

Not only is this a great idea—as it also would help to link the otherwise surprisingly insular neighborhood of Red Hook to the rest of the city through public transport—but also, entirely selfishly, because the proposed Hamilton Avenue stop would be about two blocks from my apartment.

BrooklynStreetcar[Image: Rendering by Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, via The New York Times].

It’s interesting to consider this plan in light of another public transportation tidbit that has been making the rounds in social media the past few days. That’s the 2009 map featuring “all of LA Metro’s currently unfunded projects.”

There are “Green Line extensions to Norwalk and San Pedro; Wilshire, Santa Monica and Sepulveda Pass subway lines; lots of rapid buses in the San Fernando Valley; high-speed elevated line to Santa Ana. Light rail tracks on Exposition, Crenshaw, Slauson, Sunset and Westwood.”

LAMap[Image: Map by Studio Complutense, via L.A. Metro Research Library and Archive].

At first glance, at least for this once and future Angeleno, that map is like some weird fever dream of possibility and connection, as incredible as any science fiction film. In fact, I still remember how many people in the Los Angeles cinema where I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her started laughing when Joaquin Phoenix rides the long-promised “subway to the sea.” Their laughter didn’t come only at the seeming absurdity of such a project ever being fully funded and built; it also came with a quiet air of astonishment and delight: imagine if such a thing were possible.

But it’s just infrastructure—and we can fund it—this sprawling mechanical fantasy through which we’ll get from A to B.

Under the Bridge

Photographer Gisela Erlacher has been documenting “the spaces found hidden underneath highways and flyovers across Europe and China,” as seen in the many photos posted over at Creative Boom. “Each photograph reveals not only her own fascination with these massive concrete monstrosities, but also her interest in how they’re now being used by the people who choose to wedge themselves into these forgotten areas.”

Five Parises of Emptiness

[Image: Via Curbed LA].

Citing a new report in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Curbed LA points out that “parking infrastructure takes up about 200 square miles of land in LA county.”

That’s more than four San Franciscos’ worth of space (46.87 square miles) and nearly five times the size of Paris (40.7 square miles). Or, as Janette Sadik-Khan wrote on Twitter, “LA County has 85% more parking spots than people, occupying more space than the entire city of Philly.”

Los Angeles, where it’s you and a bunch of parking lots.

Shaft

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Here’s another prosthetic elevator project—in fact, the reason I posted the previous one—this time around designed by architect Carles Enrich for the riverside city of Gironella, Spain.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

The elevator connects the old and new parts of town, offering ease of access to the young and elderly alike, and reopening social and economic circulation between the two halves of the city.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Built using steel, glass, and bricks, the project also blends into the existing color scheme of the city, looking like a chimney or a church steeple, a tower of roofing tiles suddenly standing alongside the city’s cliff.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Among many things, I love how unbelievably simple the project is: it’s just a rectangle, going from level A to level B. That’s it.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

I’m not entirely sure why I find projects like this so fascinating, in fact, but the notion that two radically separate vertical levels can suddenly be connected by the magic of architecture is one of the most fundamental promises of construction in the first place: that, through a clever use of design skills and materials, we can create or discover new forms of circulation and unity.

[Images: Photos by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

With staircases, of course, you have more leeway for introducing expressive shifts in direction and orientation, pinching floors together, for example, or introducing elaborate curls leading from one floor to the next.

The elevator, by contrast, seems remarkably sedate.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

It’s just a box you step into, and a vertical corridor you travel within. In the photo above, it’s like a dimly lit portal peeking up from some other, deeper district of the city.

Yet the ease of connection, and the use of subtle materials to realize it, are immensely exciting for some reason, as if we are all ever just one quick design gesture away from linking parts of the world in ways they never had been previously.

Just build an elevator: a pop-up vertical corridor delivering ascension where you’d least expected it.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

In any case, read more about the project over at the architect’s own website, or at ArchDaily, where I first saw the project, and check out the previous post for another elevator, while you’re at it.

Lift

[Image: The “Barakka Lift” in Malta; photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

The forthcoming (i.e. next) post will retroactively serve as an otherwise arbitrary excuse for posting this project, one of my favorites of the last few years, a kind of castellated prosthetic elevator on the island of Malta by Architecture Project.

[Image: The “Barakka Lift” in Malta; photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

The twenty-story outdoor elevator “required a certain rigour to resolve the dichotomy between the strong historic nature of the site and the demands for better access placed upon it by cultural and economic considerations,” resulting in the choice of blunt industrial materials and stylized perforations.

[Image: Photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

As the architects describe it:

The geometric qualities of the plan echo the angular forms of the bastion walls, and the corrugated edges of the aluminium skin help modulate light as it hits the structure, emphasizing its verticality. The mesh masks the glazed lift carriages, recalling the forms of the original cage lifts, whilst providing shade and protection to passengers as they travel between the city of Valletta and the Mediterranean Sea.

Personally, I love the idea of what is, in effect, a kind of bolt-on castle, combining the language of one era—the Plug-In Cities of Archigram, say—with the aesthetics of the Knights of Malta.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

In fact, it’s almost tempting to write a design brief explicitly calling for new hybridizations of these approaches: modular, prefab construction… combined with Romanesque fortification.

[Image: Photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

An emergency stairwell spirals down between the two parallel elevator shafts, which “also reduces the visual weight of the lift structure itself and accentuates the vertical proportions of the structure,” the architects suggest and contributes to perforating the outside surface beyond merely the presence of chainlink.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

In any case, it’s not a new project—like me, you probably saw this on Dezeen way back in 2013—but I was just glad to have a random excuse to post it.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

Another elevator post coming soon

Computational Romanticism and the Dream Life of Driverless Cars

[Image by ScanLAB Projects for The New York Times Magazine].

Understanding how driverless cars see the world also means understanding how they mis-see things: the duplications, glitches, and scanning errors that, precisely because of their deviation from human perception, suggest new ways of interacting with and experiencing the built environment.

Stepping into or through the scanners of autonomous vehicles in order to look back at the world from their perspective is the premise of a short feature I’ve written for this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine.

For a new series of urban images, Matt Shaw and Will Trossell of ScanLAB Projects tuned, tweaked, and augmented a LiDAR unit—one of the many tools used by self-driving vehicles to navigate—and turned it instead into something of an artistic device for experimentally representing urban space.

The resulting shots show the streets, bridges, and landmarks of London transformed through glitches into “a landscape of aging monuments and ornate buildings, but also one haunted by duplications and digital ghosts”:

The city’s double-­decker buses, scanned over and over again, become time-­stretched into featureless mega-­structures blocking whole streets at a time. Other buildings seem to repeat and stutter, a riot of Houses of Parliament jostling shoulder to shoulder with themselves in the distance. Workers setting out for a lunchtime stroll become spectral silhouettes popping up as aberrations on the edge of the image. Glass towers unravel into the sky like smoke. Trossell calls these “mad machine hallucinations,” as if he and Shaw had woken up some sort of Frankenstein’s monster asleep inside the automotive industry’s most advanced imaging technology.

Along the way I had the pleasure of speaking to Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon and the author of Robot Futures, a book I previously featured here on the blog back in 2013. Nourbakhsh is impressively adept at generating potential narrative scenarios—speculative accidents, we might call them—in which technology might fail or be compromised, and his take on the various perceptual risks or interpretive short-comings posed by autonomous vehicle technology was fascinating.

[Image by ScanLAB Projects for The New York Times Magazine].

Alas, only one example from our long conversation made it into the final article, but it is worth repeating. Nourbakhsh used “the metaphor of the perfect storm to describe an event so strange that no amount of programming or image-­recognition technology can be expected to understand it”:

Imagine someone wearing a T-­shirt with a STOP sign printed on it, he told me. “If they’re outside walking, and the sun is at just the right glare level, and there’s a mirrored truck stopped next to you, and the sun bounces off that truck and hits the guy so that you can’t see his face anymore—well, now your car just sees a stop sign. The chances of all that happening are diminishingly small—it’s very, very unlikely—but the problem is we will have millions of these cars. The very unlikely will happen all the time.”

The most interesting takeaway from this sort of scenario, however, is not that the technology is inherently flawed or limited, but that these momentary mirages and optical illusions are not, in fact, ephemeral: in a very straightforward, functional sense, they become a physical feature of the urban landscape because they exert spatial influences on the machines that (mis-)perceive them.

Nourbakhsh’s STOP sign might not “actually” be there—but it is actually there if it causes a self-driving car to stop.

Immaterial effects of machine vision become digitally material landmarks in the city, affecting traffic and influencing how machines safely operate. But, crucially, these are landmarks that remain invisible to human beings—and it is ScanLAB’s ultimate representational goal here to explore what it means to visualize them.

While, in the piece, I compare ScanLAB’s work to the heyday of European Romanticism—that ScanLAB are, in effect, documenting an encounter with sublime and inhuman landscapes that, here, are not remote mountain peaks but the engineered products of computation—writer Asher Kohn suggested on Twitter that, rather, it should be considered “Italian futurism made real,” with sweeping scenes of streets and buildings unraveling into space like digital smoke. It’s a great comparison, and worth developing at greater length.

For now, check out the full piece over at The New York Times Magazine: “The Dream Life of Driverless Cars.”

Driving on Mars and the Theater of Machines

[Image: Self-portrait on Mars; via NASA].

Science has published a short profile of a woman named Vandi Verma. She is “one of the few people in the world who is qualified to drive a vehicle on Mars.”

Vera has driven a series of remote vehicles on another planet over the years, including, most recently, the Curiosity rover.

[Image: Another self-portrait on Mars; via NASA].

Driving it involves a strange sequence of simulations, projections, and virtual maps that are eventually beamed out from planet to planet, the robot at the other end acting like a kind of wheeled marionette as it then spins forward along its new route. Here is a long description of the process from Science:

Each day, before the rover shuts down for the frigid martian night, it calls home, Verma says. Besides relaying scientific data and images it gathered during the day, it sends its precise coordinates. They are downloaded into simulation software Verma helped write. The software helps drivers plan the rover’s route for the next day, simulating tricky maneuvers. Operators may even perform a dry run with a duplicate rover on a sandy replica of the planet’s surface in JPL’s Mars Yard. Then the full day’s itinerary is beamed to the rover so that it can set off purposefully each dawn.

What’s interesting here is not just the notion of an interplanetary driver’s license—a qualification that allows one to control wheeled machines on other planets—but the fact that there is still such a clear human focus at the center of the control process.

The fact that Science‘s profile of Verma begins with her driving agricultural equipment on her family farm in India, an experience that quite rapidly scaled up to the point of guiding rovers across the surface of another world entirely, only reinforces the sense of surprise here—that farm equipment in India and NASA’s Mars rover program bear technical similarities.

They are, in a sense, interplanetary cousins, simultaneously conjoined and air-gapped across two worlds..

[Image: A glimpse of the dreaming; photo by Alexis Madrigal, courtesy of The Atlantic].

Compare this to the complex process of programming and manufacturing a driverless vehicle. In an interesting piece published last summer, Alexis Madrigal explained that Google’s self-driving cars operate inside a Borgesian 1:1 map of the physical world, a “virtual track” coextensive with the landscape you and I stand upon and inhabit.

“Google has created a virtual world out of the streets their engineers have driven,” Madrigal writes. And, like the Mars rover program we just read about, “They pre-load the data for the route into the car’s memory before it sets off, so that as it drives, the software knows what to expect.”

The software knows what to expect because the vehicle, in a sense, is not really driving on the streets outside Google’s Mountain View campus; it is driving in a seamlessly parallel simulation of those streets, never leaving the world of the map so precisely programmed into its software.

Like Christopher Walken’s character in the 1983 film Brainstorm, Google’s self-driving cars are operating inside a topographical dream state, we might say, seeing only what the headpiece allows them to see.

[Image: Navigating dreams within dreams: (top) from Brainstorm; (bottom) a Google self-driving car, via Google and re:form].

Briefly, recall a recent essay by Karen Levy and Tim Hwang called “Back Stage at the Machine Theater.” That piece looked at the atavistic holdover of old control technologies—such as steering wheels—in vehicles that are actually computer-controlled.

There is no need for a human-manipulated steering wheel, in other words, other than to offer a psychological point of focus for the vehicle’s passengers, to give them the feeling that they can still take over.

This is the “machine theater” that the title of their essay refers to: a dramaturgy made entirely of technical interfaces that deliberately produce a misleading illusion of human control. These interfaces are “placebo buttons,” they write, that transform all but autonomous technical systems into “theaters of volition” that still appear to be under manual guidance.

I mention this essay here because the Science piece with which this post began also explains that NASA’s rover program is being pushed toward a state of greater autonomy.

“One of Verma’s key research goals,” we read, “has been to give rovers greater autonomy to decide on a course of action. She is now working on a software upgrade that will let Curiosity be true to its name. It will allow the rover to autonomously select interesting rocks, stopping in the middle of a long drive to take high-resolution images or analyze a rock with its laser, without any prompting from Earth.”

[Image: Volitional portraiture on Mars; via NASA].

The implication here is that, as the Mars rover program becomes “self-driving,” it will also be transformed into a vast “theater of volition,” in Levy’s and Hwang’s formulation: that Earth-bound “drivers” might soon find themselves reporting to work simply to flip placebo levers and push placebo buttons as these vehicles go about their own business far away.

It will become more ritual than science, more icon than instrument—a strangely passive experience, watching a distant machine navigate simulated terrain models and software packages coextensive with the surface of Mars.