My initial thoughts on where to start my minor project consistently drove me towards a project which would involve code and a lack of social interaction. Given this chance to experiment, these seemed to be unimaginative ideas particularly considering my day job as a developer. However to ensure some degree of comfort I decided to drag a common computing concept into the day light. The idea of algorithmic processes in a social/cultural/human context appealed to me. Partially to see how immersed culture and technology had become or perhaps further that technology had been augmented into our thought processes . This aim changed on numerous occasions as I progressed.
After some research on this topic I discovered that it would be useful to have a definition of what I meant by ‘algorithm’. I found numerous but early on the project rested on the following:
Using this description my research into algorithms led me to disparate areas and diverse project possibilities (discussed later). Eventually the breadth of my research led me to ask some questions about the purpose of the project and what I wanted to achieve:
1) Should I explore the algorithms that exist in our non-digital, daily life (particularly in urban space) and try to reveal these? Would these algorithms result in forms of control or manipulation? Are our perceptions of the world altered through concepts of algorithm?
2) Can they be considered only as tools which are subconsciously used? Are they simply subconscious routines? Are they innocuous/irrelevant/controlling? Is this important/?
3) Could they be used/subverted to enable people and events? Should I try to introduce subversively designed algorithm into a non-digital environment as an experiment?
From living in a city the scale of London it becomes evident that algorithmic processes surround and entrench us. The absurd number of people living and working in such close proximity means that mathematical and computational processes are necessary to ensure your bus runs on time and your shelves are stocked with food. However the algorithms I refer to here are the unconscious ones which we embed in our daily life when we interact with the city. The development of a dialogue with the city which is guided by crowds, signs or habit. This is discussed later in this paper.
…AS IDEOLOGICAL INSTRUMENT
Another area of research began with looking at the use of algorithm in the hands of the state and it’s subsidiaries. An example of this is the use of racial and ethnic profiling used by the security forces when trying to identify terrorists or the recent upsurge of predominantly black youth being ’stopped and searched’ by the police. There is much research which disclaims the techniques of data mining to identify terrorists . In fact some evidence has shown through mathematical analysis that ’strong profiling (defined as screening at least in proportion to prior probability) is no more efficient than random sampling of the entire population’ . As the planned National ID cards and database get closer to implementation the proliferation of this potentially ineffective method becomes more relevant to the entire population.
I put my thoughts on this subject to Simon Yuill who has some level of expertise in this area. This extract from the email to him also illustrates my thoughts at the time:
I’m working towards a project which is broadly related to algorithms in society, specifically non-digital algorithms. I am aiming to either reveal the layers of hidden or ignored algorithms which designate day to day existence (in cities in particular - London in this case) or to create something which parodies / belittles the use of algorithms in quantifying unquantifiable substances, such as human traits and behaviors.
He responded with some useful links and information in regards to a privatized anti-terrorist arm of the police force and a handbook dropped at a climate camp by a member of this group. The handbook charted an algorithmic processes which the law enforcer could execute on a potential trouble maker to decide what exact statements of warning needed to be made in what circumstance and what behavior would entail arrest under which terrorism law. 
Ideas / Concepts
i) Database Inquisition - In an attempt to parody and belittle the racial and ethnic profiling, I planned to create a database of people’s traits and behaviors. Either obtaining the information from volunteers, scraping it from facebook or using infamous villainous characters from cinema and literature. I would then use a predefined algorithm which would identify people as either criminals or terrorists. This algorithm would have been partially engineered from information from the police operational guides at the Home Office website with perhaps some manipulation to ensure the desired result.
Inspiration: Simon Yuill correspondence and reading into political and social profiling. Racial profiling and it’s relative lack of success. Research into algorithm as ideological instrument. The ‘database state’ we are potentially becoming.
ii) People API - An extension of the above idea. Using a currently existing source of data, from either a social networking site or any available source of personal/public data, I intended to create an API (Application Programming Interface) solely for providing personal information about people without their direct consent. This plays on the current trend of web services such as Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, etc who provide data from their site in an easily accessible format to developers in order to encourage the further use of their services. Usually these services are related to the main content subject of the site (e.g. Flickr provides access to its users photos and YouTube provides access to their users videos) but the people API would be providing purely personal information and the ability to search for groups by this information; e.g. all people of certain height, with certain beliefs, of certain skin colour. After creating these searching mechanisms the next stage would be to cynically advertise this as a tool for snooping employers to check on their staff or for the state to utilise for checking up on citizens.
Purpose: I have been told that this would in some ways be a tactical media tool, however I’m unsure whether I agree with this. This concept if implemented would have been intended cynically rather than as an actual tool.
An example below shows a call to Flickrs API which returns the photos from a specific user and for a specific place:
Below would be an equivalent call to the People API returning all the people in the dataset who are of Islamist belief and all people with blue eye colour:
Inspiration: Admittedly this concept strayed away from the use of non-digital algorithms however the relationship to my earlier research was the use of algorithm as a tool for profiling and interrogating the public.
iii) Bus Route / Data - This idea developed looking at the city and the abundance of algorithm within it. How much of our relationship with the city is designed by city planners and council bodies. I gained access to the database which is a yearly snapshot of the bus routes and stops in the capital since 1994. From this a snapshot of London’s movement at one moment in time could have been determined. The principle of the idea was to choose a route from today and to use the snapshot to plan journey.
iv) Urban Mobility / Algorithmic Psychogeography - After researching and conceptualizing various ideas on top of the others mentioned here, I settled on this which is discussed in more detail from here.
Unconscious City: Brief Description
The project I devised was an algorithmic guided experience in the city. Groups would start at a set point in the City of London and use a supplied handbook as their means of navigation. Each page of the handbook would contain a directional instruction and would engage the participants and the city in activities. Each direction and activity would be related to a conditional rule which would determine the next page to turn to and therefore the next directional instruction.
Unconscious City: Reason for choice
After researching into algorithmic processes in various forms I was encouraged to continue with this idea which was both conceptual/participatory piece and would both utilize and explore algorithms in a non-digital environment.
Unconscious City: Inspiration
There were two main areas of research for the development of this idea. Firstly academic and fictional literature and secondly previous projects with similar themes, motives or methodologies.
Simon Pope / Walter Benjamin
A recommendation and a seemingly good place to start was Simon Pope’s London Walking: A Handbook For Survival (2000). A slightly satirical self-help book for those interested in making the most out walking the city. He explores various amusing and ingenious methods/games (discussed later) which can aid in developing a new perspective on the city. From reading Pope’s handbook I discovered that German sociologist Walter Benjamin had a tumultuous relationship with urban walking and the city. In an extract from London Walking, Benjamin points out that urban walking, for all its allusions to free-thinking and independence is often dependent on passing shops, billboards and other traces of consumer capitalism for points of interest. Elsewhere Benjamin wrote about living in Paris which he referred to it as the Traumstadt, the Dream City. This was inspired by Surrealist novels about the city of Paris which he believed could awaken in people the same ‘Dream City’.
Aspen Movie Map / James Joyce - Ulysses
During my research I digressed into prior projects involving digital exploration of the city. I came across the Aspen Movie Map; the first interactive movie map from the late 1970’s. It was a good example of a non-linear exploration of a space. It was credited at the time for giving the impression of an infinite database. There was no end to the places you could go, the corners you could turn when exploring Aspen through this new medium. This would be, one assumes, in order to achieve a similar feeling to having the real experience of walking through Aspen; being able to take any route or corner. The project, quite rightly, was hailed for its concept and technicalities and not for it’s alternative approach to interacting with the city. It did however create a different relationship with the city through a medium. In the same, James Joyce’s Ulysses, is said to have ‘taught us to see a city in a new way’ (Mitchell, 2004, pg103). Without personally reading Ulysses I cannot claim to have experienced this but his work is revered as a ground breaking approach to literature, using a stream-of-consciousness technique to create a non-linear account of a day in Dublin.
Urban Space and Representation - Maria Balshaw
Balshaw’s book influenced my conceptual process in two separate directions. She discusses the French sociologist Lefebvre and his desire for us to see that space is not simply the parameter or ’stage’ of social relations and actions, rather it is operative in the ‘assembly’ of these. She also speaks of Foucault ’s opinion of the space.
“For Foucault, space can no longer be treated as ‘the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile’; it is understood as intricately operative in the constructions of social power and knowledge.” (Balshaw, 2000, pg2).
This emphasised my feelings about interactions with the London, particularly with it’s polar social inequalities and authoritarian state influence, as a place where the city is a major part of social assemblages. Despite this and the many politicized projects involving the city which I researched, I was keen to not necessarily politicise or make social commentary the focus of my own work. This statement from Balshaw however more accurately enabled me to see the city as a mutable substance with which we can build up a co-existing consciousness:
“The City is a slippery notion. It slides back and forth between an abstract idea and concrete material. While this is a useful reminder of the basic instability of perception, sliding back and forth between subject and object of attention, it also suggests that critical analysis needs to be attentive to this slipperiness and its spatialisation in cognitive (and less conscious) apprehension of ‘the city”. (Balshaw, 2000, pg3).
I was encourage from reading this to try to explore the ’slipperiness’ of the city in people’s perceptions. From this point I will discuss previous projects whose themes and motives align with mine and some whose methodologies were inspiring.
Simon Pope’s London Walking: A Handbook For Survival
As mentioned earlier Simon Pope’s Handbook For Survival explores some interesting methods of exploring the city, quite often using an algorithmic process. One example is using the sounds of bird call to generate a zoned walk:
1. Find a local bird. Walk towards it, until it sounds louder than any other bird.
2. Listen as it calls. There will be a distant reply from a neighbouring bird of the same species.
3. Walk towards the neighbouring bird and away from the local one.
4. Keep walking until the neighbouring bird becomes the new local bird.
5. Repeat 1.
(Pope, S, 2000, pg 82)
Lottie Child - Doing Nothing / Street Training / Urban Climbing
Lottie Child’s project Doing Nothing is exactly as it sounds. In Urban Space it seems to be a challenge to the life pace that the city requires. Below is a statement from Lottie Child on this subject.
“Last Monday i lay on the pavement near to Habitat on Tottenham Court Road from 5.30pm - 6.00 as the commuters became fewer and the evening light changed - you notice different things when you stop and do close to nothing. I ignored people but occasionally when they caught my eye they smiled and i wonder if doing nothing in public space throws all the speed and activity into contrast i wonder if it makes people reflect differently on all the doing we are doing and the ways we behave in London.” Lottie Child 
Urban Climbing and Street Training are her improvised methods of having effect on our surroundings equal to that which our surroundings have on us. In both Urban Climbing, Lottie would lead a group of open minded participants into the city and show them different methods of interacting with her environment. Most things had an intentionally childish theme to them in order to foster in others a way of engaging creatively with their surroundings. This included climbing buildings, escalator swapping, floor sliding and more.
Upward Mobility - Alex Villar
This project involves a short film of the artist making various attempts to move upwards in urban space. Climbing up walls, bus stops and anything else available. Villar is shunning the everyday horizontal movement which is necessary to travel around the city. He is challenging the means by which city planning forces movement in a particular trajectory.
As the project became more about interaction with urban space, Psychogeography became an relevant area of research. It is perhaps the most thoroughly explored methodology for alternative urban exploration. Over decades it had been incarnated and utilized by different groups. Originally defined by Guy Debord in a 1950’s paper, entitled “Theory of Dérive”, whilst part of the the Letterist International, the process has history in the even older concept of Flâneur which has various meanings; “stroller”, “lounger” or “saunterer” . Put simply, Psychogeography can include anything which encourages the participant to use his or her imagination to experience the urban surroundings in a new way.
Of great interest, considering my original topic, was Algorithmic Psychogeography. Social Fiction, the group who experimented with this process, said they grew dissatisfied with the traditional Psychogeographer’s techniques. Their new algorithmic method was partially influenced by John Conway’s Game of Life in which the simplicity of the rule sets still leads to complex, emergent behaviour. The algorithms employed were a list of simple instructions, for example 2nd right - 2nd right - 1st left - repeat. 
Lee Walton - City System
Finally, City System is a project by a American artist Lee Walton, which gave me the template for the activities involved in Unconscious City. After I contacted him to let him know about my work, he replied telling me that City System is at the heart of all his work as an artist.
Project Detail - http://garethfoote.co.uk/maim/unconsciouscity
There should be a hard copy of a booklet attached but if not the Unconscious City handbook is available in PDF format at the following address:
As mentioned the template for this project was Lee Walton’s city system. My version of this was a 65pg A5 handbook with a set of algorithmic instructions/directions/activities on each. Each page had both a direction/vector/path/activity to take part in and then a conditional statement in which the result of the activity would determine the next page to turn to.
Technical problems which I predicted before the project were:
1) discrete instructions (turn right/go east) relating to a non-discrete environment. In some cases there may be no right turn and in other cases go east would lead the participant into a brick wall. In most cases these problems were accounted for by statements such as “take the next available right then turn to page x” / “go east for as long as possible and then turn to pg y”; but participants are advised to use their discernment.
2) getting stuck in a loop within the booklet. Some of the instructions were designed to take the participant in a loop (through the same pages of the booklet) until a certain activity had been fulfilled and in other cases this could happen purely by chance.
Before the event I posted a brief as a blog post at the following address which was designed to give the participants the chance to see what sort of methodologies had inspired this project, alongside some practical information about appropriate clothing and arrival times.
Project Accompanying Text
Before the event I thought about how I would describe the motives for this project. After some consideration I rested on the following paragraph which accompanies the project detail at project site (http://garethfoote.co.uk/maim/unconsciouscity/)
“I endeavored within this project to examine algorithms outside their natural home of mathematics and computing. Uncovering their various forms, functions and definitions enabled me to see the myriad processes being ‘executed’ on and by people - consciously and unconsciously.
We are structurally coupled to our environment. I exist because I define my perceived domain and it is stable and reliable. The objects I see and recognise in this domain exist because I define them against a background; in their own space. This structural coupling brings about equilibrium; a co-dependent relationship between observer and environment.
This equilibrium is perpetuated by a consistent dialogue with our environment; with the city. Whilst I follow algorithmic routine this equilibrium is stable, as is the conscious city I perceive.
Marginal change to this equilibrium will do nothing other than shift my conscious domain; in the same way it shifts over time. Drastic, unexpected or unconventional change may cause disequilibrium. This is an attempt to find my own unconscious city.”
Reflection / Results
Opposed to the Social Fiction’s Algorithmic Psychogeography rules, which are random instructions, the one’s in the Unconscious City Handbook had a relationship to their specific surroundings. Whereas Social Fiction were relying on chance and inquisitiveness to enhance some one’s experience of the city, City System and Unconscious City are both engineered to their environments (London/San Francisco). There was an element of design involved in which common objects and features of the specific city were considered and incorporated into the activities and the conditionals which decided which page to turn to next. Some of the activities where slightly elaborate and intended to be amusing or challenging. Some examples of the activities involved were:
- following people
- going into a shop and interacting with the owner
- going into a hotel and following someone into an escalator
- writing messages on a near surface with chalk (provided)
- doing the splits
These rules, although playful and ephemeral, were designed to hopefully allow the participants to relax in and develop a relationship with their environment. If the overt aim of the exercise was to ‘develop a new relationship with the city’ then it would be hard to concentrate on anything other than this.
One of my regrets from the project was with my inability to decide on one concept earlier in the process. I feel that I have made a lot of progress in understanding a broad range of topic areas however my dedication to sticking to a central theme of algorithm meant I restricting myself. Towards the end of the project I decided that I would have liked to have looked at this idea of an unconscious city from the perspective of Humberto Manturana and Francisco Varela’s theory of cognition. Their idea of being structural coupled to your experiential world allowed me to think about how we live our field of vision and to explore the idea of discontinuities in the experiential world.
In hindsight the activities themselves were technically successful. Both groups followed the instructions from different starting points and ended up in far reaching corners of the city. I believe my own experience as a member of one of the groups was clouded. Planning this project for some time gave me the chance to make my own predictions before the day about events that would be enabled or the (unconscious) city which would be unveiled. I believe this tainted my personal experience of the event because I was too conscious of my own aims and investment in the project.
Despite this I am pleased that I have the PDF of the Unconscious City and the project site to explain the process in order to enable others to take part if they wish.
 http://publish.indymedia.org.uk/en/2008/08/405393.html - Policing Protest: Pocket Legislation Guide
Balshaw, Maria. & Kennedy, Liam. 2000. Urban Space and Representation. Michigan, University of Michigan Press.
Mitchell, William, J. 2004. Me++: The Cyborg Self and The Networked City. Cambridge, The MIT Press.
Pope, Simon. 2000. London Walking: A Handbook for Survival. London, Ellipsis.