MASTERS THESIS: Enough is the New More: Reframing Scarcity to Feel Like Abundance, by Steve Hamilton


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Steve Hamilton’s master's thesis began with a manifesto "ENOUGH is the New MORE" which— through a series of design-driven dialectics—reframes scarcity to feel like abundance. The manifesto eschews growth-based metrics of success, and rejects the last several centuries of Western economic culture—instead offering a more humane and sustainable alternative to the commodification of happiness. 

 

Hamilton developed a series of interventions designed to create empathy between pedestrians and bicyclists and improve the emotional landscape of street users.

 

Steve's early research wades through a miasma of “wicked problems,” including vastly embedded systemic structures such as energy, materials, transportation, and urban planning. The breadth of such problems generated an overwhelming scope, and nearly derailed the process.

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After program chair Allan Chochinov exhorted Steve to stop viewing this overwhelming scope as a problem and begin viewing it as an opportunity, Steve created a speculative appliance prototype that “allowed every thing to become one thing.” Through this ruminative making-based process, he identified an interventionable landscape narrow enough to explore deeply during a year-long thesis process, yet with repercussions impacting every area he’d already touched upon. He realized that the bicycle he’d used to commute all over New York City for the past twenty years provided both a material and philosophical metier that could be probed through several design lenses, described in detail below.

Steve developed a series of interventions designed to create empathy between pedestrians and bicyclists and improve the emotional landscape of street users. The goal was to influence ways in which our built environment could better express the developing ideal of sustainable transportation centered upon bicycling. The lenses that framed these interventions included Politics, Psychology, Education, Experience, Technology, and Speculation.

 

Political: Crossblock
Attending a discussion of a proposed bike lane on Spring Street—conducted as part of a Manhattan Community Board 2 meeting—proved revealing. Those against the lane expressed sentiments that bicyclists are scofflaws. In turn, bicycling advocates portrayed those against the bike lane as a bunch of NIMBY yobs. One man quivered with rage as he recalled a time, two or three decades ago, when “pedestrians could walk around Manhattan without constant fear of being run over by bicycles!” He wanted to return to those halcyon days. 

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Understanding this antipathy isn’t difficult. Observing any intersection in Manhattan for just a short time typically reveals several acts of intimidating—and often downright hostile—bicyclist behavior. Steve believed bicyclists could benefit from making the first overtures towards ending this conflict and prototyped a behavioral intervention called CrossBlock. Instead of running a red light, bicyclists stop perpendicular to their direction of travel, and assume a CrossBlock position, fists clenched in an act of defiance but arms open in a welcoming embrace. By positioning themselves between cars in the street and pedestrians in the crosswalk, CrossBlocking bicyclists emphasize that automobiles are not the favored form of transportation on New York City’s streets and send a message to pedestrians that we’re all in this together.

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Listening to some at the community board meeting, "it would be easy to assume that only assholes get on bicycles," Steve argues. More likely, though, it is the constant danger, indignity, and battle for space which evokes this defensive, hostile behavior. Forcing bicyclists to adhere to the exact same legal structure as automobiles—which are larger, more dangerous, and more damaging to the environment—while simultaneously ignoring the experiences of these bicyclists, arguably does more to draw out this scofflaw behavior than the individual personalities of the cyclists themselves.

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The position and posturing of CrossBlock symbolically illustrates this middle zone that bicycles occupy. Without a third space carved out legally and physically on our streets, bicyclists are forced to oscillate between infrastructures designed for pedestrians and those designed for automobiles in a vacuum that is as tenuous as it is vulnerable. CrossBlock takes the moral high road by asking bicyclists to change their behavior first, with the hope that empathy and support may follow, leading to political change down the road.

 

Psychological: Crosstalk!
Danish social scientist Ole Jensen suggests that as our digital networks become increasingly mobile: “The mobile subject to a large extent is becoming what he or she is while being on the move.”  He goes on to emphasize that “exchanges of reciprocity become essential for the mobile order of everyday life,” and these “interactions are equivalent to negotiations-in-motion.”

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CrossTalk was developed for a future world blanketed by ambient computing technology; where every individual occupies a node on a ubiquitous public mobile network that buffers them from fully experiencing these moment-by-moment interactions. Because most engagements occur through social media, encounters in the physical sphere of this world become awkward, and result in (sometimes violent) conflict.

 

When a pedestrian or bicyclist experiences dangerous behavior the victim executes a crosstalk gesture, quickly crossing wrists over forehead. Haptic signals alert everybody in the intersection and the Crosstalk expands as those present mimic the gesture.

 

Borrowing from Gordon Pask’s conversation theory, Crosstalk addresses the feedback loops of violent emotions generated, sustained, and amplified by the subjective experience of each other’s behaviors—and subsequently leverages a ubiquitous network to generate positive conversations.

Crosstalk uses gestural interfaces embedded in wearable computers to initiate these conversations. When a pedestrian or bicyclist experiences dangerous behavior the victim executes a crosstalk gesture, quickly crossing wrists over forehead. Haptic signals alert everybody in the intersection and the Crosstalk expands as those present mimic the gesture.

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Crosstalk then sends automated messages to everyone present. Crafted by therapists to build relationships, these messages evoke empathy in others and provide constructive criticism to the perpetrator.

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The gestural language of Crosstalk goes back even further than Pask, as it borrows from Shaker Spiritual dances developed during the 1700s and passed down through oral history and folk-practice across centuries. The simple repetitive gestures shared during Shaker worship strengthened the bonds of the community. These gestures symbolically reconnect our alienated contemporary culture to a time when the grounding core of the community was communication, mutual support, and shared presence.

 

 

Crosstalk wraps everybody in a therapeutically and technologically generated group hug.

 

As shown by research undertaken by Mark Waldman and Andrew Newberg, M.D., and shared in their 2012 book Words Can Change Your Brain, findings in the field of Positive Psychology indicate that despite being computer generated, this kind of dialog can change behavior for the better, Crosstalk wraps everybody in a therapeutically and technologically generated group hug—and reweaves the fragile threads of community.

 

Educational: Vision Zero: The Board Game
Vision Zero: The Board Game, is inspired by a program founded 20 years ago in Sweden that was recently adopted by New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio. The program’s goal is to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2030, and promotes what it refers to as “the three E’s: Education, Enforcement, and Engineering.” The Game tackles the Educational “E”, aiming to teach players the benefits of shifting to a less auto-centric infrastructure. 

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The board consists of an intersection between a three-lane avenue and a two-lane street, with four corners and four crosswalks. These crosswalks are, in turn, divided into movement squares. Players roll a die and attempt to move safely around the intersection through the crosswalks. While circling the board and earning points, players must simultaneously avoid landing in traffic court...or in the morgue! Players can gain favors by meeting the mayor and attending city council meetings simulating political engagement. 

As players circle the board, they earn points that can be applied toward installing infrastructure favoring pedestrians and bicyclists—such as Bus-Rapid-Transit, bike lanes, medians, and buffers. At the start of the game the board begins populated with cars, but these are eventually replaced as infrastructure cards are played. Each card includes facts describing the proven benefits of these infrastructural upgrades—from cities where such improvements have been successfully applied. 

Over the course of the game, favorable infrastructure proliferates, cars are removed, and crossings are shortened. This reduces risk and increases the speed at which additional infrastructure can be added, in a virtuous cycle that mirrors positive outcomes already witnessed in cities like Freiburg, Germany, Bogota, Colombia, and Copenhagen, Denmark—each of which have made considerable commitments to sustainable transport, Bus-Rapid-Transit, and bicycling infrastructure. 

The simulated experience develops a capacity for empathy between all road users by increasing understanding when citizens encounter infrastructure improvements such as sidewalk bulges, delayed green signals (to give pedestrians a head start), and bus-loading medians. The ultimate goal of Vision Zero: The Board Game is to educate people about the different design interventions a city can implement, and raise awareness about the many positive outcomes that these interventions produce.

 

Experiential: The Anarchy of the Imagination
The Anarchy of the Imagination explores the psycho/emotive landscape posited by Hans Monderman’s “shared space” proposal for designing urban intersections that lack markings and signals.

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Monderman and others suggest that increasing uncertainty concerning right of way at an intersection leads drivers to reduce their speed and pay more attention, thereby reducing the risk for everyone. The system functions thanks to the many “negotiations in motion” described in Ole Jensen’s books Designing Mobilities and Staging Mobilities.

 

The goal of the avatars was to focus awareness on the space we occupy and question assumptions about our right to occupy public space.

 

During this experience, twenty-eight participants were guided through a movement exercise led by award-winning choreographer Jodi Melnick while responding to live music performed by members of the experimental Danish electronic jazz band Hess is More.

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Midway through the experience, just as participants were “finding a groove with each other,” they began to get fitted with “automotive avatars” designed and built by Hamilton. The avatars ranged in size from 2x3 feet to 5x8 feet, and were suspended by shoulder harnesses. The goal of the avatars was to focus awareness and question assumptions about the public spaces we share. As a result, participants examined their behavior towards others while navigating built environments.

Enjoy the short video of the project below:

[The Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), an international group dedicated to research and education in the Social Sciences, invited Hamilton to present The Anarchy of the Imagination at their annual conference in Denver in November of 2015. More about the conference is available at this link.]

 

Technological: Music of the Spheres
Music of the Spheres harnesses bicyclists’ kinetic energy to generate a mobile symphony of sonorous sounds. The system alerts pedestrians to bicyclists’ presence and encourages bicyclists to cluster, subsequently increasing safety. Using geo-location or physical sensors, when other similarly-equipped bicycles came into proximity with one another, the tones harmonize—creating chords when riding together and exciting doppler resonances when passing one another. The project went through three iterations, starting with analog electronics, moving on to a purely analog organ-pipe whistle, followed by a digital microprocessor-based solution.

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Initially, Steve developed a set of analog electronic circuits that could generate sound and amplify it through a speaker. It was a purist’s perspective, but the first models didn’t sound pleasant. Ray Wilson, who designs and builds analog synthesizer kits (also the resident alien music expert at musicfromouterspace.com), advised that tuning analog frequencies was going to be very difficult, and building sufficiently pleasant-sounding circuits would be cost-prohibitive. He felt Steve’s time would be better spent working on geo-location and interaction between bicyclists within the system, while using an Arduino microprocessor to generate the tones.

Undaunted, Steve made one more purist attempt. Following guidance on building pipe organs found online and in George Ashdown Audsley’s The Art of Organ Building, he built a large wooden whistle. Hamilton posited that if he built a set of whistles in the same key, the pipes would harmonize without electronic intervention at all. But although the resulting whistle was both loud and sonorous, the physics of airflow interfered and rendered the pipe useless on a moving bicycle.

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(Barry Greenhut, who teaches an NYU graduate seminar titled The Physics of Music, revealed that a whistle of this type requires more than just air passing through it (as Hamilton surmised). Instead, air passing through and over it generates an oscillating pressure differential at the thin, “reed like” opening of the pipe—the frequency of which provides the pitch of the tone. The additional airflow across the opening, generated by the whistle itself being in motion, disrupted the laminar flow across the opening and rendered the whistle mute while traveling on a bicycle.)

 

The system will grow to include custom beats and songs that can be marketed using a payment structure similar to ringtones for mobile phones. 

 

Switching over to microprocessor technology allowed Steve to repurpose electronics he’d designed for The Portal Project at Wanted Design. The portal “read your aura,” and revealed it sonically using an Arduino-based four-voice wave table synthesizer triggered by an ultrasonic proximity sensor. The piece had been popular, and the sounds it generated were indeed pleasant. So with the electronics taken care of, he turned his attention to the business infrastructure required to make this project viable.

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Critical mass was necessary for the interactive elements of this project, so Hamilton’s business model proposed seeding the streets by partnering with Citi Bike, New York City’s popular new bike-sharing system. Citi Bike currently has 3500 bikes on the streets, and will be expanding to 7000 over the next two years. Because Citi Bike is a sharing system, its bikes are constantly in circulation, taking close to an average of 40,000 trips a day throughout the city of New York.

Once this partnership established a base of users, it would be possible to begin marketing less expensive models to other demographics "like urban hipsters and Park Slope parents." The latter would be particularly attracted to the safety component of sonically alerting surrounding traffic to their children’s presence. By making bicycling more musical, social, and fun for kids, it could also help reduce childhood obesity.

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The flexibility of a microprocessor-based sound generation system allows for customization and expansion of the system. The system will grow to include custom beats and songs that can be marketed using a payment structure similar to ringtones for mobile phones. 

 

The project envisions a future of bicycle-based foragers who gather spilled oil and process it into gasoline in DIY meth-lab-scale distilleries for sale and trade on the black market. 

 

Speculative: Tools for an Unsustainable Future
Using a 2x2 speculative future matrix, and imagining a future in which sustainability remains low and the price of gasoline is very high, Tools for an Unsustainable Future merges today’s consumerist narratives with hipster coffee culture. "It envisions a future of bicycle-based foragers," Steve writes, "who gather spilled oil and process it into gasoline in DIY meth-lab-scale distilleries for sale and trade on the black market. Artisanal culture meets Mad-Max dystopia as a consumption-based society progresses unchecked despite shortages, pollution, and adverse climate-related effects."

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In this imagined future, fashionable hipsters have jettisoned their home coffee roasting systems and instead pedal off together on OKCupid-enabled oil collection dates, filling their growlers and returning home to nuanced discussions about filtering and mixing artisanal octanes.

 

The system bolts onto any bicycle and, in an extension of today’s focus on artisanal hand-crafted goods, features genuine leather, brass rivets, and beautifully-finished baltic birch plywood. A colorful impeller pump sucks up oil spilled by one of many pipelines criss-crossing the future countryside to satisfy society’s unslaked thirst for gasoline and other oil-based products. The black gold is stored and transported in glass growlers, nestled safely in leather panniers.

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In this imagined future, fashionable hipsters have jettisoned their home coffee roasting systems and instead pedal off together on OKCupid-enabled oil collection dates, filling their growlers and returning home to nuanced discussions about filtering and mixing artisanal octanes.

 

The Median is the Message: Where It All Comes Together
Mirroring the process undertaken from thinking to doing and from theorizing to making, this thesis began with a manifesto based upon an idea. It ends with a metaphor rooted firmly within the physical world. The exploration began with huge system-based theories—overwhelming in their scope—and led to a small, yet powerful place, often overlooked in the built environment of our cities: the traffic median.

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The traffic median is laden with possibilities for examining ways in which the physical world communicates with people. Decisions about infrastructure communicate legislative priorities to citizen-users, expressing a form of gestural politics. The median communicates values, hierarchies, order, and even favor. It negotiates distances. For vulnerable users it provides refuge. Potentially a soapbox for pedestrian rights, the median acts as a barrier between cars and pedestrians, cars and bicycles, and bicycles and pedestrians—a protection that can nurture, or alienate, users. It’s sometimes called an island, which can imply both refuge, and isolation. Does the median give voice to these users, or simply articulate the dominant mores in our society? Does our built environment frame our dialog in more significant ways than we think? And if so, how?

The primary goal of Hamilton’s thesis was to explore the paradigm shifts that could lead individuals towards a more sustainable engagement with society. This engagement requires nothing less than a total rejection of our consumption-focused, growth-oriented economic structure, and a complete reconfiguration of our polarized two-party political system. "This shift also involves reimagining our relationship to automobiles," Steve argues, "as they represent the most strident example of our timorous grip upon unsustainable ideals."

Steve concludes the project with the following: "Aside from a transformative technological breakthrough—which would almost certainly involve a cheap, unlimited, and non-polluting source of energy—there is no possibility for current society to survive without radically altering our core values. Viewing a widely accessible form of transportation—bicycling—through the various lenses of politics, psychology, education, experience, technology and speculation, provides a window into one possible sea change that can help overcome the perceived impossibility of righting our course. This thesis plants a seed for a future where New Yorkers and their bicycles show the rest of the United States, and perhaps even the rest of the world, a promising way forward. No man or woman is an island. If we all get on our bikes and pedal across this one, we can prove it."

Learn more about Steve Hamilton's work at iamstevehamilton.com and contact him at steve[at]madmadjudy[dot]com.

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