Lab Notes I

Smile and the City Knows You’re Smiling

What would it be like to measure and publicize the emotions of a city’s dwellers? Would we like what we saw? Would it benefit us? Or in an era of data deluge, are there some things that are simply better left unknown?

Well, that really depends on whom you ask.

This question was the philosophical heart of an art installation that made a splash a few years ago when it was first installed in Berlin, and later in Lindau, a small town in southern Germany.

The gigantic neon smiley face, known as the Feel-o-Meter or Public Face, displayed the mood of the city in real time. Hooked up to a sophisticated software system first developed in 2007 by the Fraunhofer Institut that analyzed the facial expression of random city-goers, it fed the data to the smiley. The smiley then subsequently shifted its expression in real time from happy to sad or neutral depending on the overall emotional state of the people.

Currently awaiting re-installation atop a warehouse in Berlin, the Feel-o-Meter is the extreme incarnation of our recently honed ability to measure human emotion. And it was originally intended as a criticism of the technology.

“We wanted to make people aware that it is possible to see their emotions, and that not only what they say is monitored, but also what they feel,” says Julius von Bismark, one of the Feel-o-Meter’s three creators.

But the installation also prompted the artists, and the citizens, to really question how much we want to know about what’s happening inside those around us.

“We wanted people to start considering if they want people to read their emotions, and if they want to know others’ emotions; if they want to be private or they want to be public. That’s what it comes to in the end—what is private, and what is public?” says von Bismark.

It’s a question that is increasingly relevant in an era of unprecedented interest in the emotional state of city life.

From Mappiness and the Emotional Cities project, to Colin Ellard and Charles’ Montgomery’s Testing Testing experiment at the Lab that measured the psychological effect of streetscape design, now more than ever we are paying attention not just to the physical state of our cities and citizens, but the emotional state as well.

This, von Bismark argues, is not necessarily a positive thing. Though he admits that having a machine tell us how the city is feeling might be better than what we currently rely on—corporate and mass media—he compares the situation to the stock market.

There, he says the feelings of the traders are not only reflected in the market’s fluctuations—“if they’re afraid, they sell, if they feel good they buy”—but they influence the entire overall state of the market, and thus society as a whole.

“Knowing how the stock market feels doesn’t make the world any better,” von Bismark says. “So knowing how everyone else is feeling, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s actually a good thing… I think having a bit less communication with others might help a bit.”

But imagine for a moment if, instead of one smiley icon representing the emotions of the city overall, there were several scattered throughout the various neighborhoods.

Would that change our understanding of a city’s geographic politics?

Amy Hillier believes it would. A professor in city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of design, Hillier has a background in sociology and social work, with a PhD in social welfare.

She says that while we’ve become incredibly sophisticated in mapping and understanding the physical aspects of city life, we will never get to heart of true social justice issues in unless we can begin to understand the emotional experience of the citizens.

“My interest is not breaking into the vault of people’s private emotions”—especially, she stresses, not without the necessary informed consent—“but to really understand what’s going on in the city, and what we need to do.”

“We all see the same built environment. We’re all seeing the same physical city. But the idea that somebody could be experiencing something different… that is the heart of disparity,” she says.

Yes, you can see some minor visual differences in, say, housing quality or the state of infrastructure in various parts of the city. But to map something like sadness, frustration, or the feeling of opportunity would really unlock the true inequalities within the city.

It is an idea that she first came up with while looking at maps of deaths by gunshot throughout Philadelphia.

To understand the distribution of those deaths, she says, is one thing. But to understand the distribution of the grief they cause would give us a completely different idea of where and how the problem needs to be addressed.

“Equalizing that emotional experience somehow is as important as equalizing the built environment,” she says.

Of course, no piece of knowledge exists in a vacuum. Once information is released into the world we have no control over the consequences that information may have. So how would the knowledge of our city’s emotional state affect us on an individual level? Can we feel the burden of an entire city’s worth of feelings?

You’ll have to wait to find out. Stay tuned for our next Lab|log post on the fascinating psychology of emotional contagion in the city.

Images: courtesy Julius von Bismark

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the second is the Need to Promote Emotional Cityness.