An organic model of the connected world

— The Nervous Breakdown of the Global Body

The Nervous Breakdown of the Global Body
An organic model of the connected world

By Maurice Benayoun,

CITU, Laboratory Section, University Paris 8

To live the map and read the city

Technology has simultaneously enabled the fusion of the map and the territory and the informational porosity of the urban space. To experience the map and read the city are two aspects of the same activity. Mobile devices become ambulatory decryption instruments that maintain the link with physical networks, and, thus, with the rest of the connected world. There are more and more attempts to interpret local indexes unique to the urban informational space. One of the more publicized applications proposes overlaying generally graphical information on the physical space, so that it will be perceived by the camera on a mobile device. This is made possible with the combination of GPS for location (approximate) and the compass for orientation, sometimes combined with the accelerometer. This is a complex technology that attempts to remedy the lack of real homothety between physical space and information space. One can imagine that improvement in the precision of location and guidance devices will enable approaching that which is called augmented reality, which is the insertion of information in a geometrically coherent manner into the physical space, or its representation, updated in real time. There are, however, numerous means to translate geographical coherence of information without forcing an ambiguous gesture that is incompatible with the reality of urban practices. It is hard to imagine streets crossed by hordes of tourists, brandishing, like Sherlock Holmes of the twenty-first century, tracking the index in the gap, digital microscope in hand, arm outstretched towards objects of interest. Time and use end up by being correct processes that contribute more to the questions they ask than to the solutions they offer.

Mixed realities and realities of substitution

Beyond these highly anticipated applications, new uses will emerge from these augmented visions. More than an augmented reality telescope, TelescopeRA was developed by CITU as a permanently established laboratory with the cooperation of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (National Monuments Centers) at the top of the Arc de Triomphe. It becomes an observatory for scopic urban practices. We anticipate deviant uses, which is a reason for our research. Mixed and substitute realities, the representations may be affected by the subjectivity, the imaginary, symbolic intention, artistic appropriation. It is the realism of the augmented representation of legitimacy of the chrono-geolocalization that gives a special status to the matter. The “it has occured” of Barthes’ writing on photography becomes the “it is happening here and now” of the discourse hybridizing the real environment and mixed information. When, in augmented reality, the proposal announced is interposed between the observer and their environment, and it is affect, furthermore, by an external reality (elsewhere and now) seeping through the network, the informational spectacle carries another value. It reflects on the complexity of the inter-penetration of layers of reality, each claiming legitimacy and vying for the visitor’s attention.


The Telescope shows the view of the city. It reveals, in its networking, the potential of an interconnected approach of sensory processes, perception and interpretation of urban realities. If vision is the dominant sense implemented in the perception of our environment, it is not enough to take into consideration the relation of the individual to the city in which they live or visit. While living, thinking, and communicating entities (homo sapiens<>sapiens), they are fundamentally interconnected, and the chain that links perception-reception-interpretation-transmission-feedback of the collective-decision-action is hyper-activated by the networks. We must rethink the singular relationship that links each individual to the whole of connected humanity.

The global village

As suggested by McLuhan, whom history has vindicated in various ways, means of transportation and communication have changed our perception of the world, by reducing the planet to the level of the town. The concepts of proximity, visibility, accessibility are altered when any point on the planet can be reached in one day. One day for Napoleon was the temporal measurement unit for administrative space, which allowed limiting the contours of the French departments. This spatial-temporal boundary now encompasses the entire planet. From the department to the planet, these are the notions of the individual, the neighbor, the people, the nation, which are continually discussed again.

The global body and the planetary nervous system

Proliferation of networks connection individuals has caused another mutation. Now, all of humanity, interconnected cells, constitutes a virtual global body, in which the network would be the nervous system. As always, the metaphor has its limits; that of the global nervous system, however, takes on full meaning insofar as each individual person becomes a potential transmitter in the planetary informational system, playing the role of a nerve ending. They translate, with each informational transmission, the specific view from one point on the globe. If, for the sensualists (Condillac), sensation preceded intelligence, this would be the development of a global sensory system, which allows the emergence from a planetary coherence of an attempt at distributed virtual intelligence, a condition necessary for the individuation of humanity, itself, to guarantee survival within the ecosystem that it attempts to control.

The consequences of this development are numerous.

The individual and the environment
The concept of a global body directly refers to the relationship between an individual and their environment. It is the consolidation of exchanges which creates humanity’s hypersensitivity to its environment. The awareness of interactions between local actions and global consequences is a direct result of the confrontation in real time of informational feedback.

System coverage (phantom limbs)

We understand, additionally, that a global perception of the planet is possible by considering all of the information produced in response to individual and collective situations. Now all of humanity is not transmitting. Bodies in which all the parts are not sensitive risks injury that may affect the entire system, just as if a limb or organ (according to the function of that part in the planetary exchange) were unresponsive, and could not sense and report illnesses that affect it. Gangrene may spread without the application of any healing action. Unlike the amputated limb, the presence of which one still feels, it is an existing limb that the organism does not feel.

The distributed brain

All perceptual information transmitted by individuals, whether incorporated in groups or not, is not transmitted to a central system for control and decision making, but rather to the entire body, which can be organized into instance of information relays, decision-making, and actions to determine the appropriate action.
The risk perfectly denounced by Paul Virilio would be a type of overreaction that could be equated to anaphylactic shock. The organism previously sensitized by an initial shock could asphyxiate in an attempt to prevent a second attack. Recent history abounds with examples of such reactions. It is the spreading of decision-making instances that limits this risk, and the same spreading that hinders the application of concerted reactions.

The convertibility of perception.

The convergence of databases allows better evaluation of information coming from the nerve endings. However, the information coming from individuals are rendered difficult to interpret insofar as they are addressed to a limited portion of the system, and, for this reason, do not require information formatting or calibration.

Information calibration

It is interesting to imagine, taking into full consideration the risks related to the autonomy and freedom of individuals, how to enable citizens to participate in the non-centralized collection of information usually reserved to territorial and political authorities. measurement of pollution, noise, temperature, light, humidity, electromagnetic fields, thus become public property which can be assess for use in individual and collective decision making. Anyone can decide to participate in this collection of information that is useful to everyone, using, for this purpose, an adapted, calibrated nerve ending.

Cartographic representation (Mapping)

The data feedback from the individuals is only suitable for an interpretation while passing by an easily interpretable form of representation. Localized information naturally takes place on a map, itself a graphical representation of the territory. Spatial (mapping) and temporal (real time input, accelerated representation of developments in time from the sensors) representation converge to provide a data set interpretable by anyone, allowing collective (political) and personal (comparison of biometric perceptions with environmental data in the private sphere) decision making.

Each is a receiver of environmental factors, contributes to fine-tuning the representations, supports collective decision making, and benefits, in return, from the results for personal decision making.

To share, and also preserve

One must distinguish between information that can be shared and information that should only be used by the individual concerned. While it is interesting to share measurements of pollution in order to establish a real-time public performance, it may be questionable to share biometric information on a large scale, since it can, in conjunction with environmental data, facilitate decision-making for personal survival. Thus, during his daily run, the individual can compare his heartbeat to the atmospheric ratio of CO2 in order to evaluate the risk of danger in the exercise.. It would be more questionable for his cardiac data to be used by others to determine the validity of an insurance policy or the sustainability of employment.

The informational skin

 To stretch the metaphor of the global body and stay within the limits of acceptable relevance, the exterior data collection system functions outside the individual, like the skin of the human body. The skin protects the individual from outside intrusions but also remains permeable to information likely to be of interest in the implementation of survival strategies. For this purpose, it is equipped with sensors/receptors that constitute the functional system of the 5 senses, necessary, in their complementarity, for decision-making and individual action.

The artificial sensor system that can accompany the individual in a greater understanding of its environment, especially in a qualified perception, able to be interpreted and transmitted to the external environment, plays the role of an informational skin.

Posting and informational interiority

This informational skin must assume all of its functions, and, hence, distinguish between interiority and exteriority, privacy and public life, incoming data and outgoing data. Human skin may be adorned with makeup, tattoos, clothing and accessories, perfume and expressions, which contribute to the transmission of chosen information, much like billboards that have come to complement the functions of externalization (which also include voice, temperature, perspiration, fragrance, etc.). Similarly, the informational skin must be supplemented by exteriorization systems, display, transmission and dialog. It must not, all the same, neglect filtering operations, controlling potentially undesirable intrusions into the sphere of privacy, such as the user, who must become the master of his preserved domain, defines. One could speak of informational interiority.

This informational skin becomes a complete organ for perception and transmission, dealing with exchanges between the preserved interior and the environmental ecosystem, while maintaining social coherence, facilitating transactions between individuals, and, thus, informational capillarity necessary for the proper functioning of the global body.


published in Proceedings of Futur en Seine 2009, The Digital Future of the City editor: Cap Digital, novembre 2010
This text follows up our communication regarding the HyperUrbain.II conference, held at the Cité des Sciences de la Villette, under the direction of Prof. Khaldoun Zreik, CITU-Paragraph during Futur en Seine 2009. All texts from the conference are published under the title: Nouvelles cartographies, nouvelles villes (New Maps, New Cities), ed. Europia, Paris 2010

Maurice Benayoun, Associate Professor, University Paris 8, co-founder and artistic director of the CITU, pioneer in the creation of utilizing emerging media, Maurice Benayoun explores, in theory and practice, the boundaries of creativity in networks, urban space and social space.

CITU during Futur en Seine :

Engaged in various projects combining creation, technological innovation and social innovation, the CITU seeks to open channels in the understanding of changes occurring and in the conscious appropriation of technologies by citizens and artists. Two of these projects: TelescopeRA, Augmented Reality telescope which follows the outlook on the city, and Montre Verte (Green Watch), an individual sensor for dynamic and participatory environmental mapping, witness the stakes that transcend the technological challenges to examine the profound changes in our informed spaces. These experimentations which take the form of prototypes able to lead to a veritable industrial operation are accompanied by a reflection which determines their initial direction, the technological, ergonomic, and aesthetic choices, and forecasts their impact on society.

Application: Zoom in time

In order to examine the potential for “the augmentation” or the outlook on the cite on location, we have developed a prototype telescope of the kind used on remarkable sites to explore the countryside, equipped with informative features. Choosing a fixed location considerably reduced the difficulty of the location. When this fixed point is on the terrace of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, we figure it out well enough to believe we have resolved the problem with the stability of the point of view.

It is a function that the optical tourist telescopes have, and that is necessary to reproduce:

  • Approach: the ability of allowing the visitor to visually approach the observed landscape (here, the center of Paris and large part of the greater Paris area). The video camera allows use of this essential function with the addition of the ability to zoom, thus to see the city at different scales.

In addition to the properties of the optical telescope, there is another function specific to the view point that the augmented reality telescope should be able to perform:

  • Designate, Identify, Interpret: the guidance table, meaning the ability to locate, identify and name the points of interest visible. This provides the superposition of graphical and textual information on the landscape.

We speak of Augmented Reality when the information is not only superimposed, but integrated into the landscape. The rotation of the telescope on its axis moves the field of vision naturally, but the corresponding information must also move simultaneously and inseparably with it.

The fact that the visitor observes, through the telescope, not the real picture but the image of reality allows for interesting substitutions. The landscape filmed by the video capture may disappear partially or totally to give way for elements from the reconstructed past.

  • Observing the past: in its place in space. Temporal transposition After the Arc de Triomphe, you can see the Palais de Tuileries, disappeared in the nineteenth century, between the garden of the same name and the current Louvre. One may imagine discovering at this point the Paris of 1806, date of the laying of the firs stone, or that of the plan of Turgot (1736), when the Elysée was not yet the Champs (fields) of the same name.

Similarly, the possibility of credible substitution allows envisioning the insertion in the landscape of future architectural projects to test their impact on location and not only in still images.

  • Projecting into the future: Urban prospective, in the case of the school of the Arc de Triomphe, this may allow, for example, testing of the impact of tall buildings on the inner suburbs or a new project on the site of la Défense.

Application: Emotional Weather

A project, announced very early, in direct relation to our research on the mechanics of emotions Mécanique des émotions (Mechanics of Emotions 2005-…), series of art works including installations, sculptures, musical performances, machines, photographs…Internet considered as the world’s nervous system equipped with maps of the world’s emotions. Converted by the interplay of art, often neutralized and reified, the latter become a commodity subject to a metaphorical exchange… – is the substitution of the sky observed by the telescope by a graphical representation of the emotional weather of Paris. Why would the cirrus, stratus, and cumulonimbus be bound only to the barometer? What would happen if they reflected the emotional state expressed by the citizens? Let’s imagine getting up in the morning, Paris declares, via his cell phone, his psychological state He would make is feelings at the time known on a scale from 0 to 9. Let’s imagine that half of these declarations determine the appearance of the sky, clouds, fog, rain, and hail, per quarter. From the terrace of the Arc de Triomphe, we could observe the urban landscape with weather changing according to quarter. The 5th district enshrouded in fog, the 13th sunny, and the 8th miserably raining. It will be understood, the purpose is not to objectively monitor the emotional state of Parisians, but to affirm the autonomy of the representation in relation to the realistic injunctionthat seems to haunt the computer graphicworld. The realism of the vision resides, here, in the translation of an undeniable urban reality: its human dimension.

Whatever the value of such a project as an artistic attempt to represent the world, the experimental process could generate, if not an “effect” of reality, at least a mirror effect, able to affect residents’ sense of belonging in the quarters in question. In effect, we imagine that the inhabitants of the 19 the quarter, declaring their bad mood in the morning, observing later, on the Internet, the meteorological impact on the urban vision, perhaps thinking that it is a pity that their quarter appears rainy, while the sun shines elsewhere, and, thus able to reconsider the consequence of their grumpiness the following morning, all things considered, they will be in a better mood than before. Their declaration, as well as that of their neighbors, will progressively improve the local climate and change, simultaneously, the perception that each one has of their morning state of mind.

The feedback loop created by the device would be comparable to that which the same person would experience when, looking in the mirror, they find their appearance unappealing, causing them to change their attitude and smile, finding, then, the everyone they meet smiles back at them. They are glad, and bear a legitimate expression of satisfaction from then on.

It is a form of emotional impact that affects the subjectivity, an undeniable component of our interaction with the human environment.

Application: The Green Watch

Project developed within the context of Futur en Seine 2009. Developed in cooperation with Fing, Xilabs, Faber Novel, Quartier Numérique, Prylos, Altran, SFR, with the assistance of Cap Digital and the Île de France region. (

The Green Watch represents an attempt, which is limited in scope at this time, for sure, but relevant to the experimental design. The Green Watch was conceived as an individual device to be worn by citizens in order to involve them in the measurement of urban pollution factors. To facilitate adoption thereof by a large number of users, a necessary condition for validation of the experience, we designed it on the model of a familiar object: a watch. The device had to perform not only the usual functions (tell time), but also the environmental sensor functions. It was a study of the impact of a distributed environmental sensor. What would happen if information on pollution was not in the hands of territorial entities, but distributed among the people wishing to contribute to its measurement? The impact of the approach surpasses the technological ambition of the project. It focuses on those who commit themselves in the measure. In effect, one of the project’s hypotheses deals with is the possibility of influencing the behavior of users, who become bothactors and observers of the phenomenon, by educating themselves.

Application: Data produced by The Green Watch feed environmental databases via mobile phone, and produces dynamic cartographic representations very different from those provided by the official agencies. The difference lies in the frequency of measures, the real-time dimension of updates, location of data collection effected, since it’s so close to the populations actually affected by their consequences. The map is useful for users to be able to visualize the results. It is also useful for decision making mediated by navigation tools. For example, one can imagine asking a GPS navigator, useful for urban navigation, to choose not only the fastest routes, but the least crowded, and, thus, even better, less polluted. This choice makes sense not only for eco-friendly motorists who do not want to add to environmental misery, but also for the pedestrian concerned with the quality of his experience in the city, and finally to the rider or the jogger who does not want his practice, naturally accelerating their respiratory rate, to have adverse consequences on his health.

Each one is affected by environmental factors, contributes to refine the representations, supports the collective decision-making, and, in turn, benefits from the results for personal decision making.