The only class I’m enrolled in this semester is called Tangible Computing. I mentioned this class awhile back, as it has led me to some interesting discoveries of some very lovely design objects that have me thinking about the nature of interactivity, digital narrative, ambient design, etc. Our final project was to create our own tangible design object, and I, being obsessed with all things desert and LA, opted to continue the work I did in a different Media Arts + Practice class last semester that dealt with the desert, Los Angeles, and water.

So I designed this:

And with it, I wrote a little speculative fiction piece that contextualizes/justifies its existence.

It’s raining today for the first time in months. The rain is falling in the daytime. It has not restricted itself to night. It’s safe for the rain to fall like this because there will be cloud cover for days. No evaporation. The rain will collect in rooftop basins all over LA, and those basins will empty into pipes that route the water just south of Downtown LA to the processing center, and the processing center will extract all the detritus, and the rainwater will become toilet water will become shower water will become the water I use to rinse the vegetables trucked up here from Mexico because we still can’t use that water because of infrastructure failure of epic proportions. Not that rainwater has ever been enough.

The last day it rained naturally and of nature’s own will in Los Angeles was 15 years ago tomorrow on December 3rd, 2014. It rained for four days preceding the 3rd. We thought maybe the drought would be over. But no one was paying attention to the reality of the situation. The city was still pursuing an LA River clean up without considering how they might fill that river to give them something to clean up in the first place.

At the turn of the last century, Los Angeles wasn’t a city yet. The land was dry. Whole patches of uninhabitable desert lay along the southwestern coast of the country, and a few men, the kinds of men who write the narrative, the kinds of men who own newspapers that teach a population about itself, they decided to build an oasis with stolen water. The oasis would be so thriving that it would be able to support oasis-like things like palm trees and tropical flowers that would be imported from tropical places. Everything about it was unnatural in the most literal sense of the word. Nothing in Los Angeles was from Los Angeles except for the people who were forced to leave Los Angeles to make room for Los Angeles.

The Owens Valley was drained. Then they tapped the surrounding rivers. According to the Water Education Foundation, “In 1960, California voters approved financing for construction of the initial features of the State Water Project (SWP). The project includes some 22 dams and reservoirs, a Delta pumping plant, a 444-mile-long aqueduct that carries water from the Delta through the San Joaquin Valley to southern California. The project begins at Oroville Dam on the Feather River and ends at Lake Perris near Riverside. At the Tehachapi Mountains, giant pumps lift the water from the California Aqueduct some 2,000 feet over the mountains and into southern California.”

But when that water began to disappear, the cost of water in central Los Angeles spiked and water became the most expensive necessary commodity. Many residents were forced to move, but the majority of residents remained hopeful that Los Angeles could sustain its oasis. But we had to rethink what an oasis looked like. First, we lost all the palm trees. Palm trees require more water than any other tree in the region. Soon, the Los Angeles landscape was dotted with the sad, headless bodies of palm trunks, stretching skyward like spikes, like a warning, like fencing around a prison. Next to go were the lawns. All remaining grass in the city, except that belonging to privately funded golf courses, was converted to sand and rock and succulents. We began to resemble Arizona. It was hotter all the time.

That’s when the city implemented mandatory water source readers on every faucet in every household and in every business, public or private. The water source readers send your water usage data to the Water Conservation & Creation Bureau at the Desert Alliance. The readers themselves indicate the source of your water, whether it is from the Colorado River (still Los Angeles’ main natural water supply) or from the city’s Recycled River, the water collected from the drains of homes and businesses that is then recycled for human use. Back before the last recorded rainfall, recycled water like this was only used in cemeteries and on golf courses, as it was not deemed 100% safe for human consumption. But when we realized the rain was never coming back, scientists had to quickly solve the problem of recycled water safety. Once that problem was solved, water source readers were mandated, and residents everywhere became hyper aware of the exact source of their water at any given moment.

When water is coming from the Colorado River or any other natural water source, the water source reader’s red light will activate and the screen will inform the consumer of the source of their water. Most days, the water source reader will light up green and will inform the consumer that the water they are allowing to spray from their faucet or showerhead is recycled and therefore cheaper and therefore more sustainable and therefore guilt free. Or near guilt free. If each person keeps using the recycled water, and there is less and less water sent down the drain to be re-recycled, there will be less and less water in the Recycled River, and more and more residents will be forced to move, and even the succulents will become a burden.

If you want details & photos about/of my process/rationalization, here you go:

The concept for this project came from a combination of my interests in the desert of the American West and home design. Water rights is one major issue concerning desert cities in the American West. Every day that I drive to or from Glendale and I pass over the LA River, what I see is concrete speckled with moist spots and the occasional plant sprouting through the cement. As my rent increases and I consider the increasing demand to live in this city, I can’t help but consider the rising demand for a water supply that is running low. The documentary Cadillac Desert sparked my interest in water resources initially, then investigations of tangible and ubiquitous computing in home spaces led me to consider how to use these technologies for the benefit of our cities and our survival.

The project itself is intended to be an aesthetically pleasing device one would place on their home and work faucets that would read out data pertaining to the consistency of the water in relation to its source. I imagine a future for Los Angeles where we are no longer able to so freely bleed the Colorado River to quench our thirst for an oasis-like environment in a space where no oasis should naturally exist. This device would keep water consumers conscious of where their water is coming from via an LCD screen that reads out percentage water sources and would indicate via red or green light if the water is recycled (as it would be in my speculative design fiction), or if it is a precious resource flowing from one of the only natural rivers left in this portion of the country.

I chose the red and green LED lights and the LCD screen because they are less invasive than auditory components but more invasive than a simple website that contains this data that the user would have to pursue on their own. I chose the casing because I wanted a design that would look trendy while simultaneously communicating the subject matter about which the device is intended to communicate. These things combined quickly give the user the information they need about the source of their water at any given moment, helping instruct the user about how careful they should be with their running faucet.

The information I’m trying to communicate with this device could be communicated with television or online news bulletins. It could be emailed to household’s daily, weekly, or monthly. But none of this would allow the user real time knowledge of their water source, which would make them less likely to be as conscious with their water use.

The only things I would have done differently would be small technical things such as getting brighter LED lights, determining a way to build a more solid casing, and finding a way to more effectively activate and deactivate the flex sensor, as these things didn’t necessarily go as planned. The LED lights aren’t bright enough, and they are overshadowed by the lights on the back of the Arduino microcontroller. In an ideal world, the device would actually be able to read water source information and would therefore not require the flex sensor as the source of input to simulate data.

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