Technology can save us, if we let it

In putting social and political work at the heart of this year’s festival, Ars Electronica showed how technology can help to change the world

If there was a theme at this year’s Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, it was a belief in the redeeming power of technology. From the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, to Pigeon D’Or, a bio art project which aims to genetically modify pigeons to excrete soap instead of you-know-what, there was a range of projects on display which shared the idea that technology can help us to understand the world better, and make it a better place for us to live in.

Leading the way was Choke Point from the P2P Foundation, the winner of this year’s Next Idea prize. The project is inspired by the events of the recent ‘Arab Spring’ and, in particular, the pivotal moment on February 27 when the order was given in Egypt to ‘turn off’ the internet in order to prevent people using social media (the same directive was then issued in Libya in March). Out of this, Choke Point poses a simple question: who controls the internet?

It turns out our freedom to “receive and impart information and ideas” (Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is largely based on a system that few of us understand, and which politicians can turn off at the flick of a switch. In the US, for example, Senator Joe Lieberman’s Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset continues to threaten a ‘Kill Switch’ for the American internet; while in the UK, our very own Mike Butcher, digital adviser to Mayor of London Boris Johnson, tweeted during the London riots – “It is unbelievable that @UK_BlackBerry is not shutting down BBM right now.”

The P2P Foundation believes the best way to protect our access to information is via the distribution of knowledge of the internet’s weak points, its ‘choke points’ and traffic restrictions, turning this into a real time map of the state of the network. Choke Point’s objective is to visualise the flow of information within the internet, flagging up restrictions wherever and whenever they appear.

“Most of us using the internet have no clue which servers we’re using or where they’re located,” explained P2P’s James Burke. “Choke Point focuses on tracking what’s happening on the network layer to detect blackouts, restrictions and attacks. A software download records network behaviour [within a particular country] and sends data back to us. The architecture is designed for ‘plausible deniability’ to protect people who live in a totalitarian regime. We’re very conscious that people can be detected and arrested due to their actions, therefore we are designing the data collection with this in mind.”

Also pertinent at Ars this year was Haberlandt, a hybrid greenhouse and vending machine, created by Barcelona’s Blablablab. It’s a microcosm of the global food industry in a self-contained unit that produces, packages and distributes an edible blue-green algae called Spirulina Maxima – all powered by urine, air and light. Some say it’s delicious, a bit like Nori, others that it tastes like stagnant pond scum. Either way the installation is a gorgeous Heath Robinson fantasy of bubbling pipes, whirring motors, glowing LEDs and buzzing alarms.

But it’s not just an aesthetically satisfying piece of kinetic sculpture, Haberlandt is a fully working production unit, and you’re invited to taste the product for yourself by inserting a coin into the machine. By collapsing the production-packing-distribution system to a single unit, Blablablab hint at a possible future where hi-tech, low-energy food production doesn’t cost the earth.
Urine also plays a role in Michael Burton’s Astronomical Bodies, an art piece which starts by asking the question: how did life start without reactive phosphorus being available on Earth? Scientists have suggested that reactive phosphorus – a key ingredient in the primeval soup – fell to Earth from outer space in meteorite showers and helped start the chemical processes which led to life. Burton has designed a wearable apron that crystallises phosphate from his own urine, which can then be built it into an artificial meteorite and sent into space with the rather ambitious hope that it may help to kick-start life on other planets.
Similarly experimental, Pigeon D’Or is a piece of biotech design by Tuur Van Balen that proposes feeding feral pigeons with a bacteria to turn their faeces into detergent. Once there are pigeons shitting soap all over the city, Van Balen sees an ideal opportunity to design new architectural and vehicular interfaces to channel the detergent to places where it is most needed – like skyscraper windows and car windscreens. Van Balen and Burton are recent graduates of Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art and both Astronomical Bodies and Pigeon D’Or exhibit the strengths and weaknesses of the RCA approach – theoretical, imaginative and thought- provoking, yet short on prototyping. A bit too much design fiction, and not quite enough actual design.

Perhaps a little closer to home is Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Ciri’s Face to Facebook, which received the Award of Distinction in the Interactive Arts prize at Ars. The pair started out by scraping one million publicly available profiles from Facebook (names, pictures and relationships) and putting them in a database. They ran a face recognition algorithm to sort the pictures into categories such as mild, easygoing, funny and smug. Finally they took the best 250,000 and created an unauthorised internet dating site at lovely-faces.com. At which point all hell broke out. The 0.05% of Facebook users involuntarily co-opted into the piece were outraged that their privacy had been violated. Facebook was furious that its terms and conditions had been broken. Ludovico and Ciri were forced to take down lovely-faces.com two weeks after it went live having received death threats as well as cease and desist letters from Facebook lawyers.

Yet it’s a tremendous work of art – brave, provocative and challenging, as well as rather poignant and sweet. It resonates with important questions about online privacy, community and identity and also succeeds in nicely recapitulating the evolution of Facebook itself. Mark Zuckerberg’s first hit was a site called Facemash, built out of student ID photographs scraped without permission from the Harvard University database with a Hot or Not interface. Just like lovely-faces.com, Zuckerberg was forced to take it down soon after it launched. As diverse as they are, what these different artworks have in common is a shared preoccupation with the social and political meanings of technological design. Each raises questions about information as a human right, the politics of food production, designing for biotech, and privacy on social media platforms, and contains a sense that technology can make the world a better place.

There must be something in the air. London recently saw the opening of Haberdashery East, a pop-up shop on Brick Lane which offers advice, DIY electronics kits and workshops. It’s the brainchild of Technology Will Save Us, a company set up by Bethany Koby and Daniel Hirschmann, and is styled as a haberdashery for technology. TWSU explain that a regular haberdashery is a place where you can do more than just buy needles and thread, you can also get advice about sewing. Koby and Hirschmann’s point is that technology is a fundamental part of our lives, but most of us have no idea how it functions, or how to make it work for us by using it in creative ways. We’re alienated from our own technology.

Thus the need for a techno-haberdashery – a place where anyone can get help fixing a broken iPhone screen, learn to use a soldering iron, or find out how to whip up a set of DIY speakers. As with the best work at Ars Electronica this year, TWSU’s aim is to change our relationship with technology from passive consumption to positive empowerment and engagement. 

Andy Cameron is an interactive creative director, artist and writer. More details on the Ars Electronica festival at aec.at

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