Designing Geopolitics

Designing Geopolitics, the second of a series of events organized by D:GP [The Center for Design and Geopolitics] at CALIT2/UCSD, La Jolla/San Diego, took place on June 2.

Some of the most important questions of contemporary design concern 'adaptation,' the 'potential' in new logics of thought, and the production and distribution of information.

On the one hand, the increasingly sharp 'gaze' that we have on the world -- through visualization and knowledge of very small and large scales of materials and processes -- and on the other hand, the networking capability between people, places, and objects themselves -- form connections that increase the capacity for types and levels of computation to take place simultaneously.

The need to process increasing amounts of data is a pressure leading to the appearance of higher computational power, while the latter leads to the formulation of models for how processes can be thought. The famed 'Internet of things' (Kevin Ashton) promises an elaborate, non-centralized, growing fabric of increasing resolution that can ultimately blur a network's nodes and links.

In this environment, objects [and indeed all thought] become more gregarious and identity-ambiguous, creating new potentials for design (Bruce Sterling's SPIME). Across many disciplines (political science a key theme at this conference), previous questions of independence, sovereignty and governance take center stage and mirror the themes of fluidity and agility that approaches to design have to come to terms with today.

This year's 'Designing Geopolitics' event took a symposium format, focusing on design and policy approaches, and followed the interdisciplinary thinking of last year's conference -- an event with speakers from 19 disciplines.

In the words of D:GP Director Benjamin H. Bratton, this interdisciplinarity was linked to an emerging relationship between governance and technology: "Our interest is not so much design at a geopolitical scale, rather to take the geopolitical architecture we have inherited from the Treaty of Westphalia, from Empires past, etc. and to literally take the world map as an open design question once again. (...) We're looking at planetary scale computation as a force that represents a long-term challenge to the world map."

Each of the panels explored the perceived and actual sovereignty of bodies and identities across shifting practices and jurisdictions.

Split between a "Policies" morning session, and a "Projects" afternoon session, the event reflected the known dichotomy of "obstacle courses" and "opportunities" in policy and the design of pervasive networks of resources and ideas -- to engage, from the perspective of ubiquitous computing and networking across fields of practice, other forms of critically assessing and cooperating, within technological apparatuses, connectivity, accessibility and, ultimately, creative potential in content formulation.

In the panel "Cloud-Polis," Larry Smarr described his double-life as a member of the Quantified Self Movement, and speculated on its global impacts for health care.

In "Clouded Futures and Sovereign Sunshine," Peter Cowhey presented challenges for globalized economies, including lessons from alternative banking systems models.

In the second panel ("Data Sovereignty"), Usman Haque's one image of the Pachube Network, grounded questions on representation, awareness and engagement. John Wilbanks' "Science Commons, Creative Commons" reflected on a 'politics of the commons', by looking at models of tracking and verifying data objects across history.

Sovereignty is paradigmatically linked to concepts of freedom and/or ownership (in the case of land). However, in any 'cloud' construct or system, the free flow of data and therefore its public character is key to helping produce new forms of validated and shareable knowledge and 'objects/things' (cf. the term 'Internet of things').

A poignant question here is how to go beyond the dialectic of the last two decades that splits the camps into absolute 'transparency' vs. 'secrecy' of live data -- and instead rethink versions of state and social constructs that address identities' shifting/fluid borders. What clearly seems to be a political problem can greatly be helped by a design (inclusive synthesis) approach.

Social networks, banking initiatives, medical data tracking -- all link the concept of 'private' with 'user privacy'; a 'secrecy' hostage to the preservation of terms of use and policy statements, which shift with markets and take-overs (a case made by 'total transparency' advocates -- see David Brin, "A Transparent Society"), or are entangled with 'ultra-curious' governments (see Evgeny Morozov, "The Net Delusion").

So, what are agencies of design within political agencies?

In the "Postscripting Alterglobalization" panel, we saw design productively question identity and agency: Jeffrey Inaba's "Extra-Spatial" talk described several projects that productively entangle city planning with critical spatial, industrial and graphic design, and Metahaven showed evocative research work including speculative identity and branding strategies for new virtual platforms with possible (future?) sovereignty, including WikiLeaks.

The "Biopolitical Architectures" panel concluded with politics in design and artistic practices, with work of architect Alisa Andrasek/Biothing (work and interview here) and synthetic biology artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg giving two different takes on the complexity and promise of 'biodesign' as focus of generative architecture methods, and design/artist roles in creative/scientific multi-disciplinary teams.

A recurrent theme in the conference (and in discussions of 'cloud' structures) was the difficulty in maintaining regulatory and organizational concepts of identity or categorization.

The desire for increasing 'resolution' (imaging and processing power) in representational and generational processes is only matched by the incapacity to pin totalizing models -- identities -- to observed realities.

Perhaps new constructs of 'resolution' that present simultaneous -- contradicting yet overlapping -- representations that include scale-based identity 'flickers' across entities (us and our microbiomes) and speed -- this may better represent the near-future evolution of our present, and better inspire novel forms of management, categorization and ethics.

Designing Geopolitics

See Gallery for further content.

Link to conference page here.

Video documentation of the 2011 and 2012 conferences can be found here.

Carla Leitão is an architect, designer and writer currently living, working and teaching Architecture in New York. Practice and academic works interests in ubiquity and intersection of new media and architecture.