Imperial Designs

I’ve given a few talks in Belgrade this year – The Cut and Paste City and The Lonely Planet Guide to Uqbar – and most recently Imperial Designs for the Bricolage Lab series hosted at Nova Iskra. I told everybody at Bricolage that I would post notes from the talk with added links so they could follow up SO HERE WE GO.

When I first proposed this talk to Emily, I wanted to follow up on a talk I gave at Mikser House last year, after the floods in the Balkans. In that talk, I tried to talk about how we could introduce the idea of resilience to Serbia, in anticipation of future floods and other disasters. So that was the idea that appeared in the publicity notes for this talk. Unfortunately as I prepared to give the talk, I realised that it was going in a slightly different direction – not completely unrelated, but not exactly talking about the same thing. So I hope this works.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:09The quote is from Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. (Harari gave an online course based on the book on Coursera; the course is no longer running, but you can still watch the videos.) We don’t like to admit this, even to ourselves. Britain likes to think it got rid of its imperial legacy when it got rid of its colonies; Serbia likes to think it got rid of its imperial legacy when it got rid of the Ottomans and Hapsburgs. But empires have a longer shelf life than that – not least because those legacies are literally built into the world around us. In the UK, entire cities were built – paid for – by the slave trade; in Serbia, Belgrade bears the marks of both Ottoman and Hapsburg empires.

empire-strikes-back-alternative-posterIn case Slide 1 was too subtle, here’s The Empire Strikes Back again in all its poster glory. (Despite my best efforts, I am excited about the new Star Wars movie.) Because of our history, we have a romantic image of “Empire”. Empires are evil; therefore opposing empires is good. I oppose empires; therefore I am good. This version of empire is useful, even if there isn’t an actual empire to oppose. It makes it easy for us to feel like Luke Skywalker. We’ve been raised to think of empires as being inherently bad, but as Harari points out, “Since around 200 BC, most humans have lived in empires.” Empires are usually seen as a bad deal by those that are conquered, but we soon learn to live with them. Until we don’t. Remember: it’s easy to be Luke Skywalker. Nobody wants to think that they might be Darth Vader.

I_Could_Tell_You_But_Then_You_Would_Have_to_be_Destroyed_by_Me_02 Speaking of Star Wars, the X-Wing fighter appears in this patch from Kirtland Airbase in New Mexico. The original version was hit by a legion of lawyers from George Lucas’ entertainment empire, and had to be modified so it wasn’t so obviously X-wing. Lucas’ empire is a different sort of empire, an entertainment empire. During the Cold War, this sort of empire was very important, an extension of the power of the US and the USSR. That’s what lead the CIA to its ‘long leash’ policy of funding key developments in modern art in the US. These military patches were collected as part of a project by the artist Trevor Paglen, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World. The explicit violence in some of them is interesting. It’s not surprising – it’s the military, which is institutionalised violence – but the people wearing them think of themselves as good guys.

giphyThe “Nazis” comedy sketch from Episode 1 of That Mitchell and Webb Look should make all the good guys nervous. Presumably the military staff who made that patch think of themselves as the Rebels in Star Wars, the freedom fighters; but of course they are more like the Empire, complete with their own death stars. (We’re probably the Ewoks.) This is not a design error, this is what the design is supposed to do: tell your enemies that you are worse than they are. Empires in particular need to do this – to promote their own narrative at the expense of others – using violence if necessary. ‘Narratives’ aren’t just stories – stories like Star Wars – but also design. Narratives are made visible in the types of organisations that we participate in; in the build environment we move through; in the objects that we use every day.

ChandBaoriStepwell Here’s an example: the Chand Baori Stepwell in Rajasthan, built in the 8th and 9th centuries. (You can watch a video about Chand Baori, and another about stepwells, based on an article by journalist Victoria Lautman.) Stepwells were a critical part of water management, particularly in western India and other dry areas of Asia, the earliest known stepwell forms date from around 600AD. The Mughal empire encouraged stepwell construction, but the administrators British empire decided that stepwells should be replaced with pumped and piped water systems modelled on those developed in the UK – a ‘superior’ system. It was of course also a system that moved from a communal and social model of water management to a centralised model of water management – and the British loved centralised management, because it’s easier to control.

130617.twp_.laughter.01Here’s another model of water management – the Playpump, which received a lot of media attention and donor support after it was proposed in 2005. The basic idea was that kids playing on the big roundabout would pump water up from the well for the whole village. This doesn’t seem very imperial at first sight: it looks like these kids are having fun, and the village is getting water. Unfortunately it was a massive failure because it flat out didn’t work, although the Playpumps organisation is still around; if you want to know more about that failure, read this article in the Guardian and this lessons learned from the Case Foundation, and listen to this Frontline radio show on PBS. TL;DR: the Playpump didn’t work because it was designed by outsiders who didn’t understand the communities: a classic case of design imperialism. There are lots of examples just like this, where the failure is easy to see but the imperialism is more difficult to spot.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:29

About 5 years ago there was a big hoo-hah about an article called “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” by Bruce Nussbaum. Nussbaum accused people and organisations working on design that would alleviate poverty as yet another imperial effort. This depends on defining “empire” as a power relationship – an unequal power relationship, where the centre holds the power (and resources) and the periphery will benefit from those resources only when the centre decides to give it to them. At the time, there was a lot of discussion around this idea, but that discussion has died now. That’s not because it’s no longer an issue: it’s because a new imperial model, more subtle than Nussbaum’s idea, has successfully taken root, and few people in the design world even realise it.

iu1HVuHynggFTThis gif actually shows insecure nodes on the internet, but it’s a useful proxy for overall internet activity (brought to you by the Internet Census 2012). If you were born after 1990, then you were born into this empire of the world wide web; and most people in the world live under it, even if they don’t realise it. However there are actually two empires competing to design our 21st century: the first, an empire of secrecy and control; the second, one of openness and collaboration. The tension at the heart of the internet – a distributed system designed by a military-industrial complex – made them both possible. The question is, how do we know which side we’re on?


The first empire is being built mainly by supervillains. Supervillains used to look this – the Secret Society of Supervillains – which meant you could see them coming a mile away. It’s more difficult these days but, thanks to James Bond movies, it’s quite easy to tell a supervillain from their plans:

  • Developing a squadron of robot attack dogs? You’re probably a supervillain.
  • Running a fleet of drones that kill anybody you don’t like? You’re probably a supervillain.
  • Planning to control all the worlds information? You’re probably a supervillain.

It’s important to remember that supervillains don’t think that they’re supervillains. Rule number one of supervillainy: supervillains often think that they’re the good guys, or at least that their plans are for the benefit of other people.

Worldwide_NSA_signals_intelligenceI have no doubt that the intelligence agencies think that they’re the good guys, even as they intrude into our lives, but the Five Eyes programme is probably the real secret society of supervillains. The little we do know about Five Eyes, the biggest surveillance network in the world, is largely because of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers. I don’t want to talk about because it just depresses me.

refugees-smartphoneThe second empire is being built from below, in fragments. Here are some migrants recently arrived in Greece, taking photos of a map with their mobile phones. Some people think that these people can’t be that poor if they have mobile phones, and that’s a little bit right and a lot wrong. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works now. 85% of the global population is now under cellphone coverage: between 3.5 and 4 billion people now own phones, even amongst the poor; in India, the average monthly spend on phone credits is around $4. What’s interesting is that the smartphone isn’t really a phone: it’s a computer linked to the internet that also makes telephone calls.

static1.squarespace.comIt’s always worth considering this chart on mobile phone uptake from Benedict Evans – which, in an age of smartphones, is also a proxy for access to computing power – just to remind ourselves that we really have no idea what’s happening. The question is: what are all those migrants doing with all those mobile phones? They’re doing the main thing that access to this technology enables people us to do: to organise and collaborate.

Tahrir_Square_-_February_9,_2011Here’s Tahrir Square in Cairo, epicentre of the Egyptian revolution. Much of that revolution was orchestrated via the internet, but it couldn’t have succeeded if the design of Tahrir Square wasn’t perfect for political protest, as architecture professor Nezar AlSayyad pointed out in an interview: “Twenty-three streets lead to different parts of it… There isn’t one big boulevard that you can block off, and there are two bridges that lead to it as well… It’s also the case that all of downtown Cairo, which isn’t that big, has a street that leads to side or another of Tahrir Square.” Tahrir Square was built 140 years ago, based on the design of Haussmann’s Paris – an old imperial design exported to Egypt, from which the new empire now strikes back. The new imperial model is a lot more difficult to exploit, however:

ChartOfTheDay_1573_Top_10_Web_Properties_nWho controls the internet? These organisations own the internet. Also, big governments. Also, covert engineers. Definitely not you. If you’re a designer who thinks that design is solely about form, you might think Apple is more important than these companies, but that’s not really true. Google has a large say in the things we look at; Amazon over the things we buy; Facebook over the things we share. In any case the infrastructure of the empire is in the hands of a very small number of people, which we generally feel is a “bad thing”.

Tahrir_7_525_525The quote posted by these Tahrir Square protestors is from the excellent comic book V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. V is an anarchist whose political strategy doesn’t go beyond destroying the government, so the comic ends when (spoiler) he succeeds. Successfully toppling a government is not a common problem for anarchists, but who wants to read a comic about anarcho-syndicalists discussing agricultural policy? (Note: I do.) The protestors are likely to have seen the quote in the mediocre film that was based on the graphic novel, and they probably watched it on a pirate copy downloaded from the web. The dying American entertainment empire – that relic of the Cold War – has also become a transmission vehicle for very anti-imperial messages, but at the same time those messages depend on the the new internet empire for their dissemination. It’s confusing.

Book bloc shield smallV for Vendetta is basically about anarchy vs control, and so it feeds into the narrative of anybody who wants to protest authority. This sheet, illustrating a design for improvised riot protection, was shown at this year’s “Disobedient Objects” exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The exhibition examined the role of objects in movements for social change, and how political activism creates design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design. The idea of disobedient objects is an interesting one: this is homemade riot gear, designed to equalise the situation between protestors and police. They were designed in one place – based on bitter experience – and then distributed via the web to other places. The exhibition had a set of 8 instruction sheets for various objects, which you can download and make them yourselves.

WikiHouseGlobal_Village_Construction_SetHere are some more things that you can make yourself: Wikihouse and the Global Construction Set have developed blueprints for housing and farming respectively, extending the principles of open source from the intangible world of software design to the tangible world of industrial design. They draw on expert collaborations made possible by the web; the final products are distributed freely via the web on open source licenses. In fact the products are never final – because they are driven by communities, we are encouraged to adapt and update them for ourselves. These are constructive examples of how the web facilitates building the empire from below, and the vital role that design plays in that empire.

187050_183_28179_KJ9Wn56rcThe internet has made it possible not just to collaborate to bring those designs to life, but also to put those designs in the hands of people who need them, just as the technology becomes available to make them – technology such as 3D printing, one of the most exciting development in design practice in a long time.

field-ready-haiti-project-talk-at-humanitarian-innovation-conference-2015-15-638 3D printing still feels like it should be science fiction, but that medical clamp was printed by Field Ready during their pilot in Haiti, a project funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (full disclosure: I’m on the HIF grants panel). They’re experimenting right now with printing small medical devices to overcome supply chain problems.

RTEmagicC_90fe6eaf9e.jpgLooking even further ahead gives us the opportunity to imagine what the world might look like. I’m fascinated by the amount of design fiction out there, and I wonder why it’s grown so quickly in the past few years. I could give you a ton of links here, but you can do your own surfing. This is a piece of Design Fiction from the Institute For The Future: the Open Resilience Box imagines disaster relief based on free energy provided by a Tesla box, including a fabrication unit, desalination straws, wireless lightbulbs, re-purposed military robots and mesh network drones. Design fiction gives us the opportunity to think about ourselves in the future – it gives us the opportunity to imagine what we might be building today to make a better empire tomorrow.

The ReportI’m kind of a fraud: I’m not a designer, I’m a writer. This year I worked on The Report, a science fiction novella based on research into Vienna’s Smart City strategy, looking back over Vienna’s history as a source of a surprisingly large number of alternative social projects. It was commissioned as part of the 2015 Vienna Biennale; I think the Biennale organisers liked it, but it’s hard to tell. The story was partly about how ridiculous the whole Biennale concept is as a branding exercise for cities in the 21st century, using visual language to undermine that branding. The theme of the novella was similar to this talk: the continual tension between creativity and control, and the choice we might have to make between them.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:54Another quote from Yuval Harari brings us back to where we started, but with a new question to ask ourselves: given that we have no choice but to live in this empire of the internet, which empire will we choose?


During the talk I mentioned that I was planning to show video of robot dogs, but I didn’t because they freak me out. They don’t really freak me out – I think they’re astonishing feats of technology – but what they say about our attitudes towards warfare worries me. They’re being built by Boston Dynamics, who started out under military contracts from DARPA, have recently been acquired by Google X, and who post a ton of promo videos. Particularly funny is this supercut video of robots falling over.

One question raised the issue of whether our education system enables people to recognise the trap that they might be in, and give them the tools to make their own way. The short answer is no. The industrial model of education is not equipped for the 21st century, although I remain hopeful that the internet will also disrupt education as it has other sectors. At the same time I am sceptical of the impact of the most-hyped projects (such as the Khan Academy and the wide range of MOOCs) – it seems to me that we need something that learns from a wider range of educational approaches.

We also discussed whether there is an underlying philosophy to the invisible empire of the internet. I believe that there is, although it isn’t necessarily made explicit. One early artefact of this philosophy is A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace; one early analysis of aspects of it is The Californian Ideology. Evgeny Morozov is interesting on this topic, but with a pinch of salt, since in a relatively short time he has gone from incisive commentator to intellectual troll. It’s interesting that a few Silicon Valley big beasts are trained in philosophy, although to be honest this training doesn’t seem to be reflected in their actual philosophy.