Cyberwar hasn’t happened (yet), but over the last decade governments have clearly recognized that control of the internet equals serious power. Thus the impetus for the US government’s hypothetical “kill switch,” a mechanism that could shut down the entire network if cyberterrorists decide to attack. Killing the whole net in one go may not be feasible yet – but just in case, the designer Philipp Ronnenberg has created a speculative system to replace the internet in case of cyber-meltdown. In a fitting follow-up to our Veins issue (no.15) uncube asked him about his work, and found out why sewer algae might be the answer...
Your Post Cyberwar Series is a set of responses for a hypothetical future when internet access has been cut off. Why not design preventative measures rather than after-the-fact responses?
I’d have felt more restrictions than opportunities if I had made preventative proposals. Playing with a plausible future scenario like cyberwar gave me more opportunities to imagine what we’d need. I don’t know if cyberwar is inevitable or just used as a threat to justify higher measures of control and censorship, but its very plausibility is what keeps this project on the borderline between reality and imagination.
The series consists of three parts – one for post-Google mapping, one for post-Gmail communication, and one for post-Cloud data storage. Are these the most important capabilities of the contemporary internet?
Communication and free knowledge exchange are its most important capacities. As content becomes increasingly restricted and censored, new challenges face mass information control. Navigation is also important because its technology can shift our experience of the real world. My three proposals are designed to address the need to replace these luxuries afforded by the internet.
The first proposal, OpenPositioningSystem (OPS), is an open source mapping project allowing users to navigate without access to governmental or corporate navigational data. How does it work?
The OPS works with the small seismic waves produced by power plant generators, pumping station turbines, and large factory machines, which are distributed through the ground. When at least three signals are received by a user’s device from known locations, the user can calculate his or her position via triangulation and signal strength. I’ve developed a sensor prototype that can detect, store and collect different seismic frequencies. With the website I’m gathering interested people to contribute knowledge and test processes, with the goal of providing a serviceable system capable of competing with GPS.
The post-cyberwar communication system you propose is called Social Teletext Network, an analogue TV broadcasting channel. What are the benefits of analogue broadcasting?
One benefit is that it’s more difficult to track transmitted content, as analogue hardware isn’t sold anymore so the data can’t be analyzed as easily as digital. Also most houses already have an aerial on the roof – so the system could utilize already-installed hardware.
Returning to analogue transmission sounds almost retro-futuristic. Will the future look a lot like the past?
I like the idea that the future will be more human than technical. I hope it will not look like the white, sterile, clinical atmosphere portrayed in some science fiction movies. Humans will always tweak existing technologies and bring in gadgets from the past – yet while most past visions of the future were focused on optimizing our lives through computation, today we should remember that there are still humans programming the machines.
My favorite from the series is Sewer Cloud, a biotech system for storing data by inserting it into the DNA of an algae species living in London’s sewer system. Why sewer algae?
The bacteria Anabaena has a perfect combination of high tolerance to climatic change, ability to adapt to the sewer environment, high frequency of reproduction, and capacity to store more data than most other species. Utilizing the sewer system offers both physical protection and a huge, interconnected network, repurposing existing infrastructure..
The concept of inserting data into DNA is appealing to everyone in science and popular culture at the moment – from writer Christian Bök’s Xenotext project to Neil Blomkamp’s data-brain-implant for Matt Damon in the recent blockbuster Elysium. Why is this?
Well, scientists are working on this concept because there’s an industry need for huge data-storage mediums that’s growing every day. Storage in data centers is expensive, their scalability limited, whereas one gram of DNA can hold up to 700 terabytes of data. The concept of storing data in living organisms is the next step in combining computer technology and biology. When I first read about it, I was shocked – but programmed organisms will be next: it’s no longer science fiction. This mix of a real need and feasibility attracts people.
In 2011 the Berlin-based Critical Engineering Working Group wrote a 10-point Critical Engineering Manifesto proposing the appropriation and exploitation of new technology as its most potent critique. Do you consider yourself a Critical Engineer? What about the more clichéd “hacktivist”?
I admire the work of the Critical Engineering Working Group but don’t see myself as being as radical as their manifesto is. My work so far is proposal-based, not interventionist enough to make me a Critical Engineer or hacktivist. Although I use technology to produce work, I would consider myself a designer – perhaps a Critical Designer.
Could cyberwar actually be positive, forcing the de-privatization of cyberspace and returning the internet to a pre-corporate environment?
Yes, people would invent new ways to use technology for their own needs. There are already interesting examples of this in crisis regions, such as the repurposing of consumer technology for DIY weapons in Syria and the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network in Greece: a peer-to-peer network built because of poor quality connections and government shutdowns. Necessity definitely breeds innovation.
Why do we need to wait for cyberwar to implement your alternative network systems? Couldn’t they be put into effect today?
The OPS is an ongoing project still in development. To become usable it would need more time and effort than a single student can afford. I’m looking for funding to bring it to the next prototype stage. I own the hardware to turn the the SocialTeletextNetwork on today, but buying the necessary analogue frequencies would be very expensive – I need an investor. If I were to turn it on without paying officially, I’d pay an even higher fine for pirating frequencies and illegally broadcasting content. Lastly, the DNA data insertion and extraction technology for the Sewer Cloud system has not been domesticated yet – it will take a couple more years to start a data network in London’s sewer system!
- Philip Ronnenberg designs and implements interactions between humans and technology using code, electronics, video, photography, and objects. www.phiron.de