networks in crisis

Networks in Crisis

“We are now entering a potential new phase in the culture of networks where ‘real time’ information is capable of being shared at an ever increasing rate, reaching an ever increasing audience, and their ability to both facilitate and augment change - through their capacity to reveal the radical interconnectedness of those networks in which we exist - is finally being recognized.”

Members of Microsoft Research Cambridge have invited us as part of a Pi-Studio Research Project (Prospecting and Innovation Research Unit at Goldsmiths) to consider, both critically as design students who are informed by many of the most recent debates within the discourse of design and contemporary social, cultural, and critical theory, and practically as designers who are aware of the radically transformative potential of design, some of those key social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental concerns that have arisen lately in relationship to the question of our ever increasing involvement in those various “networks” – whether material or immaterial - that are increasingly “in-forming” the very nature of the world in which we currently exist. Microsoft is a major contributor to the field of “network” technologies, i.e. technologies that allow us to create systems or “networks” of communication and connection between different people, places and things. Indeed, they could very well be said to be the world leader in the development of such technologies.
It is absolutely essential for such a company, both for its ongoing viability and its future research and innovation potential, to fully comprehend the intrinsic nature, consequences, and impact of those technologies that they are creating, and the “networks” that they facilitate, or perhaps we could say, in full recognition of the psychoanalytic sense of the term - “enable”.

For as Manuel Castells has suggested in his monumental, and unfashionably deterministic, three volume analysis of what he calls this “network society” in which we currently exist, these technologies and the “networks” that they create, are indeed “enabling” the key systems and structures - and many might say the pathologies - of the society in which we currently exist. A society in which as he says:
“key social structures and activities are [now] organized around electronically processed information networks... using micro-electronic based technologies.”

“The challenge of such a company is to understand where the shifting values of culture and society lie in these futures that are continuously unfolding.”

And indeed, in many ways, as Bernard Stiegler has suggested in his similarly monumental three volume analysis of what he calls the technological “supplementation” of human existence, Technics and Time, this is not only one of the most important questions that we face today, but the most important question that faces us in this brief as well. That is, what exactly are the consequences of the fact that many of what Albert Borgmann has called those key “focal” practices that have traditionally defined our existence as human beings, that is those “key social structures and activities” that have traditionally or historically defined the very nature of who we are, and those “networks” - whether social, cultural, political, economic, or material - that have facilitated them, are now so technologically mediated, “supplemented” as Stiegler describes it, or “sped” up as Paul Virilio has also described it, that they exceed our very capacity to both comprehend or control them. And we need only point to the recent Global Financial Crisis as but one example of an event that illustrates this point.

“how might we possibly design, or perhaps even more appropriately, re-design or redirect the essential nature of these technologies and the networks that they create in a way that is capable of not only revealing but also possibly remedying many of those essentially dehumanising, disincarnating, and destructive qualities of their nature that seem to be such an intrinsic part of their existence - and the 'crises' that they produce.”

So, in lieu of this, and as a response to Microsoft’s desire to better understand the inherent nature of those “networks” that they are “enabling”, you are required to consider how we might be capable of re-designing, or perhaps even more appropriately as Tony Fry has described it, “re-directing”, the essential nature of some of these technologies and the “networks” that they create, in a way that not only reveals, but also hopefully remedies some of those more dehumanising, disincarnating, and destructive qualities of their nature that seem to be such an intrinsic part of their existence and the “crises” that they produce. A “crisis” that it should also be noted, as Martin Heidegger has suggested in The Question Concerning Technology, is not simply a consequence of those more specific historical, empirical, or what he calls “ontic” events that have come to “re-present” it, but rather that deeper “ontological crisis” that has been precipitated by our ever increasing resignation, giving ourselves over, or as Marshall Mcluhan has described it,”externalisation” of ourselves into the “networks” of these technologies that are increasingly “in-forming” our world; and yet without many of those essential empathetic and ethical qualities that have been so important to our “embodied” existence. A way that as Heidegger suggests at the end of The Question Concerning Technology, might also reveal their potential “saving power”? - “where danger is, grows also the saving power”? A way that, through some sort of “redirective” practice, or design, might also finally enable us to realise their truly transformative potential for “good” – whatever that might mean! A way that might also allow us to finally recognise that, as many contemporary hermeneutically and phenomenologically influenced critics and economists from Heidegger to Hubert Dreyfus, Fernando Flores, Charles Spinosa, and Donald Sull have suggested, this “crisis”, and all its many material “re-presentations”, is also a massive opportunity for innovation and change. A “massive change” as Bruce Mau has described it.

As suggested, the brief aims to focus your attention on alleviating and preventing “crisis”, as well as design’s ability to both draw attention to the implications and consequences of our individual actions within those network/s in which we exist. For example we have previously outlined how consumers are completely unaware of what we could call the “network” implications and consequences of their financial choices, like when they buy milk products below their real market price or cost in supermarkets and thus jeopardize the entire viability of the UK Milk industry – as well as all of those other industries that are affiliated with it. If they were capable of being made aware of this - in “realtime” - through some sort of disclosure of the “network” consequences of their actions - through say something like Microsoft’s already existent “SixthSense” project - would they still behave in the same way? Or in other instances we have also talked about how various network’s waste might be capable of being “re-sourced” as another networks raw material, and how this potential may be communicated in more immediate, “realtime”, or effective ways. This is what you really need to focus on! What types of technology and systems of communication might be capable revealing these opportunities for “re-directed” practice in “realtime.” What types of devices or systems of communication might be capable of finally revealing the true impact and consequence of our collective actions on, or “interaction” with, our world, and all of those diverse ethical, socio-cultural, political, environmental, economic, and material concerns that go with it, in “realtime”. And what effects would these possibly have, both for the way in which we relate to each other and our world?

“What’s perhaps even more interesting is a shift towards anticipatory networks, where people say what they are going to do in the future, and invite others to make it happen!”

Technology is not a cure-all. Clearly, we are also at a point of crisis economically as well as environmentally, where technology cannot be expected to be a cure-all, a magic pill to solve all ills, what is actually also really called for is the “enablement” of new cultures of contribution that truly harness peoples’ imagination as well as their desire to protect our future - think of “SocialVibe” as but one example of a “network” that attempts to “mediate” these sorts of ideals. So in lieu of this, this brief does not simply ask you to “speculatively” consider what types of technologies might be capable of facilitating or “enabling” those changes that we want you to consider – although this is completely possible - but also to consider how we might develop, or “re-direct”, our current use of these technologies in ways that promote their more holistic, communitarian, and systemic possibilities. Again look at “SocialVibe” as but one example of a “network” service that attempts to do this. If you were going to design such a site what would it look like? How would you “mediate” its message and the “re-directive” practice that it advocates?

If design is to act within the context of “networks” to alleviate “crisis” or even assist in avoiding it in the first place where should we position the act of designing? Perhaps there are new socio-cultural formations of design and designing that could also be explored through this brief? Clearly it is crucial for design to engage with adaptability and plasticity of potential change, repurposing, or “re-directing” of the networks we are engaging with. Obviously we recognise the creative opportunity of “crisis”, and the potential it affords through change, as well as how we collectively and individually re-address our own personal and collective desires.
Through this brief we would like you to design coherent ‘things’, services, objects, technologies that facilitate networks, draw attention to, alleviate or help prevent crisis. 

Exchange, Alternative economics, Sharing, Exchange currencies (Links systems or alternative barter type exchange), Skill swapping, Over-Consuming, Resources, Cost, Scarcity, Air travel, Famine, Bankruptcy, Death, Unemployment, Starvation, Loss, Fraud, Sickness, Financial, Weather, Love, Friends, Business, Cultural Identity, Family, Income, Land, Ownership, Commons, Weather, Travel, Farming, Wellbeing, Health, Origin, Authorship, Ego, Displacement, Relocation, Immigration, Imagination, Scale, Future, Theory and Practice, Skill and Knowledge, Teaching, Effects, Control, Security, Business Supersectors and Sectors (Oil and Gas, Basic Materials, Industrials, General Industrial, Consumer Goods, Health care, Consumer services, Telecoms, Utilities, Financials, Technology), Networked Activities (Online working projects, Wellbeing, Healthcare, Alternative therapies, Spiritual and Religious networks, Education and Learning, Communal book sharing, Community action, Fixing and repairing, Instructing, Libraries, Romance, Dating, Producing, Crafting), Contexts of Crisis (Work, Home, School, Park, Street, Shopping centre, Car park, Bridge, Camp, Party, City, Countryside, Classroom, Boardroom, Bench, Government, Station, Airport, Border, Museum, Shop, Market, Retail Store, Eating)

Workshop 1- Defining Crisis
The first workshop will explore ‘crisis’ in particular scenarios of crisis and the context of crisis. This includes ‘everyday minor crisis’ to ‘major crisis’.
Workshop 2- Mapping Networks of Crisis
When a range of crisis scenarios have been built the second workshop will build on them by creating maps of the networks/ agency of the interconnecting networks, it’s ‘interplexus’.
Workshop 3 - Ways to Act on Crisis
Ideation processes will then take place in groups and individually to explore how to act to alleviate, re-purpose the network of crisis.

text © D. Fairfax, M. Waller, M.Magas 2010. Pi-Studio, Design, Goldsmiths