CB Wall.001
Image: Samir Bhowmik 2019

The Circuit Breaker is a networked sonic installation that critiques the culture of constant connectivity. The installation takes the form of a series of customized modems overlooking a distributed network of online participants. Network connectivity is dependent on community-determined set of algorithmic variables. The variables might include bandwidth usage, power consumption, browsing analytics, location and terrain. These together will form a model of online behavior, similar to ‘Load Factor’ a concept of diversity of use and geography used in electrical power systems.[1] Online participants will have to balance ‘Load Factor’ to maintain constant connectivity. If ideal harmony in diversity is not maintained and network load not balanced by the networked community, it would result in circuit disruption and participants will be blocked out of the network. This disruption will be marked by the dissonant sonic event of the tripping circuit breakers (and green light). Connectivity will be regained by a participant only after the network is balanced (red light), and then she can turn back on the switch.

The aim of this installation is to provoke critique and reflection about the social and energetic impact of our constantly connected digital lives in Finland. While harmony between man and machine, body and the network are seen as the primary aspirations of our post-industrial Finnish digital society, it has the potential for long-term discord to both natural ecologies and wider implications to local communities. Constant connectivity is not only energy-intensive, has health consequences, but also has resulted in growing dissonance in society at multiple scales: from the social to the political, from resource depletion to climate change.[2] Infrastructures that support connectivity still remain perceived generally as intangible and ethereal just like the ‘Cloud’. 

system-diagram

By placing online behavior through a community-participated criteria of diversity, as well as an environmental agenda, the proposal seeks to draw attention to the materialities and infrastructures of connectivity. As a speculative design object challenging the assumptions of Internet connectivity and surrounding ethical issues it aspires to the principles of Critical Design.[3] As a non-time-critical system that also embraces Slow Design, it aims to address individual connectivity needs with the well-being of the environment, placing itself against the grain of constant growth and productivity.[4] As a participatory design intervention in a gallery, the installation aims to engage local communities, elicit critical responses and reflection on the state of the infrastructure of the Internet that dominates our daily lives. Could design become a tool to question the ubiquitousness of connectivity and address the related materialities and environmental impacts?  Could dis-connectivity remind us of our choices? Could it persuade us to think that every ‘click’ has an energetic footprint and every break in the circuit saves a piece of the earth?

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NOTES

[1] Since the late 19th century,’Load Factor’ has been the primary method used by power companies to distribute electric power and maintain system integrity. Load Factor depends on a harmonious diversity of electrical consumption, consumers and natural geography. By this method, larger geographical areas with a wide range of energy consuming activities allow power systems to balance generation with supply. When the load becomes imbalanced, demand exceeds supply, circuit breakers (CB) are used to disconnect the flow of current that result in rolling blackouts or load shedding. These can only be then manually reset by human intervention. See Thomas Parke Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society: 1880-1930 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

[2] Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies (Duke University Press, 2017).

[3] Anthony Dunne, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008); See also “Towards a Critical Design”: http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/bydandr/42/0

[4] Carolyn Strauss and Alastair Fuad-Luke, ”The slow design principles,” Proceedings of the Changing the Change (2008).