Reimagining the Electrical Grid

Strelka researcher Calum Bowden proposes restructuring energy consumption through blockchain technology.

Boston and London-based filmmaker Calum Bowden has a background in anthropology and speculative design. As a researcher at the Strelka Institute’s multidisciplinary postgraduate think tank The New Normal, his group project proposes an alternative use of blockchain technology that would incentivize the growth of a climate analysis apparatus powered by renewable energy sources. Following a visit to the experimental housing estate Chertanovo North, he discusses Soviet and futuristic electrical grids, one’s right to anonymity, and prioritizing renewable energy sources.

I’m interested in how people and materials become entangled in complex ways, specifically looking at design and the built environment, science and technology, and social organization. My work uses frameworks for collaboration from the “creative industries” – whether theater and cinema, or design and innovation – to try and rewire the infrastructures surrounding us. In London, I started thinking about how invisible software, hardware, and legal codes frame reality, while researching the origins of Google’s search engine. 

User-centered design sets out to boil people down to consumer groups, touch points, and use-case stories, to target core features, design appeal, and create immersive interactions. In becoming users, we are no longer people, but performers within designed frameworks. The user is created by the  platform, and the designs further deny the expression of multiethnic, multicultural, and queer subjectivities. As quantum physicist and philosopher Karen Barad writes in Meeting the Universe Halfway: “Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating.” Identity, subjectivity, and experience are active and multifaceted. I’m interested in prototyping ways of encoding this fundamental collaboration.

The anonymous alias was key to the early web and it allowed for multiple online personas. Growing up in chat rooms and forums, I played different characters without worrying that they represented who I was. On MySpace I was both deTallyrand, a euro-trance DJ, and 4Mangos, a fake suburban rapper. I had a Blogger where I posted pretentious teenage conspiracy theories. With Facebook things changed, and there was this push for real names, IRL friends, and headshot-style profile pictures. Simplified interfaces and real-name profiles helped the web to appeal to many more people, but they also allowed names to be tied to IP addresses, geographic locations, browsing history, clicks, likes, and friend groups, enabling the revenue model at the base of Google, Facebook, and other advertising platforms. 

We need more platforms that reject the power concentration implicit in real-name  systems. While tracker blockers, and encrypted browsing through HTTPS, TOR browser, or a VPN offer some anonymity, they don’t change the Web’s existing structure. One of the most exciting potentials of blockchain networks, which use distributed databases to facilitate peer-to-peer transaction and governance, is in allowing for typically non-financial values to be codified through the creation of tokens. They’re said to be trustless because transactions can be verified without the need of a central authority. As all data must be stored by each node, there is greater possibility for power to distribute through the network.

At Strelka I’m collaborating with Aiwen, Sasha, Cory, and Artem on Phi, which proposes an alternative use of blockchains to reimagine our relationship to energy and resource distribution systems. We’re developing an online simulation where people will be able to explore the impact of peer-to-peer energy, currency, and governance on their lives. We’ve designed incentive structures to enable the growth of a climate sensing and analysis system that would be powered by renewable energy. 

In The Stack, Strelka program director Benjamin Bratton discusses a U.S. Department of Energy study that found that simulating and predicting the planetary climate system in real time would be the single greatest anthropogenic event in history. Phi proposes alternative relationships between computation and energy, redefining social obligation in the context of “trustless” blockchain networks. By focusing on using peer-to-peer technologies to distribute renewable energy resources, we’re designing a network in which social obligation replaces the consumption of electricity as the source of value. Electricity in our system is not sold in the traditional sense, but is traded for other currencies that represent things like reputation and the amount of energy not used. There are different ways for people to interact with Phi: by designing renewable energy networks, simulating new models of exchange, and investing in peer-to-peer infrastructure.

In south Moscow’s Chertanovo North housing estate, the massive scale of the buildings is striking. I’m forced to confront the power of human coordination and collaboration. The megastructures loom over my small individual body, and I’m dwarfed by avenues of high-voltage transmission towers. The heavy metal frames look like the assertive marching workers depicted in Soviet realist art. Lines of drooping cables pulse with electrons, the lifeblood of the modern era. Although the project was never fully realized, Chertanovo North was the most ambitious residential housing development project of the 1970s. I read that it was intended to showcase ways in which the Soviet Union could accommodate a diverse population within apartments designed for different groups of users. Housing shortages and overrun communal apartments meant that these developments granted residents much-needed privacy and public amenities. 

Chertanovo is totally terraformed, and the human-made landscape stretches into the horizon – a space colony with docking spaceships powered by some alien force. In 1920 Lenin said, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” Chertanovo, dominated by monolithic housing complexes and high voltage transmission towers, but carefully balanced with greenery and open space, seems to reassert this point.

Calum’s video “Oxygen of Terror” will be shown in Newcastle and London from September as part of  Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2017