UCSD's Center for Design and Geopolitics: The Art & Theory of Planetary-Scale Computation

By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

San Diego, Calif., Jan. 25, 2012 — Take a look at a map depicting global computer networks and two things become immediately apparent: the vast number of connections between servers across the planet, and the way those connections overlap geopolitical boundaries.  

Benjamin Bratton
Benjamin H. Bratton, Director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics (D:GP). 

The University of California, San Diego’s Benjamin H. Bratton, an associate professor of Visual Arts, argues that long-standing political geographies, such as the borders that separate nation-states, are being transformed by planetary-scale computation. To imagine what comes next and how to get there, Bratton believes that addressing questions of ecological governance and rethinking the planet’s “design logic” are paramount. 

“The question lies in the way that planetary computation destabilizes some systems and reinforces others,” explains Bratton, who directs UCSD’s Center for Design and Geopolitics (D:GP), which based at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). 

“Immanuel Kant’s early Modern model for cosmopolitanism was based on a two-dimensional map, from which he derived a federal structure of world citizenship. But today the challenges of globalization can’t be met by that kind of simple structure. Now any question of governance has to start with the scale of ecological systems, where something done in one part of the world has an effect somewhere else." 

Continues Bratton: “When scale and distance collapse in this way, it confuses jurisdiction. It’s a basic challenge to how we map planetary space, and global computation is forcing us to confront this. Ultimately, we have to be able to compose and design a different framework for geopolitics, because the structural models we have are inadequate.”

Bratton cites the recent conflict between Google and China over Internet search and free speech as one example of the conflict between “different modes of governance and the ways that they organize territory.”  

He explains: “One (China) is a nation-state bounded and bordered on a geographic plane.  Everything that happens inside that frame is governed by the state, and they see the Internet as a function of that sovereignty. The other (Google) is spread across the Earth like a thin layer of atmosphere. The ‘cloud’ is not just a metaphor. 

“In a given location, say Beijing, these two may be stacked on top of the other, like the different layers of a Photoshop image, and may occupy the same ‘location’ at the same time,” he continues. “But as layers, China and Google don’t’ blend.’ Instead they ‘stack.’  It’s the potential of this ‘stack’ that we see as the interesting design question. It’s a different geometry of sovereignty and one we don’t understand yet.”

An Ipv6 address written with an electron beam onto a silicon wafer
A sample Ipv6 address written with an electron beam onto a silicon wafer. It is 10 micrometers wide — the same size as red blood cell — and photographed with a scanning electron microscope. The creation of the image is collaboration between Benjamin H. Bratton and D:GP (The Center for Design and Geopolitics) with Nano3 Cleanroom and Fabrication Lab, both at Calit2.

 The role of Bratton’s Center for Design and Geopolitics (D:GP) is to examine these emergent geopolitical complexities and pose responses in the form of a series of research tracks. But unlike the traditional think-tank, D:GP focuses on how art and design perspectives are able to contribute original ideas and prototypes that would never result from a normal “policy” discussion. Notes Bratton: “We are as inspired by the experimental architecture of the 1960s — Constant, Archizoom, Buckminster Fuller — as we are by current events.”

One research track, known as Deep Address, explores ways of modeling and learning from “the Internet of Everything,” where (thanks to the vast address space now available with Internet Protocol Version 6, or IPv6), every object on the planet, no matter how small, could theoretically have its own IP address and communicate with any other object via existing information networks. Bratton is even collaborated with researchers in the Calit2 Nano3 lab to write a single IPv6 address at a scale of 10 micrometers, which would make it possible to connect something as infinitesimal as human red blood cells to the Internet.

“The ability to program information exchange between things this small, including inside our own bodies, potentially changes everything,” says Bratton. “So for us, ubiquitous computing is less about how my toothbrush is going talk to my refrigerator than about expanding and amplifying communication between objects across multiple scales, from the very small to the very large. 

“When things have an Internet address, their motions – and their relations, one to another – can be seen, modeled and contemplated,” he adds. “It’s a way of tracking our shadows, a way of making sense of those shadows and of the traces and disturbances that we leave behind in the world. Ultimately this has the capacity to fundamentally change the way we think about our patterns of  impact on the world, perhaps even as much as the written alphabet changed the way we thought.”

For D:GP, the Deep Address project links philosophy with the challenges of contemporary geopolitics. “We see the ‘computationalization’ of matter as a key aspect of ecological governance,” Bratton says. “But instead of top-down, Deep Address is a very bottom-up approach to rethinking what a ‘Materialist’ perspective might be.”

A second D:GP research initiative, known as Westphalia 2, explores alternative geopolitical maps given the challenges to political geography since the rise of the nation-state, particularly those posed by planetary-scale computation.

“Westphalia was the 1648 peace treaty that codified the European model of the sovereign, bounded nation-state we know today,” he explains. “Our goal with Westphalia 2 is to re-open that composition. Whereas European nationalism may have been based on language or ethnicity, for example, there are always any number of different ways you can design these lines. What if we organize political geography according to bioregional systems, or the types of energy a zone was capable of producing? 

“In fact,” continues Bratton, “such alternatives are already real in small but important ways, from simple protocols like the 6 DVD region codes that govern what discs will playback on what machines, to what are more important bodies, like the 5 RIR’s (Regional Internet Registries) that dole out all the IP addresses. We already live within multiple overlapping jurisdictions, and the future of the ‘State’ will be to govern in relation to that complexity. Inevitably it will be transformed by that effort. The world map, or maps, could look very different in 50 years.”

“Our project,” he adds, “is to experiment with real tangible design artifacts, working with both existing and emerging technologies, especially those being developed at Calit2. “But the result for D:GP is to apply these to new social and political frameworks. “Cloud platforms, for example, may be enabling a kind of global legal infrastructure that could augment, or maybe even displace, the primary citizenship of nation state. When does your Google ID become more significant than your passport? When does it guarantee more mobility, maybe even more sovereignty?” 

Bratton notes, however, that the W2 initiative is “upstream of upstream.”

“Our guiding supposition is definitely not that the nation-state somehow goes away because of the Internet.  It’s just as clear that (computing) can radically re-enforce the State in ways that are perhaps very disturbing. But it does so in ways that transform what states see, do and how they define their limits. As artists, designers and theorists, we’re exploring the space of possibilities, not finalizing immediate policy recommendations.”

Bratton says he believes Calit2 is the perfect host for D:GP because of its interdisciplinary mandate to imagine and engineer the future of technology. “For us, that future is ultimately defined by what technologies do in relation to other systems — cultural, social, political, economic, and ecological — and so we start with questions that are not intrinsically technological.”

He adds that he and his researchers are less interested in “the conceit of solving these problems in the immediate short-term,” and more in reforming the role of the think-tank as an institution that too often merely “formalizes common sense.”

“With most think tanks, if you see a list of who is participating in a project, you can guess the outcome,” he explains. “Our interest is in bringing to the table the means of speculative design and to reframe the questions that are often posed to think tanks. Part of the vitality of D:GP is that our work is anything but common-sensical. “

Bratton believes that “this moment requires new methods."

"In the shadow of financial and ecological crises, and the challenges to the centrality of the state institutions, everything is on the table” he adds. “There’s an invitation or, in fact, a necessity for us to not only be effected by these processes, but to rethink how we can design planetary-scale systems more creatively.” 

He considers the scope of the challenge to be daunting, and relates it to an idea posed by Scripps Institution of Oceanography Professor and Nobel prize laureate, Paul Crutzen. Crutzen coined the term “the Anthropocene,” as the name of our new geologic era, which is defined by human industrial technologies and their effects.

Bratton concludes: “There is good news and bad news in this. The bad news is that we’ve permanently altered the planet in just a century or so. The good news is that it proves it is possible to redesign a planet relatively quickly. We look to the ‘post-Anthropocene’, and we can hope that we do better this time around.” 

Media Contacts

 Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Related Links

Center for Design and Geopolitics 

Benjamin Bratton's website