An Open Source Sky: Metahaven in Conversation with Liam Young
Liam Young is the co-founder of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, a London-based think tank exploring the consequences of fantastic, perverse and underrated urbanisms. After working for a few high profile offices including Zaha Hadid Architects and LAB Architecture Studio, Young has “escaped” starchitecture and is now an independent designer and critic. Liam taught at the Architectural Association and currently teaches at Princeton University. TTT is well-known for their Electronic Countermeasures, a recent exploration involving file sharing networks based on drone aircraft. TTT calls this a “nomadic infrastructure” and a “robotic swarm.” The following interview with Liam Young is part of the research for our essay series, Captives of the Cloud, and our forthcoming book, Black Transparency (Sternberg Press, 2013).
In an article about Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today’s work with drones, you were quoted having said that the project was about inspiring “drone technology for non-militarized opportunities.” Can the drone really exist outside of the vocabulary of the militarized?
Drone technology has very quickly revolved from being exclusively high end military and research technology to becoming exceptionally cheap and accessible. This is an exceptionally exciting time when so many people from different disciplines are exploring the possible implications of open source drones. These hacked devices now outnumber those controlled by the United States military. Hobbyists are now pushing the possibilities of drones much further than the military are. This bottom up infrastructure can operate to organise crowd in protest, to negotiate censorship or privacy laws and to connect those that have been cut off. We are only at the very edge of imagining just what drones can be deployed for and similar to the evolution of personal computers we have no real way of fully anticipating how they will be taken up by the public.
Drones, just like the internet before, began as a military project, but it will be the public community that will really explore their potential.
The drones themselves are an appropriation of technologies designed for aerial reconnaissance and police surveillance. You’ve chosen the name Electronic Countermeasures for the project, and described their use as “weaponized connectivity.” The GPS system that drives them, the network they disseminate, are all technologies originally designed for military applications. Could the project be thought of as a counter-militarization rather than a de-militarization?
It has the potential to be both. As this technology becomes increasingly accessible it will deployed outside of expected military applications. This is the way technology transfer typically works. Initial development follows the funding but then eventually trickles down to alternative applications.
Drones are truly becoming demilitarized but at the same time we can imagine the technology being deployed in direct opposition to their military or state sponsored counterparts. We are operating in a time where the US military have developed aerial systems to force the internet on dictators who have closed down or censored their own network. This is what we talk of as weaponised connectivity. Our projects is able to swarm into formation, broadcast a pirate network, and then disperse, escaping detection, only to reform elsewhere. The more slippery and fluid the infrastructure the more difficult it is to close it down. We need to be speculating on alternative uses just like this in order to speed up the process of technology transfer and bring us closer to emerging infrastructures that have the potential to redefine the city.
In March, after TTT had already began the Electronic Countermeasures project, the Pirate Bay came out saying they wanted to develop drone servers as a means of evading national jurisdictions? On many levels your project seems very different than that proposed by the TPB. What do you think of their proposal?
The Pirate Bay proposal is a provocation. I don’t read it as a legitimate strategy to be implemented but then I don’t think that is its role. The way we are accessing information and sharing knowledge is changing. As a culture we are having to come to some kind of collective agreement about what copyright means in a digital age. Who owns information when as it becomes a digital commodity. Industries and governments are too slow to adapt and projects like Electronic Countermeasures or The Pirate Bay drone servers are imagined for the purposes of examining these issues and speculating on new possibilities. The privatization of knowledge is something we all need to be thinking about. Moves toward the storage of all our data in the cloud, a cloud managed by private companies or nation states, is potentially a very dangerous.
Even if this drone network isn’t implemented as a practical solution we would be just as interested if the work made us question what is happening and what alternatives there may be data distribution. Either way the project is about provoking action and we hope others will follow that further explore the community-driven opportunities of these increasing accessible and affordable technologies.
TPB’s server drone project is premised on escaping the local, avoiding the territorialized implications of operating servers to promote international dissemination of information. On the other hand, the idea of the “local” seems to be a very important to Electronic Countermeasures—a project to inspire new networks in localized communities. What is the dynamic between the deterritorialization of the Internet and localization of information in TTT’s work?
The traditional infrastructure that once defined cities like, roads, plumbing and park spaces is now giving way to nomadic digital networks, orbiting GPS satellites and cloud computing connections. We used to understand our city as the place where we were. I live in London, my neighbour lives in London, we are Londoners. I am now however closer to my Twitter network or Facebook friends than I am the people in my apartment building. This death of geography has created new forms of communities and cities based on what we are interested in, our culture, the push for revolution in the middle east or a love of 90’s boy bands. For architects, who define themselves around notions of crafting and shaping the physical world, this shift necessitates new forms of practice. I am interested in what the architect becomes, what an architectural or urban project becomes in this world where the dominant building processes now exist outside of the physical spectrum. Without this mode of adaptation the profession will become increasingly marginalised and ineffectual. So we have gravitated to the discipline of futures as we explore the idea of a think tank as a legitimate model for an architectural practice - a practice not built on buildings as endpoints but on speculations, research and futures thinking as products in themselves. We are interested in the role of the architect and the futurist to define new questions, not just finding solutions to problems posed to us, but identifying new arenas for operation.
As an example Electronic Countermeasures is really about reasserting the importance of place back into the internet. It looks at how these technologies suggest new possibilities for communities in the city, communities that share geography but not defined or limited by that geography.
Was the emphasis on local networks part of the original concept for Electronic Countermeasures, or was it an outcome of technological limitations?
In the longer term our proposed drone networks are scalable and can operate at the scale of the street corner, the scale of a music festival or even the nation state. They are an infrastructure of vast territories or the entire city but I think that perhaps the most interesting opportunities are in these smaller scaled networks where different types of data will become exceptionally place specific. With Electronic Countermeasures we are interested in how new geographically specific data cultures may emerge. Just like particular areas or neighbourhoods in cities that have their own qualities and atmospheres you could also imagine data suburbs, travelling an area for a specific sort of data. We don’t expect to be able to go and watch a fantastic live band play anywhere in the city but rather we travel to places where these sorts of events are likely to occur. It is interesting to imagine digital data having the same site specificity. We hang out in this area because it is where the hottest music uploads are, above the picket fences drift suburban porn caches or revolutionary discussion boards create new forums in the public spaces of the city. New forms of community, new forms of city even are forming based around these digitally enabled networks.
A criticism of the TPB proposal was that it didn’t address that part of the operation would have to remain localized (the drones simply acting to reroute information through different land-locked servers). Likewise, the drone is always controlled from somewhere on the ground. Is it feasible to have a completely deterritorialized drone, whose aerial operations function independently from Westphalian (nation-state) geography?
You can’t separate technology from culture. I can imagine that it will be possible to dissolve the ground based technology of drone networks either as a nomadic system or an atomised infrastructure so dispersed that it could be considered placeless. Despite the possibility of cutting this umbilical cord to the ground though, the airspace the drones occupy is just as contested and politically charged as the landscape below. Whether it is through surveillance or broadcast the aerial drone network is always referenced against the ground, their aerial manoeuvres are inevitably about control over a localised terrain. The vertical territories that drones bring into focus may actually also lead to the politics of atmospheres becoming much more defined and regulated. Rather than deterritorialisation drones may exaggerate the functions of nation state geography.
The ability for the drones to disperse and regroup in different locations seems to address a great deal of concerns surrounding the capability of governments to “take them down.” Though the nomadism of the drones promotes their ability to materially survive (avoiding being shot down for example), are there provisions to protect them from cyber attacks? Could the GPS waypoints potentially be compromised?
Any technology is open to misue. Any strategies to create a more resilient network will inevitably lead to more aggressive countermeasures. Drone networks are inherently big and fragile but it is this vulnerability that both allow them to be compromised but also open to reappropriation. Rather than focus on the potential cracks in the system it is these unintended or unexpected applications of drones that present the most interesting opportunities. In many ways that is the nature of infrastructure and our cultural engagement with it.
If the drones function to provide network access in places where so many network connections are surveilled and corrupt, it seems as if the drones would have to be launched, literally and figuratively, from the bottom-up (by the people) in order to be trusted. Can we imagine the drones as “mobile internet revolution kits.”
Connectivity is becoming one of the key drivers of urban change. It plays a critical role in enabling communities and shaping our experience of the city. Connectivity or the lack of it has huge social and political consequences. We are imaging a range of applications from enabling coordinated protests within the city, community controlled surveillance networks to more modest applications of bringing virtual communities together in physical space. They could be ground up public networks or just like the GPS satellite networks, they could be competitive commercial activities with their own politics of ownership. It is easy to imagine our own Electronic Countermeasures released as an online tutorial to enable people to launch their own pirate flock. It is something we are working on as this proliferation of multiple networks with their own agency is really what the work is about.
There is also a large array of alternative uses for the aerial swarm that we are beginning to test beyond file sharing and virtual communities. We are developing a whole range of projects in this series of nomadic speculative infrastructures. Just like Electronic Countermeasures we are exploring the way technology and services become dynamic interactive systems and how technology can be knitted into the natural systems that surround us. These projects include robotic clouds that can be dialled up to rain on demand, artificial pollinators to support declining bee populations, mobile geo engineering systems that soak up CO2 and new biotech systems that control invasive species in the Galapagos Islands.
We are at an exciting point where this technology has just become publicly accessible and many people are exploring its possible implications. Just as the DARPA net became the internet commons it will be the bottom up community engagement with drone technologies that will present its real opportunities.
This interview with Liam Young was conducted by Metahaven / Daniel van der Velden, Vinca Kruk and Alysse Kushinski via e-mail in November, 2012.