Experimental Prototyping with Materially Evocative Frontend Design: Reflection on Careful Networks Commission
22 Nov 2021
Updated 19 Jan 2022
I worked on two browser-based artworks co-commissioned by Phoenix and The Photographers’ Gallery London, for an exhibition entitled Careful Networks (29 Oct 2021 - 12 Nov 2021) that took place on the p2p web network, which is an alternative type of Internet protocol.
The exhibition explores forms of care in networked interdependency and computing in relation to ecology (for more details, visit the Careful Networks website or its archive to view the archived works). In response to the theme, my commissioned works explored the relationship between the perceived mundaneness of digital devices, the (in)visibility of the materiality of the networked devices and its relation to ecological processes and geological temporality.
The two works were produced in two different parts in response to my research into the particular materiality of my obsolete laptop and its ecological concerns, where the research and process of one work informed the design of another and vice versa – in a somewhat disjointed way – as if the works are irrelevantly yet relationally connected, much like ecological relationality.
In the end, the works dealt with prototyping some frontend design that evokes materiality and the ground (rather than “the cloud”). The prototypes in this instance did not deal much with backend systems (apart from that the prototypes were made in the data limit of 2MB specified by the Careful Networks exhibition).
Commission part 1: myObsoleteMacbook.net
In the first part of my commission, I worked on myObsoleteMacbook.net. It is an interactive, participatory, p2p-website work providing detailed information concerning the seemingly banal materiality of my Apple laptop. The viewers are invited to participate to host the website on the distributed network of the peer-to-peer web, in order to prolong the material visibility of the laptop. I made this work in response to the networked, material conditions of the p2p web where the users become data hosts and their devices become servers in a way that their material bodies could be visible and tangible to us.
As my laptop has become visible as a p2p data server, I looked further into the materiality-related data of the particular laptop model. Also, this research dug out some dirt around how Apple designed this laptop poorly and this made it quite difficult to recycle its battery parts.
Then I looked further into how the laptop may be handled after it will be discarded as e-waste, and how long it takes for some e-waste parts to decompose in a landfill. This pointed my attention to the geological dimension of the materiality of the laptop. Anatomy of an AI System by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler illustrated some processes of e-waste management and rare earth mining, the environmental and human-labour related problems relevant with the processes, as well as the geologic process and temporality that composed the rare earth elements needed for making digital devices. These details are presented in the work.
In a way, asking participants to host the website artwork to prolong the visibility of the laptop and its materiality was somewhat paradoxical in that the obsolete presence of the device could disappear into a landfill one day and be forgotten.
Commission part 2: Deep Time Counter Dashboard (Prototype v1.0)
In the second part of the commission, I expanded on some of the particular aspects that appeared through the research of the first work. The focus was the geologic temporality in relation to the materiality of the laptop.
I made a browser dashboard that counts down 4.54 billion years from October 2013 - when my obsolete laptop was produced. Around 4.54 billion years ago, the earth was formed. It took billions of years for the earth to compose the elements to make digital devices and networked communication structures. The work gives a very rough, sort of extrapolated timeline for when the earth may or may not recompose the laptop materials.
Once launched, the dashboard will make the sound of a stone dropping every minute, making visible and reminding the material relationship between the laptop, other devices and the geologic time scale hidden behind our digital lives.
Materiality and Speed
In some ways, both of the prototypes dealt with notions of speed.
The materially evocative data of myObsoleteMacbook.net gives rise to the implicit need for the modulation of the speed and/or direction of the development of ICT, in relation to the material limitations that the work outlined.
The (current) aim of Deep Time Counter Dashboard is to implement a technological translation of geological slowness in the users’ “environments”, within their perceptual proximity. This aims to hack their interfaces and perception with different cosmologies - away from the design and attention manipulation of the ordinary interface. I also questioned if this kind of perceptual modularity could affect our cosmological attitude for care, for example, in order to cultivate empathetic relations with material, the earth and the environment.
The above points relate to my thoughts concerning the diversity of cosmologies in technology and speed, and the thoughts were made in parallel with the development of the commission. I intend to write a more extensive post about it at a later time.
 It seems that the file limitation of the exhibition was made in reference to the paper ‘This is a solar-powered website, which means it sometimes goes offline’: a design inquiry into degrowth and ICT, Roel Roscam Abbing, 2021.
 This sort of materiality is often not visible in the use of most hosting services of the ordinary Internet (i.e. in the server-client model), where data centres are remotely located and note openly accessed especially in terms of material and ecological aspects. In other words, the metaphor of “the cloud” in the narrative of technological capitalism seems to obfuscate the materiality and ecological features of the ordinary Internet.
 For more details, see the texts in the work myObsoleteMacbook.net.
 Anatomy of an AI System (printed version), Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, 2018.
 Marloes de Valk’s research extensively investigates relevant points to this issue and expands towards various ecological aspects surrounding ICT development. See A Pluriverse of Local Worlds: A Review of Computing Within Limits Related Terminology and Practices, Marloes de Valk, 2021 | Refusing the Burden of Computation: Edge Computing and Sustainable ICT, Marloes de Valk, 2021]
 Emanuele Coccia says that the idea of care can be understood in terms of the question of selecting or having a cosmological attitude. (see Critical Zones Panel Discussion – Part 4 – ZKM | Karlsruhe, on YouTube)