Articulating Actions and Ethics
As issues concerning climate change have become more pressing and more public, new technologies and policies have been proposed and in some cases implemented. One such technology-policy hybrid is carbon sinks and carbon offsets. Carbon sinks are natural or artificial reservoirs of chemical compounds: they sequester carbon from the environment and are proposed as one form of a carbon offset, with the general idea that production and utilization of carbon sinks might counterbalance excess carbon in the atmosphere, thereby mitigating its effects on the climate. Carbon offsets generally operate on an economic model whereby nations or corporations are allocated a certain number of carbon allowances. When the nation or corporation exceeds its allowance, it must purchase or trade for more. The funds from the purchase of additional allowances are then allocated toward projects that allay the excess carbon production else- where—for example, investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, or the production of more carbon sinks. This notion of mitigating energy use through systems of monitoring and exchange extends from the scale of nations and corporations down to communities and individuals. Increasing numbers of tools and resources exist to calculate and monitor individual and local ecological impact, or one 's "carbon footprint."6 Usually, however, these individual and group systems are designed to focus on the documentation of energy usage or ameliorative actions, and they bypass the political issues and conditions of climate change and control technologies, policies, and practices.
Natural Fuse by Usman Haque (2009) is a ubicomp system that enables users to explore and engage in, on a microscale, the political issues that swirl around carbon sinks, carbon offsets, and the associations of actions and ethics in energy consumption.7 Through the design of a ubicomp system, it articulates energy consumption, individual desires, and community consequences to produce an agonistic collective that enlists users as participants in a conflictual model of consumption. This model of consumption mirrors the structure of game theory problem of the prisoner 's dilemma in the context of energy usage: a limited amount of energy is made available to a distributed group of participants, who must make individual decisions regarding how much energy they will use—decisions that come with consequences to others in the system.
The Natural Fuse project consists of a suite of household plants or plant units—assemblages of a plant, sensors, actuators, and software connected together via the Internet (figure 4.2). These plant units are designed to function as carbon sinks and energy regulators. They are plugged into a home electric outlet and operate as a gateway to the electricity from that outlet. Users can plug an appliance such as a lamp into the plant unit to access electricity from the outlet. The appliance can then be turned on and used but only for as much time as matches the amount of carbon offset by the plant. That is, the capacity to use the appliance is modulated by the capacity of the plant to equalize the carbon cost of the using the
Haque Design + Research, Natural Fuse (2009)
appliance. This amount of time is extremely short, from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the electrical requirements of the appliance.
In the proposed scenario of use, the plant units are distributed among users, who may be close to one another (say, in a single city) or distributed across the globe. A given user comes home and turns on a lamp connected to the plant unit. After a minute or two, the lamp is automatically shut off, having expended its allotment of electricity, and the user faces a choice. She encounters the dilemma.
The plants are connected to each other via the Internet, so each plant unit is a node in a network. By leveraging that connectivity, any user and plant unit can take power allocations from another user or plant unit. Each plant unit is outfitted with a switch marked Off/Selfless/Selfish (figure 4.3). If a user wants to use more electricity than is available from her plant unit, she sets the plant unit to the Selfish setting, and it takes energy allotments from other plants connected to the network. If a plant unit takes too much power, however—if it draws more power than is available in reserve across the network of plant units—then it kills another plant.
Detail, Haque Design + Research, Natural Fuse (2009)
As a designed object, Natural Fuse exemplifies the general concept of ubiquitous computing: it is a system of multiple everyday objects embedded with computational capacities and networked together to exchange data and interact with one another. If we trace the design of the system, by calling out the elements and their connections, we can begin to understand the connectedness that characterizes ubicomp and how the design of that connectedness can foster the production of agonistic collectives.
Each plant in Natural Fuse is instrumented with sensors that produce and monitor data and a microprocessor that manages the plant locally. A photoresistor functions as a light sensor, and a humidity sensor is placed in the soil of the plant. These two sensors provide general information about the status of the plant to the microprocessor. The humidity sensor is also connected to a pump, which is connected to a reservoir of water. A valve on the reservoir opens and closes in response to data provided by the humidity sensor to hydrate the plant. There is also a sensor to detect the power draw from any appliance that is plugged in to the plant unit. The data are registered by the local microprocessor and communicated via the Internet to a central database that logs data for all plants in the
Natural Fuse network. The local microprocessor runs an application that compares the electrical draw from the appliance to the amount of the plant 's carbon offset.8 If the electrical draw exceeds this limit, the local application sends a request to an application on the server requesting more power allocations. The application on the server scans the network of plant units to find available plants to draw power from and sends permission to allocate more power back to the initiating unit, which then opens the circuit to allow the given appliance to power on. If this allocation of power results in the death of another plant—if there is not enough standing reserve of power across the network—then the central application sends an email to all parties involved informing them of the death of the plant. A tally is kept of the number of deaths. Once a plant has reached its three- death limit, a command is sent from the application on the server to the local microprocessor to open a valve on a jar of vinegar attached to the plant unit, dispersing the vinegar into the soil.
As shown by this description, the connectedness of the system extends the computational components of the Natural Fuse (figure 4.4). It comprises an articulated collective of people, plants, appliances, electricity, sensors, actuators, microprocessors, software, and vinegar. As a device of articulation, Natural Fuse links these elements together in a manner that transforms the individual identity and meaning of each object as it is folded into the collective and transformed. With this transformation, each object acquires new political significance as affordances, dependencies, and responsibilities are established by the design and use of the system. For the appliance to function, it depends on electricity, and the availability of electricity depends on the capacities of a plant unit or a series of plant units. The capacity of the plants to serve as carbon sinks is largely determined by plant biology. The user is responsible for determining under what conditions to allocate electricity to the appliance and when and to what extent to draw electricity beyond the capacities of her plant unit. All of the users in the network link together as a system of both resource and control with finite limits. There is only limited capacity for carbon sinking within the total system, and there is only limited agency available to any one user to make or defend against demands for allocations of electricity.
The collectives of Natural Fuse also materialize a series of problematic relations between desires, actions, and consequences and thereby functions as an open, interpretive, and participatory space of contest—and it is in this sense that the collective can be considered agonistic. By leveraging computational capacities for connectedness, the design of Natural Fuse
System diagram, Haque Design + Research, Natural Fuse (2009)
models and allows users to participate in exploring relationships between individual needs and desires and the notion of a common welfare with regard to mitigating climate change. In using the system, the same situation is presented to each participant: Does she take the electricity that she wants when she wants it, or does she find some point of compromise with others, ostensibly for the greater good of all? Does she choose to contribute energy to the collective whole by setting the switch on her plant unit to Selfless, or does she demand energy from others by setting her switch to Selfish? This choice between self-interest and the communal good is the crux of the prisoner's dilemma. But unlike the prisoner's dilemma, the situation is not abstract. It is grounded in a contemporary issue and a specific set of practices—climate change, carbon sinks, and carbon offsets.
Most forms of carbon offsets strive to achieve a state of equilibrium within the system and lead users toward more equalizing behaviors, but Natural Fuse enacts an adversarial stance through the design of a system that is predisposed to disequilibrium. A tendency toward strife is built into the operation of the system. By design, the system enables and almost requires users to engage in contests with one another. In fact, it is not clear whether the counterbalance sought by most carbon sink and carbon offset programs is even achievable with Natural Fuse. Each plant unit provides a minimal carbon-sink capacity, and any use of any appliance requires the user to switch to the Selfish mode. In using and reflecting on the use of Natural Fuse, one is also prompted, by design, to consider issues of environmental ethics through a micromodeling of the dynamics of resource allocation and the relations between personal desires and actions and the notion of the good of a larger community.
The model and experience provided by Natural Fuse is an aestheticized diagrammatic rendering of environmental ethics. The look and feel of Natural Fuse make it seem more like an interactive IKEA display than a scientific experiment exploring cooperative behaviors or an engineering prototype for a system of energy monitoring and exchange. But it is precisely this aestheticized quality that lures users into the experience of use, enticing users to participate together with the system in an exploration of this particular issue.
Some may argue that design is more than aesthetics. But the aesthetics of design, in a formal and traditional sense, still have significance in evoking the political. Natural Fuse provides an example of the way that pleasing shapes and seductive materials can be leveraged to produce an experience through which an issue is made accessible and of interest by means of a compelling form. With Natural Fuse, the user is not asked to pledge alignment to one side of an issue or make sense of cap and trade regulations. Instead, users are invited to take home a curious, seemingly well-crafted, attractive object and use it. The open perspective on environmental ethics that is enacted through Natural Fuse provides an outline of the issue that users can fill in with their own actions and interactions and thereby participate in the articulation of the issue through the use of the system.
So, Natural Fuse does not take a normative or prescriptive stance on environmental ethics. It does not punish those who consume to the detriment of others, nor does it reward them, nor does it reward those who operate their appliances within the limits of their capacity for offset. Indeed, the openness of the system makes it possible to read a number of potential ethical perspectives into the project. As a device of articulation, Natural Fuse gives material and interactive form to a series of relations, highlights the ethical issues at stake, and prompts users to engage—to participate—in a model of political interaction. It does not resolve the situation of resource allocation and usage. Instead of using design as a means of providing a solution, it uses design to problematize the situation.