Communication technology, it is often argued, enables us to extend consciousness beyond our physical bodies and connect to the world, crossing borders through global networks at the speed of light. The purported immateriality of information inspires a vision of freedom from legal and physical restrictions, such as geographic location, national borders and associated state laws, as well as technical limitations of pre-digital communication systems. Furthermore, the utopian idea of free flowing information encourages cartoonish analogies, such as an immaterial information cloud hanging in the open air, which we access through the glowing surfaces of our gadgets. Thus it is necessary to expose such “cloudy” analogies merely as a smoke screen for the heavy, and very material, engineered infrastructure present in our environment.
Information and its transmission have become the most successful commodities of our time, invested with profound political implications. Within this context, three creative engineers – Julian Oliver, Gordan Savičić, Danja Vasiliev – dissatisfied with the broad definition of media art, decided to define the nature of their work more precisely, stressing the significance of engineering in the creative and critical process. Arguing that “engineering is the most transformative language of our time”, they published Critical Engineering Manifesto, which contains ten statements laying out how such language should be critically studied, approached responsibly, and creatively exploited.
One of the guiding principals of Critical Engineer is to inspire responsible uses of technology, often enacted through the creation of irresponsible devices. Transparency grenade (Julian Oliver, 2012) is a finely crafted device, equipped for network interception, which, in Oliver’s words, “seeks to directly manifest the fears we have, whether state, corporation or individual, around the increased political volatility of data.” Shaped like a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, the device was once entirely disassembled by American border control. Such experience implies that, trained to be primarily concerned with physical threats, we easily overlook the risks posed to the security of our personal data. By releasing the grenade and a recently developed android application that intercepts and captures network traffic, Oliver’s project aims to spark discussion about how the illusory sense of privacy during communication processes significantly increases users’ vulnerability.
Another of Oliver’s projects, Border Bumping, draws attention to and resists the opacity of telecommunication infrastructure, which is frequently, actively kept hidden, and thus leads to common misunderstandings of communication systems. In order to understand and critically engage with the world we live in, we have to be able to see and describe it, affirms Oliver. Border Bumping introduces an application for scanning hidden cellular infrastructure, which exposes the discrepancy between our physical and legal national borders and the constitution of borders in telecommunication space by network providers battling to expand the reach of signals.
“The Critical Engineer considers any technology depended upon to be both a
challenge and a threat,” states the manifesto. Engaging with technology only through interfaces diminishes such a challenge and increases such threats. Critical Engineering enhances the user’s awareness of information technology in order to establish a more constructive relationship between the two poles.
Monika Vrečar is a PhD candidate in Philosophy and Theory of Visual Culture at Faculty of Humanities, University of Primorska, Slovenia. She is a secretary of Slovenian Society of Aesthetic and editorial board member of Slovenian literary magazine Idiot.