Politics of Power

We tend to think of technological devices as neutral tools, available for humans to use in support of whatever value systems we subscribe to. But, as demonstrated by the recent debate over Apple’srefusal to help the FBI gain a back-door into encrypted iPhones, the design of our technology actually does embody ideology — supporting or resisting specific human infrastructures of ethics and power.

A new design fiction from Shanghai-based consultancy Automato applies this idea by playing on the dual meaning of “power”. Politics of Power is a set of three multi-plug outlets, each of which is designed to share electricity according to different hierarchies of control.

Plug Overview
Model Types

In the Model D, the outlets are arranged in a circle. When multiple devices are plugged in, the outlets periodically vote to delegate a leader, who gains a greater share of the electricity until the next election. If one outlets stays in charge to long it can become corrupt, but the system is essentially egalitarian because every outlet has the chance to be in charge from time to time.

The Model M is pyramidal, like a corporate flowchart. Electricity is distributed in a fixed hierarchy with the greatest share going to the “monarch” outlet at the top, middling shares going to the “support” tier, and the lowest share going to the “plebian” outlets on the bottom row. This structure also maintains order — the distribution of electricity remains stable without a monarch, but if all of the middle managers are removed then the current starts to fluctuate wildly.

Things are even less stable in the Model T, which is patterned after despotic or authoritarian governments. The one plug at the top always gets the lion’s share of electricity, and chooses at random between sharing a trickle of current down to its oppressed subjects, or keeping every last electron for itself. The citizen outlets periodically rebel, throwing the distribution into chaos until the tyrant can reestablish order. But if the top spot is left vacant for a while, the citizens will settle into an egalitarian mode like the Model D...until the head honcho is plugged in again.

Of course, these examples would be impractical for distributing electricity between appliances in a home or other real-world setting. But they demonstrate the power of technological design to enforce political realities.

Model Type Descriptions

Politics of Power offers a simplified way of understanding what’s at stake in debates over Net Neutrality, peer-to-peer networks, encryption back-doors, and other tech controversies. And as the world continues to fill homes and businesses with networked, power-hungry, “smart” devices, it forces us to wonder: Are the decision-making processes designed into the hardware, the software and the network itself supporting the ideologies and value systems that we want to trickle up to the human layer?

Visit the project website to see the human-readable “code” that determines the multiplugs’ behaviors, and watch a demonstration using incandescent lightbulbs in the video below.

Related: Ethical Things, Teacher of Algorithms, Addicted Products


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