Cookie Conversation with Caroline Sinders

IMPAKT Exhibition Don't Be Evil

Caroline Sinders is a machine-learning-design researcher and artist, and co-founder of the agency Convocation Design + Research. Her work The Potato Internet is a small-scale social network that posits that the future of the internet is about scaling down and uses potatoes as its source of energy.

The work made by you and Trammell Hudson is all about scaling down. Could you tell us more about The Potato Internet? What inspired the choice of potatoes?

This piece really grew out of conversations, working with constraints and thinking about what we could bring together. I had originally applied with EMAP/EMARE thinking about feminist social networks, and because of the theme of collaboration, after some conversations with Trammell, I wanted to bring together a lot of our interests. My feminist praxis is heavily centered on intersectionality, and expanding feminism to all points of a system. It’s not just gender, race, or understanding how identity intersects with equity, it’s also about including climate, capitalism, cultural history, etc. So, to truly make a feminist social network, this project had to think about sustainability, it had to think about the context of how, beyond capitalism and misogyny – all aspects of a feminist praxis is not engaged with. Around this same time, I had been researching scale and trying to understand when equitable and responsible design fails inside of systems. For example, even if Facebook was designed from the beginning to be feminist, intersectional and centering human rights, the scale of the size of the user base and workforce have a role to play in its failures. AKA is it too large to manage, govern, and realistically respond to even internal harms? Which I think yes – at a certain point, you can’t govern with all of the ethical or responsible frameworks because…it’s just an issue of numbers. So all of this was coming together to help inform the project of being an exploration in small scale or anti-scale.

As for why potatoes, we were interested in something as a call back to citizen science and to childhood experiments, hence potatoes. There’s a small little activity children do in the US where they use a potato to help power a lightbulb. Related to the project, we were interested in thinking of reusable, sustainable, compostable (when possible) materials that could be sturdy and durable. We wanted humble materials – the sculptures are made from parts that can be bought in an ordinary hardware store. Within this mindset, potatoes fit perfectly: they are sturdy, conductive, humble, cheap and readily available. They are a perfect part to help conduct and share energy. Thus, they became a key part of the project via that way of thinking.

What sort of comments or messages have you seen on the accompanying website,

We started with a prompt: “what’s your wildest dream, and your best hope, about planet earth?” because as an interaction and experiential designer and artist, I knew people needed something to get them thinking. Often, a blank space is too much: the possibilities are endless. But this prompt, which felt very close and personal to the project, as I see The Potato Internet also as a love letter to my own personal feelings about climate change, climate grief, and thinking through sustainable systems, felt poetically aligned. So, most of the responses have been beautiful, silly, and thoughtful ruminations. Obviously, silly ones have been directly about potatoes, or what seems to be an inside joke between friends, but that’s okay! We haven’t received anything really hurtful; we received what we thought were some lines of code designed to be a bit of malware but it didn’t impact the project because…its just in a plain text file that only I can read so it’s utterly harmless, lol 🙂 The responses have been, I think, very respectful and considerate of the prompt itself. That being said, if someone did submit something harmful, I’m the content moderator so I’m the only one that can see it– and I’ve been studying online harassment, digital harm, digital violence and white supremacy since 2013 and I used to work in trust and safety, so I’ve truly seen some of the worst things on the Internet. Which is to say, it takes a lot to shock me but I’m also very attuned to how to interpret a code of conduct (or terms and conditions) because that has been a part of my research. For readers interested in the process, I share this acecdote to let y’all know that this kind of interpretation of what violates our code of conduct is something I have a lot of professional experience in interpreting.

How does your broader artistic practice relate to the IMPAKT festival we held recently with the theme Our Terms, Our Conditions?

I think my broader artistic practice is very, very directly related. Almost all of my art is about critiquing social networks and larger technology systems or creating alternative, equitable experiences and systems about technology that stand against our current systems. A friend, Eryk Salvaggio, once described my practice of experimental documentary about the web, technology and digital spaces as “like you’ve [Caroline] walked into the Internet with a camera and documented what you found there.” My background is in photography and photojournalism but I see my new media practice as one of documenting the current systems we are in and then also reflecting the kinds of software, technology and even the web I would want to live in. These kinds of themes are ones I see deeply explored within “Our Terms, Our Conditions.” On a practical, very straightforward and almost ‘meta’ level, I also have a project about YouTube and harmful videos called “Within the Terms and Conditions” and so when I learned the IMPAKT Festival was called “Our Terms, Our Conditions,” I felt an immediate kinship and space of understanding in that moment. I also laughed because I love any names of art projects or shows that use and misuse and reference big technology and its naming schemas.

In the theme of the festival, this year we created a series of Fortune Cookies with wishes for the future of technology and privacy. Currently, each visitor to the exhibition gets to take one with them. Which fortune cookie wish would you hope to find?

I asked my friend, Alysha Naples, former chief experience officer of Tin Drum and former head of interaction design for Magic Leap, to help me come up with a fortune cookie wish (as she was visiting me in London when I was responding to this interview). We came up with: I would like technology to support people’s bodies, minds and spirits, as opposed to mining and extracting from them.

Our other Cookie Conversation guests are Renske Leijten, Lotje Beek, Julia Janssen, Dasha Ilina, Guillaume Slizewicz, Jeroen van Loon, Roel Heremans, Leon van Oldenborgh and Tomo Kihara.

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