In any home, an invisible network distributes power to your appliances, lights, heating/cooling system, and electronic devices. It's a system that we don't pay much attention to unless something goes wrong—say, a power shortage that shuts off the gas oven mid-pot roast but keeps the lights on. When something like that happens, why are some parts of the system given priority? And who made that decision?
Those are the sorts of questions driving Politics of Power, a speculative project by the design consultancy automato that explores the hidden politics of networks in everyday life. Using the electrical system as an analogy for all networks, the designers Simone Rebaudengo, Matthieu Cherubini, and Saurabh Datta designed three power strips that demonstrate different structures of "power" (get it?) through five light bulbs. The Model D, for example, represents an egalitarian system in which one light bulb is "elected" to get the most power, with the remaining power distributed among the other bulbs. For the pyramid-shaped Model M, the power lies with the "monarch" light bulb at the top, while the Model T's power is disproportionately distributed.
This snazzy video of the project explains it best:
Essentially, each socket on the various power strips can recognize whether a light bulb is plugged in, and each power strip is coded to interact with the bulbs in a certain way. The codes, which the designers put on their website, set out a roadmap for the different power plays, but each power plug behaves in different ways depending on how many bulbs are plugged in. For example, on Model D, if you unplug the bulb that has been elected delegate, the power is redistributed because it has been programmed to always try to find a balance. Similarly, if the leader with almost all of the power in the Model T is unplugged, all hell breaks lose (a.k.a the citizen bulbs begin to flicker).
The point of the project is to call people's attention to the hidden rules, structures and decisions behind products like power strips, which we typically think of as neutral. Products are never neutral, the project suggests—they are always influenced by the thoughts and beliefs of the designers, engineers and corporations who produce them. With the growing popularity of connected homes and the Internet of Things, it's never been a better time to be reminded of this.
So how many Co.Design readers does it take to figure out the hidden ideologies and power structures in a light bulb? Head over to Automato's site to find out.
All Images: via Automato