Apocalyptic Design in the Capitalocene: Every-day Geopolitics and Blockchain

OxChain conference paper at Postcards from the Anthropocene
June 22-24, Edinburgh

Chris Speed & Kate Symons

This post is an edited version of a conference paper given at Postcards from the Anthropocene conference.

In Design Informatics we have a series of projects that specifically deal with international development agencies. In particular, we have worked closely with Oxfam. Oxfam is much more than a high street second hand clothing charity. Its work over the last 75 years has shaped global understandings of international development challenges and how to solve them, and its international programs have huge implications for millions of lives throughout the world. Oxfam, like many other major development institutions occupy in a contradictory position, whereby they reproduce geographies of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’, based on colonial and post-WW2 every-day geopolitics, even as they work to solve problems of global poverty. And, the practices that sustain Oxfam’s funding activities in the global North (namely, the production of consumer goods to sell again in stores) are intimately linked to the same practices of consumption that sustain consumer capitalism.

It is in the gaps between the practices that define what a high street shopper might know about a charity such as Oxfam, donating and buying of secondhand clothes at one of their 650 UK shops, and the influence that Oxfam holds over the production of particular geopolitical organising principles of development that we wanted to position a contribution to the conference.

We used the Postcards from the Anthropocene call for papers to talk about what might be described as ‘apocalyptic design’, because much of what you (the reader) are doing now must be considered as apocalyptic in the context of the Anthropocene. Everything we do now, every act that is tied to the expenditure of carbon, must be see (to some extent) to anticipate the end of the world. As Jason Moore argues, we can see oil-driven capitalism as the fundamental organizing principle of nature and society.

We propose the term ‘apocalyptic design’ in parallel to the wide genre of films that can be described as ‘apocalyptic cinema’ that foretell an end to the world. In particular we use Franklin Ginn’s analysis of Béla Tarr’s film The Turin Horse that reconfigures our relationship with a world that is ending by “measuring our sensitivity to the Earth (rather than measuring the Earth’s sensitivity to human activities)” (2015). His paper ‘When Horses Won’t Eat: Apocalypse and the Anthropocene’ discusses the representation of the Anthropocene through traditional apocalyptic Hollywood cinema, and draws attention to stark differences in the way that people, animals, resources and the landscape relate to one another in The Turin Horse. It is the tensions between these relationships that we aim to underpin what we mean by ‘apocalyptic design’.

“We are not spectators of apocalyptic films, we are participants; their ecology is an invitation to feel the condition of the Anthropocene and what might lie beyond.” Ginn 2015

We imagine how a person might communicate to us from an imagined future Anthropocene, and use a postcard in the form of a communication from Emma. Emma writes to describe her travels through some of the territories in the G4S federated former European Union.  We will combine three themes: First, the performance, production and representation of geopolitics through everyday actions and cultures (Dittmer 2010; Ginn 2015), where acts such as showing one’s passport, verifying one’s identity and consuming vacation experiences produce geopolitical imaginaries and realities (much like engaging with Oxfam reproduces development relationships). Second, the new possibilities for distributed forms of collectives and organisations offered by the digital society which complicate traditional notions of state and territory. Third, the agency possessed by data in producing and mediating geopolitics. We consider what our correspondent, Emma, might communicate to us from a future digital society, and how this represents a digital Anthropological future geopolitics.

Emma is caught up in some very complicated geo-politics, which have moved far beyond the state-centic notions which underpin conventional understandings. Emma should be kept in mind at all times when reading this post and we feature her here as a means of giving her an identity:

Image taken from the UN’s ID2020 project website.

“One term, still used today to great advantage by politicians because of its political heft, is “national interest”. By terming something the national interest a leader can rhetorically undercut any opposition, who by definition are then against what is best for the country (subtly identifying the opposition as traitors is a time-honored tactic in democratic politics). However, that term elides a great many distinctions between the people of the nation… By adopting the state as the only frame through which geopolitical decisions can be legitimately made (a notion called state-centrism), less powerful groups and individuals are literally erased from consideration” (Dittmer, 2010).

Dittmer’s explanations become valuable coordinates as we think back both to our own OxChain research project as we consider what the national interests are for a government funded project that supports an 80-year-old British charity, but also to Emma, who’s interests as a refugee have no relevance in the face of this type of sovereign rhetoric. Furthermore as we consider Emma’s friends and family that she is now separated from, Anderson asks us to consider the imaginaries that we have constructed toward the so called ‘communities’ that the imaginary of nation state evokes.

“It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.., It is imagined as a community because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” (Anderson 1991).

These imaginaries of other places are more than likely constructed through the spread of books and literature that describe foreign nations through the lens of our colonial histories; exotic places, faraway places (Dittmer 2010). Imaginaries for places that are still operating still today and sustained through tourist marketing, news media and the images associated with global charities, all of which perpetuate beliefs that these nations hold together communities. So what happens when we break open these imaginaries and think about the implications for the changes in peoples lives, their geographies, as we foresee an inevitable apocalypse? Do our imaginaries of places and their communities change as we design our way out of our own national discomforts?

At this point it is worth turning to Franklin Ginn’s essay, which questions how we represent both the condition of the anthropocene, but ultimately how we represent an apocalypse. Using the Hungarian film The Turin Horse, Ginn deconstructs the filmmaker Tarr’s imagery to present an interpretation of the apocalypse which is very different to that of the very many Hollywood visions for the end of the world, from The Day After Tomorrow to Armageddon. IMDB (Internet Movie DataBase) provide a preface for Tarr’s film that places the horse at the beginning of the end of the world:

“German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the whipping of a horse while travelling in Turin, Italy. He tossed his arms around the horse’s neck to protect it then collapsed to the ground. In less than one month, Nietzsche would be diagnosed with a serious mental illness that would make him bed-ridden and speechless for the next eleven years until his death. But whatever did happen to the horse?” www.imdb.com/title/tt1316540/

Extremely bleak, the film moves toward darkness and through his essay on the work, Ginn draws our attention to a series of challenges that a father and his daughter go through. The first one is the loss of the horse, the horse will no longer eat or comply with its masters demands, the second (highlighted by ourselves and plays has particular importance for our research with Oxfam) is the uselessness of money. In the film money was traded for alcohol by a visitor, who careless how much he pays for what appears to be moonshine. The third is the well that runs dry, a further shutting down of natural systems, before natures final refusal to interact with the human actors by a well of paraffin in a light refusing to ignite when introduced to a flame. The film closes with the father and daughter, sitting facing each other over their dinner table, staring at two inedible raw potatoes. Fading to black we can only assume that their world ends soon after.

In reflecting on the representation of the end of the world, Franklin’s text is helpful in reminding us of how the apocalypse is portrayed in films. From Avatar and the relentless mining of other worlds to sustain our own, to the climate of the Day After Tomorrow, most end with a glimmer of hope for humanity and few fade to the complete blackness as Tarr’s vision does.

“For some, the Anthropocene signals a final enclosure of politics and culture within ecology: a new geopolitics in which Earth is the sovereign authority and humans are inmates of a planet-sized camp in a permanent state of emergency. For others, it is an occasion to double down on techno-hubris and call forth more fevered bouts of rationality and management.” (Ginn 2015).

It is this point that we get a return back to our research project with Oxfam: OxChain. OxChain interrogates some of those more fevered bouts in which a techno-hubris can get us out of trouble. Of course amongst the most recent of technological panacea’s is the Blockchain, a recent turn toward something that might offer decentralised systems, solutions for a post-sovereign society and it’s most popular proposition, post-fiat currencies. With blockchain technologies we are starting to see a different type of geo-politics emerge, one which is outwith a nation state, outwith a national bank and instead something that is in the hands of publics who can log activities within an immutable, distributed ledger.

Organisations from banks, to anarchist communities are starting to speculate what a post-sovereign framework for recording identities might be like. In Price Waterhouse Cooper’s continuum of smart contracts they describe the very simple digital value exchanges that owners of digital currencies might become involved to the left, to the potential for blockchain technologies to construct entirely new governance models that may lead to distributed autonomous societies (DAS), that our protagonist Emma might value becoming part of. It is unclear what imaginary PWC have for a DAS, but surely they transcend any imagery that we currently hold that adheres to any established national interests.


Turning back to cinema to a reference that I’ve used in the past to help unpack what is being constructed in these complex new contexts in which decisions are made through the voting of members within a community – or potentially a DAO. The Dardenne Brothers film,Two Days, One Night features Sandra who works for a small struggling solar panel company of 15 people. One Friday afternoon in summer, she learns that she has lost her job because staff have been offered the choice of taking a bonus of €1000 and sack Sandra, or keep her on. Over 50% of her co-workers voted to take the money and she is told that she has lost her job. Having learnt this from a colleague she persuades her boss to carry out a further ballot on Monday which leaves her the weekend to visit as many employees at their homes and persuade them to vote for her in the second ballot.

A key characteristic of blockchain technology to date has been the ‘proof of work’ consensus algorithms that allow members of a distributed network to agree on the contents of a ledger. Very different to a centralised authority who is responsible for keeping the accounts in order. In both primary models ‘proof of work’ and ‘proof of stake’, the integrity of the blockchain is achieved by making it very difficult for one person to own more than 51% of the computing power in the network, or 51% of the currency. The same level of distributed controls underpin and define the potential for blockchain to be used to construct DAO’s: Distributed Autonomous Organisations. A DAO is / was an organisation that allowed investors to purchase tokens and form a venture capital fund, the spending of which was governed by code that allowed all members to vote on business decisions.

“The DAO had an objective to provide a new decentralized business model for organizing both commercial and non-profit enterprises. It was instantiated on the Ethereum blockchain, and had no conventional management structure or board of directors. The code of the DAO is open-source.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_DAO_(organization)

The involvement of all members of a DAO community in the investment decisions of the organisation through voting mechanisms (according to the stake that members have in the DAO) presents a near future in which platforms such as Ethereum are used as governance platforms. Used as the climax toward the final scene in Two Days, One Night, employees being involved in the governance of an organisation is likely to become more mundane as DAOs offer a transparent mechanism through which members can become involved in the management of company or community assets. An instantiation of this, at the mundane end of the distributed community spectrum, may be Edson Alcala Garrdio’s simple exposition of how the function of an air conditioner unit is governed by a community.

Edson, requesting to turn on his air conditioning unit

Screen grabs of me voting as to whether to let Edson turn his AC on – I’m in a good mood so I vote ‘yes’

After counting up the votes, 51% of people voted ‘yes’ and Edson’s AC turns on.

So, returning to the theme of the conference paper, what does ‘apocalyptic design’ mean for our research on the OxChain project? We have discussed the ways that everyday geopolitics have, for the last 75 years since Oxfam was founded, reproduced organizing principles of the nation state (populated by communities), and a global imaginative geography of the global North and South. We also have considered some of the ways that conventional understandings of personal identity and state governance of identity are tied to these geopolitical ideas – of a person who belongs to a state, and an ‘other’ who is simultaneously the object of suspicion and the object of development, as seen from the West. And, through considering two films, The Turin Horse, which, in Ginn’s analysis shows how conventional notions of the Anthropocene conjure ‘solutions’ to ecological rifts and global inequality in the limited form of technical and managerial solutions, and Two Days, One Night, which reminds us of the limits and potential of group governance. We then shifted to the disruptive technology, blockchain, which has potential to disrupt all of these factors; the conventional notion of a national state, the notion of an individual identified by the state, and the notion of decisions about global wealth distribution governed by authorities like states and NGOs (Oxfam), rather than by collective deliberation. To end on a more positive note for our rather dystopian vision of a post-borderless Emma, governed by private power, we advance the potential for thinking differently that blockchain affords, in its potential disruption of the capitalocene.

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