Critical Objects - Final Project - "The Nature of Internet"

Many daily internet users do not realize the full environmental impact of their browsing and streaming. In addition to the energy used to power our devices, the bandwidth served over the internet is stored in server farms with massive carbon footprints. In 2016, the IT sector used over 7% of the world's energy (equivalent to the whole aviation industry) and that amount will only continue to increase as services become faster and the reach of the internet broadens. "The Nature of Internet" seeks to illuminate this cost of internet usage and highlight the ultimately self-destructive nature of this behavior. Even as my concept for this project has gone through many different iterations, this core message has stayed the same. The final function I settled on in this: as the user browses the internet, the heater inside of my sculpture is activated according to the amount of data they are using, which then increases the speed at which the iceberg inside will melt. As the melted ice collects in the circuitry it will eventually lead to a "short circuit", shutting off the connected computer and preventing any further usage. In this way, not only is the environmental impact of browsing made physical, but my object also makes literal the way in which this activity will eventually lead to its own end through the various catastrophic effects of climate change.

For a former concept see this blog post, but even after I decided on this current idea there was still a challenging and involved design and fabrication process. I started out with the idea of using melting ice as a metaphoric component, but was feeling stumped by the challenge of successfully controlling the temperature of it. It was when my professor, Pedro, suggested I look into using a mini fridge that the design began to solidify. I found a fridge which not only cooled but also had the ability to heat, and this functionality was due to the temperature change being produced by a Peltier Thermoelectric pad. These pads are DC powered, and as a result I was fairly confident I would have the ability to “hack” the fridge and control the temperature switching using a microcontroller.

I began by developing the code which would run my device. The microcontroller I chose to be the brain of this project was a MKR ZERO, and the majority of the functionality would be run on it. All logic for the switching of LED colors, activating the heating or cooling and the eventual triggering of the “short circuit” was written in the Arduino IDE and uploaded to the MKR board. While breadboarding, it only took a bit of experimentation to get this all working.

The functionality of actually quantifying user browser behavior took a bit more research and development. Eventually I settled on developing a Processing sketch, largely because of the simplicity of serial communication between that programming environment and the Arduino. What I ultimately was lucky enough to come across was the Processing library called Carnivore, which is able to scrape all internet traffic on a users current network. I then made a quick Automator applet to get my computer’s IP address, and filtered the results from Carnivore to only show me the packets being sent or received by my computer. From this point I experimented a bit with how to convert that data into a trigger for the heater, and what I settled on was a system in which for every 1500 packets downloaded, I would add one second to a countdown which, if allowed to reach zero, will switch off the heater and switch back on the refrigeration.

When I developed this breadboard version of my project, I used NPN transistors as the “switches” that would control the heating and cooling. In the fridge itself this functionality was done with a physical, three way switch, and I imagined I would simply replace this with these transistors. However, once I actually began this fabrication process I realized that it would not be that simple. I tried various kinds of transistors, but as far as I understood for reasons involving grounding issues and differing voltages I was not able to get them to work. Ultimately all I needed to happen was for two disconnected leads to touch in order to activate the heat or cooling, and so after much experimentation and hand-wringing I successfully settled on the use of electromagnetic relays.

From early on, I knew that in order to successfully convey the temperature I would need to incorporate some sort of visual indicator, and that is why the inclusion of LED’s was so crucial. Their functionality is relatively simple: the row on the top illuminates the ice either in blue or red depending on the current temperature setting of the device, and the row on the bottom simply provides light to show the accumulating amount of water in the bottom. I also programmed an animation which plays when the “short circuit” occurs to further emphasize that moment. Using Neopixels and the neopixel library, this all was very straightforward. The final electronic component is a water level sensor which simply returns an analog value equivalent to the percentage of the sensor that is submerged. I then set a threshold for the point at which the melted water has reached an appropriate amount and trigger the “short circuit”.

Beyond the actual functionality of the electronics, there were still various design choices that needed to be made in order to best convey the intention of the piece. I really wanted the ice to have the appearance of an iceberg, and I was actually able to achieve this by turning a children’s toy I found online into a makeshift ice mold. I also made a point of decorating the interior of the device to look like the inside of some sort of computational machine, with the intention of increasing the viceral reaction of seeing water dripping into something so inherently non-waterproof. It also lends more realism to the idea of the water creating a short circuit of some kind.

One of the final components added to the project was the accompanying display, which shows the seconds of heat remaining, the total packets sent/received and a scrolling list of the information identifying each of those packets. It also turns either red or blue depending on whether the heat or refrigeration is on. The inclusion of this component was in response to a critique I received pointing out the desire to see more concretely the actual volume of information being sent and received, and I find the display only adds to the visceral effect of the piece as a whole.