brian carroll on 20 Aug 2000 20:18:23 -0000

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Re: <nettime> Closed Networks in an Open Society

> "A creative virtuality is closely related to affordable spaces"
> Interview/Exchange between Konrad Becker and Geert Lovink
> For the magazine
> GL: ...We should not overemphasize the importance of technology? AC or
> DC? Did that really define world history? I would love to believe so, but
> I am not a paranoid believer in conspiracies. I am more in favor of a
> playful, ironical distance towards technology. At least I would like to
> claim the illusion of freedom, while being fully aware that the world and
> its human inhabitants is increasing ruled by the machine logic.

hi Geert, from what i know, AC and DC did make a big change in the
development of the world (politics, economics, society)... 

 if memory serves me right, Edison picked up the work being done in the
 19th century with dynamos (electrical generators) and took the electrical
 current (direct/DC) and made a small-scale distribution system for it to
 support his proprietary city lighting system, which was in competition
 with gas and electric arc-lamps. a small power plant or central station
 would run a series of lights for main city streets in a downtown, which
 developed into an infrastructure for an electrical trolley system, which
 linked city with suburb, where, in the US at least, these 'street car
 suburbs' would have amusement parks at the end of the line, some miles
 out of the city. eventually, this system enabled electrical outlets,
 switches, and sockets for a myriad of first generation electrical
 appliances. an urban pattern that developed was based on this small,
 centralized system. the limitation of DC power was that it was good
 for distributing power over relatively short distances. it's my guess
 that there must have been a powerplant somewhere between the longer-
 distance inter-urban electric trolleys, which linked cities. in any
 case, this was Edison's system, top to bottom, and he signed on with
 a corporate sponser whom monopolized the opportunity (i think it was
 General Electric/GE). i imagine that the plan was that there would
 be several localized (de)central(ized) power stations throughout a
 city and region, close to the end-use consumer.

 next, came an invention/innovation that threatened the monopoly of
 Edison's system of power production and distribution by Nikola
 Tesla. with backing from Westinghouse (i think), he secured a contract
 to test his new Alternating Current (AC) system at Niagara Falls, New
 York. it involved a water-turbine (fan) driving a dynamo/generator,
 which would then be converted from DC to AC via a 'transformer',
 what i think is also equated with a Tesla Coil. basically, this
 coil takes motive electrical energy and amplifies its voltage
 many thousand-fold. these electrons are easier to transmit over
 longer distances, and thus, the electrical Transmission system
 of metal towers/pylons became common in the 20th century, and
 began marching across the country side, from huge powerplants,
 often carrying the electrical current hundreds of miles to
 large cities, where the power was then stepped-down or
 converted by another transformer at an electrical substation,
 and either carried further on by sub-transmission lines or
 having its voltage lowered and sent to the Distribution system
 of wooden/concrete/metal/plastic utility poles and to the end-
 user of Edison's end-use system. the result of this method of
 AC power transmission had a massive impact upon urbanization
 and the development outside of cities, in turn, creating
 an international constellation of mega-cities dependent upon
 highly-centralized AC powerplants.

 i imagine at that time, when energy was cheap, that the
 economies of scale saw greater economic advantage is using
 Tesla's highly-centralized system over Edison's. but this
 has also resulted in a subsequent centralization of power,
 electric/political/economic/social/cultural, to these large
 institutions. in a sense, even if they are public or private,
 at this scale, they are closed networks and operate as power
 monopolies, granted by the state or run by the state. and the
 model of industrialization followed this pattern, and the
 mass production of created by this electrical order and
 the commodification of electrification created much of the
 developed and developing world today. i believe that the
 idea of 'development' itself is based on this same electrical
 order being replicated around the world, emulating a techno-
 logical standard, or standards, so to say. even though the
 Frequencies of the EU or China or Africa may be different,
 the e-power system/technology underlying it is identical.
 the powerplants, transmission towers, distribution poles,
 plugs and sockets and outlets, and tv sets and computers
 are closely related vernaculars. a language of globalism
 in the form of aesthetically related electrical artifacts.

 in any case, what seems to be happening, or is trying to
 happen, is a return to the DC model of power generation
 on a local scale via solar power, fuel cells, wind power,
 and co-generation. those marching silver transmission towers
 in the landscape may someday not be the predominant mode of
 the electrical order. instead, it may reverse into an
 decentralized, community-based power collective/company,
 where neighborhoods produce their own power. apparently,
 the technologies for small scale power using natural gas
 or coal are much cleaner than the large-scale enterprises,
 and also would reduce the lost energy along the hundreds
 of miles of lines linking producer to consumer. then, with
 individuals generating their own power, some say it will
 be fuel celled cars parked in the garage that power the
 house and sell energy back to the grid... the question is
 how to transform the AC system of today to work with the
 DC system of the decentralized power generation technology.
 for example, part of the difficulty with running a solar
 power array is how it interfaces with the pre-existing grid.
 from what i've heard, it takes some commitment to maintain
 one of these solar or wind systems, unlike flipping a switch,
 one has to monitor the energy and know when and when not to
 go offline the grid and online the local source (i think that
 may just be wind power, not sure). but what is important
 about all of this is that, like the Internet, that is
 supposed to be highly-decentralized to avoid crashes, today
 the power grid (especially in countries where the grids
 are linked with other nations) is in a delicate balance
 with the highly-centralized, highly-inefficient, highly-
 powerful (political/socially/culturally) utilities, and
 their decisions about the future. whereas, if people go
 off the grid, they are not so dependent upon catastrophe,
 even if it strikes everyone else, which it will if the
 regional/national electrical super-grids go down.

 the dream, at least in architecture schools during the
 1970s oil drama, was an increasing awareness of energy
 issues and energy efficiency. solar power was to save
 the day, resurrect the local, change the urban pattern.
 but then, energy became cheap. it was not a priority.
 things didn't change. the technology wasn't far enough
 along to be sufficiently efficient/affordable. but now
 it looks like, with the increasing loads on the grid,
 that there is a chance to reassert the need for a new
 electrical ordering of the urban fabric. and in this
 sublime way, by changing from an AC system to a DC
 system, one could reclaim what was a closed network
 of the electrical infrastructure of power, media, and
 technology, and set it free from the local level on up,
 instead of closing it from the top (Dept of Defense, etc)
 down. at least, that's the hope. it is ironic that, in
 days when a barrel of oil is going for 32+ US dollars,
 its highest rate ever, energy is not a topic of public
 discussion. our dependency upon a highly-centralized,
 monopolized, politicized, polluting electrical order
 is our greatest weakness, as it is out-of-site, out-
 of-mind. the internetwork is an electrical network.

 the architecture of electricity

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