Rethinking public engagement in technology

Rethinking public engagement in investigatory powers through a material investigation of the infrastructure and it's impact on the lives of people living nearby. 


Exploring public engagement in investigatory powers

The project started with two research papers demonstrating the lack of public engagement in the issue to date. The first of these suggested that the government’s position relied on a lack of understanding or engagement in the issue, what’s known as a deficit strategy. The second paper looked at public engagement initiatives conduced in Parliament as part of the legislative process and demonstrated that these were an ineffective way of promoting public scrutiny and engagement. 

The challenge with the issue is in engaging people in something that is fundamentally so intangible and secretive. Despite this there is acknowledgement that public engagement is necessary to provide scrutiny and prevent public alienation from central government. For this reason the new legislation includes a public facing mechanism which invites public scrutiny.

 Fibre-optic cable landing station at Bude in Cornwall

Fibre-optic cable landing station at Bude in Cornwall

Locating a design space

Locating a design space is hard for something so inherently intangible and for which the designed output is secret. There are, however, sites where the infrastructure of the internet and the infrastructure of investigatory powers form part of the local community in such a way that they are inherently public. 

Mapping the fibre-optic cables which land in the UK identified points  along the coast where internet infrastructure would relay communications to and from other points in the UK. This identified a high concentration of cables in Cornwall. 

Identifying the locations of relay stations and then using aerial images over the past 60 years to chart how the land use has changed identified key points in the expansion of the infrastructure. 

 Local resident talking next to the Bude canal

Local resident talking next to the Bude canal

 Satellite dish nicknamed 'Arthur' at Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall

Satellite dish nicknamed 'Arthur' at Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall

Articulating a brief

Explore the lived experience of communities which border sites of internet infrastructure. Investigate attitudes towards the relationship between the infrastructure and investigatory powers.

Engage people in these communities in a redrawing of their relationship to infrastructure and to investigatory powers and explore the potential for these communities to provide public scrutiny over investigatory powers.


Fieldwork in Cornwall

There are three major sites of internet infrastructure in Cornwall: Porthcurno, Goonhilly and Bude. I spent one week in these three communities. I met with local organisations and individuals and spoke to them about their relationship to the infrastructure. I documented the stories people told and how the infrastructure is manifest in the landscape. 

“I imagine there are people bent over screens and computers and earphones, but I only imagine it, I really don’t know, I mean I haven’t even Googled it to find out what anyone else could find out, or however much of that is actually true.” - Bude resident

Prototyping for a deeper public engagement

The project then attempted to use design methodology to prototype a new idea. This new idea sought to suggest to the community of the Bude area that they are a part of the surveillance system and, partly through their proximity to it’s visible infrastructure and partly just as UK citizens, they can, if they want, work to get the system to do something else.

Using film as a format for prototyping this idea allowed for a flexible range of material to be included and for flexible, and most importantly portable, engagement.  The film sought to 1. Characterise ‘the public’ and ‘the issue’, 2. Trace new and forgotten histories, 3. Project scenarios of the black box.

This approach drew heavily on the work of Carl DiSalvo: ““The challenge of public action is traced to the inability of a public to form: before a public acts it must come into being. is inability to form, or form effectively, is not because of a lack of issues, but rather because the issues resist identification and articulation, leaving publics unformed and tentative."