Reimagining the internet

A team from Tandon’s Integrated Digital Media program asks, “What if . . .?”

Solar Protocol

Industry Assistant Professor Tega Brain, Adjunct Assistant Professor Alex Nathanson, and Industry Associate Professor Benedetta Piantella

What might the internet look like if it didn’t rely on fossil fuels? What if the internet was completely powered by solar energy? The immediate answer might be that such a system is totally impractical: what happens after the sun sets and the servers lose power? Will web content be available in one part of the world and not another at any given time?

Industry Assistant Professor Tega Brain, Adjunct Assistant Professor Alex Nathanson (a 2019 Integrated Digital Media alum currently writing a book on the history of solar power art and design), and Industry Associate Professor Benedetta Piantella acknowledge that as a society we urgently need to eliminate fossil fuels, and their project, Solar Protocol, is an aesthetic exploration that invites participants to think differently about the energy landscape. Our current cultural and technological status quo, they point out, emerges from, and could be constrained by, the availability of cheap fossil energy, so what might happen if that were taken out of the equation?

Take, for example, the artificially intelligent systems now being used by courts, financial institutions, and hiring firms to make decisions that affect all our lives: those rely on massive datasets produced by tracking and surveillance that are only possible in a society powered by abundant energy. Consider, as well, platforms like Facebook, which continually use energy to monitor what you are viewing and present you with new content based on that.

With Solar Protocol, by contrast, decisions about what content is served would be automated with a logic produced by the sun’s position. The work leverages a natural intelligence that emerges from the intermittent dynamics of our shared environment — poetically reconfiguring internet protocols and creating space to reimagine the relationships we have with the social and technical systems we engage with online.

Earlier this year Solar Protocol won a Phase 1 “Rapid Response for a Better Digital Future” fellowship from the Eyebeam Foundation, which asked artists and technologists to envision and build projects that lay the groundwork for a more humane future. This month, the project garnered a Phase 2 grant of $25,000 that will allow the team to scale their project from prototype to pilot, working with remote hosts to install servers at their locations. They ultimately aim to build a field of practice around solar-powered media and explore the worlds it makes possible.

The honors accrue

Last year Piantella and collaborator R. David Gibbs took part in the American Made Solar Challenge, a contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The pair took home a $100,000 prize for Solar SEED, a smart charge controller that offers flexible, scalable energy access and emergency backup power. Now, in what is proving to be a banner year for Piantella, Solar SEED has been chosen as a finalist in the UNOPS Global Innovation Challenge, which brings together inventors, entrepreneurs, programmers, and developers to provide the creative ideas and solutions needed to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.