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Power of Medium Design: Upsetting the loop

Keller Easterling, a Yale professor, architect, and advocate for medium thinking, spoke to Strelka Mag about how to hijack global powers and outwit totalitarian bullies.

Photo by Dmitry Smirnov / Strelka Institute

From urban planning to engineering, software to hardware, design is usually a creation of something – an object, system, or interaction. Keller Easterling suggests shifting the design focus from an object to the space in between. She offers to observe the milieu, beyond master plans and manifestos, to see potentials and relationships between systems. Her interest is medium itself. In global crisis situations, when migration, structural violence, and abuse of power find no resolution in new technology or political declarations, Easterling sees medium design as a tool which allows for the reduction of tension.

As a professor at Yale School of Architecture, an architect, and a writer, Keller Easterling has lectured all around the world, including at Cornell University and Berkeley College. She has published numerous articles and participated in competitions and exhibitions internationally, including the Venice and Rotterdam Biennales. Most of her work is contemplation of medium design. In her recent book “Extrastatecraft: the Power of Infrastructure Space,” Easterling examines global meta-infrastructures which operate above the state. Medium design approach was also part of the project MANY for the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. MANY is a platform which aggregates opportunities for migration through exchanges of needs.

Easterling is also a core faculty of The New Normal postgraduate program at Strelka Institute. Strelka Mag spoke to Keller during her last visit to Moscow. Below are the key points made during our talk and from her latest essay “Medium Design,” published by Strelka Press. The essay is a preview of a forthcoming book of the same title.

You can learn more about the program at


1. Being right is a bad idea

Easterling encourages us not to look for just one answer or find a universal solution, but to exercise medium thinking. When it comes to global problems, she tries to avoid closed loops of ready-made decisions. “Rather than only declarations, right answers, objects, and determinations, you can detect and manipulate the medium or matrix in which they are suspended and in which they change over time,” she explains in her essay. “Since unreasonable politics easily unravels reasonable politics, being right is a bad idea in medium design. It is too weak. It does not work against gurus and totalitarian bullies.”


2. Space is an information system

Easterling understands medium as being not bound by communication media, but as an older idea of environment, surrounding the medium of air, earth or water. For her, medium is “our infrustructures of being, the habitats and materials through which we act and are.” Easterling suggests to regard space as a mixing chamber for many kinds of technologies. She often uses an example by Gregory Bateson, who observed that a man, a tree, and an axe is an information system. “Spaces don't need to be connected to sensors or digital devices to be information systems, they are already dancing. They are already potentials one to another – and seeing those potentials in arrangement, seeing a disposition in arrangement, seems to me as a kind of under rehearsed skill in culture,” says Easterling. “We're very well rehearsed in seeing digital or communication systems, and not so well rehearsed in seeing heavy information systems. So that's one of the things we've been doing here at Strelka – emphasizing the ability to see those heavy information systems.”


3. Medium design is like playing pool

Medium design is a process of creating a set of interdependent actions, whether it is a protocol, a switch, or an interplay. “It’s a creation of chemistries, chain reactions, and ratchets,” writes Easterling. “It is less like making a thing and more like having your hands on the faders and toggles of organization." She often compares medium design to playing pool, "where knowing about one fixed sequence of shots is of little use. But being able to see branching networks of possibilities allows you to add more information to the table and make the game more robust."


4. Standards vs Interplay

We live in a world where standards are given a lot of authority. The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) dictates everything from the size of your credit card to management procedures. To be included in the global network means to comply with the standards. However, Easterling doubts that raising standards is necessarily a good idea. “Standards have become a kind of acceptable global habit, a soft law, a way that the corporate world talks to each other. It is some kind of a quasi universal language or consensus that can be, I think, quite dangerous,” she says. “Often it’s a way of maintaining a consensus or a closed loop of compatible information that’s never disrupted.”

In contrast to the “self-reinforcing babble” of standards, Easterling introduces the idea of interplay. “I’ve been wondering how one can create an interplay which sets up potentials between things, it can have components of explicit design within it, like an explicit instruction. But maybe one doesn’t know exactly how that instruction will play out. It’s not something that is fixed or finished. It has some degree of indeterminacy and unfolds in time and is also something that you can update or change when there are changing conditions or when you are politically outmanoeuvred. So an interplay is something that has another kind of political agility.”


5. Switch

Creating a switch is an alternative way to approach spatial problems, according to medium design. When it comes to transportation issues, Easterling heavily critiques the euphoria around autonomous vehicles. She argues that there’s little benefit for a smart car stuck in a dumb traffic jam. How can we make digital and spatial infrastructures work together, so they can make each other smarter rather than dumber? Keller offers to design a “‘switch,’ which may be a building in the urban information system, in some ways it is a thing as well as a delta, a thing that influences how many things will change over time. It inflicts an indeterminate and ongoing series of choices. Designing that switch is medium design.”


6. Organizations are not what they say

What hides behind the magnificent urban facades seen in Dubai-style promotional videos? Free trade – in words – but manipulated trade in reality. Global corporations always declare good intentions, and, as Easterling observes, there’s always a discrepancy between what an organization is saying and what it’s doing. To be able to detect the real activity of an organization, she suggests seeing in split screen. “On one side of the screen, stories about socio technical organizations – be they railroads, hydroelectric networks or blockchains – may be about decentralization and freedom. But the real disposition of the organization may be concentrating power and authority with a universal ambition.”


7. Activism for spatial change

Observing an organization in split screen allows for seeing the temperament of an organization and thus for making a change. One can adjust the unnecessary violent nature of an organization by “upsetting the loop,” as Easterling puts it. “A designer might operate as a parent with squabbling children. They lower the temperature of the room, move a chair into the light, increase the blood sugar of one child, or introduce a pet into the arms of another so that the chemistry of the room no longer induces or supports violence.”

Easterling believes that learning acting techniques is what really helped her to understand the nature of activism. She is now trying to bring some of those principles into architecture culture. “In acting you have lines to say, but lines are not the real content or even the real message, or even the carrier of information. The lines are just lines and the real carrier of information is an action that you might be taking,” says Easterling. “I want to make more obvious the idea that spaces are doing things. That in their relative potentials and commissions, they are actively doing something, apart from what they say. And, by being more aware of what they are doing, kind of seeing with half closed eyes or a kind of canine perception, there’s a chance for an activism.”

For a deeper dive into medium thinking, please visit Keller's website.

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