An Interview with Metahaven

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Metahaven in collaboration with IMMI, Data / Saga, digital models and sketches, 2013

I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the foundations and origin of Metahaven.

Metahaven is a strategic graphic design agency. We make anything between a conference, a publication, an interview, a product, a visual identity, a policy document, or a set of floating appearances on the Internet. We are not only interested in the development of hypothetical image, but also in its realization. Some of our projects are an identity proposal for the Principality of Sealand, which is an off-shore micronation which played an iconic role as a “data haven” during the late 1990s dotcom boom. In 2010 we released Uncorporate Identity—a design book for our dystopian age. Some parts of Uncorporate Identity were about dismantling and attacking the “brand state”—the notion of promoting or creating reputations for countries—and by proxy, about dismantling branding itself. We have also attacked and criticized Joseph Nye’s notion of “soft power”—the power to attract—which is arguably the only political concept which branding has ever heard of. One of our upcoming projects is a collaboration with the Iceland-based think tank IMMI, thinking up a set of images and messages for the excellent and forward-thinking legal, energy, and social environment which Iceland has created for internet and cloud hosting. We recently interviewed two people who are involved in this: Eleanor Saitta and Smári McCarthy. Both of them work for IMMI.

Metahaven in collaboration with IMMI, Data / Saga, digital models and sketches, 2013

You've spoken of current conceptions of branding a processes of consolidation as opposed to differentiation. In a post on your Tumblr related to an exhibition at the Museum of Display in Antwerp, you write that the process of assigning identity is "a surface or screen by which an organization mirrors its surroundings, both in the physical space as well as in information space." In an article you wrote about 4 years ago in e-flux, which was also published in Uncorporate Identity, you suggested that state branding had to become "more concerned with both the structural standardization implied by network power and a pluralistic understanding of decentralized and distributed political alternatives being developed on various scales." How do you feel design and branding can function to create a multiplicitous understanding of identities that operate within political contexts?

Metahaven, Uncorporate Identity, Lars Müller Publishers, 2010

A brand is a socially and economically sustained form of prejudice. Branding is the management of first impressions, and to that end, it is inherently deceitful. To establish the few initial thoughts people have about something is a very hard thing to accomplish by design, but is swiftly and almost irreversibly done by uncontrollable events; reputations literally shift overnight. The main way in which branding has been embodied in politics is through the concept of soft power. As the Innocence of Muslims YouTube video showed, American soft power can be affected, inversed even, overnight, by only a handful of pixels.

Not soft power, but “network power” should be regarded as the structural force behind presence and identity. This idea, which is explored in more detail in Uncorporate Identity, takes globalization as a process unfolding through various standards: of communication, exchange, payment, travel, language, etc. Such standards both enable and limit actors in their agency and choice of alternatives. Importantly, such network standards are ultimately predominant over the positive or negative emotions associated with particular actors in or on the network. In the case of the Innocence of Muslims video, for example, American soft power is volatile, while its network power—YouTube—is stable. In other words, the network power is a prerequisite to even have soft power.

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Recommended Reading: Captives of the Cloud by Metahaven for E-Flux

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A selection of the global US social media cloud, resorting under the Patriot Act by Metahaven

E-Flux this month includes an essay by Metahaven (Part 1 of 3) on cloud computing, international law, and privacy. "Citizens across the world are subject to the same Patriot Act powers" the US has over its citizens" as data stored overseas by US companies is still subject to US surveillance. The US also excersizes "super-jurisdiction" in cases like the seizure of Megaupload, which was a Hong Kong-based company, the DOJ accused of "willful conspiracy to break US law" due it's global user base. Furthermore, "all top-level domain names" registered through VeriSign are subject to  US seizure, even if operated entirely outside the country. 

The essay continues, looking at examples of Apple's App store censureship of Drones+, Google+ and Facebook real name policy, and other examples of the "cloud as a political space." 

 

"The first mention of the notion of the “cloud” was in a 1996 diagram in an MIT research paper," redrawn by Metahaven for e-flux

Most journalism routinely criticizes (or praises) the US government for its ability to spy on “Americans.” But something essential is not mentioned here—the practical ability of the US government to spy on everybody else. The potential impact of surveillance of the US cloud is as vast as the impact of its services—which have already profoundly transformed the world. An FBI representative told CNET about the gap the agency perceives between the phone network and advanced cloud communications for which it does not presently have sufficiently intrusive technical capacity—the risk of surveillance “going dark.” The representative mentioned “national security” to demonstrate how badly it needs such cloud wiretapping, inadvertently revealing that the state secrets privilege—once a legal anomaly, now a routine—will likely ...

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