The Alternet

Alternet kit, photographed by Lynton Pepper.

The Alternet was my award winning MA Industrial Design project. Described as one of the most innovative and ambitious projects to have been completed at Central Saint Martins college, I completed it in May 2014. I was awarded a distinction.

The Alternet won several awards, including:

  • New Radical award from Nesta and The Observer
  • Gold Award from the Creative Conscience Awards
  • Future Pioneer award from the Design Council
  • Creative Enterprise College Award by UAL

I wrote the brief for the Alternet at the Maker Faire in New York in August 2013 where I helped to build a WikiHouse with SketchUp. Many of the Sketchup employees were wearing Pebble smart watches and the Snowden revelations had just come out. There were lots of conversations about data and privacy. One in particular, at the airport with Alastair and Nick, inspired me explore privacy and the Internet...

The Alternet is a proposal for a telecommunications network, a public utility for the Internet age - created, controlled and owned by everyone. The Alternet gives people control of data through straightforward data licences.

The Alternet network map, , photographed by Lynton Pepper.
"Gold's work presents an alternative for communications by proposing the products, infrastructure, and the service system required for the Alternet to function. It interrogates questions around transparency of data ownership. in doing this, it makes visible complex concerns in relation to how personal data is used and private information commoditised." - Matt Malpass, Critical Design in Context

There are three main components in the Alternet:

1. The hardware is community built and managed

Alternet hardware, photographed by Lynton Pepper.

The Alternet is a long distance mesh network so the Alternet grows organically with each new router that is added. The router cases are made in any colour filament on a standard desktop 3D printer.

3D printed router, photographed by Lynton Pepper.

The cases are designed to prevent malicious nodes from being added to the network. Each router is printed with a fingerprint that is unique and verifiable against a public database of router IDs, so any compromised router is automatically removed from the network until the community are able to assess it.

The routers are made with special catches that mean to adapt the router requires the printed box to be physically broken, acting as a visual warning that the router has been compromised. These security solutions are designed to make it ‘just hard enough’ to deter people from maliciously adapting the network.

2. Innovative permissions called data licences enable the data ecosystem

An example data licence.

Individuals can choose to share data about them openly in data commons, or under certain terms through data licences. There are numerous local and international derivative markets that form as a result of quality data shared with consent.

3. People understand how data is used through barometers

Alternet operating system.

Similar to a traditional weather barometer, the data barometer makes an invisible material visible and actionable. Each time an individual opens their Alternet operating system they see their barometer. The barometer changes colour depending on the last service to request data.

“Sarah Gold’s Alternet project presents a fascinating and viable potential future for communications. It interrogates some hugely important questions around the value and importance of data and does so in an imaginative and nuanced way.” - Angus Montgomery, Design Week Editor