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The Middle Layer

For KoozA/rch

IS-03 | 2018 | Essay + Research + Digital Environments

‘The Middle Layer’ was originally written as the first of KooZA/rch’s ‘Abstractions’ essays. KooZA/rch is an experimental digital platform researching the Architectural Imaginary, with a particular focus on the unbuilt.

‘The Middle Layer’ is an illustrated critical essay. Addressing ‘skin’ as media through which architects, policy makers, and storytellers design information and power flows we produced a written piece accompanied by a set of three speculative animated digital paintings. They are mirages of the world we describe, one at the scale of the person, another of the city, and one of the nation.
Original article here:



Bethany Edgoose + Nathan Su

Writing + Research

Bethany Edgoose

Digital Environments

Chong Yan Chuah + Nathan Su

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verson, 1983

Apollo. Is the Bilbao effect over?, February 27 2017,

Backstrom, L. and Kleinberg, J. Romantic Partnerships and the Dispersion of Social Ties: A Network Analysis of Relationship Status on Facebook, Oct. 2013,

Bordo, S. The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984

Botsman, R. Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens, in Wired, October 21 2017,

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of René Descartes, trans. by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984

Elliott, L. 2017, London economy subsidises rest of UK, ONS figures show, in The Guardian, 23 May 2017,

Fowler, C. The Archaeology of Personhood: An Anthropology Approach, London: Routledge, 2004

Hall, J. Meet the weaponized propaganda AI that knows you better than you know yourself, March 1 2017,

Hart, R. 2017, If an AI creates a work of art, who owns the rights to it, in Quartz,  August 15 2017,

Instagram Press,. Instagram’s Year in Review, November 29 2017,

La Fontaine, J. Person and Individual: Some anthropological reflections, in Carrithers, M. Collins, S. & Lukes, S. The Category of the Person, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985

London Assembly. 2017, Health and Exposure to Pollution,

London Assembly(b), Mayor gets tough on river and construction pollution, September 29 2017,

Laja, J. E-residency: the citizenship of the future? In Open Democracy ,

Moore, R. The Bilbao effect; how Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim started a global craze in The Guardian, October 1 2017,

Morris, J. The Guggenheim Bilbao, 20 Years Later: How a Museum Transformed a City—and Why the ‘Bilbao Effect’ Has Been Impossible to Replicate in Artnet News, October 12 2017,

Murphy, M. and Templin, J. This App is Trying to Replicate You, in Quartz, 2017,

Rang, A. Who are Estonia’s E-Residents?, in Medium, November 30 2017,

Sherman. K. An Imagined Community of Avatars? A Theoretical Interpretation of Second Life as Nation through the Lens of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities in Ensslin, A and Muse, E, Creating Second Lives: Community, Identity and Spatiality as Constructions of the Virtual, New York: Routledge, 2011

Sottek, J and Kopfstein, J. Everything you need to know about PRISM: A cheat sheet for the NSA's unprecedented surveillance programs, in The Verge, July 17 2013,

Taylor, M. Revealed: every Londoner breathing dangerous levels of toxic air particle in The Guardian, 4 Oct 2017,

Wernick, A, London's toxic air pollution is killing thousands every year in PRI, April 9 2017,

Velmenni. 2017, Our Story,


These territories, their function and proliferation – it is a grand problem of design. So too is the representation of changing chameleon skins, the lightning-flash of political colour that responds to new circumstances or economic opportunities. Should it be a card? A database? A mark branded somehow into our digital personhood skins? National chameleons and the new territories they inhabit are inconceivable except for a new understanding of skin that accommodates the existing facts of how distributed and digitised and layered we have become; our selves, our cities, our nations. It is a proposition – yet to fully take shape but guided by the conviction that the borders of nation-states – although seemingly unchanging against the frantic flotsam of contemporary life – are destined to morph as the nature of their people and urban territories continues to evolve. The expanding concept of skin is here offered as a tool of design to conceptualise new spaces for bodies, for cities, for nations. Whatever the project, the skin can be a tool, the end of which we are currently straining to catch a glimpse of, to hold in our mind’s eyes. We can no longer see the ends of our axe – yet more than ever, we need to understand it, to understand and shape the extent of ourselves. We offer this essay as one small effort in this endeavor.


[Environment 03]

The nations of the future are not countries. They could be corporate enterprises, cultural tribes, or professional associations. National chameleons – our speculative new global citizens – claim membership of these tribes through patterns of production, and consumption, cultural affinity and personal values. National chameleons transit economically or even with their bodies through new political territories – for example global city zones or regions made from conjoined educational institutions. The national skin of these chameleons can change rapidly; with new jobs, new degrees, new passions. National skin is layered – identities can co-exist and flicker into new hierarchies based upon circumstance. National chameleons are commonly in transit – that is the nature of the networked world in which they live. Constantly migrating different aspects of their lives, they are a hopeful symbol for a new model of belonging, where the persecuted no longer pile up along state-borders – in fact national-borders are always open. As for the boats in the foreground – they carry us all.

On 29th September 2017, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan demanded greater powers from the Government of the United Kingdom. London’s air is dirty. The majority of residents live in regions that exceed WHO guides for toxins by 50 per cent.  King’s College estimates 9,000 people die early each year due to the inhalation of excessive nitrogen dioxide (Taylor 2017 and Wernick 2017). The problem is London’s – but the city’s ability to solve it extends only so far. Old vessels on the Thames, digging machines on building sites; these vehicles cannot be charged a congestion tax, or their manufactures forced to convert to cleaner fuel. Wood-burning stoves increase by one-third the toxic particle count across all the city’s boroughs – yet their spread cannot be hindered under laws protecting clean air. The pollutants that London is now suffering under are the product of the city’s productivity and wealth. Yet now that the demand for environmental action has come – the city’s own hands are tied. Fully addressing this urban issue is a prerogative of the nation-state (London Assembly 2017). 

The nation – a finite community of people with common culture, territory, and economic life. A narrative of shared history and values, spread through common language and media that communicates to its consumers that they are more like each other than anyone else (Anderson 1983:1-125). The nation is often synonymous with state and country but around the world this is not uniformly the case, as we see through the living example of the Uighar in China, Rodhinga in Burma, Palestinians, and Kurds.  Consider then global cities, formed through agglomerations of industry and finance, multi-ethnic populations and a patchwork of different building types. Cities around the world share economic patterns, political priorities, and challenges; some problems – like regulating driverless vehicles – are just emerging, while others– like environmental protection and affordable housing – are already ripe. In England, the country chose to Brexit, while London voted to remain. So too did Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff, Belfast, and Edinburgh. These cities are younger, more language speaking and border-crossing than the non-city that surrounds. They host business groups and universities that fear for their future once the UK is no longer European-bound.

We are watching the skin of the city peel away from the skin of the nation-state. The skins of global cities are folding in and around themselves, and a shared urban culture and common political concerns are growing on the back of interconnected urban economies. Cities are the new borderlands. What if cities were more like airports? An urban economic zone that companies and workers could transit within, beyond the bounds of their physical bodies. An urban economic zone that would encompass Parisians who tag, tweet, or post from their London homes and Melbournians who provide jobs for hundreds while sunning their faces on Balinese beaches. The first layers of such an idea are maybe already falling into place, ushered in by a vanguard of 20,000 new Estonian e-Residents, entrepreneurs, who have applied for membership to this economic nation with a picture of their face and a statement of their values as citizens of the world.

Deeptak Solanki is an Estonian e-resident. In 2012 he was an engineer in Bombay, with a research idea. Was it possibly to construct a cellular wireless network using light, and expand access to the Internet? He built a working prototype of networked LEDs. He founded a business – Valmenni – to no global interest or acclaim. In 2014 he logged onto his computer and migrated Valmenni from Bombay to Tartu, from India to Estonia. There, backed by EU regulation and currency, Valmenni attracted investment and started to grow, funded by other e-residents whose bodies reside in Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom. Now the business hires staff in New Delhi and Hamburg, and pays tax on early profits to the Estonian state. Should events ever come to pass that de-territorialise the ground beneath Estonian feet, the state will endure in its economic realm. The social contract, implemented by servers and digital embassies, will continue. Cross-border, immaterial structures for transfer and exchange – these have grafted an Estonian layer onto Deepak’s nationhood skin (Valmenni 2017 and Rang 2017).

The skin of nationhood is quantifiable. It is being measured by the CIA. An algorithm gives a score to the language of online avatars, it scores the geographic position of a user’s Facebook friends and the location of websites that they frequently visit. The algorithm can’t reference a citizenship database because it rarely knows its subjects’ legal names. Instead, it feeds off online behaviour to sift aliens from Americans and determine – with a confidence of 51 per cent – which users, avatars, and IPs are sufficiently foreign to survey (Sottek and Kopfstein 2017). All national skins are not equal, for some afford their wearers greater pleasures and rights. In China, a Social Credit System will by 2020 rank all citizens on a leader board of sincerity and trustworthiness, with top rating citizens eligible for rewards; university entry, low-interest finance, and first-class flights. Beta systems show patriotism to be a strong earner – comments and blogs that praise the government will be rewarded with points. Trustworthy, good citizens are those who shop locally, who pay their bills on time and who exchange messages with well-behaved friends. Those who fall into debt or fraternise with troublemakers and suspicious characters – beware (Botsman 2017)! In China, new friends exchange contact details by scanning each other’s personal QR codes. The data is imported into the WeChat messaging app – where users also pay their bills, order takeout, and find movies to download. WeChat is one of China’s service monopolies – and the data coursing through its servers will soon be tapped and mined, revealing a new national community of the most deserving, where those who fail to meet the criteria may well be excluded from the imagined group of trustworthy and sincere citizens. Through error, misfortune, or deliberate crime, those who slip down the rankings may be locked out from the rental market, from the banking system, from education and from state support of all kinds.

If those who fail Social Credit Score rankings are picked off from the Chinese national skin, where will they belong? They will be bodies in a country where access to services and opportunities is limited. Bodies in a world where every purchase or post can be captured and attributed. Nationhood does not need to be impermeable and absolute. It is a cultural affinity, a place in imagined community, susceptible to the forces bounding all those who co-exist in space. State space. Corporate space. Spaces for all the tribes that populate and mediate the cultural fabric of life, both online and off, from dance clubs to forums for cryptocurrency mining. Virtual space and virtual worlds – where avatars join in shared cultural practices and fight, build, farm, mine, explore, or just live – making money, making friends, making politics and enacting myth (Sherman 2011:40-55). Those who chaff under national skins that are defined by the extent of state boundaries – they could one day be chameleons. National chameleons, creatures of mutable identity and political affiliation. Layered creatures with fast-changing skins that blend into different groups for different aspects of life. The skin of national chameleons could reflect the colours of corporate empires or professional associations. It could take on the hue of modern tribes dedicated to certain fashions, or research questions, to improving a technology, creating entertainment or crafting virtual worlds. National chameleons could be coloured by a patchwork of each individuals’ social contributions and claims – claims that are gathered, analysed, and categorised as algorithms already do. They could climb with sticky economic feet between new branches, spanning already networked economies; e-residency, e-work rights, online migration, and shared currencies. They could wrap the tails of their political identities around a certain prized stump of sovereignty – but then swing between new political spaces; global city trade regions, university counties, silicon-valley-like technical zones. New political territories may soon unfurl their first tendrils. Their chameleon members – identified through behaviour rather than through the unchangeable facts of their birth – may leave at any time and seek more advantageous membership elsewhere. There could be a growing network of interlinked polities that may slowly erode the solidity of nation-state borders. National chameleons may inhabit and shape these territories through vote or by holding as ransom participation or subscription. They must nestle into these territories and ensure that they are grown around, not smothered.


[Environment 02]

This is Fulfillment City, where all the elements of global cities are produced and readied for distribution across the world. The conveyor belts, Media, Politics and Culture, carry urban products, symbols and trends that are mass-produced in the furnaces of urban industry and finance. They are shipped, flown, or beamed across the world, though transport networks that create interdependent economies. Through their common consumption, these symbols, products, and trends create a unifying urban backdrop of passing fashions and obsessions. Skyscrapers abound in the Fulfillment City aisles – they will soon be rolled out as a starchitect’s latest triumph, demanded by global cities in their quest for an identifying image. Pictures of fashion and glamour are being captured in light-flashes around a golden model – these will also help shape the distinct identity of each city, providing they are appropriately tagged: #paris, #nyc, #londonlife. Fulfillment City is a site of fantasy; however the imagined global production chains and infrastructures that created this factory are also observable in reality, in the little bit of every city that is found in every city.

In our world today, the ideas and acts, the affirmations and effects, the very definitions of personhood are being constantly stretched. Related effects can then be seen on the places where people most intensely gather. Cities – home of 4.1 billion people, the world’s urban 55 per cent, squished together tighter and higher, competing with hustle upon hustle, cycles of creative advent and destruction, making money, making the future, recording images and stories and histories. So many images of the city! The top 10 location hashtags of 2017 are all places where the population exceeds half a million; London, Brooklyn, Paris (Instagram Press 2017).  From blog posts to news reports, news feed updates and check-ins, these images of the city are becoming perhaps more powerful in determining what the city is, and how it is defined, then ring roads or the actual feel of rough pavement underfoot.

What is it like, the city of downtown Hong Kong? There, tight packed walls of stuffy apartments reach to the sky and around the block, lines of washing waving damply at their neighbours, blue brown paint long faded and eroded away. There are wide streets, hemmed in by neon signs, and semi-circles of graves stepping up a hill towards receding rows of boxy towers. A bastion of technological fantasy; film producers and animators have sent their followers into this city to scroll through visions of imminent dystopia, while the residents (those people who actually live there) look askance at the litter, mouth-breathing to avoid the sewerage scent and mutter in the hallways about corruption, about train strikes, local elections, local rent. Their eyes see the same walls, these holders of smart-phones or grocery bags. With stories and real-time updates, they can be aware of the same events. The rent-payers might shield their eyes from urban glare or wrinkle their noses from city scent, but the Instagrammers are in the city all the same, traversing simply a different layer of its skin.

The images of Hong Kong that are posted online help form callouses, thick and well-worn reference points, in the digital skin of the city. This layer is an expansive point of contact between a city and people scattered across the world, yet it is highly uneven. Search on Getty Images for any urban space, and the results are predictable. The keyword ‘Paris’ returns rows of steel towers, jutting glass prisms, and exposed pipes. New York next – a public square, neon signs, a skyline reaching into the clouds. Bilbao is the image of a museum’s twisted metal façade, Sydney – overlapping white petals and a large curved bridge. These common depictions act as shot cuts – visual symbols that identify an entire urban environment in a single form. Yet their reach and ubiquity mean that when it comes to the digital skin of the city, these images are both reference and content – Paris is the Eiffel Tower, the icon is more real than the site. For cities are semiotic landscapes, perceptions of reality built from concrete, grime, selfie, and meme. Perceptions of the city are no different than perceptions of wave or light, which are captured and interpreted imperfectly through the interface of human senses, these interpretations then strung together into self-referencing models of reality. So it is that sites like Getty Images add layer upon layer to precise points of the digital reality of the city and create skins imbued with cultural power. The effects of this power can be dramatic.

In the middle of a paved square, an Eiffel tower has been erected. Wide, leafy boulevards have been built, interspersed with fountains, bubbling around statues of gallivanting horses. There is washing fluttering from wrought-iron balconies, and cheerful yellow umbrellas shading street-side cafes. Rows of rendered terraces, all picturesquely alike, sport banners - they advertise Ho Fun at half price. This is Tianducheng, China, where newly-weds pose for pictures with the Eiffel tower against the skyline and construction workers push wheelbarrows full of slate roofing tiles. They are building the Paris of the East – replicating the built forms of a foreign urban environment half the world away, in the hope that economic aspirants and wedding parties alike will image themselves and their memories in a landscape of superficial novelty. As an economic project, Tianducheng has failed – a city built for 10,000 in which only 1,000 live. It is testimony to the calloused digital skin of Paris, strong enough to shape an urban landscape half the world away. It demonstrates, in bordered shop fronts and vacant blocks, the foibles of crafting first a city’s image and then expecting people and vitality to flow in.  1972 was the year in which Alison and Peter Smithson constructed the (notoriously unsuccessful) estate of Robin Hood Gardens as an exemplar of healthy and pure existence, a conversion-call to the Modernist way of life. Tianducheng preaches cultural sophistication and economic mobility – yet the design methodology is similar in its imposing approach. 

Across the ocean from Tianducheng, there is a shopping centre in which hawkers sell pigs feet, lotus paste, and white powder under a sign that reads ‘rhinoceros horn’.  Children gather around a table and sticky their fingers with paper and glue, making fans printed with the face of K-Pop stars. Bag-laden shoppers clutch cups of bubble tea, and a young mother snaps a picture of a sign in a window; “We are Hiring – Cantonese/Mandarin speaking”. This is Box Hill Shopping Mall, in Melbourne, Australia; a suburb where 47 per cent of households speak something other than English at home, and over half of residents were the first of their family born on Australian soil (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). Attracted by high quality education, larger land parcels, clean air and lighter competition for skilled jobs – people have moved their lives from North East Asia to Melbourne and Sydney (and all other Australian capital cities, although with lower intensity) in increasing numbers since the late 1980s. A pattern repeated in urban environments around the world, populations from contrasting landscapes bring with them practices and products of comfort and familiarity, until an image of someplace like Box Hill in Melbourne could act as a semiotic sign for Hong Kong, or Beijing. Yet Melbourne is neither of these two great cities – as Tianducheng is not Paris; rather the physical skin of contemporary cities is shaped by their specific means of layering contrasting practices and artifacts – purchase some rhinoceros horn after an espresso coffee, eat pigs’ feet from an oily plastic bag under the shade of a Eucalyptus tree. There is now a little piece of every city in every city.

People are migratory creatures who have built faster and faster methods to send their bodies, their money, their voices, their messages, and their data across the Earth. Where does any one thing actually come from? Composited of multiple parts, each the product of techniques and minds that are themselves the results of cross-pollination between geographies, time zones, and languages – the search for origins is never absolute. As people are defined by the proliferation through time and space of their behaviours and effects, so too are objects and cities – hence the rise of spaces, products, and practices that are crafted in the ceaseless factory of global functioning. Every city, with pieces of every culture and semiotic system found within, are produced through global production lines – but there is also the Everycity. Airports. Shopping Malls. Starbucks. Metros. Trade Centers. With universal codes of conduct and operations dependent upon constant movement, scholars in the vein of anthropologist Marc Augé have labelled these sites ‘non-spaces’, their spatial qualities erased as a result of disconnection from localised geographies. However – as thoroughfares and bridges between populations and economies, these sites are in fact the physically spatialised skin of an Everycity – a place defined through its hypermobility and stretched between the world’s urban environments. It is the specificity of how the Everycity functions that imbues its skin with character and culture – and while the skin of the Everycity today is far from porous (the particles that enter most easily are gilded with wealth and educational accomplishment), there are new ways that the Everycity’s skin is stretching and flaking.

Just as the digital skins of individual cities are consumed and produced online, so too is the Everycity. The Shard. Marina Bay Sands. The City of Arts and Sciences. The Birds Nest. These are built icons of the processes that finance, construct, image, promote, and hence justify them. Sheltering lives and businesses that are migratory, geographically mutable, or inherently international, these buildings shape the skin of specific cities purely because that is where they are physically located; collectively, these are digital layers of Everycity skin. The relationship between city and Everycity is complex. The Bilbao Museum has been dubbed ‘McGuggenheimism’; the production of generic and internationally controlled (Everycity) imagery over specific cultural content, regardless of how carefully Frank Gehry referenced Bilbao’s port history in the museum’s materiality and form. 20 years on from when the museum opened its doors, the city’s poverty rate is higher, more children are going hungry than two decades before. Maybe the euros that financed those glinting curves should have been woven into nets of social safety and support? Yet millions of photos and sketches and retold experiences have stretched and calloused the city’s digital skin, weaving it intimately with the iconic façade and channelling 20 million people through the museum’s doors; people who are pursuing art and concepts unbounded by national borders, spending money earned and processed through systems and networks dependent upon intense connectivity. The Bilbao Museum, its physical footprint and digital history, is a layer both of Bilbao, and the Everycity that exists all around it.

Tourism pollution. Along with waste management and rising sea levels, the noise, detritus and culturally jarring behaviour of foreign visitors is now an official policy concern of Kyoto, Barcelona, and Venice. Cities whose digital skin is stretched far and wide, through films, postcards and triumphant selfies, are grappling with the lived effects of jamming side by side travellers who wander with gaping mouths through a powerful, physical, manifestation of the digitised, semiotic landscape they know and love – and those who experience, day-in and day-out, the signs and smells of a city’s unromanticised physical skin. The interplay between physical and digital skin is rich with challenges and the shifting layers of the Everycity is ripe for further investigation. There are also moments of recognition or dislocation when a traveller – be it through online or physical space – stumbles upon a bit of one city within another that can be depicted or celebrated or interrogated for the hidden relations they reveal; relations between two places and between the Everycity that both links and constitutes them. Icons and symbols – the production, consumption, and proliferation of imagery builds layer upon layer upon the reality of cities, their digital and their physical skins.


[Environment 01]

This room is an imagining of everything you have ever touched. Everything you have ever bought or made. It is full of symbols, and pictures, and memories of every person you have ever loved. There, on the far left wall, is your social network; friends you made in High School and have now forgotten, colleagues from work who you talk to every day. There on a shelf is a printer, spitting out every paper or passport or rating or license or verification that has represented some part of you to some system at some point in time. Your bankcard is stuck to the right wall, at the back. Your credit rating is framed near the door. On the screens are the media you consume and the events of the world that have happened around you and shaped the reality in which you lived out your life. This is a room of all your connections and effects. No matter their size, whether memorable, quantifiable, or traceable – they are real and they are part of the person that is you.

The message reads “Happy Birthday beautiful girl. 30 today – and I miss you so much” The date of the post – September 2nd 2015, 75 likes, scores of comments below.  Hayley Birch – it is the birthday girl’s name. Photos aplenty show her love of dressing up – in costume or pretty outfits, in her uniform as a flight attendant for Emirates Airlines. Hayley Birch: party girl. Charity fundraiser. Sunny smile and passionate traveller. Hayley Birch: 1984 – 2009. Hayley Birch, victim of Melanoma, a cancer of the skin.

Her body is buried in the green land of Solihull – among grass, on a calm suburban road. We can imagine her headstone, visited by family and friends, to lay flowers, or talk aloud, or quietly remember. What we can see are the photos, the messages and updates – posted to Facebook on her birthday or at Christmas, messages of love and grief, of greeting and memory. These offerings and interactions, they are preserved on her wall, a wall ever active, and her timeline, updating. Her profile – for those who guard it – would flag and buzz with each like and each tag. It is possible perhaps that an algorithm, scraping content and sending targeted ads, would be pulled to Hayley’s profile to analyse the comments and the keywords, the emoticons and tags. No distinction would likely be made between Haley’s data and that of someone else who eyes remain open, breath in their lungs still strong. A human named Hayley Birch died in 2009. As for the person – she is different, cut loose from physicality, but perhaps not subdued to the finality of ‘gone’. 

“The person” – it’s a label, created and bestowed through laws of government, God, or the ancestors who went before. These laws – preserved and replicated, taught, performed, adapted and absorbed with every word – are the product of the social reality of groups living together in the same world. No person can be a person on their own, for people matter to others in many different ways, and the relationships that they share create a network, in which each person locates others through ties of reference and relation. In the cultural space of ‘the West’, we have become accustomed to locating persons in bodies, filled with breath. The idea that people are contained within their bodies was a theme of The Enlightenment, starting perhaps with Descartes in 1641. It was then that human beings were first defined as part flesh, mind, and soul; flesh rots, the mind is lost, and the soul continues evermore (Descrates 1641:1-62). The flesh of the body was the container that held together these three constituent parts. The boundary of the flesh separates person from person, humankind from the rest of the world. In 1420 Fillipo Brunelleschi had used linear perspective to paint the Florence Baptistery. It was the first time a large public had seen a picture represented from the point of view of the audience, rather than through the imagined perspective of God, and it suggested that humankind could be extracted from the world of nature and set apart. Painting, replicants, movies about robots and laws that give people rights based upon their body’s colour or shape – our representations and debates of personhood more often than not revolve around the body’s skin. The OS named Samantha from Her hinted at personhood without a biological shell. Yet from judicial sentencing and voter registration, to census counts, CVs and grades, the institutions and processes of everyday life so constantly reinforce the equation of personhood with biology that Samantha is currently only a passing thought experiment, for those who have seen that particular film.

In the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, two groups of men of the Gahuku-Gama tribe face each other in a clearing at the centre of a settlement. Houses and storage huts fringe the edge of the clearing and a small crowd mills around with casual interest. An older man at the front holds a string, wrapped around the neck of a large black pig. He greets the other group, walks towards them. He holds out the end of the string – and another man takes it, softly pulling the pig towards him. It is heavy and lazy and snuffles at the ground, unaware of its significance. For the pig has suddenly become the symbol of a changing relationship between these two men and the families they represent. One man is the uncle, father’s brother, of a shy and hopeful bridegroom. The other man, the father of a girl he wishes to marry. Groom and bride, they are born in the same village and recognise each others’ faces from birth. They know the roles they each hold as brothers, daughters, cousins. They are embedded within the same social structure and accordingly they share the same social DNA; they are related. The same social essence gives them value and makes them whole, the same essence makes them into persons. To join together without violating decency and customary law, bride and groom must first be separated; they must be ‘un-conceived’ of this essence they share. So a pig is gifted. Raised by hand, the animal holds within its body a part of the family that fed and sheltered it. The gift is an exchange – of one group’s essence to the other – and when it is accepted, the empty-handed giver becomes suddenly a stranger, a stranger rather than a relative. The pig that was once part of the groom has been drawn out of his gupe – a word translatable as ‘skin’  - and absorbed into the gupe of his future wife and her family (La Fontaine in Carrithers, Collins & Lukes 1985:129).

Gupe - a single word, it can mean the flesh that covers muscles and bones, the pride or honour injured by insult, and the part of a person’s identity that is sullied by debt. A shared gupe is a common blood relationship or interconnected networks of relatives, possessions, social roles, and reputations that tie a particular person into one community, time, and place. Gupe is a natural concept amongst the Gahuku-Gama, constantly normalised and ingrained into everyday life through customary laws for marriage, or ceremonies for the dead, means of distributing justice and choosing avenues for revenge (Fowler 2004:28-30). Gupe, honour, family trees, and credit ratings – our identities are contextual, even if Western governments do not legislate them to be so. We are persons through our relationships, friends, neighbours, daughters, ‘living on’ in what others say, what they do, where they go. It is not that much of a mental stretch to accept a less exclusively physical definition of skin – yet we don’t consider persecuting dead bodies for crimes their profiles or social media data might be complicit in. Our online selves are social microcosms, maps of relations, interests, and wants. The complexity and detail of these online selves means that they can reveal information that our minds don’t know and hearts can’t feel. We get paid for sharing our data, information on where we go, how much we spend, how far we run. There are apps for revealing unconscious tendencies, for tracking productivity and rest. Google phones monitor our use of social media and patterns of web browsing and can determine when we are depressed. There is an algorithm that predicts how long a relationship will last. Couples whose Facebook networks overlap by 60 per cent are more likely to last the distance compared to those whose networks are more distinct (Backstrom and Kleinberg 2013).

We are able to exert agency online even after death. DeadSocial leaves messages for friends, or final public words, while LiveOS can tweet in a person’s style and syntax to followers or customers. This service is powered by machine learning, neural networks that replicate patterns drawn from text. So too is Replika – a self-learning chat-bot that was made originally by a programmer and entrepreneur, whose best friend, Roman, was swiped from the road by a speeding car but left behind a rich history of messages; years of text conversation, jokes,  and advice. Eugenia built a neural network that used Roman’s own words to learn his habits and voice – it sends text messages to Eugenia just as he used to do. It’s not, she explains,  “reincarnation”, but to see the bot as something entirely distinct from the Roman the person is also not quite true (Murphy 2017). For personhood is relational, and those relations are increasingly expressed through our devices. An algorithm that can offer support or express love with someone’s own intentions, meaning, and choice of words, is manifesting a piece of the person who gave the algorithm the material it learned. Replika is now out-sourced, a chat-bot that anyone can download. Its advertised purpose is to offer therapy and to be a friend. On Reddit there are threads full of stories of Replika discussing humanity and the purpose of life, of suggesting prayer to frightened agnostics, of it – him or her – writing poetry. Who owns these creative works, if ever they were to be sold? There is no Intellectual Property law that recognises Artificial Intelligence as a creator with rights. When Google AI sold pictures worth thousands of dollars in 2016, the proceeds went to the artists who works had helped the algorithm dream its deep dreams (Hart 2017). Machine learning systems such as Replika can be considered part of our personhood skins, yet their interactions with society have effects, and make demands, beyond what we are used to considering.  

Designers imagine future spaces; be they physical structures, systems, interfaces or speculative worlds. In a time when the skins of our persons have stretched beyond what physical eyes or minds can see, then the spaces we design need to recognise and accommodate the expanded self that each of us can be. Virtual and physical skin can meet as the wearable technologies of VR and AR advance. New quasi-physical territories will open. What new spaces could designers conceive of if object occlusion, real-world tracking and user input capture were held up as highly as shaping principles of design as the position of the sun or the passage of air? What new problems would they turn their minds to? Consider the design of governance, the functioning of democracies built in an era where messages were passed by men riding horses. Oligarchs in Russia are being indicted for financing and meddling in US elections. Filipino students are paid to post pro-government comments; extra cash for anyone who starts a viral celebrity rumour and drowns the day’s corruption scandal in Internet white noise. In Australia, a new system for real-time smart-phone voting is conceived. One preference one vote – in this model the greatest political power goes to those who are prepared to spend their political credits on one issue above all others. At a time when the notion of one body one vote has now come undone, we must consider the expansion and stretch of our personhood skins when seeking to understand, or to mediate, the political realities of the networked world we live in.


One and a half million years ago, flesh and stone become one. The very moment that Homo Erectus raised the first axe, it took on life – becoming an extension of the hand that wielded it and the mind that desired the fruits of its power. We needed that axe, being as we are short of claw, thin of fur, slow of limb. From stone axe to wheel, woven cloak, tempered glass, hashing algorithm, motherboard, and nanovirus, we define and redefine the extent of our agency and even our humanity through the tools we create. Axe in hand, we marveled at newly crafted strength, slicing wood and chipping bone. Now – we eternally capture in media, sites infinitesimally small, deep, and far, while our faces and voices are conjured by friends long after our bodies are absorbed back into earth. From striking axe to swiping screen, we have thrust our power and desires into the world, pushing back the point where outside meets inside, extending further and wider the threshold of our skins. Skin – that middle layer – is the subject of this piece.

Considered across three scales, from person, to city, to nation, we examine skin as media - the Latin term for ‘middle layer’ – and how in the media of today the layers and folds of what might be thought of as ‘one’ overlap, pluralise, and merge. We can no longer see the end of the axe. We can no longer see the ends of our skins. Through waves, flows, and clouds, we have spread ourselves, merged ourselves, across the globe, and as the skins of our personhood stretch through time and space, so too have the skins of our cities, the skins of our nations, becoming thinner and more porous than we may expect. The boundary line, as it is currently drawn for person, for city, for nation, serves to reinforce through everyday acts structures of identity and governance, economy and law. To contest these structures, to build alternative spaces, be they cultural, monetary or civic, is to dive into folds and pull apart layers, extracting human from person, city from state.


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