Diplorama+: Interview with Christopher Santerre, Designer

May 5, 2015 | By Dorothée Charles

Christopher Santerre is an interdisciplinary-designer just graduated from ENSCI – Les Ateliers and is currently based in Paris. He has studied alternative distribution and production methods for years. His areas of expertise range from product design to graphics and space. His latest projects strive to design objects that help us better understand and master our physical and digital world.

Dorothée Charles: “Objet reflexif” is a project questioning the preservation of food and data. What was your approach to developing this pantry/email storage?

Christopher Santerre: Actually I’ve developed two products: a garde-manger for the food, which is a kind of contemporary interpretation of the old-fashioned ice box that people had few decades ago to preserve food without electricity, and a micro-server which is a micro-computer dedicated especially to store personal data.

Both are designed to preserve two types of sensitive things: one physical, the food which feeds us, the other digital, our personal data which connects us and increasingly reflects who we are.
I call them both “reflexive objects” because they are designed in a way to question our daily habits, to make us think. Nowadays, the majority of technological products are the result of what I call a friction-less design. This is traditionally what the companies ask of a designer, to build the smoothest experience they can for the user.

I consider this kind of design pretty dangerous for mankind on the long term because it tends to anesthetize our capacity to be conscious of what we do and how we satisfy our basic needs. That’s why I imagine these two products as ways to say “wake up and let’s satisfy our daily needs with more consciousness.”

D.C.: Can you describe the elements and materials you used?

C.S.: For the garde-manger I used steel, wood, linen, nylon, and terra cotta. These materials reflect my will to mix references from electric appliances and furniture in a single product.
References and also uses: the electrical part is made of steel whereas the passive storage parts are made of craft materials such as clay, wood and textile.
For the micro-server I mainly used PMMA, which is an acrylic plastic with a perfect finish when cut with a digital laser cutting machine. The idea was to have a finished product similar to industrial consumer electronic products but with a fabrication process simple enough to be produced in makerspaces such as FabLab or Hackerspace.

D.C.: You also propose a kit which sets up auto-hosting of e-mails by connecting the server to a mailbox. What was your impetus to develop this server and which tools did you use?

C.S.: This ready-to-use micro-server has been designed almost as an “education tool“ to democratize self-hosting practices and to make us more conscious of what “host data” concretely means. Today, we all rely heavily on cloud computing, especially for e-mails, without realizing its effect in ethical and political terms. Fortunately, thanks to people like Edward Snowden, we realize more and more that we should take care of our data.

To develop this micro-server I worked closely with a software developer to make a functional prototype. Our main tool was a Raspberry Pi, which is the brain of the micro-server. The Pi is a credit card size micro-computer made by the Raspberry Pi foundation in the UK, and is actually as powerful as the average desktop computer on the market five years ago. We chose to work only with free and open-source software such as Yunohost for the operating system and Mailpile for the e-mail software. The ability to trust a technical system is the main point of this micro-server initiative, so the idea was to be as open as possible from the beginning.

D.C.: How this project has been received in Paris and St Etienne?

C.S.: For the exhibition in Saint-Etienne, I presented only the micro-server. Most reactions has two stages. The first went something like: “what is the point of this kind of mysterious mirror?” And once I explained that a domestic server helps teach us how to store our personal data and really own it, the second question was often “…but what is a server?”

At this point I realized how that’s urgent not only to talk about these data issues but particularly to propose solutions that permit us to reclaim our digital privacy in a practical way.
It sounds like we’re back in the medieval society where a very tiny part of the population has mastered the code which rules our life while the majority is illiterate. And this, in my opinion, is not acceptable even if the tiny part seems to be well-intentioned. Globally, I think we need more decentralization of power, for data hosting, but also for everything else that rules our daily life.

D.C.: How do you think the project will be received in the US?

C.S.: Difficult to say but I’ll try to answer with a fact. The next 6th of June will be the second anniversary of Edward Snowden making his revelations about the NSA, and two years later the issue remains pertinent in the US and indeed, in most modern democracies. Just today in France (5/4/15), Parisians took to the streets to protest a proposed law which would permit the French government to easily filter citizens’ digital activities, which is, I think, not a promising sign for the future of our democracy and of liberty in general.

So this is a very sensitive topic, but I hope that project like mine can help to nourish thoughts and encourage citizens to question the actual state of things.

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