The Institute of Patent Infringement

As part of the programme of WORK, BODY, LEISURE, the theme of the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2018, The Institute of Patent Infringement invited submissions from everyone interested in merging, reimagining, infringing and hacking existing Amazon patents and challenge their individualizing, exploitative and quantifying nature.

We submitted two proposals. The first one that envisions an affective – instead of effective – monitoring system that prioritizes workers’ physical and mental health instead of productivity. The second one describes a bottom-up hacking system that plugs in Amazon drone docking stations to reclaim common goods. Reflecting on our design process, we have created a third one that critiques representations of women and people of color in Amazon patents. 

The “Multi-Use Katiyabaaz Outlet System” was selected to be shown as part of the Institute of Patent Infringement in the Dutch Pavillion, at this year’s Venice Biennale. On top of being displayed in Venice, it will be exhibited at the V&A in London, as part of London Design Festival from 15th – 23rd Sept, and at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam from 16th – 29th Oct. 

In collaboration with Eirini Maliaraki. 


The Empathetic Conveyor Belt

The increasing levels of automation in surveillance capitalism provided tools to record and scrutinize the human body, fitting it to its mechanic rhythm. With the introduction of the moving assembly line for automotive production, Henry Ford choreographed humans and machines towards maximum efficiency. Technological mechanisms have now moved closer to the body and use it as a tool for production and consumption. Is the increasing level of automation an obstacle for the individuation of the workers and for actualising their emotional agency? What about a worker no longer in need of self-reflexivity, living in an over-monitored loving environment? For this patent we imagine a more affective — as opposed to effective — production process. Workers wear ultrasonic tracking bracelets (Amazon Patent No.US20170278051A1) which monitor their activities. They pick up items from the conveyor belt — the emblem of the industrial process. On the body of the conveyor belt, cameras and speakers collect data and detect the worker’s emotion, orientation and facial features. An integrated communication system between the bracelets and the cameras are able to detect if the worker feels tired or emotionally stressed. The system then automatically instructs the larger inventory management system to slow down its operation. The progressive advance of automation into dimensions of life previously unthought is beginning to map out a new terrain for labor. This terrain still perpetuates a profit-optimising and algorithmically-driven system. In our proposal, the flow of items through the consolidation stations is based on the emotionality and bodily reaction of the workers. This could be a tangible example of an alternative value system e.g. a community-run factory. It is a way that infrastructure could be designed if worker’s voices — and bodies — are taken into account.

Multi-use Katiyabaaz Outlet System

“Our ambition in India is to become everything for everyone” said Amit Agarwal, head of Amazon in India. India, with it’s billion-plus people — 65% under the age of 35 —, rising levels of disposable income, and ubiquitous cell phone ownership is a largely untapped e-commerce market. In 2016, Amazon was granted a patent for Multi-use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) docking station systems (US9387928B1). The docking stations can be incorporated into existing structures such as cell towers, light and power poles. They act as delivery hubs or recharging/refueling stops. With ~20% of the Indian population living in rural areas with underdeveloped infrastructure, what additional services can those docking stations provide? India is well-known for electricity theft, frequent load shedding and unscheduled outages, leaving as many as 700 million people without electricity. Local electricity thieves — also known as katiyabaaz — climb onto light towers and tap to the power line with their bare hands. Amazon is entering a complex geopolitical situation of ageing grid infrastructure, unaccountable politicians and dying industrial villages. We re-imagine a bottom-up electricity hacking system to reclaim the public infrastructure. It comprises of a capacitive cable that attaches to the UAV docking stations and results into a power outlet that provides electricity to the local communities. The power supply for the UAV could be a fuel cell or solar energy and charging options can include inductive, RF, and other non-contact options. Locals who either can’t afford to pay for electricity, or simply can’t access it, will be able to divert the electricity flow. They can now tap into excess power and charge their personal devices, power tools, or even light up the streets. Instead of Amazon’s capitalising upon public infrastructure, disadvantaged populations could now capitalise upon Amazon’s proprietary infrastructure.

The Non-discriminatory Patent

The Non-discriminatory Patent challenges gender and race representations in patent drawings. Instead of directly responding to the brief by hacking existing patents, we wanted to disclose and challenge the portraying issues regarding the human body that underpin patents in general. In the original patents that we had to work with, all warehouse workers are white males, there are no black people and women appear only twice. Reflecting on the design of our two previous interventions (the Empathetic Conveyor Belt and the Multi-use Katiyabaaz Outlet System), we noticed that focusing on getting the drawings right drew our attention away from depictions of gender and race. We believe that the formalizing nature of the patent drawing encourages clichéd and “safe” representations. On a practical level, drawing rules can displace artistic techniques normally used to express race. For example, hatching is a potential way of graphically representing a non-white body in a black & white drawing. On a patent though, hatching is used to indicate cross-sections (European Patent Convention, Rule 46). In the end, the black worker never appears, even though 1 out of 4 Amazon warehouse workers is black. Women appear only twice, taking upon the clichéd roles of service users.

We wanted to challenge these stereotypical representations. We selected a patent not based on function, but on the way it portrays people. We picked up the one with publication number US2014100998 (Filling an order at the Inventory Pier), which shows two white workers. The first stands in a waiting position, whereas the second has his back turned to the viewer. Disobeying the patent drawing rules, we used colour to depict both workers as non-white. For the second worker, we wanted to avoid replicating stereotypical representations of the female body. We added an androgynous haircut and we left it open to the viewer’s interpretation.