The Future is (not) a Problem

Techno-fixes are big business. Taking a quick look over the Financial Times’ list of the world’s largest companies[1], it might not surprise us that five of the top spots are occupied by corporations dealing in Information Technology. The looseness of this term connotes the production and dissemination of hardware, software and data, yet increasingly such companies are moving beyond this operational remit and have begun selling a vision of how life in its totality could—and should—be lived. Over the last decade, these so-called ‘Big Tech’ companies—Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook—have sought to fashion bespoke technological ‘fixes’ to particular global crises, with the aim being no less than shaping the future of humanity itself. Facebook’s Aquila solar drone project, for instance, will help four billion people in disparate regions of the globe ‘access all the opportunities of the internet’[2]. Meanwhile, Alphabet’s experimental X subsidiary is developing Project Loon, a competing network infrastructure powered by a fleet of solar balloons[3] .Which connected future do we want: one with networks of balloons or drones? Or, more to the point: one filtered through the prism of Google’s or Facebook’s algorithms? The fictional character of Gavin Belson, the deranged CEO of the quasi-Facebook-Google mashup Hooli in HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley, captures the bizarre competitive logic of Big Tech utopianism when he states with marked frustration:

Gavin Belson: 'I don't want to live in a world where somebody else makes the world a better place better than we do'‘I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.’

It is not only the digital divide and the contingent possibilities of market expansion which Big Tech is claiming to ‘solve’ with these ambitious infrastructural projects. Climate change, healthcare, forced migration, democracy, and automation are all staked out in branded promotional media[4] as challenges which have imminent technological solutions—just a few ‘versions’ away. In such media, we are pushed forward into a time where these complex issues have been resolved, becoming conspicuous non-features of everyday life, unrecognized background conditions that allow us to marvel at the much more spectacular and exciting business of glossy technological innovations: the familiar gesture-controlled sheets of glass, the smart-everythings and the augmented-anythings.

Stills from Microsoft's Productivity Future Vision (2011)Stills from Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision from 2011.

In these ‘design fictions’, as the Brazilian theorists Gonzatto et al. call such marketing campaigns, present crises ‘are anticipated and solved by technology’, proffering resolutions that ‘nurture consumers into consumption habits and convince investors of their capacity to fulfil those same demands’[5]. In this way, design fictions are replete with ‘solutionist’ fantasies where digital technology is positioned as a corrective to the challenges and irregularities of living. Solutionism, what Evgeny Morosov describes as an ‘intellectual pathology’[6] that can only consider problems in the form of their smart technical ‘fix’, nullifies any wider discussion of the problem at hand, abstracting the proposed resolution from the historical, social and political context of its implementation.

Therefore, whilst it is hard not to be seduced by the glossy ingenuity of projects such as Aquila and Loon, we ought to take a moment to question the frictionless future championed in these grand projects. The crises opened up and subsequently ‘solved’ by Big Tech companies scaffold the realm of present and future possibilities for our collective engagement: to determine a set of relations as constituting a crisis is to justify and arrange the ground for its resolution. For this reason, it is important to ask: Whose crisis is it anyway? Who has defined the problem that needs solving? And whose interests are being served by these proposed solutions? With such queries in mind, the benign qualities of design fictions are problematised, and their rootedness in the techno-politics of the present become plainly visible.

Image of Facebook's Aquila drone mid-flight.Image of Facebook’s Aquila drone mid-flight.

The recent publication of Mark Zuckerberg’s Building Global Community[7] manifesto affords such queries a timely focal point. At stake in Zuckerberg’s far-reaching manifesto is, in essence, the role that Big Tech can play in global governance. More specifically, it proposes the positive contribution that can come from Facebook’s direct engagement with the tasks of local and national security, the distribution and moderation of information, governmental politics, and fostering a post-national communalism.

These are indeed lofty ambitions, even for a company that boasts a quarter of the world’s population as monthly active users. However, Facebook purports to relish such a challenge, motivating employees by reminding them that the “journey is 1% finished”[8]. The ‘journey’ in question here is the fixing of what Facebook sees as a crisis of disconnection experienced by those almost exclusively situated in remote regions of the Global South. Facebook asks us to imagine how much better the lives of these ‘disconnected’ people could be if only they had access to the same degree of internet connectivity that those of us in the Global North enjoy on a day-to-day basis. With these sentiments in mind, the remainder of Facebook’s arduous voyage will largely be accomplished through the development of high-profile projects such as Internet.org, where the polished graphics of constituent programmes such as Free Basics and the aforementioned Aquila act as ethical avatars for Facebook’s very own brand of solutionism.

Screenshot of Internet.org's Free Basics product page.Screenshot of Internet.org’s Free Basics programme webpage.

Zuckerberg claims that, ‘in times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us’[9]. Free Basics aims to provide a free-as-in-beer (but not free-as-in-freedom) curated portal to specific sites on the internet, providing information about healthcare, news, employment, and education to individuals who might otherwise live offline and thus disconnected lives. The humanitarian rhetoric follows that bringing ‘people online’ will ‘help improve their lives’ and additionally offer these societies ‘knowledge’, ‘tools’, and global connections—these are fundamentally good things worthy of our support, right? The predictable catch is revealed in Internet.org’s promotional material, whereby companies prospecting for new markets are offered a head-start on reaching ‘the next wave of people coming to the internet’[10], albeit through Facebook’s technical infrastructure and curatorial apparatuses. Such philanthropic endeavours, if successful, assist in consolidating the corporation’s present hegemonic position in future scenarios. For governments struggling with establishing network infrastructures, Free Basics proposes an attractively simple solution that, with Facebook’s capital and clout, can be quickly deployed and established. It is however a valuable foothold, one that prescribes a developmental course that entangles the technical apparatuses of the corporation with the task of future regional governance. This is the strategic-thinking which fuels the bizarre competitive logic of Big Tech utopianism, and which sits as the political kernel of future visions. It is the rhetoric of the real-life Gavin Belsons of Silicon Valley.

Internet.org: "The more we connect, the better it gets."‘The more we connect, the better it gets.’ Internet.org.

By determining that there is a crisis of disconnection, Facebook prepares the ground for its resolution in the form of projects such as Internet.org. The idea that a global community of connected Facebook users can level the systematic inequalities in wages, living standards, and welfare provision inherent to globalized capitalism is a resolution that erases the multiplicity of forces acting upon a complex array of interacting crises. In making this erasure, Facebook’s logic of development draws an uncomplicated line of progression from ‘unconnected’ to ‘connected’ subjects. Such thinking is as obviously reductionist, and contestable, as the pathways that lead from ‘boy’ to ‘man’, ‘young’ to ‘old’, ‘civilised’ to ‘uncivilised’. These binary terms edifying developmental logic are laden with normative significance, implying a way of thinking about the world that presupposes and prescribes a certain way of living within it. The interconnected and complex issues that contribute to global inequality—institutional structural biases, discriminatory trade relations, the experiences of colonialism, the exploitation of resources, to name but a scant few of a vast number—do not even come into the equation. In this schematic, Facebook’s own position in relation to these matters is unacknowledged. Furthermore, the position of humans as ‘Facebook users’ worldwide is not only rendered as neutral, closing off debate around value production and labour processes in digital capitalism, but positively imbued with some sort of higher moral purpose. What does it mean, then, for Facebook to imagine a time beyond crisis? To offer a resolution to the ‘problem’ of global disconnection? As Antoinette Rouvroy would argue, such thinking inoculates the present and ‘forecloses the future’[11]. 

How is (X) captured?A Network Diagnostics query card.

This example of Internet.org does not simply aim to expose the economic incentives lurking behind such seemingly benevolent global projects—these motives should be obvious enough already. Rather, we hope to have opened up the conversation surrounding these future visions, and the possibility of techno-fixes in general, as a means to question how we as humans come to know, relate to, and interact with both the technological era we inhabit and the perceived ‘crises’ of our time. We suggest that determining the political qualities of a ‘crisis’ opens an essentially creative and interpretative space—one that leads to a recognition of both vulnerability and empowerment. To situate yourself within the field of imagined problems and potential resolutions is to shape the possibilities of your subsequent action. Being exiled from this process, by virtue of being exterior to the kind of walled-off discussions leading Internet.org’s various initiatives, leaves us neither vulnerable nor empowered. Rather, we find ourselves neutralized in the analytical inertia of solutionist design fictions and the galleries of seductive techno-fixes rendered within.

If solutionism presupposes techno-fixes which close off alternative paths of action, Network Diagnostics intends to provide a space that expands our ability to think beyond these prescriptive future visions of Big Tech. Using ‘troubleshooting’ as a methodological tool, we propose to collaboratively examine not just what such visions include, but, perhaps more significantly, what they leave out. We aim to hold open a space for creative analytical discussion, whilst shirking the call to find a rigorous ‘fix’ to what we discover. In doing so, we hope to invigorate the modes of analysis available to those interested in the relationship between humanity and technology in the era of big data capitalism. Our collective diagnostic of the future ultimately hopes to help people understand, live within, and resist the conditioning forces we currently face in the present. Whilst we are not proposing solutions, and we do not claim to have fixed the crisis of analytical inertia wrought by the pressure of technological advancement, our practice uninhibits critique by recognizing the empowerment of claiming vulnerability, and problematising the relations at work in foreclosed, prescribed crises. Whereas Facebook and other such organisations strive to ‘move fast’, we suggest that we should dwell thoughtfully in the process of diagnosis in an effort to self-reflexively decouple the crisis from its readymade solution.

Niall Docherty is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham. His research involves an analysis of Facebook within the neoliberal context of its inception and current use, through the frames of governmentality and software studies.

Dave Young is an artist and a M3C/AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the Centre for Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham, and is currently researching bureaucratic media and systems of command and control in the US military since the Second World War.

 

Sources:

[1] Financial Times (2017). FT500: The World’s Largest Companies.’

[2] Zuckerberg, Mark (2016) ‘The Technology behind Aquila.’

[3] X (2017). ‘Balloon-powered internet for everyone’.

[4] Microsoft (2015). ‘Productivity Future Vision’.

[5] Gonzatto et al (2013). ‘The ideology of the future in design fictions’.

[6] Morosov, Evgeny (2013). ‘The Perils of Perfection’.

[7] Zuckerberg, Mark (2017). ‘Building Global Community’.

[8] Facebook (2017). ‘Company Info: Culture’.

[9] Zuckerberg, Mark (2017). ‘Building Global Community’.

[10] Internet.org (2017). ‘Free Basics Platform’.

[11] Rouvroy, A. (2017) ‘Revitalizing Critique Against the Critical Sirens of Algorithmic Governmentality’, talk given at the Westminster 6th annual ICTS and Society conference, May 21st 2017.


On Art and Disobedience; Or, What Is an Intervention?

“There is no outside anymore.”1 – Olafur Eliasson

On May 16 2007, the Guggenheim issued a press release stating that Felix Gonzalez-Torres would represent the United States at the Venice Biennale2. The Cuban-born artist, whose relationship to his adopted country was critical and complicated, had become a poster child for it. His body of work was edited to exclude explicit homosexual references: “gone are the doubled clocks and almost all the doubled circles, all the pieces with “Loverboy” in the title … and all specific references to Ross”3. The exception to this was a major new work, a doubled marble pool, which was presented not as a “figure of queer coupling”4, but rather described in vague, sublime terms: a “sign of infinity … a beacon of hope”5. This frictionless ideological integration of the artist into the State Department programme was a notable example of cultural co-option, a de-queered oeuvre appropriated for “conservative ends”6. But it also symbolized a sophisticated hegemony in that the artist’s work engendered an ‘interpassivity’, performing a counter or anti-stance for the public and thereby enabling a critical catharsis to unfold in a benign fashion7. While Gonzalez-Torres himself was acutely aware of the potential for his work to be caricatured or co-opted8, this posthumous assimilation is indicative of a cultural terrain which has become increasingly precarious, a kind of critical claustrophobia where free territory is quickly swallowed up and every potential step has already been predicted.

If this is the hazardous space of the outsider, then many contemporary artists can be characterized by their willingness to work from within: employing the logic, language and conventions of their chosen systems in preemptive co-option or collaboration.

Screenshot from the “HyperCurrentLiving” website displaying current stats
Screenshot from the “HyperCurrentLiving” website displaying current stats

In Ryder Ripps “HyperCurrentLiving”, the artist collaborates with Red Bull in a month long ‘performance’ where Ripps generates ideas and consumes the company’s energy drinks, updating these daily totals on a website. A live webcam allows the public to monitor his output: the artist sitting in front of a laptop in a self-designed karate suit emblazoned with both the Ripps and Red Bull graphic identities. The artist exemplifies the artist as cultural worker and in turn, the cultural worker as late capitalism agent par excellence.

A one-man advertising agency, Ripps engages in the type of ‘blue sky thinking’ prevalent across the communication sector, producing dematerialized commodities which are distributed virally via his Twitter feed. One concept (“a single serving site that tells you if you are being exploited at your internship”) cascades quickly after another (“an app that tells you if your gif is derivative or not”)9. Binge energy-drinking fuels this surge of productivity, shrugging off exhaustion and nutrition as inconvenient bodily constraints which drag down the bottom line.

On the face of it, this co-branding exercise between the artist and Red Bull, who spend 30-40% of their earnings on marketing10, seems like a productive synergy, a perfect collaboration. But Ryder is simply too much: by living out the brand (and wider contemporary) ideals to such an extent, an unspoken malaise is also laid bare. Aspirational traits lose their gleam: “connection” slides into technological incarceration, “busy” blurs into workaholic. While Ripps online persona remains vigilant through the night, his tweets static and steady, his disintegrating, hopped-up body quietly problematizes the ideal of the supercharged creative. By literally incarnating brand values, Ripps offers himself up as a sacrifice on the altar of hyper capitalism – a body incessantly creating and indefinitely deferring collapsing.

 Barack Obama's speech in Germany in front of Berlin's Siegessäule. July 24th 20
Barack Obama’s speech in Germany in front of Berlin’s Siegessäule. July 24th 2008

Julius von Bismarck operates within the logic of a different system: media and image production. People’s “great trust in their photographic reproductions of reality”11 motivated the development of the Image Fulgurator, an optically triggered projector which beams an image the instant it detects a camera flash. Essentially the device “lies in wait”12 for a member of the press to take a photo, infecting their snapshot with a text or image motif at the same moment it’s taken. If media is the “continuation of politics by other means”13, then the gun-like Fulgurator is part of the “new weaponry of information and communication technologies”14.

In one of von Bismarck’s best known works, he attended a speech by Barack Obama, projecting a white cross onto the podium and highlighting the “cult of personality” centred around the presidential candidate. Unlike post-editing techniques such as Photoshop, von Bismarck’s interventions insert themselves into the physical fabric of situations where power is performed and aura is staged: “NO” hovering above the Pope, an “O2” logo momentarily pinned on Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit or a Magritte dove overlaying Mao Zedong’s portrait in Tiananmen Square.

The artist follows PR logic to it’s inevitable conclusion, where the immediate public becomes merely a prop in a mediated reality staged primarily for the press: sight lines and backdrops defined for a camera’s CCD chip. By operating within this temporary media space where the eye is largely superfluous, von Bismarck’s sub-second intervention is able to avoid detection while simultaneously rupturing an otherwise contiguous reality.

In many respects the so-called democratisation of news media has served the established providers – citizen journalists supplementing bare-bones media units and eyewitness smartphone footage winning back viewers for clicks and advertising revenue. Von Bismarck’s media interventions, however, take this phenomenon at face value, his images asserting their equal rights with any others. Decoupled from the copyright assertions of major media networks and distributed via Google spiders or social interactions, this “errant idea”15 becomes itinerant, taking its place alongside other “legitimate” imagery in search results and image banks.

Screenshot from Ed Fornieles’ “Dorm Daze”

Screenshot from Ed Fornieles’ “Dorm Daze”

Ed Fornieles’ “Dorm Daze” project stages its intervention in the social media sphere. The London-based artist invited his friends to participate in a 3 month “semi-scripted”16 performance on a self-contained network on Facebook. The participants scalped profiles from real American college students and enacted a series of fictional narratives centred around this formative period: a girl cheating on her first crush, a fraternity hazing gone wrong, the suicide of a good friend. The increased sophistication of social networks coupled with fluency in internet tools and tropes allowed the participants to employ a range of methodologies to advance the narrative: maps to establish location, comments on an upcoming event, live chats for personal encounters, or friends tagged in photos.

Like von Bismarck, Fornieles harnesses the goal of a system, extrapolating it to an extreme.
Here the identity tweaking carried out by every Facebook member – snapshots retouched and likes carefully distributed – is transformed into wholesale identity construction, preening becoming performance.

Participation is the currency of social networks, modeled by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself, who had no qualms about setting most of his content to open and “didn’t see a need to limit visibility of pics with my friends, family”17. But while Fornieles downplays any subverting potential in the project, stating that it brought “committed users”18, these aren’t the users that the Facebook management, its new investors, or its advertisers are looking for. Fornieles has jettisoned the last shred of “authenticity” from the social media sphere, producing a group of profiles who can’t be monetized or monitored because of the simple fact that they don’t exist. Neither bots nor bodies, these ghost profiles LOLing their way through Facebook mock a billion dollar infrastructure, mining every connectivity tool in a purposeless play with a null result.

While this self contained durational performance was merely a speculative fiction, the feedback loop it initiates in the participant’s everyday existence is more persistent. Fornieles elaborates that the skills learnt “during this hypothetical three month exodus would be reapplied in conventional reality”19. For a generation brought up with avatars and profile pics, this practiced performativity sets the stage for a more permanent and personal “enhanced narrative”20, engendering an intervention IRL (in real life) which further blurs the “real/fictional binary”21.

On the face of it, Ripps, von Bismarck and Fornieles belong to an era of artists that may “no longer dream of an outside”22, their work utilizing the logic of branding and media to stage interventions that appear more collaborative than combative, preemptively disarming attempts at appropriation. But the lock-step engendered by this emulation inevitably fails. Accelerated by technology, betrayed by a body or liberated by the lack of one, this faltering may not disrupt the march of the inevitable so much as expose its inherent untenability.

 

________________
[1] Salz, Jerry. “Restoration Drama”. http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/jsaltz/saltz5-26-05.asp
[2] Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Represent the US at the 52nd Venice Biennale. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/press-room/releases/press-release-archive/2007/566-may-16-felix-gonzalez-torres-to-represent-the-united-states-at-the-52nd-international-art-exhibition-of-the-venice-biennale
[3] Rounthwaite, Adair. Split Witness: Metaphorical Extensions of Life in the Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres” Representations, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp 35-56.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Represent the US at the 52nd Venice Biennale. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/press-room/releases/press-release-archive/2007/566-may-16-felix-gonzalez-torres-to-represent-the-united-states-at-the-52nd-international-art-exhibition-of-the-venice-biennale
[6] Rounthwaite, Adair. Split Witness: Metaphorical Extensions of Life in the Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres” Representations, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp 35-56.
[7] Fisher, Mark. “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?”. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.
[8] “Felix Gonzalez-Torres warned us against the insidious encroachment of the right. He understood that their seductive strategies were an effective counterpoint to the easy-to-target, outdated signs of revolution.” Spector, Nancy. “Inside Outrage”. Frieze Magazine. http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/inside_outrage/
[9] Ryder Ripps Twitter Feed. https://twitter.com/ryder_ripps
[10] Red Bull’s $675 Million Formula 1 Spending Spree Helps Brand Top Ferrari. Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-03/red-bull-s-675-million-formula-1-spending-spree-helps-brand-top-ferrari.html
[11] Fulgurator-action webpage. http://www.juliusvonbismarck.com/bank/index.php?/projects/fulgurator-action/
[12] Sorrel, Charlie. “The Brains Behind the Image Fulgurator. http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2008/06/exclusive-inter/
[13] John Armitage. The Kosovo War Took Place In Orbital Space: Paul Virilio in Conversation. In: Ctheory. October 18, 2000. Accessed: May 5, 2010
[14] Ibid.
[15] Steyerl, Hito. “In Defense of the Poor Image”, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/
[16] Rhizome Artist Profile: Ed Fornieles. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/apr/2/artist-profile-ed-fornieles/
[17] Facebook’s Zuckerberg Becomes Poster Child for New Privacy Settings. http://www.wired.com/business/2009/12/zuckerberg-facebook-privacy/
[18] Rhizome Artist Profile: Ed Fornieles. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/apr/2/artist-profile-ed-fornieles/
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Holmes, Brian. “Extradisciplinary Investigations. Towards a New Critique of Institutions”. http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/holmes/en