My attempt to synthesize the last several years of the emerging field of technology criticism into a set of recurring general principles. These ideas belong to many different thinkers. The contribution here is primarily distilling them down to their essential point and collecting them in one spot. My next step is to provide a “see more” section for texts and a “problems and examples” section.
In October of 2015 Max Ryan interviewed me about museums and technology. Over a period of time we wrangled the responses into the following exchange for publication. With his permission, I've reproduced it below for those interested.
Recently I wrapped up one of the more exciting projects I've ever worked on. I was the co-guest editor, along with Marvin Jordan, of a special issue of DIS magazine. Known as the Data Issue it took as its starting point the rise of so-called "big data", or more broadly the series of shifts associated with the ubiquitous nature of parallel processing, large data sets, and digital networks.
The issue was predicated on a simple adjustment to the current discourse in art and theory. While various discussions and art practices are focused on the circulation of images and their potential vis-a-vis "the internet," the issue took for its main subject the totalizing effect of the massive amounts of data with which we are now imbricated as social subjects. These are data that are stored on the backend of ubiquitous platforms, without user interfaces, much less accessible on the consumer web. A central thesis for the Data Issue was that the most interesting things are happening off screen.
The works and texts were attempts to explore the intermingling of bodies in "datafied terrains", (to paraphrase an excellent paper on the topic) that are subject to new architectures and social relationships.
In time for tomorrow's Cloud-Based Institutional Critique meeting, I'm posting this selection from Jill Lepore's magnificent New Yorker article "The Disruption Machine." It is one of several readings we'll be discussing.
"Ideas that come from business schools are exceptionally well marketed. Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification. Innovation and disruption are ideals that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals business. People aren't disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren't industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries."
Facebook is cracking down on click-bait with a set of updates to their news feed algorithm. I can't help but think of all the art online art publications that have so deeply compromised their editorial integrity to accommodate the curiosity gap headline and other forms that promise the "viral lift" that social media delivers. Such a move is so basic for Facebook to make, yet so "game changing" for publishers and website traffic. This is why over the past few years it has been so unnerving to see art web editors modify their coverage to bloggy crap content, updates, and slideshows, etc...
Focus on the content and not how and/or why people get there. They are, after all, an art magazine—not a mainstream publication with a wide audience. Now they're left holding the bag on an empty husk of an editorial voice. It's developments like these that could serve as a warning to future publishers to not be too drastic in their appeasements to digital, platform-specific metrics.
I've proposed a discussion group entitled Cloud-Based Institutional Critique to The Public School in New York City. The schedule and location are still TBD, though I hope it will span several meetings in which people in the New York art community can debate the current issues related to the fusion of technology enterprises and traditional arts organizations/roles.
If you're interested in attending, check out the official page over at The Public School's website and register as "interested." Stay tuned.
If you're a gallery, project space, etc... and you'd like to host, I'd love to hear from you.
Few corners of the art system remain untouched by the utopian solutionism of tech entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley logic. Rhetoric about “liberation,” “transparency,” and new “disruptive” digital models have begun to dominate debates that have raged in the arts for centuries, from the museum’s relationship to the public, the artist’s position in the art market, and the role of pedagogy and criticism in an ever-expanding, ever-commercialized art world. Recently several well-known examples have sparked passionate arguments from all sides. But is the art system broken? And who, exactly, is rushing in to fix it? And what are their interests?
This class is designed to be a forum for discussion of digital technologies and their relationship to arts institutions, with a particular focus on both their theoretical underpinnings and the practical applications of various new models now in existence. We aim to gather a diverse set of perspectives to work through their roles, motivations, and ideologies to better understand implications for artists, writers, and arts professionals.
Provisional syllabus includes selections from Evgeny Morozov, Astra Taylor, Jaron Lanier, Dardot & Laval, Jill Lepore in addition to various artists' texts, critical essays, and relevant press coverage.
What kind of subjectivity is produced when the museum adapts to the metabolism of the database? What role is left for institutional critique? Hito Steyerl has interrogated the varying types of subjects produced by the past stages of institutional critique. In “The Institution of Critique” (2006) Steyerl offers a framework for the present museological predicament. For Steyerl, each wave of institutional critique was founded on different ideas about the public sphere. The first wave of institutional critique implicated a socio-political public sphere, and it primarily concerned the institution's entanglements with the nation-state. The second wave implicated identity politics and aspired to “integration into representation.” But the most recent wave of institutional critique is trapped by neoliberal models, where the logic emerges from a fully-commodified public sphere. Here the institution’s only recourse is to mount a protectionist defense, as it has already started to operate in the logical arena of the unbridled free market capitalism. A state of deep precarity results as there are decreasingly workable answers to why the enlightenment institutions should still hold weight in a public sphere defined by digital exchange.
Part of Rhizome's #internetsubjects series, "#uberwar and the "Sharing" Economy" investigated the broader social, economic, and political implications of services like Airbnb and Uber. This was the first of Rhizome's "flash" panels which are conceived in less than a week and hosted at the New Museum.
It was one of the better panel discussions I've been to; clearly the best in recent memory. It included Denise Cheng (MIT Center for Civic Media), Rob Horning (The New Inquiry), writer Kate Losse, and Melissa S. Fisher (Social & Cultural Analysis, NYU).
I put together a quick roundup for Rhizome. Though there was little chance I could do it justice. So many great points were made, and from many different perspectives.
I've finally gotten around to cleaning up and posting my remarks from Theorizing the Web 2014 from April. I am trying to do "Platform Studies" for the various vendors of big data analytics and architectures, paying close attention to the often ignored parts of big data commentary, that being the hardware and software and their implications for epistemology and historiography. I've posted the talk here.
"When new sources of data suddenly hit a system and there are not enough tools or schemas to deal with them, a common reaction is to deny the agency of the data sources. Then, for a brief period, to suspend interpretation until new tools are built to handle the new variety. My fundamental point is that this occurs both with cultural discourses as well as with information. Big data, then, is likewise an attempt at forming new flexible schemas in order to continue the project of interpretation under radically new conditions."
I reviewed a new productivity app called "Go Fucking Do It" for Rhizome.org.
This app struck me as grossly indicative of our new socio-economic paradigm. Aspirational, emotional, and affective labor: we've fully opted into a market of updates and broadcasted life goals, it only natural that an application be would drawn in to seek to extract a profit from the anxiety of being a self-reliant, mobile, prosumer operating in a near total vacuum of traditional social bonds.
Other points that are generally missing from most breathless internet utopian essays are the fact that:
1. The infrastructure that enables the "internet", and most of its applications, are owned and operated by private corporations
...and, more recently...
2. That the end of "net neutrality" has potentially disastrous implications for all of the emancipatory notions of the net.
If there was anything revelatory about Stereyl's essay it would have perhaps been a nod to the end of "net neutrality" as perfectly indicative of the internet being dead, but this wasn't mentioned in the essay nor even foreseen as a potential consequence of private corporations moving to capitalize on what seems to be posited here as an autonomous social force disconnected from any class interests. I am wary of Medium as much as the next person (the Tech-Bro soap box par excellence), but this is a nice little run down of what the end of "net neutrality" might hold.
Another thing Stereyl perhaps meant, but didn't make it explicit, when she said “build new Internets” along side the dead one was the plan that is being proposed in this Medium article, namely municipal broadband. But one wonders how we treat the “Internet” differently when it comes to us from local government. What would happen to the utopian visions?
Hito Steyerl asks what happened to the internet after it stopped being a possibility. She's also interested in what happens when the internet "starts to move offline." But the problem immediately arises that the "Internet" can't move offline. The internet is not a thing unto or outside of itself. Worse still, the internet is not a thing at all. It is all of our computers connected using TCP/IP.
To be fair, Steyerl is perhaps more specifically interested in the behaviors conditioned by digital networks as they begin to fall into what are perceived as "non-digital" arenas. Yet, almost throughout this is a breathless paean to internet utopianism, the unsupported claims of an internet centrist who posits the "Internet" as a discrete entity with cultural logic unto itself, as opposed to a distributed series of actors on a network. Its final claims for open access border on the absurd in an effort to advance an accelerated circulationism.
"But here is the ultimate consequence of the internet moving offline. If images can be shared and circulated, why can’t everything else be too? If data moves across screens, so can its material incarnations move across shop windows and other enclosures. If copyright can be dodged and called into question, why can’t private property? If one can share a restaurant dish JPEG on Facebook, why not the real meal? Why not apply fair use to space, parks, and swimming pools? Why only claim open access to JSTOR and not MIT—or any school, hospital, or university for that matter? Why shouldn’t data clouds discharge as storming supermarkets? Why not open-source water, energy, and Dom Pérignon champagne?
If circulationism is to mean anything, it has to move into the world of offline distribution, of 3D dissemination of resources, of music, land, and inspiration. Why not slowly withdraw from an undead internet to build a few others next to it?"
Here is my brief review for Apollo Magazine Online.
While I sympathize with critics who want a tight, coherent biennial that is representational, it is, in a sense, sort of an odd thing to ask of the biennial format. I also may have been one of the few who had a negative reaction to Michelle Grabner’s floor.
Here are some interesting reviews:
"I would like to make clear...that Mr. Wright...was not interested in the plan proposed by our curator—a plan which involved a lucid chronological exposition of Wright's development, particularly as regards his handling of space. For six months, the Department of Architecture had been planning and working upon a catalog which would have comprised a great deal of factual and critical material, including essays by a half-dozen of the foremost architects and architectural historians in this country. Mr. Wright refused to permit the publication of the catalog as planned although it had been intended as a tribute to him. It was then too late to prepare a new publication. At the beginning of one of our conversations here at the Museum, Mr. Wright announced, 'I am a very difficult man.' We agree, but we still believe him to be the greatest living architect."
Alfred Barr's letter to the editor, Parnassus 13, no. 1 (January 1941): 3, as quoted by Richard Meyer in What Was Contemporary Art? (MIT, 2013)
I’m no longer sure of who is actually wise, intelligent, or talented and who is simply well situated in a network of proliferated content.
Horning is critical of viral content’s ability to change "the stakes of reading." “Having feelings is pointless if your performance of them is not as viral as the occasion that prompted them.” These viral items are really “trojan horses carrying a more significant piece of data: the proof of our social existence.” The Viral Self is a self that allows social media to unsettle our sense of an appropriate amount of attention. Therefore, engineering virality has moral implications. The pursuit of virality becomes hegemonic.
For the Brooklyn Rail:
"Somewhere above pastiche and below innovative commentary, Dodge is reaching backward but leaning forward. He makes the world feel small by condensing international phenomena into concise, understated objects whose circuitry is modestly laid before us. Dodge the conceptualist collapses the whole world into a stylish gallery space; Dodge the artist seems less interested in philosophy than in making it all look good; and Dodge the poet maintains a practice of making the viewer pull together what his dealer remarks are 'phenomena that I cannot experience but that I know exist.'"
I review the reviews of Ben Davis's important book from 2013, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class.
"It is no surprise, then, that for Davis the notion of the "art world" is a morally questionable and false construction since it serves to obfuscate class relations that permeate its supposed boundaries. Davis helps us understand how people that live, work, and think in the art world are quite possibly engaging in the milieu most deeply informed by demarcations of class boundaries. Consider that one’s intellectual engagement with modern art is in almost all cases somehow traceable to a discourse that emanated from the "ivory tower" where a disinterested class of persons are able to dedicate time to contemplating the subtle brushstrokes of Matisse in a world removed from the realities of economic subjugation. Davis knows this and uses it as direct call to action, a radical action involving our re-valuation of creativity. To separate out "art" as the coded, historically contingent ideology and "art" as broader concept."
Full piece here
There are two stellar reviews of "Chris Burden: Extreme Measures", the artist's retrospective exhibition at the New Museum. The first is Chloe Wyma's "White Man's Burden" which ran in The New Inquiry. Wyma takes aim at the "classical" modernist machismo that the New Museum prizes.
The monolithic bombast of works like Big Wheel and One Ton Truck have less to do with “omnipresent fixation with the boundaries of power” than with a current vogue for neo-baroque art spectacles that bulldoze over critical engagement, producing the ideal viewer as slack-jawed oglers. Human scale is sacrificed to a cult of gigantism and spatial sublimity. Taking pains to escape the myth of Burden as an overgrown enfant terrible, “Extreme Measures” produces secondary, less intriguing ones: Burden as technocrat, apostate, and authorial rubber stamp on supersized contemporary art baubles.
The next is a review by artist and writer Tom McGlynn in Big Red & Shiny , which picks up on Burden as a lapsed symbol of our zeitgeist:
The evolution of Burden’s career somewhat represents the course of an American and world culture once preoccupied with heavy metal materiality but now distracted by celebratory representations of the spectacular gesture. Burden’s artistic response to this changed world is one of reticent acceptance. His most recent work never transcends its representational dogma (war is bad, man as good builder, man as politically powerless), and that dogma, not ever strident in Burden, fails to ground the work’s phenomenal lack of presence. At a time when the contemporary art world seems to be swinging between the poles of Richard Serra’s feats of scale and weight and Marina Abramovic’s exploits of physical endurance, there can be little fascination for Burden’s sling-shot approach to his former status as a risk-taking giant.
I would like to thank Antoinette Rouvroy (@arouvroy) for her comments in response to an essay I wrote recently about the connected discourses surrounding postmodernism and the nascent discussions of "Big Data." While in no way was the essay perfect in an academic sense, it was my hope that it would at least start to lend a hand in a larger assessment of a phenomenon that has great implications for culture, epistemology, and historiography. Rouvroy's criticisms are right on point, I think, because they scrutinize Big Data in the same manner. Though ultimately she seems to reach a different conclusion, a conclusion which I welcome and hope to consider as a way to sharpen my own position.
While the comments were in twitter form, I think I grasp their point. However, I think they merit more than 140 characters in response, and I would like to continue the dialogue below.
Despite what I think is a valid reading of the essay, I don't know that I necessarily equate analytics with a quest for certainty as much as I want/meant to point to the method of data collection and integration that analytics engages in, and what that says about the value given to empiricism. Big Data is a hyper-empiricism because, now that we can finally use so many more data, we potentially reanimate the critiques leveled at narrative during the end of Modernity. This began to seem, to me, to be very similar the loosening of historical agency that either lead to or was an outcome of postmodernism's imperative to take into account new types of cultural production and/or anti-teleological developments.
At its heart this essay was about historiography, and for me the shifts from modernist accounts to postmodern accounts carried the same ideological changes. A quote from Charles Harrison, historian and member of the conceptual art group Art & Language, brings this into light. For Harrison Modernism prized, or in fact required, “a critical difference and development with respect to other recent and approved ‘major’ work in the same medium—which tended to be sculpture or painting.” This again reminded me of issues of data integrity that come with traditional relational databases, something many Big Data frameworks attempt to circumvent through innovations in storage and organization.
The above is a good point, and an example of how Big Data is at this point a catch-all term for both a research method (medicine, sociology, etc..) and a storage infrastructure (e-commerce, computing etc..) among other things. While this difference is obvious on its face, the difference also extends to the ideological questions I tried to raise, and so I think it makes some sense to separate them. In its manifestations in e-commerce, advertising, or risk models, etc.. I think Big Data does implicitly promise a sort of decisioning power that is assessed at the individual level. I don't deny that it contributes "to [a] multiplicity of impersonal behavioral patterns," though this aspect of its application has looser ties to the shift from relational databases to schema-less databases that is the heart of the discourse I am investigating.
One comment in response to this piece (written elsewhere) said "big data is just statistics with lots of data." While in part this is true, when you begin to ask about what kind of data are being used, then the structures required to process and store these data start to mimic the developments that accompanied the end of modernist teleology and narrative. Also, it would be a mistake to assume that the "just statistics" doesn't carry its own assumptions about knowledge.
You noted the problems with the word "truth" above, and here I think it relates to your third point. In the end the word "truth" is scary and loaded even if you are talking about the denial of it existing as a knowable entity. So I suppose its use here was muddling my point: really I am concerned with the means and not the ends of Big Data. And perhaps here we could start to see a funny shape emerging here. When people talk about Big Data the marketing speak focuses on the ends, where most all of the other stuff is about the methods and tools, literally the breakthroughs in data science. So the layman's descriptions traffic in a language of "pinpointing", "discovery", "enhancement", that uses certainty as a form of currency, even it somehow knows it won't deliver it. It explains its worth by favorable comparison to legacy systems that could not "handle" everything "out there." What is "out there" is a another question about the promises its end users make for themselves. Postmodern accounts were, like Big Data, an answer to the modernist account that simply had a logic embedded in it that did not allow it to "scale up".
This last point is a strong conclusion built off of the initial statements about multiplicity and neutrality. We agree that Big Data carries with it a critique of existing assumptions and, in turn, knowledge structures, what with the way it holds out the promise to "reveal" and/or counter accepted notions about our world, a business, or a group of actors on a historical stage.
"Think, for a moment, of the real estate broker in the age of Craigslist. In real estate, there are buyers and sellers. These two parties have, from the very beginning, needed a forum to meet each other. Given the high barrier to entry as well as the high price point of the transaction, a market developed in order to “broker” these transactions. These brokers took a fee, of course, since there was no way around them. Today, when you perform a direct search for owners listing their properties online (for free), you still find brokers listing their client’s properties on Craigslist. The clearest indicator of an industry in its death throes arrives at that moment where it is forced to utilize the tool of its own dispossession to stay alive. During this period, the worker can only hope that few notice its total disintermediation."