Transmediale: the opening
I’m in Berlin at the digital arts festival Transmediale for the first time, and of course I’m excited about the topic: CAPTURE ALL. An entire digital arts festival about the datafication of the world, which invited artists to “outsmart and outplay the logic of CAPTURE ALL and that organise more intimate modes of post-digital life, work and play.” Chapters 4 and 5 in my book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (published open access by Palgrave, or buy in print or download for free from online bookstores) are all about the automated collection and curation of personal data and the quantified self, so of course I had to come and see the art and hear the discussions here.
Thursday night was the opening ceremony and I sat in a huge packed auditorium with hundreds of others.
Artistic director of the festival, Kristoffer Gansing, gave a talk about the conference theme, Capture All, which given all the marxist and other critical analyses of the datafied world recently sounded very familiar, and very dystopic. A couple of my tweets:
I did enjoy the way that the opening wove together brief performances with more theoretical talks. Erica Scourti elegantly performed a piece of autocorrect poetry, letting her iPhone suggest words for her and reading them, faster and faster. I only captured a second of video of this, but maybe it’s enough to get the idea.
I had a bit of a Facebook discussion with Ben Grosser (who made the Facebook Demetricator, an excellent intervention into the capture all logics of current social media, but who sadly isn’t here) about how Scourti’s performance worked. Obviously the autocorrect learns from the user – my autocorrect now regularly suggests words like “fakultetsstyremøte” and “ELMCIP”, which I am guessing most of you don’t get. So assuming Scourti used her own iPhone, the autocorrect poem would be customized to her. One of the phrases that popped up was something like “for more info about my work, see my website”, which is certainly the sort of text an artist is more likely to have typed in than many other users. Ben suggested she might have primed her iPhone by pasting in certain words again and again to make a certain theme more likely to appear. I did notice that “love” seemed to pop up a lot, but perhaps she simply tends to write “love, Erica” at the end of emails or something. The final sentence was certainly scripted (she must have pasted it in?) and sometimes, particularly towards the end, she didn’t read exactly what the autocorrect wrote. It was a fascinating performance.
Erica Scourti also has a rather fascinating video work in the conference exhibition, Body Scan, a sort of distracted narrative told by a computer using Google that I might have to write more about later.
The star of the night was Peter Sunde, recently out of prison after he was sentenced for the Pirate Bay. He did not present an optimistic view of our world. I met him in Bergen before his time in prison and remember him as forceful and still very much willing to fight. Last night he said he had given up.
His talk was riveting, full of tweetable one-liners (and I tweeted several) but with no hope. A sample:
We’re on our way to a broadcast democracy where we have little say anymore.
Fighting the system from within is like trying to fight capitalism by trying to capture all the money.
We don’t need robots, we are robots.
We tried, but it’s over. Capitalism won. We’re happy with our espresso machines.
He finished by saying that like in Wargames, the only way to win the game is to not play. I loved Wargames, but if ‘re going to talk about Wargames, let’s do it properly. The movie is about a kid who unwittingly starts playing a game with a computer he dials up on his modem, but realizes that the game is not a game but very real: he and the computer are starting a nuclear war. Finally the kid convinces the computer to play tic-tac-toe against itself and after hundreds of runs through the game the computer Ai realizes that the only possible outcome is a tie. Thus it is convinced that nuclear war, likewise, is a game where “the only winning move is not to play.”
But we can’t not play technology today, at least not as a society. Individuals can extract themselves, refuse to be on Facebook, resign from the Wikipedia in disgust at the ways in which editors team up and use entries as weapons, but ultimately if we refuse to participate in technology and social media we can’t participate in contemporary public debate, democracy, employment, commerce etc. An absolute digital detox is all but impossible today. We need to build alternatives. Bruce Sterling describes us as not living in digital captalism, as Transmediale’s artistic director said in his introductory talk and as many recent marxist analyses have argued, but in digital feudalism, where we live in spaces owned by our feudal lords (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc) and are both completely dependent on them and actually feel fealty to them. I think Sterling is right in that these technologies have become part of the air we breathe.
I hope to see far more interventions in the datafied world we live in at the rest of Transmediale. Too much of the program so far has been one-sided criticism of datafication and social media that is so simplistic that it makes things worse. Chanting a list of all the things we track is cool. But once that’s done, is it really helpful to basically just do that again and again?
You can’t not play this game. We need to hack the game, to find other ways of playing the game, to make our own game. Maybe you need to make the computer play against itself.