Data lives

Gail Priest, Genevieve Bell, Mark Hosler, Paolo Cirio & Alessandro Ludovico

Genevieve Bell

Genevieve Bell

In the early 1990s, cyberfeminist collective VNS Matrix imagined living with Big Daddy Mainframe. In her ISEA/Vivid keynote address anthropologist Genevieve Bell suggested we are now living with Big Daddy Data. The machine has become secondary—it’s the information that lives. This data is generated by our lives, but once created it has a life of its own. Bell suggests it even has desires.

Bell grew up travelling around the Northern Territory with her parents and subsequently became an anthropologist. Somehow she ended up working at Intel in the US (she confesses it involved a late night bar conversation) where she was brought in to help the company with insights into what her boss described as “women (all of them) and ROW—Rest of World (everywhere that wasn’t America).” So now Bell whispers in Big Daddy Mainframe’s ear illuminating Intel on what all females and all non-Americans might want from their machines and their handling of Big Data.

However Bell has taken this one step further and is interested in exploring what perhaps Big Data itself wants. She suggest 10 things:

1. Not all data wants to be digital (some information only has value in the physical world).
2. Data wants relationships (it seeks networks and needs other data for context).
3. Not all data has the same network (Australian’s know all about that!).
4. Data has country (context).
5. Data is feral (perhaps it doesn’t want to be contained—it will jump the fence when it sees the opportunity).
6. Data has responsibilities (our lives depend upon it).
7. Data is messy (that’s why it’s so hard to keep track of it).
8. Data likes to look good (particularly to algorithms).
9. Data doesn’t always want to last forever (for example Snap Chat where images only last a certain time and then are deleted from all online existence)
10. There will always be new data.

It’s not Big Data that Bell sees as a potential problem, but the fact that its interpretation is in the hands of “priests and alchemists” who tend to come from technological backgrounds rather than fields such as the social sciences and humanities. She talks of an alarming return to empiricism and “capital T Truth” in current technological culture. While the streams of data are multiple, it is as though postmodernism’s message of relativism never happened, hence a belief in a mantra that More data means more Truth. Bell leaves us with the suggestion that our responsibility as artists is to ensure we become part of the interpretation of Big Data.

This is certainly a responsibility that the speakers who followed have not shirked. Mark Holser from Negativland spoke to videoclips of the groups pioneering work in appropriation and media manipulation. A particular entertaining anecdote involved a hoax they pulled issuing a fake press release announcing the cancellation of a tour due to the linking of one of their songs, “Christianity is Stupid”, with an axe-murdering christian teenager. The group was amazed as to how the story played out across the mainstream media becoming a performance in itself.

The final keynote speakers, Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico, have taken this idea of ‘media performance’ to its zenith. The duo discussed their Hacking Monopolism Trilogy in which they have variously infiltrated internet moguls Amazon, Google and, most recently, Facebook. The latter project, Face to Facebook (http://www.face-to-facebook.net/), involved the “scraping”—harvesting of data that is available without actually hacking through security—of one million Facebook profiles. Using basic facial recognition software they selected 250,000 profiles and categorised them according to terms like ‘easy-going,’ ‘smug’ and ‘sly’ to create a fake dating site called Lovely Faces.

The project, launched as part of Transmediale 2011, created a furore of public, media and legal attention way beyond what the artists had imagined. The project upshot of the project is multifaceted. At the most basic level it illustrated a weakness in the Facebook security infrastructure (now fixed) which allowed them to so easily harvest the information. It also alerts the general public to the possible pitfalls of willingly handing over their personal data to a corporation, who, after all, is using their data to generate advertising income. Most importantly it traces the flow of information (and misinformation) through global media channels. Within a few days, the duo collected 1100 media responses, many including fictitious side stories. Far from being cheap pranks, each of the projects of the Hacking Monopolism Trilogy are highly conceptual and fascinating artworks casting a critical yet playful eye over our increasing reliance on and blind faith in Big Daddy Data.

9 June 2013