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Big Data / DOX, Prague

Curated by Olga Subiros and Jose Luis de Vicente Big Bang Data is a comprehensive, stimulating and thought-provoking overview of the ‘information explosion’ of recent years. The title itself is perhaps a little misleading as the exhibition reminds us that today’s limitless deluge of data didn’t simply explode out of nowhere but has its roots in the advances in communication of the late Nineteenth Century. These advances, along with subsequent developments in the Twentieth Century and demonstrations of how data is gathered, and the good and bad uses to which it can be put, is what Subiros and de Vicente’s show does so well.

In ‘Protectors of The Internet’ we’re invited to traverse a huge floor map of fibre-optic cables which, following in the submarine steps of the telegraph cables laid down on the bottom of the ocean floor in the Nineteenth Century forms the backbone of today’s World Wide Web. A selection of these fibre-optic cables from the Nineteenth Century to the present day, arranged in a glass-case brings home just how closely connected today’s global information system is with its Nineteenth Century telegraphic forebear. Today’s state-of-the-art fibre-optic cable, apart from being slimmer and more elegant, is almost indistinguishable from those used fifty or a hundred years ago. What’s also surprising in this part of the exhibition is just how fragile this skeletal network which supports the internet is. ‘Cable Faults’ are happening all over the world, as we speak, 90% of these caused by environmental factors and human activity. Interestingly these factors are classed as ‘external aggression’ and one wonders how this ‘aggression’ will be countered in future when the protection of the Internet is in the bloodless hands of Artificial Intelligence. At the moment the maintenance of this critical infrastructure is the preserve of a small group of companies, a fact which chimes with one of the themes of the exhibition: that information is increasingly manipulated by the few rather than the many.

Videos and imagery are central to the exhibition but don’t detract from the other elements in Subiros and de Vicente’s thoughtful and accessible two-floor arrangement. In ‘The Weight Of The Cloud’ a technician imparted some astonishing news to my tech un-savvy self: that this ‘cloud’ of information isn’t an insubstantial, ethereal, immaterial cloud of invisibly glittering info, no, the Cloud is anything but light and intangible: “our inexhaustible mass of data has produced a major heavy industry barely distinguishable from the factories of the mechanical era.” The Cloud is a pretty poetic image for all the services that preserve our photos, emails, work documents, and digital maps, the places that house these services cold, ugly, barren, frigid places. As demonstrated by Timo Arnall’s ‘Internet Machine’ a video sequence created especially for the exhibition which takes us inside these ‘data centres.’ Giant bundles of python-thick rubber piping, endless strands of thin metal scaffolding, rough blank concrete, and miles of empty corridors are projected onto the white walls of the exhibition space, creating a kind of menacingly empty fluorescent-lit scene from one of the Alien films.

An excellent example of the ‘inexhaustible mass of data’ produced by human digital activity is the staggering mass of photographs corresponding to the images uploaded to Flickr over one twenty-four hour period which meet you on first entering the exhibition. Reminiscent of a landfill site these heaps of photos of people evoke the rather bleak sense of human lives as the pointless multi-coloured waste product of the Internet, a sense of waste sharpened by the fact that all of these people have either happily or unwittingly handed their private moments over for public consumption. Further on, the reality, that it’s the everyday activity of people which is the main driver of the data explosion, is driven home in ‘What You Do, What You Feel, What You Think’ which presents a whole wall full of videos of people talking on Google, Twitter, and You Tube. This Wailing Video Wall of gibbering shrunken heads can be seen as an illustration of the opportunity for mass expression the internet allows, it can also be seen as an illustration of the utter pointlessness and fatuity of such expression, as the volume on the installation is turned off, highlighting the sense that, despite the urgency or relevance of whatever it has to say, each voice is simply drowned in the digital crowd. Mass expression reduced to the point of absurdity.

In ‘The Internet Archive’ section we are introduced to what could be one of the major beneficial uses to which data is put. The Internet Archive is a non-profit foundation whose aim is to create an Internet Library by putting every book, every magazine and journal, and every TV show and CD on-line for the use of researchers, historians, and a, hopefully, still curious posterity. The driving mantra behind this gargantuan act of cultural philanthropism is ‘Universal Access.’ “Access Drives Preservation” a cuddly bearded chap on the video documentary confidently informs us. Though highly commendable, ‘Universal Access’ is, and doubtless will be in the future, subject to the dictates of totalitarian regimes such as China. There’s also the question of selectivity. Just shovelling everything in print or image on-line isn’t a particularly intelligent activity. Though comprehensive, a good library is also selective, a good library caters for its visitors and is open and responsive to their needs. This ‘Internet Library’ will suffer from the central problem of the Information Age: a surfeit of information. Knowledge dangerously reduced to the status of ‘information’ that can be effortlessly preserved and transmitted without any real consideration of its value.

It’s in what might be called the side-effects of data and data collection that some interesting effects occur. In the ‘Visualizing Complexity’ area of the exhibition, we’re shown examples of ‘Information Design’. Information Design is the modern version of the attempt, which first arose with the rise of statistical science in the Nineteenth Century, to transfer statistical figures into images, to “bridge the distance between quantitative measurement and our need to understand the world through narrative” according to the curators. Some of the examples of this ‘information aesthetic’ are really quite beautiful, such as the map of real-time information exchange made from long distance calls and IP data flowing between New York and other cities. This small print of the image is visualized from space, with the Earth diademed with great loops of pearly light as if the very planet were talking to itself.

A more involved, and more playfully artistic example, is provided by Michal Šimonfy’s installation ‘The Life of Your Words’ an on-screen simulation of a virtual ‘life form’ which is affected by people talking on Twitter. The algorithm behind the installation searches for and analyses Twits that contain words related to death and dying and those related to life and its inception. The occurrence of the key words affects the life of the simulated form in real time, producing an ever shifting, living, dying, self-reproducing pattern made up of small green maggot-like bits. These busy little bits certainly look alive but if you follow one on its wayward course across the screen it doesn’t convincingly react to or interact with the other bits. Which is perhaps a good, if unintentional, visual metaphor for the whole Social Media World.

In the ‘Data For The Common Good’ chapter of the exhibition, we are made aware of the dangers of the information age and its relentless drive toward the ‘datafication’ of all human activity. Here we’re exhorted to “be more than passive consumers and merchandise in the hands of the data exploiters”, how? “By deciding what kind of data society we want to live in.” But the exhibition very ably demonstrates that ‘datafication’ has already permeated our lives to such a degree that any decision as regards the kind of ‘data society’ we live in has already been deleted from our digital hands. All we can do is protest, and pressure our governments and the relevant corporations to use our personal data wisely or erase it completely. To this end, Subiros and de Vicente have examples of websites we can go to to have our personal data removed. But can our data ever really be completely erased? Isn’t the data of our request to have our data removed recorded and stored somewhere? The ‘data brokers’ and other shadowy digital entities surely know that you wanted your data removed, and may become curious to know why.

There are other examples of websites that supposedly promote civic activities, and help us to be active, responsible citizens in the Information Age. One such is the UK website ‘Fix My Street’ which allows citizens to report community problems. Bizarrely, the caption to the website boasts that these reports can be posted “even if people don’t know who these reports go to” and “all you ever have to remember is the website address.” This kind of PC activity is hardly a replacement for becoming active in the local Community Watch, pestering the police with the problem, or harassing a local councillor.

I left the exhibition with my feeling that the dangers of the Information Age lie more in the promotion of this kind of passivity, this reliance on the keyboard or the screen of our smart phones to solve all our problems, from a sense of isolation to political or social outrage, reinforced. There are also more insidious dangers such as the obsession with ‘simulation’, the conviction that there’s nothing that can’t be reproduced, copied, enhanced and stripped of its perceived unpleasantness or danger. Of course, the urge to simulate can be extremely useful, sometimes necessary, as in medicine and science and this absorbing exhibition shows how useful it can be in certain kinds of art. The installation ‘Tele-Present Water’ shows the movement of the sea’s waves off a point in Western Hawaii, with data transmitted in real time, scaled on a mechanical metal grid structure, to create a simulation of the sea’s movement and is quite intriguing in a reductive kind of way. But this urge toward simulation is the driving force behind artificial intelligence, the almost religious conviction that we can create a higher intelligence. When, or if, we succeed, such an intelligence surely won’t remain a pliable tool in the hands of fallible, mortal humanity for long.

DOX – Centre of Contemporary Art
Poupetova 1
Prague 7
Until 14 August

Image: prague.eu