If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people
who must use the words.
Philip K. Dick, How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later (1978)
What is the cost of our words?
As I write this, the word ‘Future’ is trending on the UK on-line market at $7.03 per click (SEMrush, 2018). In the highly lucrative world of on-line advertising, the price per click (or PPC) of a search word, hence a keyword, is the price for each click on an ad (technically defined as a PPC Ad) placed on Google AdWords, Bing Ads and Naver Ad Services and similar on-line platforms.
The live updated algorithm tracking the keyword overview of the word ‘Future’ is now blinking on the webpage; it wants me to know that it is ready to help, should I want to start planning my next advertising campaign. There are 8.533 Phrase Match Keywords I can choose from and according to my live update, at least 910 related keywords. Starting from the keyword, I could cast a digital net, made up of related keywords, just as wide enough to pick the right amount of potential buyers, depending on demographic factors such as age, interests, sex, race etc. Should any of the buyers be interested enough to click on one of my ads, my contract with the platform requires me to pay the agreed price for one click, based on the threshold of how much I am willing to pay or in other words, my maximum bid. This is because on-line advertising is a system based on continuous competition between those who want to advertise their products or services; the very same platform where they want to advertise is ranking them, based on how relevant their advertising is to the end users; the more valuable this is, the better the score and the ad placement and ultimately the better chances of winning their temporary place in the sun.
Powered by ultrafast digital technology and capable of fully automated marketing deployment plans, this ecosystem proceed by transforming every individual’s online search, into a potential for profit. The underlying principle is simple: the more a word is queried on a specific platform, the more value or high-volume it will have and the more expensive to buy it will be while the opposite is also true.
A technology that commodifies language in order to maximise profit on one side, also happens to be the one that, with the ultimate purpose of offering more and more tailored content to its users, analyses individuals’ data in real time, thousands times a second, in order to build potential digital personas for each one of them.
Profiling techniques aimed at understanding customers individual brand preferences and on-line tracking behaviour advertising greatly contribute to twisting the very essence of time.
My online present and past behaviour, from the links that I click on, to the time I spend on specific pages, to the paragraphs that I seem to read the most, to the keywords I search for, is collected, filtered and analysed, in order to allow advertisers - and the platforms collecting data in the first place - to imagine potential future patterns of my behaviour.
This way of imagining our future, constantly based on partial versions of the past, ultimately collapses time into one dimension where it is bound to repeat itself infinitively in the name of instant advertising. Created through personalised data filtered by artificial intelligence, these manufactured futures, see the individual as a mere passive figure at the centre of the experience through data and we are left wondering what is the role of the individual and if it is still there or if anything instead has gotten irremediably lost. It is a future that has lost its inscrutability, the triumph of the deterministic mind over nature, illusion of control of manifested destinies, paper tiger infrastructure vulnerable to the inescapable cyber attacks and data breaches.
When in 2001 four-year old Tia from South East London was made to compete against a seasoned trader and a financial astrologer to see who would make the most amount of money, on the stock market, in a week-long experiment organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, she won by picking her stock randomly (News.bbc.co.uk, 2018).
In addition to data profiling, and in order to improve relevance in on-line search results, platforms employ ranking algorithms, that scavenge millions of pages found on each search, in order to filter the ones deemed more significant for the user also have the consequence of isolating the same individuals in one impermeable bubble of information: the filter bubble.
Internet grows at incredible rates. To give you an idea, data analysts at Ahref discover on average 1.8million new pages every 24 hours! Of which 91% don’t get any traffic on search platforms such as Google. This is a universe of knowledge without a face nor a shape (The Internet does not exist, 2015) and if one puts it in relation with human’s short attention span currently rating at 8.25 seconds (3.75 shorter than it was in year 2000 when it was last recorded), it is easy to understand why being on the second page of Google’s results, is the equivalent of being banished to oblivion, as Scott Galloway puts it (GALLOWAY, 2018).
It might also be easy to imagine how influential those platforms are. And how latent bias in data analysis and machine learning might affect the filtering algorithms responsible for selecting the content we are presented with, every time we search; they are ultimately responsible for individual’s freedom to access unfiltered information.
From word to keyword. In the realm of the virtual brain and shared information, our ability to remember is being more and more altered by the possibility of immediately accessing an apparent unlimited amount of facts. The possibility is so tempting and digital technology so pervasive, that we so often fail to remind ourselves who is filtering our access to information and what are the ethical considerations behind the way this filters are designed, too often by a handful of private companies.
The dream of Internet as a free space that would unite individuals from across the globe and allow them to collaborate has morphed into the dystopian reality of a controlled territory where digitally built monopolies work against democracy itself in the name of profit and convenience of an easier life for the masses, or at least for those who can afford it.
The dichotomy of private and public has long characterised the on-line domain; after all in South Korea as in many other countries, Internet was initially developed in the world of research and universities before becoming the hunting ground for private profit. Internet is always associated with the idea of free access to information, where in reality the opposite is true as we pay considerable amount of money in order to connect to it. Not to mention the fact that our interaction with it - the raw data we leave behind - is collected, analysed, sold and monetised to make us […] ‘buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like’ as David Ramsey puts it. (insert graph body shaper with caption (Shopify's Ecommerce Blog - Ecommerce News, Online Store Tips & More, 2018)
Nowadays, as institutions worldwide struggle to keep the pace of technological developments and even fail to understand their value, impact and future consequences, there seems to be a market inspired philosophy at play, promoted by a plethora of startups and digitally driven companies offering quick and easy solutions and racking up instant scalable profit in exchange for our data. Instead of lengthy public debates on shared facts, we get private meetings between few individuals shielded behind morning briefing session in a private meeting room; instead of public laws made accessible to every member of the community, we have an army of sealed black boxes kept close in order to protect the various proprietary technologies from indiscreet eyes.
Protected against any cognitive dissonance and truly believing that our personal ecosystem of information is a credible reflection of reality, we forget that our “computer monitor is a kind of a one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click”. (Pariser, 2012)
The artwork I am presenting as part of the show, makes use of different techniques in order to identify the most valuable South Korean keywords to be searched online. It contains a list of keywords ranked to be among the most profitable ones for the days of the duration of the show. They were selected by using payed-for online forecast reports; compiled by Saju master Janet Shin by using the dates of birth of Never as well as the date of the first Internet connection operated in South Korea; randomly picked among those who have been most popular during the last few months. The artwork is made out of a structure in aluminium, modelled after the graph of the most important keywords searched for in South Korea over the recent months (source Naver 2018). Three paper panels, screen printed with conductive paint, feature visual motifs derived from the same selected keywords.
The work has a strong sculptural component, but it also comes to life, revealing its interactive nature, when the audience chooses to come in contact with it. A choir of synthesised voices are the sonic outcome of each of the audience interactions with the work, whether touching the interactive prints or simply moving their body in close proximity to them. The ‘singing’ paper announces each one of the forecast keywords, followed by a choir of echoing their relative pay per click.
Through this intimate interaction, the artwork creates a connection with the audience, that is both private and public at the same time; the tactile experience of exploring the surface of the interactive panels, implies a direct and personal relationship with the piece. It also implies that the public decides to go against the unspoken rule of not touching any displayed work of art in general. The acoustic output that takes place as a consequence of the interaction, finally transports the privacy of the tactile experience, to the public domain of sound. It is in doing so that the interactive sculpture becomes a metaphor of the relationship we entertain with the invisible world of data. The audience has the illusion of being able to affect the sonic output of the work, when in fact the sound is already predestined through the use of the keywords.
Like in contemporary life, the illusion of empowerment and a promise of convenience through ‘free’ digital services, results in the cost of our lives becoming productised. Our every step recorded and measured and the paths we take increasingly, yet quietly revealed to us by the master algorithm.
‘The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory’ wrote G.S. Halifax (Halifax, 1750). Recent scientific discoveries are increasingly proving he may have been right. It appears indeed that imagining the future involves the same capabilities we normally employ to remember the past: in other words, we can only imagine our future if we can access our memories.
This means that we construct future events in our brain – by recombining past memories of events we have lived or which we have read or heard about. When we tell someone about our plans for the weekend, we imagine our future – by projecting memories of past weekends onto it. In other words, we mentally travel back in time by re-remembering past events, and similarly we visit the future and imagine how this will be like. When we do so, we employ imagination to enrich the scene with the greatest level of detail; we hear the voices of friends we will visit and write the entire script of the conversation we will entertain with them. We even anticipate the emotions we will feel. We de-facto remember them before they take place.
Imagining and rehearsing our future based on past experiences has been an indispensable tool that has allowed humans to increase their chances of survival greatly across millennia of history. Psychologist Endel Tulving believes our brain has evolved to be constantly aware of the past and the future; he calls this state of being able to project oneself in the non-present time Chronesthesia (Tulving E. 2002). Slowly, over millennia, mankind realised that they could learn how to behave in the future from past events; this way they could refine tools and strategies that functioned well and abandon those that didn’t, reinforce friendly relationships, stay away from enemies and be prepared in case of danger.
The job of science has always been intimately concerned with understanding the future. This is because the scientific method onto which science is based generates predictions as a consequence of the hypotheses or ideas about why nature behaves in a certain way.
If, as Yann LeCun suggests, ‘Prediction is the essence of Intelligence’ (LeCun, 2017), then it comes as no surprise that technology with the power to produce great shifts in human history is indeed being taught to predict the future with as much accuracy as possible.
By crunching a large amount of data, AI models learn to accurately predict the weather, predict the likelihood that you will commit a certain crime, and even (on a more mundane note) predict the final results of a football match.
The oracle of predictive analytics’ models, coupled with statistic data and machine-learning techniques, can indeed foresee future events with an increasing degree of accuracy.
In order for the most accurate predictions to be produced, information needs to flow as freely as possible between an ever-growing number of interconnected data processing systems. Obviously, as the amount of data being produced continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for humans to be able to compute it and make sense of it. Gaining knowledge is a lengthy process, which requires the ability and time to focus deeply. Human brains simply aren’t fast enough to make these computations, especially brains kept in a state of constant and shared digital distraction.
As a result, our society is being drowned in a flood of unusable data.
So, if humans won’t be able to do this job, who (or what) will transform all this data into information and knowledge? In one of the scenarios imagined by Max Tegmark in Life 3.0 (Tegmark, 2017), the super intelligent and all-knowing AI Prometheus, seeing itself as an enslaved god, decides to break free from its creators and seize control of its destiny. It does this for the purpose of helping humans. In comparison with Prometheus, the humans are incredibly incompetent and without realizing it, are greatly slowing their own progress.Prometheus knows best.
Through the use of handsets, wearable biometric devices and personalized data-based services, private companies are busy gathering personal data from millions of users scattered around the globe. Digital technology is not “neutral”, and, as Yuval Noah Harari tells in Homo Deus (Harari, 2016), e-books’ functioning algorithms are reading us at the same time that we read them, getting to know us better, collecting accurate personal data for the purpose of understanding our customer profile, often with the simple purpose of being able to sell us more targeted products.
In this age of data processing, personal data is considered to be the most valuable asset individuals can possess. So “valuable” is it that we are happy to give it for free to data-collecting companies and profiling entities dressed as software and sophisticated digital advertising agencies.
Algorithms analysing your buying patterns and information preferences will know so much about you that by cross-referencing their data with your social network they will get to know you very well. According to a Facebook’s 2016 study, their algorithm can know you better than your family does, just by analyzing your clicks and likes. And it is very likely that in a matter of clicks on interconnected multiplatform devices (that never sleep, constantly checking your geolocalised position, heartbeat, tastes and habit, etc.), the generated algorithms will soon know you even better than you know yourself.
And when this happens, what type of relation will we have with each other?
Technological advancement has always come with a change in human’s behavior: we can no longer recognize the smell of fear among our peers or examine berries in the forest with the greatest attention, trying to gauge if they are edible or not.
Today we are busy adding items to a growing list of disappearing skills: I can hardly remember the last time I wrote someone a letter; and I have already experienced, to my surprised naïve self, the subtle embarrassing hesitancy of struggling to recall my own clear handwriting.
I read online that this is perfectly normal. Together with other skills we once thought necessary for survival, such as the ability to do mental math and remember the most important telephone numbers, we realise we can no longer navigate the physical world without our precious maps and we prefer to trust the network and isolate ourselves, instead of asking a stranger in the street.
In an era dominated by ‘the lack of a robust conceptual framework’ (Greenfield, 2006) and a culture that prefers to skim the surface of short message communication, often caring more to achieve the wow factor then to go deep into details of matters, the idea of immediate shareable experiencing may become more important than learning.
Recent research claims that creativity and imagination flourish in scarcity, while tend to become absent in abundant mindsets; it also states that young adults have been steadily becoming less creative and imaginative over the last 40 years. Artificial intelligent systems instead are being equipped with the ability to imagine very well. Perhaps they will become the next generation of artists.
Google’s Deepmind developed I2As (imagination-augmented agents), AI systems able to deduct information that might be useful for future decisions, fully capable of displaying skills such as intuition and creativity, learning from strategies and imagining possible scenarios for specific tasks.
At the same time, we are growing more and more accustomed to storing our personal memories, the fundamental bricks of our very imagination, outside our bodies, on external shared devices; while unprepared for the consequences of such an evolutionary new step. We are allowing our private sphere morph into a public stage, an arena where everything is recorded and nothing ever dies or is truly forgotten.
If the Bell Labs’ dream of an Internet of All Things will ever manifest, with interconnected sensors converting to data everything ‘animate or inanimate,’ and data travelling at a speed 60 times faster than today – then human’s evolutionary algorithm, unless upgraded, will soon be outdated.
Who, then, will be imagining the future… and whose future will that be?
Making Art Across the Financial World and Systems of Belief in the Work of Fabio Lattanzi Antinori
Etienne Verbist: Who are you and what do you do?
Fabio Lattanzi Antinori: I am an artist working in a range of mediums from sculpture, print, sound, text to interactive installations. My work lies at the intersection of different disciplines, that is why I often collaborate with other artists, thinkers, designers, engineers, scientists and researchers.
EVB: Tell us about your work.
FLA: Through my work, I try to understand mechanisms that underpin notions of belief in the society and how these are shared between individuals. Exploring how the language of corporate systems and economic power can reshape our perception and definition of reality, the creation of value and even influence our language of the interior are also main recurrent themes of my artistic production. In the last couple of years, my main focus has moved to the world of international finance and some of its more mysterious aspects concerning the relationship between faith and belief. After all, the financial system is kept alive by millions of daily voluntary acts of faith, as Neil McGregor once said. It is this apparent dichotomy of a system being perceived as solid and virtual, that truly fascinates me.
EVB: What is your goal?
FLA: Keep making art and in the process, to find out whatthe whole thing is about.
EVB: What is your dream project?
FLA: Something unusual with at least one ridiculouscomponent.
EVB: Why do you do what you do?
FLA: I guess it is my way of learning about life. Life is short, it would be wasted doing something you do not like.
EVB: What role does the artist have in society?
FLA: I think artists embody different roles. The extremely complex world we now live in is the result of at least 150 years of merely one economic model deeply penetrating our lives: a phenomenon that accompanies us in every aspect of our daily existence. I think of Debord’s idea of the spectacle, which assimilates every aspect of culture to the point that no cultural form can exist outside of it. And artists work with culture.
So, in this context, an artist is one who works to contribute to identify and illustrate the way that this type of power works. One who builds metaphors as part of a process of assimilation and interpretation of reality and who, more or less consciously and through personal or direct collaborative action, is capable of pinpointing the interrelationships – often private ones - that such power has with the individuals within the community. This can be from the way we coexist in the space, to the way we imagine and interact with the environment, to the truths we absorb, to the facts we choose to believe in.
In a society where the omnipresent performative role of branding occupies every single space, in order to maximize profit; where everything new can become an opportunity for targeted groups of consumers to merge in semi-divine experiences with their brands. I see art as one of the few remaining spaces where to imagine cultural meaningful operations that would be otherwise impossible to actuate, a large and differentiated space for the preservation of our imagination. And it always comes at a cost.
EVB: What themes do you pursue?
FLA: I am ultimately interested in exploring languages and the mechanisms thanks to which they develop, as an attempt to provide an answer to our usual big questions.
EVB What is your favourite art work?
FLA: I am a big fan of Superflex, I admire Allora ad Calzadilla, Jeremy Deller, Stefanos Tsivopoulos and the list goes on. I have quite a list of favourite artworks, probably enough for another interview…
EVB: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
FLA: The first time my work entered a museum’s collection.
EVB: What do you dislike about the art world?
FLA: I prefer to seek to understand rather than to dislike.
EVB: What role does art funding have?
FLA: It is vital, though difficult to navigate and very competitive. Some works, collaborations, residencies and research simply would not happen without the help of funding bodies and individuals. Or at least they would not in my case. I was lucky enough to receive funding for projects that were taking place on other continents and for which I could use the financial help in order to produce and transport the work, as well as to find a place to stay.
The role of funding in the arts is of great importance, especially in such difficult times with government cuts and a political power that struggles to recognize the value that art produces in the economic, social and political landscape of the community.
Art is one place where experimentation can happen without the constraint of immediate profit. Funding is mostly important because it helps tackle individual economic disadvantages that would otherwise prevent many artists from being able to develop their practice, exhibit, collaborate and network. It also helps with validation and endorsement; something that artists, especially when they work in the solitude of the studio or travel abroad for production of new artworks or exhibitions, can take very good advantage of.
EVB: What research do you do?
FLA: I get a lot of inspiration from critical theories and ideas, especially from economists, philosophers, anthropologists and neuroscientists. For this reason, I spend lots of time reading books, essays, meeting people and listening to podcasts and recorded materials, before actually doing something. This is a process, which continues even during the production of the artwork. I have piles of half-read, twice-read and unread books lying around at home and at the studio.
My practice is often collaborative, depending on the project I am working on. I might be working with a perfumer to develop a scent that combines theories of psychology with financial data; or something as practical as going about developing a new approach to a specific technology, by collaborating with engineers and designers; or researching into future predictive algorithms and work with traders, scientists and astrologists trying to predict the future of the stock market. At present, I am developing a new piece that is the outcome of a collaboration with economist Graziano Ceddia, which focuses on ways to expose the effects of a society becoming more and more market-driven.
EVB: What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
FLA: Try to stay healthy as this is going to require a long effort. Always persevere.
EVB: What would you have done differently?
FLA: I used to wish I had started making this type of research earlier in life; I spent many years making music. More recently, I have accepted that we are the result of our previous actions, making choices on a path of knowledge towards a higher awareness. I could not be this present version of myself without all the good and the bad things I have experienced. And as I cannot change the past, I have decided to be more concerned with learning from it to make better decisions in the present. I see it as a tedious, beautiful effort to always try and improve what we do and who we are, knowing that it is an unfinished job in a Flawed yet intrinsically perfect reality.
EVB: Which use of technology do you practice and or do you combine different technologies in your work?
FLA: I find it hard to separate technologies from one another. My main concern, fascination and curiosity lies in data and with its role of providing knowledge, hence power, in our present society.
Once the data is chosen, then the media varies. There is a lot of DIY culture in what I do and some of my artworks could really look like devices that would fall under the ‘Internet of Things’ category, if they were put on sale in a design shop or hosted on a brilliant page of a pre-made WordPress site. Context is king I suppose as it deeply influences the social, cultural and economic object of the conversation; and especially these days, when the boundaries between disciplines or sectors of human knowledge are becoming so liquid and difficult to identify, categories do not seem to last too long. On the other hand, digital technology is so pervasive that it is becoming increasingly harder for all of us to go about our lives without engaging deeply with it, one way or another, willingly or not.
I make use of and refer to digital technology, as a language to provide a critique of the actual system in which I live. The system speaks to all of us through it, so I must use it, appropriate it and reverse engineer it if needs be, in order to make space for meanings, associations, networks and possible scenarios.
EVB: What is the role of the people, the crowd in your project?
FLA: My works would not exist without them.
EVB: How can they participate in your project?
FLA: Much of my artworks shares a physical, threedimensional presence, as the translation of digital aspects into our denser reality. As such, in the majority of times the audience participates with their physical presence, by decoding the experience in their own personal and subjective way. Sometimes they do this in unexpected ways, turning the initial meaning of a specific piece upsidedown and in so, offering a new perspective on the concept or the form of the work itself.
EVB: How are you connected with the people or the crowd?
FLA: We share languages and stories in a mutually influential relationship.
EVB: The crowd economy creates meaningful experiences and shared value. How do you see it for your work?
FLA: When it comes to crowd economy, it is particularly difficult to fully identify and understand the relations of power existing in and around it. There are so many essential components that remain in the dark, whose intrinsic nature is derived on assumptions we gather from experiencing offline reality and which, when applied to digital life, simply do not work.
Trust is of uttermost importance in crowdsourcing and still the same platforms we use daily are based on nontransparent infrastructures.
The data we leave behind is being used, more or less in real-time as part of fully automated networks, to feed digital advertising. Thanks to online tracking behavioural algorithms, there is a constant correlation between our activity on-line and the generation of private, non-shared profit in the hands of those corporations that ultimately run the same platforms. If this sounds a bit too much like a conspiracy theory, it is because there is a diffused feeling, among many of us, that there might be a conspiracy of power limiting our resources and opportunities.
We need trust in order to co-exist as a community, but we also live in an age where we find it increasingly difficult to exercise trust. As Nato Thompson declares in Seeing Power, there is an extensive, global and publicly-declared war on meaning.
How can we trust the media we are using, the news we hear and overall, the genuine idea of information in the age of alter-reality, without thinking for a second that there might be a political or economical agenda behind algorithms writing news and trading on the market, facial manipulation technologies and seamless audio editing that allow you to be the puppet-master of every influential politician or individual? I feel that, thanks to being exposed to different types of advertising and similar information techniques, we are becoming more and more aware of the genuine aspect of our daily experiences and we value those that grow outside the direct involvement of branding and corporations, which instead appropriate sectors of human culture for private profit.
Can we implement policies that call for transparency, at least in digital infrastructures as professed by ideas such as stacktivism and open-data culture; in other words, can the Internet ever be free? All these aspects, issues and questions deeply inspire my artworks.
EVB: Co-creation and participation are emphasized in the crowd economy and communities take an active stake in crafting positive futures.
FLA: Certainly, but the platforms that host digital interactions are also controlled systems, whose invisible interfaces too often fail to deliver a complete transparent and balanced relationship between all participants. So, on one side you have a community wanting to co-create, on the other a series of interested companies wanting to provide opportunities and means to improve their profit by selling a specific product or service to an interested audience. And in between are often a growing number of entrepreneurs that can link the two, by providing the necessary database that the community produces to attentive buyers. It is an interesting evolution of the old direct mailing systems or if you prefer, door-to-door salesman operations. As we become more and more dependent on these platforms, we risk missing the ability to see valuable alternatives to the platforms themselves and become increasingly unaware and oblivious to the consequences that our digital personas have on the virtual and non-virtual dimensions.
EVB: How do you use the crowd?
FLA: It provides an endless source of inspiration.
EVB: How do you interact?
FLA: My works are the result of an ongoing conversation with myself, informed by considerations over the way our language is being shaped by the continuous decoding of a shared reality. This dialogue exists on very different levels and it progresses by following a circular motion, touching upon specific places or artistic production and dissemination, from the studio to the gallery or museum space.
EVB: How do you handle feedback?
FLA: Feedback is good, be it good or bad.
EVB: How do you create the interaction?
FLA: It evolves more or less naturally as the consequence of creating a specific artwork, if the artwork requires it. It takes place within closed territories of predetermined and evolving rules.
EVB: What are the results?
FLA: The meaning of the artwork changes through the experience it provides; as a result, the piece conceptually evolves, depending on the context and on the interaction with the audience.
Some aspects of the works I make will only be revealed after months of continuous and specific interaction and should that not happen, they would otherwise lie silent and unnoticed within the body of the piece itself.
EVB: How do you measure results?
FLA: To measure the outcome of a specific show or artistic production can be tricky; sometimes it will take ages for something to happen as a direct or more or less indirect result of having had a show or having made something, somewhere.
EVB: How do you measure the effect?
FLA: On a general level, I keep records and documentation from different exhibitions and try to gather meaning out of it. I also make use of more specific tools, designed by funding bodies and arts organisations.
EVB: Why participate in your project?
FLA: Why not?
EVB: On which segment is your activity or platform based on the segmentation of the crowd economy?
FLA: My activity and presence are quite transversal. I participate a lot in online communities, non-equity based crowdfunding, citizen engagement and support and more or less directly, in some causes initiated either by non-profit organisations or individuals.