We are experiencing today the emergence of social structures, mindsets, and ways of life that would be inconceivable without the computer. Data-based processes in which everything—from places, objects, forms, surfaces, and materials to the human body—is encoded, transcoded, and recoded, are leading to a data society that is no longer based on traditional knowledge. Instead, the collection, interpretation, and utilization of data will form the basis of society. Which new aesthetic, spatial, social, and political forms of culture are currently emerging in our data-based society? How will our world change if our material and cognitive actions are increasingly taken over by automation and artificial intelligence?
After the cybernetics wave in the middle of the 20th century, new possibilities within information technology for storage, management, processing, and transmission enabled the concept of data to assert itself against the traditional concept of measured values in scientific theory and to become independent. Today, data can be collected, stored, evaluated, disseminated, sold, falsified, interpreted, transmitted, saved, protected, processed, and combined in large quantities. As an instrument of scientific work, data can organize fields of knowledge and institutionalize epistemic practices; as a raw material for business and knowledge-based economies, data is a highly sought-after resource. When data changes, it can warn us about the future or promise better times, as T’ai Smith’s contribution impressively demonstrates. Technical and social issues can be reconciled, changing existing inequalities and creating a new hierarchy. Data therefore has both prognostic and utopian potential, and is characterized by a nearly universal pluralism of origin and use. The social change that this brings about is correspondingly profound.
In the philosophy and sociology of technology, for example, it is argued that data-driven technologies shift nothing less than the meaning of technology itself—away from an object-like, mechanical concept to what Bruno Latour or Gilbert Simondon call the “open machine.” With this they refer to digital, computer-supported subject-object and object-object couplings, meaning complex technical structures comprised of human and non-human entities; intelligent and learning algorithms that can hardly or no longer be described with traditional theories of machines, tools, or instruments.
These shifts raise social, political, and ethical questions with global implications. The accelerated datafication of society shakes the fundamental pillars of traditional order structures, the privilege of interpretation, and power relations. In his book The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Benjamin H. Bratton, who is represented in this issue with a conversation, has presented the most theoretically differentiated model to date, in which many of the aspects outlined above are interwoven. Going beyond traditional horizontal principles of social organization such as physical state territories and boundaries, Bratton has designed a vertically structured counter-model of organization through technical platforms. The image of the “stack” for the world as a database combines numerous phenomena of Big Data technologies to illustrate the different, not only territorial, power shifts caused by planetary technical infrastructures.
What remains unanswered, so far, are what prospects there are for the design of this data society. The question of the possibilities for critical thinking and the interests of civil society also remains unanswered. In critical recourse to the era of cybernetics it seems necessary to deal more intensively with the emancipatory potential of Big Data technologies.
Building on the theoretical and media-based experimental methods by György Kepes, our focus should be on the common quest for innovative design strategies, to make the complex processes of datafication and its effects on society perceptible to both the intellect and the senses. Kepes, who taught with László Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and later founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at MIT, was regarded in the 1950s and ‘60s as a key international figure for experimental research at the intersection of science, art, and technology. The aim of his work was the integration of aesthetic experience, scientific knowledge, and critical thinking. The abstract world of technology and science would be made comprehensible through interdisciplinary strategies, enabling us to intellectually grasp this world and (re-)orient ourselves within it.
However, we should avoid the trap that Walter Gropius set with his call for the unity of art and technology. What we can learn from Kepes is not so much the fusion of the different spheres, which ultimately served to legitimize the technical side, often in the service of the military, the state, and big business. In this sense, Kepes is an example of the dangers arising from the intimate relationship between cybernetics back then and datafication today on the one hand, and power structures on the other hand. Rather, his example shows us that we must correct or sharpen our initial thesis that less design might be liberating. Whether we like it or not, the world is designed, right down to its algorithms and genomes. We cannot escape this designed world, and so we need design more than ever. The task of design today is to reveal the complex connections, to make visible the enormous exploitation of humans and nature behind seemingly everyday things (like the use of an app), instead of concealing them behind a soothing minimalism. No more soothing! Instead, the task of critical design is to change human behavior by creative means in translating the cry of the 16-year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg: “I want you to panic!”
Summoning snugly from our armchair, “Alexa, turn on the light,” we turn a blind eye to the technological unrest and console ourselves with the traditional understanding of master and servant. However, as Mark Wigley puts it, we don’t have the smartphone in our pockets, but vice versa. We already live in Datatopia, and we must finally engage in an insightful dialogue about man and machine, where the stakes are nothing less than the directive, “Alexa, tell me the truth!”
Anh-Linh Ngo, Christian Hiller, Georg Vrachliotis