Control, Alt, Delete: The New Artistic Activism Versus the Surveillance State

From Palantir to Microsoft to Google, the new resistance arises from labour itself

In her 1989 CBC Massey Lectures, physicist Ursula Franklin identified two types of technologies. For most of human history, we have built holistic technologies: tools, like a potter’s kiln, which provide utility while allowing for customization. In contrast, prescriptive technologies, such as an architect’s blueprint, standardize and divide labour according to the wishes of a central manager. Franklin’s lectures tell the story of how the increasing dominance of prescriptive technologies created a ‘culture of compliance’.

Perhaps no technology illustrates this culture of compliance more plainly than the rise of big data analytics. And perhaps no one company has proved as emblematic of the nefarious potential of privatized digital surveillance than Palantir. Co-founded in 2003 by Peter Thiel and a handful of fellow ex-PayPal employees, Palantir is, as Bloomberg put it in April 2018, an ‘intelligence platform designed for the global War on Terror’ that was ‘weaponized against ordinary Americans at home’.

During President Barack Obama’s administration, Palantir began working on a contract for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): the US counter-terrorism department created after the 9/11 attacks. Under President Donald Trump, ICE has intensified raids at workplaces to find and detain undocumented workers. Palantir began developing a software for the agency that enables instant, multi-agency database searches on any person of interest. The result is a sort of digital dragnet, which can pull in anyone regardless of their relationship to a given case.

'Kate Crawford | Trevor Paglen: Training Humans', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Fondazione Prada; photograph: Marco Cappelletti

‘Kate Crawford | Trevor Paglen: Training Humans’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Fondazione Prada; photograph: Marco Cappelletti

Claims that technology stands outside of history – that it is neutral – can be dangerous. Franklin emphasizes that technology arises out of a social structure and that our study of it should treat it as such. Still, peering into Thiel’s enigmatic background returns more questions than answers. One of Silicon Valley’s most high-profile names, Thiel played a role in the growth of Facebook, Airbnb and SpaceX, among other companies. A lifelong libertarian, he shocked the establishment in 2016 by stumping for then presidential candidate Trump and delivering a speech in his support at the Republican National Convention.

Even among right-wing libertarians, Thiel’s business strategy is unorthodox. In a 2014 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, he intoned: ‘Competition Is for Losers: If you want to create and capture lasting value, look to build a monopoly.’ Perhaps this obsession provides the best clues. What better way for a company to achieve monopoly than to contract with the state, which holds a monopoly on violence?

Palantir began with a post-9/11 wave of CIA homeland security investments and, from its earliest years, has been incubated by government contracts. There is a long history of taxpayer money funding what we often think of as private tech enterprises – facts obscured by the myth of renegade Silicon Valley disruptors. Microsoft has a data storage contract with ICE to the tune of US$19.4 million; Amazon sells its powerful facial-recognition tool to police departments around the US; and, until March, Google’s Project Maven built AI that helps military drones recognize objects in flight.

A new type of Silicon Valley activism is emerging, however, driven by workers from these companies themselves. Employees at Amazon, Microsoft and Google have joined – and, in some cases, instigated – protests in response to military and law enforcement projects. In April 2018, more than 3,000 Google employees signed a letter to their CEO asking him to disengage from work with the Pentagon. By June, the company had announced its withdrawal.

Thiel hasn’t shown any desire for cultural philanthropy to art-wash his ill-gotten gains. As his open support for Trump illustrates, he is impervious to the shame tactics of polite, liberal society. Thiel founded a programme that encourages gifted students to drop out of elite colleges and build start-ups. Many of Silicon Valley’s new billionaires view our institutions not as sites of influence to be appeased but as wasteful, calcified organs of society that should be completely eradicated.

When big data companies build the connective infrastructure that supercharges existing state surveillance, consumer action doesn’t carry the same weight as it would in the private sector. A consumer can opt out of commercial tracking by Google or Amazon, but Palantir’s law-enforcement work enables data connections amongst government databases whose records are virtually synonymous with the basic elements of citizenship. The only remaining tactic of refusal, then, is appealing to the morality of the individual labour that produces it.

At least two letters have circulated within Palantir in which employees expressed resistance to ICE contracts – signs that some internal pressure could gather steam. The company’s CEO, Alex Karp, has swatted away employee concerns and, in August, renewed Palantir’s ICE contract. Since then, the pressure has increased. In September, more than 1,200 computer science students across the US signed a pledge not to accept recruiting offers at Palantir.

Artists are reacting to all of the above, carving out fresh targets for institutional critique with new enemies, tactics and metrics for success. As the nexus of power shifts with the rise of novel technologies of control, so emerges a new aesthetic of critique interested less in museum board members than in the current ruling class’s planetary-scale land-grab for infrastructural dominance. While several proponents of such practices – including artists Simon Denny, Fang Di, Agnieszka Kurant, Trevor Paglen and Sondra Perry – come to mind, we’re only in the infancy of how these values are being remapped. In the meantime, there are lessons here for institutional critique: keep your eyes on the infrastructure.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 207 with the headline ‘Control, Alt, Delete’.

Main image: Simon Denny, ‘Ascent – Above the Nation State Board Game Display Prototype’ Hero Portrait Projection (Founder 1) (detail, depicting Peter Thiel), 2017. Courtesy: the artist, Michael Lett, Auckland, Petzel Gallery, New York, and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

Mike Pepi is a New York-based writer on art, culture, and technology. Find him at @mikepepi

Issue 207

First published in Issue 207

November - December 2019

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