On art, architecture, and domestic effects of digitalization
Samsung’s Smart TVs come with a fine-print warning: if you enable voice recognition, your spoken words will be ‘captured and transmitted to a third party’, so you might not want to discuss personal or sensitive information in front of your TV. Even if voice recognition is disabled, Samsung will still collect your metadata – what and when you watch, and including facial recognition – though you won’t be able to use their interactive features. The SmartSeries Bluetooth toothbrush from Oral-B, a Procter & Gamble company, connects to a brushing app in your smartphone, which keeps a detailed record of your dental hygiene. The company advertises that you can share such data with your dentist, though, in a privatized health market, it’s more likely the purpose of such technology is to share data with your insurance company.
The more ubiquitous technology becomes, the less its presence is noticeable; its invisibility however, renders us, its users, transparent. The cultural logic of the information age is predicated on an inversion of the gaze: within this fusion of surveillance and control, the screen, as Jonathan Crary has noted, ‘is both the object of attention and (the object) capable of monitoring, recording and cross-referencing attentive behaviour.’1 Data processing – whose reaches span the NSA, credit rating agencies, health insurance providers, up to the sorting algorithms used by Google or Instagram – is predictive, modelling future actions on previous behaviour. As such, as Orit Halpern argued in her 2015 book Beautiful Data, data processing implies a model of temporality in which the past is a standing reserve of information, waiting to be mined. This information is used to build user profiles, which in turn will determine the outcome of student loan and health insurance applications, credit scores, or whether you are placed on a ‘no-fly’ list. This might seem anodyne, but as Hito Steyerl notes in A Sea of Data (published this year in the e-flux journal) the Human Rights Data Analysis Group estimates that around 99,000 Pakistanis have been wrongly classified as terrorists by the NSA’s SKYNET program. The potential political usages of these structures include the power of any regime to stamp out dis-sidence in a preemptive manner, by meting out forms of informal punishment like employee transfers or loan denials.
After the global surveillance disclosures of the past few years, we have grown increasingly aware that our affective devices double as control mechanisms, and that sorting algorithms curate our experiences, both on- and, by extension, offline. This nexus of communication and control will be intensified by the introduction of the Internet of Things (IoT). Once our homes become fully equipped with a number of smart appliances, as Evgeny Morozov recently argued in an op–ed for the Financial Times2, daily interaction with data-capturing devices will become virtually unavoidable. Your fridge will signal that you are running out of milk to Tesco’s drone delivery service. Your microchipped cat will let himself in and ‘meow’ recognition software will signal a smart can-opener to prepare his meal. Convenient as it may all sound, you will be living inside a world of biometric analyses and pattern recognition that fully captures and profiles its users to place financial wagers on their short- and long-term future.
For a film (Patterns of Life, 2015) included in the recent, large group exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin – ‘Nervous Systems: Quantified Life and the Social Question’, co-curated by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski from the Tactical Technology Collective, and Anselm Franke – artist Julien Prévieux employed dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet. The dancers enact the ways data can be extracted from bodies in motion in order to create ‘patterns of activity’, subsequently used to marginalise or criminalise their targets. Also within ‘Nervous Systems’, the collective Tactical Tech (Maya Indira Ganesh, Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski) staged a mock customer centre called The White Room. Staffed with tech greeters, The White Room offers a tour through the newest developments in apps and wearable technologies – fitness trackers, subcutaneous contraceptive implants, biometric ID cards – along with insight into their possible grievances: punitive insurance premiums, corporate control over employees’ fertility, financial capture of even destitute citizens. The area also presents makeshift solutions for subverting their usage: a wall-plug that allows for unauthorized editing of information read on wireless devices, or a metronome to deceive your fitness tracker. Playful as these seem, the premise of the exhibition is ominous: our socialization is at odds with the current convergence of financialization and digital tech.
Architecture collective åyr, who will participate in the British Pavilion, ‘Home Economics’, for the 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice this coming May, echoed similar concerns about the changing nature of domesticity amid the corporatization of intimate spaces in a recent article for the Harvard Design Magazine3. The collective describe how the family home and the nuclear family were historically co-constituted, and how the corporate capture of the former will impact the organization of the latter, as much as implying an overhauling of governmentality. The smart home, and by extension, the smart city, have the potential to become the interface for the mediatization (and subsequent financialization) of all aspects of life. For the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice, åyr (which was formerly known as AIRBNB Pavilion, but had to change its name due to legal pressure) staged an exhibition inside apartments rented on Airbnb, and more recently, in their 2015 project Comfort Zone for Frieze London, they installed a sequence of Ikea-like bedrooms inside the fair. For the forthcoming 9th Berlin Biennale åyr plan to make an installation mimicking the aesthetics of a ‘feature wall’, entangling confinement and intimacy, addressing the way personal (even intimate) items are forced to operate as financial assets.
Within the biopolitical organization of the modern era, the domestic space functioned as a buffer zone against the violence of industrial regimentation. But this secluded domesticity also promoted social isolation, universalizing bourgeois protocols and thus curtailing working class solidarity networks and collective agency. In Living and Working: How To Live Together, 2015, the architectural office Dogma (co-founded by Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara) examine alternative models of communal living, such as monasteries, Charles Fourier’s Phalanx, or early Soviet experiments, in order to reconfigure the notion of ‘family’. Recognizing how affective labour has been captured by the post-Fordist economy, Dogma’s forms of communal living and facility sharing aim to create a form of architectural commons which would bypass the trapping of the public-vs.-private space space debate, thus making identity less pliable to industry.
In Venice, ‘Home Economics’ (curated by Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams), in which Dogma is included, also aims to recover the social mandate of architecture, by decoupling the notion of the home from the imperatives of real estate value. To tackle the shortage of available housing, the curators argue, novel living arrangements need to be created, ideally arrangements that can prove impervious to financial speculation. In this, the curators echo Le Corbusier’s famous statement ‘it is the question of building which lies at the root of the social unrest of today’, and the solution must be either ‘architecture or revolution.’ But within a fully financialized economy, the housing crisis might prove more difficult to solve by means of architecture alone.
The current media ecology doesn’t simply do away with any reasonable expectation of privacy: it also erodes traditional forms of ownership. Millennials are priced out of the housing market not because there is a housing shortage but because the economy is geared towards asset inflation and rent extraction. General Motors and John Deere, for instance, have argued that copyright law cannot conflate ownership of a vehicle with ownership of the underlying computer software, denying owners the right to repair electronic equipment they’ve purchased. Under the twin pressures of financialization and what is called the ‘sharing economy’, capital has also overcome the need to pay formal salaries: the digital economy replaces formal benefits, like salaries, pensions, and social safety nets, with informal ones, like the ability to lease your apartment, spare time or even your appliances. Dogma’s project for Venice relates to temporary, precarious forms of labour: from student visas to internships and zero-hour contracts. From this perspective economical exploitation is intimately linked with political oppression. The question of privacy versus surveillance pales in comparison to the question of privatization versus public property. As McKenzie Wark noted in his essay Renotopia (2015) (a portmanteau combining ‘renovation’ and ‘utopia’) the great socialist utopia that actually got built is service infrastructure; having private companies as the sole providers of publicly needed services implies a fundamental social division between a digital plutocracy and its ‘dumb’ users.
Evgeny Morozov recently argued in The Guardian that whereas the struggles for post-colonial emancipation were fought over the ownership of land, the defining struggle of our times will be fought over the ownership of the digital infrastructure. But the battle will be uphill, as Seb Franklin suggests in Control (2015), digital technologies provide us not simply with the tools but also with the body of metaphors we use to describe today’s challenges. Bill Gates talks about the digital nervous system; we tend to describe the internet as if it were a sentient being, endowed with agency; our material objects are permeated by information flows, from the DNA code to financial algorithms. And we fantasize about immersive environments in which our neural activities would be directly linked onto networks. Artist Melanie Gilligan fictionalized these epistemic materials in her mini-series, ‘The Common Sense’ (2014): through the usage of an oral prosthesis called ‘the Patch’, users are able to tap into each other’s emotions. In order to stave off her mounting debt, a young mother-to-be decides to monetize the experience of her unborn child, which is seemingly soothing to other users. Tawdry as it may sound, ‘the Patch’ is a logical extension of our current modalities of mediated experience; rather than a prospective future, it provides us with a magnified picture of our present.
Ana Teixeira Pinto is a writer from Lisbon who lives in Berlin. She is currently finishing her PhD at Humboldt University, and is a regular contributor to frieze d/e, Art Agenda and Mousse, among other publications.
First published in Issue 24