by Shane Finan
Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art.
Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology: Harper & Row New York.
1. Digital Me
The word ‘technology’ comes from the ancient Greek tekhne, meaning ‘art or craft’. Trained as a painter, I learned to appreciate the paintbrush as the base form of technology that it is, an extension of my arm. It didn’t take much of a leap in imagination to explore other possible technologies, and by 2011 I had begun teaching myself the programming language Processing, a language that I still use regularly in art installations. Soon I was hooked.
The study of the critical role of technology is a relatively recent one. Philosophers overlooked the role of our devices and tools for a long time, but in the 20th Century this all changed. After the Industrial Revolution, the magic of technology was there for all to see, and the social effects (loss of work, for example) were felt keenly.
In recent weeks, with the lockdown measures of the pandemic, most of us would have been lost without digital technologies. The digital divide, and the struggles of the poorest in our society to get on with their daily lives, showed this clearly. For others, technology offered a chance to stay connected, in some way, with friends and family.
So I introduce the fourth video of this ongoing project. This video is about technology networks, focussing on digital communication networks and how they are controlled:
2. What is Technology?
When technology is brought up in conversation, people often think of computers, the internet, smartphones and other accessories of our contemporary life. However, technology is not just current or contemporary, it is a part of the human condition, wrapped up in our history.
Biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us that ‘a grinding stone, an irrigation system, and an ear of corn are also technology’ in her article about the history of maize production. She tells of how corn, a staple of many countries’ diets, was selectively bred by Mayan people and that it relies on a symbiotic relationship with humans to be grown.
The internet that we use daily developed from military technology following World War II. Cryptography and communication machines were used to transmit messages between points in early iterations, such as ARPAnet. In 1990 Tim Berners Lee created the building blocks of the internet while working at CERN in Switzerland, and this invention has had a profound effect on the last thirty years of our lives.
3. “Normie Computerdom”
Although the internet has offered a new world of possibility in communication, it has also helped to homogenise western culture. I have written here before about the effects of monocrop planting in forestry, and how the trees in these forests are susceptible to disease. In technology, mono-culture is also a problem.
As I was writing this text, Silvio Lorusso published an article that tried to find a name for mono-culture in computing. Names are suggested from “Platform Consensus” to “Normie Computerdom”. Lorusso used open source media to get suggested names, while fine-tuning the widely accepted view that computing is monopolised by a small number of companies. In recent news, it was announced that Jeff Bezos is moving toward becoming the world’s first trillionaire as his company Amazon reaps the benefits of a pandemic where the poorest people are suffering most. The disparity, and the effects of mono-culture, have never been as well illustrated.
The development of the mono-digital-culture, whatever we choose to call it, is a long and lamentable one. The technologies that underlie the internet are free and open source. CERN gave away the early web technologies for the betterment of society, but companies have used these to build a reputation and then to smother or buy their competition in the online world (Google, Amazon, Facebook) and the hardware that connects us to that world (Apple, Microsoft).
Mono-crop farming. Solo top-level predators. Centralised networks. “Normie Computerdom”. To quote the punk bank Crass: ‘How well you’ve been caught to support your oppression. One god. One church’ .
4. Losing the Digital Public Sphere
Many of the early users of the internet were involved in common sharing, an ideology that came from hacker culture in the 1980s. In 1984, at The Hackers Conference, Stewart Brand used the phrase that was to define hacker identity and the early days of the internet: “Information wants to be Free”. In its early iteration, the internet provided space for communication and conversation that was guided by this principle.
The invention of Web 2.0 in the early 2000s created some dynamic opportunities for peer-sharing and open communication. Social networks began to appear at this time, on platforms like Facebook or Twitter. However, as time has gone on, it has become apparent that these companies profit not from the development of networks but from the fracturing of them. Examples include the echo chambers of news and online media that have helped guide recent western political crises . In 2013, the sudden and untimely and tragic death of Aaron Swarz, at 26 years of age, seemed to confirm the US’s support for monetised internet companies over its citizens. Swarz was a hacker icon and a firm believer in free information who was under trial for sharing academic articles for free. Like the disconnected single-crop forests, the monetised networks erode social connection because they profit from individualisation.
Current monetised social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) were adapted to human behaviour, becoming user friendly and easy to navigate, and encouraging specific addictive behaviours. They are led by quantification – how many friends? how many likes? how many shares? This learned behaviour fits the power model of individual advancement creating distance between people, explored by philosophy in the 20th Century . Hannah Arendt in particular saw the potential for power through individualistic thinking, showing how states create disconnections between people, and that this can be controlled by a person-less state: ‘the rule by nobody is not necessarily no-rule; it may indeed, under certain circumstances, even turn out to be one of its crudest and most tyrannical versions.’ [6, p.40].
The power systems online seem to match perfectly those offline, following a similar pattern of divide and conquer, monitor and control. By keeping people in a constant state of stasis, and by making them both producers and consumers of the material on these platforms, they become reliant on the monoculture of technology that has been presented to them. That monoculture, in turn, follows late capitalist structures of production and management: cheap materials made with unethical processes with little thought for environmental issues beyond greenwashing.
5. We’re not numbers
‘We know that the idea of market stability has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. The original promise of the Californian ideology was that the computers would liberate us from all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes, in control of our own destiny. Instead today, we feel the opposite: that we are helpless components in a global system. A system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge, or to change.’
Adam Curtis, All watched over by machines of loving grace. Episode 1 of 3: Love and Power. London: BBC2.
The founding director of the Institute of Network Cultures, Geert Lovink, recently declared network cultures dead, seeing ‘a sad emptiness accompanies the mass individualization of the cult of personality’ (p. 103). Although written with a view to trying to change this, Lovink still mourns the passing of the network cultures that helped shape the early internet.
The control of platforms like social media, email and e-commerce is mirrored by a control of the hardware: the routers, computers and cables that are used to connect to these platforms. This centralised infrastructure ensures a public sphere cannot grow too large or too strong without being redirected or monitored by sources with power or influence.
Artists respond to this erosion of the digital public by using digital media as a platform for critique. The conference Art Meets Radical Openness, taking place May 20th-23rd 2020 online, invites artists who challenge this status quo to collaborate and engage in meaningful debate. Art group Clusterduck offer online space that is more akin to a punk appropriation of the internet. The Solarpunk Ham Radio Club began in climate disasters: three coastal superstorms that his the USA in 2016. They developed short-range networks in the wake of the failure of the centralised communications infrastructure. They have subsequently continued to help develop ad-hoc and decentralised networks that are used for information and skill sharing that shift ‘away from many of the features of information capitalism, such as centralized network control and ubiquitous surveillance…to establish a new ethics of communications infrastructure’ .
The network is perhaps not dead, but is struggling to compete with the giants of technology, and their own advertising reach. However, there is hope.
In the last few years, open source networks have been growing, and although still small, they are beginning to compete with the corporate social media websites. Social networks like Mastodon and Diaspora have engaged online communities – these are part of a broader network of technologies often referred to as the ‘Fediverse’. I have used Mastodon to develop Socratic Dialogues for this series of works, and have been rewarded with rich and generous contributions from the users (I will publish more on this in future posts).
These platforms are user-led and user-run, with strict rules on sharing of information, particularly false information . They do not have a commercial goal, so advertising or false messaging is difficult to circulate. Like in a forest where there is an array of species protecting one another, it is difficult to infiltrate a network when the nodes are self-regulating and self-righting. Just as with the commons, rules and self-regulation are needed, particularly as networks grow.
It is not only the online communities that are using open source technology. Many people are replacing their computers with low-power cheap alternatives like Raspberry Pi microcomputers (devices that I have been using for art installations since 2012).
The biggest challenge is convincing people to leave the mono-culture behind. By using the same centralised systems, people are feeding the same machine and slowly eroding the potential of this network. By moving away from these platforms, purchasing from independent sellers, supporting open source platforms, the network can live again, and can thrive.
6. Kielder and Digital Networks
Technology as an enabler of networks is the final of three concepts that my upcoming residency at Kielderhead Wildwood Project hopes to unlock (the other two are previously documented here and here). My aim: to discover if it is possible to learn from natural networks in forests, such as the Wood Wide Web (mycorrhizal networks), and use these as a model for human networks (including digital networks).
The blog posts that appear on this website document the process of understanding these networks. Biologist Scott Gilbert writes that “Almost all development may be co-development” . In a similar way, technologies can be used for co-development.
A rewilding/environmental restoration project is an interesting point to come to in this debate. Rewilding uses human hands to put back in place something that nature had previously provided. It is imperfect – replanting a forest does not guarantee that the birds, animals, insets, fungi, lichen or any other creature will follow. The new forest, nursed in a tree nursery and planted as saplings, do not grow as trees do in the forest (i.e. under shade of the canopy, slowly, and with help from the mycorrhizal systems below). But it is a start.
Technology is a core part of rewilding. Without documentation and surveying of the area as a bird reserve, Kielderhead Wildwood Project would not have happened. Without the tools available to move thousands of trees, it could not take place. Without online promotion and visibility, the efforts cannot be shared and repeated.
Groups of volunteers travel to the countryside to plant saplings, collect seeds and offcuts, and get muddy. Kielderhead Wildwood Project brings these people together forms a public sphere in one of the most traditional ways – around trees. I have been working remotely with the extended network of the ENTWINED programme (due mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also prior to my planned project), including staff and board members, volunteers and the community at Kielder, and all of those authors and researchers whose writing and art inform this work. Each collaborator is a seed, a sapling or a shrub in this project, helping to together form a forest.
When I arrive in Kielder, I will experiment. In recent installations apo (2017) and faigh ar ais as an fharraige (2018), I created environments that asked audiences to question how technology forms a part of their lives. Looking down at screens, selecting, tapping, reacting – these mechanics are part of our everyday life. But what are the wider consequences?
At Kielder, the network exists. It just needs to grow and flourish without being assimilated, diseased, or infested.
- Flaxman, S., Goel, S., & Rao, J. M. (2016). Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online news consumption. Public opinion quarterly, 80(S1), 298-320
- Pariser, E. (2011). Eli Pariser: Beware Online” filter Bubbles”: Ted.
- Arendt, H. (1978). The Life of Mind–Thinking–Willing. New York-Lon.
- Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 1972. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.
- Foucault, M. (1965). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Pantheon, 1965), 70.
- Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago, USA: The University of Chicago Press.
- O’Dwyer, R. (2020). Another Net is Possible. In K. a. L. Gansing, Inga (Ed.), The Eternal Network: The Ends and Becomings of Network Culture (pp. 68-80). Amsterdam and Berlin: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, and transmediale e.V., Berlin, 2020.
- Poderi, G. (2019). Sustaining platforms as commons: perspectives on participation, infrastructure, and governance. CoDesign, 15(3), 243-255.
- Gilbert, S. F., McDonald, E., Boyle, N., Buttino, N., Gyi, L., Mai, M., . . . Robinson, J. (2010). Symbiosis as a source of selectable epigenetic variation: taking the heat for the big guy. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1540), 671-678.