The World Is a Computer

The exhibition programme Struktura in Oslo reminds us that there’s an ongoing ideological battle over the use of information technology.

Black Quantum Futurism, Black Space Agency, 2018, still from video.

In his ambitious blend of critical theory and speculative design manual, The Stack (2015), design theorist Benjamin Bratton launched the idea that the Internet and its infrastructure should be regarded as a planetary-scale computer. The minerals needed to produce network-enabled devices, the fossil fuels which provide electricity, and the fibre-optic cables which carry intangible information to and from server parks are – along with all the phones, sensors, images, and robots which communicate with each other and with humans – essentially an integrated whole, an accidental mega-structure. This structure, or “Stack”, consists of several smaller stacks competing for the power to divide up the world. Google’s influence through Google Maps is one example, affecting traffic patterns worldwide, with consequences for urban planning and local economies. At the same time, Google services are unavailable in China, where censorship laws and the Chinese firewall favour domestically developed Baidu maps.

Tech companies vie for power and influence from the hyperlocal plane (they all want their voice assistant in your apartment or their operating system on your phone) to the global level, where the sovereignty of nation states is increasingly challenged by privately owned networks and platforms. The Stack’s ability to create partly privatised enclaves in the home and in public spaces is the focal point of Struktura. Time, a five-month art programme initiated and organised by Oslo-based artist Lesia Vasylchenko, on since November 2019 and due to end in early March 2020. An online exhibition is on display throughout the entire period, in parallel with exhibitions, lectures, reading groups, and screenings at exhibition venues and institutions in Oslo (the artist-run galleries K4 and Podium, as well as Oslo National Academy of the Arts and the student-run exhibition space Akademirommet at Kunstnernes Hus). The project brings together contributions from artists based in Oslo, Beirut, London, Berlin, Paris, Philadelphia, Jakarta, and Taiwan in addition to several academics, most of whom are affiliated with the University of Oslo.

The online section of Struktura is a simple website where hyperlinks to eleven artworks are arranged around an animation of a flowing grid. The works take the form of web pages, videos, and 3D models exploring different strata of the Stack’s division of the world. Jakarta-based Natasha Tontey’s Pest to Power (2019) – also featured at the artist-run exhibition venue K4 – is a mishmash of gaudy gifs, 3D animations, screenshots, texts, video, and audio that pays tribute to the modest cockroach; the overall aesthetic is akin to the memes produced on image boards such as 4Chan or 8Chan. The American duo Black Quantum Futurism (artists Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillips) spin an information-heavy Afrocentric conspiracy theory which claims that the Antikythera mechanism, a device built in Greek antiquity to calculate the position of celestial bodies, was in fact assembled by a secret order in what is now Tunisia.

Paris-based Tabita Rezaire’s performative essay video Deep Down Tidal (2017) is more to the point, making use of the term “digital colonialism” to describe Western tech companies’ struggle for platform hegemony in rapidly urbanising African states. 3D animations of underwater fibre-optic cables and screenshots of maps are stitched together with a droning synth soundtrack, text fragments, and dance sequences performed in front of a green screen. Karin Keisu and Josse Thuresson’s Perverse temporalities (2019) is a camp amateur opera where the artists sing excerpts from a journal article on queer temporalities. Keisu and Thuresson appear in separate video windows which viewers are free to pause, rewind, and fast forward as they wish, thereby manifesting the idea of non-synchronous time. The article mentioned exemplifies this asynchronicity with reference to how Thailand is considered a sexual haven by gay European tourists, while the local culture tends to be far less liberal. Such culturally divergent and asynchronous geographical coexistence could be symptomatic of the Stack’s production of social enclaves through the filtering effects of apps and social media

Karin Keisu and Lasse Josse Thuresson, Perverse temporalities, 2019, still from video.

Canadian-Iranian Bahar Noorizadeh’s After Scarcity (2018), exhibited online and at Podium in Oslo from mid-February to early March, is a speculative what-if scenario based on Soviet plans to build a computer network to steer the centrally planned economy, a “socialism on speed” intended to get rid of the massive administrative bureaucracy needed to gather data. The project was shelved in the 1970s due to internal power struggles. Lidar images (three-dimensional maps generated by a rapidly rotating laser) displaying sites related to network research in former Soviet states join a Russian voiceover, subtitles, and retro-futuristic design in evoking a planetary network that uses sophisticated feedback to control the production of goods and extraction of natural resources. The film succinctly argues for a cybernetic-socialist international as a viable response to problems that individual nation states struggle to respond to, such as the climate crisis.

Similar to accelerationist thinkers Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, whose book Inventing the Future (2015) asserts that we are on the threshold of automating manual labour and building welfare systems based on a universal basic income, Noorizadeh underscores the left’s need for renewed utopian thinking if it is to wrest the future of network technology from Silicon Valley’s neoliberal entrepreneurs. Key to Srnieck and Williams’s thinking is an insistence on technology as non-deterministic: ideology affects what network technology we invent and what kind of world it ends up producing.

At the micro end of the scale, we find Oslo-based Danish artist Kim Laybourn’s installation The Significant Other (2020), shown at Podium in January, but also available online in an abridged version. Laybourn’s installation at Podium comprised a sculpture and two curved video projections extending all the way through two rooms. Set to the sound of crackling thunder and rain, delicate macro footage panned across a model landscape made of organic materials in various states of decay. Undulating digital distortions highlighted the artificial nature of the images and reminded viewers that sophisticated camera technology gives access to otherwise imperceptible processes and matter.

Kim Laybourn, The Significant Other, 2020, installation view from Podium. Photo: Podium.

The lecture given by Oslo-based cultural theorist Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay at Oslo National Academy of the Arts in mid-February was also an invitation to think big on a small scale. Chattopadhyay presented an analysis of depictions of ants in science fiction, where they are often reduced to an invading, existential threat to human civilisation. Chattopadhyay pointed out the analytical potential of turning away from the anthropocentric worldview propagated in sci-fi, looking instead to opportunities to learn from ants, for instance from their capacity to create mega-colonies which collaborate across continents. Implicit was also a criticism of actor-network theory’s (also known as ANT) tendency to locate agency exclusively in processes which take place on the human scale.

Chattopadhyay and Laybourn both touched upon how awareness of non-human life can provide useful perspectives on a world tangled in fibre-optic cables. However, most of the contributions to Struktura deal with the network infrastructure’s privatisation of human life, often by delving into specific “cases.” The polyvocality of the programme doesn’t cancel out its many qualities, but it does make a more holistic argument for what a network-centric world can or should be seem out of reach. Struktura shows that the world-as-computer (or “the Stack”, to use Bratton’s term) is one of the overarching narratives of our time, with significant geopolitical effects. The impact of planetary-scale computing on everything from urban planning to the environment, social life, warfare, and aesthetics is immense, though not set in stone. The ideological struggle for technology persists.