I discovered the Internet pretty young in the early 1990s, and it was clearly the most interesting thing that was happening or that was going to happen. I thought that anything involving the Internet would be the interesting place to be. At that time the only thing anyone knew about the Internet was web design, so I thought web design would be the thing. No one in my school knew what web design was, they just knew it was something to do with computers. So they encouraged me to go and study computer science, which was fine. I was split between humanities and science, and I've always been really bothered by the fact that they are considered to be so separate. But I went to study it on the understanding that if you study computer science, you can still read a book, but if you study English literature you are going to really struggle with technology. And that's a shameful state of affairs, but it's the way that it is.
Weirdly, studying computer science had nothing to do with the Internet, or so I thought at the time. Computer science is very mathematics-led, very mechanics-led; it's about logic and theory far more than it is about how most people understand computers. By the time I finished my Masters in Artificial Intelligence, I hated computers so much that I went to work in
So I first started looking into it as a function of business, publishing as an industry; what the Internet and what e-books would do to the publishing industry. But it quickly became obvious that there was an even more fundamental question, which was how literature itself has changed by becoming digital, and therefore how all cultural objects and cultural discourses change by things becoming digital and virtual. But that was really hard to understand, because you got such weird conflicting statements from people. I still love talking to people about how they feel about books versus e-books because it's incredibly revealing. What you find is that people who haven't used e-books, and who like books, will go on and on and on about books and the magic of them, and how special they are, and how they would never consider reading an e-book, because of paper or because of the smell of the book - all these really physical qualities that seem to have nothing to do with the literature itself. We're always told not to judge a book by its cover, but when you ask about it they talk about its physical qualities.
Yet at the same time, as soon as e-books arrived they became pretty popular. Kindle and Amazon stuff does really, really well. It turns out people are really happy to read off screens, and I always knew that was going to be the case because we spend our lives reading off screens. The idea that it's hard to read off a screen, which is what people say about e-books, is rubbish (anyone who has an office job spends most of the day sat in front of a computer). But what seemed to be the problem is that people simply didn't have the language to talk about that distinction, about what it meant to have a cultural experience that didn't have a physical representation. And that's what books were - these physical souvenirs of an imaginary experience. The quality of a book of literature happens in the mind, it doesn't need to happen on this chunk of 'things'. But people have become so accustomed to being able to mediate their cultural experiences through physical objects, they are incapable of talking about them without some kind of physical representation.
This is the constant iteration of the argument that says there is nothing new under the sun and we have done all this before, just with different words, rather than living in a radical new present. Even trying to decide between those things seems like a false dichotomy to me. There has always been novelty in the world and there are always some things that remain the same. For me what often changes is that what you see revealed are often latent behaviors, latent desires. Many of these things have emerged in certain ways before and there is a deep history of them, whether it's violent warfare or if it's the desire for community. Those desires have always been enacted in various ways. Technology allows them to be enacted in new and different ways, and it also reveals them to our sight in ways that we didn't entirely see them before. So, suddenly we are made aware of these things. Now, there is a difference between them not existing before and us not being aware of them before, but on an individual level that's not a very great difference. That still leads to quite a different understanding of the world.
It's that understanding of the world that I am trying capture. It's a very subjective view because we suddenly understand our own subjectivity in this, because suddenly we can see so much more around us that it forces us to confront that breakdown in our understanding of the world.
Surveillance is an interesting case because of what's possible with it computationally. There have always being surveillance societies before but they've largely been limited by technological capabilities - you can't watch everything all the time. So one of the biggest examples of surveillance right now is the NSA/GCHQ spying operations. One of the most common objections you hear to that is people thinking that they can't possibly be reading everything: “I don't even care if they read all my e-mails because they are just going to read my boring e-mails about what's for dinner and they don't have enough people to do that”. But that totally fails to understand the technological operation here. Actually, we have the computational storage now to read everything, and the scale of that is so vast that it's almost incomprehensible to the human mind. You could call it a 'macroscope'.
The same applies to something like the
I probably didn't think about that stuff in any way until I was 18 or 19. I guess I was as interested as anyone else in the news. I kept up with current affairs, but I never really thought about it politically. Before 2001-2002 there was a growing wave of certain kinds of protest in London, particularly the anti-capitalist stuff, the Reclaim the Streets protests. These were quite broad social justice movements, and I used to go along to a lot of those marches largely out of curiosity and interest and because there seemed to be something slightly more radical and interesting than the dead politics at that time, or even of today. But it really crystallised around the protests against the invasions of Afghanistan, and particularly of Iraq. The protests leading up to the invasion of Iraq for me, and I think for many others, were deeply transformative. This was clearly an issue on which people felt very differently to the government.
At that time we all smelled a rat. We didn't like the smell of it, and that has been entirely justified in the years since. We know now that this was a war fought entirely on false pretences, and even if it had been fought for the best of reasons, every warning that was given beforehand about the outcomes of increasing devastation and horror have all proven true. We know we were right about that, and yet there's still this vast gap in the political reality of today, compared to what everyone knows now and what a lot of us knew back then. For me, there is this huge psychic hangover for a huge swathe of the population, and particularly for those who had their political coming-of-age during those periods, when they participated in what felt like a vast, powerful movement that was completely ignored by people in power.
Yeah, I went to very traditional English boarding schools. I can't escape that particular aspect of my background, and I think that has given me an intense distrust of systems of power. I belonged to one of those groups that probably exist within any school or authoritarian institution of that kind, that looks at it as a system not to be directly rebelled against, but a system to be worked around, to be analysed and understood in order to see what you can achieve within certain constraints. I would never be one of those kids who would be just trying to get into trouble, I would be one of the kids trying to get away with it and not get caught. I think that's where a lot of my feelings about the inequality and arbitrariness of power systems came from. The fact that we now have a government in this country that was entirely educated in that system as well - they were the kids at the top - that stuff continues to play out in your life and in your politics. And that connects me to the Internet, which I discovered around the same time, that suddenly there is this thing that older people and the people in power don't understand, don't have a handle on. They are trying pretty damn hard to recapitulate on that now, but at that time it was this incredible zone of possibility. For me the Internet and all the technologies around it will always have that revolutionary potential embedded in them, because they are the systems that grew up outside those existing systems of power.
In a lot of my work I am often accused of deifying the new, of saying that just because something's new it must be better, and am told that novelty is not always the best gauge for something. But at the same time I always think that if we haven't solved certain great political, social or legal problems before it's because we haven't had the tools to do so. So we must always look to the new tools that we have available to us, because if there is any form of solution or improvement then it must lie on those new tools because we didn't possess them before.
I never really made a choice for these things to appear in the art context. I've been doing them anyway, and often in a technological context rather than an artistic context. It turns out that the
But I'm very lucky to be able to do that work with some support from the art world, at least promotional support, buy my natural inclination is to take it further and do this in public. Because I think that's fundamental to working in what I kind of consider to be the vernacular of the Internet. If you are, like I am, working with network technologies, talking about network technologies, if your business is of trying to understand network technologies, then you have to work in them. The art world is fairly averse to that; it's still fairly tied to the idea of the discrete and unique object, and to the discrete and unique space of the gallery, which is fundamentally anti-network. So, that relationship can only go so far.
In the big anti-war marches in 2002-2003, I used to walk in the middle of those marches and get people to lie down and draw around them in chalk, so that when the march moved off you'd suddenly be left with this field of bodies on the street. The drone shadows are direct descendants of that work. They are public artworks in the sense of being performed in public, partly by the public, and entirely for the public.
I call it research because it's hard to classify in other ways. The driving force for me is finding the stuff out and sharing it in various ways, whether that is through writing and journalism, or whether it's speaking and giving lectures or making works. The works usually start out as ways of understanding my own research for myself. In the process of making the work, I come to understand something that I didn't necessarily understand before, and that is important. If that's interesting to other people, brilliant. But what I call 'research', I really consider just paying attention. There's a huge amount of information out there in the world that is available to everyone now; the sort of research that I do is not some kind of specialised skill. I don't have access more than anybody else does, I just pay attention to things and I draw the connections between them. This, mostly with hindsight, is a very network-oriented way of thinking about these things, being aware that there is not necessarily a straight, direct line of research to be pursued. But it has to be on a far broader basis than that.
One of the criticisms you hear from critics of technology like Nicholas Carrs, who wrote this book 'The Shallows', is this pervasive idea that the Internet is making you stupider, that it is making you shallow. This seems to me ridiculous, this idea that knowledge is only a function of depth, that it is only if you are incredibly specialist in a single subject that you have greater intellectual heft. We play in a far vaster sphere now. We all have access to this because of network technologies, and I think we are still developing the methods of research and production that will account for that in time.
When I think about people's ability to act in the world, and to have an autonomy that allows them to choose their own destiny, I believe that there is the possibility of having greater autonomy when you have a greater understanding of the world as it actually is. Technology, in an ideal world, increases that ability to act in the world because it gives you this incredible tool set for doing more things in all kinds of spheres, whether it is knowledge about politics, learning skills or whatever. But because you are largely accessing that information through networks and technological systems, you are not necessarily in control of how that information is shaped, written or realised, and how it reaches you. Because it's technological, it is possible to read it if you have your own literacy and understanding of it. Mostly technology is created by specialists and that is fine as long as those specialists communicate the full meaning, and as long as the biases inherent in those systems are made visible. By and large, they are not. It is the function of design and software, and so much else, to tidy away the details of those things and to make them unclear. So we actually return to a position in which we know less about the world around us.
The artist and technologist Julian Oliver calls this a 'storybook' version of reality. It's like we used to live in a world where we fundamentally understood most of the processes that happened around us. Take the example of the postal system. If you asked someone how the postal system works, they would say - you write an address on an envelope, it goes into a box, someone comes along and takes it to another place... You ask them about how e-mail works and that whole understanding of the world falls apart. And you realise that most people have no idea how everything around them works. When that gets scaled up to the financial system, or to electoral politics, that's a matter of concern. It's also something that technology could be used to solve if applied directly, but it is also obvious that the complexity of technology makes it something that's very easily appropriated by those in power to maintain the status quo.
Most of this work examines the issues it is covering, particularly when it comes to warfare and drones. It examines it from a distance and through the distance that technological networks give it. In many cases, it's actually a lot closer than we've ever been able to get to the stuff previously, as individuals. The media might have some kind of access, with journalists and financing behind them, but most of us can't.
We also know that just showing pictures of disasters doesn't work, there is no action possible at that level. This stuff is happening and we know it's gruesome and evil and horrific. But just knowing it's going on doesn't help, it doesn't get us anywhere. These issues are not individual issues, of particular bombings or particular deaths, as horrific as those things are. There are systemic issues in politics that produce these, and will continue to produce them if we don't have an understanding of the far larger systems and networks that make them possible. The work is not about pointing at specific tragedies, it's about pointing at the entire system that produces it.
What I'm always fascinated by is how much of my work is shaped by the media in which I'm doing it. By using the tools that I use, whether they are social networks, blogging platforms, or the Internet in general, it really shapes the work that gets produced. For me that's brilliant, because there's obviously something about these technologies that is shaped the right way for the way that people are understanding things because of the Internet. You have to use the tools of the medium itself in order to do that. You have to pick the right ones, and some are badly designed, but working with them allows a certain familiarity with the system. Forever I've wanted to write a book about the Internet and I can't figure out how to do it, because the Internet is not a book-like thing, it's an
The story of the Internet is like a blog, it's a thing that rolls on. It has no beginning, middle and end. It's an endless series. That may change. I don't think the Internet is the last technology that we will have (this is often what the early days of new technologies feel like, which has happened many times in the past). But I think one of the key things about my research is that it really struggles to avoid conclusions. It tries very hard not to generate the traditional markers of a theory. I'm not interested in manifestos, or in a statement of intent. Not because there isn't room for those things, but they are inappropriate to the subject matter. They are not capable of defining the subject and the discussion, and that is this much more networked, distributed model of understanding that I am struggling to articulate.
is something that I feel has actually being really radically transformed. If you want to look at one thing that digital storage, computation and imaging has really transformed our understanding of, it is mapping, because maps as physical objects are instruments of total control. You draw a line on the map and that then defines the world. They are incredibly powerful tools for shaping the world. Digital maps are something radically different. They are not the same as physical maps, in the way that many digital things are not the same as physical ones, because they don't exist materially. They are accumulations of data, they are dynamic, they are constantly being rewritten. The re-write cycle of paper maps is years, decades, even centuries in some cases. Wherease the re-write cycle of the digital map is instantaneous and it's accessible.
The difference between OpenStreetMap and the ordnance survey is beyond the mere fact of one being digital and one being paper-based. It's about the form in which it is constructed. It's about the accountability of that construction, like Wikipedia where anyone can see not only the content but how that content was formed. You can see who has made the decisions that go into this map. You can also move it, it's an animation that's constantly being redrawn in the browser just as it's constantly being redrawn in the world by people adding to it. That makes those kind of things incredibly powerful tools. One thing I like is the old Marshall McLuhan quote about how we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. But that's a quote from a time when it took a long time to make a tool. I can sit down and make my own tools now, or I can take other peoples' tools and rewrite them, and that rewrite cycle is much tighter. It's not simply a matter of making the tool and then being defined by the tool. Make the tool, do something with the tool, be defined by the tool, redefine the tool, redefine yourself.
These things are much more widely accessible to those that have the skills to do them. You don't have to rely on using or being shaped by other peoples' tools, and that applies incredibly strongly to mapping. It allows anyone to create their own maps of their own area and space in which they have speciality, whether that's a farmer with crops or whether it is activists doing a demonstration using digital mapping tools, they can add stuff to in order to change their behaviour.
If we are talking about how political activists use the Internet as a tool for activism, then you need to be aware that there are powers that control that space already, that have a more privileged access to it, and that can intervene in that if they choose to at multiple levels. They can intervene at the programmatical level, at the transfer point by inserting themselves into the net. But they can also intervene in the physical level by simply cutting cables. It's important to remember that the virtual world is not one that is separate and magic and special above all other things. The way that the intelligence agencies currently surveil the internet is by literally plugging into the cables and taking the raw data.
So they are active in this space as well, but it's a space that, if we understand it fully, there are for getting around it. Cryptography is the major weapon for people wanting to use these networks for communication. But cryptography is hard; it requires an understanding of the technology in order to use it effectively. So I would say the same thing to political activists wanting to use this technology to its full potential as I would say to digital artists who want to express something about this technology, which is that you must have a fundamental understanding of the material that you are working with. When we talk about this in the context of art, we talk about the ability to mix your own paint. Great artists mix their own paint. They don't just paint, they have a fundamental understanding of how to produce the material that they work with, and that allows them to understand the limits of that material, the possibilities of it, how to do things with it that aren't clear if you are acting purely on received information. The same is true of any interaction with technology. If you have a fundamental understanding of how these processes work, you can do what you need to do, whether that is to achieve open communication, to use cryptography, or to recognise when other actors are using the space. All of these things require a literacy in the material in order to be able to read it and therefore speak back to it in a coherent way.
Whenever we're being cold and technocratic about this stuff, it's always good to remind ourselves that technology is deeply human. These are all things that have been made by people, that are frequently still maintained by people and are used by people, that's how we have access to them. They are deeply human creations. Technology is not something separate from human emotions and certainly not from human desires, it's formed out of them. And it's important to remind people of that, because the greatest argument for this stuff being important is generating an emotional response in people. My constant refrain is that the peoples' ideas and understandings and emotions about technology will tell you far, far more about what that technology is in a very real sense than an understanding of its workings. But if you want to do the research and the programming and the probing, then you have to understand how the technology works as well. You can't just be an observer, you have to be an actor.
It's the easiest and oldest argument in the world to make, that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. The problem is that you don't get to decide what you have to hide. You don't get to decide who sets the rules for what is acceptable and whether they can change in the future. There are things that you might not consider worth hiding now, but that ten years down the line may be worth hiding - that's a pretty simple example. But the other one is simply for me an issue of power and consent. I believe that as an individual I have the right to make certain decisions about , to render myself legible or illegible to the state or corporations to a degree of my choosing.
It's all very well if people, and I know plenty of them, genuinely don't care about someone reading their mail. I happen to, and I don't see why that is counted for less. It's the foundation of individual liberty to have the right to choose how much is divulged about yourself, to be able to present to yourself in a way of your choosing. Without that, we lack all autonomy.
We live in a culture in which privacy is valued at almost nothing, and it's quite bizarre to me the low value at which we sell our privacy. That is entirely encouraged by a culture - Big Brother being an interesting example - where it's believed that your privacy is traded for fame. And that's the tradeoff that we make constantly, that privacy is traded off for these tiny benefits. When we give our data to large corporations like Google or Facebook, the value that they gain from it is far greater than the benefits that we get back. We are giving away far more than we are receiving in kind. But it feels to me like a design issue; we've allowed ourselves to buy into a privacy market in which we hold all the wealth and sell it for nothing. I don't know what the outcome of that is, but it does indeed feel like a cultural issue.
When it comes to state surveillance, such as the CCTV surveillance you get in London, it just feels like subservience. We've just been so worn down by rhetoric of crime and terrorism dangers, that we've been tricked into thinking that this is the answer to it. It is not. Any kind of scientific study of this will show you that it is not, and any kind of serious moral reckoning will oppose it as well. For me, I find myself frequently baffled by why we do it, but since it is the case, then our job is to continue to have the debate and try to change it.
The New Aesthetic is a research project started a couple of years ago now, and it emerges from a couple of sources. The important thing to note about it at the very outset is it's not really to do with aesthetics. Traditionally aesthetics focuses on ideas of beauty and the look of something. I'm using the look of things to examine the systems behind them much more deeply.
The New Aesthetic emerges from that deep satisfaction with our understanding of technology, and a desperation to find a way of talking about the world that makes sense now. I've always been incredibly bothered by the fact that the dominant cultural mode at the moment is retro and vintage, which feels to me like a failure of previous models of the future that we were weaned on - sci-fi and these incredible visions of a future that simply hasn't come to pass (we're not living on other planets, we're not eating meal pills, that kind of stuff). So it appears to feel to most people as though we live in this dead and flat time where nothing has changed. We are actually living in a time of incredible technological acceleration, and innovation, and change - the internet is fundamentally changing society - but we have no way of representing that. So we fall back into these modes of nostalgia, and I believe it hampers us. I believe that it means we've failed to fully grasp the potential of our new technologies.
The New Aesthetic is an attempt to find more contemporary features, to locate that future in the now, to point out that this incredible future has already arrived, and it's all around us. It's in the devices in our pockets. It's in the wi-fi signals in the air. This is the future we were promised and we are living in it. And in order to point to those things, it finds the strange cognitive dissonances that are produced largely by people's failure to understand that. Whether that's in the digital grain of 3D printed objects, whether it's in the political implications of errors in digital mapping tools, whether it's in the arrangement of GPS satellites. Whether it's in the periodic crises of personal privacy and subjectivity we encounter when a social network manages our personal data badly. All of these are cognitive dissonances produced by our inability to fully comprehend new technologies. But by pointing to them we might perhaps point out new ways of using them and new ways of understanding them.
Yes, it's an assemblage rather than a thesis. I think of it as an argument, as something in progress. Again, there is no central manifesto to this. I am making an argument in various ways and I am not yet sure where that argument ends or where it takes it. It's a debate that is in process. It's a working definition of something, but the point of a working definition is that it is one that is temporary, unstable, subject to change. That's why it's like a playlist, as something that it's possible to add something to, to see if it fits, perhaps move it to shuffle things around.... It's necessarily contingent because the thing that it's discussing is entirely contingent.
I am a full-time Internet. This is how I see and understand the world. That's the problem I run into trying to describe what I do, because to me there is no other way of doing it. I think that's a product of my strange bouncing between disciples; the fundamental multidisciplinary approach is the only way to understand this stuff, because it is itself multidisciplinary. But the systemic approach of computer science coupled with a broad humanities ability to emotionally interact with this stuff, means I'm incapable of looking at the stuff and not seeing systems and politics behind it.
I'm constantly surprised when other people don't see those things. But it's interesting. It's not generational, for example. It may be generational to a small band of people in the middle, but older people always think that younger people have some kind of special magic view of this stuff, and I don't think that's true at all. In fact in my experience younger people, up to 20 or so, who have grown up with these technologies, question them even less because they are just part of the environment. So, I don't know how I do it, or particularly why, except that I find this subject endlessly fascinating and I think on some levels it is necessary.
For a while I've been really fascinated by the images that we see on boardings around the city of development sites, and particularly in these computer renderings of what the building is going to be like. This kind of pre-programming of what to expect from a space, because they are CGI and they are imaginings. They are not the reality of what this place is going to be like. They also contain these people that I became so endlessly fascinated by, so I've been collecting pictures as I walk around the city.
They often surprise you. They can appear in some cases very bizarre - this is quite clearly not a real scene, but it's intended to convey something, even though there are repeated figures, people who float half-way off the ground, and strange shadowy things going on. It's an incredibly strange and distorted image. And you start to look at the people who are featured in them and wonder who they are, and if they expected to be in these places. So to me they stand for 'us' in a digital feature, in this intangible liminal space that we don't have a full and complete understanding of.
There's a particular set of them I find endlessly fascinating because I've seen them everywhere. There is the rendering for the new Whitney Museum in New York, and there are two people in the scene I've seen all over the place. That's because they come from a particular set of downloadable images, like the render drone. They are easily accessible, because if you Google “people for architectural renderings”, you get this particular set of people. This same set of people gets to live endlessly in these buildings all over the world. There is the guy in the white suit who is in New York, but I've seen him in London, I've seen him in Australia, I've seen him inhabiting all these different buildings. So one of the projects is trying to work out how to describe the life of these images as a way of talking about the forms of architecture and the built environment that are shaped by computational processes. Because it's not just people being dropped into these spaces, it's entire buildings, and those buildings are the product of 3D software. They have their own biases and designs built into them. One of the things I am doing is trying to track down the company that took these original images to talk to these people, to find out what it feels like to be one of these endlessly reproduced digital humans, which for me is all of our experiences in microcosm.
Another project, 'A Ship Adrift' was an installation in partnership with Artangel, a big public art organisation. There was a one-room hotel built on top of an art centre by the river in London. It was in the shape of a boat, and you could book it and stay for the night. I wanted to connect it up to the Internet and I wanted the ship to sail, essentially. But I wanted it to sail across the Internet. So I put a weather station up on the roof next to this boat that constantly told me the wind speed and wind direction, and a bunch of other stuff. I used that information to track a virtual ship across the world and to follow its history. At any date over that time, I can look back and see where it was flying to. But at the same time as moving across this physical space, it was also moving through virtual space, because so much information on the Internet is geo-tagged. It has its own location associated with it, so I can look up local things on Wikipedia. I can find information about the local area the ship has travelled to - it's sucking in that information and trying to communicate it back.