Calculating Empires

Kate Crawford and Ivladan Joler present us a monumental work, through the temporary exhibition Calculating Empires currently on display at the Osservatorio Fondazione Prada (Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II). It’s going to stay on for two months only (it closes on January, 29th to be precise) and I cannot urge you enough to go and visit […]

Kate Crawford and Ivladan Joler present us a monumental work, through the temporary exhibition Calculating Empires currently on display at the Osservatorio Fondazione Prada (Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II). It’s going to stay on for two months only (it closes on January, 29th to be precise) and I cannot urge you enough to go and visit it. It’s almost entirely in English which is why, in a few hours, I’ll drop a rare Italian article as a vademecum to my fellow countrymen.

For everybody else, you can start by buying Joler’s Black Box Cartography – A critical cartography of the Internet and beyond, part of which is on display, and Crawford’s Atlas of AI. If you’re really an asshole, you can buy them on Amazon too. You’ll have to pay for shipping and the books have no cover thumbnail, which I didn’t think was possible.

What is the exhibition about?

I’ll give you an excerpt of the brief overview you can read at the entrance.

Curated by researcher-artists Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, “Calculating Empires” exhibition project charts our technological present by depicting how power and technology have been intertwined since 1500. By merging research and design, science and art, Crawford and Joler create a new way to understand the current spectacles of artificial intelligence by asking how we got here, and considering where we might be going. This mind-expanding installation invites visitors to experience the longue durée through a visualization of time, politics, and technology historically obscured by cultures of corporate secrecy and technical architectures, the complexities of colonialism, planetary supply chains, opaque labor contracting, a lack of regulation, and by history itself.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Calculating Empires maps room. Here the audience is immersed in a dark environment-like walking into a literal black box. Presenting itself as a codex of technology and power,
Calculating Empires shows how the empires of the past 500 years are echoed in the technology companies of today. This detailed visual narrative extends over 24 meters and illustrates forms of communication, classification, computation, and control with thousands of individually crafted drawings and texts that span centuries of conflicts, enclosures, and colonizations. One map reveals the multiplicity of our communication devices, interfaces, infrastructures, data practices, and computational architectures and hardware. The other map explores how these technologies are woven into social practices of classification and control: from prisons to policing, time to education, colonialism and economic production, to the multitude of military systems.
To contextualize this new work, the visitor first encounters Crawford and Joler’s Anatomy of an Al System, an exploded view diagram focusing on the case study of the Amazon Echo voice-assisted Al. This anatomical map visualizes the three central extractive processes required to run any large-scale Al system: material resources, human labor, and data. Where Calculating Empires is about time, Anatomy is about space.
The exhibition concludes in a cabinet of curiosities, an eclectic collection of books, devices, and ephemera spanning from 1500 to 2023, and in a small library that invites visitors to read, reimagine, and write their own additions, revisions, and complications of history. Any exhibition that spans centuries will necessarily be incomplete, impartial, and subjective: it can never be finished. So these maps are designed to be open to feedback, and to change over time.

What is my feedback?

Well, since you’re asking… The concept of digital labor triangle, borrowed from Marx and adapted to our digital realities through heavy use of Plato, is powerful and undeniable: the content-creator is willingly subservient in a situation where he’s consumer, product and worker at the same time, and the content he absorbs is a phoney projection of another digital worker, locked in their own cave. I don’t disagree with that. Far from it.

The main idea is explained here.

Allow me, however, three main points of disagreement.

1. Is the projection systemically phoney?

The idea of our digital self being a projection not very far from the shadows in Plato’s cave is not created by the system or, at least, it’s only partially created by our willingness to conform. And of course, this willingness is systemic, I’m not denying it, but it’s a chain that can be broken or at least shaken a bit even by staying in the system.

The constant showcase of our happier and wealthier versions through social media, for instance, is only one side of a coin in which it’s possible, albeit made more difficult by the algorithm, to share valuable and honest content, and create meaningful connections.
The role of the user as a willing prisoner is underplayed here, and the option of tricking the system by casting different shadows is not explored enough.

You know how much I love this.

2. Where’s the trade-off?

Again, the idea that technological colossi like Amazon and Google create singularities in the digital (and I would argue physical) fabric is absolutely on-point, and I can understand why one could say that people get dragged into them: you have friends on Facebook, who increase the pull of the singularity, and you resist joining the network up until a certain point where you have literally no other option but to join it if you want to stay in touch with your friends and basically carry on with your life. It happens to me as well, all the time: I eventually joined Instagram as compensation for my sabbatical from Twitter and LinkedIn, I started displaying more of my work through stories on Instagram because the algorithm over there demands it and I want to increase my engagement before Twitter is dead, etc.

The idea that a user is swimming against the current and being dragged into the holes is a romantic one, but I do believe it’s wrong in most cases. People swim towards the current because those singularities offer commodities and services in return. In technology implementation, it’s a concept we know as trade-off: every time you ask the user to modify their behaviour, you need to offer something in return. If you don’t, or if your offer isn’t palatable enough, your users will reject your offer and keep doing what they’ve been doing.

The 75 Tools for Creative Thinking include several activities on the concept of trade-off, including a titular one in the “Break Free” category.

Come up with ideas
that consider
what people are willing to trade off
as an alternative to their current behaviour.

How do you convince people to upload their personal pictures instead of keeping them in their homes? You offer them unlimited storage space and the possibility of easily sharing those pictures with other people. How do you convince people to tell them their demographic data, such as their birthdays? You introduce a function reminding their birthday to their friends. How do you convince people to produce content for your platforms? You promise that, if that content is produced following the rules, their digital persona will be appreciated, and they will receive a gratification they’re often not getting at work.

Trade-offs are everything: people are willingly swimming towards those singularities.

This doesn’t however mean that the commodity delivered by the trade-off isn’t real, isn’t valid and cannot have a positive impact on people’s lives. The connections you make online can be valuable, people are improving their jobs and meeting new clients. This makes the system a lot more complex than presented.

3. No slavery comparisons, please

In multiple points across the exhibition, the subservience of the digital worker is compared to the Atlantic Slave Trade, and Joler himself uses the expression “slave” with much freedom.

The guy looks like this.

If you’ve been following me through objections number 1 and 2 you’ll know why this comparison cannot stand: if it’s true that the modern digital worker is entrapped in a cage, and the cage is not of their own making, it is also true that we accept the deals offered by the digital platforms.
Consequently, by proposing that a willing participant in a system is a “slave”, the authors are failing to consider one point: there’s no trade-off in the physical deportation of millions and millions of people across the ocean so that they can work your fucking fields. To a philosopher, the level of choice might seem similar, but we cannot ignore the stakes when we elaborate on such concepts. No one is flogging me in the morning if I don’t open my cellphone and start posting, I’m not forcefully taken away from my family so that I can go write a tweet, a guy named Jeff isn’t entering my house through my cellphone to rape me. Plus, I do gain something from my unpaid labour: I gain connections, community, visibility, value of a digital self I do employ in my seeking for a job. Unfortunately, new African-American history standards approved in the United States promote the idea that Black people benefited from slavery too. Which is of course appalling and we cannot be complicit.

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