Self as Actor: Colonising identity
The exhibition’s title, Self as Actor,1 is inspired from Actor Network Theory,2 which explores the omnipresent and ever more unavoidable relationship between humans, technology and other nonhuman actors. The role that digitality, especially the web, plays in our lives, has become a symbiotic feature of our social reality, reflecting an incessant shifting network of interactions. In addition, Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Stack3 was a valuable pivot as we examine how global megastructure computation has influenced our geopolitical realities and how our understanding of these and in turn, ourselves, is/are shaped by global multi-layered and interconnected digital systems.
We are writing this text in Cyprus, a small island of just over one million people who, per capita, have the highest social media usage in the European Union, with almost all internet subscribers being members of Facebook.4 Do Cypriots have a blind trust in the openness of the internet and its ability to connect and share with friends? Perhaps, but more likely, this small island’s geographical position close to the war zones and increasing military threats to Middle Eastern and Northern African regions together with its own politico-economic history bestow upon the inhabitants a state of constant anxiety. Cyprus, is an interesting case due to these factors, but also because of the pervading feeling of isolation from what is perceived as the Western mainstream is shared by many Cypriots. Almost 80% of the population embraces the European Union despite its present unstable vision of democracy and rise of far-right nationalisms which are also occurring in both sides of this island. In addition, 20% of the de-facto population in the north is subject to a motherland vision of Turkey. In both communities, Facebook dominates social media usage for both news and other purposes clearly indicating a shared distrust in official media channels. With a population of 1,189,085 people counted in the 2017 census, Cyprus had over 971,369 internet users of which 870,00 were Facebook subscribers. Without the prospects of a secure predictable future, concepts of borders/buffer zones and nationalisms which appear physically entrenched are given the opportunity to supposedly dissolve online creating the appearance of a more open place.5 The fake promise of a perceived emancipatory technology is indeed appealing for Cypriots as well as for social media users living in the Eastern Mediterranean region surrounding Cyprus, where war, invasions, identity, migration and citizenship have nearly always been a fluctuating social and political construct creating states of uncertainty and dislocation.
The garnering of social capital means that most people prefer to enact their social participation through social media, a space of personalised algorithms rather than the physical world of interpersonal relationships, critique and discourse. This means that every mouse click is algorithmically analysed, quantified, and commodified making users the largest group of unpaid workers. Although, by now, most are aware of the large degree Big Data involves the vigorous use of algorithms for analytics as well as software for surveillance, it has not curbed the mass use of social media. In fact, mass networking on social media has become the cultural tool for experiencing a simulated sense of intimacy in spite of the unease of personal disclosure and issues about privacy and commodification. We nevertheless know that the user always pays and we are paying by surrendering our individual actions both in the physical and the virtual worlds. We have all been transfigured into isolated money generating bots and each person’s digital footprint results in a psychological and behavioural profile that is manipulated by ‘positive’ feedback helping further develop our psychometric personality.6 In fact, today, machines can recognise personality types better than humans. This colonisation of personal data is already manipulating social media content with targeted personalisation coerced by rolling newsfeeds creating the perpetual state of a simulated ideology of positivity. As such “censorship is no longer about suppression ‘but about controlling your attention and your credibility.’“7 As early as 2006, the present global condition of hypernormalisation was anticipated by Alexei Yurchak8 with its paradoxical nature of social change where the anxiety of the individual is somewhat appeased by their own reflection on the screen, what Adam Curtis also recognised as our own personal echo chambers.9
Furthermore, we reveal aspects about ourselves even when we’re not online. Our smartphone, is collecting information about us. An example of this is the motion sensor and GPS on our phones reveal how quickly we move and how far we travel which, in psychometric terms, relate to emotional instability.10 Interestingly, in February 2016, Nafeez Ahmed wrote an article published by INSURGE intelligence where he outlines the call for contractors by the US Department of Defence to mine social media posts in order to develop methodologies for them to deduce what users are feeling and thinking with the objective of anticipating their future actions. Ahmed quotes from the DoD’s call:
Social meaning comes not just from the manifest content of communication (i.e., literal information), but also from latent content — how language is structured and used, as well as how communicators address each other, e.g., through non-verbal means — gestures, head nods, body position, and the dynamics in communication patterns.11
We are informed by algorithms on who we are or whom we can become, targeted advertisements seduce us to become digitally mediated actors in our own self shaping, reaffirming Stuart Hall’s observation, made in 1996, that “Identity is not in the past to be found, but in the future to be constructed.“12 Unfortunately, this future is now full of precariousness and regenerating a sincere sense of global solidarity in order to combat these threatening obstacles that face us has been reduced to a small number of scholars, critical technologists, and activist groups. We have created a world where the idea of truth or the real is no longer a dependable referent. Real issues such as human rights abuses, homelessness or climate change cannot compete with mindless viral videos, fake news (post thruth), conspiracy theories, cute pets, and the controversial obsession with “dark tourism” selfies. The upsurge of citizen journalism and digital publications have enabled all forms of social sharing from all political spectrums resulting in the exponential growth of intolerance, racism, islamophobia and anti-semitism. The access to personal broadcasting is supposedly meant to transform us both in regard to ourselves and in regard to others.
Like all empires, the one created by mass data accumulation, is only interested in expanding. The control of the coloniser is now defined by the monopoly of the data colonised. This has been further expanded in Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff13 where she outlines how this new form of Capitalism usurps human experience as free raw material instantly converted into behavioural data. This is the new marketplace, controlled by the few, who wield so much power over the intimacies of existence, self appointed and empowered to monitor present and future behaviours of all individuals globally whether you have a Facebook page or not. This digital colonialism was also pre-empted by Tom McPhail, who began his career with Marshall McLuhan, and in 198114 he anticipated a new concept of empire that will be based on controlling the mind using repeated mass media messages. The conditions for controlling the global masses has now developed far beyond McPhail’s gloomy prediction.
During our very recent past, connectedness meant conversation and sharing physical closeness. Now it means listening to and sharing feel good, non threatening ideas with strangers and fusing into one interconnected vast network containing outsourced memories, experiences and information. This outreach can be useful as it may increase our awareness of issues and information on a global scale however there exists the very real danger of disconnecting on a local and physical level, remaining uninformed on what is happening in our own immediate community if it is not posted online. It is this disconnectedness which has debilitated our present condition making us actors in a perpetuated unreality. British journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, stated in her TED talk that the technology Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Jack Dorsey “have invented has been amazing. But now it’s a crime scene,” accusing them that they have “set out to connect people” but their “technology is now driving us apart.“15 This is a challenging call to action for all of us, not to champion the collapsing dysfunctional democracy we know, but strive for a new inclusive democracy with an emphasis on education and critical thinking. And it is here that artists have a responsibility to inform and work to transform our present global mainstream culture.
In conclusion, Self as Actor: colonising identity provided an opportunity for a diverse reflection on the global digital condition and its related social transformation. Many of the proposals responded with alternative means to engage and thus created opportunities to creatively reframe, question and rethink these new media technologies and their related software challenging our culture of reliance on digital surreality.
Participants for this exhibition were selected from an open call launched on the web in October 2018. The selection panel was comprised of Dr. Aysu Arsoy, (University of the Eastern Mediterranean), Dr. Angeliki Gazi, (Cyprus University of Technology), Ruth Catlow (Furtherfield), Yiannis Colakides (NeMe), and Helene Black (NeMe).
Featured residency artist: Garrett Lynch (IRL)
Benjamin Grosser, Derek Curry and Jennifer Gradecki, Tyler Coburn, Alexia Achilleos, Anxious to Make (Liat Berdugo and Emily Martinez), The Kammari Research Group (Sakari Laurila, Lau Lukkarila, Niklas Toivakainen), Christina Smiros, Lanfranco Aceti, Hazel Soper, Baris Parlan, Andreas Papallas, Sid and Jim (Sidney Smith and Jim Bicknell Knight), Maria Alexandrou (with Androula Kafa and Melissa Zanga).
Invited artist: Adam Harvey
Curators: Helene Black and Aysu Arsoy
Art Director: Yiannis Colakides
Videos: Sakari Laurila
- This project was proposed during the first State Machines partners meeting in London, August 2016. Four months later Trump was elected as president in the US and by early 2018 the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal became international news.
- Actor-network theory, sometimes abbreviated to ANT, is a sociological theory developed by Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law.
Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social-An Introduction to Actor-Network, Theory, Oxford University Press, 2005
- Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack, On Software and Sovereignty, MIT Press, 2016
- Grzegorz Wilczyński, "Demographic report: Facebook users in Europe." Catvertiser. Posted 25 July 2014, www.catvertiser.com/blog/demographic-report-facebook-users-in-europe/ (accessed 15 May 2018)
- Mark Zuckerberg public profile. Posted8 October 2016, Facebook. www.facebook.com/zuck/about. (accessed 13 February 2017)
- Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell, and Thore Graepel, Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior: PNAS April 9, 2013 110 (15) 5802-5805; doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1218772110
- Yiannis Colakides, Marc Garrett, and Inte Gloerich eds. State Machines: Reflections And Actions At The Edge Of Digital Citizenship, Finance, And Art. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures 2019. Citing a tweet by Zeynep Tufekci.
- Alexei Yurchak, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton University Press, 2006.
- Adam Curtis. Hypernormalisation. Directed by Adam Curtis, BBC 2016.
- Hannes Grassegger & Mikael Krogerus, "The Data That Turned the World Upside Down." Vice. Posted 28 January 2017, motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win (accessed 12 January 2018).
- Nafeez Ahmed, "The Pentagon's secret pre-crime program to know your thoughts, predict your future," Medium. Posted 1 February 2016. medium.com/insurge-intelligence/the-pentagon-s-secret-pre-crime-program-c7d281eca440 (accessed 10 May 2018).
- Hall, Stuart. Myths of Caribbean Identity. The Walter Rodney Memorial Lectures. 1991.
- Zuboff, Soshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York, PublicAffairs, 2019.
- Thomas L. McPhail, Electronic Colonialism: The Future of International Broadcasting and Communication. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1981.
- Carole Cadwalladr, "Facebook's role in Brexit-and the threat to democracy". Fimed in April 2019, www.ted.com/talks/carole_cadwalladr_facebook_s_role_in_brexit_and_the_threat_to_democracy.
State Machines: Art, Work and Identity in an Age of Planetary-Scale Computation
Focusing on how such technologies impact identity and citizenship, digital labour and finance, the project joins five experienced partners Aksioma (SI), Drugo More (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL), and NeMe (CY) together with a range of artists, curators, theorists and audiences. State Machines insists on the need for new forms of expression and new artistic practices to address the most urgent questions of our time, and seeks to educate and empower the digital subjects of today to become active, engaged, and effective digital citizens of tomorrow.
This project has been funded with the support from the European Commission. This communication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.