Starting the Week in the Digital Age

On Monday 27 May 2013, I was on BBC Radio 4’s Flagship conversation programme, Start the Week, alongside Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, statistician, David Speigelhalter, and data journalist and former Wikileaks employee, James Ball.

We were there to talk about technology and society, in the light of the controversial new book, The New Digital Age, written by Schmidt and his fellow Google colleague, Jared Cohen. The book sets out a future shaped by the ubiquity of digital technology, and the arrival online of the next five billion users of the internet. Formed of seven chapters, the book describes pair’s vision of the future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting; States; Revolution; Terrorism; Conflict; Combat and Intervention and Reconstruction. Whilst it provides a wide range of detailed speculations and predictions about the future of nation states, and how they will be transformed by an age of global connectivity, the book is short on detail about how large corporations, such as Google – who will presumably play a leading role in enabling this New Digital Age – will fit into this new era.

Start the Week set out to discuss these and other issues. Moderated by Emily Maitlis, the broadcast version of the programme is an edit of the conversations we had. To provide some more context, I’m including below some of the notes from the preparatory conversations, the recorded discussion, and the discussions we had together before and afterward.

Culture in the New Digital Age

My role on the panel to to discuss digital culture. Just as technology is transforming so many aspects of the way we live our lives, it is also changing the environment within which culture exists, and within which art is conceived and practiced.

Frequency and Volume by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.Installation view at Invisible Fields, Barcelona. Co-curated by Lighthouse.

Lighthouse, the organisation I work for, believes that digital artists – who make art which reflects on technology, without being blinded by its novelty – can be highly perceptive about the societal effects of technology. Indeed we could describe digital artists as the veritable canaries in the mine, detecting weak signals about how our technologised world is shaping up, and giving us ways of both perceiving this changing world, and acting within it.

The writer William Gibson once famously said, “the future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Digital art is one of the areas this already-arrived future seems to accrete around, and for that reason it’s an incredibly interesting place to look if you’re curious about how technology is changing society.

At Lighthouse we create exhibitions, productions and events that show that digital culture is about more than tools and gadgets. It’s about showing the way that technology is transforming society; changing the way we work, play, interact and indeed what it means to be human in the 21st century.

In a very real sense it is the culture of the now – not the future – but of the current moment.

Ulterior Technologies

Hercules Missile (landscape) by Mariele Neudecker. Part of The Air Itself Is One Vast Library, an exhibition at Lighthouse, May 2013.

Lighthouse’s programme for Brighton Festival this year expresses this by peering into the dark world of contemporary warfare. The two projects we have curated for the festival explore the deep connections between technology and the military.

One of them is an outdoor work by the artist and writer James Bridle. Under the Shadow of the Drone is a life-size depiction of a military Reaper drone aircraft located on Brighton’s seafront. It is an outline of the silhouette of the drone, as if it was flying over the sea towards Brighton.

The project aims to bring the reality of these ordinarily invisible technological weapons into our daily lives. One of the most common reactions to the drone from passers by is shock at just how large it is. Reaper drones have a wingspan of 20m and body length of 11m. They’re sizeable aircraft. When confronted with their scale, people perhaps think a little deeper about their destructive capabilities.

Drones are the latest in a long lineage of technologies that distance us from the theatre of war. And when war can be fought at a distance, we start losing track of our moral and political responsibilities. This is perhaps especially the case with drones, because they are not only being used in declared warzones, like Afghanistan, but also used in undeclared conflict zones, like Pakistan and Yemen, to carry out targeted assassinations. One wonders if we would be waging illegal wars in these territories, if we had to send in troops.

For Bridle, and for us, it is what the drone stands for that is as important as the object itself. Drones exist within an invisible networked ecology, subject to command, control and communication. Without that, they are just radio-controlled planes. Under the Shadow of the Drone critiques the way that networked technologies, while enabling our contemporary digital culture, also obscure and distance us from our ethical responsibility.

Revealing the Invisible

“Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi” by Timo Arnall (with Jørn Knutsen & Einar Sneve Martinussen), exhibited at Invisible Fields.

Under the Shadow of the Drone continues Lighthouse’s curatorial investigations into the invisible technological infrastructures that make up our digital world. This began in 2011 with the exhibition, Invisible Fields, which revealed the radio spectrum – the invisible environment that enables contemporary technologies of information and communication. Invisible Fields set out the spectrum as a physical space, invisible but present, a terrain that can be studied, mapped, surveyed and explored. This examination continued in 2012 with Geographies of Seeing, a show by artist, Trevor Paglen, which utilised the technologies of astronomical photography to uncover the clandestine activities of the US government. Our projects for Brighton Festival 2013 deepen this curatorial analysis, by examining the ulterior technologies of contemporary warfare, which are deliberately kept from public view.

Our concern with the increasing invisibility of technological infrastructures is that it is difficult to creatively or critically examine something which remains out of view.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous, our relationship with our devices is becoming ever-more seamless, and our technical infrastructure is becoming ever more invisible. These seamless experiences make technology pleasurable to use, but they also mask its materiality. As the designer and filmmaker, Timo Arnall, has recently eloquently written:

“Intentionally hiding the phenomena and materiality of interfaces, smoothing over the natural edges, seams and transitions that constitute all technical systems, entails a loss of understanding and agency for both designers and users of computing. […] Lack of understanding leads to uncertainty and folk-theories that hinder our ability to use technical systems, and clouds the critique of technological developments.”

An excellent example of one of these folk-theories, is that we now all refer to the vast server-warehouses which store our personal data as ‘the Cloud’. This implies a desolidification of infrastructure that is very much bricks and mortar. And this metaphor has become very ingrained. So much so that a survey last year revealed that over half of all Americans think that bad weather effects cloud computing.

This reveals the widespread perception that the Cloud is literally above us, as opposed to actually being comprised of vast quantities of networked physical infrastructure – Google and Amazon’s colossal data centres, and thousands of miles of submarine cables – all consuming large quantities of energy, and requiring people to build and maintain them.

So countering these misleading metaphors is something we’re trying to do at Lighthouse, through our series of exhibitions that expose these invisible technological systems and infrastructures. Because if we can not see something it is harder to comprehend it, let alone be curious about it how it is made, who made it, and who paid for it. Rather than try and create invisible and seamless experiences of technology, we like to actively reveal the seams.

As in mining, it is in the seams that we find the gold.

Curiosity, creativity and criticality

This approach is rooted in Lighthouse’s belief that a truly digitally literate culture is able to be curious, creative and critical about how technology works, how it can be used and what its consequences might be.

In the UK, we hear a lot about how important learning science, technology and engineering subjects are, and how crucial these skills are for our economy. I agree. But it is the feedback loop between engineering and creative thinking which spurs on some of the most effective innovation. And creative and critical thinking is something more normally taught in exactly the kind of arts subjects that Michael Gove originally proposed to have dropped from his English baccalaureate. Creative thinking is found in exactly the kinds of publicly funded arts organisations that are now facing deep budget cuts. So, we need to develop more contemporary, sophisticated approach to understanding what digital culture is. We need to acknowledge that the arts and humanities, including bodies like the Arts Council, are just as important to digital cultural innovation, as science and engineering is.

Science and technology, working in tandem with the arts and humanities, can bring about a curious, creative and critical digital culture that sees the digital world for what it is – tangible, material, and made by us. The most effective cartographers of the new digital age – media artists, critical engineers and speculative designers – are helping us learn how to read this digital world. They are giving us tactics, tools and prisms that make this digital age more legible.

The Next Generation

A significant proportion of the next five billion internet users will be young people. It is their future which Schmidt and Cohen are forecasting in their book, and which our generation are currently shaping. So a big strand of our work at Lighthouse is about empowering the digital artists and critical engineers of tomorrow. We are working with two academy schools in the Brighton area on long-form project with young people called Art at Work, which explores the creative thinking which is so critical to working effectively with technology. As the writers, Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling have said:

“Innovation without young people is called exploitation”

It is their world we are innovating into being, and they deserve a stake in the decision-making.

Google’s View of the Future

Given the significant attention around Eric Schmidt’s visit to the UK, and the controversy surrounding Google’s approach to paying tax in the UK, it was no surprise that much of the conversation was focused on Google’s policy positions on a range of areas. Below is a short series of questions and observations which I raised during our preparation and on-air discussion.


Eric Schmidt has noted on many occasions that if we do not fight for our right to privacy, we will lose it.

I wondered how Google are helping us do this? For example, how would a project like Google Glass, which poses genuine, and well documented, threats to personal privacy, help us fight for this right? What concerns a lot of people with Glass isn’t so much the wearers, but those who they interact with. There’s a concern that Glass wearers may be able to surreptitiously document social interactions with others. There’s two potential examples of unintended consequence here. The first is the analogy with passive smoking. Through no fault of their own, those who interact with Glass wearers, may be negatively effected. Their social interactions with another person may be recorded and distributed without their knowledge and this may cause harm. I wondered what is Google is doing to mitigate the effects of passive Glassing (if you will pardon the coinage).

The second unintended consequence of Glass is rooted in the fact that none of us like the idea of being filmed without our consent, and we behave differently if we know we are being filmed. So if there is the potential of being recorded at all times by those you meet, is this not going to have the potential of radically changing social interactions across the board? This is something articulated well by the writer, Mark Hurst.

Optimism and Innovation

Schmidt has noted on many occasions that he does not feel we are optimistic enough about the positive potential of technology. I wondered if this was the motivation behind Google’s idea of setting aside a part of the world for unregulated experimentation, a notion Larry Page proposed recently at Google I/O. This quickly became known in the digital culture community as Google Island.

Technological Determinism

In The New Digital Age, Schmidt and Cohen wrote extensively about the use of technology in conflict-zones. Schmidt has speculated on how past conflicts may have have been different if contemporary technology had been present. On 20 May at Google’s Zeitgeist conference, Schmidt was reported as opining that, “the Rwandan genocide would not have happened if everyone was using cellphones.”

I wondered if such speculations were entirely useful. Technology may intensify or moderate human urges and behaviour, but it is falling into the trap of outright technological determinism to ascribe it that much power. As my friend Peter Kirk noted some years ago, “don’t mistake the tools for the purpose”.

Some of these questions and Schmidt’s responses to them will find their way into the final recording of the programme, but inevitably some of these issues were too complex to be fully explored within a 45 minute panel discussions. Hopefully what Start the Week will do the is begin other conversations about the need to critically consider the place of technology in our culture. I welcome these coming discussions.

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