“New technologies can’t solve what are essentially political questions about power and rights” (Marshall, A. 2014 p.87).
In fact, technology and the data it produces can give new tools to political power and poses threats to civil and personal rights. This is among some of the aspects challenged and questioned by the work of over fifty artists, designers and innovators at the exhibition Big Bang Data held at Somerset House. The Digital Age we are experiencing today shows a change in how we are living our lives: we are using technology more than ever and the data produced daily has reached unprecedented rates – leading to a ‘Big Bang’ of data. Both our relentless online activity and the signal released constantly by the sensors of our smart devices, have given a new scope to the variety and speed of the data produced. At the heart of the issue lies the dichotomy of the opportunity we are given to make our lives “smarter” and how data can also be used against us and influence our future negatively. What is our relationship to data?
The exhibition is organised in sections, all showing work related to a more specific aspect of data. I was particularly struck by The Weight of the Cloud – Emerging geographies of data; the pieces displayed here aim to dismantle the common belief that ‘the cloud’- the generic term indicating services that store photos, document, emails etc. – is something intangible, “perhaps one of the most deceptive metaphors ever coined” (Somerset House, 2015). Two separate works were paired in an interesting way: on the floor the digital print of Submarine Cable Map by Markus Krisetya, Larry Lairson and Alan Mauldin pictures the fiber optic internet cables that lie deep below the sea. Printed postcards of José Luis de Vincente’s From Secret to Monument hover from the ceiling. Giving various examples of “monuments of our digital age”, i.e. data centers, it aims to show how data in fact involves a physical, hence tangible reality.
I felt stimulated by the interaction with the pieces and how the two pieces worked together. At first I did not even really notice the map on the floor, which linked to the fact I’d never think there would be cables deep down under the sea crossing entire oceans. In the same way I never thought there would be entire buildings, actual factories of data – some located in remote places, where one imagines the environment to be all wild and pristine, others in the centers of our own cities. How naive of me some may think, but although I use the internet and technology in general a lot, actually relying on it also for my studies, I don’t know much about how technology functions ‘behind the curtains’. Above the map, coloured cables were arranged in a grid, from which different postcards hung. Double-sided, showing an image of a specific place on one side, with information about it on the back, they appeared so light and delicate, you sometimes had to hold them still to be able to read, otherwise they would almost spin like a pinwheel – a dramatic contrast to the heaviness and grandeur of most of the data centers pictured.
A separate room exclusively concentrates on data within London. Through the rise of connected and sensing devices, London is becoming increasingly ‘smart’, enabling the city to become more efficient on the one hand, but extremely surveilled on the other. We need to ask ourselves: do we feel safer in a smart city? Does efficiency give us greater freedom in our lives or is freedom the price we have to pay for enhanced efficiency?