Essay 2: Information v. Knowledge
‘The more we connect, the better it gets’ is the slogan for internet.org, Facebook’s campaign to extend internet access to the two-thirds of the world currently not connected. One of the proposed means for achieving this is via unmanned drones that beam internet access to rural communities. At first, the idea that everyone should be able to participate in the internet revolution seems utopian, but when you realise that access will be provided by the very companies that stand to profit the most, the idea doesn’t seem so innocently philanthropic. Who does own the sky?
For a work called Terminal Blue (2014-5) – also the name for his touring exhibition – Tom Dale proposed to employ a light aircraft to fly a banner across the sky. The banner took the form of a giant paint colour chart, featuring six colours gradated from grey to navy: beginning with ‘Soft Steel’, followed by smoggy ‘City Life’, cheery blue ‘African Daisy’, dreamy ‘Calm Crescent’, bureaucratic ‘International’ and finally the sombre ‘Terminal Blue’, the latter also the name of the fictional paint company, complete with crown logo and the artist’s own name discreetly positioned underneath. Artists from Duchamp to Piero Manzoni have played with the artist’s God-like authority to lay claim to found natural materials or the immaterial (Paris air, the sky, shit) as their own creation. Today, though, the immaterial is big business, and governments and corporations are increasingly competing to control parts of global airspace, DNA, the internet. Dale’s seemingly innocent game of inviting viewers to match the colour of the sky to one of his six colours mimics the less innocuous idea of patenting the immaterial for reasons of profit and control. If the sky was once the spiritual symbol of the heavens, now it is just one more resource to exploit, in a competitive space race whose territory is limitless. Marketing language reflects the commercial hunger to colonise space: ‘blue-sky thinking’, the Cloud, Google Earth.
Terminal Blue sounds equally like an existential malaise. In his 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man Francis Fukuyama notoriously claimed that Western liberal democracy represented the endpoint of human progress – a theory that was ruptured by a succession of events undermining the hegemony of the West’s status: 9/11, the wars against terror, the financial crisis, WikiLeaks. We are not at the end of history, then, but neither do we seem close to finding solutions to war, poverty and famine. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the West has been in a constant state of emergency – what Giorgio Agamben has called the ‘state of exception’ – that has warranted the encroachment of the state on civil liberties and privacy.
Or perhaps Terminal Blue reflects a sense of endless anxiety about our inability to switch off from the grid. In his recent book 24/7, Jonathan Crary recounts a Russian-European experiment in the late 1990s that planned to reflect sunlight back to Earth, thus eliminating our experience of night-time and creating a permanent day-time.[i] Media theorist Douglas Ruskoff has coined the term ‘present shock’ – riffing on the term ‘future shock’ invented by Alvin Toffler in 1970 – to describe our contemporary state of mind, constantly distracted by the interminable 24/7 onslaught of information and yet never fully able to concentrate on the moment. Indeed, he argues, the ‘now’ of this oppressive present is in fact never really now, but just-happened, so that ‘our culture becomes an entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment’.[ii] Yet, to add to our neurosis, not only are we trying and failing to keep up with information, but ironically, ‘the information is trying and failing to keep up with us’.[iii] No wonder we are all stressed.
As Jeremy Rifkin neatly summarises in The age of access: how the shift from ownership to access is transforming modern life, the postmodern self is one that updates and re-edits itself continually in contrast to the static identity of the nineteenth century, in which the self was seen as an island.[iv] Dale’s Infinity Wall (2014) is a Heath Robinson-esque device that takes a photo of the gallery space every three minutes (with or without viewers), prints the image, then immediately shreds it, the shredded ribbons falling on to the floor to create an ever-growing mountain that looks slightly comical, like a cartoon yeti. The white ribbon pile literally embodies the ghostly memory of the exhibition, and mocks contemporary culture’s preoccupation with documentation and archiving. It is a self-portrait of the exhibition – a selfie – compelled to update itself whether anything is happening or not. As a kinetic work, it builds on the legacy of Jean Tinguely’s self-destroying sculpture, Homage to New York (1960). Dale’s work, however, combines self-destruction with contemporary notions of surveillance and feedback loops, so that Infinity Wall maintains a cycle of self-destruction throughout the exhibition. Like the mythical ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, Infinity Wall cannibalises its own reception by visitors.
Absurdity, repetition and excess are also factors in Dale’s short film Leaf Blower (2014), in which two men undertake the apparently never-ending task of blowing leaves in a park to a tinnitus-inducing soundtrack of droning machines. It is not clear where the leaves are supposed to be directed and how long the job will take; the film is interrupted by monochrome screens of green, blue, yellow, purple, red, following each of which the men and leaves are in a new position but the volume to be tackled remains the same. In an era of efficiency, witnessing such pointlessness is rather soothing, like a screensaver. If Leaf Blower represents a stand-off between man and nature, then one might say that the winner here is not the pesky leaves (nature) but rather the company that makes the futile equipment. In fact, the men look like they are on auto-pilot themselves, the machines extensions of their arms. In a post-human age, we are expected to be always on, always working.
Rock on Standby (2014) is another absurd, cartoonish visualisation of the stand-off between man and nature. A small LED red light is embedded in a large rock. For what is the rock on standby and who is controlling it? There are no wires or obvious way to detect how it works. For those who remember the Cold War and the ever-present threat of nuclear attack, the red light recalls the infamous red button that in our collective, paranoid imagination would fire a nuclear weapon or alert us to a global catastrophe. Dale goads us to confront our faith in inanimate objects, reminding us of the leap of faith we take with technology. Every day we rely on our online schedules; we believe that our images and documents are safely stored; we put faith in automated transport systems and entrust our medical diagnosis to Google.
But we could equally choose not to believe. The blurb for e-flux journal’s latest reader, The Internet Does Not Exist (2015),provocatively states ‘The internet does not exist. Maybe it did exist only a short time ago, but now it only remains as a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect, or a 404. If it ever existed, we couldn't see it.’ That relationship between immaterial information and material form is something we can associate with much of Dale’s work. Generation X, Dale’s and my generation, straddles the pre- and post-internet age. We write text messages out in full; buy printed books, sometimes even newspapers; we may even still buy DVDs. The material support is not arbitrary but plays an important role in our enjoyment of the content. The medium is still, for the most part, the message. Generation Y prefers to consolidate its material supports and outsource as much online as possible – why go to the cinema, or own a television, radio, home telephone, books, CDs and DVDs when everything can be accessed from a PDA or laptop? One series of Dale’s works is a good Rorschach test for how fetishistic you are about medium. A series of rectangular carpet mats are displayed on the wall, each a different colour and slightly different size, and featuring a different pattern of cut-out squares and rectangles, fraying slightly at the cut edges. Only the titles confirm what you might have guessed: that the mats represent newspaper front pages, with the gaps marking the layout of the headlines, images and columns for that day. In the shift towards online news, the materiality of the newspaper is being lost, and with it a whole culture – the different formats and typefaces, the strong sense of social and political identification with a particular paper and its values, the time needed to read it all the way through. The tactility of the fuzzy, cheap-looking mats is very antithesis of our high-tech, branded technological devices.
The titles of the works offer clues to the types of newspaper each mat represents: the inflammatory heading Thousands of ‘fake’ students at new colleges (all works 2014), the ooh-err-missus tabloid squealer Madonna with the big boobies and the more sober Home safer than hospital for birth, mothers told. The titles seem to tell us all we need to know; we can guess at the story from the headline, so predictable and superficial has much news become. With online information, we risk losing a sense of provenance and an awareness of the politics of news distribution. Like an obsessive news clipper, Dale detaches information from its source and original context; the cut ‘n’ pasting and the anchorless information is a lo-fi metaphor for the way data is stored and accessed online. The cuts could also be read as redactions, an echo of news and social media censorship in many countries, and a reminder of the mass surveillance sanctioned by such state laws as the American Patriot Act and facilitated by global Cloud providers like Google and Amazon.
We talk of our era in terms of both Infosphere and a Knowledge Economy, but are information and knowledge so interchangeable? Information is readily available to those in the world’s leading economies, but has the increase in information resulted in greater knowledge? If information is superficial facts and figures that we can buy, share and sell, knowledge is messier and more personal; it is information that is mediated through our experiences and understanding of a subject, through our culture and history. It is subjective and cumulative, and less easily traded. Do we have the time and concentration to turn information into knowledge? Douglas Rushkoff uses a comparison between data storage (e.g. books) and data flows (Twitter, CNN) to analyse the way in which we receive informational content. He suggests that some of our anxiety can be linked to our confusion between the two types, such as trying to keep up with the endless stream of Facebook updates, or reading a book ‘with the same fleeting attention as we regard a Twitter feed’.[v]
With new-media technology, information is perpetually renewed and updated as we seek out the latest news, trends and consumables. In this climate, our bookshelves are the few reminders of information that was once deemed important or fashionable. The existence of book subsidiaries of charity shops like Oxfam, Barnardo’s and Red Cross are testament to the amount of books we are giving away, embarrassed at our past tastes, bored of outdated ideas, people and language. Dale’s House (2014) is a garden gazebo whose doorways and windows are stuffed full of books, the hexagonal pavilion covered in a semi-opaque, dark-brown resin. There is no way in, to either the pavilion or the words inside the books. The books’ titles are just visible from their spines: most from the 1980s and 1990s. House, then, is a mausoleum of the last great era of annuals and albums like the Guinness Book of Records, Which? guides, Time Out film guides, travel and wine guides – all books that have now been superseded by the internet. Many of the names are now only resurrected for sinister reasons, yesterday’s celebrities are today’s paedophiles.
You could think of House as a model of our brains, where the books represent the knowledge accumulated through reading these material publications. Or perhaps this is a representation of the twenty-first century brain that wears its knowledge superficially, on the outside – the titles more important than the information therein. Or does the locked interior represent our interior selves – what we used to call our soul – that we must guard from the increasing intrusion of the public sphere of work, consumerism and technology. Dale does not, however, revel in nostalgia for a more innocent, pre-technological age – who wants an out of date Thesaurus and Rolf Harris on Art anyway? On the other hand, he does not fetishise the future either.
In The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism, Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi argues that in the new cognitive capitalism, political action is problematic because, paradoxically, the individual is not free but ‘has to comply with the rules of interaction of the collective if he/she wants to produce effects in the collective dimension’, whether that means using Google for Gmail; being active on Facebook or Twitter; or using standardised software for building websites and blogs.[vi] In a post-Fordist world, interaction and participation are standardised in the same way that labour and goods production were in the past, and divisions between the individual and the collective are blurred. Furthermore, for an immaterial world we have never been surrounded by so many material objects, even if our relationship to them is promiscuous and ambivalent. New philosophical movements like Speculative Realism have emerged which give priority to non-human things, altering the traditional distinction between subjects and objects; Hito Steyerl even asked women to embrace their objecthood as a subversive strategy. Meanwhile, Dale’s clunky, cartoonish sculptures revel in their lack of functionality and efficiency, their shapes and references familiar but de-contextualised or re-purposed. They interrupt or draw attention to what Jonathan Crary calls the ‘frictionless’ idea of time in our 24/7 world, and remind us that, despite the extraordinary capacity of digital memory, art and artefacts are vital repositories for subjective, multi-layered and ever-changing memories that cannot be reduced to pure information.
[i] Jonathan Crary, 24/7, Verso, London, 2014, p. 4
[ii] Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Penguin, New York, 2013, p. 6
[iii] ibid, p. 75
[iv] Jeremy Rifkin, The age of access: how the shift from ownership to access is transforming modern life, Penguin, London, 2000
[v] op cit., p. 142
[vi] Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi, ‘The Mind’s We: Morphogenesis and the Chaosmic Spasm’, in Arne De Boever and Warren Neidich (eds.), The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism, Archive Books, Berlin, 2013