Segurança? (III)

Safety in Numbers?
Um artigo publicado na Frieze, março 2014.

Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art? Jörg Heiser asked seven artists, writers and academics to reflect.

In the current moment, we are experiencing a sense of being tracked and measured by a cabal of machines whose genius is to distil the particulars of our lives into a substance called ‘data’. The machines (and by extension their handlers) then use this data to make inferences about our behaviour, our associations and our beliefs – information that we haven’t intentionally revealed or which we perhaps don’t even have access to ourselves.
Spooky, right? And seemingly antipodal to the kind of insight that art is supposed to provide: mechanical where art is human, repetitive where art is inventive. The machines that watch us can seem like H.G. Wells’s Martians: ‘minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’ which peer down at the aggregate trail we leave in the informational substrate, and thus at us, ‘as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water’.
But what machines do with data is not so foreign. It appears foreign, because when we talk about data we do so in the language of mathematics: loss functions and kernels, logistic regression and Greek letters. The language presents the same kind of difficulty for outsiders as the international art-speak found on museum wall texts.
Quantitative surveillance has two main goals: to classify and, having classified, to predict. And prediction comes down to this: people are likely to do things in the future that people like them did in the past. This principle – that we have tendencies, which are not inescapable but which take some work or some luck to escape – is not the property of mathematicians. How would novels function without it?
And the project of classification – which is to say all the work that’s hidden in the word ‘like’ or the phrase ‘people like them’ – is nothing more than the project of analogy, which asks us to set aside the boring observation that no two human beings (and, likewise, no two moments in time, no two societies etc.) are identical to each other, and replace it with a suite of more interesting questions, such as: in the space of human beings, which people are near each other? Or, when are two things alike, in ways beyond the obvious ones? That, of course, is a traditional artistic project too.
Big Data, automated behaviour prediction and classification relate to traditional art forms as photography does to drawing and painting. Photography isn’t there to replace artistic representation; in some of its manifestations it’s a new form of artistic representation, and in all its forms it’s something art can talk about, without acquiring expertise in photoreactive chemistry or digital compression algorithms. It will be the same story here.
And if you regard surveillance as a thing to be resisted, take some comfort from the fact that Wells’s Martians were eventually felled by terrestrial microorganisms. They were different from us on the surface. But on the inside, where they were vulnerable, they were built much as we are.

Jordan Ellenberg is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, USA. He is a regular columnist forSlate and his book How Not to Be Wrong (Penguin, 2014) is forthcoming.


Segurança? (II)

Safety in Numbers?
Um artigo publicado na Frieze, março 2014.

Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art? Jörg Heiser asked seven artists, writers and academics to reflect.

In a top-secret strategy paper published by The New York Times in November, the US National Security Agency (NSA) describes its current surveillance powers as ‘The Golden Age’(1) of signals intelligence. This ‘Golden Age’ is one where our past is recorded and digitally stored and our future is predicted. It is a system that seeks to know our friends and networks, physical location, biometric data and what we read and write. It is a system with ‘selectors’ and algorithms that watch our private communications moving across the internet to build graphs which identify us as ‘targets’ for further, more invasive, forms of surveillance. Its goal is the ‘mastery’ of global communications.
This document and thousands more dis­closed by Edward Snowden reveal a fun­da­mental threat to freedom.
As George Orwell and Michel Foucault both noted, one of the goals of surveillance is to get inside our heads. They don’t have to be watching – we just need to imagine they are. Every time we think twice before entering a search term, distance ourselves from a person or topic that might be targeted or censor our words, they win.
Surveillance targets our ability to think, create and associate freely. When I sat down to write this, I disconnected my computer from the internet to avoid my writing – the private process of formulating ideas on a page – being monitored.
As surveillance powers expand, so will the circle of people and activities monitored. I have no doubt we will see an increase of surveillance-themed art work, but that misses the larger point. Snowden not only revealed vast secret surveillance programmes, he revealed state control and the power of the individual to resist it. Artists can respond by doing work that resists control and conformity wherever it is encountered. Our responsibility as citizens is to make sure the next generation does not have to censor its thoughts, actions and imaginations.

(1) ‘A Strategy for Surveillance Powers’, The New York Times, 23 November 2013.
Laura Poitras is a filmmaker and journalist. She is currently reporting on NSA abuses disclosed to her by Edward Snowden, and editing the final instalment in a trilogy of films about post-9/11 America that will focus on surveillance.


Segurança? (I)

Safety in Numbers?
Um artigo publicado na Frieze, março 2014.

Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art? Jörg Heiser asked seven artists, writers and academics to reflect.
Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, 2010

Something fundamental is changing in the world of images, and in the landscape of seeing more generally. We are at the point (actually, probably long past) where the majority of the world’s images are made by-machines-for-machines. In this new age, robot-eyes, seeing-algorithms and imaging-machines are the rule, and seeing with the meat-eyes of our human bodies is increasingly the exception.
Machines-seeing-for-machines is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing everything from infrared qr-code readers at supermarket check-outs to the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras on police cars and urban intersections; facial-recognition systems conduct automated biometric surveillance at airports, while department stores intercept customers’ mobile-phone pings, creating intricate maps of movements through the aisles. Beyond that, the archives of Facebook and Instagram hold hundreds of billions of photographs, which are trawled by sophisticated algorithms searching for clues about the behaviours and tastes of the people and scenes depicted in them. But all of this seeing, all of these images, are essentially invisible to human eyes. These images aren’t meant for us: they’re meant to do things in the world; human eyes aren’t in the loop.
All of this is new. Although Guy Debord’s spectacle society has certainly not gone any­where, the advent of ‘operationalized’ images is upon us. The 21st-century landscape of images and seeing-machines directly intervenes in the surrounding world. Seeing-machines do things-in-the-world not through the subtle ideologies of visual mythmaking and fetishism, but through quantification, tracking, targeting and prediction.
How do we begin to think about the implications on societies at large of this world of machine-seeing and invisible images? Conventional visual theory is useless to an understanding of machine-seeing and its unseen image-landscapes. As for art, I don’t quite know, but I have a feeling that those of us who are interested in visual literacy will need to spend some time learning and thinking about how machines see images through unhuman eyes, and train ourselves to see like them. To do this, we will probably have to leave our human eyes behind. A paradox ensues: for those of us still trying to see with our meat-eyes, art works inhabiting the world of machine-seeing might not look like anything at all.
Trevor Paglen is an artist.


Publico das coisas da arte & religião alternativa para ateus

«One theme that runs through the narratives of  Seven Days in the Art World is that contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion for atheists»  (Sarah Thorntom, Seven Days in the Art World, W.W. Norton  Company, 2008, p XIV).
Sendo Portugal um povo de formação eminentemente cristã, percebe-se porque não existe público para «as coisas da arte.»