When it came out a couple of years ago, I remember listening very carefully to the TED talk given by ex-Googler Tristan Harris, who is dedicated to design ethics and humane technology, and has been called “the closest thing the Silicon Valley has to a conscience” by The Atlantic.
The video is titled “How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day”, and describes how social media giants prey on our psychology in the attention economy. Autoplays, endless stream of notifications, constant stimuli open to reactions, validation through likes, the casino-type slot machine structure of apps are just some of the ways in which the vulnerabilities of our minds are targeted, our time sucked in by the screen. Our capacity for addiction and our sense of helplessness are both maximised, and thereafter, converted into profit via dopamine hits.
The work of Tristan Harris inspired Swedish artist Marcus Mårtenson to come up with an exhibition called “Total Noise”—which ran from November 15, 2019 to January 12, 2020 at Galerie Forsblom in Stockholm.
The communication- and information-driven society that we live in today has enormous advantages and is very convenient; but there is another side of the coin: our integrity—and it is this serious issue that the artist highlights through sharp irony, criticism and humour fused with attractive colours and shapes.
In addition to exploring the ideas of Tristan Harris, Marcus has studied research by Shoshanna Zuboff, professor at the Harvard University, and the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018).
When the collection of our own biometric data is combined with our online search and shopping patterns, it becomes easier to understand our feelings and predict our choices. Thereby making us accessible to manipulation. The technology has become a capitalistic surveillance system. Suddenly we are living in the Big Brother society described in George Orwell’s dystopia 1984, published in 1949. There, as well as here, the observation of the people has become a threat to the integrity of the individual. Instead of Big Brother, Zuboff defines it as the Big Other, a digital society where we, more or less willingly, give away our personal data and information.
Marcus explains further: “Zuboff says that what companies like Google and Facebook are selling now are prediction products. That’s the business model. By artificial intelligence and machine learning they collect user behaviour and then they sell that to marketers, but that’s not the end point. The end point is behaviour modification, because once you have the pattern in which a person moves and behaves in then you can start to slightly nudge people in different directions, for example in a political campaign—so you can not only start to predict behaviour but also modify behaviour.”
Two works from “Total Noise” that I found particularly interesting are Hot Trigger and Digital Twin. In the first, Marcus illustrates the obsessive behaviours engendered by the apps on our smartphones—from the curated self to users being the product to excessive choices making dating difficult to constant interruptions and replays. In Digital Twin, he illustrates how identity “psychographics” are created by the behavioural content linked to social media profiles—a map-like simulated double of your personality constructed with the data regarding your areas of interest.
Technology is important for us but so extreme is our addiction to it that it is difficult to suddenly halt the flow of data from users to systems far away and reclaim our individual autonomy. What could be done? What could be a useful first step? Marcus says: “Regulate it maybe. A lot of what Shoshanna Zuboff is talking about in her book is that all the mining of people’s data is happening in a grey area. Where people are not aware of how or when it’s being done. People don’t know their own data rights and there are no real laws. So maybe in the future you would have to have more regulation, clearer boundaries with who owns your data and how you can get control over your own data. They are saying now that data is more valuable than oil. This is incredible valuable stuff.”
Other works in “Total Noise” include frequent searches on the internet, jobs lost to automation, samples of popular videos and image identification and tagging features.
Born in 1972, Marcus lives and works in Stockholm. He studied at Art School Idun Lovén, Art School Basis, the Forsbergs School in Stockholm and has a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Gävle. In 1992, he was one of the founding members of Underground Productions, a magazine centered on graffiti culture. Other works of his also engage with society and culture. In his signature style, he combines text and image to expose the conflicting demands and requests of our time, with complex anxieties and errors being cast in a comic effect to render them easily accessible to the viewer.