Self-portrait with another person, two phones and infinity, 2023
Marek Tuszynski, October 2023
What this essay is about:
- The collision of two types of acceleration. First, the dominance of techno-speak and technology as the solution to everything and second, the worsening of the environmental and climate change.
- How technology defines, determines and shapes how we perceive our role in the world under crisis and its limitations.
- How the understanding of the scale and possible solutions to the environmental crisis depends on how digital technology influences our thinking.
- Examples of how technology can be used as a tool of hope - making us work to prepare for the unexpected, to fix the fixable, to make escape plans, and to imagine different futures.
It was never really about technology per se. I have seen the promises of technology liberating this and that, I have seen the fears of technology taking away this and that. We have seen a lot in the last 30-plus years, since we all got hooked on the internet, since the speed of data processing and storage became the norm, and our muscles started to twitch to phantom vibrations, and swiping became the gesture of the last decade. It has always been about who makes it, who uses it and why.
Turns out, and I said it numerous times, we are all techno-idealists, even those of us who are sceptical, cynical, ironic and slightly paranoid about the technology we see around us, and we see a lot of it these days, and we sense there is more to it than we can see too. Technology, whether it is the latest gadget, a web-based tool, a tiny smart sensor or a service, is here to stay and we are not going to get our hands off it any time soon.
The question I've been thinking about lately is also not very unique, that is, since we are so dependent on digital technology (and even if you don't have a mobile phone, you're still surrounded by it, brought to you by the services you need to use, it comes with access to education, health, insurance, mobility, it's present even in places that lack basic infrastructure). What does this intense experience of ubiquitous technology do to our conscience, to our understanding of the world, and in particular of the crisis in which we find ourselves?
Let me concentrate for a moment on the collision of two types of acceleration that we can observe with our naked eyes.
The first is the aforementioned dominance of techno-speak and technology as the solution to everything, not just in terms of what kind of tech it is, but how limited it is when you look at its core - we only have one kind of computing available that processes two simple inputs - no signal and signal, zero and one. All the other stacks, layers that we've built on top of that since the first electromechanical programmable and binary computer, the Z1, built around 1937 by Konrad Zuse (it doesn't really matter who started it, but somehow it's interesting who will finish it), give us a strange sense of great variety - when there isn't much of it. This also has to do with how reduced it is from a political point of view - everything we compute has to be calculable - has to be translated into what computers can process. Computers, and the technology that uses them, push us to apply this particular way of thinking to everything imaginable and everything that exists.
A car is a computer, a phone is a computer, so your online relationship with another person (?) is a computer, and so is your vote in an election, if you live in a place where they still have them, free and democratic elections.
The second acceleration is more clearly devastating - and that is that environmental and climate change has become daily horror news, there aren't many people out there who don't agree, the more you look at the data the less convincing you need. Yes there is still plenty of denial but it seems to be moving towards doubting the causes rather than the status quo. And this acceleration is closely linked to conflict, extinction of various life forms (animals, forests, habitats), migration and access to food or clean air, to name just the beginning of the long list.
Understanding the real scale and scope and consequences of the environmental crisis depends on how digital technology influences our thinking about it in terms of scale and depth and short and long term consequences, as well as what solutions we can imagine to create and deploy against all this chaos. If technology is the answer, what matters is who runs all the technical infrastructure, who collects all the data, who has the capacity, who can apply sophisticated methods of analysis, and what they are prepared to do with all the conclusions they might draw, backed up by the unlimited power of the data centres at their disposal. Only people, institutions and organisations with very deep pockets can afford this. The rest have to rely and depend on them.
And let us not forget that both of these accelerations are very clearly a consequence of a very specific patriarchal, colonialist and extractive worldview. And so we end up living in a world where there is evidence of plastic pollution in the clouds over the mountains of Japan, and information disorder in our data clouds, a kind of a toxic digital doppelganger.
In 2022, I co-curated and co-designed with Stephanie Hankey with the support of the team at Tactical Tech, a prototype outdoor public intervention called Everything Will be Fine - how people understand and respond to global crises like climate change and pandemics through the lens of technology - https://everythingfine.org/ (this text is not an overview of the exhibition, for that click on the link and explore all the works).
Image courtesy of Perfect Prime used for the Everything Will Be Fine posters, 2022
In this exhibition, we decided to explore what we know - not about the technology, but about the ideas that we, the users and makers, the savvy and the less savvy, the institutions and organisations with good or bad intentions, project onto technology in times of crisis.
A vicious circle of digital Panic, Care, Doubt and Hope
Let's start with how we see technology as a manifestation of our hopes, our powers and abilities, and our endless capacity for progress and survival. There are doomsayers out there who expect the end of history to be a real thing, but there are also those who are naively optimistic, who believe that everything can be fixed with new tools.
Ministry For The Future, a diagram of the Ministry structure and its tools, extracted and designed by me from the book of the same name by Kim Stanley Robinson, design by Laloma, 2022 https://everythingfine.org/en/berlin-09-2022/digital-hope-inner/ministry-for-the-future/
In his book Ministry for The Future, Kim Stanley Robinson explores the near future where more radical decisions need to be made, one of which is the creation of the Ministry, whose role is to tackle the climate crisis on a global scale and develop tactics and tools to mitigate it. Some of these tools are technological, in short better social media (where users own all the data) and a better approach to crypto tokens (in this case an incentive for companies to stop burning fossil fuels) - both based on our current and limited way of thinking about what technology is out there and how to fix it (social media - do we really need social media even if we manage to redesign it?) or what promises a new world order by combining concepts of decentralised crypto currencies with the security of national banks (digital currencies). I still highly recommend reading the book, as it raises many crucial questions about planetary governance.
We have also seen games designed to explore different extinction scenarios and technologies to prevent them (Eco by Strange Loop Games is an example), or solutions designed for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), where speculative designers propose different speculative scenarios and develop speculative prototypes. Other aid and humanitarian organisations are also testing different solutions to problems that the will need to address quickly and effectively in the future.
Beyond preparedness, we see many ideas that try to solve and mitigate problems now through making CPU’s sweat algorithms, machine learning, automation and what we unfortunately call AI. Still others turn their optimism into escape mode and design and plan technologies that would either create enclaves on a devastated Earth (The Line in Saudi Arabia is a good example). Some actually believe in conquering Mars - which is beyond anything humanity could ever afford, forget about managing to recreate a human friendly environment out there, it really baffles me that anyone can take it seriously, why would it ever make sense to build a new human friendly world on an uninhabitable planet instead of making the one we have support our and other species life as it has so far and focus on protecting it?
The environmental crisis and technological accelerations (some of which have received a lot of media attention, such as during the crypto hype or now the AI hype) are effectively challenging the way we organise our institutions, systems and infrastructures, political, economic, social, etc. In a way, this combination of challenges and potential solutions should make us rethink, reimagine and perhaps reboot some of these taken-for-granted but centuries-old habits, behaviours, norms and ways of organising human things - perhaps this time with more respect for everything else, with or without brains.
Perfect Sleep, Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne, 2021 “Perfect Sleep investigates sleep and dreaming as a potential climate engineering technology. By inviting participants to experiment with their own sleep cycles, the work explores how lack of sleep and climate change are both products of the same extractivist capitalist system where regeneration, rest and natural limits go unvalued.” https://lav.io/projects/perfect-sleep/
The above work by Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne is a great example of the ubiquitous well-being app with a twist. In this case, it's initially promoted as a sleep management and training solution, but over time you realise it's trying to train you to sleep 24/7. Why go to Mars when you could just hibernate (just to be clear, I find this very funny). We need more provocations that creatively challenge our assumptions about what we think technology can do for us.
Is it really possible to use today's digital tools and solutions for the greater good when most of them are based on very specific business models and types of revenue. Not enough attention is paid to where the investment comes from, who owns the infrastructure, where the materials come from, how the data flows and who can collect and process it, etc.
The technologies we rely on most are sadly still very elitist and at best a reflection of existing power and class structures; people outside these elites (who don't make these technologies or can't afford them) are really only able to use them tactically. At best, we try to cover our tracks or invent our own ways of extracting value from the intended design and standard features - before these tactics are quickly appropriated and disarmed by those who own or can buy the tools we use (the X is a case in point).
I don't necessarily believe that digital technology as we know it belongs to the people and that it can be a liberating force in itself - I'm a serious proponent of free and open source and various technologies based on open licences - but not because I believe that if something is open that makes it a better technology by default, it just makes it potentially less harmful and more accessible - but those features are far from enough to make it democratic, liberating and equitable, or environmentally neutral for that matter. We, the people, the users, should still try to bend technology to our needs and continue to challenge the original intentions, core design choices and predefined uses of the technology we encounter.
3D Model Munitions Ukraine, VFRAME and Tech 4 Tracing https://vframe.io/
There are very good examples of such practices from OSINT investigations (where open source has a very different meaning to open source when talking about code, and in particular open source claimed by various AI tools - they use the same terminology with very different meanings - it's not the same open source even if it's written the same - don't be fooled). Another good example is the VFRAME project, as shown in the image above. VFRAME uses machine learning, object recognition and automation in the service of human rights rather than surveillance or commercial purposes, training algorithms to recognise munitions in YouTube videos and identify their origin, first in Syria and now in Ukraine.
Can we mainstream creative and positively subversive practices like VFRAME? Are these so-called alternatives a proof of concept of where we should be going, or are they rather isolated and ephemeral pockets of fresh air in an otherwise toxic techno-goo? Why should we even think about redesigning the internet, reconceptualising social media, aiming for open everything, code, technology, hardware, data, algorithms? You could even argue that the internet, even in its early stages, was no better in its dial-up baby steps than the internet we now stream wirelessly between our iPhones and Androids, maybe it was just a very good-looking prototype that overpromised and failed in mass production. In other words, maybe there is no pure and original internet to go back to because it never really was. But that is the internet and tools that we have - my approach has always been to work with what you have until you make or find something better.
Your Crisis Profile, Tactical Tech / Data and Politics design Laloma, 2022 https://everythingfine.org/en/berlin-09-2022/digital-panic-inner/your-crisis-profile/
It gets even more complicated when we scan the current landscape and try to assess the damage done. The above is a graphic explanation from the Everything Will Be Fine exhibition of how data companies profile people from their personal data in order to anticipate how they might react to different issues and therefore different crises. Most of us have no idea that this kind of business is creeping beneath our clicks, and that our supposed opinions are being persistently manipulated online. One of the things these companies are exploiting is growing polarisation. I look at certain behaviours online, especially those that get instant stratospheric amplification, that play and win the attention game - I look at them and I can't stop thinking - look what the computer made them do. What kind of opinions does that create?
What we see spreading is confusion, polarisation and more effective and less scrutinasible persuasion. Paradoxically, what was once conceived as a tool to produce reliable results based on unreliable technology (which was the idea of the first computer envisioned by von Neumann and Morgenstern in their 1944 Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour) has been comically reversed. It feels like we have come full circle, while the components of our computers are becoming incredibly reliable they seem to producing less and less reliable results. A flip that creates a tragic amplification of our weaknesses.
For all the hopes of a world where it was thought that computers would create a new enlightenment, a new rationality based on facts, evidence and science. What I can see through my little pinhole is, frankly, naked anger, and anger is a powerful force. Sometimes a force that makes us move beyond our comfort zones, stand up to injustice, engage with ideas we find overwhelming and difficult. Yet, anger is also a brutal force, a blinding force that makes us do ugly things. There is a fine line between these two kinds of anger. One we should try to manage, the other we should recognise and use (and we struggle to see which is which, and digital tools are bad at helping).
I see a lot of anger directed at those in power, or conversely at those who would challenge those in power (depending on who is shouting through a digital megaphone and using and manufacturing trolls), or at people who are not like us, who might threaten our traditions. I see anger at people who don't share our beliefs, values, ideas, whatever. Then I think again - is this what the computers are making us do, or what we are making the computers do to us?
So where does that leave us?
I think that wherever we go, we should be very careful about the technologies that we take with us. Now it seems that the planning of the trip is the other way round, apparently we have to have some technology because we have to, because that is what the market says, or some random billionaires broadcast to millions of their followers, or it has been suggested by very well trained algorithms. This time I am not just using the word technology reduced to digital technology, but opening it up to a broader interpretation of what technology actually is (from language to agriculture to a silicon chip glowing next to your bed).
Some people say that we have to change everything. It might sound strange, like how is that really possible? Although I have seen it before - when one political normativity collapses and is replaced by another (I am old enough to have seen the collapse of the Cold War), it was not replaced by something coherent and better. Nor was it done by a single person, or a single act. It was the result of the accumulation of thousands of actions, expressions, sacrifices and perseverances. So, at some point, one thing ran out and the possibilities opened up.
The opening was there. And the biggest of them all was the possibility of being creatively critical, of being able to imagine a damn difference. To take a good, long breath. And to act on it. Because nothing was prescribed or predetermined.
It seems to me however that in this moment we might be too constrained by the fact that our imaginations are restricted. In the context of technology, we feel that our possibilities are endless however the solutions that get most of the resources are based on problematic business models that take us back to the core problems.
Technology (digital this time) if in any way at all could determine a more democratic future requires a lot of active and thoughtful resistance from existing and upcoming users who currently even struggle to make basic choices. I also feel like it is not about another but better social media – we need definitely something more interesting then free and open source, federated and encrypted version of Meta. Maybe instead of inventing technological solutions we should in parallel simply reinvest and reimagine our social structures. I know from my political past – never underestimate how important self education is, how important inspiration is, how important it is to work with anyone and everyone who works with knowledge – that being libraries, community centres, informal groups, collectives, art spaces and determined individuals.
Selfportrait interrupted, 2023
So, in conclusion, we have looked, in a rather disorganised way, at how technology defines, determines and shapes the way we perceive our role in the world under crisis and its limitations. We looked at some examples of how it can be used as a tool of hope - making us work to prepare for the unexpected, to fix the fixable, to make escape plans, and how we would agree which roads to take to get to a better future than the one we see being predicted. We looked at examples of how technology makes us feel that we are in control as long as we act collectively, and how technology actually makes things very complicated, how we get sucked into confusion and information disorder.
At Tactical Tech, with our expertise in technology and society as well as our practical experience in connecting this to peoples politics, in our next phase of work we will be addressing the confluence of two major problems. As society comes to terms with the digital, it must reimagine how to live with planetary boundaries and enable a just transition. We need to do more together, across borders, experiences and expertise, the discussions we need to have about technology need to be inclusive and diverse, and they need to be relatable yet forward looking.
Our room for manoeuvre, caught between the scale and gravity of the problems we need to solve and the inadequacy of the tools we have at our disposal, requires us to rethink the methods and strategies we can produce in the limited time we have at our disposal. Particularly in the sphere of influence, we are suffering from a massive polarisation of opinions, confusion and a growing state of information disorder. We are seeing that the battle is not about how we gather evidence or analyse the data (although that is still a big problem as long as it remains proprietary), but rather how we build compelling narratives about what needs to be done and how we can influence the discussion and get on board those who make decisions. At Tactical Tech we work with experts, professionals and practitioners like journalists, NGOs and technologists who can frame the narrative and explore what solutions we should be promoting and investing in. Our role is to work practically to advance techniques and counter the impact of the opinion and influence apparatus that is so negatively present in how we engage with, understand and act on climate and environmental degradation.
In parallel, we need more public engagement with the problem of understanding the double acceleration of the digital and the environmental, and the connection between the two. Until communities have the space to find their own ways through the questions that these changes bring and in their own contexts, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to make the right choices. This is why Tactical Tech relies heavily on working with anchor organisations, institutions that are embedded in their communities, either in their role as knowledge brokers (libraries, schools, cultural and community centres) or as representatives of local and grassroots knowledge, who are trusted and know the context of their communities' needs and aspirations better than anyone else. We feel very privileged to work with all of them, building and co-creating narratives that enable us all to be creators, producers, makers and owners of the knowledge we gain together. Here we work with creative and collaborative formats, supporting spaces and communities.
Working with both: practitioners and public engagement draws on our experience and makes us feel like there is a way beyond the binary!
And more details on all this - looking forward and ahead - will be announced soon with our new strategy for 2024-30. Stay tuned.