technology and society

Infrastructure, Algorithms, and the Future

Excerpt from Bartosz Frąckowiak’s curatorial text accompanying the exhibition Seeing Stones and Spaces Beyond the Valley. The exhibition is part of the Biennale Warsaw 2022 and is devoted to the relationship between technology and power and technological alternatives outside Silicon Valley. Full text available here.

The war in Ukraine has put the relationship between technology, infrastructure and geopolitics into stark relief. Russia’s attempts to cut its citizens off from the World Wide Web demonstrate that in its present form the Internet is not independent from local conditions, whether political or geographic. Counterintuitive experiments with creating a national internet make digital boundaries dependent on state boundaries, tethering digital territories to physical ones. The web is not as homogeneous and seamless as we tend to think, but has “walls,” concavities, nodes, and a geometry (L. Drulhe, Critical Atlas of Internet. Spatial analysis as a tool for socio-political purposes) strictly bound up with physical geography, politics, and global power structures. This nexus of technology and geopolitics is most clearly seen in the material infrastructure of the Internet which we often forget about or are ignorant of, and whose existence is obscured inter alia by the special language we use to talk about various technologies.

The language we employ to describe new technologies tends to emphasize their lightness, swiftness, and ephemeral and non-material nature. We talk about the cloud and imagine scattered molecules of data, without weight or physical mass, ungraspable, floating nimbly in the air. Meanwhile the Internet, the cloud, or what allows us to experience technologies as “light,” “swift,” and mobile is in reality supported by a tangible backbone of material infrastructure. Starting with small home routers, through the cables that connect them to the larger web structures managed by Internet service providers (ISPs) such as server farms and data processing centers, to Internet exchange points (IXPs), where the signals from different providers come together, all the way down to the backbone of the entire network – the large cable and optical fiber structures running along the ocean floor and traversing entire continents, transmitting binary sequences that code all the information from our world.

The data are not in a cloud but at the bottom of the ocean

Around 95% of the global Internet currently travels along the bottom of seas and oceans. Some 400 submarine optical fiber cables connect different locations around the world, enabling faster information transfer between some of them, while disconnecting others (like Cuba) from the global exchange of knowledge and digital services and products. Some of the cables are several dozen kilometers long, others – like those running across the Pacific – span thousands of kilometers. They have to withstand powerful sea currents, submarine landslides, and the activity of large fishing trawlers. Their installation requires hard physical labor on the part of workers in factories and on ships.

An analysis of the nodes and connections created as part of this web sheds light on the planetary structures of power and exclusion and gives us insight into the relations between centers and peripheries as well as geopolitical conflicts and co-dependencies. A dense network of cables connects the United States with Europe, allowing for rapid and intensive information exchange, particularly between financial centers. Africa, meanwhile, has very few connections to South America. What sort of consequences can we expect from this limited exchange between the countries of the global South, just as the North and West engage in intensive cooperation? To what extent do cable networks give rise to new centers of power, to what degree do they recreate old colonial dependencies and block possible forms of alternative alliances? The answers to these questions will be of fundamental importance for the future of planetary power relations. (…)

This game of visibility and invisibility is strictly bound up with power: who it is that owns and creates the connections, why do they want them to be visible or invisible; how do they mask, mark and tag them; and under what rules do they create them? But for data to enter into circulation, there must be a place where they begin their journey. These places are the datacenters, immense server facilities where the entire internet resides. (…)

Algorithms and infrastructure as a new model of hidden power

As part of the industrial complex, datacenters justify and stimulate the production of increasing amounts of data (surplus data), while also giving them value. This is how a significant portion of the new system of surveillance capitalism comes into existence. The narrative of data saturation, of large quantities of data being necessary for the emergence of new knowledge and the development of a more intelligent way of managing different parts of reality, is cited as the main rationale for the construction of new datacenters. At the same time, the creation of these new centers sets up a situation in which “it would be a pity” not to create more (surplus) data and not to store them in places awaiting and attracting (seducing) them.

It is algorithms – alongside infrastructure – that constitute the second layer of the power backbone in surveillance capitalism. They require enormous datasets and surpluses in order to learn to recognize new patterns, improve their ability to “predict” the future, and evolve into increasingly capable systems of rules and functions. At the same time the assumptions they are based on, the criteria according to which they classify input and the rules that govern their operations tend to be confidential and hidden. This isn’t solely due to the fact that users do not know the language of programming and therefore lack the competence to understand AI, but also due to patent law and commercial secrecy. Those who create algorithms and deploy them often want their modus operandi to remain secret. This gives them greater influence over user choices, behaviors, and needs.

Just like the infrastructure, algorithms are part of the visibility/invisibility game. Those responsible for machine learning are increasingly better at identifying our proclivities, behaviors, needs, desires, and habits. They can identify various patterns in different datasets – from the natural sciences and medicine through economics and socio-political processes, to management, control and surveillance techniques. They not only “notice” regularities and correlations, but also formulate hypotheses regarding future developments by extrapolation. Many of our individual and collective choices – who we talk to, what sort of content we are exposed to, where we travel, how we love and with whom we associate, what we listen to, how we arrange our interiors and construct our visual messages, how we get to work, forecast the weather and natural disasters, predict election results and gauge terrorist threats – is often the outcome of algorithmic activity.

The Non-Aligned Technologies Movement and the Data Garden

AI algorithms are designed to capture correlations between phenomena, but they are incapable of understanding causality. One of the main errors within this perspective is conflating correlation with causation. If, for example, those who travel regularly are more likely to enter into new relationships, it does not mean that there is a cause-and-effect connection between travel and the lifespan of an intimate relationship or the readiness to initiate a new one. By extracting various kinds of data, machine learning can set up any random type of correlation and then present it as a causal relationship. Algorithms obsessively “adjust the curve,” producing different correlations without giving an explanation. This is why AI lacks deeper insight into certain phenomena and fails to understand or explain them. Mistaking correlation for causation turns dangerous when we attempt to predict the future via algorithms. Since AI algorithms are used in border procedures, forensics and wartime decision-making, it may be that preemptive actions taken in response to various predictions will be completely off the mark and falsely create suspects, criminalize innocents, or identify the wrong targets.

It is equally risky to entrust our future to AI which only reproduces past models and cannot detect novelty, leveling innovation and deriving its visions of the future from correlations of past phenomena. Under these circumstances human creativity and agency have a major role to play. It is man who can explain the causal relationships between phenomena and devise a plan, so that we can reach the future we want, step by step. It is human imagination that comes up with previously unimaginable visions, and human thought that generates previously unthinkable ideas. When we use the expression “outside the valley” in the title of our exhibition we want to go beyond the mental frameworks proposed by the companies, discourse and practices of Silicon Valley, but also continually work to push the limits of our imagination, to stretch it, to question the obvious not only in order to lay bare injustice and power relations, but also to open up a field for potentiality, creative praxis and ideas. To transcend the valley of our imagination, to try and test what appears unlikely, beyond reach, alternative, at odds with the prevailing paradigm, and what gets us thinking about a better world, without darkness and without the apocalyptic-catastrophic valley. (…)

Let’s imagine that instead of datacenters where information is kept in binary code we start effectively encoding data (texts, films, photographs, sounds) in plant or other types of organic DNA. The music of Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr.’sI have a dream speech, photographs, Shakespeare’s sonnets, a computer virus and much more has already been stored in DNA. Instead of over 8000 datacenters using up precious water supply and leaving a huge carbon footprint we could create archival gardens storing our private data or data palm houses, where knowledge of key importance to humanity could be kept. One gram of DNA can store around a million gigabytes of data. As Mél Hogan writes, this means that all the data we currently produce in the world could fit inside a box the size of a car trunk. Moreover, frozen DNA is extremely durable and can be preserved in that state for two million years. The idea is explored in the exhibition in the work Data Garden by the collective Grow Your Own Cloud. (…)

All decolonization strategies have always been acts of imagination, and that is what we must do now, i.e., come up with alternative ways of conceptualizing data and technology. Couldry and Mejias propose the Non-Aligned Technologies Movement (akin to the Non-Aligned Movement of countries) that would boycott extractivist technologies and employ alternative ones, leading to the non-purchase or non-acceptance of the “free” products of digital monopolies and the reclaiming data (as well as any products developed using them) on behalf of those who generated them. It would impose taxes and sanctions on Big Tech to repair the damage inflicted by their technologies. It would work to develop a new imagination and new forms of community without extractivist technologies and the high costs associated with them, and create solidarity that would bring together “non-aligned individuals and communities globally through collective imagination and action.”

These ideas can serve as an inspiring point of departure for personal experimentation with alternative technologies: for the creation of new ideas, prototypes, organizations and collectives capable of building a new, democratic, just, and more equal world. There is one thing we know for sure – technologies will shape most political, existential, social, ecological and economic phenomena in this world. It will be up to us to design it as we wish.

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