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Mapping the Digital Earth

Art historians Leonardo Dellanoce and Arthur Steiner co-initiate a research program to map the technological complexity of the planet, working with artists and designers from across Asia and Africa.

Leonardo Dellanoce and Arthur Steiner, co-initiators of the Digital Earth distributed research fellowship, invited 20 artists from Asia and Africa to explore our current technological reality from a planetary perspective, using art and design as navigational tools. By working in different geographical regions, Digital Earth aims to complicate the narrative of universal technological standards and to investigate this complex condition through aesthetic strategies and methodologies.

Steiner and Dellanoce suggest to view Planet Earth as being saturated with computational infrastructure – fiber-optic cables, devices, data centers, minerals, and algorithms – which are located above and below ground. They call for consideration of the entirety of this complex system, tracing chains of interdependent processes, from “the planet’s surface being drilled for the resources to generate energy, to then providing data centers with the energy to drill the digital skin of the earth for cryptocurrencies.”

Strelka Mag spoke to Dellanoce and Steiner about technological diversity on the planetary scale.

Arthur Steiner and Leonardo Dellanoce

Leonardo Dellanoce is an art historian, curator, and editor of Volume magazine. Arthur Steiner is an art historian and a program manager at Hivos Foundation. He works at the crossroads of contemporary arts, design, and technology.

Last December, Dellanoce and Steiner visited Strelka Institute in Moscow, along with some of the Digital Earth program’s fellows. They gave a public lecture titled “Research & Experimentation in the Technological Reality,” explaining the conceptual framework behind the project, from the early Geoscope project by Buckminster Fuller to the recent notion of cosmotechnics by Yuk Hui.

The term ‘Digital Earth’ was first introduced by former US Vice President Al Gore who, back in 1998, laid out a new vision for future technological development at the California Science Center. Gore described Digital Earth as a computer-generated, three-dimensional spinning globe; an interface that you could hold in the palm of your hand and browse for any kind of data. He envisioned it as a tool to work with data captured by satellites and other geo-sensors. The main aim was to advance earth sciences to understand climate and climate change, but also to empower a sort of new global citizen who could go around the planet with the globe. Many aspects of Gore’s concept have been realized with today’s sensor networks and geo-browsers, including NASA World Wind and Google Earth.

The New Normal Program Director Benjamin Bratton suggests that our current infrastructure of computation – including smart grids, cloud platforms, mobile apps, smart cities, the Internet of Things, and automation – should be seen not so much as many species evolving on their own, but as something that is forming a coherent whole, an accidental mega structure which he calls “The Stack.”

Steiner and Dellanoce examine Bratton’s idea that planetary-scale computation is actively shaping our geopolitical realities. “The old nation states are crumbling into new systems, cloud platforms are becoming more powerful than nation states, nation states are morphing into cloud platforms. It is important to really get a proper sense of the picture and not only from the European perspective, but to really see a global phenomenon of planetary scale computation,” explains Steiner.

The discrepancy between old nation states and digital platforms creates various kinds of geopolitical tensions. “When Google Maps changed the line of the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, it led to a military friction between two nation states. Or take a look at this kind of adaptive cartography that Google does, when it has to comply with different countries. For instance, in China certain borders look differently than if you are a user from India, because of contested territories. So down to each user how the interface looks is mediated differently. It creates a sort of immaterial narrative, but also has material consequences,” says Dellanoce.

The project seeks to reveal previously overseen interdependencies within the technological entanglement of the planet. “The blockchain has been praised quite a bit as this technology with the potential of bringing decentralization, maybe a more democratic world. But the algorithm it is built on so far is very environmentally unfriendly, to say the least. In fact, it’s very polluting because it demands high electricity consumption,” he says.

The Digital Earth lecture at Strelka (December 2018)

The materiality of the digital involves the chemicals and minerals – oil, coltan, sand, rubber, lithium – which cybernetic infrastructure is built upon. “We are starting to look at the world in a different way than just focusing on the human, recognizing also the agency that technology has by itself; the agency that materials have in our life. Oil has a huge agency in our society. We think we control it, but we burn it in such a way that it is making the environment difficult to live for us. We might even be seen as a medium for oil to get out of the ground,” says Dellanoce. “It becomes increasingly difficult to map where these materials come from and where they go.”

 

Challenging Western standards of technology

Steiner and Dellanoce suggest not only to look at the material side of things, but also to examine the cultural aspect attached to the technology. They want to challenge the assumption of technology being universal, and argue that it always has a very specific cultural background. They reference the Hong-Kong-based philosopher Yuk Hui, who in his work “The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics” argues that technological diversity is deeply rooted in different cosmologies.

“The general image of technology is that of the Silicon Valley aesthetics with the beanbags, startups, incubators, and accelerators. It is an entire ideology of a very particular place in America. We want to complicate the picture by showing that indeed there are specific kinds of views of technology coming from all kinds of different other geographical zones,” says Steiner.

Steiner and Dellanoce engage with the idea of alternative political geography, offered by Bratton, who divides the global Stack into hemispherical geopolitical domains known as “multipolar hemispherical stacks.” He distinguishes three main segments: the Chinese stack, with developments brought forward by Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent; a Euro-American stack, recognized as GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon); and a Russian stack (plus CIS countries), which he refers to as MYVKT (Mail.ru, Yandex, VK, Telegram).

Digital Earth sets a specific focus on Asian and African technological realities. In particular during the lecture they reference the work of scholars like Clapperton Mavhunga, Ron Eglash, and Tegan Bristow, who address different African knowledge systems in their relation to technology. Bristow, for example, explores the algorithms, patterns, and fractals of Africa – from beats and weaving designs to digital art, games, and virtual reality. By looking into traditions of algorithmic thinking in Africa, she wants to decolonize the notion that technological knowledge is brought from the West.

By examining different localities, Digital Earth strives to complicate and interrogate the global picture. “We have to actually go to these specific geographical zones to explore. How does this work out in Mongolia or in Ghana, and how do artists from those regions react to this? How can they speculate on this?” says Steiner.

The Digital Earth program will run until March 2019. Results of the research will be published in July.

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