From Surveillance Capitalism to Glitch Capitalism

The work of DISNOVATION.ORG is characterized by producing critical works about the cult of technological innovation and disseminating radical counter-narratives. For the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic »Rigged Systems« curated by Jonas Lund, the working group developed the project Profiling the Profilers as a response to information asymmetry in digital profiles. The work seizes the means of data analytics to create a series of psychological, cultural and political profiles of the most data-extractivist Big Tech companies of our time. In our interview with DISNOVATION.ORG, we spoke about their working processes and their thoughts on the role of copy culture, free access, and media piracy.

Schlosspost: What does the DISNOVATION.ORG group stand for? When was it founded, and what were the initial thoughts? In what way is your work challenging the cult of technological innovation? And why is this important for DISNOVATION.ORG as a group? What is your take / specific angle on the ideology and the rapid pace of technology innovation?

DISNOVATION.ORG: For several years, our main research object has been the dominant ideology and the propaganda of technological innovation, with a focus on critical views and counter narratives. This research track started around 2010-11 when we developed a better understanding of how the dominant neoliberal rhetorics were intensively using the keyword “innovation” in every field of society to justify anti-social policies, hyper consumerism and economic growth. Similarly, within the cultural field, we started to realize that the art-tech-science community — that we were evolving in — was a very ambiguous political space. For instance, a large part of the common art discussions and productions seemed to serve as an apparatus for the validation and popularization of the dominant ideology of infinite growth, clueless-innovation, consumerism, and techno-utopianism.

From that point, we decided to dedicate a year to work on a series of meetings, workshops, events and debates to address these questions, and foremost with the intention to disseminate counternarratives and critical stances. It resulted in “Disnovation” a series of events and festivals (initiated together with Bertrand Grimault). DISNOVATION.ORG has since then evolved as a working group that develops diverse practices, including artworks, publications and workshops…

Schlosspost: Why did you choose the shape of a working group and put the group forward instead of you as individual artists/authors/actors?

D: We tend to produce works based on processes, performativity and feedback, rather than purely aesthetic forms or fixed final artworks, and we generally prefer to put these projects and ideas forward rather than the persons. We prioritize collaborative research dynamics, that result in the production and circulation of collective experiences and debates. With his concept of idea sex: Matt Ridley, a British science writer, says that humans “mate” to produce new ideas just as we mate to reproduce. For our recent projects, we’ve been working with programmers, scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, designers, writers, and astrophysicists. We often find it to be more challenging and stimulating.

Schlosspost: As you also create and curate exhibitions, what does it mean to you to create and present work online?

D: Most of our works are strategically designed to primarily exist outside of the art/gallery/exhibition space, so that it can ideally circulate, be experienced, be shared, be appropriated by Internet users, hobbyists, teachers, journalists and activists, and eventually contribute to a larger societal discussion. Producing online works, publications, and viral videos are ways to approach this goal.

»We were fascinated by how the copy culture, free-access and media piracy transformed the circulation of culture and knowledge over the last 40 years.«

Schlosspost: How do the different spheres you are working with and in – curating, publishing, creating artworks, hacking – inform each other?

D: In general, starting from our interest in contemporary issues and societal frictions, we initiate some research, readings, meetings, experiments. The outcomes of these research are then formalized into publications, sites, artworks, group shows… A good example of this empirical scheme is The Pirate Cinema. We were fascinated by how the copy culture, free-access and media piracy transformed the circulation of culture and knowledge over the last 40 years. We realized that we were ourselves a product of this change, and that the copy of cassettes, xerox, diskettes, and peer-to-peer file sharing was a core element of our own culture and identity.

As a result of this research, The Pirate Cinema was developed as a proxy to experience physically the ongoing activity of P2P file sharing as it happens. This project basically repurpose the technique used by most P2P-Bittorrent surveillance actors, which is to take part in the bittorrent sharing process in order to observe the activity on this network.

While researching for this project, and while touring the project we accumulated tons of historical anecdotes, example of local piratical practices, and contacts with like-minded peers. All this material finally took the shape of a book titled The Pirate Book. It is a compilation of stories about sharing, distributing and experiencing cultural contents outside the boundaries of local economies, politics, or laws. This work offers a broad view on media piracy, piracy of necessity, technological creolization, as well as a variety of comparative perspectives on recent issues and historical facts regarding media piracy. The book is structured in four parts and begins with a collection of stories on piracy dating back to the invention of the printing press and expanding to broader issues (historical and modern anti­piracy technologies, site specific piratical practices, as well as some of the rules of the Warez scene, its charters, structure and visual culture…).

This book was also the occasion to work again with our friend Clement Renaud on a chapter about China, piracy, and shanzhai culture. An investigation that morphed into a long term research titled Shanzhai Archeology. Basically, in opposition to a hyper normalized Western vision of hi-tech innovation — where for instance most phones and computers finally end up doing and looking almost the same — we were really intrigued by the entanglement between the Chinese history of the special economic zone of Shenzhen, the history of knockoff products, hardware piracy, and as a result, the prolific developments of a singular production ecosystem mixing DIY and DIWO skills, copy, shared blueprints, hybridization, optimization and rapid incrementation. We documented this alternative history of ICT innovation, through interviews, documents, pictures, and a collection of 100+ hybrid phones produced over the last decade, mainly for markets in emerging and developing countries.

Schlosspost: Many of your works tap into questions “Who gets to decide what gets censored, should people make those decisions, and who guards the guards?”

D: In parallel to a growing attention to the deep web, an interesting shift over the last decade was how the traditional parental filters expanded at every layer of our communication infrastructures: states, ISPs, apps, IoT devices… We were curious about how those filter listings were made, and how they could reveal something like the moral outlines of our society.

»With around 2 million websites extracted from commercial content-control softwares, this collection reveals a cultural, social and ideological model of our society through what should not be seen.«

The Blacklists project is a directory of the prohibitions of the Internet deployed in the form of an encyclopedia in 13 volumes of 666 pages each. It is an extensive collection of restricted websites used for the automatic filtering of traffic considered illicit or licentious. With around 2 million websites extracted from commercial content-control softwares, this collection reveals a cultural, social and ideological model of our society through what should not be seen.

Schlosspost: The rhetoric of innovation has in many regards become a political program. DISNOVATION.ORG addresses this issue through a wide range of topics/projects dealing with specific technologies, digital cultures, etc. – how do you choose your projects and research objects? And where do you start the working process, e.g. from a specific question / problem etc.?

D: An interesting example of this is Predictive Art Bot. When we were spending more time as curators between 2013-15, we became intrigued but also amused by how much of contemporary artist’s concerns and artforms were similar and somehow standardized, often in sync with the lastest breaking-news, innovations and trends. We were also impressed by the speed at which these trends came and disappeared. While investigating this phenomenon further, we realized how deeply these contemporary echo-chamber effects were interrelated with recent globalized social-media, intensified smartphones use and hyperconnectivity.

We decided to find a way to interfere within this cultural echo-chamber. We started to program an art bot, that would caricature this “artistic ideation process” by reacting to the latest trends way faster than the artists themselves, but also and more importantly, a bot that would stimulate and inspire more singular, divergent and alien imaginaries. This bot basically monitors 100’s of cultural influencers on Twitter (blogs, magazines, news,…), then it identifies recurrent keywords, and combines them, like a cultural cut-up, to produce artistic concepts. These concepts are then released back on social media for anyone to appropriate.


Schlosspost: To what extent can your work also be considered an educative approach (maybe even toward the direction of promoting media / tech literacy)?

»We tend to avoid making too cryptical or formal artworks for the art sphere only, we rather try to inject artworks into a larger societal conversation

D: We definitely focus on the practice of visibilizing underrepresented techno-scientific phenomenons and their social or political consequences, and in some cases our way to achieve that is by stimulating debates about it. In terms of outcomes, we tend to avoid making too cryptical or formal artworks for the art sphere only, we rather try to inject artworks into a larger societal conversation. We can illustrate this by two recent projects that have been conceived to provoke debates and expose the fields of online culture wars and online persuasion.

On one hand, the map Online Culture Wars was designed precisely to emulate the form of an educational media, and to act as a discussion starter. Lately, online cultures have been subjected to a growing polarization, politicization, and radicalization, influenced by numerous actors, and magnified by the very features of ubiquitous social networks. The purpose of this map is to offer a representation of online ideological and political frictions, integrated into the visual system of a Political Compass meme. It is basically an overlay of hundreds of politicized memes, along with influential political figures and symbols.

On the other hand, the video The Persuadables is another example, amongst our recent artworks, that mimics the form of educational content. This video work focuses on the political instrumentalization of the tools, techniques, and infrastructures of the web, with a particular attention to the social media influence ecosystem, and the manipulation of opinions online. Ubiquitous social networks gave rise to new types of practices, 
new forms of expression, and new means for collective organization of protest and discord. The video, The Persuadables, exposes some practices broadly used for online influence, persuasion, and manipulation, as well as creative responses, that they triggered in the civil society.

Schlosspost: Your proposal says: “Profiling the Profilers” will result in a series of highly detailed, and biased, digital profiles of Big Tech, similar to the ones constantly generated for each user by these very same companies, and then result in a distributed counter-propaganda campaign, eventually polluting the social feeds of Big Tech companies”. Could you explain in more detail – what kind of information are you interested in with regards to GAFTAM? What kind of data are you collecting? And how could these profiles look like?

D: With this new project, Profiling the Profilers, the first idea was to attempt a simple, but almost impossible action: reverse the surveillance of the big-tech companies — who detain 80% of our online personal data — using their own tools & methods. To do so, we spent one year working with Dr. José Lages and his research team from Institut UTINAM, in Besançon. Based on state of the art big data analytics techniques, this work will generate a series of highly detailed digital profiles of Big Tech companies (ie. psychological, cultural and political profiles), similar to the ones constantly generated for each user by these very same companies.

To assemble these digital profiles, rather than simply follow the same categories as the ones usually tracked for the profiling and prediction of users’ activity (age group, demographic, consumer behaviour, location, income group, etc), we will augment these categories with additional critical insights, specifically relevant for Big Tech (political orientation, ethical orientation, propaganda techniques, type of induced addictions, types of biases, etc).

In order to “infer hidden causal relations” between Big Tech companies and specific societal and political issues, we are using an algorithmic method derived from PageRank (reduced Google matrix analysis) in order to analyse the matrix of every possible link between every single existing Wikipedia article. Similar algorithmic methods are often used in data sciences, data journalism, and for probabilistic user profiling. It allows to estimate the strength of the hidden relations between various members (articles, pages, users) of the studied network (for instance between a user and an item for the purpose of product recommendation).

Schlosspost: What can we expect from the project / the research material / preview of the project as you will publish it on Schlosspost, who created the materials and how?

D: The first release on Schlosspost will be focusing on our research material and the core elements of our work methodology. A few weeks later, we will release the interactive online project. The algorithm we used is based on the research of Dr. José Lages’ team, and the programming is done with our long time collaborator Jerome Saint Clair. Our article on Schlosspost will include academic references, articles, and visual elements, for instance on online persuasion, surveillance capitalism, or this fascinating article about glitch capitalism.

Schlosspost: What are the next steps / different formats the project will take on?

D: We’re presently in a residency with M-Cult (Helsinki) and Emap to finalize this installation. We will release the online project this fall, and then the exhibition version in November 2019. The online project will also unfold over time, as users eventually take part in the sharing of the counter-propaganda developed by the “Profiling The Profilers” bot. As users will share or repost some of the generated counter-recommendations, these posts will end up polluting the feeds, and the hashtags of the targeted Big-Tech companies.


The interview was conducted by Inga Seidler


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