Drawing on the development of digital technology and networks, the artists in the exhibition consider and critique the online information economy that governs our daily life; and raise important questions about the commercial exploitation of personal information, and compromised autonomy as a result of Big Tech.
The title, ‘Information wants to be free’, references an aphorism made by Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, at a hackers conference in 1984 when he referred to how the emergence of digital technology enabled information to disseminate easily and escape proprietary barriers. Soon after in 1989, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web advanced the desire to create free open access to information, encapsulating the idealism at the heart of digital free culture.
33 years on, we have another perspective on what it means for information to be free. While giving away services which appear to be without cost, technology companies spy on users, collecting data about who they are and what they do online. Much of this extracted data is traded in a new marketplace as prediction products and sold into a behavioural futures market that generates enormous wealth for corporations. This commodification of personal data captured by companies tracking online users is described by social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff as ‘surveillance capitalism’.
We are faced with a contradiction: internet users are empowered by access to information, education and social connection while online activity is tracked, analysed and monetised in a manner in which conceals what data is being collected and how it is being used. While algorithms can extract order from informational chaos to improve our lives, they can also serve to perpetuate the agendas of their creators, ungoverned by any kind of moral conduct or universal law.
Techno-positivist agendas, the launch of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative and the pandemic have sped up the country’s digitisation drive, eroding the separation between our online and offline lives. While the life-changing benefits of online connectivity are undeniable, the ownership and control of information have empowered a new ruling class of corporations and entities with the biggest computational power to profit from personal data without seeking consent or paying users for its fair market value. Consequentially, scholars and commentators have observed the rise of techno-feudalism, a new economic paradigm where digital platforms have replaced markets as the locus of private wealth extraction, driving staggering wealth inequalities.
Major technology companies like Google and Facebook not only harvest private information but also influence and modify behaviors to encourage users to spend more time online servicing their platforms, leading to critical implications surrounding privacy, truth, democracy and personal agency. Recently, leaks, whistleblowers and legal disputes have shed new light on their decisions usually shrouded in opaqueness.
In this vein, the works of the artists in this section of the exhibition attempt to reveal insights about our ‘information civilisation’ and tech conglomerates that prioritise profit over society’s well-being and safety. While technology is not inherently malevolent, the exhibition urges us to look beyond the dominant tech-utopian narrative to consider the role personal data plays in the restructuring of power and wealth in the digital age, and the need to return to the internet’s origins of an open, neutral system that services a flow of information free from exploitation.
The international and multigenerational group of artists in this gallery engage with a variety of medium such as installation, sound and video, to explore early ideas of a free global exchange of information, and the issues surrounding an internet that can no longer claim to be democratic or neutral.
Artists: Kara Chin, Chong Yan Chuah, Thomson & Craighead, disnovation.org, Ben Grosser, Bani Haykal, Bill Posters & Daniel Howe, Rachel Maclean, Michael Mandiberg and Tabita Rezaire
Curated by Kristine Tan (IG: @Kristinetanj)
Venue: ADM Gallery
Nanyang Technological University
81 Nanyang Dr, Singapore 637458
When: 25 Mar - 13 May 2022, 10am - 5pm, Mon – Fri