Connected, but at what cost?
For this online project, George Turner’s practice pivots from the trauma of settler-colonialism on Aotearoa’s landscape to global surveillance capitalism, digital intimacy, and the physical impact of consumer tech manufacturing. Their 360 degree videos included here centre on different characters, each personifying salient aspects of the digital world.
From data mining to the role of social media in counter-surveilling state violence, Turner explores both the negative implications and realised potentialities of global interconnectivity. The double-edged sword of digital communication has never felt so apparent as when our contact with those social distancing elsewhere hinged upon lagging audio and pixelated FaceTime calls. As artist and writer Hito Steyerl notes in Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War: ‘The combination of (almost) real-time communication and physical absence creates something one could call absence, so to speak: the sensual aspect of an absence, which presences itself in (almost) real time.’1
This ‘presencing’ of absence in ‘(almost) real time’ is what makes distance felt on such an immediate bodily level, an unprecedented phenomenon in which we are at once consoled by familiar faces on screens, yet left feeling more alienated still. By depending on technology designed to ‘hyper-manipulate key regions of our brain,’ the artist entertains the possibility that we’re each imprisoned by a series of latent chemical highs and lows manufactured in Silicon Valley.2
Drawing on thinkers like Steyerl and James Bridle, this series further explores the homogenising effect of surveillance capitalism—the way in which individuals are conditioned to engage in machine-like ways online. In turn, the data mined from this constant mode of production trains machines to act like hyper-efficient individuals. The subjective life-experience of an individual is reduced to patterns of behaviour ripe for commodification, incrimination, or machine learning. It is difficult to move beyond this bleak outlook when confronted by the realities exposed by the likes of Snowden and Laura Poitras, but fortunately not too difficult; besides the more positive applications of data collection (such as contact-tracing, or gathering evidence of excessive police force), humans have an innate ability to acclimate to new dystopic realities.
In keeping with the theory of shifting baselines—in which humans adjust to new extreme climate realities with relative ease—we’re also highly capable of adjusting to new political realities. When Nicky Hager alleged in 2015 that the National government was conducting mass surveillance for the US, the privacy breach and illegality of this scandal barely moved beyond the realm of polite political debate. Today, the likelihood of privacy breaches and known exploitation of data is an accepted reality—an unsettling one, but one that is nonetheless widely accepted as an inevitability.
The myth of the immaterial net, existing entirely in a virtual cloud, is also slowly unraveling. Initially, this process began when first-world consumers became aware of the environmental and human rights abuses of the tech industry—from child-slaves working in smartphone factories to resource depletion, eutrophication and disastrous waste management. Turner’s videos track the awakening of the average tech user, whose perception of the digital is evolving. While there is a grain of truth to the rhetoric of the ephemeral, rhizomatic network structure of the internet, these networks are in fact grounded in entirely inorganic receptacles.
Server farms or data centres are the materialised reality behind all of the computing, networking, and data storage that takes place every day—accounting for 2% of the world’s electricity and CO2 emissions comparable to the airline industry.3 It’s only now that we’re reluctantly becoming more aware of the internet’s darker implications—a time when technology’s electrical currents would seem to permeate our bodies and enter our veins, our personal lives intertwined with the fibres of the internet and those collecting information on the other end.
1 Hito Steyerl, ‘Her name was Esperanza,’ in Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, (Verso Books: 2019), 117.
2 Glenn Greenwald, Twitter status, https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/1287361971537485825, published July 27, 2020.
3 Fred Pearce,’Energy Hogs: Can World’s Huge Data Centers Be Made More Efficient?’, Yale Environment 360, https://e360.yale.edu/features/energy-hogs-can-huge-data-centers-be-made-more-efficient, published April 3, 2018.