Googling the Anthropocene

(Full screen available here)

(Video Documentation 1)

(Video Documentation 2)

Author: Garfield Benjamin
Format: Interactive Online Video
Duration: Infinite
Published: June 2018


Research Statement

Criteria

Does the work display the tensions between automation and interactivity while remaining a successful experience as both a ‘film’ and a participatory work?

Does the work make clear the relation between Google and ecology in terms of both its impact (and the impact of humanity) and a potential tool for viewing and confronting the ecological damage of humanity?

Does the work offer a new mode of critically viewing our planet and the place of humanity in/on it?

Research Questions

The scars of humanity can be seen across the Earth. However, observing such ecological violence often requires the right perspective. At every scale, humans make their mark, expressions of the rapid expansion of creative and destructive collective consciousness. This process is aided by technology, from the history of written language that enabled larger settlements and the agricultural revolution to contemporary computer technologies that create an alternative hyperspace within the Earth. In all corners of the globe the human biotech virus spreads. Chaotic and self-replicating, the fractal technological processes that enable human society provide self-similar mediations of physical space and the exploitation of the planet. Perhaps digital technology is the endpoint of this process, the full fractalisation of human consciousness heralding an apocalyptic conclusion to the Anthropocene. Yet this apocalypse is not only in the sense of global annihilation but in its original meaning as revealing. The same technologies that push human influence over the planet to a critical level also provide the means with which to critique our activities and their consequences. The Anthropocene represents the idealisation of material reality by the subjective intentionality of human creation and destruction.  It is the virtualisation of ecology – and therefore a post-ecological era, a disruption of the system of ecology by the inclusion and impact of humanity. Thus we require new, posthuman modes of viewing ecology in relation to humanity in the Anthropocene. Enter Google – the ultimate virtualisation of the universe, not merely its digitisation but also its embedding within the global collective human consciousness via digital technology.

Technology is both the means by which we can view the Anthropocene and the means through which it has been brought into being. Google as a company embodies this dilemma – a problematic relationship between the startup ideals, the marketing rhetoric, and the needs of the organisation. However, through Google’s tools – such as Maps, Earth, Streetview – we can adopt new forms of viewing our ecological situation. Scanning the planet from above in Earth or Satellite view, taking atemporal walks through Streetview, expanding physical space with hypertextual maps, all these methods allow us to combine a data-driven and ecologically-driven need to break free of our conventional human position. These post-human perspectives allow for spatiotemporal detachment from the Anthropocene and therefore a position from which to conceive of post-human techno-ecologies. The post-human here is taken as the expansion of human perception or thought but only through the medium of technology. It is the new trends and codings of behaviour influenced by technology. If written language enabled humans to form as a cognitive entity and spread across the planet as a collective species, then computers are creating post-human attitudes and modes of being, with even greater global impact. Meanwhile, digital technologies in general and Google in particular, allow us to externalise not only memory (in vast data centres) but also the thinking process itself (in offloading decision-making to algorithms and a machinic assemblage of collective patterns).

The work exposes these frameworks of mediation through its presentation within specific frames. These are literal, technical frames – loaded in html iframes using javascript and the Google API – as well as metaphorical frames – built upon the constraints of the work. The spectator can attempt to manipulate their perspective, to take control of how they are viewing the Earth through Google interfaces, but the work itself constrains this. The windows appear only for limited periods of time, too short to allow full interactivity. Thus, while we are exposed to views beyond our normal individual human grasp of the world, we are also manipulated in the external and automated control of our usual access to information provided by Google. This process not only highlights the limits of post-humanity by its technologies, but the bombardment of changing views demonstrates the volume of data available and the sheer scale of views necessary to comprehend the Anthropocene as a whole. The entangled and embedded nature of individual humans, mediating technological structures, and corporations such as Google unveils itself in the breaking down of the work. Sooner or later, systems crash, connections get overloaded, and the metaphorical frameworks we construct are revealed as the human constructs they are. While we can stage post-human technical demonstrations, to attain a truly post-human perspective would be to transcend the current limits of our individual and collective, technocultural and biopolitical structures, motives and responses.

This film is one recording of a real-time, autonomous and interactive web-based visual experience that highlights the role of Google as a contributor to and tool for overcoming the impact of humanity via post-human methods of viewing and rethinking our relation to ecology.

Context

While there are many films about ecology, they tend to focus on being in specific physical locations or contexts. Similarly, there have been various visual artists who have used static images or web-based media – Mishka Henner’s Fieldlots (2012-2013) or Libyan Oil Fields (2011), or Paolo Cirio’s Google Street Ghosts (2012-2017) – to confront the relative positions and impacts of humanity and the environment. This work, however, breaks free of both the embedded nature of a camera and the fixed medium to utilise web-based interactive tools to highlight the post-human potential of online media in confronting ecological issues. The work is based on theoretical work on post-humanism and digital media, as well as being the initial foray into a conceptualisation and practical application of fractal media as offering new modes of thinking and viewing the technologically-mediated future of humanity.

Methods

The work draws on aspects of Digital Media, User Experience Design and Fine Art to construct and interactive experience that reappropriates and remediates mainstream media technologies for creative ends. The automated nature of the work, and the corresponding bombardment of information and data, recalls algorithmic art as a continual automated process beyond control of the viewer or the artist. There is also a performative nature to the work in its unrepeatability between unique instances and experiences.

On a practical note, the work uses web coding (html, CSS, javascript) to call Google API for maps, trends and street view data which is then mediated in an automated interactive environment. This interaction, however, is limited due to the emerging tension between any control the viewer might exert and the continued functioning of the automated scripts that constantly generate and display new data.

Map locations in the main screen are generated randomly across the Earth. The larger pane shows a detailed zoom level of one random location. The set of smaller panes across the bottom display the same location at different levels of zoom. This shows the limits of Google’s grasp on the Earth, as over the sea (and therefore the majority of the planet) there is usually no data available beyond a certain level. The scrolling pane on the top right displays Google trend data – search prevalence for related terms over time and by country. Finally, the ‘pop-up’ full window displays the map position and street view of a random selection from a list of specially chosen locations. These include sites of relevance to the technology (e.g. Google headquarters or data centre), data policy (e.g. The White House), record places on the Earth (e.g. the most northern and southern street views on Google), places of experimentation (e.g. the Faroe Islands using sheep, goats and drones), human wonders of the world (both ancient and modern), sites of nuclear importance (e.g. power stations or bomb test sites), and various other locations of significance to human impact on ecology. Again, these appear in an interactive format only for a limited time, before they are once more replaced by the onward march of data.

Outcomes

The key outcome of the work is to highlight the broad impact of Google on ecology, both positive and negative, and spanning across the globe. This occurs in a literal sense, via data centres, power plants, sites of pollution by the tech industry, as well as on a conceptual level, displaying the Google copyright over imagery of the oceans or the cartographic and hypertextual overlays of human divisions of physical and environmental space.

The tension between the automated and interactive aspects of the work would be of particular interest to screen-based practitioners (both filmmakers and digital media artists) in exemplifying the inherent antagonisms between medium and content, maker and viewer, human and technology.

The relentless assault of information makes visible the difficulty of truly embracing the post-human potential of technology. While we can use tools such as those offered by Google to attain new perspectives beyond mere human capacities, they are inherently bound to an impact on the environment and are inherently limited by our own human powers of perception and cognition to ingest and understand the data that is available. This is the key difficulty and message of the work, that it is humanity that must make the effort to view not just the planet but itself.

Dissemination

The work received no external funding. It is currently only available online in interactive and video formats. There are therefore no reviews/selections yet. The work is developed from a theoretical conference presentation at the Digital Ecologies Symposium in Bath Spa, April 2017.

Impact

This is a new work – and therefore has no demonstrable impact thus far.

References

Cirio, P. (2012-2017) Street Ghosts [Photographic Prints]. Available from: https://paolocirio.net/work/street-ghosts/

Henner, M. (2012-2013) Feedlots [Photographic Prints]. Available from: https://mishkahenner.com/Feedlots

Henner, M. (2011) Lybian Oil Fields [Photographic Prints]. Available from: https://mishkahenner.com/Libyan-Oil-Fields


Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:

Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement

I found Googling the Anthropocene to be an inventive, provocative and engaging contribution to thinking and ‘seeing’ the Anthropocene as notion, as representation, and as process that is impossible to remove from the technocultural context in which it has arisen. I got it to work on my mac for quite a while and then it locked up which felt like a very apt ‘conclusion’ to the work. I had a look at the Vimeo videos as well which make a good substitute way to see what the work is about, but I think it is most compelling as an online ‘experience’ that seems familiar but eludes normal ways of containing what ‘googling’ has become. To me it is very successful in giving a compelling sense of the production of a world (a worlding) that is also performing a significant part of the injury to it associated with the Anthropocene. The routines of knowing and functionalising ‘world’ are elegantly evoked and pushed into a frenetic mode that presents as a machinic kind of distraction/panic, like a digital ‘pathetic fallacy’.

A couple of minor suggestions about the supporting statement. The idea of the posthuman is prevalent but never clearly explained. (As someone who finds it of limited utility inasmuch as it seems to rely on an idea of humanness that is both challenged but also assumed in a way, what work it is doing here in the text needs a bit of clarification). So, at times it seems to suggest the kind of vision of the world being presented in the work exceeds or renders obsolete a former ‘human’ perspective, but at other times the various economic, technological, instrumental motives/logics of googling are identified as ‘all too human’.

It would also perhaps be a good idea to say something about how the work ‘strikes’ the user/viewer as something that exceeds their normal ‘grasp’ of knowledge provided by googling. This seems to me at the heart of the work as user experience in ‘broken’ or glitch mode.

Review 2: Invite resubmission with re-edit of work and/or statement

The work tests the patience and perseverance of the user, playing simultaneously on the theoretical notion of being able to see the whole world through Googles mapping technologies, yet only really seeing version of it, where it constantly changes and never settles on a location. This reinforces the ambivalence of such streams and clickable routes of such a tool, so a useful reminder of the ubiquitous yet problematic mediation of global mapping information. The website suggests a dynamic experience of live mapping that gives the appearance of real time activity, although this is problematised as it is itself mediated and coded to behave so, so a construct of a construct in a sense. More challenging is the website being an antagonizing obtuse experience (where the maps work against what you really might want to see), so the metaphor at play is being told of our helplessness in the face if the global issues might be overplayed, where the work is drawing on our inability to take on the global task of managing human ecological impact, as we are not able to manage the ever changing page. This is a clearly made point, although its novelty as a work is caught between almost being useful and being a live work, which it is neither. But possibly this is the point.

What is a potentially and original line in the research is how technology enables or shapes how we now see the Anthropocene, and how a networked approach to thinking about ecology can begin to suffuse ways of solving identified ecological problems. There is something very self-serving (or self-satisfying?) in the work about knowing, and being made aware, but till not being able to do anything about it. I can’t help but imagine the work being made live, or if not live, at least made more clearly so.

The quality of the statement is earnest but lacking greater triangulation of a cohesive argument to support the research outside of the experience of the webpage. What would have been useful would have greater contextualisation of current thinking around post-humanist and post digital/internet ideologies that would further ground the written component. More problematic is the suggestion of how such global (and frankly commercial) mapping is evidence of the Anthropocene, where the digital tool becomes part of the mechanism that reinforces a self-serving as technology, described here as a background effect of man’s activity.

This idea is problematised by the conflation of Google with the effects of human activity – Google does not draw the evidence into existence, it simply maps it. Where it might be the sole arbitrator of this to the average user, it does not give enable institutional or governmental maps that we are not given permission to see.  It is one perspective as described, but an inherently static one, made up of chronological images that are not dated or exacting. There is also a confusion between Google enabling the viewer to see the effect humanity has had on global ecology, and it creating a ‘spatiotemporal detachment from the Anthropocene’, therefore seemingly releasing us of an obligation to manage the problem in real time on the ground, as it were. This would appear to counter to the research question – how do we gain a perspective that can lead to a greater understanding of the ecological damage wrought by technological advancements. I am also not convinced of the analogy of Google’s development of as an organisation with the development of the Anthropocene.

The writing is clear if a little lacking a description the merits of the work – in the statement the larger context of the Anthropocene is discusses, and there is less focus on what the work is actually doing, its materiality, how it exists or is tested, and conversely its context as a piece of work in and of itself.

There are counter arguments to the validity of mediated information on platforms such as google, and indeed these topic are very much alive through the ideas of algorithmic response and tailored information feeds, that this project needs to be alert to. I would suggest looking at some of the writings of Brad Troemel, Seb Franklin and Hito Steyerl, where they talk about how we see and use online content. Irony and notions of being ill at ease with digital information streams are not problematic, as digital driven (or even born) content is increasing normative – and paradoxically questionable in its ability offer any form of truth, post or otherwise. A position or greater clarity on this approach (thinking in particular to Electronic Super Highway at the Whitechapel Galleries), which maybe deals with the earnestness of the supposition, where we are more knowing, and any online platform is just that, a platform.

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.

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