Data is part of our everyday lives. Indeed, its presence is so ubiquitous that those in the know now speak of datafication. This refers to the transformation of every aspect of our lives into data points that will be processed to make predictions about our lives and behaviour. The Orwellian nature of such processes is uncomfortably clear. There is something deeply political about the manner in which mass data is collected and used on a  daily basis. Yet few of us associate big data with politics. Can art help us better understand and question the politics of everyday data flows?

A new generation of artists are using their work to foster public engagement with data. Building on the earlier work of the Net.Art movement, we heard recently from a range of artists who are interrogating automated decision-making systems and encouraging participants to question the power asymmetries created by datafication. The Internet Teapot is a Rotterdam-based studio that focuses on digital culture, critical theory and design as social transformation. Founders, Karla Zavala and Adriaan Odendaal, run workshops that are designed to encourage participants to engage more critically with the algorithms in their lives. ‘Conversations about technology often have high entry barriers’ explains Odendaal. By using low barrier mediums like zines, they aim to engage a much wider audience.

Currently, Karla and Adriaan are working on the co-creation of a board game called Algorithms of Late Capitalism. Over the course of a series of five or six workshops, participants will contribute to and build on the work of the previous workshop group. Ultimately, the aim is to ‘create a space for playfulness and creative expression that includes everyone in these complex discussions’ explains Odendaal. Inclusion is at the centre of the work of creative director of Manifestations, Viola van Alphen.  Manifestations is an annual Art & Tech festival in Eindhoven. The festival addresses controversial issues that arise as a result of our interactions with technology. Projects such as; Internet-of-Women-Things; Will the Future Design Us? and Technology-as-Your-Perfect-Boyfriend,  are designed to encourage visitors to actively engage with the role that they would like technology to play in their lives in the future.  

Viola van Alphen describes herself as both an activist and a writer. She explains that interactive approaches to art are at the centre of the work that is show cased at festivals like Manifestation and Dutch Design Week. We interact with technology on a daily basis and yet we seldom pause to reflect on the nature of that interaction, or the power dynamics involved. ‘We generally think fun when we think of technology and spending time online, interacting with friends’ says Viola. One artist created a candy vending machine that offered users a 15 cent discount on their purchase if they shared information about their age and/or sex when buying. Gimmicks like this seem harmless enough but when implemented on a larger scale, the implications are far from fun.

As algorithms, big data and the Internet-of-things play an increasingly central role in all of our lives, we look to artists and the arts to help us make sense of it all.  The highly sophisticated nature of much of the technology with which we interact, can make it difficult to see the power dynamics behind the processes that many of us now take for granted. Art as activism is not new. Art as data activism helps us grapple with what it means to be human in a world of technology in ways that are playful and entertaining but also highly educational.   Souwie Buis    1st July 2021