Critique in a time of crisis

I had exciting things planned for this year; events and exhibitions in America, Ireland, Rotterdam, Cardiff, London, Dundee, Germany and even a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. There was much to look forward to, but then came that week back in early March when things began to fall apart, and the volume of cancellation emails became almost unbearable.

I know I’m not alone in this, and that the pandemic will have affected everyone’s professional and personal lives in different ways and to vastly different extents. What it sparked in me was a level of existential dread that I’d never experienced before. The lockdown coincided with some unrelated personal problems, and as it began, it felt like every strand of my work had become impossible, untenable, distasteful.

There was that mad frenzy to ‘pivot’ everything online; debates about privacy, surveillance, climate change were all brushed under the carpet in the rush to master Zoom conferences and online pub quizzes. Lockdown levels of streaming and other energy-hungry internet traffic rocketed. The pre-Covid narrative highlighting the carbon footprint of digital technology seemed to have been forgotten.

Although I am employed on a project which promotes data driven innovation, I have always maintained a cautious and critical approach to digital technologies, especially proprietary platforms with access to monetisable personal information. My thesis and ongoing research revolves around how language circulates through digital spaces, how it can be exploited by big tech companies such as Google, and the potential consequences of this form of linguistic capitalism. The thought of what a company like Zoom would/could do with its new unprecedented volume of voice data, be it from work calls, personal calls, or official government conference calls, really concerned me. We all know there is no such thing as a free platform. How was Zoom monetising our conversations? Was it collecting voice data to be used to sell to advertisers, or to train NLP algorithms?

There was a flurry of critical Zoom related work at the beginning of lockdown, but it soon became the new normal, and at that time of crisis, to avoid the perceived lifelines offered by Zoom, or Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams, however structurally dubious they might be to a critical data scholar, made me feel churlish, disruptive, somehow unpatriotic.

And then other things started creeping in. Talks and presentations which had been swiftly pivoted online, and would never normally have been recorded, began to be recorded just because they could. Questions and comments once offered in the relative anonymity and ephemerality of a physical conference became carved indelibly on the record, with names attached for posterity. Other minor annoyances were that Eventbrite was making you create an account to retrieve Zoom links for your tickets, and Slack channels were becoming ever more intrusive and controlling.

In pre-pandemic times, in an effort to minimise my critical work about digital capitalism being co-opted back into the system, I often went to great lengths to avoid having talks streamed, or recorded and hosted on YouTube. At every opportunity I opt out of being photographed at events, because I object that the offering up of facial data – whether for marketing or potential biometric profiling – has become the price of admission for ‘free’ applications or events. I have been denied entry to physical events because of this, and will not use certain platforms for communication. It makes life difficult sometimes, but I feel it is really important to try to maintain both a critical edge, and also a measure of control over my data. Presenting in an online webinar, even if it isn’t being officially recorded, I lose that control. I don’t know if people are taking pictures or recording, and I don’t know how my data is being exploited by the platform.

So that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog. Pre-Covid, we as researchers in Creative Informatics had planned a Research Show and Tell event to be held in InSpace at the University of Edinburgh. I had been excited about it; excited to share my plans for research and new exhibitions. But the pandemic arrived, and our show and tell switched online. I didn’t want to just accept this as a solution, and to be honest, I am still struggling to muster any enthusiasm for future research and have no desire to talk at the moment.

Practices normalised in a state of exception rarely revert to how they were. I’m not saying this is necessarily all bad. I know that the repercussions of the pandemic will mean that online methods will become crucial to the recovery of the economy and society. I just have this fear that knee jerk reactions and solutions will strengthen and fuel the forces of disaster and surveillance capitalism, and I haven’t quite worked out yet how to tackle or critique this in a productive way. I need to work out how to remain critical in a time of crisis.

Before the coronavirus crisis, my usual method of critique was through artworks explicitly restricted to public, physical, analogue space. I critiqued Google’s monetisation of language by feeding poems and other texts through its AdWords platform, showing the monetary value of each word in the form of a paper receipt, or as a stock market ticker tape. In this way I was able to show how linguistic capitalism, while making millions for a company like Google, was making commodities of words in a way which affected the fabric of our discourse and information flows. The non-digital element to the artworks was central to the critique. I would print out and post receipts to people and exhibited only in physical rather than digital gallery spaces. This was all about grounding the flow of digital capital in tangible, material spaces.

My most recent piece was Arcadia, a monetised version of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which was installed in the Fruitmarket Gallery’s BookMarket in Waverley Mall, Edinburgh, in February this year.

Arcadia invited people  to consider the processes that generate monetary value around us, in both physical and virtual marketplaces. While Benjamin’s words earn Google money by being sold to advertisers, the physical space of the shopping mall is laid bare in its linking of the condensed spaces of capital and daily life – a modern phenomenon which Benjamin articulates so elegantly in The Arcades Project. The shopping mall location, the archetypal microcosm of life, with its through traffic, residents and visitors, was crucial to the artwork. Until lockdown.

Just before the BookMarket closed for the lockdown, the curator emailed me to say there had been a glitch on the LED panels which displayed the text and monetary values of Benjamin’s words. I said just leave it. What does it matter? Nobody will see it. But he got it fixed, and as far as I know, Walter Benjamin’s insights into the drudgeries and wonders of modern life have been scrolling out to an empty shopping mall for the last two months. This thought filled me with despondency for many weeks but, as the cloud has lifted, I began to see the beginnings of an intellectual engagement I thought I’d given up on. There is something quite dark, but also intriguing, about the thought of this. As Susan Sontag wrote, there is something melancholic and ‘Saturnistic’ about Walter Benjamin’s observations and insights which lends itself perhaps even more perfectly to the current situation; the mechanically reproduced artwork, in its unexpected context, playing out to nobody but the security cameras and the pigeons on the glass roof. I’d always thought of my work as post-digital, but Arcadia has become something else – not post-human as such, but definitely post-social, at least as society was a couple of months ago.

Arcadia was in part influenced by Mackenzie Wark’s observation that:

“Both the flaneur and the facebooker are voluntary wanderers through the signage of commodified life, taking news of the latest marvels to their friends and acquaintances”

In lockdown, while online platforms have become hyperactive spaces of digital capitalism and exchange, the physical flow of capital has all but stopped. Shops are shut. Malls are empty. Advertising is suffering. For the flaneur, the wanderer, the drifter, there is only the digital marketplace through which to drift; physical marketplaces are closed for business; society is distanced.

Yet in contrast to the digital chaos was the irreconcilable calm of the streets, and this is one of the positives I have finally seen out of this crisis. For these last two months I and many others will have discovered places we didn’t know before through wanderings by foot and bike through locked-down neighbourhoods, coasts and parks. These were journeys without economic motive or outcome, whether work or leisure, shopping, drinking or eating. They are not marketplaces. I’ve been free to be a flaneur in Edinburgh without the ‘signage of commodified life’, and that has been a wonderfully liberating experience. The only marvels I’ve been telling people about are the old railway paths and Cramond foreshore.


And this is where I find myself now, fluctuating between drifting and dread. I find it hard to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between the easing of the lockdown and the daily death figures; the freedom of working from home versus the surveillance issues of increased digital life; the ambiguity of government direction and the self-policing and community tension to which this has led. I don’t know where this crisis leaves my career or my practice, but at least now I’ve said something.

This is the first thing I’ve been able to write in ten weeks.







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