New Extractivism sounds like a new art movement!
Interview with Vladan Joler

Andrea Palásti

Why are invisible infrastructures invisible?

As I mentioned in New Extractivism, invisible technical infrastructures are constructed of multiple opaque layers and built mostly by ghost work or invisible labor. The bricks of this planetary-scale structure consist of black boxes, closed code, and hardware. They are covered with layers of corporate secrets, patents, and copyrights. There are many reasons why those infrastructures are opaque, nevertheless, we can probably cluster these reasons into two groups. The first one is political-economical, the other is technical. On one hand, technical infrastructures and processes embedded within these infrastructures allow an immense concentration of power and wealth. People that accumulated these powers and wealth are not interested in losing it or sharing it. On the other hand, the technology we use is growing in complexity, and to make matters worse, as explained in Anatomy, the real anatomy of the networked devices we use is expanding into planetary-scale computational, logistical extractivist systems. What we hold in our hands is an interface to much larger systems that are hard to investigate.

Vladan JOLER: AI Atlas ╱ 2020 ╱ Museum of Contemporary Art, Novi Sad ╱ Photo: Marko Ercegović

Why is it important to know how these algorithms work and what they do to us?

According to the principle of algorithmic transparency, the factors influencing the decisions made by algorithms should be made visible, or transparent, to the people who use, regulate, and are affected by systems that employ these algorithms. I believe that algorithmic transparency is one of the key issues we face today. Our social relations, our private communication, our access to information is increasingly moderated by different technical infrastructures and the algorithms behind them. These algorithms are often fine-tuned to directly or indirectly create profit for their owners. Nevertheless, the short and long-term impact of these algorithms is really hard to predict and in most cases, there is not much research on the subject. Algorithms are rules, and I strongly believe that we should be able to know and understand what these rules are, who and why is making them.

Does this mean that technology controls us, or do we still control technology? Will Nature have the power to fight in this invisible war and conquer us all?

It’s not the technology that is controlling us, it’s the human beings that are creating, controlling, and using these technologies that are making decisions. Nature is just a victim. The destruction of Nature is the collateral damage of the process. Supply chains embedded in the technology we use are optimized towards maximizing profit for a few, while the real costs of the destruction that follows are shared among all the living entities on the planet in the present and the future. In the words of Mckenzie Wark, “The Anthropocene is a series of metabolic rifts, where one molecule after another is extracted by labor and technique to make things for humans, but the waste products don’t return so that the cycle can renew itself. The soils deplete, the seas recede, the climate alters, the gyre widens, a world on fire.”

Vladan JOLER: New Extractivism Map ╱ 2020 ╱ detail

Tell us 5 SURPRISING and useful things we don’t know we could do with AI! Would you trust AI in these circumstances?

As pointed out in Nooscope, it is important to secularize AI from the ideological status of ‘intelligent machine’ to one of the knowledge instruments. Rather than evoking legends of alien cognition, it is more reasonable to consider machine learning as an instrument of knowledge-magnification that helps to perceive features, patterns, and correlations through vast spaces of data beyond human reach. Unfortunately, AI is considered to be the new regime of truth, scientific proof, social normativity, and rationality, which often does take the shape of a statistical hallucination. We should be really careful how and when we use these hallucinations. In this sense, I am more interested in the cases we should not use AI and how we could regulate this.

New Extractivism sounds like a new art movement! Is it changing the course of humanity or the art world?

I believe it will change neither of them 🙂 New extractivism is just a term that tries to explain the opaque practices of the exploitation of nature, of our bodies, and our minds in the context of techno-capitalism. There are many artists, authors, scientists, and researchers exploring different aspects of this mosaic. Nevertheless, the problem is not so simple, and to be honest, it’s kind of naive to think that it can be solved by any exhibition or fancy design studio. To fix the problem we will need to rethink the values, deal with the inequalities and relations that shape our societies.

Vladan JOLER: New Extractivism Map ╱ 2020

What are the environmental costs of using all these computational engines and algorithms?

The first step into understanding the environmental costs of these planetary-scale computational systems is to try to understand the extended anatomy of these systems and to dive deep into the production chains. This is what we tried to accomplish with  Anatomy of an AI system. But, we just scratched the surface of that immense black box and we are still far away from understanding the full-scale complexity of this process. In 2016, it was reported that the world’s data centers used more than Britain’s total electricity consumption and have the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry. Even if this sounds shocking, it is important to understand that the electricity consumption of the devices we use is just a tiny fraction of the environmental costs of the production process of the same devices. A full account of these costs is almost impossible, but it is increasingly important that we grasp the scale and scope if we are to understand and govern the technical infrastructures that thread through our lives.

Vladan JOLER: AI Atlas ╱ 2020 ╱ detail