‘As we go about our online activities, we unwittingly leave a trail of info behind us. This data no longer really belongs to us and is now being used to fuel a major new economy. Big corporations buy and sell details about our characteristics and behaviour, commodifying our privacy to be able to sell products back to us. This systematic gathering of data about our personal lives is also one of the factors that has enabled mass surveillance states, such as those revealed by Edward Snowden, to exist’.
Whilst I was back in London over Christmas I took full advantage of the numerous exhibitions that were on display. One that I really wanted to go to was ‘Big Bang Data’ at the beautiful Somerset House. Not only was this the first time I had ever visited the stunning location just off the Strand, but it was made even more charming by the grand Christmas decorations.
Now, I know this is a very late post – I have been quite slack since moving to Bratislava – but this exhibition is one that I have been meaning to document for a while. I find it fascinating, and scary, how data can be used and manipulated to spy on and control ordinary citizens. It is also amazing how much we, willingly or unwillingly, contribute to the massive amounts of data – or explosion of data – that has occurred in the last decade. Originating from a very basic, human need to communicate, data – particularly digital data – has morphed into an uninhibited need to monitor our every move. Data affects anyone and everyone in society today – it has become a necessary evil, one that we cannot escape from in an increasingly digitised world.
‘It is amusing to notice that the word for web (a weaving) both in Latin and Greek converge with the word for text (‘textus’ and ‘huphos’). We can also observe that the Greek word ‘griphos’, related to the word ‘griphastai’, which in Sparta meant ‘to write’, also means net. but ‘griphos’ also has another appropriate, but in context, somewhat disturbing meaning: ‘griphos’ also means riddle or enigma’.
Don’t get me wrong there are many benefits to this digital age. The fact that we are more connected to our world can only be a good thing; be it through news sites, social media platforms or online shopping. It is undeniable that the Internet has revolutionised the way we interact with many areas of life, such as politics, society, relationships and consumerism. However, on the flip side, data collection has also created ‘tools for unprecendented mass surveillance and commodification’, as highlighted by Laura Poitras’ shocking documentary on Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, in 2014. Included in the exhibition are a number of mini-documentaries, including another Poitras creation – ‘The Program’. It was fascinating – if unsettling – to watch the underground, hidden networks that inhabit the foundations of our society.
This was mirrored by the startling realisation that, in London and many other major cities around the world, there are constant, itching reminders that the internet is everywhere, not just on computer or mobile screens when we consentingly choose to access it. If we only knew where to look and what to look for we will see unceasing signs of monitoring. From access covers, utility cabinets, CCTV and ANPR cameras and Internet exchanges, data is constantly being relayed back and forth and courageous whistleblowers, like Snowden and William Binney, have only just scratched the surface of this extensive network of surveillance.
However, all is not doom and gloom in Big Bang Data. As you near the end of the exhibition, there is a more uplifting and optimistic approach to the future of data and how normal, everyday citizens can claim back the internet and use it for good.
Although the exhibition came to an end in March, 2016, you can still visit the website for more information and interesting videos on data and how it affects our everyday lives.