As part of an exhibition by Irish and international artists, entitled 'Data Streams, art, algorithms and artificial intelligence' at UCC's Glucksman Gallery, the focus is on how artists engage with the advancement of data collection and digital surveillance - and how these technologies are silently transforming our surroundings.
Among the exhibitors are Kennedy Browne, a practice of Irish artists, Gareth Kennedy and Sarah Browne, who speak as one voice in this email interview. They present a series of works from their Real World Harm project which is a response to "unfolding neoliberal systems of labour, technology and politics".
Kennedy Browne have been working on their three-pronged project over the past ten years or so. They describe it as "a record of the present which will hopefully help orientate and feed into the cultural discussion of issues such as online regulation, privacy and protections of individuals."
Their sound installation consists of interviews with former content moderators at social network firms who speak under the cloak of anonymity about their sometimes traumatic experiences on the front lines of the internet. (Content moderators manage the activities carried out in the social media community. The social media companies nearly always outsource or subcontract this work.)
One of the interviewees, Michael, said the work was fulfilling in some way because his goal was to keep the community clean. Another moderator, Sarah, expressed a similar sentiment. But Michael later revealed that he had to view pictures of beheadings and pornography. He asked how could he be expected to cope with such material. And Sarah went on to say that in her experience, there was no moderation of text based content "so fake news probably always slipped through the cracks."
The artists spoke to moderators who had worked in Europe, North Africa, the Philippines and the US. They say it's not really possible to generalise about working conditions. "Some of the moderators didn't even have a workplace, or a direct employer; one describes working from his bedroom, alone, on his own laptop," state Kennedy Browne.
"Eventually he quits his job when his mother walks in to see him reviewing extremely violent material from the Syrian war. These are contemporary labour issues for non-unionised workers as much as ethical questions about consumer use of social media."
Amine, working from his family home in North Africa, claims he was paid one dollar a day, six years ago. (The average salary of a social media moderator working in Ireland is €26,512.) There was a time when one of the moderators that Kennedy Browne spoke to used to manually check every image before it could be uploaded to the site of the company they worked for.
"That would be unthinkable now. The volume of images required to fulfill the work quota is immense. But the job of moderation still can't be effectively delegated to machines, even if there is a technological 'fix' which is forever promised by the companies involved. Content moderation requires a particular skill of cultural interpretation in combination with cognitive processing speed. It requires the worker to be as close to a machine as possible while retaining the human capacity to experience pain, and indeed trauma," say Kennedy Browne.
Through their work, Kennedy Browne consider the real, physical impacts of what it means to act in an online space. They are asking "How is that space policed (if at all) and by whom? Is the state or corporate forces responsible? How are real world inequities duplicated or magnified online?"
The artists work mainly with moving images, "through collaborative processes of scripting, editing and re-staging locations we identify as significant within the plot of global capitalism - such as the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, or Silicon Valley, California. We're also concerned with critically assessing Ireland's role within these techno-capitalist structures and stories."
The project in its entirety includes an immersive video experience with an avatar (an embodiment of an earnest white German male) in front of the offices of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner in Portarlington, Co Laois. But this aspect of the work won't be shown at the Glucksman.
Kennedy Browne said much of their research arose from Ireland's responsibility in data processing and surveillance globally, due to the presence of so many corporate headquarters here. "The Irish Data Protection Commissioner's office is responsible for upholding individuals' rights to data privacy and control over how their data is collected and used," say Kennedy Browne.
- Data Streams is at the Glucksman from December 3 2021 to March 13 2022.