In Conversation: Alex Taylor

Alex Taylor's web based, 3D and real-time multi-media art both comments on and builds off of the infrastructures of the corporate-internet to create hilariously poignant critiques of virtual detritus and the behavioral mechanisms built into network hierarchies.


N|A: We often think of the Internet as not having materialism but your work focuses attention on the detritus and remnants of digital culture. Often, these are images of consumable goods both virtual and physical and refracted layers of Internet self-reflection, (e.g. cell-phone cases with emojis and other memes, All Cell Phones Go To Heaven etc.). Can you speak a little about the types of images you collect/produce and why?

Alex Taylor: Feel we are in the last days of there being any meaningful distinction between digital and 'IRL' culture -- though the changes the internet has made to the world can't be understated, to 'use the internet' on a human level is generally something that's still done consciously through  a portal device (smartphone, desktop, tablet), and as a result there's still a chasm between the online/offline worlds (and a disconnection between the self and digital self) -- it still feels mildly sensational on some level to see abject references to internet-based phenomenon in the 'real world', with social and monetary profit to be had by performing web-to-IRL excisions (such as in the case of Ellen Degeneres bringing Youtube stars onto her show as guests, or meme t-shirts & bumper stickers being sold at music festivals). Wearable technology and the 'internet of things' seem set to close this gap, but until then it's the interplay between the two sides that I find interesting & worth exploring – they're touching, but not quite united.

N|A: Information networks are frequently presented as inherently humanistic, enlightened and analogous to freedom. Eric Schmidt’s often quoted line that, “everyday we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization to 2003,” and Kevin Kelly’s devotional worship of the “Technium” are two examples of this. What do you make of intersection between the infinite accumulation of informational garbage and this utopian vision? If digital networks are better at generating nonsense than organizing inquiries are they enlightened?

AT: I think there's something vaguely utopian about the idea of the internet as a 'collective conciousness' composed of our (trivial and non-trivial) thoughts, movements and desires – but the fact most of this information is fragmented and sat on by private companies eager to algorithmically refine it into 'actionable' data is disconcerting. If a company like Target can predict whether a visitor is in the early stages of pregnancy by analysing seemingly unrelated shopping patterns ( it's hard to know what we will be able to do in 10 years with the seemingly trivial data being collected today – like real garbage, informational waste has the potential to be sorted and processed into something more valuable than the sum of its seemingly worthless parts.

N|A: Given that Internet is a by-product of the military industrial complex, maintained and organized by an alliance of corporations and governments, is there a meaningful distinction between the Internet and the Corporate Internet?

AT: I don't think there is a meaningful distinction – the internet was built with the principles of a public service (open, neutral, decentralized), but its backbone is still largely comprised of privately owned infrastructure. Even if you were to set up a non-profit ISP to access the web it you would still be required by law in the US to build in surveillance capabilities to comply with CALEA. However I believe it's possible to act within it in its confines in a way that's legitimately undermines corporate and/or government interests, be that on a personal scale (browsing through an anonymous VPN, using ad-block), acts of mass electronic civil disobedience (e.g. DDoSing), or to use a recent example, ISIS recruitment via social media. Even Tor, a tool that subverts the interests of the corporate internet at their core by allowing the user to browse with near anonymity, was developed and released by the military.

N|A: Does the Internet have an ethics or is it intrinsically amoral?

AT: It was built to be neutral and amoral, but I'm reminded of this piece on 'inadvertent algorithmic cruelty' -- an amoral piece of code acting in an immoral way due to its failure to factor in and prevent certain outcomes. The principle of 'universality' that the internet was built on (a focus on neutrality and decentralization) has arguably led to the direct transfer of real world power hierarchies – in decentralized networks power will inevitably accumulate on specific nodes – so we have the case of a seemingly neutral technology in one way leading to what seems to be unavoidable negative outcome.

N|A: Contentbot brilliantly examines the attention economy not only taking it to its absurd conclusion but also exposing the futility of that economy. Can you speak a little more about the attention economy?

AT: IRC it was this article that finally pushed me to make Contentbot –  It's a terrifying read because it seems so inevitable. Behind Web 2.0s emphasis on the social was the platformization of everything – the realisation that if you can leverage yourself into a position where you own the battlefields that people and brands fight for attention on, an endless stream of unpaid, user-generated content awaits. It's a landscape where the new and the easily digestible have a concrete advantage –  the fight for attention itself leading to either extreme measures to get noticed (eg gamergate trolls sending death threats, Dennys bizarre Tumblr) or (sub/)conscious self-curation to become more palatable/likeable/shareable.

N|A: Is Contentbot an ideal citizen of the attention economy or does it subvert its potential?

AT: Contentbot commits the mortal  sin of being unpredictable; the ideal citizen has interests and biases which can then be quantified, profiled and catered to.