The Invisible Hand: Global Platform Companies, Art, and Digital Society
It has been 30 short years since the advent of the world wide web, and current statistics indicate that there are more than four billion global users. Countless daily activities now take place online, from shopping and gaming to corresponding, news gathering, and navigating, via online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google, Rakuten and WeChat that facilitate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily. In addition to providing front-end functionality and mass communication, these platforms possess invisible backend engines that collect, collate and analyse our online activities, with the aim of predicting our future behaviours to maximise profits. The vast databases of these online platforms are mined and marketed to third parties, including governments and other corporates. Though their use can drive positive changes, more often, it has unintended negative consequences for economics, politics, and social relations. Examples of technology-led scandals of late include Cambridge Analytica and the coordinated cyber-attacks of public health records in Singapore.
Academics augment the above phenomenon, collecting, collating and analysing information in data, text, and speech, and they generate hypotheses and commentary in the written and spoken word. Many academics are also implicated in the internet’s economies, relying on Amazon Turk gigworkers. Likewise experiencing the wide-ranging impact of online platforms in their daily lives, artists express their thoughts and emotions through various media.
While it is not necessarily commonplace for academics to draw on artistic works as source material, Meridian 180 members were inspired by the works on display in a contemporary art exhibition entitled ‘The Invisible Hand’ in Sydney, Australia, in June and July 2019. The exhibition collated various artistic works from the hyper-connected Asia-Pacific region. The featured artists explored the threat of digital platform technologies and provided new perspectives on some of the most pressing issues facing users and consumers of technology, giving form to the risks and rewards offered by these companies.
Forum participants were invited to react to artworks in ‘The Invisible Hand’ collection. They were encouraged to reflect upon the extent to which their reactions to artistic visual representations change the nature of academic conversations, and to explore how the wordlessness of images might contribute new dimensions to academic discourse.
The forum leaders asked participants to view images from the exhibition and to reflect and share their thoughts, with the aim of determining whether the images conveyed gaps or silences otherwise unnoticed in their work. They were also asked to consider how the artistic form might differently mobilise public opinion on issues related to the expansive reach of digital platform companies.
Forum leaders prompted participants to comment on how a close focus on Asian art might generate fresh perspectives on the ways that global platform companies shape digital society. They also wondered how society is influenced differently by Asian tech giants, such as Rakuten, Alibaba, Taobao, or Naver, than it is by Western tech giants, such as Facebook, Amazon or Apple.
Participants wholeheartedly embraced the aesthetic medium. They especially appreciated the strong emotions that artworks evoke, given that emotion can be more difficult to capture and express in the textual medium. Participants also commented on how the aesthetic form is more accessible to a linguistically mixed community, free from the inaccuracies of mistranslations. Participants felt that art offers viewers new venues for contemplating and reflecting on the artists’ intended messages. In this way, artistic interventions may serve as innovative modes of researching a contemporary phenomenon like the digital economy and sociality.
Reactions to the artworks led viewers in quite varied paths of thought and contemplation. Some participants expressed connections to the emotional dynamics explored in the works, such as anxiety and the sadness associated with loss. Other participants urged caution, warning of the need to distinguish between art works that are propaganda and those that contain important commentary and messages from passionate grassroots activist artists.
The internet connects a vast segment of the world’s population, facilitating the instantaneous dissemination of powerful images across time and space and circumventing language barriers. This forum harnessed the power of the internet to offer participants an opportunity to relate to and reflect on tech giants’ global impact. It also encouraged emotional engagement with the effects of covert and legislative controls on the internet, as well as with the social harms resulting from the intrusion of the invisible hand. Participants enthusiastically engaged with the forum’s art, expressing an appreciation for the medium and its ability to identify technology’s harms and stir people to action.
Engaging art that explores political and social messaging can lend emotional texture to research and writing. The forum leaders hope that participants will incorporate art-based research methods and their powerful messages into their own future works.