Metropath(ologies): ecstasy of communication or ambivalence of information?

Judith Donath recently spoke at MassArt. In anticipation of her talk I went to see the Connections exhibition of works by Donath and her Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab. I was particularly taken by Metropath(ologies), an immersive installation that is at once beguiling and enchanting. The exhibition is on display at the MIT Museum through September 13, 2009.

Metropath(ologies) at the MIT Museum

Donath developed this installation with students Alex Dragulescu, Yannick Assogba, Aaron Zinman and other collaborators. They describe their piece as an installation about “living in a world overflowing with information and non-stop communication.” After spending some time walking through the piece, one thought that came to mind was Jean Baudrillard’s The Ecstasy of Communication meets the Ambivalence of Information. In The Ecstasy of Communication Baudrillard goes beyond his earlier discussions of “simulacrum” and takes on our state of pervasive digital technology, which he describes as an orgy of pure communication. He takes Marshall McLuhan’s mystical ideas to their logical conclusion: just as the medium is the message, communication is what is communicated. We are floating in a sea of information without grounding, and thus, we have constructed an environment that leads to an ambivalence of information.

The virtual city of Metropath(ologies)

When you first walk into the piece you are surrounded by a sea of rectangular shapes, perhaps a virtual city. On these objects are projected changing patterns of information, you can recognize words, names, numbers. The soundtrack is etherial, sounds could very well be from the same space at another point in time, mixed with computer generated voices reading what might be random pieces of information, even some personal data. From where does this data come from? As you wander through the space you come across three flat screen displays, each showing a different view of an information landscape. You are literally transported into an ether, a medium, along with its anesthetic effects. The sounds and visual imagery incorporate live and recorded data ranging from personal updates and private information, some of which apparently are from a search engine that invites you to type in your name or the name of someone you know. It comes back with all the characterizations of the person it can find on the net and then draws a spectrogram-like display showing various colored bands with labels like books, sports, management, family, committees, education, domestic, illegal, music, legal, social, religious, art, design, etc. A curious way to map an identity. Visitors who spend time immersed in the piece may eventually realize their data has become part of the exhibit, their images captured by surveillance cameras, their names entered into databases, their voices recorded and played back by in the echoing soundtrack.

Metropath(ologies), detail

Metropath(ologies) provides a perfect companion to the writings of McLuhan, Baudrillard, and their ilk, for it brings the ideas of a world overflowing with information and non-stop communication into the realm of experience right in front of you, and all around you. It places our post-modern information ecology right in front of your eyes, like helping a fish better understand water. We swim in media every day, we take it for granted, much like I imagine fish take water for granted. Can we imaging a world without constant news, mobile phones, information devices, our lives a constant broadcast and reception of text messages, tweets, emails, information. All of this we’ve begun to take for granted and Donath and her students present us with a new perspective from which we can reflect. The search piece in the installation allows you to type someone’s name and it comes back and shows how that person is characterized based on information available online. The data is easily misunderstood or misconstrued. When I typed in my own name it said I was all sorts of things that I might have been in the past, but I’m no longer those things today. It shows us as a sum total of net-accessible information, rather than the ephemeral pattern we, our friends, our family, imagine us to be. This search engine had no personal context, no input from the wetware, it only knows what data is out in the net, the matrix perhaps. Lots of old stale jobs were front and center. Nothing about my current life and work. Information about information without personal context, without filtering by rapidly becoming obsolete carbon based life units. Another visitor typed in his name. He was disappointed, having a common name, the search engine came back with a composite of people, but not him. He was lost in the sea of information. He had no way to specify his unique id/entity.

Characterizing Dziga Vertov

Among the abstracted city of information columns in the installations, I felt a constant information flow, without consciousness, without a life as I know it, but pulsing with another form of life, bringing to the forefront the challenge and impossibility of controlling the information about ourselves, as machines, agents, bots, databases, etc. take on a life of their own, making their own conclusions, or perhaps occlusions. Data patterns collected by software agents become a new form of truth. There is a fascinating ambiguity in the piece, the mapping of the data and the space is not clear, how is the information mediated? Is there such a thing as computational understanding? As the search engine is given names, it make sense of that “name” but not the “person,” later I learned that the name is sent to the soundtrack, part of music like, some from the news, computer generated voices read key words. The most fascinating component was the appearance of “data ghosts” in the central monitor in the space, which at first looks like an ordinary surveillance camera view, you see yourself and other visitors on this monitor, but then the screen is occupied by data ghosts, are these real people or data? What is floating in space? Metropath(ologies) is a garden of pure information, de-contextualized, re-contextualized, So what’s missing in our contemporary communication landscape that leads to ambivalence of information? What is the ecstasy of communication? Is it anything akin to Werner Herzog’s wonderful phrase, the ecstasy of truth? Perhaps it is the narratives that ground us in specific human experiences, a synthesis that resembles our lived experience. And that’s the story we seek to find. It may be that the way out of ambivalence lies in ecstasy, but one of human truths, not just communication.

1. This post was originally posted on the MassArt Design Seminar II Blog, Spring 2009. It is re-printed here with minor editorial changes.
2. Clicking on images will take you to the image photo page on Flickr