Somehow, the world has come to believe that the internet knows us. That we hand over so much data, spend so much time online and share so much of ourselves, that some tech evangelists might tell us they could recreate us completely, using AI.
Some even claim that “the internet knows you better than your spouse does.”
But what exactly does our social media history say about us?
There is a trend that has been circulating TikTok over the past few months and has amassed millions of videos where users are sharing pictures of themselves in their ‘teenage dirtbag’ phase, inspired by the return of the 2000s song Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus. The trend sees users sharing photos of their awkward teenage years that became kind of a collective nostalgia.
This came not long after Wired reported on another TikTok trend where Gen Z (the first generation to basically grow up with social media) reflected on their past content – with one user looking back on posts she shared on Snapchat aged 11.
Reflecting on social media isn’t new, Facebook has been showing users “memories” since 2018. TikTok users, however, are taking their photos from other platforms and creating a video about them on a new platform. The cycle continues, the data swarms and the information the internet knows about you is created and shared anew.
So, what would you find in your digital graveyards when we ultimately depart the real world?
It’s a journey through our data, a swarm that we have created for ourselves and others, starting at a single point – our Instagram handle. The work asks for you to enter your handle into an iPad, and then the algorithm lifts a randomised sample of your captions and inputs them into a personalised audio journey, which you listen to alone.
The audio recalls the tradition of the mourning poem – an elegy – in the sombre rooms where we lament what is lost. Scrape Elegy, is, in its physical form, a giant pink public toilet. It’s a place many will feel is a familiar spot for a sweet little doom scroll.
While Instagram is a platform for images, the work focuses on captions. Where captions are text, the work uses audio. Where Instagram posts are shared with an audience of online viewers, this work is private.
It draws from aspects of Claire Hopper’s Artificial Hells, in which the performance of the work is delegated to the viewer. You are the star of your own private show: a journey through your own data swarm.
The experience of Scrape Elegy is, to say the least, cringe. The audio journey is designed to make you laugh – to poke fun of the existence that has taken over our lives and to ask, does the internet really know you?
When left alone, on a toilet, to listen to the swarm of data you have created, do you feel connected to it? Or is there power in knowing that your Instagram will never reflect the full and uncensored you?
Technological inquiry through aI Art
Leaving our personal data behind (in the toilet), other works in the SWARM exhibition explore the vast digital swarm humankind has created.
Artistic duo James Bulley and Daniel Jones have created Maelstrom, an immersive sound installation that reflects the hundreds of hours of audio that are uploaded to the internet every second. When put together by the artists, the system creates a dynamic musical score – a global composition of all our shared data.
Rachel Smith has created Sentiment Honk, an AI tool that detects negativity when we speak into it – honking back at us when it detects ill sentiment.
Just like our devices, the Science Gallery’s SWARM zooms in and out. Focusing on the swarm of data that displays our collective and individual experiences online, everywhere, all the time.
A techno future?
While we should listen carefully and take very seriously the warnings about big data and surveillance, we might make a differentiation between the collection of large amounts of information – the things we read, click and buy with actually knowing us.
What we add to the swarm of collected data is the information we post about ourselves, the cocktails and birthday parties and wins at sports games. The friends and family and people we know love and miss. We share little parts of ourselves with the internet all the time.
But does it really, truly, disgustingly know us? Would it actually be able to recreate us?
Scrape Elegy is your stage. Take a seat on the throne and listen, while you think.
SWARM is open now, until 3 December in Science Gallery Melbourne. Through a series of collaborative exhibits and projects, SWARM delves into the science and art behind what it means to be part of a pack. Science Gallery: 11am – 5pm, Tuesday – Saturday, 114 Grattan Street, Parkville VIC 3052.
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