Doomed to Think
The emergence of artificial intelligence and complex automation once again stirs up concerns about new technologies posing a threat to humans.1“There has been speculation that professions dependent upon content production could be rendered obsolete, including everything from playwrights and professors to programmers and journalists.” “What Is Ai Chatbot Phenomenon CHATGPT and Could It Replace Humans?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Dec. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/dec/05/what-is-ai-chatbot-phenomenon-chatgpt-and-could-it-replace-humans. Although large language models powered by transformer architectures have changed the way we communicate with machines (computers) we still do not quite understand one another.2“[...] By some measures, AI is moving faster than people predicted; on safety, however, it is moving slower. Meanwhile, the ELIZA effect, in which humans mistake unthinking chat from machines for that of a human, looms more strongly than ever [...].” Marcus, Gary. “The Dark Risk of Large Language Models.” WIRED UK, 29 Dec. 2022, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/artificial-intelligence-language. Even though technology is made to make our world more understandable and increase our access to knowledge it is often obfuscating it by the constraints of the medium itself. This is why we often turn to more irrational tools and ways of comprehending. How do we cope with this excess, overflowing beyond the limits of our comprehension? Is the predicted, computed future the domain of agency and knowledge or are we going to invent new ways of knowing and understanding? By what means can we understand the black boxes and interfaces we deal with? We rarely understand the inner workings of the technologies we’re using and often employ a metonym or even reach to superstitions and pre-scientific wisdom in order to cope with what we encounter. “To move according to our own free will now means to be moved by invisible forces” is a sentence that was given to me by GPT-2 AI (not the new one, it was quite an old experiment (2021 sic!)) as I fed it with part of Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture by Alexander Galloway (2006)3Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2010. and I must admit it grasps quite accurately the tensions of this research.
I wanted to shed light on the outlined tensions and utilized them by considering the city through the figure of the black box.4See also: “black box” Samman, Nadim, editor. Open Secret. KW Institute For Contemporary Art, 2022, p. 344.: “In computer science, a Black Box is a unit of software or hardware that interacts (with the system that it is embedded in) entirely through its interface. The details of its implementation are obscure. More broadly, a black box is a device that can be viewed in terms of input and output, without any knowledge of its conversion mechanism. What happens inside it is opaque; veiled in shadow. Nevertheless, imperfect or partial understanding of a black box may not affect one’s ability to make some use of it or to observe its effects in the real world. Alienation obtains where such a gap in comprehension is identified and then accepted as the cost of doing business. When agency and social space (tangible life goods) are premised upon traffic with the mysterious functionality of black boxes, trust is at issue.” Even though not every city aspires to be a smart city, wandering through contemporary cities is accompanied by a constant immersion in invisible interfaces and hidden infrastructures. Through the example of the development of telecommunication networks, I’m testing if it is possible to access the black box or not and if so, how are we comprehending what was found there? Are superstitions and folk wisdom potential access points to the black box? I have examined the anecdotes and historical events that occurred throughout the development of the telecommunication network in Slovenia, and more specifically in Maribor, where I had the pleasure to be an artist-in-residence at Guest Room Maribor in 2021. More specifically, I've used the data I have collected throughout the development of the art project Terms&Conditions. The project’s final result was presented in K18 gallery in Maribor from 5.11.2021 – 10.12.2021.
The methods of data collection used in the project Terms&Conditions deviated from conventional academic protocols. I mainly looked at informal witness statements, which I collected from private correspondence and oral conversations. In this material, I explored the ephemeral, not obvious or transparent contact points (and shifting points) of the many binaries that still can be observed in the intersection of technology (also its hidden infrastructure), knowledge and social understanding. Solely the concept of the black box assumes a binary in its structure of external (visible, comprehensible) and internal (invisible, hidden, not comprehensible) environments. What additional insights can be gleaned by conceptualizing the city as a black box? What can we learn or unlearn from this perspective?
When we clash with an overwhelming amount of information or technologies/infrastructures that act like black boxes (we can see only the effects of its inner workings) we turn to intuitive and affective understanding (grasping) – e.g. the use of proverbial knowledge and folk wisdom (superstitions) as the counter rational models of coming to know (in opposition to western logocentrism). However, often the default disposition towards infrastructure might be, as Lisa Parks points out, “indifference, apathy, or disinterest, but it is also possible that a broad spectrum of infrastructural affects remain unspoken and unknown because certain kinds of questions have not been asked.5 Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press, 2015, p. 15. The research developed in Maribor reveals the power of the hidden and irrational (I’m using the term intentionally in opposition to rational to prove that in this madness there’s a method (the usage of the idiom is also intentional)). With this perspective, art projects based on serendipitous and coincidental research are also an important form of knowledge production, as they point to those uncommon questions.
The Concept of the Black Box
In order to effectively map the city as a black box, it is necessary to establish a specific lexicon of definitions. As a structural device, the black box has had a broad spectrum of uses throughout history. Various fields have adopted the concept of a black box for their own purposes, giving it different meanings. The first meanings can be traced back to prehistory. Dating up to 500 BCE, it is posited that the concept of the camera obscura may have served as inspiration for the creation of paleolithic cave artworks. The construction of a camera obscura requires the use of a dark room, box, or tent, within which the external image is projected onto an internal surface through a small aperture. Historically, this black box was perceived as a venue for magic, as the resulting image (output) was considered to be remarkable and the underlying principle of operation was not comprehended. The invention of camera obscura subsequently led to the development of the modern photographic camera understood after Vilem Flusser also as a certain black box – the Apparatus.6Flusser Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books, 2000, p. 21-32.
The term "black box" is also utilized in other contexts, such as in the realm of theatre, where it refers to a space with a black backdrop on five planes (the sixth is open to the audience). In the late 1960s black box theatre became ideologically loaded.7 [...] the black box was not crystalized ideologically until the publication of two books in 1968: Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre and Peter Brook’s The Empty Space.” Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention, Claire Bishop, [in:] Zielińska, Joanna, editor. Performance Works. u-Jazdowski & Mousse Publishing, 2019, p. 46-47. Described as the most simple model of a theatrical scene, without the necessity of using any technical elements, it was thought to expose the actor-audience relationship. The space became a neutral frame, which was steering and hierarchizing attention and constructing the viewing subjects.
The technology (or ideology) of a black box is also present in transportation, in reference to the event data recorder, where the black box is no longer even black – it’s orange and hides the secrets of accidents. In programming, black-box testing is used to examine if the output results of a program are as expected with a given input (used as a principle, not as a device). As demonstrated, even the most generic/common instances of the term ‘black box’ give us different meanings, interpretations and definitions, with some not even requiring a literal physical black box device, but rather referring to technology. Despite this diversity, all uses of the term assume an input, output and a hidden mechanism where a conversion/transformation occurs. Because of its malleability, the concept of the black box becomes adaptable, yet a universal definition that encompasses all contexts in which the term is employed remains elusive. The black box is used by many theorists as a metaphor for describing distinctions between access and obfuscation.
Following Bruno Latour, Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz theorize the mechanism of black boxing – a methodology of obscuring the inner workings of various entities, thus hindering understanding and access. This approach is not limited to the fields of programming or cybernetics but rather extends to a wide range of domains in contemporary society, including cultural, political, and economic spheres.
Parikka and Hertz have posited that black boxing, in particular, pertains to the design of electronics and information technologies and its entanglements with capitalist systems. As newer generations of technologies are developed, the inner workings of these devices are increasingly obscured in order to make them obsolete faster or simply impossible to repair.8Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p.147. To demonstrate it better they employ the term punctualization, developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon, arguing that from a design perspective, technology is intentionally created to hide the mechanism and render the object as a single point – punctualized.9Ibidem, p. 147-148.
Punctualization refers to a concept used in theorizing black boxes in actor-network theory and applies to the process that “[...] converts an entire network into a single point or node in another network.”10A Brief Overview of Actor-Network Theory: Punctualization, after [:] Callon 1991, p.153. https://summit.sfu.ca/_flysystem/fedora/sfu_migrate/13593/0901.pdf, p. 6-7. Understood as such points, black boxes are a requirement of infrastructure and technological development itself, where “[...] the development of technological objects to a point where they are simply used and not understood as technical objects [...]”11Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p. 148. is the main goal. Following Latour’s text A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans. Following Daedalus's Labyrinth, one black box conceals a multitude of other interconnected black boxes that have been operating collaboratively, fulfilling various functions, and operating for varying periods of time.12Latour, Bruno. Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 183-190. It is only through the breakdown of a black box that we come to understand its highly complex recursive composition of an increasing number of objects. In these instances, the collective efforts of both human and non-human entities are necessary, as a single individual lacks the specialized expertise required to repair the object due to its intricate nature.
Latour’s theorization of punctualization closely overlaps with Flusser’s discussion of apparatus as a recursive composition of black boxes. Villem Flusser reflects on the complexities and dependencies between humans and apparatuses “Each of these [industrial, advertising, political, economic, management etc.] apparatuses is becoming increasingly automated and is being linked up by cybernetics to other apparatuses. The program of each apparatus is fed in via its input by another apparatus, and in its turn feeds other apparatuses via its output. The whole complex of apparatuses is therefore a super black box made up of black boxes.”13Flusser Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books, 2000, p. 71-72.
For Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, the dependency between humans and nonhumans is subjected to the process of black boxing for the benefit of capitalist profits. They argue that the digital infrastructure will remain hidden even if the services provided are apparent to their users. This phenomenon is a result of both security interests, such as concealing the exact location of information data servers, and competitive strategy, such as the capabilities of networks.14Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press, 2015, p. 74. As Flusser noted in 1984, the intention behind black boxing is rooted in capitalist endeavours to reverse the original purpose of machines, which was to liberate humans from work.15Flusser Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books, 2000, p.72. This issue remains relevant today, as evidenced by the recent advent of artificial intelligence technologies. Black boxing is often used to obscure the revelation of power dynamics by employing mechanisms of obfuscation, impenetrable coding practices, physical distancing, and legal constructs. The ethical and political implications of the phenomenon of ‘black boxing’ are significant. The stabilization of mediating processes, which are integrated into a sociotechnical habitat or environment of habits results in a critical threshold of perception, whereby dependencies among objects, abstractions, representations, or systems are able to escape detection.16 Fuller, Matthew, and Andrew Goffey. Evil Media. The MIT Press, 2012, p. 12-13. In other words, the stabilized mediating processes that form part of our everyday experience may become invisible to us, and their influence may go unnoticed. Black boxes are hiding in plain sight.
The City as Black Box
Contemporary cities are composed of ‘black boxes’, as the presence of necessary infrastructure components is crucial for the functioning of cities. These infrastructure components encompass a multitude of interconnected networks, including utility systems, roads, the natural environment, resources, transportation systems, buildings, building-related services, telecommunications, and a variety of social systems on top – cities are comprised of numerous black boxes and areas with limited or no access. What happens when an access point to these hidden layers is found?
Organized as part of my art residency at Guest Room Maribor I attended a thematic city tour with art historian Simon Žlahtič. Through this, I discovered various stories that illustrate how we can see the telecommunication networks in Slovenia as a black box. The goal of the “Interesni Safari” is to combine the interests of the artist-in-residence with the local environment. My research was focused on the phenomenon of communication infrastructure, so the walk started at the heart of the city of Maribor – the cathedral bell tower, which in the pre-telegraph era used to serve as the initial location of city communication. Soon enough we detoured from our path and directed our attention to the Archdiocese of Maribor, an entry point into the black box of the city’s infrastructural history, woven through by the narrative unfolded by Žlahtič.
Clickbait: Pornography Provided by the Church17Similar situation took place in Świebodzin, Poland, where the second-highest in the world sculpture of Jesus had internet antennas placed in his head. After the controversies, it was removed. https://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/7,114883,23330725,nastapi-deantenizacja-korony-na-glowie-jezusa-ze-swiebodzina.html
We began our examination of the black box with its output, which is the bankruptcy of the Maribor's Archdiocese, and the input, which pertains to the Church's involvement in the monopolistic practices of the internet service provider company in the region. The outbreak of the financial scandal took place in 2012 whereas the ethically controversial investment took place at the beginning of the 2000s. For the general public, the monopoly of a specific internet service provider was not perceived to be associated with the Church. Consequently, the citizens experienced growing frustration with the quality of the internet services, but there were limited options available to address this issue until the system experienced a failure. As with a black box, the inner workings were only revealed after the system failed.
The layers of the cover-up started to unravel, leading to widespread shock over the illegal strategy of competition suppression and the revelation that the Church, as an internet provider, was technically facilitating the circulation of pornographic content. It is important to note that the position of the Church in post-communist countries differs significantly from that in Western Europe. Historically, the Church was the only independent organization separate from the state, and due to denationalization, the Church in Eastern and Central Europe has become extremely wealthy and gained significant power.18See also: Wawryszuk, Paweł. “Polityka Władz Jugosławii Wobec Kościoła Katolickiego w Latach 1945–1971.” In the Land of the People's Republic of Poland, 2004. Our city tour took place in 2021 when the Archdiocese of Maribor had already sold all of its properties and land, including the minimum allowed during the socialist era (nothing remained from the denationalization). The narrative of the scandal unfolds according to Latour's logic of punctualization and depunctualization, for which the inner workings of the points, eg. the Church and Internet Provider, won’t be fully uncovered until they stop working, as Latour explains through a diagram (see Figure 1). Each subsequent malfunction unmasks its recursive nature and provides another black box, involving ever more individuals to resolve the issue. Here, Latour’s schema plays itself out not only in the context of the financial pyramid, nepotism, and hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but also in the underlying layers of infrastructural dependencies of ownership, customer services, and the quality of the physical devices. As Flusser notes, the super black box is designed to protect those in power.19Flusser Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books, 2000, p. 72.
Unravelling the Network’s Nodes
The conditions for this situation to emerge and eventually burst into a scandal were possible due to the political climate in Slovenia and the challenged development of its telecommunication networks. During my research, I primarily obtained information pertaining to the network infrastructure through incidental means, such as inquiries with local individuals regarding any relevant anecdotes. What initially caught my attention was the explanation from curator/coordinator of the Guest Room Maribor Lucija Smodiš and art historian Simon Žlahtič when asked about the history of the Slovenian networks. The network was developed freely and uncoordinated as a result of regulations and deregulations following the privatization/denationalization act of 1991. The integration of telecommunications policy into the strategies of governments in emerging nations has garnered significant attention as a means to drive socio-economic development. The former Yugoslav Slovenia has inherited a state-owned telecommunication infrastructure and therefore began the process of liberalization, privatization and regulation/deregulation from the former socialist political-economic arrangement. Slovenia has also received incentives in this field from the European Union, conditioning the former’s membership upon its compliance with the requirements of regulated competitiveness in the telecom market. The stories I heard from the locals do not always align with the sources I found online on the history of this infrastructural development. According to articles20Hosman, Laura, and Philip N. Howard. “Telecom Policy across the Former Yugoslavia: Incentives, Challenges, and Lessons Learned.” Journal of Information Policy, vol. 4, 2014, pp. 67–104., https://doi.org/10.5325/jinfopoli.4.2014.0067. on the history of telecommunication in the region of former Yugoslav countries, Slovenia hasn’t yet undergone full privatization of the telecom market, although the state did attempt to sell the government-owned Telekom Slovenije in 1997, 2001, 2013, 2015 and 2022.
This challenging development of telecommunication infrastructure also led to many positive outcomes. As stated in Lisa Park’s article Postwar Footprints: Satellite and Wireless Stories in Slovenia and Croatia, the consequence of the interest in the telecommunication networks fueled by the political situation in the region took Slovenia to the top of Europe’s infrastructural advanced development – “By 2003 Slovenia’s per capita use of mobile phones was second only to Japan. Because of this, Slovenia became an important test market in Europe and wireless applications (such as text messaging, gaming, and video streaming) were rolled out much earlier than in larger markets.”21Lisa Parks, Postwar Footprints: Satellite and Wireless Stories in Slovenia and Croatia [in]: Franke, Anselm, editor. B-Zone: Becoming Europe and Beyond. Actar, 2005, p. 332. Slovenia was recognized by international entities as the getaway between Western and Southeastern Europe. Foreign companies started to invest in Slovenia and develop their own infrastructures, but none of them could compete with the government-owned Telekom Slovenija and its subsidiaries as they knew the market and their customers best (Mobitel and Telekom were sued for unfair trade conditions several times).22Ibidem p. 333. The Catholic church played a huge role in the developing market, which also contributed to greater infrastructural development in rural areas due to fake competitiveness between government-owned Telekom Slovenije and its subsidiary T-2.
According to my local sources, the inefficiencies in the privatization process and repeated shifts between public and private ownership resulted in legal loopholes. At some point it allowed individuals to establish their own telecommunication infrastructures, such as installing fiber optic cables on their private property. This situation has also attracted fraudulent companies seeking to capitalize on the hype surrounding fiber optics technology. Therefore, the examination of the historical development of the telecommunications network in Slovenia can provide greater insight into the proliferation of anecdotal accounts surrounding the system. What happens when the general public gains access to the usually black-boxed infrastructure? The lack of public knowledge and interest with regard to technology affects their participation in decisions related to the construction, management, and use of these systems, often because infrastructures are defined by their invisibility.23Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press, 2015, p. 6. In this case, the situation is reversed.
21st Century Sorcery
During the course of my investigation, it was revealed that to this day, the maps of underground cable networks remain incomplete. Furthermore, the previously privatized companies that have been re-nationalized are still in the process of inventorying their infrastructure, as indicated by Simon Turnšek, a former employee of a Slovenian internet service provider.24Personal communication with Simon Turnšek. The collection of technical information concerning the history, location, and ownership of infrastructure is a challenging endeavor due to capitalist societies' normalization of the confidential nature of such information and the widespread practice of maintaining its privacy. For instance, while a company named ELES reports that the first fiber optic cable was installed in 1988, the veracity of this information is uncertain due to the private character of the company. The difficulty in accessing scientifically credible sources to verify this information highlights the challenges associated with obtaining reliable information about the infrastructure. According to information provided by curator Tjaša Pogačar and confirmed by former IP company employee Simon Turnšek, the high demand from telecommunications companies to create maps of underground infrastructures has led to companies' failure to supply their employees with accurate devices and equipment. As a result, employees were forced to find alternative methods for locating these systems. As a consequence, dowsing rods have been officially adopted as a method for identifying fiber optic cables.25Private conversation with Simon Turnšek. Analyzing this case through the lenses of Latour’s depunctualization, the recursive nature of black-boxed infrastructure has predictably led to a higher number of individuals involved (demand in employees number), as well as the emergence of creating more obscure tools (dowsing rods) in order to gain access to the information contained within the (original) black box.
There’s no scientific evidence for the dowsing rods’ efficacy – they are tools of alternative knowledge. Nevertheless, they are used for creating scientific facts, such as locations of high technological fiber optic cables. The rods crossing is often described as ‘miraculous’, ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’. Traditionally they were used to locate underground water passages, but as evidenced in Slovenia they can also be used in high-end companies to map their technologies. My research-based art project in Maribor led to a video essay in which part two deals with the case of dowsing in telecommunications (see the video from 01:37).
Contrasted with the technology of fiber optics and the invention of the internet, dowsing rods may seem to be a sort of sorcery and stand out as pre-scientific wisdom. Anecdotal evidence and scientific research undermining one another, therefore, give an access point to the insides of a black box. From the perspective of either, we could look towards the other with scepticism and fear stemming from the incomprehensibility of its inner workings. Due to Western patterns of reasoning, we take fiber optics as rational and dowsing as nonrational or even irrational models of knowledge whereas, they serve as a valuable tool, enabling insight into the otherwise black-boxed networks of underground cables.
According to Femke Snelting, in situations like this, there’s a need for other geometries. The misaligned topologies of underground telecommunication networks and the magical technology of dowsing rods used to navigate through them, serve as evidence for forming a new non-normative interconnected geometry of relations. ‘Paranodes’, a term used by Ulises Mejias, comes in handy here to help us imagine the function of dowsing in this relation.26Meijas, Ulises. Off the Network. University of Minnesota Press, 2013, p. 113. The term paranode comes from neuroscience and defines a cellular structure that plays a role in excitatory signal transduction. Mejias uses this term to indicate a space that “lies beyond the topological and conceptual limits of the node. This space is not empty but inhabited by multitudes that do not conform to the organizing logic of the network. [...] the paranodal is not passive; its existence shapes nodes and the relationships between them.”27IbIdem. p.113. Moving with those irrational tools beyond the given topologies allows us to find a gap, an access point to a potential change, and progress into the non-sovereign relationality and all non-regular geometries.
Fibre Fiction Caught on Camera
My research on Slovenian telecommunication infrastructures provides another example of cultural, social and technological significance, a point where two realms intersect. Despite facing numerous obstacles in the development of its infrastructure, Slovenia has still managed to make groundbreaking contributions to the field of telecommunication and was pioneering in innovations. In 2008 Slovenia announced 100% internet coverage but according to a 2009 report by FTTH Council Europe, it was far from it (nevertheless, it still maintained 3rd place in Europe in internet coverage, after Sweden and Norway). 28Batagelj, Bostjan. “FTTH Networks Deployment in Slovenia.” 2009 11th International Conference on Transparent Optical Networks, 2009, https://doi.org/10.1109/icton.2009.5185039. As a result of the rapid pace of development, people were confronted with a unique blend of both folk practices, such as dowsing rods, and cutting-edge technology, such as optic fiber cables. The distribution of technical knowledge regarding infrastructures is unequal and influenced by various social factors such as gender, ethnicity, class, generation, and nationality. Several Internet Service Provider (ISP) companies have capitalized on the situation by offering fraudulent services and presenting only the tangible benefits of their offerings while concealing the supporting infrastructure. This strategy enables them to achieve economic gains at the expense of their customers. Franci Kek, a Slovenian actor, comedian, and politician, brought attention to this inequality through his television show "Skrita Kamera" (“Hidden Camera”). The specific episode in question, which was created during the rapid development of telecommunications infrastructure, showcases this disparity in a surprising way (see the video Franci Kek Skrita kamera optični kabel). Although the exact year of the episode’s production is uncertain, based on available evidence and authoritative sources it is most likely that it was produced in the early 2000s.29Private conversations with Tjaša Pogačar and Filip Bojanić
This episode became the first part of the visual essay in the Terms&Conditions project (see the video essay Terms&Conditions from 00:00 ). Franci Kek staged an intervention in rural Slovenia where a hidden camera recorded people’s reactions to the installation of optic fiber cables in their yards. He describes the optical fiber cables as invisible because they are even named ‘optical’. Unexpectedly, people reacted with no surprise to it, seemingly accepting the information without question and acting accordingly to the provided instructions, stepping over and avoiding cables that are not there. They are not invisible, they simply do not exist. This situation shows us how little we know about the affective investments people have in infrastructures. To rephrase Lisa Parks, it shows the extent of our limited understanding of how “[...] these relatively invisible and transparent systems captivate imaginations and serve as physical and virtual gathering grounds.”30Lisa Parks, Postwar Footprints: Satellite and Wireless Stories in Slovenia and Croatia [in]: Franke, Anselm, editor. B-Zone: Becoming Europe and Beyond. Actar, 2005, p. 346. To quote my own words from my visual essay “with all this science and technology accelerating ever faster, we’re constantly falling behind, clueless.”
From a phenomenological perspective offered by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the body serves here as a cognitive mechanism and an experiential access point to the situation.31Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Franklin Classics, 2018, p. 112-170. In the video, we can observe the embodied act of grasping. It is the body that performs the understanding of the situation. Being caught in the in-between of digital and physical requires not only a rational comprehension of how technology works and is operating but, as evidenced, it is indeed a requirement of embodied knowledge to situate oneself in this bizarre condition. The presented situation shows an irrational reaction to objective facts, in which, in line with Merleau-Ponty, the act of grasping precedes rational knowledge.32Ibidem. p. 9-12. We might not be conscious of the systems within which we operate but we perform according to them. This excess beyond our rational understanding of the black-boxed infrastructure paradoxically opens up a point in which we again can transform the input and output not according to computational schematic rules, but by letting the intuitive grasping be a sense-making shifter and a means of knowledge production. The analysis of this televised prank challenges existing narratives like the duality of mind and body or the superiority of rational thinking.
The Towering Tale of Misreads
Finally, thinking of the city as a black box shows us how infrastructures become enrolled into regimes of representation and signification. An example is the third part of the video essay (see the video essay Terms&Conditions from 03:44). As a result of the advancement of network infrastructure in Slovenia, cities aimed to position themselves as the most efficient and technologically advanced. Maribor is the second largest city in Slovenia and according to local anecdotes, it is being mocked by the citizens of the capital city Ljubljana. Historically, telecommunication towers were playing a major role in shaping the landscape and symbolically illustrating the progress of infrastructural development.33Lisa Parks, Postwar Footprints: Satellite and Wireless Stories in Slovenia and Croatia [in]: Franke, Anselm, editor. B-Zone: Becoming Europe and Beyond. Actar, 2005, p. 343. Telecommunication towers also played an important role in the landscapes of other post-communist regions, often being the remains of brutalist architecture (Berlin, Vilnius, Belgrade etc.). The producer of Narodni dom Vetrinjski dvor in Maribor, Marko Brumen, shared an anecdote about the construction of a telecommunication tower in Maribor. This tower built along a highway connecting two cities in the early 2000s, serves as a highlight of increased competitiveness among regions and cities. Despite Alexander Galloway's extensive discourse on the concept of black-boxed architecture, this anecdote does not fully align with his explanation. According to Brumen, at the beginning of the tower's construction, some people would stop along the highway and pray to the tower, mistaking it for a mosque in the nearby area. Furthermore, while Galloway's conclusions on black-boxing architecture assert that such black-boxed structures go unnoticed and can disguise themselves as something else, playing on the binary of legibility and obfuscation, the telecommunications tower in Maribor was not constructed with the intention of being a black-boxed structure, despite exhibiting all these traits. This anecdote is another example that illustrates the presence of non-rational needs in human beings, which persist despite any obstacles or unusual circumstances and must be fulfilled.
The city of Maribor has failed to provide its citizens with a symbol to represent its technological progress. Its misrecognition highlights how the knowledge of it becomes diffracted through a human desire to satisfy non-rational needs and does not serve as a legible symbol of rationality and progress. The rivalry between Maribor and Ljubljana presents an interesting context for the disparity in the architectural representation of the cities on Google Earth – the flat satellite image of Maribor’s telecom tower, paling in comparison to Ljubljana's fully-developed 3D map. Through my video essay, I’m drawing attention to this issue by creating a visual 3D representation of the Maribor’s tower. As noted by Lisa Parks regarding such infrastructural symbols, “In the days of Yugoslavia, communication towers and highways were treated with great regard as public spectacles and symbols of national pride.”34Lisa Parks, Postwar Footprints: Satellite and Wireless Stories in Slovenia and Croatia [in]: Franke, Anselm, editor. B-Zone: Becoming Europe and Beyond. Actar, 2005, p. 343. I aimed to create a similar symbol to meet the needs of the 21st century. Thinking about the city as a black box expands not only to its physical infrastructures but also to its infrastructural representations both physical and digital.
2 + 2 = 5
In discussing the concept of the city as a black box, it is important to acknowledge Benjamin Bratton's Stack and the “City Layer”. Although my understanding of the city differs from Bratton's in some ways. His view regards the city as a structured, computed, and predictable entity. I posit that the city is too complex and contains too much information to be comprehensible. As a result, it becomes a black box and can only be entered through access points. This access leads to a new layer of understanding, experience, and comprehension, but it does not necessarily rely on Western rationality. Unlike Bratton, who in zooming in and out on different multiplying layers of the city is losing the essential qualities that make humans unique, my perspective emphasizes human qualities such as creativity, sentience, learning, flexibility, and self-awareness, which distinguish us from computational machines and cannot be reduced to a predetermined rigid structure. Bratton is accentuating the reliance on automated systems and algorithms to make sense of information,35 Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack - on Software and Sovereignty. MIT Press, 2016, p. 549-714. whereas I’m focusing on the non-reflective, irrational and non-dominant knowledge that is also present and leads to the production of new qualities in the processes of knowledge production. The Stack is an ambitious grand concept that might be read as an invitation to interlink the fragments, while also embeds cryptic information but just for those who know where to look for it. For me, such obfuscating theory is just another example of black boxing and its grandiose can itself be read as becoming a point (according to Latour’s dictionary).
The information I refer to as non-comprehensible is the information that is present when we are entering a black box system. For both Galloway and Bratton humans are equated with machines, as machines can serve as extensions to humans and provide them with the structured and rationalized information required to operate in a given situation. Technical rationality can stand in opposition to interpretive epistemologies such as embodied phenomenology. Technical rationality refers to the use of systematic, objective methods and the use of reason and logic to guide decision-making. Interpretive epistemologies, on the other hand, focus on the subjective experiences and perspectives of individuals, and the role of interpretation in shaping our understanding of the world.
The examination of the provided examples highlights the significance of embodied knowledge, as well as folk wisdom and superstitions. These forms of knowledge and belief systems are often not considered scientifically valid according to Western models of rationality, creating a binary between knowledge that is deemed credible and that which is not. This dichotomy provides a basis for a further conclusion that builds upon the concepts of epistemic speculation. Depending on the viewpoint, black boxes can be understood as functioning similarly to folk wisdom, for example, as the given output is not explainable in order of enlightenment (black vs light). The output that black boxes provide is not narrative and logical, it is just given without explanation and we take it for granted. This knowledge is actionable, but not shareable or conducive to learning – it is not possible to reconstruct. In this sense, our response to turn to non-rational knowledge when faced with information overload (or information that exceeds our rational comprehension like the one provided by black boxes) can be understood as a mirroring behaviour of the black box itself. To explain this dependency let me quote Mark Andrejevic and his understanding of Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society as it clearly indicates the principles of what a black box is: “There are still plenty of contexts in which we rely on knowledge that is, in the explanatory sense, non-comprehended. [...] We know from past experience that they have a high likelihood of working, but we have yet to understand the underlying mechanism.”36Andrejevic, Mark. “Shareable and Un-Sharable Knowledge.” Big Data & Society, vol. 7, no. 1, 2020, p. 205395172093391., https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951720933917. As long as this “output knowledge” is working we won’t be able to notice the mechanism that produces it.
It is definitely tempting to rely on automation, especially given the large transformer language model systems (artificial intelligence), rather than dive into the time-consuming interpretation. As noted already in 1974 by Edsger Dijkstra “[...] the amount of information they can store and the amount of processing that they can perform, in a reasonably short time, are both large beyond imagination. And as a result, what the computer can do for us has outgrown its basic triviality by several orders of magnitude.”37Dijkstra, E.,1974, p. 608 [in:] Rieder, Bernhard. Engines of Order. Amsterdam University Press, 2020. It is crucial to acknowledge that automated systems inherently possess biases and are operating in non-human logic (based on numeric systems), in addition to being influenced by Western standards of what constitutes credible knowledge. We need to be aware of the power we've given to our search engines.
These systems are blissfully liberated from the intricacies of representation, as there is no discrepancy between signifier and referent.38Rieder, Bernhard. Engines of Order. Amsterdam University Press, 2020. 14. They simply function based on the data inputted. Bernhard Rieder marks an observation that the inner workings of certain systems, which are hidden from our view, can lead to a proliferation of chaotic and indistinct outcomes, creating a sort of "black foam" of disordered information within these systems. It is the responsibility of human agents to make the interpretive leap and determine the accuracy of the output in relation to reality, which is why I find the non-dominant forms of knowledge production so important. To comprehend information, it is necessary to renew the discourse between theory and alternative modes of knowledge. Time and again we should be reopening the discussions of knowledge and epistemology to emphasize the role of practical experience and embodied understanding in shaping an individual's perception of reality. Like the frameworks provided by Édouard Glissant on relations in a state of permanent movement. Taking into account the non-dominant or even irrational attempts in sense-making allows us to address the necessity to challenge the dominant classification of knowledge characterized by its hierarchy and unequal distribution of power.39Enclosing the Enclosers: Autonomous Experiences from the Grassroots–beyond Development, Globalization and Postmodernity Gustavo Esteva [in:] Luisetti, Federico, et al. The Anomie of the Earth: Philosophy, Politics, and Autonomy in Europe and the Americas. Duke University Press, 2015, p. 77.
Utilizing unconventional methods and marginalized knowledge that arises from the challenges in comprehending the information from black boxes (like a city itself), enables us to uncover diverse perspectives, access different relationalities and shape new geometries of understanding. The analysis of those few anecdotes from the history of the development of telecommunication infrastructure in Slovenia highlights the persistent inadequacies in rational knowledge. There’s a constant need for the presence of areas of uncertainty in order to allow irregularities to appear. The manner in which the world is perceived and experienced plays a crucial role in determining the feasibility and potentiality of various future scenarios.
Through the analysis of the interactions between humans and physical infrastructures and the affective capacities/affordances of this relation, I wanted to point out that the infrastructural perspective is as important a perspective as the objects/topics usually centred upon. Physical infrastructures designed to be hidden from our sight conceal a lot of important data to be discovered and built upon. Although invisible, infrastructures, as shown, shape and frame our behaviours and sense-making of information visible to us. Ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) and the emergence of affective computing already sense the emotional state of its users. Technologies are designed to detect and respond to human emotions, therefore to the non-rational and less computable knowledge models. These are the technologies that use a combination of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and physiological sensors in order to create more empathetic and human-centred technologies, but it is still our responsibility to shape this development in a more equal and open manner.
The overarching references to the video essay from the project Terms&Conditions also serve as an example of a different mode of knowledge production. The accompanying literary narration and visuals offer yet another grasping of the collected information on the development of telecommunication infrastructures in Slovenia. The presented evidence is comprised mostly of informal witness statements gathered during an art residency and doesn’t follow a regular academic methodology of scientific reasoning. Therefore, it inherently follows my hypothesis of the importance of the presence of non-dominant knowledge production in the production of new knowledge.
Even though the infrastructures and devices seem to have supernatural properties, there is a persistent inclination to provide explanations or justifications for various phenomena, owing to their crucial role in establishing accountability and legitimacy. This tendency reflects a worldview that is in opposition to the expansion of ‘black box’ systems, which lack transparency and comprehensible explanations for their processes and outcomes.
The project Terms&Conditions is comprised of more elements but that would require another essay on digital governance to be explained and illustrated by academic theories. You can read more here.
Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack - on Software and Sovereignty. MIT Press, 2016.
Emerson, Lori. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Flusser Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books, 2000.
Fuller, Matthew, and Andrew Goffey. Evil Media. The MIT Press, 2012.
Galloway, Alexander R. “Black Box Architecture.” Cultureandcommunication.org, 13 Jan. 2015, http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/black-box-architecture.
Latour, Bruno. Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Harvard University Press, 2000.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Franklin Classics, 2018.
Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Parks, Lisa, and Nicole Starosielski. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Pasquale, Frank. The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Harvard University Press, 2016.
Rieder, Bernhard. Engines of Order. Amsterdam University Press, 2020.
Snelting, Femke. “Other Geometries.” Transmediale, 2019, https://archive.transmediale.de/content/other-geometries#footnoteref7_uxutgfi.