How artist Ben Grosser is cutting Mark Zuckerberg down to size
When the history of the first decades of this century comes to be written, there will be few more telling artworks than Ben Grosser’s film Order of Magnitude. In the 47 minute video, Grosser, a digital artist and professor of new media at the University of Illinois, has spliced together every public instance in which Mark Zuckerberg has talked of “more” and “bigger”. The resulting montage of interviews and presentations is a fast forward of the rapid growth of Facebook as, in the chief executive’s mouth, thousands become millions then billions. It makes a mesmerising monologue, the story of our times.
“The idea that Zuckerberg latched on to even more than anyone else in Silicon Valley,” Grosser suggested, when he spoke to me from Urbana via Zoom last week, “was the need to grow as big as fast as possible, get the largest market share. And everything was subservient to that.” The film is part of a double act. Grosser has also spliced together all the moments he can find of Zuckerberg ever mentioning numbers diminishing or things getting smaller. This film runs for 30 seconds, though in a new version for his forthcoming exhibition at the Arebyte Gallery in London, he has slowed those seconds down so it also runs for 47 minutes.
The Zuckerberg films are exhibit A in a series of projects that have made Grosser perhaps the most usefully hands-on of all critics of social media. Alongside the Zuckerberg satire, he has created a range of software that deconstructs exactly how Facebook’s numbers add up. His Facebook Demetricator is an app that any user can employ to strip away all the addictive metrics from the platform, blocking those micro-dopamine hits of likes and friendship. Demetricators for Instagram and Twitter have followed. Having briefly tried the latter, the effect is at first disorienting and then liberating. “We’ve been conditioned to focus on numbers and to use them as proxy for how important someone is or how well received something has been,” Grosser says. Without those metrics, he suggests, “you have to actually read a post to see what you think about it or look at someone’s bio to see if you want to follow them back”.
Grosser is, like me, old enough to remember communication before the internet. In the 1990s, he was excited by the possibilities of using rudimentary artificial intelligence in creating music – he played around with making “different and weird” sounds that had never been heard before. During the first dotcom boom, he had some job offers from Silicon Valley startups, but preferred the freedoms of academic experiment. He remembers being excited initially by the possibilities of Facebook, then Twitter, the ways they “offered unfettered, interactive access to other humans in ways that you hadn’t had before”. It was only in about 2010 that he became intensely aware of the effects that his social media habit was having on his brain.
“The first big realisation was about notification,” he says. “The ways my eyes were constantly drawn to the little red and white notification number on Facebook in the days when you had to log on.” He recognised the addictive pattern of that looking, the three-step process by which Zuckerberg’s interface so compulsively steals your attention: first, “did anyone react to or pay attention to me while I was gone?” and the momentary blip of participatory excitement. Then the anticlimax of that number disappearing. Then the subsequent need to post something else, to start the cycle again. “I started to think,” Grosser says, “someone has designed this little feedback loop. Who are they? Who benefits?”
As a teacher of art, he was aware that his students saw nothing unusual in that pattern. They had grown up with it. He could also see how that feedback loop of constant desire for approval shaped their idea of what art might be: “They see YouTube stars and TikTok stars and they’re thinking: what can I make that will also get the best metric for reaction on social media,” he says. That compulsion seemed to narrow their creativity before it had taken shape.
Grosser asks his students a question in their first seminar. “Who here has deleted a social media post within 10 minutes of putting it up, because it didn’t have the metric reaction they hoped for?” Every hand goes up. Then he says: “Now imagine if any of the artists you admire from the past had paid attention to the first 10 minutes of reaction to their work and used that as a guide about whether to throw something away.” If you’re going to have original, strange ideas, he suggests, the world might need time to adjust to them.
Grosser has been testing a platform that might help with that, too. Minus breaks all the rules of metric-obsessed media. It allows users only a finite number of posts: exactly 100 across a lifetime and there are no likes or follows. The only way you can interact with another poster is by replying. His beta testers have reported some anxieties, which sound a lot like the kind of anxieties that artists have always felt: “They almost feel like there’s so much weight on a post,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’m only going to get 100, what if I blow one on some bullshit?’” He hopes that an idea of quality might be able to compete with the quantitative alternative: if we stop to think, he says, “we are invited to believe our Twitter feed will last for ever. And so we’re constantly thinking in our head in terms of how we might appear on Twitter or about how the thing we’re doing right now would look if I talked about it on Twitter…”
He also has projects that mess with Silicon Valley algorithms that need you to emote (Go Rando) or that undermine US National Security Agency surveillance by appending to each email random words that might set alarm bells ringing (ScareMail). He is, in this sense, a one-man corrective to the data-driven world in which we all now find ourselves; his art highlights its limitations. “The computational way of looking is necessarily the act of defining boundaries where there might not be any,” he says. There is no better illustration of this, he suggests, than the stubbornly hopeless Spotify recommendations. “Data analytics gives you answers that code can produce, but completely ignores all the answers the code can’t produce for you. I might like Led Zeppelin but not like other 70s rock bands.” Software will never be a match for taste.
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August 15, 2021 at 07:00AM