The Networked Condition: Joana Moll Case Study

Thu 16 Sep 2021

At the start of 2020, Fast Familiar, Abandon Normal Devices and Arts Catalyst began The Networked Condition: Environmental Impacts of Digital Cultural Production, a collaborative research project exploring digital arts through an environmental lens. The project is part of The Accelerator Programme (led by Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England), which helps artists to advance their sustainable practice and share insights with their peers and the wider sector.

As part of The Networked Condition, we’ve been speaking to artists and arts organisations whose work encompasses digital tools and environmental sustainability or activism, hoping to gain insight into a broad range of ideas and approaches. We’re writing up these case studies on our journal as we go along, hoping that they’ll be a source of shared knowledge, inspiration or reflection for others too.

The first is with Joana Moll, a Barcelona/Berlin based artist and researcher. Her work critically explores the way techno-capitalist narratives affect the alphabetisation of machines, humans and ecosystems. AND interviewed Joana as part of The Networked Condition to discuss her ongoing investigation into the environmental impact of surveillance capitalism in her work, in particular reference to projects such as CO2GLE (2014), and The Hidden Life of an Amazon User (2019). Her current project, 4004 creates a link between the explosion of techno-capitalism, the acceleration of climate change and resulting decline of essential ecosystems

 

Could you tell us about your practice? 

My practice is at the intersection between art, technology and investigative journalism – moving more towards the crossover between art and investigative journalism. I have been exploring quite intensively techno-capitalism and its relationship to ecosystems including things regarding techno-colonialism, patriarchy, intensive extractivist practices and how these relationships generate a new order. I focus very much on internet infrastructures and the data economy ecosystem. Most of the work I do has artistic outputs; I exhibit but don’t actively work with galleries and that isn’t something I actively pursue. I collaborate with a lot of organisations and NGOs as well as doing teaching, talks and workshops.

 

Could you tell us about your projects that explore the disconnect between our use of the internet and the material impact on the physical world, so, CO2GLE, Defoooorest and The Hidden Life of an Amazon User project?

The idea for CO2GLE and Defooorest came from a question that came to me in 2013 which was: ‘OK so this can’t all come for free?’ There has to be some cost behind it. There was this idea that the digital realm was just holy, kind of like this cloud, this metaphor that was so much in the social imagination back then. The idea that everything could be online, no more paper, sustainable forever. And I felt so stupid the second after I thought this because – of course! But I was so surprised that it had taken me so many years to wonder this. Most of the people I knew didn’t ask this question back in 2013/2014. I think that now there is much more general awareness but not back then. So, the first project that really appeared out of the need to make this question visible in the social imagination was CO2GLE, a very simple project really. And 2 years later I decided that I’d been working with numbers for a long time, trying to calculate emissions and so on and I felt that I couldn’t truly connect with it. Numbers tell you a lot of things, but you can’t really apprehend what this really means and that’s when Defoooorest came to life because I wanted to find a way to do that. I really felt that I needed to communicate this, or I needed it for myself, to make this more understandable, and I feel that we can all relate to a tree, we can all understand what this means – we’ve all seen trees. It was really an experiment, to find another way to communicate this issue because it is dramatic how our online world, especially when it comes to data, how invisible it is. What’s very important to acknowledge is that the internet is a huge infrastructure – it’s impossible to determine its exact emissions. We are using systems that we cannot control at all and that’s a problem. 

The Hidden Life of an Amazon User was about understanding the connection between labour and energy input and who is paying what – it’s about disclosing all this energy, and as a user you work for free for these people because they take every single movement and monetise it but all of these scripts and a lot of this technology are operating in your computer, in your browser, so the user pays a big portion of the energy consumption and the full environmental impact but doesn’t have control over anything. I think that now, it’s something that a lot of people are thinking about and hopefully it’s going to become more visible but it’s really a problem. Data transaction and marketing and all the advertising industry still generates the most revenue for these big tech giants and we are paying for most of the energy for it. 

The Hidden Life of an Amazon User, Joana Moll (2019)

How has your thinking developed on this subject, and the role that art plays in generating critical thought about technology and its hidden environmental impact? 

For me at the beginning it was an experiment and I wasn’t really sure if this would be an intrinsic part of my practice, but now this is what defines my practice. So, every project that I’m developing is really tied to this. I am developing two projects at the moment which are tackling this from different perspectives and with different examples, but still with this idea at the core.

Art is useless in the way that it doesn’t need to be part of the economic or financial system, can easily not be commodified (I mean it can easily be commodified too) so I think that art is a really powerful tool in this sense because you can really bring up very critical issues in a very flexible way in the sense that you are not writing policy, you are not developing a business model, you are not writing a law, not even writing an academic paper where everything has to be super referenced or a piece of investigative journalism where there are a lot of rules. And art itself doesn’t fulfil a ‘purpose’ in the way these other things do, which I think is incredibly powerful because it allows you to navigate through – it’s in between structures in a way – so that you can open space. I feel the need to name those practices because there is no other name for it, so that people will understand it because it’s not really investigative journalism, it’s not research – they are elements that are combined 

 

What was the process that you went on to research these concerns? 

For these projects I didn’t contact Google, the only available email was press@google.com and for these earlier projects I didn’t think it was necessary because I could make an estimation myself, so I just did it. Then in 2018 somehow, the project exploded and there were some articles and radio interviews about the project, so Google sent me an email. I think it is the greatest achievement of my life! It was sent from the sustainability officer at Google and they kindly asked me to please put the emissions at zero because they were running on renewables completely, which is a huge fallacy. But what’s worrying is legally they can say that, and that’s a problem because the internet doesn’t just run on Google devices and Google infrastructure, they run on multiple other things that are not part of Google and so Google cannot control its energy consumption or environmental impact. So, in order to come up with the numbers, I always used the same reference paper published by Berkley University in 2008 which tried to calculate the environmental impact of the Ad industry – banners and online advertising. And I checked the papers that have been published more recently – most of it is based on specific networks with very specific conditions so it really cannot be extrapolated to the whole internet, but it gives you an estimation.

Now for the new projects that I am doing I felt that it was very important to contact Google. I know that I’m not going to get an answer but at least I will have an official record that there wasn’t an answer. I think that’s important and something that I didn’t take into account before on earlier projects. 

 

How do you approach the environmental impact of the work itself and communicating that to audiences?

I generate as little as I can. The way I calculate it is I use this estimation I have which is 1mb = 7,072grams CO2 (from the Berkley paper). So, I just multiply by the weight of the website. I try to reduce the amount of mb per page or interaction. People get bored if you put too much information about this, so I think it’s better to just put the maximum amount. And sometimes it’s hard because when I deal with surveillance issues, the amount of data I have is massive. The Dating Brokers project for example is so massive I couldn’t even host it on my server, we had to have an extra server. And the server still has to run to host the project, it doesn’t just use energy when you visit it, it uses energy just by existing. So, you have to weigh things up: should I do it? What is important? It’s not environmentally friendly but those things need to be brought out into the public so we can think about them. So, for these projects that argument for me wins – for now. Not always, but in some cases. 

I read a really alarming article the other day about Xerox and it said that maybe 60 – 70 percent of the data they keep is useless. They just keep it for the sake of keeping it. This is a trend and is the case for many other companies. And then I came across this very interesting concept of dark data which I wasn’t aware of before. It’s all this data that has just been kept, not been used, but occupies space and wastes a lot of resources – from a hard disk you have at home to thousands and thousands of servers. For instance, if you used Second Life your avatar is probably still there! It’s all these things like Google docs or old email accounts. And we don’t think about this. 

 

Do you have any advice on how other artists would be able to approach creating digital art that is about environmental topics or seeks to lower its impact? 

I’ve mainly taught in design schools in Germany, Barcelona and other places. I’ve been really strict with the students about interfaces and their huge environmental impact and that they should really take this as a top priority especially in interaction design and also art – the way you produce a project. So, I always do exercises where I ask them to put the environmental impact as a priority and see how they would re-design. It’s a bit of an imagination exercise to try and change how you do things. So, this is the piece of advice I give to my students and others: try to think about this first and see how everything will change. I think imagination here plays a huge role, because I think we have a huge crisis of imagination. The narratives that we shape our lives around are not working. They are bad for us, bad for the environment, bad for everything.

 

What are you working on at the moment?

A new project I am working on is again going to tackle the energy consumption of online tracking. In previous projects I have tended to focus on disclosing what’s wrong but this time I am also going to at least propose modes of action to counteract this which is something I’m more willing to do now but it is very tricky because solving things from a singular perspective is very dangerous. You have to be very careful if you say you are solving the world because you can actually make it worse. But I think for this specific project it’s very important. And then the second one  I’m tackling micro-processors, which are one of the very hidden technologies that are critical to economic development and we rarely talk about this. It is the heart and brain of a computer and when it increases its computational power it has a direct effect on economic growth globally – and micro-processors increase computational power more than anything else. Something that is really important to mention is when the microprocessor appeared it was the first time in history that artificial intelligence could be programmed into an inanimate object. And that was a giant leap. So, I’m making a comparison between micro-processors and computational power, with ecosystem decline. It’s a really complex project with a lot of layers. I’m looking at all kinds of things: extractive practices, the materials inside the microprocessor and where they are being assembled all over the world, new transportation routes. To make something artificial come to life takes huge amounts of resources and logistics And inevitably, a lot of natural life disappears.

 

Joana Moll’s main research topics include Internet materiality, surveillance, social profiling and interfaces. She has presented her work in renowned institutions, museums, universities and festivals around the world such as Venice Biennale, MAXXI, MMOMA, Laboral, CCCB, ZKM, Bozar, The Natural History Museum in Berlin, Austrian Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), Ars Electronica, HEK, Photographer’s Gallery, Korean Cultural Foundation Center, Chronus Art Center, New York University, Georgetown University, Rutgers University, University of Cambridge, Goldsmiths University of London, University of Illinois, Concordia University, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, ETH Zürich, École d’Art d’Aix en Provence, British Computer Society, The New School, CPDP 2019, Transmediale, FILE and ISEA among many others. Her work has been featured extensively on international media including The Financial Times, Der Spiegel, National Geographic, Quartz, Wired, Vice, The New Inquiry, Netzpolitk, El Mundo, O’Globo, La Reppublica, Fast Company, CBC, NBC or MIT Press.

She is the co-founder of the Critical Interface Politics Research Group at HANGAR [Barcelona] and co-founder of The Institute for the Advancement of Popular Automatisms. She is currently a visiting lecturer at Universität Potsdam and Escola Elisava [Barcelona].

@joana_moll

The Networked Condition is a collaboration between Fast Familiar, Abandon Normal Devices and Arts Catalyst, part of Julie’s Bicycle Accelerator Programme, supported by Arts Council England.