WWhen the history of the first decades of this century is written, there will be few works of art more forceful than the Ben Grosser film. Magnitude order. In the 47-minute video, Grosser, a digital artist and new media professor at the University of Illinois, has brought together all the public instances in which Mark Zuckerberg has talked about “more” and “bigger.” The resulting montage of interviews and presentations is a quick preview of Facebook’s rapid growth as, in the CEO’s mouth, thousands turn into millions and then billions. Makes a fascinating monologue, the history of our time.
“The idea that Zuckerberg held on to more than anyone in Silicon Valley,” suggested Grosser, when he spoke to me from Urbana via Zoom last week, “was the need to grow as fast as possible, get the biggest market. . And it was all subservient to that. “The movie is part of a double act. Grosser has also put together all the moments he can find where Zuckerberg mentions that the numbers decrease or things get smaller. 30 seconds, although in a new version for your upcoming exhibition at Arebyte Gallery in London, it has slowed down those seconds so it also works for 47 minutes.
Zuckerberg’s films are Exhibit A in a series of projects that have made Grosser perhaps the most useful of all social media critics. Alongside Zuckerberg’s satire, he has created a range of software that deconstructs exactly how Facebook numbers add up. its Facebook Demetricator is an application that any user can use to eliminate all the addictive metrics of the platform, blocking those microdopamine hits of likes and friends. Demetricors for Instagram Y Twitter have followed. Having briefly tried the latter, the effect is at first disorienting and then liberating. “We have been conditioned to focus on the numbers and use them as substitutes for how important someone is or how well received something has been,” says Grosser. Without those metrics, he suggests, “you have to read a post to see what you think about it or look at someone’s bio to see if you want to follow it.”
Grosser is, like me, old enough to remember communication before the Internet. In the 1990s, he was excited about the possibilities of using rudimentary artificial intelligence to create music – he toyed with creating “different and strange” sounds that had never been heard before. During the first dot-com boom, he received a few 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 in which they “offered interactive and unrestricted access to other humans in ways you haven’t had before.” It was only around 2010 that he realized the effects his social media habit was having on his brain.
“The first big discovery was about notification,” he says. “The way my eyes were constantly drawn to the little red and white notification number on Facebook on the days when you had to log in.” He recognized the addictive pattern of that gaze, the three-step process by which the Zuckerberg interface compulsively steals your attention: First, “Did someone react or pay attention to me while I was gone?” and the momentary flash of participatory enthusiasm. Then the anticlimax of that number disappeared. Then the subsequent need to post something else, to start the cycle again. “I started thinking,” says Grosser, “someone has designed this little feedback loop. Who are they? Who benefits? “
As an art teacher, he was aware that his students saw nothing unusual in that pattern. They had grown up with it. He was also able to see how that feedback loop of constant desire for approval shaped his idea of what art could be: “They see YouTube stars and TikTok stars and they are thinking: what can I do to get the best reaction metric? on social networks, ”he says. That compulsion seemed to reduce her creativity before it took shape.
Grosser asks his students a question in his first seminar. “Who has deleted a social media post within 10 minutes of its posting, because it didn’t get the metric reaction they were hoping 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 it as a guide on whether to throw something away.” If you’re going to have original and bizarre ideas, he suggests, the world might need time to adjust to them.
Grosser has also been testing a platform that could help with that. Minus breaks all the rules of metric-obsessed media. It allows users only a finite number of posts: exactly 100 in its lifetime and there are no likes or followers. The only way to interact with another user is by replying. His beta testers have reported some anxieties, which closely resemble the kind of anxieties that artists have always felt: “They almost feel like there’s a lot of weight in a post,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’m only going to get 100, what if I blow one on some shit?’ He hopes that a quality idea can compete with the quantitative alternative: If we stop to think, he says, “We are invited to believe that our Twitter feed will last forever. And so we’re constantly thinking in terms of how we might appear on Twitter or what what we’re doing right now would look like if I talked about it on Twitter… “
You also have projects that mess with Silicon Valley algorithms that need you to emotes (Go rando) or undermine the surveillance of the US National Security Agency by adding random words to each email that could set off alarms (Scaremail). He is, in this sense, a one-man proofreader for the data-driven world we all find ourselves in now; his art highlights its limitations. “The computational way of looking is necessarily the act of defining limits where there might not be any,” he says. There is no better illustration of this, he suggests, than Spotify’s stubbornly desperate recommendations. “Data analysis gives you answers that the code can produce, but completely ignores all the answers that the code cannot generate for you. I might like Led Zeppelin, but not other rock bands from the 70s. “The software will never measure up to taste.
Software for less is presented at the Arebyte Gallery, London E14, from 20 August to 23 October
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism