art projects
General Intellect
Categories: Art

Commission: Commissioned by Bath Spa University
Created with support from DXARTS.
Exhibition: Exhibited at Aktionsart, 201 Westlake, Seattle
September 17 – October 3, 2015
Materials: Monitors, computer, code
Description: In a society where machines have largely replaced human workers, there are few skills or forms of knowledge that remain exclusively human. Marx anticipated this situation when he coined the term “general intellect” to describe the collective, social intelligence that arises from abstract human knowledge. In a data-driven society, our individuated responses to particular lived situations and contexts have in themselves become a form of capital. With the rise of social media, the conflict between human knowledge and algorithmic knowledge has been drawn into sharp relief. Every time we post our thoughts, ideas, preferences, and comments online, we contribute to a mechanized version of Marx’s general intellect.

General Intellect is a multi-channel video installation that generates narratives from video files produced by an online micro-labour force, via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (mTurk) service. Described as “an on-demand, scalable, human workforce to complete jobs that humans can do better than computers,” mTurk allows companies, or “requesters”, to post “Human Intelligence Tasks” (HITs), assignments that typically involve image analysis, online research, and writing. The majority of tasks take around one minute to complete and pay five to ten cents. Ultimately, HITs are used to train computers to respond and behave more like humans.

The production of General Intellect involved commissioning mTurk workers to record videos of themselves for 1 minute of every hour between 9am and 5pm, for which they were compensated $3. Workers created captions for the videos and provided detailed metadata about themselves. The resulting videos are portraits of an extraordinary range of people, living conditions, and daily routines, featuring solitary individuals, their families, and their domestic environments. The worker population includes stay-at-home mothers, retirees, the un- and self-employed, the disabled and reclusive, and people performing HITs during their regular day jobs. They are a diverse workforce, with representatives from around the globe. Some workers approached the brief by creating confessional video diaries, others never reveal themselves on screen. Often, they rehearse the genre conventions of social media updates and YouTube videos, by performing, oversharing, and using the assignment as a platform for social networking and for documenting their everyday lives.

General Intellect was exhibited at a condemned school building one block from Amazon’s South Lake Union campus. The school building was slated for demolition a few weeks after the exhibition closed, to be replaced with luxury apartments.The work was installed as a series of single and multi-channel video installations, each in a separate room and generated from a unique query to the database of videos uploaded by mTurk workers. Queries included:

  • All workers whose captions include keyword ‘date night’
  • Single worker currently uploading the most videos
  • All workers who mention their husband or wife
  • Male workers whose captions include keywords “cat” and “cooking”
  • White female workers between the ages of 50-59 in North America
  • All workers whose captions include keyword “reading”
  • The same worker on three different days
  • Three workers of the same demographic, across one day.

The queries were also made available for sale. Profits from the sale are used to pay for additional versions of the HIT. Buyers receive a video monitor that streams HITS that match their query.

General Intellect reveals the unpredictable, unruly, and undeniably human global labor force that powers mTurk, a system deliberately designed to treat them as anonymous machines. It asks how an automated, content-rich, yet attention-scarce economy impacts how we live, work, and communicate through digital platforms. Moreover, by illuminating the hidden mechanics of 21st century capitalism, it poses difficult questions about the exponential capacity for exploitation within these data-driven systems. Strategically unnerving, it demands a voyeuristic gaze that suggests the viewer’s complicity with exploitation, whether they are self-identifying member of the art world or an Amazon worker who wandered in during their lunch break. The project is at once compromised and compromising by design, in order to pose vital questions about what and who remains ‘human’ in a hyper-automated, controlled society.

Credits: Programming: James Coupe and Yi Ding
With special thanks to Anthony Head, Kate Pullinger, Neil Glen and Mark Leake at Bath Spa University, and Julia Fryett at Aktionsart.
Technical: General Intellect uses Python and OpenFrameworks to automatically generate mTurk tasks, pay workers and display the videos that they upload. The work can be configured to use any number of monitors.
Reviews/News: General Intellect exhibition in Seattle
The Stranger – Meet the New Boss: You
City Arts: Only Human
Seattle Weekly: The Fussy Eye
Radio interview with RTE:

Porter Anderson – Mixing it up for digital writing
Conversation with Julia Fryett, Susan Surface and Sean O’Connor

IMAGES: General Intellect General Intellect General Intellect General Intellect
VIDEOS:  General Intellect  General Intellect

Categories: Art -