James Bridle: New Ways of Seeing: can John Berger’s classic decode our baffling digital age?

The hidden architecture of surveillance … Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1), 2015, by Trevor Paglen.
Photograph: Trevor Paglen/Metro Pictures, New York

(…) It’s one of the ironies of the present age that while we feel that everything has changed, our view seems to be unaltered. If you walk down the street, the buildings, vehicles and people all look much the same as in Berger’s heyday. The digital revolution is largely an invisible one – until you start to look closer. The people are mostly talking to themselves, or staring at their hands, and the banks, post offices and libraries are coffee shops, because most of their functions have moved online. As a result, we rarely “see” the digital world as it really is – even as it makes more and more claims over our lives.

In the first episode of New Ways of Seeing, I meet artists such as Ingrid Burrington and Trevor Paglen, who explore this hidden architecture of the internet. In New York, Burrington takes us inside 32 Avenue of the Americas, an art deco temple to telecommunications dating from 1932, when it was the headquarters of AT&T’s transatlantic network. The atrium contains a grand mural depicting nation calling nation across the telegraph wires – but Burrington also shows us the manholes and markings on the street outside that allow us to read the fibre-optic cables snaking under the city today.

Paglen in turn takes us to the bottom of the ocean, where he photographs the same cables that connect nations today. We’ve got used to hearing about “the cloud”, the numinous neverland where the machines do their unseen work, but this is where it comes back down to earth. Looking at a map of the ocean-going internet, we can see how its real shape maps on to the trading routes of old empires; how former colonies are still dominated by connections to their old rulers, and forms of digital colonialism persist into the present. It’s artists who are mapping these sites in order to try and draw a truer picture of the world today, one so often hidden under glass, buried under the ground, or concealed in lines of inscrutable code. (…)

Read the whole article here: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/apr/16/new-ways-of-seeing-john-berger-digital-age-decode-radio-4

Listen to the podcasts: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000458m/episodes/player