Our brains can’t keep up with the constantly growing stream of data we’re being bombarded with and we’re suffering from filter failure. Information overload seems to be the ultimate signifier of contemporary human life in the computer age. But this anxiety about too much information is nothing new. The machines responsible for the crisis are, though, and we’ll have to deal with them.

Eline Benjaminsen, Where the money is made, 2017

Depersonalisation disorder can lead to depression, phobias, panic attacks, and in extreme cases even suicide. Its causes are equally variable, ranging from personal trauma like childhood abuse to overwhelming stress and anxiety. There is research that points to overstimulation as a trigger, but like its causes and symptoms there are a lot of grey areas. What those experiencing the disorder do seem to have in common is a feeling of disconnection and perception of the world as a foggy, dreamlike place – it’s like they are living life as an out-of-body experience. In the International Classification of Diseases this disorder is labelled with the code F48.1. And that’s also the name of the VR installation made last October by Serhii Nezhinsky and Oleg Mavromatti as part of the Frontier Media Art Festival in Kiev. The work takes us into the brain of a patient who is severely affected by the mass of conflicting ideological messages communicated by Kiev’s ever present monuments, not being able to block out these voices. The hemispheres go yellow, green and blue before turning an alarming red.

At roughly the same time but some 1800 kilometres to the west, in his studio at the Rijksakademie of Amsterdam, Sheng-Wen Lo was working on Extendable Ears. The Taiwanese artist constructed a device enabling him to experience sound outside the human range of hearing, the ultrasound heard by cats and dogs. He forced himself to wear the device for a full month, even slept with it. Before embarking on the experiment he feared the dramatically increased audio input might drive him nuts but it turned out to be not so bad after all. Wearing the hearing aid did affect his sleeping pattern, though, making him wake up in the middle of the night laughing like a madman or plunging him into extremely vivid dreams in 3D animation which he documented in a diary. After the month was over things went back to normal, although he did fear turning on the tap for another week because of the horrible screeching ultrasound it makes.

F48.1 and Extendable Ears are opposites where motivation is concerned. As the Ukrainian work presents the world’s stimuli as disturbing and possibly life-threatening, Lo embraces them and even actively seeks an increase in order to open up a new sense of perception and awareness. The driving force behind the works is the same, though. Both respond to living conditions in the contemporary world, which is characterised by ever increasing speed and intensity. Never before in human history have we been exposed to so many stimulants, both sensory and intellectual, and basically non-stop. We are living in what artist and writer James Bridle in his latest book calls ‘the new Dark Age’. The relentless drive for ever more data does not lead to the expected increase in knowledge and control but rather to chaos and anxiety. While our technology grows in complexity, spawning shopping algorithms, automated financial markets, surveillance systems and decision-making machines, our comprehension lags behind. We are drowning in a sea of data and meaning is buried in a tidal wave of information. According to Yuval Noah Harari, another technology writer wary of current developments, this is even done deliberately. In his book Homo DeusA Brief History of Tomorrow (2017) he states: “In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information… so considering everything that is happening in our chaotic world, what should we focus on?”

Food Chain 2020 Itamar Gilboa

The term ‘information overload’ was coined in 1964 by Bertram Gross in his book The Managing of Organizations and was popularised by futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller Future Shock, well ahead of the digital revolution it refers to. But the phenomenon of information overload is much older than that. Basically every step in technological evolution that boosted information distribution has sparked the fear of being flooded by unmanageable input. To start with, the ancient Greeks were suspicious of written text, believing them to make people either intellectually lazy or cognitively overfed and confused – Socrates famously didn’t record any of his teachings and only lives on because of his student Plato’s writing. A few centuries later the Roman Seneca the Elder stated: “the abundance of books is a distraction”. This sentiment came to the fore again after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, greatly increasing the number and circulation of books. Even Erasmus, the 16th century humanist famously depicted leafing through a tome, has been quoted as crying out: “Is there anywhere on Earth exempt from these swarms of books?” The slightly younger philosopher Christian Thomasius compared the overproduction of books to a downright epidemic.  And that was before the advent of mass media and the information age that has gone warp speed since the onset of the digital revolution. Moore’s Law – the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years while its cost is halved – not only holds true for computing power but also for the storage of data. Data that is bound to bounce back at us humans, who are outfitted with organic random access memories that adapt and expand at a much slower pace.

Around the same time the idea of ‘information overload’ was introduced, art theorists and critics started to use the word ‘entropy’. Originally from thermodynamics, where it’s a measure of disorder, it indicated a negative source of inspiration for the formal, minimalist art of the Sixties and Seventies. The overwhelming amount of information in the world was kept in check by reducing the focus to highly abstracted and emotionally detached systems of cognition. Art in this era typically dealt with time and space, and trying to grasp them by measuring or documenting them. On Kawara produced the first instalment of his Today series on 4 January 1966 and diligently continued painting dates on canvases for the next five decades. Conceptual artist Stanley Brouwn made minute step-by-step descriptions of walks through the city.

Kawara and Brouwn were solidly rooted in the modernist era, though, with its often strict but also comforting believe in ‘isms’. These would categorise, rank and interpret all information in a closed system, discarding anything that doesn’t fit the ideological mould as an anomaly or simply nonsense. Once the influx of dissimilar and even conflicting data became so strong and inescapable modernism broke down and we were left with a rapidly growing and increasingly present amorphous mass of information. Artists responded by narrowing their focus to the level of highly personal stories. Only a few tried to make sense of the bigger picture by distilling broader narratives from endless pool of input and impressions. In Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) Johan Grimonprez traced the history of airplane hijacking as portrayed by mainstream media and laced it with passages from Don DeLillo’s novels Mao II and White Noise, simultaneously presenting a portrait of the late 20th century western world and eerily predicting the post 9/11-chaos to come. In a way Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), a film installation that shows clocks and timepieces synchronised with real time, harkens back to the disciplined documentation practice of the likes of Kawara, but the diversity of used images suggests that even the units of time have become weighed with information and interpretation.

Shend-Wen Lo, Extendable Ears, 2019, Kenting, Taiwan

The worldwide penetration of the internet and especially the introduction of social media that made it truly interactive and turned all users into data producers and distributors – of comments, Wikipedia paragraphs, videos or simply data referring to their browsing behaviour – has made things even more complex. The installation fromthebooktothespace (2012) by Jukhee Kwon vividly portrays the data stream we’re facing in an analogue way. She sliced every page of the Encyclopedia Britannica, that old school emblem of all-encompassing knowledge, and glued the strips end to end into meters long threads that hang from the ceiling like a paper waterfall.

Ryoji Ikeda does not resort to a ‘translation’ into old media and gazes into the endless depth of data using the digital realm. In data.scan (2009) he combines the data of the human genome project with the coordinates of galaxies: the infinitely small versus the incredibly large but both sources of never ending streams of information. The data flows back and forth on a screen fixed on a hip high pedestal – the human measure softens the blow of not being able to grasp what we’re seeing. This downplaying strategy is absent from data.tron [3 SXGA+version] (2009), an immersive audio-visual materialisation of pure data showing the space between 0 and 1, the alpha and omega of the digital domain. It’s a contemporary version of the question supposedly debated by late-medieval thinkers: how many angels fit on the end of a needle? The answer – an infinite number – is also applicable to the productive potential of today’s information technology.

In 2006, Clive Humby is said to have coined the phrase that data is the new oil. The mathematician and his business partner and wife, Edwina Dunn, were the architects of the data driven customer reward programme for Tesco supermarkets – launched in 1995, the Clubcard was hugely successful. But in his writings, Bridle disagrees and argues that data is more like nuclear energy: much more powerful but when spills or explosions occur the catastrophe is significantly bigger. Still, politicians, companies and entrepreneurs tend to focus on the potential of big data, especially for financial gain. In Where the money is made (2017), Eline Benjaminsen shows the reality of high-frequency trading on the ground. While data flies from London to Frankfurt in a matter of nanoseconds, life in rural parts of France and Belgium where digital traffic passes through comes to a standstill. Femke Herregraven’s Corrupted Air (2018) also highlights the perverse excesses of data use by focusing on cat bonds, risk-linked securities that transfer a specified set of risks from a sponsor to investors. It’s basically an incentive for hedge funds and asset managers to design computational models to predict tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters based on historical data.

The paradox of data mining is that more knowledge doesn’t automatically result in more insight and certainty. It’s even quite the opposite. German sociologist Ulrich Beck addressed the ‘measurement brings knowledge’ adage of insurance companies in his book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992). They try to collect as much data as possible about their clients’ risk taking behaviour, thus minimising their own – statistics as a shield against risk, not to prevent it, but rather to avoid it. In an attempt to regain some sovereignty, large groups of individuals have taken to measuring their own vital statistics. Smart watches and other wearable personal computers are the latest craze in DIY health monitoring, digital descendants of calorie intake diaries and step counters. In a world wrought with unpredictability they present their users with a modicum of control and the suggestion that they can at least shape their physical fate through the collection and categorisation of data.

Artist Willem Besselink also documents and logs his physical functions, almost obsessively so. He counts the hours of sleep and wakefulness every week. He collects his urine and determines the volume and colour of every deposit. He categorises his various activities, both professional and personal, and records them in diagrams. Besselink tallies, computes, measures, adds up and registers in order to get a grip on at least his personal corner of a world clogged with data. The same holds true for Itamar Gilboa who documented every loaf of bread, bottle of wine or olive oil, piece of chocolate, hamburger and all other products he consumed over a year time. In the Food Chain Project (2014) he subsequently reproduced them in white plaster, turning food into art and abstract numbers into a tangible sculpture.

Sheng-Wen Lo, Extendable Ears, 2019 (installation view)

But exploded data production is not all bad and doesn’t always lead to infobesity, infoxication or information anxiety. Surprisingly, Bridle is one of the first to point out the positive effects of increased data accumulation. His Radar Ornithology (Sage I-III) (2018) uses live weather data from US meteorological facilities and shows migration of birds at night, a phenomenon unknown until the military started using radar in the 1940s. However, Bridle does acknowledge technology’s limits in data production. A State of Sin (2018) consists of a gang of robots sampling randomness, a critical factor in processes ranging from gambling to cyber security, from plants, the sound of transistor radios or other worldly entities because randomness is one thing computers can’t produce themselves.

In the early days of the internet the unleashing of unlimited data streams was even seen as a good thing. Wider access to previously hidden information would breed transparency and build a better democratic environment. WikiLeaks was initially based on this ideal. Metahaven, the collective that in 2006 designed the ‘uncorporate identity’ for the offshore microstate and oft-proposed independent data centre Sealand (in the North Sea off the east coast of England), got involved with Julian Assange’s organisation for exactly that reason. Metahaven produced T-shirts, coffee mugs and other merchandise to support WikiLeaks but when the organisation changed, Assange faced allegations of rape and sexual assault and stories started to circulate about the not so kosher use of captured emails, the duo pulled out.

Metahaven reflected on its experiences in the book Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (2014), underlining the inherent chaos of their radical brand of informal democracy. Much lighter in tone is Anna Ridler’s Wikileaks: A Love Story (2016), an interactive augmented reality installation that dredges an unlikely love story from 10,000 pages of WikiLeaks documents. Similarly Gabriela Ivens scanned the emails in the Panama Papers and compiled a cookbook with ‘leaked recipes’ for pancakes, salsas and the world’s best cookie corresponded about by the staff of companies such as Enron and Sony. In a humorous way Ridler and Ivens show us how flexible a pile of indistinct information really is and how easily its meaning can be spun.

Artists like Constant Dullaart take a more activist stance and actively subvert the systems of data production. In an online performance developed for the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, The Possibility of an Army (2015), he raised a virtual army of 2.5 million troops by compiling fake Facebook profiles based on the names of long dead soldiers from the German state of Hesse, who were paid by the British to fight American insurgents in the 18th century. Their digital incarnations would now fight the American tech giant leading the digital revolution that promises consumer bondage rather than freedom.

However, sabotaging social media or manipulating data spills doesn’t solve the problem underlying our deeply felt information anxiety. Because the reason for our inability to distinguish the important from the futile, real facts from fake news, relevant information from frivolous stories lies not within the machines churning out ever more data and the algorithms feeding them to us. It’s rooted in our own lack of internalized information, caused by an educational system geared towards methodology rather than content. We learn how to surf the tidal wave of information but lack the navigational skills that are based on a basic understanding of the sea’s content. That’s why we’re suffering from filter failure and are under permanent threat of information inundation. Cultivating a canon of knowledge, however flawed, biased and incomplete it might be, is a step towards reasserting a sense of direction. Discarding our blind trust in computational thinking is another. And we should say goodbye to what Harari calls ‘dataism’, the pseudo-religious faith that preaches redemption from all human problems, simply by knowing, documenting and combining all knowable variables.

Change is not impossible. After all, we have learnt to deal with manuscripts and printed books too. Only after effectively dealing with the sheer quantitative kind of information overload we can focus on the qualitative kind: the existential questions about the endlessness of the universe, the beginning of time, the unknown space behind death and the mystery of life. Using digital means Juha van Ingen beautifully caught that essence of human existence in As Long as Possible (2015). It’s a GIF animation loop of slowly changing frame numbers running for a thousand years. Looking at it inspires thoughts of human mortality and digital decay, and the relativity of all information. Meditative and mind-boggling at the same time.

This article appeared in DAM75. Order your personal copy.