Summoning the Ghost in the Machine

06 Sep 2021

Phoenix Nomi reviews Silent Works, an art exhibition which highlights the role of hidden labor in contemporary capitalism, and reflects on their work transcribing audio for machines, knowing that the end result will automate their own job away.

Several screens are assembled into an art installation, showing images of buildings and piers, with tangled wires visible in the background.

A photograph of an art installation by Benjamin Heisenberg, which was displayed at SILENT WORKS in Berlin in November 2020. / Source

Working in tech involves magical thinking. My current job is to listen to audio of human speech and transcribe what I hear. My work is training the machines to better capture speech; my bosses say that the next time the computer confronts the same type of audio, I will not be needed to act as a human interlocutor. Magically, I will have erased myself. Sitting at home, telling myself that I’m “just typing,” I can go about my daily work paying little attention to the cumulative effects of the data points I create. Until the next time I get fired by an algorithm, of course.

In the online art exhibit SILENT WORKS, there is a call to pay attention to our every rote action before it is too late to edit the code. Something in between an educational project and a museum collection, SILENT WORKS was curated by journalists Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki from Berliner Gazette, a non-profit online magazine in the German capital. By examining “the hidden labor in AI capitalism,” they question the tendency for self-delusion that is inherent in contemporary technology work. In November 2020, fourteen artists took over a building that in the former GDR was a House of Statistics, assembling their exhibitions in the style of an open-plan office that could easily be mistaken for a WeWork. In SILENT WORKS, the point of the space isn’t to encourage people to sit down with a pair of headphones and make their individual contributions to capitalism; instead, the artworks force us to confront the inhumane aspects of the technological systems our species has built.

While the in-person version of the exhibit wrapped up last year, the online record leaves a data trail that the imagination can recreate. It is still possible to experience a snapshot of Benjamin Heisenberg’s video installation touching on the history of labor in filmmaking. For this piece, ten interconnected video screens sit side by side on the floor, giving the visitor an eye-in-the-sky perspective, while speakers project a cacophony of mechanical seagulls into the aural space. The screens display interlocking footage from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds, most notably a famous aerial shot of Bodega Bay, where the seaside town is in chaos and the humans on the ground appear small and vulnerable.

When the film was made, this shot was an “impossible image” to create: mechanical cranes could not extend that high, and the helicopters that could reach that height were unable to stay still enough to focus on the ground. Hitchcock’s solution was to manually assemble the image, combining real footage with paintings. For SILENT WORKS, Heisenberg playfully inverts Hitchcock’s approach, erasing the birds from every frame by hand with the “clone stamp” image editing tool. The artist did not outsource the rote animation work to a lab in the Global South, as many production studios today would; instead, he spent hours on the task, becoming the invisible laborer shaping the experience. The suffering of the laborer rarely makes it into the final cut of a feature film, but that does not mean it does not occur.

Art has often been a vehicle for exploring the magical thinking connecting humans and our tools. In one of the SILENT WORKS series of talks, philosopher Janine Loh explains the etymology of the term “robot”, which originated in a 1921 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek as a Czech shorthand for “compulsory labor”. Loh asks: who decides what work falls into the purview of our automatons? When I started working in tech, I wanted to improve the experience of audio capture for secondary languages, but over time, the labor issues in the space have overwhelmed any sense of purpose that tweaking our ubiquitous communications tools was supposed to produce. I find it very alienating to imagine the logic of the entity which determines which audio to assign to which worker. Rather than a gradual increase in power over the algorithm, I’ve found that the opportunities for agency over my inputs have become more limited. The history of technological development is the history of control and exploitation.

Although the exhibition was planned before the pandemic, it was deployed in the midst of it, and, fittingly, includes testimony from some workers that have since been deemed ‘essential’ — even though they’re not treated that way. The piece I return to most often from SILENT WORKS is The Curse of Amazon, by Cassie Thornton and Max Haiven. In this project, Thornton and Haiven collaborated with Mechanical Turk workers to develop a spell that could dismantle the entire machine of Amazon, by invoking all those souls who had perished in the process of building the trillion-dollar logistical empire. Fittingly, the piece eschewed digitization in favor of an analog approach — to see the curse, you had to read it in the paper book at the exhibit, or listen to it on a vinyl record. The artists then protected the spell, dividing it into small parts that Turkers distributed as metadata across hundreds of different projects, Amazon reviews, and other parts of the planetary machine. Only the machine itself could ever re-assemble all the parts of the spell, in order to perform the rituals that might bring about its own destruction.

Thornton and Haiven’s curse may not have succeeded in bringing down Amazon — at least not yet — but it did succeed in destroying my own capacity for magical thinking. Working with a population that has effectively organized an alternative accountability structure like Turkopticon, the artists involved workers in the efforts to bring down the beast from the inside. I left the exhibit knowing that I was a happier person when my every work action wasn’t mediated by an automaton. I thought about the torrent of words that stream through my ears, which become mere data points for the algorithm. Who might I be able to cast spells with, or ask to sit on the other points of my secret pentagram? What phrases, spoken in the right order, might have the power to dissemble my machines?

Despite the dystopian undertones, the message in SILENT WORKS was ultimately one of hope: solidarity is the glue that reconnects humans to the meanings of our actions. We still have the power to change, and working together as equals is the only way forward.

The SILENT WORKS video talks, artworks, texts, workshop projects, and audio documents tackling AI-capitalism’s hidden labor are available at