The energy usage and e-waste production of the tech sector covered in the first part of our conversation is only one aspect of Ingrid Burrington’s work as a writer and artist. We continued our conversation about journalism, art, time travel, and magic.
Do you think it’s possible to understand tech outside of its institutional constraints?
“I’m often referred to as a technology writer or a tech journalist but I feel like everyone is a tech journalist. Being a tech journalist just means that you are a systems thinker if you’re doing your job right. Like writing about Palmer Luckey’s horrifying border security startup and writing about that as a tech story and not as an immigration story is a deeply irresponsible thing to do. Everything that’s written as a tech story is actually a story about some other negotiation of power.”
You’re both a journalist and an artist. How do you relate those two different kinds of practices?
“It’s something that is very tricky. I worry about treating that like too fluid of a relationship. One of the things I find great about journalism is that there’s a long standing presumed code of ethics and principles. And in art, I find that ethics is like an interesting conversation to have. Like if a reporter tried to pull what Julian Oliver pulls in some of his projects he would be completely disgraced and fired immediately. But the reason that Julian Oliver does the things he does in an art and critical engineering context is for that very reason. There’s an ambiguity. He’s given permission to explore these questions. Art is also a useful way to move between spaces because frankly, journalists are often perceived by large institutions as threats and artists are perceived by large institutions as novelties. I think about the fact that people in the intelligence community think Trevor Paglen is great. He’s met guys who love his stuff because they view things such as collecting all the classified program patches as a cool gesture celebrating their work. But if the New York Times did an inventory of all the patches, they’d be like ‘why are you attacking us?’”
We live in a real time machine
You’ve written that “Living in the age of endless real-time often feels more like accelerated time, and living in accelerated time really means living in an age of increasingly precise archives.” Even if we physically move through time steadily in one direction, if can feel like time has collapsed or that the internet is a time machine where people can travel back in time and destroy someone’s future, e.g through revenge porn, or finding old, inappropriate tweets and so on. And in a lot of your work it feels like you are doing that but to the technologies themselves. That you travel back in time and find out how new tech infrastructures are built on top of old ones and sometimes even how it’s held together with the equivalent of duct tape and twine. When you dig into the past of networks and computer history, how do you hope to influence the future?
“What I find useful about looking at the histories of networked systems is that often the way that tech media and tech’s own PR about itself is framed as though these developments and these products are both inevitable and emerge out of nowhere. Like, oh, now we just have Facebook and Facebook was always what we would have. Saying no, there was a bunch of contingent decisions that got us here, is interesting. Even looking within the example of Facebook, there’s this funny framing that has emerged since the Cambridge Analytica fallout of ‘back when Mark started it in his dorm room’ and then cut to now. As though in between, there wasn’t a decision, like right before the IPO, to introduce a non-chronological timeline that was curated to what their algorithm thought you would be interested in. And as though that wasn’t a deliberate decision about maintaining attention. And that those things don’t cascade and build upon each other. And what I think is useful about that in narrative is that it’s a reminder that the decisions we make now aren’t necessarily pushed towards one inevitable future, that things can actually go a different way. When looking at the histories of how networks and how our larger infrastructure systems develop, they could have gone another way.”
Don’t practice magic in secret
You’ve often described your journeys to write about infrastructures as “vision quests” or sometimes as “pilgrimage”. So when you visit the birthplace of the internet at UCLA or searching out Amazon’s data centers in Virginia, it reads like you’re a ghost hunter tracking down some ancient occult presence. Can you talk about the role magic plays in your work?
“I think magic is in some ways a synonym or shorthand or other version of the word faith. But faith makes people uncomfortable because it suggests a Judeo-Christian spirituality that maybe they don’t like, that has dogmatic connotation. What I like about magic is that there’s some element of understanding that you’re not in charge. You can’t actually control or maintain control over certain parts of the universe. And I think the language around pilgrimages or journeys towards these historical landmarks is partly driven by a faith or a hope that this could have gone differently. These are reminders that it could have gone differently. This is how we got here and this is what built this system.”
Mythmaking, magic and mysticism has been a recurrent theme in a certain corner of tech writing. I’m thinking of people like Douglas Rushkoff and Erik Davis. From your perspective, how does this approach open up technologies to new kinds of inquiry?
“Yeah, it’s interesting and in some ways it’s dangerously close to a lot of the Californian Ideology. There’s this history that runs from 1950s technocrats to Burning Man. Like Jack Parsons, who started the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, who was instrumental in building instruments of war together with a literal Nazi, and who was also really into Aleister Crowley and occultism. I think that any kind of faith, how it’s used and how it’s deployed is what matters. I like the idea of magic within computing and technology as a way to think about being more grounded in the world, accepting that it’s not a world that you entirely control. But I think sometimes, like Davis’ technopaganism thing, it imbues a degree of authority to the technology, or opacity maybe, and an authority and opacity to the people who can wield it the best. That, I think, is not useful for building a culture of inclusivity and openness and public understanding. Mostly, metaphors of magic are not useful if the magic is secret.”