On October 23rd, 2018, Trevor Paglen spoke at Miami University in a lecture entitled “invisible images.” Paglen’s talk centered around how he uses technology to create art installations, and how some of the images that result from this technology might lead us to believe that technology has biases just like humans do.
Paglen, a Ph.D. in geography from U.C. Berkeley, spent time working on an internet art show in which he actually dove underwater to capture images of the physical cables that connect the continents through the world wide web. “You literally start to see landscapes differently,” he said of this experience. Underwater were these cables and right above them, on the shore, were NSA bases. When he presents these images at art shows, however, he removes the context of what they really are, making the images seem abstract. “One should be able to dive into the image and find these infrastructures,” he said.
From underwater to outer space, Paglen is interested in finding the most compelling images to capture for an audience. Another project that he described in his lecture had to do with photographic secret satellites in orbit by using Kepler’s laws of planetary motion to chart the satellites. The satellites that he is interested in are not the satellites sent out to capture images of space, but have cameras pointed back down to Earth. These secret spy organizations might think they are under the radar, but Paglen reminded us that they “don’t get to have their own secret laws of physics.”
He then went on to talk about technology biases. He uses facial recognition technology to create images by telling a computer to come up with certain graphics. For instance, he will tell a computer to come up with an image of a “sad boy,” and then see what it comes up with. “When you spend time with these systems you realize that there’s all sorts of biases,” Paglen said. The systems don’t use a sophisticated system; they are just looking for patterns. Because of the patterns, they come up with biases the same ways that humans do.
Paglen ended his lecture with a call to the future. He imagines a world of technology that is more like a library system, with no biases present. “Could you imagine an internet that literally could not spy on you?” he suggested. He thinks that this isn’t necessarily realistic, but that his artwork calls attention to these other possibilities of the digital world. “I do hope that art can be places where we can find tiny glimpses of what alternative realities might look like,” he said, “worlds that might be more just and more beautiful and more equitable than the one we find ourselves in the moment.”