Since the late 1990s, my work has dealt with how the human condition attempts to maintain its integrity in the midst of our hyper-connected technological reality, not by escaping to a more primitive time, but by finding the humanity within the machine and learning to love it.
Trained in computer science at Princeton University, I write software programs that automatically collect very large data sets from the Internet, then analyze and process these data sets in real-time, extracting stories and patterns. They are then presented back on the Internet in playful, beautiful ways, closing the feedback loop. Since my work typically incorporates millions of found, personal artifacts collected from public blogs, dating sites, forums, and social networks, viewers often find their own words and pictures in my finished pieces, making them two-way mirrors in which people see reflections of themselves even as they voyeuristically glimpse the lives of others. As an optimist, I prefer to illustrate the utopian promise of technology by focusing on its human, emotional side, which constantly battles the widespread belief that exponential technological growth will produce a dystopian future. These works are never “finished”, as they continually add new data from the Internet as it becomes available, growing and changing every few minutes like organic digital creatures or creative machines. In this sense, my works become alive and autonomous the moment I release them.
I have been developing two related but distinct bodies of work — the first, as described above, explores man in the machine, while the second explores the machine in man. The former category, consisting of pieces like We Feel Fine and I Want You To Want Me, is more global in scope. For instance, We Feel Fine scans the world’s newly posted blog entries every minute, collecting sentences that contain the phrase “I feel” or “I am feeling”, which it then saves in a database along with demographic information about the author (age, gender, location, and weather), creating an archive of human emotions that grows by about 15,000 new feelings per day, and which has collected over 13 million feelings since 2005. The latter category, consisting of pieces like The Whale Hunt, is more personal, and involves subjecting myself to rituals and situations as regimented and repetitive as those conducted by my computer programs, forcing me to gain some degree of empathy with the computers I enslave to make my work. For instance, in The Whale Hunt, I documented a traditional Alaskan Eskimo whale hunt with a plodding sequence of 3,214 photographs, taken at five-minute intervals for seven days, and at even higher frequencies in moments of high adrenaline. This established a “photographic heartbeat” that more or less matched the changing pace of my own heartbeat, and which recorded every moment of the hunt. This approach appeals to my obsession with bringing simplicity and order to chaos, in both my life and my work.
One final theme running through both bodies of work (and why I place so much faith in technology) is a belief that science and spirituality will soon converge (despite the rift that has traditionally separated them) and that technology will be the mediator to broker the deal. As developments in fringe physics and cosmology start to suggest a model of reality that resembles the ancient spiritual teachings of Hinduism, Sikhism, and certain mystical religions, I imagine a future where technology itself becomes spiritual, and this is finally something I can believe in.
August 2009 . Brooklyn, NY