Actionable insights straight to your inbox

Equities logo

‘Tech CEOs Are like Cult Leaders’ – the Artists Taking on Facebook and Big Data

Have tech giants become too powerful?

Image via Niall Kennedy/Flickr CC

By a remarkable coincidence, on Wednesday, right as Mark Zuckerberg finally addressed the unfolding Facebook (FB) data-breach scandal, British artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell opened their new exhibition about the unchecked power Facebook and the other big tech companies wield.

Internet Giants: Masters of the Universe, at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery until 10 June, marks the 40th year of collaboration between Langlands and Bell. It is an arresting ensemble of installations and animations, prints and architectural models.

The show’s centrepiece is a series of highly pixelated portraits of big tech’s main players, paired with the catchphrases they’re best known for. From Sergey Brin’sWe want Google to be the third half of your brain ” to Jeff Bezos’s “ It’s not an experiment if you know it’s going to work ”, they are presented as hagiographic icons for the digital age. The one bound to steal the show is Zuckerberg’s: “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.”

In the light of recent events, it’s a phrase to stop you in your tracks. Langlands points out, though, that he and Bell felt it was sinister when they read it the first time, on Zuckerberg’s Facebook profile a few years back. Langlands mentions The Circle, Dave Eggers’ satire of the tech industry, and the Orwellian idea therein that privacy is theft – that people who are unwilling to share their most intimate details are somehow depriving other people.

“They’re made to feel guilty about not giving people access into their innermost thoughts or desires,” says Langlands. “When Zuckerberg said this, he must have known exactly what he was talking about. He’s saying, ‘You can’t withhold information from me, I want to have access to all information about you.’ He’s not being transparent about his motives.”

If Zuckerberg’s response to what he called the Cambridge Analytica “situation” was characteristically zealous (he concluded his Facebook post by thanking “believers” in his mission, and pledging to work harder and be better), its tone was not surprising to Langlands and Bell – they have been making work about the tech industry’s quasi-religious shtick for years. The “situation” hasn’t surprised them.

“It was entirely predictable,” says Langlands, “and I don’t mean that in a blase kind of way. We’ve felt the increasing disquiet that everybody else feels about the power these companies have. Five years ago, unless you were reading specialist tech journals or websites, you very rarely saw articles about these issues. Then gradually you saw one every three months, then one a month, then one a week and now there are dozens every day. It’s now a really big issue for public discussion.”

Langlands and Bell’s inquiry into big data behemoths began in 2011. Defining architecture as “the most tangible and enduring record of the way we live”, they embarked on a series of perspectival architectural models of the most emblematic buildings of our time. The Pakistani compound where Bin Laden lived was the first, followed by the Doughnut – the clunky Gensler -designed headquarters for GCHQ in Cheltenham. That set them on a path of discovery of those other, altogether more private enterprises and their so-called campuses: Norman Foster’s glass-ring spaceship for Apple, the Thomas Heatherwick pile for Google (GOOGL), Frank Gehry’s oversized cube for Facebook.

Questioning whether these buildings might define our era in the way that cathedrals defined the middle ages, and factories and stations the industrial revolution, Langlands and Bell’s white bas-relief models are mounted in brightly coloured circles, like specimens. Made from a floating point of view, and with a confusingly compressed perspective – they hover between 2D and 3D – the sculptures are designed to feel unreal. They are intended to make you wonder what you’re looking at, but also just what these companies are up to.

“What they do is intangible and opaque,” says Langlands, “so these huge buildings represent a very big step – they’re making a solid commitment to some kind of programme or agenda which is readable by the public, or at least, which should be. These buildings will become symbolic entities, the focus for attention, for discontent even.”

Of course big data already has perfectly good focal points for that, in the form of the sector’s ever-visible CEOs. When researching the buildings, Langlands says, they noticed how photographs of the company heads would often depict them in poses reminiscent of Byzantine saints: hands clasped or pointing skywards, eyes raised to the heavens, the figures back-lit with a blue or orange glow, “like a halo of some kind”.

“We realised,” Langlands says, “that these people – billionaires in T-shirts and trainers – were employing timeless tropes to present themselves as individuals who could deliver new knowledge and innovation. Like leaders of a cult, I suppose.”

Long-shot third parties are everywhere this season. That says something about Americans’ perspective on the economy.