Small Tech and Future Ruins

Nadim Abbas and Tung-Hui Hu in Conversation
Nadim Abbas (唐納天), Pilgrim in the Microworld (漫遊微觀宇宙), mixed media installation (construction sand, galvanized steel, pigment dyed water), dimensions variable, 2023.-圖片

Nadim Abbas (唐納天), Pilgrim in the Microworld (漫遊微觀宇宙), mixed media installation (construction sand, galvanized steel, pigment dyed water), dimensions variable, 2023.

The promise of digital technology is often expressed in terms of scale. In the nineties, it wasn’t just any piece of infrastructure that would connect the world, but a superhighway built on the foundation of the United States’s maxed-out defense budget. The era of social media brought “scale” as a verb into common parlance among people who watched The Social Network with an aspirational eye, seeking the idea that would scale beyond an uncool million dollars to a cool billion. With such vast platforms in place, anything could happen, we were told. Society might be liberated. Popular revolutions might take hold. New creative powers, both organic and artificial, might be unleashed.

It's now almost a cliché to point out that the inflated predictions of the internet’s disruptive start-up phase masked a consolidation of existing power structures and the growth of super-sized systems of control, surveillance, and exploitation. In the face of such disasters, it’s tempting to find refuge in the small, the DIY, the local. With deep historical roots and complex cultural expressions, this retreat into the micro warrants serious consideration—and due skepticism. In this conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Taipei Biennial 2023 artist Nadim Abbas and scholar Tung-Hui Hu discuss technologies of scale with editor William Smith.

Miniatur Wunderland, Hamburg, Germany. Photo courtesy Miniatur Wunderland.-圖片

Miniatur Wunderland, Hamburg, Germany. Photo courtesy Miniatur Wunderland.

William Smith: Hito Steyerl recently wrote about developments in AI and Large Language Models. She argues that resistance to these new homogenizing, totalizing systems might be conceived in relation to scale, specifically finding an alternative in much smaller technological ecosystems and economies. To start this conversation, I’d love to hear your take on her conclusion:

Why not shift the perspective to another future? A period of resilient small tech using minimum viable configurations, powered by renewable energy, which does not require theft, exploitation, and monopoly regimes over digital means of production? This would mean untraining ourselves from an idea of the future dominated by some kind of digital oligarch pyramid scheme run on the labor of hidden micro workers, in which causal effect is replaced by rigged correlations.

Tung-Hui Hu: I would first observe that the universalism of the internet was always a flawed model. In 2013, in the wake of the Snowden allegations, Brazil president Dilma Rousseff announced an alternative BRICS Internet to counterbalance an internet where all data packets get routed through choke points in the Global North. Though the BRICS cable, which would have run for 34,000 km from Vladivostok, Russia to Fortaleza, Brazil, was never completed, it nevertheless points to an important point: the Internet is fracturing. We are moving away from connecting everything through a global-scale Internet and towards a world of smaller internets. Some national networks may lead to more repressive regimes; others might lead to better labor laws.

Steyerl’s argument about downscaling is a seductive, powerful idea. In my book Digital Lethargy I came across feminist infrastructure activists who asked: what would it mean to have a server that isn’t around to serve all the time? That, instead of saying “500, sorry, server error,” doesn’t apologize for being unavailable? Similarly, Low-Tech Magazine proposed the idea of a server powered by solar that just goes off when the sun sets. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that scaling down actually works for much of the world. It feels too close to nostalgia for the small-scale, DIY counterculture of the 80s and 90s internet. For people who have already been accelerated into the future, for those who are stuck within the digital supply chain, there’s no undoing it. There's no way to rewind the clock.

Nadim Abbas: We're moving away from a dualistic representation of humans vs. machines. There’s almost an entropic leveling down of that dualism, where the human and the machine are operating at the same level, and that's not necessarily—I guess—a bad thing. It’s not good or bad, just a reality. What kind of space allows this to happen? How is this reflected in wider cultural developments? That is a rich, meaningful territory to explore.

THH: Exactly. Neither of us want to repeat the hackneyed condemnations of “what the internet is doing to us.” It’s more interesting to explore what has happened. You have robots that are trying to act like humans and humans that are subject to robot-like conditions. At least one definition of lethargy is the resulting feeling of being inhuman, of lacking or not wanting personality.

There is a widespread impulse now to redeem humanity from A.I.—this nostalgic idea of what humanity is; the idea of a free person who is, as George W. Bush would say, the “decider.” But the idea of the human is tainted by the history of race.  The counterintuitive question that my book Digital Lethargy asks: What does it mean to lean into the robotic? For me, that’s an open question. Rather than try to save us from the rise of the machines, I want to understand people as having always already been robotic, and to try to understand what can come out of that.

NA: We often think of technology as an ultimate solution, as a kind of deterministic process at work, but it obviously doesn’t have to be that way. How do you differentiate between a certain kind of DIY culture that is technologically deterministic and one that is not? Steyerl’s arguing for a kind of unlearning of our attachment to a certain idea of the future. How much of it is a call for everyone to do small-tech, and how much of it is about imaginative power?

THH: You’re right, of course; I agree with the premise of unlearning our attachments here. At the same time, I teach in the humanities, and the standard line is that books and artworks help us imagine another future. I know this will be unpopular to say, but it can be too easy to just imagine alternatives. It can push systemic change off to a later date. I don't deny the speculative power of science fiction or theory, but I am worried that imagination can sometimes let us off the hook. And the alternative futures these thinkers want us to “imagine” may already exist in our current world, or in the past.

I’ve found it helpful to think about futurity through the lens of Stephanie Dinkins's “Afro-now-ism” manifesto. Black studies teaches us that artworks that seem like they're about the future are really about registering discordance within the now, and doing work in the present, as Kara Keeling argues. That’s the urgency that we need within imagination.

NA: There is a strain of science fiction that I have always been drawn to, which speculates on future realities as a way of dealing with the present, or even the past.  I’m thinking in particular of the pathos of Philip K. Dick’s novels, which could just as easily be construed as an attempt to describe the frazzled but brilliant mind of a Bay Area freak who had dropped too much acid.  Also in J.G. Ballard, there is always this eerie embrace of what I can only call the “death-drive”, an acceptance of conditions that extend far beyond comfortable notions of humanity.  This I think has well documented roots in his childhood experiences as a prisoner of war in Shanghai. On another note, I’ve been trying to come up with an elevator pitch to describe the installations I've been working on recently. One way is to hypothetically travel back in time, let's say 50 to 100 years. How could I describe to someone the kind of world that we live in today while making reference to the same kinds of technologies that they used 50 or 100 years ago?

If you lived 100 years ago and traveled to the future, the way people interact with the world would be incomprehensible. That invisible interaction—the things we take for granted because we live in this world—needs a lot of unpacking. Is it possible to unpack these invisible interactions using technology that predates the kind of technology that we have today?

I'm studying garden traditions and so-called traditions of the miniature, like bonsai and scholars’ rocks. These are all traditions and cultures that existed in a pre-industrial society with a very different technological relationship to the world and a completely different ontological relationship as well.

There isn’t one universal definition of technology. The traditional forms I’m looking at provide us with different technological perspectives, which is not how they’re normally thought about.  In trying to position my own artwork within that context, one of the things that emerges is this relation to scale. If we think about the miniature today, we think about it in relationship to this sense of reduction, in other words, miniaturization. We think about circuit boards, about Moore's Law. It's always a question of trying to reduce as far as possible.

Whereas with the East-Asian traditions I’m studying, you might argue that the concept of the miniature doesn't even exist. The bonsai or a garden are not described as “reduced” or “small.” Bonsai literally means “tray-plant”. There’s nothing in that term that has anything to do with reduction or the miniature in the sense that we understand it today. I’m trying to come up with a parallel understanding of scale; it’s my attempt to break free of a single, universal approach to technology.

Utagawa Yoshishige, print from 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō as Potted Landscapes (Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu), 1848, likely republished after 1868, Tokyo City.-圖片

Utagawa Yoshishige, print from 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō as Potted Landscapes (Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu), 1848, likely republished after 1868, Tokyo City.

Bonsai "Tokugawa Iemitsu no Matsu," presented to the Imperial Palace by Ito Miyoji, 1938.  Photo: Shintei Kai (晨亭会).-圖片

Bonsai "Tokugawa Iemitsu no Matsu," presented to the Imperial Palace by Ito Miyoji, 1938. Photo: Shintei Kai (晨亭会).

THH: It resonates with what Yuk Hui has written about technodiversity—Chinese medicine as a different cosmology. Technology is more than a circuit that you plug in. I want to say that technology—or, more precisely, technique—is everywhere. There’s a technique of cultivation. There’s the technique of gesture.

Your description of bonsai makes me realize that I need an alternate conception of scale. I first encountered the idea of scale as a kid, as I think a lot of people did, with the Charles and Ray Eames’s film Powers of Ten, which conveys scale as a telescoping view.

NA: It’s an iconic film that demonstrates a modernist understanding of scale. It has a singular perspective where everything can be described or abstracted within mathematical space, calculated and turned into an integer. With all the zooming-in and zooming-out, it actually ends up reifying what scale is.

But there’s also a much more elastic way of thinking about scale, even in popular culture. In early Godzilla movies, you have a monster running around the city, crashing through buildings. You can be immersed in a film like that even though you know there’s a man in a suit and that he’s stomping on models. There’s a tacit knowledge of the actual scale of things even as you’re immersed in the spectacle of what you’re watching. We are able to accept a more elastic relationship between things in terms of scalar measure.  Perhaps it's not a coincidence that films like these flourished within that same period as Powers of Ten–as a kind of counterpoint.

Still from <i>Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe</i>, 1977, written and directed by Charles and Ray Eames. © 1977 Eames Office LLC.-圖片

Still from Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, 1977, written and directed by Charles and Ray Eames. © 1977 Eames Office LLC.

THH: The last time I experienced something like that was in Hamburg, in a very popular attraction called Miniatur Wunderland. It started off as a model railroad display and became so massive–it’s the largest in the world–that they now have an airport complete with a miniature airplane bursting into flames and miniature fire trucks rushing towards it. At the same time, there are parts that feel very boring or expected. There’s all the usual conventions on the kind of scenery that a railroad travels through, reproducing the iconic sights of the world in the way Las Vegas does.

WS: The anthropologist Anna Tsing has written critically about the concept of scale—or the ideology of scale—that’s perhaps visualized in Powers of Ten. She discusses about how, in practice, capitalist systems that appear to scale-up smoothly actually leave behind waste and dysfunction. Here’s a quote:

Even as technologies of scalability advance, the charm of world-making scalability is unraveling in our times. Scalability spreads—and it is constantly abandoned, leaving ruins. We need a nonscalability theory that pays attention to the mounting pile of ruins that scalability leaves behind.


THH: That to me illustrates this myth of seamless expansion, and maybe also Powers of Ten. If you want to look at that in a Cold War technocratic context, it’s a great example of an ideology of infinite expansion. It's just super smooth.

We are very much in the moment where the modernist dream of infinite expansion seems to be over, where we’ll hit a wall in terms of resources and growth. The presence of ruins and the dysfunction within that dream are visually quite interesting. When property bubbles burst in China or Ireland or the US, after each crisis there are massive housing towers and suburbs left empty. These are the ruins of the dream of scale—the dream that you can expand infinitely and create space.

I used to have a guidebook on how to read the landscape from the air that was intended to be used on a flight across the US. From the air, the abandoned suburbs appear as weird squiggly lines that are supposed to reproduce nature.

Another architectural form we’ve both written about is the bunker, another type of ruin that, to paraphrase Paul Virilio, was never able to scale to planetary-level warfare.

NA: Bunkers specifically relate in my mind to the way Robert Smithson wrote about ruins. He called certain industrial landscapes “ruins in reverse”–and bunkers are almost a quintessential example of this formula–they were already ruins, even before they were built. They were not built to last, but they ended up being very permanent. In Virilio’s book, Bunker Archaeology, there are some great passages about how bunkers don't have foundations—that’s how you differentiate between a bunker and a castle. A castle has a foundation and is meant to stand for thousands of years. But a bunker just stands there by sheer mass of concrete. When you visit the beaches of the Atlantic Wall today, many of these bunkers have toppled–it’s almost as if they’re floating.  The literal ruins of the bunker today are prefigured by the sense in which they were already understood as ruins.

Ruin of repurposed bunker, Ostend, Belgium, 2014. Photo courtesy Nadim Abbas-圖片

Ruin of repurposed bunker, Ostend, Belgium, 2014. Photo courtesy Nadim Abbas

The way I look at microchip manufacturing is similar because of the relationship between obsolescence and technology. At a very different scalar level, microchips are a mounting pile of ruins. The old ones are constantly replaced, chips are constantly outdated. In the way they prefigure their own obsolescence, microchip architecture is itself a kind of ruin.

The relationship between data and the material conditions of its processing is also very interesting. Everyone thinks of data and the virtual world as an ethereal abstraction, but these are all related to very concrete—but hidden from view—logistical infrastructures, like all those massive, nondescript data centers, or the strangely beautiful wastelands of lithium extraction so vital to the batteries in our mobile phones.  The only way to fully comprehend these infrastructures is by looking down from a plane–you have to take a bird’s-eye view of these “hyperscale” facilities. Since this is such a vast operation, everything becomes abstracted, and when they’re represented in top-down view, there’s always an ambiguous scalar relationship that persists. In the drawings for my installation at the Taipei Biennial, there is also this ambiguity about the relative size of any given form.  We have tried to emphasize this sense of ambiguity in the actual setup by introducing multiple viewpoints, one of which involves looking down from a staircase leading up to the second floor.