I’ve been pondering the rhetoric of ‘invisibility’ that surrounds so much critical discussion of digital technologies, particularly those that intersect with our everyday lives: the software that ‘hides’ behind smartphone screens, for example, or the intangibility of the ‘cloud’ that stores our photos and our contacts, or the invisibility of digital infrastructure. As a both Shannon Mattern and Adam Rothstein have pointed out recently, it’s a rhetoric that’s also used to describe an awful lot of other kinds of infrastructure too at the moment.
A number of things niggle me about this.
First, the assumption in a lot of this talk about invisible things is that to be invisible is A Bad Thing. It seems to be assumed that only the powerful hide behind a cloak of secrecy, obscuring their nefarious ways (Rothstein is particularly explicit on this).
Secondly, the rhetoric of invisibility of power implies that the adequate critical response is to make things visible. This creates a politics of revelation, if you like, in which describing something is also to rip away its secrecy and expose the working of the powerful. Algorithms, servers, databases, elites, tax havens, financial trading… all of these must be rendered visible, somehow, brought into the light, and thereby understood, and if that is done then power relations will also be seen for what they are.
Third, the rhetoric of invisibility thus implies that there is only one alternative, which is visibility. It seems to invite a binary positioning in which something is either hidden or seeable. This implies that description is an adequate critical strategy: describe something carefully, bring it out from the shadows, make it visible, will also make it understandable.
Ok, at this point I have to say that this is the sort of writing that the blog post was invented for – I can say these things without needing to reference any specific examples! – and I can also wonder what part the legacy of Latour is playing in all this, with his enthusiasm for description as a research method, again without having to build the citation trail. Still, having started the (most likely) over-generalising, let’s continue.
Because as Shannon’s essay also hints, there are a number of difficulties with this sort of rhetoric.
First, there are different kinds of visibility and invisibility, it seems to me. Sure, there’s the literal/material/physical hiding-behind-some-kind-of-screen kind of invisibility: the unnamed buildings in which high-finance trades, or the military surveills (or refugees hide – see my final point below). But there are also other kinds: material things not visible to the human eye, like wireless signals (has a history been written of the emergence of the the wireless icon, anyone?). And there are also things that are abstractions: commodity value, for example (for an interesting discussion of that kind of invisibility, see Stephen Cunningham’s essay in the Journal of Visual Culture in 2013). This means that making something ‘visible’ is not straightforward. There must be different strategies for it, depending on the kind of invisibility that’s being challenged.
Second, as Shannon and Adam point out, a lot of these things are not in fact ‘invisible’, because an awful lot of (cultural) work is being done to represent them: popular books like Andrew Blum’s Tubes, that describe the internet’s physical infrastructure; the current obsession with algorithms; projects like James Bridle’s recent project Seamless Transitions that used digital visualisation to picture the secret places where UK immigration cases are decided; Timo Arnall’s film Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi; Adrian Mackenzie’s essays on financial trading in the London Review of Books. It seems to me, though, that the criticality being offered of these various projects are not being discussed very much at all, in part because of that prevailing assumption that simply exposing something is enough. But how is something exposed? How is it made visible? What are the effects of different kinds of making visible? And this is not only a question of aesthetic form, it is also a question of how images are seen, displayed, encountered, understood and even – as Shannon remarks – acted upon.
Third, it would of course be possible to argue that equating power with secrecy is a massive red herring because real power lies in full view as the prevailing commonsense. Indeed, ‘power’ can also be exercised in the act of making things visible. Re-reading the first chapter of my book Visual Methodologies earlier this year was an interesting experience in relation to this point: first written in the late 1990s, it has quite a strong line about the importance of seeing to Western and imperialising claims to knowledge (readers of a certain age will remember ‘the god trick’, cited by Rothstein only in order to claim that the artists’ projects he discusses are not guilty of it – or, more accurately, that they say they are not). But obscured buildings and infrastructures are not invisible to the people who work in them; do their views count as Art? And a recent example of the way that making something visible can also be a claim to power was evident in the debates that followed the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, of course.
Finally, even if it is the case that the dynamics of power are hidden, it’s not only the powerful that require invisibility on occasion, as all the debates about online privacy suggest. Ok, so privacy is not quite the same as secrecy. But nonetheless, I seem to recall a powerful argument made by Peggy Phelan at the height of the AIDS crisis about the right not to be visible, the right to not to be seen. How does that relate to the current suspicion about invisibility?
All that is just to say, really, that the visual field is complicated: certainly more complicated than a simple division between that which is visible and good and that which is invisible and bad.