How Do We Maintain Our Autonomy In The Internet Age?

How Do We Maintain Our Autonomy In The Internet Age?

Rhizome's 7 on 7 pairs seven leading artists with seven game-changing technologists, and challenges them to develop something utterly new that hacks the current online social landscape.

Timothy Ryan, PSFK Labs
  • 5 may 2012

Rhizome’s 7 on 7, an event that explores the intersection of art and technology, pairs seven leading artists with seven game-changing technologists in teams of two, challenging teams to develop something new—be it an application, social media, artwork, product, or whatever they imagine—over the course of a single day. Now in its third year, the event is organized by the new media-art affiliate of the New Museum, Rhizome, and is sponsored by HTC.  During presentations at this year’s event (held on April 14th), a common theme from the teams emerged–the exploration of human autonomy in a digitally connected world.

In his keynote address, media critic Douglas Rushkoff highlighted the implications of the event by noting a fundamental tension he’s witnessed while studying the history of industrialization: in the face of any widespread technological innovation and adoption, how does someone maintain their independent thought when the systems in place are consciously and intentionally programmed to defeat it? Looking at the idea of industrialization through the lens of today’s digital era, Rushkoff noted that programming has become the essential operating language of the 21st century, and something that should be part of an elementary school’s core curriculum.  He warned, though, that as a tool, the Internet has its limitations as well as its biases reflecting those of the technologists who help build its programs.

Rushkoff used Facebook to illustrate the idea of limitations and bias; a vast majority of people assume Facebook is built as a network for friendship, but in reality, Facebook is in the business of monetizing relationships, effectively turning users into products for sale to marketers and advertisers.  Here entered the question of independent thought in the face of widespread technological innovation and adoption- the majority of users routinely operate Facebook (and other programs) without a second thought as to the underlying limitations and biases.  The challenge is then, how can we better articulate elusive topics like this so that more people can make conscious choices regarding what it is they want to use, and then what it is they want to omit.

Moreover, must it be an artist who articulates, justifies and contextualizes these topics to elevate the collective consciousness?


It’s here that the Rhizome’s 7 on 7 projects sunk their teeth in, coming up with solutions to how, in the digital era of ‘industrialization’, individuals can maintain autonomy.  The projects from the 7 artist/technologist teams ranged from a website that visualized search engine results around the globe from searches with key words like ‘love’ and ‘hate’ to a re-imagined Twitter feed that displayed the articles a user was reading, as opposed to the ones they had decided to tweet to the world.

Maybe most importantly, the event gave artists and technologists the tools and impetus to see their cultural critique manifest in a tangible way. The event also worked to demonstrate that the cultural questions that the use of online platforms are raising with increased innovation and adoption.

See Douglas Rushkoff’s keynote below:

Find a link to all videos from the presentations here and see featured presentations below.


Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz presented a project called the Cultural Differences Engine, a working prototype of a project (online here: ) that they had conceived through conversations around the alleged ‘flattening’ of global culture that the internet engenders. The simple interface of the Cultural Difference Engine allows people to type in words or phrases for which top image results, from different countries. The simple engine makes it clear how very un-flat the world is; in fact, how disparately words like ‘love,’ ‘war,’ ‘jew’ or ‘beauty’ are interpreted en masse around the world.

Jon Rafman and Charles Forman presented a project called ‘The Memory Box’ which pairs the memory of events as you recount them when they occurred with your memory of them years later. The Memory Box–which will exist as an app–will undermine the kind of re-writing of events that time and distance can bring.

Stephanie Syjuco and Jeremy Ashkenas presented ‘Seven on Seven Again,’ a project where they recounted how they paired up ‘14 New Yorkers in Central Park in teams of two to come up with new ideas over the course of 15 minutes’. Syjuco and Ashkenas presented all 7 of these ideas–which included such projects as ‘hushphones,’ oversized headphones that shut out the ambient sounds of the Park and simulate an experience of being alone while in public–and then surprised the audience by telling them the ideas had not been generated by the enterprising New Yorkers but in fact by them. Documentation of Seven on Seven Again is online here.

Khoi Vinh and Aram Bartholl were inspired by their host venue on their day of collaboration–Conference Partner Wieden and Kennedy New York–to make a commercial for a new form of art exhibition: a Public Enemy style oversized necklace
embedded with an iPad, which quickly rotates work. The video is shot in various locations in NYC with the necklace-cum-art exhibition aptly titled ‘Express Yourself’.


Blaine Cook and Naeem Mohaimen were inspired to work together around their mutual left activist leanings to create a project that works against the speed of the web, and its concomitant thinning of passion. Their project, tentatively titled ‘A Room of My Own’ is a collage interface where a user can add images alongside pre-loaded terms like assassinations, hijackings, Bangladesh, Cute Overload – but cannot add indiscriminately: there is a limit to space. This, the team argued, compels users to think carefully about how they choose and curate images. ‘Room of My Own’ also allows users to work in smaller, private chat rooms thus building interests or subcultures in smaller, organic ways outside of mass, corporate platforms like Facebook.

Anthony Volodkin and Xavier Cha were inspired by the abundance of data with which we can now approximate different aspects of our lives–from our fitness, to our popularity, to our happiness–and the often incomplete, faulty views they provide. They wanted to invert these kind of statistical self-portraits by providing views not of an individual user but rather what information they’re looking at. Their prototype, Peep, shows Twitter through another user’s eyes and you can read what they read.

LaToya Ruby Smith and Michael Herf both emerge from photography backgrounds. Their project was geared towards increasing visual literacy in an increasingly commodified, consumer culture. Their piece: Decode ‘An Encyclopedia of Visual Culture’ encourages users to unravel the meanings of public images, and to expose their underlying messages. The pair raised the controversial image from the latest ad campaign for Mad Men, which features a silhouetted man in a suit tumbling from the top of a skyscraper, as an image that would be both exciting to unravel and inconclusive: does it reference 9/11? A suicide? What was the advertisers attempt? This exercise, they argued, would contribute to a heightened sense of awareness of the marketing around us.

Rhizome’s Seven On Seven

Images provided by Alyssa Blumstein


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