Knock Knock Nuke is data visualization project that involves inviting an audience to respond to questions on current issues surrounding the existence and maintenance nuclear weapons within the context of global defensive political climate. Questions range from the economic benefits of uranium mining and its effect on environmental degradation to hefty financial investments in nuclear weapons industry, depleting public funds injection into vital services. This research project endeavors to create an environment for dissemination of knowledge and social responsibility through real-time data visualization that processes the data to display keywords associated with responses formulated to showcase the consequences of individual decisions from my perspective. [Learn about the background and methodology of the project]
The idea behind this project in terms of mechanism of operation came from systems theory and cybernetics which I got introduced to through the work of Hans Haacke, particularly his polls series, where he asked the audience to respond to some questions and then showcased the collected responses as essentially data visualization in the form of static graph bars or pie charts which except for the recent project done for the Venice biennale were all paper-based. So, my idea was to build a system that is heavily reliant on the feedback loop for its operation and completion. The reason behind choosing a participatory model in its broadest sense is brilliantly discussed by Claire Bishop but just to be clear I am not setting any of these as an end goal for my project, rather this is a mode of inquiry of my choice partially for the following potentialities of these models:
- giving the subjects agency to define their own social and political reality;
- creating a more egalitarian and democratic model by transferring some of the authorship control over to the audience to create a non-hierarchical socio-esthetic model;
- Aiming for collective responsibility within the alienating and isolating context of capitalism through community engagement.
The participatory in the digital, in particular, gestures towards Object Oriented Ontology, an equalizing level of participation in which the viewer and the machine are both subjects within a designed system that cannot function without receiving their input, creating a structure that require "dynamic" as well as "static" agents to complete a meaningful cycle.
Speaking to the concept of the project, the idea came from how the whole politico-economic existence of Iran was heavily impacted by potentially making a move towards developing nuclear weapons and that, in turn, put the general population under a tremendous amount of pressure because of heavy economic sanctions imposed. Over the summer of 2019, I got engaged in a targeted research on nuclear weapons to understand their sociopolitical, economic and environmental effects and particularly the power structure encapsulating their formation and current existence. The deeper I got into the research, the more I realized how all these aspects are interconnected and how much this discourse is more of a global issue than a local one. So, when I started developing the questionnaire, Hans Haacke style by collapsing concise bits of information into a question, I was eager to touch upon all these aspects to communicate the level of diversity I have found within the discourse.
That is how, the questions ended up being on issues surrounding the existence, maintenance and above all modernization of nuclear weapons within the context of global defensive political climate, ranging from the economic benefits of uranium mining and its lasting effect on environmental degradation to hefty financial investments in nuclear weapons industry, depleting public funds injection into vital services. Beyond that, something that is important to note and understand about the way I formatted the content to collect data, is that unlike Hans Haacke’s polls, this project is by no means a quantitative research project through which I aimed to design a survey and collect responses and demographics to then meticulously visualize, showing percentages and numbers associated with participants’ sociopolitical beliefs. I purposefully wanted to go beyond data collection to first and foremost share information, that is why there are precursors to questions, without which the questions might not mean much to the audience and the way they are formulated might very well influence their response. This was intentional as I wanted to stand firm on my position within the argument rather than designing a non-biased survey.
The format of the app which the questions and images were inserted into was designed so that it would speak to our anxiety-inducing image overload particularly on social media platforms and to comment on digitality reflecting the weakening power of the ubiquitous image that is fortified by constant accompaniment with text online. To do so, the app displays a select Google Images search results of the keywords related to each question as they appear and disappear by scrolling down, contextualizing or maybe decontextualizing the questions that follow them. These images did go through a selection filter but the results weigh much more on the selective algorithmic behavior rather than being a harmoniously curated collection. This play on the devalued contemporary position of the image and the domination of algorithms intends to highlight how the sheer volume of images on the internet look for the meaning in mass rather than in particular. This follows the cybernetic logic of the algorithm, which crawls within the information-saturated network to find the strongest pattern and as such, any collection of algorithmically-organized images do speak particularly about collective desires even though they might tend to lure the users to believe otherwise.
In terms of the visualization, what I am concerned with is the antithesis of quantitative data visualization as a move towards a poetic intervention instead; my methodology deals with translatability of data as a creative process which can be refereed to as “transcreation.” This means that I have entitled myself to a creative license to translate the raw data I have received into another form, which is inherently a data processing mechanism. I have interpreted the positive and negative responses of the viewer into key phrases that reflect what could those responses mean within the context of the question. In other words, this is a strategy to give the viewer the agency to make certain decisions by aiming for positive or negative responses in order to show them the potential consequences of their responses using the key words.
This translation process does in fact carry my political subjectivity forward through this process; this means I am enforcing my personal viewpoint as an intervention into a conventionally machine- processed mechanism. Rather than feeding the raw data straight into the machine, I am asking what if we go beyond strictly machine-operated algorithms by inserting a human element within? Here the act of translation is taken as the mediation of information and human-machine collaboration as the data first goes through the filter of my ideology and then fed through the algorithm to determine a processing model based on the quantities.
I will give a short example to clarify this whole process. Let’s say in response to the first question, do you agree with the call to halt uranium mining? one would say no. Based on my viewpoint this response is interpreted as environmental degradation, that is, if we do not agree to stop uranium mining it could accelerate environmental degradation. This is the translation process that I referred to which is revealed to the viewer at the end of their session with the questionnaire; they are provided with a list of all phrases and highlighted among them are the ones associated with their responses which is meant to motivate them to look for those responses within the visualization. The machine leg of the algorithm showcases the quantity of the live data feed through certain behaviors, like inflation/deflation, the speed by which the phrase moves through the space and the frequency of its appearance. This is the mechanism of operation of the visualization: constantly in motion words associated with responses carrying a combination of the above qualities.
What the audience is confronted with should they choose not to interact with the questionnaire and go straight to the visualization, is disjunctive phrases that move towards them which taken in devoid of the context of the app, ties well with my earlier projects that impede the quick reading of the work. As such, formal investigations focusing on data such as mine with a reservation to provide a clear context highlight the role of data-driven mechanisms as a new mode of corporate control by gesturing towards the disparate data being collected as data pools within the context collapse of internet. In other words, it intends to raise the issue of visibility as well as invisibility of data. In this manner, algorithmic data collection as well as information patterning become emergent tools for mass surveillance with one essential precondition: users that are willing to hand over data.