Planet Earth vs Digital Earth – is there an informational discrepancy?

Interview with the masterminds of the Digital Earth, a project asking a fundamentally new question about how technology in the 21st century shapes geopolitics.

How often do you come across a genuinely new issue? Everything seems to stem from previously discovered concepts, whether by Aristotle or the array of brilliant 20th century philosophers and scientists. In the age of information overload, it’s not only knowledge selection that is a survival skill. The ability to ask questions that haven’t been asked before, questions that conceptualize the new reality we have fallen into without noticing – that is what gives us a chance to come out of it as an improved specie, not as one destroyed by its own progress. Digital Earth asks such a question and does all in its power to answer it too.

Digital Earth is a global research network of artists and scholars who map out, picture, and grasp how technology in the 21st century shapes geopolitics. Their aim is to gather and exchange global knowledge on current and emerging technological developments. While we strive to take digital technologies further and integrate them to every single part of our lives, who is to know how they reflect our existence? This is a striking, new and already fundamental question, taken on by the Digital Earth project in all its complexity.

In this interview with the Digital Earth team members, program manager Arthur Steiner and curator Leonardo Dellanoce, we tried to find out out how exactly this novel idea came into being and what to do about it.

“The existence of a physical planet and its ‘datafied’ counterpart generate a discrepancy between the reality on the ground and what is recorded and broadcasted – often leading to violent socio-political, economic, ecological and cultural frictions.”

Digital Earth Symposium in collaboration with Ker Thiossäne © Elise Fitte Duval

What is the concept of the Digital Earth? And how did you come up with an idea of launching this fellowship program?
The Digital Earth project started from the ambition to challenge the claim that digital technologies are universal, while keeping a global focus. For us it was important to create and support a research network that would investigate the deep connections between different cosmologies around the world and how that influence technological thinking at different locations. Digital technologies conceived in the North Atlantic region, and especially the US, are often thought of as universal ones – the internet being the obvious example, or the GPS system or others – and if we are to navigate the complex reality we live in, we need to challenge this kind of claims. We believe that artists and designers are best equipped to investigate these realities and make sense of these complexities. That is why we focused our work on starting a fellowship program to support artists and designers, both in terms of financial resources, partnerships and residencies with renowned institutions and exchange with leading thinkers in the field.

Which aspects of digital reality are being researched by the participants?
It’s difficult to pinpoint a few aspects from the incredibly rich spectrum of research. But just to give you a few examples, the Digital Earth fellows have been working on topics and case studies ranging from making sci-fi movies in Uganda to satellite infrastructure as a geo-cinematic camera, from investigating the relation between Senegalese spirituality and technology to video performances on the technological connections and economic flows between Africa and China and many more. If you want to dive into more details we are currently publishing contributions by fellows and mentors on our Medium magazine.

What is the geography of the project and the current outcomes?
The Digital Earth project focused specifically on Africa and Asia in 2018/2019. In the near future we might expand the scope to more regions around the world. In general, the project started from the ambition to debunk the universal claim of current digital technologies by supporting researcher from locations beyond the North Atlantic region.
The outcomes of this first year of Digital Earth are several: first and foremost the creation and strengthening of a global network of professionals, from art, design and the academia, working closely together across vast regions; second, the showcase of the amazing work by the researchers and fellows at multiple partner locations around the world, in Dakar, Beirut, New Delhi and soon in Paris and Dubai.

Digital Earth Symposium in collaboration with Ashkal Alwan © Laura Urbonavičiūtė

Could you elaborate on the term “digital twin” of the Earth, dialogue between physical planet and its ‘datafied’ counterpart?
Digital Earth refers to the materiality and immateriality of the digital reality we live in – from data centers to software interfaces, and rare minerals to financial derivatives. Earth is dug, excavated, and ripped apart to extract the fundamental materials that keep the computational machine running – oil, coltan, sand, rubber, lithium form the material basis on which digital reality is built. At the same time, digital technologies enable new modes of circulation and extraction, of information and data. Algorithmic regimes regulate the movement of goods and people around the world in relatively smooth fluxes enabled by increasingly sophisticated surveillance systems. These algorithmic regimes generate, track and accumulate such a mass of data that is already referred to as the ‘digital twin’ of Earth. The existence of a physical planet and its ‘datafied’ counterpart generate a discrepancy between the reality on the ground and what is recorded and broadcasted – often leading to violent socio-political, economic, ecological and cultural frictions.

You mainly collaborate with artists across Africa and Asia. Do you feel that their involvement in the Digital Earth fellowship has stimulated their careers?
This is a hard question to be answered. We feel that the connections that were created through this project were and are of great benefit to the ones involved, including ourselves, intellectually, professionally and personally too, as it has been a wonderful occasion for learning and sharing with everyone involved. Many mentors and fellows are now collaborating among each other outside the frame of the Digital Earth project and this for us a great achievement for sure!

You have recently switched your online presence to .ART domain address. Why?
We decided to switch to a .ART domain as we think it helps us position our project more clearly within the field of arts and to connect to a larger creative community.

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Also published on Medium.

Daria Kravchuk
Daria Kravchuk
is a curator and art manager with an MA in Museology from Amsterdam University. Her international projects are focused on the intersection of contemporary art, architecture, urban planning and anthropology. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.