In Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the mathematical genius Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is showing off his new mechanical invention to his supervisor, Lieutenant Colonel Earl Comstock.
Comstock asks:“If you had to give a name to the whole apparatus, what would you call it?”
“Hmmm…” Waterhouse says. “Well, its basic job is to perform mathematical calculations-like a computer.”
Comstock snorts, “A computer is a human being.”
This conversation reflects the historical fact that in the 1930s and 40s, people who were employed to do calculations and this clerical labour were called “computers.” The different interpretations of the dialogue from war-time to the present mark a shift from a society in which the intelligence demanded for calculations and data collections were primarily associated with humans to the increasing delegation of these labours to computational and control machines. Following Norbert Wieners introduction into cybernetics in the 1950's publication 'The Human Use of Human Beings', the idea of technology as non-hierarchical, unbiased control agent for the creation of a harmonious society was set in stone.
Although heralded as merely an 'auxiliary measure’ a prime example of technology as means of control could be found the Beijing Temple of Heavens park. In 2017 the park had embraced the power of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology to gain control over the hordes of visitors and their toilet paper usage. By means of camera operated facial recognition enabled toilet paper dispensers, visitors were introduced to a timed toilet paper cap at +-70cm per 9 minutes. Besides the dubious fact of having cameras in public restrooms, it's difficult to escape the irony in having one’s basic biological needs to be authorized by a high-tech data-harvesting machine.
Moreover, this obscene, cumbersome interface enables us to easily expose our deep-seated entanglement with everyday technologies. In order to take a shit we, first of all, need power and wireless infrastructures; secondly, facial recognition; thirdly, make sure the photo is qualified; fourthly, get the toilet paper and enjoy it. Don't forget the restroom concierge's constant attention, instructing, refilling and unjamming the grotesque apparatus, effectively preventing the cybernetic automaton from escaping human control.
As of November 2018 all the cybernetic toilet paper dispensers have disappeared from the park, to be replaced with the 'offline' variety. The artist therefore invites you to experience the archive of collected materials mediated through a bootleg version of the original facial recognition toilet paper dispenser. Allowing the viewer first hand experience of interfacing their human body to the machine.
In the past six months, Dennis de Bel explored how legacy technologies, ideologies, language and code have lead to our current technological status quo, and how human bodies are increasingly mediated through stacks of technology of varying opacities. Focusing on Beijing's Temple of Heaven Park and it's rich canon of technologies ranging from ancient rites, special service radio stations to artificial intelligence, Dennis assimilated a variety of signals, images and artifacts through mapping, kiting and 'international relations'.
Although the scientific and political paradigms have changed dramatically in the six centuries since the Temple of Heaven's construction, the historical function of the park revolving around practices of inscription, amplification and diffusion of messages through specialised infrastructures and protocols, as described by the scholar Eldon Pei, puts forth an intriguing case for the sacrificial altar as a forebearer of modern communicative technology and the very proof of the physicality of our increasingly 'digital' localities.