Langlands and Bell are celebrating their 40th year together – by taking an uncompromising look at Silicon Valley’s utopian promises
By a remarkable coincidence, on Wednesday, right as Mark Zuckerberg finally addressed the unfolding Facebook data-breach scandal, British artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell opened their new exhibition about the unchecked power Facebook and the other big tech companies wield.
Internet Giants: Masters of the Universe, at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery until 10 June, marks the 40th year of collaboration between Langlands and Bell. It is an arresting ensemble of installations and animations, prints and architectural models.
The show’s centrepiece is a series of highly pixelated portraits of big tech’s main players, paired with the catchphrases they’re best known for. From Sergey Brin’s “We want Google to be the third half of your brain” to Jeff Bezos’s “It’s not an experiment if you know it’s going to work”, they are presented as hagiographic icons for the digital age. The one bound to steal the show is Zuckerberg’s: “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.”
In the light of recent events, it’s a phrase to stop you in your tracks. Langlands points out, though, that he and Bell felt it was sinister when they read it the first time, on Zuckerberg’s Facebook profile a few years back. Langlands mentions The Circle, Dave Eggers’ satire of the tech industry, and the Orwellian idea therein that privacy is theft – that people who are unwilling to share their most intimate details are somehow depriving other people.
“They’re made to feel guilty about not giving people access into their innermost thoughts or desires,” says Langlands. “When Zuckerberg said this, he must have known exactly what he was talking about. He’s saying, ‘You can’t withhold information from me, I want to have access to all information about you.’ He’s not being transparent about his motives.”
If Zuckerberg’s response to what he called the Cambridge Analytica “situation” was characteristically zealous (he concluded his Facebook post by thanking “believers” in his mission, and pledging to work harder and be better), its tone was not surprising to Langlands and Bell – they have been making work about the tech industry’s quasi-religious shtick for years. The “situation” hasn’t surprised them.