IT’S TIME TO OPEN THE BLACK BOXES: Thursday April 19th, Athens

13/04/2012 by

While ‘stuck’ in INET’s Berlin Conference, and before I get a chance to write here about that experience, I thought I should invite all those who may be in Athens on Thursday 19th April, to the opening of Danae Stratou’s new installation at the Zoumboulakis Gallery, Kolonaki Square, Athens (nb. it will open for a month, closing on 19th May). My text, offering a political economy perspective on the exhibition and its theme, and which appears in the catalogue, follows below. Hoping to see you there.


Ignorance can, and often is, the price we must pay to live better. I do not need to know how my phone works to benefit from it. All I want is that when I dial Danae’s number it is Danae’s phone that rings. How the machines involved, both the individual phone and the network, achieve this is neither here nor there. Indeed, if I invested time and mental energy in understanding what exactly goes on in the various devices surrounding me, I would have to do without other types of understanding that I value a great deal more.

In engineering terms, I have just stated that, to me (as to most people), my phone is a black box: a device or system whose inner workings are opaque and whose only function I understand is how it turns inputs (e.g. my dialling a certain number) into outcomes (Danae’s phone ringing). Come to think of it, my wife’s mind is also, to my own mind, a black box: even if I were a leading neuroscientist, I would be utterly in the dark on the electro-chemical process that led her to put together this installation. Moreover, possibly because I know it to be an impossible task, I harbour no ambition to understanding truly this particular electro-chemical process. 

From this perspective, we are surrounded by black boxes. However, not all black boxes are as benign as my phone. Besides phones and humans, companies and states can also be seen as super black boxes. No CEO, let alone a more lowly manager, can ever get the full picture of how each and every decision is reached within his company. Bankers never truly understood the contents of the CDOs and the array of toxic derivatives their banks were churning out (and then hoarding to boot) as if there was no tomorrow. Taking matters onto a higher level, consider the example of the United States. More often than not the State Department, the White House, the relevant Senate Committees operate without much coordination with one another, yet manage to produce policies that the rest of the world recognises as… US ‘government’ policy.

The difference between these black boxes (CDOs, corporations, banks, government) from my humble phone is encapsulated in a single word: power. Not the type of power associated with electricity or the crushing force of the ocean but another, subtler, power: the power to write the agenda, to determine the conversation, to implant desires into our soul, to channel the flow of information along the existing grid of social power, to draw us into the network that determines how our society works and, alas, fails.

In 2008, our world descended in the cauldron of multiple, persistent, spectacular failures of the various power ‘networks’. Europe proved the weaker link and, within it, Greece the weakest. However, even before any of that transpired, our planet had entered an irreversible trajectory towards environmental degradation. With this multilayered Crisis upon us (its economic and environmental facets being the main but not only ones), and given the high concentration of power, it is almost tempting to attribute it to some sick conspiracy among the powerful. Images spring to mind of smoke filled rooms, with heavy furniture and cunning men (plus the odd woman) planning how they shall profit at the expense of the common good. These are, of course, delusions. If our sharply diminished circumstances are to be blamed on a conspiracy, then it is one whose conspirators do not even know that they are part of a conspiracy. That which feels to many like a conspiracy of the powerful is the emergent property of closed networks, of the super black boxes of social power.

Super black boxes take many different forms but, in essence, they are similar: Whenever a politician in the know gives a journalist an exclusive in exchange for a particular spin on the goings on, the said journalist is appended, subconsciously, to a network of insiders. Networks of social power thus control the flow of information in a manner that excludes, co-opts and guides its individual members. They evolve organically, as if under their own steam, and guided by a supra-intentional drive that no individuals, not even the President, the CEO, the persons manning the pivotal nodes, can control.

The key to power networks is exclusion, opacity. If some bank’s employee comes by inside information that is potentially damaging to the bank, whistle blowing, e.g. leaking it to the press, will immediately dissipate her chance at keeping some ‘power’ to herself. But, if she exchanges that ‘secret’ with private information held by some other cog in the machine of finance, then the power of this spontaneously generated pair is multiplied many-fold. This two person de facto conspiracy then forms alliances, via further information exchanges, with other such groups. The result is a network of power within other pre-existing networks involving participants who conspire de facto without being conscious, conspirators. Fascinatingly, some network members, the ones that are only loosely attached to the network, are utterly oblivious of the network that they reinforce (courtesy of having very few contacts with it).

Conceived of as ‘networks of power’, as ‘conspiracies without conspirators’, the powers-that-be with the power to control our lives (the state, corporations, the media, banks, organised pressure groups etc.) are nothing more than a pile of super black boxes: No one understands how they function, not even the individuals at their helm. Yet they are the ones that convert all of our inputs into social, economic and environmental outcomes. Crucially, unlike our phones (that we may legitimately not give a damn to understand; to open up and inspect their inner workings), opening these super-black boxes has now become a prerequisite to the survival of decency, of whole strata of our fellow humans, of our planet even. Put simply, we have run out of excuses. IT IS, therefore, TIME TO OPEN THE BLACK BOXES!

Why now? Why at all? Which boxes should we open? We need to open the black boxes now because 2008 was our generation’s 1929. Moreover, the past decade has seen the effective brewing of an environmental Armageddon. Unlike my phone that works perfectly, and which I have no cause to open up, our global social economy is broken. And so is our planet’s environment. The super black boxes that have been running the show since the 1970s are kaput. No longer able to auto-correct, powerless to reproduce conditions for decent living, these super black boxes must either be opened up or they will consume us, and the generations to come, into some dystopic black hole.

How should we do it? First, we need to acquire a readiness to recognise that we may very well, each one of us, be a node in the network; an ignorant de facto conspirator. Secondly, and this is the genius of Wikileaks, if we can get inside the network, like Theseus entering the Labyrinth, and disrupt the information flow; if we can put the fear of uncontrollable information leaking in the mind of as many of its members as possible, then the unaccountable, malfunctioning networks of power will collapse under their own weight and irrelevance. And then humanity will get another chance to organise an escape from its current cul de sac. Thirdly, by desisting any tendency to substitute old closed networks with new ones.

None of this will be easy. The networks will respond violently, as they are already doing. They will turn more authoritarian, more closed, more fragmented. But this is OK. They will, no doubt, close up and fragment in order to stop the ‘break-ins’. They will expend greater effort at hindering the opening of their black boxes. They will become increasingly preoccupied with their own ‘security’ and monopoly of information, less trusting of common people. However, the more they move in this direction the more seriously they shall deplete their capacity to attract and centralise that which makes them tick: fresh, untainted, plentiful information from people that have not yet been co-opted.

None of this is, of course, new. In his fabled The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli, an early exemplar amongst the advisers to the powers-that-be, advised his Prince  never to allow the popolo a glimpse of what evils were brewing inside the black boxes of his time.[i] His was, admittedly, a more innocent time when it was still excusable to think that centralised  power and information would smoothen humanity’s passage to the good society. Tragically, the tide has gone out on such optimism. State-controlled centralisation got its comeuppance with communism’s collapse in 1991, a turn of events that saw the multiplication and reinforcement of the ‘other’ side’s black boxes, with the Crash of 2008 being the natural conclusion of such hubris. Today, amidst the pessimism of our post-2008, to quote Slavoj Zizek, “we face the shameless cynicism of a global order whose agents only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy, human rights and so on. Through actions like the WikiLeaks disclosures,[ii] the shame – our shame for tolerating such power over us – is made more shameful by being publicised.”

Danae Stratou’s new installation goes one step beyond shaming and exposing. It turns the black boxes into art objects that simultaneously encapsulate our angst and hopes, our helplessness and our capacities, our inhuman constraints and human capabilities. Her opened boxes act as a subversive incitement not only to counter our fears and the powers-that-be at once but, additionally, to fashion ideas of new forms of shared power and prosperity.

Yanis Varoufakis

[i] Thus it happens in matters of state; for knowing afar off (which it is only given a prudent man to do) the evils that are brewing, they are easily cured. But when, for want of such knowledge, they are allowed to grow until everyone can recognize them, there is no longer any remedy to be found.
(The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli [1469-1527])

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