Stephanie Kneissl and Max Lackner’s project Stop the Algorithm exposes the dark side of our scrolling habits – and offers a potential solution
When artists Stephanie Kneissl and Max Lackner first began sketching out the concept of their most recent project, Stop the Algorithm, they envisioned it as a dystopian prospect, but it was only a matter of time before reality would catch up with them. “We started thinking about the dangers surrounding algorithms and their potentially huge impact over two years ago – before Trump got elected,” Kneissl explains. “We thought of it as something likely, but quite hypothetical, so it quickly became a bit surreal to check our phones every morning and realise ‘hey, this is what we talked about yesterday, but now it’s real, it’s actually happening’.”
Featured in the group exhibition titled All I Know is What’s On the Internet currently showing at London’s Photographers Gallery, the Vienna-based artists’ installation is an engaging commentary on the ways in which digital culture is degenerating before our very eyes, taking over our lives, and invariably altering the ways in which we interpret reality.
“The truth is quite paradoxical,” asserts Kneissl. “To an extent, we willingly participate in this system that’s controlling us. There is a degree of willful ignorance and obliviousness in our attitude towards social media algorithms, because we take what we’re given and we like it, so we often become passive. On the other hand, a lot is kept from us, and the repercussions of our practices are often invisible to us – with this project, we wanted to take these invisible digital dynamics and make them visible.”
“We willingly participate in this system that’s controlling us” – Stephanie Kneissl
Taking approximately two months to complete, the installation is comprised of a series of interactive machines moderating and regulating the content on a variety of social media sites, including Facebook and Instagram. “The Instagram machine was the first one we did, and our original idea was to build a DIY machine showing how distorted our perception of online content is,” Kneissl continues. “We wanted to inform people about the true impact of their habits, and about what we can all do to change this.”
While acknowledging the dangerous, often overpowering nature of algorithms, the duo refuses to see the current situation as a fatality. Instead, their work seeks to inspire us to reclaim our practices and change the narrative. “It starts with things as simple as asking yourself how often you click on social media advertisements, changing what and how you repost or like certain things,” argues Kneissl. “Social media is dependant on its users and they are already more aware of its agenda than they used to be – they are aware of those devices monitoring (and) analysing them. This has an impact on social media sites already – they’re constantly trying to show users that they care about data protection, however sincere this may be. Every time you send a signal such as requesting to see what data is stored by a site, you make an impact. We can use social media, as participatory media, a method to communicate our thoughts about social media to itself. A lot needs to be done on the governmental side as well, of course, especially in terms of data security – but we as users are way more powerful than we tend to think.”
Still, despite our best efforts, attempting to completely escape the hold of algorithms by exercising our control is something we should remain lucid and realistic about, Kneissl explains. “This possibility to curate our feeds also makes our filter bubbles smaller and smaller. It leads to feeds being filled with more and more cat videos and less critical, diverse news posts.
Breaking the pattern of social media dependency ultimately comes through an increase in our general awareness surrounding its use; without failing to acknowledge its positive sides. “Max and I are very critical with this project, but that doesn’t mean we refuse to see all the good that social media has brought connecting the world and democratising things such as art, for instance, making it more accessible but also changing how we see and understand it,” Kneissl affirms. “Social media makes it impossible to deny the fact that the public has a voice. It’s making our worlds smaller, connecting people who never knew about each other, and, at the same time, making our minds more open. It changes how we perceive things, exposes us to more diverse information and ideas than ever before. Social media functions as our diaries, communication tools, and news sources at the same time. The system as it operates today is flawed, but carries the potential to impact the world in a really positive way.”
If global digitalisation is both unstoppable and well underway, Lackner and Kneissl conclude, holding on to our self-awareness may be the only way to make it work in humanity’s favour.
All I know Is What’s On The Internet is currently showing at London’s The Photographer’s Gallery until 24 February 2019