British artists like Shardcore imagine a future where we speak truth to power by using the Tories' words against them
So the British Conservative party have set about scrubbing the internet of all traces of their pre-election speeches and promises. At the time of this article going to print, the Open Rights Group had unearthed the archive of the offending speeches. The Tories may yet see the Streisand Effect kick in, as these once-forgotten speeches are revived and scrutinized even more closely than before.
Computer Weekly, which broke the story, illustrates how comprehensive the attempts to suppressing the narrative had been: they've blocked access to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine (a programme that crawls the internet, archiving content as it goes). On top of all that, the Guardian reports that they're working through YouTube and deleting all of David Cameron's pre-election promises.
Seriously Dave – what gives? This video features Mr. Cameron, waxing lyrical about governmental transparency in a 2011 speech coinciding with the UK government's commitment to Open Data. In accordance with the Tory austerity mantra, his main purpose is to emphasise how open data measures will be great for keeping tabs on the government coffers – specifically, his policy promise that the records of government spending over £25,000 would be freely available online.
But what he says is applicable to all sorts of open data. “It is our ambition to be one of the most transparent government in the world, open about what we do and what we spend," Cameron explains in the video. "That scrutiny is going act as a powerful straightjacket on spending."
Scrutiny's good Dave, we're all for scrutiny. But c'mon now, surely some data shouldn't be more open than others? As Computer Weekly reporter Mark Ballard, who broke the story, points out it "shows how fragile the historic record is on the internet". Putting the Russell Brand bandwagon thinking of “politicians, they're all the same shower of bastards anyway” to one side, we should still be pissed at all of this rich material for taking said politicians to account being removed. What can those in power be so afraid of?
When I put this question to Graham Harwood, a veteran tactical media artist who has recently worked with open data in his recent work. As part of the Mongrel artistic collective, Harwood enjoyed prodding the political beast (like the Hairy MPs project, which gives all MPs the Movember treatment based on their parliamentary attendance).
“The Tories understand the power of remix culture," Harwood says. "[Charles] Saatchi taught them well, but in the run-up to an election they will want to eliminate anything that can be quoted back at them. They fear their own hypocrisy almost as much as they fear ridicule.”
So how might data artists reflect the goverment’s own hypocrisy back on them? Brighton-based polymath and data provocateur Shardcore is well-versed in creating open data art and adept at bringing large amounts of text data to life, reanimating static words with his own brand of mischief (check out his data dive into the KLF's recently released book Chaos Magic Music Money. Prior to that, he plumbed the online archive of NME reviews of to create a music zine auto-generated entirely by algorithms.
"Words, even more than actions, are the currency of politics," Shardcore argues. "The words of politicians are what persuade us to vote for them. Their manifesto pledges and public proclamations are the definitive record of their character. Most telling about this speech-hiding scandal is that they only removed the last 10 years - basically the words of any Tories currently in power.”
Shardcore has previously attempted to make mischief with political rhethoric by creating algo-blended political spin bots. "The next logical step would be to automatically flag up their lies," he says. "Take a speech from 5 years ago, and highlight every single promise that they broke."
"The ruse the Tories have tried to pull off is to not delete themselves from the internet – they have made their speeches invisible to Google, and thus (unfortunately) invisible to us!" he explains. "What are they trying to hide? Are they so embarrassed by their recent history that they feel they have to hide it from us. Have they lied so thoroughly, and completely that there are literally no words from the last ten years they are willing to stand by?"
Imagine an algorithm that re-writes every historical speech, and qualifies each statement with the moment they rescinded
The open data field is fledgling and yet has become mired in nomenclature disputes and inherent limits (obviously, private corporations will only ever be so forthcoming with data). But its potential to function as an organ of society is immense. As witnessed in Ghana, Nigeria and India, governmental transparency afforded by open data is a good thing!
The archives the Tories worked so hard to conceal should be bracketed under open data. Last year, off the back of a golden Olympic summer, Britain was awarded the accolade of being top dog in terms of soft power. Soft power is winning arguments through persuasion. A kingmaker of soft power ought to have its records of sophistry, and of broken speeches and promises, open to scrutiny, don't you think?
Shardcore certainly does. "If their game is to remove information then we must respond with the creation of new words to fill the void. Imagine an algorithm that re-writes every historical speech, and qualifies each statement with the moment they rescinded?" he imagines.
"Each budgetary promise that was quietly brushed under the carpet; each pledge for governmental transparency next to the mass surveillance of an entire population. Or maybe we replace them entirely with algorithmic politician that each of us can tweak from the comfort of our iPhones. Their every decision truly democratic, their every policy and decision completely laid bare to the world. A totally transparent, revision-proof political process!"