Barcelona Cultura

Marta Peirano: Quantifying culture to turn it into an instrument

Marta Peirano, specialist in surveillance infrastructures and technologies of persuasion and political manipulation, has been Head of Culture at ADN and of Culture and Technology at, as well as Attached to the Director. Her latest book, The Little Red Book of the Network Activist, is an introduction to cryptology for journalists, sources and media, and the first book in the world to be prologued by Edward Snowden. We speak with her today to discover what the role of culture is within this new paradigm.

In the era of mass surveillance, has the way we consume culture changed?

Radically, because before we were exposed to all the information seen by everyone else. We shared cultural references with the people of our country. Netflix no longer allows us to see things at the same time. Now you can’t even talk about series because right away there’s someone who hasn’t seen the chapter you've seen. The conversation is dominated by diversity and spoilers. We consume culture individually and, in many cases, in a way that is algorithmically designed for us.

Do we consume what we want or what they make us consume?

Digital platforms offer you a vision of reality that seems unique but that, in reality, is designed for you. Your timeline is configured as a meteorology that makes it look like a view of the real world, even when it’s not, created by decisions that, in theory, we make ourselves. But it’s not true. The platforms that create that meteorology are advertising platforms. Its customers are not us, but, in the case of Facebook, between 3 and 5 million brands, who are paying to design this meteorology around us. You think Instagram is the mirror of a collective intelligence, of what thousands of people have decided in a joint and uncoordinated way that is fine, but it’s not like that. Instagram is an advertising platform and is perhaps the most subtle of them all.

Do we consume the same knowing that what we consume is being recorded?

Everything we do on the Internet, and even what we don’t do –simply by carrying a mobile phone in our pocket, locating us and indicating where we are and who we are with– is registered on the servers of a number of companies. We know they are dozens, but they could be hundreds of thousands. All of that comes back to us in the form of new recommendations, specific political campaigns, specific offers for the kind of person you seem to be. But for us it’s not registered in the same way. Twitter is showing you some tweets and others not. You think you are deciding what information you receive, but no. You are receiving the information that Twitter wants to give you.

To what extent has the instrumentalization of culture become a vehicle for interaction between the public and brands?

Up to 9 out of 10. If you look at the agenda of the main cultural agents of the different cities of the world, you will realize that they are all doing the same. And it is striking, because cultural centers have a responsibility to the local, and to the political-local, that is not being fulfilled because now the whole world is focused on the global. The 5 global platforms that are defining cultural spaces have that limitation: they are global. This happens in politics, too. The tools that politicians are using to campaign are defining the spaces of the campaign. And the same thing happens with culture.

Do you think globalization has opened the doors to more culture and has made it free for many people? Or have we destroyed a part of that local culture that was much more accessible before?

Networks have facilitated access to culture that before was simply not available to you. But, at the same time, they are commissioning it. They are giving you the impression that you are accessing cultures that belong to different parts of the world, and yet they are all the same. They have normalized culture. Before you were much more connected to the cultural space that was around you

So culture is more and more homogeneous, more of the same?

Exactly. Platforms are imposing a normalization of spaces and cultural issues. Just as Instagram imposes how to dress and how not to, all platforms are imposing a profile of what is culture and what is not.

How can we prevent this profile from being created, our interactions from accumulating? What can we do to prevent them from determining our way of behaving and our way of consuming?

The answer is the same for ‘What can we do so that they do not watch us? What can we do to prevent them from manipulating us politically?’ The answer is leaving the phone and interacting with people close to us in real physical spaces. Don’t go looking for those who are just like you, listen to the same music, have the same ideology or share the same values.

Do we consume the culture that we believe best represents us? The culture that we want people to think we consume?

Instagram, in fact, is literally planted on that principle. You only need a model so that others know exactly who you are. What we want to be has also been normalized. Suddenly there are only 12 kinds of people we can be.

And how do brands take advantage of that? Why is it so easy now to reach people through culture?

Because these “cultural” manifestations are constantly appearing in our phones, which we are constantly watching. And these platforms are quantified. They are not only instruments designed specifically to generate addiction, but designed to train us. When quantified, when we look at a photo and see that it has 5,000 retweets, we understand that it is appropriate, that it is popular. And then, as society tends to function, we assume that the popular is what is good and we tend to imitate it. If Instagram, Twitter or Facebook suddenly lost its quantification, its effect would be completely different. But information comes to you already punctuated so you know how you have to dress, what kind of music you have to listen to, what kind of person you have to be to be accepted. All platforms are designed so that we don’t want to be left out. Being left out means losing your job, your friends or your identity.

In the end, does any artist or media seek virality?

In the last 2-3 years we have learned that turning something into something viral is very easy. It only costs money. And, besides, it doesn’t even cost a lot of money. The very concept of virality as something that emerges from nothing and explodes on social media no longer serves, it’s a trap. We are socially conditioned and we want to be on the good side of things. If most people have chosen a good option, you have the natural tendency to choose it too, because you don’t want to be the idiot who has not understood it and you don’t want to be alone. Now we know that what seems to be popular on social media doesn’t have to be.

On Thursday, February 14, Peirano inaugurated the third edition of Mobile Week Barcelona at the Museum of Design together with Gerfried Stocker, Artistic Director of the Ars Electronica Festival.


Ajuntament de Barcelona