Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old internet pioneer, Reddit co-founder, and activist programmer who tragically committed suicide last week, made an intriguing entry into the art world last year at Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference, which brings creative technologists into collaboration with artists. Swartz participated with Taryn Simon, an American artist who often works to visualize sets of data with her photography.
The collaborative project the pair came up with is Image Atlas, an aggregate search engine that trawls the preferred search engines of 17 different countries for the same term and displays the results all at once. Image Atlas underlines both the universal and divided nature of the internet: it’s possible to see what the web looks like to users the world over, demonstrating the underlying firmament of the medium; but it also shows that the network we see doesn’t look the same from every angle. I found the search for “Landscape” particularly interesting — many countries share the same emphasis on sprawling vistas, but Kenya’s results, for example, lean heavily toward brushy deserts and plains.
Check out a video interview with the two collaborators below.
Swartz was a proponent of the internet as an ungated expanse accessible to all. The project was meant, in part, to underline the fact that that’s not always the case. Search engines filter the world for us — that’s their job. But they’re not just disinterested tools; they have an influence on how we perceive the world that’s shaped by the commercial pursuits of the companies that create them and the cultures that they take root in. China’s Baidu search engine, for example, is complicit in that country’s censorship policies. (Search “Tibet” on Image Atlas — China’s results are tourist landmarks, while Egypt’s are protestors setting themselves on fire.)
Search engines and social networks are “programmed and programming us,” Swartz says in the interview. It’s worth remembering that though the internet may look open, most often, it’s not. One of Swartz’s accomplishments, through this project and others, was to point us toward a more active awareness of our own oversights when it comes to the web.