Calculating Empires
“We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? ... as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum."
—Gregory Bateson, 1972

Calculating Empires is a new exhibition by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler that opens at Fondazione Prada on November 23, 2023 at the Osservatorio in Milan. Joler and Crawford contextualize the current explosion of artificial intelligence by asking how we got here — and to consider where we might be going. Multiple works of critical cartography span the two floors,

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Calculating Empires Map Room. The viewer is invited to enter a dark room, like walking into a literal black box, to find an intricately detailed space. This immersive work is presented to the public for the first time and is based on a diptych of maps: one speaks to the themes of communication and computation, the other explores control and classification. Each map is over 12 meters long and depicts how empires have calculated —and how we might calculate empires — over a five hundred year time span.

As Joler explains, “This is the year when generative AI has flooded global culture, and dominated attention spans. This has left little time for people to reflect on the deeper dynamics at work. We have put AI in a much longer context, by illustrating a five hundred year pre-history of these systems.” Crawford adds, “Calculating Empires considers how technologies of communication and computation, and social systems of classification and control, are always entwined and mutually constitutive. Where our previous work Anatomy of an AI System was about technology and space, Calculating Empires contends with technology and time.”

Calculating Empires is a vast installation that is the result of almost four years of research and design by Joler and Crawford. It takes Donna Haraway’s challenge literally that we need to map the “informatics of domination.” Crawford and Joler visualize and critique the empires of the past, while tracing their legacy to the technology companies of today.

It is no coincidence that Calculating Empires maps begin in the 1500s, when two enormous political and cultural shifts were underway. On one hand, new maritime and trade routes opened up, expanding European colonization and the subjugation of indigenous people. On the other, Gutenberg’s printing press became an instrument of profound cultural change that led to the reorganization of networked information power. We are at another moment of global transformation, as war, generative AI, climate crisis, and profound uncertainty are shaping our lives.

Calculating Empires takes inspiration from other large-scale projects such as Aby Warburg’s Atlas, developed during the 1920s to compile patterns, ideas, and motifs across thousands of years of human culture, and the Eames’ “Mathematica” exhibition in the early 1960s, which addressed the complex history of mathematics through art, design, and education. In different ways, Warburg and the Eames’ developed languages of visual representation at scale to convey complex ideas and histories, while also making political interventions. Following this tradition, Calculating Empires focuses on the last five hundred years in order to make political observations about the dangers of centralized power and control over human subjectivity and autonomy.

To contextualize this new work, the visitor will first encounter Joler and Crawford’s Anatomy of an AI System (2018), part of the permanent collection of MoMA in New York and the V&A in London. Anatomy of an AI System is an exploded view diagram focusing on the case study of the Amazon Echo voice-assisted AI. This anatomical map visualizes the three central extractive processes required to run any large-scale AI system: natural resources, human labour, and data. Deep interconnections exist between the literal hollowing out of the Earth’s materials and the data mining of all human communication.

The first floor is designed like an anatomical theater, featuring a dissected Amazon Echo, a collection of all the individual minerals that are mined to make Amazon’s voice assistant, and a display of the patents that outline Amazon’s corporate vision of AI. The patents reveal their designs to surveil the labor of factory workers, to record the activities of neighbors as they walk along the street to inform police departments, and to track the emotions and health status of every individual Echo user. The room also includes a work realized by artist Simon Denny that was directly inspired by Anatomy of an AI System. Titled Document Relief 1, 3, 22 (Amazon Worker Cage patent) 2019-2020, it is a recreation of Amazon's patent for a cage to house workers inside distribution warehouses.

The exhibition concludes on the top floor with a cabinet of curiosities, a collection of books, devices, and ephemera spanning from 1500 to 2023, and a space to reflect. There are physical examples of the objects and books illustrated in the Calculating Empires map room, from early calculation machines to semiconductor chips. There is a small library that invites visitors to read, reimagine, and write their own additions, revisions, and complications of history in hand-made volumes of the maps. Any exhibition that spans centuries will necessarily be incomplete, impartial, and subjective: it can never be finished. So these maps are designed to be open to feedback, and to change over time.

Calculating Empires offers a visual genealogy of systems of power: it re-reads the present through the lens of the past in order to better understand the overwhelming technological now. These historical accounts can sensitize us to the contingencies of the past and present, and remind us that the future could be otherwise.

press release