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A Case Study of The Real Costs
The Real Costs is a Firefox web browser plug-in that inserts CO2 emissions data into airplane travel e-commerce websites such as Orbitz.com, United.com, Delta.com, and so on. Like the nutritional information labeling included on food packaging, this plug-in provides emissions information that is otherwise excluded from travel websites.
The Real Costs builds on many of my prior investigations into intersections between conceptualism, Internet art, and activism. I make art that explores the way the Internet shapes subjectivity and consumerism. As an artist, I find structures to shape or modify by inserting and projecting new information. Within common genres including e-commerce, blogs and opinion poll sites I create site-specific interventions in this digital vernacular to provoke a moment of contemplation for the viewer. A good example of this is the Oil Standard Firefox plug-in that converts all prices on a web page from U.S. Dollars into the equivalent value in barrels of crude oil. When a web page loads, the script seamlessly inserts converted prices into the page. As the cost of oil fluctuates on the commodities exchange, prices rise and fall in real-time causing the user to reflect on her relationship to the abstract fluctuation of the price of oil. Oil Standard synthesized my interest in hacktivism and Internet art, sustainable economics, and information design to create an art piece that opened up a dialogue about oil, economics, and the environment. It was used and discussed by eco-techies, high school classes, progressive politicians, and Internet artists. This project achieved the goal of making abstract information legible so as to create dialogue about the important issues surrounding how we use earth’s natural resources.
This project intentionally sits in the liminal space between art and design, hacktivism and software development, and situationist intervention and green-tech tool making. I often situate my work in this position at the edge of art because it allows me to present unexpected content in familiar forms. The goal is to seduce the viewer through what appears to be a comfortable and usual situation and to create an experience of surprise and wonder. I have done this before, in Shop Mandiberg, where in the fall of 2000 I built an e-commerce site as a container for self-portraiture. I made this project just as the dot.com bubble was bursting. I used the e-commerce genre as a location to critique the consumerization of the Internet, assuage my own anxieties about “selling out,” and compose a poetic dirge to the dot.com crash that was going on around me. By making art appear in everyday contexts the capacity for art to instigate change is integrated into daily life.
Introduction to The Real Costs
The objective of The Real Costs is to increase awareness of the environmental impact of certain day-to-day choices in the life of an Internet user. By presenting this environmental impact information in the place where decisions are being made, I hope to impact the viewer, encourage a sense of individual agency, start ongoing discussions, and provide a set of alternatives and immediate actions. In the process, the user/viewer might even consider a personal transformation from passive consumer to engaged citizen.
You can experience the project by installing the The Real Costs plug-in into the Firefox web browser. Currently, this plug-in uses the arrival and departure information for each flight on the page to calculate and reinsert the CO2 that would be produced. It compares the CO2 produced for that flight to the CO2 for making the same trip by bus or train, and to the average CO2 produced per capita for the average US and world citizen. It is configured to work on the websites of the largest global air carriers. A list of these carriers and documentation of all scientific calculations is available on the project Wiki. Anecdotal accounts suggest that most people install the plug-in, test it out on several travel sites to see that it really works, and then promptly forget about it until they book their next flight when the plug-in appears unexpectedly. This moment of surprise shocks people. It makes them see what they are doing in a new light; they understand their own complicit causal relationship to the world, and the pressures that prevent them from breaking this relationship.
Technical Description of a Creative Process
When you load a page with The Real Costs installed, the script goes through the following procedures: First it checks whether the domain is an airplane travel website. If it is an airplane travel website the script will parse the page from top to bottom looking for pairs of three letter airport codes, like JFK, CDG, and NRT. Each airline website uses a different set of patterns, so the script associates the right two codes with each other to properly handle connecting flights. It then converts the set of airport codes into latitude and longitude coordinates, calculates the distance between them, adds the total distance travelled and multiplies this by a constant value for the average CO2 per passenger per mile to find the carbon footprint for this trip. This number is inserted back into the page next to each flight option. Based on this final number, the script inserts an informational graphic above the list of flight options which shows the carbon footprint, as well as information that put this number into context.
Each artist has his or her own creative process. I like to work within pre-existing structures. I have an informal collection of ideas and a mental list of sites of exploration, and try to find the right match between the idea I want to explore or express and the sites I think are suitable for the kind of site-specific interventions I tend to make. Sometimes I sit down, write out these lists, and actively explore potential matches, but most of the time I do this brainwork while reading the news, day dreaming in the subway, or while trying to fall asleep. I like to find and reuse new tools for a purpose other than what they were initially intended to do. I usually match an idea to a structure; the structure is the site of curiosity, and I anchor the ideas to that location.
In order to find a close match between ideas and tools, I do a lot of research. To an onlooker, my research activities may not seem like “research,” as it does not abide any disciplinary traditions. I read the news, watch videos, and spend a lot of time looking at art and design online and in the physical world. Concurrently, I am actively considering the platforms and tools that are being used in online communities. While using a new type of web tool, or language, I am thinking about how the tool fits into my art-making process. For instance, I found so many discarded books anonymously given away on stoops in New York City that I could not help but think about what I could do with them; it was this exploration that led to a series of laser cut books and paper works. Most of this labor will have no direct impact on a specific work, but all of it is part of my creative process.
I will often research a technical subject with intensity if I am exploring how I could make something with it; I want to know what the subject can do, but not how it does it. I will take a rough look at many different platforms and languages; most of these I will never use for a project. I regularly learn new tools and languages for projects, but I learn them after I figure out what I want to do. This was not true when I was first learning the tools, but at this point I rarely learn new a language or technique solely to explore it in order to learn what I want to make.
I may develop these ideas far enough to answer some basic technical questions: Is the language/platform flexible enough to do what I am interested in doing? Is the scope of the project something that I can complete? Do I have the skill, or can I collaborate with someone who has the skill to successfully make the project? If all of this is true and I think my idea is rooted in a strong concept, I will move forward. Often this is the point at which I will write up a grant or research proposal; in this case it helps that I have done all this research, as it will form a large portion of the proposal.
1. Activist Art and Hacktivism
I made this work informed by a continuum of activist art work. Activist work aims to use art to change the viewer’s beliefs. This spirit is felt in moments of political protest, in paintings such as Picasso’s Guernica, or Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. Haacke’s exposure of the real estate transactions of Guggenheim Museum trustee Harry Shapolsky was so contentious the museum’s director cancelled the show six weeks prior to the exhibition. Activist work can be strongly conceptual; it treats the idea of the intervention as the artistic gesture.
Early Internet artists morphed activist art into the technologically infused hacktivism. Although this term carries some of the same tarnish as other techno-utopian ideas from that imaginary global village, it is still useful. Some of the artists who were called, or call themselves hacktivists include RTMark/The Yes Men, The Bureau of Inverse Technology, the Institute for Applied Autonomy, and Critical Art Ensemble. It is notable that all of these hacktivists are art collectives, not individual artists.
2. Data Visualization & Artist Startups
Data visualization represents large sets of data in a visual form, leading to a new understanding of the information. This technique was spearheaded by financial services companies, but has been used by artists as well. Martin Wattenberg has notably pioneered both financial and creative visualizations. While most visualizations tend toward the aestheticization of information, Josh On’s They Rule uses the tools of visualization to chart the power relationships amongst board members of Fortune 500 companies. Tiffany Holmes has traced origins of what she terms “ecovisualization” from work like Hans Haacke’s Rhinewater Purification Plant of 1972; she also includes work like The Real Costs, Brooke Singer’s Superfund365.org, and Holmes’ own 7000 oaks and counting.
Another important context are the growing number of functional projects that straddle the line between a work of art and an Internet startup company. Prior to making this project, I was inspired by projects like Angie Waller’s anti-social networking site My Frienemies, Ben Engebreth’s political statement in the form of a very early energy monitoring site Personal Kyoto (no longer online, but information here), and xtine burrough’s Starbucks coffee un-finder site Delocator. One of the core motivations in these works is to make something that has a function which changes or articulates how we interact with the world.
Technical and Design Perspectives
1. Open Source
Web programming of the last decade has placed a large emphasis on modularity, the separation of content and form, and the portability of information through standardized data structures and web services. A lot of these principles often fall under the Web 2.0 brand, though many are quick to point out that this is part of a smooth transition: this supposed “upgrade” is largely marketing. A tool like the Greasemonkey userscript platform is part of this shift to customization and modularity.
The ability to make a project like The Real Costs is also a result of the Firefox web browser’s prioritization of plug-ins and other forms of collaborative peripheral development. This focus on openness and collaboration stems from the means of production itself: Firefox is collectively written through input and contributions from a community of Open Source developers. No company owns the code, and anyone is free to use it as long as they continue to share the code.
“Open Source” is a term used to refer to computer software where the source code can be viewed, modified, and used by anyone. The source code contains the modifiable, human readable instructions that are compiled into an un-modifiable computer readable binary code. As the story goes, once upon a time all software was open source. In 1980 MIT researcher Richard Stallman was using one of the first laser printers. Printing took so long that he decided he would modify the printer driver so that it sent a notice to the user when her print job was finished. Unlike previous printer drivers, this software only came in its compiled version. Stallman asked Xerox for the source code. Xerox would not let him have the source code. Stallman became upset and wrote the manifesto that lead to the statement that Free Software was “Free as in speech, not free as in beer,” and the Free Software movement began. Stallman’s great contribution to this movement was the GNU Public License or GPL. Software licensed with the GPL is required to maintain that license in all future incarnations; this means that code that starts out open has to stay open. You cannot close the source code. This is known as a Copyleft license. Later, Eric Raymond published The Cathedral and the Bazaar which popularized the term “open source,” a business-friendly term which would spark much debate. The term is frequently referred to by the acronym FLOSS, which stands for Free/Libre/Open Source Software.
The Real Costs is an open source project. You can view the source code at https://github.com/mandiberg/The-Real-Costs. By working within an open source model, I signal my desire to share my work, and accept contributions from others. Others have joined my project by submitting “patches” which are rewrites of sections of code that fix bugs or add features. Open work results in more frequent code updates, which in turn produces fewer errors during the user experience.
Making artwork in a model used for software development highlights some of the major differences in the goals of these two paradigms, even when they share the same tools. Traditional arguments for open source development stem from a purely materialist angle: you can write better code in larger quantities through collaboration, and you retain freedom to use the code in a way that most proprietary ventures forbid. One of the traditional guidelines for evaluating the success of an open source project is the so-called “bus factor:” if the lead developer for the project was hit by a bus, would the project stay alive? It is a brutal mental experiment, but it forces the evaluatation of the survival of long term projects like Linux, WordPress, or Wikipedia. I would argue that it is not the most useful tool for evaluating art that also happens to be open source. For an open source software project, a lack of upgrades and updates is the mark of a “dead” project. Conversely, in the tradition of making art, completion usually marks the end of all revisions. Historically, works of software art have been updated for a period of time before the main creator(s) moved on to a new project. From time to time the artists may work out the major bugs and broken features, though this is not an upgrade or update, but rather maintenance required to keep a project working.
The difficulty of keeping things running is an important consideration. At the time of this writing, I am making a round of maintenance to IN Network, Oil Standard, The Real Costs, and HowMuchItCosts.us; all of these are currently broken in one way or another. Maintenance is one of the inherent problems in working with software and Internet art, and something that has vexed curators and museums. How do you display art that was created for technological platforms that are themselves museum pieces, such as vintage 1970s mainframes, punch card readers, or scripting languages for early web browsers? While curator at the Guggenheim, Jon Ippolito spearheaded the Variable Media initiative, which explored these questions and formulated a set of guidelines for preserving experimental media art, and a method for artists to designate how their works should be preserved if the original equipment is no longer available.
The Real Costs has encountered archival problems quicker than most technology projects, as it is dependent on the airplane websites it runs on, over which I have no control. These sites will inevitably change their HTML/CSS so that the plug-in can no longer decipher which site it is running on and how to calculate the distances and thus the carbon footprint. Or worse, these sites will cease to exist as companies absorb each other: Northwest Airlines and several others have already ceased to exists as companies. In response to this inevitability, I have started making screencasts of all of my projects. These screencasts document the work through video taken from the computer interface, and show the experience of the piece. These will eventually replace the working online versions, as I cannot “preserve” the airline websites themselves.
Despite the arts and humanities’ heavy emphasis on the individual creator there are a number of reasons to collaborate. I often collaborate because the work that comes out of a collaboration is better for having multiple eyes and brains working on it, the project is too big for one person to undertake, and the project requires skills or knowledge that I don not have and/or can not learn within time constraints. It is worth noting that these are some of the same arguments given for open source software development.
My primary concerns for The Real Costs were the ambitious scope of the project, and the scientific focus. I turned to former students Carlo Montagnino and Evan Moran for help with coding and design; Carlo, in turn, organized a group of my students who helped with some manual data wrangling. For the science, I turned to the guidance of ecologist Dr. P. Timon McPhearson, who advised me in my research, and was able to consult his own colleagues for the more obscure questions that arose.
Dr. McPhearson helped me negotiate the industry of carbon offsets that was taking off right as I was launching the project. In a carbon offset scheme, a businesses plants the equivalent number of trees that it would take to convert the CO2 produced in a year by the purchaser. Theoretically, it sounds like it could be productive in the short term, but science indicates otherwise. All of the companies use annual per capita carbon footprints that were four to eight times less than the numbers accepted by scientists. Reports on these tree plantations indicated that they were often planted with trees that would never grow in that location, or poorly tended to, leading to the death of the trees. Most importantly, these carbon offsets were modern day “indulgences,” alleviating consumers of their guilt from their carbon sins, without changing any of their behaviors. We did not add offsets to the plug-in.
Artists make works for an imaginary “viewer” who experiences the work in a white cube. The viewer walks around the work, maybe scratches their chin and nods, but the viewer does not touch the work. Designers create works for a “user” who experiences the work in every way except for the metaphorical (or literal), pristine white cube. Hopefully the user immediately grasps the meaning of the designer’s interface or object, does not end up scratching their chin, and touches the work in all the correct places. A media artist has to balance these two creative roles and audience positions.
Design is a tool that can be used to instruct your viewer while she uses your work. I used a number of design tools to help convey complex ideas on The Real Costs website, like annual carbon footprints and comparisons between the CO2 produced from multiple transportation methods. I used design to put these massive abstract numbers into a context that made them understandable for the user. I inserted an infographic that used color and graphics above the trip selection interface. I also created a unit of measurement, the “tree-year,” which represented the number of years it took to convert the CO2 created by the travel back into oxygen. Pounds or Kilograms of CO2 are abstract and meaningless to most people, but a year of a tree’s life is something our imaginations can easily grasp. These design elements helped convey the meaning and intentions of the website.
I got carried away while designing. One of the best pieces of feedback came from someone whose job requires her to travel extensively. She wrote to say that while she would love to use the plug-in, she had to de-install it because the banner took up too much real estate in her browser, making it impossible to actually use the air travel site she was browsing. In response, I redesigned the interface to have a much smaller impact. In hindsight, it could probably be cut in half again. While viewers are silent, users talk back.
Conclusions and Outcomes
Looking back on this work two months into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, from the perspective of the work I am making now, I see the sadness in The Real Costs. At the time I had hoped that this would somehow change things. I dressed that hope up in bright colors and nice design, but now I see how much this work was leading to the next body of work I made that was unabashedly a memorial for a loss.
The other outcome of this work was HowMuchItCost.us, a car direction website that took much of the research and data sources from The Real Costs and applied them to a non-plug-in based website. HowMuchItCost.us is built with Google Maps in a way that the platform intended it to be used, unlike the way I used the airplane travel websites. Using Google Maps in this way meant that it the project continues to be more stable than The Real Costs in the long term. Additionally, one criticism of the plug-in was that it cut down on the potential audience for the project because it had too many specific requirements for use; a website that integrated the same functionality avoided these requirements and expanded the potential audience. By moving from a plug-in to a website I lost some of the element of surprise of using the plug-in, but I gained stability, and I expand the range of viewers who were able to access the project.
Holmes, Tiffany. “Searching for Stories in the Sea of Data: Promoting Environmental Stewardship Through Ecovisualization.” Journal of Museum Education. Summer 2007.
——. “Eco-visualization: Combining Art and Technology to Reduce Energy Consumption.” Reconstruction 6.3: Studies in Contemporary Culture, Summer 2006.
Hyde, Linksvayer, Mandiberg, Peirano, Toner, Zer-Aviv, et al. Collaborative Futures. FLOSS Manuals, last accessed June 25, 2010, http://www.booki.cc/collaborativefutures/a-very-short-history-of-collabo...
O’Reilly, Tim. “What is Web 2.0.” O’Reilly Radar, last modified September 25, 2010. http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.htm
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