Calculating Empires: A Genealogy of Technology and Power, 1500-2025

Kate Crawford e Vladan Joler, Excerpts from the Calculating Empires map | Courtesy Osservatorio Prada


From 23 Novembre 2023 to 29 Gennaio 2024


Place: Osservatorio Prada

Address: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Official site:

Fondazione Prada presents an exhibition titled “Calculating Empires: A Genealogy of Technology and Power,1500-2025” by Kate Crawford and Vladan Jolerfrom 23 November 2023 to 29 January 2024 (Press Preview on 22 November 2023) at the Osservatorio, its space located at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.Osservatorio is Fondazione Prada’s centre devoted to visual experimentation and research on potential intersections and collisions between technologies and cultural expressions. It is a free-thinking platform open to reflection on various artistic and media languages and their impact in an ever-changing political and social landscape.Conceived by researcher-artists Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, “Calculating Empires”charts our technological presentby depictinghowpower and technology have been intertwined since1500. By merging research and design, science and art, Joler and Crawford create a new way to understand the currentspectacles of artificial intelligence byaskinghow we got here —and consider where we might be going.This vast, mind-expandinginstallation invitesvisitorsto experiencethe longue duréethrougha visualization of time, politics, and technology. As Jolerexplains, “This is the year when generative artificial intelligence has flooded global culture, and dominated attention spans. Millions of people have changed the way they search, write, and make images. But these systems have already shown a capacity to concentrate power, produce ‘hallucinations’and misinformation at scale, and challenge the perception of a shared reality. Generative AI also has asignificant impact on our ecologies, requiring vast amounts of energy, water and minerals.”Crawfordadds,“All of these diverse global impacts —from the political to the material —have developed overcenturies. But theyare obscured by culturesof corporate secrecy and technical architectures,thecomplexities of colonialism, planetary supply chains, opaque labor contracting, a lack of regulation, and by history itself. ‘Calculating Empires’contends with how to visualize and critiquethese systemsovertime.”The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Calculating EmpiresMap Room. Herethe audience will be immersed in a dark environment—like walking into a literal black box. The work, presented to the public for the first time, is a diptychof maps: onespeaks to the themes of communicationand computation, the other explores controland classification.This map room is an intense physical experience, a vertiginous encounter with five hundred years of history. Itis designed to calculate empires, and to explore how empires themselves have calculated. Calculating Empiresis a codexof technology and powerwhich shows how the empires of past centuries are echoed in the technology companies of today. This detailed visual narrativeextendsover 24 metersand tookalmost four years to create, illustrating forms of communication, classification, computation and control withthousands of individually crafted drawings and texts that span centuries of conflicts, enclosures, and colonizations.Calculating Empiresproposes aslower way of reading, placingemerging technological devices and discoveries intoa much longer historical and political context. This approach prioritizes complexity, reading across timeand phenomena,and clustering movementstogether to see long-term patterns.One map revealsthemultiplicity ofour communication devices, interfaces, infrastructures, data practices, and computational architectures andhardware.The othermapexploreshow these technologiesare woveninto social practices of classification and control: from prisons topolicing, time to education, colonialism and economic production, to the multitude of military systems.It is no coincidence thatCalculating Empiresmaps begin in the 1500s, a centuryin which two enormous political, social, and cultural shiftswere underway, movements that would expand for hundreds more years. On one hand, new maritime and trade routes opened up, expandingthe colonizationand subjugationof indigenous people. On the other, Gutenberg’s printing press becameaninstrument of profound cultural changethat led to the reorganization of networked information power.We are at another moment ofglobal transformation,with war, generativeAI, climate crisis, and profound uncertainty shaping publicdiscourse. Calculating Empirestakes inspiration from large-scale projects such as Aby Warburg’s Atlas, developed during the 1920s to compile and juxtapose patterns, ideas, and motifs across thousands of years of human culture, and the Eames’ “Mathematica”exhibitionin 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 andhistorical narratives, which were also political interventions into how we perceive and interpret history. Following this tradition, Calculating Empireslooks at five hundred years of history in order to makepolitical observationsabout the dangersof centralized power and control over human subjectivity and autonomy.To contextualize this new work, the visitor will first encounterJoler and Crawford’s Anatomy of an AI System, part of the permanent collection of MoMA in New York and the V&A in London. Anatomy of an AI Systemis 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: material resources, human labour, and data. Deep interconnections exist between the literal hollowing out of the Earth’s materials and the data mining of human communication, culture, and connection.Where Calculating Empiresis about time, Anatomyof an AI Systemis about space. If the visitor readsthe map from left to right, the story begins with the Earth and the exploitation of deep-time geological processes and ends with the decay of toxic electronic waste in the ground. But if the audience reads it from top to bottom, the story begins and endswith a human being. At the top is the human user, talking to the Echo and, at the same time, providing Amazon with valuable verbal response training data that it uses to refine its voice-activated artificial intelligence systems. At the bottom of the map is anotherhuman story: the entire history of human knowledge and culture, which is currently being extracted to train and optimize artificial intelligence systems.TheAnatomy roomlooksat the hundreds of nested supply chainsof minerals, energy and humanlaborthat has driven therise of AI. Itincludes a dissected Echo, a collection of all the individual minerals that are mined to make the Echo, and a display of the patents that outline Amazon’s corporate vision of AI.The patents reveala plan to use AIto surveil the labor of factory workers, as well as the activities of neighbors as they walk along the street, and the alleged emotions and health status of every individual Echo user.The project also includes aworkrealized by artist Simon Dennyin 2019that wasdirectlyinspired by Anatomy of an AI System. Titled Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbillcage (US 9,280,157 B2: “System and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace”, 2016),it is arecreationof Amazon patent fora cage to houseworkersinside distribution warehouses.The exhibition concludes in a cabinet of curiosities, an eclectic collection of books, devices,and ephemera spanning from 1500 to 2023, and a space to reflect. There are physical examplesof theobjects and books illustrated in the map room, exploring the relationships betweenclassification, computation, and control, from early calculation machines to semiconductor chips.The final space is a small library that invites visitors to read, reimagine, and write their ownadditions, revisions, and complicationsof history in the hand-made volumes. Any exhibitionthat spanscenturies will necessarily be incomplete, impartial, and subjective: it can never be finished. Sothese maps are designed to be open to feedback, and to change over time. “Calculating Empires: A Genealogy of Technology and Power,1500-2025” is accompanied by an illustrated publication in the Quaderni series, published by Fondazione Prada, including an essay by Kate Crawford. Kate Crawfordis a leading international scholar of artificialintelligence. She is a Research Professor at USC Annenbergin Los Angeles, a Senior Principal Researcher at MSR New York, and was the inaugural Visiting Chair for AI and Justice at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Her latest bookAtlas of AIwon theSally Hacker Prize, the ASSI&T BookAward, and was named one of the best books of the year by boththeFinancial TimesandNew Scientist.Shehas also createdart installations and visual investigations whichhave been shown in more than a hundredexhibitions worldwide.Her projectAnatomy of an AI Systemwith Vladan Joler is in the permanent collection of MoMA in New York and the V&A in London, and was awarded theDesignof the Year Award in 2019and included in theDesign of the Decadesby the Design Museum of London.Her researchand art collaboration with Trevor Paglen,TrainingHumans, premiered at Fondazione Prada's Osservatorio andwon the Ayrton Prize from the British Society for the History of Science. She currently leads theKnowing Machines Project,a transatlantic research collaboration of scientists, artists andlegal scholars that investigates training data. She was named on theTIME100listin 2023 as one of the most influential people in AI.Vladan Joleris an academic, researcher and artistwhose work blends data investigations, counter cartography, investigative journalism, writing, data visualization, critical design and numerous other disciplines. He is SHARE Foundationco-founder and professor at the New Media department of the University ofNovi Sad. In 2018, in cooperation withKate Crawford, he publishedAnatomy of an AI System, a large-scale map and long-form essayinvestigating the human labour, data and planetaryresources required to build and operate an AmazonEcho device.A previous study, entitledFacebook Algorithmic Factory, included deep forensic investigations and visual mapping of the algorithmic processes and forms of exploitation behind the largest social network. Vladan Joler’s work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, the Victoria andAlbert Museum and the Design Museum in London, and also in the permanent exhibition of the ArsElectronica Center.His work has been exhibited in more than a hundred international exhibitions,including institutions and events such as: MoMA, ZKM, XXII Triennale di Milano, HKW, ViennaBiennale,V&A, Transmediale, Ars Electronica,Biennale WRO, Design Society Shenzhen, Hyundai Motorstudio Beijing, MONA, Glassroom, La Gaîté Lyrique, the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and the European Parliament in Brussels