Nominee BA Research Award
Meet Rodrigo Cardoso! Rodrigo was nominated for the 2021 BA Research Award with his graduation project ‘The Autonomous Web’. In this interview, Rodrigo tells us about his work and future plans.
Can you tell us a bit about your graduation project and how it came about?
I was born in ‘99, so my childhood was heavily mediated by the internet. In a way, I have always taken part in digital culture. It was only natural that, when I started studying Graphic Design, my interests soon shifted to the internet and digital culture. Over the past years I have been able to reflect on this upbringing and the influence the internet has in shaping me and the people around me. In some ways, this was a positive influence, in other cases a negative one. In one of my earlier projects, I researched the technical side of algorithms and the basics of machine learning. This helped me gain insight into the intrusive deployment of algorithms to mediate people’s experiences on the internet. This path led me to my graduation work ‘The Autonomous Web’.
The Autonomous Web is a speculative re-imagination of the modern internet as an autonomous version of itself. I believe there are two levels of autonomy at play here. On one hand, there is autonomy on the internet. My project strives to give people autonomy from big tech corporations, from algorithms, ads, and other deceptive coercion techniques, while still being able to use the internet according to their needs. And on the other hand there is autonomy from the internet. By this, I mean autonomy from our devices and being constantly online. Our physical lives are strongly mediated by the internet, for example through notifications on our phones. We are in a stage in which we are not really online or offline anymore, but rather in an in-between. My research explores the idea of collective autonomy on and from the internet, which is connected to ideas of resilience, self organization, and collective freedom.
Very simply put, I re-imagine two extreme versions of the internet. An oppressive, alienating dystopia where users became enslaved by the web, and its polar opposite, a utopian realm where biological life and the autonomous internet exist in true cybernetic harmony. Of course, both scenarios are exaggerations of the reality we live in today. I imagine different ways for us to learn different behaviours or develop different systems that could cultivate autonomy in these westernised facets of the Internet. This research eventually led me to create a web publication on which the two stories can be read. I also created a physical zine in which I turn these speculative ideas into executable “human algorithms”. By doing so I hope the ideas I put forward become a little bit less speculative and a little bit more tangible.
Which themes or societal concerns are you addressing in your work?
My research is about the negative effects that the misuse of algorithms and personal data can have on all aspects of people’s lives. Quite an obvious example is the effect of social media on people’s mental health, and especially on that of the younger generations. Let's say you publish a picture on Instagram. The likes and the comments you receive are not a direct translation of how much people like you, but rather the result of an invisible system of algorithms that determine who will see your picture. I think a lot of people, especially youngsters, give a lot of importance to these types of online interactions. So I believe that opaque and overly complex technology can lead to a lot of frustration, misinterpretation, and stress. Another example of this technology negatively influencing people’s lives is the propagation of conspiracy theories and extreme political ideologies that are perpetuated by algorithms that suggest content. When you consume political content, the algorithm tends to send you further into that tangent. Before you know it, you end up in an ideological bubble, and this can easily become toxic or even dangerous. Corona denial groups and violent groups like QAnon are good examples of how this can play out.
What will you be working on in the near future? What are your next steps?
Right now, I am developing a series of workshops around my research project. One of the workshops will take place at the Zine Camp at WORM on the 6th and 7th of November. I’m trying to set up something fun at the WdKA graduation show as well, so feel free to come to find me at those events. I hope to be able to induce critical thinking about these issues within a broader audience that is not necessarily aware or very interested in this topic, but that can contribute to the discourse somehow. I am also planning to distribute my zine among participants of the workshops and talks that are organised around this theme. I can see that leading to a second edition of the zine, or maybe even a second edition of the entire publication, including new methods that are contributed by others.
And of course, as a designer, I plan to keep researching and addressing issues around the use of the internet, technology and digital culture. I recently moved to Köln, Germany, where I’m looking into studies and work opportunities where I can dive deeper into these themes. At the moment, I’m doing some research on AI and public safety.
To read more about Rodrigo’s work, pay a visit to his Graduation Catalogue Page. Furthermore, his journey can be followed on Instagram and his Website. The winners of the BA Research Award will be announced during a festive ceremony as part of the Graduation Show. Keep an eye on our Graduation Show page for more information.