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

Fondazione Prada presents an exhibition titled Calculating Empires: A Genealogy of Technology and Power, 1500–2025 by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler from November 23, 2023 to January 29 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 present by depicting how power and technology have been intertwined since 1500. By merging research and design, science and art, Joler and Crawford create a new way to understand the current spectacles of artificial intelligence by asking how we got here—and consider where we might be going. This vast, mind-expanding installation invites visitors to experience the longue durée through a visualization of time, politics, and technology.

As Joler explains, “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 a significant impact on our ecologies, requiring vast amounts of energy, water and minerals.” Crawford adds, “All of these diverse global impacts—from the political to the material—have developed over centuries. But they are obscured by cultures of corporate secrecy and technical architectures, the complexities of colonialism, planetary supply chains, opaque labor contracting, a lack of regulation, and by history itself. Calculating Empires contends with how to visualize and critique these systems over time.”

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Calculating Empires Map Room. Here the 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 diptych of mapsone speaks to the themes of communication and computation, the other explores control and classification. This map room is an intense physical experience, a vertiginous encounter with five hundred years of history. It is designed to calculate empires, and to explore how empires themselves have calculated.

To contextualize this new work, the visitor will first encounter Joler 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 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: 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 Empires is about time, Anatomy of an AI System  is about space.

The project also includes a work realized by artist Simon Denny in 2019 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 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 examples of the objects and books illustrated in the map room, exploring the relationships between classification, 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 own additions, revisions, and complications of history in the hand-made volumes. 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.