Proposal: The Tlön Project

CERN generates fantastic amounts of data, and this data both embodies and drives the institute’s research. This data is the most vital information relating to CERN’s mission, and represents the most fundamental forces at work in the universe. However, it is rarely seen in its raw form—literal numbers and measurements—and is both invisible to and almost impossible to comprehend by the general public. In this way it resembles the data and signals that underlie the communication networks and decision systems that drive much of our daily lives in the modern world: active but unseen, vast but incomprehensible. This project proposes to literally print tranches of this data, presenting it in the form of books, newspapers and other physical media. I want to do this in order to visualise the vast amount of work undertaken, to consider and provoke debate about a universe which is both physical and digital, and to inform and delight as wide an audience as possible, drawing them into CERN’s grand project.

In February of this year, I was lucky enough to visit CERN for the first time. The LHC was in operation, so we visited the above-ground locations: the education centre, the magnet testing facility, the control room. We were guided around by an extraordinary man, a former CERN physicist, who explained what was happening in a way that allowed all of us to approach an understanding of the process and the scale of what was being attempted.

Before visiting CERN, I was most interested in it as the birthplace of the World Wide Web. I knew about the physics, and thought that I understood it, and did understand it was fundamental and important. But I had never fully grasped it. Visiting and learning about if firsthand gave me a deeper, if undoubtedly and necessarily incomplete, understanding of the work in progress. What is being attempted is one expression of what it is possible for humans to understand and achieve in this world. In the very mechanics of the institution, in the necessity of recreating conditions approaching those of the big bang and of deep interstellar space, and of systematising and comprehending what results from those conditions, we approach the apparent limits of what humans are capable of doing, physically and mentally, in the universe.

Primarily, I gained a fuller comprehension of CERN as an embodiment of the scientific method, of the gradual and potentially infinite accretion of human knowledge as part of a system for understanding the universe. I also began to understand the role of data and digital knowledge as part of this system, and the role of the web as a product of this system, and as a tool for processing and distributing this knowledge.

It is my understanding that the data alone which CERN generates is beyond our capabilities to comprehend as individual humans. It has been stated that the Large Hadron Collider experiments alone were expected to generate 15 petabytes of data per year during operation, but I was told during my visit that in the second year alone, more than 50 petabytes were accumulated. For me, this figure alone stands as representative both of what we are capable of doing, but also of what we are always struggling to comprehend: a knowledge of the universe that is by its very definition greater than ourselves, a knowledge that stands above and outside ourselves, that is greater perhaps than even all of us, together, are capable of comprehending in its entirety, but is nevertheless what we will always strive to grasp.

For me, the internet, as an extension of, and synecdoche for, all digital communications systems, stands for the same kind of macrosphere, a system of human knowledge greater than any single human can comprehend. And yet the internet has a direct effect on daily human lives, cultures and societies, just as the discoveries of CERN have a direct effect on the way we comprehend and act on the universe.

I am also interested in the scale and architectural design of computer systems (see, for example, this article I wrote on the architecture of datacentres: I believe that the physical design of network infrastructures constitutes a new kind of public architecture in the way that universities, financial and governmental facilities did in previous centuries. The design of facilities such as CERN, and the LHC Computing grid, are part of this emerging vernacular of digital architecture, blending the demands of the physical and the virtual.

The distributed nature of the Tier system and the LHC Computing grid, an infrastructure of 140 computer centres in 35 countries, is an example of the dissolution of traditional understandings of place and space in the networked world. The term ‘cyberspace’ was coined by William Gibson in 1982 but, as its author would admit, went on to deceive several generations about the nature of the digital world. Cyberspace is not a space as we usually understand it; it is both a specific, physical infrastructure than extends around the globe in cables under land and sea, in satellites, in exchange, storage and processing buildings; and it is a social layer, a layer of interactivity and engagement, that extends over all of us, all the time we are connected, a context inextricably linked to our daily lives.

This interleaving, this inseparability, these intersecting dimensions of the real and the virtual, are what I would like to explore, using CERN as the model for mapping and interpreting them. The data that CERN generates, processes and transmits, are of a part with its physical infrastructures: the supercolliders, the laboratories, the offices and workshops, storage and engineering facilities. The knowledge that is generated at CERN is coproduced by these softwares and hardwares, by computer programmes and physical machines, by fundamental forces and by people.

The 15 petabytes figure mentioned above (drawn from and the tour guide at CERN), is reportedly equivalent to “more than 1.7 million dual-layer DVDs a year”. In 2010, The Economist reported that “CERN… generates 40 terabytes every second—orders of magnitude more than can be stored or analysed. So scientists collect what they can and let the rest dissipate into the ether.” Another article, in Symmetry magazine in August 2012, described how “out of the billions of collisions produced, only a fraction of the data is scientifically interesting enough to keep. Imagine searching for a needle in a haystack. Now imagine searching for a couple of needles in a football field full of haystacks. It takes a while to find the needles, but once you do, there’s no need to keep the hay.” There’s no need to keep the needles either: our terms for what is being described here are woefully inadequate to the task we set them.

Christine Smallwood has written that “the history of the Internet is a history of metaphors about the Internet”. This is, in miniature, an image of all scientific and cultural exploration, a parallel process by which we accumulate information, and both comprehend it and integrate it into our understanding of the world.

Much of my work has been about illuminating the strange disjunctions produced by the intersections of the network and every day life; often by provoking these disjunctions in order to bring them under greater scrutiny. My portfolio includes work which involves taking digital data from the web and translating it into print, taking machine data and writing it out as literature for human consumption, and reframing programmatic and systemic languages as part of a social vernacular, as part of a network in which both people and computers, the physical and the virtual, are active and vital participants.

The world has always been larger than we are capable of comprehending, but the network increases the visibility of this complexity even as it makes individual human agency both further reaching, and apparently futile. The illegibility of vast systems, from politics, to communication, to scientific data, is the central concern of the twenty-first century; systems literacy our greatest challenge.

For the Tlön Project, I propose to explore ways of increasing such a literacy by processing, distributing and sharing CERN’s data in the widest and most accessible range of formats possible, in print and digital.

In his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, a meditation on the nature of memory and culture, Jorge Luis Borges wrote that things “tend to become effaced and lose their details when they are forgotten”, meaning that without constant engagement and re-engagement, interpretation and re-interpretation, the things that we learn as a culture are without meaning or resonance. But in Borges’ beautiful phrase, he counters that “At times some birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater.” As a society, particularly an ever more networked one, knowledge is at its most valuable when it is most distributed. A few of us are capable of recalling some fragment which is of incalculable value to the whole.

The Tlön Project is also inspired by the LHC@Home project, which allows anyone in the world to contribute local computing power to the LHC project. This distribution of effort is mirrored in the distribution of storage and appreciation that is proposed here.

The first aim of the Tlön Project will be to make accessible raw CERN data in traditional print forms: newspapers, books, bound journals. This is not an exercise in nostalgia, but of making accessible and visible. A vast proportion of the world does not have internet access; most cannot truly understand the volume of information the digital world generates. The project will allow anyone to download and print their own tranches of CERN data, or to purchase printed copies, generated automatically from the raw data and printed on demand via existing online services. It will be possible for anyone in the world to possess and keep safe a small part of the data, as souvenir and reminder of CERN’s efforts.

Such data is not necessarily “human readable”, yet by both representing it as literature and making it physical, we increase the “reality” of this data to its readership, make the virtual physical and thus tangible and appreciable, and illuminate the scale of the data, and thus the task being undertaken.

Working with scientists at CERN, the Tlön Project will also identify key portions of the CERN data and make this available in specially created, bound and printed editions for schools, libraries and institutions worldwide. This work will involve mapping the ways in which data at CERN is currently processed, stored and distributed both within the institution and through the worldwide Tier system: a mapping, too, of the way not only data but knowledge is passed from CERN to the world.

At the Futurelab, the Tlön Project will build the infrastructure necessary for making this assembly and distribution possible, and also examine other ways in which the data will be made tangible and accessible. Many emerging technologies, such as 3D printing, scanning and digitisation also serve to bridge the gap between the physical and the virtual. In addition to the printed books, these technologies will be used to produce new kinds of souvenirs: direct, physical visualisations of the CERN data.

The Futurelab residency will also explore ways of mapping the physical locations of the LHC Computing Grid to virtual locations, and vice versa. As cartography has previously produced new projections—the Mercator, the Peters—in response to geographical and political conditions, so a new response is required to technological conditions. The distributed nature of CERN’s data storage and transmission locations provide an ideal model for testing these new projections, producing a concordance of physical and virtual addresses.

I am more than aware, from the nature of the residency, and my experience in previous residencies and research projects, that the direction of the work will be irrevocably shaped by the doing of it, by the studies and conversations in Geneva and Linz and by what I learn, and learn to do, in those places. What I learn from the scientists, technicians and staff at CERN, the artists and mentors at Ars Electronica, will be fundamental to shaping the work produced.

Ultimately, the aim of the Tlön Project is to look at new ways of conveying our macroscopic understanding of the world, through scientific experiments as performed at CERN, and through social and intellectual interactions through digital communications media, as pioneered at CERN and illuminated by the work of artists and thinkers at the Ars Electronica Futurelab.

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Draft production plan

The first month at CERN will largely be spent in discussion with scientists, technicians and others in order to better understand the volume and format of raw data produced by the institution. All of this discovery will be written up and presented online, using free and open platforms including public blogs and Twitter. These platforms mimic the peer review processes of traditional scientific journals, with open publication and public critique, and as such are essential to creating a narrative for the project, as well as inviting participation from a wider audience and establishing which elements of CERN’s work will be most valuable to distribute to them.

When a portion of the data is selected—and, as the Borgesian nature of the project dictates, it will always be a portion pointing towards the whole—this data will be turned into books, made available through online print-on-demand systems. Although the nature of the data selected will to some degree dictate the system chosen, for the purposes of this production plan, we will assume that will be used. Lulu allows anyone to design, assemble and print books to order: books which differ in no way from those produced by traditional publishers, on acid-free paper and properly bound, suitable for libraries, schools and individual purposes.

In order to make this book assembly possible, it would be necessary to make raw data available in an accessible format, and write code to generate printable files and associated metadata: all of this would be conducted by the artist as part of the residency. This, in addition to further research, would occupy the second month of the residency.

When any individual or institution chooses to purchase one of the Tlön Project books, they will be able to select the amount of data they wish to archive. This will be formatted to a number of pages (plus an introduction explaining the project, and information on the type and quantity of the data as it relates to the whole). This dictates the cost of the book produced; for example, a 100 page paperback book will cost approximately €6.50; a 500 page hardback book of data will cost approximately €18. This cost—plus shipping—will be borne by the purchaser, but ideally a portion of budget would be made available to print a number of books for deposit in national, regional and school libraries, for donation and exhibition, the exact number and distribution to be agreed during the project. The aim is to make it as affordable and accessible for anyone, anywhere, to gain possession and stewardship of even the smallest part of the knowledge gained at CERN, and to understand what this means.

Other publication systems, including stand-alone newspapers (, general newspaper and magazine publication, and networked home printing systems ( will also be explored to find the best times, places and formats to share the data with the world.

The third part of the residency, at Futurelab, would be concerned with the mapping, projections, and visualisations of the data and the data systems in other forms; as digitised and printed objects, which in effect would constitute special editions of the data books. Again, much of the programming work for this, transforming the data, would be carried out by the artist, although the purpose of this part of the project would also be to take assistance and advice from the Futurelab in the variety of ways this could be carried out.

Documentation and communication of the project, and what it represents, would be an essential part of the project, and would be carried out throughout, preferably in partnership with advisers to and interlocutors with the project.

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Selected Portfolio

I am a writer, publisher, technologist and artist based in London, UK. My work, including “A Ship Adrift” and “The Iraq War: A History of Wikipedia Changelogs” has been shown in galleries and museums internationally, in the UK, Netherlands, USA, Switzerland, France and China, and viewed by hundreds of thousands of unique visitors online. My formulation of the New Aesthetic research project has spurred debate and creative work, online and off, around the world. I have participated in a number of artist in residence programmes and speak regularly at conferences and in galleries worldwide.

My background in Computer Science and traditional literary publishing has led me to continually explore the boundaries of the physical and the digital, the perceived real of books and other tangible cultural objects, and the perceived virtual of data, bits, and online interactions.

In 2009, I built the only extant example of MENACE (Machine Educable Naughts And Crosses Engine), an example of machine learning first proposed by Artificial Intelligence pioneer Donald Michie in the 1960s. Composed of 304 matchboxes filled with glass beads, MENACE is an intelligent machine at a human scale, making visible the bits of information and their algorithmic manipulation which describe so much of our current lives. More information:

Also in 2009, I published the first book based on data from Twitter, a record of two years of my own data from the service—a form of journal. What was intended as a physical backup to a digital service became a tool for interrogating our perceptions of the printed and the transmitted, the different ways we experience culture when it is mediated by our expectations of the digital. More information:

I have worked with a variety of commercial enterprises exploring the boundaries of physical and virtual publication, such as Newspaper Club (, which allows anyone to print their own newspapers, and Enhanced Editions (, which was one of the first and most radical publishing apps for the iPhone.

In 2010, I published “The Iraq War: A History of Wikipedia Changelogs” is a twelve-volume set of all changes to the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War. This publication embodies the idea behind the Tlön Project, of making intangible, networked and vast data systems, which are nevertheless intrinsic and vital expressions of our culture and society, visible and accessible, through printing and distribution. The books have been widely discussed online and in print, and exhibited in galleries in the UK, North America and Europe. More information:

Other publication projects with similar backgrounds to the Tlön Project include “Where The F**k Was I?”, an atlas of data retrieved from my own smartphone, chronicling my whereabouts as a mediation between myself and technology (, and “For Our Times: 50 Pirate Works” (, an exploration of the instability of literature in a globalised, networked world, commissioned by Mu Gallery, Eindhoven.

My 2011 online work, Rorschmap (, is currently being exhibited in China, as part of the 2012 Beijing Design Week.

In January of 2012 I was commissioned by Artangel as digital artist “in residence”, making work online to support the A Room For London project (, over the course of the full year of the project. As part of this work I installed physical instruments, a weather station and network-enabled camera, on the roof of the South Bank Centre in London, and created A Ship Adrift ( and A Ship Aground (, digital visualisations and conversations based on the physical ship installation.

Also in 2012, I took part in Happenstance, a two month UK technology residency involving Lighthouse Gallery (Brighton), Site Gallery (Sheffield) and Spike Island (Bristol), working closely with arts organisation staff, and producing “This is a Working Shop”, a week-long public installation exploring code as craft and the public understanding of programming and human intervention in the digital sphere. More information about the residency and the installation can be found at, and a short film about the installation can be viewed at

Beginning in May 2011, I initiated the ongoing research project which has come to be known as the New Aesthetic ( This project is an investigation and survey of contemporary futures and the intersection of the physical and the digital in society and culture. The project has been presented at Web Directions, Sydney; LIFT Conference, Geneva; SXSW, Austin, Texas and the New Museum, New York, as well as in online discussions and print publications including the New York Times, Harpers’, the Atlantic, Die Zeit, Domus, ICON, Dazed & Confused, Aeon and many more.

In the Fall of 2012, I am teaching a class on critical approaches to technology and long-form thinking on the internet, as part of the Interactive Telecommunications Programme at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. I am artist in residence at the Visible Futures Lab at the School of Visual Arts, New York, in November and December 2012. I am also participating in the Istanbul Design Biennial, creating the second of a proposed series of Drone Shadow installations (

An expanded portfolio, including interviews, essays, lectures and works can be found at