The Noise of the Universe

The advent of modern communication technology over the past century has modified inaudible dimensions of our terrestrial existence. Radio, microwave, and electromagnetic radiation of distant cosmic bodies stands relatively quiet compared to the overwhelmingly complex system of human-generated signals which contribute to an indecipherable and dissonant cacophony of noise in systems designed to hear these signals. I think this is a good sentence but try and pare down on the wording. It’s a little long as well. Filmmaker and artist Laura Poitras’ solo exhibition, Astro Noise, debuted in February of 2016 at the new Whitney Museum in New York City, dealing with specific signals contained in this dissonance, expanding on the implications of not only those signals, but the type of information those signals contained, specifically dealing with NSA and GCHQ (she calls the “deep state”) data leaked by Edward Snowden. The show was accompanied by a book (in place of a catalog) carrying the same moniker as the show, with the addition of A Survival Guide as a subtitle. Both the book and the exhibition elucidate a keyhole view of the supermassive and inconceivably complex workings of national intelligence agencies of world superpowers. We are both the watcher and the watched; the choice have is whether to look, whether to seek to understand some small disjointed part of a frightful reality – Poitras puts it, “everyone is implicated” (Poitras, Bonnefoy, et al.; Poitras, Sanders, et al. 42). While implicated, we are often unable to separate signal from noise – the truth of our condition is that we are unaware of the realities in which we simultaneously play a victim and a culprit. At its core, Astro Noise is about the implications and consequences of the inability to accurately separate out the signal from an incomprehensible noise field of “big data” even with machine learning and predictive analysis.

Astro Noise deals, in a large part, with signal Intelligence, or SIGINT; “…intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems” (“Signals Intelligence – NSA/CSS”).  The broader understanding, aided in part by leaks from within the community and closer civilian investigation (like the work of Poitras), is that SIGINT is an entire coordinated federal effort of mass surveillance and personal metadata aggregation. The data being mined is processed and sifted by algorithmic functions without knowledge of the target. Information is gathered and processed under an assumption that invasive intelligence gathering is to the benefit of the individual; saving them from potentially lethal terrorist operations by violating what most would call “reasonable privacy” by warrantless mass surveillance. Surveillance, Jacob Applebaum highlights in his essay, Letter to a Young Selector, is obvious, even natural in war, but “even in ‘peacetime,’ surveillance is never a matter of peace” (Poitras et al. 156). We are being watched by our state as we also allow our state to watch our “enemies”. Digital selection, filtering, algorithms, and markers guide incredibly complex systems tasked with sifting through and impossible volume of data. Hito Steryl, in Medya: Autonomy of Images states that “In their purest form, as transmitted data, they are incomprehensible, even imperceptible to humans… … If we were able to see them, they might have as little meaning for us as any picture might have for a person shot in the head by a sniper.” (Poitras et al. 168)

It is interesting that the title, Astro Noise, which served as the title of the file of classified government documents Snowden provided to Poitras in 2013, can be read in multiple ways. Astro noise can simply be cosmological sound or other frequencies: spy satellites, astronomical phenomena, the sound of deep space. Astro noise can also refer to cosmic microwave background radiation, the faint isotropic glow of radiation at the farthest reaches of our universe echoing since the Big Bang and lost in the rest of the din of the universe unless one listens for it specifically. Each of these multivariate readings of the show title shares a common thread; they each highlight the issue of a signal-to-noise ratio. When an overwhelming amount of data is provided, it becomes increasingly difficult to filter the signal out of the ensuing noise. The problem is evidenced when many signals are derived out of the noise, as it is possible to have a bias on what one is looking for. One also becomes more and more obsessed with amassing data, even if that data contributes to the noise and not the signal. Many contractors and NSA analysts have talked about the greed for data they have felt as being very similar to the Summit Fever that mountaineers experience: at the point of obsession, rational behavior and risk-aversion cease to be compelling.

This sense of being somehow implicated, indicted, or responsible for the intentional atrocities, privacy breaches, and unintended consequences of the “deep state” elicits a combative posture. The unfolding reality of the situation is extremely complex and detailed, a fact that is often exploited to tactically disengage the general public from the topic. Poitras has subverted the methods of the NSA and GCHQ in order to take a critical and, at times, surprisingly humorous look at the dark underworld of unseen data aggregation and processing. The work helps to visualize the human components of such a large digital and hardware-driven mechanism. One of the most distinguishing takeaways personally was the disparity between the reality of a person and their metadata, the standard by which nearly all gathered information is recorded. Metadata is facts about a person generated by actions, triggers, or tracked behaviors. Who one calls, what one queries in a search engine, where one uses an ATM card linked to their MetroCard, and where one travels with GPS-enabled devices all tell part of a story to a data analyst and contribute to the “big data” being collected. At times, the metadata is conclusive. Other times, analysts start to see patterns based on a bias or an intuition – a pattern that may not be factually sound. This process of machine learning patterns, “data mining”, is standard practice in SIGINT to sort through incalculable data.  The scary part of this sort of data-based processing is two pronged: firstly, that the data we create may not give an accurate narrative, leaving room for misinterpretation and false accusation, secondly, that there is more data than can be processed, leaving less and less room for human interpretation and more and more room for human generated algorithmic patterns to be found, like faces in noise.

The current norms in “first world” societies allow, and as of late, feed on unmanageable volumes of information in order to influence and instruct consumers or groups of individuals. As an artist, I am less interested in the reality of our surveillance state than in the control we have in creating data that is read and analyzed by dozens of independent complex systems. In the same way astronomers have worked to sort out our cosmological history in a universe constantly being realized as more complex, so individuals find themselves working out their histories. Less than a hundred years ago, one’s existence was preserved in bloodlines, family stories and anecdotes, a photograph or two, and birth and death records. Today, evidence of our existence is manifested by hundreds and thousands of photos of ourselves a year, shared opinions on Twitter along with comments, likes, upvotes, bills paid online, credit card statements, voting records, web histories, calling records, and the list goes on. We are adding to the noise of our universe every day. Data warehouses like the NSA’s $1.2B Utah Data Center are estimated to have storage capacities of close to or beyond a zettabyte, or a billion trillion bytes (NSA).[1]

I was initially shocked by Astro Noise. It made me uncomfortable, like a finger was being pointed at me using the same systems I work hard to forget exist. I realized I am not wired to be able to have deep and authentic compassion for so many messy geopolitical situations without being desensitized. It is a natural human mechanism to simplify and ignore issues like the ones brought forward in the Snowden leaks – and many large governments are aware of this. Two weeks after the show, the fear and discomfort are gone. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I know the government is watching, tracking, analyzing me. I know I’m adding to the noise of the metadata of society every time I make a phone call, and I’m oddly okay with it. Somehow, though, I look up at the sky and am enthralled at the complexity of a universe made of unobservable dark matter, billions of years old, constantly tending toward entropy. In both arenas, I play victim and culprit, adding to the noise of the universe.













Works Cited

NSA. “NSA Utah Data Center – Serving Our Nation’s Intelligence Community.” Web. 24 May 2016.

Poitras, Laura, Jay Sanders, et al. Astro Noise : A Survival Guide for Living under Total Surveillance. 1st ed. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2016. Print.

Poitras, Laura, Mathilde Bonnefoy, et al. Citizenfour. The Weinstein Company, 2015. Film.

“Signals Intelligence – NSA/CSS.” National Security Agency. N. p., 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.




[1] Global internet traffic is estimated at 1.1 zettabytes annually.


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