The Data Nation exhibit at the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia explores the history of the internet and the rise of artificial intelligence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The new exhibition at the National Liberty Museum in Old City couldn’t be more timely. 

Data Nation: Democracy in the Age of A.I.,” encourages guests to reflect on how the tech they use everyday makes them a node in the evolving landscape of data governance, artificial intelligence development, and our rights as “digital citizens.” 

“Liberty is a complicated notion, often in tension with other ideals like equality and safety,” Alaine Arnott, the National Liberty Museum’s CEO, said at a reception for the exhibit’s opening. 

On display through Oct. 30 at the museum near 3rd and Chestnut streets, the exhibit was created in partnership with Landau Design+Technology and the UArt’s Center for Immersive Media, featuring Philly-based artists and members of Vox Populi, an artist-run experimental arts space. 

Part of the museum’s mission is to “facilitate constructive dialogues” about the theory and practice of liberty, and the new exhibit focuses these conversations on rapidly advancing technology — including the emerging controversies surrounding artificial intelligence. 

“Hopefully, when you go to see it, you will come away with a stronger understanding of your own role as digital citizens as we ponder the question: What happens if the machines take over?” Arnott said. She was only half joking. 

Whether or not you live in fear of The Singularity, there’s plenty to engage with in Data Nation, here are three big themes grounding the experience.  

Data takes many forms, and so does the art inspired by it

A brief history of data visualization, including the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Florence Nightingale, shows how data has been variously represented since the mid-1800s.  

But two pieces in the exhibit stretch the concept of data far beyond what you might imagine. 

“Troxler’s fading, searchlight for the Moleskin foot — building as anthropomorphic instrument,” is the title of a piece by Jim Strong, built off “15 years of research into every day anomalous occurrences of electrical interference,” the artist said. 

The piece itself is a noise-generating collage hanging in the NLM’s main stairwell, hooked up to a series of electric transducers lining the glass siding of the stairs. 

As you move through the space and touch the railing or glass siding, the shifting electrical impulses (read: bioelectric data) change the noise being channeled through the clef-like artwork. 

Artist Jim Strong with his interactive sculpture that creates noise when the nearby railing is touched, part of the Data Nation exhibit at the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Science “as a form of alchemy,” is an important mode of engaging the world to Strong. “It’s been exhumed from daily life, but I’m very interested in science as a domestic practice … just being aware of what’s happening around you,” he told Billy Penn. 

Lane Timothy Speidel contributed a piece called “Spontaneous knotting of agitated string,” built with their passion for needlework in mind. 

The work gets its name from an academic paper that examines “the factors governing the ‘spontaneous’ formation of various knots” even when string goes untouched, essentially a game of chance. 

The piece features string running from a can to a large nest of intertwined thread hanging overhead. Next to this assemblage is a quilted piece that’s derivative of the ways data is imaged, with patches depicting dadaistic datasets and graphs next to tangles of string and drawings. 

Spontaneous knotting of agitated string, a quilt containing data graphs of unlikely correlation at the Data Nation exhibit at the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“When it came time to do the show, I was thinking about mundane data, of everyday questions,” said Speidel, giving examples like:

  • Do you have a butterfly tattoo?
  • Do you believe in luck? 
  • Are you trans? 
  • How many unpaid bills do you have?
  • Are you in a union? 

“It’s this idea that all of these mundane, everyday events and coincidences could possibly be or probably are interrelated in some way,” said Speidel.

As a digital citizen, don’t forget you’re part of a digital polity

Technology has always been political, but the impact of online echo chambers — the terms of their very existence and their outright manipulation, as purported in the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica — has made that clearer than ever.  

“Echo Chamber” is also the name of an immersive installment at the center of the exhibit, where viewers can walk into a canopy of sorts, with walls illuminated by floating text bubbles. 

As prompts pop up, text bubbles affirming an initial statement cluster nearby, visually representing a feedback loop. The task of discerning between diverse exchanges and confirmation bias is just one interpretation of the installment. 

Roopa Vasudevan, a media artist and computer programmer, contributed a piece called “dataDouble” to the exhibit. 

“I’m interested in the way that we shift and adapt our behavior to the demands of computation and machines,” Vasudevan told Billy Penn. 

Her work aims to show “how our identities are reduced and flattened by data collection,” and consists of 15 portraits that participants voluntarily submitted to her as beta testers for an actual browser extension that she created — one you can try out for yourself

Artist Roopa Vasudevan, with her work dataDouble, which uses participants internet browsing data to alter portraits according to a code, at the Data Nation exhibit at the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The extension tracks the participant’s browsing history and subtly remodels their portrait based on how they traverse the web, based on a symbolic code Vasudevan cooked up. If you spend more time on news sites, for instance, your image becomes more saturated. 

Vasudevan interviewed the initial users after the trial period as well. “To a tee, they all really understand the issues surrounding data, but it just seems overwhelming,” she said. “It seems like something that they don’t have any agency in.”

The exhibit insists on realizing that “data is a collective issue,” she added, meaning that one needn’t feel alone in understanding how data collection impacts their life. 

It’s a message that echoes new theories of data governance aiming to shift away from regulating data as the property of individual users, and towards forming democratic data institutions. 

A.I. is all the rage right now, and the exhibit will stay on the cutting edge

The exhibit’s subtitle, “Democracy in the Age of A.I.” touches on a flashpoint in the tech industry. The hype around artificial intelligence is inescapable right now, especially following the launch of OpenAI’s GPT-4 large language model. 

Quotes scattered throughout the exhibit are almost all recent, drawn from news and academic articles on A.I. published this year — and the subtitle riffs off a Bill Gates blog post from March. 

After the release of ChatGPT, AI industry experts signed a letter calling for a slow-down of the development of such technology on March 22, 2023. The letter is on display at the Data Nation exhibit at the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We started off wanting to do an exhibition specifically around the way knowledge of data informs our decisions and affects our democracy,” said Aaron Billheimer, the museum’s director of exhibits. “But as we were studying, all the A.I. stuff started coming up, so we responded to that and pivoted.” 

Billheimer and the NLM team foresee adapting the exhibit through its run, as more hype, news, critiques, regulations, and innovations connected to A.I. emerge. 

“If there’s anything big that happens there might be part of this exhibit we have to rethink, and I think that’s okay,” Kelley Stone, exhibition and collections project manager at the NLM, told Billy Penn. “We have printing facilities that we got through a grant in our printing studio, and it allows us to be really flexible and fluid.”

And yes, there are A.I.-generated portraits in the exhibit, including a rendering of a viral A.I.-image of Pope Francis, or “Puffer Pope” as Stone calls it. 

Need a tip for spotting artificially generated work?

“Just look at the hands,” Stone said. “A.I. does not know how to make hands — and they’re always wild.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...