back to


September 21th 2004: Interview with Josh On

[September 21th 2004]
Josh On

TIMESHIFT: Interview With Josh On

Josh On is a free-lance designer living in San Francisco. He is best known for his collaboration with the design studio Futurefarmers and as the maker of the web project They Rule, which is an interactive mapping system that visualizes the interconnections between the board members of the most powerful companies in the US. They Rule won the prestigious Golden Nica award at the Ars Electronica Festival in 2002. At the Ars Electronica festival this year, Josh On took part in the 'Language of Networks' conference where he spoke about classes and networks. Sebastian Campion talked to him afterwards.

They Rule became an instant classic when you released it and it still is one of the most referred-to internet projects
within the media-art community. Did you expect this kind of success - and why do you think it became so popular?

I was excited about They Rule when I was first making it because it was very captivating data. I knew that I had the right skills to
do it so I thought it would be a success on my own terms. I think it was the right-project-at-the-right-place kind of thing. It came
out 6 months before 9/11 at a time when the world was becoming a much more political place. There was a rise in the antiglobalization movement, there were more and more interest in social networks on different fronts and there was the dotcom crash. I think people were looking for anything that was exciting, that was happening on the internet and wasn't commercial.

They rule

Perhaps people were also looking for an information visualization project that focused on other aspects than aesthetic representations of computer data?
Yes, exactly. There had been a whole lot of projects which really - I don't want to say were contentless - but were much more
concerned with visual form.

Were you ever inspired by any of those?
Yeah, sure! I love some of them. I like pretty stuff as much as anyone does.

Can you say a few words about your new project Exxon Secrets, which resembles They Rule quite a bit.
My wife Amy Balkin and I worked on it for Greenpeace. They came up with all the data and approached us to visualize it ... and that
was tricky. We actually wanted to do a thing that was not like They Rule at all. We started playing with the data, trying to find ways to present it but Greenpeace definitely had They Rule in mind. We presented a lot of different things but they chose a way that looked a lot like They Rule, although it is slightly different. Exxon Secrets is oriented towards journalists, so it wasn't trying to be too cool for school, which They Rule is a bit. It is more usable in some ways. It announces what it is about and explains itself a lot more. Greenpeace is going to continue updating the site and in fact that was a major part of the project for us. We built it backend so that Greenpeace could keep the database up-to-date which isn't in They Rule.

Exxon Secrets Exxon Secrets

Did you ever consider taking They Rule further - such as including a way for users to interact directly with the
companies and people that it maps? I am thinking of info-warfare tactics as carried out by culture jammers and hacktivists like The Yes Men, Electronic Disturbance Theatre, etc.

You mean to be more proactive and getting people involved politically around that? Well, I haven't put much thought to that but I am sure there's a lot of different things you could do. But I think the reason why I haven't pursued the path is that I really think that the way we are going to move forward in social movements is less around art-pranks and more on good social organizing with one another in real life. Organizing conferences, organizing protests, organizing places where people can come together to debate ideas and stuff like that. I think that's where the key is to changing the world. I don't necessarily see They Rule as a launch point for that, although I am sure there's a lot of interesting things to be done in that field.


Still, I guess some of the projects that you are involved in, such as Anti-Wargame and They Rule, can be employed as
strategic ways of engaging people - especially within the internet design community?

Hmm... I don't know...

...or perhaps I should say, that is how I perceive them.
Right, I wonder if that's true at all. I don't know if it is. I think these things aren't necessarily building anything directly. They are
very amorphous so it's hard to evaluate their success. I don't know. I am suspicious that they're not that successful. They're more personal outlets for some of the stuff that is going on. But really, the emphasis of my activism is in old ... you know ... most of my time right now outside of work, is not spend designing these projects - it is spend helping organize regular political events and

The designs are not meant as political tools to somehow awaken people?
I don't like to use the term awaken people because I don't think people are asleep necessarily. A lot of people say that, right? -
Wake up, wake up! Don't you see this world is crazy?! 30,000 people are dying every day! etc, etc ...
Well, people know this! People are living this. People are having terrible healthcare and don't have any job security and things are
falling apart around them and they are getting drafted to go off to war, etc. So, it's not a matter of waking up. I think it is a matter
of having some clarity and some hope about how we can actually change things. I think that's what has disappeared in society.
Any hope that we could actually come together and organize a better world. I think people have given up on that - although
people never give totally up on it. There will always be resistance - and that's great and it's through that resistance that we'll gain
hope again. In these hard times that's what we need to help organize that resistance and point out that there's been dark times before and we'll get out of them. So fitting into that ... I think that these designs are very small contributions to the propaganda. I sell socialist papers on the street corners. That's what I do. Every Friday morning and Wednesday night and I think that is a more effective way of having fruitful conversations and bringing people into politics.

Josh On

I am still curious about the link between your work as a designer and as an activist.

Yeah ... ha-ha ... me to. I think I am compelled to do the other stuff because I can. You know, I have these ideas and then I am like "that's a good idea, I should do that" and then I want to do it because it's fun essentially. Like, They Rule, there's a lot of
interesting things that I wanted to work out. It is both an input and an output. This was interesting and fascinating to me. There's
always new problems to solve in information visualization. But I am loath to justify it ... or making big claims that I think it is going to change the world or that we need to be making more designs or websites like this. Because this is ... and I hate to sound
hypocritical, but I don't think this is what we need to be doing.
I think design is very important. Whether it is a political thing, that's a different question. Designers were always important and
always will be. Things have relevance beyond their political content, obviously, and I don't want to put down designers. There is a temptation for designers who are political to see their contribution to the movement as good design. I don't think that's true. I think their best contribution is to be like everybody else and help organize the movement. Of course, sometimes their design can play a role and they will be able to help on that front but generally, it is more important to get involved and learn the politics of what is going on and have debates etc. That's the key. You know Howard Zinn? He is an American socialist who wrote 'The People's History of America'. He gave a talk recently on the role of artists in times of war and he said something like: "Historians talk about history, plumbers fix the plumbing, and artist make art but who's role is it to talk politics? Surely we can't leave it up to the politicians. It is all our role to talk politics. Everyone should be political". So, you know. I think that's the case. I don't think designers or artists are special. They are the same as everyone else and we owe it to ourselves to get politically involved.

At the Network conference you invited a few members of the audience to particpate in a group-exercise in which you
asked them to position themselves physically on a continuum in relation to certain questions. The exercise was originally employed by the psychiatrist Jacob Moreno and it is the basis of the internet site that you have developed within the framework of Futurefamers. It is a very playful site that allow users to post questions and to respond to them by placing an avatar of themselves on continuums. Can you tell a bit about the intention of making people enact their opinions in this way - and perhaps about Moreno's influence on your work?

My Father is a psychodramatist, that is he practices psychotherapy and often uses techniques using psychodrama which were created by Jacob Moreno and his collaborators. I was exposed to a lot of his ideas about group organization - I think much of it will be useful in certain circumstances.! I wanted to play with some of those methods of exploring small group relations online. is a little experiment - that could be a use ful tool if it was implemented in relation to a real community I think.

You question the term Network Society and prefer to call it a Class Society. But don't you think that we live in a moment in time that is characterized by networks - from economies and smart-mobs to Al Qaeda etc?
It's interesting because there's always been networks, you know. It is so a-historical to think that, now we are a networked society
but before we weren't. What were the Bolsheviks in Russia but a network of activists? What were groups of terrorists in the past?
Society is full of networks. It's like a truism. Of course we live in a network society and to that extend I think it is a meaningless

In your presentation you referred to 'Friendster' as a superficial social network which I think was a pretty good illustration of Network Society. The mantra of the Network Society is connectivity hence, we are afraid of being disconnected and social software such as Friendster and Orkut reflect this trend by encouraging people to grow pseudo networks that are much more visual than actual.
Perhaps the term Network Society is really a distraction ... that not all networks are even. Oh, that's what I forgot to mention! I think the most basic criteria out there is how do we organize production. And what is your relationship to that production. That is class. But people in power all want to distract you from that simple question because it is totally injust. America considers itself the most democratic society in the world, yet you don't vote for the people in the most powerful corporations. You don't get to vote for your boss at work. Those things are totally top-down organizations. Corporations are autocratic dictatorships and of course they'd rather have us think that we live in a network society than a class society. That fits much better with the ruling class's view of the world: I am in a network, you are in a network. Yeah, we are all connected together! We are only 6 people apart! You and me, we both speak the same language! Whereas with working people a more meaningful link is the shared relation they have to the system. Workers must work for a living, under conditions they have little control over. Workers in US actually have more in commen with the workers in Iraq and France etc. than they do with their bosses in the US.

Sebastian Campion is an independent designer based in Amsterdam.

More ...


© 2001-2007
artificial at artificial dot dk