The invisible hand of self-interest

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In 1759, economist Adam Smith introduced his theory of ‘the invisible hand’ of self-interest – an idea that explains how the actions of individuals shape the marketplace as a whole. At 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, curator Micheal Do has used this idea to examine the post-digital landscape.

Through a range of forms including sculpture and video, four artists from East Asia, Australia and New Zealand look at surveillance, artificial intelligence and the economies that drive, and are driven by, the global technology market. The exhibition probes the self-interest of consumers and digital companies alike: in our current environment of peak globalisation and peak individualism, it seems possible that Smith’s Industrial Revolution-era idea has reached its logical endpoint.

“In our post-digital-platform age, the course of economics, politics and social relations can be changed in a matter of keystrokes,” Do says.

“Against this information landscape, global platform companies hold extraordinary influence while not bearing the same oversight, accountability and responsibility as traditional decision-makers.”

As Do points out, these influences are perhaps most starkly visible within ‘hyper-connected’ East Asia. South Korean artist Sunwoo Hoon’s work The Flat is Political, 2018, uses digital drawing to explore the interrelationship between technology and politics. The work “contrasts the ways and means by which citizens connect and congregate in the public realm,” Do explains, “tracking a shift from the street to social media.” Simon Denny’s 2017 installation Real Mass Entrepreneurship was produced following a residency in Shenzhen, China, and reflects the city’s rapidly changing economic landscape amid a tech industrial boom. In a world where the consumer is both king and pawn, the invisible hand is hard at work.

The Invisible Hand
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
28 June—11 August

This article was originally published in the July/August 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Anna Dunnill