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Alibaba’s colossal influence, visualized in 9 art projects

Like any incomprehensibly huge e-commerce platform, Alibaba can feel like a separate, virtual world unto itself.

If you’re reading this post, you almost certainly have an Amazon account–but you’ve probably never used Alibaba, sometimes referred to as “the Amazon of China.” That’s an oversimplification–Alibaba really works more like a strange hybrid of eBay and Google—but the company is a global behemoth. After Amazon and Walmart, it’s the third largest retail company on earth. A recent exhibit at Milan Design Week entitled “Geo-Design: Alibaba From Here to Your Home” attempts to make Alibaba’s intangible influence concrete in the form of nine designer-driven investigations.

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[Photo: Nicole Marnati/courtesy Design Academy Eindhoven]
Co-curator Martina Muzi uses familiar language to describe the scope of the exhibit–that Alibaba, like other multinational tech conglomerates, “is more than just a ‘company'” and should instead be understood as some kind of global force of nature, like plate tectonics. That kind of maximalism can feel fatiguing after several years of near-daily Google and Facebook backlash, but one of the exhibit’s most arresting projects–a 13-foot-wide inflatable globe marked with Alibaba’s shipping routes and order-fulfillment destinations (which include Greenland, Syria, and The Vatican)—makes the trope feel fresh. Designer Irene Stracuzzi, who produced the sphere with the help of a Chinese company found on Alibaba, orients the globe upside down and inverts the normal colors for distinguishing landmasses from oceans. The result not only visualizes how Alibaba sees itself–Stracuzzi designed the globe using only data provided by the company’s own internal research arm–it also satirizes how Westerners view the company by presenting Alibaba as if it’s headquartered on an alien planet.

Some of the other projects, such as a bank of displays that show semi-sensical advertising slogans generated by a neural network, come off more like artsy doodles than serious attempts to advance “a coordinated and multifaceted research inquiry” into Alibaba. But others do manage to bring some of the stranger contours of the company’s influence into sharp relief.

[Photo: Nicole Marnati/courtesy Design Academy Eindhoven]

A project by Isabel Mager, for example, tries to source every component inside an iPhone 7 from Alibaba—which offers a vivid exploded-view perspective on the breadth and depth of the company’s B2B e-commerce platform.

But the most effective visualization of Alibaba’s peculiar ecosystem comes from the design duo Arvid&Marie, who printed out oversize photos from Alibaba and used them to create a life-size, Ikea-like diorama of of so-called “clickbait products.” According to the designers, Alibaba’s product-search algorithm doesn’t prioritize accuracy–instead, a search for “sofa bed” might display “a variety of eye-catching and intriguing items to prolong visitor browsing…it is unclear if they are real products, potential prototypes, or simply illusions used to lure and entertain the online viewer.”

Seeing these maybe-products instantiated as life-size IRL props definitely feels uncanny, and that’s the intended effect of the whole exhibit. Like any incomprehensibly huge e-commerce platform, Alibaba can feel like a separate, virtual world unto itself. “Geo-Design” captures vivid fragments of how that world looks and acts when it intersects with ours–and if you don’t quite know what to make of it, that might be exactly the point.

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets

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