Co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum, “First Look: The Good Life" is an online exhibition of the eponymous 2016 work by Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain. “The Good Life” invites users to explore an unexpected source of text often used to train AI systems: the Enron email corpus.
At the beginning of the second Bush administration, the Enron Corporation was one of America’s largest companies, a darling of the stock market in the wake of the dot-com crash. Its growth was fueled by fraudulent accounting practices, and as its business ventures ran operating losses and fueled rolling blackouts in California, its opaque earnings statements began to draw scrutiny. At the start of 2001, Enron was trading for $83 a share; by the end of the year, the share price was just sixty cents, and the company was under investigation and had filed for bankruptcy. Thousands of people lost their jobs and savings.
In March 2003, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released Enron’s emails into the public domain as a part of the evidence of the company’s crimes. It was the first time an archive of emails of its size had ever been made public, and the archive remains one of the largest freely available. As a result, this record has proven unexpectedly useful for social scientists and linguists long after the court cases closed. Alongside this interest from researchers, countless machine learning systems have been trained on the Enron emails— then going on to reproduce the patterns and biases found in them. As artists Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain note, “This dataset, which was generated by a group of mostly white male corporate criminals, is therefore in our lives in ways we don’t understand and haven’t fully considered.”
Produced with the aid of a 2016 Rhizome Net Art Microgrant, “The Good Life” gives users the opportunity to reflect on the specific qualities of this now-influential text by receiving the emails one at a time. In the artists’ own words: “'The Good Life’ invites you to experience a nightmarish simulation of living through the death throes of a corporation in the 2000s. Sign up at http://enron.email
to receive 225,000 Enron emails over the course of seven years. You will receive the emails in chronological order at the frequency at which they were sent, relatively adjusted to the seven-year timeline.”
Many of the former Enron employees whose correspondence appears in the corpus are highly privileged, possibly criminal, and generally unsympathetic, but their emails serve as a reminder that this dataset – featuring discussions of oil-and-gas skullduggery alongside details of meals and loves, families and pets – is ultimately a record of people’s lives and labor.1