The arts, politics, and technology

panel at Citizen of Nowhere
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(pic of the panel courtesy of Emma Hughes)

This morning I took part in a fascinating panel discussion about the intersections of art and technology – with a focus on theatre because it was hosted by the National Theatre of Scotland as part of this year’s Neon Festival in Dundee ⁦@NTSonline⁩  ⁦@weareneon⁩.

A couple of dozen noble people came out on a chilly saturday morning to hear us think out loud about our practice, our concerns, and our dreams, and it was a pleasure to be there with Lizzie Hodgson @ThinkNat Mark Stevenson @Optimistontour Emma Hughes @LiminaImmersive Ruth Catlow @furtherfield and Annie Dorsen @AnnieDorsen, all chaired by NTS Digital Thinker in Residence Harry Wilson @theharry_wilson.

We each had five minutes to introduce our theme, and this is what I said in my attempt to keep the conversation lively. (yes, I’m quoting the Big Chill.. you can’t stop me)

My notes for speaking

My notes for speaking

What happens at the intersection between technology and art?

It’s a commonly expressed view that creative art can flourish in times of oppression, and we can point to many examples of great work achieved against the will of the state, likethe poetry of Anna Akhmatova written in Stalinist Russia [See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Akhmatova].

If this is really the case then surely there will be a contemporary explosion of creativity as we move more and more of our lives into the liminal space between offline and online, since the internet and the services it supports are in many ways as constraining and limiting of our expressiveness as the most arbitrary dictator.

Online we are limited in what we can say according to byzantine ‘community standards’ and forced to work within the straitjackets of interfaces filled with dark patterns and obscure settings, while subject to random, unexplained change by their owners.

The internet is, of course, a rules-based system and it could not be otherwise. The technical achievement of connecting together billions of devices, hosting billions of users, and providing such a wide range of services relies on the design and implementation of a set of rules or protocols that must be properly observed.

Indeed, the act of loading a Facebook page on mobile device involves the precise operation and intersection of a dizzying range of technologies, all controlled by separate entities. Without the code that underpins it, there is no network, and the code is therefore, as Larry Lessig pointed out in 2000, the equivalent of the law online. [See http://codev2.cc/]

[If you want a sense of the detail, see this remarkable analysis of an HTTPS handshake on MoserWare – http://www.moserware.com/2009/06/first-few-milliseconds-of-https.html]

But more broadly, those who want to speak freely find themselves exposed to the risk of trolling or outright hatred from online communities dedicated to undermining anyone who deviates from their assumed norms, whether out of serious political intent or just for the LOLs, and governments and companies observe and track online activities in ways that many find chiling.

It is possible to change all aspects of this, if we have the will. Like laws, code was created through human agency. It is just a story, like religion or a novel or the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, and like any other story it can be rewritten. Sometimes things change – nobody was allowed to smoke cigarettes at my eldest child’s civil partnership ceremony recently, an example of how social changes can lead to legal change.

However there is a problem with the current ways we approach technology innovation, even technology innovation driven by a ‘Tech for Good’ or a desire to deliver public purpose, and that is the range possible futures that we normally imagine.

As Steven Johnson puts it eloquently in his book “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?”, most of the time we are exhaustively exploring what he terms the ‘adjacent possible’ – the set of ideas and concepts that can easily be reached from our current position. We can make it faster, or smaller. or a different shade of purple. Only rarely do we encounter leaps of creative imagination that are genuinely novel or disruptive, whether in science, engineering, politics or the arts.

[See https://medium.com/key-lessons-from-books/the-key-lessons-from-where-good-ideas-come-from-by-steven-johnson-1798e11becdb]

When we do, the consequences can be profound, and at times of great danger such as those in which we currently find ourselves, we seem to need some disruptive creative leaps. Even those movements that believe that extractive capitalism cannot be sustained, like the Dark Mountain Project https://dark-mountain.net/ need to imagine a world that is far removed from today if they are to offer stories that can help us in the coming transition.

And of course those looking to technology to save us from climate change, political division, or a wasted life scrolling down infinite pages on phone screens have a desperate need to find new models and new approaches.

It isn’t good enough to make incremental changes and only to explore the adjacent possible: we need to imagine a radically different model before we can build it, especially at a time when the tropes of surveillance capitalism seem to dominate so much thinking about the online world. and so much energy and effort goes into tracking and data collection to serve the interests of the state or the market.

In a world where the California Ideology and the Chinese government are united in their belief that every online action must be noted, recorded, and exploited, it can he hard to envision another way.

Which is where arts practice comes in. We can look to the artists in all disciplines to go beyond the current reality and bring us dispatches from imagined alternatives. There may be no clear path, or no path at all, from here to there, but that does not mean they are not valuable in encouraging us all to think that there can be a different way.

It is important to feed that creative energy into the develpment not only of technology but of the regulations that constrain that technology, to let the alternative visions inspire us at all levels. But if that is to happen the dreams need to be shared – they need an audience.

It’s therefore equally important that we find ways to bring the arts to the people, to everyone, so that the broader societal conversation about the future development of these transfomative technologies is shaped by people who have been fully exposed to the alternative ideas expressed in plays and books and poems and dance and VR experiences and sculpture and the rest.

Because otherwise we will be trapped in the current discourse. And if you want a vision of that future, imagine a young child scrolling down a social media feed on a phone, forever…

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