In May, the New York-based art nonprofit Rhizome paired seven technologists with seven artists to create something over a 24-hour period. The artists get paid. The technologists do not. Rhizome said this reflects "the economics of art" but to an outsider, it seems to reflect the idea that technologists are not partners to the artists so much as beneficiaries of their wisdom.
One of the Rhizome pairs was Mike Krieger, the hulking Brazilian-born co-founder of Instagram, and Trevor Paglen, the eloquent, sandy-haired photographer whose work, which has involved documenting the paths of spy satellites, makes the surveillance state visible. Paglen, 41, wanted his project with Krieger, 29, whose Facebook-owned social network sees 70 million new images uploaded daily, to contemplate how the accelerating rate of digital image creation might come back to haunt society. Krieger described the project more lightly. “It’s a demo of how far technology has come,” he said.
Humans have always used photographs and images to travel through space and time. But increasingly the images we are creating are being interpreted not by human eyes, but by robotic ones that mine our photos to tell us how old we look, to search for faces in crowds, to search for porn that is illegal to pass around, or to make its own robotic art. “I would wager a lot of money on the idea that at this moment, most of the seeing of images that goes on in society is done by machines, and it’s usually done for other machines,” said Paglen. “It’s this whole world of seeing and your meat eyeballs aren’t even in the circuit."
Paglen described his project with Krieger as "learning to see like machines." With the help of artist and technologist Adam Harvey, they fed famous images — Bruegel’s Tower of Babylon, the Mona Lisa, a photo of children fleeing napalm during the Vietnam War, a naked photo of Burt Reynolds — into nine image-translation platforms to see how computer vision interpreted them.
“Woman taking a selfie,” it said of the Mona Lisa. “People on a beach,” it said of the half-naked children in war-torn Vietnam. “A burrito,” it said of Burt Reynolds.
While the audience tittered at the Burt-rito, Paglen commented that it’s actually “deeply chilling” that machines can be so blind and yet be given so much power. Really seeing images requires context, history, and emotion — things machines haven't learned, at least not yet. It seemed as if Paglen, who lives in New York and Berlin, wanted Krieger, who lives in Silicon Valley, to see how bereft of understanding algorithms can be.
Here's some of the same tools they used, recreated by Fusion's Kit Cross. If you want to give it a try, drop a photo in:
“In the 21st century, images are no longer representations. They are operations. Images can kill people. They can have a finger on the trigger,” said Paglen, arguing that weaponized drones choose targets based on similar photo analysis. “We need to reclaim the seeing of our images. How can the production of images steer the world in a more equitable and more just direction?”
Silicon Valley is dictating the way we live through design. From smartphones to dating websites, we increasingly experience the world and basic human connection through platforms and devices Silicon Valley created for us. It is the artist's job to turn a critical eye on the world we live in. At the Rhizome event, it seemed like the artists were deeply troubled by the ways in which technology is limiting our ability to see that world.
There is the common refrain that everyone's eyeballs are glued to their smartphones, even while walking into traffic, but this is a deeper concern, that the way we are designing technology is taking away the best parts of our humanity. On Facebook, you must "like" everything. On Vine, things must be interesting in 7 seconds or less. On Google, you must optimize or you will disappear.
"There have never been so many creative platforms before, but not everyone is an artist," said video artist Stanya Kahn, who was concerned instead that the majority of people are becoming advertisers who must self-promote to succeed.
Technologists tend to think about their creations in terms of code and efficiency, whereas artists excel at helping us see the humanity in the machine, pinpointing moments of beauty, ugliness and truth in the way we live. We need artists to help save us from the 'fitter, happier, more productive' world that Silicon Valley is creating, a world that doesn't seem to be making us all as happy as it promised. The Rhizome experiment is just the start of getting technologists to think more deliberately about the world they are making the rest of us live in.
Another of the Rhizome pairs was technologist Gina Trapani, the high-energy creator of Lifehacker, and ‘net artist’ Martine Syms, who writes about contemporary America, authoring, for example, The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto. They have both written self-help books, but their approaches reveal a fundamental breakdown in what exactly helping the self looks like. Trapani says she was inspired to write hers when she realized “humans could be programmed like robots.” Syms, whose book is forthcoming and includes “her personal rules written down,” takes the opposite approach. “I want people to live more in their emotions,” she said. The cover of Trapani’s book is a computer “Control” button, while Syms’s is an IRS form turned on its side and painted with black stripes. One wants to make us more efficient, like machines. The other wants us to be more human.
Technologists deal in data, while artists try to mine what is unquantifiable. As we live our lives increasingly online, the technologists' wants take precedence— so anything that can't be quantified and plotted gets discarded. Technologists measure the success of their creations in virality and user uptake. If there aren't enough users, or not enough ads, a technology is considered a failure. That idea of success does not incorporate whether it creates a better culture or a smarter, more reflective society. Addiction is seen as a positive. A toxic element to the community, as is seen on 4Chan or Reddit, is NBD, as long as the community is a large one. With artists in the mix, perhaps technologists will reconsider the metrics that determine failure and success, incorporating humanistic elements that are less easily measured.
Here the pairs talk about what they bring to the collaborations:
At the Rhizome event, conceptual artist Liam Gillick, who was paired with statistician journalist Nate Silver, said he was “suspicious of brain storming.” He meant, we think, that it is a rote creative process for deeply uncreative people. Technologists are attempting to throw ideas at the wall until one sticks, iterating or abandoning until they get it right. And venture capitalists will pour money into something that garners an audience, no matter what it enables. Even as it became clear that anonymous message posting service Secret appealed to user’s malicious, gossipy, dark sides, it continued to rack up $35 million in funding. In a rare mea culpa, its founder suddenly shut it down this year, acknowledging that the app had fostered users’ ugly sides. Its competitor, YikYak, which has garnered similar criticism, remains operational and generously funded.
Gillick and Silver’s conceptual collaboration wound up being a piece about failure. They sat silently, staring at the audience, while playing a slideshow of names:
Small Indulgences for Busy Lives!
You Call, We Raise!
Tap That Bass
Archway to Opportunity
Tricky Dick’s Condoms
Whole in your head
The .COM for .MOMS
Snax in the City
After an excruciatingly long time, punctuated with laughter over gems like "Tap That Bass", they revealed that the names were failed business ideas which they gathered by mining the Trademark Office’s database of “dead trademarks.”
In recent years, Silicon Valley has held up the slogan 'fail often, fail harder' as a mantra to the sorts of risk that are necessary for success. The idea of failure has been fetishized through events like Failcon which aim to reinvigorate entrepreneurs, turning feelings of defeat into teachable moments that can continue to drive economies forward. But they seem to celebrate the risk-taking, a necessary bother in the advancement of capitol, rather than truly seeking to understand why things fail. When Secret shut down three months ago, its founder waived at why it failed, saying it wasn’t what he initially envisioned, and referring to anonymity as a “double-edged sword.” He promised more post-mortems in a Medium post — but they haven’t come yet.
Silver commented on just how hard it was to see data sets that involve failure. What happens when you cannot see failure is the same thing that happens when you can’t see dissent. The positive reinforcement of the filter bubble takes over and we are surrounded by more and more of the same. Our beloved algorithms breed monoculture, and art, always seeking the new, is one way to subvert that. Technologists need help to see what artists—and perhaps society at large–would consider failure: such as technology that makes it harder for us to live in our emotions, as Syms put it.
It's not rare that successful start-ups are born like phoenixes from the ash of a failed idea. Messaging platform Slack emerged from the crash-and-burn of the video game company that the messaging system had been created to help build. The popular Burner app, which you can use to create temporary phone numbers, was the most popular part of a start-up that originally existed to help people schedule spontaneous random meetings in their spare time. Technologists keep what works and cut everything else, so even if they start out with a grand purpose, they tend to get distracted by what they can most easily monetize.
Not so with artists. What’s different about art and technology is “the system judging the success or failure of what we do,” said Gillick. “The thing about art, the only thing that is different about art is that you can suspend that moment of judgment infinitely.”
Unlike the art world, the markets that judge the failure or success of technology are usually focused on one thing: profit. The effects of the company or software beyond that often go unchecked until much later. In fact, technologists throughout history have been known to appreciate the effects of their creations belatedly. Albert Einstein famously regretted his role in the creation of the atomic bomb. Joseph Atick, a physicist who has been working on facial recognition since the 1990s, now worries about everyone being trackable in public. Only near the end of his term as Google’s CEO did Eric Schmidt start giving interviews expressing concerns about the consequences of the indexed world his company had created — saying in an interview, for example, in a kidding, but not really kidding way, that children in the future should change their names at 18 to create fresh search-engine slates for their future, and escape their permanent, public, digital footprint.
"Artists think more about the human consequences of technology," said one of the technologists when we asked whether artists and technologists should work together.
By pairing artists and technologists, the Rhizome event succeeds in producing art that is about technology as much as it is made with technology. Art that holds up a mirror to our harder, faster, better, stronger philosophy of technological advancement. The ethos of technology is in desperate need of this critique because these values are built right into the devices and social platforms we use. If Mark Zuckerberg believes that being positive is better than being discouraging, he can only give the billion users who are on Facebook the “Like” button and never give them a “Dislike” button. And if Apple thinks that you should be able to see how long a person is taking to compose a message to you, it simply builds a “…” into its iMessaging system to let you know when the other person is typing and deleting and retyping. Even if that makes you incredibly anxious, if you don’t want your visible act of thinking to be captured and quantified, you can’t turn it off. The ethos of art on the other hand, is all too easy to mute.
Rhizome is not the only place trying to bring artists and technologists together. Many of Silicon Valley's biggest companies, including Facebook, Xerox, and Autodesk, have launched artist-in-residence programs. Often publicized by the companies as a way they are giving back to communities, the programs and resulting art varies widely. Recently, Autodesk's resident artist Morehshin Allahyari has been using the company's 3-D printers to, in her own words, explore the "Petropolitical and poetic relationships between 3D Printing, Plastic, Oil, Technocapitalism and Jihad" by creating replicas of Iranian art destroyed by ISIS. She is using technology to preserve physical history. Facebook, meanwhile, tends to encourage its artists to use its campus as a canvas, commissioning mostly local, visual artists like Chris Lux and Jeff Canham to paint the walls. It remains to be seen if these residencies are actually contributing to culture and innovation, or just another aesthetic perk for employees. For the moment, it seems that artists are doing a better job of co-opting the tools of technology than big tech is doing at incorporating the lessons of artistic process.
People like to put Art and Technology on opposing teams: Form versus function, subjective versus objective, right brain versus left brain. They seem to represent two diametrically opposed ways of viewing the world, as if Art and Technology were two dueling philosophies. Increasingly though the two are asking the same questions: How do we think? How do we see? Who are we? Worthy questions that artists have always hoped are unanswerable, but that technologists aim to solve.
The project of one of the Rhizome pairs, French artist Camille Henrot and privacy/security technologist Harlo Holmes, sought self-discovery through technology, building a search tool that was meant to mine what’s on our laptops to answer questions you would usually pose to Google. “When you ask a question to Google, the answer is made of data that you don’t have control of,” said Henrot. “The personal computer is a personal space, a moment of your being… so we wanted to ask questions of our personal databases.”
“Why is life hard?” they asked the computer. “How to get over it and move on?”
It searched the computer for scraps of texts and images that seemed relevant to the question according to the judgment of the search algorithm. Unsurprisingly, it gave an unsatisfying answer.
different and the same
with no it is worth and no worth
of the toothpick of
toothpick weds different
with each the grottesca of
grottesca is the same
Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.
From Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Portugal and the UK we bring together skills in infographics, illustration, video, 3D, UX, game design, programming and above all a love of storytelling.
Kashmir Hill is the editor of Fusion's Real Future. She has hacked a stranger's smart home, lived on Bitcoin & paid a surprise visit to the NSA's Utah datacenter, all while trying to prove privacy isn't dead yet. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. PGP: D934E5E9.