Let’s Lose The Arts/Tech False Dichotomy Already

This was originally published in Model View Culture’s Quarterly #1 2015 and was edited with the help of Shanley Kane.

Last November, I was one of about a hundred specially selected participants for Al-Jazeera’s Media in Context Hackathon in Doha, Qatar — bringing together journalists, media experts, developers, designers and anyone interested in building tech solutions to support journalists and news organizations. It was my first-ever hackathon, and I didn’t have a ton of coding experience, but my years of experience in the media and my enthusiasm for the hackathon’s ideals must have been enough for me to be accepted into this exclusive event.

Trouble brewed when a group of us, including a participant who was key in the development of Twitter, started talking about our backgrounds while in a taxi together to go sightseeing. When I mentioned that I wasn’t a developer — the only person in the car who wasn’t — ex-Twitter guy was confused: why would non-developers be at a hackathon? Somehow the memo about the “mix of professions” eluded him.

At the hackathon, I ended up with a team made entirely of journalists — I, with years of website-making experience, ended up being the most “developer”-like of the bunch. Playing on our strengths and interests, we made #MakeGoodComments, a social media campaign aimed at fixing comment culture through education and humour. We made a blog and wrote multiple posts about what makes good comments, developed an animated video, and started a hashtag — all in 48 hours.

But when I presented our project on the final day, someone tweeted: “When at a hackathon, one is supposed to hack. In other words, create something #justsaying”

A perfect example of how to NOT #MakeGoodComments #justsaying

According to this tweet and the discussions I’ve had around this incident, writing pages of content, starting a social media campaign, and creating multiple interactive methods to educate and inform didn’t count as “creating”. Because none of our work had involved interacting with code beyond HTML/CSS and was not packaged as an app, it did not count as “hacking”.

But creating or hacking something requires much more than manipulating code, and much of those other elements are greatly enriched by the presence of people based in the arts. You need to know what you’re hacking, and why — the context of your project, the guiding vision, the overall strategic plan. You need to conduct research on the project’s viability, its scope and functions, your capacity to make it happen. You need to write and edit content and make your project visually accessible. You need to figure out how you are going to get people to use your project — not just by advertising, but by considering factors such as accessibility, user experience, even the assumptions made by your project about its users’ needs. These are skills that people in the arts can bring to tech teams, products and the industry overall.

The Devaluing of Arts in Tech (and of Tech in Arts)

When I was volunteering at the Casual Connect games conference in 2014, a lot of marketers would come up to me to talk about their products or services. Similarly, a lot of games makers pounced on me with their elevator speech and expected me to either have money or be connected to money. But when they discovered I’m a performance artist and writer, a “lowly” artist type, they immediately switched off — or sometimes asked me what I was doing there.

This pattern of stigmatization and disdain of the arts and humanities is not unique to the tech sector, or the United States. The arts are considered “too easy” and “doesn’t make money”; it’s “frivolous and impractical”. Lists about the “strangest university subjects” often include subjects relating to pop culture or art. Arts subjects are losing funding and space in schools around the world, while stronger priority is given to STEM subjects.

In the US, there has been some discussion about the possibility that the art and tech divide is gendered, in that the arts is seen as “women’s work”. However, in the aforementioned hackathon, and in other tech-related events that I have attended, guys with primarily artistic or writing backgrounds also lost attention or respect because they didn’t have coding skills. In my case, growing up in Malaysia, every student was expected to pursue the Sciences; Arts and Humanities were reserved for “underachievers”. Your gender didn’t matter — science was the only way to a good career and a good life-path.

Even current international immigration systems prioritize STEM over arts, not considering any sort of meld between the two. I’ve experienced this first-hand, having dealt with immigration in Australia and the US as a student and as a job-seeker: despite the rise of the creative industries, the Australian Government does not count arts and humanities skills as “critical” (and therefore eligible for sponsorship), and the United States Government has longer OPT visas (extensions of student visas that let you work in your field of study post-graduation) for STEM subjects compared to other subjects.

If you wanted to be sponsored for a coveted H1B work visa in the US, even as a hybrid arts/tech person like me, you run into a conundrum: tech companies, despite really having their act together when it comes to visas, aren’t willing to hire artsy folk — and arts organizations aren’t willing to consider, or maybe aren’t able to sponsor arts graduates. There are some ways around it, such as H1Bs for university and research organizations that have been successfully used for non-profits (and is actually cheaper than a regular H1B). However, the arts and creative industries are not as proactive as the tech industry is in immigration reform and justice — indeed, I am often dismayed to see my artistic peers scorn immigration initiatives simply because they associate them with the capitalistic tech industry.

Yes, arts world, you are not exempt from critique. You and your insistence that the tech world is the bane of existence and is the reason the arts is failing, to the point of making multiple performance art pieces about the Murder of Art by Tech and posting signs in the Mission about tech people being an “unwanted plague”. You with your proclamations in big inter-artist meetings about “being analog artists in a digital world”. You and your arguments about Google Glass only ever being used for evil, right after I tell you about the NaNoWriMo novel I was working on about a young woman who gains superpowers from a Glass-like device and uses it to investigate questions about identity, passing, and impostor syndrome while solving social justice issues in the process.

There’s a lot to say about how anti-gentrification movements can be dangerously xenophobic, and about how people forget that the tech industry is often one of the more accessible gateways to entry for immigrants whether they want to be techies or not, but that’s a whole different piece.

The antagonism against tech by the arts world makes explorations like mine seem traitorous, as though I am selling out by joining the Dark Capitalist Side rather than Suffering For My Art. The apprehension is partially understandable, given the lack of respect given arts from the tech world. However, the return snubbing just disadvantages people like me — people who should be flourishing because we embody both worlds (and more), but instead wither because we are seen as not being loyal to one world alone.

Making It Better

In an article published on Geek Feminism — do ALL things! arts, tech, and not having to choose just one as a young girl — I talked about how many of the current “Get Girls Coding” efforts would have alienated or ignored girls like me, who were online all the time but were predominantly writing or making art and therefore wouldn’t have conceived of themselves as a possible coder. (This strikes me as ironic, on reflection, because when I did take computing classes as an 8-year-old we mainly learnt how to make animations and newspaper layouts before moving on to Pascal a year or two later.) Plenty has been said about the need for positive role models for girls in technology, especially if they came from marginalized backgrounds — yet there are not that many adult role models for girls who are into both arts and technology.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been any attention at all given to the melding of arts and technology. There are initiatives like CODAME and the Arts+Tech meetups, as well as a couple of coding bootcamps in the United States geared specifically at this intersection, such as Gray Area’s Creative Code in San Francisco and the School for Poetic Computation in New York. However, both have a super-high price tag (scholarships are available, but there aren’t many), and their scheduling may not work for some students — for instance, I got accepted to both, but had to withdraw because they clashed with other commitments.

When I talked to my best friend/matey about how upset I was that the timing wasn’t working out, he saw the bigger problem: there are so few options for people like me to even get back up to speed on coding that when the few that do exist end up not being an option, the loss is even more significant. It doesn’t help that other code bootcamps also have the price-tag issue and are somewhat inflexible on the sort of people they’ll accept — I got rejected from Hackbright twice, likely because I’d stated my interests in artistic entrepreneurship, and how I wanted to support artists using technology, but they were looking for people that could be hired as software engineers.

Then again — why do artsy people need to learn how to code to have space in the tech industry? Coding isn’t the only important part of tech. As Rachel Sklar points out in Stop Equating Women in Tech with Engineers, it seems ridiculous that women who wish to enter tech must be super-competent in computer engineering, when plenty of men — including and especially VCs — are successful even without computer science training or skills.

Getting Away from Jargon

A large part of breaking into the tech world is less about actually knowing tech skills and more about knowing the lingo. If you get away from the jargon, a lot of skills demanded by the tech world are skills arts people already have. Information architecture? You get that from curating art shows or editing publications, knowing which pieces to put together based on the overall vision for the project. UX design? Put on a show and figure out what your audience’s experience will be from the moment they get the tickets to the moment they exit the building. Scrum and Agile? Check out Liz Lerhman’s Critical Response Process sometime if you want to see the kinds of brainstorming processes the arts world engages with — processes that tech could learn a lot from.

How much more diverse could tech be if we got rid of arbitrary jargon and instead described simply what we do and what we need? If we didn’t expect people to fit very specific, recently-invented boxes, and instead welcomed and adapted to skills from different backgrounds? How richer, more interesting, more robust would our apps and our games and our stage shows and our creative projects be if we stopped pretending that there needs to be a gap between arts and technology?

Let’s get away from the deification of coding as the only thing important to tech, or to life. Let’s get away from expecting people to know the right jargon and actually acknowledge the transferable skills arts people bring to the table. Let’s stop assuming worst-case scenarios about new tech developments and start looking at creative ways to subvert and use tech instead. Let’s not shy away from H1Bs just because we’re artsy or more “community-oriented.”

Let’s stop assuming artsy people and tech people are two separate groups. Tech and art should be holistic, creative, all-round ventures — let’s actually make them that way.

Further Exploration:

Momentum: http://www.momentum-women-art-technology.com/about.htm

Global Fund for Women’s IGNITE — Creatives: http://ignite.globalfundforwomen.org/gallery/creatives

Rookie: Why Can’t I Be You: Harlo Holmes: http://www.rookiemag.com/2015/02/why-cant-i-be-you-harlo-holmes/

Deep Lab: http://studioforcreativeinquiry.org/projects/deep-lab

Observer: MoMA to Host Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon to Repair Art World Gender Imbalance: http://observer.com/2015/02/moma-to-host-wikipedia-edit-a-thon-to-repair-art-world-gender-imbalance/

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