It was the 4th (and final) ITP show this feeling — being unapologetically violated by someone who shares none of my intentions— crept up on me. I’m writing this to redefine a deal between arts+tech show goers and exhibitors:
It’s ok to tell anyone exploiting you to fuck off.
New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, for those who don’t know what the fuss is about, is a graduate program at the NYU school of arts that focuses on bringing arts to tech, or tech to arts. It’s commonly known for harnessing new and obscure technologies to do unusual things, and it’s the conceptual birthplace of many multimedia products like Quicktime and Foursquare, and a hotbed for the development of prototyping tools like Arduino and Processing. We like to call it “The Center for the Recently Possible”.
What makes ITP so special is its playful nature. The currency in ITP is technology design: making (often crude) implementations of (sometimes stupid) ideas. Anthony Dunne of the Royal College of Art likes to name this currency ‘fictions’, and this makes a lot of sense: we’re not always ‘solving’ for ‘real’ problems. Red Burns, the late founder of ITP, is known for telling students to “Look for the question, not the solution”.
Coming from a harsh Network TV career background and a harsher academic background in Math, ITP was a major relief for me. I could afford to be an idiot for a while, until I got a good idea. In fact, being an idiot is encouraged here. Over-confidence is frowned upon. ITP may teach artists to code and engineers to sketch, but it mostly teaches all students to explore critically. And this process works really well: we go from hackathons for terrible ideas to several researched and engineered projects in 3 months at a time.
At the end of every semester, ITP hosts a show displaying the best of that semester’s loot of fictions. This year, the shows were amazing. The current roster of ITPers includes ex-Microsoft software engineers, famous musicians and filmmakers, some incredible social entrepreneurs (the good kind) and in total, a group of people I’m very lucky to be around. We showed game engines, VR experiments, open-source bio-lab robots, a wifi surveillance toolkit, programmed wearables, wearables with their own programming IDE, wearables you may actually want to wear, simulation art, and many other things I dare you to find anywhere else. I was there with my thesis, a 4-Dimensional video game.
Visitors in the show are generally curious, ranging from parents who don’t get your capacitive multitouch potted plant and children who only want to rip it apart, through engineers and artists with amazing insightful questions, and some tech veterans, with often amused, often critical feedback. Just like the curriculum intended, this place is purposefully weird and tongue-in-cheek, and most of the patronage wag their tails aptly to that spirit.
But there are others. People who walk into the space with a demanding look on their face, often wearing Google Glass (it’s been a year, but still: wtf?), who listen to your explanation for approximately 9 seconds (hopefully due to limited RAM), to interrupt you and ask:
“What are the commercial applications of this?”
If the mood allows, some will venture and ask:
“How can this be monetised?”
Now, ok. I get it. Art schools in NYC are still in the middle of the world’s craziest business area. Sometimes it isn’t easy for a guest to wind down from an environment where sacks of money literally hit you in the head.
It’s also understandable that under certain circumstances, some people may actually need to work for an advertising agency, and in said theoretical position, may need to engage in some cool-hunting. It’s fine, non-evil creatives need to make money too, and cocaine doesn’t grow on trees. So ok. Ok.
I’ll even give you this: A lot of projects coming from ITP can actually be monetized. Ouspoken Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson has carried many ITP alumni from the toilet of prototyping to the cloaca maxima of production. He’s made, among other things, a bet on Foursquare (ITP 2004), turning a culturally significant idea to an everyday communication currency. Fred is one of those tech veterans who frequent the ITP shows, and he’s rather enthusiastic and gentlemanly about it.
So really, both questions have answers. A lot of projects have modules that are salvageable for industrial purposes, and there’s probably a way to make money (and because our stuff mostly deals with automation, lots thereof) from others. But none of that matters in this context. Here’s the deal:
Nobody goes to art school to make money.
Not even Damien Hirst.
Like with any art school, people spend their NYU tuition, approximately equivalent to a small neighbourhood in Detroit, to be criticised and called out for bullshit for a few years. They spend time researching and prototyping for the sole purpose of presenting good artwork, not products with rounded edges. We put things in a gallery show precisely because those things might never belong in Best Buy. In some utopian (or extremely dystopian) cases, some of that stuff makes it to the wild, but that’s not the point in making design fictions. We try to communicate. We don’t try to idiot-proof, we don’t try to scale. In other words, we went to this art school because we too are interested in programming and making, but disagree with the rest of what we see in the tech industry now.
So naturally, a meeting between a person who eagerly anticipates reaction and a another who’s incontinent to monetise doesn’t end well. What’s so uncanny about hearing these questions is how far out of Gricean territory they are.
Here’s a simpler explanation. Imagine this were a danceclub. People generally show up to have a good time, some came to listen to a DJ, and some came to get laid. Typical. Others there may find getting laid serendipitous, but I digress.
Now imagine someone walking into the club, approaching people one by one, inquisitively demanding:
“How can you be had sex with?”
Now whoa, I know. But really, that’s what’s going on.
An attitude this obnoxious confuses even the ones who were planning on non-serendipitous sex. Having enough confidence in the work spent on their ideas, an artist facing one of said questions might wonder:
- If you’re a tech-savvy trend hunter, you‘re either getting paid to tell someone what applications this thing has, or getting paid to exploit this application for profit. Why are we supposed to do your job?
- If you’re seriously clueless about this, you’re asking the wrong question. If someone spent the time building an app-store for dumbphones or a
$500 open-source telecine machine, you might say they assumed the application existed. If you really don’t know these tools are for liberation from megacorps but you’re already asking how you can profit from it, I’m sorry. You can’t have it.
- Suppose it’s pretty clearly monetisable, and you’re inquiring about making money off a thing you don’t own. No matter what the thought process of yours was, the presenter will pretty much be convinced you’re trying to rip them off. From my experience with many of many of the askers, it turns out to be true more often than not.
- Even moreso, if you’re recording the conversation without asking for permission — you’re just an asshole. That shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve had Google Glass on your head in any other social situation, but now you’re literally suspect of trying to steal an idea. Kindly and promptly remove yourself.
- Most people inside this place know they’re not in a tradeshow. The presenter did a good few months of research for this, of course they know it’s worth something, but nobody’s offering any services here. That seems to be the source of confusion and furstration with some profit-happy visitors. We get it, we’re sorry, there’s nothing much you can do about it.
This criticism may seem weird coming from someone dependent on money from those exact investors — after all, where would any tech inventor be without someone aggressively trying to make money off their ideas — but there’s no contradiction here.
Look. I’m not a VC or investor, I wouldn’t be capable of telling them how to do their jobs. I would only dare to assume that if someone came to a show to hear about the merits of my work, they might have some interest in it, or at least an interest to fake an interest in it.
When pitching to a VC or an investor, anyone asking for an investment has to make a tremendous effort to show their worthiness of any money. That’s a lot of work. It may be that notion that gives professional investors (and their pilotfish, trying to be hotshot investors) a Pavlovian reflex of privilege whenever they hear anything phrased like an explanation. And that toxic attitude is starting to appear elsewhere.
It’s not even wrong to think about money. Just like with sex, there may be a point in your life where money is all you think about. But, just like with sex, people don’t get more of it if they demand it; They just get dirty looks and are asked to leave.
What I’m saying is: there’s a right way to do it. It all comes down to respect. All inventors need investors and vice versa, and should be happy with eachother. Just like with sex, if you want more than what autarkic moneymaking provides you with, don’t act like a predator when looking for it. If you’re in a show, exercise a bit of empathy, observe and listen. If you only want to hear the gist sometimes, be kind and honest about it. Want to know about business aspects? Asking respectfully helps sometimes, trying to infer the answer and suggesting it in conversation helps even more. In other words — behave yourselves, you pricks.
For fuck’s sake, remove your Google Glass when talking to presenters. Not all sufficiently advanced technology is socially acceptable.