‘Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops — but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds — but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.’
E.M. Forster, ‘The Machine Stops’
In E.M. Forster’s short story, ‘The Machine Stops’, humans live isolated in pods deep underground; a kind of video-screen communication system is how they can contact or talk to others. There is no need to meet or be close with people. Light, food, water, communication, clothing, culture, are at the touch of a button, and humans are entirely dependent on the machine that has taken over and that can provide all essentials.
‘The Machine Stops’ is a nightmarish exploration of the effect of technology on our lives, bodies, relationships and culture. When it was published, in 1909, it must have caused quite a stir. At that time, the world was well into the second industrial revolution with technological changes deep into areas from transportation and machinery to labour and urbanisation.
‘The Machine Stops’ was apparently Forster’s pessimistic response to the work of H.G. Wells and in particular A Modern Utopia, which had been published a few years earlier. In A Modern Utopia the narrator is transported in a liberal, altruistic, peaceful world, a society of universal education, universal income, equality, fairness and opportunity for all. This world is enhanced and enlightened by technology. In A Modern Utopia machinery is everywhere, ‘the discovery of new materials, and the appearance of new social possibilities through the organised pursuit of material science, has given enormous and unprecedented facilities to the spirit of innovation’.
Forster, on the contrary, presents us with a dehumanised world, where the machine has replaced labour, skills and most human activity. The machine manages human life and all needs are met at the touch of a button, while a ‘Mending Apparatus’ is there to fix any issues. ‘The Machine’ is invisible and unknown. We don’t know if someone controls it or how it operates, and what might happen if one day it stops.
Forster’s work, which explores our place in a technological world that is losing the meaning of humanness, is relevant more than ever. We might be quite far away from the world presented above; however, it is not always obvious how much our own world and society are dependent on machines. Our exchanges are increasingly mediated by technology and for the first time we have at our disposal not only access to vast amounts of information, but also a selection of technological tools offering us opportunities and possibilities never imagined before: the chance to make previously unsung voices heard, inclusive, collaborative tools, citizen empowerment and innovation, distributed participatory systems, to name a few. On the other hand, artificial intelligence (AI) is already embedded in many aspects of our everyday life and society and will be driven by it even more in the near future: from healthcare, finance, manufacturing, education and linguistics to business, law, policing, and more. In a constant search for Utopia, we are aiming for advanced technological systems establishing what we believe as superior versions of our world, environment and ourselves. These invisible, complex systems become more and more rooted in everyday activity; we give them more power and with it more responsibilities, while our trust and dependence on them has become normalised.
At the same time — and mostly thanks to how advanced technologies and AI are being presented in the popular media — most of us have a false picture of these systems and a limited or skewed understanding as to how they have been transforming society. We tend to anthropomorphise technology, to assign machines human behaviours, personalities, gender. When it comes to technology, even the language we use is misleading, presenting a world that sounds magical, immaterial or beyond reach.
Although we constantly use and are exposed to digital technologies, we ignore what lies beneath: from how and for whom devices are designed, the conditions under which they are made, labour and conflict minerals to obsolescence, data collection, surveillance, and so on. We are surrounded and constantly listened to by a network of connected objects; a small number of corporations have unprecedented access to users’ data and can influence or control access to information as never before. And most concerning of all, automated decisions and judgements — based on unfair and biased assumptions — become more and more common, having an impact on vulnerable people or minority groups.
Heading towards an automated world, are we becoming accustomed to services, invisible infrastructures and opaque technologies, without asking critical questions or discussing the ethical implications of these services? Should we trust companies with our personal data and privacy and how do we know how automated decisions are made — whether they are fair or how they affect us? How can we stimulate critical thinking skills to navigate these new challenging areas? And what is the role of digital art and public art institutions when it comes to understanding the social issues created by digital technologies?
Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo As An Anatomical Map of Human Labor, Data and Planetary Resources, a collaborative project by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, is a creative attempt to expose these systems through the use of infographics. In a large-scale diagram the authors have mapped out all the processes and materials harnessed to produce Amazon Alexa, the virtual assistant for the home. They show us the physicality behind AI by exposing all the various forms of exploitation involved in layers of production chains, resources and energy consumption. In doing so, they highlight the racial, gender and geographic bias that is inherent in AI today.
The map is part of a display I recently curated for the V&A titled Artificially Intelligent. The display, which is also linked to this year’s Mozilla Festival (MozFest), confronts our complex relationships with technology by bringing together work by artists tackling issues surrounding AI, including invisible technological infrastructures and boundaries of humanness. These artworks raise major philosophical questions, such as about the meaning to be human in a hyper-connected world, or the current state of our relationships and interactions with machines, but also about the social and ethical implications of AI.
In Artificially Intelligent, Nye Thompson presents snippets of the world as “seen” by a machine entity using machine learning to interpret its visions, while Fabio Lattanzi Antinori explores how languages invented by machines became so complex that even their developers are unable to fully understand. Katriona Beales references a conversation with iPhone’s Siri about trust, underlining the inherent fragility of these complex relationships as AI becomes more secretively embedded in decision-making systems, such as virtual assistants, and trust becomes a critical issue. Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm has created Artificial Intelligence MARY, who has conversations with visitors to explore the nature of being human, but also challenge the way humans understand ourselves, while Caroline Sinders aims to combat gender bias and misogyny present in technology and algorithms with a Feminist Data Set, which will be used to train a neural net to eventually create a Feminist AI.
Artificially Intelligent extended to the annual Digital Design Weekend festival with workshops, talks, installations and participatory activities that explored questions of trust, algorithmic bias, ethics and such as the ones highlighted above. It is through experiences like these that we can create spaces to foster exchange and debate bringing together the creative sector and tech industry. Digital art and design have a significant role in engaging with and exploring new technologies, and enabling much needed conversations around these to happen. Artists have always had a pioneering role in terms of being the first to reflect on the present, on society, culture and the future, asking difficult questions, while raising awareness about power and powerlessness in the age of digital information. Artists have been also instrumental in creating work that can shape society and the possibilities presented to us.
We will always need neutral spaces that can transcend borders and engage different disciplines in constructive dialogue. Spaces like these have an important role in initiating and shaping critical discussions about pressing issues of our times, foregrounding the impact of technology within society to examine how people can play a central role in shaping the future, rather than being fed a vision of it from a handful of powerful corporations.
Through programmes such as the Digital Design Weekend (DDW) — an annual festival and gathering at the V&A bringing together artists, designers, engineers, technologists, makers and the public — my aim has been to focus on our complex relationship with technology, placing an emphasis on collaboration, exchange, participation and critical response. The museum becomes a site in which to engage with contemporary issues, share creative processes and demystify technology. Since its inception, the DDW has invited participants and visitors to explore the intersections of technology, art and design and the state of digital culture through installations, workshops, labs, critical discussions and performances.
Taking the format of a networking and sharing event, built on partnerships and collaborations, the DDW started by exploring ‘what is digital’ and how it is manifested in our lives and society. Through a series of ongoing projects and conversations, it developed into investigating ideas such as data, AI, the Internet of Things, human–machine relationships, and what ‘crafting’ or ‘engineering’ our digital futures might mean: essentially, imagining how we can begin to unveil these invisible systems and try to understand or explore what lies beneath. In a similar way to how MozFest operates, participatory sessions and workshops at the DDW have offered opportunities to explore digital tools for social change, preparing the ground for activities that bring people together, enabling collaborations and promoting peer production and skill-sharing.
And in this year’s Artificially Intelligent topic, from looking into themes of the personal, public and cosmic influences of technology, the aim has been to provoke questions about machines and humanness. How can we go beyond dystopian/utopian visions or popular stereotypes, and instead look at the present state of implementation with a human-scale perspective? And how can we enable discussion about our interactions with technology, the social and ethical implications of artificial intelligence, including bias, trust and control? By opening doors to experimentation and collective making, encouraging communities and people to create and participate, question and not passively consume, we can nurture critical thinking and prepare the next generations for new challenges ahead.
Technology will not always be the solution to everything and it won’t always save us. We need to be able to see beyond this and keep our future focused on the realities of our world and on a human vision, remembering that we are more than data.
Under the Stone (original title Sous Béton, which translates as Under Concrete), a novella by Quebec-based artist Karoline Georges, takes the claustrophobic underground world of ‘The Machine Stops’ to a different level. Georges presents us with an oppressive structure, a ‘Total Concrete’, a grey and impenetrable tower that houses all remaining humans in a post-apocalyptic world. The inhabitants are constantly under surveillance and constrained to the tower. They are reduced to their basic needs, fed and drugged by the structure, and trained to carry out tasks that keep the machine going. They passively accept their condition without question or objection.
As the narrative unfolds, we follow the main character, a nameless boy residing in the tower with his abusive parents, who slowly transforms and manages to distinguish himself from the dormant residents by experiencing a sudden awakening.
The world in Under the Stone is brutal, depressing and hopeless. Georges reveals a place where people are reduced to passively accepting their reality, without the will to break free from their prison-tower, but again how can they possibly break free if they haven’t learned to see beyond their concrete walls? Under the Stone presents us with a nightmarish version of the future, one that hopefully will only remain a speculative idea. Finally, the boy transcends the monochromatic walls of the tower and develops the ability to see and to understand the world around him. By empowering himself through questioning the world around him, he can finally see what lies beneath the concrete structure and resist.
This article is based on my art & technology based research in collaboration with Mozilla. Some of this research work can be seen in this year’s Art+Data experience space and Artists Open Web at MozFest, which I have co-curated with Luca Damiani.