Why we made a film called ‘Trigger Warning’

Anab Jain
May 13 · 7 min read

Jon Ardern (JA), Co-Founder and Director of Superflux speaks with Kristin Alford (KA), Director of the Museum of Discovery, Adelaide (MOD) about their film ‘Trigger Warning’.

WHY WAGING PEACE?

KA: Our exhibitions are designed for 15–25 year olds, so we like topics that contain tension or prompt discussions that might keep you talking until 2am.

I’ve personally been interested in ideas about peace since undertaking my Masters in strategic foresight over 10 years ago. My eldest was then in a Reggio Emilia kindergarten and one project was to design peace machines. At the time, I was planning an essay on the development of emerging technologies. It struck me that developing technologies for peace was worth exploring.

So often, without any support from systems, structures and technologies, peace is pushed back to the individual or community to be more empathetic, more tolerant. I wanted to make peace the driver — the driver of technological development, of profit, of the news. To reflect Martin Luther King’s concept: peace is not the absence of conflict, but rather the presence of justice.

KA: I was familiar with some of Superflux’s previous work, in particular Dynamic Genetics vs Mann and Uninvited Guests. I love Uninvited Guests as it so beautifully illustrates the nexus of design and foresight. I think I first saw it just after I’d been doing some work at Bridge8 on emerging technologies for ageing, so it struck a chord.

At MOD our exhibits explore the intersection between science, art and innovation, so I was keen for commissioned works to bring a focus on technology into examination of peace, justice and disruption. We were keen to explore themes around cybersecurity, so when Superflux first proposed a video installation or simulation that looked at the way artificial intelligence or algorithms might deliberately shape information flows we definitely wanted that work within the exhibition.

KA: I know people have taken it seriously, it has engaged people in discussions. The first group of young adults we had through were very attentive and it prompted discussion about being aware of filter bubbles and how could you get more objective information, wasn’t it scary how much our information is shaped and how dangerous it was.

FEEDBACK FROM VISITORS

“Showed how messed up the world is”

“No one is listening to each other”

“How do you get through life without a biased opinion when there are so many different agendas?”

“It’s important to let go of offence”

FEEDBACK FROM MUSEUM MODERATORS

“A visitor from Sweden and I had a chat last week about the specific learnable skills (ie. critical reasoning) required to navigate today’s fragmented media-sphere as represented in the film, testing biases and being able to see one’s own identity within the wider social fabric, and then, we started to talk about ‘multiple intelligences.”

“A visitor from Europe was telling us about some sort of filter to flag posts on social media for copyright infringement of photos, texts, audio, videos etc. was being implemented by the EU, where companies can add to the copyrighted content blacklist much more easily than users contesting a purported infringement. Copyright censorship, basically”

KA: Some of the students that came through are even keen to use Trigger Warning as their year 12 research project. The teacher said at the end of the tour that she has never seen them so engaged in discussion and debate before, she was extremely happy and wish she had recorded it!

We were worried we might be seen to be promoting some aspects of the film that are problematic. The first time we viewed it was the same day that one of our particularly opinionated parliamentarians proposed a motion to the Federal parliament that “It’s OK to be White” which was passed with supportof the governing party. Hearing this after watching the film with those same posters shown in a lane was very disheartening. Posters went up around Adelaide soon after, making it feel both worse and the film more urgent.

We did delay installing the Pepe le Frog mask until we observed visitors with the artefacts, but we haven’t had people responding in a way that would make other visitors feel threatened or unsafe.

A screening of the ‘Trigger Warning’’ film at the Museum of Discovery, Adelaide.

KA: For our visitors, and even our collaborators ‘Trigger Warning’ provides the very clear context that talking about peace is not an abstract concept, but rather something vital that needs attention now.

DISCUSSING THE PROCESS

Kristin Alford, director of MOD asks Superflux about responding to controversy by including extremist perspectives and hostile viewpoints in the film.

JA: That’s a very good question, and the truth is I’m not sure we did really choose the direction. We started out with a research interest in the potential for AI to manipulate our reality in order to enforce peace. Then, in the process of talking with experts and investigating this topic we found ourselves struck by the complexity and influence of the overlapping space where culture, ideologies, algorithms, business and political interests collide. From there, the process of research, observation and contemplation very much led the way.

JA: Probably the journey into the extreme corners of Twitter. As part of my primary research for the project, I embarked on an experiment. I looked for the people on Twitter I found most objectionable, then for their most objectionable tweets. After that, I looked for who was tweeting the most objectionable replies to those tweets, then looked at their tweets, and continued the process.

Following this method, it didn’t take very long before I found myself in an alien land of bonafide fascists and Nazis. A kind of parallel world where being banned for repeatedly violating Twitter’s terms of service is a badge of honour, and randomly tweeting racist slurs gets a virtual round of applause.

I watched this group for sometime, constantly resisting the urge to go on the attack. It was a painful process to begin with, but as I watched on in horror I gradually began to make peace with my outrage. I began to not only understand the vast gulf in ideological perspectives between us, but also appreciate what we all have in common. Like the need for a sense of belonging and community, and the impulse to ‘other’ in order to be accepted within that community.

I’d always assumed that people choose the ideological perspectives they hold, and that they are morally responsible for having a certain worldview. While I still wouldn’t full disregard individuals’ personal responsibility in the positions they hold, I have a growing suspicion that ideologies are more like memetic infections than philosophical choices. Meaning, they are self-replicating ecologies of ideas, looking for the right psychological conditions in order to parasitize their hosts and reproduce.

I began to ponder what life might be like if we could somehow free ourselves of ideological influences rather that fight for the ones we currently find ourselves the host for. I still haven’t fully resolved this question, or even decided if this is a useful frame to look at the problem through, but I think in many ways ‘Trigger Warning’ is our way of exploring these questions and reflecting on where this strange moment in history might lead us.

JA: We spent a lot of time observing the interactions of opposing ideological groups on social media. One of the universal traits we observed was the tendency for those within a particular group to signal group identity through repeatedly stating ideological beliefs, using in group words and phrases. The term echo chamber seems like a good fit: it felt like people were deliberately collapsing the complexity of their beliefs and identities down into 2D stereotypes, both literally and figuratively.

In the film we wanted to illustrate the absurdity of this behaviour by imagining what it would look like if it was enacted in ‘real life’. To this end we played with imagery of people walking the streets with Twitter icons attached to themselves, or hiding behind memetic masks, and embodying exaggerated signs of group identity.

JA: It’s difficult because on the surface everything feels so fractured and divided at the moment. However, I wonder whether the biggest cause for hope might actually lie in the fragility of these divisions and fractures.

It feels like the positions that people take, and invest so much of themselves in, are fundamentally unstable. More often than not, they are conditioned responses or empty posturing rather than considered positions. I also think over time the fundamentally unsatisfying nature of shouting at strangers on the internet will become more evident. I’ve also noticed the shallowness of the alliances that are held by many of the groups on Twitter falling apart because of in fighting over specific issues or perceived insults. If there is a sign of hope it would be that the stupidity of these games has a limited shelf life. Of course, there are lethal and very tragic exceptions to this, but I guess this could be summarised in a hope that this current situation is our collective dark night of the soul. I hope so.

Superflux

Translating future uncertainties into present day choices

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Anab Jain

Written by

Anab Jain

Designer, Filmmaker, Futurist / Co-founder @Superflux, London / Professor, Design Investigations, University of Applied Arts, Vienna.

Superflux

Superflux

Translating future uncertainties into present day choices