Using the Arts to Explore Tech Determinism
History shows us that it takes many different approaches to make change happen. The tactics that each group chooses are not a matter of personal taste but solutions to a particular problem. Too many years spent failing to make radical change happen can turn energies to smaller, achievable, single-issue campaigns. Conversely, the limits of reform push people and movements to revolt (Robinson, 2019, n.p).
This blog post reports on a workshop called “Gipton Space Agency” led by myself and Eleanor Dare (as part of our work for X||dinary Stories) that used art to critique tech determinism with a specific focus on space tourism. In a way turning energies to smaller, achievable, single-issue campaigns like others that have gone before.
Gipton Space Agency
The workshop was held at Space 2, an arts and social change charity in Gipton, Leeds.
Starting with an approach from immersive storytelling, teasers were left on social media as a hint to what was to come.
Then, at the start of the workshop, Eleanor answered the “Ground Control” telephone and enacted an unfolding scenario at the Gipton Space Agency where protestors were rallying against the new company.
From this point, participants split into two groups: one focused on creating a fake advertising campaign to attract billionaires to space travel, and the other made materials to protest the Gipton Space Agency. In doing so, all participants were introduced to machine learning, text-to-image ai generators, Stable Diffusion, ai comic generators and a range of physical materials that they could use as tools.
It was interesting to see that those on the protest side were drawn to physical materials and performance, whereas those creating the advertising campaign predominately used ai generation; without prompting, just like real life.
For example, the team that made the fake advertising material used machine learning and ai generation to create a short video (see below). They were overheard saying things like “Wow this is addictive” about the ai software. The speed at which they created the output is perhaps one of the aspects of machine learning that needs to be considered further. I was left wondering whether the speed affects the amount of thinking that can lie behind the creative process. Specifically, if seminal work by Ingold gets us to view making as a form of thinking, what happens when the making is so fast as to leave little time for critical thinking?
On the other hand, the making with largely analogue methods by the team protesting the space agency was shown to the team apologetically “Sorry it is not finished”, “Sorry it does not look polished” etc:
Yet Bechelard (1962) writes:
I would say that there is a good reason to study the dynamics of disobedience, the spark behind all knowledge.’ (Bachelard, 1962)
Meanwhile, the workshop accidentally mirrored the news that a tech company (Oceangate) submersible, taking billionaires to visit the Titanic shipwreck, had gone missing.
In the lead up to the workshop, I experimented with creating ai generated comics using Comicsmaker.ai. To do so, the software pushed me to create characters first by selecting a gender, cultural background and attributing a celebrity name (in other words using sterotypes). Next ai art was generated for each comic panel and finally, the narrative was hand typed on top. I used two Twitter feeds in the dialogue: Elon Musk’s Space X and the charity, Shelter that provides information and support in response to the housing emergency.
Reading the comic I was struck by how the two sides to the dialogue appear indifferent to one another, again similar to real life. This seemed to mirror patterns in both ai which exacerbates inequalities and what was simultaneously playing out with Oceangate’s (then) missing submersible, where many spoke out about the contrast between the multi-nation search for the missing millionaires and the lack of response to another recent sea tragedy in which migrants drowned off the coast of Greece.
The work of Oliver Jeffers, as well as that made by the workshop participants reminds me that:
Objects that have been altered or made by artists have a powerful role to play in movements for social change. Indeed ‘political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design’ (Flood & Grindon, 2014).
So, whilst I hoped that the missing submersible crew would be returned alive, it was hard not to see the tropes of tech determinism and the safety blanket of money that seems to protect against recklessness. Literally, a reminder that the big tech motto “Move fast and break things” now more than ever is problematic. Simply put, “more” and “faster” go against what we need to slow the climate crisis, cost of living crisis, inequalities, homelessness etc etc.
The Antidote: Natural Intelligence
The book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism considers alternative possibilities and lays bare that the current politics, economic structures and approaches to tech are not the only possibilities.
As always, I find myself looking to natural intelligence as a point of difference from what the humans have created; as a kind of antidote that gives me hope.
As you read these words, fungi are changing the way that life happens...The more we learn about fungi, the less makes sense without them (Sheldrake, 2020, p.3).
Bachelard, B. (1962) Fragments of a Poetics of Fire.
Frase, P. (2016) Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. Verso
Flood, C. & Grindon, G. (2014) Disobedient Object. V&A
Robinson, L. (2019) Climate protests have roots that go deep into the rich history of British social change. The Guardian, 13th October 2019. Available online at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/13/climate-protests-roots-deep-rich-history-british-social-change>.
Sheldrake, M. (2020) Entangled Life. How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures. London: Bodley Head.