by Jonathan Woodier
There is a notable tradition of artistic protest and activism against unfettered technological change. From Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood’s rejection of the industrial revolution, through to Yoko Ono, Banksy, and Pussy Riot, artists have often been the designers and facilitators in a collaborative critical exercise. They have sought to shine a questioning light on social change and prompt a usually acquiescent public to look up, to think more deeply about the changes wrought by politicians and business and, if there is no real benefit, to demand pause.
As the white heat of yet another era of dramatic technological change threatens to scorch most of us, it is vital that we have a conversation about this change and the real benefits for society. We must question the relationship between the Silicons, the state and the citizen and how we are going to deal with the next technological leap forward where transports have become autonomous and culture algorithmic. We are too focused on convenience and price, and driven by the familiar catch-all rationale of economic growth, when we should be asking questions about what is good for work and a good for society, about technology and privacy, and questioning how AI and Big Data are threatening to eclipse human discretion and the very basis of liberal democracy.
It is a discussion that should not only be led by politicians, policy makers and the private sector, it should include creative technologists, designers, artists, and activists, enabling different tones of discussion, and embracing the emerging focus on digital art and media aesthetics and the relations between technology, science, art, and society. In the past, artists have been central in raising important questions at times of social dislocation and disenchantment with technology, and as we enter this liminal time, it will allow us to tell the story of the Internet of Other People’s Things in a compelling and accessible way.
Speaking in April 2018, The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, raised his concern about Engle’s pause, a term that refers to the early period of the industrial revolution when, due to great technological upheaval, the livelihood of a large number of people worsened before society began to prosper in the longer term. The vast improvements in productivity from automation in the early days of the Industrial Revolution seemed not to feed through into wages for the workers. Carney went so far as to suggest that, as the growth of technology and expected automation of millions of blue and white collar jobs results in a poor wage growth for those in work, Marx and Engels may again “become relevant.” If technology destroys jobs, decreases wages and increase the amount of inequality, as a new elite of highly-skilled workers and the owners of high-tech machines receive the rewards.
The works gathered here offer an opportunity to investigate the infrastructures of power and reflect on the contradictions between the promise of a technotopian future and the reality in which the citizens are living keen, perhaps, to buy into a future, if not “the” future, and constantly feeling either like it is not fully arrived yet or that there are better futures arriving for your neighbor or across the street.
From the burgeoning amounts of data around our social networking identities, to the fragility inherent in creating a connected object, it is important that we dismiss the uncritical enthusiasm for a “smarter” life that has become a hallmark of the world being created by the “Silicons,” yet wraps us in an electronic embrace of security and privacy issues. The Internet of Things offers a system of surveillance and control, and a way of nudging citizens towards preferable behavior instead of trying to understand and deal with the root causes of social problems. Artists, like those in the book, can connect emotionally with their audience, and hold up a mirror for them to see the threats of a “smart future.”