Can artists help us design ethical technology?

How has the boundary between art and non-art shifted in the Internet age, and what does that mean for design, activism, science, and other creative activities? This question is the subject of a Dario Moalli’s fall 2019 interview with New Media faculty and Still Water co-directors Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito in the venerable periodical Hestetika (Aesthetics). The issue has become more relevant during the COVID-19 quarantine, as exhibitions, concerts, and other artforms normally experienced in person have moved online.

In the interview “Hacking Reality: Art Beyond its Borders,” Blais and Ippolito explain their motivation for writing the book At the Edge of Art:

We wanted to include art happening far from the traditional white cube, but scientific and political hacker-activists didn’t call themselves “artists,” and there was no .art domain where you were guaranteed to see art online. So we had to jettison the Duchampian convention of defining art by where it is found. Instead we came up with a functional rather than contextual definition: at a time of rapid change, art serves as an immune system for the social body. At the turn of the millennium, this meant helping society foresee and adapt to disruptions like the web, mobile phones, and biotechnology. So we went looking for people doing that–whether they were in a lab at MIT or an Internet cafe in Seoul.

Now that technology has become more homogenized, Moalli asked how creators pushing the boundary of interaction design cope with the expectations of users who have become accustomed to the same conventions for all interfaces:

Above:; below: OSS; both works by jodi, an artist duo featured in At the Edge of Art

As much as the typical designer hopes to invent an interface that users will find easy to understand, it’s important to recognize that an intuitive interface is not the same thing as a familiar one. QWERTY is a familiar keyboard to every American, yet it’s one of the worst interfaces ever designed: the keys easiest to type such as J and K are the ones used least often. A scythe, on the other hand, is a rustic farming implement that looks like an alien weapon to the average 21st-century urban dweller. But hand a scythe to a novice and its inherent balance and heft teaches her how to swing it.

Some of the most basic conventions seem intuitive until they are overturned, as in 2011 when Apple literally reversed the direction of trackpad scrolling. In every version of MacOS up to 10.6 Snow Leopard, users scrolled *down* to see more content; since MacOS 10.7 Lion, however, users have to scroll *up*. In response to the increasing popularity of multitouch devices like the iPad, Apple replaced the sensation of a mouse dragging down the scrollbar in favor of the sensation of a finger pushing up the screen, declaring the new direction more “natural” despite the protests of users habituated to the old standard.

For their part, artists are constantly experimenting with new ways to experience imagery and information. Their innovations don’t always appear user-friendly, but some stumble on an intuitive interface that mainstream designers missed, as in the case of the “spin the globe” interface of Art + Com, later imitated by Google Earth.

Hestetika logoCommenting that “we are led to think that technology is neutral–instead it is not so,” Moalli asks what we can do to expose its hidden politics and prevent it from manipulating unwitting users.

Currently Joline is trying to help her own students see “the real form” of technology by looking at a movement that began with Google ethicist Tristan Harris, and became the Center for Humane Technology ( Worrijodi, OSSed that upgrading tech can also downgrade humans, they ask how can tech support human well-being, instead of undermining it. Shoshana Zuboff is asking similar questions about what she calls “surveillance capitalism”….And the CATs movement ( “A global community of tech professionals using our skills, expertise and platforms to support solutions to the climate crisis.” The health of the planet and future generations may depend on whether we can hack those.

The interview is also published in Italian as “L’arte oltre i suoi confini,” Hestetika (Tradate, Italy) 36 (Fall 2019), pp. 107-109.