Earlier this month the Mile End Art Pavilion hosted Queen Mary University of London‘s symposium Inter/sections: Politics and Ethics in Media and Art Technology. A show of hands revealed a pretty healthy, impressive mix of technologists, activists, academics, artists, designers and film makers, so it was rather a shame that even the advertised schedule didn’t always seem very cogent to most of us.

The talks and panels did indeed have a tendency to stray incontinently from the headline subjects – some presenters spent so long geeking out over their own technology that they ran out of time to mention ethics or politics, let alone discuss them. This did not go unnoticed in the audience, who on several occasions brought up the still dominant tendency towards splitting off technological research from consideration of its impact. Technologists, including some at this symposium, sometimes express bafflement, indifference, amusement, or deny responsibility entirely when it comes to the wider implications of their work.

Anybody working with technology in an artistic or socially engaged way, by contrast, seemed almost paralysingly aware of ethics. This category of presenter variously pleaded for us to think of the consequences of our impact on the planet; of refugees; of the online shrinking of vocabulary to optimised, pre-chosen keywords and to what totalitarianism it could lead; of the fact that many people in the world still lack access to clean water.

A keynote speech by ‘paradigm dissident’ Dan McQuillan, a lecturer in creative and social computing at Goldsmiths, began with a note that his was a human-centred, political and therefore almost by default very dark view of the societal and personal havoc that technology can wreak when it’s deployed with no questions asked, or if it’s just plain stupid, clumsy and incorrect in its assumptions. Usually, he explained, the tech and ethical tendencies are physically and metaphorically separated from each other in different departments or campuses.

This divide evidently hasn’t narrowed much in the ten years or so since I was artist in residence with social scientists, ethicists and legal experts at the University of Edinburgh’s Genomics Policy & Research Forum, set up in somewhat belated response to the university’s own pioneering biological research. The presence of artists, designers and other creative people is too often an afterthought, despite them frequently being better able to engage with the issues than those professionally invested in particular technological developments.

Ethical considerations

It was a pleasant surprise that the workshop by The Culture Capital Exchange on the subject of ‘technology, ethics and the arts now’ actually covered the stated subjects. Research psychologist John Sloboda spoke about his work on live opera broadcasts in cinemas. Are they widening audiences? (The London-centric and bewilderingly massive funding of highbrow but not widely accessible or liked art forms such as opera and ballet is often explained on this basis.)

Unfortunately the answer, according to Sloboda, is no. Exactly the same people who already like opera just see more of it, and even they still prefer seeing it live. The pervasiveness of technology doesn’t mean we don’t still need spaces for non-technological interaction and participation, in the arts or elsewhere.

Furtherfield’s Ruth Catlow noted that even supposedly anti-establishment technologies such as bitcoin and blockchain can be fairly easily absorbed by the existing establishment. Unsurprising, perhaps, when you consider that the developers of such technologies often tend towards rightist-libertarian technocratic politics that not only erode but actively disdain the questions that artists, activists and social scientists usually find most urgent and interesting.

This discussion continued in the workshop, focusing on striking similarities between the early days of the internet and programming when anything went, and how likewise the arts, including even public bodies such as the UK’s arts councils, have adopted the language of the audit and the market with their talk of investment, reach, impact and, most slippery of all, quality.

The digital world, similarly, has evolved from a grass roots and distinctly unprofessional set of individually learned and led practices into orthodoxies of UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) used by the likes of Facebook or Apple to lock down user and programmer possibilities. This without us being conscious of it, if they can help it.

The similarities between both paradigms are clear: they speak the language of empowerment while actually disempowering, simultaneously hoovering up our content freely and profiting from it while remaining largely unaccountable to us.

The Inter/sections symposium took place on 8 September 2017 at Mile End Art Pavilion, London

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