AS HUMANS AND DATA MACHINES BECOME EQUAL PARTNERS IN CULTURAL PRACTICE, SOCIAL EXPERIENCE, AND HUMANISTIC RESEARCH, THE HUMANITIES MAY NO LONGER LOOK LIKE “THE HUMANITIES.” THE SCALES AND REGISTERS OF WHAT COUNTS OR IS VALUED AS HUMAN EXPERIENCE AND, THERE- FORE, THE OBJECTS OF HUMANISTIC INQUIRY, WILL FIND THEMSELVES ALTERED. – Roderick Coover (2012)
This quote reminded me of what artist duo exonemo said at the closing of The Lifecycle of Interfaces exhibtion. We interact with virtual cursor and the physical mouse all the time, but we seldom consider the following: virtual cursor, often times designed to mimic the shape of a human hand, is an virtual extension of our physical human body. physical mouse (also named after a physical animal), is a physical extension of the virtual world of internet, into our human body.
In this case, to say that digital technology mediate and augment our communication feels like an understatement. Our relationship with the tools have become so intimate that the very definition of a tool, an object, or a human is changing in itself.
At the recent “Hello World: for the Post-Human Age” show at Art Tower Mito, Ibaraki, Japan, exonemo exhibited two new works:
Both works play with similar concepts – computationally constructed artificial constructed conversations explicitly eliciting human emotions. In both cases, there are two social media simulations, one with negative chatbot response and another positive.
Something very interesting happened during the exhibition. Even though it was made very clear that the responses are “fake” – algorithmically generated, audiences identified with them strongly. In the case of the live image feed, when standing in front of a livestream of the audiences themselves without being “followed” or “liked”, the audiences expressed a strong sense of self-doubt and shame. What exonemo’s exhibition did, was to provide empirical evidence to Norbert Wiener’s mathematical theory of communication – when examining the input, process, output and feedback of a communication ecosystem, trying to distinguish which part of the system is human or nonhuman is irrelevant – feedback provided by human and no-human elements are equally important for helping the system improve and evolve to a higher state. Instead of focusing our attention on trying to define and distinguish between human vs. non-human feedback, a much more effective question we should be asking ourselves is – what kind of feedback contributes to a more stable vs. destructive system over time? If we can shed light on this question, the implication can be profound, not only self-driving cars can more accurately avoid hurting pedestrians, environment can eliminate more wastes, stock markets can experience less turbulence, homeowners can avoid losing their downpayment to irrational debt hedging, as human beings – essentially one of the most meticulously designed bio-mechanical systems to date, we can also experience less denial and more inner peace.
“The culture that’s going to survive in the future is the culture you can carry around in your head.”—Nam June Paik
Part of today’s computational data analytics practice prey on the nakedness and vulnerability of human being living inside the midst of a digital world. When I was in college, I participated in renowned behavioral economist Ulrica Melmendier’s economic research on S&P 500 CEO. As part of a student research team, we spent months mining popular business journals looking for depictions of CEO’s personality. A correlation model was then built between CEOs personality as depicted by popular journals against the profit/loss of the merger and acquisition decisions they made on behalf of their own company, as well as internal stock market trading record. The paper concluded by uncovering a positive relationship between “overconfident” CEOs and losses their decisions have cost themselves and their companies.
Over a decade has past, this research has left a mixed feeling in my heart. If I download an app and spend the time to record my mood, personality and the effectiveness of my work and study, what could I possibly uncover about myself? I never did, because I already know the answer – When I am patient and calm, I tend to produce more quality work and vise versa. The truth is, we don’t need data analysis to tell us about our weaknesses and vulnerability. We already know that. What we don’t know is – ourselves. Sometimes we work so hard and drive ourselves to exhaustion, because we don’t really understand ourselves as well as we thought we do, what do we really like and feel happy about? I work so much under fear of deadline and punishment, to the extend I honestly cannot tell when I am feeling tired sometimes.
Perhaps that’s also why I value artists such as exonemo – who don’t analyze me, but providing representations for me to see myself in a way that’s nonjudgemental, nonobjective, nonlogical. We need less measurement of imperfection, and more dreams, silliness, and acceptance, and perhaps our friend computer could be of help in ways we haven’t quite thought of before.