[-empyre-] May 2020: What is a Dystopia, Really?

Sophia Brueckner sbrueckner at gmail.com
Wed May 6 11:29:03 AEST 2020

Thanks for the invite to be part of this, Byron!

All of my work uses technology or is about technology. Before going to art
school, I was an engineer at Google during its early years. My experience
in the Bay Area was simultaneously wonderful and horrible, and it has
definitely shaped my perspective as an artist and designer working with

A lot of my work is inspired by how science fiction authors think about the
future. I teach a class called Sci-Fi Prototyping, which combines science
fiction, building prototypes, and technology ethics. Thinking
extrapolatively isn’t something that comes naturally to people, and it’s
striking to see how a person’s vision for the future is so strongly
influenced by their own lived experience. I teach my students how to
critique current technological trends and imagine possible, probable, and,
most importantly, preferred futures. I think it’s especially important to
ask people who normally would not get to have a say on this, people whose
perspective on current trends and preferred futures is very different than
that of your typical Bay Area technologist.

At Google, I worked on early social networks, and I was exhilarated by the
possibilities for how technology could be used to connect people. I was
amazingly disappointed that we ended up mimicking the Facebook model. In my
own research, I often prototype alternative, more positive futures for
social interfaces/networks and wearable/tangible interfaces (
https://sophiabrueckner.com/embodisuit.html and
https://sophiabrueckner.com/amulet.html). I also like to draw attention to
hard-to-find examples of positive social networking trends (
https://sophiabrueckner.com/romance.html). I could talk about my opinions
and related projects on social networks forever, but I think this is enough
for now!

On Tue, May 5, 2020 at 7:50 AM Byron Rich <brich at allegheny.edu> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Thank you to Renate for the very kind introduction.
> This months discussion is going to turn slightly away from COVID, but
> tangentially discuss some of the darker sides of the technologies we use to
> discuss, inform, persuade, and monitor the virus and its spread.
> *What is a Dystopia, Really?*
> March 4th to 10th         Week 1:  Byron Rich (CA), Sophia Brueckner
> (US),  Roya Ebtehaj  (US,IR), Ben Grosser (US)
> March 11th to 18th       Week 2: Eric Charlton (US), Craig Fahner (CA),
> Alex Young (US)
> March 19th to 31st        Week 3: KT Duffy (US), Alejandro T. Acierto
> (US), Ali Seradge (US, IR)
> Over the past few weeks, comparisons between our current reality at *Demolition
> Man, *Marco Brambilla’s 1993 Sci-Fi thriller, and numerous other
> near-future tales of dystopia have been flying around all corners of the
> internet from Reddit to the New York Times. These comparisons, however,
> aren’t supported by all, notably, one of Sci-Fi’s greatest voices, Margaret
> Atwood. In her recent BBC 5 interview, Atwood points to the alarming use of
> war-like rhetoric towards the collective struggle to contain COVID-19, and
> the desire to point blame, which often turns into racist or hateful finger
> pointing towards whatever “otherness” is closest. The spread of
> disinformation, fake news, pseudo-science, etc. via social media has tinges
> of what Sci-Fi has long labelled “dystopic”, but these same mechanisms are
> also reinforcing communities across platforms and borders.
> The artists featured this month all grapple with the dystopias of the
> present, the hope in new modes of connecting, and technology as a tool to
> look back at where we’ve been. Like Atwood, all seem to have tinges of hope
> under the surface somewhere, whether it lies in the possibility of broader
> cultural criticality, or the very real togetherness inspired by the
> communal experience of the pandemic.
> Week 1:
> In 2010, Ben Davis wrote what became required reading in his piece *“Social
> Media Art” in the Expanded Field*. I recently reexplored this text, one
> that I remember apparently not all that well, from graduate school when I
> would naively try to navigate the concept of the digital panopticon guided
> by mentors who were, and are, far more clever than I. One thing that did
> stick, however, was what I found to be a bizarre opening assertion that he
> found “the chatter somehow sad, as if visual art’s power to inspire passion
> among a larger audience is so attenuated that it has to throw itself on
> whatever trendy thing is out there, to win some reflected glory for itself.”
> I’m of that generation where my first experiences with social networks was
> ICQ as a young teen in the late nineties, a time when the “old” internet
> existed. I remember vividly students in my high school art classes making
> work about ICQ/MSN Messenger exchanges, and producing un-ironic art pieces
> to pair with truly questionable music (Fall Out Boy, anyone?) for their
> Myspace pages. Whether physical media photographed on 4 megapixel Sony
> Coolpix cameras or rendered in Corel Draw, there was nothing sad about
> these networks or the art they inspired. Was the work good? Technically,
> probably not (although I do see so much of that late 90s and early 2000s
> aesthetic coming back into style in the work of my students)...
> Intellectually, however, it sort of was as we were all pirates as we stole
> music, remixed images, and left our digital fingerprints unwittingly across
> the internet for academics to decode decades later and paving the way for
> the emergence of the selfie and all the non-self-reflexivity it came to
> represent. Years prior to Davis’ penning of *“Social Media Art” in the
> Expanded Field*, artists had been responding to and making work not just
> about social media as subject, but *for* social media as a support. One
> of my favourites, Petra Cortright’s *VVEBCAM* (2007), an uncanny glimpse
> into the near-future landscape dominated by selfie culture.
> What Cortright and others predicted was a landscape where one’s image (be
> it a feeling, a trite colloquialism, a photo, whatever projection of
> “individuality” one desires) *was *the content, and monetizing the
> delivery system for projecting an image turned the pirates of the early
> millennium into both the spokesperson and consumer. In the time of
> COVID-19, the mechanisms used to project an image (dissent, patriotism,
> anti-intellectualism, science, philosophy, news, feelings, etc) are using
> location tracking to monitor the potential and real spread of the virus
> while also making fortunes thanks to data gathering giants like Bytedance
> and Tencent, not to mention Google and Facebook. The pirates are no longer
> outlaws. They’re the lawyers dressed up in Harley Davidson cosplay for
> weekend rides to get ice cream. A pastiche of tropes that reinforce one’s
> belief in being part of the resistance, while really just playing it on
> Instagram. The biological support of a digital tracing system. Narcissism,
> it turns out, is one of the greatest surveillance technologies that could
> be conceived of. Playing on it turns the pirate into the cosplayer and
> furthers Foucault’s concept of biopower as the dominant means of
> surveillance
> The three artists featured this week, Sophia Brueckner, Ben Grosser and
> Roya Ebtehaj, all deftly interpret, subvert, and question the evolution and
> use of social media and associated technologies as surveillance tools and
> platforms for commerce. I’m delighted to have them with us over the coming
> days as we talk about their work, influences, and thoughts on whatever
> subject we find ourselves navigating.
> *Sophia Brueckner*, born in Detroit, MI, is a futurist
> artist/designer/engineer. Inseparable from computers since the age of two,
> she believes she is a cyborg.
> She received her Sc.B. in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics from
> Brown University. As a software engineer at Google, she designed and
> implemented products used by tens of millions and later on experimental
> projects within Google Research.
> Brueckner earned her MFA in Digital + Media at the Rhode Island School of
> Design and MS in the Fluid Interfaces group at the MIT Media Lab where she
> investigated the simultaneously empowering and controlling aspects of
> technology, particularly within computer programming, algorithms, user
> experience design (especially social networks), and tangible interfaces.
> http://www.sophiabrueckner.com/
> *Roya Ebtehaj* is an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in the
> Bay Area, California. Working across new media, she incorporates VR/AR, 3D,
> web, video, animation, photography and installation to reflect on the
> complex relationships between memories, stress, identity and displacement.
> Ebtehaj’s art practice is shaped by the juxtaposition of her Iranian
> background along with her identity as an immigrant in an unfamiliar
> culture. Growing up in a land of paradoxes during a time of intense
> conflict and change, she was impelled to deal with the stress of finding
> her true self in such a society. https://www.royaebtehaj.com/
> *Ben Grosser* creates interactive experiences, machines, and systems that
> examine the cultural, social, and political effects of software. Recent
> exhibition venues include the Barbican Centre in London, Museum Kesselhaus
> in Berlin, Museu das Comunicações in Lisbon, and Galerie Charlot in Paris.
> His works have been featured in *The New Yorker*, *Wired*, *The Atlantic*
> , *The Guardian, The Washington Post, El País*, *Libération*,* Süddeutsche
> Zeitung*, and *Der Spiegel*. The *Chicago Tribune* called him the
> “unrivaled king of ominous gibberish.” *Slate *referred to his work as
> “creative civil disobedience in the digital age.” Grosser’s artworks are
> regularly cited in books investigating the cultural effects of technology,
> including *The Age of Surveillance Capitalism*, *The Metainterface*, *Facebook
> Society*, and *Technologies of Vision*, as well as volumes centered on
> computational art practices such as *Electronic Literature*, *The New
> Aesthetic and Art*, and *Digital Art*. Grosser is an associate professor
> in the School of Art + Design, and co-founder of the Critical Technology
> Studies Lab at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, both at
> the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.
> https://bengrosser.com
> Sophia, Roya and Ben, I’d love it if you could each introduce us to your
> work.
> --
> *Byron Rich*
> Assistant Professor of Art
> Director of Art, Science & Innovation
> Global Citizen Scholar Faculty Director
> Affiliated Faculty - Integrative Informatics
> *Allegheny College*
> Doane Hall of Art, A204
> Meadville, PA
> (o) 814.332.3381
> www.byronrich.com
> Allegheny Lab for Innovation & Creativity
> www.sites.allegheny.edu/alic/
> Co-chair of Exhibitions & Events - New Media Caucus
> www.newmediacaucus.org
> Reference letters require three weeks of lead time.
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu

Sophia Brueckner

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