Can artists fix technology?

Illustration by Brian Corrigan.

It’s been over two months since I quit Facebook—the decision being made around the time of the election. And yes, people being jerks to one another over differences in political opinions played a factor. But that’s just really the beginning.

The networks handling of privacy issues, data mining, censorship and facial recognition—just to name a few—are all equally troubling. The technology built to connect us digitally is supporting the acceleration of harassment, division, distrust, addiction and negative psychological effects in the real world.

This new unfolding reality is shaping itself into the perfect case study for why STEM should have always have been STEAM. We need artists — with their rich understanding of the ways objects and ideas can impact thinking and behavior — to lead the way in the production of technology to ensure the algorithms we code reflect standards of beauty; standards of morality; and standards that protect from bias and censorship.

Lui Ferreyra, a “Colorado Master” and internationally recognized artist whose work depicts a break-down of subject-matter in an aesthetic that is evocative of today’s digital-age, sees art as a type of mirror. He says, “Art can mirror back who we are at the present time—accurately or falsely. Art can mirror back nostalgically about what we once were . . . In it’s critical modality, art can articulate a timely critique which elucidates the various failures of social institutions. In it’s constructive modality, art can light the way toward a viable, sustainable future.”

Lui Ferreyra, “Sum Ergo Sum,” 2016, oil on canvas, 40” x 50.” Photo by Wes Magyar.

Ferreyra makes a solid case for the type of insights artists can bring to a development team. These critical thinking skills are a means to understanding, seeing and creating a healthy competitive advantage in the marketplace; and a means to improving our society’s shared future.

In the tech industry, the need for critique and change is apparent. Justin Gitlin, a leading voice in the creative coding community agrees. “Technology has given us so many amazing ways to communicate, connect, find support, entertain and make certain tasks easier. Yet with these advancements comes a dark side,” he says.

According to Gitlin, “While we’re able to connect more broadly with people outside of our physical location, we’re also isolating ourselves in our immediate vicinity. So many people have their faces buried in their devices as a way to avoid public interaction, and I think this is damaging to our sense of community.”

Even Facebook’s own CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, confessed there are problems with the network. He posted “technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected . . . but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime.”

Could artists, dancers and musicians — who make work with the singular purpose of eliciting shared, emotional responses in public forums like galleries and concert halls — inspire a technology that connects people together in a much more positive way?

To be clear, the problem isn’t the technology itself. By definition technology refers to the “practical application of knowledge in a certain area.” The problem lies within how we engineer the technology and who makes those decisions. We need to think outside the binary to establish a computer science that is not only just “smart” but humane.

Artists are good at this type of thinking. They ask the hard questions. They understand the complex systems that guide culture. And most importantly, they can bridge the macro with the micro; the process with the product; and the insider with the outsider.

Gitlin says, “They [artists] ask deeper questions related to our humanity, not just the bottom line. They also bring design sensibilities, aesthetics and hopefully representation of a broader user base.”

Should tech development companies be finding a place for artists in the C-Suite? Should they support the development of tech-driven art projects that help the entire profession better understand the positive impact thoughtful programming can have?

(Above: Hit play to see an interactive art project by Daily Tous Les Jours that was in Colorado in 2014.  Video by Ray Mark Rinaldi)


Daily Tous Les Jours is group of artists pushing the boundaries of technology. One project, Mesa Musical Shadows, reimagines the pavement as a place where the shadows of the passerby trigger sounds of singing voices; inviting the people passing by to compose symphonies together through movement. The sidewalk invites strangers to bump up against one another to share a moment of magic, igniting in them a sense of possibility.

In an effort to encourage the production of work that pushes the boundaries of technology, Giltin along with Marc Wren and Peter Hoskins, started the monthly Meetup group Denver Creative Tech. They realized there was no formal group in Colorado for supporting this type of output. Their goal is to build new bridges between people in the community, be a place to learn new techniques, inspire and meet potential new collaborators.

This month’s event, happening January 26 at Syntax Physic Opera, features a short talk by local musician Ian Cooke. He’ll present on how he uses tech in his music and the reasoning behind when to use it and when not to use it—a timely topic that metaphorically speaking could be useful to just about anyone—especially given that the average person is estimated to spend five years and four months over a lifetime on social media.

The bright side: problems create opportunities. And because of our pioneering and collaborative western spirit, Denver seems positioned to lead us into this new digital frontier. Colorado is rich in artistic talent—talent that brings a whole new way of thinking to the table. Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Smart thinking.


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