ctrl+shift HUMAN | Beyond the Obvious 2018 conference report

Information Technologies (IT) can solve problems, accelerate decision-making and help complete complex tasks through self-learning processes. They are often defined as a communication system that is universal, transparent, simple and accessible. However, this is not 100% true. Technologies are neither neutral, nor accessible and transparent. Algorithmic processes are acting in direct relation to our infrastructures and beyond the purely functional transmission and transformation of the data, they often perform invisibly and with bias. There are political, social, economic and cultural issues that need to be addressed, because they determine the performativity of these technologies and are embedded in their design. We should be able to detect tactical and technical design choices, and to examine the potential and limits of their implementation. It is useful then to explore the intersection between the fascination generated by the possibilities of this hybrid and augmented condition and the awareness of the emerging patterns that lead to redefinitions of creativity, disciplines, representation, globalization and cultural production.

This debate can follow many different streams, one of which concerns the segregation of the spheres where ideas circulate online, the segmentation of cultural digital content and the cultural and social effects of the new global content platforms. How do we ensure diversity of cultural content in order to overcome network effects, black box algorithms and big data effects on the creation of “new dominant cultures”? This leads us to question whether our digital environment, mediated by algorithms, could become a monoculture in its broader sense, one single-colored bubble culture that loses diversity, plurality and even cuts the free circulation of cultural expressions.

Beyond the circulation and distribution of immaterial data, it is important to look into the material consumption related to IT and its environmental impact. Algorithmic processes require ever-growing infrastructures that are supported by human labour networks and are diminishing natural resources. It is expected that, by 2025, the IT and digital content industries could account for 20% of all electricity use. Digital vocabulary, such as ‘the cloud’, distracts from this material dimension and most users remain ignorant to its consequences. Considering that cultural industries are the biggest content producers and up-loaders, this issue is particularly relevant and should be discussed within its broader political and economic frame. There is an urgent need to ensure more sustainable and responsible approaches to content creation and distribution.

To approach these issues, it is necessary to recognize the strategic importance of creating a wider outlook beyond disciplinary boundaries, an approach that recognizes the enormous possibilities of crossing knowledge and mediating through sectors. Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) initiatives bring together artists, designers, scientists, engineers aiming to create a position beyond disciplines to approach actual and future challenges. So to say, to create an in-disciplinary position to decode complex problems through a mix of transversal competencies and unconventional thinking. In-disciplinarity here would mean to approach common goals without common ground and to acknowledge that this does not subject all participants to one disciplinary (or sectoral) worldview, nor assumes the possibility of a universal language. Rather, it recognises that disciplines can be suspended to allow thinking out of the box and find other ways to approach complex issues, because knowledge and experience are fundamentally heterogeneous.

As cultural agents, and content producers, our challenge is to take the responsibility of trying to understand the technologies that are shaping our world. Because this is the only way to be capable of taking critical decisions affecting institutions, organisations, and individuals in their social, political and cultural practices.

Download the “Beyond the Obvious 2018” Conference report here.