Can Art Help Us See the Future? Human – Art – Technology – Future

2019.5.15
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“Newness” is always linked to passion and curiosity for the future. Based on this perspective, we can conclude that outstanding artists were all able to foresee the future. Though we are currently deluged with the offerings of advanced technology, still, technology continues to advance. If the things that happen and occur in this moment become the basis for future events, then could we not foretell the future by simply observing carefully this present moment in which we live our lives? Let us consider how contemporary artists forecast the future. The future, under the banner of “science and technology”, will appear before us in whatever form is accordingly proper. At this point we must remember to ask “what is the role of art” in the future.

Humans and robots are different. This difference springs from the realm of emotions. Biologically speaking, humans have survived by repeating the calculus involving the process in which emotions create thoughts, which lead then to action. Humans first must experience an emotion in order to orient the direction of thought. What results will lead to action. In contrast, the development stages of robots start from action, move to thought and then arrive at emotional feeling. Initially, robots performed assembly or sorting actions, then entered a phase in which AI enabled them to think, and now they are peering around the corner into the domain of human feelings and ethical decision making. For humans, emotions drive thought and action, but for robots, emotions symbolize an unknown destination they want to arrive at. Therefore, what kind of constructs are needed for two entities on such drastically different journeys to coexist?

Over the last century, as humans delved deep into thought, in comparison, emotional experience was diminished far too much. As such, it is easier to consider the rational mind, logic and technology as the drivers of the future, causing us to keep a heavy foot on the gas pedal that unleashes the power of rational thinking and efficiency so as to achieve even faster development. What results is a lack of substantial reflection on the position that humans will find themselves in when such a future arrives, and what kind of values we can create at that point. This is the reason why the picture of the future being drawn from the recently intensifying discourse on AI and the fourth industrial revolution is more of an uncertain landscape composed of both blessings and fear.

Paradoxically, the fear of an AI-driven future-scape has actually refreshed interest in humans and art. This is because art lies in a realm where robots cannot enter. Art also gives voice to not only the uniquely human traits that are distinct from those of robots, but also the critical perspective humans can take in observing social problems. Now, let us ask an even more fundamental question: how can art transform the future?

To answer this, a process chart that begins with humans, proceeds through art and technology to arrive at the future is drawn up. As a representative for humanity, art interfaces with technology which is the force that calls forth the future. Influence flows both ways at this nexus, thus creating an environment in which a more positive future can be envisioned. Major nations, the academia, the corporate sector and institutions are introducing the coupling of art and technology as a solution to how a future that is symbolized by AI, digitalization, and robots can be a blessing for humanity and not a cause for fear. What this hybridization of two distinct domains can accomplish is to act at times as a braking mechanism for technological development, while offering philosophical direction, and to ensure that humans continue to remain center stage even in the future. In other words, the central aspect of art is “direction,” not “development.”

In the massive, hyper-connected society formed on the back of digital technology, issues concerning nature, life, the self, and the physical body are receiving attention once again. A good example of this Giulia Tomasello’s “Future Flora.” We have seen before various works dealing in animals, plants, and in a larger sense, the issue of nature coexisting with humans. But Tomasello, who studied biotechnology, expands the parameters of the Anthropocene time period to unveil the possibility of symbiosis with bacteria which has long been considered taboo by people. Tomasello considers bacteria as part of human beings. Her research efforts put front and center the female body and sexuality which have so far been oppressed, thereby eroding the prejudices that surround women’s sexuality, health, and things forbidden. The unrestrained use of antibiotics by a sterilized society that accepts no germ or bacteria has produced various pharmacological, psychological, and policy related side effects. As a result, we are witnessing the breakdown of balance across all areas of society. Tomasello’s art is a powerful work of resistance against the control of capital and the authority of medicine and science. Instead of using an expression like “embarrassing,” which stems from the idea of something being taboo, to describe the relationship between bacteria and the most intimate and delicate part of the female body, Tomasello interprets this relationship as the starting point of a micro ecosystem that could realize new values. This goes on to change the view on bacteria from being harmful germs to being beneficial organisms, thus starting the symbiosis of humans and microorganisms.

As we can see, art gives birth to many different angles from which we can question and approach perceptions on technology, society’s connection to technology, politics and the cultural context, and how we interpret all this. Art is able to pour forth so many questions because art reflects human nature. Through the brain’s cognitive function that integrates the left and right hemispheres which respectively represent reason and emotion, humans compare internal and external issues, observe them, create letters and images to communicate with each other, and develop logic to grasp the relationship between time and space. Hence, art can be understood as a creative process that is rooted securely in originality, which gives expression to the thoughts, emotions, and actions of the complicated social animal called the human being. For these reasons, understanding art allows for the formation of deep insight into the nature of humans. Art may be likened to the front wheel of a bicycle wherein the front wheel has to act as a rudder so that technology represented by the rear wheel can advance towards a correct, new, and creative direction.

Technology grew by feeding off imagination. In turn, this imagination was expanded and transformed into symbols by art, which includes philosophy, the fine arts, and literature, thereby giving birth to a kind of symbology/metaphor. From amidst all of this, we interpret the past and look out into the future. Lucy McRae’s “The Institute of Isolation” is a documentary that uses extreme isolation to test human limits and observe what happens. Set in a not too distant future in a fictional research center, McRae’s work shows the full process of researching the adaptation and evolution potential of human biology through various experiments. For instance, by exposing an isolated human being to extreme situations related to genetic engineering, space travel, and sensory deprivation, the adaptation that occurs when humans interact with technology may be observed. This makes the audience imagine what would happen to humans when the living conditions on planet earth, our home, no longer can sustain life. Perhaps, in the distant future, as Charles Darwin predicted, humans will resemble a new human species that is no longer at the mercy of natural selection but is able to choose for itself in order to create a new environment and to evolve in accordance with these new rules.

As mentioned earlier, technology increasingly depends on art because of art’s inherent originality. Unlike technology in a lab that is separated from humans and society, art can be much more than a circular logical construct. Rather, art discerns the values pursued by a certain era through a human perspective and expresses them in a new way. Therefore, it is important to analyze and study art’s originality. Or easier yet, one could even turn this on its head and analyze what is required for an artwork to have originality. In the past, such analysis of conditions was relatively simpler and involved a flow chart that began with theme, moved to materials, then technique, and finally the finished work as a whole. But as modern art started to place greater importance on the process, audience participation, and other layers within the artwork, things got a bit more complicated. What became more important was not the intended theme of the work, but the viewer’s interpretation, and the preparing of the artist materials was more important than the material itself. If we make a friendly diagram out of this, it could be summed up as follows: the first level is Narrative 1 that includes theme, materials, technique/technology; the second level is Narrative 2 which represents interaction with the audience; rounding this all out is social impact. Moreover, in pondering how to imbue their artwork with originality at every stage, artists collaborate across genres and boldly explore new technology. They sought originality by developing algorithms driven by machine learning technology to reflect audience participation in real time but even this has become old news of late.

The technology that surprises us today is by tomorrow just another aspect of daily life. On the other hand, art might confuse us today but come tomorrow it will surprise us by communicating to us a new meaning. As evidenced in the diagram connecting humans, art, technology, and the future, when we come to understand art as a reflection of humans, then we can expect the future to give birth to a meaningful new technology.
In closing, I would like to leave the future generation with the following comment: “Do you want to be prepared for the future? Then, instead of trying to be smarter, you should strive to be a more warm-hearted person who feels more deeply. That will allow you to become a person whom robots created from technological advancement cannot even attempt to mimic. You don’t know how to feel things? Don’t panic. Art will reawaken in you that lost sense.”

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