The artists trolling tech to poke holes in the future

We know technology has flaws: security experts have been hacking connected cars for years. But that requires uncommon skills, knowledge and nerve; why not just paint a circle of road markings around it, trapping it? That’s an idea from artist James Bridle, whose Autonomous Trap 001 is simply a circle in salt, with broken lines on the outside and a continuous line on the inside – which a driverless car would interpret to mean it can enter the circle, but not leave.

Artists and activists are using such low-tech methods to poke holes in cutting-edge technologies. But what’s the appeal of thwarting technology? Brian David Johnson is futurist-in-residence at Arizona State University, and previously worked at Intel. He says such projects are part of a wider reaction, exploration and acceptance of new tech — it’s people working out how such ideas fit into our lives.

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Image: James Bridle

“There’s always a typical flow of how people accept technologies,” he told Alphr. “The first step is whether something is technologically possible. With self-driving cars and so on, in the beginning they were very ‘science fiction’ and didn’t really feel real. And then as it starts to… become possible, it comes down to cultural acceptance. You’ll have people who are interested in it – often referred to as the early adopters – but you’ll also have folks who find it abhorrent and don’t like it at all, don’t culturally accept it because it’s scary and new.”

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Image: James Bridle 

It’s easy to write off the latter as Luddites, but there’s a reason future technology often carries frightening connotations: it’s how we’ve been trained to react by science fiction. “As we move into more powerful technologies, we are seeing people have these very visceral, allergic reactions to these technologies,” Johnson said. “Many times, [the technologies] haven’t really shown their usefulness… and most of the time how these technologies have first been introduced is through dystopian science fiction, and I think it’s people reacting against that.”

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Dazzling disruption

Not all reactions to new technologies are based in literary fears, of course.

Facial recognition technologies, for example, could be genuinely useful, but still raise questions around ethics, privacy and abuse. One response has been CV Dazzle, a tech-informed art project that aims to hide people from being recognised by facial recognition using hair styles and makeup.

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Image: Adam Harvey via CV Dazzle

The name comes from a type of camouflage used during the First World War on battleships. It involved cubist-style shapes being painted on ships to conceal their size, orientation and make them confusing to the eye. “CV Dazzle uses avant-garde hairstyling and makeup designs to break apart the continuity of a face,” its website explains.

“Since facial-recognition algorithms rely on the identification and spatial relationship of key facial features, like symmetry and tonal contours, one can block detection by creating an ‘anti-face’.” In practice, that means dramatic hair that sweeps across the eyes or conceals the bridge of the nose, and contrast-heavy makeup that confuses cameras and confounds facial recognition systems.

“It’s about being able to express yourself, and express yourself in protest,” Johnson said. “Everything from the graffiti to the temples of Egypt all the way up to a Banksy, protest can have an artistic bent to it… to raise awareness. A lot of these people, that’s what they’re doing — they’re activists.” Johnson said that’s not only limited to avant-garde makeup or graffiti, pointing to science fiction author Cory Doctorow, writer of Little Brother and Homeland, and an editor at popular blog Boing Boing. “He writes his science fiction stories, sometimes dystopian futures, as a way of showing people a possible future that we should avoid.”

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Tech-savvy artists

Such protests aren’t the work of Luddites – you need to be tech savvy to understand a facial recognition algorithm well enough to use paint to dodge its capabilities. It’s certainly no coincidence that the artist behind the CV Dazzle project, Adam Harvey, is a graduate of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, a frequent speaker at tech conferences, and developed computer vision software and facial recognition systems for other artists, including Ai Weiwei.

In other words, Harvey knows his tech. So too does James Bridle. His driverless car trap came about while he was building his own autonomous vehicle, writing his own software to control it. “To disrupt it and to truly protest, you have to have an understanding”, Johnson said.

Indeed, none of this work is intended to prevent the technologies in question from being used, instead offering a critique, pointing out flaws (presumably with the intent they be fixed), and offering avoidance tactics. For those reasons, Johnson sees such work as a sign of acceptance of new technologies. “These protests and hacks are one way a society starts to bring a technology closer and closer to acceptance,” he said. “We begin to say: this is a future that we want, and this is a future we want to avoid. I think a lot of these early protests are conversation starters, actually quite needed and very helpful, to say do we want this, do you know what’s going on? It sparks the cultural conversation that we need to have.”

That’s particularly true of the projects that have a sense of humour. “Humour is the flipside of horror,” Johnson explained. “Humour is the way that we normalise this.” First responses to technology tend to be dystopian, he noted, but you know it’s becoming closer to acceptance when we start making fun of it.

“If you can laugh at it, it makes it less scary,” he said. “Look at robots. In the beginning we see them as these big scary golems that are going to rise up and kill humanity… as you move forward, you start to see them as comical. If you’re laughing at them, they’re probably not going to bring about the end of the world.”

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