Collaborating Faculty member Ben McCorkle writes: From the outset of the Humane Technologies: Livable Futures Pop-Up Collaboration, I wondered what my role would be in it. As a specialist in rhetoric whose interest lies in exploring how technologies have shaped our communication practices throughout history, I’ve been trained to explore these questions from a position that’s somewhat outside and above the immediate action. To an extent, I set out to maintain this stance, intending to watch from the sidelines as an impressive group of technologists, designers, and artists came together in the spirit of play, exploration, and creativity to question how contemporary technologies can be utilized to promote a more compassionate, socially engaged future. But as the week unfolded, I found myself caught up in the gravitational pull, eventually diving in and joining the fray.
As part of the reporting team (Peter Chan, Michelle Wibbelsman, and myself), our goal was to observe and document the processes of collaboration as they unfolded throughout the ACCAD space: the brainstorming, the concept building, the rapid prototyping, the problem solving, the play-testing, the refining. Initially, I found myself focused on the technologies themselves, the instruments that facilitated these processes. The whole space was populated by a whole heap of impressive gee-whiz tech, from VR rigs and 3-D printers to interactive touch displays and projectors. Surrounded by this technological infrastructure, it’s tempting (and perhaps even understandable) to forget about the actants, the human agents, that use that infrastructure. I mentally checked myself and popped out of the activity to observe from a different perspective.
I found myself watching how bodies circulated during the week: frenetic, chaotic, playful, eventually leading to patterns… leading to purpose. The open layout of the ACCAD studios facilitated this movement, where people working diligently on one project would be pulled into another for some quick feedback, then to another to help with a demo. Classes would move in and out of the space, students contributing to the tasks at hand.
I popped back in. I played with data visualizations on a large touch screen, contributed family photos to help Maria build a patchwork landscape for the Fly Like a Bird heron flight simulator, offered feedback as Scott and his team developed his Digital + Physical Games project. I also worked with Alan as he developed his Method of Loci VR and multi-touch display environment (for this project, I contributed the idea of the classical/medieval rhetorical technique called the memory palace, a method of remembering parts of an oration by mentally placing key points in an imaginary building). This project explores the possibilities of externalizing our individual memories and experiences in a shared, interactive virtual space. I think of this project as a microcosm of what the entire week was about: connecting, creating spaces for empathy and unerstanding.
I popped back out. As Peter, Michelle, and I talked about what we were observing as ideas took shape, as process yielded product, we leaned on metaphors, symbols, and imagery that reflected this dynamic: the double helix structure of DNA, Chinese ideographs depicting “tree” and “forest,” pictures of a copse of trees, an individual tree with serpentine root structure, imagery of tornados, and Robert Smithton’s earthworks sculpture The Spiral Jetty, among others.
At the time, I wrote in response to Peter as he shared a collage of these images:
I’m struck by the resemblances evoked by these different image groupings: curvilinear, evoking a sense of motion/process, "natural." in the sense of conveying a visual identity for whatever it is that humane technologies want to become (despite what we might *want* them to become), these images collectively suggest a common ethos or spirit.
Additionally, these visual metaphors all work together if we consider how systems and ecologies operate, and, more to the point, how we as subjects observe them in operation: from a certain distance, perhaps they appear orderly and unified, but zoom in and you might see frenetic noise or even chaos; zoom in even further, and you might realize there's actually an elegance (perhaps even design?) to that chaos...
Popping back in. I’ve come to a realization that all of this spiraling imagery is not just a metaphor, but a way of mapping the week-long activity of the Pop-Up. In other words, this movement of bodies not only reflects on a symbolic level how ideas emerge, change, lead to creation, it is *literally* a key mechanism by which they are formed. Hands type and push buttons to change code, arms wave in the midst of gameplay, whole bodies undulate in the service of performing a dance routine. Witnessing firsthand (and even participating in) this whirlwind-in-a-snowglobe, I realize that this dynamic is at play when we scale up to consider culture at large. The problem is, we don’t always recognize that; perhaps the solution lies in deliberately attempting to bring about those moments of recognition more clearly and more often.