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How to humanize technology–from the scatological to the sublime


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Laura is reporting on the science-oriented sessions from the World Economic Forum in Davos.

It could be tempting to conclude that technology dehumanizes us. Who among us hasn’t felt like a zombie when staring bleary-eyed at a computer after hours of Web surfing, or felt like our smart phones have become as permanent as digital limb. However, a new exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art asks us to believe an alternate proposition – instead we make technology more human.

Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MOMA is the force behind the "Talk to Me" exhibit, which explores the world of communication between people and things. The exhibit considers how designers seek to enable a nonverbal dialogue through clever design. As Antonelli sees it, designers embed an initial script that lets people improvise dialogue in a fulfilling and meaningful way.

Much like the observer plays a crucial role in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the participant is the key ingredient that brings the objects to life.

Antonelli outlined a few of the objects that seemed to embody human behavior. In one project, a cardboard robot no more than one foot tall roamed Washington Square park in New York City with a note attached to it asking for help to get to the opposite corner. Dozens of helpful strangers interacted with the robot, stopping to point it in the right direction.

In another called "Crossfire," a traditional table setting replete with bone white china shudders and reverberates when the audio track from an emotionally tense dinner scene from the film American Beauty echoes across the table. It’s almost as if the objects themselves feel pain and anger.

In a more whimsical direction, a radio, appropriately titled "Gesundheit Radio" sneezes when it collects too much dust, and a modern version of the dowsing stick helps ascertain the nearest wifi signal.

A few objects sought to blend with human biological systems. One such project developed a pair of eyeglasses-software system called "EyeWriter". It enabled a famous L.A. graffiti artist who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease and could only move his eyes to make art again for the first time in seven years.

Another called "E Chromi" took a turn for the scatological by using the digestive system to uncover underlying health concerns. The project required users to ingest a certain probiotic that turned feces a certain color (vivid red, blue, green, yellow) to signal various health concerns.

In another similarly unusual project, one artist spent three years cataloguing the afterlife of a randomly selected pig from a commercial farm, "PIG 05049", who was scheduled for slaughter. The resulting book catalogues the hundreds of products made from this pig: brakes, chewing gum, and cosmetics.

Perhaps my favorite item from the collection combined the narrative and biological elements of our identity in a single object called the "Genetic Heirloom". An elegantly shaped wood and plastic device, it allows ancestors to audio record their genetic diseases for their descendants. How might this object force a confrontation with the historical narrative of the most personalized biological element of ourselves?

The ‘Talk to Me’ exhibit resets our expectations from objects: they shift from being merely possessions to agents we communicate with. Perhaps this raises the next question: when we communicate with objects, do they gain a kind of power, or an uneasy independence from the utility we assign? I can imagine for some the new power dynamic may be an uneasy one – but for me, I’m ready for the new level of commitment.

Photo: Davos congress hall, by Laura Neuhaus.

About the Author: Laura Neuhaus is a history of science masters student at Harvard University. She researches the culture and practices of computer programming in India. Laura examines how governments and companies attempt to transplant the tech culture of Silicon Valley for economic and social gain. She’s also interested in how the general public engages with science, and daydreams about building exploratoriums around the planet. She has lived in India, Hong Kong and Mexico, and tweets at @promethea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

 






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. Glendon Mellow 6:10 pm 01/28/2011

    The E Chromi project is really cool. Their website is worth exploring.

    http://www.echromi.com/

    Link to this
  2. 2. JDahiya 2:01 am 02/21/2011

    Excellent article–please keep them coming.
    I loved the Tweenbot, and E Chromi is conceptually fabulous–live scifi stuff. Crossfire was … creepy.

    Link to this

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