Performer Sophie stands on a stage area with no set, clutching the back of the office chair and looking upwards as if looking or listening to something high above her. The stage is warmly lit. Sophie's facial expression is excited. Behind Sophie the big screen shows large subtitles that say, "You think it is, but it's not! This isn't ordinary, this moment we're all in." Behind Sophie to her left, the performance sign language interpreter is signing, facing toward the audience.
Sophie performs a scene from Augmented at Battersea Arts Centre's Freshly Scratched showcase. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

Digital technology in the race for equality

The third post by Contemporary Art Curator and writer Linda Rocco, muses on the impact of digital advancement on our identity:

To write an article on the future of digital technologies and the social impact these will generate especially in terms of accessibility and equality, I choose to meet with James Hilton, the co-founder of the creative agency AKQA and now Chief Creative Officer at Native. I first met James during the Unlimited Symposium, where he delivered a singularly amusing yet acute talk on the development of new technologies in relation to physical and mental barriers.

Despite being hugely optimistic about the forthcoming digitalised future, one of my first concerns was related to the damaging effect most technologies seem to have on people’s psyche. Using social media as the most obvious example, Hilton discussed how we actually are at the gramophone stage of digital technology, meaning we do not really understand how to use it. As a species, we have been narcissistic way before Instagram and Facebook; it is not Social Media’s fault, it is our human nature. And despite thinking of ourselves as modern and advanced individuals, the way in which we are using technology is inappropriate. In evolutionary terms, Hilton continues, we are cave people living in a modern world, one which has completely changed beyond recognition in the past 50 years. We are trying to cope with these rapid changes and of course, we make mistakes along the way. Luckily enough, humans have proved again and again to be extremely adaptable; and once we find a new tool it takes some time to eventually master it and become experts.

A huge part of this learning process is performed by education. Once people will be raised in a holistic way so that we can understand what everyone needs, and not just what we want, when we would stop thinking uniquely about ourselves, beginning to seriously consider other people’s perspectives, technology will go ahead to level up the playing field. Diversity without equality is inconsequential. If those at the top who sign stuff off and build facilities for the population do not listen to all different voices, if those voices cannot be heard, claiming for diversity becomes a trivial trademark. Consideration at the very basic stage of any planning strategy is essential. Equality comes when technology becomes more adaptable to people’s needs, and is therefore able to initiate the levelling-out process. Whether through mobility technology, communication tools, robotics or information crowdsource, the effort is towards pushing the boundaries of possibility making the world accessible to anyone, regardless of their physical and cognitive disabilities. In 2019 accessibility is a human right, not just a vision for the world. An encouraging fact is that in the accessibility sphere, companies share knowledge and effectively work together, instead of competing each other. Of course, the progress is generational and won’t certainly happen in a heartbeat. A common mistake is to believe nothing is changing, especially in societal terms, because of the slow and almost imperceptible development. It is in 20 or 50 years time that we will really be able to look back and recognise a discernible transformation. To draw a comparison: 20 years ago people needed to know the basics of car maintenance to obtain a driving license; nowadays those skills are not necessary anymore and in probably 20 years time we won’t even need to know how to drive cars, as they will drive themselves.

At the moment, the market for life-changing assistive technologies is growing exponentially. Apple, Google, Firefox and Facebook are just a few of the companies that have invested in accessibility research, involving disabled people at the very core of the process, following the slogan ‘Nothing about us without us’. Within this new sphere of technological improvement, the notion of cyborg identities has naturally emerged and artistic responses from all over the world have arisen. British artist Sophie Woolley in her one-person show Augmented, in collaboration with dramaturge Sarah Dickenson, director Rachel Bagshaw and accent coach Elspeth Morrison, questions ‘what happens to a person’s identity when twenty years of progressive deafness is suddenly reversed?’’. Working with a sound artist and choreographer, Woolley reflects on her experience to become a cochlea implanted cyborg through placing the narrative on stage as if she was coming from the future, trying to convince an audience who still lives in the past. Using theatrical monologue and dance, Woolley explores the effects of that specific technology on her emotions, life, relationships and identity as well as the broader implication of implantation.

The case of Neil Harbisson, the Northern Irish-born cyborg artist best known for having an antenna implanted in his skull, ultimately supports James Hilton’s belief that people and institutions eventually end up understanding and changing. When Harbisson faced the refusal from the UK authority to include his antenna in his passport picture, an organ which allows him to perceive colour against experiencing the world in tones of grey, he battled to preserve his identity. With his antenna, seen as part of his body and not as some alien technological device, he has eventually been officially recognised as a cyborg by the government. To persevere is crucial.

It will take time to accept the changes technology will produce to the world we currently understand as ours, and there will certainly be hiccups and mistakes on the way. One of the first steps we should seriously begin to consider however, is the move from a myopic society into a holistic one, in which we perceive our interdependence as singles in relation to a greater and varied whole.

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by Unlimited.