On Art, Technology and Society by Harry Wilson

How can theatre influence the direction of travel of our society in this technological age?

How does art interact with disruptive technologies in order to have a positive impact on society?

These are pressing questions. Writers have variously described our current moment as ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or the ‘New Dark Age’ – terms that capture the potential change and disruption that might result from the integration of technology into our daily lives.

Emerging tech such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, developments in big data, scientific advances in gene editing and cellular regeneration – as well as projects that attempt to ‘upgrade’ or ‘augment’ the human body using technology – suggest that the impact technology will have on our lives will shift dramatically in the next 30-40 years. Tech companies talk about ‘mitigating the risks’ that might be involved in some of these developments but we should also examine who is leading the change, who decides on the kind of society we will we be living in and what kinds of voices get to set the rules of engagement for the future.

Artist Stephanie Dinkins put this well when she asks if AI will magnify and perpetuate existing injustice.

“What happens when an insular subset of society encodes governing systems intended for use by the majority of the planet? What happens when those writing the rules … might not know, care about, or deliberately consider the needs, desires, or traditions of people their work impacts?” (read the full New York Times article here)

At this time, artists and radical thinkers have a vital role to play, not just in humanising the impact of technology, but also in critiquing the dominant voices, in offering alternative imaginations of the future, and contributing to the public discourse in a way that empowers people to have a say in the way that the world is moving: in other words, artists must disrupt disruptive technologies.

Some questions for theatre in Scotland

So what might theatre-makers in Scotland consider when making theatre with, and about, the intersections between art, technology and society?

National Theatre of Scotland’s recent Citizen of Nowhere Collider event brought together artists and technologists to explore this very question.

Apparent throughout the event was the collective decision making that theatre practitioners are often so good at – especially if they are used to working in collaborative making contexts. How might these theatrical processes of collaboration, discussion, debate and collective decision making inform approaches to technological design? Inversely, what might theatre makers learn from looking at collective design processes? How might these approaches inflect the kind of decision making that happens at the level of governments, corporations and technology companies?

We should remember to be sceptical about ideas of progress, the human, innovation in these debates. Is technological progress the same as societal progress? Is it problematic to think about history as a linear progression from non-civilised to civilised? Does thinking of the ‘human’ and the ‘humane’ as the antidote to technology exclude those that have historically been thought of as inhumane or not ‘man’? And does this approach technology in a human-centred way that side-lines the non-human and more-than-human (animals, minerals, nature, environment)? What do we mean by the terms creativity, innovation, productivity? What ideologies inform our use of these terms? Why create, why innovate, what and who are we being productive for?

Perhaps as we enter into discussions about the future of technology, society and theatre-making we need to remember the qualities that artists can bring to the debate – playfulness, imagination, critique. But most of all art, theatre and performance processes might help us to think and practise a different way of being in the world.

Image: Limina Immersive VR

About the author

Harry Robert Wilson is a researcher and performance maker based in Glasgow and currently Digital Thinker in Residence with the National Theatre of Scotland. Harry has a PhD in intermedial performance practice from the University of Glasgow. He has shared research at a range of conferences from Stockholm to Chicago and as a practitioner has shown work at venues and festivals across the UK including The Arches; the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; Forest Fringe, Edinburgh; DCA, Dundee; BAC, London; and internationally at Defibrillator Gallery, Chicago and Kilowatt Festival, Sansepolcro.



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