Unit 2: Future of the Mind – Telepathy context / research / my work

One of the things that captivated me following the initial group ideation session we had around Futures, was the notion that technology could progress such that not only human-computer mental interfacing was possible, but human-human, i.e. telepathy (the communication of ideas/thoughts by means other than the senses).

The idea of telepathy first caught on in western culture in the 19th century, following on from the spread of spiritualism (communing with the spirit realm/the dead) and animal magnetism/mesmerism (whereby healing can occur via induced trances and hypnotism). These pseudosciences caught on in response to the fantastical advances in science that were making the world at once more understood and more mysterious. Why should we only trust our senses if there are microscopic cells (with cell theory – that we are made up of cells – only being formulated in 1839), and if time can be relative (theory of relativity in 1905).

Hilma af Klint was interested in spiritualism, and can also be credited with the first abstract art – exploring automatic drawing in attempts to visualise this non-visible reality. I encountered some of her sketches in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and enjoyed how naive and free they seemed, some of which are below. The nesting and interaction of colourful organic forms, and looping, swooping lines also appeal.

Magicians then, using biological cues, performed ‘thought reading’ stunts, which still continue to this day. Indeed, much of the trends seen in the 19th century reared their heads again during the New Age in the 1970s, e.g. the idea of ‘channelling’ spirits or the collective unconscious via trances to gain new information. This took a strange turn as documented in the book and film adaptation of The Men Who Stare at Goats, with the American military hoping to harness the power of psychic agents for intelligence-gathering (and also, bizarrely, attempting to harm or kill psychically)

This idea of psychic ability being used as a weapon or military advantage is also explored in fiction, e.g. in Star Trek with the Vulcan mind meld appearing in it’s first season, and then later too with empaths such as Betazoids and the hive mind of the Borg. The notion of ‘hacking’ or mind control of another by means of such interfacing is a central theme of fiction such as Ghost in the Shell. This relies too on the notion of interconnected technological knowledge and AI systems within a ‘cyberspace’ – a concept conceived before the internet by William Gibson in his Neuromancer novel, but now a term used to refer to it.

But for me, I am interested in the consequences of such technology. If we were able to communicate telepathically, would this make language redundant? Would we lose language, particularly in our more intimate relationships? This could be a means in which telepathy could be a force for good, and answering a central human desire to be understood – enabling us to fully intimately understand and know our romantic partners and significant others. But what might be lost from our current relationships, and would this be a destructive or positive change?

There is a unique mode of communication already in existence between romantic partners, a secret language you only use within that context – formed of in-jokes, pet names, and particular phrases or patterns of speech that you build together. In a world where you could communicate without language, this would be defunct. I explored some ideas for how we could record these future dead languages, to house in future museums.

Below is a work I encountered in an exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery, curated to explore a post-language society (here conceived as a post-apocalyptic eventuality). The work below explores communication through a personal visual language, which are curious, but I’m unsure if they truly communicate (though perhaps they are recognisable to a native spanish speaker!) – it’s intriguing to see here again colourful, somewhat organic forms appearing.

Returning to my idea… The thought that these languages would be shared, which previously have been intimate and private between two people, is intriguing but one which made me feel unsure I could in good conscience ask people to share with me openly. This is interesting in itself, that I would hesitate to do so. That making open and shareable something entirely private is similar to this notion of sharing our inner most thoughts with others via telepathy. It is certainly an uneasy future being imagined.

What then could be more private than our own sense of self, our inner eye. What might it mean for our perceptions of self, if we can be fully aware of how others perceive us, and view ourselves through their eyes? Would this exacerbate or destroy the current situation of ‘selfie culture’ – whereby we feel pressured to curate our online image to the extent that our bodies, our lives appear perfectly manicured (whether doctored through photoshop or filters or not), and the comparison of ourselves to the online image of others is damaging to our mental health. The obsession with picturing ourselves in any and all situations can be seen as narcissistic and superficial, but it reveals our humanity too. Our desire to understand ourselves, to fit in and be understood by others. To mark our place in the world, and confirm yes I do exist. But this conflict between our inner world and how we appear externally is hard to process – and body dysmorphia and eating disorders are on the rise.

Experiment with a selfie feedback loop using the webcam on my computer and my phone

I very rarely take selfies of myself. My profile picture for several years on Facebook has me in sunglasses that obscure much of my face. This is not out of a particular desire to be unknown, or undocumented. I admittedly do see flaws in my appearance, and suffer that horror when you accidentally have the camera facing the wrong way when you turn it on on your phone. So I never spontaneously feel the urge to do so – to take a selfie feels contrived for me, though I understand it can be different for others! I was interested then to explore this possibility, of the complete knowledge of my appearance to others, and engage in a process that exposed me more than I would usually be comfortable. To invade my own privacy.

To do so, I recorded my appearance in a typical evening at home with my fiance. By attaching a head-mounted GoPro to him, I hoped to approximate his point of view and gain this notion of the self-image through someone else’s eyes. Below, I edited together only those moments when I was in frame. It provides a disjointed account of the time spent making dinner, and the conversation appears surreal.

The camera angle feels like I am floating above myself – as though in an outer-body-experience – which I suppose this is! It is disorienting how it jerks around according to his head movements.

Future Self-Portrait

It is uncomfortable seeing so much of myself in a video, to see less than flattering angles and lighting. Much like the confusion when hearing your voice on a recording (how it never sounds quite as you hear it in your own head), it seemed strange to see my idiosyncrasies – mannerisms and facial expressions – played out in front of me. I feel vulnerable in particular when seeing how my eyes remain closed sometimes when talking – something I am unaware of doing in the moment. Also – I seem so short! In all I think this was a successful experiment.

Unit 2: 3D – Data Visualisation (pt 1)

Ahead of our first session, we were provided with a brief to collect data about ourselves over 7 days that we would be visualising over this 3 week 3D project. I chose to record my use of technology by clocking the time I interacted with screens over this period. I made use of the Screentime function on my iPhone to log my phone usage with great accuracy, and manually logged my use of the computer, TV and other screens (e.g. on the treadmill) as best I could.

The results of this proved to be both intriguing and mildly horrifying. Overall, screentime accounted for almost 39 hours in my week – equivalent to around a quarter of my total time in a week, or more than a third of my waking hours in a week (assuming 8 hours sleep per night).

The first session clarified further the task ahead – to create 30+ maquettes visualising our data with different materials/techniques. We were introduced to some artists who had either been involved in data visualisation or in 3D pieces that could have been adapted to serve in this way.

First, we used paper. I found it tricky to move beyond a straight graphical representation of the data and get beyond the 2D of the paper itself.

Left: Infinite scroll study, Right: Scale segments showing proportion of time spent in a week – from top Non-screen time, phone time, tv time, other

The infinite scroll is an element I am interested in exploring further – the mechanism used by social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook which meanas a you never complete/reach the end of a feed and could scroll downwards on it forever. I learnt about this feature in an episode of Abstract on Netflix with one of the Instagram designers, Ian Spalter, who cited this as his biggest regret. This study was simple in construction – the paper leant itself easily to this shape – and i extended the length by sticking multiple sheets together. I like that you could potentially unroll this piece and discover how long it goes for, but the fact it does have an end may undermine my intention? I could relate the length specifically to the length of time on an average day spent on my phone.

The other paper work, where I carefully measured the 2D areas to represent each proportion of my time to scale, may be more accurate to the purposes, but I found the exactitude limiting. It was only in the larger non-screen time I found myself becoming more engaged in the creative process. I tore the paper into individual strips which I then scrunched and stuck back together in striated layers. The idea here being that time spent away from screens enables the greatest degree of freedom. It was interesting that Sarah considered the non-screen one as a piece in itself, and commented on its brave construction. Perhaps it could act as a visualisation of that free time alone?

In the afternoon we moved onto paper clay. While we could have explored its materiality akin to paper (once rolled and allowed to dry a little) I was more drawn to its very pliable putty-like texture and in working with it in this way.

From top (clockwise): Thumb 7 day screen time bar chart, screen/non-screen pie chart, screen/non-screen balls, scale models of the different screens according to time spent in a week (phone, laptop, TV)

I used scale again here to explore the comparison of data within context of use. The two screen/non-screen proportional pieces are pleasingly simplistic. I like that with the balls you are drawn to holding them and weighing them in your hands, and did wonder about constructing a weighing scales to demonstrate this too. The pie chart comes across like a cheese wheel which I find quite amusing.

The 3 screen models appear quite surrealist to my eye, with the phone so outsized (while the tv and laptop could work together quite reasonably). I like that in fact the phone could believably be true to life scale, and then in that sense the TV and laptop actually the surreal scale.

I enjoyed most the tactile making of the thumbs though. I used the natural wrinkling of the clay as it was compressed to evoke the creases in the skin, and found it pleasing to be moulding a thumb using my own thumb – and using the nail of my thumb to create the thumbnails on them. That there are 7 is eye-catching (where we might expect a set of 5) and when collected in this way it is difficult to identify them as thumbs (where you would usually only have 1 in a set!). So playing with people’s expectations here is quite fun. Also, how they stand up from the base makes them appear as though coming out of the surface – a little creepy to my eye, especially since I had them all bent as though mid-scroll. The size of them relates to the length of time spent using screens in each day of the 7 day period, so is in effect a bar chart.

This was an example of using the thing itself to identify the thing, which we saw being used to good effect in journalistic data visualisation. I think this is more akin to illustration, where the data is telling us a story and the visualisation lends itself to communicating part of that – using visual shortcuts to aid understanding. Mona Chalabi (data editor at Guardian US) does this to good effect. I came across the below piece in the Beazley design of the year exhibition in the Design Museum in London, relating to this blog post on the Guardian website.

The fact she has used actual people within a gallery to signify the people who are and are not represented in modern galleries in the US is really powerful. First because we can ‘read’ the data quickly – that predominantly white males are present within the foreground (here being used metaphorically as those who are foregrounded in the art world – who is brought to our attention). In doing so she has made use of the classic Fine Art conventions of perspective in history painting I think to evoke the sense of tradition and out-datedness of the modern art world in how it has done this – the romanesque arches in the gallery emphasise this. It’s also particularly powerful I think because it humanises these underrepresented artists by actually painting them as simple silhouetted figures. It is too easy for statistics and data to dehumanise and cloud our understanding, while dehumanisation is especially problematic when we are considering populations considered to be ‘outliers’ or minorities (i.e. women, non-white races and cultures). The key is in cuing empathy – showing the human impact of data, as the numbers are usually all too easily swept under the rug (as the infamous quote below highlights). I found this article in the Guardian particularly interesting on this subject.

The death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic.

Joseph Stalin