Art that questions the relationship between people and new technologies

What role will technology and data play in our daily lives in 2025? What role will machines that can read human emotions play in this relationship? That is one of the fundamental questions addressed in the 2019 Trendbook compiled by the AXA Foresight team of experts. To shed some light on this question, we invited Albertine Meunier to apply her artistic imagination to the machines of today and tomorrow. ALL ARTICLES  |  Research & Foresight
Feb 28, 2019

According to the International Data Corporation, the amount of data collected in 2025 will be ten times greater than in 2016. Though the exponential data volumes available today offer a world of opportunity to businesses, many users have grown wary of how companies manage this data. In an era when people are converted into data to be analyzed and processed, and to coincide with the release of our trendbook compiling our projections of society in 2025, we decided to take a step back and view this phenomenon through a field that – for now at least – still belongs to people: art.

Albertine Meunier is a “digital artist”. Originally trained as an engineer, she has been creating art using the Internet as her material for many years. Through books, installations, games and more, her work seeks to reveal the virtual structures of technology. In her view, rendering data in a concrete way makes it possible to grasp, understand and, ultimately, learn to utilize the information at our disposal.

What do you think are the new relationships between people and technology? How do you represent them in your art?

The relationship between people and technologies is characterized by a massive and continuous flow of data. My work consists in revealing these flows, which are often misunderstood because they are virtual. By making data more tangible, we start to notice its depth and quantity – which allows us to grasp its value. For example, I recorded every Google search I performed over a five year period in a book: My Google Search History. In the end, this ordinary, repetitive and seemingly ephemeral action adds up to produce a massive book. It’s a continuous list of search terms that convey a lifestyle, daily habits and an intimate personal history. It gives shape to data, making it something palpable. In this way, its existence is indisputable. Paging through the book inspires both curiosity and concern. I say concern because it’s unsettling to see how we are essentially tracked and monitored. It forces us to become less naive. In fact, this book is proof that we are no easy prey, that we can gain agency and that it’s possible to flip the balance of power.

How does art enable us to reflect on the future of our world?

For me, art is about education more than anything else. It allows us to see the world, understand it and then take appropriate action. That is the underlying purpose of all the performances I do. Faced with an increasingly digitalized world, we can feel powerless and think there is nothing we can do. Or, and this is my position, we can equip ourselves so that we do not fall prey. I want to show that greater awareness – and greater control – is possible. It’s a kind of opposing power. For me, art is a whistleblower for citizens.

What lies behind the term “affective computing”? While machines have certainly produced a lot of emotions, what can we say about a world in which they are able to perceive them?

I think it’s terrible. Being completely readable sounds like a nightmare! We know what you search for, where you go and how you get there, if you’re afraid, hungry... It’s our privacy and inner life that is becoming decipherable. I think it’s an obvious way we can lose control. As long as we are living under a decent system, there is no cause for too much concern. But what happens when that’s not longer the case?

Related content
Scoring, a symptom of a confidence crisis?
read more

Another issue is that machines can read things that remain incomprehensible to us. For example, we don’t know how to read or analyze the list of search terms in My Google Search History. We just see a massive amount of data. Whereas a machine will read through all of it, count, correlate and give meaning to the mass of data. It will analyze the data closely and draw a conclusion. Will that conclusion have anything in common with what we know about ourselves and our experience? That’s where the data escapes us. Machines turn us into impersonal numbers. It raises a lot of questions!

As an artist, what do you think will be the most important interfaces in the future?

I think the primary interface will remain tangible objects that we can touch. We will always need objects that we can wear down and break. Notice how we always have our mobile phones in our hands. It’s striking. That’s my preference anyway, that we maintain our tactile relationship to technology. It’s true that voice is becoming more popular. But I don’t think it will prevail over touch. It’s too ethereal. It’s all in the air. Artists need a more organic and grounded relationship to the world. Moreover, I work with Bastien Didier on brain-computer interfaces. It’s a form of telepathy that will eventually become even more subtle than voice. Machines will be able to detect your emotions, your movements, your thoughts and then react accordingly – all the more reason to keep raising questions!