Caught an interesting live conversation at the Berkeley Art Museum between artist Desirée Holman and, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self and expert on sociable robotics, Sherry Turkle.

Desirée Holman’s current work explores different types of new media—from television and music videos to online gaming—as a means to imagine and interrogate the human tendency to engage in fictional narratives. "The layers of action and meaning portrayed in her work speak to the contemporary condition of technology as it informs and mediates our sense of self and our social relations," say the BAM curators.

Sherry Turkle is a professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. She has authored books dealing with human interaction with media such as  Simulation and Its Discontents (2009) and Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), among other titles. She is a featured media commentator and has appeared on Nightline, Frontline, 20/20, and The Colbert Report as a pioneer thinker on the social and psychological effects of technology.

What started as a conversation revolving around the search for meanings, and exploration of the potential in virtual existence, morphed into a fascinating psycho analysis of  the end users who are often at the mercy of the "dungeon master" (designer, programmer, artist, provider of narrative/fantasy, whatever applies). Although that could be interpreted as mostly applying to gaming, the truth is that all these evocative objects or tools we use (i-phones, social networks, video games, etc) are altering our social behavior, and at such rapid pace, that we are not being conscious of whether these are positive or negative changes. 

As part of her research, Ms. Turckle conducts behavioral experiments with hundreds of people. Sharing her observations she explained that in the past she would put a group of teenagers who didn't know each other in a room and, although you could sense their discomfort at the beginning, they would eventually overcome the discomfort and start engaging with one another. Where as in recent studies, most teenagers come with gadgets that permit disengagement, and go straight to using them to go on Facebook, text, play games etc, instead of having to overcome the initial fear of having to interact face-to-face with one another. She also mentioned what she refers to as "the multiple identities of the post modern self" and the tendency of people to create online fantasies. For example, she talked about the people that want to appear picture perfect happy on their Facebook even if, in fact, they are very depress. 

There were a lot of questions from the audience that also brought about good points of conversation in important topics, such as a mom inquiring about parenting techniques to deal with a new generation growing up in this gaming culture (or fantasy play as a way of life). Ms. Turkle highly recommended for parents to introduce their kids to technology/games first and engage in their use, to demystify these evocative objects. And to explain that gaming and web technology is at its infancy, still too immatureand should be used as a tool to meet our human necessities, not as an escape from the real world, a planet at risk that needs us, or our faulty politics. Basically and discerningly, that what we learn in the virtual should improve our reality, or else it's just a distraction.  

There were also macro topics that popped up which I found interesting, such as when Holman revealed her inspiration for her installation Reborn that was exhibiting at the Hammer museum in LA. She said that on a late-night web surf she learned about a subculture of women in the bible belt who construct life-like dolls that they treat just as if they were real babies. The haunting video of the installation depicts emotionless digitally illustrated 3d women rocking robotic babies in rocking chairs while lactating milk spills from their mouths. 

Research and experiential learning has already revealed a retrograde in human social evolution in many ways.  Could these new gadgets and fictional fantasies, no different from tv, be distracting us from the real and meaningful? How could they be affecting, say, human reproduction behavior? Could we slowly subconsciously be sabotaging our own species with the reckless design and use of new technology? Should we be paying more attention and consuming more intentionally responsible technology?
To be honest, Desirée's work on its own didn't evoke the depth of the curator's notes, the deeper conversation with the sociable robotics expert and audience, and the background story. But I really appreciate the conversation her work surfaced. These are things everyone should really be thinking about when deciding to consume a gadget, fictional story of any medium, or game. Is this new technology necessary or merely a fashion statement? What is the environmental/ecological impact of this new technology? How is this new technology going to improve my life, help me attain my goals, or help me lead a life with purpose? Is this new technology merely offering instant gratification while distracting me from real emotional fulfillment and what's meaningful? How is this new technology going to positively or negatively affect my life?

You can catch Desirée Holman's new project Heterotopias at the Berkeley Art Museum until September 18, 2011.   

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