“Future World-building Depends on Artists and Collaborative Networks”

By Kamal Sinclair

Kamal Sinclair

Photo courtesy of Kamal Sinclair

Since the dawn of the Enlightenment Age, when hyper-specialization began in a rapidly industrializing world and identities such as “scientist” gained prominence, we have seen greater investments in narrowing the range of inputs for special fields of learning and minimizing the types of collaborators who work to pursue curiosities and value creation.

Over the last 150 years, humanity has experienced a breakneck pace of growth, not only in science and technology, but in population and data production. How could we as a species deal with so much knowledge unless we turned to hyper-specialization? We have done that well. However, we still have not understood that the potential of these specializations is limited unless we can construct robust collaborative networks across fields and disciplines. At this point, we are so hyper-specialized that we are missing critical connections for discovery, design principles in our systems development, and context for defining meaning.

The recommendations made by the National Endowment for the Arts in its report, Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium, address this issue by encouraging greater integration of artists, technologists, and scientists in education, cultural institutions, and corporate environments. These ideas are sound and must be adopted.

My Take: Creating Shared Space for Innovation

As the former director of the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, I witnessed the benefits of bringing people from a variety of art, tech, sociology, and science backgrounds into one space for a deep inquiry into story and technology. I was able to observe the exciting insights and breakthroughs that curating this diversity of people into one experience sparked—sometimes significantly impacting industries and sending technology designs in new directions.

At the beginning of the annual Lab, I would spend much of my time mitigating everyone’s imposter syndrome, as they were each out of their comfort zones and felt vulnerable to their ignorance of other people’s fields and intimidated by their peers’ expertise. However, as they engaged in the process, they went from fear to elation at the ways the conversations, presentations, and experiences expanded their minds, allowing them to make new and exciting connections.

When I was beginning in this field and charged with the duty of creating a space for these intersections to innovate, I wish I had this report as a resource. In this essay, I will offer my perspective and highlight some relevant recommendations based on my experience as a practitioner in this field of emergent technology and the arts.

  1. Embrace the inclusion of “A” for Arts, evolving STEM programs to STEAM programs

One of the main problems with the hyper-specialization that began in the Enlightenment Age was that it limited collaboration across fields and disciplines as we designed our human systems in or out of balance with the earth, and it limited individuals from being well-rounded thinkers in their own right. Education worked to support hyper-specialization for industrial-age workforce readiness, positioning students as cogs in a machine that need not know how the cogs at the other end of the assembly line worked. Before that, at least among the privileged classes, people were resourced and indeed encouraged to study the arts, sciences, humanities, and trades to be well-rounded contributors to society. Leonardo da Vinci is one of history's great examples of a single mind being able to connect the dots across many disciplines and areas of exploration.

Even if that luxury of broad specializations is no longer practical due to the sheer scale of information and skills needed, giving students a grounding in a broader range of disciplines in a STEAM framework would make them much better able to collaborate with those who have very different areas of expertise, enabling them to make those now-missing connections.

  1. Break down industry and academic silos

At the 2017 World Economic Forum, Pascal Fung, one of China’s top artificial intelligence (AI) researcher and robotics engineers, asserted that her students are so micro-focused on the enormous complexities of the “code” that they have neither the time nor the capacity to take a macro-focus that would allow them to analyze the social, cultural, or ethical impacts of their work on human and nonhuman systems. They need to find partners with other perspectives in both academic and industry settings to help steward their projects.

That’s why she emphasized that we must break the silos between scientists, technologists, and people in the arts and humanities—to find the most optimal uses for these exponential technologists that can increase human function and well-being. Doing so is most critical at the intersection of art and technology. The new human capabilities that technology brings—to communicate instantaneously across vast distances, synthesize massive data sets, edit genetic code, and more—are too powerful to be designed with such perceptual limitations.

  1. Develop research agendas to document technology-centered artists’ role in creative economy

How can you know the value of something if you don’t know it exists? Hidden-figure artists are abundant in the fields of science and technology and have had a great influence on the design principles and values of things we use and cherish. My experience as the director of the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Lab Programs involved observing artists that had such bold visions for how they wanted to create a transcendent experience for others that they had to create the technology to achieve their artistic goals. For example, Lynette Wallworth and Two Bit Circus wanted to share a single virtual reality (VR) experience in real time with hundreds of people at once, which pushed them to create a landmark breakthrough in social VR.

  1. Enable artists to demonstrate the creative potentials of technology by providing early access

In 2017–2018, my collaborators and I published the Making A New Realityresearch project with support from the Ford Foundation and Sundance. In a related article on “Silos, Groupthink and Knowledge Ghettos,” I cite MIT Media Lab engineer Dan Novy. He suggests that artists and technologists should not only collaborate more intimately to optimize technology, but should do so earlier in the process, before products come to market.

Sometimes, artists hack existing tech to fit their needs (i.e., James George & Jonathan Minard’s hack of Kinect technology to create computer vision cameras in CLOUDS), and engineers see the hack and iterate the product to better match the artist’s needs. Novy says this cycle would be more efficient if the artists were collaborating with the engineers from the beginning of the concept.

After seven years at the New Frontiers Story Lab, I left to help launch the Guild of Future Architects (GoFA), an intersectional community of practicing creative and strategic foresight experts working to support the design of more just and beautiful futures. We are supporting three artist-technologists that have strong dance and movement practices and are working to counter a 50+-year pitfall in the design of human-computer interfaces and systems of AI.

Embodied Intelligence, a shared future collaboration between Sydey Skybetter, Heidi Boisvert, and Melissa Painter, has identified a major flaw in technology design, which has unfairly prioritized the eyes and head as the point of access to data input, output, and intelligence. AI systems similarly work to replicate the head and brain as the model of intelligence. Without the collaboration of people and artists that understand the greater resource for intelligence and experience resident in the body, we have designed technology that negatively impacts bodies and leaves a huge insight out of the computing design process.

This collaboration seeks to counter such myopic design by centering the body and dance in technology innovation. The artists reference dance and technology experiments that were marginalized in the past. If these experiments had been taken seriously enough, and the artists were brought in earlier, it might have helped us avoid some of the great trauma to the body and mind our current technology has imposed on people in the form of repetitive stress injuries, sedentary lifestyles, and addictive design.

The opportunity

Ultimately, I hope this report’s recommendations are heeded by our country’s academic, cultural, and innovation spaces, so the rich experiences and outcomes of niche collaboration spaces such as New Frontier, Eyebeam, New Museum’s NEW INC, Bell Labs’ EAT Program, and others can become the norm, instead of the outliers. This adoption of arts as a central part of human systems design, rather than a part of the finishing gloss or marketing schemes, will help to mitigate limited designs in our systems that can lead to damaging and unintended consequences.

Kamal Sinclair is making the world more beautiful as the executive director of the Guild of Future Architects and artist at Sinclair Futures. She served as an external advisor to the MacArthur Foundation's Journalism & Media Program, a creative advisor to For Freedoms (the largest collective art project in U.S. history), a member of Sharon Chang’s Family Office (Dream Office of Imaginary Friends) and as an advisory board member of MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality, Starfish Incubator, and Eyebeam.

Previously, Sinclair was the director of Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Labs Program, which supports artists working at the convergence of film, art, media, and technology. During that period, she consulted for the Ford Foundation's JustFilms program on a research project aimed at furthering equality in emerging media, which resulted in “Making a New Reality.”

Sinclair got her start in emerging media as an artist and producer on Question Bridge: Black Males. At Question Bridge, she and her collaborators launched a project with an interactive website and curriculum, published a book, and exhibited in more than 60 museums and festivals.