III: Human? Or Posthuman?
Interview: Part 3 of 6
DE: It kind of relates to something that's been talked about a lot more recently among scholars who study rhetoric and writing, which is this term Internet of Things. It's something we're circling around as we're talking about materiality.
BH: That's talked about within rhetoric? Internet of Things?
DE: Yeah, people are starting to talk about it. From geolocation apps to wearable technologies, passive sensing devices, smart appliances, machine learning algorithms. But this focus on the agency of technologies is in some ways a little bit jarring for people who study writing and study rhetoric because it's been so human-centered. And it's always been really interested in the agency of student writers, of rhetors, of people who do things with language. More and more, now, it's the actions of things and not people that we're focusing on.
DE: So as we think about that materiality, that causes us to ask questions. Maybe we've been a humanistic-centered field, but focusing now in a more posthuman direction. I was interested in your work because it seems that you start with this posthuman medium of data. Or we think of it as posthuman. But there's this incredibly important role of the personal in your work.
DE: Almost autobiographical. I just wanted to ask how you see the personal changing. In 2015, what it means to focus on the personal in a time that's considered more posthuman, in an Internet of Things.
BH: That's great because I think there's a real question. There's a real uncomfortable aspect to that. As a society, we're trained in such an ego-centered way. Artistic practice is such an ego-centered thing. The idea of the individual producing clever, beautiful artwork is still ingrained in anyone's head that makes art or music as a career. No matter how far we get, conceptually, away from those ideas, and try to tear that down and critique that, it's so embedded in the way we think as a society. As a consumer capitalist society, the individual has such a presence that's hard to get away from. But, all these forces are no longer accounted for within the model where the individual is autonomous and totally subjective and totally the focus of things. And of course that comes out in the work—something like Quotidian Record where I'm interested in data. I'm interested in how people move in cities. I'm interested in how the city structures the rhythmic identity of everyday life. How, in that case, New York has made me in a particular way. I'm interested in these things—how the city structures my everyday life or technology structures everyday life, or the way Internet interfaces are constructed to get into your actual physical patterning—the fact that the gesture of head-down looking at your phone is instantly recognizable as a particular pose for a particular action that's interacting with a particular kind of media. You know, it's physically inscribed. It has a presence in our bodies. Interface aesthetics aside, these things are gesturally real. So a piece like Quotidian Record, I wanted to explore that. Again, looking at the material aspects of it, putting it in a vinyl record because that's something physical. But it is focused on me. It is autobiographical. And part of that is because I have access to that. There's a pragmatics to ... if you want to instrument a person and explore different ways of generating data, that's easier to do with yourself as a subject, right? You can talk about big data through small data. I can look at these intensely personal data sets. Nick Felton is another person who does that very well, who gathers a lot of data on himself to reflect about the role of data and design and self in general. I think it has to start there, but maybe it's pointing at these larger questions. So, posthuman ... when we get to this Internet of Things, when we get to systems that are working on their own, that have their own biases and all of these things, it's a contentious question as to how the self comes into that. Maybe it's a matter of producing little frictions where that does become uncomfortable. When you think about Internet of Things in the commercial world, things that are advertised—whether it's the thermostat stuff or the wearable stuff–the idea is that it's all kind of seamless and easy, right? The way that Apple marketing works, or whatever, these things are supposed to be very fluid, very lightweight, nonobtrusive, and nonstructured. They're supposed to make these things easy for you. And that's the marketing, right? The reality is that—like I said with that gesture of looking down at your hand as you hold these things—they are obtrusive. They are forming. They change who you are, the person. They're prosthetics that enable you to do certain things and also restrict the way you do certain things. I used to navigate without any kind of map or whatever. And now I can't get to the store down the street without looking at Google Maps. They become a part of you, and then they're not seamless. They fail. They have friction. There's a loading bar that happens. They don't boot up on time. I was just travelling in Africa. Satellite connections there go in and out and it prevents you from doing certain things. There's all this friction in interacting with these systems that certainly commercial marketing doesn't want to emphasize. But in making work that focuses on those friction points, and maybe celebrates it in some ways and maybe criticizes it in other ways, but has the focus on where that rubs together, I think that's of a certain value or interest.