QR codes and the end the Turing Age

Many things have been written about the New Aesthetic (NA) over the last few months, like many i’ve been watching and waiting, wondering what might come out of it. Just as thoughts were beginning to come together in my mind Bruce Sterling’s essay in Wired.com has sharply focussed many people’s thinking, and the most interesting result of this essay is the response of the community and the clearer definition of various elements of this movement.

Sterling’s extended tretise calls for more thought and consideration and pitches the NA as the next significant movement after postmodernism and the 20th Century; for me the NA is less an artistic movement and more of a dawning realisation and connecting of disparate dots, each of which are a reality of living with networked digital tools. Whether NA truly represents the next movement in art after Post Modernism is for someone else to answer, I ask myself ‘what does the NA mean today?’.

Taming Lions and Domesticating Cats

The continuing domestication of high technology is really what’s at the heart of the NA, as so many articles rightly point out many of the things that get grouped under the umbrella term have been around for many years. It’s a strange set of cultural and technological touch points from satellite imagery to vectorised artefacts of 3D photography – newish things and oldish things – what holds them together is supernatural view of the world they give us. We can look over the planet from a mile above (flight), we can look though the walls of a building and see what’s happening inside (x-ray vision), we can communicate instantly with people on the other side of the planet (telekinesis), we can control objects remotely (telekinesis). I could go on. I almost wonder if our penchant for superhero films will begin to wane, we all have little supermen in our pockets now.

And these SmartPhones (SuperPhones) infiltrate our day-to-day they are leading the charge of pervasive technology. Automatic vacuum cleaners, Kinects, Drone-copters. They’re all making their way in the world. My guess is, if you’re sitting somewhere in the western world, you probably have 100 sensors of various types within 10 metres of you. Which is an amazing/alarming/alluring thing in itself, the fact they can all talk to each other as well is a very 21st Century state of affairs.

All of this technology has been domesticated and subsumed into the everyday, and by small increments we’ve been joined by a symbiotic species – we call them ‘devices’ and ‘widgets’ and ‘do-dahs’. We’ve begun to acknowledge the presence of these new things by adjusting our environment to suit them – albeit in a clunky way. The QR code heralds an interesting era where we share the visual landscape with our new robot friends, building in visual affordances for Computer Vision that make no sense to us at all, but that our smartphones absolutely love. As time goes by, and  Computer Vision improves, these QR codes and whatever follows them will disappear, or perhaps there will be a lasting remnance – just as even the most advanced CGI effects in films are identifiable, they remain otherworldly.

After Turing

Seeing our new robot compatriots as a different species is of course a bit spurious, but it might set some rules for understanding how to interact with them. The dream of Artificial Intelligence was to replace the human brain with technology, to build a thinking machine. The dawning reality is that this was probably the wrong thing to attempt, after all what do we gain from a machine like a human? What a wasted opportunity. The classic test of a thinking machine  was defined by Alan Turing; in short if you could chat with a computer and be fooled it was a human then we could all deem AI a success. What Turning hadn’t factored in was the adaptation by humans when communicating with machines, our ability to meet them half way changed our expectation of an interaction with a machine.

In fact we’ve already passed the point where spam messages can’t be distinguished from real messages, and people are falling in love with chat bots. Not because the machines got smart, but because we all exist on the same networks, and because these networks let everybody in. My Twitter feed is populated by friends, famous people and robots. They all get my attention, whether they pass the Turing test or not.

Ultimately we can leave the AI experiment in the 20th century and start to think about what we could better use robots for. And these decisions will be made by the content consumers not the content providers. More an more we’re building tools and small pieces that other people can assemble themselves, to construct their own personalised spaces. Of course this isn’t a new thing for the old physical world, but it is a new thing for the Network Age we now live in.

Enter the Network Age

So here we stand, us looking at the robots and the robots looking at us. Each trying to understand the other. Sharing spaces, being shaped by each other. What should we be doing to shape and disrupt and embrace this new world? To me there seems to be a few things to think about.

Firstly, maintaining some visible signs of the system we use feels important. Perhaps not in an overt way, but something to help people be aware of the robots having an impact on their world. It’s very easy to hide away the algorithms and snippets of code that set the boundaries around our lives especially as they become more complex – but people are becoming more code fluent and so perhaps there will be ways to keep things near the surface. Ultimately we can stop trying to humanise robots – what we need is to invent new personalities and behaviours that suit the machines themselves.

Secondly, and particularly for designers and content providers, we all need to be aware of the complex and shifting landscape our output will become a part of. This probably manifests itself as a combination of having a clear voice and a realistic expectation of the impact we might make. Let people appropriate your content and let them tell their own stories – forget trying to shape their reactions, they’ll do what they want. It’s hard to imagine how you can begin to legislate for the ways your stuff will bubble up in the world, so focus on making better content suited to serendipity. Distribution is no longer your problem.

And I suppose the best way to finish is to encourage people to ask more questions, and try to answer them publicly. Share the knowledge.