Ethical challenge to the digital dark side

May 28, 1999

Computer technology is complex enough to change the way we think and act but the challenges it makes to the established order are rare.

Artists who use computers to create more than numbers and words are faced with a technology not of their making that reinforces accepted values. This alone, according to Carol Gigliotti (pictured above), makes the aesthetic process difficult. It also forces artists and those who teach them to re-examine themselves and their responsibility for developing these technologies.

"The goals of current educational practices seem to be about anything but a different future of education or even, about the future itself. Teaching, however, has always been open to more fluid and subversive activity. It is the major source, along with parenting, of real change in society. Its influence, along with parenting, on the future is paramount," she says. Dr Gigliotti is an artist and art educator who works at Tri-Rivers Educational Computing Association, an American organisation for changing education through technology. On July 15 she will take up an associate professorship at Tech BC in Vancouver (, a new university specialising in information technology and interactive arts.

She hopes her students, entering a wide field of disciplines, from business to medicine to academia, will apply what they have learned about the impact of new technologies on society.

She recently gave the keynote speech at CADE 99 at the University of Teesside and supervises doctoral candidates as an international board member for the CAiiA/ Star programme at the University of Wales and University of Plymouth.

"Interactive computer technology has become a major educational emphasis. What is not being emphasised, however, is interactive technologies' attendant possibilities for non-text- based communication, thought processes other than linear, and creative prospects for revolutionary/evolutionary educational change," she says.

She believes artists are increasingly included in the process of change by the interactive, virtual and multimedia nature of these technologies. She cites Rebecca Allen's incorporation of artificial life applications into a virtual environment called Emergence (1997) as an example of an artist working towards reconstruction of the assumed metaphors of virtual reality, and in this case, artificial life as well.

Allen's goal in this project is to provide a creative environment that goes beyond the rigid format of commercial video games with their uninspired designs and focus on violent, "kill or be killed" behaviour. The recent Colorado high-school shootings raise the question of how murderous video games may have contributed to a culture in which this kind of violence can be not only imagined but acted out.

"To emphasise other goals than those for which these technologies were originally developed, artists must question how and why the ethical values in their aesthetic decisions work both towards and against those goals. This connection will continue to have great impact on how technology defines and is defined by culture."

Other artists consciously challenging the assumed values of current interactive technology include Char Davies, Eduardo Kac and Victoria Vesna, all involved with CAiiA programme.

Kac's "dialogical" event, A- Positive, profoundly questions the assumptions of connected research programmes in genetics, a-life, artificial intelligence and robotics. Victoria Vesna's website Bodies Inc questions the notions of identity and embodiment fostered by a market economy.

"This underlying link between aesthetics and ethics is not just a theoretical ethical position. Talk about creative democracy, democratic or communal values, empowerment, or equality or care is meaningless if what is implied through the use of these technologies is a present and future of values disconnected from the realities of life," Dr Gigliotti writes in the forthcoming Mothering the Future (Banff and Semiotexte).

"It is obvious to most of us, as we move into the future, the design processes of these overlapping spheres is fast becoming dominated by technological means of some kind."

For Dr Gigliotti, the essence of living art can be found at the nexus with ethics. In her contribution to The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, published by MIT Press this month, she emphasises the need for artists and their formal teachers to challenge their own received perceptions of how computer technology is created and used.

"But design of technology can change and it is very important for people to realise this. The assumptions that produce new technology are based still around the political worldview of control and power.

"These assumptions transfer to the computer technologies we, as artists, use. So there is a definitive link between aesthetics and ethics now for the artist and teacher. And aesthetics is broader than its use within the narrowly-defined art world."

Dr Gigliotti is attempting to put these ideas into practice. She works closely with the Advanced Computing Centre for the Arts and Design at Ohio State University on Astrolabe: Ethics and Virtual Technologies, a website, CD-Rom and online journal (http://www.cgrg.ohio-state. edu/Astrolabe), of which she is project director and editor-in- chief.

"Art is communication and education. It is a pipeline as well as consumer of technology. Artists and teachers make subtle ethical decisions at every moment and the project uses a very different set of perspectives to help us work with technology.

"We are attempting to build a 'moral community' of artists and designers across the disciplines, younger people who are not so entrenched in the established art world. Artists can make a difference and challenge the neo-conservative view of aesthetics and education."

Astrolabe participants are building a view of technology that is much more visual, creating games that fuse ethics and technology. The aim is for learning and using technology to be fun and as simple as possible.

"It's about how to enact a set of values. Gentle would be a good word to describe it. Teaching that does not embrace power propaganda and yet encourages the young artist to take responsibility at every stage, allowing them to see that their input is vital and their decisions have a causal chain."

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