What if we had a plugin that would alter the content we see on social media and online to challenge our perceptions and the biases of algorithms and advertisement. This might sound really exciting to some and scary to others, let’s explore the initiative of Jiabao Li: Art that reveals how technology frames our reality.
Jiabao Li is a designer, artist and engineer. She works with emerging technology, art and design and challenges her audience to critically think about technology’s influence on human perception and identity. I came across her TEDx Talk that introduces her newest innovation, an intersection of technology and art. In her talk Jiabao looks at three challenges we face with online interaction: the creation of echo-chambers, the hunt for our attention, and the mediation of our perception of normal. With these three challenges in mind Jiabao has made an experience of how one could potentially face these. She created a series of “perceptual machines” with the aim to explore how we could de-familiarize and question the way we see the world online.
Creation of echo-chambers and our lack of exposure to diversity
An ‘Echo chamber’ is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘a situation in which people only hear opinions of one type, or opinions that are similar to their own.’ The impact of these echo-chambers that we see on social media platforms is that we are rarely exposed to opinions that are different from ours. The content we are exposed to is often very mediated and nuanced, explains Jiabao. We follow our friends, the celebrities we like, perhaps the colleagues who work with the same mission as us, and we are rarely exposed to various opinions and perspectives. Jiabao compares the outrage and emotion of having your opinion challenged on social media to an allergic reaction. She refers to it as a mental allergy that stems from the lack of exposure to diversity of opinions and expressions, and the lack of engagement with this diversity. Jiabao created a helmet involving augmented reality that would emphasise on our “allergic points” around us. She made an example of the US election and the map of democrats (red) and republican (blue) states. Depending on the helmet you used you would see more of the red or the blue colours. The mediation alters our perception and the “allergy” as she refers to, exists, in this case, on both sides.
What if we would take this solution one step further and relate it to how we see our social media feed. What if we were able to cluster comments on discussions and posts that are the same, and instead show a representation of diversity of opinions as an alternative to the numbers of comments? What if we would sort the posts and articles we see to put more emphasis on those with a more meaningful content e.g. cat pictures versus news and updates.
Tweaking our perception to always capture our attention
Another challenge Jiabao mentioned was related to our perception. Not only do we form the echo chambers in which we are active, but our perception of the world online also forms our identity and our perception of what is “normal”. There is a high demand for our attention, through algorithms and advertisement, every content space is designed to try to draw our attention and sell something. For example on Facebook the ads selling products can be displayed in the corners of the dashboard and in our feed.
“Our perception has become a commodity with real-estate value” – Jiabao Li
Jiabao Li designed a conceptual plugin (it is not real) that would calculate the worth of every ad that we are seeing and what the cost value of our attention is. Imagine an online space where we could earn on viewing ads and claim money for our attention.
Although these are conceptual tools, I believe they are effective in sparking discussion about technology and how it affects the way we see the world online. Some of these tools could be extremely harmful if they were realised to e.g. manipulate populations. We have seen similar incidents and attempts with for example influencing elections through social media. Hence the pressing need for regulated online spaces.
This TEDx talk leaves me wondering where we are heading with our online technology, platforms and interaction. Will we ever come across an online space that is entirely neutral, where its users have the upper-hand, the full understanding of how our attention is hunted and our data colonised, and the tools and privilege to act against it?
Let me know what you think about the TEDx Talk and explore the content further in our Social Media tag Social media and its impact.
Read more about Jiabao Li and her inventions on www.jiabaoli.org/