“I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking what did we bring to the world? Did we bring a nuclear bomb with information that can — as we see with fake news — reprogram people? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?”
– Tony Fadell, co-creator of the iPod and iPhone, and founder of NEST
The ability to augment the real world en masse has incredible potential to shape public consensus and influence a person’s perception of a place, and themselves in it. Just as a painting is a visual language, so to will be creating digital content over the real world. Is it possible to anticipate and design out potential negative consequences of augmented reality in the real world?
What is so powerful about the enabled landscape so as to potentially change our world? It involves one of the most precious things we do as people which is to communicate with each other. It deals with how we transfer information between ourselves. That is power.
The Catalonian regional flag at the el born centre
A Lesson from the Present
Catalonia, October 2017. The regional government declares independence from Spain and ignites a constitutional crisis. An Ulster University study noted the power of curated media (text, images, videos, and audio) to influence visitors, local or otherwise, to empathise with the separatism cause at the El Born Cultural Centre in Barcelona, opened in 2013. The claim: the archaeological remains and associated heritage was employed to paint a picture of a region victimized and oppressed because of its unique cultural identity, “hoping to mobilise a generation of voters who will change Catalonia’s political future and influence the hearts and minds of tourists”. Supporting conclusions note a deliberate use of a particular historical perspective that is problematic, simplistic, and ignores the significant complexities of society in eighteenth-century Europe.
Information both enhances and influences the physical experience for visitors
In and of itself, the architecture and preserved archaeological remains at El Born are neutral, appreciated viscerally. The curated media used at the centre (text, video, images and audio) is akin to technological capabilities in an enabled landscape where the real world is augmented. Whereas the El Born required years of planning, granting of permissions, and financial resources to realise, one of the outcomes of curation of the physical world can be attained at a fraction of the cost and effort in an enabled landscape. What was once the domain of architects, town planners, engineers, sculptors, under the granted authority of government will be accessible to any one of potentially millions of software developers. So for the first time in history we will see a dramatic change in those who can build and create objects seen and experienced by people in the physical world. Power is defined as the ability to influence. Therefore this new power has an incredible ability to influence en masse and create unique narratives.
A Place of Infinite Creativity
Of course, the enabled landscape will allow for new creations to be placed in the world in addition to curation. American artist Titus Kaphar in his work shows us that public art and public sculpture can reframe our collective understanding of history. The artist deconstructs a 19th Century Franz Hals painting to highlight the compositional structure hierarchy. It highlights the black boy sits on the lowest of tiers. He could find out more about the lace the white woman is wearing than he could about the black child. In his research, he sets out historical trends on such fine art paintings and public art sculptures were black people are significantly unrepresented. Kaphar asks, “what is the impact of these kinds of public artwork on some of our most vulnerable in society seeing these kinds of depictions of themselves all the time?”
In an enabled landscape, where anyone can augment the physical world, whose view of the world will we see exactly? 96% of Google’s volunteer map creators, adding their local knowledge of the world, are male. In an enabled landscape, could this be designed out to create a more balanced view?
If recent history can act as an indicator of the future, there will be little regulation of this power of communication in the near future. Technologists will be able to act faster than government, at least initially. If one looks at the disruption to transport by organisations such as Lyft their strategy to appease government regulators and ensure the survival and growth of their businesses was to draft and self-imposed regulations. So it is the technologists who can take the lead.
Titus Kaphar, Artist
However, the enabled landscape will involve many companies and professions around the world, a company set of regulations is not enough. Perhaps those working in the enabled landscape should take Tony Fadell’s advice, of a type of Hippocratic Oath for technologists that would act as a “barrier between tech’s best ideas and their worst unintended consequences — to design out at the earliest stage, to make sure we are ethically designing”.
Where to start? How to design and build an innovative, fair, ethical enabled landscape? Perhaps a good starting point is to apply the spirit that Titus Kaphar applies to his public artworks, namely “to make sculptures that are honest, that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to diversity and the advances of our present. Simply tearing down a monument, leaving nothing in its place and effectively erasing it from history is just as damaging as leaving it there.”