Machine Subjectivity, Politics and Digital Arts

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Although human interaction with technological artifacts often involves treating them as if they are alive, the dominant discourse in our society portrays technology as the instrument of its human master. In the context of computing, our desire of absolute control over machines manifests itself both as the human computer interaction (HCI) community’s emphasis on “usability” and as popular culture’s apocalyptic imagination of the out-of-control artificial intelligence (AI) systems trying to eliminate humanity. It is revealing that, for instance, the word “robot” comes from “slave” in Czech. This paper examines the social and aesthetic limitations of this narrow instrumental view of technology. It proposes an alternative interaction model based on machine subjectivity, that is, constructing and perceiving computer systems as an independent entity in its own right.

Based on Heidegger’s theory of the “enframing” nature of modern technology (Heidegger, 1977), and experiments of modern dance (Copeland, 2004), this paper argues that perceptual and sensory habits, including our interaction with computing artifacts, are political. Both the prevailing human-leader-computer-follower interaction model and the apocalyptic literary imagination are limited by and reinforce the discourse of hierarchical control and power relationship in broader social contexts. Machine subjectivity, on the other hand, offers a playground for exploring alternative relationships between human and “the other” (i.e., computer) and consequentially provides insights to new social orders, such as the ones based on “multi-dominance” (Lewis, 2000).

In addition to political commentaries, machine subjectivity also affords novel aesthetic and meaningful interactive experiences. This paper examines the manifestation of machine subjectivity in a range of cultural artifacts in electronic literature, music, dance and visual arts, and highlights the novel aesthetics and expressions afforded by allowing computers to act independently.

Finally, the paper discusses our text-based interactive narrative system Memory, Reverie Machine. The system algorithmically generates stories about a robot character, who is controlled jointly by the user and the AI system. The tension between user and machine subjectivity, foregrounded in the struggle to gain control over the main character, is used to explore themes such as agency, resistance, and dis/empowerment.

(Source: Author's abstract for ELO_AI)

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Audun Andreassen