Technology changes the human experience — that’s kind of the point. The Internet Age has brought massive change to almost all aspects of our experience, such as communication, navigation, knowledge access, and social life.
These changes are so profound that they result not only in quantitative change — like the estimated 7 billion cellphones in the world — but qualitative, meaning they force us to expand the definition of these features of daily life (providing, I’m sure, material for countless future Ph.D. dissertations). These standard features of life have always been with us, but they are different now at a deep level and in a way no one could have predicted accurately even 20 years ago.
One of these changes I find most compelling is how technology is changing art. “Art” is a rather general term, but that’s appropriate because technology today is enhancing art in all its aspects: classical painting, the visual design of software, and guerrilla art for social change, to name a few.
Take a look at Prisma, the photo manipulation app that has skyrocketed to prominence over the summer. By combining a neural network with a form of artificial intelligence, Prisma can take any average, mundane photograph and transform it into a work of art worthy of any major gallery.
In an important sense, there is no difference between creative technology and “art.” Both produce artifacts of human imagination and creativity. What sort of transformations can we make to our modern world by looking at an app or a product as not only a triumph of technology, but also as an extension of artistic expression?
Blurring the Brush Strokes
Some exciting recent hybrid projects highlight this melding of traditional art and cutting-edge technology.
One example is the Malware Museum, a curated online archive that showcases the history of interesting computer viruses and other malware, presenting them as art pieces in a collection. It allows visitors to download examples and have a true malware experience — but without risk. “Through the use of emulations, and additionally removing any destructive routines within the viruses,” the site reads, “this collection allows you to experience virus infection of decades ago with safety.”
Another project, the “Brandalism” at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris in 2015, exemplified not only the production of art using image manipulation technology, but also the role of the artist as provocateur for changes in how we use technology responsibly. Artists illegally replaced bus-stop advertisements with altered ones depicting brands as part of the climate change problem, not the solution.
Many of the companies behind these brands sponsored the conference, so these guerilla art pieces were both real-time commentary and sharply pointed social criticism. In my mind, the truest form of art is that which encourages humanity to become better, and so events like the Brandalism are inspiring uses of both technology and art directed toward a global issue that affects us all.
NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology, a 2016 exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, pulled many themes together. It employed robotics, digital technology, and other media in nine artists’ works regarding how technology is intertwined with all aspects of the human experience today.
One of the most visually stunning examples of technology and the fine arts enhancing each other is a documentary in the making, “Loving Vincent,” a biopic about Vincent Van Gogh. The film will be entirely composed of hand-painted images in Van Gogh’s distinctive style, and his story will be told through characters and settings taken from 120 of his own paintings.
Applying the Artistic Approach
All these projects and others can provide valuable lessons and inspiration for developments in the tech sector. The first comes in terms of combining the left and right brains. Thinking as an artist requires creators to immerse themselves in the mindsets of the viewers/users, ultimately benefiting both creators and users. Technology based in only creators’ viewpoints is neither art nor good technology.
Applying the artistic approach to tech also means seeing each product as ongoing and iterative. A phrase often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci pertains to tech, too: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” When an app is submitted to the App Store, the work on that project has only just begun. Feedback, bugs, market changes, and more dictate that it continually evolves.
A third lesson art can impart on tech is in cultivating creativity. Creativity is key for software companies. Understanding how to cultivate creativity and imagination can make or break these businesses. “Creative breaks” can increase creativity within a team. After all, it’s hard to think outside the box when you repeat the same tasks and schedules every day.
The intersection of art and technology will only become stronger over time. A decade from now, startups will hire simply for a “creativity” factor in candidates that will predict how quickly and effectively they can innovate.
As with fine artists, tech sector workers will draw inspiration and motivation from nature, societal problems, history, and of course how technology affects the human experience.
Gideon Kimbrell is a software engineer and entrepreneur. He is co-founder/CEO of InList.com, the premier app for booking reservations at the most exclusive nightlife, charity, and entertainment events in major locations around the world. He can be reached on LinkedIn and Twitter.