04 Oct 2021
Digital Democracies editorial project – Laurence Hill
When I was asked to carry out this Digital Democracies editorial project – to commission some short pieces of writing and to provide an editorial to introduce them – my mind leapt in several directions at once. The question of how digital technology and digital thinking have impacted us and our public spaces is one of the most foundational questions of our times. It gets to the heart of thinking about who we are, how we present ourselves, what it means to be human and how we function in a 21st-century world. It would require a book, in several volumes, to even begin to consider such a huge question; so I hope you’ll allow that I’ve been, in the commissioning process, a little more focused.
The Digital Democracies project is interested in the nexus of digital technology and public space, and as a curator and researcher, I’m interested in the entanglement of humans and technology, and in exploring the politics of technology and its deployment. Within the framework of this project, I’m specifically interested in the replication of the public square in online spaces and the limitations of socio-technical architectures designed and built by one human demographic arguably to the exclusion of others.
I should be clear that when considering contemporary public space, to my mind, there are no longer separate public and digital realms – it’s no longer the high street or Amazon, not your local cafe or Uber Eats. Those binaries are defunct and the two realms are completely and inextricably entangled. Following on from that line of enquiry, I am interested in how the digital overlay mediates our world and choreographs our movements through it.
To that end, I focused the whole of this weighty topic on two questions, though inevitably wider questions are brought to mind. Firstly, I wanted to think about how we interact with existing digital technologies and how they change and guide us. Secondly, I wanted to consider how the kinds of people who are massively underrepresented in the development of online spaces navigate those spaces.
I have commissioned a diverse cohort of artists whose work and life experiences touch on these questions in thoughtful and thought-provoking ways. They are all artists who challenge norms and try to subvert them in both personal and technological ways.
Jake Elwes has an ongoing project which brings together AI, real and deep fake drag queens and machine learning. He writes here about queering the datasets that are used to train facial recognition softwares and exposing the guts of neural networks.
Dolly Sen, in a recent work, sectioned the Department for Work and Pensions for being a danger to itself and others – which tells you a lot about her anarchic approach. Here she uses her ‘brain of ill-repute’ to ponder questions of madness and technology.
Judith Ricketts uses technology to reveal hidden histories, such as that of her hometown of Brighton and Hove’s connections to the transatlantic slave trade. Here she takes us through the process of creating an avatar of herself, a dark-skinned Black woman, and all the questions that raised.
Jonathan Chomko is an artist who describes himself as ‘working with and against technology’, and that tension underpins all of his work. Here he explores the idea that when we reach into technology it reaches back into us.
Finally, I have included a previously published piece that I wrote for another project about the queering of virtual reality, a potential reclamation of an online space that I have found deeply problematic.
These are complex ideas and they need consideration. If you read these pieces – which are of necessity short – and come away with more questions than you arrived with and the curiosity to think further about the questions and the issues raised, then I will consider my job here well done.