In Conversation with Eric Slatkin

My Facebook Experience - Image Source: Eric Slatkin, Artist

Last weekend, Eric Slatkin, founder of High Beam Media and co-founder of the Disposable Film Festival, sat down with me to discuss his current projects and technology’s effect on our culture. Below, you will find our conversation. Please share your on thoughts on the subject, check out Heart 2 Heart (and consider submitting your conversation, and, most importantly, enjoy! 🙂

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Dorothy Santos (DS): Regarding the Heart 2 Heart project, what did notice in the video submissions? Specifically, what did you notice in people’s’ speech?

Eric Slatkin (ES): For one thing, it’s hard for people to say ‘you’. The project aims to anthropomorphize our phones, though calling it out directly, is a challenge for people. To give something that credence, there needs to be an interaction, a back and forth. But we often just think of the one-sided nature of our phones, and that keeps us from thinking of the idea of a relationship. But once we admit that there is a discourse there, it opens up some interesting ideas, like what we, ourselves,  give back to them.

DS: We give back to them?

ES: I’m talking on the lowest level. Touching it. Talking into it. Stroking it. Looking at it. Thinking about it. All of those things, when applied to some sentient being, that would equal a relationship.  And sure, it’s just an object, so we don’t think to attribute any emotions to it. But the sophistication of what we do with it, what it does for us is constantly being built upon, and with Siri, it shows that when then you can have a conversation with it, we have to take into consideration the idea of it ascending to some sort sentient level. I think a lot of people think it’s crazy that we might have a relationship as meaningful with a friend as we do with our phones – but I think it’s coming. And I think it’s important to have conversations about how we  relate to it, vice versa, and what kind of understanding we can come to.  As Kevin Kelley says, technology are introduced, and we are guinea pigs, making mistakes, learning from them.  We saw that with Facebook privacy issues, as people lost their jobs, got divorced, didn’t get into colleges, all because they didn’t understand the implications of who they were sharing their social graph with.

And so Heart 2 Heart is a project in some senses about negotiating our relationships with our devices.

Heart 2 Heart - Image Source: Eric Slatkin, Artist

DS: Do you think technology is a right or an enabler?

ES: Saying that it’s our right I feel, begets the idea that somehow, it has a theological grounding. That it’s a part of the constructs of how we’re evolving. I don’t believe that though.  It just enables people to do things. It’s impartial, and what we do with it determines it’s opinions.

DS: With Augmented Reality, John Craig Freeman pointed to technology being a prosthesis. What do you think of technology (i.e., mobile devices) as an extension of ourselves?

ES: With all technology, there is a quantity over quality argument. Technology solves problems and makes things easier so it opens us up to do other things.  But that kind of logic is easier to stomach when it’s a machine that makes car parts, rather than when it compromises our need to do something like memory recall. But eventually (and we already see it coming) it will just make more sense not to remember anything because the phone /device will do it for us.  I’m a little upset about that idea but it’s one of those things, where the jury’s out on whether in social evolution of things, it will still be thought of as integral in the future.  If we don’t have to limit ourselves to 8 bits of memory/information, then we can obviously accomplish a lot more.  But before any of this happens, with Heart 2 Heart and my other projects, I’m trying to elicit the conversation of the implications of that kind of transition.

DS: What kind of sacrifices have you made for technology?

ES: There are tons. They’re no different from anyone else’s though. I miss writing with a pen. Writing with a pen is intimate to me, closer to what I’m really thinking than when it appears on a screen – not to mention the different kind of real-time editing you do by backspacing – deleting and replacing, than with a simple strike through with a pen.

DS: It’s organic.

ES: It’s what you’re creating. You’re creating what shows up on the page. There’s this whole other system when you’re on a laptop such as spell/grammar check and it fixes it for you. You feel less involved in the process. I write poetry and it’s all by hand, at first because if it’s on the computer, it feels further along in the process, when all I’m trying to do is get my thoughts down.  But I always edit them on my computer – there’s no way, I’d write multiple drafts by hand.

DS: Since you discussed converging with technology and seeing it as a form of mutualism, I’m curious what you mean by that?

ES: I add a level of sentience behind these devices already. We give to it. It gives to us. In any kind of relationship. In our gut, there’s a world of bacteria, mostly helping us.  And many people, like Ray Kurzweil, believe that our mutualism with technology will eventually get deep enough, so that it actually becomes part of us, just like bacteria (think Google searches right from our brain or turning house lights on and off just by thinking about it).

Caption Here - Image Source: Eric Slatkin, Artist

DS: What do you think about accessibility to technology? There is a lot of the world that is not hard-wired in the way people are within a city or urban landscape. It definitely separates people.

ES: It’s a socio-economic privilege. If, one day, there is an implanted chip in someone’s head, they’re gonna probably have a better chance at getting a job than someone who cannot afford. Even within our smaller cultural spheres, there are going to be those discrepancies. I don’t think it’s distinct than the historically having access to an education or books versus growing up without those abilities.  I think that technology does a great job of helping to bridge the gap and  democratizing knowledge – but I don’t think it will create a perfect society where everyone is on the same level – some will still have access to certain technologies, while others will not.

DS: Do you want everyone to be connected?

ES: I don’t know.

DS: Does it matter?

ES: It’s hard to say – you either don’t know, or if you do, base all your other experiences on it. It feels like why Thoreau left Walden – because he knew what was on the other side … I waffle between technophobia and technophilia, but ultimately I want to be, just like I assume other people want to be, part of society – and to do that, now, means to be connected.

DS: Should everyone be connected?

ES: It seems a little self-righteous to say yes, they should, or no, I want to think that there are people still living in the wilderness.  It’s a choice that EVERYONE should make themselves.

DS: Most of your projects, you seem to want the viewer/participant to use technology in moderation. Would you say that’s true?

ES: I think the purpose of all these projects,  is to make people take a step back. Think about your relationship with technology, so that we can have a conversation about their implications.  And to ultimately, find a balance.

To learn more about Eric, please click here

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Author: Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos (b. 1978) is a Filipina-American writer, editor, curator, and educator whose research interests include new media and digital art, activism, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco, and received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She serves as one of the editors-in-chief for Hyphen magazine. Her work appears in art21, Art Practical, Daily Serving, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, and SF MOMA's Open Space. She has lectured at the De Young museum, Stanford University, School of Visual Arts, and more. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” was published in The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture (2016). She is currently a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellow researching the concept of citizenship. She also serves as executive staff for the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism and board member for the SOMArts Cultural Center.

3 thoughts on “In Conversation with Eric Slatkin”

  1. I just opened my e-mail…this subject looks too good to give it a terse comment (it’s right up my alley!)

    Looking forward tomorrow for another treat, for this and the other one. Until tomorrow…

  2. I’m not sure I understand everything he’s saying, only because it’s a different vernacular of a higher order; i.e., the scholastic or art scene intelligentsia. Nevertheless,

    I think that Eric Slatkin’s idea is not only spunky, but a novel opportunity in opening a window into ourselves. It could also be one of the tools of meditation (I don’t mean that in a religious manner, either). Infusing humanness into our cells make them take on a kind of life or lifelessness, depending upon the way we treat it. They opine and give us feedback.

    Do we keep it clean, fully charged, etc. Do we curse it like we do our PC’s? Also, it might give us subtle warning in how our use of technology might take us further away from ourselves, our minds slipping away into lethargy.

    (‘Reminds me of a time when a certain journalist did not allow his class to record lectues. He made them take old-fashioned notes.)

    Also, this is an interesting example of zero breakdown in communication because the via the cell phone, both the sender, and the receiver is you! I could be wrong about the breakdown part.

    I think our relationship with cell phones is indicative of how we regard, relate to, and treat technology, and the world at large. When he, Eric, said regarding what we do to our cell phones ‘when applied to some sentient being, that would equal a relationship’. Yep, that’s attachment- and clinging even. Helplessness when all communication is cut off. Or love and unspeakable awe and respect.

    I hope this is where water seeks its own level.

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