FOMO at the ICA, 29 May 2015 – 31 May 2015 – 03

FOMO: Tony Prescott and ZENO, Eleanor Saitta

Tony Prescott

This was one of the more awkward sessions of the conference, in which Tony Prescott from Sheffield Robotics presented on his work and research. Coming from psychology as a disciplinary source point, he produces robots in order to explore psychological questions, in order to analyse and mimic human behaviour.

The first thing showed was documentation of a robot that senses using whiskers, in the same way a rat would, and set the stage for a discussion of bio-mimetic robots. There was then a frankly rather weird “play” which was designed to make us think about whether we would mourn a robot pet; a robot seal was ceremonially clubbed offstage to comedy soundtrack, and a robot which unconvincingly pulled emotive facial expressions delivered a eulogy.

The meat in the presentation emerged with a discussion of the theories of self that Prescott works with as steerage to his inquiry. Starting with Descartes, he tracked a history of theories of self, through Hume, Locke, Buddhism, and on to his own view that considers self as a process. Why are we not aware of our own “self-process”?

He showed some documentation of the “rubber hand experiment”, which shows how tools can be considered as part of the body and an extension of the body. I stopped making notes at this time, because I felt that his approach to things was hugely reductive of the potential for humanness. He seemed to be precisely the sort of scientist that Judy Wajcman was railing against in her talk the day before.

In the Q&A, one person asked about the potential for irrationality (and this made me think of Damasio’s discovery about irrationality in decision making) and Prescott claimed that it would be easy to make a robot behave irrationally. This seems wrong to me: I don’t think he was making an adequate distinction between randomness and irrationality. It’s easy to make a robot behave in ways that might appear to be irrational, but in my book, irrationality suggests that unconscious or pre-conscious processes need to be present. I was left waiting for a more comprehensive take-down from a sociological perspective – which never came.

Eleanor Saitta

Saitta’s presentation, The Aesthetic as a Proper Superset of Evaluatory Modes, was super-dense and I found a lot of the ideas in it to be quite hard to make sense of. I strongly suspect I have misunderstood her, so this is written with a degree of caution.

Her approach seemed to reduce everything in the world to a mode of either systems, stories, or bodies, or mixes of these. She called on Keller Easterling’s idea of disposition to make sense of these. Disposition is not a concept I am familiar with, and her description of it as a modality of a system’s behaviour over time made sense but somehow felt incomplete.

She spoke briefly about disposition of systems, then about disposition of narratives. Her main point seemed to be: “if it looks right, it flies right”. By absorbing oneself in the details of a system, a certain sense of what a good example of that system might be can be arrived at: a good ethical solution is likely to be beautiful, as is a good coding solution. A lot of digital art is pretty on the surface but not at a systems level.

She then showed some paintings that seemed to be an attempt to visualise these aesthetic approaches, and some interactive “anti/social lights” that made me cringe in how she described them: “it’s interesting watching how people interact with this”. The lights had been programmed with behaviours that made them light up differently depending on their proximity to other lights; some liked company, some liked distance. She described as “interesting” the process of watching the audience figure out these systemic relationships – which just reminded me of all that terrible interactive art in the 1990s where you needed signs saying “PRESS HERE” and so on in order to get an audience to engage with it. Surely by her own admission, the best interactive system is the most beautiful, and the most beautiful in the gallery context is arguably the most frictionless and accessible to an audience. She did frame this in terms of the epistemological value of play, which raised the question of subjective tacit knowing vs quantitative objective knowing. Her examples seemed to be on the wrong side of this divide to support her argument: making an audience move toward the latter rather than acknowledging their prior acquisition of the former.