Is a computer or an algorithm a tool like a paintbrush, or is it something more like a gun?…

Is a computer or an algorithm a tool like a paintbrush, or is it something more like a gun? Computers were born in war as means of targeting weapons and gathering intelligence. Have they ever really escaped that history? Our machine learning algorithms are developed by the most powerful corporations in the world for purposes of mining surveillance intelligence from our home videos. The batteries in our laptops, sensors, and gizmos are made from cobalt mined by children under horrific conditions. All this to prop up an economy of short-term resource extraction and long term climate change. If we concern ourselves with how the aesthetic of a piece of software might influence our art making, can we ignore how the morality of the software’s maker might inform our work?

How did you, the reader, the audience member, the professor, the dancer, the technologist, the musician, come to be here today? I mean to ask, what systems of privilege educated you to appreciate art or use a computer? How do you afford to make art? Who’s paying your bills or buying your work? Especially for art that requires all these expensive and problematic electronics?

Can your art escape the history of your tools? Would you perform a duet with an AR-15 and look at me funny if I asked you why? If there’s a difference between an algorithm and a gun, it’s that the former is invisible. Or at least ignored. Our history escapes computation, evades consideration. Very conveniently.

-Ian Heisters

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