Doing what only humans can do in the data decade: be human

Data, analytics, predictive models, A.I and automation. Digital echo chambers. Disregard for privacy. The growing power and influence of Big Tech to dictate how we relate to each other. SAAS platforms driving faster, better, cheaper channel optimisation. It’s all there in front of us jockeying for dominance in the decade ahead.

And yet, there it is…

A calm and possibly unnerving presence sitting quietly towards the back of the room called the search for meaning and purpose. Because in all of this, here we are, still trying to work out how we can connect with an idea or feeling that gives us some kind of purpose and a deeper relationship with each other.

As a creative outfit predominantly working in the digital economy, we understand the encroachment of analysis over creativity. And yet, the question we keep coming back to is how does compassion and humanity fit into all of this?

That’s not a question we’ll answer in the next few hundred words, because let’s face it, there could be thousands of answers to the vexing question of how we bring humanity and compassion to creative work in a decade that will be driven by analytics. Yet with that in mind, we did want to share with you an “idea” we had that led to a project we undertook to create some in-the-field research of our own.

Let’s start with an analog connection

And by that we mean, an old-world decidedly non-digital way of experiencing something – like talking to another human outside of an avatar populated platform. Rather than hooking up on a group video chat application where users have AR Emoji avatars that can mirror facial expressions and motions in real-time ‘which makes video calls more fun’ (hello Samsung), how about we rely on our own brains to process facial expressions and emotional reactions? And to do that we’re going to have to interact with people and things in the real world – eyeball to eyeball.

With this as our goal, we decided to hold an event without a digital attendance/live stream option (for starters). People actually had to turn up and immerse themselves in the act of physically being around other people – some of whom were strangers – in real time. Instead of the immersion part involving a head set, we decided to reclaim the notion of immersion – and use it to simply mean being absorbed in a moment – a thought or feeling – through art.

That’s it. Simple, right?

Let’s break the algorithmic human predictive behaviour model by being unpredictable

With enough data we can… (if you believe the data scientists) predict all aspects of human behaviour including productivity, engagement, interactions and emotional states. Reading a sentence like that used to be scary way back in 2017, but in 2020 it’s: So?

And once you know most things you are presented with in the digital world are driven by that model, in a way creativity and its important role in human connection becomes kind of lazy and sad. It’s modelling focused on regularities and routine – in other words, same-same. Based on the modelling conditions, behaviours can even be pushed into being, ensuring those predictions prove correct. If we are conditioned to thinking or reacting a certain way, we’re usually too lazy to know or think otherwise. Knowing that, we should feel cheated. We wanted to do something focused on anti- predictive behaviour and feelings. In our real-world event, we wanted to encourage an emotional response that threw out the whole idea of predictive modelling – which is where art comes in to it. We also wanted that environment to be as far away from the word ‘instagrammable’ as possible. By focusing on photographic portraiture, (even if the images did end up on Instagram), at least there would be a face staring straight back out of the screen at the user. What are you looking at?

Have the moment instead of reporting on it

That thing when instead of hugging your loved one on the stroke of midnight, you’re staring at your phone as you try and upload the pic of the fireworks and hashtag like crazy. That’s not having the moment, that’s reporting on it. We’ve got upload and share burnout. Actually, we’ve got stare at the phone burnout. With that in mind, nothing at this event came to life with AR. Nobody needed a headset. There were no QR codes. Yes, you could take a picture with your phone, but there will be no recommended hashtags. Of course, to completely remove the anxiety of not being able to upload and report on the moment, we would need the event to be phone-free. We debated the idea of the space being a phone exclusion zone, but settled on the reality, for too many people being without a phone was a bridge too far. But the event was as digitally gimmick-free as we could possibly make it. We weren’t trying to reach thousands of people through digital reach – we were trying to do the exact opposite. It was simply about looking at the art work, having a moment, and understanding the moment in itself, can also be a private experience (which in our heads, meant a more authentic one).

Let’s interact. Let’s talk. Let’s listen. Let’s ask questions

When was the last time you let a thought just sit with you? A thought, not a reaction to something someone said or posted? We wanted to create a space where people could just let their thoughts hover for a while. In a way, it’s a cool method for practising mindfulness – looking at an image and just following the thread of where your mind takes you – or doesn’t take you – without the interruption of a ‘ping’ signaling thought time’s over. We encouraged people at the event to discuss what they thought of the images with a random person in the same space. No baggage. No bias. No predictive push in a behavioural direction. And hopefully, no hurry.

Sounds like a decent enough idea

The goal of our project was to prove you don’t have to be a tech billionaire from Silicon Valley dropping mega bucks at Burning Man to disconnect from stress and reconnect with ‘self’. There are better, less expensive and more accessible ways to do that with incredible, life-changing results. And even better – no app to measure them.

So, what happened?

We launched the exhibition featuring 20 portraits in a gallery small enough to feel intimate but big enough for people to have enough personal space to linger in front of an image. We moved around the space and created conversations. We asked people what they thought of the portraits, what the work meant to them, which portraits they connected with, and why. The more we talked with people, the less importance was placed on the screen in our hand or pocket as method of communication or validation. We forgot about it for a while.

At this point in the story, anyone who remembers a pre-digital life would simply point to the fact our radical idea was just a good old-fashioned art opening. And they would be right. Analog. And to those born into a digital life, perhaps it was an adventure in nostalgia where they got to experience how others lived, in a time (not so) long ago.

If you are interested in the art exhibition Love, Hugs + Kisses you can find out more here.

The art exhibition is also part of a wider documentary project. You can register for updates here.

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