No Country for People!

Dave O’Farrell reviews the ‘Humans Need Not Apply’ exhibition in the Science Gallery, Trinity College.

Socialist Worker

No Country for People!

Exhibitions which try to combine art and science can often come up short on both the art and the science. Add a political theme to the work and the potential pitfalls are legion. Unfortunately the current exhibition at the Science Gallery in Trinity College generally falls short on all fronts.

Humans Need Not Apply aims to investigate how increased automation and artificial intelligence are changing the world of work and asks provocative questions like “Are we hurtling together towards a leisure-time utopia or robot-tended human zoos?” Unfortunately the response is underwhelming.

From an artistic standpoint observing how visitors engage with various exhibitions, such as a robotic desk lamp called Pinokio which reacts to people in its vicinity in ways that could be interpreted as ‘lifelike’, does raise questions around our interaction with machines and ability to grant human or animal characteristics to inanimate objects – but it hardly breaks new ground in doing so.

Many of the exhibitions are technologically impressive, such as three robotic torsos which mimic a user’s movements with varying degrees of improvisation, but if the goal was to communicate the science behind them they fall flat.

A recurring failure in much science writing and in many exhibitions in the Science Gallery is to sacrifice the scientific content in favour of entertainment value and Humans Need Not Apply turns what are technologically interesting installations into mere amusements. Even a cursory attempt to explain the algorithms involved in some installations would go a long way toward meeting the Science Gallery’s goal of “opening science up to passionate debate”.

From the point of view of answering the question of how technology is transforming work the exhibition is an abject failure. The deeply political questions surrounding these topics are completely ignored. A piece including a disassembled MacBook, with the pieces of tape used by the worker attaching it labelled as “human traces”, and small towers of iphone screens, more tape and solder.

It represents the number of components an average worker will use in a day assembling iphones. It makes passing reference to the labour cost involved in building an iphone being only $11 or 2% of the sale price but totally neglects the appalling conditions in the Foxconn factories where they are made. Conditions so bad nets had to be installed to prevent workers jumping off the buildings!

Surely if the curators were really trying to answer the questions they posed then they would have looked for works that address the glaring contradictions of a society where technology can simultaneously make a worker in one part of the world redundant while another worker operates under slave like conditions reminiscent of the industrial revolution to produce the same piece of technology.

Such questions are however unlikely to sit well with corporate funders since the answer is a profoundly political one which must ultimately challenge the fundamental structure of the capitalist system that produces such contradictions.

Humans Need Not Apply runs until May 21st.

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