Beyond the Machine: Artificially Intelligent



Text Irini Papadimitriou  文 伊睿尼 帕帕迪米迪欧

Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops — but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds — but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.”

E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops

In E.M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops, humans live isolated in pods deep underground; a kind of video screen communication system is how they can contact or talk to others. There is no need to meet or be close with people. Light, food, water, communication, clothing, culture, are at the touch of a button, and humans are entirely dependent on the machine that has taken over and can provide all essentials.

The Machine Stops is a nightmarish exploration of the effect of technology on our lives, bodies, relationships and culture. When it was published, in 1909, it must have caused quite a stir. At that time, the world was well into the second industrial revolution with technological changes deep into areas from transportation and machinery to labour and urbanisation.

The Machine Stops was apparently Forster’s pessimistic response to the work of H.G. Wells and in particular A Modern Utopia, which had been published a few years earlier. In A Modern Utopia the narrator is transported in a liberal, altruistic, peaceful world, a society of universal education, universal income, equality, fairness and opportunity for all. This world is enhanced and enlightened by technology. In A Modern Utopia machinery is everywhere, “the discovery of new materials, and the appearance of new social possibilities through the organised pursuit of material science, has given enormous and unprecedented facilities to the spirit of innovation”.

Forster, on the contrary, presents us with a dehumanised world, where the machine has replaced labour, skills and most human activity. The machine manages human life and all needs are met at the touch of a button, while a “Mending Apparatus” is there to fix any issues. “The Machine” is invisible and unknown. We don’t know if someone controls it or how it operates, and what might happen if one day it stops.

Forster’s work which explores our place in a technological world that is losing the meaning of humanness is relevant more than ever. We might be quite far away from the world presented above, however it is not always obvious - how much our own world and society is dependent on machines. Our exchanges are increasingly mediated by technology and for the first time we have at our disposal not only access to vast amounts of information, but also a selection of technological tools offering us opportunities and possibilities never imagined before; the chance to make previously unsung voices heard, inclusive, collaborative tools, citizen empowerment and innovation, distributed participatory systems, to name a few. On the other hand, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already embedded in many aspects of our everyday life and society and will be driven by it even more in the near future; from healthcare, finance, manufacturing, education and linguistics to business, law, policing, and more. In a constant search for Utopia, we are aiming for advanced technological systems establishing what we believe as superior versions of our world, environment and ourselves. These invisible, complex systems become more and more rooted in everyday activity; we give them more power and with it more responsibilities, while our trust and dependence on them has become normalised.

At the same time - and mostly thanks to how advanced technologies and AI are being presented in popular media - most of us have a false picture of these systems and a limited or skewed understanding as to how they have been transforming society. We tend to anthropomorphise technology, to assign machines human behaviours, personalities, gender. When it comes to technology, even the language we use is misleading, presenting a world that sounds magical, immaterial or beyond reach.

Although we constantly use and are exposed to digital technologies, we ignore what lies beneath; from how and for whom devices are designed, the conditions under which they are made, labour and conflict minerals to obsolescence, data collection, surveillance, and so on. We are surrounded and constantly listened to by a network of connected objects; a small number of corporations have unprecedented access to users’ data and can influence or control access to information as never before. And most concerning of all, automated decisions and judgements - based on unfair and biased assumptions - become more and more common, having an impact on vulnerable people or minority groups.

Heading towards an automated world, are we becoming accustomed to services, invisible infrastructures and opaque technologies without asking critical questions or discussing the ethical implications of these services? Should we trust companies with our personal data and privacy and how do we know how automated decisions are made– if they are fair or how they affect us? How can we stimulate critical thinking skills to navigate these new challenging areas? And what is the role of digital art and public art institutions when it comes to understanding the social issues created by digital technologies?

Engaging with ‘digital’ through artworks and related activity in public art institutions, it is questions like these that we should try to raise and explore, creating a space to foster exchange and debate – bridging the gap between culture, academia and other sectors, especially the tech industry. Digital art and design have a significant role in engaging with and exploring new technologies, as well as enabling much needed conversations around these to happen. Artists have always had a pioneering role in terms of being the first to reflect on the present, on society, culture and the future, asking difficult questions, while raising awareness about power and powerlessness in the age of digital information.

Similarly, in public art institutions we need to create neutral spaces that can transcend borders and engage different disciplines in constructive dialogue. Spaces like these have an important role in initiating and shaping critical discussions about these pressing issues of our times, foregrounding the impact of technology within society to examine how people can have a central role in shaping the future, rather than being fed a vision of it from a handful of powerful corporations.

From a curatorial perspective and practice, and through programmes such as the Digital Design Weekend (DDW) that I initiated while based at the V&A, I have been interested on exploring our complex relationship with technology placing an emphasis on collaboration, exchange, participation and critical response. The Museum, as a public space, becomes a site to engage with contemporary issues, share creative processes and demystify technology. A site where creative practitioners, researchers, technologists and citizens can com together to explore the intersections of technology, art and design and the state of digital culture through installations, workshops, labs, critical discussions and performances.

Starting by exploring ‘what is digital’ and how it is manifested in our lives and society, and investigating ideas such as big data, AI, the Internet of Things, human-machine relationships, we are imagining how we can begin to unveil these invisible systems and try to understand or explore what lies beneath.

Looking into themes of the personal, public and cosmic influences of technology, projects such as Artificially Intelligent, aim to provoke questions about machines and humanness. How can we go beyond dystopian/ utopian visions or popular stereotypes, and instead look at the present state of implementation with a human-scale perspective? And how we can enable discussion about our interactions with technology, the social and ethical implications of artificial intelligence, including bias, trust, control? By opening doors to experimentation and collective making, encouraging communities and people to create and participate, question and not passively consume, we can nurture critical thinking and prepare the next generations for new challenges ahead.

Technology will not always be the solution to everything and it won’t always save us. We need to be able to see beyond this and keep our future focused on the realities of our world and on a human vision, remembering that we are more than data.

I’d known for a long time how to observe in order to see. In order to form understanding that leads to reaction. However, the question growing inside me had suddenly distorted my perception.  

Under the Stone (original title Sous Béton), a novella by Quebec-based artist Karoline Georges, takes the claustrophobic underground world of The Machine Stops to a different level. Georges presents us with an oppressive structure, a “Total Concrete”, a grey and impenetrable tower that houses all remaining humans in a post-apocalyptic world. The inhabitants are constantly under surveillance and constrained to the tower. They are reduced to their basic needs, fed and drugged by the structure, and trained to carry out tasks that keep the Tower going. They passively accept their condition without question or objection.

We follow the main character, a nameless boy residing in a suffocating tower with his abusive parents, who slowly transforms and manages to distinguish himself from the dormant residents by experiencing a sudden awakening.

The world in Under the Stone is brutal, depressing and hopeless. Georges reveals a place where people are reduced to passively accepting their reality, without the will to break free from their prison-Tower, but again how can they possibly break free if they haven’t learned to see beyond their concrete walls? Under the Stone presents us with a nightmarish version of the future, one that hopefully will only remain a speculative idea. When the question Why? Appears repetitively in the boy’s mind, he finally transcends the monochromatic walls of the tower and develops the ability to see and understand the world around him. By empowering himself through questioning the world around him, he can finally see what lies beneath the concrete structure and resist.


Irini Papadimitriou is a curator, producer and cultural manager, working in the UK and internationally. Currently Creative Director at FutureEverything, an innovation lab and arts organisation in Manchester, she was previously Digital Programmes Manager at the V&A, where she initiated and curated the annual Digital Design Weekend festival and Digital Futures among other programmes. She was also Head of New Media Arts Development at Watermans, where she curated the exhibition programme, exploring digital culture from a critical perspective and the impact of technology in society.

Her most recent exhibition, Artificially Intelligent, was on display at the V&A from September to December 2018. She is a co-founder of Maker Assembly, a critical gathering about maker culture: its meaning, politics, history and future.




《机器停止》显然也是福斯特对H.G.威尔士的作品,尤其是《一个现代乌托邦》的一种消极回应。后者于《机器停止》前几年问世。在《一个现代乌托邦》中,叙述者被迁移到了一个自由,利他而安宁的世界,在这个社会里,教育无处不在,收入全球均等,平等是共识,而所有人都享有同样的机遇。这个世界被技术所增强,也得到了技术的感召。在《一个现代乌托邦》中,机器生产无处不在,“the discovery of new materials, and the appearance of new social possibilities through the organised pursuit of material science, has given enormous and unprecedented facilities to the spirit of innovation”.

与之相反,福斯特则向我们呈现了一种去人性化的世界,在这里,机器取代了劳动与技能,替换了几乎所有的人类活动。机器监理着人们的生活,而一切物资都靠按键获得。与此同时,一台“修复机”正孜孜不倦地修复着任何机械故障。“机器” 是无形而未知的。我们并不知道它背后是否有个操纵者,更无从知晓当它停止时,会发生什么。



尽管我们总是使用数字技术,也曝露在技术环境里,我们通常会忽略这些技术底层的东西:这些设备是如何被设计的,是为谁设计的,它们的制造条件是什么,制造过程中的人力成本和所穷尽的矿物资源,数字设备的数据收集与监控等等。 我们被互联的设备围绕,并时刻处于它们的监听之下;少数几家科技公司拥有前所未见的对世界用户数据的获取权,并可以影响乃至控制我们对信息的获取路径。更为甚者,我们也处在许多自动决策和判断的算法环境里,这些算法可能自带一些不公正或偏见性假设,这一处境也愈发常见,并对弱势和少数群体造成了一定的影响。









《巨石之下》(原题:Sous Béton)是常驻加拿大魁北克的艺术家卡罗林·乔治的小说,故事把《机器停止》所描述的幽闭恐惧的地下世界又发展到了下一地步。乔治向我们呈现了一种压抑的结构,一种“整体具型”,这是一个灰色的、不可穿透的塔楼,里头住着在末日之后幸存的人类。人类的生存需求被降到最低,塔楼喂养着他们,并给他们服药,同时训练他们完成维持塔楼运转的基本任务。这些人类幸存者被动地接受了他们的处境,从不怀疑,永不反抗。



Irini Papadimitriou, Andrew Prescott and Jon Rogers.