Notes for "Human Connections in a Digital World" talk

As Keaton, Lani, Jesa and I prepare for our artist talk at Artisan’s Asylum later this week, I thought I would leave some thoughts and notes here for reference.


Women artists talking art + tech

Lani Asuncion, Christina Balch, & Keaton Fox

We’re organizing the talk around themes of human connections and how they are affected by technology and how we as artists communicate these themes using technology and why. I focus on the human connection with the self and self-perception. Keaton will talk about human connections to each other and communication/miscommunication, and Lani will discuss human to nature relationships.

I’ve been working in the marketing technology industry for over 10 years, and the concept of a “personal brand” - which really means one’s digital presence online - has become common place. I’m particularly interested in how people create different versions of themselves for various online personas to communicate their digital selves. People are expected to curate themselves online, on social media and on their own websites. We have avatars for our gaming sites, glowing selfies for Instagram, and professional headshots on LinkedIn. What is the process for curating yourself online? Sometimes it’s intentional, often not. How are these various digital selves distributed and archived online?

That’s where the data privacy issues come in. When these images are posted to social media sites for example, Facebook and other technology giants store them in perpetuity. Even if you delete your data from these sites, they exist on servers and often other websites online for a long time. Even more concerning, those images are cross-referenced with other personal data like your search history, email views and purchase history to tell advertisers (and possibly others) how likely you are to buy their product or service. I’m interested in this process because it’s an example of people curating their image online and trying to exert some control over their online presence, but simultaneously giving up control of their data and their self-documented images to big tech and advertisers who curate their own version of you that they want to sell their products to.

The ways we save and archive our digital files, particularly the thousands of images so many of us take on our smart phones, intrigues me as well. Many people have their “priceless” digital photos spread across multiple platforms, unorganized and unidentifiable. I’m interested in how people intentionally and unintentionally save their personal digital data, from photos to medical information to login passwords.

These are some topics that I’m thinking about for the upcoming Human Connections talk this Thursday. We may end up focusing on other topics though as there is a lot to unearth in the realm of connections between human, technology, and nature. Hope to see you at the talk!

Upcoming event info

Human Connections in a Digital World
Thursday, August 22, 2019, 7—9pm
Artisan’s Asylum
10 Tyler St, Somerville, MA
More info on Facebook event

Join local artists Lani Asuncion, Christina Balch, Keaton Fox and moderator Jesa Damora in a discussion about using art and technology to bring people together in today's digital world. Combining the messiness of technology with their bodies and experiences, these women artists explore and question the relationships between people, technology, and nature.

Research and reading list

  • Lots of good reading about hot data privacy issues in NYT’s The Privacy Project

  • Just started reading Judy Wajcman’s “Pressed for time: the acceleration of life in digital capitalism”

  • Abby Smith Rumsey’s “When we are no more: how digital memory is shaping our future”

  • For more, there’s certainly some crossover in my AVATARS reading list in the post after this one on my blog

AVATARS reading list

Before my curators talk on April 6, I want to share a brief reading list of articles and artists that have inspired my thinking for the AVATARS exhibitions.

  • Art in the Age of the Internet 1989 - Today; catalogue from 2018 exhibition at the ICA in Boston

A few of the artists that have inspired and influenced my thinking on the topic of avatars (just a few of many)

  • Lynn Hershman Leeson

  • Hito Steyerl

  • Sondra Perry

  • Jasmine Roberts

  • Joy Buolamwini

  • Harun Farocki

These are meant to be quick lists to share a sliver of artists and writers who have recently contributed to my thinking on the topic of avatars. It would be impossible to list ALL of the writings and artwork that has influenced me.

Digital twins as avatars

From the article “Welcome to Mirrorworld” by Kevin Kelly for WIRED Magazine

Reading “Welcome to Mirrorworld”, I feel both excited and terrified for the upcoming advancements in digital modeling and AR (augmented reality) technology. As I write this, companies are building virtual replicas of objects and environments and entire worlds. Kelly predicts, “Eventually everything will have a digital twin.” I would add that eventually everyone will have a digital twin as well whether they like it or not - and whether they know it or not.

Eventually everything will have a digital twin. - Kevin Kelly for WIRED

Eventually everything will have a digital twin. - Kevin Kelly for WIRED


I would like to have a hand in the creation of my digital twin, and I certainly want to know about its existence. As seen at the AR in Action summit at MIT last fall, technologist and artist Jasmine Roberts painstakingly built her own digital twin, or avatar, using multiple technologies. This project was a reaction to the mostly white, thin, female virtual assistants she kept noticing in virtual, online worlds. Other artists like Joy Buolamwini and Minjun Kim force us to think about the present and future consequences of this technology like discrimination, surveillance, authorship and originality.

Advertisers have already created something akin to a digital twin, data bodies for individuals based on web browsing and search history - even making educated guesses as to which devices belong to the same user. There’s no visual avatar associated with these allegedly unidentifiable data bodies, but it could be a logical next step for the media advertising industry. Artificial intelligence could create visual avatars for individual data bodies with data about gender, race, household income, even physical characteristics like hair and body type - all pulled from sort of accurate guesses made by AI based on purchases and web browsing history. If not for personal privacy laws, companies would already attach your name to this data body - they’re dangerously close to doing it now.

At the end of the “Mirrorworld” article, Kelly invites us to participate in the “Mirrorworld”. It’s up to us if we participate by creating, regulating, engaging in or simply judging it. I hope artists are at the forefront and take the helm as we grapple with the benefits and consequences of creating virtual worlds and beings.

See what contemporary artists are saying at the AVATARS group art exhibitions this spring at the Nave Gallery in Somerville, MA

Image source: Unsplash


AVATARS - why now?

AVATARS is a chance to think about how we define human and non-human. What makes us human? What makes something non-human? What makes someone a cyborg? Are cyborgs a good thing or a bad thing? Why do we care? Or why should we care? Also, who defines human and non-human, digital and physical, virtual and real? And what about everything in between, which is, of course, just about everything.

Be part of the discussion and submit your work to AVATARS group exhibition.

Submission deadline: January 27, 2019
Exhibition dates: March 22 - April 6, 2019