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  • Special Section IntroductionArt and Culture Papers from N-Space: The SIGGRAPH 2001 Art Gallery
  • Dena Eber

The following essays are selections from N-Space, the SIGGRAPH 2001 Art Gallery, which took attendees to a place where ideas and expression were rich and artistic freedom was unconstrained by dimension. It is in this spirit that the critical essays printed here address art, interaction and the human reaction to technology.

The artistic response to technology during the post-industrial shift of the 1960s is fundamental to Edward A. Shanken's essay "Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art." This text is one of few to explore the confluence of technology-based art and conceptual art in the 1960s and serves to break down the artificial wall that has separated the two. Shanken explores one possible reason why this distinction was drawn and offers the theory that both art forms were products of a society shifting from an industrial world based on machinery to a post-industrial world based on information.

Addressing the interaction of artificial intelligence (AI)-based agents, Phoebe Sengers argues that humans best understand the behavior of intelligent agents if it is structured as narrative rather than based on current AI techniques. According to Sengers, current agent behavior lacks "soul," seems depersonalized and fragmented and in some ways mimics schizophrenia. In her essay "Schizophrenia and Narrative in Artificial Agents," Sengers describes her theory of socially situated AI, which, she asserts, can add the lifeblood missing in agent behavior. Those who design AI systems strive to create complex and human-like agents; yet to date such agents have tended to fall apart when the system combines individual specialized behaviors, resulting in a fragmented agent. Sengers explains that this fragmentation is similar to how schizophrenic patients describe their experience, adding that they come to feel like robots or things rather than humans. Sengers suggests that the same phenomenon is reflected in the outward behavior of agents that are structured from current AI technology.

What happens when these agents are part of an artwork? My hope for all art is that through it people can reach an aesthetic experience, or a state in which they perceive an understanding of the art, not the technique or machine that underlies it. If agents who interact with people appear schizophrenic, how will users who experience such art feel? How will they ever have a believable encounter with, and tap the rich content of, the art? Perhaps Sengers's socially situated AI will result in believable, personal and even human experiences with AI systems.

Technology has not only transformed human-machine interaction, but it has also extended and helped redefine human-to-human interaction, especially since web-based technology became more common in the 1990s. It is true that many world communities still do not have clean water, let alone the technology to communicate using the World Wide Web, but among the people who do have this technology available to them, human conversation and interaction has reached across social boundaries. As exciting as this form of colloquy is, the mass of web-based dialogues can at times be overwhelming. This kind of communication is the focus of Warren Sack's "What Does a Very Large-Scale Conversation Look Like?" In this essay, Sack presents a browser, the Conversation Map system, that navigates what he calls very large-scale conversations (VLSCs): exchanges between large numbers of people in non-geographic, network-based spaces. The communities are public, and the dialogues are usually text based. [End Page 415]

The key to Sack's Conversation Map is that he combines social, semantic and spatial navigation. Borrowing from sociology, linguistics and graphical-user-interface design principles, this system can be used much like a Netscape browser, but it also creates an image-based representation of the messages, which helps the user navigate and move conversations forward.

Systems such as the Conversation Map and Sengers's socially situated AI will help humans make sense of and participate in the benefits of new technology. As we progress further with sensible and human applications of technology, we will develop a more complete comprehension of how it influences our lives, even unwillingly...


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pp. 415-416
Launched on MUSE
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