- Visualizing Technology
316 Pages; Print, $10.88
As someone who remembers playing in front of a computer screen at four-years-old and subsequently working as a designer for over a decade, I am no stranger to technology. And as such, I face a dilemma. On the one hand, I am fascinated by it. While on the other, I fear the power it gives. There are numerous conversations and debates in design circles about ethics as of late and with good reason. The products, tools, and services we design and develop directly impact how information spreads, what we value, and how we engage with each other. The consequences aren't theoretical but are playing out in what we see and what we do. Even though actions such as liking a photo or viewing recommended advertisements are commonplace nowadays, we must not forget that they are designed and patented by tech companies to influence our behaviors.
Italian artist Paolo Cirio explores his concerns about technology's impact and sets out to provoke change through his project Sociality. By hacking Google Patents, Cirio and his assistant Andres Chang obtained over 20,000 patents for online platforms, interfaces, algorithms, and devices dating back to 1998. As Cirio puts it, "our sociality is now being owned and traded by private companies without scrutiny" and his work seeks to bring awareness, regulation, and oversight. The project takes the form of a website (www.sociality.today), gallery art installation, direct interventions like putting up posters at MIT, and a coloring book.
Of the thousands of patents unearthed, 225 were compiled into a coloring book to invite readers to directly engage with these complex topics in a non-threatening environment. Cirio seeks to use the "cathartic, childlike exercise of coloring to both educate and inform through visually rendered compositions of outlined flowcharts and patent titles." The book is organized into eleven sections per the artist's interpretation of the patent's intent and consequences: discrimination, polarization, control, addiction, deception, manipulation, censorship, targeting, profiling, biometrics, and surveillance. Each patent is labelled with the patent number and the company that owns it.
Upon perusing the book, I am struck by an overwhelming amount of outlined all-capitalized letters and technical line art. The nature of the content and language used requires a good amount of mental effort by the reader to make sense of it all despite the simplistic visual approach. The book is filled with a lot of jargon and diagrams, which can be nonsensical due to a lack of labelling and references for the reader to review for more details. There are no footnotes, summaries, or additional context provided. In addition, there are numerous instances of the patent title text and diagrammatic imagery overlapping resulting in readability and legibility challenges. From a visual communication standpoint, I struggle to engage with the content due to these issues.
Furthermore, I struggle with the choice of a coloring book as a medium for this type of content in the first place. As the artist mentioned, coloring books are often cathartic tools for stress relief and coping. And yet he chose to fill the book with ineffectively labelled diagrams and overlapping text of tech patents that are framed to have nefarious intent and consequences. As a reader, this type of information did not put me in a childlike state nor was I informed or engaged in the ways I suppose the artist intended. Instead, I found myself frustrated and wondering what these things meant all the while missing the information needed to properly make sense of the imagery in front of me.
Thankfully, visiting the accompanying website addressed these issues as I found it much easier to navigate and to determine what actions I needed to take. The patents are tagged for easy sorting by common subjects, like social networking, as well as by the companies that submitted them. Visitors can flag and ban patents by anonymously emailing legislators, politicians, and lawyers. In addition, each patent is linked to the Google Patents entry to allow for...