picture of single mushroom appearing through the leaf litter in an out-of-focus forest
“A claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience" - Maturana
I must admit to feeling a bit lost lately, particularly in the midst of our Canadian federal election. I’ve never framed my politics in terms of “left” or “right”. Rather, I tend to evaluate based on centralizing and decentralizing instincts - the “centripetal” and “centrifugal” urges discussed in a previous post. I am a fan of creating power rather than holding it. I am a fan of local solutions that are well-resourced and supported. I am a fan of autonomy and moral virtue as guides to action.
It feels like COVID-19, climate change, and ongoing inequality are surfacing some of our more authoritarian/centripetal instincts, on both the “right” and the “left”. Almost any belief about the world that I might share will generate outrage among one faction or another.
The voices celebrating the act of sharing an unpopular opinion have either been algorithmically omitted or voluntarily hushed.
Perhaps this relates to what Mary Parker Follett, mostly forgotten theorist of the early 20th century was decrying in her time. Follett was reflecting on different challenges and a different world but her interrogation of “experts” rings true:
There is a pernicious tendency to make the opinions of the expert prevail by crowd methods, to rush the people instead of educating them … Many of us are calling for experts because, acutely conscious of the mess we are in, we want someone to pull us out. - Mary Parker Follett
We turn over decisions to machines because we feel inadequate to the challenges we collectively face and in too many cases we have forgotten how to work together to respond. We demand tests of purity of those that seek belonging whether that belonging be tied to environment, social justice, nation, religion, technology, or electoral politics.
I share this to hopefully provide a framework for the projects that Ferment AI will be supporting in the coming months and years. The primary viewpoint we take in the world is that we need more viewpoints to operate from and that these viewpoints should be in conversation with each other, even if it feels hard.
Fermentation is an approach to generating new tastes, new ingredients, and new combinations. Some will not be suitable for eating. Some will take months and leave us with nothing. Nonetheless, we need new recipes. Building better robots to scour the ocean of fish seems a profound failure of imagination.
Craft: Ferment AI Residency
We received over thirty applications for our initial Ferment AI residency. We will be introducing the cohort in the coming weeks as our website and social media goes through a transformation that we are very excited about. The focus is on skill development in fundamental techniques for creating artificial intelligence (AI) works, iterative prototyping, and research into implications of automated systems on culture.
Eight artists will be equipping themselves with the technical skills neceessary to start prototyping and then will deliver on these prototypes in 2022.
We will also be providing workshops that address different elements of artistic production in AI and connections to various events through our own work and our partnership with Goethe-Institut Toronto and the Algorithmic Culture series.
Workshops will also be available to others and will be free for our paid subscribers.
Featured Mentor: Noah Levenson
Noah is one of the mentors and workshop leads for the Ferment AI residency. Noah is brilliant and creative and a fundamentally good human being.
He currently leads research engineering as “Hacker in Residence” at Consumer Reports Digital Lab — a new public interest computer science hub funded by a $6M investment from Craig Newmark. At Consumer Reports, Noah developed Free Food — a decentralized open protocol to make food delivery fair again (and make Grubhub obsolete).
In 2019 he was named a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellow on artificial intelligence. Noah also won Mozilla’s $50,000 award for AI.
Noah won a Webby for Stealing Ur Feelings, a deep learning-powered AR experience which analyzes your facial reactions to reveal the dangers of Big Tech’s emotional surveillance programs. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, exhibited at the Tate Modern, made the front page of Y Combinator’s Hacker News, was profiled by MIT, Scientific American, the Museum of the Moving Image, Engadget, CBC News, and lots more.
(It was also plagiarized by the Financial Times, which Noah wrote about for The American Prospect.)
Noah helped engineer Mario Kart Live for Nintendo. He worked mostly on checkpoint heuristics and collision detection.
Noah programmed Weird Box, an interactive film which exploits Instagram’s lack of privacy to hack other people’s data into the plot. Fast Company called it “delightfully disturbing,” SFist called it “strangely fascinating,” Boing Boing called it “awesome.”
Previously, Noah tried to bring new thinking to the TV industry: he served as Editorial Director of MTV2 and oversaw its creative reinvention, collab’d with Key & Peele, wrote a comedy book for MTV Books, and published unproduced ideas in McSweeney’s.
Noah was born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. He spent his teens coding DOS demos, sneaking into clubs, and avoiding school. A sizable portion of his life has been squandered reading computer science textbooks.
Simultaneity: Diasporic AI
The second project that I want to (re)visit is Diasporic AI. Much of the debate about AI, even within the artistic community, has prioritized the exploration of theoretical and ideological principles, particularly the ethics that should underpin policies and public interest in the deployment of these systems.
Overwhelmingly, the ethics that emerge on all sides of the debate center Western ideologies and ethical traditions.
We need effective governance of these extremely powerful tools. Good governance requires meaningful participation from affected communities. Meaningful participation requires literacy to discuss and explore socio-technological systems.
In service to this, we are offering four micro-residencies in four locations around the world: Toronto, Berlin, Malawi, and Beijing.
We will work with artists drawing on both local and diasporic practices and perspectives to imagine symbolic systems and languages to share the opportunities and threats of AI in ways that do not center Western ideological assumptions.
The hope is to break down the opportunities and implications of emerging technological systems and make them available to a broader community.
To do this requires a diversity of worldviews and perspectives. Art and culture become means of informing and engaging community in conversation about what comes next.
Featured Location: Tumaini Festival, Malawi
Tumaini Festival was founded in 2014. It is an extraordinary example of a large-scale cultural event within a refugee camp, created and run by refugees in collaboration with the host community, for the benefit of both communities.
Across the six previous editions, over 99,000 people have attended the event, and 304 performing acts from across Malawi, Africa and the world shared the same stages with performers from Dzaleka. Tumaini Festival has united 18 nationalities of performers: DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Norway, Japan, Brazil, Mozambique, Belgium, UK, Italy, Somalia, Poland, France, South Africa and South Korea.
Tumaini Festival has become a community celebration that residents of Dzaleka appreciate as their own event, which they are looking forward to and want to see happen regularly. We are excited to engage the Tumaini Festival and creators in both Dzaleka and the surrounding community in Diasporic AI.
These are the first of many projects we will be rolling out through Ferment AI. In some cases, we are self-funded and relying on the generous support of partners and others committed to the same ends. Diasporic AI is funded through the Canada Council for the Arts and would not have been possible otherwise.
We are looking to join efforts together, rather than centralizing them within our work. Reach out if you are interested in becoming involved in this broader exploration and our broader community. We are building out the infrastructure to make these collaborations easier but for the time being these letters can become a starting point for coming together.
We are always looking for:
1:1 mentoring with our community of artists around various technical and production challenges of AI
group presentation of approaches, techniques, and/or projects related to creative applications of technology
access to tools and/or software for residents to develop their competency
money or connections to opportunities to raise funds
hosts and provision of technical support to artist prototyping based on mutual interests and intentions
access to tools, techniques and/or software to deliver on artist prototypes
All the best and please share your thoughts in the comments or share this post with others that might find it of interest.