Chris Combs: Who Suffers and Who Benefits From New Technology? [Interview]

Chris Combs: Who Suffers and Who Benefits From New Technology? [Interview] cover

“It doesn’t matter if it’s an anticosmic retromingent defibrillator or a plastic fork,” Chris Combs quips during our interview, which sends me straight to the dictionary on a frantic, page-flipping search for the word “retromingent” (an animal that urinates backward, in case you were curious).

Turns out that nonsensical phrase is not, in fact, the latest gadget from Apple or Elon Musk but a rhetorical utterance that emphasizes the tech industry’s reverence for opaque, ridiculous bullshit. Peppering his language with caustic one-liners and idealist banter, Chris, an electronics artist, toggles between jaded skeptic and awed optimist when it comes to our increasingly tech-reliant lives. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an anticosmic retromingent defibrillator or a plastic fork—each technology that we use has implications,” he says, finishing his quip while I’m still flipping pages. In truth, Chris’ point has nothing to do with raccoons or camels (both retromingents, in case you were wondering) and everything to do with the person operating the technology: “You, personally, can make meaningful decisions,'' he tells me helpfully. Personally, I’m going to stop using plastic forks but could be in the market for an anticosmic retromingent defibrillator, if anyone is selling.

“Orchestration (Beeswax)’

“It’s important for everyday people to deconstruct who benefits and who really suffers at the hands of new tools,” Chris continues. His sculptures—often interactive or time-based, made of wood, metal, and found objects—confront viewers with the collateral damage generated by 2 a.m. taco deliveries and AI-powered surveillance. “Orchestration (Beeswax)” interprets the exploitative gig economy through a symphony of beeswax-dipped LEDs, while “Pollinator” spies on gallery guests, distorting their faces and conversations into warped interpretations of reality. His sculptures draw viewers in with soft, winking lights and eye-popping colors, but Chris often focuses on the unpleasant aspects of technology: round-the-clock surveillance, unscrupulous business practices, and the overall bird-brained idiocy of AI (yes, ChatGPT, we’re looking at you).

“It’s a mixed bag,” Chris admits when I ask him whether technology is a net positive or negative in our lives. It’s a black-and-white question, but to his credit, Chris answers with a characteristic mix of empathy and brusque wit: “There are so many amazing technologies that have made it possible to learn anything, or find anyone, or capture the craziest parts of our world around us. And of course, in practice, these technologies are actually just used to share the best fart jokes—or for the completely dismal purpose of making rich people richer.”

Despite his fascination with new advances in tech, Chris remains skeptical of its use in situations where a delicate touch is required: “There surely are legitimate applications of machine learning, but they should never be making meaningful decisions that affect real human lives without real human oversight,” he insists. “They aren’t brains in a bottle. They’re meat grinders for JPEGs and JSON.”

In today’s Q+Art interview…

Chis Combs discusses his favorite industry newsletters, the problem with pump-and-dump tech schemes, and the “computational poem” he’s working on now.

‘Daybreak’
‘Daybreak’
‘Daybreak’

How has your view of technology changed since you first started making art?

Chris Combs: Honestly, I started from this strange place of both incorporating and questioning technologies, so in some ways my perspectives haven’t changed that much—just the particular things that I’m gesticulating wildly towards.

One small thing that’s changed: This is nerdy, bear with me, but I’ve grown a lot more interested in open-source software. Yes, it’s usually harder to use. But I like being able to pitch in and help make it better. I don’t have to write code to do this—I can just pitch in every so often with their tutorials or guiding other users or helping sort through “issues” (think support tickets). And over the years, the tools I use grow, and I helped grow them. It’s such a good feeling.

Maybe I’ll take this chance to talk a little about technology IN art. I studied photojournalism, right? And every so often I’d fall into the trap of being a “gearhead.” I’d think, wow, if only I had a 50/1.4 lens or that new camera body, I could get the shots I wanted. But the gear was almost never the answer! You just needed to get closer or pay more attention to the people.

Sometimes artists using technology seem like they’ve fallen into the same trap. Like, is it enough for your art to include a screen or something glowing? What’s the “why?”

What do you think is the next big fad in technology?

CC: I don’t know if this counts as the next big thing since it’s already here, but to my mind, so-called “artificial intelligence” will be revealed as a pump-and-dump fad just like cryptocurrencies.

The thing is, most of these AI products, to borrow a phrase from AI ethicists laid off by Google, are “stochastic parrots.” They regurgitate chopped-up forms of their training data, without any real understanding or comprehension of what they’re saying.

We are generous enough in viewing their outputs to think that they might be intelligent; they’re not. They can’t reason at all.Correspondingly, most of the capitalism-fueled applications of AI content generators are fever dreams at best. These systems are not equipped to make equitable or even sensible decisions.

Take the example of NEDA, an eating disorder hotline that laid off call center workers and replaced them with an AI chatbot. The chatbot immediately began giving out harmful “advice” and they were forced to withdraw it within the week. ChatGPT did not understand the brief—nor could it.

After a few years, we’ll collectively wise up, and some banks or investors or something will be left holding the bag on all these AI startups. And our consumer Overton windows will have grown to consider gibberish chatbots to be a normal part of customer experience, and however many millions of human beings will have lost their jobs, and everyone will be paying more for less. The customer-service shrink ray probably won’t run backward.

‘Pollinator’
‘Pollinator’
‘Pollinator’

How do you manage to stay ahead of the curve in your field?

CC: I wish I could say that I was keeping up! It’s a dead race. One hugely helpful method for me is to read good old-fashioned blogs and newsletters. There are a lot of dedicated curators (not just in art) firing away every week with their barbaric yawps, metrics be damned. Some examples from my world: Kottke, Last Week in AI, Chinese Doom Scroll, Hackaday.

Also—I swear it’s doable—I am loving my Mastodon experience in the amazing neighborhood, mastodon.art. The trans, furry, artist/retrocomputing/gamedev scene there is lit. And there’s no unaccountable algorithm: just my own people and my choices.

What are you worried about in terms of our future? What do you hope for?

CC: Income disparity. There is no valid reason for anyone to go hungry or without usable healthcare.

I hope for a magic solution to it. But in the U.S., at least, since Citizens United, I don’t see an escape route for the normals if billionaires can always out-buy their best interests.

Any technology, like AI or gig work, that amplifies existing income disparities needs to be shunned as a moral imperative. I do keep hope that this perspective will spread to others.

‘One to Many’
‘One to Many’
‘One to Many’

What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

CC: POET.EXE” is a collaboration with a poet, Casey Smith, who wrote this amazing “computational poem.” To read this poem, you need to generate four random numbers between 1 and 250. He wrote 250 first lines, 250 second lines, and so on. The numbers tell you which is yours. So you get a custom poem.

I’ve been building a big, growly machine for it with four moving carriages that go back and forth, and a touch sensor that lets you pick one of the lines (but then the others go haywire).

When it works, it really works; it’s hard not to think the thing’s haunted sometimes. It will be on display at the Delaware College of Art and Design, Aug. 18 through Oct. 22, 2023.

Chris Combs: Website | Instagram | Facebook | Purchase Work

All photos published with permission of the artist(s).

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Tags

art and tech, Artificial Intelligence, electronics artist, gig economy, interactive technology, sculpture, technology


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