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Nicola Naismith Blog 1: Exploring the Territory

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Being one of the commissioned artists for the hiCraft research project is both exciting and challenging. I’m questioning how I can bring my experience and knowledge as a hand and digital maker, researcher and collaborator to contribute to an ambition to develop a healthier relationship with the internet of things (IOT).

When starting this commission I knew about GPS, motion sensors and the misuse of trackers but not that they were a grouped as IOT which was a new term to me. This in itself is interesting, given how ubiquitous these pieces of technology are in the homes and on the bodies of those who can afford them. Perhaps I’m not alone in thinking about these things as gadgets or tech, but it is their ability and need to connect with other devices and systems over the internet that sets them apart from, say, a digital camera.

The ways in which these objects have worked their way into our domestic, personal and professional lives is staggering. And if we are seeking a healthier IOT, then where is the unhealthiness located? The Mozilla Internet Health report from 2019 points to multiple questions around data and labour rights, lack of transparency and a lack of diversity. As I was reading the report I was drawn to the problems with data, and reflected upon its collection, uses and exploitation for profit. Are we now reduced to our value being derived from our ability to provide data to companies who wish to sell us more stuff?

I often read that technology is not inherently unhealthy, but rather it is the companies who control it which bring the problems. There are issues with uneven access to tech – as spotlighted in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic: generalised assumptions about easy access to digital devices and internet services were incorrect and that this had been the case for some considerable time. In common with many manufactured objects, the human and environmental consequences of raw material extraction, production, distribution and planned obsolescence is also having an uneven effect globally. I admit to my part in contributing to this: I have a computer, a tablet and a smart phone, and use all of these in my creative work. I’ve only recently started using the cloud but resist at every turn the invitation to increase my data storage: my home only contains a certain amount of objects, so I apply the same thinking to my digital life of files and emails, as for example saving endless photos in the cloud isn’t resource neutral.

As I tend to keep tech for what is considered a long time – I usually manage between 7-10 years for each piece of hardware – using it does become increasingly inconvenient: screens become cloudy, home screen buttons stop working then software starts to slow, or is unable to be updated. Far from being a carefree shopping experience the purchase of a new device so often brings the interconnected nature of consumerism into sharp focus as new adapters need to be purchased, drivers for existing printers are no longer available and so the consumption cycle continues.

There is no mistaking the fact that technology can make lives easier, facilitate new ways of supporting, working and communicating. This research project offers an opportunity for a group of people to think individually and collectively about the research question, and how we might each have more sustainable, personalised, meaningful, bespoke and localised relationships with the IOT we invite into our homes and workspaces.

In reflecting upon what IOT is and what the problems are, I can start to think about the qualities of craft and making processes and how this can lead to insights that might contribute to a change in the current trajectory. What is it in my own art practice which can help me to consider some steps towards this research question? I have made work about technology and used it in the production of my work, often seeing it as a collaboration between the machine makers, the software engineers and myself. My repeated interest in the body, making and technology has found form in a series of projects including digital making (Computer Aided Design and 3D printing) postures of making (collaboration with an ergonomist, exploring the body at work during creative making practices) and white shirt (value, hand and machine labour and globalised supply systems and chains). Contained within each exploration is a series of dialogues with specialists and generalists – often illuminating, always essential to the development of my thinking.

The first IOT workshop approaches and will see each of the commissioned artists opening a box of components and seeing how we can build a custom IOT device with full control over the processes and the data it generates, and then somehow find a way to connect this with our individual making processes.