Developing new symbolic languages
Please Don’t Understand This
If we come across writing on a wall in a language we understand, we have no choice but to make sense of it. We do this innately.
If we come across writing on a wall in a language we don’t understand, we can choose to move on, or can try to piece it together given what knowledge we do possess and what we know about the context and place.
If we believe the message is an important one, we might ask others for help, or become irritated that no translation is offered. This is particularly true when we are used to seeing our language and symbols marking the world around us.
Please Understand This
Beginning in the 1880s and up until the Second World War, migrant workers in the United States created and applied their own secret language, placing markings on civil infrastructure like fences and railway sites to aid one another in finding help or avoiding trouble. Usually, these “hobo” signs would be written in chalk or coal.
Communities and subcultures have long developed their own systems— slang, hand signals, visual images—to communicate outside of official systems.
In 2021, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Toronto and the Canada Council for the Arts, we became curious whether by using local symbolic systems we might enable a fuller picture of technological changes that were underway, providing greater access to conversations about these changes. This project, “Please Don’t Understand This,” draws on theories and rituals to map out new collective sense-making approaches for issues related to artificial intelligence and algorithmic culture.
Malawi is a nation in Southeastern Africa formerly known as Nyasaland. It is bordered by Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. The country is nicknamed “the warm heart of Africa” because of the friendliness of its people. Dzaleka is the only permanent refugee camp in Malawi and has a population of approximately 40,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Burundi.
Based in Dzaleka, the Tumaini Festival was founded in 2014 and is a large-scale cultural event created and run by refugees in collaboration with the local community. As part of the 2021 edition, I commissioned artists from the refugee camp and the surrounding community to generate their own visual, symbolic languages to represent their fears about, hopes for, and understanding of artificial intelligence.
Concurrently, in Beijing and Cairo, we commissioned similar inquiries. The overall goal was to involve communities most impacted by artificial intelligence, encouraging them to think and talk about the topic. We also asked the artists to consider how they might let people know that taking or posting a picture could create risks for others and how they could let people know that they were being watched without alerting those doing the watching. The work carried out in Malawi, China, and Egypt was then remixed, without offered context, by members of the Central African, Chinese, and Egyptian diaspora living in Canada.
The language and metaphors we use for AI are almost always drawn from Western frameworks. The project assumed that we need many ways to see issues if we hope to generate many ways to respond to them.
This contrasts with the dominant view that there can only be one “correct” approach, technically accurate and ethically derived, which is administered and disseminated by experts.
Emergent ritualistic languages, though, become ways of working outside of established, official ideologies. They communicate with metaphors drawn from the communities themselves.
Ning Ning, a Beijing tattoo artist that participated in the project, is a long-term resident of a traditional hutong. Hutong are narrow alleys commonly found in northern China, particularly in Beijing. Neighbourhoods are often formed by connecting hutong together. Around her home, there are many tourist spots, and nearby places to eat are usually discovered through an app called “Da Zhong Dian Ping” (“people’s comments”). The app prioritizes whatever locations are trending, often because of paid influencers and advertising, and these quickly become sites where influencers eat and photograph themselves. The prices in these locations are often high because of their popularity.
The artist described the situation as follows:
Long ago, there were no phones or internet, so these restaurants often relied on word of mouth for their advertising. These eateries were an essential part of our social and cultural lives—a place to truly connect with our community. Today, with the emergence of AI marketing, restaurants that actively integrate with the internet have gained a serious competitive advantage. The small local restaurants that couldn’t adapt to the shifting technological landscape were forced to close. On the other hand, restaurants that leveraged the promotional power of internet celebrities and social media became famous.
To increase the exposure of their business, many restaurants in China will hire companies to boost their profile on the many social media apps. Companies will use all kinds of marketing methods to attract the attention of the public. Some will even pay for “likes” and positive reviews, propelling themselves to the front of the algorithms. The online marketing space in China is not well regulated, leading to an abundance of misleading and exaggerated advertisements. Many patrons leave feeling disappointed when their meal doesn’t match their expectations. Despite the disappointment, many guests will continue to leave favorable reviews so as not to be rude. This creates a feedback loop where customers continue to be lured in with inflated expectations.
At the same time, the traditional local restaurant hidden in the corner of the hutong has fallen. While focusing on the quality of their menu, they have opted out of social media and put themselves at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, only a small number of nearby residents know about these eateries, while the population at large has no way of discovering their nostalgia-infused fare.
Ning Ning wanted to overcome the invisibility to app users of the small, local restaurants, making people more aware of them as other options to be considered. She created two sets of icons, one for the store fronts and the other one for the staff to wear on their clothing or on their skin as a washable tattoo.
The culture surrounding tattoos has completely changed. Tattoos are now associated with wealth and fashion rather than rebellion and criminal behavior. A good tattoo can be a significant part of someone’s style and help strike up a new conversation. Tattoos are pieces of art people carry on their skin. It can help express one’s emotions and reflect one’s reality.
The icons are small devils that visually reference the app while drawing attention to how decisions are being made and who is included or excluded. The little devil can be affixed to the outside of the shop. The number of positive reviews the restaurant has received will be displayed in the upper right corner of the symbol. The hope is to encourage multiple locations to display these icons.
Customers can always order from, ask questions of, or seek assistance from someone wearing one of the icons. The intent is to make an analog symbolic system visible among gourmets. True food lovers will see the icon and know that a restaurant has a reputation for outstanding cuisine, instead of internet-boosted algorithmic success.
The icons, which you will find later on, are attractive but would be almost impossible to interpret if one were not familiar with the Chinese app ecology.
They now serve to interrupt the process of selection and make visible locations rendered invisible by algorithmic systems.
Please Don’t Understand This
Much of the debate about AI, even within the artistic community, has prioritized the exploration of a small number of theoretical, ethical, and ideological principles and consideration of what should underpin policies and public interest in the deployment of these systems. Overwhelmingly, the ethics that emerge on all sides of the debate centre on Western ideologies and traditions.
However, the ultimate objective ought to be 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.
To take ownership of our rituals and our theories transforms the fundamental assumptions on which our categories are based.
These first efforts will likely be found inadequate to the reality of experience, but they allow for new spaces to be discovered and uncovered. Collectively, they offer opportunities to practice being wrong, at least temporarily.
Our relentless embedding of official ideologies in institutions and technologies has led to the professionalization of ritual and theory. Events replete with meaning, such as the passing of a loved one, are turned over to the hands of professionals who enact the gestures but are removed from the experience of loss.
Ritual and theory are activities of structured attention. They provide shape to experience.
The current surge in the development and application of artificial intelligence does not rely on an organizing theory or an underlying reason for why something is true. Algorithmic systems look at enormous caches of data and find the pattern. Explaining the pattern, however, is rarely a priority. Yet an awareness of our ignorance encourages us to pursue new knowledge. Confidence in our models of the world does the opposite