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Catherine Allen’s expertise spans augmented and virtual reality, including the development of the immersive sector. Here, she outlines how the arts have always been and continue to be crucial to the development of emergent technology.

Performance of Golem. Person in clown makeup alongside 'Golem' – a creature crafted from clay. They are both stood on stage.
Theatre company 1927's performance of Golem

In recent weeks, the UK government has stated its bold ambition for Britain to lead the world in regulating artificial intelligence. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in his keynote address to London Tech Week that he wants to “make the UK not just the intellectual home but the geographical home of global AI safety regulation”. 

It’s urgently needed but for this plan to be successful, Britain must adopt a wider lens and bring in disciplines beyond the technology sector. Cue the arts. 

The arts serve as a crucial gateway, introducing the creative possibilities of emerging technologies and providing a critical framework for conversations around ethics, responsibility and the role digital technologies should play in our lives. The arts foster our knack for simultaneously criticising tech and coming up with great ideas for it. This technology-literate approach is needed now more than ever.

Cultural examples

There are countless strong examples of cultural experiences that have reinforced the public’s technological literacy: the theatre company 1927’s performance Golem, which toured the UK and internationally between 2014 and 2018 for instance. It presents a modern take on the myth of the Golem – a creature crafted from clay, brought to life to serve its creator. 

The narrative centres on an average man's interaction with his own Golem, a neat symbol of increasing dependence on technology. The Golem - originally an aide - becomes progressively more controlling, ultimately questioning who or what truly holds the reins in our technologically driven world. 

The show invited audience members to consider the consequences of letting AI run unchecked, and what happens when advanced technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives to the point it becomes an inescapable necessity. After several years of touring, in 12018 The Space commissioned 1927 to bring the show to BBC4, subsequently reaching even larger audiences. 

Fast forward to now, five years later, and society urgently needs this type of critical thinking about AI. Artists often have an uncanny ability to imagine and explore future horizons, navigating complex and elusive landscapes before they come into full view.

Legislation and understanding

Some may respond to this with the point that we won’t achieve adequate technological regulation and legislation by simply upskilling random members of the audience of a play. Perhaps the most relevant people are academics or legal experts who specialise in regulation or technology ethics?  

This misses the bigger picture. People only become interested in things when they have had some initial exposure to that thing. If the UK is to become both the intellectual and geographic home of AI regulation, then people need to be inspired to work in this field. 

We need a proper public discourse, and we need citizens to have a basic understanding of the issues. A critically acclaimed show like The Golem, reaching hundreds of thousands of people, helps significantly towards all of the above. 

The arts can also shape our approach to emerging technologies by being a first place the public encounter, and engage with, new tech. My specialism is in augmented and virtual reality, and my formative experiences with VR were at Sheffield Doc Fest.

 Almost a decade later, my work in the immersive sector informs government policy about the opportunities and potential harms immersive tech can bring. Without those early experiences at Sheffield Doc Fest – partly funded by Arts Council – I’m not sure I would be working in this field.  

Art as a playground

This phenomenon is not new, of course. Art has been a playground for emerging technology for centuries. And artistic experimentation with new tools often prefigured wider societal use, providing audiences with a context in which to consider technological advancements – working out how they feel about it, and why. 

For many in Britain during the late 1800s, their initial encounter with moving images, for example, came not in a scientific demonstration or in the workplace, but within the bustling environment of a local music hall. These lively venues were places for both popular entertainment and for communities to get together. 

Early pioneers of film, such as Robert W. Paul, integrated their film reels into the wider eclectic line-up of comedy, song, dance and novelty acts. For music hall goers, their comprehension of this radical new technology was shaped not in isolation, but in a communal setting, offering the opportunity to talk about what they had seen with others – developing the foundations for film literacy on a societal level.  

So why do the arts work so well as a place for early uses of emerging tech? It’s the combination of artists wanting to use new tools and the audiences’ desire for a managed way to step outside of their comfort zone. When we buy tickets for a cultural event, we're often subconsciously choosing, and indeed expecting, to step outside our everyday life. We're prepared to engage in experiences that might otherwise seem unusual – the growth of virtual reality exhibits in museums and galleries perfectly illustrates this.

Strengthening digital literacy

An added bonus of this arts-centred approach to strengthening digital literacy is its long-term benefit to the democratic process. Proposals to shape emerging technologies’ role in our lives may well be a part of future political candidates’ manifestos.

For citizens to be able to vote on these issues, they need some experience with these technologies. The Space’s virtual reality drop-ins, in libraries in Coventry, are a great example of a pragmatic arts project that dramatically improved local people’s access to emerging tech. This could put Coventry library-goers in a good position in the long-term future, should metaverse regulation become a voting issue.

The arts help us make sense of the world, a world that is increasingly shaped by large technology firms. Art forms offer an incredibly useful toolkit for addressing the burgeoning digital technology challenges we face. Policymakers and ministers would be foolish to ignore this opportunity; the first step is bearing this in mind when making decisions about where resources are directed.

Catherine Allen is a Space Associate and Founder/Lead Consultant at Limina Immersive.
 thespace.org | liminaimmersive.com/
 @thespacearts@_CatherineAllen | @LiminaImmersive

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Headshot of Catherine Allen