Can Technology Bring Progress Without Social Change?
The SPACE workshop on Augmented Reality, presented by AR Cité project lead Reisa Levine, a teacher in Cinema and Communications, was a valuable experience with clear links to my paired course on storytelling and ethics, Investigating Story Values. The workshop made me realize that the questions of who has access to technology and of who gets to tell our stories are quite similar. Big corporations have easier and quicker access to new technologies and use them to advertise. As a result, do the stories we tell become ones of consumption? In the workshop, we saw companies like Pepsi using their money to produce sophisticated ads that blow passersby away. Some people first experienced augmented reality, technology that could be qualified as futuristic, in an elaborate attempt at making them remember Pepsi. For those of us who only experience technology such as AR, not create or use it ourselves, it may seem like the future is one introduced to us by corporations. The future is full of endless possibilities, sure, as long as they are profitable. In the workshop, Levine mentioned that many if not most AR start-ups––pioneers in developing AR applications and technologies––have been bought out by Google, Meta and other tech giants, who then either incorporate the technology into their own products or kill it to prevent competition. If large corporations are the ones deciding what is worth keeping and what is not viable simply by monopolizing the market, then one could say that profit is truly driving our future. In that case, is the individual truly only limited by their imagination? Or by capitalism as well?
However, maybe our story is one where people refuse to be bought out or buried. If augmented reality brings the digital to our physical world, then we can, in that same way, bring our wishes for the future into reality. Just as activists created the app Kinfolk, using AR to make overlooked historical figures a part of our (digital) landscape (the official Kinfolk slogan on their website is “Building Apps and Experiences Centering Black & Brown History”), we may be able to use AR as well to create a digital world that better reflects new values. Yet as much as AR filters have become part of our daily lives, I wonder how well initiatives like the one of Kinfolk can be absorbed within a majority of people’s value and belief systems as long as the power structures dominating tech and society in general remain unchanged.
I am often skeptical of the ‘progress’ that technological developments bring. To me, an app like AR Cité that aims to educate people about local monuments and people will be useful only to the extent that people see a value in learning about these figures. The reason why an application like AR Cité might work in a school setting is because there are students and teachers interested in learning about people such as Alanis Obomsawin, whose portrait can be seen on a giant mural on the side of a building a block from Dawson College. Obomsawin “dedicated her life’s work to challenging colonial narratives, amplifying Indigenous stories and voices,” according to Levine. “She’s a towering figure in Canadian cinema and Indigenous arts… But it occurred to me that most students don’t know much about her or her work.”
I wonder whether AR technology can ever be as powerful as social values and beliefs, or at least powerful enough to shift them. When companies like Google and Microsoft engage in these ‘battles’ to create better technology, the values and beliefs that guide them may not be so pure––and these companies are the main drivers of how these technologies take shape and to what ends they are used. Augmented reality is an amazing technology, but it can only be as beautiful as the stories it is used to tell. The AR Cité project aims to give students and ordinary citizens access to technology to tell stories that have been actively marginalized and forgotten. Like the Kinfolk AR project, however, it has to work against the forces of profit-driven capitalism and our dominant cultural narratives. Will projects like these be able to shift the prevailing values and beliefs of our society? Will society first need to fundamentally change in order for projects like these to break through? And do we need both?