Emerging Tech Can Promote Creativity and Expand Culture
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Emerging Tech Can Promote Creativity and Expand Culture

words:
Savannah Kunovsky
visuals:
Alicia Duvall
read time:
6 minutes
published:
March
2024

Over the past 30 years, technology has converged individual creativity with our collective cultural experience, reshaping our personal realms and redefining the broader cultural tapestry in which we all participate.

Think back: Starting from the camaraderie of chat rooms in the '90s which created space for gay men to safely build community, to the social media boom of the mid-’00s that redefined global interactions, we've witnessed seismic shifts in how we connect with others and explore our identities. The proliferation of smartphones further catalyzed this transformation, embedding digital interactions into the fabric of our daily lives and birthing the attention economy that dominates today's tech landscape. Influencer culture cemented larger narratives that shape trends, fashion, and societal norms.The 2020s have centered Web3, XR, and AI in the global techno-sphere, creating new mediums for us to convene with others, rethink the design patterns of the past, and creatively express ourselves. 

As designers, we are often tasked with navigating the complex interplay between individuality and collectivity. The question becomes: How can we leverage technology to enhance personal expression while fostering a rich, diverse cultural landscape premised on care, understanding, and communal values? This challenge is not just about creating functional designs, but about understanding the broader implications of our work on the cultural ecosystem.

The good news? Technology is entirely made up, by humans, and all of it can be evolved.

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When it’s done well

The positive aspects of this convergence are manifold. The spread of digital tools and platforms has led to an unprecedented explosion of creativity. Now, more than ever, global voices can find and scale messages, meshing our shared cultural fabric. 

Projects like Carne y Arena, a virtual reality installation that immerses participants in the harrowing journey of refugees crossing the US-Mexico border, exemplify the power of technologies like XR to foster understanding, transcending physical and cultural boundaries to tap into the human condition. In the installation, you take off your shoes, feel wind blowing against your skin, and then find yourself in the 360 sight, sound, and touch of the experience, thanks to VR and a body pack. 

As the director, Alejandro Iñárritu, explains, "My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame—within which things are just observed—and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants' feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.”

4D experiences like Carne y Arena offer new, visceral ways of activating senses and emotional tones that we are far less able to access in 2D. VR is an incredible storytelling mechanism, and it can be an incredible tool anywhere we are designing for human experiences—like policy implications in government, or caregving in hospitals. Projects like this underscore the potential for design to bridge individual and collective experiences in meaningful ways.

Similarly, during Goliath: Playing With Reality, I immediately felt like every school curriculum should be filled with VR experiences. Through this VR-enabled, animated storyline, we delve into the life of Goliath, a person experiencing schizophrenia. Goliath's narrative highlights years of seclusion in psychiatric facilities and his journey toward finding community in online multiplayer games. The experience invites viewers into his mental world, showcasing the significant role digital communities play in fostering friendships and support, often beyond their initial design intent.

Project Common Voice by Mozilla stands as a beacon of how AI can be harnessed for cultural preservation. At its core, this project is a crowd-sourced database that gathers voice recordings from people around the world, aiming to share voice recognition technologies widely. By encouraging contributions in a multitude of languages, dialects, and accents, Common Voice plays a crucial role in safeguarding linguistic diversity. This effort not only supports the development of more inclusive voice recognition systems that can understand and respond to a broad spectrum of human voices, but also illustrates the capability of technology to support preservation of languages and dialects. In the broader context of design and technology's impact on culture, Project Common Voice exemplifies a commitment to using AI to respect cultural and linguistic diversity, thereby enriching the collective cultural landscape.

As a design tool, Common Voice pushed me to reconsider how AI can be used to design for inclusion at scale. The ability to plug in a service like this means that products can rapidly support more users in more contexts, removing some of the barriers and gatekeeping in many of our existing design paradigms for technology.

And as a final example: Someone close to me has long-term depression and anxiety. She found major collaborative iPhone games, like Clash of Clans, are a way to playfully connect with new people. For her, those friendships moved from online to real life, for life. She and her friends started to travel together—she even dated one for a while. Previously isolated, she ended up moving across the world, from the US to Europe, to live near her new friends. Her life has shifted for the better. She’s healthier, happier, and more connected in real life, as well as online.

As designers, we need to remember that the platforms that we design will be used in many ways outside of our intentions–for better and for worse. In my work at IDEO, I pay attention to how people make what we design their own; often, I fold those use cases in as the real value propositions, even if they are outside of the vision we start with as designers.

The flip side

The rapid integration of individual contributions into the collective domain has also caused irreparable damage. The accelerated pace at which personal expressions become part of the cultural lexicon compromises the depth and authenticity of cultural evolution. The risk of a homogenized, polarized, and defaulted monoculture, shaped by trends, algorithms, and the endless dopamine loops they feed, rather than organic self-understanding and cultural diversity, means that design needs to take on new values. The potential of powerful technologies to be used as surveillance arms means we need to put extra care and intention in how and what we build. The spectrum of ethical issues and social needs invite us to consider how we might use the mediums that come next–AI, XR, robotics, etc.–to preserve the richness of our personal, cultural, and social perspectives in a fast-paced digital world. That’s an opportunity for design.

As designers, we have a broader responsibility to the cultural zeitgeist. We need to advocate for designs that not only resonate on a personal level, but also contribute positively to the collective narrative. We are shaping the levers that culture will build and flow upon, and that’s a major responsibility. This dual focus on the individual and the collective calls for a nuanced approach to design, one that balances innovation with care, and personal expression with cultural nuance.

Parts of the images in this article were created/altered using generative AI.

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Savannah Kunovsky
Managing Director, Emerging Technology
Savannah focuses on emerging technology and what it means for the future of society, life, and earth.
Alicia Duvall
Design Lead
Alicia is a jack of all trades and has actually managed to master quite a lot of them. She combines concept, design, illustration, lettering, motion and strategy to tell beautiful stories.

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