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Asking the Right Questions

Mimi Onuoha's Work Combines Arts and Technology 

Picture yourself in a room where a new work of performance art is debuting. The performer is the artist, who is circulating among a crowd of maybe 300. As she interacts with people, her heartbeat data is being broadcast to a large screen at the back of the room, so people can see in real time how her heartbeat changes. It’s a visualization of the kind of biometric data collected by fitness tracking devices like Fitbit.

In another artwork, people are invited to peer into a filing cabinet. The cabinet is filled with folders, neatly labeled with the names of data sets that are “missing,” meaning they should exist, but for some reason they don’t: things like how many civilians are killed by the police each year, how much cash is outside our borders or how many car accidents happen annually.

Call it art with a point. The point is to get us to think about the data trail we leave behind as we make our way digitally through the day, and how it is used to sell us products, or categorize us in ways that can affect our ability to obtain such things as health insurance, credit or a mortgage.

This kind of questioning through art is the product of the fertile mind of Mimi Onuoha, an artist and researcher who has joined Olin College as its first “creative in reference.” As such, she is available as a resource to engineering students preparing to launch careers increasingly fueled by machine learning, the computational categorization of people and things using algorithms.

“I like to say that the world is becoming more machine readable,” says Onuoha. “What I mean by that is that as we generate more and more data, we have more systems that have to make sense of that data. We have more of a need to make ourselves fit those systems. I’m interested in what that does to the things that don’t fit.” 

Onuoha’s work strives to make visible the invisible tradeoffs we make in our digital lives. So many of us move through the day blithely taking advantage of the benefits of the internet and social media, without thinking much about the dark side of all that data that’s being collected about our habits.

“Her work is trying to get at the fissures, the cracks and loopholes, the tacit assumptions and what’s being left out,” says Sara Hendren, artist, designer and researcher in residence at Olin and principal investigator of the grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that supports Onuoha’s residency at Olin.

In Onuoha’s view, advancements such as the internet are “socio-technical” in nature, meaning they are rooted in society, so they share society’s perspectives and biases. She especially wants engineers to be aware of the people left out or disadvantaged in the process of abstraction and categorization by which these technologies largely works these days.

“I want them to consider the consequences and the implications of the things that they do, especially because many of students here will go on to work for companies that have a lot of power in shaping the world,” says Onuoha. 

It’s a description that fits Facebook, Google and other technology companies that have had to grapple in recent years with numerous calamities, from massive data breaches to misuse of their data to phenomena like “fake news.” These developments threaten to turn the internet from a liberating force into a kind of digital dystopia that is destabilizing democracies and creating divisions in society.

All is not lost, though. Onuoha sees the world at a kind of inflection point where we can still decide how to interact with new technologies.

Says Onuoha: “I think this is a moment where we are all collectively decided: what does this all mean? How are we going to situate this, how are we going to use it, who has control and how do we define the terms of this? I see my role here as helping the students think through these questions.”

Onuoha was an anthropology major at Princeton. Born in Italy of Nigerian parents, she moved around a lot with her family, eventually landing in America. Because of her itinerant upbringing, she found herself drawn to the communities she found online in social media like Facebook, which was just beginning to really take off during her college years.

As an anthropologist, she liked working with demographic data and people, but felt she needed to know more about the technologies that took up so much of her time. For graduate school, she joined the art, technology and design program at New York University, where she added digital fabrication and coding to her abilities. 

Although she had not set out to be an artist, she found in art a powerful new language that helped her bridge technology, society and other areas she was concerned with.

“I found that the space of art became really interesting for investigating different things,” says Onuoha, who has also been active in journalism and public policy circles. “I had always been really interested in research, but I had always come to research in a very traditional way. But then I found that art can also be a space for research and for positing arguments and testing ideas.”

Onuoha has an office on the lower level of Olin’s library, where she meets with students and other members of the college community. In person, she is animated, gesticulating energetically to make a point or dashing across the room to open a laptop to show a visitor images of her artworks.

As part of her residency at Olin, she is teaching a course called “Creative Approaches to Emerging Technologies” that will have students grapple with technology and art around creative projects. She hopes the course will help students develop a critical faculty for evaluating new technologies. 

“I come from a background of not just engineering or art, but really combining those two things,” notes Onuoha. “In that combination, I think you get different ways of looking at problems and looking at situations. I'm interested in bringing that to Olin.”

For Hendren, Onuoha is the perfect choice to be Olin’s first Creative in Reference and advance the Mellon grant’s overall goal of blending the arts and STEM.

“It’s critically important that our students, our faculty, but also our counterparts outside of this campus, see that we wanted to really foreground and highlight somebody with both a very practical mind and a very creative imagination,” says Hendren. “To have people asking the most difficult questions with the most imaginative spirit is a very tall order. We wanted to not back away from the ambition of that.”