Spooky Technology

A summer remote project course at Carnegie Mellon

Daragh Byrne and Dan Lockton

We often hear that the technologies in our everyday lives would appear to be ‘magic’ and potentially terrifying to people in the past—instantaneous communication with people all over the world, access to a vast, ever-growing resource of human knowledge right there in the palm of our hand, objects with ‘intelligence’ that can sense and talk to us (and each other). But rarely are these ‘otherworldly’ dimensions of technologies explored in more detail. There is an often unspoken presumption that the march of progress will inevitably mean we all adopt new practices, and incorporate new products and new ways of doing things into our lives—all cities will become smart cities; all homes will become smart homes. But these systems have become omnipresent without our necessarily understanding them.

They are not just black boxes, but invisible: entities in our homes and everyday lives which work through hidden flows of data, unknown agendas, imaginary clouds, mysterious sets of rules which we perhaps dismiss as ‘algorithms’ or even ‘AI’ without really understanding what that means. On some level, the superstitions and sense of wonder, and ways of relating to the unknown and the supernatural (deities, spirits, ghosts) which humanity has felt in every culture throughout history have not gone away, but started to become transferred and transmuted into new forms.

What creative research opportunities are there at this intersection? This summer project aims to investigate these opportunities, in the process enabling students to gain familiarity with an under-explored dimension of our relationship with technology.

This course will iteratively introduce students to concepts in ‘spooky technology’. The first two weeks will orient them to the topic area through readings, discussions and screenings. For the subsequent six weeks, students will work to identify, gather and prepare richly annotated cases for inclusion in a digital inventory of spooky technologies. These will be reviewed, and discussed on a weekly basis in class. The final module of the course will see students work together in small groups to compile, curate and organize a shared set of exemplars into a final ‘zine’ format for dissemination.  The outcomes of the course will be a virtual ‘book sprint’ where students gather for prepare the final zine outcome. The deliverable will be an online and print version of the inventory that can be widely shared with interested audiences.

  • Readings and screenings: Students will review related readings to orient to the project. Additionally each student will independently review and synthesize related literature throughout the course.

  • Case Studies: Students will review, annotate and compile richly annotated case studies out of class. This will be completed out of class and reviewed on a regularly basis. Each student will deliver 3-5 examples to a digital inventory by the end of the semester.

  • Zine: Students will collaboratively prepare a print and online version of the examples. The outcomes will be a web archive of the examples and a print-ready PDF of the examples.