I started writing an article called Fuck Yougle Google when I was forced to use the new Google inbox. Google I/O was underway in California and I suspect they wanted to highlight their new offerings. Fortunately, status quo returned in about an hour. I still may post it, but in case I don’t, it was a rant about how tech companies have a compulsion to “innovate” what already works. As the editor in chief of this website (and person alive in the year 2015), my relationship to technology can best be described as “enslavement.” I am at the mercy of Google and Apple.
The two quasi-competitors probably think themselves to be indispensable tools for making art. Terms of Service and SIRI, both performed during OFFTA, indicate that Google and Apple make good subjects for art as well.
Terms of Service is a choral work that takes portions of Google’s Terms of Service document and turns them into mini a capella musical pieces. Four women arrive on stage, all dressed minimally in black. Behind them is a screen on which the sung text is projects.
Reminiscent of a Medieval madrigal choir, the four gifted singers of l’Ensemble Gaïa then sing each section, one at a time. Each “term” is given slightly different musical treatment — some fast, some slow, some angelic, but all beautiful.
I don’t think I’ve ever paid this much attention to a Terms of Service contract in recent years. We encounter them all the time and ignore them, or if required to read them, scroll to the bottom, click yes, and hope for the best. Terms of Service gave me a chance to reflect on the ideas I agree to. More than that, the piece raises questions about the artistry — or the lack of it — in banal, perfunctory information.
Google’s Terms of Service is a legal agreement, one to which I mindlessly cede certain rights of privacy. Yet, I am so dependent on these services that I am not sure I even have a choice. I ask myself if I ignore the written content because I am in denial about what I must accept or disinterested? Is it so routine that it has become automatic? Google’s Terms of Service isn’t a dense text, so I can’t even blame a lack of legal knowledge.
By turning it into art, composer, John Boyle-Singfield elevates the content and makes it more digestible. I am grateful for him and think Google should put this musical version up stat.
Boyle-Singfield lives in Montreal and his work, according to his website, regularly addresses how “the effects of technology and late capitalism have been absorbed into our body and altered our vision of the world.” While I’m not sure I agree entirely with his message, Boyle-Singfield more than merits a top spot on my list of important voices and thinkers to watch.
Don’t worry, Google, Apple gets its comeuppance in SIRI. The show consists of a discussion between Laurence Dauphinais and her iPhone’s artificial intelligence assistant, SIRI. The limits of this intelligence, both in terms of breadth and ignorance, are demonstrated.
Laurence and SIRI initially talk about quotidian things that show off the phone’s capabilities. They discuss the weather and play Laurence’s favorite song. It sends Laurence’s mother an email saying “I love you.” When asked a specific question, the phone jumps to a wiki page and recites its content to answer a question. SIRI wants what Laurence wants and it can respond in German to “Ich liebe dich.” It is an ever ready servant and cheerleader.
Then Laurence asks specific questions that SIRI avoids. When the phone is prodded for its identity “Who are you?” it answers, “I’d rather not talk about me.” The phone refuses to sing, claiming to be a poor singer. It has nothing useful to say about “How will the world end” or “How should I die?” It offers a stock list of responses to “I am sad.”
Laurence’s emotions set against SIRI’s lack of them are part of what makes this piece intriguing. Laurence gets frustrated when SIRI evades questions that it can not grasp or handle. There’s almost a sense of smugness that the phone lacks an ability to understand questions of aesthetics or abstract ideas. But, we also see Laurence’s love and appreciation for her artificially intelligent companion.
Overall, these pieces were both short enough to raise points about our relationship with technology without overkill. I feel uniquely lucky to be a human being who can enjoy these works as art.