Review: MoMA’s “Talk to Me” Design Exhibit

This is a review that I wrote last year for a popular MoMA design exhibit, which I figured I would throw up here.  The exhibit is now closed, however, the MoMA’s still maintains an excellent website that details all of the pieces.  

Communication between man and machine is hardly a new or novel concept. What is so refreshing about the MoMA’s new exhibit, Talk to Me, is the sense of possibility prevalent in so many of its nearly 200 artifacts, concepts, and designs. Billed as a survey of contemporary design, Talk to Me does not present itself specifically as a futurist exhibition. And yet, its implications about society’s future—or futures—are rather poignant.

The implications are most clear when seen through the lens of an American generational divide. Even a cursory look at the artists and designers on display reveals that a majority of them are under the age of 40. Their parents were the “Baby Boomers,” the post-WW2 population surge that lasted between the mid-40s and mid-60s. The Boomers were, by and large, weaned on television; that monolithic presence that rose like a deity in the aftermath of the war, gradually supplanting all other media that came before it. Television instructed a universal narrative of American society’s appropriate values and vices, heroes and villains, hopes and fears.

But television is a passive medium that neither asks nor accepts input from the viewer. It was the final arbiter of truth in an age of dizzying commercialism, political paranoia, social upheaval, and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. It is no surprise then that the Baby Boomers, a generation raised on television, often depicted technology in pop culture as an omnipotent, malevolent force that loomed over humanity.  From the plotlines of The Day the Earth Stood Still to Dune to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Battlestar Galactica to The Terminator to The Matrix, it was clear that the machines would one day rise and enslave us. We would be powerless to stop them, and their will would be imposed upon ours forever.

Such existential horror is not visible in the MoMA’s new exhibit. While the tone is not always positive, almost everything on display offers a vision of a future where technological interactivity expands, rather than restricts, human perception. It is a vision less akin to the monolithic television narrative of the Baby Boomers and much closer to the balkanized interpretations of reality that characterize the internet, the ascendant medium whose fathomless content and ambiguous truths are the foodstuffs of their children and grandchildren.

This vision can be seen in one of the first installations visible upon entering the exhibit: Keiichi Matsuda’s video “Augmented (hyper) Reality: Augmented City 3D.” This  video displays an individual travelling through a cityscape that is covered with an overlay of digital information visible only to him. Personalized data menus cover objects and landmarks within his point-of-view, which allows him to access data and details at will. It is, in effect, the assignment of hyperlinks to the physical world. A nascent version of this is already available in contemporary smartphones, whose capacities allow us to map our locations and gather information about the areas around us in real-time.

This theme of revealing hidden realities continued in the main exhibition hall, where one could find Jon Ardern and Anab Jain’s playful 5th Dimensional Camera. The oversized instrument has compound lenses resembling a fly’s eyes and appears to project a large grid of numerous scenes within the same hallway. Unexceptional, until one notices that all of the vignettes—some mundane, some shocking, some nearly identical—all have exactly the same time code. They are not snapshots of what is but rather of what could have been. It is an exploration of physicist Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” theory of parallel universes. Once a staple of science fiction, it is a theory now an idea given serious consideration by Quantum Physicists.

Using spatial connections to establish alternative realities and narratives is a recurring concept throughout he exhibit. One of most powerful tools for this is a tutorial of BBC Dimensions, an active website that takes the size and space of a historical event and imposes it on a geographical area of one’s selection. The entry of a Manhattan zip code reveals that if the Great Wall of China were centered in Midtown, it would stretch from Tennessee to Prince Edward Island in Canada. It is a simple and clever way to create links in the mind of the viewer. The “Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch” of floating plastic and debris becomes far less abstract when one sees that it covers an area of the Pacific Ocean the size of continental Europe.

Another display shows the online game Chromaroma, where real-world passengers of the London Underground earn points and achievements based upon the stations they reach and the amount of time that they travel. Structured narratives change the nature and value of the goals, ultimately encouraging participants to explore areas of the city beyond their daily routines. A fusion of online gaming and a traditional scavenger hunt, it effectively turns the whole of London’s mass transit system into a game board.

If the stated purpose of Talk to Me is to examine the ways in which people and technological objects interact, then one may surmise that the notion of technological interaction—of the machine as an “other”—is nearing obsolescence. More and more, the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers are viewing advanced technology as an extension of their own senses. They do not revere or fear it any more than they do their own limbs and nervous systems.

The larger question, which the exhibit hints at but does not explicitly ask, is whether these trends will make us a more intellectually engaged society or merely a more solipsistic one. Will people explore the many new perspectives, realities, and personal connections at their disposal? Or, overwhelmed by or uncomfortable with the possibilities, will they simply cherry-pick the data that reinforces their own narratives? And, in allowing people to cocoon themselves from information that they deem unpleasant, might this new era make us just as provincial as we ever were?

These are the perils and possibilities on display in Talk to Me. An information revolution empowering the meek and mighty alike, united in technology, yet fragmented in perception. It will be our choice what to build. Interlinked worlds of intellectual discovery and human connection? Or escapist, solipsistic cages feeding us our own beliefs in an endless loop?

Perhaps the robots will enslave us, after all. At the very least, the future should be fun.