Gimmicky technological conceptualism returns with a vengeance

Wow! An edible drone with extruded vegetable spars that can be flown into famine-affected areas! Reworded press release posts popped up everywhere last week with this image attached. Ian Bogost wasn't buying it.

Bogost links prototype art created by venture capital seekers to to the long history of conceptual fine art, like Manzoni's 1961 pieces titled Artist's Shit. He draws a line from Manzoni to Windhorse Aerospace, who sold Facebook the concept of drone-based internet delivery for $20 million in 2014. Bogost explains how this VC bait works in theory and practice:

Conceptualism has one gimmick—that the idea behind the work has more value than the work itself. As it happens, that’s not a bad definition of securitization, the process of transforming illiquid assets into financial instruments. Whether Windhorse’s edible drones really work, or whether they could effectively triage humanitarian crises is far less important in the short term than the apparent value of the concept or the technology. If humanitarian aid doesn’t work out, the company can always “pivot” into another use, to use that favorite term of start-ups. What a company does is ultimately unimportant; what matters is the materials with which it does things, and the intensity with which it pitches those uses as revolutionary.

Tech Start-Ups Have Become Conceptual Art (The Atlantic / Ian Bogost)

Notable Replies

  1. Water Seer.

    Solar Freaking Roadways

    Plastic Roadways

    Self Filling Water bottles

    All of them with slick presentation, but some quick back of a napkin math or even just some thought into it, will show that either 1) what they want to do isn't physically possible or 2) the technology needed to go from concept to a thing is way more than what the design student who came up with the idea thought it would take.

    I am putting the Hyperloop in the realm of bad ideas too.

  2. Shuck says:

    Add to that the "playpump" ( which didn't even work in theory, broke down easily (and couldn't be repaired), and no one in the targeted communities actually wanted. Despite that, because the idea was so appealing, multiple presidents supported it, they raised tens of millions of dollars and installed them across Africa, where they now sit, rusting, getting in the way of people who want water. Projects like that, unlike Hyperloop, are particularly dangerous, as they not only take money away from needed infrastructure projects, the people who backed them feel like the problem has been solved, so it fails to get further money as well, even though they actually made the situation worse.
    It reminds me of these various projects to put floating plastic-debris-catchers at the Pacific Gyre to clean up the "plastic islands," some of which have been getting some funding. The problem is, it's a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. There's a monstrous plastic pollution problem, but despite popular belief, it's not floating on the surface nor in large chunks at the gyres. (If you do an image search for Pacific Gyre, you'll find plenty of pictures that show mounds of plastic floating on the surface of water - but none of those pictures are from the location in question; news articles about the gyres use those misleading pictures to perpetuate the misunderstanding.) So money is being spent that is not only useless but actively misleads people about the real problem.

  3. I completely agree. Musk having a boondoggle or two won't hurt anything. Heck the people involved my come out better for it.

    But that is why things like the Water Seer get to me. Their ad plays HEAVILY on ones emotions. I mean, it takes a pretty cold heart to not want to help people get basic water. But it is at best someone with what they think is a good idea and not knowledgeable enough to know it won't work, or at worst a scam.

    And like you said, it takes funds and resources away from something else that could be helping people.

    Now - that isn't to say we shouldn't keep dreaming. Just, you know, make sure you don't follow every dream. Half of mine end up with me naked, my teeth falling out, or being late for/haven't studied for a class I haven't been in for 20 years.

  4. I gratefully don't know what half of those are; more free meme space. Does the 2015-17 spherical tyre not rank?
    Is it commercial art that squeezed out putting 30 engineering bits in there [tips a liquid issue of Popular Mechanics 1912; out come monads like Power Reception Radio Spheres, treads, bespoke retentive guttering, still parts for everything, pets that train plants...] to claim 'our engineers know the practical ones' into the Fine Art Only sector?

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