“Technology Will Never Go Away”: A Conversation With Artist Jeroen van Loon

Jeroen van Loon is a visionary digital artist from the Netherlands whose projects, which investigate the intersection of technology with contemporary culture, are both difficult and provocative. I found Jeroen via his most recent project, Life Needs Internet, which initially began in 2010 when Jeroen began to travel to different corners of the planet to gather real-life accounts from people talking about the ways Internet and digital media have changed their lives — for better or for worse. The project was originally exhibited in 2011 at the Freemote Festival in Utrecht, though the video below gives a good idea of the scope of the project.

The following conversation took place through a series of e-mails exchanged over a multi-week period. We talked about Life Needs Internet, technology, literature, and the ways we continually become more reliant on technology to access our own systems of thought. [Also worth mentioning is that I thought it would be interesting to talk to Jeroen, who shares my patronymic, though we would likely have to go back dozens of generations to find a common ancestor.]

Q: So what was it that inspired you to embark on the Life Needs Internet project? Was there a moment of inspiration?

The inspiration didn’t come in one specific moment. It gradually evolved. Life Needs Internet is mainly about how digital technology influences different cultures. It started with the question: is the influence of digital technology different in each? I always found it interesting to create work that is about technology itself. Creating the next innovative interactive gadget was never a goal for me. My fascination for these ‘digitalization effects’ comes from the fact that I frequently have RSI – Repetitive Strain Injury – complaints. This is a very strange thing for me as a digital media artist because the computer, which is my paint and canvas, ‘gives’ me these complaints. So every work I create with my computer contributes to this.

As a result I became fascinated by the effects computers, and in a broader context, digital technology, have on the physical and cognitive aspects of my life. In previous projects like Xrays (2010) and Analogue Blog (2010) I researched these effects on a very personal level. How does the computer influence my life? After these projects, I wanted to know how the same question relates to Dutch people, and this resulted in the interactive installation From Digital To Analogue (2010). For this project 16 people from four different generations (from the 1950s to the 1980s) wrote handwritten letters about the influence of the computer and Internet on their lives. These letters were categorized in four themes: Social Communication, Tech, Information, and Dependence. Each theme showed four letters from four different generations so that you could see the influence of the computer evolving in Dutch society.

Although From Digital To Analogue was very interesting, the difference between the four generations wasn’t all that great, partly because in The Netherlands (and in many parts of the West), almost everybody has a computer and an Internet connection. So the logical next step was to look for places that differ from the way we in the West experience computers and Internet. This resulted in a seven-month trip in which I met a lot of people from a variety of cultures in different countries. One of these places was the jungle of West-Papua where I met a few people who didn’t even knew the concept ‘Internet.’ Another place I went visited was the hyper-modern city of Singapore where digital technology rules everyday life, even more than in the West. These two places, and everything in between, created a well-balanced collection of interviews for Life Needs Internet.

Subjects from 'Life Needs Internet'

Q: Going back a little bit, what is your educational background?

First I studied IT Media Production, which was about the technical side of websites, databases and video. This meant a lot of programming and very little creative work. Programming was never something I was really good at. I found it interesting but it took me too much time to create the things I wanted. After four years I graduated and went to follow a bachelor in Digital Media Design at the School of Arts in Utrecht. I chose this study because it was first and foremost about ideas and concepts, your technical skills were less important. In my opinion, the technical side of a project should always be less important than the actual idea. Technique is useful but it should never interfere with the concept it’s supporting.

The strange thing when you study Digital Media Design, which completely focuses on digital technology, is your being taught that every idea has to start by using a computer. The idea that a project doesn’t have to start on a computer was something I began noticing in my last year. This was the same year that my RSI complaints got worse and thus I started looking at computers in a different and broader perspective. I graduated and after that I started following a Master of Arts in Design for Digital Cultures. During this master I started to work on my first projects that questioned the ‘answers’ that digital technology tends to give us.

Q: Life is Internet brought you to a lot of interesting places on the planet. Did you travel much prior to the Internet project?

No not a lot. I visited some countries within Europe when I was a child and a few years back I traveled to China and the Philippines, but this was not work related. I recently read The Origins Of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama, which contained a quote from American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset saying: “He who knows one country, knows no country.” I believe that’s true. Any subject changes in context when you experience or encounter it outside your own country. Travelling is important for any person, artist or not. It sounds cliché but it changes your perspective, for the good or for the bad – that doesn’t matter.

Q: What was the most interesting place you visited on your travels for the project? Did you have any interesting encounters outside of the work you were doing?

By far the most interesting place was West-Papua. A lot of places are completely different from Europe, for example India. It took me a while to feel comfortable in such a diverse and extreme place. Indian culture is different, the language is different… everything is different, but it’s still recognizable compared to my own culture. However, going to West-Papua was a trip like no other. Some of the places I visited there I really felt as if I went 2000 years back in time. Meeting tribe people in the jungle where there is really nothing except the jungle around you was really fascinating. Your perception of time changes dramatically. The sun comes up, around four o’clock it rains, and the sun goes down. Those three things replaced my watch. And when the sun is down, the day is over. There was no electricity, no lights. Candles were used only when absolutely necessary. You couldn’t see anyone so you went to sleep and around 05:00 everything started again.

What was very interesting for me, as a digital media artist, was the complete lack of media. No Computers, no TV, no radio, and no books. The only media in the jungle were the people around you. For a while, this really influenced the way I remembered and thought about things. Today, remembering ways to receive information is becoming more important than the actual information itself. For everything you want to know, you know there is a way for you to ‘upload’ it to your brain without thinking about the information itself. When there is no way for you to do this, you’re stuck with what you know and I really enjoyed that. It felt as if there were no longer any random media that interfered with my thoughts. Thinking and remembering felt more clean and direct. This maybe sounds a little abstract… Anyway, being somewhere without any media really had an impact on me.

Q: Did you have any contacts in the areas you were traveling to, or did you just fly places and hope to meet people?

Most of the time I just went to an area and then decided if it was interesting for the project. It depends on the city I guess. In big and very touristic cities it was a lot more difficult to find people who were willing to help with the project. I can’t escape the fact that I look like (and am) a tourist from Europe, so a lot of local people only saw me as an opportunity to make some money. And that’s perfectly logical. But it made having real conversations rather difficult because there’s always the tourist/salesman boundary you have to cross before you could talk about anything else which didn’t involve me buying stuff. In smaller and less populated areas it was easier. I usually stayed a week in the same place. Every morning I had breakfast at the same restaurant or bar and I did the same for my dinner. This way I saw the same people everyday and you build a small ‘relationship’. This made it possible for me to explain my project and give me the opportunity to ask if they wanted to participate. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

For West-Papua it was a little different. I knew I wanted to go there to see and experience a culture without any digital media. I thought of it as the complete opposite compared to my Western access to digital technology.

Q: Do you feel that you were moving back and forth between two ‘worlds’ — one with technology, and one without? Did your excursions allow you gain new perspective on the diversity of relationships people (and cultures) have with technology?

The feeling of moving back and forth between two worlds only happened when I went to Papua because the culture was so different. For other parts of the trip it was never so extreme. But I clearly saw how each culture uses digital technology and how it grew from a practical aspect into a cultural one. I used to think that technology was such a powerful concept that it directly changes and creates culture. After Life Needs Internet, I saw that it can do this, but this depends on where technology is used, and by whom. It’s certainly not a one-way street. Technology and culture are very much intertwined.

The process of digital technology evolving from a practical aspect into a cultural aspect was one of the most interesting insights that Life Needs Internet gave me. In rural areas, where digital technology isn’t that common, I learned that a lot of people see digital technology as something close to holy. It’s something that can change their lives. When asked how their lives would change, if they were to have a computer and Internet, a lot of the answers contained basic computer actions: looking up information, staying in touch with family more easily, and reading the news. All very basic actions for which the Internet was mostly created, and all of them were very practical. ‘Practical’ in this case means that those actions were purely used for their results.

The more digital technology is used, the more important it becomes and the more it seems that there is no way back. When I visited areas where digital technology is more widely available, the answers I got from the same question had much more to do with feelings. Feelings of being online, feeling connected, and not understanding how to live without digital technology. The basic actions of digital technology became so important that they became part of someone’s daily routine and eventually part of someone’s habit. In other words, digital technology evolved from a practical aspect of life into a cultural aspect of life.

It’s interesting to mention that in a lot of letters I received from people in Europe – a place where having a computer and Internet is as normal as having a tap that runs water – a very serious and sometimes negative undertone was present. I think that becomes more and more normal. People who use digital technology on a daily basis are becoming conscious about this change from practical to cultural. More importantly, they question if everything that digital technology brings them is for the best.

You can see the process that I just described in the Life Needs Internet project. The eight handwritten letters I selected for the project show the eight steps in which digital technology evolves within a society. First from something non-existing, then to a practical aspect and finally into a cultural aspect.

1 – “I don’t know what Internet is.”

Isajk, Obolma, West-Papua.

4 – “Someone who doesn’t use a computer is missing out in life.”

Lily Rumba, Darjeeling, India

8 – “Digital information has made ‘modern man’ suffer from digital incontinence.”

Roos van Geffen, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I think it’s fascinating to see all these changes: how the use of digital technology evolves and therefore how culture and technology are always adjusting and manipulation each other. It inspires me to create work about these primal feelings that people get when they’re using digital technology.

Image from 'Analogue Blog'

Q: What’s the difference between a practical aspect and a cultural aspect?

I believe the difference is the reason why someone uses digital technology. If it just for a single purpose, like the way you use a hammer to hit a nail, then it’s purely practical. It changes when digital technology is not only used for these pure practical reasons but because people experience emotions and feelings when using it – and more importantly – when they’re not using it. This is when it becomes a cultural concept. I use the word ‘cultural’ because these emotions and feelings can be different in each culture – which is not the case for the practical aspect.

Q: What projects are you working on currently?

I’m currently working on a few projects. One of them is still untitled but it’s a tribute to the Internet. A work made out of love for the Internet. It’s consists out of a huge number of small lcd photo frame key chains which are shaped as a heart and shape one big heart all together. Each photo frame shows a profile photo and a small text grabbed from twitter.com. The search query used for these photos and texts is ‘I Hate Internet’, translated into different languages. All the photo’s and texts together will create a growing tribute to the Internet as if it’s a person. It becomes a sort of love letter.

Two other projects I’m currently working on are newer versions of previous projects. One of them is Xrays. For this project, I took my computer to the hospital and had it x-rayed. Since the computer has become such an important part of my life, and even my body, I wanted to display it in a medical format; the same format we use to take a closer look at our own body. This will be a series of analogue x-rays which will be exhibited.

The second project is still untitled but the idea comes from the Life Needs Internet project. I want to create some sort of system in which people from all over the world can submit their own handwritten letters and photos. All in their own language, maybe in a digital way, but the best way would be by post. A difficult part of this project is reaching the people who have no access to computers and Internet. Most likely I will be working together with NGOs or other local organizations in different countries to stimulate the project in these areas. I’m not sure yet how all of this should work, but eventually, I want to create a collection – either an analogue or digital one – of different handwritten stories about our ever expanding digitalization.

Image from 'Xrays'

Q: What is some literature you’ve read or would recommend for people curious about modern interaction with technology?

One of the most recent books I read is The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. This doesn’t have a direct link with technology but it does give you a very precise insight on how different civilizations began, and how a culture is formed. This can be very interesting when thinking about technology and different cultures.

A book that is completely about technology, or rather anti-technology, is Running on Emptiness by American anarchist, primitivist and philosopher John Zerzan. Zerzan is famous for his statements that a society without any technology, and even agriculture, (essentially a hunter-gather society) is our best way of living. I don’t agree with everything he writes but it is interesting to follow him down that road. Because he question’s even the most basic things such as a wearing a watch and discusses topics like alienation. Even if you don’t agree with him, it’s a nice book to counter balance the more mainstream thoughts on technology in general.

Another interesting book is Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. Barabasi is a physicist and in his book he explains his network theory. He shows that network theory isn’t only an Internet/computer thing but that it emerges in natural and social systems as well – from biological viruses to actors in Hollywood on to the World Wide Web. He explains that all these networks work with the same rules and regulations. In other words, how everything is connected to everything else.

Q: What are your own thoughts on technology as a concept? 

I have no desire to say that technology in itself is good or bad. This will never be the reason why I create work about technology. But technology will never go away. It will always influence a lot of people and it will cast out others. New technology arises, a lot of people try it, others don’t and they get left out. New social and moral rules are created/adjusted and society changes. Some generations understand these new rules, others don’t. A well know argument is that digital technology destroys culture, that Walter Benjamin’s aura is nowhere to be found these days, and that there is no way back as we head into post-digital culture. And I think this is true in some ways, but in my opinion, it’s not a dark vision of the future. When the whole world is online and connected with each other – which still will take a long time – it doesn’t mean that everything will be the same. Within this post-digital era, people will still use digital technology in different ways, I believe even more than nowadays. Cultural aspects of a society will be created within the technological ones.

The fact that technology has such an important impact on society and that it triggers such primal emotions in its users is far more important for me than trying to figure out if technology is good or bad.

Q: For another theoretical question (if you don’t mind fielding it), what is technology? Do you think that the nature of it is partly determined by how we interact with it?

In my opinion, technology is everything that helps us to achieve something – such as a goal, action, or purpose – faster and/or better than we could without the use of technology. Again the example of the hammer, hitting a nail into a piece of wood is done a lot easier and faster with a hammer.

New technology is invented; it’s used, and it creates new human habits. Technology dictates how people should use it and most of the time people listen to this, which then creates the notion that this new technology is filling a gap that was always there to be filled. If so many people use it, then it must service a very basic human need. I don’t believe that’s always the case. Technology can give us a purpose or a goal and while we use it, this goal or purpose can become a basic human need, while other human needs fade away. This happens without questioning if this is useful in the first place. Technology is always linked to the people who use it; it becomes an extension of man. Like McLuhan wrote, “Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension…” For example, you could say that today it’s more important to know how to find information than to actually know or learn it. In conclusion, you can’t say; we need something, so we invent it, we use it and we move on to the next thing we need. We’re not in total control. So yes, I believe that the nature of technology for some part determines how and why we use it,

Q: What are some of the things you would like to have your work accomplish (in yourself or in others)?

I want to keep creating work that is interesting for more than one generation or subculture. In other words, work that relates not only to the Web-kids and digital natives in this world, but also to the ones that are outside this digital culture. A lot of new-media art works are interesting only if you yourself are working within digital technology and you understand the code or context. I believe that art has to have the power to relate to as many people as possible. Art is a product of society, so it has to mean something within that context. I believe that a project like Life Needs Internet can easily be exhibited in an art show about digital culture, which is interesting for a certain group of people like myself, but it could also work in a more educational environment with a target audience of children or elderly. If I create something that is interesting for both worlds then I think I’ve done a good job.

Jeroen in West Papau

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