SXSW Art Program: The Future of Secrets. Photo by Ann Alva Wieding


Art Exhibit Ponders the Destiny of Our Online Musings

What is revealed by "The Future of Secrets"?

What is social media if not a giant, accidental time capsule that collects our not-well-kept secrets? And what kind of light will it cast upon us — both individually and collectively — in, say, 50 to 100 years?

Digital artist Sarah Newman set out to explore these questions and collaborated with colleagues from metaLAB at Harvard (part of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society). Together with creative technologist Jessica Yurkofsky and data scientist Rachel Kalmar, with Newman in the role of lead artist, the team created the dynamic art installation “The Future of Secrets,” which has been shown at eight sites around the globe since 2016, including SXSW 2018.

“I think we’re in an unusual time right now because the repercussions of the effects of the technology have not caught up to the convenience of using the technology...”

According to Newman, the exhibit grew out of “a longer term interest that I had with what happens to our digital correspondence in the long-term future — like, where do our emails go? That wasn’t about secrets per se, it was about what happens to these corpuses of data, personal information that we’re putting out into the world… It’s really a chance for us to learn about ourselves now. It’s using the future and the future of technology as a foil to think about the present.”

As the concept evolved, Newman did surveys where she asked her subjects whether, if given the chance, they’d want to read their great-grandparents’ emails, and conversely, if they’d want their great-grandchildren to have access to their own. Not surprisingly, there often was a discrepancy in the responses.

The Future of Secrets. © Sarah Newman

The Future of Secrets. © Sarah Newman


“Basically my hypothesis was that on a large scale, we’re leaving a lot of information behind which may not be productive for future generations,” Newman explains. “Because it might be inaccurate, it might be information that’s not curated, or a narrative that we might not want to tell about ourselves… so that’s sort of what inspired this piece.”

During SXSW, “The Future of Secrets” was set up in a space at the Fairmont Hotel which the artists managed to black out almost completely. Inside the room was a desk with a computer, a headset, a printer, projections on the walls and a listening station with headphones that acted as an interactive sound piece. The participant would enter a “secret” into the computer (not tracked) and from the nearby printer would emerge someone else’s secret (also anonymous). On one wall were projections of previously submitted secrets, and on another wall reams of code showing how information is translated into computerized voices. Those voices repeated, sometimes whispered, other’s secrets through the headphones. In theory, if you stayed in the exhibit long enough, you might see your own secret on the wall or hear it whispered in your ear.

Surprisingly, Newman says, “The Future of Secrets” came together in Austin in a different way from previous exhibitions.

“It’s interesting having it be this global work,” she says. “We got really good secrets in Austin and the highest ratio of actual secrets. Not like, ‘I had pizza for lunch’… Also, a lot of people told us it was such an interesting antidote to the culture because it's a technology festival, and there’s all these startups and everything’s really awesome and glossy… And then you go into this room that’s not selling anything, and everybody’s opening their hearts and revealing their deepest thoughts. It was like a nice reminder of what’s on the inside and not what we choose to show.”

SXSW Art Program: The Future of Secrets. Photo by Ann Alva Wieding

SXSW Art Program: The Future of Secrets. Photo by Ann Alva Wieding


“What makes us different to animals is we tell stories about the past,” Newman says. “Having technology, and this kind of technology, one of the things is the quantity itself. You can be really spontaneous in an email or a text message or a chat window that’s almost more like a conversation, so that it’s back and forth, and there’s so much of it today.”

“I think we’re in an unusual time right now because the repercussions of the effects of the technology have not caught up to the convenience of using the technology,” Newman observes. “So we’re already starting to see a backlash against that, and there will be more regulations.”

An example she uses is with email services: “When you sign up you should be able to decide what happens to (emails) in the future. You should be able to tag things so that they have an expiration date, for example, or give people certain rights or certain access,” Newman says. “But I think that’s going to have to be driven by the public because it’s something people want. And people don’t know that they want until they see the effects of it… In 50 years, I think there’s not going to be such a free flow of information, it’s going to be more personally curated. I think that’s the next wave.”

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