Simon Denny Exhibits Amazon Cage in San Francisco
A new exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum explores what it means to be human in an AI-saturated world with pieces like New Zealand artist Simon Denny’s work, “Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage, US 9,280,157 B2: ‘System and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace,’ 2016.” Arielle Pardes, senior writer at Wired, reports on the show in a culture piece for the magazine.
The Amazon worker cage stands about 7 feet tall, with just enough space for a human to turn around comfortably, Pardes writes. From within, a joystick controls a large metal claw – like those found in arcade games – to pluck at packages or other items on the warehouse floor. While robotic arms ferry merchandise through an Amazon fulfillment centre, the cage holds a human suspended, shielded from all the whirring machinery. In effect, the cage protects the humans from the machines.
Amazon patented the design for this worker cage in 2016, envisioning a solution to human worker safety in an automated warehouse. Tech patents are sometimes pipe dreams, drafted up without any real promise of following through. Even still, researchers at the AI Now Institute, which focuses on the social implications of AI, would later describe it as “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines.” Amazon never built the cage. But the artist Denny did, using the published patent to faithfully create the design in its full glory.
Denny’s artwork now stands in the de Young Museum, part of a new show that examines humans’ changing role in a world saturated with intelligent machines. (Denny has chosen to portray his piece without much commentary. Its title: “Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage, US 9,280,157 B2: ‘System and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace,’ 2016.”) Elsewhere in the museum, viewers are confronted with the other realities of tech work.
Art can sometimes leave viewers scratching their heads, wondering what it all means. Not these pieces. On the de Young Museum’s floor, the tensions between technology companies and the labour they employ is laid bare. Here, workers are a means to an end.
The de Young’s new show, called “Uncanny Valley”, picks at some of these contradictions. The title refers to the uneasy sensation of seeing something not-quite-human and not-quite-machine, but also the absurdities of the actual Valley in which technology is built.
Denny’s piece takes only one liberty from the original Amazon design: He’s added an augmented reality component, so that when the viewer looks at the worker cage through an iPad, it a King Island Brown Thornbill perched inside the cage. (The bird is nearly extinct, which Denny means as a reference to Amazon’s toll on the environment, as well as the on its people.) Just before the de Young opened its show and after months of protest by Amazon employees, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a $10 billion fund to fight climate change. That might still be too late for the Thornbill.
Denny, 38, lives in Berlin.
Uncanny Valley is on until 25 October.
Original article by Arielle Pardes, Wired, February 24, 2020.
Photo by Jesse Hunniford.