Marianne Weems is the artistic director of The Builders Association, a New York based theatre group that’s interested in bringing technology onto the stage, looking at it critically, ecstatically, and politically.
She begins with a snippet of her usual performance, welcoming us to Pop!Tech and explaining that we’ve already told Pop!Tech a bit about who we are, by using our credit cards. She introduces us to Claritas, a credit card marketing company. With Claritas’s data, she’s able to tell us that the largest group of Pop!Tech attendees are from the area around 01230 – Boston – which means that they are labeled “money and brains”. The next group is from 10011 – NYC – and are a group of “urban achievers” and “bohemian mix”. Some are from San Francisco – “young digerati”.
She introduces us to Roger, from 04848 – a Mainer – who Claritas believes is likely to own at least one sleeping bag and who enjoys watching King of the Hill in syndication. “If you don’t fit in, you might be an exception – an ‘outlier’.”
Builders Association performances try to put technology on the stage as a character in a similar way. Weems wonders why theater hasn’t embraced technology, learning from computer programmers and game designers.
She shows us a clip from “Supervision”, a fantasy about pervasive surveillance and travel. We see a traveller waiting to enter immigration at an airport, being quizzed in detail by a security guard. The guard asks why his medication doses have increased, asks about the health of his niece… but also has a mistake in his file, the information that he’s based in Dubuque. He asks for a correction… and the guard laughs.
Weems offers the idea that we all have a data body, born when we’re born, bulking up during our spending years, and surviving beyond our death. These data bodies can get scarred the way that our bodies scar. And when we cross borders, we reveal both our physical and data selves…
An earlier piece, “Alladeen”, focuses on the phenomenon of Indian callcenters, and the fact that training at these callcenters involves helping Indians learn US accents and culture. This leads to a new class of people – digital immigrants – who don’t leave their native countries but live culturally elsewhere.
We see a film of callcenter worked Riaz Basha, who talks about the experience of learning to be “Allen Travis”. After a few months of training, he can turn the accent on and off, seamlessly moving from an Indian accent to a strong Texas accent.
We see a snippet from the Alladeen show itself – based loosely on Alladin – “an age old story of personal transformation and endless wealth”: a woman in LA looking for directions to Las Vegas. The woman at the call center tries hard to help, and relates to her in terms of common American culture… but has no idea at all about the places she’s guiding her through. The actors on stage are isolated physically, but connected completely by networks, a status that’s becoming increasingly common in the networked world.