Greg Niemeyer: Connecting Technology and Art

Professor Greg Niemeyer
Watch a video of Prof. Niemeyer discussing the Black Could and other video games that can improve society.

Greg Niemeyer's new office on the fourth floor of Sutardja Dai Hall at UC Berkeley is still uncluttered, showing only the essential books and artwork he has chosen: a picture of his family, books about aesthetics and art and engineering, two big computer monitors, an efficient Japanese-style water boiler, and, most conspicuously placed, a framed color photograph of a stovetop flame from his own kitchen.

When Niemeyer placed a CO2 sensor near that range, he was surprised to learn that the gas rose to extraordinary levels when he was baking, and that those levels remained high for several hours, "long after the cookies I’d baked were gone." He replaced his gas oven with  a small, electric convection oven, which doesn’t emit gases.

The big problem—in this case CO2 emissions– might seem abstract, says Professor Niemeyer, but there are ways technology and art can help reveal the causal connection individuals have to it. And when people take those connections to heart, they are often moved to make adjustments.

Niemeyer is an artist and a programmer; he writes code for the games he designs, stepping back and forth, he says, between those very different roles.  Those games are always beautiful, and they always do more than entertain players. Niemeyer is a professor in the Department of Art Practice at Berkeley, an a member of the executive committee of the Berkeley Center for New Media, and a CITRIS investigator.

The specific project, mentioned in the interview below, Blackcloud, entailed giving sensors to people in various parts of the world and allowing them to monitor their own environments.  Niemeyer is now also Senior Researcher and Creative Director at Aclima, a cleantech company and university spinout working to commercialize a number of air pollution and environmental monitoring technologies developed at the Universitiy of California. Niemeyer's work with Aclima is focused on taking the Blackcloud effort to meaningful scale. Gordy Slack interviewed Niemeyer in late January, when they talked about how technology, made meaningful,  can reveal the link between personal action and major social challenges.   

Gordy Slack: Much of your work is dedicated to making technology more meaningful to people. How can something like Blackcloud, and your current efforts at Aclima,help to do that?

Greg Niemeyer holds one of the air quality sensors in the Blackcloud game near an open bottle of
alcohol. The red lights indicate high levels of volatile organic
compounds (in this case, a 70-proof liqueur).

Greg Niemeyer: As a society we have to constantly adjust not only our technology, our “know how,” but also our “know why.” Fuel efficiency, for instance; it’s not just about asking how to build more efficient cars. We should also be asking ourselves why we tend to live so far from where we work? Why aren’t we where we are supposed to be? Why do we need to drive so much?

If you give something like the Aclima sensors to people and let them ask their own questions about it, what happens next can be very interesting.  If you give it to them as a propaganda tool (if you say, "Use this sensor to reduce your carbon emissions or to draw conclusions about your environment,") they probably won’t be very interested.

Engineers often start with a hypothesis. They pose it and then go out and find data to support or reject it. When we did Blackcloud, we didn’t have a hypothesis at all; we just let people measure their air quality and waited to see what kinds of stories they told us about their measurements. Instead of looking for data, we started with a question: What does it mean to know more about air quality?

We didn’t tell people who got sensors much about CO2, but they noticed patterns and became curious. It was their own curiosity and ultimately their own questions that drove them to find meaning in the technology.

GS: For people who don't necessarily know much about air quality or chemistry, the sensors reveal an invisible dimension.

GN: Yes, they can make us conscious of invisible things. There are CO2 sensors in our brains; they help regulates how much we breathe. But we're not conscious of them. The first step is to become aware of air quality changes. The second step is to see how our behavior affects those changes or makes them happen.  The third step is to see how you might possibly change your behavior, if you want to.

GS: What are the roles of games in taking abstract but important subjects, like air quality or climate change, and making them actionable?

GN: In games, every action a player takes has to be meaningful. Maybe that's the core of what we are talking about. If I move a chess piece, it has an immediate effect. There is no meaningless move in the game of chess. But if we hear that there is a 90% chance of a 2-degree worldwide temperature rise by 2040 if we do not reduce carbon, and a 50% chance if we do cut carbon production radically, what would the meaning of my cutting my own carbon output be? It is not at all clear. Those statistics make it very difficult for us to see how our daily actions are meaningful. It would seem that the temperature is rising either way, either quickly or slowly, so why does what we do as individuals matter?

But in a game, we can show how immediate individual action is meaningful. Instead of looking at probabilities and eventualities in the future, we are looking at the meaning of each choice now. If I choose to bike to work instead of driving a car, it matters, and a well-designed game can reveal how.  And if we have a social connection—which is another part of a game—then we suddenly have a space where our every decision is meaningful in terms of our social standing. And it is not about some scenario in the future, it is about how we use and trade resources among each other, now.

To make actions concerning air quality meaningful, first we have to make sure that what we are talking about is visible. Aclima's sensor technology does that. If we don't have an air quality sensor, we may have no clue whether deep-frying fish or baking it makes any difference. If we do know the difference, our environmental footprints become a kind of social currency.  This currency allows us to build social relations, and where social relations happen, meaning happens.

GS: How does this weigh on the broader project of CITRIS: of applying technologies to socially, economically, and environmentally important areas?

GN: We are doing one part well. We are measuring electricity, measuring air quality, and all of those things. But data alone will not ensure survival.  We also have to try to see that people seek meaning in the data.  It is tricky though, because meaning is not something you can just give to people. You can say something like air quality is very meaningful all day long, and people will not believe it unless they discover it for themselves.

Professor Niemeyer created Black Cloud, a networked sensor platform used by students to study air quality.

But we can present information in a way that stresses relationships between data and individual survival. We can even simulate that relationship in games whose ideas can then transfer to real life.
Economic crisis, climate change, and crime all pose challenges to our individual and collective survival. And meaning comes from addressing these issues of survival and trying to improve our odds.

GS: Why can't you just tell people what the meaning of, say, polluting is?

GN: You can. It's called propaganda.

GS: Why shouldn't we use propaganda then? Why do you have to let people discover the meaning of such things for themselves?

GN: The discovery of radical alternatives happens in smaller steps and in individual minds and hearts. For example, I love baking and I used to do a lot of it in my big old gas oven. Then I put a sensor in my kitchen and learned that a lot of CO2 gets produced. Even after I turn the oven off, hours afterward, CO2 was still sitting in my kitchen to a tune of 2,000 parts per million. The cookies were long gone and I was still sitting in a soup of gas. Once I became aware of that, my wife and I got  a convection oven instead, and now we bake with that. I bake less and the oven is a little smaller, but I don't have a CO2 lake in my kitchen anymore. It became actionable to do less because of harm reduction, essentially.

Games are models that reveal systemic causation that we aren’t normally aware of. In the social realm, games make us engage with each other through an engine of cause and effect. That’s where meaning emerges. What we did with Blackcloud is half sensing reality, and half mapping that reality onto a model that had a social relevance.

Ultimately what we are after here is a link to direct causation. With individual sensors and related technologies like energy measurement, we have an opportunity to clarify the direct causation part of the systemic situation. And many direct causations added up produce a picture of systemic causation. But we do not even need to worry about that. Where it starts is with that direct link, the understanding that what we do as individuals actually does matter.