Ubiquitous: technology & the human experience
Statement: This body of work ponders the ubiquitous nature of digital technology, and how it has seeped into every facet of human life. It is in our homes, vehicles and places of work. It is in our hands, through smartphones, and even in our bodies, from pacemakers and cochlear implants to artificial limbs. It is omnipresent. It is science non-fiction.
Digital technology was supposed to make our lives easier, and in some ways it has, simplifying tasks, making us more connected and productive, and putting enormous amounts of information at our fingertips. But our lives are also faster and increasingly complex, and more exhausting. I feel overwhelmed by the frantic pace of it all. Change and new technology is inevitable but too often it feels like driving down the highway with no hands on the steering wheel, destination unknown.
In our culture of faster, better and more, it is time to step back, slow down, and seriously consider what we are doing? What we want from society and from ourselves? What is technologically possible, and what is desirable? Do we control technology, or does it control us? Is it a new addiction that serves the bottom line of corporations more than society and the rights, freedoms and happiness of people? And are we already too hooked on dopamine to think rationally?
The work is created from about 98% recycled and reclaimed materials, especially old computer circuit boards, which speak to our consumerist society and its wasteful, throw-away attitude. With the rapid pace of technological change, computers have an even shorter life-span than most consumer goods, yet the metals and plastics from which they are made take centuries to biodegrade. I also use natural materials like wood and clay, to make us think about a merger of technology and organic life. Historical symbols and motifs urge us to remember the past and to learn from it. This is not the first time technology has driven rapid social and cultural change.
Resistance is not futile. Choices can be made, consciously and collectively. But people will have to engage, much more so than now. With every advance in technology, questions must be asked about costs and benefits, and how much of ourselves we are willing to give up to technology. Already, facial recognition and microchips embedded in human hands are replacing keys and passwords. Many pets have microchips to locate them, should they get lost. Why not children too? Technology is even toying with the building blocks of life, splicing genes to remove this trait or add another. How far do we want to go? Will we be genetically modified cyborgs? Or live in the cloud?
Once technology has been released from Pandora’s Box, there is no going back. We must tread wisely along this path, and think about our future, and that of our children. We must find a balance between what can be done and what should be done.

An insightful biography written by Detmar Schwichtenberg:

Visual artist and civil engineer Leslie Leong is one of those rare people who make time to not only smell every rose, but to observe, study and document it too, and stories of travelling with Leslie are legendary among friends. Yet she also tackles global issues and asks hard questions, and behind an infectious laugh and ‘aw shucks’ demeanor is a tenacious curiosity, desire for new ideas, and deep commitment to ecological health, sustainability and social justice. Able to focus on detail without losing sight of the big picture, Leslie shares her love and passion for nature, while asking us to re-think and reexamine our preconceptions.
Inspired by broader issues facing society, Leslie uses whatever materials are necessary and readily at hand to convey a message and provoke questions. The idea is to reach people at an emotional level, where they are more open to change, because experience shows that simply inundating people with scientific information has not had the desired result. People believe what they want to believe, not what the evidence shows, but art and music, in non-confrontational ways, can bridge gaps and inspire change.

Born in Vancouver and raised in Mission, BC, in the Fraser Valley, Leslie earned an engineering degree and worked for Transport Canada in Vancouver, on infrastructure projects at various airports around BC. She always felt drawn to the wilderness, which she addressed through hiking and climbing, and developing her photography as a serious hobby. A trip to Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island hooked her on the north and when a job posting appeared, she applied for and got a job in Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories. She quickly fell in love with the people, wildlife and spectacular landscapes along the Slave River and beyond, and gradually transitioned away from engineering to focus on photography. Since then she has branched out into three-dimensional artwork, using a variety of media and methods, but credits her engineering background for developing her inquisitive nature, problem solving abilities and technical focus. She has taught across the north, attended diverse workshops, exhibitions and symposia, and connected with other artists. Looking back at her university days, she sees too much separation between sciences and arts, and would encourage young people to get a well rounded education.

A central theme in Leong’s recent work is the importance of learning from history, in this case the ability of information technology to transform society, from papyrus and ball-point pens to radio and television. Perhaps the best analogy for our current situation comes from the late 1800s, when punchcard technology greatly enhanced the ability of governments to gather and process vast amounts of census data. Punch-card technology, an early form of computing dominated by International Business Machines (IBM), was soon adopted by business to track production, inventory and payroll, and enable the highly efficient assembly lines pioneered by Henry Ford. Then the other shoe dropped, when Nazi Germany used punch-card technology to manage a complex war machine, and to identify and locate Jews and other ‘undesirables’ all over Europe. Punch-card technology also allowed the Nazis to track every locomotive and freight car in Europe, so millions could be efficiently transported to death camps. Without this seemingly banal punch-card technology, the Holocaust could not have happened.

Digital technology too, holds the promise of productivity and efficiency, as well as seamless connectivity, enhanced communications and endless entertainment, and a handful of new tech companies have become the most valuable commercial enterprises in human history. More recently the digital revolution has revealed a darker side. Personal data gathered by these tech companies is used to manipulate human behavior and encourage ever-higher levels of consumption and material waste. Tech companies have also influenced politics and social issues on a global scale, largely by tapping into human emotions of fear and anger. Most well-known are Brexit and the American elections, but the impacts are felt in every corner of the globe. These changes are happening so quickly that laws and social conventions are always lagging. There is no time to plan a future or to learn from history. Wrongly, we assume that technological advances automatically equate to social advances.

One of Leslie’s primary concerns, addressed in a work called Golden Repair, is the effect of digital technology and social media on society’s ability to grapple with the problems of ecological health and sustainability. Technology is a distraction that encourages us to look away, she says, and discourages the human connections needed to enact positive change. A planned work is called Melt, which features a cross-section of permafrost and time-lapse photography, and considers the impact of climate change on northern communities. She worries that blind faith in technology and innovation to save the planet are allowing people to close their eyes to problems that will haunt future generations. She believes that art can make a difference.

- Detmar Schwichtenberg

- Detmar Schwichtenberg

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