In 2019 award-winning artist, public speaker, author, educator and technologist Deepa Mann-Kler took to the TEDxStormont stage with her talk Being Human.
Being Human reflected on Deepa’s personal and professional journey into the world of immersive technologies and the therapeutic benefits of virtual reality and pain management. She shared her insights into how as you begin to explore the capabilities of technology, the more important the question and answer of what it is to be human becomes. A frequent speaker at conferences she covers the intersection between creativity, innovation, technology, health and wellbeing, all with a value basis firmly grounded in technology for good, diversity, inclusion and positive social impact. Deepa is the CEO of Neon, a health technology company, and Visiting Professor in Immersive Futures at Ulster University. Her ground-breaking book Out Of The Shadows, published in 1997, examined the effect of racism on black and minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland.
We caught up with Deepa to find out how life and work have been since TEDxStormont, and how the pandemic has shifted our connection with our sense of humanity.
How was the TEDxStormont experience for you?
Exciting and nerve-racking in equal measure but it was an honour to be invited to speak – that’s the over whelming feeling.
I watched Colin Davidson’s talk and was in tears listening to what he had to say. I was due to speak straight after Colin and realised: ‘I need to centre myself and focus now be-cause I have to deliver my talk next.’
You’re wanting to do your absolute best for the institution that is TEDx and for Eva Grosman (TEDxStormont organiser) as well. It has been wonderful getting to know Eva since TEDx and this has been one of the most meaningful outcomes for me.
What have you been working on since your TEDxStormont talk?
I’ve been developing more augmented and virtual reality (ARVR) applications. One of these projects is in partnership with Eva where the actual idea emerged after a conversa-tion we had. Last year was the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Our project Tsuru, which means crane in Japanese and is an international symbol of peace, explores differing approaches to peace building between Belfast and Hiroshima. The AR experience takes place at the Peace Wall along Cupar Way, which disappears to reveal an animation of the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima and a short narrative piece about a school boy on the morning of the day the bomb was dropped. The story explores the human will to survive, alongside celebrating how nature was able to thrive in spite of sustaining heat 40 times greater than the heat emitted by the sun.
In My Shoes was commissioned by Barnardos and the Disabled Childrens’ & Young People’s Project, where we produced a 360 VR experience to reflect a real story to ele-vate the voice of a group that is often under-represented and unheard in society.
Discover M.E. is another of our projects and uses VR animation storytelling to share in-sights into the lives of people living with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). Discover M.E. and is using the power of empathy so that the viewer remembers what they see, hear and experience with their entire body and not just their minds. We’ve been working with Hope 4 ME & Fibro N.I.
Do you think the coronavirus pandemic has actually helped with some of your projects?
If I think about Discover M.E. and what’s been really interesting is that some people who’ve had Covid are experiencing long-Covid where the symptoms can be similar to ME. So the timing of releasing Discover M.E. may be good in terms of helping and sup-porting other groups of people.
What I tend to do is try to take the opportunity out of whatever situation I’m in. With the ME project the fact we couldn’t do it the way we wanted to originally as a result of the pan-demic made me look at the whole project again in terms of: how can I maximise the op-portunity and what’s happening globally to deliver the best for this group of people?
How has the pandemic changed our relationship with technology?
The key issue is that digital access is not available equitably across society. What Covid has also done is exacerbate a digital exclusion that already exists – access to devices and good wifi connectivity, for example. That’s a huge problem in the same way that Covid impacted on people differently in society. What I’m really hoping is that this will in-form public policy to prepare us for the next thing that comes, to increase our resilience as individuals and as a society.
That means each person being as fit and healthy as possible but also not having to struggle with poverty on a day-to-day basis so you are not having to choose between whether you pay for your wifi or feed your family – those are real challenges that people have faced. I hope that’s something leadership looks to change as we start to come out of this.
Given the accelerated pace of our reliance on tech, what are your thoughts on how we maintain a separation between humanity and tech?
It comes back to: what is the problem we’re trying to solve? And then identifying what is the best solution and what are the best tools? We have a tendency to jump to tech as a solution first and tech is not always the answer. I’ve always talked about tech being a tool for people and how it is just one tool in a toolbox.
Our legislation is wholly inadequate for the world we live in in many aspects, particularly tech. With social media for example, we should have been having conversations around ethics, safeguards and legislation many many years ago but we didn’t because we didn’t fully understand what was happening.
We should be trying to fix this problem, future proof what we develop and think about – I talked about this in my TED talk – we should be trying to anticipate the intended and unin-tended consequences. You only do that by having a diverse and inclusive representation of the world in your room when you’re having those conversations.
What are your predictions for humanity’s relationship with tech?
I am an optimistic person at heart. Movements over the past year like Black Lives Matter, gender equality and safety, the movements around climate change – they’re inspiring and fill me with hope that the narrative and value basis driving these initiatives will seep into other aspects of society in a positive way.
Unfortunately the current generation that is in power does not fully understand the power of tech and digital resources to affect change. We have to ask ourselves, what can we do to rebalance this power dynamic? There are organisations driven by using tech for good – looking at ethics; looking at artificial intelligence – there are many good people working in this space. It’s about getting these people into positions to be able to influence power directly.
What is next for you?
I’m getting my head back into thinking about public art again. I’m keen to deepen my un-derstanding of the psychology of colour, light, music, sound and interaction in public spaces on people to be able to create more engaging public art.
I’ve recently been appointed to the General Medical Council. I’m really proud of this achievement – it was a gruelling five-stage process to be selected. I am looking forward to meeting colleagues in real life again. Finally, I have really missed being with my family in England and this is what I am looking forward to the most!