This is a project about empathy. Empathy is important today and always, but especially today, and Clinton Hill artist Ekene Ijeoma thinks there’s not enough of it in our society. Everyone looking down at their phone every spare second of the day probably isn’t helping.
So he created Look Up.
It’s an app for Android that encourages people to look up from their phones when they reach an intersection. Two artistically designed eyes pop up on the home screen of your phone, reminding you there are other people around. Or, if you’re in an app, you get a push notification reminding you to look up. Even if the phone’s in your pocket you get a quick buzz.
“I do a lot of people-watching around the city and I was starting to see the tops of people’s heads and the front of people’s phones rather than their faces,” Ijeoma said in an interview. “And I wanted to see if there was a way to use the phone to have people acknowledge each other in real life. Phones connect us with other places but not the people right in front of us.”
— Ekene Ijeoma (@ekeneijeoma) March 29, 2016
Ijeoma has been living in New York off and on since 2007. He grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and has a studio in the Lower East Side and lives in Clinton Hill. His work is currently showing in two galleries, one upstate at the Neuberger Museum of Art, in Purchase, N.Y., and another at the Annenberg Space for Photography, in Los Angeles. Ijeoma says his work has two main elements: that it deals with social innovation and that it’s data-driven. His last piece was The Refugee Project, which mapped the migration patterns of refugees over the last 40 years of history. He’s now working on getting Look Up to work on iOS.
“There’s an idea that the more we use machines, the more we start to think and behave like them,” Ijeoma said. “The more we use our phones to order from Amazon or Seamless or order a taxi we’re cutting people out of that. I feel like people’s relationships are also becoming more transactional and they’re missing out on the conversations they could be having with those people. Looking up is the way to start looking at those things.”
Becoming like computers is something we at Technical.ly Brooklyn have touched on before and it remains a point of interest. While computers can do some mighty impressive stuff, they still have nothing on our own, complicated brains. And in this age of technological innovation and data-driven decision making it can be easy to forget that has human beings we have hundreds of thousands of years of programming by evolution and nature to give us some pretty impressive features and specs, like intuition and love and the joy we get from friendship. So, fast as computers can do equations and remove the friction between our wages and what we want to buy, let’s also remember to be humans and look up and smile at each other.
“At first it was difficult to call it an app because it’s an app about not using phones so it doesn’t fulfill people’s expectations of what an app does,” Ijeoma said. “I was calling it a participatory art project. It’s more about what happens after you look up.”
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