FUTURE EVERYTHING: FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

Rezone is 27 feb -1 maart naar Future Everything geweest. Hier een mooie verslag van Ben Murray:

There was something wonderfully paradoxical about the thunderous tolling of the main bell at Manchester Town Hall during last week’s FutureEverything Festival. As delegates debated the rapid pace of technological change and its impact upon culture, this ancient agent of communication and social cohesion also serenaded them on the hour.

The ringing felt like a serendipitous provocation, reminding us of the fact that the world is an ever-evolving matrix of old and new, as contemporaneous creations are built on top of and around existing ones. The challenge is not to overwrite at the cost of extant knowledge, while pushing the boundaries of technical innovation, scientific exploration and critical thinking.

It’s a notion that ties in with the core themes of the festival, which examined long-held concerns regarding memory, identity, ownership and democracy in the context of our increasingly networked society, while also considering the kind of cultural and political responses being offered by those working at the intersection of art and technology.

The ever more central role data plays in our lives was a key focus of the first morning, with Canadian artist and keynote speaker Jer Thorp proffering some fascinating ideas on how we might transpose data from the objective to the subjective sphere and thus change what it means to us as a (possible) cultural material.

This is something at which Thorp himself excels, from the ephemeral – the Twitter API-based Good Morning, which maps people around the globe waking up and tweeting a morning missive – to the experimental – a live performance fashioned from the 148,000 entries extracted from the Museum of Modern Art’s collection dataset. This latter piece features the theatre group Elevator Repair Service and contains a passage that reveals something very telling about the canon of modern art.

The argument that data needs to be reclaimed by the people who create it and ultimately owned by them is an urgent one. Thorp suggested that “data can leave a trail of our lives that can be reeled back up and made sense of” and its re-appropriation can constitute an act of dissent. The Floodwatch project, for instance, is a Chrome extension that allows users to collect all the ads being targeted at them, the idea being to build a collective dataset, which will be used by researchers to understand and interrogate questionable online advertising practices. Its tagline: “you are not your browser history”.

Privacy expert Gemma Galdon-Clavell offered a vision of a world populated by data doppelgangers, our networked other selves that inform the decisions being made about us by a host of corporate third parties primarily interested in profit, or by the state to aid in all-too-often injudicious policy making. The problem is that these virtual doubles often fail to encapsulate the complexity of our lives with the effect that we are reduced to something less than human. If indeed, “data is the new oil”, then the need to establish a system of ethical practices around its collection and use is paramount. Galdon-Clavell suggested the even more militant strategy of straight-up data sabotage, though it was unclear how this might be meaningfully achieved beyond falsifying inputs.

For Thorp, artistic practice offers some hope, a view shared by Moritz Stefaner, whose focus was on aesthetics as much as analysis. The two projects he showcased, On Broadway and SelfieCity, turn data fully into a medium, what he called “the oil you paint with”. The former presents a plethora of data gathered on the eponymous Manhattan thoroughfare, and provides an insight into the shifting demographics and dynamics of the street as it cuts though the island, north to south. The second is a playful aggregation of selfies taken in various cities around the world, represented in a variety of controllable ways. We learnt that people in Sao Paulo like to tilt their head to the right.

If the very question of identity is being put under strain in the networked age, then the notion of ownership is under equal pressure as information about us is gathered up and the internet itself becomes hopelessly centralised, our experience of it mediated by corporate gatekeepers.

Thousands of Exhausted Things – First Names

Stef Lewandowski and Julia Kaganskiy offered new models of ownership and empowerment respectively, with the shared intention of placing the reins of economic self-determination firmly in the hands of practitioners. Lewandowski’s entrepreneurial vim reflected the need to engage with commercial realities while retaining the agility and sense of adventure that makes the industry what it is.

Kaganskiy is the head of NEW INC, a creative incubator that is attached to the New Museum in New York, that offers a space for technical innovators and artists to work, collaborate and test their ideas. Despite having only opened in September 2014, there are already an impressive number of projects under development or having reached fruition.

One of my favourites is Adam Harvey’s Privacy Gift Shop, a subversive take on the online store that features a range of products that explore the future of living with surveillance, including ‘Stealth Wear’, a collection of garments that shield wearers against thermal imaging (used widely by military drones). Another is New Hive, an online publishing platform that provides artists with a blank space to create work online, along with custom tools and a code editor, which supports HTML, CSS, JS, Processing, and three.js.

NEW INC represents a fascinating model of how to support creative technologists as they attempt to scale their projects and find potential routes to market. And this is the point: there is nothing wrong with commercial ambition; the internet must remain a heterogeneous domain in which those with great ideas can make a living from them. The problem is that a few key players dominate the current landscape, which necessarily limits the democratic principles on which the net was founded. Alexis Lloyd and Matt Boggie from the New York Times R&D Lab averred to this in their presentation, and made the case for always balancing commercial interests with civic responsibility.

The fact that Google and Facebook are no longer just tech companies but infrastructure companies might be part of this problem. But if questions remained about the problems of identity, ownership and data integrity in the modern world, it seemed clear from the discussions being had that there is a growing movement of resistance to the centralised model.

Berlin-based Danja Vasiliev spoke of something he termed ‘critical engineering’, a practice predicated on a reclamation of the tools used to navigate and create the online space. His project, Superglue, provides an independent, end-to-end solution for creating and hosting webpages at home. It is, in effect, both a personal server and a web-authoring tool, and so will allow far greater control over one’s online experience.

Vasiliev was typical of many speakers at the conference. And I mean this as a positive. What was perhaps most reassuring about FutureEverything, was that it didn’t fall into the trap of Silicon Valley solutionism, in which every problem in the world ever (even ones that don’t really exist) might be fixed by technology. If anything, it properly recognised the potential for dystopian outcomes in the relentless plunge into the future and urged reflection and the rigorous application of our critical and creative faculties.

The second day epitomised this approach, and it’s worth giving special mention to the irreverent “conference within a conference” organised by Tobias Revell and Natalie Kane called Haunted Machines.

These fascinating sessions confronted the strange imposition made by magic in the way we talk and think about technology, be it in Steve Jobs’ description of the iPad as ‘magical’, the use of the term ‘wizard’ when installing software, or in the almost supernatural qualities we now attribute to algorithms, something Ian Bogost called ‘computational theocracy’ in a recent article for The Atlantic.

The issue might seem frivolous but is as complicated and Janus-faced as any problem regarding the attribution of language. When used to diminish human agency we should be wary. It is advantageous for corporations and states to aspire to seamless technologies, because it becomes harder for consumers to question what is built into their devices, interrogate the way they work and then consider their use in the broader context of, say, mass data capture or the growing pervasiveness of surveillance.

Ingrid Burrington’s work attempts to uncover the structure we can’t see and her recent artist book Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide documents the physical manifestations of modern telecommunications in the city. It is important to understand what is going on beneath our feet and not to be bedazzled by the obfuscatory symbolism spun around networked culture, as her critique of the NSA’s own imagery brilliantly shows.

But Burrington is equally prepared to evoke the arcane in her work, as her playful new work – astrological charts for the CIA, GHCQ et al - demonstrated. And this is the counterpoint: the metaphorical use of this kind of terminology might actually provide a useful intellectual framework in which to consider the advent of the technological age in the far broader span of human development. One of the reasons we employ this rich lexicon is because we always have – our minds tend toward the language of enchantment by instinct – and there’s no sign of this changing anytime soon, despite the tendency we have to valorise the rationalist position.

Thus the idea of the ‘ghost in the machine’ looks set to develop in new and interesting ways, as we become more and more subject to computational tyranny. At least that’s one possible future. Warren Ellis also spoke about the need to listen to the voices of our ancestors as we move forward, to take a longer view and thus not expect technological innovation to solve every mystery and problem that confronts us. He pointed out that up until relatively recently science and magic were conjoined fields and that this country’s greatest scientist, Isaac Newton, was an alchemist, as was Plato 2000 years before him: “The story of magical language is in fact the history of the scientific method, and the history of our education, and the history of wonder.” For Ellis, we misunderstand this at our peril.

Later in the afternoon Ellis also gave the conference’s final keynote, a 40-minute tour-de-force delivered with his typical sardonic charm, which covered FW Marinetti, Wyndham Lewis, Speculative Realism and Apple’s proprietary business model in the same breath. Here again he implored caution; technological solutions to social problems must not be considered in isolation and should not be divorced from questions of democracy, economy and justice. He stressed the importance of collaboration and of thinking together beyond the confines of any particular field or discipline; he stressed the importance of knowing our history.

“Posterity is silent,” he declaimed at one point during his sermon, only to be followed immediately by the great bell of Manchester Town Hall ringing out once again. The audience burst into delighted laughter. “Damn, I’m good,” he said.

Ellis brilliantly applied the essay form to questions thrown up by the reality of the networked age in which we live and showed the value in considering it through the filter of the creative imagination. In so doing he spoke to the underlying purpose of a festival like this, which was and is to make a space for the burgeoning counter-cultural movement that operates at the intersection of the arts and technology.

It was a good way to end two days of critical enquiry, defiance and fun, during which, if there was one overarching message that came through, it was this: the original project that was the open internet is broken and it is time to change course before it’s too late.

The bell may be tolling for this original vision, but it might also just represent the wake-up call we need to propel us into the necessary action to take it back, with a new counter-culture leading the charge. And if that’s naïve optimism then so be it. The future is not necessarily Google or Facebook or Apple. It is not necessarily mass surveillance or limitless data aggregation. The future is what we make it. The future is everything.

Published on Mar 05, 2015 / Filed under: all projects / Tags:

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