Sunday, May 15, 2011

Everything Future

We live in an age of competing realities. Our individual "villages" are colliding, in a way that SF has long prefigured. The dual cities in China Mieville's noir future detective "The City and The City", the video game un/reality of David Cronenberg's ExistenZ, even the melting walls of psychological space and memory in Lessing's "Memoirs of a Survivor" are in some way our recognisable realities.

At this year's FutureEverything conference, a yearly collision of art, digital ideas and music, the 2-days of debate is a shifting dialogue. Strangely enough, the conference eschews the unconference format for more formal keynotes, panels, and presentations. Yet one of the defining mediums of our current age is the keynote talk, exemplified by the online archive of TED videos. There's something nicely ironic about FutureEverything's format, where people who spend most of their lives online, go offline for a couple of days, share coffee and pastries, and put up their powerpoint presentations just like the regional sales rep conference that you see satirised in TV comedy. Knowledge transfer - one person speaking to a roomful of people - is a hard thing to reinvent.

The debate then, this year, was one that didn't start, lead or end in a linear place. Across three rooms, there were different cross-currents, as ever. Taking place in a central Manchester venue, this year's conference brought the art onsite, was near Piccadilly station, and made it alot easier for serendipitous jump cuts through the city. Not that many people will have had the stamina for four days AND four nights. By Friday afternoon's coda, given by an ebullient caffeine fuelled Bill Thompson, the debate was beginning to take form; and Thompson captured it, then, with his own inimitable magic made it fly. Thompson theorised that we are no longer offline beings, but the online is part of us. That switching it down is a deliberate act of mental sabotage, as our brain synapses are being made to rewire to include these new external limbs. Like Neo in the Matrix we are part of the machine. For Thompson, this is not just a liberation, but a victory in a war. The geeks (or, at the very least, the information workers) have won the war, and the losers, though they should not be ignored or treated unfairly, are as disenfranchised as the Anglo-Saxon farmers who were stripped of their lands by the Norman Earls.

We, "the digital", are no longer the future; this is no longer a bet that could have gone either way (like Betamax v. VHS), but are inheritors of the present. What we do with it is the wider subtext. There's a moment for pleasure, of course, as all victories taste better than defeat, but also a sense that now is the time to accept this reality, and make sure it works better for us.

The day before, a provocative presentation from James Bridle, spoke of our new urban space, that is being designed, not for people, but for machines. Machine-logic, whether in the placing of goods in Amazon's mega warehouses, or the windowless bunkers of server farms, is increasingly the design principle, just as the 19th century pithead was less designed for its human workers, than the buckets and trollies that brought the coal to the surface.

Where are we in all this? Thompson is older than me, from an analogue generation that dreamed of (and dreamed up) this digital future. For those who are younger, it is no longer negotiable, or even a question - social networks, always-on devices, dual-screen activities (watching, tweeting) are embedded in them every bit as much as those cyber-pioneers who are experimenting with chips under their skin. The 20th century organisational structures that Bill, and many of us, work in (or work with) are potentially in collapse, yet as the furore over public sector cuts has made clear, the human cost of this (for workers, for users of services) is what makes us angry. The robots that control our lives are currently primarily data modellers - the decision making software behind online loan applications; the sensors that order new stock for the shelves as soon as they detect an absence as our supply chains become ever more "just in time" (and, it has to be said, ever more vulnerable to disruptions such as the winter snowfall).

In his Lancelot Andrewes' quoting poem "Journey of the Magi", the Anglican-convert, T.S. Eliot, characterises the Magi as exhausted followers of an debunked religion, "no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,with an alien people clutching their gods", able to see the future world that they had long hoped for, but too old to be part of it; the ties of family and homeland too great. It is interesting that Eliot used the word "alien", for its otherworldly meaning (not the one he'd have meant) seems entirely appropriate.

Perhaps those of us who are able to turn a trick through our engagement with this "digital culture" can leap ahead by bridging the analogue and digital cultures; though surely the logic of this is that the bridge won't be there for long? Thompson told us that we were now all playing "the game" which only ends when we've forgotten that we're playing the game. In other words, how can we remember or recall what we've forgotten? The statue of Ozymandias in the desert; the great pyramids of Egypt with their secrets as immortally entombed as their pharoahs; the language of Jesus himself, spoken today in only a few small Syrian hill villages; even the key to "reading" redudant computer languages and technologies. The speed at which technology is changing may only be matched by the speed at which we are forgetting.

At a conference like this their are few naysayers, few Andrew Keen's wondering whether this makes us more stupid, few fearmongers seeing technology as the enemy. Instead we are asked to embrace the "robot", make him our friend. A nice coincidence that this week's Dr. Who should see one of our favourite cultural machines, the TARDIS, "humanised" in the Neil Gaiman-penned episode "The Doctor's Wife".

All revolutions have consequences though: I began to see again not the "virtual" but the "physical" representation of the internet. An earlier speaker had played the scene from the IT Crowd where the geeks hand a small box to their boss, and tell her "This, Jen, is the internet." We want the virtual to have a physical presence, just as much as those deep in faith built their churches, prized their relics, and made sure that Knock in Ireland has its own airport. The physicality of all those virtual financial transmissions is now played out in the worthless housing estates in Ireland and Spain; the "just in time" network that feeds the Western world is mapped through millions of containers, each one individually tagged, its contents unknown and unknowable until someone opens it up, like the "can of dead girls" that opens Series Two of the Wire.

In our digital victory, we have to take care not to be like the bourgeoisie who handed over the revolution of 1789 to the very bloody terror of the Robespierrists... I begin to wonder if as we speed forward, our very frailties, and our loss of understandings, and our beginning to forget the analogue world to the extent that our "bridges" to it fall away, leaves us vulnerable to the machinations of the technocracy that can (and does) make money from this new world.

The "digiterati"'s love of the new needs to be used for revelation, rather than revolution, and it was reassuring that the conference ended with the award of the FutureEverything prize, not to a technology, but to an "idea", the "Macon money" bonds that created a new "social currency" that could only be redeemed through collaboration, networking and human interaction.

In the whirlpools of ideas that FutureEverything brings to Manchester every year it is these still lilies in the centre or at the side of the pool that provide sufficient contrast; articulates a human side to what can often seem to be disconnected and specialised concerns. It was there in the Macon Money prize, it was there in Bill Thompson's "victory" speech, it was there in Kimchi and chips LITTree artwork, and there in bearhugs that US hardcore band Fucked Up gave their audience at Islngton Mill on Thursday night.

Find out more:
FutureEverything Festival Portal (social media links etc.)


Anonymous said...

Everything Future:
An event attended by vested-interest professionals, likening everyone else as peasants in the face of this Digital Revolution; promulgating the idea of 'free' content for all, whilst trousering their public speaking/consultancy fees; shrugging off the idea of a flattened mediocre mass culture crayoned by a multitude of ill-informed amateurs - the direct result of Web 2.0; ignoring the irony of it's very own website - which, even now, some three days later - still tiredly scrolls through the same five photographs it's had for weeks whilst exclaiming "we want your content"; and now finally blogged about by yet another wannabe creative artist who, in spite of tweeting some belated advertisements linking to it, will be lucky to get even one more comment after this one.

What's it like being a 'digirati'?

Sarah. Letsgoglobal. x said...

Oh why is it that the snide, bitchy comments are always anonymous! Full of bile and bitterness but never willing to back it up with an identity!! Adrian, in my humble opinion this is a brilliant review of a dynamic and thought provoking festival. But then I suppose I'm one of the digirati!!

Anonymous said...

for my money I dont see why Mr Slatchers essay provoked such a hostile reponse. Keep it up!!!

a futr attendee said...

The Art of Fiction was at leastt honest enough to mention Andrew Keen and the lame cult-of-the-Amateur thesis even tho Keen did not attend. This essay was no un-critical celebration, but a wide-ranging impression of the festival by an interested creative writer. 'Anonymous' obviously does not feel comfortable at such events and is perhaps missing out.

lucy in futr said...

LOL!!! Their right about the scrolling pix on the futureeverything site though!!!