Tag Archives: #futr09

Dystopia, myopia, fatalism?

Can we ‘hack’ our way to Environment 2.0 or are we too Human 1.0 to cope?

Adam Greenfield’s talk at Futuresonic last week was insightful; how cities will look and how we will use them once networked sensors are embedded in pretty much everything, pretty much everywhere.   I liveblogged it using scribblelive here.  You can see the way he developed the argument and the way some of the tweeters to #futr09 reacted.

Photo credit: Aeioux
Photo credit: Aeioux

But what really galvanised the audience and set the tweets flying was an apparently casual remark right at the end of his session in response to questions.  What most of us thought he said was along the lines that sustainability wasn’t possible and we should all just do our best to make whatever time we have left valuable.


This rather punctured the somewhat gung-ho ‘tech can solve it’ bubble blown by Jamais Cascio in his heckled-by-a-drunk-person and subsequently much-blogged opening keynote.  You can see a liveblog by Martin Bryant here which gives you a ‘feel’ for the gala event.  The idea that we can ‘Hack the Earth’ in some massive geo-engineering intervention is a big, scary idea and was presented in a deliberately provocative  way.  It seems to me that we’ve already hacked the poor old Earth about rather a lot.   Tech-driven re-hacking of what is a deeply non-linear system where we’re not too certain we can model next week’s weather carries perhaps a few additional risks.  But rather than get dragged into that, what I really want to focus on was both the reaction to Cascio’s thinking and the much more stunned interpretation of Greenfield’s remarks as being ‘we’re all doomed and there’s no point trying’.

The false poles of optimism and pessimism

We got back to Greenfield’s remarks at the end of Roland Harwood’s session on Deciphering Trust in Networked Innovation where there was some discussion and I raised the issue of ‘the guy from Nokia’ when Adam’s name went right out of my head at the crucial moment (sorry Adam!).  The following extract from the indefatigable Martin Bryant’s liveblog illustrates the point:


And from then on, we ended up labelling those who believe that we can ‘fix it’ with the support of wizzy technology, like Cascio, ‘the optimists’ and anyone holding a negative view, like Greenfield, ‘the pessimists’.  It wasn’t really possible to develop the arguments from then on – the labels stuck and the polarity increased.  Which was inevitable, I suppose, but a shame.

Deal with it ‘in the now’

Greenfield was trying, I think, to make a much more subtle and nuanced point – that feeling we ‘might not make it’ shouldn’t stop us doing the right thing.  That the future vision of the City with its open sensor-based networks and connected people could flip into dystopia.  That ‘optimisim’ could actually be myopia and unwillingness to confront the reality of our situation.  There is much more to this than ‘hacking’ our way into the Earth’s geocode; Cascio points out the risk of hubris in that.  The idea that we have enough control of ourselves, let alone sufficient understanding of the potential system impacts of what we do, to be effective may be an illusion.  So perhaps, the best we can do, is deal with what we can deal with and make sure we keep our values in mind.

Adopting digital behaviours in real life . . .

How do currents develop?  How do we not lose stuff?
Where does everything go?

img_0813Artist Lanfranco Asceti gave a charming presentation on how, when we are creating a record in the flow of information through digital behaviour, we create the potential for conflicts with ‘real life’.

Lanfranco uses a transmedia artistic approach to investigate the intersections (or not) between the digital world and the real world.

His presentation began with a video made as part of his artistic process in seeing how messages are transmitted.  “How can we understand the flows of messages?”.  He has thrown a message in a bottle  to his friend Henry Jenkins, a Professor at MIT, into the sea in Istanbul.

The question is?

Will Henry Jenkins hear about it?

The most compelling image for me is of the bottle being thrown into the harbour and then ‘bouncing’ back out and into the thrower’s hand.  Made me think of e-mail bouncing or of servers being repeatedly ‘pinged’.

We are throwing bottles in the sea with a message to Henry Jenkins as well as throwing a message in the sea of the information of social networks on Facebook to see if Henry Jenkins will stumble upon the event online first or will receive the message in a bottle. The object of the game is to see if and how he will find out about the project.

I’ve also been thinking for a while now about ‘where do all the tweets go?’ and what ephemera now means in the Digital Age.  And as the ‘digital noise’ in our social media environment increases how do we deal with what is likely to become a decreasing ‘signal to noise’ ratio.  I see the development of new kinds of social media tools – ‘inference engines’ that help us to locate what they think we might be interested in.   Prioritising our attention will become a key skill in digital engagement.  Lanfranco suggests that the issue of voice and the need for a very varied network is important in ensuring that no one voice can speak with unquestioned authority.  This will be an interesting and innovative driver of behaviours across the world.

Digital squatting the Googleplex –
artists occupying  digital space


Lanfranco is also a ‘Digital Squatter’, running exhibitions on ‘Google’s territory’ in virtual space.  Who owns the virtual space?  Layering information over Googleplex.  He also squatted at Tate Modern and a few others.  Just to see what happened.  You can find out about it here.

He argues that the ownership of digital space needs thinking about – and talked about how there are dangers in the alerting and reporting of activity in digital sapace, he says

“reporting” over the internet is the moral equivalent of the Stasi

And that we will all be turned into ‘digital informers’ as we monitor our digital ‘neighbours’ through our Net curtains.  One to think about that.

Futuresonic 2009

100 Years of Climate Change

midnight-flowersWe piled into the mini-bus after the opening event at www.futuresonic.com in Manchester.  About 15 of us and the artists behind the project.  The idea is to experience the same temperature change caused by 100 years of climate change (about 2 degrees) by walking through a Manchester microclimate.

We arrive in a street in Trafford and are given mp3 players which will guide us through the experience.  We walk and the somewhat hypnotic voice guides us.  Also does good jokes!  It’s light-hearted but striking.  You can hear a bit of a recording I made using Audioboo here as we went on the event.  And my thoughts this morning here.

Thanks and congratulations to Yara El-Sherbini, Drew Hamment, Carlo Buontempo and Alfie Dennan.