How Did We Get Here?

Virtual Futures returned to the University of Warwick this year after fifteen years away. But what was the academic basis for the original conferences back in ’94 ’95 and ’96? Here, Dan O ‘Hara[1. Dan O’Hara is a philosopher and literary critic who is currently Lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Cologne. He organized Virtual Futures whilst still an undergraduate, before moving to Christ Church, Oxford to write his DPhil, a history of the idea of the machine in art, literature, and philosophy. He was editor of Thomas Pynchon: Schizophrenia & Social Control, and the ongoing Concordance to the Works of Deleuze and Guattari. His next book Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J. G. Ballard, 1967–2008, co-edited with Simon Sellars (London: Fourth Estate, 2012) is part of a wide-ranging collaborative project encompassing a number of works both by and about Ballard, monographs, and collections. His most recently published literary criticism deals mainly with Ballard, Samuel Beckett, trauma, irony, and apocalypse; his current philosophical research deals with the concept of skeuomorphism as a theory of nonhuman agency in the evolution of objects and ideas.], one of the key original organisers of the event explains more.

Have you ever wondered why jeans have that little pocket inside the main pocket? Levis made this pocket fashionable but once upon a time it had a purpose. Some think it was designed to hold your pocket watch but there is another theory that suggests it was used to hold gold nuggets, like a convenient little sewn-in purse. It’s original purpose is now irrelevant, whatever it was, which makes the pocket a ‘skeuomorph’.

Skeuomorphs is a term used for any derived object, or thing, that has retained design features that no longer serve any purpose. Although they have an unusual name, they are not uncommon, in fact they are everywhere.

Language is full of skeuomorphs, for example; the meaning of the word ‘horsepower’ derives from a time when the horses were used to pull carriages and carts. Digital technology incorporates design-features that remind us of their physical equivalents, like the animated ‘page turn’ at the bottom of some documents.

A novel concept in itself, the existence of skeuomorphs inspires some people to ask why they are so prevalent. Dan O’Hara, of the University of Cologne, is interested in how they relate to the concept of non-human agency. In our rapidly-developing world it may appear that human beings are in control, or at least responsible for, the changes that we see. Dan O’Hara wants to question whether that control is actually an illusion, whether technological advancement is actually on an evolutionary path independent of the collective output of human beings.

Dan O’Hara has been asking these question for the past 15 years, since the inception of the internet. As one of the key original organisers of Virtual Futures ’94, ’95 and ’96, he is opening this year’s conference with ‘A Skeuomorphological Account of Virtual Futures’. In this fascinating interview we take an in-depth look at the invisible world of the virtual, from a philosophical perspective, that promises to make even the tech-experts think again about how much they really know about the rapidly evolving ‘cyber space’.

Background Reading

Basalla, George, The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge University Press, 1988)

DeLanda, Manuel, Deleuze: History and Science (Atropos, 2010)

Knappett, Carl, Thinking Through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)

Steadman, Philip, The Evolution of Designs: Biological Analogy in Architecture and the Applied Arts (Cambridge University Press, 1979)


Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

Photography by Andy Miah