There’s Nothing Virtual About the Future

Professor Andy Miah[1. Professor Andy Miah, BA, MPhil, PhD, is Chair of Ethics and Emerging Technologies in the Faculty of Business & Creative Industries at the University of the West of Scotland. He is also Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, USA and Fellow at FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, UK.

Professor Miah’s research discusses the intersections of art, ethics, technology and culture and he has published broadly in areas of emerging technologies, particularly related to human enhancement. He is often invited to speak about philosophical and ethical issues concerning technology in society. He is author of Genetically Modified Athletes (2004 Routledge); co-author with Dr Emma Rich of The Medicalization of Cyberspace (2008, Routledge); and Editor of Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty (2008, Liverpool University Press and FACT).], Chair of Ethics and Emerging Technologies in the Faculty of Business and Creative Industries at the University of the West of Scotland, spoke recently at Virtual Futures 2011. Prof Miah worries that we are becoming too immersed in technology, adversely affecting our life outside it, but also believes the idea is that everyone is ‘obsessed’ with technology is false. Is the future virtual? Prof Miah shares his thoughts.

Sometimes the best made plans go awry, and the same can be said for the future. When Professor Andy Miah from the University of the West of Scotland travelled down to Coventry for the 2011 Virtual Futures conference he hadn’t anticipated train delays and the media meltdown of his laptop that contained his presentation. What followed was a reversal back to good old fashioned pencil and paper, with those traditional tools being the catalysts to write down his virtual vision.

Although he was an undergraduate student at the time of the last Virtual Futures conference, the ideas that came out of it shaped his career. “The cult community really attracted me, bringing such a range of people together to talk about virtual futures.” In the room at the conference he said there’s a mixture of beliefs. “Some people think change isn’t possible whilst others think change in the future is imminent and that we need to use tools to bring about important social change.”

Prof Miah’s view about digital technology has a leg in both camps. He is wary about the possibility of us all becoming too immersed in technology, adversely affecting life outside it, but also is of the opinion that the idea is that everyone is obsessed with technology is a myth, what he calls ‘digital delirium’.

His academic career has particularly focused on his interest in the interface between the biological and the digital: human futures and how else we might exist in this world. In 2006 he worked with artists, academics, science fiction writers and designers to look at art in the age of uncertainty, a project that interrogated the future of humanity. “There’s nothing virtual about the future now – a crucial aspect that has changed in recent years is the increasing debate and engagement between academia and the public about the narrative of the future.”

Of course just as Prof Miah’s laptop had an unexpected meltdown, so the future doesn’t necessarily unfold as we had planned. Prof Miah cited a talk by Vivienne Parry, former presenter of the long-running but now defunct BBC television science programme Tomorrow’s World, at the Cheltenham Science Festival. She said that all of the technologies and inventions talked about on the television programme never came out in the way they’d envisaged. For example although there’s a growing market for so-called ‘functional foods’ we still eat real food rather than popping a pill; electric cars haven’t overtaken their petrol counterparts in popularity; and it is currently only millionaires who can take a holiday into space.

What is critical in this fickle future, says Prof Miah, is that how we collectively describe the future governs our orientation towards it. The concept of virtuality in early digital culture was mistakenly placed as an ‘other’ which led it to be fetishised. In actuality there’s real-world consequentiality in cyberspace.

The future is perpetually out of our reach – it never exists in the present, we are only ever almost there...

“We may yet argue that the future is perpetually out of our reach – it never exists in the present, we are only ever almost there” Prof Miah went on to say. Literature and film have expressed common anxieties about what the future may hold with the marrying of the biological and digital. The 1997 film Gattaca portrayed a world where ordinary humans were inferior to their genetically-modified counterparts. What if a company owns future genetic developments? Prof Miah dubbed this possibility ‘Microbesoft’. In literature, the 1996 book The DNA Mystique examined the implications of the advances in genetics, arguing that DNA is the essence of a person and there could be genes for traits such as homosexuality and criminality.

Now in the second decade of the twenty-first century there are science festivals nearly every few weeks. Public engagement on the future of science and technology and its implications for regular people is mainstream. The science and technology industry is much more mindful at how to get that the right story out to the public than they were 15 years ago. The relationship between biology and digital culture is expanding. Bioethics, according to Prof Miah, will be a key topic in the next few years, although undoubtedly there will be developments and platforms that as yet are unimagined. “Will Twitter still be here in five years?” Prof Miah said as he ended his speech with a quote from JP Barlow, Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who when asked what point he’d like to make at the conference tweeted: “The fact that we’ve had more of the same for so long that it’s no longer the same”.


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

Photography by Andy Miah