The Future is Here
In the mid-90s, we fed on a diet of cyberculture. It was something exciting, different, and promised a future of the self far removed from a world of monolithic governments and corporations.
Reality is always more pragmatic. Given the multi-device, always-on culture that many of us now live in, ‘cyberculture’ is in fact abundant, omnipresent. A seminal 1995 conference is being revived to address what our futures now look like, and how we should live in them.
Perhaps this techno-utopia is best described by Timothy Leary, who said the following in Douglas Rushkoff’s 1994 book Cyberia:
“By the year 2000, the IC (Inner City) kid will slip on the EyePhone, don a form-fitting computer suit, and start inhabiting electronic environments either self-designed or pulled up from menus.
At 9.00am she and her friend in Tokyo will meet in an electronic virtualisation in Malibu Beach for a flirtatious moment. At 9.30am she will meet her biology teacher in an electronic simulation of the heart for a hands-on “you are there” tutorial trip down the circulatory system. At 10am she’ll be walking around medieval Verona with members of her English literature seminar to act out a scene from Romeo and Juliet. At 11am she’ll walk onto an electronic tennis court for a couple of sets with her pal in Managua. At noon, she’ll take off her cyberwear and enjoy a sensual, tasty lunch with her family in their nonelectronic kitchen.”
As one would expect from Leary, the language is highly floral. Yet, the picture that he paints is very much here. Go through what he says and you’ll find that much of it has been in existence for some time.
Virtual Futures took place just after Cyberia. The interdisciplinary conference, held at the University of Warwick in 1995, looked at cybernetics within art, science, and philosophy. The call for papers was keen to emphasise a link with materialism and of philosophers Guattari and Deleuze.
Go 17 years forward and Dan O’Hara, one of the organisers of the original conference, and researcher Luke Robert Mason have decided to bring Virtual Futures back, but to cast it in a setting as contemporary as it once was. Starting off with a series of salons taking place in Birmingham, the new events inherit the spirit of the 1995 conference while casting a critical eye over the phenomenal change within the intervening period. The starting point is clear for Mason: “The Internet and cyberspace – and the promise of cyberspace – have descended into banality.”
Mason agrees with the view of commentators such as Richard Barbrook, that a direct product of the Cold War and the military structures within it, was a race for constant technological innovation. The Internet and satnav came from it. Now, those structures don’t exist, and in many cases, innovation happens in a reversed flow. Where a race for global dominance dripped technology down to us, radical new developments such as drones are “dripped up”: developed by private enterprise and subsequently acquired by government.
“No-one asked for Facebook. We are lumped with the technology that we were given. Let’s understanding drivers of novelty, before we start fantasising about future technology and its possibilities. While ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, Dan flips it on its head to say that it feels like invention breeds necessity: you build a Web 2.0 product and then you find your market. There are men jumping out of balloons sponsored by Red Bull. Who owns the future? It isn’t about countries any more, but more about artificial persons and brands. We’re not anti-brands or marketing, but this is the new future. This is something which Virtual Futures wants to work with: applying philosophies in order to understand possible future trends.”
That leads to the concern that we may be lazily mopping up technological prowess for its own good. The great philosophers, standing on stage to intellectually impress and challenge an inquiring audience, are now casually-dressed CEOs showing shiny little objects to whoops of applause which echo around the world via live blogging on media technology news sites. Was this the future that we were promised? If it wasn’t, then why – and how – have we accepted it?
“It’s more of a sadness; as we understand technology now, it’s based around the 18-minute keynote. ‘Look at how wonderful the future is going to be’. It’s a highly Westernised future. In the mid 90s when Nick Land said that the Internet is going to change the way which we think about human privacy and identity, he didn’t know the tools that would bring that about. Now, all we have are tools, but we are lacking in the ideology or philosophy of them.”
If this clean, shiny, anodized-finish environment isn’t what we wanted Utopia – or something like, something near it, to look like – then that’s because there are still some fundamental issues that remain unresolved. “We talk about ‘women in technology;. In the mid-90s, there was a panel led by Sadie Plant, with Pat Cadigan and Gwyneth Jones, called Replicunts: the future of cyber-feminism. But, women were always at the core of technology… and we need to coax them back in to create companies? It’s odd.”
Mason hopes that tonight’s inaugural Virtual Futures Salon starts to re-address the potential of looking at our future through a techno-philosophical lens. If you’re expecting a day of Powerpoints at an anonymous hotel with mediocre coffee, then you’ll definitely be in the wrong place. There is a deliberate sense of mild chaos; that this rebooting of Virtual Futures will inherit the use of performance, of multimedia, and immersion that the 1995 conference had. What Mason is keen to play with in terms of event format is how to make content ‘physically hyperlinked’. creating a feel of something akin to having a number of browser tabs open at the same time.
To paraphrase the old term: if cyberculture didn’t exist, then we would have had to invent it anyway, to get a solid understanding of what our futures could look like at a time of tremendous change in media technology and communications, as well as global political structures. But, if the omnipresence of technology means that the “cyber” of “cyberculture” has become redundant (“the Internet is here and a part of culture”), that doesn’t mean that the original questions have been fully answered. Indeed, from answers come new questions, and what we’ll certainly see from a resurgent Virtual Futures is the chance to ask, address, and examine them.