Fear-Less: From Tech-no-hope to Tech-no-fear

HighWire at Lancaster University has requested a series of six blog articles.

The Curiosity Bureau’s Founding Partner Rebecca Taylor responds to the Narratives and Meta-Narratives seminars on Digital Innovation – its impact on the world, the economy and society.

Article 4: Digital Innovation Series

“Everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means. We will, as we say, “get” technology “spiritually in hand”. We will master it. The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control.” (Heidegger, 1977)

Since the Future Everything festival kicked off last Thursday evening at The National Football Museum, I am particularly excited and encouraged by the inspiring projects of Zuloark and Brickstarter – and the space that exists between them as frameworks and concepts. A little frustrated perhaps at my inabilities to code and hack and programme and speak the language of technology. However, I am at least now present with technology. At last, I am welcoming what once was a sea of tech-no-hope and I am now becoming engaged in tech-no-fear - there is a new type of feeling too - more charged with human energy to go on the hunt for technology and its positive impact and social possibilities - is this what being a smart citizen is supposed to feel like? Or, am I arguably the same, with a little more awareness of my sense of agency?

Garnet Hertz, briefly touched upon Borgmann when he was talking of understanding the maker movement as ‘a folk art for engineers’. I come across Douglas Kellner’s review of Albert Borgmann’s book ‘Holding onto Reality’(2001), and I spot the fears and hopes questioned and weaved through the mix of narratives at Future Everything 2014. Finally, not feeling alone in this complex soup of human values and the value of technology, there is familiarity found when Kellner reveals Borgmann’s fears that: "There is a real possibility, that natural and cultural information will decline to mere utilities, tools we need but fail to sustain as signs of irreplaceable kinds of excellence". His concern displays Borgmann with technophobic negativity toward the realm of cyberculture experience and suggests that he sees information technology as an inferior source of knowledge.

However, we are now in 2014, over ten years since the review and Borgmann’s book was published. ‘We’ - the 1.something billion of us on Facebook - are living our lives in parallel with our online social networks, but this isn’t where our interaction with technology is ending. The consumer’s awareness of technology and its capabilities – its bits, and bytes, the code and the clouds, the systems and the data mining, the big data, the open data, the technology of things, is beginning to catch on, it is beginning to infiltrate the mainstream and it is rapidly capturing the attention of a wider, mass audience. Our interaction with a keyboard and a screen to type up documents and spreadsheets is now extruding beyond the tool we turn on to perform magic tricks for us, and slowly, but surely becoming a less mysterious and inoperable thing that we take at face value and claim to not understand how it works.

Without meaning to put computers into a new technological realm such as an ivory tower, and treat ‘it’ or ‘things’ in the same way as ‘the expert’, if we look to Nobel Prize Winners Levitt, Karplus and Warshel who “took the chemical experiment into cyberspace” (2013), Michael Levitt himself said their success was due in large part to the spectacular performance of modern computing: "I've told people that the silent partner in this prize is the incredible development in computer power.”

'Fear-Less.' R.Taylor (2014) participating in Civic Defence installation, City Fictions, Future Everything 2014

A Sensory Experience of a Speculative Future

My engagement with this tech-no-hope to tech-no-fear was a sensory experience and interaction with the reality I was facing when engaging in the curation of City Fictions for Future Everything. Once I began to dwell in this space as less of a technophobe, or tech-no-hope and more of a tech-no-fear, I started imagining the 'what if(s)...'.

The neighborhood that sits as the conduit between the Co-operatives buildings and Printworks in Manchester, NOMA played host to City Fictions – inhabiting the large buildings that have stood proud since the Co-operative’s inception in 1843 and infiltrating the spaces between them the streets between the buildings acted as wind tunnels. The City Fiction welcomed curious folk into the odd array of installations that resembled The Museum of the Future, The Creative Quarter, The Civic Defence, amongst others. Curated on your behalf and suddenly and rather oddly, I am experiencing a carefully considered representation of a speculative city. Even more oddly, the content didn’t feel shocking or out of place, just very real and quite possibly, the future, now.

From The Museum of the Future, with Adrian Hon’s A History of the Future of Objects and a letter from Mars, to The Fifth Dimensional Camera presented by Superflux, which “explores how we might see all these different worlds at the same time, in a metaphorical many-lensed object.”

I left The Museum of the Future smiling, my reaction perhaps reliant on my sense of humour, the possibilities somewhat bewildering but humorously possible all at the same time. I began asking myself if speculative futures is actually a serious form of play that requires humour to communicate within it?

Hope and Repair

Moving from building to building, to the Fixperts tinkering, fixing and mending zone representative of ‘The Creative Quarter’ of the future – Federation House - an otherwise inaccessible space, which I believe also contributed to the implicit messaging of the speculative city of the future. To the 6th floor I went up in the lift, to be greeted by a wonderful, light and airy, creative space, a deep contrast to the Civic Defence space where it was cold, dark and damp - a different kind of 19th century building, the Civi Defence lacked light, and was of dungeon-esque quality/Blade Runner in form and function, it represented the surveillance, codes and patterns, network and wires that lie under the city, unseen but very much watching us above from below. From this to the social making space, where the human interaction of hope and repair co-habit with technology in a democratized space – relief. I was met with a brief but beautiful presentation by the Scarcity Project, relieved of the stark contrast and happy in the future where imagination and creativity appeared to reign. Was my experience purposefully curated to haunt me and then excite me?

This is now.

When we look at technology and computers and systems in the present we appear to see what is right in front of us - the nuts, the bolts, the logistics that have to come into play. The realistic, pragmatic approach, the questions that appear are not dissimilar to ‘ok, so what is possible?, 'what do we do want to do with it?’, ‘what do we need?’, ‘who is it for?'

My speculative future would be even more inclusive, our minds are not redundant to the machine, I just need to figure out a way to see my imagination through its means. Whilst technology can appear futuristic, it isn't really – technology is very much present, and real, and in front of me... you, each of us.

“Thus questioning, we bear witness to the crisis that in our sheer preoccupation with technology we do not yet experience the coming to presence of technology, that in our sheer aesthetic-mindedness we no longer guard and preserve the coming to presence of art. Yet the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes.” (Heidegger, 1977)