Monthly Archives: June 2011

We Keep Getting the Same Old Future – we need to learn to fail

I’ve been fascinated for the past few years with the idea of the future, especially the way that technology is imagined as part of utopian or dystopian futures. The Virtual Futures conference at Warwick University gave me some interesting food for thought. It’s actually an anniversary of a series of conferences held in the mid-1990s, and many of the original participants were invited to return and to talk about the process of their careers in the interim.

The idea of revisiting past futures is fascinating.  It acts as a corrective to the sense that our, or any age, is distinctive. It also reminds us of how different kinds of technology drive different forms of speculation – especially when they are new. A few of the speakers referred to the excitement of virtual worlds and to the idea that internet communication could allow people to collectively imagine a shared world through text. Others described the response to the radical ideas of the time, like actor-network theory and the theory of assemblages. Many of the questions had to do with ideas of ‘what does it mean to be human; what does it mean to be alive?’ For example, Rachel Armstrong has been experimenting with ‘protocells’ made of liquid and minerals, which demonstrate some emergent properties such as clustering and ‘evolution’ despite not being alive. In this context, what does ‘liveness’ mean? Are the properties that scientists describe as life merely virtual? Performance artist Stelarc also explores the possible disconnect between life, body, and individual. He argues that what is important is not the individual body, nor even the individual’s sense of self, but what relationships are being made – socially and politically.

Over the past fifteen years, there has been a very significant shift in the kind of relationships being made, particularly between the ‘virtual’ and the social. Mark Fisher (aka blogger/teacher k-punk) pointed out how the cyberspace of the 1990s promised a kind of trance-like escape from reality, in which you could get lost, find yourself, or find others. This has been replaced with the current layering of technologies, interactions, and demands, which Fisher likens to parasites (following Michel Serres). These demand our attention, and our time. As Sherry Turkle has argued, each tiny demand for attention provides a hit of dopamine, providing a tiny moment of satisfaction, despite the fact that multitasking is actually far less effective than concentrating fully on a task.

This lack of control of time amplifies the strain of neoliberalism, according to Fisher. Precarity of labour, which initally had positive connotations, is exacerbated by the persistent demands of media. Heather Menzies, in a 2005 book No Time, examines this trend even more broadly, arguing that the crisis of attention threatens not just our sense of self, but the accountability of our society. We are asked to be consistently present and responsive. So instead of precarity providing more control over what time is spent in work, and in what way, our ‘virtual present’ is typified by persistent interruption, persistent response, persistent communication and diminished reflection.

Not only that, but neoliberalism, the ideology that promised emancipation through individual competition and resulted in the automation and speculation of managerial capitalism, has collapsed. Since 2008, it’s been clear that the existing system, and its ideology, no longer functions. Yet no credible alternative has replaced it. Essentially, we have been experiencing an age in which we are informed that everything is changing, yet things have remained mostly the same.

Richard Barbrook also explores the futures of the past, tracing the connection between American cold war ideologies and imperialist projects and the visions of networked society as providing liberation from space and time. His 2007 book, Imaginary Futures, traces the pre-history of the internet and its links to the American investment in science, cybernetics and military command and control systems. Like Fisher, he thinks that we have been getting the same vision of the neoliberal, cybernetic future for the past 30 years. He concludes, as well, that we need to actually imagine new futures, but doesn’t necessarily have a sense of what they might be – although he cheekily proposes ‘communalist cybernetics’ that draw on the fact that the internet is based on sharing, not on selling.

I am not sure that merely focusing on the opportunities to share is a convincing future. After all, the sharing economy is behind much of what Fisher sees as the amplification of parasitic demands on attention. Furthermore, despite the press about the decline of subscriptions to Facebook, the links between the social graph created by commenting and responding online are increasingly underpinning the media economy. All of this is the direct result of a social shift towards media as being based on sharing and contribution – often filtered, enfolded, or enclosed within structures of traditional media. It’s not possible, in this case, to definitively locate an ‘alternative’ like Barbrook’s communalist cybernetics.

I have been thinking recently that one way of considering alternatives, and even, “futures” is to take seriously the idea of failure. Barbrook’s research on the history of the internet reiterates how for decades, the same arguments about the primacy of managerial capitalism have been put forward. This reiteration left no place for the ideology to fail. Similarly, neoliberalism and managerial capitalism have overstayed their welcome, but their institutions have been proclaimed ‘too big to fail’. The past future (now our present) is Fukayama’s ‘end of history’ – the final triumph of managed systems over complexity.

At the conference, Stelarc pointed out that the artist’s role is not to outline a particular future, but to experiment with contingencies – to explore a number of possible  futures.  Some will not come to pass. Some will be demostrated as completely ridiculous. And most will ‘fail’ in that they will or can not be sustained. Reintroducing failure into our cultural imaginary may help us past what Fisher sees as the most dangerous political issue of our time – the sense that there is no alternative to neoliberalism.  Failure is evidence of complexity. There a thousand ways for something to go wrong. Developing a culture in which failure is possible is also a means of revealing the artistry in a process (social, creative, political) that can otherwise be concealed.

And maybe, permitting failure might also release us from the kind of precarity in which we are required to always be present, available for work, and successful.

WikiLeaks and After at Polis Journalism conference

I had a fantastic time this morning at the Polis Journalism conference.  I was on a fascinating  panel “WikiLeaks and After” with some true heavyweights:  George Brock from City University, Angela Philips from Goldsmiths University and John Naughton who writes for the Observer while observing the world from Cambridge.

We talked about what was learned, and by whom, through WikiLeaks. The focus was primarily on journalism, and whether it’s been changed, but we also talked about the systemic and extra-legal response from the US government and corporations, and whether this represented a departure from the previous role of the state, or a resurgence of state power.

We also talked about how mass media create drama in order to maintain their influence, and how the revelation of secrets is part of that enduring drama.

This drama contrasts with the reality of some of the shifts to journalistic practice that WikiLeaks revealed. Many of the panel identified the creation of partnerships between WikiLeaks and mainstream media as the turning point. It not only changed the way that journalists created stories by demanding journalists to sift data and unearth stories, but it introduced internet-based, supra-national drop-boxes as new sets of sources.

The end of the discussion turned on the extent to which journalists need to develop different capacities to work in this new networked, data-intensive sphere, or whether it’s more a question of developing appropriate skills to identify relevant expertise and form instantaneous connections.

It’s clear that systems of power and influence are changing.  It’s also clear that states and corporations will continue to have power, but that they will exercise it in different ways in a networked world. Similarly, resistance will operate differently, exploiting the features of the network. How journalism will play a part in reporting, shaping, and reflecting on these exploits remains to be seen.

The ‘Mod’ Ecology and the ‘App’ Ecology

SPOILER: I talk about how mobile platforms make significant/deep creative construction of a shared communication space more different. I enthuse about grassroots technology. I define a ‘mod ecology’ of remaking (mobile) hardware and an ‘app ecology’ (should be obvious). If  you want to hear more or ask questions, please comment or come and see me at OKCon in Berlin on June 30.

Innovation and the Internet

What’s so significant about innovation on the internet? I’ve been thinking about grassroots tech development and hacker culture of various types for years.  Most recently, my thinking has been oriented around the extension of open-sourcing and hacker practice beyond software, to hardware and design.  All of this is making me consider why the internet is so signficant. I’ve concluded that it’s because of the very recursivity of the internet as a platform for making: when you work on the internet to find the solution to a coding problem related to the internet, this contributes to rebuilding the internet itself. A bit more broadly, this is the open-source philosophy, and the driver for FLOSS movements.  That’s where things start to get interesting.

Open innovation: community, creativity, crowdsourced R&D

The generalized principle of working together to rebuild a system that is helpful to its builders is also what drives community innovation and (to an extent) other grassroots technology projects. These are activites that emerge out of experiences in particular places (or social contexts) and allow people to be expressive using technology – in ways that solve local problems but that are also a lot of fun. Like community WiFi, for example.

Similarly, open hardware hacking and the emerging DIY market ecosystem expand the possiblity to use technology creatively, to work beyond the confines of the device as a commodity or product.  Media theorists like my colleague David Gauntlett (whose excellent book will be reviewed here soon) argue that there is a deep social need to do this – and in fact craft or making is at the heart of our humanity.  So, if the raw materials be wood, stone, or easily modifiable Linux software and solderable boards, we take apart and remake because that’s partly how we want to remake our world.  This is at the heart of the ‘mod ecology’ where people take on, take apart, put back together hardware.  As we move towards mobiles, and as less of our creative innovation is directed at making and remaking the internet platform, ‘modding’ mobile devices will be a bigger part of engaging with technology. But so far, it’s still supported by the internet.

The scale of the ‘mod ecology’ is far broader than local network-building, which is bounded by the physical and social contours of a particular place, but somewhat narrower than rebuilding the internet. Building a local network means getting all the bits to work together technically, but also socially.  You have to get permission to hang antennas, speak to the government, argue with the operators as well as communicate online.  Similarly, hanging out in a local hack lab does imply spending time with other people who share the same day-to-day scenery as you, but with whom you might want to share plans as well. The broader ecology, like the broader DIY movement, is solidified by videos and photos of projects being uploaded, and communities of practice (including both tech companies and individuals) who answer each other’s questions.  It’s all online, but still so far, not recursive in the same way as hacking the internet was imagined to be (by Chris Kelty, among others).

Modding hardware means breaking warranties.  It’s disruptive to the hardware industry –  but not necessarily only in a negative way.  Samsung recently delighted the modding community who have been developing CyanogenMod, a custom ROM for Android, by giving a free sample device to the head of the dev community.  This could be seen as a symbolic acknowledgement of the R&D that open-source communities create.

The ‘App Ecology’ – a shallow form of engagement

The ‘mod ecology’  can be an immersive, creative and collaborative endeavor – but needs high technical knowledge, social capital, financial capital, time and interest (like most other forms of open-source innovation). What if you don’t want to nullify your warranty or solder a circuit board?  Well, then make an app. It seems that this would solicit the same kind of creativity and innovation. But to what extent?

Open systems like the internet are fantastic for innovation. They are based on open standards and protocols, and have helped to support the kind of localized creation and innovation I discussed above. But our converged devices are much more likely to be built on closed protocols: thus the need for open ROM like CyanogenMOD.  And unlike making a local network from scratch,  or modding a device based on open plans available on the internet, building an app does not necessarily contribute to the stock of knowledge held in common. The SDK Terms and Conditions for the major app building platforms are based on Apache licenses rather than GPL, so if you read carefully you realize that the finished app is the property of Google or Apple.  Furthermore, as my colleague Tarleton Gillespie is investigating, if you’re submitting an Apple app, the company submits it to its internal vetting program – so no apps that might facilitate drunk driving, but equally no apps that Apple reckons go against its core values.

The desire to make and create is in all of us. I’ve been delighted to see how it’s flourished in the tech world, and how the internet has created a platform that can be modified and improved by the people who meet upon it and innovate it. I’ve also seen how innovating and remaking systems in local places has a similarly beneficial recursive effect as systems come to be built into the places they come from (although their value is most obvious to the people who build them). As we move increasingly towards mobiles, the possibility for this creativity seems more significant through the ‘mod ecology’ and much less through the ‘app ecology’. The implications of this trend towards more closed platforms and, paradoxically, more corporate involvement in orienting the direction of modding (in order to crowdsource some R&D) are unfortunate. I think they are pointing towards a more shallow form of creative making, one that means we don’t contribute to the platform we create on in the same way as the internet made possible.

Maybe you disagree. What do you think? Was the internet such an incredible exception that we can’t expect collective creativity to work the same in the mobile era? Or can we? Is there a future for open mobiles? And most importantly, will anyone buy me a beer in Berlin?