Opinions are non-contemporary

May 23, 2012

I gave a quick lunchtime talk at Lighthouse today, as part of a Happenstance open day.

It was essentially a quotedump of what’s in my head at the moment, but several people asked for the links mentioned, so here goes.

The collective false memory syndrome that the UK is being implanted with, in regard of the Jubilee in particular, but everything from the Festival of Britain to “austerity”, is really weird and a little bit frightening; but imagine if we could invert it. Instead of falsifying the past to transform and rationalise the present, we could engineer the future in order to finally reach it. This is a pretty standard design fiction conjecture except I don’t care about design and people might actually get the idea if you explained it in terms of the Jubilee: the dark nostalgia mirror of empire that is eating the real. Eject! Eject!

For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

        —William Gibson, BookExpo America, May 2010

We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildnungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us. We made friends and enemies online, we prepared cribs for tests online, we planned parties and studying sessions online, we fell in love and broke up online. The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of. The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.

        —Piotr Czerski, We, the Web Kids (translated by Marta Szreder)

The internet is the outsourcing of our mental faculties, but books, written and recorded music, literature and song have been technologies for remotely storing mental faculties—culture—in physical media and in delay loops, for quite some time.

I asked “Why is outsourcing our memory different to outsourcing our food or electricity supplies?”

And Will replied “Maybe we’ll look back on the era of “subsistence memory” with the same horror as we regard subsistence farming.”

        —Er, me. The Elixir of Reminding.

Today we live in a world filled with awesome possibilities, both good and bad. The rush of technology is so rapid, to stay abreast of it has become more and more difficult. Our understanding of the physical universe continues to grow and astonish us with its marvelous complexity.

To be an artist in these times of explosive change is, for me, a privilege and a challenge. My goal is to document in my drawings and paintings a small part of this changing world and to anticipate in my work, the future that lies ahead.

        —Robert McCall, artist’s statement, 1981

Art occasionally rises to the challenge of actually cracking open a window onto the actual present, but mostly restricts itself to creating dissonance in the mainstream’s view of the imagined present, a relative rather than absolute dialectic. [...]

The future is a stream of bug reports in the normalcy-maintenance software that keeps getting patched, maintaining a hackstable present Field. [...]

If your understanding of the present were a coherent understanding and appreciation of your reality, you would be able to communicate it. I am going to borrow terms from John Friedman and distinguish between two sorts of conceptual metaphors we use to comprehend present reality: appreciative and instrumental. [...]

Instrumental conceptual metaphors allow us to function. Appreciative ones allow us to make sense of our lives and communicate such understanding.

So our failure to communicate the idea of Instagram to somebody in 3000 BC is due to an atemporal and asymmetric incomprehension: we possess good instrumental metaphors but poor appreciative ones.

        —Venkatesh Rao, Welcome to the Future Nauseous

For at least five years, we’ve been working with the same operating logic in the consumer technology game. This is what it looks like:

There will be ratings and photos and a network of friends imported, borrowed, or stolen from one of the big social networks. There will be an emphasis on connections between people, things, and places. That is to say, the software you run on your phone will try to get you to help it understand what and who you care about out there in the world. Because all that stuff can be transmuted into valuable information for advertisers.

That paradigm has run its course. It’s not quite over yet, but I think we’re into the mobile social fin de siècle.

        —Alexis Madrigal, The Jig Is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future

To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.

        —Julian Assange, State and Terrorist Conspiracies

Technology is our Modernity

        —Kazys Vanelis

And at the end I said something about my current dilemma, summarised in the title quote above (which was said to me by a curator quitting her job), that opinions are no longer a useful or appropriate organising principle, that reckoning is no longer a scarcity, that the network now so obviously and explicitly extends beyond the bounds of any individual being able to say anything useful or conclusive on or about it in isolation, that telling someone your opinion is like telling them about your dreams.

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