by Kay Meseberg
“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is.”
— Dennis Gabor, “Inventing the Future“, Pelican Books, 1963
There are moments in history that seem to put everything upside-down. Certain people being elected into power, the end of walls, the building of new fences, landing on other planets - events like that can be called disruptive. But with a more detailed perspective these moments turn out often as the result of a rather long-term development.
Today a new moment is on the rise. Recently in Shanghai, Zhu Yanmei from the Beijing Genomics Institute, known for its groundbreaking work in sequencing rice and SARS genes, presented her view on the “Internet of Life”. The phrase “Internet of Life,” which has only a few things in common with the misleading forerunner “Internet of Things,” presents a view into a future that has already started, a period of time when essential things are changing on profound levels.
These changes question essentials concepts like truth, democracy, business models, the arts and important drivers of societal progress. Advances in genetics mark significant progress, but what does it mean if you can browse and edit gene sequences in a web browser? Of course, this is already possible. What does it mean if this information is available in text, video, photo, or immersive experiences? What does it mean if this information is democratized?
Or, a view into the cities of today, which are already surrounded by clouds of data — something like Luc Besson imagined in “The 5th Element”. Software is already deeply ingrained in the real world. Architects can tell while seeing a new building with which kind of software a new house was planned. They can also predict the age of the architect as they recognize software versions and so the time it was bought.
Examples like the first AI artwork to be auctioned by Christie’s — “Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy,” by the French art collective Obvious — illustrate the challenges of attribution. Who is the author of work created with a Neural Network? The creator of the network? The creator of the code? Or the one who chooses this very version and brings it to auction?
Talk rises about atomized markets, especially in the entertainment media business. Instead of millions of people simultaneously watching linear content, there are rather millions watching within open timeframes. The end of mass audience has been discussed widely since the 1990s. It seems we are arriving, but with what results? How does the end of mass audience effect humankind in times when a term like “Fake News” becomes part of a global vernacular?
Let’s have a look into technology: digital devices are getting smaller and smaller, and evermore capable. Devices are also closer than ever to the human body and more naturally integrated in the environment. You can navigate data while talking or by simply moving your eyes. Perhaps your hands are needed to hold a device, but not necessarily. Data-driven things are increasingly taken as essential for life.
Clouds of sensors and data wrap around more and more of the world. Immersive media illuminates how the blend between real and virtual, or augmented, or mixed, finds increasing significance in daily life. While concepts of presence and empathy create a higher sense of immersion, both during and after a mediated experience, the feeling of realized spatial presence with an altered perception of time represents a completely new level of relation to mediated content, no matter if linear or interactive. While sitting on a chair in one space you may also be present in a virtual world, in conversation with people who are also present in the virtual world but physically remote, distantly present on their own chairs.
Originally described by the French theatre director Antonin Artaud, Virtual Reality became an inspiration for not only tech heads but also philosophers. Artaud deeply inspired the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, whose rhizomatic writing anticipates emerging internet technology roughly 40 years before the model we know today, a global industry platform that is intimately intwined in so many lives.
The race is open for the best Human Computer Interface to seamlessly bridge real and virtual. While the technical challenges are clear and primarily questions of effort, fundamental conceptual questions about the role of humans and their beings are open- ended. Hyperreality, as a concept described by Baudrillard, is perhaps one trace to follow, as it has become evermore standard in the recent media world, with its endless references. But perhaps deeper thinking is needed.
Interestingly, a look into the past suggests that this moment in time is something mankind has already experienced. Challenges like those described for Human Computer Interfaces have existed in other words, as basic questions for the simple being of humans. Previous generations of humans transformed their relationships to their environments based on technological progress. To stay in the analogy, I suggest to reframe the nomenclature as Human Environment Interfaces.
Examples: when electric light came to cities, life became suddenly much more independent from the sun, and so followed natural behavior. Working hours changed. Security became overnight, on a higher level. Later, mobility changed fundamentally with the development of the bicycle, the train, and later the car.
The train played an especially interesting role in the history of innovation. It scared people twice. First when the real train arrived, provoking skepticism and critique. Decades later, it scared people again when the Lumiere brothers presented the train they filmed on screen. People thought the representation was real and left scared, believing the projection of the train might actually kill them.
The impact of the automobile operates on a much higher scale. Individual mobility significantly transformed maps, geographies, cities, and whole nations like no other technical device. The environment, human behavior, and the sociology of cities is not the same as any time before the automobile, and yet the automobile shows how a technology may succeed even when it results in accidents, in which people suffer and die.
All of these changes endeavored to turn wild nature into cultivated nature, and environments demanded new orientation. Today, a vast minority of nature is not cultivated or engineered. Helpful skills like rules and signs are conceived and implemented because of the need to adapt the being. Today, you can be sure on which side of the street a car is driving. The rule becomes second-nature and people stop thinking about it. It is somehow part of natural behavior and so a part of being in public life, on the street.
Feedback loops that learn best ways to move along on a mobile device without hurting anybody are endless, as we see in cars that have become faster, more secure, more technologically sophisticated, with sensors that process vast amounts of data.
Interestingly, people have historically reacted to similar changes during periods of great industrialization with deep re-orientation to nature. Starting with Rousseau and his idea about a movement back to nature, human perception of the environment pivoted. The Romantic era in the arts represents a deep cultural reaction to the Industrial Revolution. The Lebensreform movement, born in parts out of Rousseau and Romantic ideals, sought to create a different relation to nature — though with many different paths in positive and darkly misguided directions, reminiscent of the divergent ideas now all around the internet, varying from the brightest to the darkest.
George Alexander Aberle, known as Eden Ahbez, lived for years in Los Angeles, CA, behind the first “L” in the Hollywood sign and composed the song “Nature Boy,” first sung by Nat King Cole in 1948, one of his great successes and a jazz standard. He was deeply inspired by Lebensreform and was an inspiration for the Hippie movement that followed him. All this emerged in California, wherein during roughly the same time emerged what would be later-known as the Silicon Valley. There we find the first generation of digital tech entrepreneurs, whose embracement of hippie-like lifestyles and counterculture is embodied in examples like Steve Jobs and John Perry Barlow, as well as many others.
There is another influence that is close to digital today. One of the claims of Lebensreform was “Die Gedanken sind frei”. The claim says “the mind is free” and it became popular again in the hacker movement in Germany. The claim is dated back to
the French philosopher Voltaire. Today it looks like several technological innovations are scratching heavily on this. Resilience is here the idea that can adjust and fulfill what was thought in Romantic and Lebensreform with more sense and sensibility for the being in the digital age — beside more technical norms like the100 years founded German Institute for Standardization (DIN), or existing cultural norms for interface design such as the triangle for the play-button.
There is a work of art that provides with its visionary power thoughts about being in the digital age, fed by attention but recently more and more lacking trust in truth. Spiral Jetty, by Robert Smithson, is a spiraling form made out of rocks on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The whole magic of Spiral Jetty is not always visible in its full beauty, only in certain environmental conditions of the water on the lake. So when taking the long way to Utah you are not even sure to see it. What if the digital being is closer to Spiral Jetty and less situated in the binary logic of 1 and 0, as it is described today. You know it is there and this is ok, because you know and you can trust it really exists. Being means knowing, not necessarily having. Being is essential and raises today questions for the new digital ecology.
Kay Meseberg is Head of Mission Innovation at the European cultural network ARTE. For ARTE he is also working with Claire Parnet (known for her book “Dialogs” with Gilles Deleuze) on the bi-weekly program Square Idea that deals with the topics of a changing world. He is Ambassador of Innovation at the IMZ in Vienna, co-founded by UNESCO, and a Visiting Lecturer at Yale University.