Internet Age Media 2017

Thoughts on a conference dedicated to Internet culture and possible futures.

A few weeks ago, Internet Age Media held its third annual conference and gathered a crowd of designers (experience, graphic, narrative), creative technologists, researchers, curious minds in Barcelona.

Centred around “the Renaissance of utopias”, it tickled our distant memories of Thomas More and revived the age-old argument over binary thought. Utopia vs dystopia? Although admittedly, it is much easier to come up with dystopian scenarios of the future, this time, we were tuned on critical optimism. Not a simple task.
Can we revive the tired, over-borrowed dream of “making the world a better place”? Or are we simply standing on the edge of the cliff of good intentions again?

Tl:dr: Weekend punchline (and most tweeted) 
“Your (micro-)utopia is always someone else’s dystopia”

The conference set out to tackle four major topics: post-work, post-branding, post-labels and post-reality.

In his opening statement, Andres Colmenares (co-founder of the event) summed up the days to come:

“It is mandatory to question and constantly examine the dominant metaphors and narratives to determine if they are reflecting properly the realities of the internet because, like many other technologies, the internet is not good or bad. It just reflects who we are as humans.
[…] 
What if there was a massive click strike?”
Crack Magazine

The conference also opened in homage to the recently deceased Zygmunt Bauman, father of the concept of a liquid modern world. Here is his take on “gardener” and “hunter” utopias, adding some layers of nuance:

I can think of a close connection between the emergence and growth in number and significance of the “precarious condition” and the transition from “gardeners’ utopia” to “hunters’ utopia”. The first type of utopia, guiding human intentions and actions, was the vision of “good society,” which similarly to the vision of an ideal garden, prompting the gardeners to work on bringing the imperfect reality of their cultivated plots closer to their vision of a perfect harmony as well as to accept responsibility for the success of the undertaking (“without us, chaos and decay”), directed attention towards the shape of society: both the contemporary shape, a faulty one — and the one just being designed, cleared of faults.
The hunters’ utopia does not care about the welfare of prospective game on the hunting grounds; if a hunter, guided by the vision of his hunting bag filled to the brim, is free from concerns about its disastrous consequences (decimating the potential objects of future hunters’ hunting), likewise the “hunters’ utopia” does not care about the welfare of the whole of society and its hospitality to human habitation — focusing instead attention on finding a relatively safe and comfortable, or at least tolerable, nice for oneself that would enable one to survive amidst a world irreparably condemned to stay inhospitable, if not downright hostile to human habitation.

(More Zygmunt Bauman curated links here)

In the Mercat de las Flores, right next to Montjuic hill, we’re all sat in an auditorium, there’s no wifi, and the idealism of early Internet days is alive and well.

Post-contemporary

“How can we redefine arts as a creative process to respond to the complexity of this networked society?”

Félix Magal’s Museum of Internet desktop folder © Monika Bielskyte

The Museum of Internet

We’re way beyond the debate on high and low art as Félix Magal, co-founder of the meme-celebrating Facebook page The Museum of Internet focuses on the relevance of memes as the new small talk. A fully democratic lo-fi form of creativity everyone can produce. 
The pride of the Internet.

Félix reclaims the status of the Internet explorer. (Showing a huge browser logo, he adds: “not that kind”). A savvy adventurer, a state of mind. Curiosity as a virtue.

It’s then late April 2017 and the French presidential elections are just round the corner. There’s tension a-plenty on the rise of the far right, and the discourse of a fractured France playing on repeat on most media platforms.

“Crucially, we are not only laughing, we are laughing together”.

At this point, anything that concerns what brings us together is music to my ears. There’s playful, there’s shocking, there’s just plain ridiculous. We all have our favorites. He goes on to bring nuance to the “universality of laughter” argument by dissecting the branches of meme and warning about of the danger of political memes which can foster division and/or trivialise extremism.

It all depends on the intention. 
Because hey, who can resist a good Marxist meme?

Crowd pleaser.

What better intro and ice breaker for a 300-odd audience of mostly strangers from across the world than a nice hard laugh with a meme specialist. Smooth move, IAM, smooth move. 
(Read on about Félix Magal and the Museum of Internet here if you like.)

Learning to listen — the Centre for Possible studies

Now, one of the reasons I was tempted by this conference in the first place was their focus on the arts, having roamed the realms of digital strategy for museums and cultural spaces myself. Last year, they invited Julia Kaganskiy who runs NEW INC, New Museum’s incubator for art, design and technology.

And next up was Amal Khalaf, who runs the Centre for Possible studies with the Serpentine Galleries. I believe there are a few truly great examples of arts organisations who are as dedicated to their programme as to putting the means (human and immaterial) in being active on a local scale.

The only other example I knew of an institution working towards getting trust from their local communities was Queens Museum, who have published open access resources and documented their efforts.

Specifically about London though, because of its geographical situation, its unique configuration, its scale, its neighbourhoods, its communities, its sprawling development, the project resonates. 
They chose to anchor their efforts just north of the Serpentine, in Edgware Road. Initiated in 2008, the project links local groups and international artists with people living and working in the area. They research, interview, archive, listen, record, provide histories & roots. Learn from the people who are there.

Researching for this talk, Amal came across radical utopian pedagogy that had this beautiful phrase to describe their philosophy: “teaching desire to desire”.

Google image search for “desire lines”

It echoes the way people gradually draw desire lines and challenge/change the way town/urban planners draw neighbourhoods. The way frames are imposed on us versus what we determine for ourselves.

Edgware Road is historically a very diverse part of London, with a sizeable proportion of asylum seekers a few streets away from, say, Tony Blair’s estate. At the time the project started, much of the social housing was going to be scraped to allow for more real estate development, in a popular London dynamic of uniformisation and interchangeable high streets.

To no-one’s surprise, the documentation about the transformation was unavailable and/or illegible to the people concerned. 
People whose whole lives and bodies and hearts are devoted to changing their situation or the neighbourhood that they live in”.

The Centre for Possible studies organised many events to get in touch with people, on market stalls, through community activists, people involved in housing rights and migrants rights associations.

They created all sorts of projects to deconstruct what research looks and feels like along the way. What archives look like. They created sound explorations and recordings, a participatory publication, a workshop to re-organise spaces of power and learning, times to practice Theatre of the Oppressed… Ultimately creating an alternative archive of the neighbourhood .There was no trace of a migrant history in official records.

Her talk’s already available and I really urge you to watch it.
She concluded it with a beautiful exercise on using our bodies as well as using our minds.

Inhale deeply, exhale on the note of your choice, listen to the sounds around you, and match your next note to one of them, on your next breath make a note no one else is making, repeat.

Post-work

What would we do if it wasn’t about the money?

Space10, a Copenhagen R&D and living lab powered by IKEA, is largely concerned with the blurring of lines between labour and leisure. Of the three present on stage, one self-defines as “Head of Playful Research”. They develop projects and do research on circular societies (concerned with our outdated linear consumption mode), coexistence (“creating spaces for a better ways of living that are also sustainable and affordable.”) and digital empowerment. Noble causes.

Anticipating automation, making it work out for us rather than putting up with its consequences, reforming our institutions, getting socially ready for universal basic income in largely meritocratic societies—all concerns which were, I’m sure, hovering in the audience’s minds.

We were introduced to a few of their projects, including open sourced structures for vertical agriculture.

They brushed upon the issue of racism and sexism in algorithms on the topic of their latest exploration of AI, doyouspeakhuman.com.

Should AI be gender neutral?

The Space10 team showed graphs from the great Quartz article (We tested bots like Siri and Alexa to see who would stand up to sexual harassment). Which reminded me of Roxane Gay’s response to the eternal question “I can’t seem to find women to talk at my event/conference, work in my team etc” in Bad Feminist. She says to keep asking why. (I’m paraphrasing here).
Not enough women speakers in tech, why?
>Not enough women employees in tech companies. Why?
>Not enough representation/role models in STEM. Why?
>Scared of public speaking. Why?
>Not encouraged to be outspoken. Why?
Obviously, I could go on, but you get the point.
That’s what I call committing to an issue — and there’s way more to be done.

They obviously could have benefited from more time to explore the issue, and they did raise the topic. But didn’t mention Space10 is run by a woman.
*Queue heaps of heated discussion on this topic*

Returning on the topic of circular and sustainable societies, there are interesting consumer dynamics to deconstruct. Perhaps on quite literal levels there could be more research into changing the natural resources we use to build the technological tools we use, and how the hell we could recycle our old iPhones anyway, etc.

Post-labels

“We are becoming borderless and genderless, and it’s time to work towards being ageless” Elise by Olsen

Labels have a bad rap, but Elise Anyangwe and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh held a contrasted version of the discourse. Experts at decoding labels, whether people use them to self-define or if they’re hurtful projections. 
The programme reads: 
“How can we use the internet to challenge cultural stereotypes?”

To remedy “what it’s like to be seen but never heard”, Elise Anyangwe created the Nzinga effect. A budding media platform dedicated to “publishing content and organising events focusing on the stories of African women and women of African descent.” It is named after Queen Nzinga Mbande: “a key figure in the struggle against slavery and occupation, Nzinga was not just a ‘warrior queen’, as African women in history are often stereotypically portrayed. Yes, she was a fighter, but she was also a charismatic and popular leader, a wise and strategic negotiator[…]”.
She described her journey towards the need for a dedicated media channel, and the trickling consequences:

“What does a feminist organisation look like?”

This could also have featured in the Post-Work section. 
“Difference is only accepted when it can be monetised”. Huge applause.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, along the same lines, created Muslim Girl after the 9/11 attacks in the US and is an advocate for playing the system. 
A young girl at the time, she felt her physical safety was threatened, and was hugely affected by the stereotypical, uniform vision of Muslim women. 
Painfully aware of the difference between visibility and representation, she created the platform to tell their own stories. She says the domain name cost $7.

Muslim women talk back.
© Jenna Masoud for MuslimGirl.com/Getty images. Full stock here

The success of the platform brought along collaborations with mainstream media and huge brands. 
She also struck a deal with Getty images to refresh their stock of pictures representing Muslim women, on their own terms — with a Muslim photographer, models as themselves (ie not actors wearing costumes, sigh)

This led to a sneaky bit of A/B testing after the talks where I asked men if they had ever thought about/were concerned by their representation in advertising, social narratives or the media. I know some who have been, but the general response seemed to be “meh” as in “not really”, or not an immediate and spontaneous yes. I might just need a larger sample.
Something to investigate further.

There were also very interesting points made about:

  • Post-advertising/branding — Form&
    How can brands be adaptive, contextual, and listen better? Depart from the current “hungry hungry hippo mentality” (highly suggest ustwo’s conclusions on “peak nag” syndrome.)
  • VR — The ultimate tool for empathy? 
    Check out The Machine to be another: “The Machine is a low budget Creative Commons technology based on Papers published on the Web for researchers on embodiment” 
    “Why are there no indigenous peoples in VR?” asks Monika Bielskyte.
  • Internet, technology, augmented reality, and the politics of it all with social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson:
    - “Tech is real, lived, embodied. Data is always real, always biased and always political.”
    - “Asking if the internet is good or bad is like asking if talking is good or bad: how is that even a valid question?”
    - “Reality has always been augmented. We are used to our world being socially constructed.”
    - “We need to stop using technology in a way that says I’m not responsible. If you select data, if you organise information, you are an editor.”

And we’re not done. The closing acts were spectacular.
Let me tell you a little bit about

Bruce Sterling & Jasmina Tešanovic

And boy did they stir up the stage.

Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tešanovic © Denisse Garcia

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer essential to the cyberpunk movement and a design critic.

Jasmina Tešanovic is an activist, writer, journalist, musician, translator, film director and feminist instrumental in the Internet of Women Things.

The focus of their closing speech was centred around the way your values turn up in your everyday lives. In your home.

These two started a utopian experiment in planned living.

What makes a home?

Jasmina: “it’s beautiful because it’s yours. It doesn’t have to have ‘good taste’ and what the hell is that anyway?”
Thus started Casa Jasmina, “the open source way to the connected home.”

This invitation to take all these concepts and just start tinkering was the most pleasant idea. There’s control to be had for each and everyone of us over how they bring technology into their home, their rhythm, their personal lives, their intimacy.

Both talked about the appeal of low tech, of the real people living in the house (as opposed to sanitised aesthetics/“Airspace”, I’m guessing).
They now have an IoT design manifesto: guidelines for responsible design in a connected world.

Utopia has to be in permanent beta

There always needs to be an expiration date, an escape plan.

You can watch them talk about it in more detail here.

Spin the Penis

Yup. Yes. Bear with me now.

PostMeMeMe Internet.
The Internet has made meeting with strangers an everyday occurrence. But how much can and do we ever know about each other?”

The two malicious minds behind Sofa Magazine invited a bunch of our (slightly hungover) selves to play an adult version (for lack of a better word) of Spin the Bottle.

Using the marble penis from a fertility god statuette, we took turns reading personal questions around strangers. Things like: 
If you had an intimate gesture to make to someone. To whom and what would it be?
Which part of your body do you love most?
You just had an earth-shattering orgasm, what happened?


And yes, I know, from your screen, it sounds very, very cringey. But everyone played along in fun and in honesty. There was even a moment when we all got up and danced awkwardly to PNL (French rappers), on a dare.

And truthfully, it was pretty great. A testament to how getting weird and uncomfortable with strangers can flip things around and change the way we relate. After a while, everyone’s feeling loser, everyone’s being genuine, and it becomes a truly great moment shared with people that you’re likely to never see again.

Closing picture of Internet Age Media 2017 © Denisse Garcia
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