Hello — my name is Laurence Hill, I’m Director of Brighton Digital Festival for those of you that don’t know me.
Welcome and thanks for joining us at the Messy Edge — it’s where I think the interesting stuff happens and I hope that if you don’t already agree with me, that you will by the end of today. People have asked me where the name comes from and I wish I could remember — I think you’ll likely hear a lot about speculative fiction/futures today so I’m calling this a speculative memory — I do remember vaguely it coming out of a conversation that I was having with my friend and colleague Sarah Pickthall, who you’ll be seeing later. Sarah, along with Genevieve Smith-Nunes ran an event for us last year around digital and chronic pain, in which three digital artists from different practices, all of whom live with chronic pain, talked about how their pain inflected their work and how in turn their work helped them to manage or at least live with their pain.
The audience was relatively small but deeply engaged and the event itself felt like it had lodged itself into an uninhabited area, an area that doesn’t even get explored much — if events around disabled people, sadly, live at the edge of the cultural conversation than an event around chronic pain seemed to be situated at the edge of that edge.
And from that conversation about the importance of edges and how those edges are often a bit awkward and a bit messy came the idea of the ‘messy edge’ — something to be celebrated. It was a small eureka moment and the phrase even made it into the independent evaluation for last year’s festival — the stamp of authority.
The messy edge is the antithesis of the cutting edge, it’s not clinical, or shiny, or binary it’s interested in technology and what it can do but it doesn’t celebrate technology for its own sake — it’s human, sometimes confusing, often challenging and a bit awkward but it is vital. The messy edge is the frontier, the gold rush of ideas and radical thinking, which is something I’ll come back to. It’s all around us, it’s where, as I’ve said, the interesting stuff happens and it won’t go away. This is where we stay with the trouble.
The idea of doing an in-house conference came, as many ideas do, out of a period of change. As Brighton Digital Festival transitioned out of an event held by different organisations — left home if you like — it took its first steps into the world as an independent thing and immediately began to question its identity, not in a mopey, existential way (at least I don’t think so!) but we began to ask questions of ourselves and from those questions, ‘why do we do this festival?’, ‘who is it for?’, ‘what do we want it to be?’, came our manifesto.
I’m really proud of our manifesto. It’s simple, it’s strong, it’s a statement of intent that’s easily understood by anybody that wants to engage with us, work with us, or wants to give us money……
One of the things that we thought about when we were thrashing out the manifesto was the festival’s role as Brighton’s Digital Festival — we’re outward looking and ambitious in that direction but the festival can only happen here, it’s born out of the Brighton exceptionalism, which in turn is born out of a history in the city of radical thought and action which, and feel free to disagree with me, I feel is starting to get lost. We’re losing some of the rough edges and maybe starting to look and act a little ‘everytown’. At BDF, we want to reconnect and rekindle that history of radical thought and action and today is a part of that process. This day, this conference, gives the festival a voice.
When I sat down to programme the messy edge, which is the first full day conference I’ve ever done, I did what any newbie does and decided what I would want to see, selfish I know but right now this is my ideal day. That way, I thought, if nobody turns up I’ll have the best conference experience ever — you ruined that for me and now I’m having to do work.
My guidelines were simple — must be interesting and not too many white dudes and despite the evidence so far of it being 100% white dude, I think you’ll agree, I succeeded in that at the very least…
The programming of today grew from two things, which are largely interconnected. Firstly, a simplified, take on Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble in which she talks about the impossibility of technology providing a gilded future unless we deal with the pressing issues of the present; racism, homophobia, mass extinctions and climate change amongst many others. We can’t ignore these troubles, we have to stay with them, we can’t talk about the future without talking about racism and so on.
And secondly, from my personal interests which are in exploring the politics of technology and its deployment; the limitations of socio-technical architecture designed and built by one human demographic arguably to the exclusion of all others, of online representation, the uneven spread of digital privilege, the prejudices that are increasingly visible in the design of algorithms, the myth of a global, borderless internet, unthinking faith in the wisdom of big data, in magic bullet technofixes, in the desirability of smart cities…..
I’m also interested in the ways that digital thinkers, futurists are often very excited to forget the past, to ignore it, to try and accelerate past the long shadows it casts across our present and into the future in the form of, for example, colonialism and its digital descendent.
At least some of those things will be tackled today.
And of course all of this also has to be read against the profound political shifts that are taking place as we speak — if ever a time called for questioning and activism, that time is now.
None of this should be read as technophobia — I remain as optimistic as I have ever been about the possibilities that digital offers us but as digital increasingly becomes the substrate of our existence and AIs begin to make decisions that have profound effects on people, without even their designers being able to explain why, it’s important that we think about the kind of questions that we’re asking today and I hope that you’ll take the opportunity to discuss them with the people sitting around you and over the breaks today and that you’ll take these conversations home with you and carry them on — because you’re all part of the messy edge now.