In light of the recent PRISM findings, never has there been a more pressing time to bring invisible infrastructures and systems into the light of day, and make them tangible, physical, and visible. This year’s Improving Reality was a carefully curated collection of thinkers that examined the hidden systems we exist within, sourcing solutions and highlighting new, unfathomable problems. This was nearly impossible to sum up into an article without creating a whole catalogue of ideas, running through the #ireality twitter feed mapping networks of conversation. This is not a review, but a processing of ideas.

The day was curated, and opened by Lighthouse’s Artistic Director Honor Harger, who called into proceedings an urgency to interrogate these systems, and imagine how they might evolve in the future. This questioning has been central to Lighthouse’s recent curatorial direction, which is intent on the unveiling of the unseen, and has included the work of James Bridle, Mariele Neudecker, Trevor Paglen and most recently Timo Arnell and team. You can currently see Immaterials at Lighthouse until the 15th of October 2013. We also had tiny talks from Tom Armitage, creator of the Literary Operator, and hide and seek’s Holy Gramazio, who introduced their specially created Tiny Games for Brighton Digital Festival.

Slide from Timo Arnall’s talk. Courtesy of Scott Smith.

Our physical inability to chart and monitor digital systems has become a concern that needs translation. Timo Arnall, Creative Director of BERG, spoke on his work to reveal the immaterial mechanisms and technologies that imprint themselves upon our lives, and how seamlessness can become pervasive. This world of Wifi, RFID, GPS and mobile networks dictates a new set of materials to communicate, a term we have neglected to use when talking about networks of signals. RFID becomes an enabler of frictionless capitalism, unseen, and barely recognized as money. Controversial technologies that Arnall examines to dispel the myth of digital immateriality.

‘We have lost the idea of materials as they become invisible’ — Timo Arnall

Arnall presented that a better understanding of the invisible digital world allows us to see a closer, more examinable connection between culture and technology, environment and materials.

Infrastructure spaces are, inevitably, highly contested spaces. Keller Easterling, architect and professor at Yale University, used her time to present us with the ‘retinal afterglow of the soupy matrix, of details and formulas that make space in the world.’ I’d like to admit my ignorance as not being aware of Easterling’s work before Improving Reality, however, I’m looking forward to next week’s post.

As Easterling detailed at a frighteningly hypnotic pace, Infrastructures are ‘more than a grid of wires, microwaves, more than shared standards, more than an internet of things’. Infrastructures exist as spatial, reproducible products. Talking on the visibility of hidden networks, Easterling shows how cities themselves are an invisible technology, and we no longer make cities by constructing buildings, or physical spaces. Active forms dictate infrastructure space, not physical structures, and it is this space that becomes the secret weapon of the powerful, monetized and mobilized into ‘recipes, and formulas’. Infrastructure space is a ‘wilder mongrel than any of our leviathans’

‘Infrastructure spaces orchestrate activity that remains undeclared, capable of outpacing law’ — Keller Easterling

Flowing quickly into the introduction of Free Trade Zones, Easterling detailed terrifying projections of future, imagined cities like Astana, ‘a capital that has turned itself into a lawless zone. It’s in ‘paleo-Genghis competition with Dubai’, another city complete with ‘mirror tiled skyscraper entry ports’. produced as an ideal, and product of capitalism.

Visions of Astana

Through her presentation of Kenya’s current, and predicted, wifi networks which take priority over physical access, Easterling asked questions of development, and how to control it without razing communities. No longer is this about roads, but invisible seams and systems that connect people, and reveal their relationships.

Maps have the power to show us the world as we imagined it to be. Far from democratic, these dictated spaces are the site of political wrangling, religious fervor and plain weirdness. Science writer Frank Swain guided us through a short, but complex history of cartography and urban planning from the Koreshanites and their inside out worldview, through to built interventions; bridges on highways out of New York built too low for buses carrying the lower classes, and parks as prevention.

“We’re unable to imagine non-geographic spaces. We insist on applying the metaphor of maps to digital.” — Frank Swain

Through this manipulation, maps become fiction, abstract and fluid, political narratives, along with the signifiers within it. In these cases, windmills are not windmills, and trees are not trees. Urban structures such as mobile phone masts are not deemed legitimate parts of the city, and are therefore hidden by curated objects, houses and unconvincing shrubbery. Our concerns with infrastructure are revealed by our attempts to hide it. All of these are aesthetic masks of infrastructure, where their true function is hidden so as not to spoil the view of the privileged. How we learn from this imagined cartography is up to our understanding of this masking.

Courtesy of Scott Smith

Infrastructure is protected by ‘Someone Else’s Problem’ field, a concept seen in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, where we don’t see problems, or irregularities, because it’s not our job to notice. This is how Paul Graham Raven sees our relationship with infrastructure, and introduces Infrastructure fiction. To understand this relationship, Raven asks us to think of the lightbulb. Without electricity, the infrastructure, the lightbulb ceases to have a function, drawing upon the aphorism from Peter Kirk ‘Don’t mistake the tools for the purpose’. Infrastructure fiction is a call to radically rethink how we think about technology, to imagine life beyond design. Infrastructure fiction is not a call to write more stories about bridges.

“I don’t want you to think outside the box. I want you to think about the box”. — Paul Graham Raven

Raven’s asks us not to think about transcending constraints but actually coming to terms with them. When you design an object it is within the context of an infrastructure, and therefore, we should ‘look afresh at the relationships between the things you do and the systems that make it possible to do them’.

Maja Kuzmanovic, from cultural laboratory FoAM, a ‘network of laboratories for speculative culture’, introduces the practice of prehearsal, a method of embodied forecasting that plays the future out. Their work focuses on responsive environments, alternative reality narratives and future pre-enactments. This is LARPing the future, play as prediction, and prehearsal as a means of invention. A rehearsal is trying out a predefined near future, but a prehearsal is trying out an undefined near future.

Maja Kuzmanovic talks to Simon Ings — Courtesy of Scott Smith
‘If the future is unknowable, how do you decide which ones to pre-enact?’ — Maja Kuzmanovic

In their project Borrowed Scenery, FoAM ask you not to just imagine a world, but actually live in a world where people are inspired by plants once again, rather than machines and clockwork. We encountered edible photovoltaics, how to minimize the borders between human and vegetable, exploring these constraints so as better to understand them. The work at fo.am asks you to change the parameters, imagine the possibilities, and play them out. Like Paul Graham Raven’s introduction of infrastructure fictions, fo.am are asking you to think about the box, and to live within it, find the problems and work them through. Prepare for an unknowable future, walk back into the future with eyes wide open.

Combatting solution-oriented culture, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg asks for designers not just to solve problems, but challenge them, imagine the problems that come from your solutions. Ginsberg demonstrates this in the project E chromi, born from the excellent iGEM competition, bacteria engineered by students to produce different coloured pigments. In one future scenario that came out of workshops with the students about the implications of the technology, a yoghurt containing genetically modified bacteria would be drunk, which would alert you to the presence of chemical markers of different diseases, through the colour of your, erm, ‘deposits’, which would be matched according to the offending colour key. This solved one problem, but what about the future? How could these technologies develop and be reappropriated?

http://vimeo.com/19759432
‘We have to move away from the culture of problem-solving, and into the habit of question-asking.’ — Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Imagining future scenarios, however negative, are important in order for us to understand the potential roles that evolving practices like synthetic biology have. As Ginsberg details, biology is being transformed into a twenty first century design material, and currently we have very little idea of what that means. We were introduced to emotional design solutions, how to farm in space (using cosmic rays, as you asked) and ‘night science’, also known as the reality of science rather than the ‘day science’ presented in scientific journals. Here we encountered the infamous ‘People cheese’, dairy cultivated from the bacteria between your toes, under your armpits, and other places.

Revell’s Mercenary Cubliclists

As a critical designer, Tobias Revell makes a habit of amplifying weak signals, taking ideas to their logical and often extreme conclusions. In response to questions of labour in the future, we were introduced to Revell’s project ‘Mercenary Cubiclists’, which explored the modes and implications of digital labour, and how it does, and could exist within current and future capitalist operations.

“As humans we have the unique ability to build worlds; we need to reclaim that power from those we trusted with it.” — Tobias Revell

The future relationship between capitalism, existing systems and digital is one that Revell is concerned with. As evident in the PRISM revelations, where Snowden did not ‘reveal anything, he issued a call to action’ and after the Occupy movement, technology is defined as a space which can be occupied and reconfigured. Revell introduced the appearance of the Athens Metropolitan network, a wireless net that provided connection isolated from conventional means, creating,‘in a sense, an entirely alternate internet’. What this means for the relationship between digital and capitalism is a question we should be asking. Potential design can be a protest movement. Design can be an antagonistic platform. Technology can be a territory.

Courtesy of Scott Smith

In Farida Vis’s hilarious and terrifying analysis of the algorithms that annoys us, we are made to really think about the data we are providing for algorithms, namely social media, to see what the algorithm sees. Through spotlighting the inappropriateness of targeted ads (lady = wants baby, gender reveal cakes), Vis asks us to examine how algorithms mediate our lives and what happens when they become visible. Algorithms are revealed as mining for data in your immediate digital environment, through your connections.

Vis brought our attention to more immediate alarming practices, namely the future-profiling used by social media aggregator Klout. Klout is shown to scrape profiles and create new ones for non-members, creating a space for prospective, future users without permission, only allowing a disconnection if you actively opt out of having a profile and linked ‘influence’ score. Parents are suddenly data rich objects to be used by pervasive algorithms, you inherit your profile content from your parent’s social media activity. You are no longer the only person mediating your data. Algorithms only become visible when they break, or when they present an incorrect reading and therefore allow us to get a glimpse of the algorithm itself. Vis makes us wonder how that places you within this contested space, how do you manage your data, and mediate these algorithms?

Courtesy of Scott Smith

In her talk, entitled ‘Esoteric Content’ after one of the vaguely named categories subject to Cameron’s PornBlocker 3000, Georgina Voss uses the analogy of Fighting Fantasy novels to explain the rather intimidating world of science and technology policy. A choose-your-own adventure that details the model for current entrepreneurial policy making.

As you start to play the game, you start learning it and the internalised systems that exist to support it. You learn not to choose one option because it leads to an unfavorable one, in the example of venture capital, you choose not to invest in a porn company because of social and economic reputation. This is turn, leads to a very curated, very narrow model of innovation. Start up culture and subsequent innovations, are shaped by mostly 25 year old white men living in California. Policy structures develop from certain stories, such as those deconstructed by Nightingale and Coad, the ‘Heroism of the entrepreneur’, and by their persistence, can reinforce and keep those stories alive.

‘New technology becomes a hopeful monster.’ — Georgina Voss

Currently working with the Mozilla Foundation on their Webmaker project, digital director Paula Le Dieu talks to us about storytelling. Choosing to sit at the front of the stage, Le Dieu speaks on the importance of enabling people to tell their own story. Taking us back to the hopes of the BBC Archive, where dreams of publicly accessible content would be realised, Le Dieu talked about the urgency to take control of our own representation, and become active, rather than passive, users of technology.

Paula Le Dieu — Courtesy of Scott Smith.

The ability to hand over the means with which to create our own stories, tens of thousands of hours of footage, gives us freedom. Unfortunately, like many projects like it, this never became a reality, a failure which Le Dieu uses as a call to action against the homogeneity of storytelling. How can we shape the future of communication to facilitate our own narratives, and enable our own representation? How do we make it easier by using and creating open platforms and enabling access to open source content.

Gonzo futurist Justin Pickard asks us to think about the global scope of technologies and development, asking, what does it take to leave a lasting impression in the world? Guiding us through ‘appropriate’ technologies, such as an AK47, BitCoin, brck.com and the Global Village Construction Set, we were shown a series of decisions that have been made in the name of improvement. We should be asking, is this our decision to make?

Justin Pickard — Courtesy of Scott Smith

As Pickard explains, the problems concerned with Zuckerberg’s internet.org are endemic of problems of philanthropy, particularly where an ulterior, business orientated motive is not necessarily transparent. Internet.org, and Google’s airborne Loon project, essentially convince prospective users that their systems are The Internet, by creating the only means, the sole infrastructure, by which they can connect. This flows into a larger problem of deciding Who Knows Best when introducing or creating new technologies and systems where they were previously absent. Examples such as Radi-Aid tell us about conversations we should be having with those we are trying to help. Morality and appropriateness are not necessarily the same thing. Essentially, infrastructure are people, and we should be seeing it as such, with Pickard citing examples such as the Info Ladies of Bangladesh, women who operate within their community, who physically transport information and assistance to people who are in need of it.

During the panels, chaired by Honor Harger, Simon Ings and Scott Smith, there were discussions of seamfullness versus seamlessness, problematic infrastructure systems, comparisons of social media algorithms to the analysis of dark matter, all ending on a discussion into open technologies, how can open remain transparent, and aware of the issues of privilege and education that comes with an open source movement. After emerging from the ether, I can safely say that our minds remain fizzing with ideas and questions, awash with optimism and pessimism about our future, and current reality. One day I’ll tell you about the second track on the mezzanine. I’ll end on a quote from Scott Smith:

‘Is it about wrestling the one reality we’ve always thought we operated under, and shaping its contours, or about trying to discover and/or the shape of new ones?”’