Post-Reality: The Futures of Media, Virtual Reality & Reality
In this final article of The Renaissance of Utopias series, we’re recapping IAM Weekend 17 and bringing you everything we learned and explored in one place.
At the upcoming IAM Weekend 18 (April 27–29, 2018) we’ll be discussing ‘The Subversion of Paradoxes’ looking at the contradictions, collisions and coexistence of realities, in the next 7 years. Join us!
Since the release of our manifesto in 2015, “In Randomness We Trust” became our motto. It is now on hundreds of t-shirts, jumpers, notebooks and tote bags spread around the globe, aiming to become a serendipitous signal for curious minds, because as we often say in lectures, events and meetings:
“randomness is better when shared IRL”.
But is IRL actually ‘real’? In fact, what is reality? 😳
As the world gets more complex, the technologies we use on a daily basis and those emerging from labs, universities and startups, are both altering our perception of reality and undermining its foundations. Specially those applied in media and entertainment, and in particular what has been labeled as ‘Virtual Reality’.
For Post-Labels, the final IAM Weekend 17 session, we decided to explore the evolution of virtual, mixed and augmented realities, and try to understand how post-truth narratives are eroding our common sense of understanding, asking questions about ethics, human behaviour and reality itself.
With the help of a sociologist in Los Angeles, an electronic music composer from Iran, an interdisciplinary researcher based in Barcelona, a nomadic storyworlds designer, and a political activist from Belgrade married with a science-fiction author from Austin based in Torino, we went deeper into this fascinating questions. Welcome to Post-Reality!
Nathan Jurgenson : Snapchat 👻
First off we heard from Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist and researcher at Snapchat and Editor-in-Chief of Real Life Magazine who sent a video message and then connected live via a Skype call, a perfect way to kick-off this session.
Nathan laid the theoretical groundwork beginning by asking why we often see technology only in extremes: “Is social media good or bad?”…“Is the Internet good or bad?”, we often ask. Instead, Nathan urged us to recognise that the Internet and other technologies are enmeshed in our lives such that we need to think of them as real, as lived.
“Technology is enmeshed in all of reality as a flavour of information that augments everything we’re doing”
Nathan also linked his criticism to what he calls digital dualism with the thoughts on utopias from Prof. Zygmunt Bauman (R.I.P.), who was invited to give the opening keynote of the event. “Everyone of your utopias, and my utopias is a dystopia for someone else and those small questions at the local level are something that I think we should talk about, and if Zygmunt Bauman was able to be here, I think those are the sorts of things that we would really want to pressure.”
To that end, we can’t look to technological utopianism to cure the world’s problems; “just add data” is not a recipe for social progress, Nathan added. Data itself isn’t neutral; it is political, it is embodied, it directly references humanity. So instead of letting tech companies (and their founders) craft their version of technology-fuelled utopia, we have to reclaim the digital spaces as our own, because after all, the internet is real.
Next up, Ash Koosha, an Iranian futurist, electronic music composer, record producer and film director, took to the stage to discuss human cognition in the Internet Age and how technological advances can revolutionise music into a multi-sensory experience. Having always played around with computers as a child, he begun investigating the aesthetics of these devices; their sounds, images and interactivity.
Years later, now a fully-fledged musician, Ash explored how he could go beyond sound to be stimulated. By this point, VR technology had developed, and by breaking down sounds, extracting their data and generating worlds in response, Ash was able to unify the audio with the visual, creating a multi-sensory virtual experience, and most importantly understanding musical pieces as environments.
This new medium points the way to how other things can be developed, too (what else can we extract data from to feed into a generative visual system?), but Ash was also keen to point out how computers are not only broadening our capacity for new experiences but are also, in a sense, an extension of our minds. While there are ethical questions to discuss here, there’s no doubt that technology’s capacity to augment our cognition is a vital tool to prototyping all manner of creative possibilities.
Monika Bielskyte & Christian Cherene
Before closing the session we had a panel discussion led by Fabien Siouffi, founder of Fabbula, a VR publication, featuring Monika Bielskyte, creative director and spaceworlds designer, and Christian Cherene, artist and researcher, part of the BeAnotherLab collective.
Tired of VR being something that disconnects us from the world, Monika wants the technology to move towards creating possible spaces of real empathy, to expand the human potential and connect us beyond boundaries and borders. Likewise, we can’t reserve creating these spaces just for the privileged, noted Monika: “creativity is everywhere!”
This ethos is also at the heart of BeAnotherLab’s work. Christian shared how, on starting out, the collective sought to recontextualise VR in an artistic context. This led to The Machine To Be Another, a performative experience featuring a VR headset, immersive sound and actors for tactile feedback, which allows participants to embody another person’s experience.
BeAnotherLab have taken the technology all over the world, exploring themes of gender, race, disability, poverty and community. As Christian said, “it’s not so much about the technology but about using [it] to bring people back to a human connection.” As Monika highlighted, BeAnotherLab show that just because VR is early-stage technology doesn’t mean you can’t create meaningful experiences with it.
Later, Fabien quoted philosopher Donna Haraway: “It matters what stories make worlds and what worlds make stories”. It’s a phrase, which summarises both the challenges and opportunities for VR. “Making worlds is not innocuous”, Fabien added, “it always means something”. This is the invitation, then: what stories do we want to tell? What worlds do we want to build?
Jasmina Tešanović & Bruce Sterling
Our closing act for the weekend came from political activist and filmmaker Jasmina Tešanović and science fiction author Bruce Sterling. As wife and husband, hailing from Belgrade and Austin, respectively, they had to decide how they wanted to live (culturally), which led them to found their own planned living project Casa Jasmina, a Torino-based lab, gallery space and guest house championing an open-source Internet of Things.
While literally building a home on stage, the lovely couple shared the story behind their crazy and utopian experiment of making a ‘future home’ out of a ruin in Torino, and their desire to embed the local open-source and maker movements throughout.
Bruce shared how this ‘home of the future’ grew to be a rejection of the stereotypical, corporate, dirt-free house (rather than home) that has come to typify the Internet of Things (IoT), and has since been recognised by many galleries and museums all over the world.
Another crucial part of the process was having Jasmina and other women leading the process. She pointed out that often women aren’t involved in IoT, which leads to their perspective being lost. In this line here’s a fragment of her ‘Internet of Women Things manifesto’:
No users but people, no geeks but persons: and the ideal categories of our homely concern should be the elderly and children. That first category, we ourselves are all becoming someday. The elderly need help in our world, where youth is becoming rare and care is hard to buy. The second category are the young in the home, the innocents entering our polluted planet with its wreck of an old economic system. What experiences will children have in an Internet-of-Things home?
While big tech companies, which Bruce explained are just the big railway companies of the day, will continue to lead the industry, small-scale interventions like Casa Jasmina are important to developing an alternative IoT and therefore a critical design narrative.
They closed the event by saying this about utopias:
“you should never trust one without an expiration date. You gotta have an exit strategy from a utopia. You have to have utopia in permanent beta.”
After exploring the futures of arts, museums, galleries, work, automation, collaboration, identity, borders, activism, branding, advertising, learning, media, virtual reality and reality itself, during IAM Weekend 17 (you can watch all the videos here btw) and 2017, we experienced once again that randomness is better when shared IRL.
From that randomness we have been cultivating since 2015 more and better questions have been emerging. And after dedicating a year to explore collectively “The Renaissance of Utopias”, we now have more questions than answers and a better understanding of the mysterious beauty of IRL. It is all about the L (Life) not the R (Real).
And thinking about life beyond singular future-narratives, binary mindsets and the toxicity of dualisms will help us imagine, invent and build better futures, because as Nathan said,
“Reality has always been augmented”
Now it is time to deal with the contradictions, collisions and coexistence of realities, and the next 7 years with our 2018 research theme: The Subversion of Paradoxes.
Do you remember the futures? 🍩 😋