I just got out of EMERGE, a design futures event put on by ASU that brought together artists, scientists, writers, hackers, designers, futurists and other maniacs to reflect on what kind of future(s) we want to live in, and then over the course of three days, try and make those futures by any and all available means. I was an ethnographer for that event, which means that it's my job to translate the ephemeral lived experience of attending EMERGE into recorded data. This is my first draft.
I'm sitting in the cavernous Stauffer Flex Space, balancing a large black notebook, iPad, and coffee. Our rows of black chairs are dwarfed by the height of the hall, strange and hulking objects are shrouded in shadows along the walls. The conference organizers mingle in the space between the front row and the minimalist dais. I can see Bruce Sterling. The attendees are settling into their seats; My fingers poised in anticipation, ready to take notes and live tweet the event.
Cynthia Selin gets up and introduces the conference. Our goal is foresight through design and story-telling to achieve a more sustainable and equitable future. "Stop being a passive consumer of technology and make the future."
13 ASU researchers take the stage to present their research. Topics include: sustainability and interest in K-8 education; biological computer chips that scan antibodies in the blood to diagnosis a full spectrum of diseases; algae into oil, plastic, and everything else; telekinetic cyborg-monkeys; DARPA's transhuman super-soldier program; video games that enable socially transformative and empowering play; social networks that reflexively aim to minimize ecological impact; democratically governing technology; and sensor networks that autonomously seek meaningful knowledge. Bruce Sterling pronounces the morning "The weirdest set of presentations I've ever seen."
I'm listening to a speaker who sounds like a cross between the Borg and Cave Johnson from Portal. Life is good. #emerge2012asu— Katja (@buildcyberworld) March 1, 2012
Bruce Sterling takes the stage. After a brief introduction on multidisciplinary, and how scientists and artists talk past each other, asking "What is here that I can use/be entertained by?" rather than "What is actually going on here?" He launches into what he thinks about design fiction. Design fiction is a diagetic prototype. It's a way to use our love of gadgets and our ability to discuss objects/services to move avoid ideological debates. Design fiction is a hack to avoid political paralysis.
Most objects in history have been imaginary, but in the past only elites like Big Auto and AT&T could really do exploratory prototyping like concept cars or Disney EPCOT. In a networked society, prototypes are accessible to anybody, they are public. Design fictions crystallize techno-social potentials by showing them in a human context.
Sterling branches off to science-fiction for a moment. Writing scifi about a phenomenon classifies that phenomenon as scifi. The fact that we think of it as scifi is burdenson (like those telekinetic cyborg monkeys, the DARPA super-soldiers, and the practice of what actually happens in those labs). The big question in science-fiction is now "Does the girl kiss the vampire?" because Paranormal Romance sells book. The demands of the publishing industry have pulled the genre's teeth.
Back to art, design, and science. All our creative disciplines use the same hardware now. Boundaries are corroded. We're spread all over the landscape. Everything is awesome, nothing is interesting, but we can prevail. The idea is to turn speculation into coherent traces, to make it approachable. EMERGE is something that no scifi movie could make happen.
Maria Bezaitis takes the stage. She's a senior ethnographer at Intel. Intel actually has quite a lot of ethnographers because they want to know how people use their chips so that they can keep selling them over deep time. But understanding people isn't enough, because the big actors are all hybrids now ((shades of Latour's monsters, cyborgs, and post-humans)). Corporations have invented people, and they are ugly. We need to figure out what our point-of-view on people is, we need to make it explicit, so that we can get something beyond the standard Facebook/Google/Gamer/User.
According to Maria, Big Data is going to dominate the future. Digitization is well into the process of disappearing our things into the cloud. Digital objects are mobile narrative devices. We all make things now, the digital traces that are left behind whenever we interact with a computer, but we do not yet know who owns these traces. The entrepreneurs of the future will need this data, it is the core input to their economy. Thinking in terms of data privacy or piracy is wrong; it boxes up data and perpetuates monopolies. We need to move forward.
I agree with Maria entirely about the future of information. It's just that I don't know anybody who is ready for a world where our digital traces have become an autonomous persona that is essentially beyond our grasp, because as the product of many interactions and systems, it is too rich and full to be deleted, even by us. We like the State/Police having a monopoly on privacy, because mostly they use that monopoly responsibly, and when they don't the ACLU knows where to find them. Corporations like monopolies on their IP because it allows them to make money and stay in business. If both of these concepts are obsolete, we are in for a fundamentally strange and terrifying future.
"Prototypes are very disruptive because they are easily appropriable."
— Maria Bezaitis
Brian David Johnson, the leader of the workshop on Science Fiction Prototyping is late to the conference because he is arriving from Seoul via Portland. I have voluenteered to pick him up since A) I have a fast car, B) I want to interview him before the workshop, C) I cannot very well ethnograph a workshop that is not taking place. So while the rest of the group is touring an Intel exhibit on steampunk futures, I am navigating the Ballardian labyrinth of the Sky Harbor access roads, weaving and forth between the monumental plinths of the terminals and horrid American sedans and SUVs driven by semi-senile senior citizens. I tell Johnson as much on the phone as he retrieves his luggage. "That Ballard reference--this is going to be the start of an interesting friendship." Indeed.
The workshop and day 3 of the conference deserve their own posts, so I will not include them here. Let it just be known that they were awesome, and I now need to finish my story about a neuropharmaceutical hacker and an investigator from the CDC trying to reach some understanding of trust and the public good in a world where research has outpaced regulation.
And now to sleep, perchance to dream of electric sheep.