Back to the (Virtual) Future
“Mathematicians, likewise, have decided that the smooth, geometric model of reality they have used since Euclid first drew a triangle on papyrus is obsolete. Instead, using computers, they churn out psychedelic paisley patterns which they claim more accurately reflect the nature of existence. And who appears to be taking all this in first? The kids dancing to electronic music at underground clubs. And the conclusion they have all seemed to reach is that reality itself is up for grabs. It can be dreamt up.” — Douglass Rushkoff, Cyberia
This, from the introduction to Rushkoff’s seminal thesis on the “trenches of cyberspace”, effectively prefaced a series of unique and influential conferences which took place at the University of Warwick, England in 1994, 1995 and 1996. The conferences were titled “Virtual Futures”. Cyberia was published in the year of the first event, and the idea that a burgeoning cyberpunk generation was rapidly congealing on the “fringe” of society, a society otherwise plagued by ‘Generation X’, was crucial both to the status of Rushkoff’s text and the existence of Virtual Futures.
Dan O’Hara, one of the graduate students in 1995 who had helped conceive the conferences in the first place, had been inspired by the progressive teaching within the Philosophy department at Warwick. In the mid-90s, the department owed a lot of its energy to lecturer Nick Land, who later formed the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, also based at Warwick. Under Land’s supervision, O’Hara and his similarly enthused friends constructed a series of conferences which sought to explore the vanguards of cyberculture, ravish attendees with the anti-capitalist ideology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and — most powerfully of all — lay claim to a set of potential futures which would signify the advancement of mankind as a species existing not just in biological spaces, but virtual ones.
There was a palpable, explicit sense that the students and academics who constituted Virtual Futures were seizing an opportunity to grip on to the edge of a prospected moment in time. They were trying to make a hyperspatial jump into the next dimension, and the notion that the future would be weird was crucial. That weirdness, punctuated appropriately with psychedelic drugs and techno music, afforded the visionaries a voice. In retrospect, O’Hara highlighted the mission of the original conferences, and the publicity fever which surrounded the 1995 event, thus: “Much of the publicity we did beforehand was […] letting people know
that what was going to happen was not just a dry academic conference but some kind of chaotic freak show.” Hysteria duly materialised as fascinated articles in the national press about the “cyber-seers” and the “futurists” converging on Warwick for one mad weekend of argument, ideas and virtual reality.
Of all the speakers, it was probably Australian performance artist Stelarc who best captured the essence of “VF”. At the time, Stelarc had connected himself up to the internet via a series of electrical stimulators which were themselves attached to his arm. Through the intangible medium of cyberspace, an individual on the other side of the world could ‘program’ Stelarc’s muscle movements and deliver electric shocks to the limb in question. “We’re profoundly obsolete in the technological terrain that we’ve created,” noted Stelarc in 1995 during his address, “All of a sudden the body finds itself in an immense extra-terrestrial space.”
Back then, the internet was still in relative obscurity. The idea that the general public would have to get used to keyboards and mice en masse was seen as absurd, and when one Virtual Futures speaker suggested that soon it would be possible to order a pizza online, he was laughed at. The pace of change, of course, was exactly what the Virtual Futurists wanted to stress, and that is why many of the predictions made at those conferences were so accurate. They tapped in to the reality of the world wide web, and the individuals who had begun to colonize it and experiment with their bodies and identities through it. Transhumanism and indeed antihumanism were in circulation, and consequently it was the devices and networks which promised to transform the human species, exploding the boundaries of imagination, which were the most desired, the most futuristic. As Stelarc said at the time: “Technology always functions with the body […] always redefining it and now, possibly, redesigning it.”
It is both fortunate and appropriate that a kind of ‘fast-forward button’ for Virtual Futures was created this year, after 15 years of Virtual silence, by a young student at the University of Warwick called Luke Robert Mason. Mason had heard about the mid-1990s events, which had become something of an almost-forgotten legend on campus. With the internet now so firmly entrenched in mainstream culture, he sought to resurrect Virtual Futures for the digital generation and explore the archived dreams of their cyberpunk forbears. In an age when the social impact of the net seemed impossibly broad, but also disruptive and unsatisfying, Mason saw an opportunity to return to the future of 1995. It was a chance to investigate potential answers to the question which formed the basis of many talks at this year’s “Virtual Futures 2.0”. That is, “What happened to our future?”
In an article for the university’s online knowledge center (note the upcoming irony), Mason wrote of how Virtual Futures 2.0 would be an opportunity to pierce the vast, rolling virtuality which has claimed all but the totality of Western culture. “The revival,” he stated, “aims to help attendees see beyond the abstraction. After all, when you are ‘surfing’ the net – let’s not forget that you are actually slamming a couple of keys which sends machine code through wires.”
The enthusiasm behind methods of truly re-connecting with physical, bodily reality and discovering new ways of more richly augmenting the human experience, was central to the best talks at Virtual Futures 2.0. Many were obsessed with unravelling the electronic idealism of 1995, though this caused unexpected frustration among certain attendees who complained silently, via Twitter, “When are we going to hear about the future?” We were hearing instead, for the moment, about past futures. The disgruntled audience in members should have known that what was really being demonstrated here was the fact that there is no such thing as the future, there are only potential futures whose fragility is often overlooked. If this conference was about anything, it was about realising that fact in the harsh light of a present which had failed to live up to many expectations. Virtual Futures 2.0 was about how “the” future is the greatest science fiction of all, and how methods of controlling our approach to it really, seriously matter.
Speakers who bemoaned the banality of the digital generation abounded. Techno-skepticism seemed (at first oddly) in vogue at Virtual Futures 2.0. A former PR guru who had quit everything to become a graphic designer, artist and self-confessed “luddite” told us “flesh and blood interaction is the way forward!” and that “talking about new technology is better than building it.” And Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalist Realism who helped to found the Cybernetic Research Unit with Nick Land spoke urgently about technological devices which infringe upon every waking moment of our lives, turning us into “endlessly harried” droids spoon-feeding ourselves information and disappointingly inconsequential forms of interaction.
Needless to say there was much resistance to these ideas. One other speaker, when I asked him what he thought of the former PR guru, said simply, “Twat.” But I thought Mark Fisher certainly had important points to make. Two of which were that 1. It was essential to discover ways of responding to technological dissonance which weren’t simply reactionary; and 2. Our culture now seemed to subsist in an “ideological vacuum” where even the pioneering enthusiasm of the cyberfreaks had somehow failed to overturn the political and economic status quo of boom and bust capitalism. Pat Cadigan, authoress and “Queen of Cyberpunk” was perhaps the most indignant of all: “We live firmly in the surveillance society,” she said with impassioned dismay, “And we’re never going back. 1984 is a fucking gameshow!” The audience, at that point, cheered in agreement.
The pessimism of many Virtual Futures speakers could effectively be summed up like this: technology which was meant to help humans transcend their physicality, biology and individuality, while allowing for some of that transcendence to happen, had actually shown a hideous side-effect: it appeared to be making us into unimaginative, drone-like victims of a singularity which didn’t do what we thought it would. The proverbial machine turned out to be hollow. As returning keynote speaker, of all the visionaries who offered hope to the
dispossessed at Virtual Futures, it was Stelarc who best reiterated the fundamental concern at the heart of the transhumanist ideal: “What’s important is not what’s in us,” he said sagely, “but what’s between us.”
If, and this is open to debate, but if technologies which we hoped would become transcendental had actually made us narcissistic and wayward, were there better ways of progressing towards a more unified, intelligent and active humanity? Virtual Futures 2.0 offered a new hope.
The first sign of fresh avenues was glimpsed in the unglamorous but fascinating form of slime mould. Slime mould, explained Prof Ian Stewart (Mathematics, University of Warwick), could easily be appropriated to help design, for example, railway networks because the way the mould formed into a network of food tubes which distributed nutrients efficiently around its system could be mimicked by forward-thinking civil engineers. Stewart demonstrated how engineers had indeed explored, in the laboratory, methods of using slime mould for constructing information systems – even a very basic computer. “It would, however,” noted Stewart, “take years for such a computer to calculate the answer to 2+2.” But from this primordial soup of biotechnology, Virtual Futures quickly advanced to even greater aspirations.
It was TED Fellow Dr Rachel Armstrong whose energetic address entitled “Life: The Ultimate Technology” captured the imagination of the entire room. “Machines,” she began, “are not the answer to everything. They’re a subset of approaches.” Armstrong demonstrated her ideas in a compelling presentation which included a video showing the amazing properties of protocells. These are “self-assembling chemical systems without DNA” and were about as chemically complex, noted Armstrong, “as the average salad dressing.” However, their “behaviour” exhibited recognizable actions which could be identified at various points as fear, curiosity, empathy, productivity and death, and this was astounding to witness. It was on the basis of such microscopic, animate inanimate objects that Armstrong developed her idea of “living architecture”; a concept of structures which could replace existing buildings in a truly organic architectural revolution. Armstrong gestured at a future where buildings would be, by their very nature and definition, self-assembling, self-sustaining and, of course, completely benign (or indeed positive) presences within the environment. This was real green tech, almost the stuff of fantasy, except that we were equipped to believe in it thanks to the informative rigour of Armstrong’s address and the science behind her discoveries.
In addition, we heard from Prof Kevin Warwick (Cybernetics, University of Reading), the self-professed “human cyborg” who achieved fame for implanting a radio-enabled microchip in his arm back in 1998 and for subsequent body augmentation experiments which will be familiar to readers of h+, such as the development of a neural implant which could send his wife “mood signals”, however far apart they might be, via a specially designed necklace which flashed different colours depending on the neurological signals detected by Warwick’s
implant. If the professor was angry, happy or sad, his wife, miles away, could tell. This was a kind of augmented “woman’s intuition.”
These experiments were leading to genuinely revolutionary scientific discoveries and research, such as that carried out by Warwick and Prof Tipu Aziz (Neurosurgery, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford) in which deep brain stimulation therapy has dramatically reduced the effects of Parkinson’s disease in sufferers otherwise crippled by the illness. The video of a Parkinson’s victim practically, and instantly, “cured” by the simple switching on of the implant was met with amazement by the Virtual Futures audience. And it was interesting to hear that the old, cyberpunk idiosyncracies attached to this kind of science were not dead. Warwick related how his students often voluntarily have magnets inserted into their fingers by a tattoo artist who is mentioned on the necessary forms of consent handed in to university authorities. That the tattoo artist’s name is “Dr Evil”, chuckled Warwick, had often raised a few eyebrows among admin staff.
So here at last we found two futures which had something in common, now that Virtual Futures had shifted its emphasis. Cyberspace, whatever monumental impacts it had still to make on our society, seemed less enticing to the visionaries. Instead, a return to biological tampering, body augmentation, cyborgs and tangible transhumanism was the most promising and logical frontier for advancement. These futures remain virtual, but they are not the preserve of microchips and computer scientists. These futures are secreted in the most complex technology man has ever encountered: himself. They are in the chemical, not programmable, routes to those psychedelic geometric patterns glimpsed by cyberians.
Virtual Futures 2.0 succeeded for me in re-engaging with the idea of promising prospects, despite the abundance of pessimists and nostalgia for the bleak adventurism of 1990s head-banging cyberpunks. In his closing address at the conference, Prof Andy Miah (Ethics & Emerging Technologies, University of West Scotland) stated that once, “virtual reality was so attractive because it realised, in an unreal way, the possibilities of the future.” What the most compelling speakers at Virtual Futures 2.0 realised was a future that was embedded in our untapped willingness to modify the structure of our beings, our bodily existences; we were presented with a pathway to transhumanism which seemed at once relevant, possible and desirable. The future, if tentatively, was back.