Improving Reality

Much as I enjoyed myself in Tennessee, it was shame to miss some of the Brighton Digital Festival events that were going on at the same time. I missed Barcamp and Flash On The Beach. But since getting back I’ve been making up for lost time, soaking up the geek comedy at The Caroline of Brunswick last Wednesday with Robin Ince and Helen Keen.

I also went along to the Improving Reality conference on Friday, which turned out to be an excellent event.

The title was deliberately contentious, inviting a Slavin-shaped spectre to loom over the proceedings after he closed dConstruct with his excellent talk, Reality is Plenty wherein he placed his boot on the head of Augmented Reality, carefully pointed his rhetorical gun at its temple and repeatedly pulled the trigger.

But AR was just one of the items on the menu at Improving Reality. The day was split into three parts, each of them expertly curated: Digital Art, Cinema and Gaming. In spite of this clear delineation of topics there were a number of overlapping themes.

I’m somewhat biased but I couldn’t help but notice the influence of science fiction in all the different strands. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Science fiction sets expectations for technology and culture …and I don’t just mean flying cars and jetpacks.

Mind you, this is something that cinema has always done. Matt Adams from Blast Theory asked:

How many romantic kisses had you seen before you had your first romantic kiss?

Or, on a more pedestrian level, everyone in the UK knows what an American yellow school bus is, even though they’ll probably never see one. It’s part of a pre-established world that needs no explanation. In the same way, science fiction is pre-establishing a strange world that we already inhabit.

José Luis de Vicente took us on a tour of some of this world’s stranger corners. He pointed us to the deserted Mongolian city of Ordos, a perfectly Ballardian location.

We also heard about the Tower of David in Venezuela. Intended as a high-rise centre of commerce but bankrupted before completion, it is now the world’s tallest favela.

It reminds me of William Gibson’s bridge.

It isn’t hard to draw parallels between Gibson’s Spook Country and the locative art presented at Improving Reality like Julian Oliver’s mischievous creation The Artvertiser.

He describes his work as “jamming with reality”—much like Mark Shepard’s Sentient Cities

But Julian Oliver is at pains to point out that that it’s not just about messing with people’s heads. He’s attempting to point out the points of control that might otherwise go unquestioned. There’s also an important third step to his process:

  1. Identify the points of control in the infrastructure.
  2. Hack it.
  3. Show how it was done.

This stands in stark contrast to the kind of future that Aral outlined in his energetic presentation. He is striving for a world where technology is smooth and seamless, where an infrastructure of control is acceptable as long as the user experience is excellent. It’s Apple’s App Store today; it’s the starship in Wall·E tomorrow (or possibly the Starship Opryland)—a future where convenience triumphs over inquisitiveness.

As Marshall McLuhan put it “there is no augmentation without an amputation.” In Charles Stross’s Accelerando that is literally true: when the main character—exactly the kind of superhuman cyborg that Aral envisions—has his augmentation stolen, he is effectively mentally and socially retarded.

Julian Oliver’s battle against a convenient but complacent future is clearly shown with Newstweek where William Gibson, Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick collide in a project that skirts around the edges of morality and legality, hijacking wifi connections and altering news headlines for the lulz.

Then there’s Blast Theory’s current work on the streets of Brighton, A Machine To See With. It’s ostensibly another locative art piece but it may have more in common with a cinematic work like David Fincher’s The Game.

It’s all part of a long tradition of attempting to break down the barrier between the audience and the performance, a tradition that continues with the immersive theatre of Punchdrunk. This reminds me of the ractives in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a form of entertainment so immersive that when a troupe attempt to perform a traditional theatrical piece, they run into problems:

The hard part was indoctrinating the audience; unless they were theatre buffs, they always wanted to run up on stage and interact, which upset the whole thing.

It’s a complete inversion of the infamous premier by the Lumière brothers of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat where, so the myth goes, the audience ran from the theatre in terror.

It’s probably a completely apocryphal story. But as the representative from Time’s Up said at Improving Reality: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Stories were at the heart of the gaming section of Improving reality. Stored In A Bank Vault, which is currently running in Brighton, was presented as part of PARN: Physical and Alternate Reality Narratives. These are stories where the player is empowered to become the narrator.

Incidentally, it was refreshing to hear how much contempt the game designers like Tassos Stevens held for the exploitationware of “gamification”—a dehumanising topic that was explored in Stross’s superbly damning .

There were plenty of good stories in the middle section of Improving Reality too, which began with a look at the past, present and future of cinema from Matt Hanson. Matt’s own remarkable work A Swarm Of Angels bears a striking similarity to “the footage” in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition—both are infused with a spirit of .

The subject of film funding is currently a hot topic and it’s unsurprising to see that much of the experimentation in this area can be found in sci-fi endeavours such as Iron Sky and The Cosmonaut.

Micropatronage can be very impowering. Where once we were defined (and perhaps judged) by the films we chose to watch and the books we chose to read, now we can define ourselves by the films and books we choose to fund. Instead of judging me by my what’s on my bookshelf or my Last.fm profile, judge me by my Kickstarter profile. Kickstarter is one of those genuinely disruptive uses of the network that’s enabling real creativity and originality to come to the surface in projects like Adrian Hon’s A History Of The Future In 100 Objects.

This change in how we think about funding feels like the second part of a revolution. The first part was changing how we think about distribution.

Jamie King, director of Steal This Film, hammered home just how powerful Moore’s Law has been for film, music and anything else that can be digitised. Extrapolating the trend, he pointed to the year 2028 as the media singularity, when it will cost $5 to store every film ever made on a device that fits in your pocket. He evocatively described this as the moment when “the cloud settles at street level.”

It’s here, at the point where anything can be copied, where the old and new worlds clash head on in the battle for the artificial construct that has been so inaccurately labeled “intellectual property”.

Once again we were shown two potential futures; one of chaos and one of control:

  1. There’s the peer-to-peer future precipitated by Bit Torrent and Pirate Bay where anyone is free to share their hopes and dreams with the entire world …but where no distinction is drawn between a creative work of art and a hate-filled racist polemic.

  2. Then there’s the centralised future of the iPad, a future where people will gladly pay money to climb into a beautifully designed jail cell. You can have whatever you want …as long as it has been pre-approved. So you won’t, for example, ever be able to play Phone Story.

This second future—where your general-purpose computing device is broken—promises to put the genie back in the bottle and reverse the disruptive revolution in distribution and funding.

Thinking about it, it’s no surprise that payment systems are undergoing the same upheavals as distribution systems. After all, money is just another form of information that can be reduced to bits.

The much tougher problem is with atoms.

Until recently this was entirely the domain of science fiction—the post-singularity futures of replicators and . But even here, with the rise of 3D thing printing, our science fictional future is becoming more evenly distributed in the present.

Improving Reality closed with a talk from Alice Taylor wherein she demoed the work being done at Makie Lab:

We’re making a new kind of toy: customisable, 3D-printed, locally made, and internet-enabled.

A year ago, this was a work of fiction by Alice’s husband. Now it’s becoming reality.

Just as Makie Lab envision a game that’s an infinite loop between the network and the physical world, I think we’ll continue to see an infinite loop between science fiction and reality.

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