Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Still Point and Virtual Futures

The Still Point Journal did an incredible job of curating an online conference on Digital Selves that I was very happy to be a part of. My keynote is below and do head to the Still Point blog for more information and to have an explore.


I also gave a short talk at a Virtual Futures Salon (check them out HERE). It'll be up on YouTube eventually, but I'll put the transcript up below. It was only the second time that I've really spoken publicly about Transhumanism, but that's absolutely the direction that my research is going to be going, further exploring the entanglement of humans and technologies through some very explicit examples of people materialising that entanglement. I'm also going to carry on discussing posthumanism and more quotidian technologies, and I'm also going to start talking more about virtual reality as I'm starting to bring the Oculus Rift and the Vive into my teaching and I have an excellent PhD student joining me in September to discuss VR and presence for three or four years. Can't wait.

Everyone’s an Expert – How Online Discussion is Shaping the Future
  • Technology for me isn’t about computers and shiny things, it’s actually about those devices that we know how to use the best and in the most interesting ways.
  • Technology isn’t a class of object, technology is an experience – when you first text on a mobile phone, or shoot a hunting bow, or drive a car, they aren’t technologies, they’re just these things that you can try and use.
  • But after you spend some time with them, and these things start to melt away, and you can just act with them without thinking, they become a part of you and how you interact with the world, then they change, how you receive them changes, and what you can do with them changes, and then they’re technologies and they start to have all of their full effects on our lives.
  • A language of hope and a language of scepticism and fear always surrounds new technologies.
  • In the mid 2000s, when the first Amazon Kindle e-reader came out, every week there was an editorial in a major newspaper about the death of reading, the death of the novel, the death of the book. There were so many fears about these new devices because reading and books feel so important, and understandably we want to get it right.
  • What really stood out to me was that the language of resistance to the Kindle started to cluster around a few ideas:
    • Electronic books don’t feel right.
    • They don’t smell right.
    • They somehow form a barrier between us and the novel.
    • They don’t seem natural.
    • They’re going to make us more stupid.

  • What’s striking about this list is that it also captures how most, maybe all new technologies are feared.
  • Right now, we’re meant to be scared of the effects of social media and the internet and videogames and Pok√©mon Go. But we’re also meant to be scared of VR and biohacking and attempts to combat aging and a whole host of other more or less transhuman things.
  • And why are we meant to be so scared? Because once again technologies are unnatural, they make us worse.
  • I have no doubt that some technologies can have bad effects, particularly in the short term, but those aren’t the technologies that we’re going to cling to and fall in love with.
  • The simple point is that we change our minds about technologies as we use them, as we get used to them, as we make them part of ourselves.
  • We make things natural, en masse and over time.
  • 85% of the world’s population has access to some kind of mobile device, and this week the New York Times argued that internet access should be a human right as it’s a requirement for any modern citizen to be engaged in politics or economic life.
  • This is the new human nature.
  • Mass discussion and mass use changes things, and that mass is most visible, coordinated, and connected online.
  • This is what makes the contemporary biohacking movement so interesting.
  • For today, I’ll just define biohacking really broadly as modifying the body with new technologies, so any kind of new implant or wearable or pharmaceutical, and I’ll even include Virtual Reality in this, because what I want to say applies to the VR community too.
  • The people that are most directly involved in this kind of research are the scientists and engineers and experienced amateurs and artists at the centre, and then there’s this periphery of interested amateurs, and then disinterested commentators.
  • And then there’s the vast majority of the population who don’t know what’s going on and will only experience the results of what these people are currently discussing and testing, but there’s always this kind of sucking inertia towards the centre, where people increasingly up their expertise and their engagement as a technology takes off.
  • What’s fascinating, the closer you get to the centre, is how distinctively 21st century it is, despite it’s parallels with earlier scientific self-experimentation and amateur discussion. There’s a specific flavour to what’s going on right now.
  • This is because discussion is mostly online or in real-world meetings arranged online, between people who most often met online, about research that is shared online, both legally through academic databases, and illegally through pirated copies of documents.
  • You have people in labs wanting the very latest equipment, ordered through online catalogues, and so then you have labs selling their old equipment to finance new purchases, which means that online auction houses like eBay have become this incredible source of nearly-new equipment for amateurs to do genuine research.
  • You also have online crowd-funded and open-sourced technologies, like Kickstarters for basic gene-editing and sequencing tools and the mass sharing of methods in blog posts.
  • And you have online forums discussing the best way to implant things into your body without anaesthetic and without corrosion, or the best areas to place electrodes on your skull to stimulate creativity or your fine motor control.
  • But you also have the established scientists watching this online amateur space that is performing activities that would never get past an official ethics board and then they’re building on that very research which is then shared or stolen back into the commons.
  • It’s not always a perfect system, but there are these emergent reciprocal research loops facilitated by all sorts of aspects of the globally networked community of biohackers which is pushing forward technological, and ethical, and regulatory progress.
  • What we see online most clearly is the shaping of demands and direct interventions into the research.
  • But more subtly, we also see the emergence of new and increasingly sophisticated languages to discuss the results amongst the very people who will always be the overwhelming majority: the users who don’t produce the tools, who can’t produce the tools, but who bring them to life and make them change everything as they become technologies, as they become natural.

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