Futures? An interview with Sophia Al-Maria

After the interviews of Warren Ellis and Bruce Sterling for my book about the disappearance of "big futures", design fictions, the role of science-fiction, etc. here's the discussion with Sophia Al-Maria on Gulf Futurism:

Nicolas Nova: Gulf Futurism, as I understand it, corresponds to a clash between traditions and modernity in the Gulf, related with the pervasive influence of various sorts of technologies (smartphone, camera, networks among others). What makes it unique (considering other places experienced a similar influence)?

Sophia Al-Maria: My original thinking around Gulf Futurism as an umbrella term for a wide array of things happening to the people and the places around me was to do with the quiet tragedy occurring. People were losing freedoms and a grip on reality. They were narritivizing a history that never really happened. I guess I was also reading a lot of Baudrillard at the time and it all made sense, this sort of exodus from reality into something climate controlled and out of touch with ‘nature’ and truth. There was/is  an abdication of control to circumstance. An easy adoption of technology is also key. When I was 16 for a girl to have a mobile was shameful. Now my 12 year old sister has an ipad but barely enough to eat every day from the rations divvied out between 14 people in a on-salary household. The focus is totally upended. Survival = being on the next level. Not sustaining your body.

NN: How do you see the situation evolving in the coming years (because of social/political/technological change)? Do you see this kind of aesthetic evolving?

SAM: I’m wary of aesthetics. They are a distraction. And seem to be everywhere these days. Maybe that’s why I’m not a very good visual artist. Of course there are people forging an ‘aesthetic’ out of the cultural specifics of the region. See the GCC collective.

NN: How does this notion of Gulf Futurism translate into everyday life/culture in the Gulf? (I'm thinking about music, visual arts, everyday products, packaging)

SAM: The mall is the stage for the transitions taking place and so the most important symbol of Gulf Futurism next to the mobile phone.

I think there is a global alienation becoming clear in the sort of hyper-refined and homogenated corporate omni-presence. There was a charming sort of … amateurism – maybe that’s the wrong word but – yeah- something unperfect in local products or at the very least a cultural specificity in imports like Miswak toothpaste from India or dairy from Saudi which is almost gone. Now it’s the mallmentia effect. I can’t tell if I’m in Hong Kong or LA or Dubai half the time I walk into a mall and that happens more and more these days because the mall is the dominant structure of a certain class group of which I am part. I literally find myself in malls whether on holiday or on my way home from work or on a weekend even and I am frequently confused as to how I even got there. It’s a place of weird pilgrimage in an era where to consume is to absolve yourself.

Joyce Nelson compared the mannequins in store fronts to statues of saints and apostles at the entrance of a cathedral and the  changing room to a confession booth in her 1991 essay The Temple of Fashion and I think it’s true. An insidious evangelism has taken place without us knowing.

I observe this in the Gulf but it’s happening globally. Perhaps it’s more visible in the Gulf due to obvious cultural signifiers. And the darkness of things like segregation and the ‘public’ space of a mall becoming changeable.

futNN: Why "Futurism"? What's the future component of these phenomena?

Originally I threw that word out there because of the speed. The acceleration with which money has forced us to change, the speed of the hideous youth-in-car crash which is a daily sight. Bodies in the road. Casualties from our tiny local population lie on the side of the road in my daily commutes, thrown through their windshields, indifferent. There is a really bleak nihilism in youth culture. Also, I was thinking about the sort of basic concepts of ‘futurism’ in the classical sense before I had truly understood how dead the future is. I’ve gone through the process of grieving the ‘future’ as the 20th century imagined it. The Gulf is just a location where it experienced a brief flurry of possibility.

SAM: I'm generally intrigued by how cultural trends influence people's representation of the future. This is why I'm curious about Gulf Futurism. I wonder: how do you think such aesthetic and cultural phenomenon can be important or relevant for Westerners (let's assume there is such thing as "Western people")?

Assuming that, I think whatever aesthetic one might align with an idea of Gulf Futurism is again, a culturally non-specific one. A corporate one. An isolated one. A shiny, glitzy version of the dystopia rising elsewhere. Here you don’t have to experience suffering. It will be regulated, medicated etc. You don’t have to see the grist of the mill, they will be hidden as is the case with labor in the region. That’s not to say there isn’t a cultural stamp of Arabness on this. But I find it to be much more to do with corporate culture and aspirations and very occasionnally what shards are left of the failed utopic dream of pan-Arabism which sometimes rears its head in the Gulf in strange places.

"Computational journalism"

This idiom is new to me but I guess it makes sense these days. It's also an event ("symposium") with a live coverage here. The material in there is impressive and curious, see for yourself:

"Journalists and computer scientists increasingly are working together to develop innovative methods of reporting and telling news stories. Consider:

Why do I blog this? Im polishing a manuscript on algorithms and cultural production, which is strangely orthogonal to this set of examples.

"How you can hack your blood pressure implant to provide fake and healthy data to an insurance company"

Intriguing:

"how biomedical data sent wirelessly from a human body, might be re-appropriated by services other than the remote healthcare. This discussion about data monitoring was developed in Nelly Ben Hayoun’s project Cathy the Hacker. Hayoun designed props and made short films documenting “how you can hack your blood pressure implant” to provide fake, healthy data to an insurance company that is monitoring the fictional Cathy’s lifestyle in order to make decisions on the premium she should pay on her health insurance. Through an interview and follow up conversations with Murphy, Hayoun devised hacks which included attaching a sensor to an energetic pet cat, in order to generate a surrogate data set, while “The closing spin cycle of the washing machine also does a good job”

Find in: Kerridge, T. (2009). Does speculative design contribute to public engagement of science and technology? Proceedings of Swiss Design Network Symposium‘09, Lugano.

Why do I blog this? A good example of a phenomenon that may or may not happen in the near future.

Futures? a short interview with Warren Ellis

Few weeks ago I published a new book about the kind of topic we deal with at the Near Future Laboratory: the disappearance of "big futures", design fictions, the role of science-fiction, etc. The book is only in French, but some of the interviews I've conducted when preparing it are in English (I translated some of them in the book itself). In the next few days, I'm going to publish this material here on the blog. Some interviews are pretty short, others are longer but they are quite insightful.

The first one features Warren Ellis, the English author of comics, novels, and television.

NN : If the future is dead, if we didn’t get the future that we were promised, it does not mean that the present, the here and now isn’t curious. In a talk you gave few years ago at Improving Reality in Brighton, you coined the term "sci-fi condition", what did you mean by that?

WE : I don’t know if I coined it, to be honest.  But I think it’s important to look at the present moment with clear eyes and understand the wonder of a contemporary context where we can see the glass lakes of Titan and satellites orbiting the sun can report to our phones.  Or even that several thousand years of developing communication technology means that I can type this right now and you’ll see it in seconds.  We tend not to see it.  We’re conditioned to see the present moment as "normal," with all the banality that implies.  This is not a banal moment.  It’s the sort of intense, chaotic moment, full of strange things, that we previously only found in science fiction.  "Right now" feels like all of science fiction happening at once, and needs to be considered in that context -- that  we’re living in that promised world of miracles and wonder, and that we’ve been trained by the culture not to see it.

NN : What kinds of situations/examples/technologies do you have in mind to refer to this awkward condition?

Sometimes it’s the things that seem simplest.  Networked maps on phones.  If you’re in the Western world and in a context of relatively low-level privilege, you will never be lost again.  You could draw up your own list of things that would seem completely alien to someone from 1984.  Or things that would simply seem science-fictional, like public internet kiosks.  

NN : In this context, what’s the importance of science-fiction according to you?

WE : In lab-testing the potential pressures of all possible futures.  And in universalising the poetry of science, which is the machinery of the world.

 

Algorithms+reverse engineering

Everyone interested in software studies and research about algorithms should read this piece by Nick Seaver called "On reverse engineering: Looking for the cultural work of engineers". Based on TheAtlantic's investigation of Netflix's tagging system, the author discusses the consequences of reverse engineering for how we think about the cultural lives of engineers.

Some excerpts that attracted my attention:

"reverse engineering, as both a descriptor and a research strategy, misses the things engineers do that do not fit into conventional ideas about engineering. In the ongoing mixture of culture and technology, reverse engineering sticks too closely to the idealized vision of technical work. Because it assumes engineers care strictly about functionality and efficiency, it is not very good at telling stories about accidents, interpretations, and arbitrary choices. It assumes that cultural objects or practices (like movies or engineering) can be reduced to singular, universally-intelligible logics. It takes corporate spokespeople at their word when they claim that there was a straight line from conception to execution. [...] The risk of reverse engineering is that we come to imagine that the only things worth knowing about companies like Netflix are the technical details hidden behind the curtain. In my own research, I argue that the cultural lives and imaginations of the people behind the curtain are as important, if not more, for understanding how these systems come to exist and function as they do. Moreover, these details are not generally considered corporate secrets, so they are accessible if we look for them. Not everything worth knowing has been actively hidden, and transparency can conceal as much as it reveals."

Why do I blog this? Because it's an interesting argument and practical recommendation for researchers working on such topics. Being interested in the interplay between technical constraints and cultural/imaginary elements, I quite appreciate the point Seaver makes here.

"a Pop-Up Sensor Nail Salon"

"The Future of Wearable Services: A Proposal for a Pop-Up Sensor Nail Salon" is an intriguing design studio project conducted by Kristina Ortega at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, in the Media Design Practices program. It addresses the adoption of wearables, which shouldn't rely on a "one size fits all" approach as "context and specificity matter". Such starting point led the team to focus on nail art and how to embed sensors into layers of a gel manicure.

Useless Wearables (Photo: Kristina Ortega)

Useless Wearables (Photo: Kristina Ortega)

The website described the process they adopted:

For the first part of the lab we designed wearables with the idea that they would be "useless". This was our first version of our nail service, which we called "ritual nail". We experimented with form, 3D printing cats with LEDs embedded in them and embedding a nano pixel into the nail. [...] After our first round of making we decided to take a research trip to a nail art salon. While we were there we were fascinated by the process and negotiation that took place between the technician and the client. We really discovered the place of the service in the process. What would technicians look like in a electronically embedded salon service? The process of making prototypes, some with "sensor extensions" others made extremely brittle from the z corp 3D plaster printer. [...] We tested out five sensored options during a workshop/ user test [...] After user testing our early prototypes we decided that our project wasn't so much about the electronics embedded into nails, but more about the new services that will grow out of the need for wearables that can be specific and customizable. The new question is: who are the technicians in a new electronic fully customizable salon? We stopped looking for a solution and started looking for scenarios.

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Why do I blog this? The topic (wearables) and the way it's addressed via nail art is interesting. I take the project as a relevant counterpart to lots of boring-and-utilitarian products or prototypes. Plus, the design process (with the useless-to-useful move) is curious, and somehow typical as an assignment.