The History of Virtual Futures
THE HISTORY OF VIRTUAL FUTURES
By Luke Robert Mason (with thanks to Dr. Rachel Armstrong)
On the weekend of 18 and 19 June 2011, the Virtual Futures conference returned to Warwick. Here, organiser and Undergraduate student Luke Robert Mason explains more about the history of the event. Why did he choose to resurrect Virtual Futures 17 years after the original conference? How many of the visions for the future from past events have now become reality? Watch the video below from the original conference to find out more about the origins of this innovative event.
As digital timers embedded within machines twitched towards the stroke of midnight 1999 the world held its breath wondering what chaos would ensue in the very first second of the new millennium. Only those technologies that were created at the time of millennial angst were bestowed with mechanisms that could deal with the transition from one epoch to another. The so-called millennium ‘bug’ threatened those of us that relied on older technologies and who expected the world to literally stop counting.
Of course, the future is always virtual and many things that seem imminent or inveitable never actually happen. Fortunately our ability to survive the future is not contingent on our capacity for prediction though sometimes, on those much more rare occasions, something remarkable comes of staring the future deep in the eyes and challenging everything that it seems to promise. A role which the Virtual Futures conferences will reacquire when they are 'rebooted' this June after 15 years.
This 'extraterrestrial' environment was 'cyberspace,' better known as 'the internet.'
On a spring evening in May 1995 hundreds of people huddled together in a lecture hall at the University of Warwick for a chance to witness the Australian performance artist, Stelarc, who believed that soon we could not only take out natural organs and install improved artificial ones but also add a third hand and an extra ear. The interest this audience had in the speaker went beyond freak-show voyeurism to an actual concern with the future of their human-form. Those who had gathered together were told how their body was soon to become obsolete and it was time to question whether, "a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated; it is intimidated by the precision, speed and power of technology and it is biologically ill-equipped to cope with its new extraterrestrial environment."
This 'extraterrestrial' environment was 'cyberspace,' better known as 'the internet.' Many of the Q&A and panel sessions during the rest of this weekend were dominated by this new idea of the 'virtual,' a space that a large majority of the audience did not believe existed. It is hard to imagine now, but in the mid-90s the internet was yet to enter the public consciousness, email was used little outside of universities, web browsers were still relatively new and the idea of ordering a pizza online, as attendees were told they would be able to do, was considered ludicrous. As for the University of Warwick it had only 3,000 points of JANET access - compare that now with over 20,000 students and staff all with WiFi Hotspot access.
Surrounding this topic were a series of seemingly revolutionary statements made by many of the speakers regarding, "open systems, information systems, which would know no boundaries of law or privacy [and] there is nothing which human beings can do about it." But these seemingly absurd notions have now, in the second decade of the new millennium, become accepted truths, you only have to look at the current WikiLeaks phenomenon, the work of hacker collective, Anonymous, and more recently the Ryan Giggs Twitter debacle to see that 'information systems knowing no boundaries of law' may not have been such a ludicrous idea. Then, when we begin to look at our digitally cluttered lives: at the number of unread e-mails, at the influx of Twitter information and the always-on notification nightmare that is Facebook, it has suddenly become easy to accept that a couple of upgrades to the body and brain would not go a miss. But as VF highlighted, the irony is that in the last 15 years we have been the cultural engineers of our own obsolescence. This was posed by the 1995 theme, 'CyberEvolution' or 'a consciously driven evolution' of society led by the counter culture movement of 'cyberpunk' and encouraged by the web.
This do-it-yourself mentality that was emerging in '95 felt like a revolution. Many of the tools we use on an everyday basis are still enthused by these ideologies formed in the mid-90s. YouTube, for example, is inherently 'cyberpunk' in its formulation, after all, who needs corporate content when you can 'be' the content?
It is the overarching adoption of these technologies that is the most obvious change the 'cyber' suffixes which came to form concepts such as 'CyberNightclubs,' 'CyberLaw,' 'CyberDrugs,' and 'CyberCulture' has been dropped. The internet is part of mainstream culture, the cultural norm.
Virtual Futures was an event that aimed to frame our 'relationship' with technology as one not born of the creation of new tools but in the democratisation of old tools. The most dangerous piece of technology is not always the largest or most expensive, but instead the most low cost and highly accessible. Indeed it was the tension between corporate high-tech and the appropriation of information technologies by counter-cultures that gave birth to the concerns of the original conferences.
The internet is part of mainstream culture, the cultural norm.
Whereas the mid-90s events were about emergence and understanding of the symbiotic relationship between man and machine, this year's theme, "Digital Natives: Fear of the Flesh?" is about acceptance. Children born today are being born into an increasingly synthetic worlds of virtual interaction, virtual products (MP3s etc.) and virtual transactions. A reality that would be fitting of a William Gibson novel in which 'consensual hallucination' has overtaken and where we would happily purchase small representations of physical objects (such as albums) - a concept only aided by a shared social acceptance. The revival aims to help attendees see beyond the abstraction after all, when you are 'surfing' the net - lets not forget that you are actually slamming a couple of keys which sends machine code through wires.
When Virtual Futures returned to campus on the 18-19 June 2011, it hoped to reconnect Warwick with one of the most important intellectual and cultural developments of our times – the technological extension of the human condition. This event will enable us not only to reflect on lessons learned in the last fifteen years but, more importantly, explore new grounds and discover the potential held by advancements in society, art, politics and new technology which could conceivably 'Ctrl', 'Alt'[er], 'Enter' and perhaps even 'Delete' our bodies over the next 15.
Below is a video including footage from one of the original Virtual Futures conferences featuring Stelarc and original organiser, Dan O'Hara.
Luke Robert Mason is a digital media artist and a student at the University of Warwick.
He is currently organizing Virtual Futures 2.0, a revival of the University of Warwick's Virtual Futures conferences of the mid-90's.http://virtualfutures.co.uk.
He has recently spent a year meeting and interviewing academics, writers as part of his upcoming film ERA: Evolution, Revolution, Awakening which aims to communicate ideas surrounding the 'Future Human'.
With an interest in transhumanist aesthetics, his work explores trends in social media, augmented reality, posthumanism and digital technology.
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Childs, Mark, 1963- (2010) Learners' experience of presence in virtual worlds. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
Trostel, Philip A. (2000) Micro evidence on human capital as the engine of growth. Working Paper. University of Warwick, Department of Economics, Coventry.