Commodity Creatures


By Charlie Winstanley | 18 April 2014

‘Tools for Unknown Futures’ was the theme for the latest FutureEverything conference in Manchester Town HallThe famous Gothic design of the town hall ensured the event took place in a setting of traditional splendour, spliced apart by the smooth white edges of the professional FE façade jutting pristinely across the arched columns and intricate masonry. The juxtaposition provided an interesting backdrop for the conference, itself a discussion on the future, using art and the latest technology as navigational poles. The conference articulated a particular take on technology and art, from the perspective of commerce and government. Delegates heavily represented the arts sector, charitable organisations, funding organisations as well as event management companies and theatre. Naturally, a commercial interest in social networking, technological integration and market research while working along with email verification to prevent spams prevailed amongst the audience. The result was an often alienated discourse on the future, broaching important issues of confidentiality and transparency of government and data, but without establishing a progressive counterpoint or destination for our futures.

One of the first sessions, a ‘fireside chat’ featuring Emer Coleman (founder of DSRPTN), introduced a discussion on the daunting potential for prospective ‘smart cities’. Cities are soon to become ‘linked up’ entities, every amenity from bus shelters to traffic lights hooked up to the internet with constantly updated readings, times and general information.  In the UK, Transport for London (TfL) already operate programs with infinitely complex algorithms, recording the weights and speeds of pedestrians and vehicles at junctions, predicting their movements and altering waiting times at lights accordingly. Whispers of fully automated tube networks rebound around TfL’s headquarters after the untimely demise of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union bulldozer Bob Crow, whilst tracking devices hidden in a range of benign street-level objects track our personal movements and data with pings to our mobile phones.  IBM’s ‘smarter cities’ advertising predicts a constantly fluctuating future for retail; rapid turnover of increasingly niche goods in stores, “driven by unique insights about the consumer” reliant itself on extensive data mining from mobiles, web histories and records of previous purchases. IBM’s projects extend into healthcare, education, energy and utilities and public safety – in each promising a future of constant flow and measurement of data, extracted from tactile computer screens, monitors and cameras.

If an imagined future of monolithic IBM systems that compile, order and utilise infinite quantities of social data to control our living environments leaves you feeling ambivalent, an alternative model to the ‘smart city’ was proffered to the conference by former Psy-Ops officer and ‘Urbanist’ Adam Greenfield; the ‘playable’ city. New, integrated networks can be used more benignly to supply useful social information; the location of new businesses and listed events. Algorithms can be developed as sophisticated mechanisms with which to encourage participation in new and unexpected activities, create communities and subcultures but also push users to ‘interface’ in new environments. Data provided by objects and structures in a city need not be restricted to a back-room programmer’s informational interests – users themselves could constantly add data and create new and changing social priorities. Dan Williams, of Watershed, showcased the winner of their ‘Playable Cities’ award, ‘Hello Lamppost’. Lampposts in Bristol which communicate via text with passers-by, compiled stories, anecdotes, names and descriptions of their environment which they used to build up a repertoire of conversation with which to engage members of the public. Over the course of the project, the lampposts created ever more detailed knowledge of their environments and the city’s inhabitants through extended chatbot conversations, and amidst much confusion and overlap created moments of what Dan described as the ‘poetic continuum between connected objects’.

Such was a vision of technology as an echo of past human presence; an anthropomorphised and comforting voice, binding the paths of two disparate individuals through the form of an affable lamppost. This is technology used to leave traces of people in the environment, melding us with everyday objects. In his keynote speech at conference, James Bridle (creator of the ‘Drone Shadow’) noted that such anthropomorphism is a ‘meat weakness’ – a frail, emotional desire on behalf of people to see a reflection of their own experience. It gives people what they want, but doesn’t necessarily cultivate mature reflections on the reality of things. Despite existing as a humane antidote to the horrifying dystopia of IBM’s monster network, and over and above the novelty of a talking lamp, there is something sad about Hello Lamppost. It is a reminder of loneliness and atomisation, our unfulfilled yearning for real connections with people – and desperate willingness to project humanity onto the inanimate in its absence.

Both ‘visions’ are bound by the same rope. A business oriented mind is liable to perceive the world through the lens of profit, and it is a reality that our present, Western focussed economic model is constructed on a mass tertiary base; consumption in the West, to varying degrees, drives capital circulation around the globe. Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, creator of the ‘Good Night Lamp’, spoke in the penultimate session on the profligation of ‘Gonzo products’ – customisable products catered to niche interests onto which consumers can project themselves. In this, there is naturally a heavy slant towards a symbiotic human-tech link. There is a clear marketing-based desire to use technology to cultivate a new kind of individual; reflexive, curious, open and acquisitive. This is a consumer ‘animal’, licentiously ferretting between different products and services as its rapidly flitting desires direct it. The ideal is to decrease the distance between thought, purchase and use – to make the process of consumption feel organic and natural.

Themes that once would have been the bedrock of traditional sci-fi were notably absent from the conference. Space travel, new industrial materials such as grapheme, terraforming and utopian or dystopian social structures were all neglected areas of discussion. All attention was focussed on the small scale relationship between individuals and things. The consumer animal is interested in its immediate environment, an economy devoted to providing for it has certain tendencies in social investment… fewer grand scale projects, more trashy gadgets and cheap emotional tricks.

FutureEverything’s ‘visions’ of our future are very much trapped within the framework of a particular model of consumer capitalism, one which cannot see an alternative to the continuation of society other than by the profitable circulation of consumer commodities, and cannot see an alternative to technology outside of its profitable adaptation to this model. The visions are short-sighted, on two levels. On the one hand, the longevity of consumer prosperity in Western economies is far from guaranteed. As global wealth shifts East, fiscally based Western economies drain capital and resources, and new markets for global production emerge as alternatives to our historically established centres of affluence. On the other hand, the consumer animal being conjured into being is a degenerated approximation of true human potential. A wandering, shallow creature, he traverses a prison of false choices between items he has had no say in creating – and an experience which rarely transcends the confines of his immediate commodity driven environment.


Charlie Winstanley is a a director of ‘spring’, an organisation devoted to encouraging internal reflections on the state of the far left in Britain

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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