Tomorrow’s World

Future Vision: Future Cities, London School of Economics

‘One year ago, Tomorrow’s World was cancelled,’ announced Austin Williams, convenor of the one-day conference Future Vision: Future Cities. Indeed, as the knowing laughs from the audience suggested, even though the reference was to the former BBC flagship of TV Science, the implications are wider than that. As one-day conference on attitudes to risk, urban life and the future, came to a close, delegates were left to ponder where we go from here.

Martin Wright, editor in chief, Green Futures, envisioned, well, a green future. The ‘polluting, messy, noisy’ carbon-fuelled age will be replaced by the quiet and clean hydrogen-fuelled technologies, he predicted. Wright described a future characterised by greater ‘connectivity’, not just in information flows, but also with the movement of populations and the transmission of diseases. Such a globalised future would mean a greater dependence on the reserves held by politically unstable states. Thus was his vision of the future undermined by a fear of increasing threats to world peace. His demands for clean technology were as much driven by his belief that terrorists would be put of attacking a benign power source, as they were for the future of the planet.

Kevin McCullagh, director of Foresight, Seymour Powell, described Wright’s depictions of a sustainable future as a ‘barrier to innovation’. Despite this, environmentalist projections have come to the fore as the West has lost its vision of the future. It is telling, he said, that we still refer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the experimental spirit of the Sixties to conjure up a more optimistic take on what could be.

Science writer and former senior manager at the SETI Institute, Greg Klerkx was far more optimistic describing the period from the launch of sputnik (1958) to the Challenger disaster (1986) as the ‘first space age’. Perhaps routine space flights are still a fiction, but satellite communications are with us; extra-terrestrial mining may be a way off, but we can effectively track the use of earthly resources.

Jeremy Newton, chief executive, National Endowment for Science and Technology in the Arts (NESTA), on the other hand, argued that transport policy has been taken over by the heritage industry. Indeed the only transport innovation we allow ourselves is a ‘machine for reversing time’, the celebration of cutting edge 19th Century technology in the form of trams and bicycles! This presentation which challenged the accepted vision of transport was well received for its wit and whimsy. However, Williams questioned whether simply exposing the folly of a reactionary transport strategy really address the societal shift that now views cars as a problem, lauds pedestrian and decries mobility. ‘Saying that we are in favour of better modes of transport is of little impact if we are unable to challenge the climate of opinion that says that walking and cycling are more responsible means of mobility.’

For Claire Fox, director, Institute of Ideas, we have a problem not only with the future, but we are also ‘profoundly alienated from the past’. The perceived side-effects of our former self-indulgences are projected into a future where human intervention can only bring unpredictable, and more importantly, undesirable outcomes.  Opposed to the futurology exhibited by some taking part in the conference, this state of affairs amounts to paralysis, a stifling ‘presentism’.

But for Fox, the adoption of a futuristic outlook would not in itself change things. We can’t design ourselves out of the problem. Innovators are as likely as their ‘eco-worrier’ contemporaries to internalise the gloomy thinking that characterises our times. Ironically, she said, for all their rhetoric about saving the planet, ‘future generations will be ill-served’ by such anti-human apologists.

Whatever your concern, be it the future of technology, of humanity, or of the planet, it is hard to deny that the ‘vision thing’ is conspicuous by its absence, except in vacuous assertions of the need for ‘Blue Sky thinking.’ FV: FC was an important opportunity to explore what is at stake not only for the urban-dwellers of tomorrow, but for those of us in the here and now.

http://www.futurecities.org.uk/archive/arch_rev13.html

Tomorrow’s People: how 21st century technology is changing the way we think and feel

by Susan Greenfield

In Tomorrow’s People, Greenfield, renowned neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, indulges her literary ambitions to create a speculative dystopia owing much to Huxley.

In this updated Brave New World, she imagines a near-future when the likes of genetic modification, nanotechnology and cybernetics conspire to leave us in a ‘passive, sensory-laden state’. Our sci-fi imaginings, says Greenfield, tend to present a high-tech world in which we nevertheless remain human, our essential being unchanged. However, the intrusion of these 21st century sciences will alter our lives beyond recognition.

Increasingly, the physical world will itself become an interface of ‘tangible bits’ where we exchange CVs via the electro-conductive sweat of a handshake, and communicate via the e-broidery of our ‘softwear’. Augmented reality (AR) applications will turn us into cyborgs. Chip-embedded spectacles projecting a superimposed image onto the retina will be used to aid engineering design, for example, pinpointing sections for maintenance or manufacture. Perhaps a little further off, allowing parents to peer into an artificial womb and track their child’s development.

At home, the little ones will play with their ‘smart toys’, that mirror their development, as each grapples with its environment; or amuse themselves assembling a kind of sub-atomic nanotech Lego. Meanwhile, their flexi-operative parents will ‘plug-in-and-play’, their serotonin depleted brains episodically provoked to virtual ‘desk rage’, as performance stats are relayed to the virtual boss. They will socialise ‘remotely’, or be promiscuously lost in virtual sex role-play with a designer partner of their choice. All the while, the Hyperhouse, with its ‘electronic spine’ will teem with smart appliances, activated by bodily sensors adjusting ambience and functionality accordingly.

Beyond the not so private sphere, populations will diverge further as the uneven application of these technologies leads to ‘speciation’. In Greenfield’s most optimistic scenario, there will be no international development as such, but a wiring up of cottage industries, equipping ‘every village with an electronic library’! The spectre of apocalyptic bio- and cyber-terrorism will reign. We will wear air quality monitoring devices, keep the hi-tech equivalent of a gas mask in the bathroom cabinet, and our offices and homes will be equipped with sophisticated air-filtration systems.

It may already be apparent that Tomorrow’s People is ambivalent about the future. It is also profoundly anti-human in outlook. Post 9/11, Greenfield finds it ‘harder to regard the human element as a constant force for good’. But her pessimism seems more deep-rooted. For her, the self is a fragile expressive entity, and ‘the firewall of our sense of individuality’ in increasing danger of being breached – by the collective, ie. other people! In the home of the future, you’ll need a ‘real room’ retreat from the interactive noise, but will equally find the offline experience exposing and disorientating. The desire for real time stimulation will draw us to the sporting arenas and their ‘seething mass of sweaty humanity’, a frightening and distasteful prospect for Greenfield.

Greenfield’s view that ‘human nature’ has changed little since our ancestors got off all fours, bares little scrutiny. If this were the case, these new technologies might indeed by unnerving. However, the shaping of every tool since the carved animal bone has also helped to shape our minds, our environments and our social organisation. Only deaf separatists would claim that cochlear implants erode the identity of its beneficiaries – but surely this example of early cybernetics is just an extension of historical precedent.

Like any good dystopian, Greenfield captures something of our lives today and projects it into the future. We are certainly living increasingly individuated lives, alienated and fearful of each other, but technology is not making us this way. Already, she notes, some of us float in and out of a virtual world, with our hands-free mobiles, oblivious to those around us. But text messaging and virtual-dating, for example, are popular because of their distancing qualities, the antithesis of what communication technologies are ostensibly for. Instead of being understood as a means to mastering our environments, technical advance can take on a threatening mystical quality, and end up mediating our anxieties.

Greenfield is anxious that ‘text-based unambiguous knowledge’ will give way to associative hypertext. But this would be a consequence of the relativisation of knowledge, a cultural phenomenon, not a technological one. Similarly, Greenfield wonders whether ‘science has made us less accountable for our actions’. Simply put, no it hasn’t. This very sense of humans being deeply vulnerable, with little agency (a sense to which she seems to subscribe), is doing this all on its own. Consequently, the erosion of the private sphere has been underway for some time, with the intrusion of the state, not IT, being the primary driver.

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2003-03/tomorrow.htm

The Sewer King

review of ‘The Sewer King’ episode in BBC documentary series

London in 1848 was the ‘biggest, richest, most densely populated’ city on Earth. Its popoulation doubled in half a century leaving a ‘torrent in human excrement’. An outbreak of cholera was the worst seen since the Great Plague, not to mention dysentery and typhoid. There were riots in the East End as corpses overwhelmeed graveyards. By the winter of 1849, 14,000 had died. By 1853 it had returned.

The Lancet, mouthpiece of medical science, confessed to be ‘at sea in a whirlpool of conjecture’ as to the cause. For Edwin Chadwick of the Poor Law Commission, ‘all smell is disease’. Epidemiologist, John Snow, was the first to undermine the ‘miasma’ thesis, which dominated professional opinion. He found that, rahter than being a consequence of ‘bad air’, the disease was water-borne.

In 1856, as Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette (subject of this documentary, and distant relative of the director Ed Bazalgette) embarked on an ambitious project to rebuild the sewer system, at the time to do no more than disperse rainwater. His plan would mean a complex network of tunnels, with water being carried out into the Thames estuary and out to sea, employing the most powerful pumps ever – courtesy of Stevenson – to carry it into huge reservoirs.

For Bazalgette, ‘without sanitation we are little more than beasts’. But it wasn’t until 1848, against massive opposition from both his peers and the press that a Bill was passed in Parliament. This resulted in a ‘dramatic improvement in health across the metropolis’. Ironically for Bazalgette, like everybody else save Snow, water purification was secondary to eradicating the stench of sewage.

There are strking parallels between this characteristically Victorian feat of engineering and the popular reaction to it, and contemporary Britain. The sheer grandeur resulting in something we take for granted today dwarfs projects dismissed as unattainable today. The descent into rumour and prejudice by the elite said a lot about their fear of and repulsion with the masses. Indeed this seemed to drive the project more than anything. Today’s eco-fears, and our truly poisonous cynicism, only seem to put a brake on urban development.

The Donahue Sisters

C cubed, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Group: Attica Theatre Company

In this beautifully acted piece, written by Geraldine Aron, three sisters find themselves in their old playroom of an attic on hearing their father is ill.

What looks like being a parochial meander through their reminiscences is transformed as they re-enact the terrible shared secret of their childhood.

‘All for one and one for all – the Donahue sisters stick together’ takes on a malignant resonance as we learn of their sibling complicity. The inconsequential to and fro of the opening of the play is thus sent into disturbing relief.

11 to 24 August

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/edinburgh2003/family/donahue.htm

Trojan Women

Komedia Roman Eagle Lodge, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Group: Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Society

Watching Euripides’ Trojan Women brought to mind contemporary attitudes to the idea of a just war. This young cast powerfully portrayed the aftermath of the mythical end of Troy.

The women recall the ‘honourable deaths’ of their men in the face of a ferocious onslaught. The eventual sacking of the city and their being taken as slaves and concubines by the Greeks doesn’t diminish their spirit – for ‘Troy will be famous’ and ‘time will remember us’.

Tony Blair said history would judge whether he was right to wage war on Iraq. But this is in the absence of any commitment to ‘fight and die for a good cause’. Instead there was a passive opposition at best, or general indifference to the war, whatever it’s for. The moral certainty of having right on their side, of the superiority of their civilisation against the ‘barbarians’ of Greece, is at odds with our cowardly new world.

Blair, like the women of Troy, may well ask ‘where are the gods now?’

1 August to 24 August

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/edinburgh2003/war/trojanwomen.htm