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Week 9 Digital Futures

Space may be the final frontier but it’s made in a Hollywood basement

Californication – Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Our focus in this instalment of Digital Geographies is the future. We will explore the ways in which ideas, predictions and aims for the future are and have been figured in relation to digital technologies. We will focus on the technologies, practices and sites of digital futures. In particular our objective is to investigate three particular aspects of the future and the digital:

  1. The ways digital technologies are bound up with ideas about a/the future 
  2. Who claims, represents and contests futures of/for our digital lives
  3. When and where a/the digital future is positioned and represented

Introduction

Sometimes, if not frequently, when people talk about technologies they are talking about their idealised form. A significant part of that idealisation is casting towards a future in which those technologies, or their successors, exist. Expectations are set, promises inferred if not actually made. Many technologies are sold on the basis of these expectations – you will live the life depicted in the adverts if you buy the product.

Futures are sometimes invoked to demonstrate that a company or institution has ‘vision’. The company may be trusted because they have a compelling vision of an optimistic or exciting future. In the 1980s Apple famously invoked George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 in order to claim they offered an alternative.In the 1990s Microsoft, almost rhetorically, asked “Where do you want to go today?” and Orange stated: “the future’s bright, the future’s orange” (later becoming EE in a merger with T-mobile).

Fictional depictions of technologies, frequently in a ‘future’, are sometimes the result of collaborations between scientists, engineers and filmmakers. Those apparently fictional technologies can, as a result, influence actual technological development and societal expectations of what is desirable or possible. It is perhaps easy to be dismissive of popular culture as neither important or serious. Yet much of the ways in which our collective understanding of what technologies, especially digital technologies can or should do comes from or is articulated in fiction. For example, the original Star Trek television series is, arguably, responsible for the automatic sliding door. Likewise, the popular cultural significance of the series ‘Black Mirror’ in the recent past demonstrates the appetite for fictional representations through which we can make sense of the role of technology in our lives. Whilst the phenomenon of technological expectations being set through popular culture is not new, it has perhaps become intensified with digital media. 

In the two sections for this instalment of Digital Geographies and their associated tasks, we will explore how the future has been addressed, claimed and (re)imagined for and with the digital.

1. Determined to Sell

Welcome to the first section of this instalment of digital geographies. We will be focusing upon the ways in which advertising and marketing are important to how what we expect from our technologies. We will chart the historical context of grand visions of the future that we have been invited to believe will be made possible by new technologies. We will also think about the ways in which this is tied to longer-term arguments around ‘technological determinism’.

Throughout the late 19th century and into the latter part of the 20th century, grand visions of what was going to be soon possible based upon the technologies large corporations wanted to sell us were offered at expositions. Beginning with the London Great Exhibition, the benefits of industrialisation and ‘modern’ technology were celebrated and acclaimed to the populations of the wealthier countries through expositions. The most significant of these were the North American World’s Fairs, especially either side of the second World War as the US became a dominant supper power. The large American corporations offered visions of how they were ‘building the world of tomorrow, which was, for example, the theme of the 1939 World’s Fair. More recently, the contemporary ‘World Expo’ equivalent, Expo 2020 in Dubai had as its theme ‘Connecting minds Creating the Future’.

At the 1939 World’s Fair, General Motors presented an exhibit and ‘ride’, called ‘Futurama’, to demonstrate what they argued was a possible model for the future 20 years hence, with automated motorways, called ‘magic motorways’, semi-autonomous vehicles, farms of artificially produced crops, flying cars (of course!) and a range of gadgets that might appear either familiar or ridiculous to us now. Regardless of the ‘accuracy’ of the predictions, what is significant about ‘futurama’ and many other events and exhibitions like it is that they are emblematic of an influential industrial imagination.

“Futurama”

In the wider rationales of understanding ‘progress’ and how technological development is tied to the world getting ‘better’, or worse, we often invoke ‘ages’, eras or ‘revolutions’. You meed only think of the ‘stone age’, ‘bronze age’, or ‘information age’; or the ‘industrial revolution’ as examples. In many ways this is the form of justificatory technological determinism Sally Wyatt has articulated. Technologies are, with hindsight, asserted as the key element in a particular historical development, or they are proposed as the driving motivation for prospective change. An emblematic theorisation of this version of historical progress was proposed by the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev.

Kondratiev wave theory

In Kondratiev’s model of history the modern world economy functioned in cycles or waves of prosperity-recession-depression-improvement. Each wave is largely the result of the introduction, success and then reliance upon or redundancy of a particular technology, such as the steam engine, or the internal combustion engine. Technology is the driver of historical ‘progress’ in this theory. Technology is thus thought to determine how society functions. Such technological determinism has proven influential. We now have theories of ‘disruption’ proposed by economists and management consultants – new ‘disruptive’ technologies, that break the status quo and change society, are proposed as necessary to ongoing (capitalist) prosperity. Langdon Winner (1977) provided two hypotheses for this theory:

  1. The technology of a given society is a fundamental influencer of the various ways in which a society exists
  2. Changes in technology are the primary and most important source that leads to change in the society

Technological determinism may be comforting in some respects. There is a quality of certainty to theories of determinism that allow us to point at certain events or phenomena and assert their cause. From television and obesity to violence and videogames, causal links and moral panics have been constructed around the various negative influences associated with technologies. However, this certainty can also be harmful. It can be used as an excuse. For example, in the United States, gun regulation was not the public controversy following the Columbine school shooting – violent videogames was the controversy. Determinisms can over-simplify. Simple stories can elide messy realities. Even so, we should not simply dismiss those simple stories. Determinism can be the logic that drives some people’s arguments to attempt to direct changes. Likewise, it is, as Wyatt argues, a ‘heuristic for organising accounts of technological change’ (2008: 176). Ultimately, technological determinism is a key part of public debates where technology is articulated as somehow ‘opaque and beyond political intervention or control’ (ibid.).

There are varying timescales used by companies through which to plan their business. Some timeframes are pragmatic – they are the milestones and objectives of planning product lines, manufacturing, testing and marketing the next iteration of products. Some timeframes are ambitious, they are an attempt to ‘break in’ to a new market or to capture an existing market with something novel. The canonical relatively recent example is, of course, Apple’s iPhone. Finally, some timescales used by companies are aspirational or speculative. These are the positing of future products, possible future technologies, in experiments, prototype or fiction. Companies rarely articulate the pragmatic timeframes, though we have become somewhat used to the annual releases of products at global events such as the Consumer Electronics Show, an international convention held annually in Las Vegas, or Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. However we often see the presentation of speculative timescales of ‘prototype’ and ‘vision’, whether in the shape of an exposition, in forms of artistic representation and more recently perhaps through tie-ins with movies and videogames.

There is a significant lineage of artistic depictions of possible futures in advertising and promotional materials for industrial corporations. There is also a significant exchange of aesthetics and ideas between the entertainment and technology industries.  For example, the artist Syd Mead created influential artistic representations of aspirational designs for cars, buildings and other products in promotional books, catalogues magazines for Ford, US Steel and Atlas Cement. He went on to design elements of influential science fiction films such as Star Trek: The Motion PictureBlade RunnerTron and Aliens.

Syd Mead for US Steel, 1961.

There is a visual language, drawing from and expanding upon the work of industrial artists and designers, such as Mead, that has become a part of wider understandings of digital technologies. A further example of this aesthetic exchange is the 1993 AT&T “You Will” advertising campaign. Directed by David Fincher, who went on to direct Alien 3 and The Social Network, the adverts presented a scenario of an apparent future beginning with a question: “have you ever…” and ended with the phrase “You will. And the company that will bring to you: AT&T”.

In this first part of our discussion about digital futures we have thought about the role of ideas about progress and how they can be tied to technology development. We focussed in particular on the ways in which depictions of possible futures are used by companies to claim ‘vision’ and to attempt to direct change in particular directions. We used ideas about ‘technological determinism’ to think about why this matters.

Summary and Live recording

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