11 jul 2019 – Reading time 8 min
Translating Tomorrow: Current Visions on Future Missions
In April 2018, the Dutch television programme Tegenlicht looked into the current rise of self driving cars. How will these ‘driving robots’ change our cities? Who will own these cars and their (your) data? Internet pioneer Marleen Stikker – while sitting in a cab driving through the crowded city centre of Amsterdam – was asked how self-driving cars change existing power structures. She made a clear and vocal statement: “By now, if you are still naive, you haven’t learned anything from the past twenty-five years.” Technology is not a force of nature that washes over us, it’s an expression of culture and power.
Take a look at the internet, for example. Developed in close relation to hippie communes of the 60s and 70s, it was seen as the embodiment of equality and open access. Back in the days, media theorist Marshall McLuhan called it the global village, where everybody would come together in a peaceful digital town square. Later, sociologist Manuel Castells concluded this might have been naive. Instead of a global village, he believed the digital revolution has become a casino society instead. Computer culture has transformed into a largely commercial playing field, determining the fate of many with the new power structures that arose. Our current internet – where data brokers roam free and net neutrality is something we still need to fight for – is undeniably an expression of culture and power.
For decades, artists and designers have visualized and materialized possible futures of technology. Speculative designs and stories are vital for understanding what the future might look like. They help us to think through possible scenarios and ask ourselves: is this a future we want to live in?
When thinking about the future, it is tempting to only imagine futures that are far away. We dream of exotic techno-futures, in which flying cars, colonizing Mars and living until the dawn of time spark our enthusiasm. But to actively shape the future of technology, we also have to think about the near future. Ask practical questions, about power and ownership. If we design new technologies, like care robots, self-driving cars and brain implants, who is paying for them, and with what? If we gather data in so-called smart cities, who will own and process this data? Can we talk about disruptive business models without addressing disrupting societies? How, in short, do we balance commercial, political and social benefits?
Prominent tech entrepreneurs are turning away from the, sometimes problematic, presence of their inventions today. They rather pay attention to a future where we can literally reach beyond the stars or live forever. In a way, that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a sense of optimism in being naive, or choosing to be naive. As tech-superstar Elon Musk recently tweeted: “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day.” We need to believe the future holds answers to current issues, otherwise we might lose our will to actually achieve them. However, if we want to create a future in which humans and machines complement each other in ways that serve all of humanity, we should not look away from present issues. We should instead think about how we can adjust the role technology currently plays in society. Internet critic Evgeny Morozov grabbed the bull by the horns, when he said “Celebrating innovation for its own sake is in bad taste. For technology truly to augment reality, its designers and engineers should get a better idea of the complex practices that our reality is composed of.”
Artists play a crucial role in understanding how the world works on a different level. The stories they tell – how they help us translating tomorrow – enable us to include more people in the conversation about the future of technology. As a spectator, you can switch between two perspectives. Allow yourself to be naive sometimes, dream of a bold future in which anything might be possible. But also allow yourself to understand the real-life consequences of futuristic scenarios, in terms of power, politics and ownership. In short, be both the engine and the brake in the self-driving car, be both the Musk and the Morozov. If the future truly is a casino, as Manuel Castells famously said, let artists help you understand what we as a society are placing our bets on.