Things will appear the same – unless you know how to look

New technologies are changing our world and artists can help show us how

When asked what the future would look like, the Finnish author and mathematician Hannu Rajaniemi said: “Things will appear the same – unless you know how to look.”

This might seem like a trivial statement, but in fact it embodies one of the biggest challenges that we face when navigating the future – that is, how to look.

My job as Artistic Director at Lighthouse is all about trying to show that digital culture is about more than just tools and gadgets – it’s about perceiving the societal transformations being brought about by technology. As an organisation, we think a lot about what exactly our digital world is, how it’s made, and where it is.

It seems to us that the more heavily encoded our world becomes, the harder it is to read. Our technologised society is becoming opaque.  As technology becomes more ubiquitous and our relationship with digital devices ever more seamless, our technical infrastructure seems to be increasingly intangible.

We now refer to the vast server-banks that store our personal data as ‘the Cloud’. This has become a very pervasive – and I would say misleading – metaphor. That is perfectly summarised by the fact that a survey last year revealed that 51% of Americans think that bad weather affects cloud computing.

All that is solid…

But all that is solid has not melted into air. On the contrary – our digital world is very much bricks and mortar. It is made up of immense physical infrastructure, such as Google and Amazon’s colossal data centres.

These are real buildings with a clear and visible footprint, not ethereal manifestations in the air. It is enabled by thousands of miles of submarine cables – that quintessential 19th century technology – that transport data from one building to another, one continent to the next.

We unquestionably rely on this infrastructure for the communication and information that helps us orientate ourselves in the world. But we are dangerously unaware of how it works. We can’t even see it – it is invisible. And as China Miéville says: “Something invisible in the landscape is just landscape. The point of invisibility is to fail.”

Seeing the digital world for what it is – tangible, material, and made by us – is the first step. But we also have to learn how to describe it, how to read it. The most effective explorers of that world, the people we work with at Lighthouse – media artists, critical engineers and speculative designers – are giving us tactics, tools and prisms that can make this world more legible.

Profound transformations

And they are going further. They are making work with the new materials of the post-digital age: synthetic biology, nanotechnology and 3D printing.

In the past couple of years alone, Ars Electronica, the world’s biggest media art festival, has awarded prizes to artists making solar powered 3D printers; paintings with nanotechnology; radio stations made of bacteria; and sailing drones that collect oil from spills.

These works embody the dominant social, political and environmental issues of the near future. And we can begin to see this play out on a grand scale outside the arena of art too. The European Space Agency and architect Norman Foster recently announced plans to build a new 3D printed moonbase constructed entirely of moondust.

If you’re not looking closely at that space, as Hannu Rajaniemi has warned us, things may appear to be the same as they are now. But there are profound and lasting transformations that are ripping through everything from manufacturing to medicine to food to shopping.

So as a sector, but also as a society, we must take Rajaniemi’s words to heart. We must learn how to look.

This is the edited text of a talk for the Digital R&D for the Arts Forum, Manchester, delivered on 6 February 2013.

[Image: Submarine cable map depicting 244 cable systems that are currently active or due to enter service by 2014. Courtesy of TeleGeography]

About Honor Harger

Honor Harger is a curator from New Zealand who has a particular interest in science and technology. She is currently Artistic Director of Lighthouse, a digital culture agency in Brighton, UK. Lighthouse works at the intersection of the art, film and the digital creative industry sectors, producing exhibitions, events, films and education projects that show how important artists and filmmakers are in a changing media landscape.

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