TEDxMerseyside – The New Futurism

C James Fagan ponders the wisdom in debates around The New Futurism.

Around since the 80s, TED began life as a conference bringing people together from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. With a central belief in ‘ideas worth spreading’, it has broadened its scope in the intervening years, while maintaining an ethos around the sharing of new ideas. In case you’re wondering (and God knows we were), the x in this case refers to the event being organised independently of TED’s initiators, but with the aim of creating a TED-like experience – hope that clears things up.

TEDxMerseyside, held at LJMU’s Open Labs, and curated by Paul and Rachel Dunscombe, brought together the region’s innovators from the worlds of science and art. Often themed, this TEDx event focuses on ideas around The New Futurism. Now for me, Futurism was as much about embracing the terrifying pace of technological change and all the excitement and fear inherent, as much as it was thinking about any possible Future. Will this be born out in the upcoming talks? I’m about to find out.

Kicking things off, Molly Harvey’s talk is entitled Seconds Away from Outstanding Leadership. She implores people to listen to their ‘Inner SatNav’ – taking charge of your own life, becoming your own leader. Now self-empowerment has recently become highly commercialised in the fields of self-help, and the pursuit of leadership has been scrutinised as well as admired. Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test, and the research of Robert Hare, have asked us to look again at what it is that makes someone capable of leadership, and what this means in broader terms. Hmm – has Molly looked at any of this, I wonder to myself. My instinct is that she will have, but she veers well clear of that direction.

A change of gear is provided by Dr Christine Shea, who gives us a brief but fascinating look into her work into Non-Verbal Communication. How we can read micro-expressions in the face, which enable the reader a clear understanding of what is being expressed, and in turn helps us to more clearly communicate. Though this idea goes back to the likes of Aristotle and Darwin, recent advances in brain scanning technologies have given credence to the fact you can’t lie with your face. It is a short leap from Shea’s thesis to a time when certain technologies can perhaps be employed in a police cell or court-room. One feels it’s a shame Philip K Dick wasn’t around to talk.

Then there’s a screening of a TED talk from 2007 by Gever Tulley, founder of The Tinkering School where children learn to use pen knifes, play with fire and drive cars – all with supervision, I should stress. In doing so, the children gain a better understanding of themselves and their place within the world, gaining a ‘knowability’ and empowerment in understanding how and why things work. His film is certainly well named: 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do; if put into practice at least the next generation would have the skills to survive an apocalypse!

As the morning session comes to an end and we break for lunch, I try to reflect on the talks given so far and what I should learning here. I am not sure what that is. If the talks where to call my attention to a different perspective to contemporary life, I’m not sure if I’ve seen it. Yet.

“Futurism was about embracing the terrifying pace of technological change and all the excitement and fear inherent”

The afternoon gets underway with another video from TED, this time Clay Shirky: Why SOPA is a Bad Idea details why the SOPA bill will damage the internet as an arena for the expression of ideas. It’s a relevant and important talk; our ideas and the foundations of copyright law being laid down in an era that simply couldn’t have predicted the impact and ubiquity of a democratic tool such as the internet. Though whether the inclusion of these videos served to support the live speakers or highlight what was lacking, it’s difficult to say.

Liverpool Art Prize nominee Robyn Woolston presents Crossing the Line, looking at how we deal with death as individuals and widely as a society. Her honest and frank discussion about this topic starts with the death of her mother. During this time she began to photograph the empty spaces in her family home; at some point turning the camera on herself and using it as a device by which she could mediate her grief. It may be a misreading of her intentions, but this use of technology to mediate an emotional experience seems to offer the platform to create a new ‘rites of passage’ for us to deal with death, one suited to the narratives of the Facebook generation. Or perhaps it was simply an outlet, on a more personal level for Woolston; a coping mechanism that worked in those most difficult of circumstances.

Following Robyn is Caitlin Walker who speaks of the ‘clean language’ developed by David J Grove. Clean language allows people to express themselves by creating their own metaphors. It makes me remember how complex the system of language is and how little it really changes. I do wonder if creating a myriad of individual metaphorical languages would simplify things or just add to this complexity.

On the subject of changing embedded systems, Dr Karen Noble draws our attention to the lack of development in the field of child birth. Only one drug (Oxytocin) had been developed to aid child birth, this lack of development is due in part to the increased safety of the caesarean section. Dr Noble is undertaking research in the development of alternative medicines, in the hope of reducing the risk in childbirth across the world. I can’t help but feel this talk would have made more sense to come directly after one of the day’s earlier presentations – given by Selina Wallis on her experience as a Doula, or lay-midwife – serving as a counterpoint and answering some of the questions raised.

From one set of internal organs to another, in this case pig bladders. This is John O’Shea talking about his Pigs Bladder Football project, commissioned for the 2010 Abandon Normal Devices festival. Inspired by the ye olde method of making footballs from pigs bladders, he sets out to create a football from lab grown organic materials. As with earlier speaker Ashley Dale’s talk on conquering flight physics, it highlights the fact we now have the technology to imitate nature and all the promises and threats inherent in such ability.

The final live speaker of the day is Tris Brown, who invites us to take a risk by using Twitter to encourage people to make small improvements in their lives, to make life a little bit better. It’s a good natured concept, though he does irk me slightly by assuming that everyone has a Twitter account and a smartphone, of which I have neither. Inadvertently making this utopian scheme not very inclusive.

With the talks over, I can address the theme of The New Futurism. I’m not sure whether that term applies to all the talks I’ve heard today. As many of the ideas presented have their genesis in traditional ideas and thinking, the day has offered a series of ideals, ways of adjusting and improving our existing technologies rather than a radical overhaul. This is unlike the Futurist abandonment of anything old in a head-long rush to embrace the new.

Though the talks have been interesting, informative and engaging I feel that some time and space to question the speakers within the auditorium might have helped create an atmosphere of critical debate. Albeit short (each talk is limited to 18 minutes) I found that the number of talks, coming one after another, made reflecting on the idea presented within the presentations difficult. As one speaker leaves the stage, so does whatever they said.

This might be the paradox at the heart of the TED ideal: by making so much information available it runs the risk of carrying a devaluing effect. Of course it’s also up to us be selective, to somehow take this available knowledge, and apply it to our lives, to make it wisdom.

C James Fagan

Posted on 07/02/2012 by thedoublenegative