The Messy Edge of the Liminal Space

Tweet from @finnbrownhill about my talk, with picture of me at podium

These are my notes for a talk I gave at the Messy Edge, a conference curated by Laurence Hill as part of Brighton Digital Festival 2019, at the University of Sussex on October 18 2019.

I am become twitter, distractor of worlds
Today is about transgression
It’s about finding boundaries and then not quite crossing over.
It’s about refusing to accept that this is the best world that can be built on the foundations of the digital technologies we have come to accept as the core of the modern world.
It’s also about acknowledging just how much today’s world differs from that which underpinned the development of our current politics, philosophy, art, society, and lies beneath our assumptions about gender, race and sexuality.
Marx argued that the economic structure of society determined its social and political superstructure
Well the network is below economics, like quarks are below protons. 
And we now live in a world shaped by that network.
This has happened because sometime in the last twenty-five years the boundary between offline and online dissolved, as the sound of the dialup modem faded into history and the networked supercomputers in our pockets offered us a permanent connection to the infosphere.
It happened while we were using Netscape Navigator, ICQ, AIM, MSN Messenger, Twitter, Facebook, Sina Weibo, M-PESA, Grindr and Tinder and TikTok
At some point we found that there was a new space, and more and more of us – initially the wealthy, the privileged, the powerful – occupied it. 
We have not left, and it has grown.
And today many of us occupy the space behind the screen, beyond the world, where the edges are unclear, blurred… messy.

From Nerve to Circuit
The edge is messy because it’s where biology and technology meet, not in the rather mundane possibilities of life as a cyborg but at a much deeper level
All life relies on the same basic process as all digital technology:
The careful shepherding of electrons
There is a symmetry between
  • The screen and the world
  • The bit and the atom
  • The switch and the synapse
They are different aspects of  the two most important ways in which we use electrons:
  • The sodium-potassium pump
  • The transistor
One makes life
One makes code
One needs ATP Adenosine Triphosphate
One needs Li-on batteries
We exist in the space where electrons are not just waves and particles but create life and code
And in that space we are facing many new challenges
  • The impact of machine learning as it moves from being ‘posh heuristics’ to applied statistics to something like artificial intelligence
  • The spread of misinformation and disinformation across our social networks in ways that amplify our worst instincts
  • The toxic impact of the emergence of what Damian Walter describes as ‘functional telepathy’ in the world
  • The desire to deliver services that rely on total surveillance, from driverless cars to voice assistants to smart homes/cities/drugs (whenever you hear the word ‘smart’ you should hear ‘surveilled’…)
All underpinned by our realisation that the network we have built our modern world upon is currently incapable of effectively delivering social good.
The Internet was never designed to bear the burden it does, and like the US Consitution, it has failed in many critical ways.
The Constitution cannot halt executive corruption, has allowed companies to distort the political discourse, and is helpless against the distorted readings that make disarmining the US impossible.
And our beloved TCP/IP exposes all to unwelcome voices, makes control or effective regulation of online activity impossible, and has no protection deceit, pretence and impersonation.
Messy Edge
Today in the room we have a group of artists, activists, and academics all coming from a position of critical optimism to engage and share and inspire.
We have a group of people who haven’t chosen the easy path, the straight lines, the ways to get successful funding from organisations that don’t understand the world or how it has changed.
Each of the speakers today understands how tricksy and messy things are, and embraces the possibilities that offers rather than tries to keep it under control.
We are looking forward to hearing
  • Maya Indira Ganesh on life lived online
  • Rhiannon Armstrong on empathetic living
  • Kuchenga exploring activism
  • Emillie de Keulenaar taking on alternate knowledges
  • Nishant Shah trying to describe the infosphere
  • Carmen Weisskopf discussing the net as a new artistic medium
  • Akeelah Bertram considering how our narratives shift online
  • Catherine Allen taking on the gender gap in VR
  • And Tonya Nelson from ACE to sum up the day
They are all thinking about edge cases, about the stories that prove – in the sense of ‘test’ – the rules of the modern world, the examples that delineate the boundaries of the currently and imminently and potentially possible when such technologies are unleashed upon the world.
This is not the leading edge
Or the bleeding edge
It is the messy edge
At the boundaries
On the borderline
At the threshold of…
And instead of asking what is on the other side, of attempting to cross into a simpler space, those of us here today are comfortable in the liminal zone
It’s like the twilight zone but in full colour volumetric 3D with surround sound.
The World We Make
What we say and experience today matters because it is one of our most effective ways of shaping reality.
Each of us makes the world in our head, and we project that model of the world back on the physical reality and adapt as it breaks.  We learn the ways in which the world and our idea of the world are similar and different.
Some of the differences require us to adapt- like noticing the existence of walls, or acknowledging gravity near the earth’s surface.
Many of the differences don’t, because they have no direct mapping to the physical world
In that zone we live and co-exist with different stories and beliefs and desires. Religion and culture and love are there
Since 1969 when the Arpanet started
And 1994 when Netscape Navigator arrived
And 1998 when Google was founded
the tools available to each of us that we use to construct our internal reality have been augmented, but we haven’t  yet adapted our stories, or figured out how to understand the ways in which your world model and mine might have been shifted and become more or less compatible because of our access to the network.
We are here on the messy edge to explore that potential disconnection, to hear stories that come from inner worlds shaped by the network and compare them to our own, reshaped, voices.
This liminal zone, this new zone of engagement with its messy edges, is neither pristine nor pleasant. In it we must fight for social justice, for tolerance and dialogue, for equality and opportunity, just as we had to in the industrial world from which it grew.
Otherwise the nazis will own it.
Catherine is going to talk about one way in which the evils of the old world are being replicated in the new, and why gender equality in VR is vital.
But every day we see examples of how the old values are being allowed to shape the new space
  • Google’s recently exposed behaviour around training facial recognition
  • Microsoft’s bot that can generate fake comments on news articles
  • Amazon’s exploitation of its warehouse workers
  • Facebook’s willingness to take money from politicians to propagate lies
  • Baidu and Tencent’s complicity in China’s social credit system
  • Gordon’s Wine Bar using facial recognition on customers
And the emergence of the surveillance society
Today we celebrate
We question
We learn
We challenge
And we engage, with the  spirit of critical optimism that Laurence has asked from us
Because people built all of these new tools, and people can change them, if we don’t leave it too long and let them change us.
Some Reading
These books have been with me for many years:
Brenda Laurel: Computers as Theatre
Thanks to @finnbrownbill for the tweet and image above