Lighthouse's artistic director Juha van 't Zelfde, host of this year's event. Image by Roberta Matis.
Lighthouse's artistic director Juha van 't Zelfde, host of this year's event. Image by Roberta Matis.

"The most mind-bending and mind-expanding conference at Brighton Digital Festival."

22 September 2014

Blogger Adam Englebright gets to grips with algorithms, 'un-monasteries' and forensic architecture at Improving Reality, Brighton Dome Studio, September 4.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan gives 'one of the day's most inventive talks'. Image by Roberta Matis.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan gives 'one of the day's most inventive talks'. Image by Roberta Matis.

Re-posted from

A question from the floor. Something about algorithmic interpretations of truth? I can’t quite hear, and it’s sounding a bit like one of those questions which is prefaced by an essay to demonstrate how smart the asker is. Maybe that’s unfair? An answer from the stage: Algorithms can circumvent ethical/legal guidelines about what’s allowed. You’re not allowed to ethnically profile people applying for credit cards, for instance, but you can use algorithms to find sneaky ways around it. Hmm. I look away for a second to tell an inquisitive comrade on Facebook what I’m doing. I look back, and they’re talking about whether computers can recognise (or understand) embarrassment. The discussion moves quickly here at Improving Reality, a one-day conference now in its fourth year from digital culture agency Lighthouse and part of the Brighton Digital Festival, this year bearing the subtitle “Visibility Is A Trap”.

Improving Reality is my favourite of the ‘big conference week’ conferences. More focused than Reasons To Be Creative, more intimate than dConstruct (though they’re both great too), it creates, for a few hours on a Thursday afternoon, a superbly stimulating intellectual environment. There’s also some top Twitter chat on the #ireality hashtag, particularly that concerning the tricky-to-access but tremendously rewarding mezzanine stream.

I was, as seems to be becoming semi-habitual, late, meaning that I missed the introduction, and jumped straight into the first session, “The Coming Of Immediacy”. Thankfully, I only missed half of the first talk – John Armitage, talking about the telephone as an extension of the US State, referring to it as the “terrorphone”. Nathan Jurgenson was next, with a talk that explored the panoptic nature of social media, with reference to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, wherefrom derived the conference’s sub-titular phrase. Nadia El-Imam of Edgeryders closed out the session, looking at how monasteries were able to thrive, why they’ve lasted so long and what we can learn from them – with specific discussion of the Unmonastery project.

After lunch we reconvened for “The Aesthetics of Disappearance”, which focused on art, in contrast to the previous session’s more tech slant. Jananne Al-Ani kicked off with a discussion of the way that photography and visual representation influences perception of landscapes and locations – one of the more striking images of the day was her showing how similar arial photographs of archeological sites looked to buildings in war-torn regions. One of the day’s most inventive talks followed, with Lawrence Abu Hamdan exploring the relationship between sound, speech and law with reference to Druze theology and a principle of Shia Islamic jurisprudence that’s quite hard to grasp and even harder to transliterate. He also had (in the best possible way) the most gimmicky talk, making interesting use of what looked to me like a guitar effects pedal.The session’s closer was probably the darkest moment in the day, as Susan Schuppli from Forensic Architecture showed videos (which can be watched here) that explained how they were able to make deductions about drone strikes using computer models and reconstruction from photographs.

The final session, which was a bit more of a show-and-tell than the previous two, was “The Experience of Visibility”, and had only two segments – Daniel van der Velden of design/research studio Metahaven, with his short film City Rising, and Holly Herndon with the music video for her song about the NSA, produced in association with Metahaven.

Once again a thoroughly invigorating way to spend an afternoon, Improving Reality remains, for my money, the most mind-bending and -expanding conference at the Brighton Digital Festival, and I’d encourage anyone who sounds even vaguely interested in this stuff to go along next year…



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