Speaker Justin Pickard, Improving Reality 2013
Speaker Justin Pickard, Improving Reality 2013



September 5 2013
Studio Theatre, Brighton


Lighthouse's digital culture conference, Improving Reality, returned for a third year this September. Talks included tours through worlds that artists are growing rather than making, critical revelations of the systems and infrastructures that shape our world, and narratives of radical alternative futures. Here are the talks from Session Three - Reality Check.

Scott Smith, Farida Vis and Georgina Voss at Improving Reality 2013
Scott Smith, Farida Vis and Georgina Voss at Improving Reality 2013

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We opened the final session with an introduction by futurist Scott Smitth, who had some broad questions for speakers, audience, ‘and frankly all of us, to consider given the times we’re in.’:

“No free market, no open society, no democracy is truly fully transparent. For them to function, there is a certain amount of opacity, of black box, of immateriality, if you will. There has always been our known world, and a clear place where there be dragons.

Now, the gears, the algorithms, the processes have become the machine itself. While we were sleeping, while we were occupied with growing the network, creating connections, (and in some cases protecting our position and privilege) the machine has become its own reality, or, at best, a tool of other realities. We are happy to quantify ourselves, but don’t expect to be quantified by others. Citizenship is considered our opt-in to be measured, monitored, and watched over by infrastructure. Bridges, books and glasses increasingly have rights now, but we have fewer. We’ve ticked the box on the end user license agreement that says someone else can now own our measurements and personal geometry.

So we face a question: Is this still flat plane on which we seek to build? Or have the spikes in our spiky world become bubble-realities of their own? The so-called scandals of overreach we find so abhorrent are actually the shape of ghost infrastructure we’ve allowed to be built, its operators the defenders of a separate set of rules. Is this our world warped, or is it something else, or many other things?

Can we still own, control, manage these infrastructures, or these superstructures as they’ve become? Do we have any way of seeing into, much less tune, the formulae inside these black boxes? How do they see us? How do we render to them? Have we lost control of them, and can we ever gain a view into them?

Is all of the rhetorical discussion of innovation also now bent in service to these infrastructures? Who is going to innovate and create futures for us? Where do our reality building tools come from? What does this mean for culture? For creativity? Is it about wrestling the one reality we’ve always thought we operated under, and shaping its contours, or about trying to discover and/or the shape of new ones?"

Farida Vis – ‘How do you manage your own data?’

What does the algorithm see? In this talk Farida will take a closer look at how algorithms position us. As the researchers Kitchin and Dodge have recently suggested, algorithms tend to make themselves visible when something breaks, through visible ruptures. Farida
will examine one such recent rupture and consider the workings of algorithms as objects situated within a cultural political context – made and designed by humans. Whilst invisible most of the time, such ruptures offer important opportunities to think about how they increasingly mediate our lives and realities.

Georgina Voss – ‘How do we encourage representative innovation?’

Georgina will ask whose reality gets to be improved, in a talk entitled ‘Esoteric Content’. The British government may trumpet that ‘Innovation is Great!’ but the ways in which technologies come into being are shaped and skewed by powerful social and economic forces. This talk moves between the ‘bacon-wrapped economy’ of the Bay Area, the structure of venture capitalists’ social networks, ‘picking winners’ in energy policy, and illegitimate hedonising technologies to explore which realities are being opened up and which will be shut down.

Paula Le Dieu – ‘How do we help people tell their own story?’

We are faced with a constant set of questions about our role in this new networked era. Do we simply continue as consumers or passive audiences as others shape our civic, cultural and economic lives? Or do we make the most of the affordances of the technology and par- ticipate? Paula will use her work over the last 15 years to illustrate models of open culture and will highlight some of the risks our exist- ing cultural institutions face as a new generation emerges expecting “quotable culture”.

Justin Pickard – ‘Who knows best when creating new technology?’

What does it take to leave a lasting dent in the world? With an eye to the next 10-15 years, Justin’s talk will take a closer look at some current and ongoing attempts to “improve reality” on a global scale. Between the billionaire philanthropist and the subsistence farmer with access to a shared smartphone, who gets to decide what counts as ‘improvement’? Is technology ever the answer? What kind of technology? Whose voices count? And what, if anything, can we usefully say about what happens next?

Moderator Scott Smith led the discussion on literacy, transparency, and the problems with open-source. How do we get past a cycle of solutionism, where it’s very easy to resolve to the plan in the box? How do we put the people back in?

Improving Reality 2013 was part of Brighton Digital Festival 2013. It is run by members of Brighton’s arts and digital communities, administered by Wired Sussex in association with Lighthouse and supported by Arts Council England and Brighton & Hove City Council.

With thanks to Brighton Festival and Dome.

Improving Reality



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