Cyborgs, smart leotards, and the info-pocalypse
Tomorrow and Beyond panel track
Now it's serious.
Programmers, artists, and high tech professionals met at this year's South by Southwest Interactive to talk about what lies ahead for our techno-society, and to come to a better understanding of our increasingly muddy relationship with our high tech progeny. The panel discussions, dubbed "Tomorrow and Beyond" by the people who name these things, often treated the future of technology and the future of society as one issue -- one very, very complicated issue.
Case in point: Napster. Some experts predicted that it would be the downfall of the music industry, and others predicted that a musical renaissance would follow. Who's right? Everybody is!
So how do we deal with this complexity? The approaches adopted by the SXSW panelists range from pragmatic to out-of-this world. If certain aspects of technology are threatening to our social fabric, posit some panelists, then we should do something about it -- volunteer, help a nonprofit organization, read to children, do something to build community. And if you can use tech skills to further the cause, all the better.
Panelist Brad Fitzpatrick started Livejournal.com as a way for he and his friends to keep up with one another. He created a program that allows users to post daily journal entries on his Web site. Instead of picking up the phone or running down the block, friends log on to the site to check out each other's journal entries. The site has grown exponentially, now providing personal journal space for almost half a million web-savvy diarists -- but the site still serves its original purpose. "It started with just me and three or four of my intimate friends, so we went from about 20 hits a day to 6-8 million hits a day," says Fitzpatrick.
Other panelists seek to understand their relationships with technology through art and performance. Dancer/panelist Yacov Sharir and the Automated Body Project have created a wearable suit that allows a dancer to project a visual cyber-model of her/himself while dancing. The goal, to integrate technology and the body in performance, seems ripe with potential. However, it doesn't seem like the old-fashioned leotard will be going away anytime soon. The current version of the motion capture suit looks like something from the set of Brazil, with tangles of wires, glowing things, and a laptop dangling precariously off the front.
A more extreme experiment that examines the effect of integrating technology with the human body was presented via live streaming video by engineer/artist Steve Mann. Mann is, quite simply, trying to become a cyborg. He has mediated his experience of the world outside his front door through the use of a wearable computer for the past 22 years. The most up-to-date model involves a pair of sunglasses. One of the lenses is a screen that shows a video image of what Mann would see if he weren't wearing the sunglasses. Mann's project is equal parts technological innovation and social satire. "We're all cyborgs," says Mann, "because we wear shoes and clothing and we've adapted to experiencing the world in this way."
A lot of genies have been uncorked over the past several decades, and in general the prevailing attitude at the conference was that we're stuck with the technological monsters we've created, and we need to learn to deal with that. But others say that might not necessarily be the case. The last panel of the conference concerned superworms, viruses that can be transmitted to millions of networked computers in anywhere from 30 seconds to 15 minutes. These viruses have the potential to bring the entire Internet to a crashing halt. According to the panel, one person could do it, and it might not even be that difficult.
Conclusions of the experts? There are many, but the truth is nobody really knows where we're headed. Nobody has all the answers, and nobody even seems to be asking all the right questions. At least the Internet lets us communicate about these things, and maybe someday, in some unfashionable chat room, amid an eruption of smiley emoticons, everything will suddenly become clear.
And just then a power-drunk 16-year-old script kiddie will send out a superworm and bring on the info-pocalypse, sending us back to square one. For now, it seems, our best bet is to keep questioning.