Here’s the talk I wrote for Open Platform’s “A Random Process” experiment at Sheffield Access Space’s “Do It Anyway” festival, this weekend. It’s basically a development of my lightening talk for Future Everything. There were a handful of presenters/performers going up for ten minutes each, and you could do anything, as long as it involved standing on a small wooden palette. I used it as a soapbox. Well, you know me.
Old people, who can make clothes, fix cars and build furniture, think young people are good at technology because they can click on a picture.
Technology is something which helps you get from A to B more efficiently, or effectively. It has everything to do with relationships, and communication, and imagination, and very little to do with shareability – or indeed, electricity.
I’m the Ringmaster of Hack Circus, a weird, immersive publication and live show with the mantra ‘fantasy technology and everyday magic’, that has been described as ‘Make magazine meets the Fortean Times’. We receive messages from the future, develop sentient machines, debate whether reality is an illusion and occasionally send our audiences into space.
I also produce art works with retro technology, and have written two and a half humour books, including a fantasy choose-your-own-adventure novel for grown-ups and a guide to mysteries and magic in modern life.
Technology and magic are close cousins, but not in the way that people think. Everybody knows the quote about suffienciently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, but in my opinion, contemporary consumer technology isn’t mysterious enough. It’s a magic mirror, desperate to disappear itself, but all it offers us is what we want to see. As our humble servants, devices, laptops, pieces of kit we encounter in our daily lives are losing what little capacity they had to surprise us, as they become increasingly ubiquitous, increasingly servile, and increasingly mute.
A glimpse behind the curtain is a rare joy – the Windows loading screen proudly displayed on a broken cash machine ironically presents a more fantastical moment than the generic graphics it, and thousands like it, are supposed to run. Surely it’s time to reintroduce the wonderful and delightfully deceptive back into tech, to empower it to be unpredictable and useless – to make it interesting to us, again.
And we can do this through engaging technology with fantasy. My last show, in March, was an immersive, musical, Journey to the Centre of the Earth-type adventure – where the audience brought torches and sang along, and expert talks were woven into our surreal plot involving a demonic seafood cult and a personified volcano. I want to take people on adventures, in the same way that I feel I’m taken on adventures whenever everything around me, including technology, is excitingly repurposed by someone’s imagination.
But although adventure always follows it, for me, fantasy was never an escape. In fact it’s more like a confrontation – it’s a light coming on; making everything sharper and more real. Growing up, it propelled me further through the ordinary world, a vibrant guide, offering a translation service – opportunities to understand things I’d have had no comprehension of otherwise. Nor is fantasy some exotic visitor, but a constant mediator already deep inside our own head, whose job it is to create analogies that fuel enthusiasm. When all the doors are closed, fantasy flies in on a unicorn.
It stimulates excitement and by finding contexts, it projects relevance that suddenly brightens things which might be otherwise be dull.
Like social media.
Now, social media is GREAT – it allows us to be creative, it gives a profile to us and our causes and connects and empowers in many ways. But it comes at a price, and this price is underexplored, because there are so many people invested in ‘doing a social’, and many of them have huge amounts of clout and not a great deal of integrity.
Fantasy does its best work when there is a little air around something, but the more that power is granted to a few big players, the more this oxygen is being snuffed out for everybody else.
In the digital technology world, for example, where there is only one search engine, and every pixel is a potential retail opportunity, we find many creative decisions have already been made in a kind of creepy optimisation of humans.
Trends have been identified, social groups have delineated, acceptable ways to talk and even play have been decreed from above.
Hacking was the first thing to go – a few years ago organisations ran hack days to promote innovation, relationships and resourceful use of ignored data. Now, some big companies are charging technologists and designers to take part in hack days to try to build stuff out of the company’s own data and promote their causes. Within two years, some O’Reilly Maker faires I’ve been involved with have gone from paying attendees to charging them for stands. In the same time, art/tech residencies have gone from open-ended and experimental to draconian and pragmatic.
There is a strong case that artists, proponents of the emotional, fantastical, connective and not immediately economically useful, are being squeezed out by the overwhelming corporate pressures governing everything technological.
Back when we had nothing but a flashing cursor and blank screen to work with, back before everything was made to be shared, before we all ‘worked for Google’ we had a very different experience of tech – and of fantasy.
Fantasy was subject matter and the method. We were the sorcerors; stories and possibilities flowed from our fingertips. We made things out of nothing and often not with any particular audience in mind. We indulged ourselves in near-solitary hobbies with much more satisfying motivations than money – and without the pressure of a global audience, we relaxed into our work.
And this relaxation; this relating of our work to ourselves, intuitively and personally, is where the seeds of great creativity are sown. It is very, very difficult to create anything good unless you’re enjoying yourself, and from what I’ve seen, for everyone but the most pathological, this satisfaction doesn’t come from accruing masses of money or a gigantic audience. It has far more to do with relating to your work – seeing yourself in it – and understanding it.
So again, fantastical projects are connectors: they connect you to your intuitive needs and drives, they connect other people on a basic, sometimes childlike, often primal level that can elude even language.
Fantasy is the non-linguistic undercurrent of joy that makes us want to make, and this creative drive is the same irrational push we find in those who simply can’t help but puppeteer technology, taking it off on wonderful adventures. It’s a fine line of course, between a passion and an obsession, and enslavement to fantasy can result in madness.
Suppression of it however, is useful, efficient…and terribly sad.
Please: trust the mediating power of the magical to provide solutions, and believe in your own abilities to visualise – to fantasise.