Future Selves: Joe Muggs Talks To Justin Robertson

Art & Culture

Justin Robertson's new free exhibition It's Alive is currently on at The Book Club in Shoreditch, and runs until 8th July. It's the DJ/producer's third visual art show, and was conceived to "challenge the concept of the machine mind and our human desire for escapism through debatable notions of transcendence."

On 11th June, acclaimed music writer Joe Muggs will be hosting an evening called Future Selves: How Is Technology Changing Who I Am? Described as a "leftfield panel discussion" taking place in a chillout room setting, Muggs will be joined by technologist and AI expert Ben Bashford, culture writer Yomi Adegoke and leading speech communication neuroscientist Sophie Scott in order to explore what it means to be human in this era where everything is connected. Grab tickets here, and read on below for a very stimulating discussion between Joe and Justin.

JM: Hi Justin. OK, we already know why you invited me to do this chat event as part of your exhibition. You and I are constantly online discussing these kinds of topics – "Who am I? What am I? Why am I typing my thoughts into this infernal machine?" – anyway, and I think we both have a yen to take those discussions outside of social media walled gardens and out into "IRL". Break the fourth wall of the echo chamber and all that. But we've never got deep into what we actually hope to achieve have we? So… well… what DO you hope to achieve with this exhibition and associated events?

JR: It’s hard to say whether I hope to achieve anything beyond having a discussion to be honest. But I certainly think we, as a slightly uppity species, could do with thinking about our connection to the world we are thrown into, and also our relationship to the objects and devices around us. We so often presume them to be somehow ’neutral’ or inert, when in fact they direct us in many ways that we may not even be aware of. That is the philosophy lurking behind the robots, totems and swirling patterns that make up the exhibition. Without trying to sound too hifalutin, I’ve found that my art stuff only starts to make sense to me if it’s got some conceptual boots on, so I use an idea that I’m particularly interested in as a starting point. In this case it was what one might call ’Secular Animism’ alongside questions about how we felt about ourselves in the era of imagined technical utopias.

I’ve almost, but not quite, given up being a Utopian and I’m suspicious of ideas of ‘progress’ as such. I see evolution more like a drunken stagger through time. I think we’ve been sucked into a kind of Millenarian belief that we are moving towards perfection, or that we can somehow separate ourselves from our biological being and evolve into some kind of cybernetic super being. These are kind of weird Silicon Valley elite fantasies, much like cryogenics was in the '70s. Whereas we are still pretty flawed and wonky as a species and will most likely stay that way for a few thousand years, if we don’t do something daft of course. But I do believe in change, that much is certain. I also believe that we are, to some extent, free to make certain choices, so if we can examine our relationship to our environment and the things in it, maybe we can make positive changes and not blunder into oblivion? Whether we can achieve that with an exhibition and a chat is unlikely, but we will have a fine time trying. I think the key question here is to what extent do we adopt the logic of the devices we use? To what extent are they directing us and should we really care? Maybe we are just like Socrates worrying about the pernicious influence of writing? Bubble or no bubble, can we alter our relationship with the infernal machine or are we too far down the tech tunnel?

Right – there's the big question about the Future Self, and 100% what we'll be getting into in the live discussion. There's constantly this massive fear that we're going to lose our individual agency once and for all in the face of vast faceless powers and an unstoppable flow of data – and rightly so in an era when trillions of dollars can shift across continents (affecting billions of real lives) in nanoseconds, when whimsical sharing of the micro details of our lives can be turned into a powerful mechanism of control. But how much is that a new thing, and how much is it the ancient uncertainty of the fragile human brought face to face with their own powerlessness by gods, nature, empires, market forces?

As you suggest re: Socrates, every new development – from writing to the printing press to the telephone to the blockchain – has been flagged as the one that's going to render humanity inhuman or be the harbinger of chaos. And in fact, probably each of those developments HAS changed our selves irrevocably. Everyone who so much as wears woven fabric or spectacles, let alone drives a car or beams their face and voice to the other side of the world, has become cyborg: has artificially expanded their body, and thus their self. So yeah, this is what we'll talk about; that's why I've gathered together a neuroscientist, a designer of the actual technologies that are altering the way we think and communicate, and a culture writer with particular interest in how the globalised present is altering our identities, for my panel.

As we've suggested in the publicity, we're going to have a free-roaming conversation in a way that's inspired by all those late night rambling, round-the-houses chats with strangers that spontaneously happen in corners of parties, chillouts or smoking terraces. The room will be given light and sound treatment to evoke the great lost art of the chillout room, in the hope that it can be actively enjoyable, even for people who'd never consider attending a "discussion event" as such. Because, as I've written elsewhere, I still have a nagging belief that club culture has specific tools to offer The Discourse that could yet prove genuinely useful. Or am I just being a starry-eyed old rave casualty here?

As one rave casualty to another, I think you are onto something. It’s very easy to be cynical, but I do think ‘club culture’ or maybe more generally the electronic party network, does have within it something enormously positive, beyond top tunes and blinding visuals. If I can hamfistedly join the two points of technology and club culture together: I totally agree with you about our cyborg nature, ever since we whittled a stick we have been cyborgs of a sort, and we aren’t alone as a species in that respect, ants and beavers are cyborgs too, they just don’t have to put up with poor battery performance. Where we must make a choice though, is in the ‘conviviality’ of the tools we use (to nick a phrase from Ivan Illich). How much do they enhance our experiences or help us express ourselves? It’s easy to fall back into some luddite position, but i think it's harder to unpick the genuinely exciting innovations from the apocalyptically bad ideas that undoubtably spring up from time to time.

I think electronic music culture did a lot to join people with machines in a harmonious way, so your approach is spot on. I’m possibly going to stretch the point to breaking here, but I think the chill out environment is perfect for meditating on just such considerations? In ancient times shamans would seek out remote caves, bosh some mushrooms and get down to some serious rituals. Maybe caves provided the perfect acoustics for these rites? The chill out room, if it's done right, can provide a similar space, where music can hypnotise ideas out from the unconscious, or just a colossal load of nonsense depending on the dosage. Music has always accompanied rituals and ecstatic gatherings, and dance culture managed to marry technology with that need for people to gather together and share collective joy. I think it showed just how fruitful technology led music could be, when that technology is used or misused in exciting new ways. Perhaps you should wear robes?

There does seem to be an appetite for these types of events where music, thought and good times merge. Lots of great little festivals have popped up offering enlightenment along with the pingers. How do you see these types of events progressing? It could be a great way for quite separate disciplines to start talking to each other outside the stale halls of academia? I have in mind a particularly lively evening at ‘HowTheLightGetsIn’ festival where a cyberneticist, an MP, and a philosopher of consciousness were seen jacking together until the early hours. Gave me hope for some reason. Would you advocate raves at academic conferences for example?

I'd advocate raves everywhere! I mean, anything organised by academics has the potential to be quite embarrassing, but in general any gathering can be improved by the old adage, "Let's put on our Classics and have a little dance, shall we?" It's not just about the shamanic dissolution of self and rhythmic hypnosis either – sometimes the benefits are far more mundane. As you know, my wife Natasha is part of the Big Fish Little Fish organisation that runs afternoon raves for parents and kids; at these nobody is having anything stronger than a mid-afternoon can of Red Stripe – indeed you'll see plenty of Muslim and otherwise teetotal parents getting down unselfconsciously – but the sense of joyful abandon is palpable, particularly because of the diversity of people there.

This isn't something particular to post-acid house partying, and it's certainly not a hippie thing: it's a really basic principle that good music plus as diverse a bunch of people as you can get together, including all ages, taking several hours out of their routine away from expectations, hierarchies, emails and pressures, make for an enriching, refreshing experience. Lots of cultures know it, and throw parties for the whole extended family / neighbourhood at the drop of a hat. We in northern Europe tend to save it all up for weddings and Christmas, and just get trashed and fall over. But soundsystem culture, club culture, disco culture, whatever, does create an extra special, technologically enhanced, globalised framework for creating these spaces – and thanks to things like Bassiani in Tbilisi, Mina in Lisbon, Mamba Negra in São Paulo, we're seeing that even in the age of dead-eyed Trumpian EDM spectacles and table-service clubs, people still believe in and are willing to fight for a place to simply, safely mingle and escape routine. It's no coincidence that all of those are led by women and/or LGBT+ people of course: as ever since the first days of disco, the people who most need those spaces value them most.

So of course, all that goes into the pot of what we talk about when we talk about Future Selves. In the age of identity politics, can IRL interactions rewire some of the hard polarisation of identity that online seems to encourage? Can we consciously choose better formats for IRL interaction? I've noticed that even online private forums seem to be making a comeback, where people can just ease off the pressure of the global shouting match and discuss things at a more leisurely pace. It's still such a chaotic time though, when so much rests on a knife edge. We're dealing with changes as important as big as the invention of writing or farming! It's a big question but are you hopeful that we can negotiate a new etiquette for these communication channels? A new social contract, even?

Lord that’s a tough one to answer! Yes I think I am optimistic, despite my waning Utopian outlook! Everything is turbulence, and very little is certain, but we do need to make some wise choices over the coming years. One thing I think is essential, is for all of us to try and escape the kind of consequentialist mindset that is prevalent in modern discourse. The tendency to focus on outcomes and ends. This results in us losing sight of the means we use to achieve those outcomes. Perhaps we could return to quite old fashioned ideas of Virtue? Take a tip from the Tao, and start thinking about how we act?

We could start by looking at how we behave on our digital networks. We could consider how they are constructed for starters; that opaque anonymity that leads to the kind of destructive outrage culture that we see raging on platforms such as Twitter, for example, could we find more virtuous ways of constructing these sites to nurture a more compassionate interaction? Again we mustn’t be blind to how these systems are set up and how they direct our behaviour, we have choices here. Perhaps that's why, as you say, forums are back in vogue? People are fed up with polarisation and shouting, well at least some of us are! It's got us nowhere. That's the beauty of real communities of people, you can look someone in the eye and realise they aren’t really that different from you after all! Interaction makes you question how you act towards other people, it brings into focus the cliches and prejudices we all drag about with us everyday. It’s easy to become angry and berate others endlessly from a position of moral certainty, it's how social networks operate after all. In glorious isolation, or in an amorphous digital swarm, a kind of instant, drive-by, anonymous outpouring of emotion holds sway. That's why it’s important to make real connections. It’s hard sometimes to take time to reflect on how we should act towards each other, but it's much easier with good music and good conversation.

Future Selves: How Is Technology Changing Who I Am? takes place at The Book Club on Monday 11th June, £5 tickets available here.

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