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MUTEK 20 Explores Our Digital Futures

Re-examining Our Space on the Internet

Ali Eslami (ALLLESSS) presents his virtual reality art. Bruno Destombes

To close out the summer Festival season, MUTEK Montreal saw its 20th Edition run from August 20-25, bringing a suite of live audiovisual, electronic music, and performance experiences to the city.  As part of MUTEK 20, Forum IMG brought together a range of industry professionals, creatives, practitioners, and citizens engaged in digital spaces to discuss our digital futures: how to imagine art, technology, and society moving forward. This piqued our SciTech curiosity, so we took the opportunity to drop in on the keynote and several subsequent sessions. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect ñ ravers, academics, hackers, activists? Finding ourselves in the midst of all of the above, we got the chance to reflect on the intersections of science, art, tech, and activism.

Moving into a fresh year of SciTech, we want to share with you some of our favourite questions, answers, some highlights, and some stuff to check out, for if you missed the fest, if you love sci-fi, or if you’re also kind of curious about our digital futures:

What do we do when the whole entire world is ending, and we seem to no longer own the internet?

In the keynote, theorist/writer/lecturer/cyberculture critic Douglas Rushkoff wanted to remind us that we originally did own the internet ñ that its whole purpose was creativity and self-expression. That is, until, (surprise) it was recognized as a good way of holding people’s attention, and was co-opted by corporations. Not to scare us too much, but the Team Human podcast host wanted to remind us that so much of what we see online is predicated on principles of “captology” — i.e. that computers can be used as persuasive technologies. Apparently everyone in CompSci at Stanford takes a course on this. Behavioural finance, according to Rushkoff, essentially revolves around us being dependably tied to clickbait. But he also wanted to remind us that we’re all on “team human,” that establishing rapport will save us all, if we all just remember that we all have emotions. Right. Also, opening up the possibility that we can reclaim our space on the internet as its original forum for creativity and self-expression. Someone asked about how detrimental the tech and internet industry is on an environmental level and if we should really be developing further given all that. Unconfirmed.

Are we really being controlled by the internet?

Answer: yes, definitely. As Rushkoff established, spooky though it is, a lot of how we interact with the internet now is through a design intended to hold our attention. As artist/activist Bill Posters and collaborator Daniel Howe show in their art-installation “Spectre,” we are all being surveilled and manipulated in response to our previous behaviours online. As activist and hacker Paolo Cirio discusses with his project “Sociality,” there are even patents on algorithms that have the express intent of manipulating internet user behaviour one way or another (which you can report and have banned, if you want). All this to say, definitely yes — all of which points to a dire need for media and marketing literacy from all of us.

Is our basic wellbeing inextricable from being online?

Sava Saheli Singh, a postdoctoral fellow at the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University, explores this in a series of short films meditating on surveillance and its impacts. These near-future fiction pieces offer a grim look into how tied we really are to the internet, and what implications this might have. Which really made us think: can we go offline entirely? Should we? You can check out the Screening Surveillance films, entirely written, directed and starring Canadian artists, here. We had the chance to speak with Sava and get her own thoughts on digital futures, and we will be putting out that interview shortly.

Sava Saheli Singh presents her films at Studio des 7 doigts Myriam Menard


Is the dystopia coming? It feels pretty 1984 in here.

ICYMI, it’s already here. Dismissing that as fiction is useless to all of us. But as panelists on the Counter Narratives panel (writers Tim Maughan and Ingrid Burrington, VR artist Ali Eslami, and new media artist Dietrich Squinkifer) highlighted, science fiction as a tool for imagining alternate futures, iterations of our current reality, and fleshing out the interconnectedness of issues that are otherwise siloed is something writers and readers today can take great solace in.

Final Thoughts

Paradoxically, in the midst of all this talk of what to do in the case that algorithms take over entirely, conference attendees were forced to enjoy some local coffee and each other’s company as technical difficulties plagued the facility. Just in case all of us forgot that tech is fallible, and we’re not robots, there’s always space for a conversation.

All the best to all of you moving into the new school year — reach out to us if you want to join the team, go to stuff like MUTEK, and/or write for SciTech!