Future Landscapes is an intensive four-week, full-time workshop created in conjunction with the School of Machines, Making and Make-Believe and Galway 2020. This is the first in a series of posts by participants who reflect on their experience with the programme.
Jim King is a PhD student at the CASSCS (College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Celtic Studies) School of Education.
The course began on May 7 and the participants, about fifteen in total, this writer included, are invited to explore (among other themes as the weeks progress) the tensions that arise as boundaries—epistemological, ontological, even—between ‘the virtual’ and ‘the real’ dissolve. A simulated environment that one can enter and fully immerse oneself at will is a recurring science fiction dream, perhaps; but the technology in its nascent form has arrived; and is very real. The aim of the workshop is to allow participants to develop the skills to explore the use of immersive technologies, such as Virtual and Augmented Reality, within the context of ‘landscape’, both seen and unseen. (For everyone knows what a ‘landscape is, right? But traditional labels and classifications—ways of seeing and doing things, even—are not encouraged! And despite some initial, epistemologically well-entrenched reservations on the part of this participant, at least, this approach works.)
The recognition that change is inevitable is nothing new. Heraclitus of Ephesus (530-470 BC)—a good starting point for anyone concerned with change in life—reminded his audience that life is analogous to a river: the peaks and troughs, pits and swirls, are all part of the ride; so it’s better to ‘go with the flow’ rather than to resist it; and perhaps even to try and enjoy it eventually, as wild as the ride may be. In a modern sense, the inevitability of change—and particularly in the digital realm—is the result of momentum: the momentum of an ongoing technological shift governed by large-scale trends of disruption and re-imagination; the forces that imagined, created and shaped digital technologies over the past thirty years, or so, since the initial technological convergence between communication and computation in the early 1980s, will continue to expand and consolidate in the next thirty. And globally.
Not all of this change will be welcomed, and established human endeavours will topple because old models, and old ways of doing things, will simply no longer work: entire occupations will disappear, together with some livelihoods; and new occupations will be imagined—prosperity will be distributed unequally, even more than it is now. The continuation, pace and scope of these changes will challenge current legal assumptions and established legal boundaries—a potential hurdle for the law-abiding or uninformed. By its nature, digital network technology creates challenges for international, ‘physical’ borders because it is by its very nature borderless; there will be tension, and not a little confusion, in addition to incredible social and personal benefits.
Toward the end of the first week of the workshop, some of these benefits, in a notional sense at least, were becoming apparent; and being explored using rudimentary, practical tools. But the potential is limitless; for example, the creation of immersive experiences, related to social or political landscapes, is already being established through a way of proceeding known as ‘World Building’—in short: the design of immersive, multi-dimensional ‘story worlds’ for individuals, industries and institutions; and at a level of detail only made possible by the intersection of emergent technologies and experiential media; limited only by one’s own imagination or resources. ‘High-agency’ activity will, it seems, attain ever newer heights.
But it’s not all utopian visions of an enhanced future. And the workshop also explores and considers some dystopic eventualities. One downside is that societies are evolving and changing so fast that our collective ability to invent new things—and new ways of doing things—outpaces the rate at which we can ‘civilise’ them. (It’s been contended that at the current pace of development, it takes about a decade, or so, after a technology appears, to develop a social consensus on what it means, and what etiquette, or laws, we need to ‘regulate’ it.) Some may advocate for a pushing- back in order to stop the encroachment of this technology; to prohibit it, or deny it, or make it hard to use or gain access to. But change as we have all seen and experienced is, and has always been, the pivotal axis of the world. Moreover, applied technology provides the catalyst that was, perhaps, sought by the alchemists of old—in the sense that every significant change in our lives today comes through a technology of some sort, in itself a base, material form: the lead; and, of course, not always for the better—the much sought-after gold. As with knowledge and learning, it’s really the eventual application that counts.
For this participant, an essential element of the Future Landscapes workshop is being encouraged to think about the roots of digital change—to understand it, and not just to use it, and to adapt a vigilant, eyes-wide-open form of embrace: to work with these emerging technologies, rather than struggle against them. (And hats off to workshop facilitators Ms. Rachel Uwa and Mr. Anrick Bregman in this regard.) For example, virtual presence is here to stay; real-world editability and customisation is here to stay; on-line streaming is here to stay; massive data-collection, tracking and total surveillance is here to stay. Ownership is shifting away; borders are becoming hazy—both physically and intellectually. Virtual reality is becoming real. We can’t stop encroaching technology from changing the how and even the why in terms of doing things, and the re-organisation of our shared reality. Access to information won’t be a problem; the challenge will lie in locating relevant information; in accessing the right information; and connecting the dots, so to speak, between the two. These technologies are not going away, quite the opposite; and a critical-realist approach, as an integral part of the workshop, is encouraged when exploring ‘future ideas’. Moreover, it’s only by working with and through these technologies, rather than trying to restrict or ignore them, can we explore the best of what they have to offer. The future of education as a noble human endeavour in itself may thus be uncertain in terms of how it will be delivered—or even facilitated; but in this participant’s humble opinion, the incorporation of workshops such as Future Landscapes into extant educational programmes would be, potentially, an essential element when it comes to the exploration and manipulation of this change to our mutual benefit, and that of the wider society.