Radical Futures Symposium

Poster reading 'Radical Futures - Imagining the Media of Tomorrow Symposium'

Radical Futures – Imagining the Media of Tomorrow
March 20–21, 2021 (virtual)
Sponsored by the UConn Humanities Institute, the Future of Truth, and Digital Humanities & Media Studies
Organized by Anke Finger (UConn) and Christoph Ernst (University of Bonn)

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The Radical Futures symposium brings together researchers from Germany and the US to discuss both the future of media and form(at)s of imagination/imaginaries in the 21st century. Central to the discussion is the role of knowledge of the future for the imagination of digital media in a variety of potential social contexts. How can our imagination contribute to knowing the future? Which kinds of imaginaries do we consult for this purpose? Whose imagination/imaginaries receive(s) a voice? What past imaginations/imaginaries have infused the present? What diverse digital media can we conjure up for futures that may not reflect who we are today? What truths are available today that inform realities to come?

The symposium is inspired by the publication of Media Futures: Theory and Aesthetics, co-authored by Christoph Ernst and Jens Schröter (2021, forthcoming from Palgrave); and by the translation of Vilém Flusser’s (retro)futuristic What If? 22 Scenarios in Search of Images (translated by Anke Finger and Kenneth Kronenberg, with an afterword by Kenneth Goldsmith), that is also part of Greenhouse Studios.

The symposium will take the books, among other materials, as incentives to explore questions related to our current notion of digital media as “future media,” future cultures of truth, and the imagination of technologies for social change. Topics include ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence, quantum computers, science fiction, social media, interfaces, retro-futurism, radical imagination and more; and we seek to debate ideas from different fields such as media theory, science & technology studies, Afrofuturism and critical futures studies.

Symposium Schedule

Saturday, March 20

Welcome and Introduction: 9:00–9:15

with Michael P. Lynch, Anke Finger, and Christoph Ernst


Panel 1: 9:15–11:00 (chaired by Yohei Igarashi)

John Durham Peters, "M87: Can you Take a Picture of a Black Hole?"

Gabriel Morrison, "Crossing Rhetorics"

Melody Jue, "Future Filters: Allergies and Media Immunology in Nnedi Okorafor’s 'Mother of Invention'"

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John Durham Peters, "M87: Can you Take a Picture of a Black Hole?": The 2019 “image” released by the Event Horizon Telescope team raises questions about both the theory of photography (can you picture something that eats light) and the future of earth-spanning digital media. The EHT essentially converted the earth into a telescope via a grid of observatories coordinated in tens of nanoseconds; as always, fine slices of time are the domain for capturing elusive cosmic facts.

Gabriel Morrison, "Crossing Rhetorics": The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn the world’s collective attention to the significance of crossing, as a virus has spread across the globe and communication has become a logistical puzzle of crossing mechanics: Every day, we attempt to transmit messages but not the virus between persons, across the barriers of cloth masks, plexiglass, computer screens, and wireless networks. As our human routines and interactions shift to digital environments, it becomes more and more apparent that we must learn to live in a world of overlapping and interweaving media. Whatever the aftermath of the pandemic may be, this multiply mediated existence is likely here to stay, and it will have changed the way we create and communicate forever. To study media is always to study crossing; a medium is, literally, an in-betweenness that must be crossed to connect rhetors to their audiences. My presentation takes up the familiar but always-evolving medium of writing and, specifically, asks what it means to write across—across interfaces, languages, materials, epistemologies, and semiotic modes. It isn’t clear how new technologies and contexts will continue to change writing in the years to come, so writers will need to develop transliteracies frameworks and rhetorical dexterity to allow them to constantly adapt to a world in flux. As we imagine the radical futures of writing technologies and practices, I will also look to the past, to the ancient and overlooked rhetorical concept of chiasmus to construct a new theory of crossing rhetoric.

Melody Jue, "Future Filters: Allergies and Media Immunology in Nnedi Okorafor’s 'Mother of Invention'": This presentation will take Africanfuturist Nnedi Okorafor’s short story “Mother of Invention” as an occasion to speculate about the future of the technological “filter.” Set in the near future city of New Delta, Nigeria, “Mother of Invention” dramatizes a unique partnership between a smarthome called Obi3 and an expectant mother, Anwuli, who is just about to give birth. Anwuli’s labor coincides with a pollen storm from the GMO crop of peri grass, a nutritious substitute for rice whose pollination cycle has been thrown off by climate change. The story positions Obi3 as a kind of external immune system—and womb—that protects Anwuli and her child from the worst of the pollen storm, able to learn and adapt to the changing situation. Okorafor’s comparison between machine learning, information filtering, and pollen filtering seems to ask: what might allergies and immune systems have to do with the future of media? What might the future of filtering look like in the Global South, as shaping media ecologies to come? This presentation will draw on work by Rahul Mukherjee, Douglas Faben, and others to reflect on the “filter” in relation to allergies, immunology, censorship, machine learning, purification, and biological analogies.

Panel 2: 11:00–12:30 (chaired by Santiago Muñoz-Arbeláez)

Virginia Kuhn, "Embodied Rhetoric and the Fantastical"

Dexter Gabriel/P. Djélì Clark, "There Are Black People in the Future"

Anke Finger, “What If? Into the Slipstream of Visions Passed”

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Virginia Kuhn, "Embodied Rhetoric and the Fantastical": The consequences of a globally connected world are evident when considering the impact on materiality: our nearly perpetual digitality has created shifts in our sense of embodiment (including proprioception) and our notions of place (including wayfinding). The pandemic amplifies these shifts as the move online and physical isolation emphasizes mind over body and time over space. How does such a disembodied yet often lonely way of life help erase issues of race, class and gender while simultaneously emphasizing the individual over the community? In this talk, I will explore conceptual approaches to the world that challenge Cartesian notions of the mind/body split. I will also confront texts that suggest epistemologies considered fantastical, asking whether the scientific method is the appropriate lens though which to understand such efforts. I will introduce the concept of ‘lettered orality,’ a method which will inform my exploration of various knowledge objects as I inquire how future-leaning algorithmic and cinematic language could contain the seeds of a more equitable and responsible human condition.

Dexter Gabriel/P. Djélì Clark, "There Are Black People in the Future": The phrase started off as a bit of intra-community humor: a critique within Black geek spaces of the lack of diversity among the futurist landscapes of popular science fiction. In 2018, interdisciplinary artist Alisha B. Wormsley emblazoned the phrase on a billboard in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a bit of public art. Those seven words it turns out were more radical than most imagined. The billboard sparked controversy over “objections to content”—though even those made uncomfortable could not articulate precisely why. It was taken down, which sparked its own backlash and generated more controversy. Imagining “Black People in the Future” it turned out was indeed a radical, and perhaps dangerous, concept. Borrowing from Wormsley’s phrasing and title, my presentation examines how Black creators have used media to project themselves into future—from early Black writers like Edward A. Johnson’s Light Ahead for the Negro to Alisha B. Wormsley to Black Twitter’s #NegroSolstice. In these examples can be found creative artists and everyday people defying oppressive forces in their lived realities by imagining themselves into a future where Black people do indeed exist.

Anke Finger, "What If? Into the Slipstream of Visions Passed": What if you met an intellectually poised tapeworm eager to become a model for humanity, the biblical Abraham, a paragraph-eating insect categorized as Bibliophagus convictus, a political party from the 23rd century, a genetically modified Zebu cow named “SuperKali,” and Martin Heidegger all in one place? Flusser’s retro-futuristic speculative fiction provides the focal point for investigating the radicality of past/passed visions of the future by engaging topics including the Anthropocene, posthumanism and fabrication as design.

Round Table: 13:30–14:30

With guest Kenneth Goldsmith

Sunday, March 21

Panel 1: 9:00–10:30 (chaired by Dominik Maeder)

Jacqueline Wernimont, "Forecasting with Quantum Mediations—or—Manipulating the Congress of Ghosts"

Christoph Ernst/Jens Schröter, “Imagining Quantum Computers as Media Technologies”

D. Fox Harrell, "Interrogating the Avatar Dream"

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Jaqueline Wernimont, "Forecasting with Quantum Mediations – or – Manipulating the Congress of Ghosts": In Numbered Lives, I suggested that we think about quantum media—media that count, quantify, or enumerate—in order to understand how we have historically created knowledge and come into being with numerate media. With this talk, I want to use the 1st scenario, “What If,” in Vilém Flusser’s What If? 22 Scenarios in Search of Images, to think about the role that futurity and speculation play in quantum mediations. As a particular case study, I’ll be using the dashboards and running tallies of COVID-19 states-of-being (infection, death, recovery, vaccination) in the United States.

Christoph Ernst and Jens Schröter, “Imagining Quantum Computers as Media Technologies”: The presentation takes up different contemporary discourses around quantum computers. Using the current debate on “quantum supremacy” and the concept of “noisy intermediate-scale quantum computers” (NISQ) as examples, we reconstruct from an STS perspective how quantum computing is currently conceptualized as a near-future “new” epoch of computing. With reference to science fiction novels such as Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem, this perspective will be contrasted with the question how future quantum technologies are imagined via typically “medial” operations and consequently exposed as “quantum media.”

D. Fox Harrell, "Interrogating the Avatar Dream": Nearly everyone these days engages in virtual experiences, ranging from virtual reality (VR) to online work. Given the widespread and growing use of such technologies, it is important to develop ways for them to better support positive needs and values of diverse users and to better understand their impacts. In this talk, with an emphasis on the intersection of equity, virtual identity, and immersive media, Harrell explores how technologies of virtuality (VR, videogames, online learning systems, etc.) both implement and transform persistent issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and the dynamically constructed social categories more generally. Harrell’s presentation will include systems developed in the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality to exemplify both design and analysis toward this end.

Panel 2: 11:00–12:30 (chaired by Katerina Krtilova)

Alex Zamalin, "Black Utopia as Future Method"

Orit Halperin, "Resilient Natures"

Greenhouse Studios, "FlusserVision: Imagining Flusser’s Tomorrow"

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Alex Zamalin, "Black Utopia as Future Method": To conceptualize the radical future we need a critical concept of utopia. Without a vision of utopia, the future has no horizon toward which to orient itself. Without the future, utopia has no space to expand its imagination. But not all utopias and futures are the same. In theory and practice, both can be exclusionary and repressive in their motivations and character. In these brief reflections, I propose we recover a distinct form of utopian thought found in the black American tradition as a guidepost from which to critique the present, and to achieve a more emancipatory future. Unlike the Euromodern tradition with which utopianism is generally associated, black utopian thought is a distinct orientation that sees the future to be resolved through ongoing struggle and democratic solidarity and is critical of the fantasies of perfection that devolve into violence. By focusing on the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, I sketch the importance of utopia for the future and argue that black utopianism’s theoretical method and theory about freedom, community and progress are ideal in helping us think through the future.

Orit Halperin, "Resilient Natures": Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the term “new normal” circulates ad nauseum throughout news outlets and social networks. This new normal is largely defined by a naturalization of precarity for some, the dramatic elevation of profit for others, and a demand for increased computation and automation to secure territory, population, and resources. Endless curves and data visualizations show us these “truths”.

It is hard to gaze upon these curves and not be reminded of a history of actuarial practices involving populations. It is also surprising how tenacious the ideology of the normal is, and how reluctant we are to cease using it. The idea of the normal curve was an invention of 19th century human sciences underpinning contemporary understandings of economies, populations and “race”. Our adherence to the language of the normal is, therefore, also about nature. But what form of nature is this? My intent is to briefly historically situate this “new” nature by tracing a history of the merged engagements between economics, artificial intelligence, and population management in ecology between the 1950’s- 1970’s. I will examine the concepts of resilience, adaptation and evolution within these fields to trace a genealogy of our contemporary “new normal” that assumes ubiquitous computing and speculative financial practices are the routes to environmental and population security and risk management at a planetary scale. I will then turn to speculative design and media practice to ask what alternative forms of life might be available to us.

Greenhouse Studios, "FlusserVision: Imagining Flusser’s Tomorrow": One certain thing is uncertainty. The future is so elusive that something that at one point seems to be an impossibility can quickly become reality. The team at Greenhouse Studios discovered this in the midst of working on the project “FlusserVision: Imagining Flusser’s Tomorrow.” Based on Anke Finger and Kenneth Kronenberg's book translation What If: 22 Scenarios in Search of Images, the Greenhouse Studios team set out with the goal of visualizing Flusser’s scenarios of the future by mixing physical objects with augmented reality. However, as the pandemic of 2020 dragged on, the project became mediated entirely through technology, new members with diverse skills became a part of the team, and certain themes became more prevalent. Climate change, overpopulation, technology, disastrous politics, nuclear war—these are just some of the themes which Flusser built into his visions of the future and which are captured by the project. But there are also senses of wonder, playfulness, and mystery. FlusserVision attempts to visualize just a few of Flusser’s scenarios and guide the user through the sometimes strange, yet familiar, worlds that Flusser envisioned. FlusserVision showcases the diverse skill sets and perspectives of its team, ranging from academics to artists and game designers. FlusserVision culminates in a multimedia experience, blending 3D experiences with narrative-driven videos. This presentation will include a peek into the team’s design process along with a recorded demo of the project.

Round Table: 13:30–14:30

Concluding discussion