Last time on Unsee The Future, we started with the idea that humans do like to surrender to immersive experiences, but that our mysterious recurring pull to “feel more alive” seems to require us to leave home and take a few risks – when leaving home is possible and when it’s not other people’s lives we’re taking risks with. Yet, mostly, we ordinarily live within the home of our well trodden lives and so our desire for better experiences has us often just grumbling about rubbishy interfaces with the work we’re supposed to be doing, as we continue the human hunt for some true emotional connections and some playful excursions out of normality.
We also wondered if modern life has had many of us, more especially caught up in the robot world, missing a sense of the ancient, feeling a loss of shared ritual.
What new rituals might we now find ourselves enacting, sharing and passing down?
And just what aspects of the world we’ve been used to will we take the opportunity now to unsee?
As the pandemic era takes root around us and between us, how are the daily experiences of our lives being refocussed? You may well have a few human-centric design notes on every square inch of your one-bedroom flat already, or you might simply be more grateful for your one window than you’d thought about before. Maybe you’re just finding you’d never listened to birdsong quite so loudly before. I should warn you, you may well be writing war poetry next.
If, in ordinary life, part of art’s great human purpose is to help us see the world around us differently, what will it’s place be now that everything seems radically re-lit over night? Are we all in one of Scrooge’s ghost dreams? Is SARS CoV2 opening the windows of our imagination for us to climb out and look back at the system we’ve been living in all along like we’ve maybe never seen it before?
(If you look at your hands and can’t see the usual soap-scrubbed dry flakiness because your hands are a bit weirdly sort of glowy and see-through then, yeah, you’re in a ghost dream right now.)
That’s going to be an awful lot to process. Beyond the grief, the loss, the lostness we might find during such an experience, the concept of system change sounds academic – but considering it in lonely moments personally could become distressing. If we find ourselves reaching for the experience of art in our lives more moving through this, it will undoubtedly be about testimony and healing – but also about trying to imagine life beyond the lockdown.
Because of course, despite the stark images of mass graves and loved ones beyond our touch, COVID19 is not our only global problem. Not by a long way. It’s more like a blacklight marker, highlighting the deep trauma symptoms of our systemically unwell age. If we are to look back at that system with fresh eyes, we’ll see just how big the collective work ahead will be for our generation, in the struggle to truly face the climate crisis and rebuild any kind of economic security. But there are other parts of the system we could do with looking at like we’ve not been using our eyeballs properly, too.
Our inequalities are showing up in even greater contrast under that UV lamp of the coronavirus; how hard in every way staying well is already for many of us compared to others in this – biologically, mentally, financially. Systemic failures as true as all the political unpreparednesses of PPE equipment shortages and tragically low infection testing. Signs of which cultural blindnesses were always evident in the daily flow of our local high streets – who finds them easy, and who finds them intimidating.
So, as the idea of the smart city has been trying to emerge, now with the added pressure of everyone caning the broadband network from home, on top of everything else there is a ballooning data imperative to upgrade how our shared infrastructure works, one which has been leading to a new shared experience unfolding beyond the spectrum of our eyes, that is attempting to reach every corner of our lives.
It’s just, do we really know what we’re letting ourselves in for with it? Is 5G our great tech saviour now more than ever, or is it time we took a proper look at what we’re faithfully rushing to make indispensable in our lives?
I’m Timo Peach – a surprisingly life-like augmentation of your reality.
“The future of media will need greater bandwidth, screens with increased pixel density and an interconnectedness across devices. All of this will enable creatives to tell stories and reach consumers in ever more realistic and compelling ways. Across all of these, maintaining trust and the belief that media can be used as a force for good will be critical.” So says Tracey Follows heading up the Futuremade report The New Dimensions of Media: Five trends for the future. ( https://www.skygroup.sky/corporate/media-centre/articles/futuremade-the-new-dimensions-of-media )
She evidences that alongside immersive entertainment, brand customers are going to want innovative interfaces and more fully smart environments to go with this, but crucially also more empathic media and trusted sources.
“This poses a threat to media companies that don’t prioritise transparency, but similarly presents a real opportunity for those that do” she says. “As the media ecosystem becomes more integrated, with ever more choice, complexity and potential harm, media providers need to evolve to become a trusted guide – not just to protect customers, but also to enable and empower them – to help them find the content and experiences they want easily and intuitively.”
This sounds like moves towards a more human way of doing things even in the heartland of techtopia. The problem is, the heartland of techtopia depends entirely on delivery systems. Energy sources, security, resilience and an economically viable network that can deliver against expectations – from retail to radio wave receiver.
This very last bit is the hope and promise of 5G. Because, let’s face it, even your broadband is more of a drag than BT promised. And if you live in the middle of nowhere, you might not even have been promised ever getting broadband internet access.
The Singularity Hub, mouthpiece of hopey-changey abundance bloke Peter Diamandis, lays out as much as everyone across the techverse that the great goal seems to be ultimate connectivity. “Everyone and everything connected” as they put it boldly, before most of the seven billion of us were ordered to never touch each other again.
“By 2020 there will be over 20 billion connected devices and more than one trillion sensors,” Diamandis claimed. Has anyone counted yet? By 2030, they reckon those projections go up to 500 billion devices and 100 trillion sensors interacting with human life. “Think about it” Singularity Hub says, “there’s home devices like refrigerators, TVs, dishwashers, digital assistants, and even toasters. There’s city infrastructure, from stoplights to cameras to public transportation like buses or bike sharing. It’s all getting smart and connected. Soon we’ll be adding autonomous cars to the mix, and an unimaginable glut of data to go with them. Every turn, every stop, every acceleration will be a data point. Some cars already collect over 25 gigabytes of data per hour, and car data is projected to generate $750 billion of revenue by 2030.”
“You’re going to start asking questions that were never askable before, because the data is now there to be mined,” Diamandis suggests.
“The cognitive separation between the real and virtual realms is becoming far less pronounced” says The Future Laboratory. ( https://www.thefuturelaboratory.com/events/webinar/macrotrends-2019 ) “Advances in mixed-reality technologies, combined with the power of machine learning, are extending our experience of reality in a much more meaningful way. At the same time, reactive new materials and technologies are allowing real objects to replicate with ease the ever-changing nature of the digital sphere.”
Is it any wonder 5G gets mentioned a lot by technology people. But as mainstream media outlet CBS reported: “There’s a lot of hype surrounding the future of 5G, and also a lot of questions about what a 5G-enabled world would really mean.” ( http://snip.ly/dls2ar#https://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-a-5g-world-could-look-like-3d-holograms-ai-new-security-concerns/ ) Which they can’t wait to pile in to add to, immediately siting Volumetric video as another instant bit of new bandwidth candy. – “the video technique that generates realistic-looking, moving dimensional figures. The volumetric video market is expected to grow from $578 million in 2018 to nearly $2.8 billion by 2023” they reckon, reassuringly specifically.
I mean, you know you’re hoping for holograms and mixed reality and augmented social profiles you can tag your sister in, with insulting live emojis as she walks past the gaming exchange place all while you download movies you didn’t pay for in moments.
And while you’re mucking about with the basically still usual junk, but a bit faster, in a city street gradually adding all manner of intractable visual clutter and haptic tickles to your enhanced reality, including more verified ledger gubbins, blockchaining public interactions with the council, the ongoing upgrading of us will mean increasing human intelligence, its reckoned around all that, and therefore even more interaction with and creation of knowledge sets.
Data. The internetdatabeast. COME, SUCKLE AT IT’S ALL KNOWING TEET WHEREVER THOU BE’ST because of course we know where you be’st exactly all the time…
I mean, it’s not hard to, from a certain weary and wary perspective, see tech as a bit of a cult lens through which to see the world.
The desire to attempt total tracking of world citizens in an unprecedented hook up of tech giants in a Covid traceability bid does seem like just the sort of devoted and Google goggles-eyed reaction to disaster you’d expect here. Like calling on the gods. Sciency-sounding gods, but still rather idolised. ( https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-10/apple-google-bring-covid-19-contact-tracing-to-3-billion-people?fbclid=IwAR3iZ6yPvvzlzJQVO5e06uRA_bVAJfXb3ZQNMLckst_3p3ApZ8ZLVnNYAo0 )
Which is why some believe 5G is being promised and rolled out in blind faith. Faith that it is a wholly good thing.
Is now a good time, along with everything else, to take proper look at what this sacred new upgrade might involve?
Some 27,000 people signed a recent UK government petition that stated: “This is an appeal to postpone the rollout of 5G in the UK, pending the outcome of an independent investigation. 5G will increase exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields RF-EMF, that has been proven to be harmful for humans and the environment.” ( https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/262842 )
The government’s response claimed the opposite: “Exposure to radio waves has been researched and reviewed. The evidence suggests exposure from 5G radio systems within current guidelines does not pose a risk to public health or the environment.”
The idea that 5G might be in any way contentious might have been reaching your own awareness recently because of apparent tin-foil-hat-type attacks on new masts and infrastructure. “At least 20 UK phone masts vandalised over false 5G coronavirus claims” as The Guardian headlined it in early April. ( https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/06/at-least-20-uk-phone-masts-vandalised-over-false-5g-coronavirus-claims ) And it’s lead to confrontations with people working out in the telecoms field, prompting worries for staff: “Engineers for O2 have been issued with signs to display in their vans… which read “Key worker, keeping your network running”… intended to spread the message that communications workers are playing a crucial role during the current crisis.”
It’s a cultural push-back to such momentous faith in the fifth generation of the mobile network that has been accelerated by the idea that there are now more than empty promises circling around us about this. There are a lot of micro satellites circling our planet, preparing to integrate data transmission coverage with a growing Low Earth Orbital network. SpaceX launched its fifth batch of Starlink satellites in February bringing their current total to some 300, while Amazon’s Kuiper System plans to put over 3,000 machines into LEO to create: “Equitable access to consumer choice” as they totally would put it. Then there’s Coca Cola, Virgin and We Work’s notorious over investor Softbank who apparently are among consortium members of OneWeb, which already also has some 30 devices circling the Earth with many more launches planned this year, as Andy Baryer reports for Futurithmic. ( https://www.futurithmic.com/2020/03/10/5g-from-space-role-of-satellites/ ) A storm-head of numbers that have lead some 5G protestors to believe the Coronovirus outbreak was actually triggered by a new upgrading of electro-magnetic human activity around the globe.
You might be rolling your eyes or just staring in disbelief at these unfaithful – SORRY! –unscientific sounding reactions to technology in the 21st century. Or… you may well be looking up and saying simply: “Well, duh.”
So what is the evidence?
Because even medical bulwark The Lancet is now publishing articles headlined: “Planetary electromagnetic pollution: it is time to assess its impact.” ( https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196%2818%2930221-3/fulltext?fbclid=IwAR3VcHWLkaBO4WCQcDdDPWo62aR0OXxAh40r4In9puiObJ8KLLSpoxZ2MnE )
Writing in Real Clear Science, Geoffrey Kabat says: “The question of the safety of exposure to radiofrequency (RF) emissions from cell phones has been marked by confusion and disputed science since this issue first arose in the mid-1990s.” ( https://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2019/04/30/is_5g_wireless_dangerous_no_but_science_may_never_end_the_debate.html?fbclid=IwAR2t1OkxmZTqIlcW54an0X8CG8fD98OECa0Y_WzCxU_olEEwjTNpg8u1w9g )
He points out that: “The type of radiation involved in wireless communications is in the range of radio waves, and these waves carry much less energy than ionizing radiation, such as X-rays and cosmic rays, that can break chemical bonds in DNA and lead to cancer.”
Now, 5G uses higher frequency radio waves to transmit data than all the Gs before it. Which means it can carry a ton more data a ton quicker – some fiveophiles like to quote 100 times faster than 4G. The truly data zapping bit of the 5G spectrum, the 1mm wave range, starts at 6Ghz and will deliver the real eye-watering promises up in the 26Gz band – while 5G services are getting licensed from only just above the 4G spectrum at 1Ghz, so not all of it will be fizzing at the same frequency. ( https://5g.co.uk/guides/5g-frequencies-in-the-uk-what-you-need-to-know/ )
But if you’re a believer in EMF symptoms – electromagnetic field exposure supposedly causing all manner of discomforts, such as headaches, sickness, dizziness, even anxiety, depression and anger – then ramping up that modern experience isn’t going to fill you with a sense of joyful progress, is it.
Explaining a bit more of the functioning, Lloyd Burrell reports in Electric Sense: “5G will break down data and send it in smaller sizes to offer significantly reduced transmission times. Data will be sent with only a 1 millisecond delay instead of a 50 millisecond delay commonly found with 4G” he thinks. “With communication this fast, it’ll allow machines to talk to each other with practically no room for error.” ( https://www.electricsense.com/5g-radiation-dangers/ )
An internet not just Of things but For things.
All the places I have both stumbled across and warily gone looking for anti-5G information, they all list the same symptoms of potential problems, under the description of electrosensitivity. It’s not just grumpiness, they contentiously think it’s everything from heart disfunctions, skin cancer, cataracts and immune system problems, to wider environmental concerns with plant and animal life. Birds dropping out of the sky, that kind of apocalyptic thing.
Pausing your roll of the eyes for a moment there, when you add to this the small theatrical detail that some defence agencies have been developing 5G-like millimetre wave crowd dispersal tools, that may or may not feel like being hit with a Martian heat ray… well. No one in Earthfoods is happy about all this, for sure. Never mind the ball-ache coming for the public realm of having to put a ton of new masts and boxes in to link up all the transmissions that can’t travel half as far as regular cellphone network broadcasts.
At first read, you might think also this all doesn’t get any more cooled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s little report for the WHO back in 2011 that classifies all radio frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans. ( https://www.iarc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/pr208_E.pdf )
Now, it’s worth remembering this. That last classification is a largely inconclusive one and in the third of their list of dangers, class 2B. It’s used for tested cancer agents for which there is: “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.” And while most things on that list might sound a bit chemically and hazardous if you’re not a chemistry engineer, it’s a list which also seems to includ “pickled vegetables” and did once include instant coffee, before it was let off completely in 2016.
As John Mundy writes for 5G.co.uk: “all major reports on the matter have concluded that there’s no discernible safety issue. Perhaps the most extensive of these reports came from Australia in 2016. Using 30 years of comprehensive health data for the entire population, it was found that there was no correlation between mobile phone usage and incidents of brain cancer.” A report published in the peer-reviewed Cancer Epidemiology that the NHS seemed to take seriously. ( https://www.nhs.uk/news/cancer/study-finds-no-link-between-mobile-phones-and-brain-cancer/ )
Basically, you want to be worrying a lot more about your intake of burgers, booze and fags, the NHS essentially concluded from the stats.
While this spectrum of current evidence seems clear, it’s worth keeping in mind that scientific conclusions do proceed from scientific hypotheses – the thing you’re setting out to test. This issue is arguably not all about Brain Cancer. The Lancet publication looks at data for other potential symptoms and lays out it’s questions by saying: “As we address the threats to human health from the changing environmental conditions due to human activity the increasing exposure to artificial electromagnetic radiation needs to be included in this discussion.” ( https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196%2818%2930221-3/fulltext?fbclid=IwAR3VcHWLkaBO4WCQcDdDPWo62aR0OXxAh40r4In9puiObJ8KLLSpoxZ2MnE )
It’s a ruddy enormous big new thing we’re upgrading to and trying to apply to the whole world, after all.
Priyanka Bandara and David O Carpenter’s transatlantic article lists a number of disturbing reported potential health problems right up front with report links, laying out too the multitude of modern devices and practices that emit radio frequency waves today – everything from radar to smart meters to medical scanners – observing the rapid growth in its use is: “Plausibly the most rapidly increasing anthropogenic environmental exposure since the mid-20th century, and levels will surge considerably again, as technologies like the Internet of Things and 5G add millions more radiofrequency transmitters around us.”
“A recent evaluation of 2266 studies (including in-vitro and in-vivo studies in human, animal, and plant experimental systems and population studies) found that most studies (n=1546, 68·2%) have demonstrated significant biological or health effects associated with exposure to anthropogenic electromagnetic fields” they claim.
Their look at studies that seem to have found indicators of trouble is partly exploring the potential for non-ionising EM radiation to create less obvious kinds of cellular level stress. But they consider such warning lights should be explored for potential interference with things like bees’ magnetoreception or other natural magnetic fields. Does it effect the Schumann Resonance, for example – which isn’t a performance residency at your local pop-up gallery but the extremely low frequency vibration of the Earth’s atmosphere up to the ionosphere, picked up when pinged by thunderstorms. The planetary Ohm, man. As NASA says, variations in it correspond with climatic shifts and other global environmental behaviours. ( https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/gallery/schumann-resonance.html )
Which doesn’t half sound narratively tempting for disaster movie techno-babble, don’t it.
But it’s in line with an organisation called Electro Magnetic Field Scientists – which sounds like a very early X-Men comic or perhaps an art-pop band but disappointingly isn’t either but which does claim nearly 250 scientific signatories calling on the UN and the WHO: “For greater health protection on EMF exposure”.
( https://www.emfscientist.org/ )
As Bandara and Carpenter put it: “At a time when environmental health scientists tackle serious global issues such as climate change and chemical toxicants in public health, there is an urgent need to address so-called electrosmog. A genuine evidence-based approach to the risk assessment and regulation of anthropogenic electromagnetic fields will help the health of us all, as well as that of our planetary home.”
Are we due to ask some previously unaskable questions about how we’re making reality?
In the face of such claims, the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (or the league against superhero mutant powers obviously probably) published its Guidelines on Limiting Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields in March and concluded: “There is no evidence of adverse health effects at exposure levels below the restriction levels in the ICNIRP (1998) guidelines and no evidence of an interaction mechanism that would predict that adverse health effects could occur due to radiofrequency EMF exposure below those restriction levels.” ( https://www.icnirp.org/en/activities/news/news-article/rf-guidelines-2020-published.html )
This is the predominant scientific position of the telecoms industry and its regulators around the world.
You’re actually likely be exposed to more intense radio wave activity in front of your wifi hub at home than standing twenty-five feet under a 5G transmitter outside. But the crucial point is that both of them are using very low power in their transmissions compared to what you may be picturing, which is putting your head in the microwave. That wouldn’t be good.
When considering all this, it’s also worth noting that, as Wired reports, ( https://www.wired.co.uk/article/5g-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory ) the wildfire spreading of the coronavirus link to 5G is culturally all in the context of very conspiratorial times, with a news body like RT having a lot of previous on stoking such stories. There are those who praise Russia Today’s network as speaking truth other mainstream media channels won’t, and there are those who say it’s a bit of a foghorn for ol’ Vlad’s famous Question All Reality art slash defence campaign.
So, y’know. Follow the science, and ask the questions. But this may be partly about what questions we’ve been getting science to ask. Perhaps it may be a long time before science is able to ask more of the right ones. In the mean time, it’s up to us citizen saps to root around the different evidence trails as much as we want in a bid to encourage better questions and better certainties.
For now, the people working with the infrastructure say they’re very certain – domestic EMF transmissions into the 5G spectrum do nothing verifiably, demonstrably damaging to our bodies.
The certainty you’re looking for may be a narrative one.
I’ve been hoping 5G will work. I want it to be good, to enable so many potentially empowering, democratising, creative, even humanising 21st century needs, as we try to pull ourselves out of so many people-distancing failings of the old global system. Efficient data may have a significant part to play. But the real problem we face underneath the electrosmog, the NOX clouds, the CO2 emissions and the chemical burn-offs is just how disconnected we are culturally from the rhythms of the natural world’s materials, of which we’re made.
Listening to them, might lead us in a very different direction.
5G could become an empowering part of modern human life. But, y’know. It does also sound like a very techbro robot engineering economics thing to do, doesn’t it? Promise wildly amazing techtopian lifestyles worth billions to big business and plan to roll out infrastructure all the way to Low-Earth Orbit without building holistic research over time into whether it will make us unwell.
Are there more testimonies to be heard and measured? I mean, if you can simply feel the difference when you’re in a remote part of a country outside the mobile phone network, as one person testified to me, what are you meant to make of that experience as you watch more 5G satellite launches? How trusted and empathetic will you feel the media really is?
If the currently largest scientific consensus suggests the domestic experiences of 5G will be no more harmful to you and me than a quarter of a century of living with the mobile network, choosing our things to worry about in an age of crisis, for now we’ll have to take this, and share our own reactions, on faith.
The thing is. Whether you’re staring aghast at the skies and streets alike in this latest reason to abandon all hope and joy, or twittering about rubbish data speeds in public life and being driven a bit mad every day by them, some of us have rather more immediate problems with the experience of the public realm every day. And its just as symptomatic of some carelessly rubbish human environment robot thinking. But it’s not about radio signals. It’s about cultural ones.
Because just how basically accessible is the regular high street for you? Or how actively oppressive already?
It’s taken me a long time to appreciate that the same street as I’m walking down at any public moment, when we’re allowed to, can be a very different experience for someone else. Gender, race, other visual signifiers can give you a, ah, different sense of what’s around you – and who – than a sauntering middle aged white bloke might notice. But perception comes in many different tunings.
A press release from the UK Department for Work & Pensions in December 2014 headlined with this: “Government concerned at ‘shocking’ evidence of the inaccessibility of the British high street to disabled people, despite their £200 billion spending power this Christmas”. ( https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-concerned-at-shocking-evidence-of-the-inaccessibility-of-the-british-high-street-to-disabled-people-despite-their-200-billion-spending )
They had to qualify it in retail spending terms, of course. But there’s something pretty basic highlighted in that headline about how and where we live. Representing Britain’s 12m registered disabled people, accessibility experts DisabledGo conducted the report that prompted this government story, and they apparently found that: “A fifth of shops excluded wheelchair users, only a tiny proportion of restaurants and shops have hearing loops and three quarters of dining establishments do not cater for those with visual impairments. When they contacted leading chains direct to gather extra information only a tiny proportion responded, with only 4% of 105 national retailers replying.”
Four years later, another study found: “Millions of adults with mental or physical disabilities are unable to carry out basic daily tasks such as buying milk or posting a letter due to accessibility issues on the high street.”
As The Independent reported at the time, the research found: “For some 28 per cent, the act of visiting the high street was so out of their comfort zone they often found the thought of it distressing. It also emerged six in 10 disabled adults avoided going to the high street whenever they could.” ( https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/mental-physical-disability-high-street-shopping-accessibility-study-results-a8664851.html )
And that’s all provided you can get access to disabled parking or appropriate public transport to even get there. For so many of us, the experience of the boringly ordinary reality around us has a long way to go to be even basically better yet.
There is, though, something else increasingly inaccessible about the environment of the modern world. The whole… sense of it. A statement that might only make sense to you if you are already conscious of being neurodiverse.
It’s an overly broad term that simply reflects a reality emerging in our consciousness more and more over the last couple of decades that prompts an unanswerable question: Are many more of us being born with degrees of autism, Aspergers and other attention and perception ‘differences’? And if so, why? What is going on there? And what is the experience of it?
Lucy Robinson is a social and environmental campaigner, and a mum. Her campaigning experience has come very close to home in recent years as she and her family have been exploring the challenges of neurodiversity. An exploration that’s been more like a Thunderlooper of trauma, in some private ways I think – but which has given her insights into the world around her from a new perspective.
“I think it’s amazing to me to be a parent to someone who’s way of seeing the world is so complex yet so singular, in a way” she says. “I find Autism quite an unhelpful word; it’s about being highly sensitive to environment and mostly this is to the loudness and chaos of modern living.”
Lucy’s daughter started her life highly sensitive to sensory input, and navigating this has proved systematically difficult, to put it mildly. What do you do for your child when they fit so few of the social and educational spaces and experiences they’re expected to navigate? But, like many other parents and experts I’ve spoken with, Lucy feels that sensorily overloaded children are a signal to our society.
“Are neurodiverse people the canaries in the coal mine?” she says. “The world is too noisy, bright, fluorescent; too fast and not a good human experience. People like my daughter end up having a huge amount of stress and anxiety because of the manufactured environment. Back in the day they would have melded with the rest of the population and been seen as only a bit odd. Now they are like screaming becons of distress” she feels. And there’s a sobering reaction from our current collective system, she observes.
“Our response is to Other” she says.
“I think we underestimate neurodiversity. What we try to do is create this semblance of neurotypical that says everything else is ‘diverse’. In a way, to feel safe in this world – typical – we need to have a group of people who are different.”
But it’s also about an incapacity at ground level to face a deeper cultural change, Lucy thinks. She sees a great deal of distress in the system but a strong cultural reflex to: “totally disassociate from it and numb ourselves from it. These kids are too disruptive. We have no resources. I see huge correlations between how we treat these kids and how we treat the environment. Everything has to fit into our narrow expectations… but are they any good for us?”
Interesting then that Lucy says of her daughter: “Our relationship when we are in a safe space is no different to other relationships. It’s environment that triggers.”
“I’ve explored autism from both experience and research. I’ve had to dig deep within myself to create a healing relationship with my daughter – to help her heal from this experience. What happens when the village trashes the kid? I’ve had to re-bond my daughter to re-teach her there are safe spaces, and reeducate about the village – some will educate you and some will tear you down. How awful is that? I am now into an exploration of trauma, not autism.”
In fact, she feels that in many ways all of us are: “traumatised by environment and system – how the hell did we get here?”
Are we, more fundamentally than we think about each day, living in an environment badly misaligned with human wellbeing? In so many of the ways it is transmitted, beamed into and through us, shared, expected, taught, preached, imposed, rewarded and normalised?
I mean, say it with me, right? Duh!
But goodness me, how we don’t even notice the details around us. And inside us. Vibrating through how we feel. And how we express those feelings. Mostly back through the same system channels.
Is the best lesson to learn from our current education system that we should all just drop out of it?
And have we all just had the window cracked open to make a run for it?
A couple of years ago, the lovely first lady of Momo handed me an envelope on my birthday. This is fairly customary on a birthday, but as she watched me opening this one, it was clear my wife was quietly delighted with her own work, awaiting the moment I would discover her experiment inside.
“A gift voucher. For a… sensory deprivation experience” I read flatly, with eyes a little more open than usual at that time of the morning in bed.
Caroline was clearly doing her much cooler equivalent of finger clapping in her head.
“On Southbourne Grove” I added.
She nodded like a sage.
Perhaps all my work already for Unsee The Future by then had sent some clear signals that I was in a very Open sort of place, and finding a womb tank on our local high street just proved too suddenly brilliant an idea to test my openness. Whatever Mrs Peach’s thinking, I found myself pottering past the post office and the General Store and Mr Barber’s and the eternal Panasonic copy shop to enter a health experience place I”d barely noticed before, a couple of doors up from the greengrocer.
Stepping into Yemanja Therapy ( https://www.yemanjatherapy.co.uk/ ) was just the sort of Sliders experience you’d want from a health spa, right there between the DEBRA charity shop and That Brilliant Store. It was calm, warmly scented and instantly another space entirely to the world outside, as founder Matt welcomed me with professional unfussiness to the changing room.
Minutes beyond, as I stepped into the epsom salts – wearing my shorts, this isn’t Holland and that’s another story – Matt gently closed the door on the flotation space and I lay back, letting the buoyancy lift me. The new age music slowly subsided with the twinkling LEDs overhead and I was left to drift into the abyss.
An hour or an eternity later – I still have questions about what year it is – Matt invited me out into the ordinary day and asked simply: “How was it?”
“I didn’t see the face of God” I said cheerily. “Ah, not this time, sir” he replied, with all the understanding benevolence of Mr Benn’s shopkeeper.
Folklore somewhere in the ether does suggest that people can face their demons in there. With normal sensory input deprived down to minimal, in a neutral fluid and total darkness, suspending you from the world as you’re used to receiving it. I was expecting from this something akin to my usual spiritual experiences – no cosmic fireworks at all, but a jolly nice rest. Perhaps I spend so much time on my own thinking up daft stuff, the universe is saving its more iowashic showpieces for those who aren’t already half in space.
Or maybe, Matt has yet to build a Faraday cage around his flotation tank and this might make all the difference, who knows.
In the concluding essay of his work, No Vantage Point, Duncan Speakman invokes an idea by Timothy Morton who, he says: “advocates for literary and sensory art works that pour in heightened awareness of self and environments”, arguing that: “the self and the world are intertwined.” As Speakman quotes him: ‘If we could not merely figure out but actually experience the fact that we were embedded in our world, we would be less likely to destroy it.”
Y’know, it all comes down to this, doesn’t it? As creatures on Earth, we’re evolved to be feelists, but we’ve not been feeling our biggest problems much at all. We’ve been comfortably numb. But only by steadily upping the dosage of sedation, I think. The sedation of distraction.
What are the experiences that could help humans wed to changing the world at the eleventh hour?
How noisy is your street today?
It’s impossible to say, speaking just a month into lockdown as I am here, if the coronarvirus pandemic is the sudden disruptive experience that proved a global turning point. The cost of it emotionally to us has barely had a down payment by mid April 2020. But it immediately illustrates a point, doesn’t it.
The quiet. The stillness. The slowerness. The clear air. The birdsong. The questioning. The very idea that locals can see the Himalayas for the first time in decades as smog lifts – it’s utterly heartbreaking. It’s grief unlocking.
Like the sudden roll-back of hatespeech here in Brexit-batteed Britain since we all began standing on our doorsteps at eight o’clock on Thursday evenings to cheer our care workers, so very many of whom have been foreign nationals brought in since the Windrush docked in desperation. It’s so immediately, connectingly moving. And it shows how fast things can turn around. Not just for fear, for hope.
The noise will come back. This is like a temporary armistice. But how might we turn it into a true amnesty?
Creatively, we’re going to need to make sense of all this. Work out what happened to us. To deal with Robot World System toxic shock, which is how I’d put it, should we be looking to immerse ourselves in experiences that switch off a lot of stimulus in order to heighten our senses?
Artist and storyteller Kim Arazi believes true immersion is unlocked by our wider human senses. And she’s produced intimate events exploring this.
Founder of Innosensi, she makes: “sensory experiences that make us more conscious.”
Though pro-tech, having worked in marketing the industry for years, she feels that sensory awareness is on the decline in our deeply algorithmic times. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report listed creativity and emotional intelligence as: “Among the top ten skills needed to succeed in the 2020 workplace,’ she says, “Yet it appears we are moving farther away from these skills and closer to becoming robots ourselves. Are we just making a market place that helps us become more busy?”
So she starting thinking of it from a more philosophical point of view. `’I started looking at VR which is very interesting to me as a storyteller – much more experiential and not linear” she says. “It’s a very out there idea, VR, but it could be very helpful for mental health and wellbeing, but” she felt, “the early adopting industries aren’t exactly bringing the best out of its potential.”
She summed up the kinds of conversations she was having at the time.
“What about children? Should we be concerned about them getting their hands on this, if they’re watching a war in VR? What about VR that makes people feel good? What about those with physical restrictions? And they said: ‘That’s not our problem. As long as we sell headsets.’ “Wow we have a problem. How is this making the world a better place and what are the potential fallouts of this. It started me thinking about tech for good.”
As she goes on: “All this tapping on phones all day long until we go to sleep is affecting us I think. The experience economy has risen out of that. People who’ve grown up only in this world are craving experience with touch and smell and feel and Punch Drunk and Secret Cinema and people are prepared to spend money on this. People feel they are lacking here and will buy this instead of products. They’re looking for ways to feel something, because they’re not getting it from their daily lives.”
“The missing link” she told me, “is we’re not talking about the different senses.”
She began to design work around commonsality – eating together. A family ritual that modern life has gradually atomised.
“We’ve lost this,” she told me. “To tackle the big issues – which we have to, we have no choice – the dinner table is a much better place to do this than a talk. Food has a magical quality for our minds. It works across culture and language, breaking bread together. Food is the most experiential thing there is.”
So why not create a dining experience to connect with a global issue. One in which tech might help, she said, “but only if it truly adds to it. If tech is not connecting us I won’t use it.”
Her first event was Root To Flower, the story of the seed in the ground becoming the tree. She developed a meal around plant based eating and zero waste, with each course using a different part of the plant. But guests had their bare feet in soil, under the table, and the whole progress of the meal was multisensory. Touching and feeling everything, taking in scents and soundscapes. Celebrating nature and the planet and putting people right back into it.
“This takes people into an experience that we’re not used to. It’s almost like a meditation on the plant. People really leave having tasted the food with all senses” she said.
Essentially, Kim believes, we’re going to have to sense the future.
Seems some way from a workplace experience rooted in education that: “Still rewards numeracy and fact memory. We’re still rewarding the same old same old” as she put it. Which hardly seems fit for a workplace removing automated tasks from people and expecting them to major on creative analytical roles. “I want to change that” Kim said. “I want to prepare leaders for navigating the uncertainty. How do you navigate that? We can’t access all these great skills and qualities for being human without tapping into our senses. This is about conscious leadership – we need emotional intelligence and empathy, and our senses help this.
“Like active listening,” she illustrated – “how do you do that if you’re not even used to thinking about what listening IS? These are the skills to teach leaders for the future.”
As many artists seem to feel strongly, and hearteningly, making immersive experiences isn’t about reaching for an Occulus Quest and trying to overcome latency and processing with sheer force of tech zeal, hoping that participants will play along and accept they’re absolutely eight feet tall and blue and live on Pandora or something. It’s about true theatre – and this can be done most immediately with sound. When we met in a corner room of the Dyson School of Engineering in Imperial College London at the start of the year, I’m not sure there was one of us around the experience wizard table that hadn’t physically blindfolded its audience in some performance or other.
Immersion can more easily begin with your ears. With the age of the image more than a century old, we’re used to our eyes lying and our eyes are tired.
Eyes are also a lot harder to convince. Ears perhaps go with the emotional flow more easily because they are more participatory in the making – they work in partnership with the imagination. A rather more personal experience and so arguably a deeper ownership of it. And that’s before you add the ineffable amphetamal alchemy of music.
Watching feels distancing, all happening out there; listening feels intimate, all happening inside. Watching feels like analysis, listening feels like connecting.
One of the most immersive and engaging performances I’ve been to was a piece by David Rosenberg and Glen Neath, Ring, who went to town with binaural recordings in headphones in a blacked out Pavilion Dance, and it was delightfully head-messing. In 2018 I opened my own test bed show Five Songs To Help Us Unsee The Future by making each audience member wear an eye mask, for very pointed narrative reasons; twenty years earlier, creative mate Adele Richard’s ambitious play John of Revelation turned all the lights out for the truly end of days Biblical bits for purely budgetary reasons. And it was sort of terrifying.
I know there are still enough of us directing visual media business who are old enough to remember the wizardy-witching quest to make special effects more and more ‘real’, to overcome technical limitations of film making and bring the fantastical to life so seamlessly you couldn’t see the strings or the mask lines or the back projection. But we’re at that stage now, and isn’t it so easily boring? How distant and unstiring and relentless big budget scifi is too easily, forty years after Star Wars first showed us how it could be done, unfathomably technical as the digital layers now are. They’re productions that produce working environments that look a bit like call centres.
It all seems more unreal, somehow. To me. Even in the beautifully physical, human films of JJ Abrams, film maker for a generation, the sheer skilful efficiency of the storytelling can feel by the end like just a branded theme park ride. And those just aren’t a very meaningful thrill.
The truth is ironic in light of this. ..Because as Jon Dovey said: “We are all already immersive” – we are designed to interact with our environment across multiple vectors at once, not simply through conscious narrative.
So the question might be, where is the media that reveals things?
Speaking by quietening. Showing by taking away. Connecting by slowing.
This doesn’t mean that VR can’t be used to do this.
For one thing, if used as Kim Arazi sometimes uses it in concert with other sensory input – flavour, scent, texture, ritual – it can be arresting theatre, heightening awareness. But I also found myself opening the door to becoming a believer in the potential of our comparatively clunky, primitive chapter in VR as it is when I first met XR creative and film maker Nina Salomons, introduced by New Breed director Karla Morales Lee, who had invited Nina to share her work at a Think Sprint event in the Wellcome Collection’s grand medical halls late last year. Nina believes XR can be having an impact on society, but that storytelling is key.
She’s been taking a programme of VR workshops into prisons, to work with inmates in a range of ways. Ostensibly to help unlock training engagement for them with work simulations, it’s obviously demonstrated too what creative therapy can look like – experiencing different aspects of rehabilitation, even just as simply as being in a foreign environment for a short spell. Attendance at her events went up and up.
And testimonies from the men she worked with illustrate how impactful these experiences were.
“I’ve been in jail twenty years and today has got to be one of the best. I’ve experienced something different that makes me realise that we are all human. I haven’t felt like a ‘prisoner’ today – thank you.”
It’s a principle illustrated just as beautifully by Samantha Kingston’s piece, Anonymous. One half of the VR marketing business Virtual Umbrella, alongside Bertie Mills, Sam is used to helping her clients and partners tell better stories around their experience design, but one day she realised she had to tell a story herself with the technology. A deeply personal one.
“I lost my mother last year,” she told me. “And I felt I had to share the experience of growing up with an alcoholic.”
She began to develop Anonymous instinctively, just weeks beyond her mother’s death, asking around friends and partners for gear and a good venue. Turning her professional advice to others into the cathartic experiment of art, responding to the urge to testify.
“Under the headset, it’s a very simple set up,” she said. “It’s just like sitting in that hall in Brighton we filmed in, with me as I talk. I realised I was writing myself into the five stages of grief and designed the piece around five chairs, for me to appear on, adding to the story.”
An intense grief process, publicly shared. But, she says, worth it: “It’s screened in various places, and I never just send it out, I always attend and pay attention to the environment of it, but people emerge very moved by it. And I didn’t even expect how much, sitting there in the virtual space, people identified with being my mum as they listening. Sitting in her shoes.”
As the wonderful Nerd Pirates twins, Violet and Lilly Adams told me, VR can be an empathy machine. “Tactile space, embodied space is where it gets interesting” as Lilly put it: “What would it be like to create a fragile experience?”
Which makes me think of Ben Dunks. A not at all physically fragile man whom I met at the Southwest Creative Technology Network showcase in Bristol, where he shared his work in progress developing an experience with residents of care homes. With a background in active theatre and contemporary dance, Ben has more recently focussed his work on creative movement programmes in educational settings – testing, and demonstrating, the principle that inclusive physical movement confidence-building has significant effects across other mental attainment. Such as schoolboys engaging with studies better.
But he wanted to find a better way to validate the apparent correlation between complex physical movement and cognition, and began to experiment with accelerometers and basic motion capture. His project, Renaissance, has been working with a group of very game participants with movement issues, older women aged between 70 and 85 who’d developed fear of falling. It was in essence a clever visualisation device, but one that relied on participation in physical practice – and it built the confidence of the volunteers immensely, as they watched their stick avatars follow their profiles of movement in real time on a big screen in front of them. It took them out of themselves, and out of the fear.
We had a go at one of his classes, alongside a couple of the older volunteers – I’m bummed I can’t remember their names – who seemed delighted to be sort of research tech life drawing models for an audience, and it all felt funny and freeing and interesting and empowering, even as someone still able to stand up (sort of) straight.
You could say, these designed experiences are illustrating a kind of invitation from our senses – that waking up to life perhaps begins with waking up to our true sensuality.
I think of my conversation with Lucy Robinson, and the idea that growth tends to be about emerging from a lot of pain.
“The beauty of humanity is it’s creativity” she says. “But the system we’ve put in place, ironically, doesn’t suffer creativity gladly. If you don’t conform to the system, it will eat you up and spit you out. The system looks after the system.”
She is conscious of how our experience of the world, our worldview, is so shaped by education. And she thinks: “It’s not designed to protect the dignity, creativity and uniqueness of the child. It’s there to educate the child in the way of the system, to conform. The most successful children in school are the most conforming” she thinks.
But are those of us manifesting more diverse sensory frequencies variables in the algorithm, as she puts it – invitations to change the paradigm?
“The neurodiverse are showing us that there is more to life. Delve into someone’s distress and it can make you ask why they are in distress. If there are people on this earth who need quieter environments, does this not require us to do that? And how am I responsible? It’s an invitation to inclusion. We’re built for inclusion.
“The expectation of the western world,” she concludes, “has been traumatising for everybody. There’s even the trauma of being a historic perpetrator, as well as for the victims. Those left behind, maybe trashed by the village, othered and excluded – they are the living invitation to change.”
In art, in creativity, we’ve learned to accept a lot of imitations, but accepting limitations is the real catalyst for inspiration, often. Boundaries to break out of – with some hard-won understanding. Perhaps we can develop those much needed new stories of us from the hibernation of grief. I find MARY Kouyoum-djian’s honest testimony resonant when she wrote recently: “I’m a Composer, and I Am Choosing Not to Create Original Art Right Now.” To accept absence and loss for a ritualistic period and not try to push on making and doing like nothing has changed. ( https://www.icareifyoulisten.com/author/mary/ )
With more irony, perhaps is this how a nihilistic generation learns that we are not a constant dot? The story isn’t all about us, even if it’s all around us.
With our lives on Zoom now, and stuck inside a lot more, we are forced to look outside through some very limiting aspects. We’re far from done with the picture frame. As film maker and dear mate Andy Robinson said: “My personal belief is that isolating a portion of the world – either through a window, or a camera – allows us to more easily grasp the whole. And that process goes back a lot further than the Lumiere Bros, or even the invention of the window. The frame is our ancestor’s view from the mouth of a cave, or the gap in a canopy of trees going much further back. It’s hard-wired.”
And he quotes G.K. Chesterton: ‘Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.’”
As in all things, the arresting experience of a global pandemic is arguably just a sharpening of focus on all the problems we already had. The panorama of symptoms we’ve been displaying under a kind of frantic sedation for generations. We’ve been displaying collective trauma for years without acknowledging it; I think the trauma of COVID19 is partly a more attention-grabbing invitation to face ourselves, face the context we’re really in. And, however we break it down, as life hacks or Sustainable Development Goals, to wake up to that colour wheel of awareness.
Because, as we notice nature more, either in the frontline battle with biology or in the odd stillness of our open windows, we should remember the butterfly effect. Because for as long as you’re able to draw a healthy breath, you are really alive and agent. What you do matters, even though you can’t see most of it from your vantage point. Living in the light of this takes not ritual or duty but some personal faith. Faith in the scale of the insanely significant, enormous experience you are in actual reality a part of – the utterly mind-blowing mad miracle of life in the universe.
That’s you, doofus. You’re up.
Okay, so as Joe Scott suggests, if everything we perceive is all just signals in the brain, maybe we’re only living in a simulation. If so, let’s hope it is more Inception than Matrix, because we really need to go up a level, closer to consciousness. A little further away from Dismaland.
How do we help each other face this? Well, hey, as founder of experience creators Seeper, Evan Grant, put it when I put a shout-out to friends asking what their favourite experiences were: “I believe the future of the present (gift giving) should be an ‘experience’ for all involved; not a resource-hogging material object.”
Kim Arazi said to me: “People are dying from lack of touch.” If that was true before any of us had heard of COVID19, what will be true beyond this experience?
May we all help each other find the gift in this one. And I think we’ll do so by acting it out.
As Mary Kouyoum-djan encourages us: “My humble hope is that after all this, there will be a wild explosion of art to celebrate. The Black Plague gave us the vitality of the Renaissance. The Great Depression gave us bursts of experimentation in cinema and music. Crisis after crisis, the flowers continue to bloom, artists create new work, we find the stamina to go forward, and life carries on. But let’s process this as best as we are able. Let’s be kind to our hearts.”
Simple players as we think we are, in coming chapters, we’ll need to explore experiences that help ordinary us lot become complexity-facing survivors. Truly, the old stories of us are looking more and more unfit to show us what to do now. So we should start by stilling them.
Because to become sensemakers, we may first have to come to our senses.
Perhaps opening up to it, letting go to lie back in the tank a bit, getting outside and listening to the birdsong a little longer, we will emerge from the quiet able to find the words to talk more honestly.
About how we really want to be touched.
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