Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace and Science Fiction @ Oxford University

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I have just returned from a three-day conference at Mansfield College, Oxford University in the U.K. with the title Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace and Science Fiction. As the title suggests, the conference covered a broad range of topics. However, an interesting core group of ideas emerged from what was essentially a three day discussion between participants that represented 17 different countries. I want to recount what I found to be the most interesting themes from the conference and to elaborate on some of the papers, which are all online.

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Cybergods and Critical Creations
The conference opened with a session on ‘Critical Philosophies’ and the first paper presented by Jordan Copeland from La Salle University in Philadelphia, USA. Jordan’s paper, Parable of the Prodigal Father: Creation as Criticism in Popular Cyberculture and Science Fiction, explored some of the parallels between depictions of creator deities in popular cyberculture and science fiction with Judeo-Christian conceptions of creation, going all the way back to their earliest Mesopotamian roots. The Bladerunner and Battlestar Galactica memes emerged with Jordan’s paper, and each would remain present throughout the entire conference. Humanity as pseudo-divine creators in a reality devoid of God provides a framework for the moral and ethical questioning of technology and science in each of the popular stories. In the struggle against their design, the creations of humanity refute the ‘plan’ and attempt to digress from it. In doing so the creation reveals the inadequacies of the creator and existence is shown to precede essence. Sofia Sjö from the Department of Comparative religion at Åbo Academi Univeristy, Turku, Finland address the changing nature of the messianic figure in popular science fiction when compared with Judeo-Christian traditions. Sofia found that “Contemporary science fiction saviors challenge ideas about the savior’s gender, traditional masculinities and femininities and also the community’s role in the apocalyptic struggle”.

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George J Stein, the Director of the Cyberspace and Information Operations Study Center at the Spaatz Research Center, USAF Air University, Alabama USA, presented a paper entitled Immersion and Surveillance in Virtual Worlds. Professor Stein stressed that his opinions are his own and not those of the USAF or the United States military in general. He then went on to present a fascinating account of the possibilities for virtual worlds when it comes to 21st century warfare and surveillance. Seeing virtual spaces as possible sites for illegal activity there has been signs of pressure from intelligence, security and military organizations to police virtual worlds. Beginning with taxation authorities and governments have been keen to monitor the activities of citizens in virtual worlds. At around the same time official organizations began paying attention to virtual worlds (read: Second Life) as a source of income for residents (around 2007), their attention turned to the possibilities for the unregulated spaces of the metaverse as a place for terrorists. George did not seem particularly concerned with the use of virtual worlds for acts of terrorism, but rather how these spaces could be monitored and controlled under the pretense of fighting terrorism and the effects this could have on the creative communities that make use of them.

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Mind and Machine Need Bodies
The division of mind and body under regimes of technology was another major theme of the conference. Benjamin Manktelow from Sheffield University presented a paper on how the mind/body separation is represented in the science fiction of Charles Stross and Richard Morgan. While I feel Benjamin’s assessment of the novels of Stross and Morgan were made from the perspective of a fan, the questions he raised in his presentation echoed over the following days of the conference.

The designation of the post-human was discussed at length during the conference. The human body as augmented by technology was discussed in relation to the case of Oscar Pistorius, a para-Olympian who campaigned to be included in the ‘normal’ Olympics, while having dual prosthetic lower legs. The concept of the enhanced human was raised by Fabio Fernandes in his presentation, bringing the history of Pistorius in relation to the science fiction Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. The uploading of consciousness into enhanced physical bodies was implied by Fabio as a way of understanding the possibilities for post-human identity. The vampire was also proposed as a post-human concept in contemporary depictions, who are now considered a desirable state of being, as “the years have seen a progressive taming and beatification of vampires, culminating in their being rendered into far more normalized creatures” according to Natalia Cherjovsky in her paper, From Demon to Redeemer: The Vampire as the New Post-Human Being.

Anna Bugajska from Jagellonian University, Cracow, Poland continued the post-human and the fantastic themes with her paper Human Magic, Fairy Technology: The Place of the Supernatural in the Age of Cyberculture. Drawing on parallels between blacksmith and shamanism, with the use of tools being related to magic, Anna proposed an interesting three part model as “the axes for the human predicament”. The three axes are the head of the intellect, the heart of the emotion and the hand of the tool maker. The converge point for the three axes is culture. The object for Anna’s investigation of the separations and convergences of the three axes is the Artemis Fowl novels by Eoin Colfer. Technology and magic join in the Colfer novels, whereby “we are so immersed in technology that even a young adult book is hardly understandable with knowledge of a specialized jargon”.

Information and the body as enmeshed structures for the creation of self-identity. was taken up in three back-to-back presentations by scholars of art and design. I do not think I was alone in finding the presentations under the heading Technology, Community and Anthropology thought provoking. It would take up considerable space to recount the notes I took during this session, so I simply link to the draft papers and abstracts. The images given to the world by the Australian bio-performance artist Stelarc are a source of the ideas expressed in these papers. To compliment the cyborg of technological augmentation, the paper presented by Kresnia Fedorova from the Ural State University posed the idea than a cyber-enhanced collective, both in the physical and information senses, could perhaps utilize its abilities to ‘return to earth’ and repair our depleted biosphere.

Narrative Strategies and Visual Codes
Narrative and various modes of visuality were discussed across the three days of the conference. I gave a paper entitled Reading with the Body: Interpreting Three Dimensional Media as Narrative. I attempted with the paper to present an outline of how reading can be described in the context of three- dimensional virtual worlds. I was joined in my panel by Lance Dann, who presented his transmedial narrative project The Flickerman:

The Flickerman is a multi-platform sci-fi thriller that was written and produced as part of a PhD in Creative Writing based at University Bath Spa and funded by the Society of Authors. By combining real world events, audience interaction, live writing, found online objects and uploaded ephemera The Flickerman’s narrative recreates traditional story telling as a digital audio bricollage, one in which the distinction between real space and virtual space is discarded and the real and imagined are seamlessly blurred. The series was launched in 2009 across Facebook, vimeo, SoundCloud, twitter, Facebook and iTunes, with the audio elements being broadcast on radio international (it is currently being serialised on ABC Radio National in Australia).

Also with Lance and myself on the panel was Kevin Veale from the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Lance investigated player investment in video games and how this resulted in agency in games. A lively discussion resulted from our panel, with augmented media networks and the worth of virtual worlds in narrative questioned as narrative systems.

The final presentation of the conference was given by HUMlab postdoc fellow Jenna Ng, with a paper entitled “We walk Amid Crowds, ride, fly, or fall with the Hero”: Avatars and Posthumanism (via Surrogates, Avatar and Second Life). Jenna presented an account of how “the senses are located and beckoned through the accumulation of visual information” in the virtual world of Second Life, based on a common experience of the avatar according to the two films under discussion, Surrogates and Avatar. Beyond this enhanced and heroic conception of the avatar, Jenna proposed that the ontology of the avatar in Second Life is grounded in the experience of daily life. In this configuration “the ideology of the human and of posthumanism in the two films may be re-drawn and re-explored, whereby the posthuman identity as interrogated through the subversion of the avatar/surrogate is not of disavowal of the body, but by commingling sensorium and image, so that the meaning and sense of self is no longer discrete but emerges from both body and representation.”

Addendum by Jenna: There is not much I can add to Jim’s great review above; he has pretty much summed it all up. One thing I do think is worth mentioning, though, is the ethos of the inter-disciplinary.net conference: it is one of the most truly collective and discussive conferences I have ever been to, and I have been to a lot of conferences. The ID.net conference is emphatic on discussion and feedback and, to that end, one of their modus operandi is to actively ban powerpoint presentations, something which I had a few misgivings about (visual aids can be helpful), but finally concede that the move does help in setting up discussion and interaction, simply because you focus so much more on what you say rather than what you show. I ended up tossing away my prepared paper – something which I have NEVER done – and just presented my argument in relation to other papers before me (something, I admit, which I could do simply because I was the last presenter on the programme), so instead of speaking/reading my prepared paper, I was actually dialoging. It was a really interesting experience. Basic things such as turning up for all panels, partaking in discussion etc were also emphasised, and it was a surprise how little emphases like that went a long way in encouraging participation. Going to conferences are for a lot of things, and not all of them invalid reasons, but I found the particular ethos of ID.net conference truly refreshing and revelatory. I have become a convert, and not least because Daniel Riha kindly invited me to be on the steering committee for future conferences. In all the incomprehensible jargon, annoying bureaucracy, chilling budget cuts, hoop jumping exercises etc etc of academia, it is actually nice to be able to simply focus on just talking in a group of like-minded people about issues, questions, ideas. As they say in ebay speak: highly recommended, will use again!!! /jn

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2 Responses to Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace and Science Fiction @ Oxford University

  1. SMD says:

    Sounds like an awesome conference. I would have gone, but I already had plans to be at another conference in the UK and couldn’t afford to fly there a second time…which sucks, because the stuff you talk about here sounds fascinating and absolutely up my alley.

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