hans_ulrich_obrist's picture
Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London; Editor: A Brief History of Curating; Formulas for Now; Co-author (with Rem Koolhas), Project Japan: Metabolism Talks
The Future Is Blocked To Us


In his poem of the same name (which also serves as the title to Adam Curtis' seminal documentary), Richard Brautigan portends a future "all watched over by machines of loving grace" or, by implication, "thinking" machines. In the following case I use the term "thinking" by referring to machines that think on purely algorithmic and computational lines; machines coded by engineers rather than those that might, or could be, truly sentient.

Adam Curtis argues that we are living in a "static culture," a culture that is often too obsessed with sampling and recycling the past. Curtis implies the risk that the age of the thinking machine is resulting in ossification rather than renewal. As our lives become increasingly recorded, archived and accessed we have become cannibals obsessed with consuming our history and terrified of transgressing its established norms.

To some extent, the future is blocked to us; we are stuck in stasis, we are stuck with a version of ourselves that is becoming increasingly narrow. No thanks to recent tools such as "recommender systems" we are lodged in a seemingly endless feedback loop of "if you liked that, you'll love this." As we might become increasingly stuck in Curtis' idea of the "you-loop," so the nature of what it means to be human might be compromised by job-hogging machines who will render many of us obsolete.

Machines will soon be able to do many jobs more effectively and more cheaply than we can. This Edge question points to the next chapter in human history/evolution, which would be like facing the beginning of a new definition of man, a new civilization.

A very opmitsitic approach to the question of machines that think comes from the legendary poet Etel Adnan who will celebrate her 90th anniversary in 2015. For her, thinking machines may think better than us, to start with because they will not tire as fast as we do. They may also ask questions we are not habilitated to answer. Etel has said that what has shaken her most recently is on another order. She saw the picture of a robot, a life-sized structure that looked like the metal armory of a medieval knight, and she immediately saw an old woman (or an old man) utterly alone, as so many are nowadays, having for sole companion such a creature-like objet, capable to do things, and talk, and the person falling in love with that which made her cry.

Last, but not least, the idea of the machines that think plays a role in the work of another artist, Philippe Parreno, who works with algorithms which for him have replaced cinema as a model of perception of time. In the last century with Deleuze writings on repetition and difference cinema emphasized that film unfolds in time and is comprised of ever differentiating planes of movements. As Parreno shows, Deleuze transposed those theories to discuss the mechanised and standardised movements of film a means of reproducing or representing life. Parreno's work with machines that think explores how today algorithms are changing our relation to movements rhythms and durations or to put it in Leibniz terms the question will be "Are machines spiritual automatons"?