Ingrid Burrington: So yeah. The title of this talk is Everybody Runs.” So, I am an artist and writer. This year I’ve kind of been oper­at­ing more I guess in a cura­to­r­i­al mode, more than kind of mak­ing a lot of new work. And this is part­ly because I’ve spent a lot of time being par­a­lyzed by crip­pling anx­i­ety and depres­sion that makes it real­ly hard show up for myself. But anoth­er rea­son that I’m going to talk about is that I’ve been think­ing a lot about futures, or the end of the world and dif­fer­ent ways that peo­ple man­i­fest futures and visions of the world and the world to come, and how that shapes the way that we live in the world now and the ways we think about in par­tic­u­lar technology.

And…I don’t know. Personally I think it’s kind of more use­ful to get a bunch of dif­fer­ent futures on the table and look at dif­fer­ent prac­tices and approach­es than be like, What do I think about this?” right. So a lot of what this is man­i­fest­ed as is kind of doing events and kind of gath­er­ing texts and putting peo­ple in a room. So this year I was run­ning Data & Society’s spec­u­la­tive fic­tion read­ing group, which was a super fun way to get peo­ple work­ing on dif­fer­ent sub­jects all together. 

"Apocalypse, Buffering" with a pixel art hourglass below

This was the title card from a pan­el I orga­nized for Theorizing the Web called Apocalypse, Buffering, in which I had three of my favorite peo­ple, Jade Davis, Damien Williams, and Tim Maughan— (Jade and Tim are here. I’m sad Damien’s some­where in Atlanta.) But I asked them write spec­u­la­tive dystopi­an fic­tion in the form of slide lec­tures for an aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ence. It was real­ly fun.

And this is a slide from a con­fer­ence that I host­ed here last week called Future Perfect. All of the talks are online. It was real­ly delight­ful, actu­al­ly. We got a good group of weirdos in the room. This is from the sec­ond panel.

But so one of the rea­sons that I guess I’ve been doing work like this, I’ve been try­ing to get as many weird futures on the table as pos­si­ble is because the truth is there are these sort of ubiq­ui­tous futures, right. Ideas about how the world should or will be that have become this sort of main­stream, dom­i­nat­ing ver­nac­u­lar that’s pri­mar­i­ly kind of about a very white Western mas­cu­line vision of the future, and it kind of col­o­nized the abil­i­ty to think about and imag­ine tech­nol­o­gy in the future. This year actu­al­ly is fun­ny for hav­ing a lot of kind of aus­pi­cious anniver­saries in this genre. 

So the iPhone is ten years old. And it’s not tech­ni­cal­ly a work of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion but I think of it as sort of an object that sort of fore­closed on a cer­tain kind of futu­ri­ty. This is a real thing that Steve Jobs said when he intro­duced the world to the iPhone.

Snow Crash is twenty-five years old, Neal Stephenson’s land­mark bro sci-fi nov­el. And while Mark Zuckerberg appar­ent­ly no longer makes the nov­el Snow Crash manda­to­ry read­ing for new Facebook employ­ees, which was some­thing that was writ­ten about in 2014, he’s still very hap­py to cosign on mak­ing the Metaverse a real­i­ty, with this turgid white suprema­cist shit­poster Luck— Palmer Luckey? Yeah. Horrible man. 

Anyway. I only have ten min­utes. And I’m at the end, and you guys will prob­a­bly want to get a drink. So I’m going to talk for the next few min­utes about a par­tic­u­lar case study of an arti­fact of the sort of dom­i­nant future ver­nac­u­lar whose aus­pi­cious sort of anniver­sary of com­ing into the world hap­pens to be today.

Still of a surgery scene from Minority report, captioned "We were promised cuddly lil eye laser spiders and all we got were fucking minions"

So on June 21, 2002, fif­teen years ago today, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released in the­aters and with it, mass media depic­tions of the future were kind of indeli­bly trans­formed. And I don’t real­ly want to talk to you about what Minority Report got right and what it did­n’t get right. Because the Where’s my jet pack?” con­ver­sa­tion is not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing. This is also true, though. 

I think that what I’m more kind of inter­est­ed in is what made that future desir­able? And maybe why it kind of has per­sist­ed as some­thing that’s desir­able. Like these are just some GIFs from some kind of cor­po­rate future con­cept videos—you can find a lot of these on YouTube—and it remains this kind of point of ref­er­ence for a lot of cor­po­ra­tions and PR flacks while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly for many oth­ers being seen as sort of this neolib­er­al dystopia or bane of a graph­ic design­er’s exis­tence.

So just for some con­text, how many peo­ple are famil­iar with the film Minority Report? How many peo­ple have seen it in the last thir­ty days? Okay cool, right, yeah. So, anec­do­tal­ly, and if any­one has an opin­ion on this please cor­rect me. In my expe­ri­ence of kind of talk­ing to peo­ple, espe­cial­ly peo­ple who work in the spaces of pol­i­cy and tech­nol­o­gy and soci­ety who often com­plain about this film as this kind of knee-jerk ref­er­enc­ing of the future, is that while most peo­ple can remem­ber kind of the aes­thet­ics and the inter­faces and sort of the vibe of the film, there isn’t real­ly a sin­gle line of dia­logue, or most of the basic plot premise that real­ly com­plete­ly trans­lates. And this could be because you know, the dia­logue includes such gems as, Look, I’m not with the ACLU on this, Jeff.” Or, In the milk, all they see is the future.” That’s now my favorite part of it. I can’t believe that’s not a constantly-quoted line. 

But I also think there’s some­thing very delib­er­ate about that. Like, the pri­or­i­ties that Spielberg him­self put into mak­ing this film, and the world­build­ing process that he used, was in some ways very much delib­er­ate­ly about kind of fore­ground­ing aes­thet­ics, fore­ground­ing tech, fore­ground­ing kind of a vision of a tech­no­crat­ic soci­ety more than any of the kind of pol­i­cy con­cerns. And I think that a lot of these works that are kind of one per­son­’s dystopia and anoth­er per­son­’s prod­uct roadmap have this qual­i­ty. They fore­ground the premise over polit­i­cal economy.

This is from a real­ly good 2012 Wired piece where some jour­nal­ists went and inter­viewed all of the con­sul­tants who worked on the film. And I don’t know how many peo­ple know this sto­ry. Back in the day, Steven Spielberg had all these tech­nol­o­gists and futur­ists and peo­ple from MIT and stuff into some hotel in Malibu for a week­end and was like, Tell me what the future’s gonna look like.” And this was peo­ple like Stewart Brand and Jaron Lanier. Douglas Coupland was there. It’s kind of a bunch of TED Talk-type guys were all design­ing the future. And some of this was based on you know, the work that they do as con­sul­tants kind of just fore­cast­ing what they could imag­ine based on real technology. 

Still from Minority Report showing Tom Cruise using a heads-up interface, captioned "This is Jaron Lanier's fault"

Some of it was bla­tant prod­uct place­ment. Lanier him­self was work­ing on stuff relat­ed to the Kinect around the same time. He brought pro­to­types to the meet­ing. I also like blam­ing him for things; maybe it’s unfair. 

Steven and I talked specif­i­cal­ly about cre­at­ing a new set of ver­nac­u­lar images of the future. Before then, the only images that any­body ever referred to were either Blade Runner or 2001. It was a very dark vision. Our goal was to get on screen a real­ly amaz­ing vision of the future that peo­ple would talk about We achieved that overwhelmingly.
Peter Schwartz [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

But this is a quote—I’m not going to read the entire thing to you but I’ll try to get through some of it—from that par­tic­u­lar oral his­to­ry that I think a lot about. You know, Steven and I talked specif­i­cal­ly about cre­at­ing a new set of ver­nac­u­lar images of the future.” I don’t know why they had such a prob­lem with images of the future look­ing like Blade Runner. But what­ev­er, that’s your call. But again, the point being like, the amaz­ing vision of the future was kind of more impor­tant than nec­es­sar­i­ly the polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of it.

Right now, peo­ple are will­ing to give away a lot of their free­doms in order to feel safe. They’re will­ing to give the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. far-reaching pow­ers to, as George W. Bush often says, root out those indi­vid­u­als who are a dan­ger to our way of liv­ing. I am on the pres­i­den­t’s side in this instance. I am will­ing to give up some of my per­son­al free­doms in order to stop 9‍/‍11 from ever hap­pen­ing again. But the ques­tion is, Where do you draw the line? How much free­dom are you will­ing to give up? That is what this movie is about.
Steven Spielberg, Spielberg Challenges the Big Fluff of Summer”, New York Times, 6‍/‍16‍/‍2002 [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And to his cred­it you know, Spielberg made some kind of state­ments about this. This is way too long to read you. This is from a 2002 sort of puff piece in advance of the film where he’s talk­ing about the sort of civ­il lib­er­ty impli­ca­tions. But he also says that you know, I’m on the pres­i­den­t’s side in this instance. I’m will­ing to give up some of my per­son­al free­doms. It’s kind of impor­tant to think about the fact this was also the first major sum­mer block­buster after 911, right. This is kind of the tone in which this tech­nol­o­gy is being pre­sent­ed to people.

And I think you know, it’s nice that he’s sort of think­ing about it. But ulti­mate­ly, what ends the pre­crime pro­gram in the film (spoil­er alert) isn’t a real­iza­tion of the gross vio­la­tions of civ­il lib­er­ties, or just the fact that it’s kind of just a messed up con­cept. What ends it is that they learned that the head of the pre­crime pro­gram mur­dered a lady and that he found kind of a flaw in the larg­er sys­tem that was able to let him get away with it. So it’s like a tech­ni­cal short­com­ing that means that the sys­tem might not always work? That’s what actu­al­ly ends pre­crime. It’s not actu­al­ly a dis­cus­sion of whether or not it was a good idea.

So again, there’s a lot of ener­gy put into kind of the world­build­ing of the film. But the nar­ra­tive arc is kind of just a means to an end to that world­build­ing in a lot of ways. And I think there’s a lot of real emo­tion­al invest­ment in the parts about Tom Cruise mourn­ing his son. And there’s not a lot of con­text giv­en to I think what is actu­al­ly kind of the biggest plot hole of the film. And I apol­o­gize in advance because I told you I was­n’t going to say what it got right and what it did­n’t. But I do think this is actu­al­ly kind of relevant. 

Still from Minority Report showing the precogs, captioned "TFW when your big data strategy is some orphans in a pool"

So the entire like, dri­ving con­cern of the movie is this shift where the pre­crime pro­gram, which starts as like a DC Metro crime-prevention strat­e­gy is going to go nation­al.” And there’s nev­er an expla­na­tion giv­en as to what going nation­al means, because at the end of the day the pre­crime pro­gram is these three chil­dren of drug addicts who have had muta­tions in their brain that made them psy­chic to see into the future, who can only work togeth­er when they float in a pool where all they see is the future.

So are they going to like, have to see every­thing in the coun­try now? Are there more peo­ple like them? Does every city get a pool? This is nev­er explained. And what hap­pens if one of them dies? Like, it’s the most logis­ti­cal­ly improb­a­ble prod­uct scal­ing plan I’ve ever seen.

And again, this is what the film real­ly got right. Because at the end of the day, this is a world in which state of the art tech­nol­o­gy ulti­mate­ly depends on and bot­toms out in the exploita­tion and emo­tion­al labor of a small group of peo­ple who are ulti­mate­ly already start­ing at the bot­tom rung of soci­ety, right. They spend their entire lives being sedat­ed through the process of con­stant expo­sure to trau­ma­tiz­ing images and data in the ser­vice, osten­si­bly, of main­tain­ing the peace but also kind of act­ing as pawns in the estab­lish­ment of this kind of super fucked-up world order of per­pet­u­al surveillance. 

And you know, that’s one way of talk­ing about con­tent mod­er­a­tion. And that’s one way of talk­ing about what the gig econ­o­my does to con­sumers who ride in ride-sharing vehi­cles. And that’s one way of talk­ing about what it’s like when I open a brows­er tab. And all of this is kind of to say that what makes kind of cyber­punk, my dystopia, your prod­uct blue­print” futures so endur­ing is that era­sure and under­min­ing of the actu­al work and pain that goes into build­ing those worlds. These are worlds that are kind of designed to make pain into some­body else’s prob­lem. And I think that the ges­tures towards what’s fun­da­men­tal­ly fucked-up about it in a lot of this kind of dom­i­nant cin­e­ma and lan­guage is just that. It’s a ges­ture. And ulti­mate­ly kind of what hap­pens to the rest of soci­ety isn’t that impor­tant until it makes Tom Cruise, a cop, have a hard day.

And I think try­ing to own the future through affect, through devices, through aes­thet­ics, with this sort of vague dis­missal of, or lack of com­pre­hen­sion of poli­cies, soci­etal struc­tures, and who ulti­mate­ly kind of bears the bur­den? Is kind of a piece of a larg­er, more kind of omi­nous world­build­ing that I feel like is part of the world we are liv­ing in today, right. There’s a longer thing about prep­per cul­ture that I was going to talk about but we’re def­i­nite­ly out of time.

Ultimately it’s a vision of the world where every­body runs. Everybody runs” was the tag line of the film. I think I neglect­ed to men­tion that. I would’ve been sur­prised if any of you remem­bered that detail but yeah, this is a world in which every­body runs from account­abil­i­ty, and from cul­pa­bil­i­ty, and from oblig­a­tion to oth­er human beings. And I hon­est­ly can’t think of any­thing that’s kind of more emblem­at­ic of the American Dream, in a weird way. But so… I don’t know. I’m run­ning out of time and I don’t have great answers of what it takes to change or resist these hege­mon­ic fea­tures. I mean, cur­rent­ly the rec­om­men­da­tions I’ve got are more futures, right. More nar­ra­tives. More kind of gath­er­ing. More dis­course. More worlds. More care. More human­i­ty. And prob­a­bly less white men. Thank you.

Further Reference

Event page