James Bridle: Moving beyond the fanfics of technology and place

The language we use to describe new concepts needs work, as marginalised ways of thinking hit the mainstream, argued James Brice at NEXT Berlin last week.

If the New Me is the person outlined in the talks during the early afternoon session on the Experience track, the future is an intellectually demanding place.

James Bridle gave us a compelling vision of the future, taking us on a roller-coaster ride through new ideas of space and place, from William Gibson using real locations seen on YouTube in his books, through his original idea of notional space that preceded cyberspace. It’s a place of ideas, where the walker, listen to music in his headphones, and the gamer, staring at a virtual world through the arcade machine screen, inhabits.

We dream into reality our new truths, he suggested, spinning off from the example of the Borges short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius in which a world initially found in the back of dictionary slowly becomes the real world.

“These are future truths – which are lies, but if we keep pulling them towards us, they will become true,” he said. And from there he took us on a journey through the rewriting of books, from the way that the writings of the ancient Greeks were preserved, but modified, by their passage through Baghdad and the arab world before they returned to Europe, to pirate translations of books finishing with completely different closing chapters in different (pirate) editions. This is an accidental example of a cultural phenomenon which is becoming intentional through the rise of fan fiction or fanfic. The erotic bestseller 50 Shades of Grey started life as fanfic based on the Twilight books – and the publishing establishment are sniffy about it because of its fanfic roots.

Gibson wasn’t a cyberpunk writer. He was a beat writer, creating his vision of the future in the voice of the beat writers. And others followed him – a form of fanfic in its own right – to create the cyberpunk genre.  And that had lead to its own spinoffs, like steampunk.
But there’s another form of fan fiction. A very specific one: slashfic. That’s where a combination of characters are written engaging in (usually) intimate physical activity: most classically Kirk/Spock from Star Trek. James suggested that was a manifestation of people’s sense of ownership of a communal culture and desire to be more engaged with it.
“Most of what we create in tech is fanfic,” he suggested. “Fanfics of Google or Apple or Facebook. We need more slashfic startups.”

Bridle’s also interested in the emergence of code/space  – for example an airport. It’s an environment co-produced by the architecture and the software. If the software that runs an airport breaks, it becomes a warehouse full of angry people. Supermarkets are code/spaces.

“We’re the thing at the centre of the code. The technology is full of our intentions and actions.”

There’s something beyond code/space. We’re building things and slapping old metaphors on them. eBooks are not like books. The internet is not a space. We need better metaphors.