Homo Reparans

In their preface, the curators of Ars Electronica 2010 sounded pretty alarmistic. Not to put too fine a point on the summary, you could phrase it with “the world is on fire, act now, there is no time for pessimism (or maybe even thinking)”. Before I went, I had my doubts whether a call for immediate action combined with an apparently clear goal to get the world “back on the right track” (i.e. repair it) would get us into a mode of “no alternative” (TINA). If there was no alternative, asking questions, reflecting, disagreeing would have to be regarded as a waste of time…

Tove Kjellmark's "Destruction of the Ego" Robot needs a repair

 

Technology and democracy

Of course, you can read the initial statement as a provocation, and the actual discussions were more balanced and aware of the two sides many measures to “save the world” have. The relations and tensions between technology and democracy formed a core topic on this festival around “Art, Technology, and Society”. Andreas Lehner of the CCC underlined the importance of hacker organisations for democracy with a quote of Albert Einstein: “Think also about the fact that it is the engineers who make true democracy possible. ” But while they (often) lay the foundations and enable communication and exchange, in a democracy, they should not be the ones to take decisions. As Amelia Andersdottir (MEP for the Piratpartiet) reported from her own experience, many decisions in today’s politics come prefabricated from expert organisations like the WTO. The European or national parliaments have little left to change – and often lack time and expertise to fully understand the concepts and even more to improve them. Additionally, more funding and experts form an advantage for large companies in the competition of opinions. This is not a conspiracy by “them” (a somewhat diffuse enemy Ralf Schmerberg wants to bash in his movie Problema), but a self-reinforcing process that needs to be changed.

216 prepared dc-motors/filler wire 1.0mm by Zimoun.

216 prepared dc-motors/filler wire 1.0mm by Zimoun.

Privacy

Today’s technology even enables a level of hypercommunication that goes further than most of its users want it, into the most private aspects of life. Google Streetview and Facebook were not in the center of discussions but a permanent subtext. (Maybe this is also because today’s developments in this area spread in realtime and solid critique is delayed, as Geert Lovink put it).The Austrian philosopher Andreas Hirsch even claimed that there is nothing left but an illusion of privacy. This brought up a fruitful debate with two remarkable statements:

Even this illusion is still valuable to Derrick de Kerckhove, because as long as we think of a private space, we can also think of a public space, reserved for arguments that are not meant personal. Joitchi Ito, who actually lives a pretty transparent life himself (deliberately), still was not convinced: Privacy is needed so that civil actions gain enough momentum before they are under public/governmental control (and possibly restrictions). If their is no private space anymore, there won’t be any strong impulses for the public space, the res publica. Privacy is an essential prerequisite to make “repair” possible for re(s)publics and democracies.

(You could also think of China as an extreme form of the expert society refered to by Andersdotter above, which might prescribe unacceptable standards for your way of life.)

Ars Electronica Courtyard

Courtyard of former Tabakfabrik, the venue of Ars Electronica

Open tools

A strong grassrootsmovement (at least at ars electronica) is dedicated to opensource technology. Open software is much more common and accepted today (just think of Mozilla’s Firefox), but it is not software alone anymore.

Unhappy with today’s versions of social networks, Maxwell Salzberg presented the Diaspora project that aims at making the flow of (user) data more transparent and thus giving users a better control of privacy (Gert Lovink added similiar projects like GNUsocial, AppleSeed, and status.net). I personally find this extremely important, not only because of the significance social networks have today, but also because the architecture of the new systems will have to offer solutions for some tricky problems (like interoperability, widespread acceptance, ease of use).

Head mounted eyetracking set

Head mounted open source eyetracker (hardware side)

When you hit the borders of opensource software, you will soon want additional hardware. The Free Art and Technology Lab, together with the Graffiti Research Lab, Open Frameworks, and the Ebeling Groupcreated a do-it-yourself eyetracking system (with claimed 50$ costs in hardware) called the Eyewriter. They initially created it for a friend who suffers of ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Desease and can’t moeve anything but his eyes. While eyetracking as an expensive technology is not new, this package of hardware instructions and powerful software puts it into the hands of everybody, to explore, adapt, and improve.

MakerBot

MakerBot in action

Material/3d printers used to be another high-tech, high-cost device. Now there is the makerbot to print out the 3d models of the general public. And from being the attraction itself it already tends to become a supporting part of other artworks, like in Daan van den Berg’s Merrick.

Oribots by Matthew Gardiner

The parts of Matthew Gardiner’s Oribotic project are also created with a 3d printer.

Even “bio technology” is now tinkered with. There are more speculative designs for debate, like Catherin Kramer’s Community Meat Lab. It combines the (future) in-vitro growing of meat with a community based form of production. While open sourcing biotec, she also tries to avoid the gap between food producers and consumers of today’s industrialised supply systems. Ready to build (it yourself) are the low tech/recycled The Windowfarms Project by Britta Riley.

Windowfarm

Britta Riley’s Windowfarms

Interestingly enough, considerable exhibition space was given to industrial companies in the Repair Fair – some of them surely a proof for former utiopias and brave enterpreneurship. Other big ones like Siemens or Linz AG apeared in a strange contrast to the rest of the exhibition, being as responsible for the often bemoaned state of the enviroment as well as potential contributors to “reparation”.

Repair for originals!

For many people who create opensource technolgy today, disassembling devices because they were broken has often been the first step into working with technology. This is contained in one of the statements in the platform 21 Repair Manifesto, (to me) one of the most important documents of the ars:

7. To repair is to discover.

[…]

10. Repairing is indiependence.
Don’t be a slave to technology – be its master. If it’s broken, fix it and make it better. And if you’re a master, empower others.

Woolfiller

straight forward repair by filting in situ: Woolfiller by Heleen Klopper

Additionally, they gave me a very enlightening explanation for “authenticity”, the feeling that certain things are somehow weaved into our personal history. We often tend to cling to old stuff, even when new products were easily available (a marketing department’s nightmare: happy people don’t buy new stuff, and authenticity is hard to synthesize). When you repair something after an accident or because it is worn out, you focus especially on the parts of a thing which make you aware of your “common experiences”. And repairing causes an self-reinforcing exchange with a thing: you dedicate time and effort and this makes it even more important and unique to you.

9. Repaired things are unique.
Even fakes become originals when you repair them.

Shoe Goo Repair

At the Shoe Goo repair station, Arne Hendriks applies “street knowledge” from skaters to make you shoes live longer.

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Out of the Order

versatile vehicle to fix all kinds of problems, in Switzerland

Ars Electronica 2010 takes a car repair shop point of view on society. Something is wrong with the world, we see it everyday: economy is causing more troubles than it solves, our ecosystem appears to be exploited beyond its limits, and a general felt lack of influence on political processes makes us feel helpless. We need to fix that.

Fix what?

Repairing something means that it is out of order, out of a state how it should be, how it was designed. It sounds like an engineer’s or expert’s perspective, starting out from a blueprint and a good plan.
While this makes pretty much sense for devices, it is leads to interesting consequences when applied to society and also myself (“Repair yourself” is part of ars electronica’s programme).

It starts already at the most prominent crossing of technology and society, the internet: The way it was originally designed and how it is used today are pretty far from each other. Now, various parties would like to “repair” the net – one extreme wants to have far less checks and control to enable a free flow of information. The other extreme wants to turn the web into a highly regulated marketplace where companies authorize any transaction to ensure their profit share. Both parties think there are some mechanisms out of order at the moment, but they think of different “orders”.

Fix how?

Ideally, one would think of society as a (big) assembly of people who negotiate how they want to arrange their social rules, their interactions with the environment, etc. (some copyright by Habermas here). Of course, this is not how it works because we all have very different capabilities to express ourselves and convince others (you can also think of money as a convincing factor), resulting in different powers to form society.

But also when leaving that problem unconsidered, the current state of society is something that has been negotiated in countless discussions and ballots. What we see today has never been planned for. There are some blueprints for the process itself, and people might come with blueprints into the discussions. But the result is usually far from these blueprints, it’s something most people can live with, a compromise.

So, the result is the opposite of a plan, and even more, it gets continually altered, rearranged, “improved”, like a garden. Like plants and herbs, people also act autonomously. Can you repair a garden?

Since this year’s motto raises a lot of questions, you could consider it a good one. I’m really excited and curious about the answers the speakers and artists will bring along.

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