In 2016, during a summer holiday, I participated in the Hardbakka Ruins Project workshop in Bergen, Norway. This artist-run summer school was my first encounter with the concept of a theory-practice get-together and, the subject of the workshop being the automation of labour, it was also my first encounter with the new-left philosophy of accelerationism. Specifically, the backbone of the workshop’s theoretical chapter was Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s book Inventing the Future, a bold manifesto for a world after capitalism and a plea for the accelerated implementation of automated technologies in society. Through Hardbakka and this book, I gained a new sensibility towards automation and technology, and this theoretical framing went on to become central to my art practice.
A few months later, I presented a proposal, loosely based on the larger premise of Inventing the Future, for a four-year artistic research project. And, though the concept of accelerationism plays, in the end, hardly any part in the text that came out of this research—the text you are currently reading—I see it as a catalyst for my explorations of automation, of computation, and of the role of the artist in an otherworldly vision of the future. My original proposal begins:
Estimates suggest that anywhere from 47 to 80 percent of current jobs are likely to be automatable in the next two decades.^ My research therefore focuses on the future of the creative and cultural sector and the opportunities that an imminent automation of work would entail.
Prior to Hardbakka, the reach of my artistic research was limited to the impact of industrial processes on nature—to our hubristic attempts to overcome the randomness of nature by developing artificial standards that counteract, improve, or augment our surroundings. Dikes, highways, quarries, tunnels, bridges, harbours, airports, concrete plants, man-made islands—infrastructural objects so large that they transcend the scale of the organisms that created them—were my fascinations. I was obsessed by our desire to streamline nature, to find perfectable systems and then scale them up to superhuman proportions. But it was not until 2016 that I could place this fascination in a larger framework.
Drawing as well on my work on normalisations and standards—cultural and industrial baselines for societal infrastructures or superstructures—during my time as leader of the arts centre BIN (Belgian Institute for Normalisation) from 2014 to 2016, I realized at Hardbakka that my interests all seemed to converge in one concept: automation. After all, what is infrastructure if not the standardised automation of the landscape? To shift from large-scale installations and urban interventions, which deal with standardised landscapes and normalised infrastructures, towards a study of the underlying dynamics of infrastructure and automation altogether seemed like a sensible next step.
Although I was influenced by Srnicek and Williams’s call for a fast-paced rush towards the complete automation of all labour, which would ultimately sideline the age-old class struggle of workers versus employers, I could not help but extrapolate their ideas towards yet another question: If every form of productive action is automated, what will we, as humans, do with our time?
The culmination of the automation of everything—the complete perfection of every highway, every conveyor belt, every logistics center, every production line, every refining process, every mining operation, and eventually every desk job, every management department, every service—would, in theory, lead to the liberation of working people, resulting in the triumph of free time over work time. Yet the question on what we would do with that regained time remains largely unanswered. Some gardening, maybe? Would we simply take care of our children or elderly? Or would that emotional labour also be included in this all-encompassing automation? Maybe, I thought, just maybe, we would all become artists. Joseph Beuys’s dream—everyone is an artist—would finally be made reality.
Our liberation from labour has the potential to keep us out of repetitive, mind-numbing jobs—roles we are given by an economic system obsessed with utility and in which art and creation seem to some like little more than frivolity—and to focus our attention on ever-renewing processes of creativity. With the limitations of time and the distractions of work out of the equation, art could take a central role in the lives of post-automation people.
But why stop there? It would be presumptuous to assume that the endpoint is art, which nurtures the soul, while automation nurtures all the rest. In a world of automated abundance, of robots and algorithms, of global interconnectivity, neoliberal market-management, digital cryptocurrency, nationwide surveillance, smartphones and smart homes, cities, logistics, and politics, who is to say that automation will stop at labour? With the development of new technologies, automation could theoretically enter nearly every aspect of human life, including artmaking.
I imagine the automated organisation of life and society to be like the organisation of container ships: 500-meter long behemoths are stacked with tens of thousands of standardised, 6-by-2.5-by-2.5 meter metal boxes, all organised in such a way as to keep the ship balanced and on course. The individual contents of each container unit has to therefore be quantified, registered, and input into the equation. Because ships pass by multiple ports, loading and unloading units as they move around the world, containers have to be placed sensibly: containers sent to earlier destinations have to be unloaded without necessitating the entire ship’s unloading. New containers are also added at every stop. Some also have specific requirements. Refrigerated containers need to be connected to the internal power system. Fragile contents need to be handled with care, and so bulky and less fragile containers need to be placed at the bottom. The ship then needs to pass through this organisational labyrinth fast enough, as if on a conveyor belt, sailing through storms, navigating difficult ports, and facing contingencies without deviation, in order to make the whole process economically viable. The ship exists in one big, perfectly balanced and controlled ecosystem of data, impossible to manage by humans without automated assistance. Now imagine the container ship to be a version of society. Clearly, the same technology, the same logic even, bleeds, through the growth of automation, from the industrial, infrastructural world into the social, political and, I believe, cultural.
The idea that automation is only going to affect labour, in the industrial sense of the word, is a fallacy. For one thing, the idea of labour is more expansive than to include just employment: What do we make of care labour? Or governmental labour? Creative labour? Automation also seeps into our daily interactions, coordinating aspects of human life that, per the accelerationist ideal, do not necessitate automation at all: sports, dating, cooking, entertainment, gardening, and so on. Even the creation of art is modified by the growing influence of technological automation.
As my research progressed, I started to discover the logical cracks in theories of accelerationism, in ideas of complete automation and of other techno-optimisms. Rather than just assuming that life would be free from the pressures of capitalism after the rollout of full-stack automation, I set out to identify those aspects of human life that would be truly impossible to automate. Or to at least find out which parts would be very difficult to place into containers. Above all, what I wanted to find out was if there is room, in complete automation, for blind spots, margins of error, or bugs in the system of total self-organisation.
Early on, I was fairly certain that art, in its current form and shape, would not withstand the progression of automation, nor would many other facets of contemporary life. In order to simulate this progression, I set out on a series of artistic experiments.
On multiple occasions during the past four years, I tried to ascertain the breadth of what this automated future promises. The concept of the meeting or gathering as the ultimate bastion of humanness returned to my practice multiple times: In 2018, I put together The Intercratic Experiment: Preliminary Meeting, a thought exercise on the possibility of an automated democracy. A year later, I helped to host The Last Meeting: A Gathering on Computational Governance, based on the premise of a post-automation society, which brought together artists and designers for a week-long workshop to drive the fantasy to its potential.
Other works of mine focused on the implementation of technology in the habitual and mundane to test both the limits of technology and the complexity of human interaction. Minecraft Ecologies (2019) was a 24-hour LAN party of seven players gaming and talking while their voices were recorded and automatically transcribed by a voice-to-text robot, an attempt to find the extremities of machine comprehension of a casual situation. Exhibition Insight Analysis (2018) did the same thing in the context of a museum, engaging visitors to have their voices transcribed during their visit of the exhibition. Reformator Universalis (2018) integrated pathfinding algorithms into a live laser projection, calculating and projecting ad-hoc paths in a large room for people to follow or divert from.
In experimenting with technology, I also formulated more analog approaches that dug deeper into the essence of automation and the impact it has on our logic of thought. 20.000! (2017) was a simple installation of plastic ball-pit balls in a gallery space. The balls were separated by colour at first, but as visitors moved through them, the colours started to mix. My goal was to see if people would take it upon themselves to rearrange them afterward, undoing their impact on the installation and resolving the chaos. Indeed, they did. RUMMIKUB (2021) was a performance of two players competing to be the first to finish a game of Rummikub on the first hand. When the game was not won from the start, they would just start over again, trying to beat the odds.
But after all this, I was no closer to fully grasping the extent of my initial question. The more projects and experiments I devised, it seemed, the further away from this central issue I would drift. An extensive deconstruction of the question as to what we will do in a post-automation society seemed only possible in conversation or text. So after many meetings, gatherings, readings, and discussions, I decided to plunge entirely into the matter and dedicate myself to writing through the questions that have come up through years of the research and through my career as an artist more generally.
I therefore advise you, dear readers of this publication, to understand it as a collection of thoughts, frustrations, and fascinations. Read it as a rant, a proclamation, a fantasy, or even as a very, very long manifesto. My writing can be cynical at times, dreamy at others, detailed and then ambiguous, scientifically philosophical and then artistically realistic, observational and speculative, and downright generalising. But it seemed to me, and still seems, that a text of this sort fits its purpose perfectly.
Over three chapters, I aim to address questions related to time and the unknown, to our place between past and future, to the role of the human in a world of automation, and to how this all relates to the practice of artmaking. Chapter 1 starts off with a deconstruction of the fictions we create in order to make sense of our environments—what I call normalisations. This sets up a foundation explored through the rest of the book: automation and all its exponents are derived from a human reflex, one based on our experience of time’s passing. First, I take on the concept of the inevitable future—the continuous progression of the future into the present and then past—as a primary fact of human life and source of creation. One such creation is automation, through which we can ensure that the future remains the same as the past, regardless of what it brings. Knowing the outcome relieves us from uncertainty.
The next step in the evolution of automation is what I label computation. Since automation only works when a system repeats the same action over and over again without fault or diversion, that system needs to be extremely precise. The more precise a process is, the more reliant and stable its automation is. But in order to make something more and more precise—infinitely precise even—we need to include all influencing factors. Transforming these factors into numbers and calculating with them—inputting and outputting numbers, quantifying everything, i.e. computation—is thus the only way forward.
The growth of computation as a device for stability demands a whole new kind of automation, and by extension a specific way of thinking: an analytical, sterile, and quantified view of the world, in which numbers and calculation weigh on every decision and in which quantifiable logic prevails. It is this computational thinking that I use throughout this book to describe the logic of calculation and quantified analysis when embodied by humans. When brains become processing units, bodies become biological robots: time becomes money, food becomes calories, steps are counted and tests are graded, movements are tracked and popularity measured in percentages. Computation’s feedback onto society becomes computational thinking.
In Chapter 2, I elaborate on this feedback. Where Chapter 1 points out that the constructions we create in order to deal with the future are nothing more or less than fictionalisations, this second chapter points out the necessity and use of these stories. By expanding on the notion of roles—individual positions within a community—I highlight the societal impact of automation and computation, specifically its impact on the personal stories that we use to find our places within a communal whole. Computational thinking influences the way we perceive our usefulness and practicality, and the way we determine the extent of that functionality. It also, in turn, influences the way we understand our own personalities and identities as fitting into particular societal roles. After using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, for instance, a personality test used in many corporate human resources departments, we might begin to see ourselves as perfectly aligned with one of the sixteen personality types it offers.
Computational thinking becomes ever more deterministic in the world of online gaming. Roleplaying games in particular are perfect simulations of what a completely automated “real-world” environment might look like. Computer games such as World of Warcraft render highly controlled habitats in which each player’s narrative approaches the repetitive and statistical maximum of computation. Even in the most complex narratives, players take part in games of quantification, trying to get the most benefit from the minimum amount of effort by sharing strategies and results in online community fora.
In this way, roleplaying games are also social. Groups of people join together to live in a virtual fantasy world, where they recreate the dynamics of the real world. They push the boundaries of the virtual limitations, find loopholes and glitches, and experience digital life in ways often not intended by game developers. Roleplaying games teach us how the automated future can be manipulated, and what aspects of social life might have a chance of surviving in it.
Despite their mathematical cores, games are defined by narratives that mask their computational framework: their developers colour them with heroic, epic stories, fantastic worlds, distant lands, and mysterious cities. In other words, their lore is what gives them credibility. Computational thinking deals with narrative credibility systematically, reusing tropes and plots and backstories over and over.
This repetition notwithstanding, it becomes clear in looking at games that we still long for progress through our narratives. In Chapter 3, I discuss the play between nostalgia and transcendence, between longing for a return to bygone times and for a leap forward, and question how these concepts are products of our reaction to the progression of time and our desire for stories. Ultimately, we expect our narratives to move forward, even when getting there means travelling back in time or beyond the realms of what is humanly possible.
At the heart of computation is a paradox: computational thinking simultaneously promotes transcendence—giving us expectations that we will be the hero in any given story—and negates it—disabling our every attempt to transcend our repetitive natures. Ironically, it is this same dream of transcendence that led to the proliferation of computational thinking, automation, precision, and control.
With this paradox in mind, I go on through Chapter 3 to critique those extreme ideologies that promote transcendence as the only option for confronting the future. I argue that unrestrained techno-optimism will lead us to a dead end, where repeated technological improvements will be continually presented as new, radical steps forward, as in online roleplaying games. People convinced by transhumanist dogma—harbouring the belief that humanity’s only role is to bring about the next phase in evolution through, for instance, artificial intelligence, bio-engineering, or intergalactic exploration—are stuck on a nostalgia trip. Prevailing computational thinking in contemporary society has already encased any idea of a grand leap forward in fantasies and science-fiction mirages. What remains is sentimentality, a vision of a return to nature, either by resetting society, by travelling to other worlds to start anew, or by enclosing mankind in a techno-governed resort where all our desires are catered for. This does not differ that much from the nostalgic sentiments of techno-pessimists, who also dream of a return to nature, albeit by rejecting technology altogether.
What I propose instead is an appreciation of the middle ground, where we are not affected by grand visions of leaps back or forward, but are instead concerned with the problems of daily life—tasks of maintenance and care, restoration and renewal. I here intend to glorify the mundane, to champion the everyday and the pragmatic as suitable means by which to confront an anticipated, automated future.
Finally, in an attempt to bring all these thoughts back to the starting point of this research—to define what we will do in a fully automated world—I return to my initial question: Will we all become artists? To answer this query, I define life as a roleplaying game, offering nine possible roles for the artist, or for anyone willing to play their role.
I would like to thank everyone who was in some way involved over the course of this four-year research, starting with my supervisor Bert Willems. I cannot express my gratitude enough for your help navigating the previously unknown territory that is artistic research. Thank you for giving me the opportunity and the freedom to embark on this unconventional artistic journey, for supporting me both inspirationally and administratively, for allowing me to travel, to participate in international events, to set up experimental get-togethers, for guiding me through complex matters, and most importantly, for your readiness to listen to my every growing list of ideas and concepts, however ridiculous or insane.
Many thanks also to my PhD commission, Oswald Devisch and Patricia Reed, for agreeing to assist me on this endeavour. Thank you for the many hours you dedicated to reading, discussing, and traveling. And thank you for finding room in your already incredibly busy schedules to listen to my inconsistent reasonings and ad-hoc ideas. I sincerely hope you have gained from me at least a fraction of the inspiration I have from you these past few years.
Thank you Sarah, for listening to my rants, each week a different topic. Thank you for your love and support, in particular during this past year of isolation and writing. Thank you for pulling me away from screens from time to time. Thank you for all the inspiring pep talks and insights. Thank you for everything.
Thanks also to my parents for supporting me in all my ventures unconditionally. You always know when to say the right things at the right time. Without you, I would never have been able to get to where I am. You are the best! Thanks also to Rist, Dorien, Vital, and Cecile, for being the most amazing family anyone could ask for.
Many thanks to Andrew for the many talks we had before and during the research. I’m extremely glad to have you as the editor of this publication. Thank you so much for all the time you have put into straightening out my crazy concatenations and weird wocabulary. I don’t see how I could have written this without your help, either in content or form.
Thanks to all my friends, in particular the honourable members of the BVO: Jasper, Andreas, Rafaël, Xavier, Dylan, Wouter, Anton, Stef, Pepijn, Maxim, Christophe, Nick, Steven and Joren. Thanks for keeping me grounded.
Thank you Ans and Liesje for organising The Last Meeting with me. This event was of the utmost importance to my research. And thank you Ben, Camille, Erika, Erin, Karolien, Nastya, Armen, Rik, and Michelle for participating. We had the craziest ideas, and I loved every moment of it.
Thanks to Martin, for building the different projects that contributed and still contribute to this research in Weimar, Berlin, and in Turnhout. And thanks, Aaron, for assisting me in many of them.
Thanks Stijn, for pushing me to apply to the PhD program, and for all the advice and opportunities within the PXL. Thank you Karolien, for being so helpful and chill with all the administrative tasks. My apologies for all the late submissions and partial requests.
Thanks also to Louise and Frederik for allowing me to tinker with unfinished projects and experiments at CIAP. Also, my apologies for all the stress I have caused, but know that it was all worth it for me!
Thanks to Elise, Frank, Robbert, Frederiek, and Giuseppe for all the interesting advice and discussions. You are some of the brightest minds I have ever met. Thank you also for participating in the Intercratic Experiment.
Thank you Alison, Dan, Philipp, Maria, and Lars for organising the Hardbakka Ruins workshop. Without your insights and knowledge, I would never have had the inspiration to start this research.
Thank you to my World of Warcraft guild, REHAB, for reintroducing me to the insane realms of massive multiplayer online roleplaying games—for research purposes of course. Thank you Usmu, Asom, Leli, Nunus, Nadia, Larivara, and Syfilys for spending countless hours with me discovering this digital world of wonders.
And a big thank you to Frank Motz and the entire team of the ACC Galerie Weimar for having me as a resident at the very beginning of the research.
Every inch of space in your head
Is filled up with the things that you read
I guess you’ve got everything now
— Arcade Fire
We cannot predict the future. We are condemned to live in the present, undergoing what is to come and wailing, through our lifetimes, on what has passed and what is past. This condition, however—the human condition—has never stopped us from trying. Vigorously, we attempt to install systems through which to glimpse the future. To explain the caprices of nature and the universe, we bring to life fictions—emotional superstitions that provide us the answers of tomorrow and give us peace of mind as weapons against randomness. Entire civilisations have found their origins yearning for imminent, all-encompassing relief from the curse of not knowing what tomorrow brings. The difficulty of navigating a convoluted web of infinite possibility gave rise to evolutions and revolutions in science and technology, in social and political structures, and in culture and the arts—in whatever it is we call society today. Our awareness of our inability to deal with the burden of the future and our ensuing struggle to counter or dismiss the cards we have been dealt are no less than foundational to human life on earth.
As I write, the coronavirus pandemic continues to engulf the planet. A lockdown of all civic life, here imposed by the Belgian government, forces me to stay at home, alone with my thoughts and ideas. Closed shops, closed bars and restaurants, cancelled events and flights, and ghostly streets are already familiar, normalised after a year of abnormality. This crisis of exceptional proportion first brought social life as we know it to a halt more than a year ago as of this writing. Now, by the spring of 2021, our behaviour is altered in myriad ways, for better and for worse. Until the pandemic, gardens had never before been this organised, walls never painted with such care, and children never given so much attention from their parents—many of whom are now, or were for a time, unencumbered by work or other routines. Reports of domestic violence, meanwhile, had never been this high. After the initial round of lockdowns, poverty and unemployment rates skyrocketed, as access to paid labour was instantly restricted.
Our individual responses to unknown states of being have painstakingly divided us, both mentally and physically. Yet they have also exposed the erratic behaviour of the collective, of society as a whole, when the notion of a fixed, reliable tomorrow disappears. Everything becomes “now,” when everyone’s future is cancelled; the entirety of the world becomes “here.” The crisis has left me, as it has many others, with little to do through 2020 but to attempt to make of the future something more than a hazy mirage on the horizon. When the habits and the repetitions that define the past are no longer possible, every day becomes an emergency. Everything becomes now.
Through unprecedented actions—shelter-in-place orders, border closures, and a myriad of sometimes draconian policies—the nations and people of the world have more and more desperately attempted to control a situation that has so transgressed our expectations of the future that it shakes the very foundation on which this civilisation has been built. Of course, this is what defines a crisis: a paradigm shift that modifies the shape of the future. During a crisis, everything that is presumed normal is questioned; we actively deconstruct the mechanics we normally use to make sense of the world. But this one in particular reveals that our acculturation to a future somewhat like the past—one that does not digress too much from the habitual, one that has grown so strong over the years that we have disposed of many of our contingency plans—has been expertly filed away.
Still, I wonder if this is not an aspect of all ages. The ability to predict the future was never ours, and even with the necessary provisions to face a myriad of possible futures, we have always had instances in which we were not prepared. Nevertheless, every generation actively attempts to model a future that resembles its past. In the words of David Hume, written in 1739:
We may observe, that the supposition, that the future resembles the past, is not founded on arguments of any kind, but is deriv’d entirely from habit, by which we are determin’d to expect for the future the same train of objects, to which we have been accustom’d. This habit or determination to transfer the past to the future is full and perfect; and consequently the first impulse of the imagination in this species of reasoning is endow’d with the same qualities.
Hume expresses an age-old sentiment: that our habits and past experiences define our expectations of the future; that after day comes night and then day again; that the rivers flow downhill until the end of time; that everyone who is born will die—that the future resembles the past. He also claims, in the same paragraph, that an irrational assumption forms the basis for rational thought and that imagination itself originates from the supposition that the future will not digress from past experiences. It is with this notion of the future that I look at the present and see it just as Hume did, in his time, in the past. Yet it is a completely different world that I see.
They say history repeats itself. I say it never really has—that is, not until now. We finally have the tools to make true repetition possible. Yes, crisis is a thing of all ages. There have often been moments when the future does not resemble the past. But in the past few decades, we have become experts in proactively designing the future by copying the past through the use of technologies that did not exist in Hume’s time. Seemingly infinite ledgers of computational installation allow us to accumulate and subsequently recreate unimaginably detailed stories of the past—i.e. data—and project them forward. Statistical abstractions of the world refine the events of nature into probabilities rather than possibilities, outlining a universe in which certainty is based on the past, and the randomness of the future is ostracised and delimited ahead of time. Algorithmically generated imaginations, built on data gathered in the past, are translated into the languages of finance, industry, politics, and ultimately society as a whole. It is then particularly painful to see that when the essence of this society, the order of human life, is afflicted by a crisis—a crisis that has been modelled repeatedly, long foreseen by scientists and researchers all over the planet and taken into account in structuring national healthcare systems, transnational health organisations and diplomatic medical agreements—it sweeps over the world in a way that no prior preparation had anticipated. When the future diverts from its projected trajectory, through the events of a crisis, the tie between future and past breaks.
With this writing, I would like to offer an insight into the mechanics of this evolution. In an attempt to describe the tendencies which both govern and disrupt our perception of the world, this exposition will dissect the origins of our collective relationships with the future and build on from there toward the current state of things. I will ultimately suggest some possibilities for the future, bringing past, present and future together into a generalist observation of the progression of time.
As I wade through the days of COVID-19 in relative solitude, I realise that all I know is my own experience and perception of the world, gathered during my mere thirty revolutions around the sun. I can offer you nothing more than a reflection on my own observation. After that, there is only speculation. As I will declare in the chapters following, the act of speculating is itself an illustration of the future based on the past, and so I do not want to imply that my ideas of the future will help us better our anticipation of it. I am confident, however, that through speculation, we can become more aware of the biases that control the present. I have therefore tried, with this writing, to go beyond the now, to not linger too long on the past, and to look over the event horizon that is the future. Of course, I have necessarily failed to do any of these things, as I am merely human, and human existence, as we will see, is but one dramatic, consistently failing attempt to control the unknown that time and space bring upon us. So here is an ode to uncertainty, to randomness, to complexity.