Looking Forward: A Discussion with Oliver Hockenhull

By: Grace Jenkins

Photo Credits: Oliver Hockenhull, Ken Sakamoto

We live in a rapidly changing world, particularly when it comes to technological developments. I had the chance to talk with Oliver Hockenhull, a Canadian filmmaker and documentarian, about technology, the future of social media, and “The Sublime Horizon: Technoetics and the Arts of Tomorrow”, the new program he is putting together with the Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society.

The goal of this initiative is to inspire digital knowledge and critical thinking on advanced digital technologies, as they are applied to culture and the creation of art, among artists and Canadian citizens. It will include interviews with national and international leaders in the digital arts and aesthetic theorists. There will also be an e-publication that includes short science-fiction narratives that reflect on the content of the interviews, which will serve as intellectual probes into possible near and far futures.

We met on a brilliantly sunny January day at the VACS office. You could see Oliver’s passion for the topics as we spoke. He shared a quote from William Lyon Mackenzie, which stated that the purpose of politics was to teach people to take care of each other. Oliver believes that art has a similar responsibility but that it does so in a way of “meta-understanding or meta-culture, the understanding of culture.” Art not only embraces the differences between us, but embraces our love of those differences, and opposes of our fear of difference. A lot of artists, he believes, make art because they want to make gifts for the world.

The conversation turned to social media, specifically the tendency for interactions on social media sites to be extremely toxic. I suggested that one of the possible reasons for this is that the internet is still such a new medium. Talking to someone on Facebook or Instagram still doesn’t feel quite the same as talking to someone face to face. When you can’t see or hear the other person, it is easier to forget that whoever you’re talking to is an actual human being that your words have an impact on. Oliver proposed a solution in the form of some sort of colored globe that would float in front of you as you engaged with someone on social media. The color of the globe would represent the other person’s emotional state. Or, if you were wearing augmented reality glasses, there could be a digital animal, for instance a cat, that would be nice and cuddly or aggressive and stand-offish, depending on the other person’s emotional state. “Then [the interaction] would become more playful, rather than simply antagonistic.”

Oliver envisioned a social-media platform that would take the form of a virtual garden. Conversations and relationships would be represented by plants. Ones that haven’t been tended to in a while would be sickly and dying. These gardens could also illustrate how small our social bubbles tend to be. “You would have a kind of example of your isolation. And you’d be able to walk over to someone else’s garden. That is, if they have an open space.” Whatever form the social media of the future ends up taking, something needs to change to improve the way we engage with each other on those sites. “There’s no reason why those things couldn’t be possible. And Facebook is particularly bad… but there are people doing some wonderful things. And this is a stage. Hopefully it will be over fairly soon.”

There is no shortage of discussion and speculation about the negative impacts that new and developing technologies may have on our future. A decent amount of our science fiction is about advanced technology having disastrous consequences. And, in a world where we’re already seeing some negative impacts from technology on our present, it’s not difficult to understand why that is on our minds. But something Oliver said really stuck with me. He was not interested in spotlighting the potential negative impacts of new and developing technologies. While he recognizes and does not in any way wish to diminish those negatives — which are extensive and very rightfully of grave concern within the public sphere – for this particular project he is seeking to articulate and celebrate the ways those very same technologies will be able to help us grow as a culture, and that it is just as necessary to look forward with optimism, hope, and even excitement, while maintaining a critical stance. Oliver, for one, is interested in technology that has a level of aesthetic and cosmological engagement. He talked about how, unlike in the past, where cultures such as the Mayan, the Japanese, or the Christians had a unified cosmological understanding of the world, we are still developing a cosmological culture in terms of science. “I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet because we’re still young, still very early in our development.” He is also very interested in the transformative power of the digital, “because it’s all one language, it’s code.”

Something that Oliver would like to see in the future is the encoding of emotions into computational systems. He gave the example of Robby the Robot, a character from an old science fiction movie called Forbidden Planet. In that movie, an advanced civilization created a machine that they could hook their brains into and create anything they could imagine. The catch was, the civilization had not evolved enough to be able to deal with their “id”. It came out and ended up destroying their planet.

We may not have invented a machine that can create can materialize our darkest instincts yet, but we are facing a potential existential threat of our own creation. Oliver mentioned that, due to climate change, it is very possible that our future may never come. Especially because some people refuse to acknowledge that climate change is a very real, unnatural problem that we need to act quickly to mitigate. “It’s so clear that this is a hump.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently predicted that we have a twelve-year window to limit climate change to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. A change beyond that will have disastrous results on the environment. We are at a pivotal point in time in which we can act to change the trajectory of our planet. Or, we can ignore the science and continue pumping carbon into our very finite petri dish, in which case we are all doomed.

The decisions that we make now with regards to technology and the environment will greatly affect the shape our future takes. There is no stopping or turning back the clock. The future will come, whether we’re ready for it or not. Despite the looming specter of climate change, I left the interview feeling quite hopeful about the future of technology, humanity, and the planet. The technological world has changed rapidly over the past few decades. It will only continue to change. The ways that we deal with technology now will probably be incompatible with the technology of the future. “One of the things that we do recognize about tech, is that it will demand changes.” But with programs like “The Sublime Horizon: Technoetics and the Arts of Tomorrow”, hopefully we will be ready to embrace the future and the changes it will bring.

                Thank you, Oliver Hockenhull, as well as the Canada Council for the Arts – Digital Literacy and Intelligence Stream. You can find more about Oliver here.

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