Andy Field. London City Lab introduction

Hello All,

Once again this diary recommences as Urban Heat returns. After Cairo, Lisbon and Dro, this lab is in my own city of London, hosted by LIFT, and in striking contrast to the previous lab’s exploration of wilderness and environment, it will focus on our relationship to digital technology.

Nothing haunts our vision of the future quite like the spectre of digital technology, and little wonder when we consider the degree it which it has utterly transformed the world in which we currently live. In the course of my short lifetime digital technology has revolutionised the way we communicate and reconfigured our relationship to knowledge, power and society. It has built overnight empires of impossible wealth and created systems of control and servitude. It has remade war and capitalism, art and learning, and this is only the beginning.

The force and speed of this transformation has created a seemingly inseparable bond between technology and our conception of the future, a connection nurtured by the digital experts it remakes as modern-day prophets. This citylab will begin tomorrow at FutureFest, a two-day conference that describes itself as ‘a weekend festival of talks, experiences and debates to inspire you to change the future’. It is funded by NESTA, formerly known as the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and its speakers are an eclectic range of tech entrepreneurs, cyber athletes, video game makers, AI experts, technology journalists, multimedia artists and Brian Eno. FutureFest, by the way, should not be confused with FutureEverything, a ‘festival and innovation lab’ that gathers a strikingly similar group of people together ‘to participate in the emergence of a digital culture.’

On the colourful stages of expensive conferences the digital pioneers colonise our dreams of the future, painting vivid pictures of a Tomorrowland in which they can continue to rule forever.

Tomorrow then I will head to the Tobacco dock in Wapping for the first day of FutureFest, to dream dreams of the future in the half-empty skeleton of a century’s old warehouse. It is an interesting choice of location in which to ‘experience the future’, haunted as it is by a long, occasionally bloody and not entirely successful history of such grand acts speculation. What might such a place tell us about the fate awaiting our own visions for the future? What ghosts will we meet there? What warnings will echo around its memory-splashed walls?

The Tobacco Dock was built in 1811 at a time when the future was seemingly Britain’s to own. Only six years earlier, in 1805, the construction of the London Docks and victory at the battle of Trafalgar confirmed not only Britain’s maritime ascendency but also the intimate relationship the country nurtured between overseas conquest and the private accumulation of capital. This relationship would only grow closer over the course of the subsequent century as imperialists like Cecil Rhodes built their personal legacies on a national fantasy of perpetual growth. Inside the high walls of the Tobacco Dock private interest and national good tangle brutally together, propelled forward like Benjamin’s Angel of History; pursuing the collective myth of a perpetually expanding Empire upon which the sun could never set. ‘To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach.’ Said Rhodes ‘I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.’

Nearly 180 years later the abandoned and half-ruined Tobacco Docks became the site of another dream of future prosperity, albeit one more modest and parochial than Rhodes’ megalomaniacal vision. In March 1989 a shopping centre, several years and £17million pounds in the planning, opened on the site to grand fanfare and no shoppers. Blinded by dreams of being a ‘Covent Garden of the East End’ or a ‘Fisherman’s Wharf of London’, the owners failed to anticipate how people would actually use the shopping centre. By the turn of the millennium there was only a single café remaining in the otherwise empty building. The cafe struggled on for eight years on its own before finally closing, enabling the whole enterprise to lock its doors. The replica ships next to the dock are a legacy of this failed project, an attempt to conjure the memory of a long departed era of British wealth and power. The site is apparently now owned by a company called Messila House, a group of Kuwaiti property developers, and FutureFest is part of an ongoing attempt to revive the building as a conference and events space.

I am trying to imagine the future but I keep getting distracted by the past. The act of speculation, even the word itself, is so bound up with a history of bloody oppressions and failed ventures. Who can we trust to tell us what the future may hold, and what it is it we expect to gain from listening? I look at so many of these digital prophets and tech entrepreneurs and I see in their casual elision of private enterprise and social good the faint shadow of much earlier pioneers and their own dangerously grand dreams of infinite new worlds to conquer.

Alongside the Tobacco Dock the Thames is filled with boats, just as it has for many, many years. There are tall ships and water taxis, floating restaurants, amphibious tour boats, luxury yachts and Navy cruisers. There are the remains of old boats and probably the beginnings of new ones, and underneath them all gallons of muddy water, still moving quietly and forever out to sea.