9.30.2006

Leaping into the Bluetoothed Maw of the Future

I write this post from the massive WIRED NextFest that is taking place this weekend. The fest is a technological orgy and covers developments in the fields like healthcare, energy, transportation, entertainment, and of course, robotics. Droves of gawking onlookers, eyes glazed with childlike fascination, flock between exhibits and demonstrations in the massive Javits Convention Center. In the foyer, about a dozen people strum the invisible laser beams that serve as chords of a “lunar harpsichord” to make an eerie collective sound. Past that, videos documenting medical breakthroughs in molecular probes that identify diseases directly from genealogical makeup preemptively remind me of Gattaca. Next to that, a man runs his hands across a table, which is in fact an interactive desktop, to easily and seamlessly manipulate a birds eye view of Manhattan, as shown in Google Earth. On the other side of a curtain, a video simulation shows a man in his virtual kitchen in the year 2037, with a completely integrated interface that renders manually frying eggs a thing of the past.

These first few examples were among the more logical and impressive applications of technology to our daily lives as shown at NextFest. As I continued, though, I was somewhat disillusioned to find that the future of design lies in gratuitously interactive vending machines on which, if compelled, one can solve puzzles that upon completion play a congratulatory video. NEAT! The representative was quick to point out that the machine had two vending bays when one gentleman asked, “Isn’t this just going to piss off the guy behind me that wants to buy a soda?” Good thing, that.

Immediately adjacent to this technological wonder was the “Hug Shirt,” a futuristic, skin-tight, Bluetooth enabled garment with a network of sensors that, theoretically, simulate a personalized hug for the wearer. Designed for long distance relationships, distanced lovers adorned with their own Hug Shirts will soon be able to hug themselves to record and send eachother virtual embraces via cell phone. The implications are staggering.

One thing that cheered me up was seeing the designers of a future doorway scramble frantically to remedy a series of malfunctions that made their contraption utterly useless.

After spending an hour or two on the floor, I was filled with mixed reactions from all of these indications of our technological trajectory. On the one hand, advances in medicine, from three dimensional CT Scans to prosthetic augmentations designed to aid the sick and disabled as well as greener energy solutions that better utilize natural resources like wind, hydrogen and solar energy. On the other, completely useless novelties thinly disguised as progressive and beneficial that fed off of the wide-eyed enthusiasm of technophiles wooed by shiny gadgetry. Another disturbing element to the show was the corporate presence: young, entrepreneurial companies trying to stake their space in the financial markets of the future as well as the central General Motors exhibition advertising genuine interest in greener, cleaner vehicles for the benefit of the globe. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they were operating off of a different motive generally associated with the color green.

Nextfest was the violent collision of man’s ceaseless pursuits towards progress, self-preservation, efficiency, elimination of boredom, and absolute power. What I question is the deep conviction in our societal progress through what struck me as technological masturbation.

In a brief conversation with John Schott, he explained to me his vision of the future of the art world in conjunction with all of the wondrous breakthroughs on display. I wasn’t sure how to respond to his statement, perhaps out of a current sense of contentment or a lack of foresight or I don’t know…but the more I think about it, the more it strikes me that he is probably dead on in his assertion. It will take time to warm up to the idea after being a little overwhelmed today, but at the same time, part of me belives in the vast spectrum of possibilities using the tools of the future. My apprehension lies with the intention of the engineers, artists, and visionaries who will harness the power of our collective imagination and lead us onward - hopefully into a future that focuses on the well being of the planet and its inhabitants instead of the wanton elimination of minor burdens and advancement of consumer novelties. Time will tell..

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