Dark Futures conference: We've created a monster

Mixed-mode reality. Psychological manipulation. Social isolation through urban design. We're at a transition point between the web as we know it, and the web as we don't know it.

Nick Black, Nik Badminton, Kharis O'Connell, Ryan Betts
(l-r) Dark Futures presenters Nick Black, Nik Badminton, Kharis O'Connell, and Ryan Betts. Surveillance photos by Jordan Yerman

Imagine a future of socially isolated, virtual-reality-addicted web users who off-gas personal data by force of habit. Welcome to Dark Futures, a glimpse at a tomorrow which we've worked very hard to build for ourselves, sometimes with no idea what we were actually doing.

The Dark Futures mini-conference was organized by Nik Badminton's DesignCultureMind and hosted at Microsoft's Georgia Street offices. Developers, technologists, and designers gathered in the semi-darkness. The gloomy weather outside matched the dystopian themes we explored. Here's the recap, but take heed: it may make you want to destroy your smartphone like Jimi Hendrix torching his guitar.

Dark Cities

Interaction designer Ryan Betts talked about how hubris, expulsion, and isolation have come to shape the modern city, and what that means for the people who call it home. To look at a city's urban design history, said Betts, is to wade through a cascading series of failed plans. While urban density peaked in 1894, urban growth has not. How growth has been handled, said Betts, has not always worked out for everyday people.

Urban renewal, all the rage in the Sixties, epitomized what Betts called the hubris of modern urban design: the elites presumed to know what was best for all the workaday people struggling to survive. 

This twee video from 1960s Vancouver epitomizes that hubris –– the notion that you can just move people around a city like chess pieces, whether they want to move or not.

Urban renewal in North America was a dismal failure, as has been well documented; and Vancouver managed to avoid that pitfall thanks to fierce local activism: "We dodged a bullet, it would seem," said Betts.

However, we stepped right into the path of another type of bullet. Political and financial instability in other parts of the world ripple like tidal waves, where they hit our shores. Betts echoed urban planner Andy Yan in pointing out that Vancouver has become a "hedge city", where the world's wealthy park their money in the form of real estate. This influx of wealth warps real estate prices, making it harder for a city's actual residents to get a foothold. This is obviously an issue in Vancouver, and has impacted many aspects of city life.

A city then experiences expulsion, said Betts, in which the rich end up congregating in neighbourhoods from which the rest are excluded. China's Hukou system is an extreme version of expulsion. A de facto caste system, Hukou is a household registration system that basically tells you where you have to live. In violating the system, you end up as an illegal immigrant in your own country. The Hukou system is not uniformly enforced, and the Chinese government has realized that it must allow more migration between rural and urban areas if it wants its economy to function. The apotheosis of expulsion would be somewhere like Rio de Janiero, where the government knows it needs to send militarized police into the favelas to keep the peace, but doesn't quite know what is actually going on in those narrow streets. There are two vastly different worlds in one urban area.

Ryan Betts
Ryan Betts

This moving and stacking leads to isolation. In 1985, said Betts, the average social support network consisted of three people. "As of 2004, that's down to two people," he said, noting that some surveyed cited zero people in their support networks: "This is even more protracted of a problem in residential towers... where people report feeling lonely and crowded at the same time."

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