Thursday, 26 April 2012


At De Montfort University, Hugh Aston Building this evening, for Sue Thomas's Professorial Lecture, The Future of Cyberspace. This is my second visit to Hugh Aston today. I was here this afternoon for the launch of the new PhD internship scheme, jointly offered by De Montfort University and the University of Leicester.

Now, before talking about the lecture itself, I have to start by crediting Prof Sue Thomas as having been one of the biggest influences on my post – though without her intending it, or knowing it. As founder and guiding spirit of Amplified Leicester and CreativeCoffee Club (for the years it was funded by DMU), she's helped create many opportunities to meet, connect with and get to know interesting people, many of whom were interested in me and my work for Leicester Council of Faiths. I've come to rely on many of these people as part of my professional support network. Some are my friends. Sue didn't do this deliberately of course, nor did she do so deliberately for me. Undoubtedly there are many people able to say similar things about how they've benefited from Professor Sue's work. It was largely through situations and networks she established and into which I was welcomed that I came to see how my work (and the institution I work for) could be located within varied, often surprising, strands of the wider cultural life in the city of Leicester - and beyond. Significantly, it was also through these networks that I became aware of the affordances of social media and how I might exploit them in my work. My involvement with CreativeCoffee Club and Amplified Leicester helped set the tone for the last four years and more of my work. For good or ill, faithful reader, you could call Prof Sue Thomas the Godmother of this blog! After all, I'm a big fan of giving credit where it's due.

In the earliest days of my post when I was a bit clueless about how to get off the ground, I attended the second-ever meeting of CreativeCoffee Club, back in the days when it took place at DMU Graduate Bar every other Wednesday morning (handy for me, since I lived only ten minutes walk from there at that time). Some folk wondered what, as an employee of a faith-based organisation, I was doing there. There were times when I wondered that myself! But this was the first such group I was able to tap into - and the beginning of serious networking on my part over the last five years.

I wasn't part of the first, formal iteration of Amplified Leicester (which was essentially a course) though I wish I had been. I reckon I was not only the first person to apply to be on it, but also the first to withdraw my name. I just couldn't make that kind of regular weekly commitment fit my unpredictable work pattern at that time. So I could have been a peripheral figure as far as Amplified Leicester was concerned, but I wasn't content to let that happen either. I still got as much as possible out of that, even if I had to do so as a twelfth man.

Both CreativeCoffee Club and Amplified Leicester feature extensively throughout this blog (see, for example, the post on Amplified Communities of Faith or Belief, a panel presentation that Sue asked me to convene at Phoenix Square Film & Digital Media Centre, Wednesday 23 March 2011).

Well, as far as this evening is concerned: it starts off typically, for a Sue Thomas event, when we're asked to ensure that our phones are turned on, so we can tweet throughout, using the hashtag #technobiophilia. Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace is the title of Sue’s forthcoming book, due out in 2013. Find out more about it here. I'm unable to do much tweeting, as there's no service for O2 in the lecture theatre.

Here's Sue's own synopsis of the main themes of her lecture, taken from her website:
The act of entering cyberspace was, along with the entering of outer space, one of the most profound experiences of the twentieth century. In 1969, humans landed first "on" the moon (July), and then "in" cyberspace (September) with the connection of the first two nodes of the internet. Today the mountains of the Moon remain neglected and unexplored, but cyberspace has evolved into a deeply familiar habitat whose geography has been shaped by those who built and used it. This lecture will explore the evolution of the landscape of cyberspace from its creation as an unpopulated wilderness through its exploration, colonisation, cultivation, settlement and growth, and offers some predictions for the future of this most exotic place.

Rather than paraphrase or summarise the whole lecture (succinct as it was, lasting hardly more than 35 minutes), I advise you to follow this link to the slides. I'll pick up on a few things that were of special interest to me though.

It's hardly possible to discuss the future of cyberspace without reviewing its past and considering how it’s come to its present situation. To this end, we kick off with a fascinating video, The Internet of Things. In her review of the past and present of cyberspace (the realm we enter when we connect to the internet), Sue pays special attention to its relationship with nature. As the lecture progresses, this becomes her central concern. There’s long been an assumption that one is opposed to the other, that the virtual world and the natural world are mutually exclusive – an assumption Sue tests out in different ways at various points this evening.

Sue highlights how the metaphors we use to talk about cyberspace (and our experience of it) are so frequently drawn from nature. This is of special interest to me as it connects with Lackoff & Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980) a book that I've long found influential. But natural things don’t naturally belong in cyberspace. We put them there because we want them to be there - and this is a function of biophilia (definition: “The innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” E.O. Wilson, 1984).

Biophilia is not just aesthetically pleasing. It soothes us in cyberspace. Sue extends Wilson's definition to the new term, technobiophilia: “The innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes as they appear in cyberspace.

Sue leaves us with a vision of the future of cyberspace involving, at the very least, not seeing it as being oppositional to nature. Being connected to one doesn’t necessarily mean being disconnected from the other - indeed the only viable future for both involves reinforcing that relationship, which might take us down some unusual and unpredictable roads. This is illustrated with a weird and wonderful video, Philip Beesley's Hylozoic Ground. This term, hylozoism, is a new one to me: the philosophical point of view that all matter (including the universe as a whole) is in some sense alive. Now there’s food for thought!

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