Sept 8, 2012
The Edge of Reality at Improving Reality 2012

On September 6th, I took part in an excellent event organized by Honor Harger and Lighthouse in Brighton: Improving Reality, a "half-day conference which playfully and critically looks at how designers, artists, and makers are using various technologies to shift our perceptions of reality." Very much recommend checking out the videos once they are posted. I was part of a panel including Anab Jain, Leila Johnston, and Warren Ellis.

My talk was concerned with the strangely malleable qualities of time.
What if a digital photograph taken several years from now looks exactly like an image taken today? Digital content appears with minimal visual language distinguishing yesterday from tomorrow and today. Now habits have emerged in which we communicate with the past and even mistake it for the present. Is time itself something mutable on the web, available to us to reimagine and remix?

Here are my notes for the presentation:


image via Craig Ferguson Images

You've probably seen images of this place on Pinterest, your Tumblr dashboard, various curiosity blogs. This is the area known as San Zhr, outside Taipei. Beachside UFO summer pod colony.

Plentry of rumors accompany the many photo sets about it ...that it was haunted. construction was abandoned because it was an old burial site, that kind of thing. It was practically made for the internet to adore.

For years I’ve found this place bewitching. The shape... it's not a recognizable example of retrofuturist architecture like Matti Suuronen's Futuro houses or Japanese Metabolism. The size looks quite unpleasant, especially for more than one person, which vacation homes normally are. Who is going to vacation in a space that small? The way they are stacked, the colors — lavender, candy apple green, bright blues...not the white clean futurist vision we come to expect from this sort of design. And then that it's trashed, totally ruined, abandoned... the cheap materials, plastics, not build for longterm...inside is a mess of broken things inside, decaying, risky, especially the pods closest to the water... demanding of our sympathy.

I'd go back to these images and wonder what sort of person would want to live there? What are they like in person?

I'd always wanted to see it for myself but never thought I would. Taiwan isn't China or Japan or a country I was likely to ever visit. But a few years ago, I booked a flight to see a friend in Phenom Pehn. Turned out my flight from New York had a layover in Taipei.

I looked up directions to the UFO houses to see if I might have enough time to head out to see them before my connecting flight. It was just too risky.

But with that idea in my head, I was then driven. I just had to see it. So I booked a side trip, especially just to go there...

I bookedmarked many blogs, read the directions again and again. Take the metro, then a bus up to Danshui, stop by the Che graffiti and then past the gas station...there right there, on the side of the road, you will see them.

Well, eventually I was heading that direction for myself. Standing right in front of the Che graffiti, walking toward the gas station...

This is what I saw....

It was gone.

I collected pieces of the UFO houses like easter eggs in a field of dirt and rubbish, broken bottles and thistles. It was demolished by the time I got there.

Now to another part of the world. This is a photo of Port-au-Prince.

A few years ago, I interviewed documentary filmmakers who made a film about the used clothing industry's habit of shipping barrels full of unwanted clothes to third world countries. That's a photo of Haiti with hundreds of tshirts no one wanted from Goodwill or Salvation Army. Some donations do end up to use or for sale, but as you can see plenty were just rubbish.

A few years later. I was getting enormous traffic to my blog. Thousands upon thousands pouring in. I checked Google Analytics. They were going for this image. I later realized it was a first page image result for just the word “Haiti” in Google image search. This was the day after the earthquake.

Not only were they viewing the image. they were linking to it on blogs and on twitter. I was seeing people using this photograph as if it were an example of the earthquake's devastation.

But in fact it was piles of Salvation Army donations, a patchwork of discarded tshirts in the dirt. A picture from a few years earlier. It was history mistaken for the present.

To go back to the story before, there was something I didn't mention earlier about my trip to the UFO houses.

I knew they were gone just a few days before I arrived. Read a comment on a blog explaining that much. I was crushed. I mean, I was originally heading to Asia to go to Cambodia. To see Angkor Wat. Yet this was the place I bursting all over about in anticipation to see.

I had read the blogs obsessively, but it's easy to see how this would slip past me. You can translate the name of the neighborhood a few different ways, each of which would produce different English language results in Google. Wikipedia hadn't been updated.

Google privileges the relevant over the new — and our search habits on the web work the same. Why might I have guessed that after sitting there abandoned for thirty years, it would be gone just as I had the chance to see it? I made the mistake the people using that Haiti image had done — confused the past for the present.

I went out anyway, to see for myself, see the place in context, see if there was anything left. I stood there looking at my iPhone with Google Earth satellites telling me I should be in the middle of this fantastic place. But I was only standing in the pieces of what used to be.

The web has changed the way we think of time. We see examples of contemporary culture remixing the past, present, and future in celebrity holograms, instagram filters, WW2 in real time tweets.

We can communicate with the past online. Here you see, on an actress’s IMDB page. This conversation went on from 2007 to just recently. Who knows how long people will discuss “does she have a boyfriend or husband?" Until she's in a confirmed committed relationship? Until she dies? Until the end of IMDB? We've never had anything like this before. Messages in the bottle or bathroom graffiti never had a lifespan, accessibility, and community like this.

The mutability of time as its represented online isn't a cause for alarm. It's something we can play with, have a little fun —

Early last year, I logged in Friendster after many years of leaving it inactive. And it occurred to me...all these photos of me were old, my favorite movies, books, nothing related to the way I am today. Most of these “friends” I’d lost touch with long ago….it was all frozen in time from the last time I used it, about 2006.

And I began to wish there were a rewind button. That I could look at its first iteration. What I was like when I signed up for the service, my favorite books, my friends then.

So, for a laugh, I created a brand new profile. One as I would have created it a decade before. And I asked my friends — my new friends — to come join me there. These are people I didn't know then. I got to share my history in an unusual way — show what I used to be like. I would post status updates complaining about my job as a waitress or bragging about reading Ursula LeGuin….

This is what I sent out to my friends:

Friendster is 10: The Rules
Create a Friendster profile that accurately represents the way you were ten years ago. Think of this as a role playing game and your character is your past.. The point of this game is to interact with present friends as our old selves. It doesn’t matter if you were online much ten years ago or not

1. Photos: try to post an image roughly ten years old —or an image of something that you might have used as an avatar ten years ago

2. Age: if you were born in 1981 enter your birth year as 1991. If adding ten makes you too young to use the site, lie (as any good internet-using preteen would) and pretend you are 16.

3. Friend requests: you are welcome to track down friends from ten years ago, but what will really make this fun is using Friendster is 10 with current friends.

4. Invites: you are free to invite anyone, but just let them know the rules before they play

5. Interests: think about what movies and music meant something to you ten years ago. Here’s a good place to start: Pitchfork top 50 in 2002, Best books of the 90s, 90s movies

6. Relationship status: if you were in a relationship ten years ago, enter that. If single then, you are single on Friendster is 10.

7. Old profiles: create an entirely new profile for Friendster is 10. You can friend your old profile if you want.

8. Name: You don’t have to use your real name. This isn’t Facebook after all, and understandably you might not want this coming up in google search. But try to fill it out in the way you might have ten years ago.

9. Testimonials: On Friendster people wrote “testimonials” rather than public messages. Things like “Jack is a really cool guy and super great guitar player. We always have fun hanging out” (rather than “Hey, it was cool hanging out last night!”) But! Testimonials are kinda hard to write so a mix of both is fine

We stop “beta testing” on March 22, 2012, the tenth anniversary of Friendster. So keep it a secret — well, among friends I mean — until then. Ideally, we’ll have a pretty good network of activity built up in the meantime.

Ready? Great! Friend me!!! http://profiles.friendster.com/joannemcneil

I had in mind that this could escalate and perhaps we'd get hundreds to start using Friendster again as a social time capsule rather than a social network. Sadly, the site shut down on May 31, 2011. However time is represented online, we can't always count on the permanence of information.