Technology and ethics collide in the V&A’s exhibition, The Future Starts Here.
The slick and shiny Sainsbury’s Gallery could not be a better place for The Future Starts Here. It feels like a descent down the Dark Side’s stylish Scandinavian suite, complete with an angular oak staircase and glossy black balustrades. Fittingly, the exhibition comprising of 100 or so objects is a deep dive into the darker side of technology.
Conceived by a trio of architects, the V&A’s basement hangar is re-imagined into a patchwork of spaces with a plastic feel and a shiny, candy colour scheme. The exhibition is divided into seven themes reflecting the scale of the objects chosen. These start with the body, showcasing wearables and moving into the connected home; then through to communities and cities, infrastructure and outer space, and finally into the beyond: death. If that escalated quickly, then the mood of the exhibition is clear: curious and informative, but with a somber note reflecting the questionable ethics and unpredictable implications of technology.
Entering the exhibition, one is greeted by Brett the laundry robot. Charming and impressive though he might seem with his industrial grade-finish, first impressions lie. The attentive visitor will quickly realise this impressive machine is rather clumsy and lethargic, performing the task of picking up laundry with about the same success rate as a claw crane. The Future Starts Here includes several research prototypes like Brett, such as an interactive console and mirror, but these didn’t quite work. This in itself is an honest reflection on the current state of affairs; that is, the questionable technologies which immediately captivate the public attention are still often half-hearted promises.
Some seemingly less-snazzy artefacts were also on show. These included Facebook’s Aquila drone, which would provide internet in unconnected locations, the X-tigi phone with its battery life of 200 hours (that’s the number of hours most of us will work full-time in December) and the Mangalyaan spacecraft, which led the cheapest, yet most successful mission to Mars to date. These subtle technologies are arguably more hair-raising, because they address the core requirements of most future tech as we know it: reliable power, internet and concentrated knowledge. Such objects shouldn’t be taken for granted but often are. Aquila, for example, was easy to miss because the prototype was simply too big. A critique of the exhibition is that it’s hard to see the woods from the trees when imagining the future – at least from a practical point of view.
From another angle, the exhibition excels by including historical artefacts as context for each section. One instance of this can be seen when a multi-functional ring from Roman times is placed in the wearables corner; another is a scarf from the women’s suffrage movement featured in the controversial section on technology and democracy. Although some concerns about the consistency of themes exist (e.g. why is Kickstarter included in the section called ‘Is Edward Snowden a traitor or a hero?’, especially when a plaque on Snowden isn’t included) this doesn’t hinder the presentation of some good juxtapositions: should technology be pushed to revive the extinct Passenger Pigeon or should we focus our efforts on keeping current species from disappearing? Where should we draw the line when it comes using technology? Are designs for Foster and Partners’ Masdar sustainable city project too ambitious? How about Posvia’s Onkalo nuclear waste repository, which is expected to stand for 100,000 years or the Seasteading Institute’s plans for autonomous water settlements? Are these even the right questions, when fellow humans don’t even have a basic refugee shelter?
The main value of this exhibition is to start a conversation. The Future Starts Here is indeed a good starting point to contemplate whether the future is already here — it’s just not a very evenly distributed one.
The Future Starts Here ran at the V&A from 12 May to 4 November 2018. Click here for more information.