Futures? An interview with Sophia Al-Maria

After the interviews of Warren Ellis and Bruce Sterling for my book about the disappearance of "big futures", design fictions, the role of science-fiction, etc. here's the discussion with Sophia Al-Maria on Gulf Futurism:

Nicolas Nova: Gulf Futurism, as I understand it, corresponds to a clash between traditions and modernity in the Gulf, related with the pervasive influence of various sorts of technologies (smartphone, camera, networks among others). What makes it unique (considering other places experienced a similar influence)?

Sophia Al-Maria: My original thinking around Gulf Futurism as an umbrella term for a wide array of things happening to the people and the places around me was to do with the quiet tragedy occurring. People were losing freedoms and a grip on reality. They were narritivizing a history that never really happened. I guess I was also reading a lot of Baudrillard at the time and it all made sense, this sort of exodus from reality into something climate controlled and out of touch with ‘nature’ and truth. There was/is  an abdication of control to circumstance. An easy adoption of technology is also key. When I was 16 for a girl to have a mobile was shameful. Now my 12 year old sister has an ipad but barely enough to eat every day from the rations divvied out between 14 people in a on-salary household. The focus is totally upended. Survival = being on the next level. Not sustaining your body.

NN: How do you see the situation evolving in the coming years (because of social/political/technological change)? Do you see this kind of aesthetic evolving?

SAM: I’m wary of aesthetics. They are a distraction. And seem to be everywhere these days. Maybe that’s why I’m not a very good visual artist. Of course there are people forging an ‘aesthetic’ out of the cultural specifics of the region. See the GCC collective.

NN: How does this notion of Gulf Futurism translate into everyday life/culture in the Gulf? (I'm thinking about music, visual arts, everyday products, packaging)

SAM: The mall is the stage for the transitions taking place and so the most important symbol of Gulf Futurism next to the mobile phone.

I think there is a global alienation becoming clear in the sort of hyper-refined and homogenated corporate omni-presence. There was a charming sort of … amateurism – maybe that’s the wrong word but – yeah- something unperfect in local products or at the very least a cultural specificity in imports like Miswak toothpaste from India or dairy from Saudi which is almost gone. Now it’s the mallmentia effect. I can’t tell if I’m in Hong Kong or LA or Dubai half the time I walk into a mall and that happens more and more these days because the mall is the dominant structure of a certain class group of which I am part. I literally find myself in malls whether on holiday or on my way home from work or on a weekend even and I am frequently confused as to how I even got there. It’s a place of weird pilgrimage in an era where to consume is to absolve yourself.

Joyce Nelson compared the mannequins in store fronts to statues of saints and apostles at the entrance of a cathedral and the  changing room to a confession booth in her 1991 essay The Temple of Fashion and I think it’s true. An insidious evangelism has taken place without us knowing.

I observe this in the Gulf but it’s happening globally. Perhaps it’s more visible in the Gulf due to obvious cultural signifiers. And the darkness of things like segregation and the ‘public’ space of a mall becoming changeable.

futNN: Why "Futurism"? What's the future component of these phenomena?

Originally I threw that word out there because of the speed. The acceleration with which money has forced us to change, the speed of the hideous youth-in-car crash which is a daily sight. Bodies in the road. Casualties from our tiny local population lie on the side of the road in my daily commutes, thrown through their windshields, indifferent. There is a really bleak nihilism in youth culture. Also, I was thinking about the sort of basic concepts of ‘futurism’ in the classical sense before I had truly understood how dead the future is. I’ve gone through the process of grieving the ‘future’ as the 20th century imagined it. The Gulf is just a location where it experienced a brief flurry of possibility.

SAM: I'm generally intrigued by how cultural trends influence people's representation of the future. This is why I'm curious about Gulf Futurism. I wonder: how do you think such aesthetic and cultural phenomenon can be important or relevant for Westerners (let's assume there is such thing as "Western people")?

Assuming that, I think whatever aesthetic one might align with an idea of Gulf Futurism is again, a culturally non-specific one. A corporate one. An isolated one. A shiny, glitzy version of the dystopia rising elsewhere. Here you don’t have to experience suffering. It will be regulated, medicated etc. You don’t have to see the grist of the mill, they will be hidden as is the case with labor in the region. That’s not to say there isn’t a cultural stamp of Arabness on this. But I find it to be much more to do with corporate culture and aspirations and very occasionnally what shards are left of the failed utopic dream of pan-Arabism which sometimes rears its head in the Gulf in strange places.

“Computational journalism”

This idiom is new to me but I guess it makes sense these days. It's also an event ("symposium") with a live coverage here. The material in there is impressive and curious, see for yourself:

"Journalists and computer scientists increasingly are working together to develop innovative methods of reporting and telling news stories. Consider:

Why do I blog this? Im polishing a manuscript on algorithms and cultural production, which is strangely orthogonal to this set of examples.

IICloud(s) – Inhabiting and Interfacing the Cloud(s)

CERN, Geneva.

CERN, Geneva.

Update from the front here: a new project I recently started at the Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD – Genève) with my colleague Charles Chalas, along with Patrick Keller, Christophe Guignard, Christian Babski (fabric/ECAL) and Lucien Langton from ECAL, as well as the architecture team of Dieter Dietez (EPFL) and EPFL-ECAL Lab (Nicolas Henchoz) in Lausanne.

Funded by the RCSO (a local research body here in Switzerland), it's called "IICloud(s) – Inhabiting and Interfacing the Cloud(s)" and it addresses the design and the user experience of personal clouds. Here's the project proposal abstract:

This design research project explores the creation of counter-proposals to the current expression of “Cloud Computing”, particularly in its forms intended for private individuals and end users (“Personal Cloud”). It is to offer a critical appraisal of this “iconic” infrastructure of our modernity and its user interfaces, because to date their implementation has followed a logic chiefly of technical development, governed by the commercial interests of large corporations, and continues to be seen partly as a purely functional, centralized setup. However, the Personal Cloud holds a potential that is largely untapped in terms of design, novel uses and territorial strategies. Through its cross-disciplinary approach, our project aims at producing alternative models resulting from a more contemporary approach, notably factoring in the idea of creolization. From a practical standpoint, the project is intended to produce speculative versions of the “Personal Cloud” in the form of prototypes (whether functional or otherwise) of new interfaces, data processing, reactive environments and communicating objects. To do this, the project will be built around three dimensions forming the relevant pillars of a cross-disciplinary approach: interaction design, the architectural and territorial dimension, and the ethnographic dimension.


Our intention is to address the following questions with a series of workshops:

-    How to combine the material part with the immaterial, mediatized part? What functions are given concrete form through physical means and what others through digital means? Does physical concretization involve nearness to the Data Center? Can we imagine the geographical fragmentation of these setups? (Interaction design, architecture).

-    Might new interfaces with access to ubiquitous data be envisioned that take nomadic lifestyles into account and let us offer alternatives to approaches based on a “universal” design?[v] Might these interfaces also partake of some kind of repossession of the data by the end users? (Interaction design, ethnography).

-    What symbioses can be found by occupying the ground and the space between men and machines? Where and how is this ground, are these “expanses”, to be occupied? Are they to be camped in, to maintain mobility? Settled on a long-term basis? How do we factor in obsolescence factors? What setups and new combinations of functions need devising for a partly deterritorialized, nomadic lifestyle? Can the Cloud/Data Center itself be mobile [vi](Architecture, interaction design, ethnography).

-    Might symbioses also be developed at the energy and climate levels (e.g. using the need to cool the machines, which themselves produce heat, in order to develop living strategies there)? If so, with what users (humans, animals, plants)? (Architecture, ethnography).

More about it here.