The Crystal Exhibition: Determining the future?

The building
The building

The Crystal exhibit is a shining example of a futures exhibition, much like the modern equivalent of the Great Exhibition in 1851. The building is brand new, and looks much like a crystal from the outside as you approach via the new Emirate Air Line (effectively it’s a ski lift over the Thames). Both architecturally and visually impressive, the building literally practices what it preaches:

“The Crystal is an all-electric building that uses solar power and a ground source heat pump to generate its own energy. That means no fossil fuels are burnt within the building. The Crystal showcases state-of-the-art technologies to make buildings more efficient and also profiles Siemens’ Environmental Portfolio.”

This exhibit was impressive, set over two floors, a mixture of interactive and immersive displays helped the visitor explore the future. By showcasing global trends and challenges, it provides possible future scenarios and solutions to existing problems in areas such as environment, water systems, electricity, building materials and future cities.

On entering the exhibition I was impressed with its scale and design, yet the content left much to be desired. Here I will discuss two problems with this exhibit. Firstly this educational display presents a technologically deterministic view of science in the future. This perpetuation of a deterministic view of science could be dangerous. Secondly it presents a picture of science in the future as a truly dynamic one, where citizens have choice and community is key, yet it fails to communicate the contingency of scientific development, or its social construction. It omits to explain the process of reaching this future scenario; instead we just jump into a perfect technologically reliant future, which also happens to be directly promoting Siemens new products as part of that future.

Siemens future tube train

Technological determinism

It is difficult to predict the future trajectory of science and technology and the consequent impacts that this might have on society. However it is dangerous to present science and technology from a purely solutionism perspective. The exhibition’s centrepiece is a cinema room where the audience is presented with the future cities of the world:

“4.07pm New York, building facades trap CO2 and produce methanol for use as fuel. Renewable energy, efficient buildings and clean transport create the cleanest air since the industrial revolution.”

The presentation of technology here is angled from a technologically deterministic point of view where human actions are regulated by and reliant upon technology. Broadly speaking technological determinism has been defined as having two parts. MacKenzie and Wajcman have conceptualised these parts as; first, technological development happens in isolation from society, new ideas arise from internal logic and not outside influence. The second facet shows technological change causes or determines social change. This is a notion that has been mentioned by Feenberg in his categorisation of “unilinear progress” and “determination by the base”. Similar notions can be seen in the presentation of the future by Siemens. The people in the future city “do not just consume electricity, they also generate and store it. Many buildings harvest and store their own energy. Vehicles can use the surplus energy to charge their batteries. The smart grid directs drivers to buy energy off peak when the cost is low and sell it back to the gird at peak times. The city makes energy miners and energy traders of us all.”

 

The city ‘makes miners and traders’ of us all. Not only is this hugely deterministic, this message is imbued with the idea that technological progress has caused social progress, as technology has optimised human action.

This expression of technology as leading social progress in the future is one that should be used carefully. It is a model that makes most sense for many people’s experience of technology. “For most of us, most of the time, the technologies we use are mysterious in origin and design. We have no idea of whence they came and possibly even less idea how they actually work” Sally Wyatt

 Presenting a future where we rely on technology to make the best choices is an unsettling one. This is due to a growing dilemma; an increasing reliance on technology coupled with a growing worry about how to control it. In my work capacity, I recently asked a public focus group about the future challenges the world faces. The top problem they highlighted was speed of technological advancement and the concern that society is failing to keep abreast of its use and control. If Siemens are presenting technology as a future ‘fix’ to the world’s problems, it might be more advantageous to present some history of the future, which highlights the co-construction of these highly developed cities. To facilitate this Siemens should envision a society that might play a role in technological development rather than just being the passive users of technology.

Co-construction if not social construction

This brings me on to my second point; Siemens present the future use of technology as inclusive while strengthening democracy and communities. “Journeys across the city take people and packages from one mode of transport to another via mega hubs. Technology allows us to live efficient lives and this lifestyle allows people to join together, individuals are important but community is key.”

The Siemens future sounds quite close to perfect. The slick human-computer integrated systems of the ‘mega hub’ and ‘smart grid’ demonstrate that perhaps these technologies might have have developed in a co-constructed way, yet the Siemens exhibit presents technology as separate from society. “Many people work from home, switching between business and leisure, the real and the virtual, and this fluid lifestyle allows neighbours to join together”. Feenberg argued a similar point, that technology fundamentally changes the meaning of our world, arguing, “you are what you do, but also, you are what you use”. However if society had adapted to such a integrated and flawless use of technology, Feenberg would argue that feedback was necessary: “Technological knowledge is incomplete without the input of knowledge from experience that corrects its oversight and simplification”. Hofstadter makes a similar point about a tangled hierarchy between public and the experts, conceptualised as a ‘strange loop’. The Siemens exhibit simply fails to map out the politics of its future technology, denoted by the possible development of technology though the interplay of technical mediations and social groups. The exhibition therefore lacks an element of real plausibility that might make it more exciting to the adult audience.

 

It is clear that Siemens is driving its own agenda. In this ideal future, ‘consuming’ and ‘selling’ with regard to electricity, as well as ‘paying’ for goods and services, are still common concepts. We may assume a Siemens future would be one dominated by capitalism. As Feenberg suggested, technological development under capitalist enterprise has a very narrow goal – profit. Uniquely this also permits the freedom to pursue that goal without regard for consequences. Feenberg is correct; Siemens has not presented any possible consequences of their future technology, nor explained the role that society might have played in shaping it.

 

Visiting:

The Crystal exhibition is open Tuesday to Thursday from 10am to 5pm and Friday to Sunday from 10am to 7pm.

 

One Siemens Brothers Way
Royal Victoria Docks
London E16 1GB

 

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