Revisited: Creating Minds

29 Oct, 2013

Revisited: Creating Minds

Creating Minds, an academic conference on reading and writing in the digital age held on Wednesday, October 23, was a huge success with over 300 attendees throughout the day's talks and panels.

The conference formed part of a constellation of events taking place in the Bay Area on the "Futures of the Book," and was hosted by the Berkeley Center for New Media in partnership with the Books in Browsers conference, swissnex San Francisco, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, and the Goethe Institute.

Creating Minds stimulated a discussion on the radical, surprising, and unpredictable reorganization of cognition that has emerged from the revolution in the digital production of texts. Presentations examined how the essence of human expression – in art, design, literature, games – has been completely reoriented by digital technologies and their social effects, and how the post-industrial economy is transforming the nature of capitalism in a digital age.

The morning speakers all worked at the intersection of writing, publishing, and critical thinking. They questioned how new technology and new forms of mediation have affected old practices, such as narrative, that are deeply embedded in the human experience.

The talks began with François Bon, an author and publisher. François Bon is deeply concerned with the future of literature, and this interest led him to launch his own epublishing platform ( and guide aspiring young writers as a professor of experimental creative writing. Born in 1953 in Vendée, France, François Bon completed a degree in engineering before publishing his first book, Sortie d'Usine (1982). Since 1991, he has focused particularly on experimental creative writing, and currently teaches this subject at Sciences Po Paris. He delivered his talk "Already Beyond the E-Book Age" appropriately from his ipad, and inspired reflection and argument online with his bold claims, such as the internet being largely a promotional tool: "google yourself and you find yourself."

Martin Zimper, Head of CAST/Audiovisual Media at the Zurich University of the Arts, Department of Design, followed. Zimper teaches production and audiovisual content for online and mobile media and tablets (animations, web documentaries, webisodes, interactive infographics) and how to reach and develop online-audiences. He is also an international Keynote Speaker (Sydney, Shanghai, London, Brussels, Vienna) and was part of the 2011 Conference, “The future of magazines on the tablet.” He argued that "stories are our bread and butter and people will pay for that," and received some of the most challenging questions of the day — has digital media changed how we empathize with others, and are we losing the ability to digest long form narrative?

Nicolas Nova, Professor at the Geneva University of Arts and Design (HEAD-Genève) and founder of the Near Future Laboratory, a design studio based in Europe and California, gave a stunning, thought-provoking talk entitled "Adventures in Algorithmic Cultures." His work is about identifying weak signals as well as exploring people’s needs, motivations and contexts to map new design opportunities and chart potential futures. Nicolas has given talks and exhibited his work on the intersections of design, technology and the near-future possibilities for new social-technical interaction rituals in venues such SXSW, AAAS, O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference and the design week in Milano, the Institute for the Future, the the MIT Medialab. He holds a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from the Swiss Institute of Technology (EPFL, Switzerland) and was previously a visiting researcher at the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, CA). He is also curator for Lift Conference, a series of international events about digital culture and innovation. At Creating Minds, he had the audience thinking so hard, they engaged with him in a twitter conversation afterwards about remixing text and machine creolization.

James Bridle, a writer, artist, publisher and technologist usually based in London, UK, took the stage next. His work covers the intersection of literature, culture and the network. He has written for WIRED, ICON, Domus, Cabinet, the Atlantic and many other publications, and writes a regular column for the Observer newspaper on publishing and technology. James speaks worldwide at events including SXSW (Austin), dConstruct (Brighton), LIFT (Geneva), Web Directions (Sydney) and NEXT (Berlin). In 2011, he coined the term “New Aesthetic”, and his ongoing research around this subject has been featured and discussed worldwide. His talk "Network Tense: How to approach a contemporary, technologically-mediated world" had the audience looking at the intersection between code and space, the internet and its users. Bridle considered the different semantic spaces that create new narratives.

Laura Sydell, the Digital Culture Correspondent for the NPR’s All Things Considered Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and, then joined the speakers on the stage for a panel discussion on the morning's topics: what is afforded and what occluded or disfigured by digital culture, and how have human experiences shaped the evolution of the digital world? Sydell focuses on the ways in which technology is transforming our culture, profiling artists who have found a new to create music, and traveling abroad to look at the impact of technology on developing nations. Before joining NPR in 2003, Sydell served as a senior technology reporter for American Public Media's Marketplace, and investigated the human impact of new technologies and the personalities behind the Silicon Valley boom and bust. Her reporting on race relations, city politics, and arts has been honored with numerous awards from organizations such as The Newswomen's Club of New York, The New York Press Club, and The Society of Professional Journalists. The American Women in Radio and Television, The National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and Women in Communications have also honored Sydell for her long-form radio documentary work focused on individuals whose life experiences turned them into activists. Asking whether books have the same cultural valence as previously, and whether the publishing industry has shifted into the same terrain as the music world, Sydell's question provoked a lively and contentious discussion. The audience was no less forgiving though, questioning whether machines can make narratives, which are essentially about creating meaning, and whether it's important to get low cost digital devices out to all members of society.

Following lunch, Bernard Stiegler, the director of the department of cultural development at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, also a professor at the University of Technology of Compiègne where he teaches philosophy, presented a well-received lecture, complete with formula. Before taking up the post at the Pompidou Center, he was program director at the International College of Philosophy, Deputy Director General of the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, then Director General at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). Professor Stiegler has published numerous books and articles on philosophy, technology, digitization, capitalism, consumer culture, etc. Among his writings, his three volumes of La technique et le temps (English Translation: Technics and Time), two volumes of De la misère symbolique, three volumes of Mécréance et Discrédit and two volumes Constituer l'Europe are particularly well known. Professor Stiegler is one of the founders of the political group Ars Industrialis based in Paris, which calls for an industrial politics of spirit, by exploring the possibilities of the technology of spirit, to bring forth a new "life of the mind". He published extensively on the problem of individuation in consumer capitalism, and he is working on the new possibility of an economy of contribution. His quote of the day: "thinking is conditioned by technical individuation, but is not determined by that."

The talks concluded with N. Katherine Hayles, Professor in the Literature Program at Duke University. She has a background in Chemistry (MS) and English (PhD); she worked as chemical research consultant before shifting fields to English Literature. Her interests include digital humanities; electronic literature; literature, science and technology; science fiction; and critical theory. Hayles is the author of numerous books, including How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (1999), for which she won the Rene Wellek Prize. Her most recent publications are Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (2008), a primer of electronic literature; My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (2005); Nanoculture: Implications of the New Technoscience (ed.) (2004). Hayles has won numerous prestigious awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller Residential Fellowship, and two Presidential Research Fellowships from the University of California. Her lecture was a carefully nuanced consideration of the power of machines and humans that made the distinction between thought and cognition ("all thought is cognition, but not all cognition is thought").

David Bates and Warren Sack then joined Katherine Hayles and Bernard Stiegler for a panel discussion. David Bates is Professor of Rhetoric and the former Director of the Center for New Media at the University of California, Berkeley. His research in Intellectual History focuses on two main tracks -- the history of cognition, media, and technology; and the history of legal and political theory. He is particularly interested in the relations between early modern thought and the twentieth century. His most recent book is States of War: Enlightenment Origins of the Political (Columbia UP, 2012), a rereading of the natural law tradition. He is now writing a new book, Human Insight: An Artificial History of Natural Intelligence.

Warren Sack is a software designer and media theorist whose work explores theories and designs for online public space and public discussion. His field of expertise is social computing. As a field of research, social computing explores two issues: (A) How can the insights of social, critical, cultural, and media theory be incorporated into and used to critique and evaluate software? and, (B) How can new media be designed to address outstanding social and political issues? Current and past projects include work in news media, Open Source software development, locative media, computer-supported translation, systems for visualizing and facilitating online discussions, and the design and analysis of network-based learning environments. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation and shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and, the ZKM I Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany. Sack is currently a Professor at UC Santa Cruz.

The panel probed the ways in which the act of thinking is always something mediated, shaped, and disrupted by its technological forms of prosthesis. They questioned whether the human mind is“natural” or whether it exists on the border of bodies, cultures, and technologies. The discussion was exciting with Katherine Hayles admitting herself to be a "cognitive hierarchist" in her distinction between a stone and a plant's cognition, and Warren Sack asserting that code is an interpretive expression. Bernard Stiegler had the last word calling for a revolution in the academy, and as one tweeter responded to the event: "it felt like a day long PhD reading group gone horribly right!"