Author Archives: Dan O'Hara

Dan O'Hara

@skeuomorphology

New publications

None of us is getting out and about much during a pandemic. And that means public events and conferences just aren’t happening. But publications still are. Here are two recent ones.

The American Weird, edited impeccably by Julius Greve and Florian Zappe, has just come out from Bloomsbury and is now on sale. The opening chapter is ‘A Doxa of the American Weird’, laying out the prehistory of the weird, from Anglo-Saxon usage via Holinshed and Shakespeare to American colonization, and showing how the concept in American literature and culture follows this earlier definition rather than our modern English one, from 17th-century American poetry to current film and fiction.

Virtual Futures: Near-Future Fictions is an anthology of some of the best stories that think about what’s going to happen not in a hundred years, or ten, but tomorrow. It’s also on sale now. A second volume is coming soon.

And earlier this year there was yet another flurry of interest in skeuomorphism, with Quartz magazine producing an excellent illustrated explainer, which you can read here.

AI and the Weird

In February I was at Loughborough University’s London campus to speak about AI and HCI, at an event called Building Trust in AI: Designing for Consent – a double-bill talk, as it were, with Prof. Shaun Lawson of the NorSC Lab at Northumbria University. I spoke mostly about the evidence I’d given to the UK Parliament to an audience of lawyers, ML engineers, and HCI scholars.

In April I was in Germany once again, at the University of Göttingen, for a conference on The American Weird: Ecologies & Geographies. My paper was on ‘400 Years of Millennialism: a Doxa of the American Weird’, and a book is forthcoming.

At some point during the summer, but I’m not entirely sure when, the paper I wrote with my long-standing Lincoln Institute of Social Computing collaborators, now at Cork, York, and Northumbria, was published in Funology 2: “Playful Research Fiction: A Fictional Conference”.

And in November I spoke at the entirely splendid KFFK.de – the Cologne Short Film Festival – about why our cultural visions of an artificially intelligent future are so often dystopian warnings.

BBC Future on the skeuomorph

BBC Future Useless design features that live on

I spoke to the BBC again about skeuomorphism. I’m pleased that they included my physical examples of rivets, jeans, cars, and keyboards, but most of all I’m pleased they included the one about credit cards deriving from Rolodex. These are all examples I’ve spoken about in the past, but the last was one I researched solely for this article and, as far as I know, it was a previously unrecognized example.

Skeuomorphism in the Journal of the History of Ideas

I’m very gratified – and flattered – to see my work on skeuomorphs feature at the Journal of the History of Ideas, and provide the theoretical basis for original anthropological research. That research – by Christopher B. Lowman, of the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley – is on the artefacts of the Ainu, an indigenous people of northern Japan.

Wooden tuki and ikupasuy on display in the Ainu Cultural Center, Sapporo. Photo © Christopher B. Lowman

Christopher’s research is utterly fascinating and, from my own narrow point of view, closes a loop of strange attraction I had felt towards Japanese traditions of lacquering, but had not fully understood hitherto.

House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence

House of Lords Select Committee on AI - evidence

I was asked to attend the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Artificial Intelligence a while ago, and have been doing so for the last year. It’s been fascinating throughout. Mid-year the House of Lords established a Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, and I gave evidence, authored with Prof. Shaun Lawson, Dr. Ben Kirman, and Dr. Conor Linehan.

Parliament has now published the evidence and you can read it here.

Prosthetic Envy at the V&A and on BBC5 Live

Engineering the Future

One recent article I published with Tom Ward and Luke Robert Mason is on ‘Prosthetic Envy‘, and can be found in this beautiful book published by the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, made available for free online with the aid of the AHRC Digital Transformations Programme.

BBC5 Live interviewed me on the subject and you can listen to the whole programme on ‘The Future of the Prosthetics Industry’ here.

‘Killer Robots’

Jungle World - Rechnende Colts

In May I spoke at the Science Museum in London about autonomous weapons systems (or ‘killer robots’, as the British press likes to sensationally characterize them). It’s a subject I’ve been doing public events on for the past 23 years, so I was glad to be joined by two people who in my view know what they’re talking about: Mark Bishop, Professor of Cognitive Computing at Goldsmiths and Chair of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour, University of London, and Jon Tepper, the economist and author of Endgame and Code Red.

Why bring a philosopher, a cognitive scientist, and an economist together to talk about such things? The reason is that all are aware of how algorithmic systems with executive power to make life-or-death decisions are already in use across the world. The future of war is already here. In an earlier interview with the German magazine Jungle World, you can read what Mark Bishop and I have to say about the autonomous weapons systems already in use here.

Ballard / McCarthy

BSP logo

A couple of relatively recent conferences/lectures: for J. G. Ballard’s would’ve-been 86th I spoke about ‘Fascism, Demogoguery, and Rhetoric’ at the Society Club in Soho, London, alongside Ballard’s favourite poet Jeremy Reed.

In July I gave a paper at the conference Cormac McCarthy and Philosophy, organized under the auspices of the British Society for Phenomenology. The paper was on “Some Aesthetic Implications of McCarthy’s Conception of the Role of the Unconscious in the Evolution of Forms“, and it’s available as a podcast here, courtesy of the BSP. Indeed you can hear the whole conference on iTunes here.

From Human-Computer Interaction via Robot Sex to Cormac McCarthy

VF Salon Nov 2016

The last academic year began early, with the organizing of the British Human-Computer Interaction conference at the University of Lincoln in July. 250 people from 20 different counties and a live discussion between attendees and Julian Assange chaired by Chris Csikszentmihalyi. The aim was to investigate how interactive technologies fundamentally affect our privacy, rights, and relationships with authority, government and commerce. There wasn’t much public desire to have conversations about these topics at the time, and indeed there was hostility towards such discussion. That these topics are now on the public agenda is no small testament to the patient determination of the principal chairs, Shaun Lawson and Patrick Dickinson.

September and October involved a flurry of public talks, on VR at Dialogue in London; on biology as technology at the University of Arts London; and on the future human at Warwick University’s festival to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.

In early November I spoke about libidinal parasites, the role of art, and broken machines at a special Virtual Futures salon in Soho, London, on ‘Fucking Machines’ – a panel about sex and robots.

Then back to Warwick University for an astonishing conference on Cormac McCarthy organized by Katja Laug, focusing on very close reading of one of the truly great American novels of the 20th century, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. The whole event was filmed: my talk principally about the character of Judge Holden is here; the long and hugely productive roundtable discussion is here.

The Thinking Girl’s Guide to the Robot Apocalypse

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Not many academics can say that they’ve had their research poached by novelists and turned into a seriously successful young adult novel. At the time of writing it’s not far short of a million reads.

I’m A Cyborg’s Pet is a shocking sci-fi BDSM robo-dystopia, inspired by a couple of papers I wrote with Ben Kirman, Conor Linehan, Shaun Lawson, and Laura Buttrick. I do suggest you read it because, whatever version of the future you’re expecting, it’s probably wrong. And nowhere near as funny.