Dan O'Hara

Virtual Futures '95

Last edited Jan 12, 2007 by Dan

Archive materials from the cyberphilosophy conference held at the University of Warwick in 1995. Links to external reviews and other materials are at the foot of this page.

Virtual Futures '95 was a three-day conference held at the Philosophy department of the University of Warwick in May 1995, inspired by the neomaterialist philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. Described at the time as the Glastonbury of cyberculture, it was by the standards of academic conferences a massive event: nearly a hundred speakers gave papers, and just short of a thousand people packed into the main auditorium for the Saturday evening session. The topics discussed included chaos theory, cybernetics, geopolitics, feminism, nanotechnology, cyberpunk fiction, machine music, net security, military strategy, plastic surgery, hacking, biocomputation, cognition, cryptography & capitalism.

It seems bewildering now, but at the time 'cyberspace' was a fiercely contested concept. Many of the panels and q&a sessions were taken up with the question of the virtual; and a large proportion of the audience, it seemed, simply did not believe that such a 'space' could be real. The internet was yet to enter the public consciousness; email was used little outside the universities, and web browsers were still relatively new. Many of the people who came to the conference had nothing to do with the academic world, and clearly regarded virtuality as an abstruse piece of philosophical fancy; yet they still came. What drew them was perhaps the romance of new technology, for in retrospect the conference was closer in spirit to the Great Exhibition than to Glastonbury. What was on show was the hi-tech thrill of the new. In the week leading up to the conference, one BBC radio documentary plugging the event ran interviews with the speakers and organizers whilst playing Vangelis' soundtrack to Blade Runner in the background. Perhaps the conferees thought they would meet a cyborg.

In the event, they did. In fact, they met several cyborgs. The Australian performance artist Stelarc demonstrated his cybernetic third arm, and wired up members of the audience with electrodes so that he controlled their movements. On the Sunday morning, Orlan talked about her experiences of plastic surgery-as-art, whilst showing a film of her recent facial surgery, performed under local anaesthetic. As they watched the footage of Orlan talking to camera whilst the skin on her skull was peeled back, several members of the audience threw up, or ran out of the auditorium with green faces. Others passed out where they were sitting.

Over ten years on, Virtual Futures looks like an historical curiosity. It attempted to to popularize philosophy as an activity and to engage the public in the most abstract kind of intellectual debate; and in doing so, it made some of them vomit. Stelarc memorably described the VF crowd as "the hardest drinking, most politically incorrect philosophers in the world", an epithet which we worked hard to justify. One wonders who would merit that title today?