Text commissioned by Future Everything reporting on the conference ‘Atmospheric Memory’ which took place at The Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, July 2019.

A meandering on the role of technology and progress as a fictitious inevitability and how the atmosphere has defined Manchester both industrially, culturally and socio-politically.

Original text available here

Soot clung to the stone buildings. The soot built layer upon layer, year by year. It had been stuck for so long, it was presumed that there was no soot at all. Tiny particles spinning through the air, sucked up into lungs and clinging to clothes. It had burrowed itself, sunk into skin. Clouding our view, no such thing as rose tinted glasses, just a mist of soot, hanging in the air.

Years passed by and the machines began to creak and workers began to diminish, economies were reread and rewritten. It was decided – industry would be given new legs to travel. So soot followed overseas. As time passed, the buildings began to emerge, cleaned, water blasted on stone and soot. The past rose to the surface, the buildings had shed their sooty shells. Shock followed, this is how it should have been? Remnants emerged of a time that had never been. The soot may have been washed away, but it still hung in the air, invisible, unrelenting and shaping our present.

The conference had officially ended. A small group of us opted to go on a walking tour of the city to trace the leitmotifs of Manchester’s Industrial heritage. As we stepped out from the Museum of Science and Industry, a light rain began to shower over our small tour group – I wasn’t surprised – whenever I visit Manchester, it rains. This defining atmospheric condition of Manchester, the rain and damp, is probably one of the most intrinsic and important aspects of its industrial heritage. When deciding on where the industrial centre for cotton production should be based in the UK, Manchester was chosen not only for its infrastructure but also its atmosphere – cotton needs to be worked in damp and cool conditions, opposed to a drier climate where its is more prone to break. This atmospheric necessity went onto define and produce one of the industrial powerhouses of the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to shape the psychogeography of Manchester today. The industrial, cultural, social and political characteristics of Manchester are a product of its atmosphere.

The air is turbulent. The crimes we have committed hang in the air, an invisible witness. One which is now choking us out. The atmosphere underpins our relationship to time and space. It is an ecological superstructure and one which is constantly overlooked and dismissed. It gives us life and it is shaped by how we produce and consume. The air we breathe today- has never been inhaled by any other generation in human history. It is a product of the industrial revolution which continues to define our past, present and future. The past is rising to the surface.

Exploring the past, present and future role of technologies, The Air of Turbulence symposium began with a proposal -’Could we “mine” the atmosphere in order to harness collective memory? Pioneer of computing Charles Babbage posed in 1830 the idea of a ‘library of the air’. A technology which would harness and ‘rewind’ the vast repository of voices spoken throughout time to enable an absolute recollection. This fantastical provocation has in some accounts come to fruition- smart devices are able to record and listen to our every whim- alongside our ability to record in real time using devices and social media platforms. The conference aimed to unpick ideas drawing on the cognitive dissonance which these technologies facilitate and meditating on the non-neutrality of the air.

Punching words from air, employers of both Amazon and Apple are trained to listen in to snippets of private conversations recorded from Amazon Echo and Siri in order to cross check sounds and words to improve the operation of the system. The customers in turn become embroiled within the production line. A surplus of capital, a tool to train against and a resource to mine for data.

Historical analogies were applied to relate how multinational corporations were employing cold war spying tactics to listen into our daily lives. Corporations justify their invasive policies with rhetoric of improving service and as the inevitable costs of a more convenient lifestyle. Rhetoric also employed to ensure our safety- at the cost of our privacy. One the fascinating aspects of this, and of many other forms of technology is the human labour involved in digital production. The digital, like most industries, masks the human labour which still goes into production.

The environmental panel comprising of artist Joana Moll, Vladan Joler and Dr Sarah Mander mediated on the opaque production system which masks and makes us complicit in the damaging social and environmental impact of our technologies. The digital has a heavy materiality, the media we use is an extension of the earth, everything we do online leaves a footprint- data centres contribute to 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions- more than the aviation industry. How can we make this tangible and visible?

The fractal production processes employed by technology companies have delocalised production, making it impossible to trace our devices catastrophic social and environmental impact. The iphone has over 250 separate companies involved in its manufacture. Which only consolidates exploitation of both labour practices and the environment. The guilt is usually placed on the user. However, 85% of the iPhones CO2 footprint is created during the production process. Not in the hands of the user. And having the option to opt out is often a matter of privilege. The key to changing this is making systems of production and labour more transparent. Alongside educating in systems thinking and the complexity that these naturally entail.

Whilst we seek to immerse ourselves, we are are already wrapped up in an atmosphere, an atmosphere shaped by human hands. I wanted to attend the conference in order to meditate on the opacity of production and technology but also the role and the annexation of history by technologists and science companies. History is often sanitised and wielded as a tool to justify or glorify present actions. Heritage, nostalgia, technology, progress are all woven into one another. They create narratives and tell stories which mislead often with devastating effect. How can we harness history, ‘rewind’ the voices of victims of ‘progress’ and industry? I would say I’m a techno- skeptic and I am disheartened by the rhetoric which positions technology and its socio-political and environmental consequences as inevitable. These are fictions, fictions deeply embedded and constantly reiterated into society in order to reinforce systems of power and presumptions of progress.

It is paramount that artists are literate in these technologies and their infrastructures. That artists are able to pierce into this atmospheric smokescreen and harness it to reconfigure the narratives and wield the tools in alternative ways. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s posed an intriguing argument about the dangers of immersive technological experiences which usually recreate natural synthetic environments and arguably say nothing at all apart from the technological spectacle itself. These vapid experiences, only seek to keep us submerged. It is the role of artist to work with these technologies, so that we can grasp onto those submerged and pull them to surface:

The artist’s role is not to make you dream – it is to wake you up.

As our small tour group meandered through the city our eyes were directed to the small fragments and remnants dispersed throughout the streets and buildings which patchworks and weaves together the voices, moments or ‘mechanical manifestations of Manchester’s history and present. The rich seams of history, we tread upon and walk past daily, invisible, overlooked but vital to the fabric of the city and its continued trajectory. From bollards which were actually napoleonic cannons embedded deep into the footpath, to specially designed architectural high fired clay tiling created to resist the industrially created soot. The technology of yesterday and today co-existing and shaping the narrative of the city.