Locating Futures: Singapore

This was first published at Leidenanthropologyblog.nl and most likely in a modified form will be part of my dissertation. Most likely in a chapters where I look at the relationship between space and future. 

During my first, exploratory trip to Southeast Asia in early 2010 I traveled from Indonesia to Singapore, from Malaysia to Burma, in each country meeting people passionate about web technologies. Many of them had started, or were planning to start, their own internet-based businesses. The goal of my visit was to familiarize myself with the environment and get to know the people in technology communities, so that I could start my research project on Future and Technology in Southeast Asia. Fairly quickly I came to realize that Singapore played a crucial role in the experiences and perceptions of technology enthusiasts around the region.

All the roads lead to … Singapore

Technology geeks I met in Indonesia talked excitedly about the times they visited Singapore and were impressed with not only the high rise buildings but also with the technology/business community there, from which they adopted specific organization practices. Malaysian founders of web startups explained to me that it is much more reasonable to incorporate their businesses in Singapore, because the legal processes are much faster there and the tax regime more favorable. One Malaysian founder, who had worked in Silicon Valley before returning to Malaysia and starting his company, explicitly said that running a business in Singapore as compared to Malaysia would be like facing the real world. For him, Singapore has the predatory competition and flow of finance that he associates with business in the real world. Some of the Burmese technology enthusiasts told me how they aspired to move to Singapore and work there in the future, because of the wealth this move could offer.

The sense of Singapore being regarded as at the real-time or more into the future as compared to the rest of region was strong during my initial conversations with people in the field of technology around the region. Many people I spoke to noted that everything happens much faster in Singapore- “Even escalators move faster there,” as one of my friends in Indonesia commented. Of course people also scoffed at the Singaporean laws and noted that Singapore is too organized to be enjoyable. Yet, the general sense was that Singapore is a more achievable version of Silicon Valley, which is often regarded as the ultimate location of technology innovation and business, always one step ahead of the rest of the world.

The epicentre of Asian Century or too sterile for innovation? 

When I arrived in Singapore, I was eager to learn how people who supposedly already live in the future think about Singapore and other locations in the world. Many of the Western expatriates I met in technologist circles proclaimed that this is Asian century and Singapore is the location from which to capitalize on the emerging global future. This belief, combined with the good living conditions that English-speaking Singapore offers, was part of the reason why many of them had moved there in the first place. Interestingly, the mere presence of such expatriates in the technology space was also pointed out to me as an indicator that the future of the Singaporean tech space is bright.

Yet, many people in Singapore were also very skeptical about Singapore’s future. They argued that when it comes to technology and entrepreneurship, Singapore needs to catch up with the developed world if it is to compete in the global economy. Singapore was described as too sterile for innovation, too small for starting a high growth business, and/or the people too conservative to be willing to do what it takes to start a truly innovative technology business. In these stories the future was located either as an exclusive property of Silicon Valley, or seen as attainable through cooperation with other countries in the region and/or by major shifts in the norms and values of the society.

Geographies of future(s)

What these encounters highlight is that particular futures (in this case futures related to technology innovation and business) are often imagined as unfolding or already being in effect in particular locations. Echoing science fiction writer William Gibson when he said “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” the people I met spoke of a fragmented landscape with a variety of locations, each characterized by its ability to actualize futures conducive to technology business. These geographical imaginaries seem to be not only structured along the lines of what Lucy Suchman has called reproductions of “neocolonial geographies of center and periphery” (2011:2), but also actively inform people’s understandings of the world and the decisions they make with regard to their lives (e.g., moving to a particular location, setting up a business in one location rather than another, engaging in certain activities rather than others, etc.). Thus, in my research on the aspirations linked to the so-called knowledge economy, I try to explore in more detail how such geographical imaginaries inform the lives of technology enthusiasts, and enable as well as disable certain social positions and actions.

References: Suchman, Lucy (2011) “Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 1-18

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What future(s) holds Ars Electronica festival 2011?

Tomorrow me and my colleague Dorien are off to Linz, Austria, where the annual media arts festival Ars Electronica is held since 1979. The Festival addresses questions relating to art, technology and society under different temes every year and this year the festival is organized in collaboration with the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research;  the home of the Large Hadron Collider and actually the place where Sir Tim Berner Lee came up with the WWW) and titled: “Origin: Wie alles beginnt” (Origin: How it all begins).

This will be my fourth visit to the festival and to be honest, I am not as excited by the festival’s description as I have been the other years. It might be that the collaboration with a research organization, giving it overt focus, might kill the inspirational philosophical questions that usually form the core of the festival. For example, last years topic was “Repair” and correspondigly the artworks, installations and performances dealt with new ways of living, return to Do-It-Yourself (DIY) practices, green and self-sustaining environments and addressed the philosophical and material practices that lead to destruction of the world as we know it and pictured new, alternative (not necessarily positive) futures we all might experience. I loved this thought experiment and it would be shame to lose that approach between the various grand technological devices CERN is going to exhibit. It is not only to ‘see stuff‘ why I go to Ars, but also to ‘think about stuff‘. And I don’t want to return back from the festival equipped only with a ‘boys-and-their-toys’ maze about big machines I have seen there.

Sure- the organizers try to dip it all also in some more theoretical and philosophical framework by positioning CERN as the model or prototype of research and innovation facility, and a symbol of humankinds obsession for knowledge, questioning what are the factors and aspects that are needed for innovation; and what is the nature of the process that leads us to advancements. Yet, if a very concrete research organization is setting the field, then I would love to see also a very critical approach to the political history, present and future of this particular organization and what does it say about the science and innovation… 

Will see how it works out. Even if the festival’s theme does not excite me as much, I am still excited about the festival as an overall experience. I know that the Prix Ars, especially with its annimation section, crazy parties and afterparties, or just lovely walks & talks around Linz with friends from Media Tech will deliver it.