The Future Starts At V&A... And It's Messy

Future Starts Here, V&A ★★☆☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 17 months ago

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The Future Starts At V&A... And It's Messy Future Starts Here, V&A 2
A rather freakish looking DNA portrait of Chelsea Manning. Courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Fridman Gallery, New York City

What will the future look like? Will it be a utopia of a planet where everyone has enough and we live in peace? Or will the machines overthrow humanity in an apocalyptic war a la Terminator?

V&A has assembled dozens of cutting edge technologies giving a glimpse into the future, but what does it mean for us? If this show is anything to go by, then the future is going to be full of technology that only works some of the time. Also, there’s often too much of it to make sense of anything… sounds very much like the world of today, guess the future is already here.

Fancy your own home DNA test kit? © Bento Bioworks

The exhibition begins with a robot attempting to fold clothes and place them in a basket in front of it. It hesitates, its arms judder and it drops the piece of cloth into a basket. If this thing is trying to replace humans, then hotel room service staff can sleep soundly as their jobs are safe. This robot’s pincer-like hands are better suited to Robot Wars than folding sheets.

This exhibition is filled with fantastic technologies like drones that can spot refugee boats in distress, a home battery that could revolutionise the peaks and troughs of electricity demand, a DNA test lab that can be used at home and an exosuit to help elderly people be more mobile. These are all wonderful inventions but there's no narrative depicting what this means for the future — instead this feels like a showcase of technology brands and that V&A is hosting its own consumer electronics expo.

A rather fetching exosuit should improve mobility — particularly among the elderly. Courtesy of Superflex

Some of the inclusions in the show are bizarre — nobody is going to be wowed by an iPhone or a Fitbit, but it could have been used as a launching point into how technology has helped our lives and the risks associated with it. Instead it's just two of the items in this conveyor belt exhibition that act as something to admire before whisking people off to the next shiny thing.  

The show references hot topics like Brexit and Cambridge Analytica, but never really explores what this means for the future of social media and our data — nor the moral and ethical quandaries that arise in an ever more connected world. It tries to be relevant with a banner screaming 'Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor?', then it gives us no information to weigh up this question — it's about as helpful as us hanging a banner from our window saying 'Is chocolate ice cream better than vanilla?'*

Suspended from the ceiling is a giant Facebook drone, designed to relay Internet access to remote areas. Yet there's no mention of Facebook's attempt at bringing internet to remote areas in India, which was shut down as it only offered a restricted view of the web that Facebook controlled. Do we really want a Facebook moderated view of the web being the only option for some Internet users?

A photo of the extremely sustainable MASDAR city near Abu Dhabi. © Etienne Malapert, The City of Possibilities, Ecal

It's unfair to expect a V&A exhibition to have some prophetic vision about what the future looks like, but at the very least it should be highlighting the big questions we're going to have to deal with. How do we ensure data privacy? What safeguards are needed for artificial intelligence? What are the jobs we wouldn't or shouldn't trust a computer to do? What happens to jobs in the age of automation? All of these ideas are hinted at with products, but never actively explored. We're massive technophiles and even we think this exhibition has skirted over the potential downsides of more technology in our lives.

This show is overloaded with technology and it's reach is too broad to really offer anything more than a shop window full of cool tech, it's extremely disappointing given this topic has so much potential. The V&A has become a showroom for technology companies to sell their products and ideas, but we're not buying it.

The Future Starts Here at V&A is on from 12 May-4 December. Tickets are £15 for adults.

* For the avoidance of doubt the author is of the view that chocolate is superior to vanilla, and shall remain so even in the distant future. However, the editor strongly disagrees.

Last Updated 10 May 2018