THE BIG PICTURE – New Concepts for a New World, Long Version

THE BIG PICTURE is the theme of the 2012 Ars Electronica Festival being held in Linz, Austria from August 30 to September 3. Occupying the focal point is the effort to identify all-encompassing images that capture the world that’s coming to be, Big Pictures that do justice to the progressive globalization and interrelatedness of our world, ones that capture its contradictions and flaws as well as ways in which people are coming together. By showcasing inspiring best-practice examples from art and science, this year’s festival is a call for a new, open-minded way of considering the development of a viable vision of our future—how such a Big Picture ought to be composed and how it might become reality.

On the Threshold of a New Epoch?

Amidst the turbulence of humankind’s present crises, it’s clear that the world of our future will be different. Politically, since the West will no longer be able to afford its leadership role and new powers such as China and India are just getting started playing their parts on the global political stage. Economically, because the financial sector as the engine of growth has run out of gas, and petroleum-based industry as a whole is motoring towards history’s junk heap. And not least of all ecologically, since global warming is accelerating and its effects on our planet’s ecosystem are becoming more massive by the day. Even if we already know all of this and we’re aware that we have to make the necessary changes, we persist in our indecisive hesitation, indulging in the fantasy that everything is going to be OK—whereby OK means: the way it used to be. The fact that this is precisely what is not going to happen is something only a few of us are willing to admit. But by persisting on our well-trodden paths, we ignore precisely those great opportunities that naturally arise in times rocked by crises.

Where Might These Big Pictures of the Future Emerge? Envisioned by Whom?

Accordingly, the aim of serious approaches to solutions cannot be to restore the status quo; instead, they have to pursue a global vision of our future. But where can this be headed? And who can specify the direction and the speed of our journey? It’s obvious that there no longer exists a center of power that can tell the rest of the world what it has to do. Rather, the work of our future is going on at multiple locations and being done by diverse protagonists. And each one of them reserves the right to establish his/her own priorities. Nevertheless, the quality of their collaboration with all the others will be decisive for the success or failure of their undertakings because we all need each other in this globalized, networked world of ours and it’s no longer possible to proceed in complete isolation. At the same time, the way we think about the world and our place in it will be determined less and less by politics or religions and increasingly by findings in (natural) science. And because we feel, sense or know that everything around us is getting more and more complicated, what we’re seeing as a result is a renaissance of the scientific expert—one that’s no longer either an overspecialized nerd or a universal genius but more of a team player.

Imaging Procedures Deliver the Icons of our Age …

Key importance in this process is assumed by new image-generating processes, which are in many instance all that we have available to impressively depict scientific insights and to generate, among other things, true icons. Like the first satellite picture of our Blue Planet that displayed such extraordinary power in demonstrating the fact that we’re all in the same boat. Or animated images of the human brain and its gigantic network of synapses, and visualizations of our DNA and thus of the building blocks of life itself.

… and Social Networks Disseminate them Globally

Much of the propagation of sensational news items and images no longer proceeds through conventional media but rather above all via social networks in which they can instantaneously reach hundreds of millions of people, transcending linguistic, cultural and religious barriers to trigger various sorts of delight or horror. This unprecedented circulation of information, in turn, does its part to further undermine traditional power structures and the authority of previously accepted opinion leaders and to nurture the formation of totally new communities and hierarchies.

Best Practice from Art and Science

Nevertheless, all of these sensations propagated via the internet do not coalesce to form a new picture of the world. They’re all just parts of a big jigsaw puzzle that attest to the fragmentation, multifaceted nature and complexity of our reality. In order to assemble them into one big whole, the first thing we have to do is get an overview. But a precondition for this is a broader, more open-minded perspective like the one that has been successfully applied only in science and art up to now. Such a point of view would enable us to peer beyond the boundaries of our individual cultures, ideologies, specialized disciplines and habitual ways of doing things, and behold the gigantic patchwork of our globalized world. And this is precisely where the 2012 Ars Electronica Festival comes in—bringing together models that can serve as paragons and best-practice examples from science and art whose interdisciplinary approaches preordain them to provide suitable role models. This, in turn, is meant as the point of departure of a discussion of how a Big Picture of our times ought to be composed and what strategies are conducive to being able to see and take it.