How to sum up a conversation with Bergur Ebbi?
It would seem the man has done it all. Study law, become a stand-up comedian, write for TV, radio and the stage and he has even published his own books. Two of them — Room Temperature (2017) and Screenshot (2019) — have been translated to English and are the beginning of a series, delving into our lives and identity with technology. Screenshot takes very current global events into account and asks the question: Where do we go from here?
Bergur has become a philosopher of the future. Not just in the sense that he might be a part of a big new generation of philosophers — although we wish him the best of luck with that. Bergur takes a closer look at the entire concept of a future. The idea of it, apart from self-driving cars. What is it we’re really moving and building towards? Do we approach the future as a collective or individually? Are the words of the prophets no longer written on the subway wall but drowning among other status updates on a message board, hanging in a digital cloud devoid of its context? Have screens become our new altars? Are we who we present to be on our latest profile update? Perhaps there should be a risk warning for existential crisis on Bergur’s book covers.
Dazed And Confused
When asked about the idea behind Screenshot Bergur admits, “I am confused myself about a lot of things, trying to get to the core of all these tech advancements and their purpose and impact, because they changed a lot around us without us realizing it. A lot was happening below the surface and all of a sudden it was in our brains.”
The roughly 200-page long essay certainly covers a lot of ground in terms of questioning our relationship to technology and what that might mean for our future sense of identity. Heavy stuff. Thankfully, Bergur also makes an effort to not get too abstract in his writing, using a lot of examples from his own experience. Which includes memories of using “three-way calling” for the first time and almost driving into Paul Revere’s house in Boston. Funny and educational. But where does that leave us?
We probably need some kind of foundation to start from, on our quest to enlightenment. But can the blue light of our smartphones illuminate the dark unknown around us? Maybe. Partially at least. “Our relationship with technology is based on trust,” Bergur posits.
“We have no idea where we’re going, blindfolded and holding hands with technology, moving into the darkness and nobody really knows [where to], not even these big tech gurus, all these guys that were talking about the future a lot. I think they’re still all just making it up as they go.”
Although he also points out that there’s at least some kind of vision of a social network connecting people. A core belief, a virtue that has grown more powerful than anyone probably could have imagined. But there’s a flipside to everything. Nobody likely could have predicted the sheer overflow of stimuli or this paradox of connecting without connecting we seem to often find ourselves in.
According to Bergur Ebbi, there are still things that presence can give us that social media cannot. Namely so called “parameters of communication”.
“What’s lacking a bit in IT and technology is that we don’t only connect on intellectual levels, we connect on emotional levels and physical levels, which technology hasn’t really been able to fence itself around. Although AI is getting more and more intelligent, which makes it more possible to become emotionally connected via technology, I think there’s a lot missing. The need for aesthetic and the feeling of space. I don’t think we’ll be able to exist only in the cloud environment, we will always need a physical space of some sort.”
But what if we literally can’t do that because of, oh I don’t know, something like a pandemic? COVID-19, quarantine and home offices have very likely advanced our foray into the cloud, the realm of digital connection and communication, where small talk dies and directness and productivity booms. But Bergur believes that we still have some power over the situation.
“Tech doesn’t have an intrinsic value of only going forward. It’s a tool that we can even use to go backwards in this case. It’s never been this easy to cancel stuff for example. The pandemic won’t really shatter your worldview, we’ve had pandemics before … I wasn’t very fond of Skype meetings, Zoom calls, etc. But now I see that in order to communicate I have to be more understanding of that and it kind of put me in my place. It has persuaded me that it can be a possibility for future meetings and I think this will be part of the new normal.”
But who decides what’s normal? Well, we do apparently. Just by existing in any sort of shared space, we are constantly creating context, Bergur argues. When we meet up at work, for example, chat a bit about the Eurovision Song Contest and thereby poke each other a bit for reactions that in turn determine our actions and build common ground. That’s something technology can’t really do for us.
“Software isn’t really aware of us building context and sees this phase as a waste of time, which it’s obviously not, it’s a very vital part of communication,” Bergur says. Values and experiences are still ours to share, even if we immortalize them online, which might lead to a new digital kind of legacy, but we’ll always need a type of
framework, a connection in our minds for things to have meaning.
“I think most people relate to the idea of context being missing,” says Bergur. “I think it might be the reason we’ve become somewhat apathetic to politics, for example. We don’t feel that it relates to us anymore. We might be individually fighting for different causes in different geographical areas. We’re lacking these systems of thoughts.”
The cloud, ever expanding like the universe itself, looms over us, but it’s not all doom and gloom, according to Bergur. It’s never been easier to point out social issues and connect them, for example and the physical world isn’t disappearing. We’re just adding a new layer. Sometimes things aren’t strictly good or bad. They just are.
Bergur Ebbi’s latest book Screenshot has been translated into English by Grapevine alumnus and award-winning translator Larissa Kyzer. Grab your copy of Screenshot in the Grapevine’s online shop.
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