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FACEPRINT, Nexus Studios
‘FACEPRINT’, Nexus Studioscourtesy of the Barbican

Read a future-facing fictional piece on technology by the late Mark Fisher

Celebrating the AI: More Than Human exhibition at the Barbican, we’re exclusively sharing ‘Commodities Leap the Species Barrier’, a piece by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher and curator Suzanne Livingston

Mark and I wrote this piece in 2002 – via our work email accounts – as one of many pieces that were created on the fly, often without author credit. We wrote for various zines, music events and art experiments across the Midlands at that time.

We were both members of the CCRU (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit) at Warwick University. We had arrived there with Sadie Plant, transported from our Masters degrees at Birmingham University, into the feverish world of Warwick’s philosophy department to begin our PhDs.

The CCRU – which famously ‘does not, will never’ exist – was spread across three sparse flats in Leamington and Coventry. There were seven of us, with a sprawling network of collaborators. The core group was tight, endlessly restless, and remains so today. This piece was written several years after the time we spent at Warwick.

Our aim was to cause conceptual disturbances and cultural interventions which were much more mass, viral and irrational than a PhD thesis ever could be. Its lineage has produced a long list of cultural experiments and artefacts over the years and continues to do so.

Looking back now at our piece ‘Commodities Leap the Species Barrier’ and the phenomenon of the ‘Familiar’ – which Mark and I concocted based on our long fascination with hype, compulsion, the gothic and desire – much of its engineering now exists. Data ghosts, which know us better than we know ourselves, surround us everywhere. Synthetic entities are being willed into existence and as humans we have compulsively folded into the technology we buy.

But not until we reach the world of synthetic biology (as explored in the Barbican show AI: More than Human) can we imagine animals manufactured for absurd corporate purposes, programmed to behave as supine ‘walking advertisements’, as biologically enabled brands.

I have wondered – for the purposes of fiction – what the next product launch would be, following on from the Familiar. Perhaps with the world of brain emulation and the endgame possibility of sharing brains, it would be licensed brain stems (the Creep?) to enable us to download and synthesise the cognitive skills of the people/ brands we admire. It would be a whole new spin on the sharing economy – a kind of sponsored brain renting...

Mark left the world just over two years ago. His passing leaves a huge hole in the future.

– Suzanne Livingston


The online information service, Ask Jeeves, would not pass the Turing Test, but according to Dr. Tim Bryant of the Commercial Infotechnics group at the Binomics Institute, London, there is a major new development in ‘commodity interfacing’ which just might.

Working on the convergence of voice-activated computing, the net, and cyber-pets, the Commercial Infotechnics group believe they have delivered the ‘killer application’ that AI-development has waited for. This, it seems, is the software necessary to transport AI bots from the world of the big screen onto the sofa beside you.

‘We call it the Familiar’...

It has long been the wish of leading brand engineers to ensure that their product becomes part of your furniture. If brands can be intimate with their customers from the start, the relationships which they form are bound to be deeper, longer-lasting, and more profitable. The Familiar takes this strategy to its natural conclusion and inevitable new beginning. This is where brands leap the species barrier.

The technology itself is a highly-complex Artificial Intelligence system packaged into the body of a cyber-animal. ‘Potentially,’ Dr. Bryant says, ‘the Familiar could come in pretty much any form: kids’ toys, humanoid...’ But Bryant points out that, in studies, respondents tend to find humanoid AIs ‘creepy’. This, though, is a necessary and resolvable part of the adjustment process: ‘The animal form simply developed from the popularity of cyber-pets. Animal forms interface the technology for users in the most appealing way. The animal form animates and familiarises technology that, when accessed through a keyboard and monitor, seemed dead and passive.’

According to Dr. Bryant, the genius of the Familiar lies in building the trust of its user, or apprentice. He argues that the animal form is a psychological correlate of the way the technology is seen by the unconscious – as something simultaneously alien and intimate.

“The Familiar will know more about your habits than you do yourself... more than serve you, this entity will engage and stimulate. It will be able to make jokes and play tricks on you”

Critics see this engineering of attachment as little more than a cynical exercise in control. The Christian anti-technology campaigner Doug Frushlee believes what is in question is not ownership of cyber-pets but ‘possession by cyber-creatures.’ For Frushlee, the ‘occult reference is no accident. This is a bewitchment, aimed at children, and through them, the rest of us.’

The appeal for the commercial enterprises that are bankrolling the research into the Familiar is indeed the unprecedented penetration into consumers’ habitats and unconscious minds that it offers: this kind of AI can operate as a walking, live-in, always-on 'advertisement' for their products. ‘It goes far further than that,’ Bryant enthuses. ‘The Familiar is the ultimate product: a product that collapses commodity, market research and promotion into one another. It’s a product that sells you more products.’

These new beings are far more sophisticated than standard advertising devices and techniques, not least because they work through effective engineering rather than rational persuasion. Wired into the net, the Familiar will not only respond to your explicit questions, it will apprise you of new developments, commodities and opportunities in an unobtrusive and conversational style. ‘Since the Familiar lives with you, through you even, it knows about you in incredible detail. In some ways, the Familiar will know more about your habits than you do yourself. It genuinely exceeds the butler function: it has a mind and personality of its own which it uses to learn about your desires and preferences, and to anticipate the ways in which they might be met. More than serve you, this entity will engage and stimulate. It will be able to make jokes and play tricks on you.’

Bryant anticipates a whole range of branded Familiars and familiarised brands. ‘It is entirely likely that we’ll soon see personalities of all our favourite brands – call them pets, bots, friends, confidantes. Our research shows that our trust of such creatures is potentially unending. We will soon begin to think of them as extensions of the family.’

In memory of Mark Fisher (11 July 1968 – 13 January 2017).

Mark Fisher also known as ‘k-punk’, was a writer, critic, cultural theorist, and teacher based in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. He published writing on radical politics, music, and popular culture. This text was written in 2009 by Mark Fisher in collaboration with Suzanne Livingston, the co-curator of AI: More than Human

Lead image: ”FACEPRINT”, Nexus Studios