Interview: Andy Miah, professor

Andy Miah with his son, Ethan.
Andy Miah with his son, Ethan.
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WHAT might the director of the Creative Futures Research Centre look like? A professor whose interests span the Olympic Games, human enhancement technology, transgenic art and beyond.

The only person in the Hope Street branch of Caffe Nero who actually knows what those last two things are. (The first covers the everything from breast implants through artist Orlan’s horns to a full working exoskeleton suit. The second is Eduardo Kac’s fluorescent bunny, bred with a jellyfish gene to make her glow in the dark.)

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sipa Press / Rex Features (432946c)'Orlan exhibits photographs of surgical modifications to her own body.'ORLAN, FIAC CONTEMPORARY ART FAIR, PARIS, FRANCE - 18 OCT 2003

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sipa Press / Rex Features (432946c)'Orlan exhibits photographs of surgical modifications to her own body.'ORLAN, FIAC CONTEMPORARY ART FAIR, PARIS, FRANCE - 18 OCT 2003

In fact, Andy Miah is small, dark, ebullient and unfeasibly fresh of face. And, given his sci-fi agenda, normal. Aged 36, half English and half Bangladeshi, he does not take his coffee through a straw while wearing a cyberpunk virtual-reality helmet. Unlike Australian performance artist Stelios Arcadious, he has not had an extra ear transplanted on to his arm. With his rucksack and neat beard, he does not look much like a professor, never mind a messenger from the future, sent to help us all understand how technology is changing our lives.

Miah is far from the standard university drone. Horrified by research that reveals academic papers are read by an average of six people – “if you’re lucky” – he lectures, blogs, Tweets and writes articles the punters in Caffe Nero can understand (if they are prepared to Google the odd esoteric reference). The idea of a constrained academic discipline makes him itch. “My work cuts across different aspects of technology. I can spend one day writing about biotechnology and another on the internet, or both on the same day. People expect you to be one thing or another as an academic, but I believe in a more renaissance concept of knowledge.

“When thinking about the future, I don’t think we can overstate how interconnected science will be, how intertwined with people’s day-to-day experiences.”

He gives an example. “Imagine a contact lens made of thin film with a digital display built in. Google’s augmented reality prototype, launched last week, gives a glimpse into that world. At the same time, neuroscience is helping people with disabilities use their eyesight to control a computer. Put these two together and you have a radical new way of experiencing the world where the mobile device becomes seamlessly connected to our bodies. This transition from technology being used to make people well, to making them better than well, is at the heart of my work.

“Technology that was previously external is becoming internal, and people are not sure how they feel about that. Those moments of uncertainty intrigue me, because of the questions they provoke about our humanity. As the technology gets smaller, it becomes more intertwined with our biology. If our biology is changed, perhaps we are too.”

Back in the present day, Miah is still using a three-year-old android phone, an HTC Hero. His research students at the University of the West of Scotland laugh at it. He has an iPad, but it is used mostly by his son Ethan, who will soon be two. Yet this is a man who is part of a European Commission inquiry, Digital Futures 2050, examining what life might look like 38 years hence. He was at the first ‘horizon-scanning meeting’, in Brussels last month.

At the moment Miah, whose life is split between Paisley, Liverpool (where his Spanish wife, Beatriz García, is head of research at the Institute of Cultural Capital) and the world’s international hub airports, is focused on the immediate future: London on 27 July. The Olympics is, for him, both the crucible for communications technology and the place where humans push themselves to their limits. He met García at the International Olympic Academy in Olympia, beside the ancient stadium where the games began. Together they have been to every games, summer and winter, since 2000. “From live broadcasting to slow-motion replay to underwater filming, it was all pioneered at the Olympics. It is not just a place where athletes break records but where technology developers attempt to push human limits.

“In Vancouver 2010, it was all about live streaming in HD online. For London 2012, the big innovations will be live broadcast of all sports and the rolling out of 3D broadcasting. It will be the first summer Twitter Olympics, where a lot of the strategies for delivering media content to audiences will be social media.”

Now that anyone with a smartphone can become a citizen journalist, Miah is not just observing how these technological advances have changed individuals’ behaviour, and the response of the 20,000 accredited journalists who cover the Olympics. He is giving it a leg up to the next level. “Since Sydney 2000, there has been a growing number of non-accredited journalists – professionals who want to cover the local political or cultural dimensions of the games. Now there is a third population: citizen journalists.”

There could, he reckons, be anything from 1,000 to 10,000 fans with iPhones descending on London. “This is really a great example of technological and social change. The technology makes it possible for people to shoot broadcast-quality film and publish it faster than professionals.” This is the point where Miah switches from academic to organiser: having seen how well an alternative media centre worked during the Vancouver games, he is all systems go for a bigger, better version that includes a series of debates and a games-themed Question Time. It’s centred around the Twitter hashtag #media2012.

“If we can transform the Olympics from being a media event (something people watch or read about) to a media festival (something people actively shape through their own creation of content), then the games can really reclaim their role as a social movement. Sports events have become too much about consumption; #media2012 promotes production. We want people to make films, take photographs, write stories that create an alternative media channel.” And it’s not all happening in London. There will be a ‘citizen relay’ – “recruiting reporters from around Scotland to travel alongside the 2012 torch relay to document what happens away from the BBC cameras”.

This is something of a trial run for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. “Then we plan to do something similar for the Queen’s baton relay, but also create a media centre to celebrate local engagement on a national scale.”

The Olympic Games might seem a curiously mainstream obsession for an academic who spends much of his time in the wild shores where culture, medicine and technology meet. (He has, for example, sat in on an operation when a Parkinson’s sufferer had electrodes planted deep in his brain. After, they gauged the effectiveness of his walking using a pile of planks.) There are clues: his relentless energy, fascination with the body, refusal to embrace gadgetry for its own sake. He currently has 41 different pieces of writing on the go and travels to the UWS campus in Paisley three or four times a month, for meetings and conversations. The technology to do this remotely is not, he thinks, good enough yet.

Miah’s first degree was in sport science and leisure studies. “My childhood was defined by my favourite subjects: maths, art, PE. I’m basically still doing all three.” He played basketball, football, volleyball and table tennis at school and went riding, kayaking and climbing in the holidays. His first ambition was to join the Royal Marines. “During the recruitment interview, I got into an ethical argument with the lieutenant. That was my clue that it probably wasn’t for me. “Physical excellence, as represented by the military, was the appeal. At 18 I was not engaged with social or political ideas. I didn’t read. My handwriting was messy because my hand was too slow to keep up with my head.”

At De Montfort University, in Bedford, all that changed. “My degree was one of the few in the country where philosophy was taught within science programmes. It opened my eyes to postmodernism, concepts of identity, discussions about what it is to be human. I took these questions in the direction of technology. How does the computer change us, or how will genetics? The moral dilemmas interested me.”

And so the volleyball star became an international academic-activist-author. He and García co-wrote The Olympics: The Basics, published by Routledge this year. Miah is also a talented photographer and builds his own websites. Not to show off, but as part of his desire to push his ideas beyond the ivory towers of Paisley and the conference rooms of Brussels. “I am desperately disappointed with how academia fails to make an impact in wider society. At a very early point in my career, I became convinced that having a web presence was the shortcut to having a marketing team around my work. I design and edit my own sites and help others do theirs. It’s the most effective way to ensure what I do as an academic reaches people.”

He also blogs for the Huffington Post and contributes to The Guardian. He’s considering getting an agent. “I’ve pretty much invented my own job. I do think that we ought to educate students not necessarily for the job market but to be ready for the jobs that have yet to exist.”

Since becoming a father, Miah has found many previously theoretical issues becoming intensely personal. Before Ethan was born, he and García discussed harvesting blood from his umbilical cord as insurance against future blood diseases. It would cost £2,000, which was doable. Then they discovered it would mean having a specialist medical technician hanging around the house during the water birth. The blood would then have to be whizzed to the Netherlands. And the procedure carried some danger to the baby. “We figured a real risk – of him not having enough blood at birth – was a greater risk than a potential, but unlikely, disorder later on. If we had a history of blood-related disorders, I’m sure we would have decided differently.”

That’s not to say Ethan is not the very child of the future. He babbles happily in Spanglish, although he Tweets in English. When he is not monopolising the iPad, he is accompanying his parents on their world travels. This year he has been to Taipei, Helsinki and Brussels. Coming up before August are Madrid and Sao Paolo. Last May he sat on his father’s knee while Miah gave a lecture – on the umbilical cord dilemma – in Germany. For the first 18 months of his life, he was cared for exclusively by his parents, Miah typing furiously, his infant son dozing on his lap. In the run-up to the Olympics, the couple have agreed this is not feasible; he has since started nursery and will visit his grandparents in Barcelona for most of August.

Every aspect of his life has been recorded and posted on YouTube for far-flung family to watch. “Every landmark is documented, from reaching out to first steps. Some people worry about putting their kids online. I think it will empower him to not be paranoid about being in the public domain. Time will tell if he feels the same. Should he choose that it’s not for him, we can delete everything in one click.”

This means that Miah’s mother, who is terminally ill, needs only fire up her laptop to see her grandson. She can watch him scoff his chocolate bunny, decide against the feta cheese and try out his new wellies from the comfort of her bed. Every new word is filmed on the iPad and instantly uploaded. It’s the technological and social change that makes #media2012 possible used on a domestic scale. It’s life-enhancing. n

Andy Miah is adviser to Human Race: a touring exhibition that uses Scottish collections and new works to explore the history, development and ethics of sport and exercise medicine (www.humanrace.org.uk)