The death of the cool: fan-fiction futurism

Paul Raven @ 06-08-2013

Part [x] in an ongoing and probably endless series of examples of why it might be that, outwith the futurism community and the managerial class, hardly anyone takes the word “futurist” seriously.

Today’s victim is Dan Abelow, and this post of his at the World Future Society’s blog. Someone asked me in the comments a while back why I snarkily called the WFS the White Future Society; this is exactly why.

Take it away, Dan.

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Whether you’re young or old there’s one thing you know: Your future is digital.

I don’t know that at all, because you haven’t defined “digital” in the context in which my future might be it.

Our cell phones, tablets and other screens are with us constantly throughout our daily lives.

We move from screen to screen as everything revolves around how quickly they do our bidding, how well they meet our needs.

We can’t imagine living without digital.

So long as the “we” here is “a technocentric slice of wealthy folk in the Global North”, and “digital” is portable computing, then yes.

But we’re still just individuals with devices. Doing tasks, playing games and going from app to app.

The devices industry is evolving into a commodity business. The leaders are similar in hardware, features, software, apps, app stores, services, and bandwidth (or phone service plans).

It doesn’t matter whether you use Apple, Android or Windows. History will say they’re in the same generation, at a parallel stage. Whether you use a smart phone, tablet, Laptop/PC, game box, connected TV or another device, they’re generally separate silos, using the cloud to work together.

The commodification of computing is hardly a new trend, but OK.

How far can today’s devices really take us?

Visit your local hackspace and find out, maybe? The street is always finding new (and often off-label) uses for things.

Wrong question. Ask if a fully Digital World were possible today, how far would we take our devices?

The first question may not have been great, but it was better than this double conjecture. “If [undefined utopian possibility] existed now, what [wonderful things might it gift us with]?” It’s early in the year to be writing lists for Santa.

Suppose there were powerful competitive advantages available for companies who also make their devices doorways to the future?

Surely a company that built a doorway to the future would have the ultimate in competitive advantages? Unless you mean “doorway to the future” in a woolly metaphorical kind of way, of course…

What if we could compete on time as well as features – with the future competing against the present?

Wait, what?

The next market shift could come from using our devices as doorways into tomorrow’s Digital World.

… OK, so it’s a woolly metaphor. Carry on.

If you think digital is cool today, you don’t know the meaning of cool

LAY IT ON ME, DADDY-O; THIS HEPCAT’S HOT TO TROT FOR TEH FUTUREZ LOL

(If there is a meaning of cool beyond the one that refers to relative temperature, middle-aged men talking like they think teenagers talk is its antithesis.)

Step through a time machine. Imagine we’ve built tomorrow’s Digital World.

*steps into Space Mountain rollercoaster car*

You live in the Expandiverse, which is new technology and IP for building tomorrow’s digital world.

So, wait: we stepped through the door into tomorrow’s digital world, and we’re now living in the expandiverse, which isn’t the new digital world, but the technology and IP for building it? I’m a little confused as to where I am…

It’s a “you-centered” Digital World where your screens recognize you and turn on and off automagically. Your world follows you from screen to screen.

So it’s like, ah, Facebook with gaze-tracking or something?

Just like you walk into a room and everything is there, your screens make your digital world local. You have instant access to your people, services, places, tools and resources.

There is no there, there.

You enjoy digital boundaries for privacy, and have both digital and physical protection.

HAHAHA. Right.

In fact, your digital world has grown more powerful and safer than the physical world.

Powerful, arguably, but powerful doesn’t equate to more easily controlled, and it begs the question of who is the subject of that power. What has this “power” enabled me to do that I can’t already? Buy more stuff? How is it safer, given my current chances of death or injury in “the digital world” are nil, or at least no different to those in meatspace, what with “the digital world” not being a place in any sense other than the (increasingly useless) metaphorical one?

You’re at the top of your world, at its center, in control.

Hey, how did my Mikey Vegas Helps You Quit Smoking motivational CD get in here?

Now imagine really, really cool

Good grief.

You start your day with a healthy breakfast.

You know it’s healthy because lots of people collaborated to get it right. From farmers through food product manufacturers, from retailers through consumers, they’re all members of a healthy food “governance,” a virtual community that brings knowledge to all its members when they want it. That’s you this morning when you prepared and enjoyed your breakfast. Yet you knew you’re part of a natural food chain that starts on thousands of farms and works to be sustainable and affordable for the Earth’s billions of people.

Well, this is a nice idea, but it rather elides the reasons so many people’s breakfasts aren’t healthy: that they can’t afford the healthy stuff, for example, or that the store near them doesn’t carry it, or that the regulatory body in charge of assessing healthiness has been taking kickbacks from the sugar lobby. And if this is a “natural food chain”, where do the “food product manufacturers” come into it? Are they somehow making it Even More Natural? (Modern business is all about adding value! And if the product has loads of value already, we can just take some of it out to make room!)

And this “governance”, which comes with its own free set of scare-quotes at no extra charge: how is it structured? How do the elements in that structure influence the others? Who is charged with the checks and balances, with the transparency oversight? Hell, who does the copyediting and uploads the photos? Who’s paying for all this to be done? Is it really anything other than an idealised vision of what governments do, only this time magically accomplished by distributing tablet form-factor computers and wishing really hard?

While eating you’re watching video on a tablet-size Teleportal.

Your tablet Teleportal is part of a new family of devices that includes multiscreen technology (allowing you to work seamlessly across all your various screens) and between virtual groups (allowing people to work together across all their devices, including their apps, services, places and other resources). Teleportals converge computing, communications, TV/video, the Internet, work, commerce, entertainment and more into a continuous digital reality architecture that enables your continuous digital world. As Teleportals become higher quality your screens become as real in appearance and presence as looking through a window at the physical world in front of you.

I’m going to drop your secretary a fax and book an appointment, Dan; my people are working on this amazing thing called “the paperless office”, and I think you’re gonna love it.

The video is interrupted by one of the few ads you let inside your personal paywall.

Your paywall blocks all ads except the ones you let inside, because you’re paid for watching them. This ad is for a breakfast cereal and you stop and pay attention to it, because your attention is tracked and you have to watch to get paid.

Credit where it’s due: that was a sudden lurch into black-comedy dystopia I just didn’t see coming.

The ad is funny and you laugh while taking another bite of the same cereal that’s in the ad.

This’ll be the healthy cereal that we chose because we knew it was the healthy sustainable option, right?

That’s now called “partnership capitalism,” when customers support companies that support them. Funny how “partnering” strengthened marketing.

Hilarious, yeah. Only I’m a little fuzzy on how paying your customers to watch your marketing so they can just spend that money back on buying your product is a) profitable, and b) not profoundly fucked up. I thought we were eating this cereal because it was the healthy sustainable breakfast option? Or is that just what the ad told us?

You used to be bombarded with ads you fought to ignore. Now only the ads you allow get through, but you watch most of them because that puts money in your bank account every day. There are even people who spend hours watching ads when they want extra cash!

I’d be literally overjoyed to see the marketing world try this business model (because schadenfreude is my co-pilot), but please give me a few week’s warning so I can do some serious short-selling on the stock exchange before they get going.

You’re watching a video about the cereal company’s supply chain, because you work in distribution.

The infomercial; not a new genre.

How distribution has changed! Robotic pickers, self-driving forklifts, and equipment telematics show your whole virtual team a dashboard of what’s happening every minute.

Man, it really has changed; shit, remember the twentyteens, when we still had human staff in the warehouses? Haha, those guys. The excuses they’d come up with for needing time off! We used to keep a league table.

As exceptions surface they’re dealt with immediately. Your connected group of managers and workers is now growing to include similar groups in companies that ship to you, and in companies that receive from you. Together you’re harnessing instant and deep multi-company data for frequent improvements. Your supply chain is continuously turning more efficient, responsive and accurate – benefitting your markets, industry and economy.

Bro, you wanna be careful about rephrasing the basics of a centralised global command economy as the future of multinational corporate business; that’s like presenting on behalf of Maccy D’s at a vegan conference.

In fact a co-worker interrupts, asking you to stop by and see a new demo for sharing vehicle telematics data across the connected companies.

You ask to see the demo right away instead, walking over to a larger screen so it’s clearer. Stopping in front of the new screen turns it on and brings up your co-worker as she displays the mocked-up interface. It looks good so you tell her to run with it and create a prototype.

This is a profound advance on taking a brief phonecall, asking for an email with the link to the mock UI, and then emailing back with the go-ahead for the development phase! My god, we might as well be living in the Stone Age. But The Future is soooo coooooool!

Before you leave you flip to your family’s Life Space to check how your parents are adjusting to retirement.

You put your family’s Life Space on the nearest screen. Mom’s in a virtual card game with her best friends, while they’re all virtually blended into the gardens next to the Eiffel Tower. Dad’s exploring Belize’s coral atolls while chatting with a childhood buddy. He’s sipping coffee while blended into a real-time screen from the reef, surrounding him with tropical fish. No worries there so you don’t focus them in. Senior citizens like them have created some of the most active virtual communities, including family, childhood and lifetime friends, resources, services and caregivers in their 24×7 relationships.

So it’s like a care home where every bath-chair comes with a remaindered Glass headset; keep ‘em busy enough with digital soma and networks, and you don’t even need to worry about going to see them! Not like they can run off or anything, either; years of those healthy cereals have made sure of that. The young folk who used to work in your warehouse now mostly work in carehomes, though, so you know they’re not starving for actual physical company or anything. See? Technology fixes everything, given enough time.

It seemed like the more their physical mobility shrank, the larger their digital lives grew.

Just trace that curve a few more points beyond the edge of the page, and you’ll bump into Ray Kurzweil, busily attempting to upload himself.

Looking at today’s technology, doesn’t it seem logical that we’ll link our screens and add continuous connections that move with us as we switch from screen to screen?

Doesn’t it look remarkably like we’ve already done this, and that all you’re imagining here is a slight increase in technological fluidity accompanied by the unexpected and completely improbable emergence of a concomitant and totally unexamined utopia?

Add in capabilities like separate groups for our different interests; continuous connections to people, tools and resources in each group; CGI-like blending of people, places and embedded ads; and both physical and digital security based on recognition.

So, a miserable and relentless barrage of data and demands for our attention, plus increasingly blurred notions of identity and authority, the final and complete breakdown of the difference between advertising and “content”, and security systems marketed as foolproof which can be hacked by any wiseacre kid with a web connection and the right query string… did I miss anything?

It doesn’t take long for the light bulb to go on, for tomorrow’s Digital World to come into focus.

It really doesn’t, no.

A Digital World we could build and move into today.

How cool is that!

What would be cool, Dan, is if you could point out to me what makes this futurism, as opposed to third-tier motivational speaking for the Silicon Valley start-up set; if you could tell me who the “we” is in this future (because it can’t, by definition, be everyone); if you could engage critically with even a single one of the largely-already-extant technologies you mention; if you could acknowledge the global socioeconomic complexity that underpins such a scenario, however flimsy that scenario may be, and address how and why it might have to change, or at least attempt to explain why you think it wouldn’t; if you could imagine a future that isn’t essentially the present you’re already privileged enough to enjoy, but with some more Minority Report interfaces thrown in.

That would be cool. This, however, is warmed-over bullshit and wish-fulfilment.

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6 Responses to “The death of the cool: fan-fiction futurism”

  1. MadelineAshby says:

    RT @PaulGrahamRaven: F’mic: The death of the cool: fan-fiction futurism http://t.co/TQnEknKAae #wfs #flatpackfutures

  2. thesjef says:

    RT @PaulGrahamRaven: F’mic: The death of the cool: fan-fiction futurism http://t.co/TQnEknKAae #wfs #flatpackfutures

  3. ian_sales says:

    @PaulGrahamRaven he said “healthy breakfast cereal” ¬– ha ha

  4. Cekent says:

    RT @PaulGrahamRaven: F’mic: The death of the cool: fan-fiction futurism http://t.co/TQnEknKAae #wfs #flatpackfutures

  5. Romie Stott says:

    I really appreciate the term fanfic futurist; I can already tell I’m going to use that a lot. I can’t tell you how often I run into posts or essays that are long versions of “you may have trouble believing in [implausible thing], but we didn’t have smartphones 40 years ago.” Like how we invented planes and now I can fly without planes and also attach my arms in different configurations for different altitudes.

  6. Athena Andreadis says:

    Abelow’s article actually sounds like the missing part of Wall-E: the life of the human descendants up on that orbiting station. Good times!

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