An introduction to infrastructure fiction — Improving Reality 2013

Paul Raven @ 31-10-2013

I am very pleased to publish my talk from Improving Reality 2013. Here is the video version… followed by my slides and script, because, well, I’m a writer, and not a natural orator. (I need to work on that, I think.)

IR was a day of fascinating talks, and I heartily recommend all of them; they can be found on the Lighthouse Arts YouTube channel. Particular favourites include Keller Easterling (who was the very definition of “hard act to follow”), Justin Pickard (favoured guest of this parish in years past, and getting sharper and more dangerous by the month) and Georgina Voss (who’ll make you think about choose-your-own adventure books and venture capitalism in a totally new way).

So, on with the show…

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[Slides and script below the cut...] Continue reading “An introduction to infrastructure fiction — Improving Reality 2013″


Wrist-deep in the grab-bag of the quotidian

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2013

The future [sucked/rocked]

Atemporality, eh? [Spotted by the freshly deracinated Tim Maughan, currently on foot patrol in NYC, who noted that both of those futures -- and, implicitly, all futures -- are in the past tense.]

Speaking of the quotidian grab-bag, here’s an interesting project: remixdemix. I’m not quite sure whether it’s satirizing the tendency of futures thinking to turn into buzzword bingo or not, even though it seems to have been posted in the spirit (and to little response) at FastCo. I’m not sure whether to ‘read’ it as art or as a futures exercise; Tschäppeler is messing around with the fuzzy line between clever design fiction and outright hoaxing that Bruce Sterling talks about a lot lately, and which various colleagues (most notably Justin Pickard) have been worrying at for a while. So maybe this thing of Tschäppeler’s is a spoof, a design metafiction, y’know? But the ten example ‘visions’ on the website have that authentic wild-card feel about ‘em, too well informed and chewy to be pure pisstaking, even as they splodge marks right across the TED bingo-card. Pop will eat itself.

Talking of buzzwords masquerading of knowledge — d’you remember my chat about fan-fiction futurism with one Mister Dan Abelow a while back? (Yes, yes, I’ve been busy landing a doctoral studentship, sorry.) After writing that post, I was left with a nagging feeling that I knew Abelow from somewhere else, and I did a bit of INTERNETS  to find out why that might have been. And it turns out that Abelow is the author of a set of patents which a company called Lodsys licenses to a number of the major tech companies for a great deal of money; Lodsys in turn bought a part stake in said patents from another firm called Intellectual Ventures. Lodsys has spent the last 18 months wringing settlements out of a massive list of big tech companies, but Kaspersky stuck it out and went to court… which led to Lodsys filing to dismiss its suit against Kaspersky earlier this week.

Put it this way, Techdirt routinely labels Lodsys as a patent troll operation. If you search around a bit, you can probably find the original Abelow patents in question; while I’m certainly not questioning their legal validity, they’re clearly about as devoid of content as Abelow’s “futurism” on the WFS front page… which, incidentally, seems to be a running sales pitch for the promising bounty of his newest “Expandaverse” patent, which you can read — all 1,533 dead-tree pages of it, as pictured on that linked page; I’d embed the image here, but I can’t be bothered with the DMCAs — right after you sign an NDA and/or buy a license.

Go and read the excerpts on that page, though; it seems to be little more than an amalgamation of every skiffy cyberspace-interface virtuality cliché bundled into one horribly branded lump, a tangled fatberg-ratking of painfully obvious and already-done useability woo which could be claimed to apply to pretty much anything with an internet connection. A cynic might even suggest that was the point of the exercise… but I’ll settle for saying it’s a bit odd that the WFS are essentially letting Abelow use their site as a shop-window for his patent-pending concepts and fan-fic sales pitches; it’s a relationship that does Abelow a lot more favours than it does the WFS.


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.


Improving Reality

Paul Raven @ 29-07-2013

Improving Reality… that’s an ambitious title, no?

I’d expect nothing less than ambition from Honor Harger and her crew at Lighthouse, though; this year’s IR (Thurday 5th September, Brighton UK; map here; tickets here) will be the third instalment of their ongoing mission to bring together artists and writers and designers and futures people with the intent of finding ways to… well, there’s a clue in the title, isn’t there?

Previous guests at IR have included among their number Warren Ellis, Lauren Beukes, Usman Haque, Anab Jain, Jeff Noon and Joanne McNeil.

This year’s line-up includes Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Justin Pickard (late of this parish), Georgina Voss, Simon Ings and Paula Le Dieu, among others.

And among those others is me.

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How did that happen? Well, it had a lot to do with an essay I sent to the good people at Superflux, in which I coined the phrase “infrastructure fiction”. I hope you’ll go read the whole thing (disclaimer: #longread), but I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that infrastructure fiction was less a new idea than an attempt to encourage people to use the design fiction toolkit on bigger, more tangled problems, such as infrastructure. There are some infrastructure-specific issues involved, of course – and some theory, because I seem these days to produce theory like yeast produces ethanol* – but mostly I was aiming for what in sf criticism we sometimes call the “conceptual breakthrough”: that bit in the story where the characters (and, implicitly, the reader) experience a scalar paradigm shift in how they think about the system of systems that is their world.

That metasystemic perspective fits with IR’s theme this year, so I’ll be talking about it. Do come along if you’re in the area; Brighton in late summer is a glorious place to be, and there’ll be brainfood aplenty. Do come and introduce yourself, too.

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Speaking of publications, while I haven’t written more than a handful of poems and scene sketches since handing in my Masters dissertation (the same week as IR2012, funnily enough, which is why I remember going, but don’t remember anything else), I’ve been cranking out a fair bit of academic material. You can find my name on the author list of this paper at Futures, which talks about the project which inspired the notion of infrastructure fiction, and this one at Energy, which further develops one of the ideas from that project. I’ve also got a solo paper on science fiction prototyping sat somewhere in the bowels of the editorial system at Technological Forecasting & Social Change, which was accepted for publication last week, but appears to not yet be in press.

(My academic bibliography already far outstrips my fiction bibliography… though admittedly that’s not much of a challenge at this point.)

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I’ve also been speaking at other events, which – to my shame – I never got around to mentioning here before they happened. The wonderful folk at Corporacion Fractal invited me out to Medellín, Colombia where we did something I can only describe as “community design fiction” – an experiment in providing ordinary people with information about new technological developments and then helping them tell stories about it. While it was a lot more intellectually comfortable than playing Talking-Head Authorityguy – I remain convinced there are few if any “experts” on futurity, only people with a strong, dry grip on the right tools for the job at hand – it was hard work; trying to help a crowd of a few hundred people piece together a story about synthetic biology in an everyday context would surely be challenege enough, but doing so through the semantic gauze of live translation raised the bar that much further. Luckily our translator was excellent, and we were having too much fun to notice the hard work bit… and the audience got right into it once they’d sussed out what we were trying to do. Team Fractal are developing an interesting new praxis down there – putting futures thinking into the hands of the people whose futures they might be.

Less glamorously, I’ve read Borges stories to civil engineering conferences (over-reliance on computer modelling is leading to a sort of postmodern crisis in engineering, a flood of signifiers without anything to signify; Borges makes explaining this problem comparatively easy); more glamorously, I was on a panel at the WriteTheFuture conference at the Royal Society on May Day. I’m unwilling to assess the glamour factor of the #stacktivism unconference I spoke at earlier this month (it took place near Hoxton, and thus fell well within the glamour-warping field that ripples through East London like gravity through wet concrete), but it was all politics-of-infrastructure in an old warehouse with high ceilings, an exhibition of nude selfportrait photography and a veritable forest of oddly modular laser-cut plywood furniture.

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So, yeah; it’s been quite a year, and we’re still (just) in July. And there’s more on the horizon… which I shall talk about nearer the time, as I get this ol’ battlestation spun up to full power once again. There’s work to be done, ideas to be shared, conversations to have; keep watching the skies.

In the meantime, hope to see some of you at Improving Reality, or elsewhere.


[ * -- It's a by-product of my life-processes which may eventually poison me; this is a strong metaphor. ]


Consequences

Paul Raven @ 12-03-2013

I do keep saying that futurism isn’t about making predictions, don’t I? Well, that’s because I really believe it. Prediction — in the sense of declaring with great certainty that [x] will come to happen — is a waste of time, because you have no way of accurately determining whether or not the prediction will be validated until the moment at which it is validated (or not). Stick to gambling on horses or stock prices, if gambling’s your thing.

I’m increasingly starting to think of futurism — or at least the sort of futurism I’m interested in doing — as being first and foremost about looking at consequences. This is an extension of the standard technological forecasting methodology, which tends to draw a temporal line through recent, current and projected technological developments in order to conclude that — at some point, however loosely defined — there will be a marketable technology that achieves a (seemingly) desirable goal.

Thing is, the desirable goal isn’t the end of the story. On the contrary, it’s only the beginning.

Example: driverless cars! Think how wonderful the driverless car revolution will be: you’ll be able to read a book or eat your breakfast during your commute! No more traffic jams! It’ll totally revolutionise personal transportation!

See the problem? This sort of thinking makes one exciting extrapolation against a freeze-framed status quo, and then extols the revolutionary change thus achieved. And much as there are days when I wish with all my heart that the world only changed in one measurable and discrete way at a time, it just ain’t so.

I can’t take credit for this particular insight, at least not independently; the redoubtable (and, even by my standards, prolix) Dale Carrico did a great job of shredding driverless car boosterism from his gadfly pulpit in the draughty towers of the White World Future Society. The critical point is this: making cars driverless doesn’t actually solve any of the biggest pressures on the private vehicle sector at all; it just ameliorates (or promises to ameliorate) some of the more unpleasant social side-effects attendant on the inescapable necessity of using what was once extolled as a technology that would improve lives by reducing journey times. (Oh, the irony.)

Making your car driverless doesn’t remove or reduce your need to be sat in the damned thing for hours twice a day; it won’t make your tanks of gas any cheaper or less environmentally damaging; it won’t roll back decades of suburban sprawl and expensive freeway infrastructure; and it’ll be a long time before the technology is cheap enough to make an impact on ordinary people, ie. those who would benefit most from reduced costs and more free time. By the time they’re widespread (if they ever are), the steady increase in the number of vehicles on the road will have countered any significant change in traffic loading; furthermore, those changes will be held back by the necessity of sharing the road system with manual ‘legacy’ vehicles.

The driverless car is not a revolution in personal transportation. It is merely a reinvention of the wheel, an iterative development — and a way of selling more new cars. Driverless cars may well change the world — but not for you, or at least not for your benefit.

This is what I mean about consequences; this is where futurism needs to make a point of bringing people — real, ordinary people — into the frame where the Brand New Shiny is being considered.

If you go and look at Carrico’s burner linked above, you’ll see a comment from Yours Truly where I did exactly that — shifting the predicted “disruption”* away from the average (and increasingly mythical) consumer and relocating it in those realms where big budgets and and slim margins make the cost of investing early look tempting. Driverless cars will only be available as commercial products to the super-rich, at least at first; driverless technology, however, will fit just as well into the trucks of the long-distance haulage industry, who have a whole laundry list of reasons to jump all over it at the soonest possibility: as fuel costs continue to rise, the prospect of a fleet of truck drivers who a) only require a one-off upfront payment at hiring time [ie. installation outlay cost], b) don’t need sleep, biobreaks or union representation and c) can drive around the clock with no drop in alertness is going to give haulage companies the biggest boner the poor bastards have had in years.

And hey, would you look at this?

Via Fast Company; OK, so these road trains still require one human driver in the lead cab, but I’ll bet my shoes and socks that’s more to do with allaying legislative (not to mention public) fears about the technology failing than a genuine necessity.

Ella Saitta once said to me that “the internet eviscerates everything it comes into contact with, and then turns it into something more like the internet”. The internet is all about cutting the need for human activity out of any commercial transaction, and about minimizing the length of supply chains.

If you think driverless technology is going to make your life better in the near future, you’re either a haulage company owner, or not paying attention.


* — The mutating semantics of the word “disruption” in the context of the tech-start-up scene is more than a little worrying to someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how language gets used; disruption is increasingly seen as a positive, a desirable thing, an opportunity to make a profit by eviscerating an existing industry that can’t compete with your new way of doing things. Which not only ties in with Ella’s observation, but also allows an insight into how some tech CEOs think: that collapsing a market is acceptable if you can then seize it wholesale.

Sounds a bit like US foreign policy during the Noughties, no?


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