Streetview, art and atemporality

Paul Raven @ 10-11-2010

I’m having a great morning for internet serendipity*, and I thought this particular synchronicitous pairing might float well here at Futurismic. First of all, Joanne “Tomorrow Museum” McNeil has an essay connected to the New Museum “Free” show that riffs on Google Streetview, daguerreotypes and atemporality:

Someday we will press a button to rewind and fast-forward through the history of Google Street View images. We will watch entire neighborhoods created, remade, destroyed, or left unchanged except in the subtlest ways. And in the course of it, we will find flashes of human experiences like the man standing with the shoeshiner in the Boulevard du Temple daguerreotype.

[…]

The future was once represented in fantastically romantic ways: white spacesuits, buildings infinite in height, interplanetary travel, alien interactions, an abundance of wealth, and robot servitude. Now the future is represented as something more compressed and accessible. The future is on the Internet, in those screens we glance at intermittently at all waking hours of the day. Our expectation is the “IRL” world will look not much unlike what we see today. It is a future of gradual changes, incorporating familiar aspects with new but not too crazy updated technology. What is in abundance is not wealth but information.

The idea of the future is now a distorted mirror. It is the future of screens. Like the daguerreotype, screens contain memory and reflection, as well as an unknown difference only discerning eyes can see. We are overfutured. We’ve reached the point where the past, present, and future look no different from one another.

The Eternal Electronically-Mediated Now; space and time mashed up into one seamless manipulable digital dimension.

And now see here [via BoingBoing]: Streetview-fed-through-Mapcrunch also helps corrode established visual stereotypes about what different countries look like. A sly rejoinder to those who claim that the web necessarily reinforces clichés: not so! It merely feeds them to those who wish to be fed. Novelty, difference, contrast… it’s all there for the finding for them as wants to look. Don’t like the time or place where you find yourself? Just Google yourself up a new reality; it’s all just raw data until we story it.

[ * A few days a friend on Twitter lamented having to choose between her love of beards and her love of cupcakes; and lo, the internet provideth. Does its pointlessness make it any less beautiful to the right person at the right moment? ]


Punking steampunk

Paul Raven @ 28-10-2010

The inevitable high-profile backlash at steampunk’s oversaturation of the cultural Zeitgeist finally arrives (and about time, too). Take it away, Charlie Stross:

It’s not that I actively dislike steampunk […] It’s just that there’s too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it’s in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

We’ve been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it’s poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it’s on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it’s over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon.

If I was less busy today, I’d spin out a lengthy rant about the inevitability of this sort of cultural shift; it happens all the time in the world of music, for example (and it happens insanely fast nowadays, thanks to music being predominantly a digital domain populated by the young and computer-savvy). But for now, a brief summary:

Subcultural colonialism, in other words, works in very similar ways to the other, older sort of colonialism… though I don’t mean to imply its repercussions are anywhere near as serious. It’s a similarity of process rather than impact, you might say.

Stross goes on to point out that romanticising the Victorian era is a rather odd thing to do, given that it was extraordinarily grim for the vast majority of people. Personally I think that’s a large part of the impulse; I’m reading a rather excellent book on the era at the moment (Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt), and it makes the point that the early phases of the industrial revolution were marked by a wistful yearning for the pastoral/feudal England it had left behind… an England in many ways as mythological and idealised as steampunk’s glossy faux-Victoriana.

Because we know we can never go back, we feel free to reimagine the past as a haven from of the existential horrors of The Now; dreaming about a holiday you can never take is safe, because you can never be disappointed by the reality. Yesterday’s Now isn’t so scary, firstly because its bad sides are almost unimaginable from our current vantage point of Panglossian privilege, and secondly because our very existence implies it was survivable at a civilisational scale – two certainties that The Now doesn’t deliver.

The past is a poster on your bedroom wall. Hi-ho, atemporality.


Zero History, Counter(cyber)culture, Atemporality, Network Realism…

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2010

Way to make me feel out of the loop, folks! Seems like everyone‘s talking about Gibson’s Zero History right now*, and yours truly still hasn’t even gotten around to reading Spook Country. *sigh*

Still, the vicarious thrill of other people’s intellectual appreciation will do for now – here’s Alex Vagenas responding to ZH, and to Adam Greenfield’s own response to such (which we mentioned here a while back):

Leaving all the references and knowingness aside, it can be read, like the rest of Gibson’s work and certainly much of the rest of the cyberpunks, as a lament for a certain counter-cultural ethos. It evinces a nostalgia for something that existed or might still exist in potentia perhaps, not fully achieved, but definitely a romantic idea of some sort of subcultural autonomy. It is a theme that can be traced from Burroughs straight down to Gibson, Sterling, Shirley and Stephenson, via Pynchon of course, and more famously theorised by Hakim Bey. In the past, subcultures were visible and exposed. They became monolithic. The web has provided ways in which subcultures can circumscribe “temporary autonomous zones” for themselves and become more diffuse on certain levels, but they still remain searchable and cannot avoid the inevitability of commodification and co-optation. Zero History describes an even more cryptic form of that, however. Gabriel Hounds is a truly secret brand. It has withdrawn into actual off-the-grid circulation. It looks like Gibson is alluding to an ideal that can be tentatively realised on those terms only.

As much as everyone seems a bit sniffy (in one way or another) about Bruce Sterling’s atemporality riff (including Vagenas, earlier in the piece linked to above), there’s a vindication of sorts in the observable phenomenon that even its detractors end up having to talk about it on its own terms. Vagenas simplifies it down to “old post-modernism in new bottles” (my paraphrase), but po-mo (to me at least) has always implied a knowing and conscious bridging of cultural time; by comparison, atemporality (altermodernism?) is instinctive, unavoidable, something we do almost in spite of ourselves.

And what better way to pretend to ourselves that we’re not doing a particular thing than giving that thing a more palatable name? “Network realism”, maybe [via TechnOcculT]?

Network Realism is writing that is of and about the network. It’s realism because it’s so close to our present reality. A realism that posits an increasingly 1:1 relationship between Fiction and the World. A realtime link. And it’s networked because it lives in a place that’s that’s enabled by, and only recently made possible by, our technological connectedness.

Zero History is Network Realism because of the way that it talks about the world, and the way its knowledge of the world is gathered and disseminated. Gibson seems to be navigating the spider graph of current reality as wikiracing does human knowledge.

What many people—including me—have been bothered about with Zero History is it’s lack of futureness. Matt took Gibson’s comment that “We have too many cards in play to casually erect believable futures” to mean that “Science Fiction is losing the timeline”. Russell is depressed by the lack of future in SciFi and much else. And I wrote, reading the book, “The problem is not that we don’t have jetpacks, but that no one is writing about jetpacks.”

I think these are misreadings of Network Realism. This writing exists on a timeline, but it’s not a simple line back-to-the-past and forward-to-the-future. It’s a gathering-together of many currently possible worldlines, seen from the near-omniscient superposition of the network. The Order Flow of the Universe. Speculative Realism, Networked Fiction: Network Realism.

Even when we quite deliberately stop calling science fiction by its original association-tainted name, even when we slice it up into stylistically and/or thematically disparate (or interrelated) subsubgenres, even when its authors are interviewed in serious newspapers and never once asked about their favourite rocket ships or whether they’ve met an alien… we still can’t agree on what it actually is, or how and why it works, or indeed whether it actually works at all.

And that, I’m increasingly convinced, is the true source of science fiction’s uniqueness and longevity. If we ever manage to define sf in a way that everyone can agree on, it’ll probably ossify and die within months. And you might even argue that it follows logically (in a way that Darwin might recognise) that sf has become interested in atemporality because atemporality is the best survival strategy available to it.

Just don’t ask me which came first, all right? 😉

[ * Yes, including this very blog. Honestly, I don’t plan these things; the Zeitgeist gods of RSS and email and Twitter just dump stuff in my lap every day, and sometimes it just so happens that the batch will contain two or three shiny little nuggets that happen to be the same colour or shape or texture. When it happens, I can’t help but pluck them out, make a set from them. Guess you might call it some sort of… pattern recognition?** ]

[ ** OK, I’ll get my coat. ]


Looking back on cyberpunk1.0

Paul Raven @ 21-09-2010

An interesting personal-reflection post from Adam “Everyware” Greenfield on his formative experiences with cyberpunk. In a fresh refingering of the “we live in that fictional world now” riff, he wonders if anything could possibly strike such a powerful chord for him again:

[This graffiti’d Chinese shipping container] struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

I know what Greenfield’s talking about here, but I suspect that personal subjectivity has a lot to do with it; Justin Pickard crops up in the comments to point out that, as a younger reader, he got something of the same gutpunch from Gibson’s Pattern Recognition reproducing the world he recognised from beyond the book’s covers. Just like the books we read, we’re products of our own milieu… atemporality is rarer than it might appear from inside our favoured goldfish bowl.

I can easily imagine the inquisitive teens of today seeing themselves and their world in Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland, or in the more recent works of Ian McDonald and (to a lesser extent, because as much as I feel he tries earnestly to capture the world as-is, he can’t help but Disney-fy it at the same time) Cory Doctorow. But thinking about sf from this angle, it feels to me like there’s a real paucity of works that seek to engage the world on political and economic terms in the way that cyberpunk grappled with the Eighties…

… or perhaps that’s what’s going on in the world of YA urban fantasy (or whatever we’re calling it this week). Which might possibly explain why I just don’t understand the appeal of that stuff whatsoever. *shrug*


Bruce Sterling on atemporality

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2010

I’d be remiss in my fanboy duties if I didn’t repost this video of a keynote speech from Bruce Sterling at last week’s Transmediale Futurity Now! conference in Berlin.

Appropriately enough for a conference in Berlin, a city where history lays heavily in layers of physical and psychological flotsam and jetsam, Chairman Bruce is talking about atemporality – that curious and disorientating sense that modern media gives us of all times being somehow equal.

Atemporality is “a calm, pragmatic [and] serene skepticism about the historical narrative”; it’s “a philosophy of history with a built-in expiry date”; it’s the end of post-modernism, and the end of The End Of History. But enough with the sound-bite pull-quotes – it’s only 25 minutes long, so settle down comfortably and get your mind expanded.


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