If it works, it’s obsolete

Paul Raven @ 02-02-2014

There are some elephants in the room that Chairman Bruce would like to show to us.

[Opening ceremony speech from transmediale2014]

Kick-offs, and kickings-into-touch

Paul Raven @ 07-02-2011

Just a quick one: among the folk among my Twitter cloud, this list of potential explanations from the BBC’s Paul Mason for “why everything’s kicking off” at the moment did the rounds maybe three times over the course of the weekend, and with some justification. A few highlights:

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

16. There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

A minty-fresh blast of optimistic air, there. Well, James Nicoll is oftn quoted as saying “whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts”; in a naked remix thereof, I’ll say that whenever I feel my chest swell with optimism about current events, I read Bruce Sterling. Here’s the Chairman’s point-by-point besnarking of Mason’s list; by way of balance, two highlights:

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected. (((Unless you count Birtherism and climate-denial as hermetic ideologies, ’cause they are)))

14. In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week. (((Revolution of the Dilettantes! Good luck getting these multitasking mayflies to govern anything.)))

I remember asking Sterling in an interview I ran here a while back what made him feel positive about the next few decades, and I quite deservedly got my own naive arse served to me on a plate*:

I don’t even do “positive” and “negative” potential. I sincerely think that attitude makes people actively stupid about the future.


History is what it is. Major change-drivers, true historical forces, they have little to do with people’s innate need for pep-talk. If you want to help people deal with futurity, you need to think talk and act in a way that clarifies the situation — not within mental frameworks that are dystopian, utopian, miserabilist, hunky-dory, apocaphiliac, Singularitarian, millennialist… wishful thinking just isn’t serious thinking. We’re wishful about the future because it hasn’t happened yet, but the future is history. Tomorrow is quite similar to all the other days in history, with the quite small difference that it’s personally happening to us.

Anything that’s got “potential” has always got some positive and negative potential. Otherwise it’s not even “potential.”

I try hard to live that lesson these days. Some days, of course – especially in difficult times – you just want to feel a little bit better about tomorrow. Which is fair enough, I guess, so long as you stay aware that it’s just soma, and don’t smoke the stuff 24/7…

… athough, of course, that’s probably the sound of me arguing in favour of my own mental crutches.

[ * I actually got off lightly; I don’t remember where I saw it, but someone was talking about having interviewed Sterling and asking him at the end “was there anything I missed?”, to which Sterling replied “no, you asked all the usual questions”. Ouch. ]

Bruce Sterling on vernacular video

Paul Raven @ 25-01-2011

For those who’ve not already seen it, here’s Chairman Bruce delivering the closing keynote speech to the Vimeo Festival back in autumn of last year. Lots of paradigm demolition work towards the end, but things start off with a discussion of The Dick Van Dyke Show…

Lots of takeaway points in there:

  • every medium will get its own Kent’s Cigarettes moment, where everyone looks back at its nascence and realises some massive and heretofore overlooked ethical compromise in the sponsorship or funding of said medium. “It seemed OK at the time!”; moral complicity through consumption/creation habits
  • network culture has to push through its current youthful banality and “ennoble its own vernacular”; there’s no utility in grafting the classical terminologies of a dead medium (cinema, film) onto one that bears little or no true resemblence to it (web video)
  • “obsolesence before plateau” (every early adopter reading this will have been through this at least once; heck, my own father was a sort of pioneer of OBP, and I learned it at his knee)
  • the three certainties of futurism are Greying, Climate Change and Urbanisation (“the future looks like cities full of old people who are afraid of the sky”)

And then the last third or so is the sort of terrifyingly plausible slingshot futurism you’d expect from a cynical sf author turned pundit.

A friend of mine remarked a while ago that he couldn’t understand how Sterling gets so many speaking gigs like this: “he just turns up, tells a seemingly disconnected story about the past for half an hour, and then spends the next half hour telling the audience that they’re not as smart as they think, that their business model leaks like a sieve, and that the only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it’s going to screw over pretty much every worldview we currently hold dear!”

That’s a pretty good summary of why I pay such close attention to the guy. 🙂

Today’s Tomorrows, 2011 edition

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Apologies to Brenda for re-using the title of her column, but it’s the start of the year… and despite most of us knowing that dates (and indeed time itself) are relative, we tend to take that as an opportunity to step ourselves out of the temporal flow for a few days and take a look both backward and forward. Of course, looking backward and forward (with a side-serving of sideways) is our daily bread here at Futurismic, but it’s nice to feel like the rest of the world’s playing along, you know? 🙂

So why not pop over to The Guardian, where a collection of clever folk make twenty predictions about the next 25 years? Some are no-brainers (“Rivals will take greater risks against the US” – that’s more of a trend than a prediction, really), some seem a little naively optimistic (“The popular revolt against bankers will become impossible to resist” – I’d love to see it happen but doubt we will, at least here in the UK), and some are reheated versions of classic cyberpunk transhumanism, suddenly made mundane and plausible in the face of unprecedented technological advancement (“We’ll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex”).

They all mark what, to me, is one of the most interesting social shifts of the last year or two: namely the sudden widespread acceptance of speculative thinking in mainstream media. Sure, it’s always been there, but it seems more ubiquitous now. Strange how we had to wait until the future was all around us before we started thinking hard about what shape it would be, no?

Speaking of speculative thinking, the BBC got in on the game back in December, picking apart some old (and largely failed) predictions from the 70s and quizzing present-day “futurologists” (which I maintain is a horrible noun) about how they do their work. David Brin’s response suggests that I’ve at least got the basic methodology sussed out:

“The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless,” says Brin.

“You then ask yourself: ‘What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'”

That’s pretty much the query-set that sits in my forebrain as I drink from the RSS firehose each morning… 🙂

And last but not least, it wouldn’t be early January without Chairman Bruce and Jon Lebkowsky taking the virtual podium at The WELL for their annual State Of The World discussion. Hell knows there’s plenty to talk about, right?

While Futurismic is no WELL (and I’m surely no Bruce Sterling, much to my own disappointment), I like the format they use there: like phone-in talk radio, but text based. So I’d like to take this opportunity to remind regular Futurismic heads that the contact page is always open – if you’ve seen something you think we should be talking about, or just have your own take on a story we’ve looked at already, then by all means drop me a line and let me know.

The last pre-Xmas Wikileaks post…

Paul Raven @ 23-12-2010

… well, the last one from me, anyway. As already praised (and disparaged) in the comments to yesterday’s post, Bruce Sterling’s essay on Assange, Wikileaks and all that is well worth a read. Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear I’m somewhat in awe of it (fanboy is as fanboy does), but as always, go read and make up your own mind. What marks it out as unique, I think, is the fact that it’s devoid of both righteous oppositional ire and revolutionary supportive fervour; instead, it’s full of foreboding, a “we could’ve seen it coming, but we still couldn’t have seen what lies beyond” type of thing. All bets are off, unless you’re betting on the very much odds-on prospect of things getting weirder and nastier and faster.

And a related piece for contrast: here’s Thomas P M Barnett – staunch advocate of globalisation and of the US as “sysadmin to the world” – making some points about US diplomacy and transparency that throws Wikileaks-related handwringing from the government into an interesting if unflattering light:

It’s interesting for our president to meet China’s and sign a joint declaration where both sides say they don’t consider the other to be an enemy and then to have a Pentagon-favorite military think tank publish maps of strike sites all over China that we’d want to hit in the opening days of our war with the Mainland over Taiwan.

When you’re that open with your plans, it’s hard to describe anything the Chinese do in return as particularly “provocative.” And yet, we do offer Beijing the benefit of our transparency on the subject.

Me?  If somebody publishes maps of the U.S. delineating all the places they’d want to bomb on the first day of the war . . . I’d take that kinda personally.  No, I’m not naive enough to believe the Chinese don’t have theirs. But it takes a certain chutzpah to publish yours so openly while decrying Chinese “provocations” and “throwing their weight around.”  China hasn’t waged war in a very long time.  The U.S. does so regularly.  Whose maps should we take more seriously?

I know, I know. We must think these bad thoughts in order to prevent their occurrence. I’m sure we have similar maps for every country in the world yes?  Just to be certain?

I’m sure that there’s Cablegate material that makes the US government look like a stroppy manipulative teenager trying to throw its weight around the playground of global realpolitik, but revelations like the above make you wonder whether that image bothers them as much as they claim. *shrug*

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