The Future Always Wins

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2012

Soooooo, yeah – I’ve been busy. Did you miss me? New job, Masters degree… doesn’t leave a lot of spare time, so it doesn’t. But it’s been quiet here too long, so it’s time to dust down the soapbox and run a mic-check. One-two, one-two.

The Future Always Wins

OK. So you may have caught wind of the launch of ARC, which is a new sf and futurism e-magazine from The People Who Bring You New Scientist; issue 1.1 was launched on Monday, and the various ways you can buy it are listed on its masthead website. Yes, it comes via an app or via the Kindle, and as a result it’s DRM’d; this is not ideal, I know, but this ain’t an ideal world. You can buy a POD dead-tree version, too, but it’s fairly pricey by comparison.

Why would you want to buy it? Well, it contains fresh new fiction by Margaret Atwood, Stephen Baxter, M.John Harrison, Hannu Rajaniemi and Alastair Reynolds, and non-fiction essays and articles by Simon Ings, China Miéville, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Leigh Alexander, Simon Pummell, Adam Roberts and Bruce Sterling… oh, and some guy called Paul Graham Raven, too, but don’t let that put you off.

ARC is being touted as something a bit like OMNI reborn. The important thing to note here is that this is a proper paying market for both fiction and non-fiction, and it’s a professional Big House magazine publishing fresh stories by Big Name science fiction authors. So here’s my request, which I’d be making even if I weren’t enjoying the privilege of being on that TOC: buy a copy.

Seriously. If you’ve ever lamented the dwindling number of venues for professional sf sales, or the editorial policies of the Big Three magazines, or if you’ve ever thought that you’d like to read a magazine that took a long professional look at the sort of stuff Futurismic talks about – buy a copy of ARC, and keep buying them. £4.99 in Airstrip One money, which is maybe eight of your Yanqui Dollah; that’s not a bad quarterly price for what you’re getting, I hazard to suggest, and comparable to the prices of extant magazines. So support a brave new market, why don’t you? By doing so, you also support writers and the sf short fiction scene in general.

OK, plug over. :)

There’s No Tomorrow

My article in ARC1.1 is about the Collapsonomics crowd – those voices online and on the ground who’re insisting that Capitalism1.0 is nothing but a shambling zombie of a thing, and trying to map a way forward into a very uncertain future. (Long-term followers of this here blog will certainly recognise some of the names and ideas that get mentioned.)

Due to the nature of the publishing process, most of the research took place in the latter half of last year, in the aftermath of the London riots and the emergence of Occupy, and all the other upheavals that will make 2011 a banner year for the historians of the future… provided, of course, that we actually get a future wherein “historian” means what we currently think it to mean, rather than “addled bard with vague handed-down memories of life before The Fall”.

Ah, it’s still so easy to joke blithely about imminent civilisational collapse… but it feels more and more like gallows humour every time. As a species, as a race, as an ecosystem, a civilisation, a genome, however you want to categorise it – we’ve grown right up to the edge of the petri dish. Everything is running out, including – or perhaps especially – time. Peak Oil is just the start, but it’s an exemplary start. The assumption that infinite exponential growth is not only possible but laudable is very close to running into the brick wall of reality, if it hasn’t already.

I want you to watch this [via ClubOrlov]. It’s not cheerful, but that’s why it needs to be watched. We can’t pretend this stuff isn’t true any more.

I’m sure some of you will have refutations of things that get mentioned in that video; if so, I’m happy to see them in the comments, but they’ll need to be supported by links and citations. Any “[x] is a Liberal Leftist Conspiracy OMFG!!!” stuff will be deleted without prejudice; I’m all done tolerating scientific myopia and wilful ignorance in the name of politeness and deference to the shibboleth of “balanced debate”. This isn’t about left and right any more. It’s about what Bill Hicks memorably referred to as “working out this whole food/air deal”.

One planet, folks. That’s all we’ve got. The way I see it right now, that leaves us two basic choices: either we stay here on the mudball, which means we need to sort our shit out with respect to the distribution of resources before the ecosystem around us takes population adjustment into its own hands (which won’t be any more pleasant than a global war for survival), or we scramble out of the gravity well to an environment where our greatest addiction – energy – can be sustained for (maybe) long enough to solve said addiction.

Make no mistake: if you want a future humanity that has all the fun things and glorious technologies we enjoy at the moment, and if you want that future humanity to last for more than a couple of centuries, then we have to recognise the limits of our environment, and either work within them or work to transcend them.

The universe doesn’t care whether we live or die. I don’t want to hear that any more than you do, but that doesn’t make it any less demonstrably true.

There is no “business as usual” any more. Deal with it.


Technohaberdashery

Paul Raven @ 02-09-2011

Now this is just wonderful, even if it’s a clear response to the start of a long (but maybe not so slow) ramping down from the current consumer-driven innovation model of technology business:

The notion of a “haberdashery for technology” came from traditional haberdasheries which are (or, more often than not, were) filled with knitting needles, sewing machines, patterns, buttons, thread and examples of clothes, bags and quilts that you can make yourself. They tend to have shop assistants who are experts at their craft, as opposed to general salespeople, and they give you advice and host classes to learn new sewing skills.

Hirschmann explains: “Now replace all of that with LEDs, circuit boards, soldering irons and lots of lovely little drawers with resistors, capacitors and switches The store is immaculately organised and there are explanations of the bits and bobs near all of the components to help demystify what they do and how they might be useful. There are a selection of bespoke DIY kits for you to explore at home.

Operations like this are a heartening sign, but the ones that last the course will probably be a little less worthy and a lot more ramshackle, much more along the lines of a “bring yer thing and fix it yerself then pay me for the parts” sort of place, a free hackspace that both monetises and entices its meattraffic with the same supplementary offering.

This sort of high-functioning ‘adaptive reuse as business model’ thing is an inevitable necessity for a world with low incomes and limited resources, really… but it’s not a new thing, though: think back not too far to the days when you might have a door-to-door knife-sharpening guy come round the neighbourhood once a season, for instance. As much as we talk about our technologies as being tools, we don’t value them like a really good tool is valued, like a good knife would be sharpened regularly all throughout its long working life. We think of “tools” as being almost a commodity concept nowadays; a word like “power”, “bandwidth”, “leverage”. “Tools” is just our ease of access to Stuff That Does Things, it’s our ability to buy or rent or borrow what we need when we need it.

That ability will cease to pertain in the realm of physical meatspace tools very quickly. This means good tools – well made, well used, maintained and cared for, stored properly – will become valuable social capital in a post-growth economy: an opportunity to contribute rather than a lever for power. Also: the return of the freelance artisan and jack’ll-fix-it, available in both static/urban and nomadic/rural models. Every block or village will have a guy who sysops for local businesses, f’rinstance, and probably another dude who handles the hardware side of things; less glamorously (but equally essentially), you’ll have white-hat infrastructure hackers, people who can patch a local power grid, keep water and sewage systems running, repair or demolish problem architecture… and again, none of this is new. Indeed, it’s current in any major city with a sizeable favela population.

Your city may not have any favelas right now, of course. But it will.

Further weird signals form the nearest strange attractors: some guy hustles Mercedes into sponsoring his prosthetic hand [via MetaFilter]. That’s a novel in nine words, right there, and it’s not even a made-up story. Related: the guy who swapped out his glass eye for  a little digicam [via ModeledBehaviour]. These are just two of real on-the-ground transhumanism’s many, many faces; there will be more of them to come. The two greatest mistakes one can make about transhumanism are falling for the Kurzweilian corporate Singularity fantasy (which I increasingly suspect portrays only the parts of the future reserved for shareholders), or assuming that the ludicrousness of said Singularity fantasy invalidates or derails the existence of an observable and growing subculture. (Confession time: I’ve been guilty of both before now.)

To put it another way: we won’t be uploading our minds any time soon, but there’s more unexpected-consequences-of-being-cyborgs in the very near future of our species, without a doubt… because another of those new artisan careers will be the bodysculptor, the back-street surgeon, and they will not be short of work (even if most of it will be elective or cosmetic rather than… functional, shall we say.)

At this point someone is sure to be thinking “but to do that to yourself would be genuinely insane – like, actual pathology craziness!” You’re probably right, too. I think the problem with dismissing the more extreme examples of the transhumanist urge (no matter how shallowly understood it appears to be in each participant) as mental pathology is that doing so is a convenient way of avoiding the need to address the real problem: what’s causing that craziness, and how prevalent is it? The second question is probably the least important, because it’s the one that’ll answer itself very quickly. The answer to the first will be something already embedded deep enough in the body of our civilisation that its removal would kill or cripple us: it is technology itself, and the madness of kids trying to become the Terminator is the madness of a body trying to remake itself in an image more like the ones it dreams of.

It is the madness of being young in a mad world, and it will not be cured or engineered away.


How long do we have?

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2011

How far are our necks from the afore-mentioned Grim Meathook Future? When will the magical thinking at the core of economics finally be revealed for the hand-waving bullshit it actually is?

When is soon, probably. We could keep rolling sixes and spin it out another 22 years, but we’re getting to the point where relatively small system shocks could propagate uncontrollably like a fat man falling through ice on a pond. I can’t tell you when, but I can tell you that the US is in trouble, Europe is in trouble, they’ve printed insane amounts of money and it hasn’t stabilized things, assets are being devalued in complex processes which hide inflation and still there are no new jobs. People kick around terms like “stagflation” but what’s happening is simple and subtle: nothing.

We’re treading water. We’re like a shark that’s stopped swimming. We’re a cartoon character, all flailing legs, hovering above the abyss.

And at the bottom of it are those poor bastards in Africa, in rural India, South America, Asia, eating rice and bugs because there’s nothing else to eat. And you’ve ignored them your entire life as the money poured from “we know not where” into the First World Lifestyle, which squandered the wealth which could have fed and housed every human being on earth on an extractive economy which wastes 40% of the food produced and has a billion fat people, including me.

Vinay Gupta says the stuff no one else is willing to say – not the political “unthinkables” that are ricocheting around the media at the moment, as the left/right dichotomy struggles to keep relevance in the face of the destruction it has engineered, but the true unspeakables: that we are screwed, that it might be unfixable, that those onto whom we’ve foisted off our responsibilities are caught in a tailspin, and that we can’t see it for the distractions we built to keep us in the soma-bliss of ignorance.

That‘s the future I’m going to try to peer into. I have no particular expertise or training that makes me ideal for the job. So far as I can tell, my only qualification is my willingness to admit it has to be done, that it may be a doomed effort, and that trying is the only thing that’s going to let me get to sleep at night.

I can’t ignore my complicity any more. And part of what I’m going to be doing here going forwards is making it as hard as possible for you to ignore yours.


Huis ten Bosch: Japan’s nigh-deserted Little Holland themepark

Paul Raven @ 25-01-2011

I’m sure someone has a snappy neologism for things like this, but I’m damned if I can recall (or otherwsie invent) one. Nonetheless, and offered largely just for the WTF? factor, here’s oddball collapse-fetish travelogue-blog Spike Japan describing Huis ten Bosch, a vast Holland-themed amusement park on the shores of Omura Bay, Nagasaki Prefecture:

Huis ten Bosch, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan

On a busman’s holiday in the Mediterranean in 1979, so the legend goes, Kamichika and his businessman travelling companion, the president of the real estate division of ball-bearing maker Minebea (slogan: Passion is POWER, Passion is SPEED, Passion is the FUTURE), are surveying a shimmering seascape when his companion turns to him and asks:

“Is there a sea like this in all Japan?”

So many consequences were to flow from such a simple question.

“Yes,” Kamichika is reported to have replied vehemently, “the marvelous sea of Omura Bay in Nagasaki, where I was born and raised. It’s every bit as good as the Mediterranean. Why can’t we get people to visit it, just like the Mediterranean?”

[...]

Emboldened by success—at its 1990 peak, Nagasaki Holland Village attracted 2mn visitors—in 1988 Kamichika began planning something a tad more ambitious: Huis ten Bosch. It was the Bubble; anything was possible. Six kilometers of canals, 3.2km of underground tunnels for the communications, energy, and water infrastructure, 400,000 trees, and 300,000 flowers and shrubs—sure, why not? Kamichika took his plans to the bankers and the bankers liked what they saw.

A strange story; almost a Doctorowian fable for the modern age.

Beware Spike Japan, by the way – if you have any interest in Japan (or simply other places in general), collapsonomics, good storytelling or all three, you could get lost for hours wandering the archives. Though there are far worse ways to spend an afternoon… [image is presumably copyright Spike Japan's author, and hence is reproduced under Fair Use terms; contact for immediate takedown if required]


Daddy, what did you do during the Currency Wars?

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2010

China and Russia drop the dollar for bilateral trade; Brazil and India may be next [via MetaFilter]. Southern Europe may well riot in response to fiscal austerity [via BigThink], and here in the UK it’s only taken six months of having the Tories back in power before the police started to club children with batons.

Happy Thanksgiving!