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.


New Economies

Brenda Cooper @ 08-02-2012

Last month I pondered the extent to which the Arab Spring and Occupy Everything are socially-driven acts of creative destruction. Creative destruction is defined as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” The mutation, in this case, is reactionary responses to established interests, mostly driven by or assisted by social media. Governments and power structures are falling, but the replacements aren’t immediately ready in the wings. Continue reading “New Economies”


Out of Destruction, Transformation?

Brenda Cooper @ 11-01-2012

Most of my recent columns have been about change, from climate change to twitter. Well, this is a start-of-the-year post, and it seems appropriate to take on change in a big way as the year changes. Continue reading “Out of Destruction, Transformation?”


The Grand Lie

Brenda Cooper @ 26-10-2011

Most of my day-to-day life is good to great. A little too much stress, a few challenges with weight and sleeplessness, but I’m living my dreams about writing and I’ve got a job that pays the bills and leaves a bit extra behind for electronics. I’m usually optimistic. At the core, I suppose I still am, even though today, I am also convinced many of our choices are simply awful. Continue reading “The Grand Lie”


Robot lawyers, human cashiers

Paul Raven @ 30-09-2011

Looks like the deeper implications of ubiquitous robotic automation is really starting to sink in. Sure, wondering about the fate of Foxconn’s underpaid manufacturing drones is one thing, but when white-collar professions are threatened, you can believe that handwringing’s gonna happen. That said, Slate charmed me with their subheadline about expert systems and law: “Software could kill lawyers. Why that’s good for everyone else.” What,that needs to be explained?

Oh, I kid, I kid. Not all lawyers are unprincipled scumbags! But as the Slate piece points out, the ones who are could find their business models drying up, especially in the lucrative patent and IP law sectors…

In the last few years, the law has seen a rush of technological innovation, all stemming from computers’ increasing capacity to decipher and understand written documents. Many law firms now use “e-discovery” tools that can scan large caches of evidence in search of interesting facts and figures. Firms also have software to draft legal documents in a fraction of the time a human would take. And a few services on the horizon might do even more—negotiate the terms of a contract, for instance, or determine whether or not you should sue.

Automation will bring legal services to the masses. Many people who ought to hire an attorney to handle business or personal disputes can’t afford to do so. Software could potentially step in when you want to fight your mortgage lender, draw up contracts to start a small business, or sue for child-support payments.

While legal automation will be a boon for those who can’t afford representation, it’s bad news for lawyers. The industry is already in a slump, and law school is no longer seen as a sure path to riches. Because software will allow fewer lawyers to do a lot more work, it’s sure to drive down both price and demand.

A world with less patent trolls and ambulance-chasers sounds just fine to me.

Kevin Kelly’s had his thinking cap on, too; the 7 stages of Robot Replacement are the result:

  • A robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do.
  • OK, it can do a lot, but it can’t do everything I do.
  • OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.
  • OK, it operates without failure, but I need to train it for new tasks.
  • Whew, that was a job that no human was meant to do, but what about me?
  • My new job is more fun and pays more now that robots/computers are doing my old job.
  • I am so glad a robot cannot possibly do what I do.

Zing. First they came for the Foxconn drones, but I said nothing…

… but wait a second, because not all tasks of human productivity are amenable to automation. Furthermore, as end-users, we’re sometimes not very keen on robots that do certain jobs, even if they do they in ways that are technically more efficient. Alex Knapp brings news that will please anyone who hates those self-service tills at the supermarket:

Another supermarket chain is ending self-checkout lanes in favor of more cashiers. This time it’s the Big Ychain, which is eliminating self-checkout in all of its 61 stores because of an internal study that showed that they caused more delays and customers were less satisfied with them than checkout lanes run by lowly humans.

This announcement comes on the heels of major grocery chain Albertson’s announcement in July that it was eliminating self-checkouts in about a third of their stores.

According to a recent Food Marketing Institute study, fewer people are using self-checkouts at the grocery store. They accounted for 22% of all supermarket transactions in 2007, but have since declined to 16% of transactions in 2010. The same study noted that customers were more satisfied with human-run checkout lanes.

Those self-service tills suffer from a number of problems, not least of which are the powerful duo of poor UI design and user stupidity, but deep down, people just don’t like them. Perhaps this is just a lingering sense of the uncanny; they’re still new enough that almost everyone can remember shopping “the old way”, so maybe a sort of lingering cognitive dissonance is at work, which would perhaps fade after a certain acclimatisation period.

But perhaps not. We’re social beings, us humans, and by social I mean the exact opposite of Facebook et al; with a few exceptions, we tend to like interacting with other human beings, and what could be more human, more intrinsic to our cultural bedrock, than the exchange of goods? I’m not suggesting here that a conversation with a checkout operator is likely to be the highlight of your day (in fact, I suspect the subtle reinforcement of social hierarchy that comes from being served may play a role in the deep appeal of such transactions), but I don’t think it’s a wild theory to suggest that the classic “cubicle dystopia” of a world full of people who only ever interact via distance-spanning media is an impossibility. (For one thing, the nigh-universal revulsion we have for the concept – y’know, the thing that makes it a dystopia rather than a utopia -  is a pretty good indicator that, whether biologically or culturally, we’re wired to find that set-up extremely unappealing.)

I’m put in mind of Iain M Banks’ post-scarcity civilisation, The Culture. I can’t remember which novel it appears in, but someone from beyond the Culture is being shown around one of the big arcology/spaceships, and all the restaurants and bars and entertainment venues are staffed by actual living beings (and drones, which as high-functioning AIs, count as people). The visitor expresses surprise that anyone would work when they didn’t have to, and Banks has their Culture host explain that people serve drinks and cook food and play music for others because it’s inherently satisfying to do so. We flinch from the idea at first, but that’s because we’re caught in a world where work gets exchanged for tokens, which are then taken away from us again in exchange for the things we need to survive; in a culture with no money and no physical wants, working for the sheer pleasure of having something to do doesn’t seem crazy at all. Or it certainly doesn’t to me; heck, most of the really horrible jobs I’ve had were horrible because of the conditions and the hours rather than the work itself. That said, I do not include my week working on a waste-collection lorry in that set; there are definitely jobs that are very amenable to automation. (I note wryly that most of them are the ones that are very poorly paid and farmed out to the least fortunate under the current set-up…)

So my theory is that, if all goes well, we’ll automate only the jobs that no one wants to do, but I also suggest that, if the trend is allowed to work out (i.e. no civilisational collapse interferes with our potential trajectory out of the chrysalis of consumerist capitalism), we might find ourselves surprised at which jobs get automated and which ones get kept on. That said, the route between that state and our status quo is a pretty perilous one, and – as usual – it’s the folk at the bottom of the pyramid who’ll be sidelined by automation in a world where we don’t guarantee a universal basic standard of living. It’s high time we faced up to the fact that those two problems are intimately related to one another.


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