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. ]


Hope for a Global Spring?

Brenda Cooper @ 14-03-2012

Perhaps it’s because of the economy is beginning – finally – to pick up in the US. Perhaps it is because I’m sick to death of bad election-year politics, so I’m looking at anything else that comes along of interest. Maybe it’s even because I wrote about creative destruction the last time I did a column here, and I’m ready for the transformation that follows that practice. But I’m feeling a bit more hopeful this month, and I’m seeing signs that I’m not the only one. Continue reading “Hope for a Global Spring?”


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”


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