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”

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

Paul Raven @ 10-10-2011

I’ve been writing here at Futurismic for well over five years, now. It feels like longer, somehow, but it also feels like I only just started. I’ve learned a lot of things, not least of which is the fact that, the more you learn, the more you realise remains to be learned.

One of the things I’ve learned is that there is a not entirely unwarranted mistrust of folk who call themselves “futurists”. The etymology of the word doesn’t help, of course, but the core criticism is captured well by Jamais Cascio; when people hear “futurist”, they see some guy who gets paid a lot of money to go to conferences and make bold sweeping predictions about what’s going to happen in the next few decades… predictions that either play to the audience’s desires, or that fail to come true, or both.

The more time I spend looking at social, political, economic and technological change, the less certain I become about what tomorrow will look like. The only lingering conviction – the one that strengthens every day, while the others fall by the wayside – is that, as a species, we face a growing number of challenges and threats to our survival. Caught between the rock of a uncaring universe and the hard place of our primate-origin psychological legacy systems, we nonetheless somehow keep escaping sudden extinction or rapid decline. Eventually, of course, we’ll fail an important saving throw, and our game will be over. But we can strengthen our stats and broaden our skill-trees against the probability of having to make those rolls of the dice, building up our character sheet as the campaign continues. But where should we spend our XP? What tools, weapons and armour should we buy?

I don’t think any one person will ever produce a satisfactory or useful answer to those questions. I remain convinced that a sustainable human future depends on our ability to work together to secure it. To accomplish that, we need to combine the speculative foresight component of the futurist’s discipline with achievable and practical solutions to the most pressing of problems. It’s a fine thing that we can conceive of and work towards a future where technology liberates us from scarcity, mortality and the lingering psychology of otherness; my status as a cautious fellow-traveller of transhumanism remains unshaken. But I’m also convinced that there are many short-term problems to be overcome on the way to that future… and with that awareness comes a sense of frustration, a feeling that sitting around and flapping my lips on the internet isn’t really achieving much. Conversation is valuable, sure, as is raising awareness… but if I’m so convinced that there’s real work to be done, surely I should put my money where my mouth is, get my hands a bit dirty? Otherwise I’m just being a sort of low-rent version of those futurist pundits, the technological equivalent of the scraggle-bearded guy wandering the town square with a THE END IS NIGH OMFG sandwich-board.

So I’ve been searching for a way to make a difference, or at least to try to make a difference: some sort of practical application of my largely impractical skill-set. There aren’t a lot of jobs like that around, it turns out.

But I found one. And I landed it.

As of today, I am an employee of the University of Sheffield’s Civil Engineering department; my job title is “Research Assistant in the Future of Infrastructure”. I’m going to be working on projects intended to analyse the infrastructures that hold our civilisation together, and find ways to make them more efficient, more fair, more resilient, more unified. Energy production and consumption is already a hot-button topic, and with good reason; the internet’s rapid ascent from novelty telecomms application to ubiquitous civilisational support system means that the availability of bandwidth is already being mooted as a basic human right; changes in climate and population patterns are placing our limited supplies of potable water under increasing load, and the commodities traders – not content to play casino games with the price of the food we eat – are starting to look at water as the last great tradeable asset. Most importantly, these utilities don’t stand in isolation: they are interdependent. Terrifyingly so, in fact.

It feels good to be putting my efforts where my mouth is, helping people smarter than I to apply their knowledge in useful ways to a troubled world. It feels good to have a job that lets me feel like I’m putting all the stuff I’ve learned to practical use. And it feels good to have a job, full stop; I know a lot of people are struggling without one at the moment, and I’m damned privileged to have one.

The funny thing with confirmation bias is that understanding the concept does nothing to change its power. The last year of my life looks, on reflection, like the coming together of numerous threads which I never assumed would ever be connected. Today also sees me starting my Masters degree in Creative Writing, where I’ll be learning how to tell stories that connect with people on an emotional level – stories like the ones that opened my young mind to the possibility of worlds other than the one outside my window.

It’s an exciting time for me, and a bit of a scary one, too. But here I am, with a job title that sounds like it leapt from the pages of a science fiction novel, working in a world that increasingly feels a few page-turns away from dystopia or disaster. I can’t write the future on my own, of course; nor can anyone else. But by putting my efforts in alongside others, maybe I can help keep the plot from going off the rails. That seems like something worthwhile for me to be doing.

As far as Futurismic itself is concerned, things will proceed pretty much as they have been over the last six months or so: my posting schedule will continue to be irregular (and probably a little less frequent), but this here blog is too big a part of my thinking process to be mothballed. Plus people keep asking me to write about interesting things, and here seems as good a place to put them as any.

Futurismic is also the thing that has brought me into contact with a vast range of smart people with similar outlooks on the future, some of whom are probably reading this right now. So to those friends, sparring partners and fellow travellers, I’d like to say thanks, and ask you to keep reading and stay in touch – especially if your own adventures turn up something you think might connect to my research topics!

Without you and your engagements with what I’ve done so far, I’d not be writing this message at all. So please, keep the pressure on me. 🙂

Thank you.

Social Media: The Fists of Facebook and Twitter

Brenda Cooper @ 21-09-2011

I’ve been using social media as long as it’s been around, and thinking more about how powerful it is since Egypt. Here’s a mythical overview of the Arab Spring:

Once upon a time, there were people at the top of various countries who kept their power because they had the resources to control whole populations in the form of money, guns, and other tools such as state religions. These were old men who had held power for a long time, and jailed and sometimes killed people who opposed them. Perhaps some even thought they were doing good with their power, by keeping order. But the majority of their population, who were largely younger, disagreed. While they didn’t have power, they had communication. And they discovered what to do with it…. Continue reading “Social Media: The Fists of Facebook and Twitter”

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.

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