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.


The future of Futurismic

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2011

I’ve been thinking about the future.

Time forms a frame for our narratives about ourselves, a scale for organising coherence out of a formless flow. Thinking in terms of months, years, decades is a convenience that I’ve come to suspect actually keeps us from understanding the true causality of things until we get a significant distance from them and don the Magic AR Glasses of Hindsight +2. That observation isn’t hugely germane to this post, I suppose, but it acts as a qualifier for the following statement:

This has been an eventful year so far, on both personal and global levels, and shows little sign of becoming less so.

You don’t need reminding of the global stuff, I’m sure, but the personal stuff has some bearing on the running of this here website.

First things first, though: Futurismic will continue. It’s too much a part of my life and thinking process to give up easily, for one thing, and furthermore I want to keep running work by my columnists. I even intend to reboot it as a fiction venue once money and time allow.

Money and time, of course, are always an issue. Money has been tight for a while, hence the fiction closedown at the start of this year; this has a lot to do with me having exchanged a steady income for the time to do the work I wanted to do (much of which was writing at Futurismic, ironically enough). But I’m now rapidly approaching a phase where the opposite situation may pertain. Some of you may already be aware that I’ve been accepted onto a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Middlesex University starting this autumn, which I’m very chuffed about indeed. But if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to do it right first time and commit myself to it, so I’m going to have to shift my writing priorities strongly toward fiction in the coming year.

Furthermore, I’m in the process of hunting down a ‘proper’ part-time job to support me financially during my studies, too; the erratic income of my freelance work is not conducive to the state of not-worrying-about-where-the-next-meal-is-coming-from that I find encourages me to write good material. Depending on what sort of work I get, there may be more or less time available to me for noodling about the future right here, though I have to assume the most likely scenario will include less time.

But like I said, I can’t just give this stuff up; not only is it a source of great intellectual pleasure, but current events suggest that we need to be thinking even more clearly about the future than ever before – not predicting, but probing, groping ahead through the temporal fog, trying to find a safe way through the existential minefield. How much I can contribute that will be of genuine use to the global discourse is for others to determine, but I feel the need to contribute nonetheless.

All of which is a long way of saying that I’m going to have to start approaching my writing here in a more efficient and effective way. It’s time to stop posting every day for the sake of posting, and to take the time to work on fewer better articles (as well as trying to place said articles at other venues); to only post when there’s something that needs to be discussed, and to discuss it properly

It’s time to pay less attention to the Shiny Gimcrack Future and more attention to the Grim Meathook Future; the future will be full of gadgets and weird stuff, for certain, but they’re a sideshow or sub-plot to the big stuff: politics and economics; the contrapuntal narratives of science and technology; social shifts, network culture and the cultural Zeitgeist. All stuff I already talk about, sure, but I think I need to do more than point at interesting stuff and say “hey, look – interesting stuff!” if I’m to actually add any value to the discourse. The internet’s full of folk flapping their lips, and I worry that I’ve spent too long talking loud but saying little; focussing on quality rather than frequency will, I hope, go some way to amending that.

Oddly enough, this is a conscious counter-response to a deep instinctive flinching from the future; as both a writer of stories and someone with a more general curiosity about the path ahead, it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to look more than a few years ahead with even the slightest degree of clarity, let alone hope, and the temptation is to retreat into a wilful ignorance and refusal to think about anything other than myself.

And everything’s interlinked: the broken economies of the former First World winding down to be overtaken by the BRICs and others; food shortages and price hikes; the mutation and metastasis of the post-national corporation and the continuing slump of the nation-state as unit of power in realpolitik, complicated by heel-dragging refusals to acknowledge the increasingly global nature of most of our civilisational problems; even the youth of America, once that most optimistic of nations, are now resigned to their future as the inheritors of the comedown and cost of imperial hubris… and if you managed to read the riots here in the UK, in Greece and across the Arab world as anything else other than a seismic rumble of big turbulence coming down the pipe, then you’re either possessed of an enviable yet largely unfounded optimism, or completely naive.

And the more I think about it, the more I think utopianist future-hucksters like Ray Kurzweil are part of the problem; the more I feel that Singularitarianism (much like some other emerging cults of the atemporal and altermodern End Times) is a refuge for privileged intellectuals who can’t face the future without believing they get some sort of personal get-out-of-Apocalypse-free card; the more I think that science fiction and other speculative forms of communication (design fiction, essays, mixed media, whatever) have great potential to help us understand where we’re going, but that the potential is wasted by that same desperate search for a personal escape hatch with the phrase “I’m all right, Jack” stencilled on it by some notoriously anonymous marginal celebrity street artist…

And so it goes. Futurismic has always been about peering ahead in various forms, but it’s time to look in smarter ways, and think more carefully about what we see.

I hope you’ll stick around for the journey. Some of it’s gonna be rough, some of it’s gonna be glorious… but it’ll all be made more bearable by having intelligent company along the way. Talking to you people for all these years has taught me a great deal, but I reckon you’ve probably got more to teach me yet.

Thanks for reading.


Absence

Paul Raven @ 30-06-2011

Right, I’m off to London this afternoon and will be busy all weekend, so there’ll be no more noise here from me until next week. Y’all play nice now. 🙂


Back in black

Paul Raven @ 03-05-2011

The UK’s bumper-bank-holiday fortnight is over, and I have access to a stable internet connection once again… which means it’s time to warm over the engines here at Futurismic and get back into the groove of talking about interesting stuff I found on the intertubes. Doing so will involve scaling the Brobdingnagian RSS mountain that lurks in my Reader account, of course; that alarming but cheery “1000+ items!” message suggests that that declaring inbox bankruptcy on all but the last few days is probably the only sensible way to deal with the problem.

And of course, the big story of the last few days is pretty inescapable. So you can read my thoughts about the assassination of Osama bin Laden over at Velcro City Tourist Board, should you wish to. Shorter version: not sad he’s dead, but pretty sickened by the glorying in his death; close with Nietzsche quote about being careful not to become that which you would destroy.

Additional: I somehow managed to squeeze writing a piece on the Arthur C Clarke Award for New Scientist into the mad churn of last week; I dare say those of you with an interest in the Clarke have already heard about it (a long-odds win for Lauren Beukes with Zoo City from the excellent Angry Robot imprint), but a chance to crow about writing for an organ I’ve been reading since I was a teenager was just too good to pass up, y’know? 🙂

Normal programming (for values of “normal” based on a highly localised dataset) will be resumed imminently; thanks for your patience.


Cycling the lights, twitching the curtains

Paul Raven @ 26-04-2011

Hey, folks; just a quick note to say that the move went pretty well, all told, and that I’m now safely back on the south coast of the Disunited Kingdom.

Thanks to the convergence of a big batch of public holidays and a spate of ludicrously clement weather (plus a first few shifts at my new summer job), I have yet to get back into the swing of my accustomed work routines… and given that I’m up the line in London tomorrow and Thursday (for the Arthur C Clarke Award ceremony, among other things), and that some aristocratic nuptials will be distracting a significant portion of the world on Friday, and that Friday also marks the day that a stable internet connection that I don’t have to pay for by the hour will be turning up in the house where I’m currently staying… well, let’s just say that I’m not going to be doing much here at Futurismic until next week, at which point normal service (such as it ever is around here) will be resumed.

Thanks for your patience, and hope all is well with you all. 🙂


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