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. ]


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.


Food as 5th-gen warfare vector

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

There’s a lot of things on which Thomas Barnett and I would disagree, but there’s no getting around the way he can see further ahead than most foreign policy wonks. Forget oil, and start worrying about food supply:

Everybody thinks that the future is going to see fights over energy, when it’s far more likely to be primarily over food. Think about it: The 19th century is the century of chemistry and that gets us chemical weapons in World War I. The 20th century is the century of physics and that gets us nuclear weapons in World War II. But the 21st century? That’s the century of biology, and that gets us biological weaponry and biological terror. My point: obsessing over nuclear terrorism is steering by our rearview mirror.

Which gets me to our Spanish friend over here: an actual E. coli outbreak in Europe, centered largely in Germany, kills upwards of two dozen while sickening hundreds more. The early fingers point at Spanish cucumbers, but that’s looking iffy on investigation. Truth is, we may never know, but once the accusation is levied, Spain’s vegetable and fruit export industry may never be the same, and to me, that’s an interesting pathway for what I expect Fifth-Generation Warfare (which focuses – by some experts’ definition – on the disruption of the enemy’s ability to “observe” in John Boyd’s OODA loop)  will be all about in the 21st century: biological terror to create economic dislocation and loss (along with the usual panics).

Not so sure about his “century of [x]” reasoning, and I’d argue that we’ve seen the “wars over energy” being played out in the Middle east over the last few decades (with, sadly, more to come, though I think we could be in the final act of that particular movie), but by highlighting food supply as an infrastructure that could (and will) be leaned on to highly disruptive effect, I think he’s pretty much spot on. Likewise with the idea of ideological factions piggy-backing on events that may simply be natural or emergent; why invest effort on complicated terror schemes when you can just claim random events for free?

However, I’m surprised that he misses (or maybe simply fails to mention) food’s close sibling, water, which is already becoming a critical resource in developing nations, and is the infrastructural elephant-in-the-room in The Artist Formerly Known As The First World. Seriously, talk to people who work in utility infrastructure; we’re going through way more water than is sustainable, and climate change is likely to exacerbate the problem by changing availability patterns at local levels (hi, Australia!). We’ve already got Alaskan towns looking to export their allotted water rights to the more thirsty corners of the world… and while there’s a possibility we could wean ourselves off our addiction to long-chain hydrocarbons (technically simple, but politically fraught), water is a fundamental need, and an issue that demands we either start thinking in global terms or face some sort of Mad-Max-esque descent into feudal squabblings over the echoing mouths of artesian wells..

Civilisation is a product of cognitive surplus… and if you’re constantly wondering where your next drink of water is coming from, you’re all out of cognitive surplus.


The Maly modification of Clarke’s Third Law

Paul Raven @ 05-04-2011

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic if it still works.


What’s the Cantonese for “Sprawl”, anyway?

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2011

Via Tobias Buckell comes news that China is planning to merge seven cities into one unified industrial-urban megaregion, complete with a high-speed rail transport infrastructure:

The “Turn The Pearl River Delta Into One” scheme will create a 16,000 sq mile urban area that is 26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.

The new mega-city will cover a large part of China’s manufacturing heartland, stretching from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and including Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizhou and Zhaoqing. Together, they account for nearly a tenth of the Chinese economy.

I’ll let Tobias put that into perspective for us:

Some online have noticed that pretty soon China will have 260 million or so people all within one hour’s train ride of each other.

Imagine the entire population of the US all being within an hour commute of each other.

Uh-huh.


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