Gizmo landscapes, gonzo worldbuilding

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2010

Here’s an interesting thought experiment which feels science fictional to me – not science fictional in the “making things up about the future” sense, but in the “teasing the bigger picture out of smaller things” sense. Rob Holmes of mammoth invites us to think about the infrastructural landscapes that support a single use of a consumer-level technological artefact; his Zeitgeist-friendly example is, naturally, some web browsing done on an iPhone somewhere in Brooklyn [via MetaFilter].

The iPhone, however, is not only dependent upon highly developed systems in its production, as Banham acknowledges all such objects have always been, but is also now equally dependent in its operation upon a vast array of infrastructures, data ecologies, and device networks.  Even acknowledging this, though, and realizing that its operative value comes from its ability to tap those data ecologies and attendant socially-constituted bodies of knowledge, it is still possible to miss the landscapes that it produces. Until we see that the iPhone is as thoroughly entangled into a network of landscapes as any more obviously geological infrastructure (the highway, both imposing carefully limited slopes across every topography it encounters and grinding/crushing/re-laying igneous material onto those slopes) or industrial product (the car, fueled by condensed and liquefied geology), we will consistently misunderstand it.

His preliminary examples include the mines that supply the rare semiconductor elements used in chips and touchscreens, the factory megacomplexes where they’re designed and built, the server farms that prop up the internet that the phone connects to, and the transciever arrays that provide the last wireless step in that connection. The point is plain: there’s a whole lot of stuff behind the gadgets in our pockets and satchels that we don’t really think about when we use them.

This is very much like “systems thinking, which I imagine most of Futurismic‘s readers are already familiar with (because you all seem pretty clued up on the science and tech side of things), but which is, as far as I can tell, a fairly uncommon mindset in the population at large (a fact exploited to the fullest by politicians, among others).

But it struck me that it’s also rather like the worldbuilding that informs science fiction: the iPhone is the story, and infrastructure is the imagined world in which it’s set. In both examples, the end user doesn’t need to know anything about the infrastructure, and will probably actively resist being told about it (infodump!). In both examples, that will to ignorance allows the writer/manufacturer a lot of leeway with the infrastructure: so long as thing works, who cares how it works?

I’ll be honest – I’m not sure where I’m going with this, or even if it’s going anywhere at all*. But it gave me a brain-chime, so I’m throwing it out here by way of recording the thought, and to see if any of you can pick up the ball and run with it. Any ideas?

[ * I started writing this post immediately after a post-lunch triple espresso; make of that what you will. ]


Do free ebooks actually affect the sales of dead-tree books?

Paul Raven @ 09-03-2010

For those retaining an interest in ebooks and publishing economics, here are a few interesting links. First, via Nick Harkaway: proper academic research that asks what happens to book sales if digital versions are given away for free? The answer: well, it’s not entirely clear, but it probably doesn’t do much harm.

The present study indicates that there is a moderate correlation between free digital books being made permanently available and short-term print sales increases. However, free digital books did not always equal increased sales. This result may be surprising, both to those who claim that when a free version is available fewer people will pay to purchase copies, as well as those who claim that free access will not harm sales. The results of the present study must be viewed with caution. Although the authors believe that free digital book distribution tends to increase print sales, this is not a universal law. The results we found cannot necessarily be generalized to other books, nor be construed to suggest causation. The timing of a free e-book’s release, the promotion it received and other factors cannot be fully accounted for. Nevertheless, we believe that this data indicates that when free e-books are offered for a relatively long period of time, without requiring registration, print sales will increase.

Secondly, via numerous sources (of whom Richard Kadrey was the first I noticed), the number of books available in the iPhone apps store has overtaken the number of games. Some wise words on interpreting this statistic from Penguin’s digital publishing boffin Jeremy Ettinghausen:

“I travel on the tube every day,” he continued, “and you do see people reading books, reading newspapers and playing games. As publishers we need to be on the things that people are using during that distraction time, that commuter time.”

But he argued for caution in focusing on the number of titles being published, stressing that “it’s very easy to produce books for the iPhone”.

“It’s interesting to see what’s selling,” he said, “rather than what’s being submitted – quite a lot of the books are free downloads, whereas the games tend to be paid for. I’m more interested in what’s going out than what’s going in.”


‘Microvolunteering’: Doing good through social media

Tom Marcinko @ 03-07-2009

tweetNobody expected Twitter to be as useful as it’s turned out to be. Maybe this will work, too. National Public Radio has a story about The Extraordinaires, which is not a 60s British spy show but a social-media enterprise that encourages brief bursts of volunteerism.

Through The Extraordinaries, you might be able to use your smart phone — while waiting in the dentist’s office or standing in the Dept. of Motor Vehicles line — to:

• translate a foreign-language document into English

• add identifying tags to photos and videos for a museum

• give advice to a college applicant

During your lunch break you could snap a picture of a pothole that needs patching and zap it to the proper authorities. You could report a dying elm to the parks-and-recreation department or spot a rare woodpecker for the Audubon Society.

“This is an organization that changes the paradigm,” says Jacob Colker, 26, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Extraordinaries. “We hope people might look differently at that ride on the bus and not just play video games.”

Skepticism is healthy, too, of course. I’m still on crowdsourcing 101, myself, but unintended consequences can sometimes be positive.

[What are you doing? by wharman]


What next, steampunk fiction on the iPhone?

Paul Raven @ 19-06-2009

Steampunk Tales ezine coverWhy, yes, as it happens. Via Weird Tales comes news of the descriptively named Steampunk Tales e-zine, which is only available to you alpha-geeks who are rockin’ the Cupertino Jesusphone:

Emulating the style of the pulp adventure magazines of the 1920s and ’30s, Steampunk Tales contains first-run, original fiction written by an A+ list of award-winning authors. Issue #1 contains 10 stories, each running between 4,300 to 11,000 words, for the unbelievable price of only $1.99. Authors contributing to issue #1 include Jay Lake, Catherynne M. Valente, SatyrPhil Brucato and G.D. Falksen. The cover art was painted by popular artist Melita “missmonster” Curphy.

$1.99 for ten pieces of fiction by pro writers seems like a pretty good deal; it’s a shame you can’t get it any other way than on an iPhone, though.

What about you Futurismic readers with iPhones – is this the sort of zine format you’d pay for? And how does that price-point look to you?


Mobile Massively Multiplayer – Warcraft on the iPhoe

Paul Raven @ 28-04-2009

Here’s some big news for the gamers among you (provided it’s not an elaborate and well-produced hoax) – a World of Warcraft client that runs on the iPhone.

Found via The Guardian, where Greg Howson asks whether the cramped screen real-estate and network lag would make it worth bothering. I figure that’s an academic question, really; I imagine if I (a) played WoW and (b) had an iPhone, I’d be mad keen for a mobile version; I mean, who wouldn’t be, right? If you’re an iPhone and MMO geek, you’re going to go mad for the idea of getting the best of both at once…

But more to the point (and the main reason I called it out), it’s another SF Prophecy Point on the leaderboard for Charlie Stross, who included mobile MMO gaming as a core trope in his 2007 novel Halting State. Two years from science fiction to reality – things move fast, don’t they?


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