Fandom as the vanguard of the new cosmopolitanism

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

Interesting essay from Cory Doctorow over at Locus Online; I’m always a little leery of pieces that see science fiction fandom doing that pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-being-a-little-bit-ahead-of-the-curve thing, but I think Doctorow may have a point when he claims that fandom – alongside many other modern subcultures, it must be said – can be typified by a sort of “gourmet cosmopolitan” attitude peculiar to the post-modern (altermodern?) networked world. In passing, he also makes some interesting points about a core philosophy of science fiction stories which I’d like to see further expanded:

… we tend to think of ‘‘cosmopolitan’’ as a synonym for ‘‘posh’’ or ‘‘well-travelled.’’  But that’s not what I mean here: for me, to be cosmopolitan is to live your life by the ancient science fictional maxims: ‘‘All laws are local’’ and ‘‘No law knows how local it is.’’ That is, the eternal verities of your culture’s moment in space and time are as fleeting and ridiculous as last year’s witch-burnings, blood-letting, king-worship, and other assorted forms of idolatry and empty ritual.


Which is not to say that cosmopolitans don’t believe in anything. To be cosmopolitan is to know that all laws are local, and to use that intellectual liberty to decide for yourself what moral code you’ll subscribe to. It is the freedom to invent your own ethics from the ground up, knowing that the larger social code you’re rejecting is no more or less right than your own – at least from the point of view of a Martian peering through a notional telescope at us piddling Earthlings.


Rule 34, the Amish, and fandom’s willingness to wear its sweaters inside-out are the common thread running through the 21st century’s social transformations: we’re finding a life where we reevaluate social norms as we go, tossing out the ones that are empty habit or worse, and enthusiastically adopting the remainder because of what it can do for our lives. That is modern, sophisticated, gourmet cosmopolitanism, and it’s ever so much more fun the old cosmopolitanism obsession with how they’re wearing their cuffs in Paris, or what’s on at the Milan opera.

Comments are open: what are your thoughts? (Unless they’re along the lines of  “Doctorow is an [x]!” or “sf fans are [y]!”; these are opinions you’re entitled to, but I’d request politely that you find somewhere else to share them.)

Living with less: digital lifestyles versus consumer materialism

Paul Raven @ 17-08-2010

Seems like you can’t have a good idea these days without it turning into some sort of cult or movement… maybe that’s always been the case, but 24/7 journalism and social media certainly speeds up the process. Aaaaaaanyways, here’s a BBC article on technohipster types who’re shedding the majority of their material possessions in favour of computer hardware and cloud-based communications and data storage.

It’s kind of romantic, in a somewhat smug and self-aware po-mo kind of way: the New Nomadism! A reaction to the consumerist lust-for-stuff that helped bring us to global financial collapse, etc etc. What it fails to take into account is that there are hundreds of thousands living just as nomadic a lifestyle, only without the luxuries of a fresh Macbook Air and a custom-built fixie; having too much stuff is very much a #firstworldproblem, and as much as it’s satisfying to see a turn away from that, it’s frustrating to see how, already, it’s destined to be repackaged and sold as a lifestyle trend.

If I was in the cloud computing business right now, I’d be thinking real hard about how to market (and mark up!) my tools and services to precisely these sorts of people: people who are financially and geographically fortunate enough to see sparse living as something worth paying for (as opposed to being the only game in town, as it is for most folks living out of a couple of bags).

That said, I can see the benefits… hell, I’ve even experienced some of them. My own recent relocation saw me sell off my entire music collection, for instance; I realised I never played my CDs in a player, so I just ripped them all to a hard drive and sold them off. There were nearly a thousand of them, and do you know what the biggest surprise was? How hard it was to get people to buy them, even priced at just £1 each. Another couple of years (or even less), and you’ll have to give physical music media away. Even now, as new promos keep pouring through my letterbox, I increasingly view them as an imposition on my space… like a meatspace version of bacn, I guess.

It would have been much more pragmatic of me to replace my books with an ereader, but there I drew the line; my library is my major fetish, the last real outlet for my deeply-ingrained middle-class collector’s impulse, and while I may have culled a lot of crap from it, there’s a lot of books that I simply can’t bear to part with. It’s irrational, but I don’t think a bit of irrationality is all that harmful to anything other than my own bank balance… though ask me again after the next time I have to move house. Close to a thousand books is a whole lot of heavy boxes to shift, and they take up a lot of space.

What the BBC piece (and the technomad quotes that prop it up) skips over is the infrastructre that makes such a nomadic lifestyle possible. Ubiquitous wireless broadband, for instance; I’m guessing these people wouldn’t be so keen on living the way they do if they couldn’t remain connected to the world from wherever they’re currently laying their hat. And there’s a whole bunch of unexamined Western privilege beneath the surface: safe places to crash or couch-surf, cheap places to rent over short periods, comparatively low incidences of property theft, kitchen utensils cheap enough to throw out or give away each time you move… these hidden costs are carried by the societies these people live in. Which isn’t to portray these people as parasites (far from it!), but it’s worth bearing in mind to counteract some of the digital_Beatnik utopian vibe of the thing.

Going back to my own downsizing, I found that necessity was the motivator… I inherited a real packrat mindset from my late father, and it dies hard. But now I’ve started, it’s easier to see other things that I know (rationally) I could (and indeed should) get rid of. But emotional attachments are very powerful things; whatever you might think of Buddhism as a religion, that’s one aspect of human psychology it really nails. It can be done, though; Futurismic‘s very own peripatetic columnist Sven Johnson tells me his possessions consist of a desk, a decent ergonomic chair, a computer and a duffle full of clothes. As a freelance industrial designer, he doesn’t really need much else – and it means moving to where the work is becomes a much less painful process.

What would it take to make you give up the majority of your physical possessions? And what’s the one thing you really couldn’t bear to part with, even though you know you don’t need it?

I guess “cavepersons” would be more politically correct…

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2010

… but then if you’re trying to revive diets and lifestyles last lived by human beings in the Paleolithic era, you’re probably not too worried about political correctness, AMIRITE?

I kid you not; the latest lifestyle fad to sweep the hipster set in New York (if two handfuls of people can be fairly described as “sweeping”) is the caveman – chasing bodily vitality by eating and working out like hunter-gatherer protohumans would have done before the invention of agriculture [via MetaFilter; image by cote]:

The caveman lifestyle, in Mr. Durant’s interpretation, involves eating large quantities of meat and then fasting between meals to approximate the lean times that his distant ancestors faced between hunts. Vegetables and fruit are fine, but he avoids foods like bread that were unavailable before the invention of agriculture. Mr. Durant believes the human body evolved for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and his goal is to wean himself off what he sees as many millenniums of bad habits.

These urban cavemen also choose exercise routines focused on sprinting and jumping, to replicate how a prehistoric person might have fled from a mastodon.

One notable New Yorican paleo is Nassim “Black Swan” Taleb, but I suspect even such odd-ball celebrity endorsements are unlikely to popularise a lifestyle that involves eating raw meat, or fasting for 36-hour periods that end in a strenuous workout before your next meal. That said, all it might take to smear it all over the gossip mags is getting some vapid Ashton Kutcher-a-like to try it for a week. Move over, Atkins…

What the paleos seem to be overlooking is that we’ve evolved considerably since the Paleolithic – pre-agricultural man’s body was (if my understanding of anthropology is correct) very different to our more modern meat, albeit in small ways. To truly live like a Paleolithic man, you’d probably need to have your body modified extensively so you could cope with hardships that we’d consider beyond the pale… I wonder how many of the paleos sleep through the New York winter without the benefit of central heating in their loft space, for example?

I’m put in mind of one of my favourite series of sf novels, namely David Zindell’s Requiem for Homo Sapiens, wherein a team of researchers have their bodies retrofitted for the Paleolithic lifestyle in order to seek out ancient spiritual knowledge which may or may not have been hard-coded into humanity by some higher power or another*. By comparison, the paleos in that article are just flirting with the idea… but perhaps, as body modification technology moves beyond simple aesthetic hacks and into the realm of proper re-engineering, people will start revisiting the body-plans and lifestyles of our ancestors more completely, whether for fashion or survival.

[ * That’s a massive oversimplification of one narrative thread of the series, by the way, which drastically short-sells a set of books that I’d recommend without hesitation to anyone who loves a bit of brain-bending high-concept science fiction with added Big Maths and Illuminati references. ]

High above the Earth? Drug consumption on the ISS

Paul Raven @ 07-12-2009

A digital rendering of the International Space StationThere may be little to no consumption of alcohol aboard, but there’s plenty of drugs on the International Space Station – albeit not for recreational purposes. The Discovery Space blog has a list of the contents of the ISS pharmaceutical kit-bag, of which this is just one [via SlashDot]:

Tranquilizers: […] astronauts keep a few tranqs on hand in case anyone goes all suicidal or psychotic in space. NASA recommends binding the individual’s wrists and ankles with duct tape (ever the space traveler’s friend!), strapping them down with a bungee cord and, if necessary, sticking them with a tranquilizer. Sure, it hardly makes for a civilized evening aboard ISS, but it beats someone blowing the hatch because they think they saw a something crawling on one of the solar panels.

Good old NASA, always thinking ahead. If you’re still curious about the astronaut lifestyle, Bruce Sterling has written a piece based on an interview with Nicole Stott that sums up what it’s like to live in space:

The time you spend in outer space will change your blood and hormone levels, and your bones and muscles will slowly waste away. A three-month stay is optimal; six months is pushing it. You’re going to need to get in shape and remember to pack light.

With that understood, let’s settle in. Built over the course of ten years by a wide variety of contractors­­—–and still a work in progress—–the ISS is a hodgepodge trailer camp graced with quite a lot of Russian design. It features two basic living elements: big round tubes, trucked up there in the American Space Shuttle, and smaller knobby tubes, fired up on other people’s rockets. All these pods have been snapped together, mostly end to end, or, as you’ll say on the station, “fore and aft.”

In a nutshell: it’s not exactly a five star hotel. But you know what?

I’d still go tomorrow if they gave me the chance. [image by FlyingSinger]