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.


Academia brings Wikipedia in from the cold

Paul Raven @ 22-03-2011

Better late than never – via BoingBoing, The Beeb reports that Imperial College London is finally bowing to the inevitable as it stops warning students off of using Wikipedia for research and instead sets out methods for using it properly:

“The issue of how it’s used needs to be explored, it’s the most widely-used resource among students,” says Mr Patel, a medical student at the university.

“Wikipedia is here to stay – it’s a question of whether we come up to speed with it or try to ignore it.”

Mr Patel says he wants to co-ordinate the way pages are edited by students and staff and to make the most of Wikipedia, rather than pretend it’s not there.

“Students know there is an inherent unreliablity, as it’s open edited. We’re not trying to hide that.

“But it’s a place where you can orientate yourself when you start a topic.

“The quality has improved and the readability is often second to none,” he says.

But Mr Patel says there is a real gap in knowledge about how this free resource is being used.

Rather than swapping anecdotes about the use of Wikipedia, he says his group wants to move to a more evidence-based discussion about the place of Wikipedia in universities.

Evidence-based discussion, eh? In academia? Someone fax the creationist biology departments, stat!

In the meantime, if you’re doing some research with Wikipedia as a starting point you might want to take a look at TheFullWiki, which appears to be an online service that uses Wikipedia as a baseblock for building topic trees and sourcing citations. [via Lifehacker, who are still on linkback probation until Gawker provide links that actually guarantee to take you to the article they purport to describe]


Nucleotides in Titan’s atmosphere?

Paul Raven @ 06-01-2011

I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t seen this story all over the place. Perhaps everyone’s taking a while to get back up to speed after the holidays… or perhaps no one wants to get burned the same way they were by the last story about life chemistry that came out of NASA’s press department.

Nonetheless, complete with obligatory “maybe real life is stranger than science fiction after all OMGZ!!” closer, here’s NASA Science News talking about an experiment that demonstrates the possibility of basic life chemistry building blocks in the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon, Titan:

Hörst and her colleagues mixed up a brew of molecules (carbon monoxide(1), molecular nitrogen and methane) found in Titan’s atmosphere. Then they zapped the concoction with radio waves – a proxy for the sun’s radiation.

What happened next didn’t make the scientists shout “it’s alive!” but it was intriguing.

[ There’s good reason to make science journalism accessible, but do we really need shitty little asides like that, NASA? This isn’t Sesame Street, for goodness’ sake… ]

A rich array of complex molecules emerged, including amino acids and nucleotides.

“Our experiment is the first proof that you can make the precursors for life up in an atmosphere, without any liquid water(2). This means life’s building blocks could form in the air and then rain down from the skies!”

[ The metal-head in me now really wants to use Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” as a voice-over bed for this article. Sing along at home! ]

“We didn’t start out to prove we could make ‘life’ in Titan’s skies,” explains Hörst. “We were trying to solve a mystery. The Cassini spacecraft detected large molecules(3) in Titan’s atmosphere, and we wanted to find out what they could be.”

In hopes of obtaining clues to the mystery molecules, Hörst used computer codes to search the lab results for matches to known molecular formulas. She decided, on a whim, to look for nucleotides and amino acids.

[…]

“We had about 5000 molecules containing the right stuff: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. We knew we had the elements for organic molecules, but we couldn’t tell how they were arranged. It’s kind of like legos – the more there are, the more possible structures can be made. And they can be put together in many different ways.”

Among the structures identified in the lab experiment so far are five nucleotides found in DNA and RNA, and two amino acids. But she says there could be more amino acids in the mix.

How could those molecules have gotten there? The ice geysers of Enceladus are a possible answer, apparently, though this is all strictly speculative stuff at this point.

Search-for-alien-life bonus material! Antarctica’s massive Lake Vostok may finally give up its secrets (presuming it has any, natch) now that a Russian team has come up with a way to sample the lake’s water without contaminating its effectively closed ecosystem with dirty surface-monkey germs. What mysterious things might we discover lurking miles beneath the ice? Whatever’s down there, it might give us some more clues to what’s going on on Enceladus…


I always knew they’d prove precognition was real!

Paul Raven @ 17-11-2010

Well, not really (or at least not for a long time), but I couldn’t resist the title. So, here are some bits from Wired Science‘s piece on Daryl Bem’s new paper entitled “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect”… which purports to contain experimental evidence of precognition in human minds.

Bem’s experimental method was extremely straightforward. He took established psychological protocols, such as affective priming and recall facilitation, and reversed the sequence, so that  the cause became the effect. For instance, he might show students a long list of words and ask them to remember as many as possible. Then, the students are told to type a selection of words which had been randomly selected from the same list. Here’s where things get really weird: the students were significantly better at recalling words that they would later type.

[…]

The power of Bem’s paper is cumulative. In total, he describes the results of nine different experiments, conducted on more than 1000 subjects. All of the experiments revealed slight yet statistically significant psi anomalies, with an average effect size of 0.21 across all experiments.

However, the real contribution of this paper isn’t even these statistically significant results. Instead, it’s Bem’s attempt to create rigorous, well-controlled tests of psi that can be replicated by independent investigators. Because here is the dirty secret of anomalous phenomena like telepathy and clairvoyance: They’ve been demonstrated dozens of times, often by reputable scientists. (Bem is an extremely well-respected psychologist, best known for his work on self-perception.) Why, then, do serious scientists dismiss the possibility of psi? Why do rational people assume that parapsychology is bullshit? Because these exciting results have consistently failed the test of replication.

According to a footnote on that article, the process of replication (or at least attempted replication) has already begun, and there are links to two sets of negative results.

Now, I’m no psychologist or statistician, but even so, I’m going to maintain a skeptical stance on “psi powers”. While I have vague theories that there’s more to the universe and our place in it than we yet understand, I think the notion of clairvoyance or “seeing the future” is – at best – a massive oversimplification of the sort of quantum weirdness that makes our brains work the way they do, or – at worst – what happens when unlikely but possible lucky streaks intrude themselves into the world of statistical probabilities. (That “slight yet significant” bit always sets my skeptic bell to ringing; how do we know how slight something has to be before it isn’t significant?)

But then you already knew I was I going to say that, didn’t you? 😉


Bruce Sterling on the shallow erudition of Google

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

I’d be remiss in my relentless Bruce Sterling fanboyism if I didn’t link to this interview with the man himself at 40kbooks (which looks to be a digital-only publisher focussing on essays  about digital culture and short-form fiction from notable authors; the Chairman’s recent Interzone-published story “Black Swan” is available from them, for instance).

And I’d also be remiss in my blognautic self-aggrandisement if I didn’t point out that interviewer Rhys Hughes riffs off of an answer Sterling gave in my interview with him back in 2009

Rhys: I believe that you were once asked to state the major difference between the methods of research you employ as a writer now and the methods you employed when you began your writing career. You responded with the single word, “Google.” This might seem a perverse question, but do you think there are any perils for a new writer in the fact that research has now become so much easier?

Bruce: That’s not a perverse question.  It’s obvious.  It’s a simple matter to examine almost any contemporary text and see that Google was used to compose it. Contemporary writing is loaded with strange little details of erudition that used to be expensive and difficult to research. For instance, let’s consider an obscure, dusty figure like, say, Massimo d’Azeglio.  Or rather, Massimo Taparelli, Marquis d’Azeglio (October 24, 1798 – January 15, 1866), the author of the Italian historical novels, “Niccolò dei Lapi” and “Ettore Fieramosca.”  No American should properly know anything about this man. It took me 57 seconds to research that on Google, and that included cutting and pasting the text here.

The peril comes in thinking, as a modern writer, that you can truly understand something about Massimo Taparelli in just 57 seconds. No, you can’t. To access facts is not to understand them. The Marquis d’Azeglio was an intelligent, creative and cultivated 19th century aristocrat. He was deep and broad and subtle and human, and very alien to us moderns. Modern writers may fail to understand him in this sudden electronic blizzard of  bland facts about him.  We may  know less of him because we seem to know  more of him.

Lots more good stuff in Hughes’ interview, so go read.


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