Looking back on Cyborg Month

Paul Raven @ 01-10-2010

When Tim Maly invited me to contribute to the 50 Posts About Cyborgs project, I had a nagging suspicion that I’d have a run-in with impostor syndrome… and I was right. The nearly complete run of posts (49 of them linked from the Tumblr above as I type this) contains some of the smartest and most brain-expanding material I’ve read in a long, long time, from some incredibly erudite writers and thinkers. If you have any interest whatsoever in the post-modern human condition in a technology-saturated world, in where we came from as a species and where we’re going, or in what being (post?)human actually means, then there’ll be something there for you to enjoy – so go read.

And many thanks Tim for inviting me to take part; I’m one proud impostor. 🙂


Redrawing the globe with the city at its heart

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2010

Very sincere thanks to @polgrim for flagging up this excellent article at ForeignPolicy.com. It’s like a heaped plate of geopolitical and socioeconomic Zeitgeist, full of favourite Futurismic riffs like the decline of the nation-state, the weakening of the “first-world” West, the shift toward urban living and the possibilities – good and bad – of rethinking the way we approach these things.

Be sure to read the whole thing (it’ll probably take you maybe twenty minutes max, and it’s worth every second), but here’s a chunk that made my brain chime like a temple bell:

Accelerating this shift toward new regional centers of gravity are port cities and entrepôts such as Dubai, the Venices of the 21st century: “free zones” where products are efficiently re-exported without the hassles of government red tape. Dubai’s recent real-estate overreach notwithstanding, emerging city-states along the Persian Gulf are investing at breakneck speed in efficient downtown business districts, offering fast service and tax incentives to relocate. Look for them to use sovereign wealth funds to acquire the latest technology from the West, buy up tracts of agricultural land in Africa to grow their food, and protect their investments through private armies and intelligence services.

Alliances of these agile cities are already forming, reminiscent of that trading and military powerhouse of the late Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League along the Baltic Sea. Already, Hamburg and Dubai have forged a partnership to boost shipping links and life-sciences research, while Abu Dhabi and Singapore have developed into a new commercial axis. No one is waiting for permission from Washington to make deals. New pairings among global cities follow the markets: Witness the new Doha to Sao Paulo direct flight on Qatar Airways or the Buenos Aires to Johannesburg route on South African Airways. When traffic between New York and Dubai dried up due to the financial crisis, Emirates airlines rerouted its sleek Airbus A380 planes to Toronto, whose banking system survived the economic shake-up in better shape.

And another:

Consider how aggressively Chinese cities have now begun to bypass Beijing as they send delegates en masse to conferences and fairs where they can attract foreign investment. By 2025, China is expected to have 15 supercities with an average population of 25 million (Europe will have none). Many will try to emulate Hong Kong, which though once again a Chinese city rather than a British protectorate, still largely defines itself through its differences with the mainland. What if all China’s supercities start acting that way? Or what if other areas of the country begin to demand the same privileges as Dalian, the northeastern tech center that has become among China’s most liberal enclaves? Will Beijing really run China then? Or will we return to a fuzzier modern version of the “Warring States” period of Chinese history, in which many poles of power competed in ever-shifting alliances?

Centralised governance is done; stick a fork in it. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold… but “mere anarchy” might not be the horror that Yeats expected it to be. We’re adaptable critters, us humans; we’d do well to remember that.


Living Earth Simulator: super-detailed simulation of environment, economies, societies, kitchen sinks

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2010

I badly wanted a copy of SimEarth when it was released, but the clunky old 8086 passed down to me by my father (who’d recently splashed out on a 386DX with math co-processor, no less) couldn’t run it.

I’m pretty positive that no machine I (or anyone else unattached to a well-funded research organisation) could afford will be able to run the Living Earth Simulator, either [via MetaFilter]:

In the past, supercomputers have been used mainly in physics or biology, or for difficult engineering problems such as the construction of new aircrafts. But now they are increasingly being used for social and economic analyses, even of the most fundamental human processes. At the CCSS, for example, Lars-Erik Cederman uses large-scale computer models to study the origin of international conflict, and is creating a large database documenting the geographic interdependencies of civil violence and wars in countries such as the former Yugoslavia or Iraq. In sociology, simulations at the CCSS have explored the conditions under which cooperation and solidarity can thrive in societies. They show that the crust of civilization is disturbingly vulnerable. These simulations reveal common patterns behind breakdowns of social order in events as diverse as the war in former Yugoslavia, lootings after earthquakes or other natural disasters, or the recent violent demonstrations in Greece.

[…]

Complementary to large-scale computer simulations, the FuturIcT project also aims to gather and organise data on social, economic and environmental processes on an unprecedented scale, especially by augmenting the results of field studies and laboratory experiments with the overwhelming flood of data now resulting from the world wide web or massive multi-player online worlds such as Second Life. Furthermore, the rapid emergence of vast networks of distributed sensors will make data available on an almost unimaginable scale for direct use in computer simulations. At the same time, an ethics committee and targeted research will ensure that these data will be explored in privacy-respecting ways and not misused. The goal is to identify statistical interdependencies when many people interact, but not to track or predict individual behaviour.

In plain English: these people want to build a simulation of the entire planet that takes into account almost every type of data we can shove into it, in the hope that we can use said data to foresee (and perhaps forestall) the next big disaster on the timeline – be it environmental, economic, biological (ZOMFG bird/pig flu!) or social. No idea if it’s feasible (though it doesn’t sound too ridiculous), but it’s surely ambitious, and more than a little bit awesome.

The rational part of me understands that such a simulation would consist of billions of complex calculations running through an array of supercomputer processors (or maybe networked desktop machines running something like the SETI@home software), and wouldn’t be very exciting to simply sit and watch. The less rational part of me that grew up watching James Bond movies really hopes that – somewhere – there’ll be a big interface screen with a spinning globe on it, with which I could spend the rest of my life fiddling around, cackling like some insane minor Moorcockean deity.

Of course, it’s always worth remembering that we could actually be living in an incredibly complex computer simulation already


New MMO character type: the sociologist

Paul Raven @ 10-05-2010

I’ve been chattering on about the sociology of the metaverse for what feels like yonks (and long since it stopped being a trending topic), but academic interest in synthetic worlds and virtual realities shows no sign of abating, according to Ars Technica‘s round-up of recent MMO-related papers, journals and real-money research grants [via Nick Harkaway].

Give it a few more years, and there’ll be embedded ARG/MMO anthropologists. That’s the year you’ll see me heading back into the education system… 🙂


Redefining friendship: Facebook, MMORPGs and Dragon Age Origins

Jonathan McCalmont @ 06-01-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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The Antiques Roadshow” – For an entire generation of people who grew up [in the UK – Ed.] in the 1980s, those three little words herald a wave of unease and bitterness.  Like a Renaissance magus, they conjure forth memories of Sunday evenings dominated by the looming return of school and the perversity of one’s parents’ taste in television.  You see, younglings… prior to the internet, cable TV and the explosion of cheap consumer electronics, most young British people were trapped not only in a four channel world, but in a world where only one TV channel was ever really accessible to them : the one that their parents wanted to watch.  Continue reading “Redefining friendship: Facebook, MMORPGs and Dragon Age Origins”


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