There are some elephants in the room that Chairman Bruce would like to show to us.
[Opening ceremony speech from transmediale2014]
Presenting the fact and fiction of tomorrow since 2001
There are some elephants in the room that Chairman Bruce would like to show to us.
[Opening ceremony speech from transmediale2014]
I do keep saying that futurism isn’t about making predictions, don’t I? Well, that’s because I really believe it. Prediction — in the sense of declaring with great certainty that [x] will come to happen — is a waste of time, because you have no way of accurately determining whether or not the prediction will be validated until the moment at which it is validated (or not). Stick to gambling on horses or stock prices, if gambling’s your thing.
I’m increasingly starting to think of futurism — or at least the sort of futurism I’m interested in doing — as being first and foremost about looking at consequences. This is an extension of the standard technological forecasting methodology, which tends to draw a temporal line through recent, current and projected technological developments in order to conclude that — at some point, however loosely defined — there will be a marketable technology that achieves a (seemingly) desirable goal.
Thing is, the desirable goal isn’t the end of the story. On the contrary, it’s only the beginning.
Example: driverless cars! Think how wonderful the driverless car revolution will be: you’ll be able to read a book or eat your breakfast during your commute! No more traffic jams! It’ll totally revolutionise personal transportation!
See the problem? This sort of thinking makes one exciting extrapolation against a freeze-framed status quo, and then extols the revolutionary change thus achieved. And much as there are days when I wish with all my heart that the world only changed in one measurable and discrete way at a time, it just ain’t so.
I can’t take credit for this particular insight, at least not independently; the redoubtable (and, even by my standards, prolix) Dale Carrico did a great job of shredding driverless car boosterism from his gadfly pulpit in the draughty towers of the
White World Future Society. The critical point is this: making cars driverless doesn’t actually solve any of the biggest pressures on the private vehicle sector at all; it just ameliorates (or promises to ameliorate) some of the more unpleasant social side-effects attendant on the inescapable necessity of using what was once extolled as a technology that would improve lives by reducing journey times. (Oh, the irony.)
Making your car driverless doesn’t remove or reduce your need to be sat in the damned thing for hours twice a day; it won’t make your tanks of gas any cheaper or less environmentally damaging; it won’t roll back decades of suburban sprawl and expensive freeway infrastructure; and it’ll be a long time before the technology is cheap enough to make an impact on ordinary people, ie. those who would benefit most from reduced costs and more free time. By the time they’re widespread (if they ever are), the steady increase in the number of vehicles on the road will have countered any significant change in traffic loading; furthermore, those changes will be held back by the necessity of sharing the road system with manual ‘legacy’ vehicles.
The driverless car is not a revolution in personal transportation. It is merely a reinvention of the wheel, an iterative development — and a way of selling more new cars. Driverless cars may well change the world — but not for you, or at least not for your benefit.
This is what I mean about consequences; this is where futurism needs to make a point of bringing people — real, ordinary people — into the frame where the Brand New Shiny is being considered.
If you go and look at Carrico’s burner linked above, you’ll see a comment from Yours Truly where I did exactly that — shifting the predicted “disruption”* away from the average (and increasingly mythical) consumer and relocating it in those realms where big budgets and and slim margins make the cost of investing early look tempting. Driverless cars will only be available as commercial products to the super-rich, at least at first; driverless technology, however, will fit just as well into the trucks of the long-distance haulage industry, who have a whole laundry list of reasons to jump all over it at the soonest possibility: as fuel costs continue to rise, the prospect of a fleet of truck drivers who a) only require a one-off upfront payment at hiring time [ie. installation outlay cost], b) don’t need sleep, biobreaks or union representation and c) can drive around the clock with no drop in alertness is going to give haulage companies the biggest boner the poor bastards have had in years.
And hey, would you look at this?
Via Fast Company; OK, so these road trains still require one human driver in the lead cab, but I’ll bet my shoes and socks that’s more to do with allaying legislative (not to mention public) fears about the technology failing than a genuine necessity.
Ella Saitta once said to me that “the internet eviscerates everything it comes into contact with, and then turns it into something more like the internet”. The internet is all about cutting the need for human activity out of any commercial transaction, and about minimizing the length of supply chains.
If you think driverless technology is going to make your life better in the near future, you’re either a haulage company owner, or not paying attention.
* — The mutating semantics of the word “disruption” in the context of the tech-start-up scene is more than a little worrying to someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how language gets used; disruption is increasingly seen as a positive, a desirable thing, an opportunity to make a profit by eviscerating an existing industry that can’t compete with your new way of doing things. Which not only ties in with Ella’s observation, but also allows an insight into how some tech CEOs think: that collapsing a market is acceptable if you can then seize it wholesale.
Sounds a bit like US foreign policy during the Noughties, no?
From a photo-essay/collection thingybob at The Atlantic: Syrian rebel fighters and their homebrew military hardware. There are lots of shots of chaps lathing mortar shells, as well as crude hand-welded onagers made from shelving and rebar; that’s your continuity verification, a through-line of human experience that you can draw through the wars of centuries past. But these two are the ones that tell you we really ain’t in Kansas any more:
Now this is just wonderful, even if it’s a clear response to the start of a long (but maybe not so slow) ramping down from the current consumer-driven innovation model of technology business:
The notion of a “haberdashery for technology” came from traditional haberdasheries which are (or, more often than not, were) filled with knitting needles, sewing machines, patterns, buttons, thread and examples of clothes, bags and quilts that you can make yourself. They tend to have shop assistants who are experts at their craft, as opposed to general salespeople, and they give you advice and host classes to learn new sewing skills.
Hirschmann explains: “Now replace all of that with LEDs, circuit boards, soldering irons and lots of lovely little drawers with resistors, capacitors and switches The store is immaculately organised and there are explanations of the bits and bobs near all of the components to help demystify what they do and how they might be useful. There are a selection of bespoke DIY kits for you to explore at home.
Operations like this are a heartening sign, but the ones that last the course will probably be a little less worthy and a lot more ramshackle, much more along the lines of a “bring yer thing and fix it yerself then pay me for the parts” sort of place, a free hackspace that both monetises and entices its meattraffic with the same supplementary offering.
This sort of high-functioning ‘adaptive reuse as business model’ thing is an inevitable necessity for a world with low incomes and limited resources, really… but it’s not a new thing, though: think back not too far to the days when you might have a door-to-door knife-sharpening guy come round the neighbourhood once a season, for instance. As much as we talk about our technologies as being tools, we don’t value them like a really good tool is valued, like a good knife would be sharpened regularly all throughout its long working life. We think of “tools” as being almost a commodity concept nowadays; a word like “power”, “bandwidth”, “leverage”. “Tools” is just our ease of access to Stuff That Does Things, it’s our ability to buy or rent or borrow what we need when we need it.
That ability will cease to pertain in the realm of physical meatspace tools very quickly. This means good tools – well made, well used, maintained and cared for, stored properly – will become valuable social capital in a post-growth economy: an opportunity to contribute rather than a lever for power. Also: the return of the freelance artisan and jack’ll-fix-it, available in both static/urban and nomadic/rural models. Every block or village will have a guy who sysops for local businesses, f’rinstance, and probably another dude who handles the hardware side of things; less glamorously (but equally essentially), you’ll have white-hat infrastructure hackers, people who can patch a local power grid, keep water and sewage systems running, repair or demolish problem architecture… and again, none of this is new. Indeed, it’s current in any major city with a sizeable favela population.
Your city may not have any favelas right now, of course. But it will.
Further weird signals form the nearest strange attractors: some guy hustles Mercedes into sponsoring his prosthetic hand [via MetaFilter]. That’s a novel in nine words, right there, and it’s not even a made-up story. Related: the guy who swapped out his glass eye for a little digicam [via ModeledBehaviour]. These are just two of real on-the-ground transhumanism’s many, many faces; there will be more of them to come. The two greatest mistakes one can make about transhumanism are falling for the Kurzweilian corporate Singularity fantasy (which I increasingly suspect portrays only the parts of the future reserved for shareholders), or assuming that the ludicrousness of said Singularity fantasy invalidates or derails the existence of an observable and growing subculture. (Confession time: I’ve been guilty of both before now.)
To put it another way: we won’t be uploading our minds any time soon, but there’s more unexpected-consequences-of-being-cyborgs in the very near future of our species, without a doubt… because another of those new artisan careers will be the bodysculptor, the back-street surgeon, and they will not be short of work (even if most of it will be elective or cosmetic rather than… functional, shall we say.)
At this point someone is sure to be thinking “but to do that to yourself would be genuinely insane – like, actual pathology craziness!” You’re probably right, too. I think the problem with dismissing the more extreme examples of the transhumanist urge (no matter how shallowly understood it appears to be in each participant) as mental pathology is that doing so is a convenient way of avoiding the need to address the real problem: what’s causing that craziness, and how prevalent is it? The second question is probably the least important, because it’s the one that’ll answer itself very quickly. The answer to the first will be something already embedded deep enough in the body of our civilisation that its removal would kill or cripple us: it is technology itself, and the madness of kids trying to become the Terminator is the madness of a body trying to remake itself in an image more like the ones it dreams of.
It is the madness of being young in a mad world, and it will not be cured or engineered away.
Rolling around like a marble in the trough of disillusionment are virtual worlds, ebook readers and QR codes, which is interesting; I’d have thought that -at least from the consumer side – the ebook reader was well out of the trough and climbing forwards. Looks very different from Publisherville, though, which might explain it…
Meanwhile gamification (which may or may not be bullshit) and 3d printing are just about to hit their frenzied Barnum moment in the techblog spotlight, with AR and cloud computing heading for a comedown mooch in the trough in the company of ‘media tablets’. If that last point means I can pick up a remaindered Android tablet in the post-Xmas/post-market-crash sales, I’m all for it, amiritez?
But speaking of market crashes, how would those points shift if 2012 sees the depression stay flatlined? (Doesn’t exactly seem a preposterous suggestion right now, does it?) Which becomes more interesting or acceptable or tempting when times are even tighter? Which becomes a frivolous cul-de-sac?