Cyborg folklore and the infrastructural trialectic

Folklore and infrastructure intersecting, with a hint of Haraway, in this interview with the gloriously-named internet folklorist Trevor J Blank:

Because technologically-mediated communication is so ubiquitously and integrally rooted into everyday life (for most individuals), the cognitive boundaries between the corporeal and virtual have been blurred. When we send text messages to a friend or family member, we typically think “I’m sending this text” instead of “these glowing dots of phosphorous are being converted into tiny signals and beamed across several cell towers before being decoded and received on a peer’s phone.” The message is perceived as an authentic extension of our communicative selves without much thought over the medium in which it was sent.

And another snip from the second part of the interview:

Fundamentally, we rely on institutions for a number of aspects of everyday life: we look to our government to protect us and keep us moving forward as a society; we expect children to learn something valuable when they go to school; we look for law enforcement to ensure that citizens play by the rules, just to name a few. Folk culture–the informal, unofficial expressive dynamics that constitute everyday life within a group–resides outside of these institutions yet it is inherently aware of and shaped by them. The two unavoidably intermingle in the context of modern American life. For instance, connecting to the Internet requires navigating through an institutional barrier, like a cable company or Internet service provider, before one can even begin to engage in vernacular expression online.

To follow that thread, dynamic folk discourse can take place in the comment sections of institutional websites like YouTube. Or, an individual can publish beautiful, original prose (essentially folk expression) on their blog, which may have been built from a template provided by WordPress (which is institutional). The point is that folk expression and institutions are not inherently antagonistic; in fact, they frequently play off one another or become hybridized in the process of generating folklore.

Neatly kicks Digital Dualism in the nuts… and provides both a context for and excuse to copy and repost this image, which — for the sake of good archival practice in spite of the phenomenon of link-rot — came from here:

"One of the really bizarre side-effects of Twitter's 140 character limit... "

Now, what you’ve got there is not only a shift in interface devices influencing the practices and use-customs that ride upon an infrastructure, but the modality and demand-pattern of that usage influencing the expansion of capacity of the infrastructure itself. And while this isn’t an example I can use easily, that’s precisely what my PhD is all about…

More dreams, fewer pipes

I get published, y’know.

Now, I announced the release of the Noir anthology from Newcon Press aaaages ago, but the world of reviewing moves pretty slowly when it happens off-line, and only now has this incredibly flattering write-up of my story “A Boardinghouse Heart” made it onto the hallowed pages of Vector, courtesy of the mighty Martin McGrath (who is not know for cutting crap fiction any slack, I might add). Quoth McGrath, the story:

“… is very fine indeed — compact, dense and intelligent, it is more-or-less everything I’d hoped for when I picked up the collection. It’s a detective story — or at least it’s a story with a detective in it — set on the slippery streets of a richly realised city. The protagonist, as should be the case in all good noir stories, is hopelessly out of his depth and beset by those more powerful and cleverer than he is. The most effective element is the way in which the story immerses you in a city, gives it history and heft, yet never burdens the reader with hefty exposition. I also liked its refusal of any heroic narrative. It’s a fine achievement and worth the price of admission on its own.”

That price of admission is £2.01 as a Kindle ebook, and rather more for paperback or hardback (signed) versions, should you be tempted by this effusive praise.

There have been few reviews of the Twelve Tomorrows anthology, possibly because MIT Tech Review took a somewhat “fire and forget” approach to promoting it, but the October print edition of Locus picked it up in two separate columns, in one of which Gardner Dozois declares:

“[t]he best stories here are Lauren Beukes’s “Slipping” and Paul Graham Raven’s ”Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (Pirates of the Plastic Ocean)”, both of which manage to inject human drama into their visions of the future, as well as characters you care about who are faced with situations where they have something and something significant at stake.”

Which is a fairly writer’s-workshop-y kind of compliment, perhaps, but it comes from a man who’s been in the anthology editing game for almost as long as I’ve been alive, so I’m gonna go right ahead and take him at his word. Twelve Tomorrows also available in ebook form for UK readers via everyone’s favourite rapacious and riparian online retailer, for a mere £5.99. A steal, really, when you see who else is in there alongside me.

Last but not least, albeit considerably less glamorous, here’s an article I wrote for Water & Wastewater Treatment Magazine about Pipedreams, one of the big meta-projects of the Pennine Water Group, wherein I am currently embedded as a postgraduate researcher. Even though I struggle to explain my own research concisely, I can at least explain that of my colleagues, wot?

(Dis)Assembling #Stacktivism; poking holes in utopia

#stacktivismTomorrow (Weds 15th October 2014) sees me boarding a train down to That London, in order to be a talking head at a salon titled (Dis)Assembling #Stacktivism at the Goethe Institute. If you’ve not been following along, #stacktivism is Jay Springett’s invention, and it’s less a manifesto than a call for seeing the world anew, a campaign for the disenchantment of infrastructure… or is it? That’s all the fun of a #hashtag, see — you don’t get to control it, it’s a floating node in the discourse. So come along and discuss what we might do with it. Tickets are a mere £6 (via Eventbrite), and going by the warm-up conversation over email, it’s going to be a stimulating session. There’s a recommended reading list and everything!


In other news: after reading Kevin Kelly’s collection of “desirable-future haikus”, I coughed up a rant about the innate determinism of the technological utopia over the weekend. The short version: tech-focussed futurists are finally hitting the same problematics of the utopian form that the New wave sf writers hit in the late 70s, and the reason it’s impossible to draft a plausible technological utopia is that we’ve all lived through enough false promises to not be taken in se easily any more.

(As an aside, I’m increasingly convinced that the #miserableweb phenomenon on Ello is less a function of Ello itself, and more a function of a general cynicism about social media; there was some seriously utopian hopes around social media back in the Noughties (I held many of them myself), and it clearly did some good things, but then Snowden showed us around the dungeon of Omelas, the Great White Hetero Male got all revanchist, and the scales fell from our eyes. Turns out the lord of the flies doesn’t believe in digital dualism either.)

Dan Hon picked up my ball and ran with it a bit in his newsletter thing. I think he pretty much gets the gist of my point, but he kinda shifts the blame onto the marketing and advertising of tech rather than the discourse of tech, of which marketing is only one subsystem; advertising certainly reproduces uncritically diegetic technological utopias (and the internet now re-reproduces ((and sometimes remixes)) them losslessly and infinitely), but there are also the interactions of biz-school dogma, neoclassical economics (profit uber alles) and the positivist epistemologies of the STEM disciplines to consider. Technological determinism is not a simple belief; it’s just one visible manifestation of the dominant worldview.

Hon illustrates the point for me, in fact. He talks about the utopian tech ads of the “information superhighway” era, and how only now are we actually seeing a roll-out of the services that were promised to us on the back of the internet. Then he says:

“… it’s like we still *want* to buy concert tickets wherever we want, and we still *want* to say goodnight to our kids over Facetime or whatever.”

There’s a valid point here, which is that convenience has always been a marketing cornerstone, and that making things easier is a form of progress. But the thing about Facetime is the killer example: Facetime solves the problem of being able to say goodnight to your kids when travelling on business, but it doesn’t solve the problem of a business culture that expects you to spend shit-loads of time away from your young family — which is a systemic problem with many other side-effects besides keeping you away from home, and one that technology tends to exacerbate at the molar scale, even (if not especially) when it seems to ameliorate it at the molecular scale. Or, to put it crudely: in order for an iPhone to make your life easier, a number of Chinese workers must make their lives rather more difficult. The benefits of technology are not at all evenly distributed, and neither are the downsides.

So perhaps it’s just capitalism that’s the culprit? That’s part of it, I’m sure — but capitalism is a construct, and blaming constructs is lazy (not to mention, um, unconstructive?). But the intimate interconnection between neoclassical economics, technoscientific production and climate change is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and we’ll never fix a problem that’s essentially technological in origin by just throwing more technology at it; that’s about as rational as trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline.

(Which, to be clear, is not a primitivist call for the abandonment of technology in toto; on the contrary, it’s a call for us to flatten our ontologies, to redefine the notion of “the problem” into something a little less selfish and a little more systemic.)

Sisyphus ponders the season

This morning I laid in late and wrote, prodding at my tablet in the dark. The pink-noise hiss and splatter of cars on the rain-soaked street out front speaks to the season, but nothing says “summer’s over” like half an hour of joyous honking as flight after flight of geese pass over the house, heading south for warmer, brighter climes.

The days draw in, and dawn starts dragging its heels. I can feel myself shifting modes, somehow — my metabolism reconfiguring itself against the darkness. Winter is a state of siege, a war against myself: bad poetry and bright memories line the battlements, pale banners snapping in the brittle wind.

There is no glory to be won here, only time. Victory lies in the refusal to surrender.

On objectivity

This essay by Cara Ellison is both a fairly bravura bit of internet-era confessional rage-ranting and an insight into the lifestyle and finances of the freelance games reviewer (which is much like that of many freelance writers, I suspect; I certainly recognise the bit about measuring gigs in terms of what percentage of one’s next rent payment they represent). For my money, though, this ‘graph is the slamdunk:

The necessary rise of the satirical website ‘Objective Game Reviews’ is enough to make me feel depressed, but if you want to see what an ‘objective’ review looks like maybe go and fud yourself silly on that site and come back to me when you are 1) older than sixteen 2) would like my goddamn experienced opinion on a game. The only reason game criticism exists is so that you can orientate yourself around a particular critic’s taste. If the critic is any good you can tell from their analysis whether you will like the game or not, regardless of whether the critic in question actually thought the game was any good at all.

Amen to that; I suspect there will be readers who misunderstand the role of criticism for as long as there are readers, and I am reassured to find that I give less of a crap for what they think as the years go by.

Oh, while you’re here — did you fancy buying a copy of Twelve Tomorrows so you could read my story, but didn’t fancy getting a copy shipped from the States? Well, everyone’s favourite disintermediatory retail-disruption corporation has got you covered with a £6.21 UK Kindle edition, available now. Let me know what you think, if you like.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …