Tribe

So I’ve been here, what, eight months now? Close enough; my wee terraced house here has felt superficially like home for a while, but arriving back after the long round trip to Colombia, it had all the magic of a beacon or the landing lights on an airstrip. Home is where your cat sleeps, some say, and that certainly helps, but there’s more to it than that by this point, and while I don’t yet know Sheffield well, I know it enough to know I like it here. The job helps, of course, but it’s a matter of place, also; its flawed and patchwork city centre, its grubby hidden backstreets and zones of decay, its garrulous streetlife, its background radiation – a hum of life engaged with the messy, painful, joyous confusion of living. Woodhouse in the spring could almost be a country town, with fields and copses bursting with green. Every now and again I’ll be walking back from the shop and notice anew the wind turbines on the hill beyond the site of the old Orgreave works, and smile. You never see them down south; no prizes for guessing why that might be.

I don’t miss London; it was a fun place to live for a year, and I had some great times there, but it was never home. Portsmouth was home for longer than anywhere else I ever lived – longer than all the other places put together, in fact – but I don’t miss it either. Even on a day like this, the first bright sunny Friday of late spring, when I know all the people will be heading toward the front or the common, like wild creatures who all at once found their cage doors unlocked and the wilderness waiting beyond, whispering the possibility of adventure…

No, I don’t miss Portsmouth. But I do miss my people. Less the press or totality or them all, but that potential: the knowledge that, if the mood took me, I could easily go somewhere and find some familiar faces. Nothing formal, bot a “night out”, just hangin’ times, no questions, no pack drill, the comfort of an old pair of jeans. I miss that, and those faces.

So I’m a little lonely here, as much as I like it. Which ain’t to play my tiny violin, you understand – but I recognise, as I did far more painfully during my year on the banks of the Styx in Stockport, that I’m in an awkward part of life as far as moving goes. Most thirty-somethings, or so it seems, are settled – either into family life with kids, or well-cemented circles of friendship and routine, or both. No matter where I go out, I feel a bit of a fraud or interloper, either surrounded by the chatter and increasingly alien music of the bright young things, or by what feels like the ossified rituals and greatest-hits nostalgia of the folk I still can’t help but think of as “grownups”; a square peg touring the round holes, hopeful, but stubbornly unwilling to plane away his corners. I miss knowing where the two-bit local gig of the week will be, knowing who’ll be carping about the bands at the back of the room – usually the band that played the week before. Ligger and hanger-on that I am, I miss knowing the face behind the turntables, talking trash with shoestring show promoters and artists with miserable rations that keep them fed, keep them angry enough to do the real work between shifts. I miss being not just on the scene, but of it; an aging hipster, from an era when hipsters were called something else, adrift on an unfamiliar sea, an unknown fish in a new pond.

Oh, I know they’re out there. These things take time, I tell myself, especially once you’ve acquired a proper job and lost the relentless energy of youth, realised you can’t go out every night and talk to random interesing-looking strangers apropos of nothing. They’re out there somewhere, the freaks and queers and artists and oddballs, haunting the interstices that it took them so many years to find, to carve out. Portsmouth has them, but so does every other town, and nowhere do they feel the need to advertise. You have to seek them out, earn your entry visa, make those first connections and get caught up in the network. It’s not called the underground for nothing, nor just for the sake of vanity. If it were easy, I wouldn’t want to be part of it; funny how it takes losing it to learn this.

But it’ll come to me eventually, or me to it, in some grubby pub or run-down club. I’ll know it when I see it, and maybe it’ll know me when it sees me, too. For now, I’ll just keep looking, listening: searching for family, looking for tribe.

Fractal’13: a busman’s holiday

I’ve been back for the best part of a week, but Colombia still haunts me.

From the air, it’s a country of lush green mountains, wide flood-plains with fat brown rivers winding and ox-bowing their way through the rich russet soil; fertile, not so much tamed by its people as persuaded into an agreement where no one is quite sure who’s getting the better of the deal. As in many other Latin countries where the scars of colonialism are still bright and angry beneath the new skin of change, there are plenty of places where it looks like “progress” – that deathless shibboleth – has the upper hand: industrial farming practices and the new uptick in gold mining, courtesy of the volatile markets for food and precious metals, have gouged red-brown wounds out of the land, left rivers low and mountains decapitated. But you don’t have to drive far to see how fast nature can reclaim its territory when left to its own devices, nor the rural communities which live lightly – if untidily by European standards – upon the land. The humid air whispers of a barely restrained fecundity; growth is everywhere.

View from El Peñon, again

Economic growth is, of course, more unevenly distributed, and Medellín (pronounced Meh-deh-jEEn – the Latin double-l changes its sound considerably from place to place) showcases these inevitable inequities clearly. Its mild but variable climate, a function of its position in a deep valley high in the mountains, belies its closeness to the Equator; known to Colombians as “the City of Eternal Spring”, its skies boil with turbulent clouds between bursts of bright blue clarity, and thunder grumbles sullen from the peaks most afternoons. The temperature hovers around the low- to mid-twenties Centigrade most of the year; rain is commonplace and occasionally torrential, but rarely stays for long. The central valley is spattered with light and heavy industries, along with a newish rash of corporate postmodernist architecture; the lower slopes have sprouted a forest of red-brick towerblocks which look uniform from a distance, but whose variety becomes clear at close range. In the interstices – and further up the slopes, where the incline and the possibility of flash flooding precludes large-scale construction and reliable infrastructure – the higgledy-piggledy terraces and jumbled bricks’n’breezeblock stacks of the underclass spread wherever they can, their narrow streets a lively riot of mural’d concrete walls, barrowboys chattering their patter through jury-rigged PA systems, and the buzz and rasp of the city’s countless motorcycles and scooters as they struggle against the gradient. The gap between wealth and poverty is made all the clearer by their mutual proximity, a cheek-by-jowl life that is not without its frictions; gothic high-tech and favela chic stand across the avenidas from one another, studiously ignoring one another while they wait for the future to arrive.

Popular

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There are, of course, people trying to bridge that gap and skry that future – which is what I was invited there for, along with my fellow Fractal facilitators: Johanna Blakley, director of research at the Norman Lear Center, University of SoCal; Keiichi Matsuda, architect, film-maker and augmented reality authority; and Reshma Shetty, MIT PhD and co-founder of Ginkgo BioWorks, a synbio start-up based in Boston.

We spent one morning talking to the management team of UNE, a Medellín-based media outfit that sells not just bandwidth but content; they were looking for new ways in which they might provide more useful services to the less well-off of the region, and picked our brains about applications and systems that might add value to their current offers. At the same time, we got to learn some high-level cultural home truths that would serve us well later in the week, not least the fact that – despite being an incredibly friendly and helpful people – Colombians are very slow to trust one another, even at the neighbourhood level. Given the country’s recent history of political unrest and paramilitary conflict – which is, sadly, what Medellín is still best known for here in Europe, to go by the reactions I got when I told people where I was going – this probably isn’t entirely surprising. But it’s not the sort of thing you’d notice as a tourist; hospitality is a big deal to Colombians, and that seems to include an instinctive elision of their domestic troubles. (Compare and contrast to we Brits, who seem increasingly keen to download our sociocultural angst on anyone who’ll listen.)

The main event, however, took place at the Botanical Gardens; the format was largely without precedent, as far as anyone involved was aware, and might be best described as a kind of community-engagement design-fiction experiment. Rather than have four guests do their talking-heads schtuck to an attentive but otherwise passive audience, the Fractal crew decided that we were there to facilitate the audience in telling stories about the three topics in play, namely augmented reality, 3d printing and synbio.

Botanical Gardens

The initial run was done on the Friday afternoon with a thirty-strong gang of schoolkids, aged 11 or so. We’d introduce the topic, then encourage the audience to ask questions and talk about what sort of things they’d do with the technology in question, were it already a reality; then we’d gradually segue into storytelling, with yours truly introducing a character and an opening scene and encouraging the audience to step to the mic and continue the action.

The stories the kids came up with were predictably wild, but the adults attending the three longer sessions the next day weren’t exactly holding themselves back, either, once they’d got into the spirit of the thing. Every time with every story, there’d be a clear pivoting point where everyone suddenly grokked the possibilities, grasped the idea and its implications… and that’s when the stories started getting weird. From my own vantage point, it felt like that point was close to the boundary between the purely physical and the spiritual; while I don’t want to lay any claim to anthropological insight, here, it seem that – much as in the other Latin countries I’ve visited – the division between the earthly and the spiritual is more permeable in Colombian culture, which is still fairly conservative and religious in character, and it was in that disputed territory that speculative thinking really came alive for our audience. Which isn’t to say that there was much handwringing about “playing god”; indeed, it was only raised twice, and without much drama, though one must assume that the audience for a futures event would be somewhat self-selecting in that direction.

But, by way of validating what any fiction writing tutor worth their salt will tell you, it was the human dramas foregrounded against the technological innovations that engaged people with the ideas – and while the stories were far wilder and more playful than one would expect from, say, an established English-language science fiction zine, the central issues and dilemmas of these imminent innovations came quickly to the fore. I got a real kick out of watching people take their turns at the mic, watching their faces as they really got into what they were saying; even though the concrete results of a futures event like this are incredibly hard to measure or quantify, it was plain to see that, when “given permission” to extrapolate and imagine, ordinary people are just as capable as futurists and technologists – if not more so, in some ways – of engaging with complex technologies and understanding how they might change the world they live in, for the better and for the worse.

Clouds

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Full kudos for this ambitious and ground-breaking experiment should go to Vivi and Hernan, the dynamic duo who have somehow assembled and run Fractal events for the past five years while holding down other jobs. There’s no top-table TED schmoozing or delegation of responsibility to paid flunkies, either; both of them seemed, at times, to be surgically attached to their phones and laptops, constantly hustling and arranging and fixing, keeping in touch with their extensive network of helpers and contacts, almost all working on a voluntary basis, wrestling with the bureaucracy of local government, making sure contracts were signed and exchanged, permissions secured, meetings organised. At the same time, they were consummate hosts, constantly on hand, showing us the sights, introducing us to local businesspeople and academics, and feeding us what seemed like endless (not to mention excellent) Colombian food. I can’t remember ever being made to feel so valued (which was hell for my Imposter Syndrome), or so very welcome; as weeks of ostensible work go, it was a hectic delight, and the closest thing I’ve had to a proper holiday in quite some time.

Guatape Portal

So thanks again to Vivi and Hernan, for inviting me to Medellín and making me feel so welcome; I consider myself very much in their debt. And the world futures community would do well to keep an eye on Medellín and Fractal: they’re busily finding ways to take the control and creation of futures narratives out of the hands of “experts” and put them into the hands of ordinary people, and that’s something we should all make an effort to learn from.

Becalmed in the storm’s eye

It’s been a busy couple of months. I hope regular readers will forgive this recap of the past two months or so, which is as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s; I transcribe it here in what I suspect is the hope that I’ll be able to convince myself it all actually happened.

The corollary of getting my contract extended mid-March was that a lot of theretofore speculative deadlines became concrete things, which made for a whole lot of heads-down keyboard-mashing; this was complicated somewhat by my first encounter with true physical burn-out, which, it turns out, feels a lot like being in the lingering run-down phase of a nasty cold for something close to six weeks. Still, it’s good to know your limits, and to have a precedent for the signs that you’re about to hit them.

Chronology is a suitable framework, so: My last post here followed directly after Weird Shi(f)t Con UK, a gathering of some of the more peripatetic irregulars of the Institute for Atemporal Studies and allied forces which took place in in the endearingly cobwebbed decay of Limehouse Town Hall (whose chilliness may well have contributed toward the aforementioned burn-out); many profound matters were discussed, and the post-it notes were plentiful.

London: Weird Shit Con

Afterwards we went to Wilton’s Music Hall, which was full of people attending a stage version of The Great Gatsby; not perhaps an ideal aftervenue given the circumstances, but apropos in an atemporal kind of way. (Wilton’s is ace, though; recommended to all and sundry as one of LDN’s most characterful places to hang out, especially on nights when there’s no show on.)

That Sunday I went to see the legendary Damo Suzuki perform with a Sheffield noise/drone/kraut band in the cellar bar beneath a former picture-house. (Stuffed-animal venues are a definite theme of my life these days.)

Monday following was the final internal meeting for one of the projects I’ve been working on with the PWG; the website for the project is currently offline (nothing to do with me, I might add), but should hold various documents and presentations for public edification. One of the larger papers to come out of the All-in-One project with my name in the author list is now in press at the journal Futures, by the way; drop me a line if you’d like a copy but don’t have institutional access to Elsevi*r’s rentier knowledge-silo.

After the dissemination bash, it was back to Sheffield to see Gojira and Ghost at the Academy. Gojira were good enough, if a little lost on a too-large stage; Ghost were laughably bad, all (obvious and done-to-death) gimmick and no substance. Utterly at a loss to understand why they’re so popular right now. Kids these days.

March 21st saw me pop over the Pennines for the first day of the FutureEverthing conference in Manchester; a chance to catch up on interesting ideas in digital urbanism, reassert my believe that marketing is the only profession with a higher shysters-per-capita than futurism, and hang out with Justin Pickard and Scott Smith, co-conspirators in contraPanglossian gonzo foresight. (Usman Haque dropped Borgesian bombs, which made me want to marry him.) Regrettably, the physical symptoms of burn-out were digging in hard by this point, and I skipped the next day of the conference due to exhaustion and the promise of snow. (Productivity took a serious nosedive around about his point of the proceedings.)

Week after that I fielded a call from a journalist for the Boston Globe; apparently she couldn’t find anyone else willing to argue against the transhumanist narrative that animal uplift is obligatory. So I did.

That weekend, thinking I was over the worst of the exhaustion, I went over to Bradford for the Saturday of EightSquaredCon, the 2013 Eastercon. It was a decent day — what I can remember of it, anyway. I was drafted onto a panel within twenty minutes of arriving; spent some time chatting to various people, but probably making little sense, including an addled attempt to explain to Cory Doctorow what I’d been up to recently (sorry, Cory; I really shouldn’t have been out of bed at that point). My booked train home was cancelled, which shunted me onto a slower and longer route, with the last leg an all-stations stopping service on an old diesel train with no heating or window seals.

I expect that frigid transit contributed to rebooting the exhaustion, which hit me like Chicxulub in the days to follow, and sent me into a serious emotional slump on the side; the black dog bites hardest when my immune system is low, but that’s a knowledge I’m slowly internalising — or so I hope, at any rate. The week following was an agony blended from anxiety over a massive workload and the utter inability to give more than three hours of coherent attention a day to anything at all. Somehow I still managed to go to Lincoln on the Friday and give a paper at the New Genre Army conference in celebration of Edam Rarebits…

… or rather, I gave a methodological manifesto for an as-yet incomplete prototype of the genre of Cut-up Critique; the moral of this story is that if one decides to try trolling the academy, one should be prepared to have one’s bluff called. Luckily for me, the general tone of the day — unsurprisingly, given its object — was one of irreverence blended with seriousness, and I got away with it. (It’s my native medium, after all.) Whether I got away with another cold train-ride home is an open question, however. Maybe my mum’s right, and I just need to buy a new coat.

I believe there was video taken of the papers at New Genre Army, but I haven’t seen them yet, and there’s no sign of them on YouBoob. I’ve been meaning to post the script and slides of my paper here, but… yeah. *adds another thing to the to-do list*

Then followed a week of frantic paper-writing, as deadlines were looming like limits to growth. The week after that, at the final dissemination event for All-in-One, I got to try explaining design fiction to infrastructure engineers and risk analysts for the first time, which involved first explaining it a bit more thoroughly to myself; the former was slightly more successful than the former. (Attempts toward codifying a theory of design fiction in the infrastructural context are ongoing; watch this space.)

I then went to Darlington to talk to a roomful of young water industry professionals about the postmodern crisis of infrastructure management; Borges, Latour, scientific hyperreality, the model is not the system, path dependency and progressive incrementalism, integral futures, that sort of thing. Got a much more positive reception than I’d hoped for, actually, but the other presentations were pretty dry, so I may have benefitted from delivering a shake-up at the end of the day; selah.

Day after Darlington was the annual PWG conference, which was more of a social cohesion operation than a proper conference; got to find out what else goes on in the further, more soc-sci orientated corners of the group, which is valuable knowledge to a generalist/synthesist like yours truly. We went for a nice meal afterwards. Lovely.

The last few weeks have been a little easier, although there were still a fair amount of deskjockey targets to be met, including editing a collaborative paper which has been accepted by (but is not yet in press at) Energy, and writing another paper on choice architecture, social media and gamification as applied to water use behaviour (which has just entered the reviewing process). Also wrote one of my increasingly editorial-esque book reviews for ARC (Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, as yet not posted), and a deeply tangential rant about some halfway-passable psyche-rock album that the Demon Pigeon lads threw at me.

This Wednesday just gone, I got to talk as part of a panel at the WriteTheFuture conference, which was an excellent bolt-on gig connected to the Clarke Award. Not many folk at this stage of their careers can say they’ve spoken on stage at the Royal Society. What was I speaking about? These tweets capture the gist of it:

 

There’s a Storify of the whole day, courtesy the tireless (and triumphant) Tom Hunter. As for the Clarke itself, it went to Chris Beckett for Dark Eden; I don’t care much for awards as a reader and a critic, but it’s always nice to see them go to an author whose work you admire, especially when you consider them a friend as well. For the same reasons, I’d have been happy to see it go to Ken MacLeod, as well. Having read none of the shortlisted titles, however, that’s as far as my opinionating goes.

Friday just gone I went to see Owen Hatherley talk about Pulp, Sheffield and failed urbanism. It was interesting stuff, and naturally I bought the book (Uncommon) on which it was based (as it promises to provide another thematic spoke for the vague “secret history of the 1990s” novel idea I’m kicking around in spare moments), but — like many excellent writers of non-fiction — Hatherley’s not at his best behind a podium. To be fair, he may have been more than a little intimidated by the audience, which had to be close to 300 strong. Glad I went, though.

And now, here am eye, becalmed in the I of the storm, collecting my thoughts and task-lists before the madness starts up again in a new form, mutatis mutandis (and with, dare I say it, my earthly husk finally recovered from the burn-out). This Thursday coming I’m off to Brighton to talk conferences, drone art, infrastructure fiction and gonzo futurism with assorted colleagues, old and new, and around this time next week I’ll be heading off toward Heathrow, so as to catch an early Monday plane to Colombia via Madrid. In fair Medellin, I’m honoured to be an invited guest of Hernán and Vivi for Fractal’13, a design fiction conference with a difference (in that the audience does the fictioning, and the guests merely facilitate said fictioning). In effect, I think this is the closest thing I’m going to get to a holiday this year, and so I’m intending to enjoy it to the fullest.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing Medellin. I’m very much not looking forward to two long transits through the geopolitical unspaces of airport security theatre, but you gotta take the rough with the smooth, I suppose. If nothing else, I should take it as an opportunity to reread Ursula LeGuin’s Changing Planes

Having unlocked my phone and demothballed my Flickr account, I’m planning to share my adventures in Medellin here at VCTB, and indeed to start sharing interesting in general from time to time. Chairman Bruce may claim (with justification) that blogging is dead, but even he’s got a Tumblr these days; having always had my own domain, I can’t see the point of tumblring on a service that claims the results as their own when my own site can do just the same job with me keeping control*. So it lacks the social features of Tumblr, sure; I’m increasingly unconvinced that’s a drawback and not a bonus. Besides, everything that happens here gets tweeted. Selah.

So, yeah; that’s what I’ve been up to. Who knows what’ll happen next, eh?


[ * – I still maintain that a social network with Twitter-, Tumblr- and Facebork-like characteristics could be built as a plug-in based interstitial peer-to-peer protocol for individual CMS-based websites; all the sharing and social, none of the centralised data collection and huckster leverage advertising attempts. Problem being that, by definition, such a service would be impossible to monetise externally, meaning it’d only get done by a team of FOSS nerds with a lot of time on their hands and no eye toward a lucrative IPO. So not something to hold your breath for at present, I’d guess. ]