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(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!

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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.

Some speculations on speculation

I appeared on a panel about Speculative Design at LonCon3 over the weekend just gone, and one of my fellow panellists, architect and writer Nic Clear, mentioned that he had some misgivings over the use of the word “speculative”.

Definitions of 'speculation' from Oxford Dictionaries Online

It’s always had two meanings, after all: there’s the imaginative, extrapolative and science fictional sense in which we tend to use it today, but also the rather unfashionable (read as “historically tainted”) financial sense — think speculative building, for example, or the land speculations of the railroad barons.

We don’t talk so much of people speculating on the stock exchange as we used to; nowadays, one invests in the market. The nature of the game hasn’t changed, but the label has. Here’s an Ngram chart of word frequency over time:

Now look again at the secondary definition of speculation: “in the hope of gain but with the risk of loss” — my emphasis.

An investment, meanwhile, is “[t]he action or process of investing money for profit”; the word carries connotations of safety, security and foresight, especially by comparison with the gambler’s odds of speculation. An investment carries the promise of a return, not the possibility; as Chomsky is always pointing out, costs are socialised, while profits are privatised. Perhaps not incidentally, the archaic meaning of investment was “[t]he surrounding of a place by a hostile force in order to besiege or blockade it”. Plus ça change, non?

In another conversation, possibly one that followed the Body Modification panel, someone (to my shame, I can’t remember who — convention syndrome) pointed out the way the framing of Soylent as a product shifted over time: originally posited as a quick’n’easy occasional food replacement for busy people — sorta like Slimfast or protein shakes, but without the weight-loss or buffness angles — it only started being framed as a utopian replacement for a normal diet once the vencap money started turning up.

Ethan Zuckerman, describing advertising as the internet’s original sin — itself a curiously religious metaphor — introduced me to the concept of “investor storytime” by quoting from a speech by Maciej Cegłowski:

“Investor storytime is when someone pays you to tell them how rich they’ll get when you finally put ads on your site.

Pinterest is a site that runs on investor storytime. Most startups run on investor storytime.

Investor storytime is not exactly advertising, but it is related to advertising. Think of it as an advertising future, or perhaps the world’s most targeted ad.”  [Emphases mine.]

All selling is a game of narratives, a game of stories. To sell an idea to the vencaps, you need to tell them stories they like, stories that reflect their desires. We know the sorts of stories that the most successful vencaps like. Stories about strong ROI, certainly, but they have other interests: lax tax regimes, immortality, freedom from the restrictions of the petty mortals for whose trickle-down wellbeing they strive so hard. Capital-T Transhumanism and Singularitarianism are enthusiastically supported and bankrolled by these people.

Silicon Valley is where the two meanings of speculation collide, and Soylent is a metonymy of that collision. It figures a future where even eating is reduced to a purely economic act, a forex transaction: cash for kiloJoules. Texture’s extra, bub.

Not at all incidentally, “futures” is another word with two meanings: there are the futures of designers and writers and technologists, but then there are the futures in commodities and derivatives which are traded by HFT bots, their lightspeed speculative trades producing billions of tiny fragments of speculative profit; value without goods, signifier without signified. Marx called this “fictitious capital”. It’s a story we tell ourselves, loudly and repeatedly: a story about a world of infinite resources, a world with an infinite capacity to absorb all that we feel we have tired of, all of the dross and the waste… all of the risk.

It’s getting harder and harder to believe that story any more, despite its core fandom’s enthusiastic bankrolling of an ongoing series of ever more specious reinterpretations. Speculation births speculation. We are driven by the repercussions of financial speculation to speculate for ourselves, to dream of a different future to that offered by the neoliberal narrative.

Like all stories, it turned ugly when its tellers mistook it for truth.

Dispatches from the Chthulucene

The mighty mighty Donna J Haraway on “staying with the trouble”, why Burning Man is the ultimate figure of the Anthropocene, why the Anthropocene should really be called the Capitalocene, and how we might make our way through it to a more chthonic, collective future.

Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble”, 5/9/14 from AURA on Vimeo.

[ETA: OK, so they've restricted the embed on this vid, which is a shame. Suffice to say that, if any of the stuff I chunter on about is of even remote interest to you, you should really click through and watch this.]

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Elsewhere, rogue narratologist and Adam Rothstein goes meta on design fiction in “Chased by Google X“:

“An old pair of reading glasses, some shaped balsa wood, and pieces of clear acrylic from the edge of a photo frame. Thrift stores are elephant graveyards for commodity goods—one step above having actually caught on fire, knick-knacks, appliances, stereo equipment, and AA-battery personal electronics join the heaps of consumer goodwill that saves these wonderful organ donors from the landfill.”

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“Three things make a post” used to be the old blogger’s heuristic, but it’s been a busy week in which most of what I’ve read has been deeply depressing… so I’ll just point you back to my schedule for LonCon3, where I’ll be arriving sometime shortly after lunch tomorrow. See you there?

Pirates of the Plastic Ocean, plus LonConnery

I can finally fully announce some very agreeable publications news: my story “Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico” appears in this year’s Twelve Tomorrows, which is MIT Technology Review‘s annual all-fiction special. (On Stateside newsstands in August, I believe — though I know next to nothing about UK/Europe/global availability. You can sign up on that page to be alerted when copies go on sale, though.)

Cover art for Twelve Tomorrows-2014

It’s an astonishing list of names to see myself alongside, and no mistake: Bruce Sterling (who took the editorial chair, and shoulders any blame for inviting yours truly to play alongside the grown-ups), William Gibson, Lauren Beukes, Pat Cadigan, Chris Brown (no, not that Chris Brown), Cory Doctorow, Warren Ellis. Receiving the invitation to contribute prompted the most intense burst of Imposter Syndrome I think I’ve ever had; it’s still not quite faded away, either.

Like most of my writing (yeah, yeah, I know), “Los Piratas… ” is not amenable to easy “what’s it about?” summary; that said, if you’ve read Keller Easterling’s Enduring Innocence, you’ll understand the choice of location (and the title ). As usual, I ended up trying to cram a novel’s worth of plot and ideas into a short story, and I’d have loved to have let it stretch out to novella length by expanding the aftermath section, which is necessarily summarised in broad strokes. But it was always intended as something of a polemic, and sometimes literary concerns have to take the back-seat when you’ve got a particular something to say to a particular audience. All that remains is to see how the audience reacts, I guess…

… and I expect I’ll get to find out at LonCon3 next month. (See? That’s how us pros make a segue, y’all.)

At the moment, it looks like I’ll be haunting the ExCel Centre (and, presumably, other significantly less monstrous venues in the same locale) in London from early afternoon Friday 15th August until the afternoon of Monday 18th. I’m on a handful of panels and giving a paper on the academic track, so if you want to come heckle a cyberhippy, these are the dates your diary needs:

  • Saturday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “Body Modification – From Decoration to Medication and Augmentation”

“From piercings and tattoos to laser eye surgery, we now have a world where decorative or voluntary medical body modifications are common. Modifications that add to our capabilities are starting eg. magnets implanted in fingers provide a magnetic sense. What more is coming? Zoom lenses for eyes? Enhanced muscles? Who is going to be the first with these and why, and will anybody want to install Microsoft Windows for brains?”

[Justina Robson (M), Paul Graham Raven, Jude Roberts, Frauke Uhlenbruch; no prizes for guessing how I ended up on this one]

  • Saturday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “50 Years After: Asimov predicts 2014 World’s Fair”

“In 1964, Asimov wrote a set of predictions for the 2014 World’s Fair. What did he predict, what did he get right and wrong, what did he say that was useful, and what did he miss completely?”

[Gerry Webb (M), Madeline Ashby, Stephen Foulger, Paul Graham Raven, Ben Yalow; I'm guessing this'll be a bring-some-popcorn type of panel.]

  • Sunday 09:30 – 11:00, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL): “Science Fiction from the Outside (academic track)”

“Three academics each give a 15 minute presentation. This is followed by a jointly held 30 minute discussion with the audience.”

Dan Smith, “Science Fiction and Outsider Art”
Paul Raven, “The rhetorics of futurity: scenarios, design fiction, prototypes, and other evaporated modalities of science fiction”
Andrew Ferguson, “Zombies, Language, and Chaos”

[John Kessel (M), Paul Graham Raven, Dr. Dan Smith, Andrew Ferguson; one for the inside-baseball crowd only, probably.]

  • Sunday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL): “Speculative Design”

“Assuming a new technology, like synthetic biology, works, what products might come out of it? Speculative design is both a new artistic approach and a way of looking at problems and issues in a different way.”

[Gary Ehrlich (M), Nic Clear, Scott Lefton, Paul Graham Raven, Sarah Demb; these are mostly new names for me, so I'm hoping to learn new things on this one.]

I’m sure I’ll attend a fair few other panels and things, too, but mostly I’m planning to keep my schedule open and flexible; I’ve done enough cons now to know how best to make them work for me, and it turns out that running around with a timetable isn’t it. Very much looking forward to this rare opportunity to see some long-term Stateside friends and colleagues in the flesh; if you’re one of them (or, indeed, one of anyone), do drop me a line so we can arrange to meet.

Otherwise, the best way to locate me on the fly will probably involve triangulating between Twitter, the bar, and the smoking area. See you there? Good.