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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.

Prometheanism and apocatopia

I’m not sure quite how I discovered the post-nihilist bloggings of Arran James; I think he must have written something about the Neo-Reos or the Accelerationists that someone linked me to a while back. There’s something important in this closing passage from a longer think-piece on the rise of Prometheanism, which James hopes may represent an end to the “depressive” or melancholic politics of the moment:

Have the politics of resistance and the politics of withdrawal really been a kind of stalling gesture? We have demanded infinite demands and finite demands and we have demanded unity and demanded an end to calls for unity. We have demanded ceaselessly. But while we demand we address some Other: I can’t do it, you do it. And this isn’t just a critique of electoral politics but extends to those who would drop-out or disappear, as well as those who “would prefer not to” or who wish not to get their morals dirty. All of these positions amount to the same thing: the absence of a political desire. Perhaps this is how our political cartography should begin to be carved up: those with the desire for revolution; those with the demand for revolution; those whose remain within the imaginary; those who place themselves at the infrastructural. This infrastructure may be the material infrastructure of things, but it could also be considered the psychic infrastructure of illusions. Promethean desire is first and foremost the thirst for new illusions, and a turning away from the ‘withdrawals, secessions and mere interruptions’ (Tosacano) that we’ve grown used to.

I felt like I was having a finger pointed at me. In a good way.

Worth reading alongside this here video of novelist and all-round left-intellectual dreamboat China Mieville talking at this year’s Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference on the limits and necessities of utopia in the context of ecological and social justice:

In print

I’m still not sufficiently jaded a writer that I don’t feel a thrill at seeing my name in a byline, and that goes doubly so for fiction work, and for work that appears in actual physical dead-tree media. (I know, it’s just so archaic of me.) So fiction work that appears in dead-tree media is the best byline of all:

Noir anthology: author copies

Those are my author copies of the Noir anthology from Newcon Press, which contains my story “A Boardinghouse Heart”; you can buy it for your Amazonian e-reading device for just £2.01, as a paperback for £9.99, or a signed hardcover for £15.99. (Still no sign of any direct-from-publisher options, so you may need to drop Newcon a line if that’s your preference. Or catch ‘em in the dealer’s room at pretty much any UK convention…)

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So last week I went down to That London for the Clarke Award, which was not only my first experience with 1st-Class trains both ways between Sheffield and London (1st-Class Advance tickets for midday trains are usually only a few quid more than the Standard option, so why not?), but also with AirBnB; both of which were agreeably affordable solutions to the Evening Shin-dig In London Conundrum.

The Clarke was a good bash as always; nothing quite beats catching up with literary chums (daaaahling!) while swanning around the reception rooms at the Royal Society, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice took the gong. No arguments from me with that result… nor, unusually for the Clarke, anyone else (perhaps because it seemed something of a foregone conclusion as soon as the book started turning up with reviewers and critics). One assumes everyone’s storing up their annual stock of outrage for the LonCon Hugos… *sigh*

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My late train out of London meant I had time to allow Charing Cross Road to relieve me of my money. Apparently the first step is admitting that you have a problem…

Books from Charing Cross Road

One of the downsides of starting a PhD is that it has acted as a hideous enabler of my book jones (see previous). Ah, well; better books than fast cars, hookers and blow, right? Nice bit of McLuhan (who seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, viz. this Will Self piece at Teh Graun on the senescence of the novel, which prompted just as many canonical displays of denial from the writerly twittersphere as one would expect); an intro to Adorno, who I keep bumping into in citations and notes of late; some Bookchin, who is that rarest of birds, the truly citable left-anarchist; some hermeneutics, because, well, why not; and a book that has provided me with a new pat answer to the question “so what is it you actually do?”: mappin’ the futures, man. Stand well back and hold on to your fedora!

Was wryly amused to find the GC hardback of Chairman Bruce’s The Hacker Crackdown; for that book to still exist as a prestige-format physical object is a glorious double anachronism. And Foyles had the Kathy Acker just sat there all on its lonesome in the regular fiction run… which is all the more impressive, given I thought Acker was out of print in the UK. Maybe someone ordered it in and never collected it? I dunno. I still need to get a copy of her Empire of the Senseless

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What else has been happening? All the things, it feels like. I’ve been to assorted seminars, including a fascinating talk by Luke “Bunkerology” Bennett, academic psychogeographer and penetrator of pillboxes (bring your own Jungian metaphors), and my PhD confirmation report is starting to take shape, but that’s all probs a bit too inside-baseball for blogging.

Coming up soon: this time next week I’ll be somewhere in the Lake District beyond the reach of the cellphone networks, as a bunch of folk from the Institute for Atemporal Studies conduct experiments on the successful use of Kendal mint cake as hallucinogenic ritual sacrament, and into just how long it takes internet habitués to go mad without the internet…