Tag Archives: Futurism

Looking ahead…towards the Singularity!

Congratulations, America.

Yeah, even if you didn’t end up with the president you wanted. You deserve congratulations for experiencing the first national election that was truly a global event – not just as spectacle, but from the aspect of influence. The first one that wasn’t just under your control.

The whole world voted for this one – with its eyes. And the world will vote for all the elections in the future, big and small. We’re next, here in the UK. And while I’m no great fan of parliamentary democracy, I can’t help but believe that this degree of scrutiny and passion can only make it better.

Welcome to the future. It’s going to be tough (because the future always is – this ain’t no pulp novel, kids), but a change is as good as a rest, as the saying goes.

Book review: The Big Switch – Nicholas Carr

NicholasCarrTheBigSwitch

The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr – W. W. Norton & Co, Feb 2008; ISBN 978-0393062281


The Big Switch is tech journalist Nicholas Carr’s attempt to peer a very short way into the future where, instead of a World Wide Web, we will have a World Wide Computer.

It’s a brisk and engaging book, ideal for anyone interested in technology and its interactions with our culture, society and economics.

But in addition to that, it’s written in an almost science fictional mode. Carr is playing the classic game of science fiction writing – the game of “what if this carries on?”

Hence The Big Switch is a great read for sf writers, especially those interested in Mundane SF* and the near-future scenarios familiar to readers of Stross and Doctorow, among many others.

Carr is a respected journalist, but unpopular among the computer industry for making claims that they don’t like. His previous book Does IT Matter? postulated that perhaps the modern business focus on “IT first, everything else second” isn’t the essential path it is often made out to be – probably not the best way to endear yourself to the tech evangelists.

Like its predecessor, The Big Switch turns a critic and skeptical eye on the development of this World Wide Computer, or “The Cloud” as Carr refers to it (a name I would like to claim to have been the first fiction writer to steal and use in context**). The Cloud is the ultimate end-point of web-based applications like GMail, Picnik and so on: software as service; a ubiquitous cloud of computation.

Carr’s central thesis is that computing is becoming a utility. Like electricity before it, computing is a technology that completely revolutionises economic paradigms on a global scale, and Carr samples liberally from the history of electrification to lay the foundations for his arguments in the first third of the book – the whole of which is soundly rooted in simple economic principles.

The idea that we are approaching a world of ubiquitous software-as-service is not what Carr is out to challenge, however. Indeed, he seems to consider it a given, as do most of the detractors he quotes later on. What they and Carr are questioning is whether it will produce McLuhanville, the shiny happy global electronic village that the blue-sky thinkers would have us believe awaits us just around the next corner.

For change is inevitable, but comes with consequences. The increasing penetration of electricity into daily life – both at work and at home – brought greater convenience and a reduction of drudgery, but it also reduced workforce sizes at the same time while replacing many skilled jobs with more menial tasks in service to the more efficient (and tireless) machines, not to mention producing a whole slew of new household tasks that were never considered essential before.

Carr argues that computing-as-utility is already having a similar effect and will continue to do so, and it’s hard to claim he’s wrong. That said, I think he’s overstating some of the problems.

For instance, he worries about the shift among younger consumers to online news sources, where every page has to be monetised on a pay-per-impression basis, leading to an increase in sensationalist stories that may have little relation to neutrality and objectivity, especially in the case of local media.

Which leads me to assume that local media in the US must have been of an infinitely higher standard than ours here in the UK – which has always been exactly the sort of hype-laden fact-free eyeball saccharine that Carr seems worried web media will make ubiquitous. I suspect (and quite understand) that Carr may be unconsciously repeating the fears of an industry he has long been a part of.

The death of investigative reporting is of far greater concern. But it seems curious to me that Carr – a man who uses economics as the engine of his arguments – doesn’t believe that the desire for investigative reporting will create a market for it.

Sure, the old business model of the newspaper ads paying for the bold scribe to head off to the warzones or poke around in the soiled innards of evil corporations and governments is probably finished.

But there is still a significant section of society that wants to learn those things, as well as a section who will want to be the people who find the story and spill the beans. The payment channels will emerge somehow; the market will find a way … though I’m not so ignorant of economic principles as to suggest that there won’t be any blood on the carpet in the process.

But what if the web, instead of bringing us into the global village of mutual communication, actually enhances the societal rifts that already exist? Carr cites studies of political bloggers (left and right) in the US that suggest the vast majority of them read and link strictly within their own spheres of belief, rarely linking to dissenting views. Which is almost certainly true – but there’s wiggle room in that interpretation.

It doesn’t seem to take into account that people blogging on politics are generally the sort of obsessive axe-grinders who had no interest in dissenting views before the internet arrived***. It also skips the fact that the hypothetical “clean slate” reader (if such a person can even exist) can get both sides of the picture if they so choose, from the same screen using the same search engine**** – something that no newspaper has ever enabled before.

Carr’s concerns are justified – but overemphasised, perhaps. Only time will tell. But enough of my opinions – I’m no economist, nor a politician. The point of the above paragraphs is to indicate that this is the sort of book that gets your brain working overtime. By suggesting potential futures, Carr makes you test them, examine them, poke them with metaphorical sticks – and come up with your own in response.

And as such, The Big Switch is a great book for science fiction writers and readers who like to adventure beyond the stories and into the technology from time to time.

I mean, come on – if even ten years ago you had suggested that one of the world’s most respected technology journalists would write a book in which he not only declares that the CEOs of the world’s biggest computing company are obsessed with turning that company’s infrastructure into a huge artificial intelligence, but also claims that he thinks they have a good chance of achieving it***** … well, you’d have filed it under sf straight away, wouldn’t you?

Times change, quickly – The Big Switch lets us look at what might be around the next hairpin.

Meanwhile, there’s a brief interview with Carr at Wired, and his blog Rough Type is a good addition to the RSS collection of any genuinely open-minded futurist.


[* If it’s not an oxymoron to be interested in Mundane SF, as some people claim.]

[** Though some bugger has doubtless beaten me to it decades ago in a story I’ve never read.]

[*** Political blogs generally tend to horrify me, regardless of the side of the spectrum they are written from. And if the writers are scary, the commenters often make me ashamed to be human.]

[**** Although here the spectre of search engines voluntarily self-censoring for oppressive regimes does raise its head, but that’s a very complicated issue.]

[***** Not quite the way we think of AI, granted, but close enough.]


# Full disclosure – received my ARC of The Big Switch from Nicholas Carr’s publicist after applying for one in a giveaway at Rough Type (Carr’s blog). I was under no obligation to review it, and have only done so because I genuinely believe it will be of interest to my readers here at VCTB. #

[tags]Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch, software, service, computing, cloud, futurism[/tags]

Still Stalking Sterling: Dispatches from a Hyperlocal Future

I didn’t notice until I clicked through to it from my RSS reader that this lengthy ‘blog post from the future’ on Wired is by none other than my favourite cyberpunk author and all-round hand-waving Texan genius, Bruce Sterling.

I should have noticed, of course; in hindsight, it’s very much in his style. Although it doesn’t work exceptionally well on literary terms (it’s one big infodump with a framing concept), I doubt it is supposed to – and it’s well worth a read anyway. Here’s a snippet of news from 2017 as an example:

“Meanwhile, gray-haired representatives are wigging out over the hordes of Americans who blithely abandon their passports to travel the world with European mobiles. The Europeans let you do that. They understand that their hopelessly crufty nationware only impedes the flow of ever-stronger euros. Nobody wants to deal with nationware, not even in an emergency. It’s not granular enough, fast enough, close enough to the ground. If you lose everything you own in a flood or hurricane, who are you going to call — the federal bureaucracy?! Amazon.com, Google, Ikea, and Wal-Mart can deliver anything, anywhere, while the Feds are still stenciling their crates of surplus cheese.

It’s not about who salutes, folks. It’s about who delivers. Remember that. I said it first. You can link to me.”

Apparently there’s more to come, which promises to be fun. As well as being an interesting format with which to deliver futurist ideas (or ‘foresight consulting’, as I believe we’re supposed to call it now), I like the meta-ness of blogging a fictional blog from the future. It also highlights the potential for serialised short fiction to make a resurgence, if the authors can find the right hooks. Hmmm …

An interview with Dalian Hansen, Second Life’s first in-world novelist

Dalian Hansen isn’t real in the way that you or I are real, but he’s at least as real as the person who created him as his Second Life persona chooses him to be. Dalian is about to become the first Second Life avatar to publish a book in which the majority of the plot takes place in Linden Labs’ notorious virtual world.

Dalian Hansen, Second Life author

He’s not the first novelist in SL, nor is the book the first to deal with the concept of the metaverse, nor is it the first book to appear in full in SL – but the combination of the three is a first, as far as I can tell.

As the book inherently has a science fictional theme at its heart, not to mention being written by someone who is a virtual extension of a real person in a way that would have been unimaginable outside of science fiction less than a decade ago, I figured I’d like to chase him down and ask him some questions about the project.

***

PR: So, tell me a little about yourself – what do you do in SL, and in RL* (if you don’t mind talking about both)?

DH: “Dalian Hansen is an Avatar that exits in Second Life. Among his many virtual projects as a computer generated simulation, Dalian is the Creative Director for Tretiak Media LLC (a SL Development firm which owns the SLQuery.com data engine service), Architect for such in-world clients as IBM and ABN-AMRO, and former Creative Director of the popular monthly Second Life magazine, SLBusiness.

His Anima connects to the virtual world from Manchuria, China. This meat version of Dalian’s digital persona is recognized as an internationally award winning Creative Director and photographer. He is also one of the first foreigners to host a Chinese network news program in China.”

PR: Have you always been a fan of science fiction novels?

DH: “I was always a fan of science fiction stories, but as a kid I didn’t read many books. So TV, movies, and comics were my primary exposure to the genre. As my tastes matured, I found novels and my imagination to be more entertaining.”

PR: Any favourite authors or books?

DH: “I like the classic Science Fiction books from Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert and Philip K. Dick. These guys understood the science of the fiction, and its social effect. They built a world around the technology and made it believable. I would say that Dean R. Koontz remains a big influence on me. I have read over 40 of his books that go back to the beginning of his career, when he wrote pure science fiction.”

PR: Have you always wanted to be writer?

DH: “My written work has been published for years in some form, I just never made a living from it. As a kid, I had all these visual ideas but lacked the talent to express them with my hands by freehand drawing. So I turned to writing as a way to paint pictures with words. It also meant I was not dependant on anyone to create my vision.

As I got older, the computer was a big liberation for me. It was a tool that allowed me to finally express these ideas in pictures. As a result, I eventually became a Creative Director for major advertising agencies and made TV commercials and such for international clients. I still enjoy writing, but being a visual artist puts food on the table. Plus, writing takes a great deal of time and emotional commitment. It is like a relationship because it consumes the mind and requires a constant focus, at least for me.”

PR: Tell me why you’ve chosen to write directly about Second Life – a personal fascination, or marketing decision?

DH: “I wanted tell a story where Second Life was more than just an environment, it would be like a character. There have been many guide books about Second Life and short stories about virtual avatar adventures. But this is my attempt to bring the idea into mainstream fiction.

I took well documented points in Second Life history and combined them with real people and fictional characters to invent a mythical story and secret world. After all, reading a book is still the ultimate virtual reality for the human imagination, and establishing this lets Second Life exist in your mind and not just the computer. So I wanted to offer a fun story connected to Second Life in the spirit of old dimestore pulp fiction novels.

“Anima” is just the beginning of a bigger saga I would like to tell. I really don’t care about fame or profit from this or future books. It was just something I wanted to do. I set my mind to it and the accomplishment is its own reward. I don’t expect or care if the novel is a success. And even if it is an utter failure, I’d rather accept that than the regret of not trying.

After all, not very much in science fiction is completely unique or original. But many stories can evolve a popular theme into something fresh and entertaining. That is all I have tried to do and never intended to deliver a groundbreaking epic.”

PR: Do you see there being a long-term future for the written word as entertainment? And if so, do virtual worlds have a part to play in it?

DH: “Human history has been documented by the stories we tell. Whether by campfire in a cave or on a computer terminal connected by the world wide web. People have told stories long before the written word was invented, which basically turned spoken sounds into pictures. The written word is just a medium. It is our nature to tell stories, and the environment only changes how this is done or what we use to do it.

Printed books created an explosion of information in their day. The Internet has created another such revolution. Technology will always provide different opportunities, but I think the purpose remains the same. Whether a story is written, painted, acted, or virtually simulated, the method is meant to communicate. The written word has been a useful tool, and it stands to reason that it will continue to have a relationship and place even in the virtual age.”

PR: According to the synopsis I read, your novel deals with SL as being a very serious and very real part of the protagonist’s life – can you tell me how you see the penetration of synthetic worlds into meatspace going in the next decade?

DH: “No one could have guessed the effect of the Internet on world cultures. It is easy to draw parallels about the direction of the metaverse, but there are many side effects that cannot be predicted. For example, velcro was invented for the space missions. The internet was invented to protect American military computers from a nuclear attack. I think the bigger effect of the future metaverse is in these side effects. Sure, it will be a simulated world where we can interact. But with the freedom it offers, economic opportunities, and technology it inspires, these other effects will be more far reaching. The influences and habits of the Internet are now far more powerful than the tool itself.”

[* Note for meatspacers – RL is Second Life slang for ‘real life’.]

***

I think the real take-away for me here is that someone so obviously deeply involved with the metaverse believes there’s a valid future for the written word as entertainment – an interesting contrast to the ironically technophobic Old Guard of the genre.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding with any book is in the reading. But Hansen seems to be able to talk the author talk pretty well, even if he doesn’t seem to bothered about the project being a commercial success, so I’ll be trying to fit it into my reading schedule at some point soon – I’m curious to see what he’s come up with.

A final morsel to chew over – if it’s possible for a virtual avatar to publish and promote a book, how will this affect the gender and cultural biases that currently plague genre fiction? Will initialising and anglicising names go out, in favour of writing under an entire assumed persona – one that isn’t necessarily even human in form, let alone gendered or coloured?