Tag Archives: infrastructure

The interface and the illusion of control

Most obviously, in using [smartphones] to navigate, we become reliant on access to the network to accomplish ordinary goals. In giving ourselves over to a way of knowing the world that relies completely on real-time access, we find ourselves at the mercy of something more contingent, more fallible and far more complicated than any paper map. Consider what happens when someone in motion loses their connection to the network, even briefly: lose connectivity even for the time it takes to move a few meters, and they may well find that they have been reduced to a blue dot traversing a featureless field of grey. At such moments we come face to face with a fact we generally overlook, and may even prefer to ignore: the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.

(Ordinarily, and also purposefully; Clarke’s Third Law is an implicit and nigh-ubiquitous directive in contemporary interface design, and in that enduringly popular branch of genre fiction known by its practitioners as “technological forecasting”.)

Beyond the satellites, camera cars and servers we’ve already identified, the moment-to-moment flow of our experience rests vitally on the smooth interfunctioning of all the many parts of this infrastructure—an extraordinarily heterogeneous and unstable meshwork, in which cellular base stations, undersea cables, and microwave relays are all invoked in what seem like the simplest and most straightforward tasks we perform with the device. The very first lesson of mapping on the smartphone, then, is that the handset is primarily a tangible way of engaging something much subtler and harder to discern, on which we have suddenly become reliant and over which we have virtually no meaningful control.

Adam Greenfield. The screen is the site of the Spectacle.

Immortality and infrastructure

Every technology requires a physical infrastructure in order to operate. But this infrastructure depends on social institutions, which are frequently subject to breakdown. I made this point when I bumped into some ardent advocates of cryonic suspension in California in the 1980s. How long would it take to develop the technologies that were needed to resurrect frozen cadavers as living organisms, I wondered. Not much more than a century, I was told. I asked these techno-futurists to consider the events of the past hundred years or so – a devastating civil war and two world wars, a ruinous stock-market crash and the Great Depression, for example. Given this history, how could they be confident that their refrigerated cadavers would remain intact for another century? The companies that stored them would surely go bust, wars and civil disturbances would lead to power failures, and the legal system that protected the cadavers could disappear. The United States might no longer exist in a recognisable form. The cryonicists looked at me blankly. These were scenarios that they had not considered and could not process. Such upheavals might have happened in the past, but the future was going to be quite different. For these believers in technological resurrection, American society was already immortal.

John Gray at The New Statesman, reviewing Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine

The caul of the wild

… when you blame McCandless for being naive and failing to learn anything about the problems he would face in the “wild”; or when you blame Knight for living off the land the way a Yosemite bear or suburban racoon might, that is as “the land” now presents itself, you are really, if unintentionally, mourning an already vanished concept of wildness. Penetration of that pure space as an equally pure self-authenticatory act has become a game. It can no longer be romanticised. It is no longer the scene of the rite of passage–or at least not that particular rite of passage. Our irritation at Knight for “cheating” is a tacit acceptance of that.

M John  Harrison sneaks up behind the social/natural dichotomy and kicks it in the junk.

Roadtrips and brickbats

It’s high time I collected up mentions of and responses to the manifold things I’ve been up to over the last year or more, having fallen rather out of the habit; the decline of G**gle Alerts meant I stopped paying attention, basically. I can’t even do vanity right!

Anyway, let’s start with fiction. I’ve not published anything since “Los Piratas…” went to MIT’s Twelve Tomorrows the year before last, but that story has had a second life on the review circuit thanks to its appearing in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best #32. Someone by the moniker of Reißwolf rated it a three-star story, but recognised the Sterling quote near the end, so I’mma count that as a victory; meanwhile John DeNardo of SF Signal rates it a mere point-five stars out of five, saying that “the story is so steeped in boring (to me) economics as to be a story killer”. Can’t win ’em all, I guess… but hey, Professor H Bruce Franklin thinks it’s worth including on a course module reading list. And apparently Ellen Datlow listed “A Boardinghouse Heart” in the recommendations list for Best Horror of the Year #7, so I’m winning on aggregate.

Now on to things from this summer’s Utopian Infrastructures tour. FutureEverything’s City Infrastructures Lab went pretty well: here’s parts one and two of a piece I wrote for them as a follow-up, here’s an event report from Spaghetti Jams (with the wonderful title “The Metasystemic Roadtrip”), and here’s a video summing up the day (complete with an appearance Yours Truly and his overactive eyebrows).

Then there was Tomorrow Today at the ICA, a write-up of which can be found at Disegno; one Liam Healy took notes, but I clearly didn’t interest him very much. Selah!

A little more recently, Leila Johnston invited me to be involved in her How To Live Forever project, which takes a sort of experiential design-fiction-esque look at transhumanist immortality tropes. My contribution mostly involved being interviewed for this video, which was screened during the exhibit/performance/show/experience:

(More recently still, I was invited to debate the ethics of transhumanism at an event in London; on discovering said event was actually the UK Transhumanist Party’s AGM, I declined as politely as possible. There is, it turns out, a limit to my stupidity.)

What else? Oh, yeah, academia — I’ve an essay in press at the Journal of Futures Studies on the role of utopian thinking in science fiction, urban planning and futurism, but I’m not sure what the street date is on that one yet. However, the paper I co-wrote with Shirin Elahi off the back off Oxford Futures Forum 2014 just went live at Futures… and it’s open-access, thanks to the EPSRC coughing up Elsevier’s blood-price, so anyone (in theory) can read it. If you do, please let me know what you think.

The ghosts of infrastructures past

Somewhere along Brindcliff Edge Road in Sheffield, you can still see this wonderful infrastructural relic:

That’s a sewer-gas destructor lamp, of which there are maybe a dozen or so remaining in the city, though only a very few of them are a) undamaged, and b) still lit. Destructor lamps took a tricky infrastructural problem (the way in which noxious gases would accumulate in sewer sections near the top of hills) and solved it in a way that had a useful function (mixing said sewer gas with town-gas and burning it to light a street). I have a particular soft spot for this one because of the way it has been incorporated into the wall.