Category Archives: Futures

the monstering

Almost a decade ago, I reviewed a book at Futurismic written by someone I’d gotten to know via the blog circuit. Ryan Oakley is a pretty singular character, and Technicolor Ultra Mall was a pretty singular book, too—furiously angry and cynical about the world that capital had made for us. With hindsight, I wonder if it wasn’t just a bit before its time; things were starting to shift back then, but this was before the genre-fiction culture wars had peaked, and while nakedly anti-capitalist science fiction is relatively commonplace now, it wasn’t then.

Despite the book being fairly well-received (and not just by yours truly), Oakley kinda dropped out of the writing world—partly in response to the three-ring-circus set-up of the publishing world, but also because he’s not someone with a great deal of tolerance for bullshit and pangloss, which (with the benefit of hindsight) was perhaps the defining tonality of the twentyteens. I lost track of him, much to my regret—though looking at my email archives, I see that it was me who broke the chain of replies, for shame.

But it turns out he’s still out there, and blogging up a storm from Korea, where he relocated with his wife a while back. He’s lost none of his fury and sharpness—and in a way that I’m sure he’d be the first to admit is kind of tragic, the SARS-2 crisis has given him something to focus that fury upon. There are lots of calls to the metaphorical barricades going around at the moment, but few are written with this unrepentant fire:

It’s reassuring to think that we can help without sacrifice — that we can not only save our neighbors and the planet but even get new goods while we do so. Our consumerism can be ethical. Our systems present the solution to a crisis, they are not the crisis. If we only make the right purchasing decisions, the market will adapt and we will save the world. The citizen becomes the consumer and the corporate media the parliament in which representation must be achieved. Spending power becomes votes. Philanthropy instead of taxation. A universal basic income instead of a social safety net. A Go Fund Me instead of a go fund a fucking healthcare system. Money can and will save us all. We need more choice, not less.

But our current crisis has given the lie to this thinking. If people could not or would not support their local artists and brands while they had a job, how are they supposed to do it now? What good is a universal basic income that you cannot spend? Are you just supposed to send it direct to your landlord while your other bills come due – you simply acting as a middleman for another massive upwards redistribution of wealth? Is a rich patron the answer to your specific problems? Maybe. But no such patron is coming. Even if they were, they would not fix everyone’s problems. Could they fix any of this? I have some doubts. And money? It’s less important than the necessities it’s supposed to deliver. Many of these must now be delivered without money. Without profit. Food, medicine, tests, and shelter. These must now be treated as public utilities. If they are not given, they must be taken.

What is now being asked of us is to imagine a world beyond capitalism. A world where the market is not expected to solve everything and the voting power of wallets is curtailed. It’s a world with some rules outside of those of the market. A world of fewer choices, not more.

A world of monsters.

[…]

This is a a crisis but it’s also new opportunity. This is the argument for all those systems that were dismissed as senseless luxuries just months ago. And it won’t be easy to build our new world. But it might not be as hard as what you think either. […] Many of these other systems exist and work in variety of countries. You only need to copy and paste. The problem has never been knowing the answers, it’s being acting like you know. Now we know what happens when we don’t.

Come for the union-mutualist political outlook, stay for the withering misanthropy and sarcasm (and the immaculate tailoring). Of all the blogs that have been restarted or rediscovered in recent months, this is perhaps the one I’m most pleased to be reading again.

the self-isolation of solutionism

Via Chairman Bruce comes news that various ongoing driverless car experiments are quietly leaving town while everyone’s busy worrying about other things. If such solutionisms are even a temporary casualty of the pandemic, then we’ve already found a silver lining to this particular cloud… as Sterling notes, it’s likely that the circumstances are providing a convenient excuse for pulling the plug on something that was massively overpromised in order to attract venture capital investment (and the innovation budgets of those cities lucky enough to actually have one). Might we see the “smart city” go the same way? We can but hope.

(Of course, there’s good odds that the same grifters behind driverless cars etc. will now pivot to pandemic “solutions”… but as already noted by people everywhere, individualist solutions look absurd against a pandemic backdrop, which inevitably highlights the necessity of collectivist systems.)

a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow

Insightful piece on superhero narratives, magic and transhumanism by Iwan Rhys Morus over at Aeon a few weeks back; collides a bunch of my own long-running obsessions in exciting ways. For instance, technology’s deliberate appropriation of the mask of (stage) magic:

During the 19th century, the relationship between technology and divinity took a new turn. In his Letters on Natural Magic (1832), the Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster suggested that technological know-how was an integral aspect of ancient (and less ancient) priestcraft. This was how idolaters had fooled their congregations into believing in false gods. He reminded his readers that the Roman writer Pliny, when describing the temple of Hercules at Tyre, had mentioned a sacred seat ‘from which the gods easily rose’. There were other classical descriptions of gods and goddesses who ‘exhibited themselves to mortals’, and ‘ancient magicians’ who ‘caused the gods to appear among the vapours disengaged from fire’. These were all products of a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow. Yet they could just as easily be recast as a charlatan’s game. Thus, the staunch Presbyterian Brewster could insist that Catholic ‘bishops and pontiffs themselves wielded the magician’s wand over the diadem of kings and emperors’. Technology could confer divinity, but only by deception.

Brewster wasn’t the only Victorian with a stake in putting modern technology into a history of deceptive magic. Inventor-entrepreneurs of the 19th-century were often cast (and often by themselves) as latter-day Prosperos, with the important qualification that they really could do what they claimed. Discussions of the newly invented electric telegraph were often couched this way, for example. Upon seeing Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke – the telegraph’s inventors – put their instrument to work, Edward Copleston, bishop of Llandaff, rhapsodised how it ‘exceeds even the feats of pretended magic and the wildest fictions of the East’. This was a technology that promised ‘a thousand times more than what all the preternatural powers which men have dreamt of and wished to obtain were ever imagined capable of doing’. Telegraphy, telephony and wireless telegraphy (radio) were touted as extending the reach of human sensation, offering individuals the power to manipulate invisible forces and act instantaneously at a distance.

Yeah, yeah—infrastructure as the underpinnings of the prestige, in other words. Seen from this POV, McLuhan’s move was to concretise the magic metaphor and run with it… which explains both the power and the limits of that strategy, perhaps. (While Clarke’s Third Law indicates that, even if you try to collapse the metaphor, people will choose by preference to misparse you and assume that you’re conflating technology and magic, rather than making a point about the way in which techniques of provision and display are inevitably concealed by those who master them, as a way of retaining their mastery. We like illusions; indeed, we prefer them to truth, as they are more comforting, and require less thought rather than more.)

There’s some bits on Wells and Tesla, of course—the latter being the better-read transhumanoid’s antecedent crank-prophet of preference (and, of course, being a character in Priest’s The Prestige). But it’s well worth noting that he was cranking out pretty much the same unlimited offers of technotranscendence that the likes of Kurzweil still peddle today:

Newspapers loved this kind of speculation, and Tesla was particularly adept at exploiting its appeal. ‘Nikola Tesla Shows How Men of the Future May Become as Gods,’ screamed a headline in The New York Herald on 30 December 1900. The article featured Tesla musing how his inventions would transform the future of humanity: starting with an image of a newborn child as an animated machine, and concluding with humans harnessing the Sun’s energy and building machines that were self-acting.

Same as it ever was… the Engineer’s Disease in action, as so expertly skewered by Vonnegut in Player Piano.

Another alarming connection that persists in the contemporary version of transhumanism is eugenics and “race science”, and that’s how we can draw a line from Wells and Tesla through Campbell and Heinlein, and on to assorted creeps in transhumanism’s theoretical wing, who I’m not going to dignify with a naming at this juncture.

The notion that technological progress and its impact on the body might deliver something like divine power was becoming a staple of popular science fiction. Not only could technology mimic the supernatural – technology was supernatural. The American author Robert Heinlein played with this idea in his deeply racist novel Sixth Column, originally serialised in 1941 in the science fiction publisher John W Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine, just as comic strip superheroes were gaining popularity…

Of course, we can’t reduce any of these people to their eugenics fascination alone. The case of Wells (and Huxley, for that matter) is a reminder that eugenics was popular on both sides of the political spectrum—but this fact is often twisted by the new clade of apologists as an argument for its rehabilitation, which even the most generous interpretation would describe as a creative use of the historical record.

But back to Cap’n Bob again:

Heinlein’s example [in e.g. Time Enough for Love] is pertinent here for revealing something important about the political culture of contemporary superism. By the 1970s, Heinlein’s politics were explicitly libertarian, and much of the underlying culture of superheroes shared a libertarian commitment to varying degrees. Superman or Batman might have put their superpowers at the service of civic authorities in Metropolis or Gotham City, but they themselves were not part of those authorities. Their power came from their capacity to work outside the state. Heinlein’s later novels increasingly celebrated the independent agency of the individual. The collective was a hinderance, rather than a help. This is the ethos of contemporary superhero culture as well. In some respects – and this is a key difference between the original generation of superheroes and their contemporary successors – collectives are part of the problem to which superheroes are the answer. [PGR: this is also a dynamic identified as central to the technological utopia, both the sf-nal and urban-planning versions thereof.] State agencies are helpless, incompetent or blinkered at best; corrupt and malign at their worst. Superheroes bring salvation precisely because they work outside such structures. And they can act like that precisely because their technologically enhanced bodies give them the freedom of exemption.

Looking at it this way, the popularity of superhero culture among aficionados of new technological entrepreneurship seems obvious. It’s a culture that celebrates individual agency at the expense of the collective. Things get done by charismatic individuals rather than by the state.

I’m not certain, but it seems to me that Morus is seeing literature as primarily reflective of the prevailing culture—which of course it is, but I’m interested in the extent to which the prevalence of such literary-cultural (and more generally media-cultural) narratives act as a reinforcing feedback loop for those same beliefs. Do underwear perverts and transhumanist captains of industry normalise the techno-hero’s journey and the myth of the Competent Man, rather than simply illustrating their popularity?

(Spoilers: I believe that yes, they definitely do, and that the world right now is a really good illustration of that dynamic in action.)

Good piece; go read the whole thing, why don’t you?

go beyond the injunction of innovation

An interview with the principals of the Design Friction atelier:

When we teach Design Fiction or Speculative Design in schools, as many design educators have certainly heard it before us, there is a common misconception among students about these types of design postures. Since Speculative Design productions aren’t for sale, it would mean there is no practical nor professional application. We disagree.

In fact, without epiloging on the difference between problem-solving – the current dogma in design education and training – and problem-framing, we believe the latter is crucial regarding current emergencies and crises, climate breakdown being the first one of them.

In this sense, we think an applied Speculative Design (or Design Fiction) – with all our sincere apologies to the ones who will faint after reading this oxymoron – is especially well suited for public organisations. This approach might help NGOs and civic movements in their advocacy actions to help in highlighting preferable perspectives or revealing the consequences of the status quo […]

Speculative Design or Design Fiction also might support local or national governments, as well as state departments, to build future-proofed and more-than-human-centred policies. Speculative Design and Design Fiction go beyond the injunction of innovation, as creating and maintaining the public goods and the commons requires long-term thinking and radical alternatives. These forms of design are both a complement to Service Design, growing in public innovation programs, and a counterpoint to the limited and limiting perspective of “user-centric” design, that is inflating in the public realm.

Pulling this out as a quotable riposte to the inevitable “well, it’s just critique masquerading as design, isn’t it?” complaints… SD/DF approaches are going to form an important part of my work in the years ahead, and thus I assume I’ll find myself making that argument about social goods many times over.

inside among the outsiders

Sean Guynes on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

… whereas most utopian novels before Le Guin sent an outsider into the utopian society, tracing their voyage through the social, economic, and political structures of the “better” worlds offered by Gilman’s Herland or Bellamy’s United States, Le Guin cut the narrative in half, shuffled the deck, and used Shevek’s awkward social positioning on Anarres and Urras alike to explore the meanings of her version of utopia from the inside out.

Cf. Moylan’s canonical paper on the critical utopia, of course.

This was a timely thing to read on my train-travels yesterday, however, coming as it did fairly close upon the heels of a paper discussing (among other things) the specific urban-planning conceptualisation of utopia, which is predominantly a question of the deployment of urban form as a metaphor for a hierarchised systems understanding of the city as body/machine/computer… and hence a top-down perspective by necessity.

As Guynes points out, Le Guin’s intervention into the utopian mode was to totally invert the usual top-down approach, not just at the level of form, but also at the level of narratology… and I retain a belief that this radical breach of Le Guin’s is far from exhausted, whether by fictions qua fictions or any other off-label uses of the same toolkit.