Category Archives: Futures

bold as (nostalgic) love: Gwyneth Jones and hauntology

A Metafilter thread on the new St Ettienne album (haven’t heard it yet) gave up this comment:

It’s interesting to see the 90s End Of History era displace the Swinging 60s as a lost golden age just out of clear memory.

I’m sharing this here due to its synchronicity with a point I made in a just-filed review of the Gollancz Masterworks reissue of Gwyneth Jones’s Castles Made of Sand.

In the introduction to said book, Adam Roberts draws a connection between the utopian idealism of the 1960s and the original British Romanticism movement of the early C19th, and in my review I leap from there to observe that, while Jones doesn’t only put the Sixties influence front and centre in the Bold as Love cycle, but also leans on the Arthurian mythos of Olde Albion (which was largely constructed by the long wave of Romanticism), the actual texture of the near-future Britain of the first few volumes is very much a Nineties vibe.

This was a great opportunity to wax shamelessly lyrical from the core of my own nostalgia for my formative years, but there was—or so I tell myself—a point to doing so, which is to underscore the way in which the Nineties, however unknowingly to many of us in the countercultural trenches at the time, was an attempt to re-run the Sixties, albeit absent the political theoretics whose influence on the Sixties we have been carefully encouraged to forget, as the cultural artefacts of that period have been pruned and bowdlerised in order to reduce a time of genuine (if misguided and largely failed) revolutionary fervour to an aesthetic: kaftans, badly-rolled joints, twelve-string guitars etc etc.

This has further relevance in light of the recently published last lectures of Mark Fisher, in which he was clearly trying to go back to that period and unearth all the dangerous stuff in order to determine what went wrong, and how that atmosphere of revolutionary change might be rekindled against the backdrop of the neoliberal settlement that has so successfully encased it it in the amber of the Spectacle. There’s an extent to which Fisher and some of his contemporaries were, for all their repudiation of nostalgia, somewhat fixated on the early Nineties as the Last Great Moment of Modernism (with e.g. the music of the “hardcore continuum” representing the last time anything felt to them genuinely new and futuristic), even as the reactionary revivalism of baggy, Britpop and what would become landfill indie rose like a tide to drown it all.

Matt Colquhoun has written a great deal about what we might think of as (post-)Fisherean hauntology, in an attempt to rescue the term from the trackless desert of semantic drift into which it (and so much else) seems to be receding, and I could really do with making the time to dig back into it all properly. But one chunk I recall passing clear is this bit on Boards of Canada, whose work:

… speaks to how important but also unstable acts of creation are in relation to worlding. On the surface, that is an obvious point, but creation is always a tightrope pulled taut between past, present and future; it is often a kind of double articulation, tangled up in maternal and paternal politics (symbolically, if not literally). It is always this complex balancing act between preservation, experimentation, and innovation. An album like Music Has The Right To Children is fascinating, I think, because it captures that tension pretty masterfully. Still, to this day, I listen to that album and feel in the presence of a deep engagement with the past that is nonetheless geared towards the future.

So often the discourse seems split between a kind of manic future-affirmatism (think of Teflon Mask’s hypercapitalist boner for Mars colonies on the right, or Bastani’s FALC solutionist-accelerationism on the left) or a hopelessly Romantic fixation on a largely imaginary and retconned past as the location of the utopian horizon (which has typically been a rightist and reactionary position, but in recent years manifests in a lot of soft-leftish thought as well). The denial of the past (and/or its strip-mining for the raw materials of a futurity intended to bury it), or the fetishisation of the past… neither are genuinely productive, if I understand Colquhoun correctly. But that temporal tightrope he describes above, now that’s interesting—not least because it doesn’t merely attempt to bring together the best of past and future. Rather, in drawing taut that rope between them, it affirms the continuity not of culture itself, but of the recombinative processes by which culture is produced.

Jones’s Bold as Love cycle, then, might be seen as culture that not only enacts that recombination, but actively foregrounds (even as it sort of cartoonises) the theatricality of cultural politics through which it is enacted: she is showing and telling, not just at the narratological level, but the historical as well.

Longtermism is merely a more acceptable mask for transhumanism

This longread by Phil Torres at Current Affairs on the Longtermism/x-risk/Effective-Altruism mob does a pretty good job of setting out the issues with what might be the ultimate in moral philosophies, namely a moral philosophy whose adherents have convinced themselves that it is not at all a moral philosophy, but rather the end-game of the enlightenment-modernist quest for a fully rational and quantifiable way of legitimating the actions that you and your incredibly wealthy donors were already doing, and would like to continue doing indefinitely, regardless of the consequences to other lesser persons in the present and immediate future, thankyouverymuch.

Longtermism should not be confused with “long-term thinking.” It goes way beyond the observation that our society is dangerously myopic, and that we should care about future generations no less than present ones. At the heart of this worldview, as delineated by Bostrom, is the idea that what matters most is for “Earth-originating intelligent life” to fulfill its potential in the cosmos. What exactly is “our potential”? As I have noted elsewhere, it involves subjugating nature, maximizing economic productivity, replacing humanity with a superior “posthuman” species, colonizing the universe, and ultimately creating an unfathomably huge population of conscious beings living what Bostrom describes as “rich and happy lives” inside high-resolution computer simulations.

This is what “our potential” consists of, and it constitutes the ultimate aim toward which humanity as a whole, and each of us as individuals, are morally obligated to strive. An existential risk, then, is any event that would destroy this “vast and glorious” potential, as Toby Ord, a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute, writes in his 2020 book The Precipice, which draws heavily from earlier work in outlining the longtermist paradigm. (Note that Noam Chomsky just published a book also titled The Precipice.)

The point is that when one takes the cosmic view, it becomes clear that our civilization could persist for an incredibly long time and there could come to be an unfathomably large number of people in the future. Longtermists thus reason that the far future could contain way more value than exists today, or has existed so far in human history, which stretches back some 300,000 years. So, imagine a situation in which you could either lift 1 billion present people out of extreme poverty or benefit 0.00000000001 percent of the 1023 biological humans who Bostrom calculates could exist if we were to colonize our cosmic neighborhood, the Virgo Supercluster. Which option should you pick? For longtermists, the answer is obvious: you should pick the latter. Why? Well, just crunch the numbers: 0.00000000001 percent of 1023 people is 10 billion people, which is ten times greater than 1 billion people. This means that if you want to do the most good, you should focus on these far-future people rather than on helping those in extreme poverty today.

I have one bone of contention, though the fault is not that of Torres but rather the Longtermists themselves: the labelling of their teleology as “posthuman”. This is exactly wrong, as their position is in fact the absolute core of transhumanism; my guess would be that the successful toxification of that latter term (within academia, as well as without) has led them to instead identify with the somewhat more accepted and established label of posthumanism, so as to avoid critique and/or use a totally different epistemology as a way of drawing fire.

Posthumanism would perhaps be a little more intuitive a label were it hyphenated (e.g. post-humanism): it is not about transcending one’s human-ness (that’s transhumanism’s bag), but rather about finding ways to think that move beyond the deep biases of Enlightenment humanism—whiteness, maleness, Europeanness, heterosexualness, all of those things, but also (and most fundamentally) the notion that the human being (however diversely conceptualised) is both the measure and the central pole of the universe.

As Torres’s article makes very clear (though it’s not really disguised), Longtermism and its associated ideological systems (transhumanism very much included) are profoundly anthropocentric, and as such are not at all post-humanist; rather, they are a sort of ultra-humanism, in which the potential value (always estimable in quantitative terms, yet always based on on spurious statistical handwaves and estimates whose mathematical scale serves the purpose of distracting via sensawunda the minds of the statistically untrained) of a human species that is supposedly capable of (and thus morally justified in its attempt to) colonise entire galaxies outweighs anything and everything that might be seen as collateral damage en route to that goal.

Torres quotes Simon Knutsson’s conclusion that the Longtermists are “super-strategic”, and that their philosophies are less sincere belief systems than they are elaborate intellectual smokescreens for an otherwise shallow fundamentally self-interested libertarianism; I have repeatedly made a similar argument about what I think of as “core” transhumanism. But I am beginning to wonder whether it is possible that both of those possibilities may coexist, and that the philosophical superstructure here—while developed and emergent from the need to provide a priori justifications for courses of action already decided upon for a posteriori economical reasons—is also, or eventually comes to be, completely sincerely believed by its architects. I will recall once again that the “con” in “con-man” is an abbreviation of “confidence”, and that the first rule of sales is that the successful salesman’s first mark must necessarily be himself: particularly in the realm of politics and philosophy, one will never successfully convince another person of a position that one does not personally hold to. (Of course, that belief is necessary to making the sale, but not necessarily sufficient.) Good salespersons therefore develop a particular version of cognitive dissonance, namely the ability to create a sort of mental partition in which the product (or philosophy) is believed to be exactly the efficacious wonder it is claimed to be.

But, to quote Jerry Cantrell, “slowly all the roles we act out / become our identities / and in the end we are / what we pretend to be“. It’s very tempting to assume that pointing out the inconsistencies of a belief system will oblige its adherents to abandon it—despite the last year and half (or the last century and a half) of solid and disheartening evidence to the contrary. The point is that, while there is value to critique, the critical mode of modern philosophy (as Foucault pointed out long ago) stands on exactly the same epistemological foundations as the hyper-rationalist mode; they can only ever struggle over control of the same fundamental field of thought. As I understand it, posthumanist theory (at its best) is an attempt to go beyond that field of thought to something new—though whether it is or will ever be successful at doing so is a question that we, caught in that very same epistemic paradigm, are unable to answer.

Nonetheless, posthumanism retains my own philosophical loyalties, because of its suggestion of an alternative (rather than a mere opposition) to the ultrahumanism of the Longtermists, whose implications Torres so clearly spells out. For the transhumanoids, the planet on which we live, and the majority of those currently living on it, are merely the shell and albumen of the egg from which homo galacticus are destined to hatch; it is a Manichean religio-philosophical structure which, in its making-transcendant of the category of the human, jettisons even the more noble and well-intended elements of humanism itself.

Posthumanism, by contrast, suggests that we humble the human as one actor among many, and take a place in the universe that recognises both its limits and our own. The revulsion and panic that this idea instills in so many people is perhaps the best indicator of its potential to contribute to a new epistemic paradigm, and with it a way of life for humanity that is something other than an endless succession of roadside picnics.

accuracy only happens by mistake

Aiming to reboot the blog-as-commonplace-book practice, here—a habit which hasn’t so much fallen away as become blocked, in that I keep storing up things to clip in my inbox, but never actually, y’know, clipping them. (Which is a little like continuing to buy cigarettes but not smoking them? Though if I put it that way, it sounds more virtuous than not.) This particular piece came to me via *checks notes* Sentiers, back in… May? So yeah, definite workflow issues on the blogging front. But I’ve been busy with the dayjob, so I’m not gonna beat myself up about it.

ANYWAY, here’s an interview with one Eliot Peper, sf author and consulting strategist type, of whom I must admit to having been heretofore completely unaware. But I like the cut of his jib, at least on the basis of this statement:

Current events are a painful reminder that unlike fiction, reality needn’t be plausible. The world is complex and even the wisest of us understand only a tiny sliver of what’s really going on. Nobody knows what comes next. So while it may feel like we’re living in a science fiction novel, that’s because we’ve always been living in a science fiction novel. Or maybe speculative fiction is more real than so-called realist fiction because the only certainty is that tomorrow will be different from today and from what we expect. Depicting a world without fundamental change has become fantastical.

As a writer of speculative fiction, I’m an enthusiastic reader of history. And in reading about the past to slake my curiosity and imagine possible futures, I’ve learned that the present is exceedingly contingent, fascinating, and fleeting. For me, speculative fiction is less about prediction than it is about riffing on how the world is changing like a jazz musician might improvise over a standard. Accuracy only happens by mistake. The most interesting rendition wins because it makes people think, dream, feel. And thanks to technological leverage, to a greater and greater extent people are inventing the future – for better and for worse.

So I’m not worried about reality catching up with speculative fiction because speculative fiction is rooted in the human experience of reality. Every black swan event is simply new material.

While this offers a good defence of speculative practices in general, I think it may also point at the enduring popularity of cargo-cult scenarios from the Hot Take Futures Factory: building on the jazz metaphor, generic forms achieve a popularity of their own, and for every Miles Davis pushing the form in new directions, there’s however many dozen local jazz combos cranking out derivative clones of whatever got people dancing last time… point being, solutionism fulfils an emotional need for its audience, and may be being played for people for whom its ideological underpinnings are completely unnoticed, let alone unexamined.

Not sure where I’m going with that idea, to be honest… one of the reasons for wanting to reboot this practice is that I can feel the shortfall in my ability to fit a snippet of an idea into what passes for my philosophical position. But as I’ve been finding out in my non-intellectual life, the first set of pull-ups after a five month pause in your exercise regime is painful, formless and disheartening, and that’s all the more reason to get back to doing them regularly again. Hey ho…

Solargoth

I keep telling myself I shouldn’t pass public comment on solarpunk, firstly because I haven’t done the reading and legwork, and secondly because I know a few people who really have done the reading and legwork (hi, Jay!), and as a good, responsible academic (cough, cough) I know better than to traipse across someone else’s disciplinary patch.

Buuuut… there’s an extent to which solarpunk abuts my own undisciplined domain of sociotechnical imaginaries, and as such I can’t entirely ignore it. Which is why I was intrigued by this piece from Lidia Zuin, in which, by riffing off the recent Multispecies Cities anthology, she seems to be seeking a way past the common critique (of which I have partaken in passing) of solarpunk-as-technological-utopia:

… in Multispecies Cities, we are able to discover that an ecological future is much more than that and it doesn’t need to assume a posture of naïve optimism and pure fantasy. In stories such as “Becoming Mars,” by Taiyo Fujii, or “In Two Minds” by Joel R. Hurt, it is possible to identify several references and tropes of a more pessimistic subgenre such as it is the case of cyberpunk. Still, the ideas discussed are innovative and they bring up technologies that have grown more popular recently, both among scholars and laymen. Bioengineering, for instance, is used in the anthology both as a means to adapt human beings to inhospitable places such as Mars, where a terraforming trial didn’t work as intended, or when people want to connect and communicate to animals and artificial intelligences.

This, Zuin seems to suggest, is an advance on the more purely aesthetic origins of solarpunk: a reintroduction of instructive failure to the deployment of technological solutions, which Zuin identifies as the legacy of solarpunk’s estranged parent genre, cyberpunk. The extent to which social and political change features in this tales is not apparent from this essay (and so, yes, I should really do the reading, given that tends to be my angle on the issue), but Zuin is heading in a different direction, or rather along a different axis, for her own critique:

The book Radical Botany analyzes how plants are used as political metaphors in fiction — from “The Yellow Wallpaper” to “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” and, more recently, the book and the movie “Annihilation” (2018). It was this last title that made me consider how solarpunk could have a more bizarre, mysterious approach that would be closer to the new weird rather than an optimistic narrative with some shades of “greenwashing.”

Zuin also mentions the musical act Botanist, ‘a black metal band that doesn’t have guitars’ whose ‘visual identity is all about this “botanic supremacy,” with artworks that reveal corpses being consumed by plants, fungi and maggots, as if nature was charging back what was originally hers’; this, plus recent music and performance from Björk, points toward a darker direction for Zuin’s solarpunk. Most interestingly for me (as a sociotechnical imaginaries scholar, and a marginal scholar of Bruce Sterling’s work), she also connects the technological-utopian iteration of solarpunk to Sterling’s Viridian Green campaign during the Noughties—which only a few weeks back I myself connected to the market-oriented ecomodernist side of the ongoing dialectic of green hope, in a review of Garforth’s Green Utopias.

Which is not (only) to note that someone else has spotted a (fairly obvious) genealogy in this particular discourse, but rather to note that Zuin is interested in pushing the generic dialectic in the other direction somewhat: in literary terms, that’s the more Vandermeerean New-Weird direction, which in academic-theoretical terms is the (more posthuman) there-never-was-a-Nature antithesis to the (more transhuman) thrust of the Viridian/ecomodernist/tech-utopian thesis.

Zuin concludes:

Solarpunk could be a genre that is attractive even to the most pessimistic and grim fans of cyberpunk, because it doesn’t need to tell only naive stories of a post-apocalyptic optimism that aims to heal our current anxiety. In fact, solarpunk can also recover other tropes that address the transformation of humanity and its displacement from the center of everything to actually become part of the whole. So this is me venting to myself and to other authors who wish to approach this more “gothic” side of solarpunk — because nature could be as frightening as in the movies by Lars Von Trier.

I don’t want to assume Zuin’s concern here is merely about broadening the market for solarpunk in a world where grimdark is an enduringly popular aesthetic—though there’d be nothing wrong with an author taking that position. (Writers, after all, want to be read, and perhaps also to pay the bills.) But it seems to me that there’s an aesthetic rebellion implicit in Zuin’s position, here, that reads fairly well as a figuration of a more theoretical/philosophical rebellion against solarpunk’s well-intended (but, IMHO, politically naive) techno-optimism. That Zuin mentions Le Guin and Delany as possible inspirations to be drawn upon underscores my point: that this reaching toward a more gothic iteration of solarpunk is—or at least could be—a reaching toward a more critical-utopian mode for the genre.

And that, as regular readers here will be very aware, is of much greater interest to me, in both the literary-aesthetic and critical-theoretical senses.

subjective and iterative magratheanism / the whys and wherefores of worldbuilding

It’s always nice to get an insight into the creative process from an expert, and this short bit on worldbuilding by Paul McAuley is exactly that. Worldbuilding as a concept is having a bit of a moment, or so it feels, having jumped out of genre fiction theory and metastasised more widely, following in the wake of fantastika as a dominant mode of storytelling; video games have helped a lot, but it’s bigger than that, I suspect.

Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day—let’s look at what McAuley’s actually saying, here. As I understand both positions, this is less of a counter to Mike Harrison’s legendary salvo against the “clomping foot of nerdism” than a demonstration of the way in which a better—or perhaps better to say less generic—creator approaches the problem of worldbuilding, so as to avoid said clompiness. And that way is iterative and subjective:

Worldbuilding is hard only if you pay too much attention to it. Less is almost always better than more. Use details sparingly rather than to drown the reader in intricate descriptions and faux exotica; question your first and second thoughts; set out a few basic parameters, find your character and start the story rather than fleshing out every detail of the landscape, drawing maps, and preparing recipe cards and fashion plates before writing the first sentence. Wherever possible, scatter clues and trust the reader to put them together; give them the space to see the world for themselves rather than crowd out their imagination with elaborate and burdensome detail.

Now, the purposes to which people working in my field of endeavour are putting worldbuilding are rather different to the primarly entertainment-driven concerns of a novelist—but nonetheless, a lot of these suggestions still hold fairly well. With the Notterdam guide, for instance, the speculation had to be bounded by the goals of the Paris Accords because that was how the project of which it was a part was bounded; but even were that not the case, we’d have still needed some sort of bounding scenario to start from. Indeed, I’m in the process of contributing to the structure of a set of design research workshops to be (hopefully) staged later this year, and the same challenge applies: the parameters of the bounding are up to you, of course, and if you want them to be really way-out crazy, well, that’s fine, but you still need to have them, however far out they may be. Creation requires friction and limits, and that applies just as much to the notionally more realistic creative practices of engineering: as I put it many years ago, the valorisation of “thinking outside the box” is counterproductive, resulting in placeless technological utopias which can’t be reached.

Also of note above is McAuley’s injunction to trust the reader. This is probably what many writers mean when they trot out the (well-intentioned but nonetheless not-always-helpful) admonition “show, don’t tell”; while there are clearly people who greatly enjoy having a richly elaborated Tolkeinean world handed to them as a finished orrery, effective worldbuilding exploits both the innate human capacity for sense-making and a culturally inculcated capacity for extrapolating imaginary worlds from telling details. My argument here is that we’ve learned to do the latter in increasingly more sophisticated ways, and that fantastika across a variety of media has been the training ground for that skill. Furthermore, that skill is what my academic work hopes to operationalise in the service of sociotechnical reconfiguration: if we want to build a world in which we do things differently, we have to be able to imagine it first. And that’s my argument against the technological utopia, too: the technological utopia is all tell and no show, the clomping foot of the notionally-objective god’s-eye-view.

But the utility of story goes further than that. McAuley again:

Discovering details essential to the story as it rolls out gives space and flexibility to hint at the kind of random, illogical, crazy beauty of the actual world; the exclusionary scaffolds of rigid logic too often do not.

You can’t just deliver a future (or a past, or a secondary world) in one big package; rare is the person who will just sit down with an encyclopedia and read the whole thing end to end. A future is a world, a timespace, and the human way of relating to timespaces—not an entirely unproblematic one, historically speaking, but nonetheless—is exploration. Now, a novelist has the challenge of making a guided tour feel like exploration, because the novel—with the exception of some liminal high (post)modernist experiments with form—is a linear thing, a single route through the imagined world preprepared by the author. But what’s notable here is that, for McAuley at least (and I believe for many other writers of sf, though certainly not all of them), that preprepared route is prepared through the writer themselves exploring rather more spontaneously. As such, serendipity and the happy creative accident are important—you need the initial bounding parameters, as mentioned above, but the detail emerges from responses to that initial set of constraining parameters. The writer explores the possibility-space defined by the bounding parameters, and compiles from their meanderings what they hope will be an exciting tour.

Furthermore, those responses are generated through the drives and subjectivity of the characters of the story: the sense that it’s an exploration rather than a tour is formed by the world’s being filtered through the limited (i.e. non-omniscient) point-of-view of the character who, while they know some things about some parts of the world, doesn’t know everything about it, even though the author (by the end of the process, at least) does:

… because the novel is written in close third person, everything is filtered through the sensibility of the main character, focusing on things that he would think important or memorable or odd, evoking the mundane stuff of his life by allusion or by borrowing the perspectives of others.

This is why I think that using the narratological toolkits of fiction can be a more effective and appealing way of depicting futures than the future-tense-passive-voice mode of corporate and policy futuring: it exploits the human desire to explore a timespace from a relateable (if not necessarily human) positionality, and it does so with devices and strategies which have evolved to make the best use of that instinct.

Of course, there are issues of teleology and intentionality that complicate this comparison—and I dare say that many creative writers might see this as cheapening of the art, just as many more “rational” futures people might see it as frivolous and artsy dilettantism. (I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t have days where those doubts haunt me, too, from both directions.) But it seems clear that we are going to continue to collectively imagine and advocate and dispute futures, not least because we’ve been doing it for yonks—at least since the fall of eschatology as the primary relationship to futurity in the so-called West. And if we’re going to do it anyway, and if—as seems equally indisputable—some folk are going to step up with futures (whether political, sociotechnical or otherwise) that we don’t want, then we have to get good at presenting the ones we do want.

It’s a war of stories; perhaps it always has been. While there are certainly ways of prosecuting that clash of narratives which are morally repulsive and destructive—*gestures at, well, everything*—I have come to the conclusion that refusing to counter the darkness with some sort of light is to let the darkness triumph. Utopia as method, innit?