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Not so new year

Someone keeps stealing time. Someone or some thing, some force or presence… not quite a deity, but certainly something with character, cunning and malice, and terrible hunger for time. I believe its name may be Age.

So, I’m just coming to the end of my first semester of my first year of my doctoral research. Which doesn’t sound like much, until I remind myself that The Rules now say that you’d better finish and submit your thesis within three and a bit years of starting Or Else… which means I’ve had maybe a tenth of the time allowed me already. Sounds pretty scary when you put it that way, somehow. So it’d be nice to avoid thinking that way, but part of the game is planning and managing your time effectively, and you can’t do that without being aware of how much time is available, and how much has been used. I imagine there being some sort of Zen peace to be found when someone finally resolves this paradox; corner offices unfurnished but for a single lily in a plain white bowl, a beatifically-smiling PR consultant, legs pretzeled into a very respectable full lotus, hovering six inches above the industrial carpeting, his Blackberry and laptop orbiting him like lunar familiars… until I meet that person, however, I’m going to conclude that fretting about time and trying to manage it are inseparable functions, at least for me.

(Maybe one day I’ll theorise an excuse for the sort of procrastinatory displacement syndrome that forces me to write the first proper blogpost I’ve done in literally months because it’s a way to avoid doing all the other stuff I’m actually supposed to be doing right now. In the meantime, that one gets filed under “I’m a writer, I don’t have to justify anything”. At least until deadline day, anyhow.)

But hey, I have things to show for all that lost time, see? Like my first review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, which saw me being disappointed — to say the least, and at some length — by Paul di Fillipo’s latest collection, Wikiworld, which felt like the dead hand of Cambellian short fiction trying to slip into the motion-capture glove of postcyberpunk and pass for a generational native, with little success; it felt in fact very symptomatic of the old-guard stance in ongoing generational schism in The Undefined Agglomeration Of Affinities That Think Of Themselves As Being Either Fandom, Or To Do With Fandom, Or A Hegelian Negation Of Fandom That Will Reform And Reconstitute Fandom Dialectically, Or Sometimes Just As People Who Care About A Certain Marketing Category Of Books (also known as The Agglomoration Which One Must Not Lazily Label “Fandom” For Fear Of Marauding Fandom Ontologists Calling Out Your Deplorable Reductionism. Or, more simply, “fandom”). The review’s rather more hatchet-jobby than I’d have preferred to write, perhaps, with poor diFi ending up as avatar for a bigger thing by far… but then I think about the Cat Women story again, and think nope, he stepped into the politics ring and took the first swing. He’s a grown-up, he knows how the game is played.

(And I didn’t even mention the diFi-Broderick collaboration “Cockroach Love”, which is that rarest of things: a story featuring people fucking cockroaches in which the people fucking cockroaches aren’t the most distasteful aspect of the story.)

Tim Maly did another one of the Things for which Tim Maly is notorious; this time it was a collection of essays on Medium chewing over the legacy of Sterling’s Viridian Design movement/manifesto/experiment, so yours truly took the opportunity to take to task both the solutionist and Hairshirt Green responses to climate change, and (no surprises here) point out the infrastructural elephant in both of their rooms.

Those are the good things I can actually show you or tell you about. I have also sold a short story to Ian Whates at Newcon for an anthology to be launched this Easter, the ToC announcement of which is (I’m told) fairly imminent; I’m pretty stoked about this, as the story in question was written for the Short Form module of my Masters, and it duly did the rounds of all the genre mags worth considering, only to gather a gratifying yet frustrating train of polite “we quite like this, but it just doesn’t fit with what we’re looking for” bounces. I’m glad it’s found a home at last. I’ll announce the ToC for the anthology here at VCTB when I am informed of it.

Also in the pipeline: I’ve been invited to speak about infrastructure fiction and futures work at the FutureEverything conference/festival in Manchester, which should be fun. I went as an attendee guest last year (if only for one day, due to weather and plague), so I know the general scene is going to be to my liking; added bonus is that quite a few of the people I consider myself aligned with in the futures universe — Ella Saitta, Anab Jain, Dan W, Jim Bridle, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg — are also speaking, so it feels like rolling out with a crew rather than just lone-wolfing it. Gonna be a stimulating couple of days, I think.

There are other possibles in the pipeline, too, and a big scary definite that I can’t yet talk about. I’ve never been keen on that whole OMFG Seekrit Project!!1 thing when I’ve seen other people do it, but now I’m thinking maybe I understand the motivation; I just never had a Seekrit Project too awesome to keep quiet about. But I must keep quiet, so I shall… you’ll probably hear of it next during the period running up to its deadline, when I’ll be panicking about getting it finished, and making it good. Which will be the run-up to FutureEverything, incidentally (late March)… odd how these things all have a tendency to cluster around one another, isn’t it?

What else? Went to Amsterdam for a long weekend with members of the Institute for Atemporal Studies and aligned forces, which was very nice indeed; travelled by train all the way, hardly touched the internet or took a picture all weekend, much needed. Christmas and New Years were their normal boring selves, apart from the brief and dubious thrill of a minor burglary on NYE morning; that’s what can happen if you don’t lock the back door before going to bed, see. (Little lost or damaged, other than my sense of streetwiseness.) Last weekend saw me pop down to Cambridge to hang out with Tiff Angus, who taught one of my Masters modules; nice to get a weekend of nice weather in which to wander around and talk writer-shop, not to mention commiserate over the PhD process. Naturally, despite telling myself I wouldn’t buy any books while I was there, the temptations of Cambridge’s charity stores and market stalls were too strong to resist:

My Women’s Press SF collection is coming along nicely; I must look up the full list of titles. Didn’t entirely expect to find three of them in Cambridge… but then again, Cambridge is the sort of town where Cash Converters puts a cello in the front window.

So, here I am and here we are: exam week next week (hence deadlines), then semester the second, with my first adventures as… a teaching assistant. Will our hapless hero prevail? Stay tuned for further episodes…

The unexamined sociology of transhumanism

One of the reliable bright lights in the gloom of my January is the annual Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky show, a.k.a. their State of the World conflab at The Well. All sorts of chewy futurism and near-field hindsight going on, as always, but sometimes it’s a minor aside that snags my mind, like this little zap at transhumanism:

“… you’re never going to put some magic cyberdevice inside your human body that has no human political and economic interests within its hardware and software. All human artifacts, below the skin or above them, are frozen social relationships. If you’re somehow burningly keen to consume a thing like that, you’d better, as William Burroughs liked to put it, have a look at the end of the fork.”

The great joy of my first semester of my PhD has been being formally introduced to the basics of sociological theory, and thus discovering that a lot of the woolly notions I’d come to independently have been thought far more thoroughly and comprehensively before, by smart people who gave those ideas proper names. Through this lens it’s even more apparent than before that the echoing lacuna at the heart of Movement Transhumanism — the canonical ‘philosophy’ expounded by Dr Max Biggerbetterfastermore and friends, rather than the more personal morphological meddlings of the grinders and back-alley self-modders — is the notion of any system of social relations beyond the mechanisms of soi-disant anarchocapitalist “free market” economics.

If nothing else, it goes some way to explaining the overlap between MT and the Neoreactionaries: both seem to assume that inconvenient truths might be moved aside by merit of resetting the sociopolitical clock to a time before anyone had formulated them. Not just a river in Egypt, eh?

Doctor What

It’s not quite the anniversary of my arrival here in Sheffield, but it’s close enough – and as the next three years of my life will take their triplet tempo from the semester cycle, the start of the academic year makes a suitable kick-drum-cymbal-crash. Yes, yours truly is now a registered PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, working from a rather chaotic and quickly-built proposal under the strap-line “Making Infrastructure Legible”.

No, I didn’t expect to end up here either. But I’m pretty chuffed I have.

My funding comes off the back of an EPSRC Doctoral Training Grant earmarked for research to bridge the engineering and social science faculties in the infrastructural sectors. For an assortment of reasons, this means that I’ve ostensibly part of the engineering faculty (still with the Pennine Water Group, in fact, who just happen to be the largest urban water research group in the UK), but most of my learning and research will be from the social science side of things, which means I’ll be spending a fair amount of time in the department for town and regional planning. This also means no one is sure what I’m currently timetabled for, nor what I should be timetabled for, and – to go by the two empty lecture-rooms I sat in yesterday – not on the mailing list for amendments to timetable. However, I am assured this is completely normal. Given the university has just inhaled another year’s worth of undergrad intake, one has to expect its lungs to be a bit strained. Besides, it’s not like I haven’t got plenty of work to be getting on with. I have an advantage over many new postgrads, in that I’ve got two years of research under my belt already; in theory, I already have a good idea of where I want to go with my doctorate. But there’s a whole lotta methodologies to be learned along the way, and I’m told that theses have a tendency to mutate wildly in their first year of life; looking back at the last year from this brief moment of calm and reflection, that looks eminently plausible.

It has, after all, been a year in which the going got weird, and the weird accidentally turned pro. Having had a while to chew over the stuff I’d been working on for the All-in-One project, I’d been kicking around the vague concept of “infrastructure fiction” with assorted colleagues from the unevenly-distributed contraPanglossian futurist caucus, which ended up more as a sort of methodological manifesto for doing design fiction at the infrastructural scale. I made it into a rather rambling essay, and Team Superflux generously agreed to post it on their blog.

Cue far more interest than I’d expected the idea to merit. Chairman Bruce himself described it as being “as full of good, crooked, crunchy stuff as a cracked walnut,” which will probably be my business-card strap-line blurb for life.

Not long after that, Honor Harger of Lighthouse Arts in Brighton invited me to speak at this year’s Improving Reality conference, which just so happened to be themed around the (re-)revealing of otherwise invisible underpinnings of our tech-saturated world. I accepted with pleasure, and with no small degree of Imposter Syndrome.

By this point I was getting pretty close to the end of my RA contract, so in addition to finishing things up on the contract project, I was also desperately applying for jobs at a rate of one per weekday; I won’t belabour the point, but thirty applications yielded not a single invitation to interview. While this is a general problem in all job markets, and especially in the research sector, it was compounded by me being underqualified. I was very, very lucky to get my RA post; it’s hard enough landing one with a doctorate, let alone without one.

But I didn’t want to drop out of the research game; I like this work, in a way I’ve never actively liked any work I’ve ever done before, and I hazard I’m doing it pretty well so far. If I wanted to keep doing research work, the only likely way to secure anything more secure and long-term than six-month part-time contracts here and there was to take a doctorate. This, if all goes according to plan, would have the added bonus of leaving me better qualified to fight for work in the research sector going forward, not to mention better qualified in general.

This decided, I still had to hustle hard to land the studentship – though I should acknowledge and thank the support and assistance of my supervisors, because I’d not have managed it without their help. So a few hectic weeks of drafting proposals and filling out applications – punctuated by an brutal interview, which I honestly thought I’d blown spectacularly – were added to the normal work and the job applications and everything else and, long story short, I damn near went and made myself ill again like I did back in the spring, and indeed I’m not sure I ever completely recovered from that particular crash. It’s been a mad, mad year, and I’ve never worked so hard in my damned life.

And I landed the studentship, in spite of the dreadful interview.

I heard that news not long before Improving Reality, which happened to coincide pretty closely with my contract end date, meaning I got to spend a few days doing nothing in Brighton before the conference. I’ve always adored Brighton, and even lived there (precariously, using a friend’s tiny lounge as a bedsit) for six months, and it was lovely to get the time to really just wander round the place. I got to catch up with Tim Maughan, Natalie Kane, Justin Pickard, George Voss, Jeff Noon (oh, did I just name-drop?); the weather was gorgeous, and we had a meal at a Lebanese place where the portions were so generous that half of us couldn’t finish our mains.

In the run-up to IR, I had a piece at ARC on the protohistory of infrastructure and a piece at The Graun about the artist as engineer. All the IR talks were video’d for the purpose of internets, so I’m planning to publish my slides and script when I can put the video up at the same time; I’ll probably do so at Futurismic.

Since then I’ve been doing what I was advised to do, though more through force majeur than choice; my supervisors suggested I rest, and I laughed, and decided to use the time before my course began to catch up on the countless other little commitments and scribblings I’d promised to people. And I tried to do exactly that, but – with the assistance of colder and darker evenings and mornings, I seem to have spent a great deal of it sleeping, or staring blankly into the middle distance. So apologies if you’re one of the people waiting on one of those things; I did manage to finish a ~4k assault on the immortalist canon of The Transhuman Reader for ARC, and do a thing for Frank Swain on Medium where I tell some hypothetical seventeen year old what I wish someone had told me at that age.

And there’s more wild times and weirdness to come, I’m sure – but this evening I’m caught in the space between two beats, and it feels good to breathe, to feel the anticipation, to prepare to play my next part. Lectures proper start next week. Game on, wot?

Tribe

So I’ve been here, what, eight months now? Close enough; my wee terraced house here has felt superficially like home for a while, but arriving back after the long round trip to Colombia, it had all the magic of a beacon or the landing lights on an airstrip. Home is where your cat sleeps, some say, and that certainly helps, but there’s more to it than that by this point, and while I don’t yet know Sheffield well, I know it enough to know I like it here. The job helps, of course, but it’s a matter of place, also; its flawed and patchwork city centre, its grubby hidden backstreets and zones of decay, its garrulous streetlife, its background radiation – a hum of life engaged with the messy, painful, joyous confusion of living. Woodhouse in the spring could almost be a country town, with fields and copses bursting with green. Every now and again I’ll be walking back from the shop and notice anew the wind turbines on the hill beyond the site of the old Orgreave works, and smile. You never see them down south; no prizes for guessing why that might be.

I don’t miss London; it was a fun place to live for a year, and I had some great times there, but it was never home. Portsmouth was home for longer than anywhere else I ever lived – longer than all the other places put together, in fact – but I don’t miss it either. Even on a day like this, the first bright sunny Friday of late spring, when I know all the people will be heading toward the front or the common, like wild creatures who all at once found their cage doors unlocked and the wilderness waiting beyond, whispering the possibility of adventure…

No, I don’t miss Portsmouth. But I do miss my people. Less the press or totality or them all, but that potential: the knowledge that, if the mood took me, I could easily go somewhere and find some familiar faces. Nothing formal, bot a “night out”, just hangin’ times, no questions, no pack drill, the comfort of an old pair of jeans. I miss that, and those faces.

So I’m a little lonely here, as much as I like it. Which ain’t to play my tiny violin, you understand – but I recognise, as I did far more painfully during my year on the banks of the Styx in Stockport, that I’m in an awkward part of life as far as moving goes. Most thirty-somethings, or so it seems, are settled – either into family life with kids, or well-cemented circles of friendship and routine, or both. No matter where I go out, I feel a bit of a fraud or interloper, either surrounded by the chatter and increasingly alien music of the bright young things, or by what feels like the ossified rituals and greatest-hits nostalgia of the folk I still can’t help but think of as “grownups”; a square peg touring the round holes, hopeful, but stubbornly unwilling to plane away his corners. I miss knowing where the two-bit local gig of the week will be, knowing who’ll be carping about the bands at the back of the room – usually the band that played the week before. Ligger and hanger-on that I am, I miss knowing the face behind the turntables, talking trash with shoestring show promoters and artists with miserable rations that keep them fed, keep them angry enough to do the real work between shifts. I miss being not just on the scene, but of it; an aging hipster, from an era when hipsters were called something else, adrift on an unfamiliar sea, an unknown fish in a new pond.

Oh, I know they’re out there. These things take time, I tell myself, especially once you’ve acquired a proper job and lost the relentless energy of youth, realised you can’t go out every night and talk to random interesing-looking strangers apropos of nothing. They’re out there somewhere, the freaks and queers and artists and oddballs, haunting the interstices that it took them so many years to find, to carve out. Portsmouth has them, but so does every other town, and nowhere do they feel the need to advertise. You have to seek them out, earn your entry visa, make those first connections and get caught up in the network. It’s not called the underground for nothing, nor just for the sake of vanity. If it were easy, I wouldn’t want to be part of it; funny how it takes losing it to learn this.

But it’ll come to me eventually, or me to it, in some grubby pub or run-down club. I’ll know it when I see it, and maybe it’ll know me when it sees me, too. For now, I’ll just keep looking, listening: searching for family, looking for tribe.

Fractal’13: a busman’s holiday

I’ve been back for the best part of a week, but Colombia still haunts me.

From the air, it’s a country of lush green mountains, wide flood-plains with fat brown rivers winding and ox-bowing their way through the rich russet soil; fertile, not so much tamed by its people as persuaded into an agreement where no one is quite sure who’s getting the better of the deal. As in many other Latin countries where the scars of colonialism are still bright and angry beneath the new skin of change, there are plenty of places where it looks like “progress” – that deathless shibboleth – has the upper hand: industrial farming practices and the new uptick in gold mining, courtesy of the volatile markets for food and precious metals, have gouged red-brown wounds out of the land, left rivers low and mountains decapitated. But you don’t have to drive far to see how fast nature can reclaim its territory when left to its own devices, nor the rural communities which live lightly – if untidily by European standards – upon the land. The humid air whispers of a barely restrained fecundity; growth is everywhere.

View from El Peñon, again

Economic growth is, of course, more unevenly distributed, and Medellín (pronounced Meh-deh-jEEn – the Latin double-l changes its sound considerably from place to place) showcases these inevitable inequities clearly. Its mild but variable climate, a function of its position in a deep valley high in the mountains, belies its closeness to the Equator; known to Colombians as “the City of Eternal Spring”, its skies boil with turbulent clouds between bursts of bright blue clarity, and thunder grumbles sullen from the peaks most afternoons. The temperature hovers around the low- to mid-twenties Centigrade most of the year; rain is commonplace and occasionally torrential, but rarely stays for long. The central valley is spattered with light and heavy industries, along with a newish rash of corporate postmodernist architecture; the lower slopes have sprouted a forest of red-brick towerblocks which look uniform from a distance, but whose variety becomes clear at close range. In the interstices – and further up the slopes, where the incline and the possibility of flash flooding precludes large-scale construction and reliable infrastructure – the higgledy-piggledy terraces and jumbled bricks’n’breezeblock stacks of the underclass spread wherever they can, their narrow streets a lively riot of mural’d concrete walls, barrowboys chattering their patter through jury-rigged PA systems, and the buzz and rasp of the city’s countless motorcycles and scooters as they struggle against the gradient. The gap between wealth and poverty is made all the clearer by their mutual proximity, a cheek-by-jowl life that is not without its frictions; gothic high-tech and favela chic stand across the avenidas from one another, studiously ignoring one another while they wait for the future to arrive.

Popular

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There are, of course, people trying to bridge that gap and skry that future – which is what I was invited there for, along with my fellow Fractal facilitators: Johanna Blakley, director of research at the Norman Lear Center, University of SoCal; Keiichi Matsuda, architect, film-maker and augmented reality authority; and Reshma Shetty, MIT PhD and co-founder of Ginkgo BioWorks, a synbio start-up based in Boston.

We spent one morning talking to the management team of UNE, a Medellín-based media outfit that sells not just bandwidth but content; they were looking for new ways in which they might provide more useful services to the less well-off of the region, and picked our brains about applications and systems that might add value to their current offers. At the same time, we got to learn some high-level cultural home truths that would serve us well later in the week, not least the fact that – despite being an incredibly friendly and helpful people – Colombians are very slow to trust one another, even at the neighbourhood level. Given the country’s recent history of political unrest and paramilitary conflict – which is, sadly, what Medellín is still best known for here in Europe, to go by the reactions I got when I told people where I was going – this probably isn’t entirely surprising. But it’s not the sort of thing you’d notice as a tourist; hospitality is a big deal to Colombians, and that seems to include an instinctive elision of their domestic troubles. (Compare and contrast to we Brits, who seem increasingly keen to download our sociocultural angst on anyone who’ll listen.)

The main event, however, took place at the Botanical Gardens; the format was largely without precedent, as far as anyone involved was aware, and might be best described as a kind of community-engagement design-fiction experiment. Rather than have four guests do their talking-heads schtuck to an attentive but otherwise passive audience, the Fractal crew decided that we were there to facilitate the audience in telling stories about the three topics in play, namely augmented reality, 3d printing and synbio.

Botanical Gardens

The initial run was done on the Friday afternoon with a thirty-strong gang of schoolkids, aged 11 or so. We’d introduce the topic, then encourage the audience to ask questions and talk about what sort of things they’d do with the technology in question, were it already a reality; then we’d gradually segue into storytelling, with yours truly introducing a character and an opening scene and encouraging the audience to step to the mic and continue the action.

The stories the kids came up with were predictably wild, but the adults attending the three longer sessions the next day weren’t exactly holding themselves back, either, once they’d got into the spirit of the thing. Every time with every story, there’d be a clear pivoting point where everyone suddenly grokked the possibilities, grasped the idea and its implications… and that’s when the stories started getting weird. From my own vantage point, it felt like that point was close to the boundary between the purely physical and the spiritual; while I don’t want to lay any claim to anthropological insight, here, it seem that – much as in the other Latin countries I’ve visited – the division between the earthly and the spiritual is more permeable in Colombian culture, which is still fairly conservative and religious in character, and it was in that disputed territory that speculative thinking really came alive for our audience. Which isn’t to say that there was much handwringing about “playing god”; indeed, it was only raised twice, and without much drama, though one must assume that the audience for a futures event would be somewhat self-selecting in that direction.

But, by way of validating what any fiction writing tutor worth their salt will tell you, it was the human dramas foregrounded against the technological innovations that engaged people with the ideas – and while the stories were far wilder and more playful than one would expect from, say, an established English-language science fiction zine, the central issues and dilemmas of these imminent innovations came quickly to the fore. I got a real kick out of watching people take their turns at the mic, watching their faces as they really got into what they were saying; even though the concrete results of a futures event like this are incredibly hard to measure or quantify, it was plain to see that, when “given permission” to extrapolate and imagine, ordinary people are just as capable as futurists and technologists – if not more so, in some ways – of engaging with complex technologies and understanding how they might change the world they live in, for the better and for the worse.

Clouds

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Full kudos for this ambitious and ground-breaking experiment should go to Vivi and Hernan, the dynamic duo who have somehow assembled and run Fractal events for the past five years while holding down other jobs. There’s no top-table TED schmoozing or delegation of responsibility to paid flunkies, either; both of them seemed, at times, to be surgically attached to their phones and laptops, constantly hustling and arranging and fixing, keeping in touch with their extensive network of helpers and contacts, almost all working on a voluntary basis, wrestling with the bureaucracy of local government, making sure contracts were signed and exchanged, permissions secured, meetings organised. At the same time, they were consummate hosts, constantly on hand, showing us the sights, introducing us to local businesspeople and academics, and feeding us what seemed like endless (not to mention excellent) Colombian food. I can’t remember ever being made to feel so valued (which was hell for my Imposter Syndrome), or so very welcome; as weeks of ostensible work go, it was a hectic delight, and the closest thing I’ve had to a proper holiday in quite some time.

Guatape Portal

So thanks again to Vivi and Hernan, for inviting me to Medellín and making me feel so welcome; I consider myself very much in their debt. And the world futures community would do well to keep an eye on Medellín and Fractal: they’re busily finding ways to take the control and creation of futures narratives out of the hands of “experts” and put them into the hands of ordinary people, and that’s something we should all make an effort to learn from.