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Poor scribblers!

Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books. Or they find they can double their experience, and make a second pass at the day-today, by writing it down. Poor scribblers! Such people are closest to a solution, and yet to everyone else they seem to be using up time, wasting life, as they spend fewer hours “living” than anyone, and gain less direct experience. Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures. These poor dissatisfied people take photographs, make albums, keep souvenirs and scrapbooks. And still they always ask: “What have I done?”

From “The Concept of Experience”, by Mark Greif (Against Everything, Verso, p85)

The empathetic function in fiction

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

George Saunders, ganked from Teh Graun.

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.

Cool your head

Another day, another minor mention of immortalism in the mainstream media; this one’s rare in that it mentions the really important element of the business model of Alcor and other such cryogenics “service providers”:

The majority of patients choose to take out life insurance policies naming Alcor or the Cryonics Institute as their beneficiary.

Read that again. Let the implications sink in. Alcor’s business model involves encouraging people to bequeath a significant chunk of their estate against an ill-defined promise with little or no scientific foundations, to possibly be delivered upon at an indeterminate date in the future.

If it were only wealthy SilVal vencaps and other powerbros who were foolish enough to quaff this particular flavour of snake-oil, I’d have few tears to shed; any successful con-artist knows that the greedy and vain are the easiest targets to take. But the desperate are also easy targets, and quackery is always drawn to the scent of sickrooms; it takes a very special sort of grasping scumbag to bottle your hopes and sell them back to you.

I try to speak to Max More, but no interview is forthcoming despite several emails and calls.

The mightily monikered More is wise enough to not submit to interviews which are likely to not picture Alcor in its best light — and what astute businessman would do otherwise? But we need not be left guessing as to the flavours of philosophy that most made their mark on More during his stint reading PPE at Oxford, as his website burgeons with enlightening screeds that offer an insight into the man behind the elaborate self-made myth. I recommend starting with the soi-disant Proactionary Principle, which is also a cornerstone of transhumanist doctrine. Here’s a wee taster:

Whereas the precautionary principle is often used to take an absolutist stand against an activity, the Proactionary Principle allows for handling mixed effects through compensation and remediation instead of prohibition.

The core project of capital-T Transhumanism is only ostensibly about life extension and immortality; its true purpose is as a glossy conceptual package of future-glossed vanity-bait designed to encourage wealthy spoiled assholes to argue for massive programs of further economic and industrial deregulation. And while I’m not greatly fussed about the fates of fools who’d fall for this, the ultimate suit of emperor’s new clothes, I retain the same healthy respect for its tailor that I reserve for another species equipped with a forked tongue.  To paraphrase another libertarian fantasist:

People will believe anything you tell them, provided they want it to be true, or fear that it already is.

To observe that this is true is pessimism; to monetise it is cynicism, pure and simple.

Neither good nor bad, and never neutral

The network is neither good, nor bad, and never neutral; instead, the repetition of national politics in virtual space reminds us that our digital lives take place in the context of history and society, subject to the same powers and pressures as our physical lives. The network can be occupied, controlled, forbidden and attacked in just the same way as any other territory. But unlike other territories, its nature is to reveal its workings to the curious enquirer, to state its nature, and make itself amenable to investigation and change. What was not visible is written down, if we understand how to read it. By following the network, it’s possible to illuminate other narratives of history and politics, ones which have not been seen and told so clearly before, and may point the way to other futures.

– James Bridle, Citizen Ex