Tag Archives: futures

Like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck

Shoshana Zuboff’s back in town, and not a moment too soon:

By now [surveillance capitalism] no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy…

“But does it scale?” Of course — indeed, scaling is all it does. “Smart Cities”, anyone?

Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.

This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.

The evolution did not stop there. Ultimately they understood that the most predictive behavioural data comes from what I call “economies of action”, as systems are designed to intervene in the state of play and actually modify behaviour, shaping it toward desired commercial outcomes.

Against the asymptote

Joi Ito:

“For Singularity to have a positive outcome requires a belief that, given enough power, the system will somehow figure out how to regulate itself. The final outcome would be so complex that while we humans couldn’t understand it now, “it” would understand and “solve” itself. Some believe in something that looks a bit like the former Soviet Union’s master planning but with full information and unlimited power. Others have a more sophisticated view of a distributed system, but at some level, all Singularitarians believe that with enough power and control, the world is “tamable.” Not all who believe in Singularity worship it as a positive transcendence bringing immortality and abundance, but they do believe that a judgment day is coming when all curves go vertical.

Whether you are on an S-curve or a bell curve, the beginning of the slope looks a lot like an exponential curve. An exponential curve to systems dynamics people shows self-reinforcement, i.e., a positive feedback curve without limits. Maybe this is what excites Singularitarians and scares systems people. Most people outside the Singularity bubble believe in S-curves: nature adapts and self-regulates, and, for example, when a pandemic has run its course, growth slows and things adapt. They may not be in the same state, and a phase change could occur, but the notion of Singularity—especially as some sort of savior or judgment day that will allow us to transcend the messy, mortal suffering of our human existence—is fundamentally a flawed one.

Five years of infrastructure fiction

Thanks to Cory Doctorow’s tendency to repub stuff from the past, I am reminded that it’s about five years since I gave my original Infrastructure Fiction talk at ImprovingReality 2013 in Brighton. It seems like a lifetime ago, but also like it was just yesterday. Studying for a PhD does weird things to your perception of time.

Anyway, there’s the video if you fancy a (re)watch; if you prefer slides and text (which I certainly do), there’s a full version of the thing still available on Futurismic, though some time soon I should probably move that to a site that actually belongs to me*.

I’m kind of amused to note how early I nailed down the ideas that ended up informing my doctoral work… though I’m far closer to actually developing those ideas now, not least because doctoral work can drift in unexpected and unintended directions, and mine certainly did so. And therein lies a story… but I’ll save that one until the adventure in question is properly finished, I think. (The protagonist is currently still a-wander in the hinterland of corrections.) In the meantime, I’ll remark only that my presenting skills have improved considerably since this, my first proper speaking gig… though on the evidence, it would have been hard for me to get much worse.

* — I handed the Futurismic domain name back to Chris East some time ago, but he’s plainly not yet had the time to do owt with it, as it’s still pointing to the legacy site as sat on my server.

Instant Archetypes: 21st Century Tarot from Superflux

As acolytes of the Cult of Ellis may already be aware, the Kickstarter campaign for the Instant Archetypes card deck has just gone live. If you’re interested in futures, the occult, hypermodernist semantics, lush and unique artefacts, or some mix of all four of those — and if you’re still reading this blog, I figure you’re interested in at least one of those things — then I invite you to pop on over there and pledge for a deck.

Those of you reading here because of an enduring interest in my own perspective on institutional dynamics and tactical foresight might be further interested to know that you can also pledge for a consulting session with yours truly, in which I’ll work with you and the cards to think through whatever question or issue you’d most like to explore. (Apparently they decided to ignore my suggestion that this be billed as “consult a scruffy academic wizard about teh fewtch” — which only goes to show you how smart those Superfluxers really are.)

It’s really satisfying to see this project finally come to light; we first floated the concept during the lobby track of FutureEverything 2015, which for a variety of reasons, both personal and contextual, feels like a different aeon entirely… though somehow this feels like exactly the right time for it to emerge, too. The fashion for futures’n’ design folk producing decks of cards was just starting to pick up a head of steam; as I recall it, I made some fairly flippant comment about how you could just dig out an old tarot deck and achieve much the same thing, or even use Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Anab and Jon asked me to explain further, and so I rambled on about archetypes and sortilege and Jung, and Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens (which is perhaps the most formative cornerstone of what passes for my personal cosmology), and how I’ve long used the tarot as a writing prompt or creative disruption device, whether for fiction or non-fiction work, or simply just for life in general. Anab suggested we should make a reboot of the tarot specifically for futures-y folk, which I thought was a wonderful idea, albeit one that would most likely go the way of so many lobby track brainstorms. But it seems it stuck… and in fits and starts, taking advantage of gaps between Superflux projects and the demands of my doctoral studies, we thrashed out rewritten names and definitions for the Major Arcana, and found an amazing artist in Amelie Barnathan.

I still feel a twinge of guilt over the art phase of the project. Amelie asked me quite a few times for further interpretations of my little scripts describing the cards, or for suggestions as to how she should bring the symbols to life, and every time I told her that she should just go with what her own head and heart were telling her in reaction to my writings — which was clearly frustrating for her in at least a few cases. But I had an intuition that the deck would only have a proper visual unity and a genuine freshness if I stayed out of the art side as much as possible. (I was also mindful that I didn’t want to do a Crowley and browbeat an artist into channeling my own ego through their skills; Crowley was a great mage, but also a manipulative douchebag, and I don’t believe that the latter is essential to the former.)

As mean as it seemed at the time, I think my instinct was right: when the PDF of the finished designs came through, I actually cried, because they were just so *right*. The strongest magic comes from people finding their own way through the maze, and the resulting cards are so much better than they would have been had I tried to come up with more detailed prompts for the visuals. Think of it as an alchemy, if you like; I certainly do. (And thank you, Amelie, for enduring my refusal to guide you; I hope you agree it turned out for the best.)

And because it’s a Superflux joint, not only is the artwork fantastic, but the production values are off the freakin’ hook: designers are perhaps the ultimate details people (more so even than mages, if there’s any substantive difference), and every little aspect of the cards has been obsessed over and refined in prototype after prototype. They don’t just look amazing, they feel good in the hand — and that tactile aspect really amplifies the ritual vibe that’s essential to getting your head in the right space for thinking at angles to the actual. The Instant Archetypes are a genuine artefact, an object that expresses all the obsessive attention and passion poured into its creation, and I’m ridiculously proud to have played my part in bringing it to being.

As far as I’m concerned, this is my first book — and best of all, it’s a book that contains every story ever written, and all the ones that have yet to be written. I hope you’ll enjoy exploring them.

Future fuels and fuel futures

A commendable long essay by Iwan Rhys Morus at Aeon, which should perhaps be added to the list of works that have something to say about #solarpunk, even if it isn’t talking directly to that genre-complex: it’s in part a call for an understanding of “innovation” as a collective endeavour, rather than something individual entrepreneurs (might) do (when suitably incentivised). Definitely repays reading in full, but these were the moneyshot paragraphs for me:

We have been imagining the future of energy and the worlds it will generate for more than two centuries, and the cross-fertilisation between inventors and their literary counterparts continues to shape our imaginings, more often than not by invoking a pervasive individualism. It’s as if we struggle to get away from the notion that energy technologies have a single origin point and so these origins have to be located in specific individuals. Such individualism is often accompanied by the suggestion that only one fuel, be it hydrogen, wind or solar power, will dominate our futures, real or imaginary. Just as coal and steam powered the 19th century, or oil and electricity the 20th century, our stories about future fuels assume that one principal form of energy – solar, wind, nuclear – will monopolise the future. too.

If we want to overcome these imaginative limitations, we need to rethink the sorts of stories and histories we tell about energy, its origins, and its cultures. Though we’re conditioned to see energy revolutions coming about through individual rather than community action, the danger of this narrative – seductive and potentially useful as it is – is that it presents the future and its energies as belonging to someone else. To overcome that, we need to recognise that the expertise needed to make sure that the future is powered how we want is collective.

Here Morus seems to be working in a space where my obsession with the persistently heroic nature of innovation narratives collides with my interest in using narrative writing (and in particular the tropes and tools developed for, but no longer exclusive to, science fiction literature) as a practical and interdisciplinary method for exploring and critiquing potential sociotechnical futures, whether of energy or anything else [external link to an academic paper, but it’s open access, so anyone can read it].

As an almost-but-not-quite postdoc, I’m frequently asked “what is your discipline?”, to which my usual response is “I’m not sure what it’s called, as it appears to be a discipline containing only one scholar, but I can describe it if you’ve got ten minutes to spare”; this piece points at pretty much the space where it resides, though I’m probably coming at it from somewhat more of a bastardised and interdisciplinary STS/sociological perspective than is Morus, who is a proper historian.

(Of related interest would be Karen Pinkus’s Fuel: a Speculative Dictionary, which I reviewed for New Scientist a while back.)