Tag Archives: Futurism

Looking ahead…towards the Singularity!

an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty

I’ll stop blockquoting Audrey Watters when she stops saying shit that needs saying.

The science fiction of The Matrix creeps into presentations that claim to offer science fact. It creeps into promises about instantaneous learning, facilitated by alleged breakthroughs in brain science. It creeps into TED Talks, of course. Take Nicholas Negroponte, for example, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab who in his 2014 TED Talk predicted that in 30 years time (that is, 24 years from now), you will swallow a pill and “know English,” swallow a pill and “know Shakespeare.”

What makes these stories appealing or even believable to some people? It’s not science. It’s “special effects.” And The Matrix is, after all, a dystopia. So why would Matrix-style learning be desirable? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps it’s not so much that it’s desirable, but it’s just how our imaginations have been constructed, constricted even. We can’t imagine any other ideal but speed and efficiency.

We should ask, what does it mean in these stories — in both the Wachowskis’ and Negroponte’s — to “know”? To know Kung Fu or English or Shakespeare? It seems to me, at least, that knowing and knowledge here are decontextualized, cheapened. This is an hollowed-out epistemology, an epistemic poverty in which human experience and human culture and human bodies are not valued. But this epistemology informs and is informed by the ed-tech imaginary.

“What if, thanks to AI, you could learn Chinese in a weekend?” an ed-tech startup founder once asked me — a provocation that was meant to both condemn the drawbacks of traditional language learning classroom and prompt me, I suppose, to imagine the exciting possibilities of an almost-instanteous fluency in a foreign language. And rather than laugh in his face — which, I confess that I did — and say “that’s not possible, dude,” the better response would probably have been something like: “What if we addressed some of our long-standing biases about language in this country and stopped stigmatizing people who do not speak English? What if we treated students who speak another language at home as talented, not deficient?” Don’t give me an app. Address structural racism. Don’t fund startups. Fund public education.

Re: “it’s special effects”—it’s also concretised metaphor, which, in the spectacular narrative logic of the cinematic, amounts to much the same thing. Part of this is a kind of meta-literacy problem, in that the deconcretisation of metaphor is a hard-won skill, and (I would guess) related to critical thinking: not something that can be taught, as such, but a strategy of parsing whose acquisition can be supported by a patient and less didactic form of pedagogy. Which is, I suppose, a way of saying that the ed-tech forms generated by the ed-tech imaginary work to sustain a form of education that ensures that the imaginary itself is unlikely to be questioned. Systemic imaginaries, much like actual systems, have a sort of autopoiesis of self-preservation: they work to counter entropic externalities.

Also:

There are other stories, other science fictions that have resonated with powerful people in education circles. Mark Zuckerberg gave everyone at Facebook a copy of the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, for example, to get them excited about building technology for the future — a book that is really just a string of nostalgic references to Eighties white boy culture. And I always think about that New York Times interview with Sal Khan, where he said that “The science fiction books I like tend to relate to what we’re doing at Khan Academy, like Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ series.” You mean, online math lectures are like a novel that justifies imperialism and genocide?! Wow.

This is not the first time I’ve ranted about the way in which the pajandrums of the Valley claim inspiration from books that they clearly haven’t understood in any but the most shallow and uncritical way, and I doubt it will be the last.

There are no valid futurisms or futurologies

The science fictional project is mainly a historical project, and to the extent there is any such thing as a futurological project, that would also be a historical project, so this isn’t a good distinction to try to make. I don’t think there are any valid futurisms or futurologies. I think most people who describe themselves as futurists or futurologists are claiming too much, almost to the point of being scam artists, especially if they charge people fees for them to come in and do consultations, as sometimes happens in the business world, or as a form of “edutainment”. Because the future can’t be predicted […] it’s best to leave all this at the level of science fiction, which for me is mainly a literary genre.

For me, science fiction has a kind of double action as a genre, and the image I use to convey this thought is the 3-D glasses you wear at 3-D movies to create the false impression of three dimensionality. Through one lens, sf tries to describe one possible future in great detail; not a prediction, but a modeling exercise or scenario. Not “this Will happen,” but “this Could happen.” Then the other lens is simply a metaphorical or symbolic portrayal of what’s going on right now. “It is as if we are all zombies being predated on by vampires”—this is my current candidate for the best metaphor for our times, even though people are too scared to write that one down, it seems. Anyway more traditional examples are “it is as if the working class are robots who may revolt,” or “it is as if cities are spaceships detached from Earth,” both older sf metaphors. Cyborgs are great images of us now, as Donna Haraway showed long ago. On it goes that way through that lens, symbolist prose poems of great power. Then, when the images coming through the two lens coalesce to a single vision in the mind’s eye, what pops into visibility is History itself, often deep time, casting into the future as well as back to the past. That’s how science fiction works and what it does.

[…]

Science fiction has been a marvelous escape from the dead end much “literary fiction” is in now, stirring the dead ashes of the great modernist works, and getting caught up in the narcissism of late capitalist bourgeois neurosis. SF is outsider art, looked down on by official literary culture, and that’s such a great place to be. It’s outside the MFA system, outside postmodernism, it’s even replacing the postmodern with the Anthropocene, historicizing and politicizing everything, able to take on science and use science’s exploding new vocabulary— well, there are many reasons why science fiction is the great realism of our time, and some of them are because of the traps it has avoided, either by its own efforts or by others misunderstanding and rejecting it.

Kim Stanley Robinson interviewed at Big Echo.

Immortality and infrastructure

Every technology requires a physical infrastructure in order to operate. But this infrastructure depends on social institutions, which are frequently subject to breakdown. I made this point when I bumped into some ardent advocates of cryonic suspension in California in the 1980s. How long would it take to develop the technologies that were needed to resurrect frozen cadavers as living organisms, I wondered. Not much more than a century, I was told. I asked these techno-futurists to consider the events of the past hundred years or so – a devastating civil war and two world wars, a ruinous stock-market crash and the Great Depression, for example. Given this history, how could they be confident that their refrigerated cadavers would remain intact for another century? The companies that stored them would surely go bust, wars and civil disturbances would lead to power failures, and the legal system that protected the cadavers could disappear. The United States might no longer exist in a recognisable form. The cryonicists looked at me blankly. These were scenarios that they had not considered and could not process. Such upheavals might have happened in the past, but the future was going to be quite different. For these believers in technological resurrection, American society was already immortal.

John Gray at The New Statesman, reviewing Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine

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.

Pirates of the Plastic Ocean, plus LonConnery

I can finally fully announce some very agreeable publications news: my story “Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico” appears in this year’s Twelve Tomorrows, which is MIT Technology Review‘s annual all-fiction special. (On Stateside newsstands in August, I believe — though I know next to nothing about UK/Europe/global availability. You can sign up on that page to be alerted when copies go on sale, though.)

Cover art for Twelve Tomorrows-2014

It’s an astonishing list of names to see myself alongside, and no mistake: Bruce Sterling (who took the editorial chair, and shoulders any blame for inviting yours truly to play alongside the grown-ups), William Gibson, Lauren Beukes, Pat Cadigan, Chris Brown (no, not that Chris Brown), Cory Doctorow, Warren Ellis. Receiving the invitation to contribute prompted the most intense burst of Imposter Syndrome I think I’ve ever had; it’s still not quite faded away, either.

Like most of my writing (yeah, yeah, I know), “Los Piratas… ” is not amenable to easy “what’s it about?” summary; that said, if you’ve read Keller Easterling’s Enduring Innocence, you’ll understand the choice of location (and the title ). As usual, I ended up trying to cram a novel’s worth of plot and ideas into a short story, and I’d have loved to have let it stretch out to novella length by expanding the aftermath section, which is necessarily summarised in broad strokes. But it was always intended as something of a polemic, and sometimes literary concerns have to take the back-seat when you’ve got a particular something to say to a particular audience. All that remains is to see how the audience reacts, I guess…

… and I expect I’ll get to find out at LonCon3 next month. (See? That’s how us pros make a segue, y’all.)

At the moment, it looks like I’ll be haunting the ExCel Centre (and, presumably, other significantly less monstrous venues in the same locale) in London from early afternoon Friday 15th August until the afternoon of Monday 18th. I’m on a handful of panels and giving a paper on the academic track, so if you want to come heckle a cyberhippy, these are the dates your diary needs:

  • Saturday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “Body Modification – From Decoration to Medication and Augmentation”

“From piercings and tattoos to laser eye surgery, we now have a world where decorative or voluntary medical body modifications are common. Modifications that add to our capabilities are starting eg. magnets implanted in fingers provide a magnetic sense. What more is coming? Zoom lenses for eyes? Enhanced muscles? Who is going to be the first with these and why, and will anybody want to install Microsoft Windows for brains?”

[Justina Robson (M), Paul Graham Raven, Jude Roberts, Frauke Uhlenbruch; no prizes for guessing how I ended up on this one]

  • Saturday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “50 Years After: Asimov predicts 2014 World’s Fair”

“In 1964, Asimov wrote a set of predictions for the 2014 World’s Fair. What did he predict, what did he get right and wrong, what did he say that was useful, and what did he miss completely?”

[Gerry Webb (M), Madeline Ashby, Stephen Foulger, Paul Graham Raven, Ben Yalow; I’m guessing this’ll be a bring-some-popcorn type of panel.]

  • Sunday 09:30 – 11:00, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL): “Science Fiction from the Outside (academic track)”

“Three academics each give a 15 minute presentation. This is followed by a jointly held 30 minute discussion with the audience.”

Dan Smith, “Science Fiction and Outsider Art”
Paul Raven, “The rhetorics of futurity: scenarios, design fiction, prototypes, and other evaporated modalities of science fiction”
Andrew Ferguson, “Zombies, Language, and Chaos”

[John Kessel (M), Paul Graham Raven, Dr. Dan Smith, Andrew Ferguson; one for the inside-baseball crowd only, probably.]

  • Sunday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL): “Speculative Design”

“Assuming a new technology, like synthetic biology, works, what products might come out of it? Speculative design is both a new artistic approach and a way of looking at problems and issues in a different way.”

[Gary Ehrlich (M), Nic Clear, Scott Lefton, Paul Graham Raven, Sarah Demb; these are mostly new names for me, so I’m hoping to learn new things on this one.]

I’m sure I’ll attend a fair few other panels and things, too, but mostly I’m planning to keep my schedule open and flexible; I’ve done enough cons now to know how best to make them work for me, and it turns out that running around with a timetable isn’t it. Very much looking forward to this rare opportunity to see some long-term Stateside friends and colleagues in the flesh; if you’re one of them (or, indeed, one of anyone), do drop me a line so we can arrange to meet.

Otherwise, the best way to locate me on the fly will probably involve triangulating between Twitter, the bar, and the smoking area. See you there? Good.