on TheState: anarchist futurism & the lie of history

Posted by on June 26th, 2013

Last week I ran into an old workmate I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade, in the middle of a peak hour train station. A friendly face in the throng.

After establishing contact via mutual staring, we did the usual brief status updates.

“What have you been up to”, I asked.  ”Consulting”, he answered.

“And you?” “Self-mythologizing on the internet”, I replied. He nodded. Then we parted ways.

My first series of posts for The State has just concluded.

Here’s the links with some pull quotes. More to come as I continue to preach the good word of Sonmi-451 and the need for a posthuman rescue squad mission :)

anarchist futurism & the lie of history

  • part 1 The Origin Tale begins:

    This is the story of that reality: my journey through the corporate R&D wormhole and out the other side into the blogosphere; my first-hand witness of how the future is—and mostly isn’t—created; how I became an anarchist futurist, a Doktor of Mystery and, above all else, a grinder.

  • part 2 (meta):

    This was how I came to realise that in actuality, the grinding.be team was a human-machine dropped into the really real world to aid in the formation of planetary rescue; a metafictional outreach program from the mind of Warren Ellis to paradoxically prevent the creation of the universe he created. To stand in the gap, as Hickman puts it in S.H.I.E.L.D. To embrace the co-evolution of human and machine and to build the best of all possible futures.

    And our remit was also to give them, the readers, the Grinders, a narrative constructed for that purpose. Because narratives are ontological engines, through which we can radically reframe people’s self-awareness and vision, and thereby create Ontological Rescue Mission Squads. Along the way, as I’ve grinded my futurist stats, I’ve been fortunate to find myself a proper mentor of sorts: Futurist, inventor of VRML, and legendary techno-pagan, Mark Pesce. And having an epiphany one day some years ago now, I put it to him that I was now a Militant Futurist, fighting for a better world. And he succinctly replied, as all gurus do, “there’s another kind?”

  • part 3 Secret Histories and Doktors of Mystery:

    Like the wire-frames of the Matrix, the present is built out of the invisible tension of secret histories and strange facts, and Robert Anton Wilson was more right than even he suspected, even if he was kidding most of the time. But George Bush, Sr wasn’t really the grandson of Crowley, conceived in one of the greatest rituals performed in the 20th Century.

    If one thing is resolutely clear to me now, through all this ponderous, reflexive thought, it’s that the future isn’t a passive force that washes over us—much as it seemed as World War II ended, and the Space Age kicked off. The idea we inherited by osmosis. We didn’t get jetpacks precisely because we ceded our agency to a conjured narrative. We have met the enemy and he is us. But we did get more civil rights… for some.

    If we’re going to succinctly summarise my futurist philosophy, we need to talk about Archery. Archery is very now, very zeitgeist, and an absolutely palaeolithic technology. Hawkeye in The Avengers, the eponymous star of Arrow, and the world of the successor to Tolkien, Game of Drones Thrones.

    Think of the future as a target you want to hit. The further away it is, the more forces you have to consider—wind speed, politics, gravity, economics—and if it’s in motion, social change and the inertia of history, of course. Moore’s Law as the culture equivalent of Newton’s Second Law of Motion. Which gives us our poster girl for the future, the genetically engineered super girl, Hanna.

    Raised in the wilderness to be more badass than the literary Starship Troopers, fluent in multiple languages, strong in heart and mind, and above all, resilient. An atemporal hero for the futurepresent. The Anarchist Futurist Exemplar. The woman you’d want to lead a new Knight’s Templar. In an inverted Game of Thrones, her direwolf companion would be the alpha from The Grey. And far more palatable than the purely techno-utopian, crypto-fascist Hitler Jurgen of Ender’s Game fame.

    The future belongs to the mutants. That’s the future I’m fighting for. Mutants trying to climb the fractal of history. Updating themselves with every recursion. With only one motto: Adapt or die.

PS – would you like to know more about “invisible headphones” implants?


Posted by on December 30th, 2012

Last year, we asked you for questions.

You gave them to us.

This year, we’d like to do the same thing, shockingly enough.


Here’s the deal. Ask us anything — anything at all — via our formspring account here: http://www.formspring.me/Grinding We will then answer your questions in a hopefully entertaining manner.

Remember to use the Formspring account and not the increasingly compromised comments system for this. That’s http://www.formspring.me/Grinding — stay anon if you want or not. No topic is off limits, but things involving Grinding, the future, or whatnot would probably be a good idea.

Go forth to our Formspring and sin no more…  unless that’s what you’re into.



Guest Post: Joshua Ellis revisits the Grim Meathook Future

Posted by on June 1st, 2012

This is the first in a series of guest posts I’ve solicited, that will appear over the coming weeks and months. Kicking things off, our friend Joshua Ellis updates his notion of The Grim Meathook Future to give us:

The Grim Meathook Future, Revisited

Several years ago, I wrote this thing on a private message board run by the writer Warren “No Relation” Ellis. One of the other board members, Jamie Zawinski, liked it so much he posted it on his LiveJournal, and it took on a bit of life of its own, and a phrase from it, “the grim meathook future”, has kind of entered the futurist parlance. Bruce Sterling used it in a SxSW keynote, and most recently it showed up as a bit of a demented character’s inner monologue in Charlie Stross’s Rule 34. (There is nothing quite as odd, by the way, as reading a novel and coming across a phrase you coined.)

Part of what I wrote was this:

The upshot of all of this is that the Future gets divided; the cute, insulated future that Joi Ito and Cory Doctorow and you and I inhabit, and the grim meathook future that most of the world is facing, in which they watch their squats and under-developed fields get turned into a giant game of Counterstrike between crazy faith-ridden jihadist motherfuckers and crazy faith-ridden American redneck motherfuckers, each doing their best to turn the entire world into one type of fascist nightmare or another.

Of course, nobody really wants to talk about that future, because it’s depressing and not fun and doesn’t have Fischerspooner doing the soundtrack. So everybody pretends they don’t know what the future holds, when the unfortunate fact is that — unless we start paying very serious attention — it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.

What a lot of people seemed to miss, when they read this and ran with it, was that the Grim Meathook Future emphatically isn’t the Mad Max postapocalypse where everybody runs around shooting at each other in body armor made of tractor tires and Wilson’s Leather remaindered items. That future — envisioned by many as a sort of antidote to the gee-whiz chrome-plated futures of Star Trek and 1950s rock-ribbed science fiction — is, in point of fact, entirely as ridiculous and unlikely as any of the technofetishistic Rapture-of-the-nerds bullshit that the transhumanists come up with. It’s a macho fantasy invented by the sort of libertarians who secretly pray for the Poor People to rise up and start a civil war so their friends will stop laughing at them for keeping a cache of automatic weapons next to their Lexus in the garage of their suburban enclave.

Look: in the event of an actual global thermonuclear war, the likelihood is that pretty much all life on Earth would be wiped away, either in the firestorms or during the onset of the resulting nuclear winter, which would kill off the plants and the animals that ate the plants and the people who ate the animals and the plants. Nobody would have time to forget the old ways and revert to pre-civilizational Lord Of The Flies behavior; they’d be too busy dying of radiation poisoning or starvation. Poisoned and starving people don’t spend a lot of time waging tribal war on each other, because they’re too busy shitting out their own intestines or falling down unconscious every time they try to stand up too quickly.

But let’s assume, for a moment, some notional apocalypse that destroys civilization and maybe reduces the human population by 90%. There’s only one really possible scenario that could cause that, which is a fast-moving airborne pathogen with a high mortality rate. Not even global warming could kill that many of us off, because it doesn’t happen fast enough; humans are fast-moving adaptable primates. So imagine, if you like, that Ebola Zaire mutates and becomes airborne and most of the people on Earth die out very quicly, leaving the lion’s share of the remnants of civilization just lying around, a sort of mass version of the Roanoke Island colony, who left their food on their tables and their kitchen fires still burning.

Unless the survivors happened to be absolute drooling idiots, they’d have the power back on and at least the basic necessities of survival up and running in a matter of weeks or months. Why? Because every technological artifact on Earth, from toasters to plutonium power plants, comes with a fucking instruction manual.

Always wanted to learn basic engineering, or how to read a schematic, but never had the time? Well, guess what, homey? You now have absolutely nothing to do but find any one of the thousands of thousands of libraries dotting the Earth’s surface, load the entire 600 section into a wheelbarrow, and retire to some place with a shady spot for reading and a large supply of beer. Hell, armed only with a Boy’s Big Book Of Electrical Projects from the 1960s and the contents of a run-down mini-mall, you could probably build a two-way radio and a dynamo hooked up to an exercise bike to run it off of. Sure, if you weren’t a nerd or a maker, it might take you a while to figure it out…but if the world ends, it’s gonna take your inbox and your Getting Things Done list with it. You’ll have nothing but time.

So no, that’s not my Grim Meathook Future. (It actually sounds kind of lovely; now where did I leave those access codes for the biowarfare lab, again….) My Grim Meathook Future is the one that looks like the present.

Living in America — indeed, in any of the economically top-tier countries in the First World — is like living in a big room. It’s huge, this room, so big that you can’t see the walls, and it’s nice and cozy. To paraphrase Depeche Mode: all you ever wanted, all you ever needed is here in your arms. And you’ve never been outside the room. Intellectually, you know that there’s a world outside, maybe one that’s not quite as nice and cozy; you’ve seen it on TV, after all. But it doesn’t really affect you. When you think of the world, you think of the room; your idea of normality is based on what’s normal in the room.

There are nearly a billion Facebook users in the world, and half a billion Twitter users (though of course there’s probably nearly a 90% overlap between those two). Those are indeed astonishing numbers, but the problem is that sometime around March 12, 2012, we passed seven billion people living on Earth. That means that the vast majority of humans aren’t on Facebook or Twitter. The majority of people have mobile phones, but there are more people still who don’t have mobile phones than use Facebook.

Most of us never see these people, of course, except as faces briefly glimpsed in the background of news footage. They are outside our Big Room. Not because we’re intentionally keeping them out, you understand; at least, not really on any overt institutional level. Basically. We don’t do that any more, and we feel good about it.

It’s just that living in the Big Room is expensive, you see…and, well, these people can’t afford it. They don’t have Facebook because they can’t afford the technological artifacts that would allow them to be on Facebook. They don’t tweet about how much the new version of iOS sucks, because they don’t have any way to tweet and they damn sure don’t have a device that will run iOS, because these devices cost more than these people often make in a year.

But, hey, look, things are tough all over. I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty for having the basic economic and cultural capital to be able to read this essay. You probably had no more control over your circumstances than a boy-child growing up in the streets of Kibera did, and no reason to feel guilty. We are where we are.

But it’s important to understand that the capital-F Future where we become cyborgs permanently mind-melded with our technology is open only to people who can afford that technology in the first place…especially when technological innovation is driven by Silicon Valley-style venture capitalism.

I’ve been a coder for most of my life — not a very good one, necessarily, by the standards of any given hackathon, but I’ve made my living doing it for a long time, at least when I wasn’t making a living by writing. Consequently, I’ve worked with and been around Valley-style entrepreneurs and investors quite a bit. And it’s taken me fifteen years of hanging out in the tech industry and around tech industry people to fully realize that I can’t stand being in the same room with most of them.

“It’s no trick to make a lot of money,” says Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane, “if all you want to do is make a lot of money.” And it’s true. All you have to do is find a lot of people with disposable income, figure out what they’ll spend that income on, and sell it to them. At the heart of it, that’s what Steve Jobs did, to some extent with the personal computer and to a greater extent with the iPhone. Later, Mark Zuckerberg figured out a neat, if creepy, angle on this trick: find the people with the income, find out what they spend it on…and then sell that information to the people who sell the people the things they want to buy.

That’s what Silicon Valley is for: making shit for people with disposable incomes to buy. (And making shit for companies to buy so their workflow is more efficient, so the people who own the company and work for the company can buy more of the other shit.) If it was ever about trying to make the world a better place, that train left the station a long time ago.

It’s my experience that most venture capitalists and serial entrepreneur types are almost identical, personality-wise, to the street hustlers and drug dealers whose acquaintance I’ve made over the years. They may wear polo shirts instead of Fubu and spend their money on organic produce instead of custom hubcap rims, but they operate on the same principle: waking up every day figuring out new ways to get paid. Whether these ways are good for society as a whole, or even for the person who’s doing the paying, is a minor consideration next to the paycheck itself. And if you’re not a means to that end, well, fuck you. More than once, I’ve seen the exact same behavior in a Stanford-educated dot.com startup founder at a tech meetup and a smacked-out panhandler on the Las Vegas Strip: they’re all smiles and handshakes when they approach you, but as soon as they realize you’re not a potential mark with an open wallet you can watch their eyes go dead and look right through you, on to the next target.

I hate these people and wouldn’t piss on most of them if they were on fire, but that’s fine; I hate bankers and lawyers too, like every other blowhard bohemian iconoclast does, and I doubt any of them are losing any sleep over it. What bothers me is that we’ve effectively put these walking hardons in charge of building that capital-F Future, in every sector of the innovation industry, from genetically grown food to biotechnology to communications to spaceship-building.

And none of them, not a single one, is interested in any Future if they can’t sell it for a serious profit. Nor do they care if the process of selling and profiting leaves a swath of collateral damage the size of a Gulf Coast oil spill in its wake.

Which leaves those six billion other people, the people who don’t live in the Big Room with you and me and Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg, pretty well fucked.

The real Grim Meathook Future, the one I talked about back when I wrote that thing and the one I see now, is the future where a relatively small slice of our species lives in a sort of Edenic Eloi reality where the only problems are what we laughingly refer to as White People Problems, like being able to get four bars’ worth of 4G signal at that incredible pho joint that @ironicguy69 recommended on Twitter, or finding new ways to lifehack all the shit we own into our massive closets…while the rest of the world is reduced to maintaining our lifestyles via a complex process of economically-positioned indentured servitude and clinging with the very tips of their fingernails onto the ragged edge of our consumer leavings, like the dorky dude who shows up the first day of school with the cheap K-Mart knockoffs of the pumped-up kicks the cool kids are wearing this year. In other words, the Grim Meathook Future is the one that looks like the present, the one where nothing changes.

But don’t you know, people are talkin’ about a revolution, son? In the streets of Cairo and Tripoli, where they Twittered entire governments to their knees; in Zucotti Park and in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, where they’re Occupying anything and everything they can. Information wants to be free, didn’t you get the Facebook notification?

Yeah, I know that song, and I know who did the original version: Stewart Brand, at the first Hacker’s Conference. But what Stewart also said, that most of the cyberlibertarians forget to mention (or never knew in the first place) is that information wants to be expensive. Information — and the economy around it — wants to be sold to teenagers at the highest possible price point that their parents will tolerate. It wants to be unlimited, if by unlimited you mean two gigabytes per month, after which you get charged a dollar a megabyte. Information wants to be marketed to you, and if it could put a microphone in your bedroom to hear what you muttered about in the deepest darkest depths of your dreams, it would do it, and it would convince you to let it do it by allowing you to share your dreams with that dude you made out with one night at a party in college who, by virtue of the social networks, is still a part of your circle of interaction for no apparent goddamn reason at all. And then it would sell your dreams back to you, with free shipping if your order is over $25.

At least, that’s what all the evidence these days suggests. If Western companies are helping developing nations throw off the various yolks of tyranny, it’s only because they’ve identified potential future markets. A free society, after all, usually means a free market. The Occupy Movement is very good at identifying the problems with the world – shit’s fucked up real bad – but not so good at coming up with viable solutions that anybody with actual power pays much attention to. The social networks have been coopted by the activist movements, but only to the extent that you can now watch Iranian soldiers or NYPD thugs beat the shit out of teenage girls in real-time. The beatings haven’t stopped; no one has truly been held accountable; same as it ever was, same as it ever was. Knowing may be half the battle, as they used to tell us on the old G.I. Joe cartoon when I was a kid, but that’s just it: it’s only half the battle.

If I sound dismissive and cynical, it’s because I am. I’m deeply, irreconcilably cynical about the technology industry, especially when anybody in it starts mouthing off about human rights, as if they gave a shit. Of course tech lobbyists frame things like the file-sharing issue as a human rights issue, and tell you that it’s all about your right to have as many Dave Matthews MP3s as your hard drive can hold; they work for the people who make the software that shares the files and run the websites that link to the torrents, almost none of whom are doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. They don’t talk to you about musicians who can’t make money from album sales anymore or newspapers that lock their doors after decades or centuries of publication, simply because the people who run them can’t figure out how to instantiate an instant technological pivot — because, you know, they’re just stupid journalists, not social media gurus.

Is it good for humanity when these things happen? Is it good for individual communities, or the creative arts? It doesn’t matter. It’s good for the technology industry, for those hustling pricks in the polo shirts, whose job is to find new ways to sell shit to people. And that’s all that matters.

That’s the Grim Meathook Future I see lying before us, a long game of technological determinism where the only people who get their jetpacks or their self-driving cars or their anti-aging nanotech are the ones who can afford it, and everyone else can simply go fuck themselves and rot in whatever Third World toilet they were unlucky enough to be born into.

Is there a way around it? Man, I don’t know. I really don’t. And I actually think about this shit a lot, not just on my daily commute from my bedroom to the coffeeshop patio. I read Bruce Sterling’s blog and I watch TED talks and I sit around in the dark heat of the Las Vegas night and spend hours thinking about it…and I just don’t have an answer.

I’m afraid that avoiding the Grim Meathook Future might require the dismantling of American-style corporate capitalism. I’m not a Communist or anything, but it seems to me that corporate capitalism as it’s played in my country is a lot like throwing a hundred sharks and a hundred minnows into a small tank. Sharks are machines that eat minnows: they’re incapable of doing anything else, even of keeping a few minnows around to make more minnows to eat later. So they’ll eat and eat until there’s nothing to do except eat each other, and the last one left alive in the tank isn’t the winner: he’s just the shark who gets to die slowly and horribly of starvation. People can only buy so much shit until they run out of money or space to put it in, and then what?

I hope that we’ll wise up and take the sharks out of the pool, or at least muzzle them for a while. If we do — if we stop thinking entirely about the Benjamins and start thinking about the survival of our species as a whole — I think things will change, and some other future will open up, an even more radical future than any Singularity of social networks that might occur.

I hope so. I’d love to see a future I couldn’t predict.


Joshua Ellis is lead developer and podcast co-host at NSFW Corp., as well as a writer, columnist, speaker and musician. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife Rosalie and his two cats, Erwin Schrodinger and Pablo Honey.

Time travellin’ with Werner Herzog

Posted by on February 7th, 2012

In a forbidden recess of the cave there is the footprint of an eight year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. Did a hungry wolf stalk the boy, or did they walk together as friends? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart?

There’s a rule futurists use: go back twice as far as you wish to predict forwards. I have a new theory though, that’s hinted at by the popularity of Atemporality: the further we progress with our technology, the more all of time itself can (effectively) exist at the same time.

Pleistocene Rewilding, for instance, is one of the better strategies I’ve seen to help ‘fix’ climate change (by preventing the release of methane in the arctic tundra). And as the Chairman himself noted in the Art+Enviroment conference keynote, this Anthropocenic period increasingly resembles the Pleistocene.

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Which is why Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is near mandatory viewing. The above quote is one of the more mind-boggling parts. As is the evidence that two adjoining cave paintings were made FIVE THOUSAND YEARS apart. Just hold that thought in your mind, instead of wondering what’s in the next iPhone.

For a glimpse, here’s the experimental archeologist Wulf Hein playing a flute carved from the arm of a vulture (wearing the skins of reindeers, thought to be the ‘fashion’ at the time). This is the music of 30K B.C.:

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We can’t honestly consider the future of humanity, without looking honestly back at its beginning and assessing how we got this far to begin with.


Joseph Campbell on the Origins of Man and Myth:



  • a very on-topic SMBC


Posted by on January 19th, 2012

by bisdixit

Bruce Sterling @ Symposium Playful Post Digital Culture

Posted by on November 30th, 2011

Here’s Chairman Bruce just a few days ago at the STRP Festival, once more describing our immediate situation and near-future in terms we can then build on and discuss with:


Tim Flannery on humanity’s future as a super organism

Posted by on May 4th, 2011

From the Guardian, where it appears Flannery is updating the Gaia hypothesis:

Tim Flannery argues that humankind is evolving into a ‘super-organism’ where interdependence has profound consequences for the individual.

Look for an expansion of this in his Long Now seminar.

thoughts on the Transcendent Man

Posted by on April 7th, 2011

The Ray Kurzweil documentary, Transcendent Man, has been downloadable for a while now and is having selected screenings across the world. Prompted by Paul Raven’s review on Futurismic (and his appearance on the panel discussing the film in London, get down there locals!) I decided to give it a watch.

Firstly, to be clear, I’m not a Believer in the Singularity, and I feel that it’s these Believers that contribute to the frequent descriptions of it as a techno-religious cult. Indeed, the almost immediate impression you got from this Kurzweil love-fest was: There is only one God (Technology) and Ray Kurzweil is its Prophet. There’s A LOT of time dedicated to what seems to be the creation/promotion of a Cult of Personality around Ray (but this may well be my own sensitivities speaking, since I’ve dedicated a lot of time lately studying Mao Zedong) and far less given to those equally brilliant people, doing amazing work, with dissenting opinions (the clips with Kevin Warwick, always a favourite here, are particularly good.) But far be it for me to mount an aggressive campaign picking apart his arguments. Starting a War is the furthest thing from my mind. Instead, let me gently point out a few of flaws as I see them:

  1. Ray is focusing on Technological change to the complete exclusion of all other elements, be they Social, Political or Economical. I agree we’re in the midst of rapid change, but you must account for the intersection & feedback between all aspects of Human Society.
  2. Ray seems to have pinned his hopes on the eventual arrival of Friendly AIs (primarily to resurrect his dead father.) While I can sympathize with this desire, I think it’s foolish to imagine that should near-god-like AIs suddenly burst into existence that they will even remotely resemble Human Beings and have human concerns. This applies equally to the Doomsday scenarios, that The Machines Will Wipe Us Out! Why would they/it bother?? If anything, like in Vernor Vinge’s book Rainbow End, they might see us as a curiosity to be toyed with, but forget the Terminator-nightmare. That is just Humanity’s ego overstating it’s own anthropocentric importance.
  3. Finally, his whole theory is posited on the idea that all human biological evolution has ceased and it is within the sphere of technology and culture that evolution now takes place. This idea has been popular for a while, but like all scientific ideas, it represents just the current understanding (with its implicit statement of the Myth of Nature, the idea that Humans have left the Animal Kingdom.) Whereas current indications (see Are We Still Evolving?) hint that not only did we never stop evolving (because we are still Animals), but as a consequence of <rapid change = rapidly changing selection criteria> humanity might Naturally be about to make a Great Leap Forward.

Nonetheless, for all interested in Technological Change this documentary is well made and worth seeing, if only to focus your own viewpoints and sharpen your arguments.

Tangentially, I recently read Jonathan Hickman’s run on the Fantastic Four comic and Kurzweil seems oddly similar to the depiction of Reed Richards in these (especially in issue #579.) They’re both unquestioningly brilliant men trying to fix the world and in short: Solve Everything. However, intelligence and wisdom are two different things. (Weirdly enough, both had largely absent fathers too.) But enough conflating fact and fiction.

Fundamentally my bugbear with Singularitarianism is this: it discourages engaging with the Present, thinking that we can just lie back and let Technology Fix Everything. It seems focused on watching for the arrival of elements necessary to fulfill its predictions, rather than closely observing the present and trying to extrapolate from emerging trends, continuously updating your future-world-view. What worries me is that people viewing this documentary will think that everything will be just fine and they can safely adopt a passive role.

As I see it, the challenge we’re facing right now is making the Transition as gentle as possible. As I’ve said before, we’re already mid-Singularity, in that a one-way shift is happening. The world that lies on the other side will very much be the product of the choices we make right now and they require us all to be engaged in making and shaping them; but I am absolutely down for Total Life Forever.

Award winning campaign of revolutionary optimism: Tunisia – June 16th, 2014

Posted by on April 1st, 2011

Now this is my kind of advertising campaign, stimulating collective Futurism by the citizens of Tunisia after re-claiming their country. Sure, I’m far more in favour of the envisioning process than the brand promotion involved in this, but I’m nonetheless happy to see it being recognised with an award.

JUNE 16th 2014 – the idea that moved Tunisia wins gold at Dubai Lynx

Let’s see what the next version looks like, as this idea spreads.

Update: Futuryst has dug further into this.

Jamais Cascio on Evolving our Society to Survive

Posted by on March 30th, 2011

This is a long, dense piece.. it’s Jamais Cascio’s speech to his Institute For The Future colleagues at their recent annual Ten Year Forecast event. It’s written in their native Futurist vernacular, but I’ve largely cut that in choosing the parts I’ve quoted here. I trust you’ll agree from this though that it’s well worth taking the time to digest and absorb it all:

..Now, I said a moment ago that this “unstable instability” is likely to last for at least another decade. I’m sure we could all spend the next hour coming up with reasons why that might be so, but one that I want to focus on for a bit is climate disruption. In many respects, climate disruption is the ultimate unstable instability system.

Climate disruption is something that comes up in nearly all of our gatherings these days, and I don’t think I need to reiterate to this audience the challenges to health, prosperity, and peace that it creates.

We’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few Ten Year Forecasts looking at different ways we might mitigate or stall global warming. Last year, we talked about carbon economies; the year before that, social innovation through “superstructures.” In 2008, geoengineering. This year, I want to take yet another approach. I want to talk about climate adaptation.

I say that with some trepidation. Adaptation is a concept that many climate change specialists have been hesitant to talk about, because it seems to imply that we can or will do nothing to prevent worsening climate disruption, and instead should just get ready for it. But the fact of the matter is that our global efforts at mitigation have been far too slow and too hesitant to have a near-term impact, and we will see more substantial climate disruptions in the years to come no matter how hard we try to reduce carbon emissions. This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to cut carbon; what it does mean is that cutting carbon won’t be enough.

But adaptation won’t be easy. It’s going to require us to make both large and small changes to our economy and society in order to endure climate disruption more readily. That said, simply running down a checklist of possible adaptation methods wouldn’t really illuminate just how big of a deal adaptation would be. We decided instead that it would be more useful to think through a systematic framework for adaptation.

Our first cut was to think about adaptations in terms of whether they simplify systems – reducing dependencies and thereby hopefully reducing system “brittleness” – or make systems more complex, introducing new dependencies but hopefully increasing system capacity.

Simplified systems, on the whole, tend to be fairly local in scale. But reducing dependencies can also reduce influence. Simplification asks us to sacrifice some measure of capability in order to gain a greater degree of robustness. It’s a popular strategy for dealing with climate disruption and energy uncertainty; the environmental mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is a celebration of adaptive simplification.

Adaption through complexity creates or alters interconnected systems to better fit a changing environment. This usually requires operating at a regional or global scale, in order to take advantage of diverse material and intellectual resources. Complex systems may have increased dependencies, and therefore increased vulnerabilities, but they will be able to do things that simpler systems cannot.

So that’s the first pass: when we think about adaptation, are we thinking about changes that make our systems simpler, or more complex?

But here’s the twist: the effectiveness of these adaptive changes and the forms that they take will really depend upon the broader conditions under which they’re applied. We have to understand the context.

Adaptation can take multiple forms, but more importantly, the value of an adaptation depends upon the conditions in which it is tried. Just because an adaptive process worked in the past doesn’t mean that it will be just as effective next time. But there are larger patterns at work, too. If you can see them early enough, you can shape your adaptive strategies in ways that take advantage of conditions, rather than struggle against them.

But here’s the crucial element: it looks very likely that we’re in a period where the large patterns we’ve seen before aren’t working right.

Instead, we’re in an environment that will force swift and sometimes frightening evolution. Businesses, communities, social institutions of all kinds, will find themselves facing a need to simultaneously experiment rapidly and keep hold of a longer-term perspective. You simply can’t expect that the world to which you’ve become adapted will look in any way the same – economically, environmentally, politically – in another decade.

As a result, you simply can’t expect that you will look in any way the same, either.

The asteroid strikes. The era of evolution is upon us. It’s now time to watch the dinosaurs take flight.

We’ve seen the writing on the wall for decades, but the Powers That Be have done little to stop it. Carbon trading won’t save us, no framing of it as a purely economic problem will. The sooner we start radically adapting our societies to face this new reality, the more hope we have. To use the terms in my recent essay, it’s past time for the Rescue Mission to begin.

In the year 02037…

Posted by on March 27th, 2011

Via Stuart “Futuryst” Candy we learn of MIT’s Future Freight Flows; four attempts to show just what the year 02037 might look like, from the POV of a person watching various iterations of a news program itself current to that period.  (Stuart uses the Long Now’s 10,000 year clock calendar.)

Of the four, this one seems closest to the mark:

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How close? Well in my view it’s good, apart from these elements of it’s depiction:

  • Firstly, and mostly obviously, Nuclear Power. An increasing problem in extrapolating from the present in these rapidly changing times, something can happen just next week that invalidates the prediction you made today. This is a perfect case of that. Except for maybe state-controlled China (and we’ll see how long that situation itself lasts), that push we’ve been seeing to “re-brand” nuclear power as being ‘Green’ is over. No matter how hard they green-wash it, the world’s just got a deservedly bad case of the NIMBY’s for nuclear reactors. My prediction: reduced energy demands thanks to efficiency gains, coupled with a distributed, renewable energy driven, grid.
  • Hyperlocal manufacturing thanks to 3D Printing tech? Hell yes! But… buying designs as DRM’ed products, controlled via IP law? Well, maybe for the new global elite it might be the chic thing, but for the rest..? No. Far more likely: downloading open-source designs from sites like thingiverse for everything from fashion and furniture to food to medicine, as the technology improves.
  • Finally the year itself: 02037. 02017, more likely. It’s been traditional to project radical changes as being far away, over the horizon of the present. So this imagining of a newish world, a fictional future present, is pitched as being 26 years distant. But as we ride the wave of accelerating change, 6 years is the new 26 years, and I will happily place a Long Bet to that effect.

By way of contrast with this, I leave you with my least favourite of the four scenarios: the quasi-fascist/quasi-communist Eco World Order future:

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Bruce Sterling’s SXSW speech – excerpt 1

Posted by on March 23rd, 2011

Since there isn’t a decent recording online, and as a gift to the Future, I’ve started the process of transcribing key chunks of Bruce Sterling’s closing speech at SXSW, which I’ll post over the coming days, as I complete them. This is taken from this rough recording and maybe a better recording will surface soon, but here you go for now, because he’s saying a lot of stuff here that needs to be said:

It’s very difficult to talk about politics, because all the political language has been rendered toxic. It’s just decades of Culture War now.. reduced all the nouns and verbs to rubble so, you know, it’s either ‘blood sucking bankster[?] moguls’ or ‘socialists punishing success’ and everybody in politics has learned how to deploy this kind of polarising ‘brand management.’ Culture War there is just all over the place.. [The] US has a very bad case of this, but not the worst case in the world, ’cause I’ve seen it worse and we’re gonna get into that.

So I’d like to talk about politics from the point of view of the Design Critic, really.. ’cause I am a Design Critic.. generally I criticise stuff that doesn’t exist yet, that’s kind of a metier for me, as someone that’s a Futurist science-fiction writer. Of course I’m interested in things that have one foot in fantasy and maybe a toe in reality, stuff like Augmented Reality, Generative Art, Design Fiction. Are they good or bad? Are they interesting or boring? Are they cool ideas? I spend a lot of time accumulating cool ideas. I’m a zealot for this. If you want cool ideas, like cool, political ideas.. techno-political [ideas], here you go, World Changing 2.0 is just out.

It’s great, it’s got thousands of ideas. They’re pre-sorted, almost kind of practical, cool out there, fabulous, well illustrated, beautifully designed, nifty keen.. an endless parade of ‘em. But from the point of view of a critic, like a culture critic, are they really good ideas? It’s not enough that there are huge numbers of them. Cause that’s just kind of a sci-fi notebook approach. What you really need to have critical success it’s pretty simple and it’s Passionate Virtuosity.

It took me a long time, I had to read a bunch of boring critical stuff to figure that out, but that’s really what it’s about in the Arts or Design. And what does that mean? Well first you gotta find someone who really cares about what he’s doing and he’s capable of higher than average performance (she is), and that would be Passionate. Then they’ve gotta be really, really capable of doing it, they’ve mastered the minutiate of it, just on top of their game, performance wise, and that’s Virtuosity.

So typically in a writer’s career, any creative person really, you’ve got the opening period where they’re super passionate, full of burning things to do, sometimes they actually set fire to stuff.. wild rebels.. eager, hard charging, youth fervour there. Then at the end of their career they’re very much masters of their field, but they don’t really feel like doing much. They’ve found their favourite easy chair, they like to make wise-cracks about younger people.. and somewhere in the middle there, is Passionate Virtusoity. Where they still really want to do it, and they’ve got some kind of burning energy and motivation and they’re also really great at it..this are the works that are the peak of their whatever.

[Bruce holds up WorldChanging 2.0] So the ideas in this thing kind of lack Virtuosity, ’cause they’re speculative. They’re not gone into in great detail. So though there’s a lot of passion in the book, it lacks people who have been able to pick it up and deploy it. Now, if these ideas and approaches and tools in this book were actually deployed in our society, our society would improve radically and it would be better by almost every metric. But we’re not getting there because we don’t have the political will and we also don’t have the organisational skill and also we’ve just got a series of problems that are poorly recognised.

The passage of time turns Cyberpunks into Design Professors, or in the case of my pal Rudy Rucker, a Mathematics Professor, and we end up practicing a lot of Attention Philanthropy; bring attention to stuff as critics rather than creatives. Teaching in design school, rather than designing stuff, so forth and so on. Politically in our society, we don’t have any Passionate Virtuosity. If you look at it objectively, as a political situation, it’d be the polar opposite of Passionate Virtuosity. If there was a term for that, it’d be Disgusted Incompetence. It’d be a good term for what’s going on..

The Invisible Wi-Fi Landscape

Posted by on March 1st, 2011

Immaterials: Light painting WiFi from Timo on Vimeo.

This project explores the invisible terrain of WiFi networks in urban spaces by light painting signal strength in long-exposure photographs.

A four-metre long measuring rod with 80 points of light reveals cross-sections through WiFi networks using a photographic technique called light-painting.

The future is here, but it’s incomplete

Posted by on January 13th, 2011

Brilliant bit of truthfulness over on Discover’s ‘Science Not Fiction’ blog, The First Decade of the Future is Behind Us:

…herein lies the the terror of the 21st century. The era in which “the future” means anything is behind us. It no longer works as a concept because that for which “the future” used to stand – a world of wonder, scientific innovation, and marvel – is here, now, all around us. Others have noted that the Singularity is “In Our Past Light-Cone” and that our current visions of the future are actually outdated in relation to current technology. But this creates something of a problem: if it’s already the future, then what comes after the future? This question is the wrong one. It’s like asking what comes after history? More history, of course. The more interesting question is this: now that the future is here, how do we survive it?

Our Baudrillardian hyper-reality is one in which world-altering inventions must be instantly integrated into our lives or we begin to fall behind, to fall out of reality. If you met someone who didn’t use a cellphone or computer and had no idea what the internet was, would you say that person shared your reality? Really? In addition to the risk of being outrun by reality, the strangeness, the alienation of our daily experience of the future comes from the fact that our future is partial. Yes, we have smartphones and internet-everything, but we don’t have genetic engineering or neural-implants or human clones or surgical nano-bots or teleportation. Different areas of science enter the future at different rates. We don’t notice the current wave of innovation we’re riding, only the fields lagging behind. The future is here, but it’s incomplete.

If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that though technological progress is guaranteed, its direction is impossible to discern, pace Ray Kurzweil. A breakthrough in one technology can cause explosive progress in relation to other technologies. Because cellphones and the internet went through such exponential growth, even with huge advances it looked like genetics, biotech, neuroscience, and nanotech just plodded along. It’s no longer a question of when the future will get here but which future is next? A future of space flight and interplanetary colonization? A future of androids, cyborgs, and AI? A future of genetically enhanced and near-immortal transhumans? A future of nanotech based post-scarcity production? My argument is that while any oneof these futures is a real possibility, only one will come into being at a time. If pressed to guess, the breakthroughs in genomics and genetic engineering point to the next couple decades being dominated by biotech. Just as you’ve managed to shake off the awe and wonderment of your smartphone, in a decade or so you’ll be bored with gene therapies, $50 genomic sequencing, designer babies, and clones. Or maybe I’m completely wrong and it’ll be nano-tech replicators and graphene-based space elevators that you grumble about not getting your orbiting cubical fast enough.

We’re making our way through the future, one decade, one technology, at a time. Try to stay excited.

oh hai, you’re probably here about the Future

Posted by on December 4th, 2010

Here’s two pieces in two formats from two of the smartest people I know of. The subject: The Future. How it’s been shaped and will be continue to be shaped.

First we have Cory Doctorow, writing today on BoingBoing, riffing off an old clip of H.G. Wells predicting The Death of the Newspaper. What Cory’s delivered is Modern Futurism 101. I’m tempted to just blockquote the whole thing, but I’ll be a good blogger and just pull a few paragraphs:

..it’s wrong in a way that futurists are often wrong: it assumes a clean break with history and the positive extinction of the past. It predicts an information landscape that is reminiscent of the Radiant Garden Cities that Jane Jacobs railed against: a “modern” city that could only be built by bulldozing the entire city that stood before it and building something new on the clean field that remained. Every futuristic vision that starts with a clean slate has a genocide or an apocalypse lurking in it. Real new cities are build through, within, around, and alongside of the old cities. They evolve.

The experiment that we are presently conducting as a society is aimed at discovering what kind of information and transactions are really and truly “newspaper material” and not material that we stuffed into the margins of a newspaper because we needed it and newspapers were the only game in town. It may be that there’s nothing left when we’re done, that there’s a better way of delivering every word and every picture in the newspaper than to print it on broadsheet and fold it in eighths, in which case, newspapers may die, or they may end up being the territory of newspaper re-enactors, the equivalent of hobbyists who knap their own flint or re-enact the Battle of 1066.

Or it may be that newspapers do have a small and important and moving clutch of information and stories and images that really, really are better on paper. Maybe the audience for that will be too small and specialized to support a large business, and maybe the audience will club together and treat newspaper like a charity, the way that opera (another medium that lost a lot of its stories to more popular and hence cheaper successor media) functions today. Or maybe the cost of producing a paper will dip so low that we won’t particularly need a business to support it (Clay Shirky: “Will we still read the New York Times on paper in the future? Sure, if we print it out before reading it”).

Or maybe there is a large and substantial and popular insoluble lump of newspaperstuff that no successor medium is better at hosting, a critical mass of popular material that sustains newspapers in a diminished but substantial niche, perhaps like vinyl records.

Now, it’s worth getting meta here and pointing out that BoingBoing’s origin was as a zine. It migrated to the web and has grown so successfully it’s now known to some as the Great Big Blog.

As evidence as to what the ‘future of the newspaper’ is, we have this video from Activate 2010, where Jamais Cascio speaks about “the dynamics of internet evolution”, hosted by The Guardian.  (Gen Y kids mightn’t know this, but The Guardian started, and is still available, as a newspaper.)

How clever is Jamais?  In just fourteen minutes he takes a quick look back at how technology has been, and still is, marketed to us, and tells us what’s really happened and how it will look going forwards.

There you have it. Two general overviews of how society evolves. Read/watch them, study them.. understand them and you’re a Futurist too.

Jamais Cascio on ‘Surviving the Future’

Posted by on October 19th, 2010

From Open The Future:

On Thursday, October 21, CBC TV will show Surviving the Future, an hour-long documentary on both the major challenges facing us over the next half-century and the amazing technologies and social shifts underway to meet those challenges. Directed by the award-winning documentarian Marc de Guerre, Surviving the Future is a rather intense piece of work, with interviews with a variety of scientists, writers, and other thinkers. They also talk to me. The trailer can be found here.

While CBC documentaries often end up on the “CBC Doc Zone” website weeks or months later, I know that some of you (hi Mom!) might want to hear what I have to say sooner than that. Since the producers were nice enough to send me a DVD ahead of time, I’ve managed to pull out the bits in which I appear.


The future is more unevenly distributed than scientists originally predicted

Posted by on October 11th, 2010

How about a selection of takes on the future, seen from completely different angles – a few general takes, two very specific ones and one bonus survival guide.

General looks ahead:

  • Douglas Coupland’s A radical pessimist’s guide to the next 10 years:

    The future isn’t going to feel futuristic

    It’s simply going to feel weird and out-of-control-ish, the way it does now, because too many things are changing too quickly. The reason the future feels odd is because of its unpredictability. If the future didn’t feel weirdly unexpected, then something would be wrong

  • PARC attempts to look 40years ahead with The best way to invent the future is to predict it:

    …this next set of predictions takes the next, huge leap: from interaction, to seamless integration between humans, machines, and information. Enter neuro-bio-bionic-whateveritscalledthesedays computing.

    Some of the predictions involved synthetic biology and simulating the human brain, but most of them were focused on various means for direct inputs, cybernetic implants, and neural interfaces to the human brain – including “augmented perception prosthetics devices that you attach directly to your nervous system to provide data about your surroundings at the touch of a thought”.

  • The Institute for the Future’s Map of the Decade (9MB PDF):

    The future is a high-resolution game. Never before has humanity been
    able to explore the emerging landscape in such detail, to measure the
    forces of change at such vast scales, and to fill in the details with
    such fine grain. But this high-resolution grid is not complete. It
    challenges us to envision and build the future we want. As both gamers
    and creators of the game, we will fill in the grid over the coming

Specific looks ahead:

  • The Future of the Televison Industry – My provocation to Channel 4: TV in a low-carbon, meaning-rich, networked era by Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic:

    If we move beyond our consumerist identities, what are the opportunities for ingenuity, for learning new skills, for developing new lifestyles, for finding pleasure in other people in new ways?

    …can that be done while your business model depends on super-fantastic car ads and sofa promotions between the shows, stoking up exactly the same kinds of escapism-through-positional-goods that caused the problem in the first place? Or in concert with the industry, will you have to also start rethinking entirely the very function and purpose of advertising itself? What kind of information about products and services should people have in a post-consumerist society?

  • The Future of Friendship – as seen from kids in “violent crime neighborhoods” – Chicago Kids Take on Bunker Mentality, No ‘Friends’:

    …they found that a kind of “bunker mentality” held sway at both schools, even to the point that the children, both boys and girls, routinely tested their peers and were conducting “background checks” to see whether they could be trusted, cross-checking their dependability with classmates and watching them for months and years.


Jamais Cascio presents the IFTF’s forecast for the coming decade

Posted by on August 9th, 2010

What follows is Jamais Cascio, who we’ve mentioned here a few times before, presenting a condensed, thirty-minute version of the Institute for the Future‘s forecast for the next ten years.

This is what Futurism looks like today; not rabid predictions of jetpacks and flying cars, but sane, measured statements that pick up recent trends and forecast their result.

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The Facebook Tomorrow

Posted by on February 24th, 2010

At this year’s DICE 2010 Expo, Carnegie Mellon’s Jesse Schell gave a fantastic presentation that starts with why Facebook *shouldn’t* work in the way that it does and extrapolates forward into a half-creepy and half-inspiring vision for the embodied internet, the network of things, the culture of games and the SPIMEworld to come.

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Bruce Sterling defines Atemporality at Transmediale

Posted by on February 13th, 2010

Previously on Grinding I posted a video of Bruce talking about Gothic High-Tech and Favella Chic in his Reboot 11 closing speech. In it, he mentions he was trying to make concrete his notion of what this next decade might be, something he was calling Atemporality (“it’s steampunk with metaphysics”, he said).

At the recent Transmediale Festival, he’s back to report that all the historical narratives are broken, multi-temporality is the new multi-culturalism and network culture is the new dominant force.

Strap your brains in, take your smart drugs and drink deeply from the fount of knowledge that is Sterling’s mind: