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Futures

The session I staged at FooCamp this year was deliberately meant to be a fun, none-too-taxing diversion at the end of two brain-baking days.

It was based on (not only a quote from BSG) but something that Matt Biddulph had said to me a while back – possibly when we were doing some work together at BERG, but it might have been as far-back as our Dopplr days.

He said (something like) that a lot of the machine learning techniques he was deploying on a project were based on 1970s Computer Science theory, but now the horsepower required to run them was cheap and accessible in the form of cloud computing service.

This stuck with me, so for the Foo session I hoped I could aggregate a list people’s favourite theory work from the 20thC which now might be possible to turn into practice.

It didn’t quite turn out that way, as Tom Coates pointed out in the session – about halfway through, it morphed into a list of the “prior art” in both fiction and academic theory that you could identify as pre-cursors to current technological preoccupation or practice.

Nether the less it was a very fun way to spend an sunny sunday hour in a tent with a flip chart and some very smart folks. Thanks very much as always to O’Reilly for inviting me.

Below is my photo of the final flip charts full of everything from Xanadu to zeppelins…

Foo2014-PriorArt_session

Steven Johnson drew my attention to this stream of twitter (all these years later ‘tweets’ still makes me cringe) from Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen is now famous as a venture capitalist, cheerleader of The Californian Ideology, and perhaps most of all for the quote/essay ‘Software is eating the world’.

I have a lot to be thankful to Marc Andreesen for – he, in part, invented the software that effectively gave me (and you, probably) a financially-viable life messing about with what I love – networked technology.

So – assuming you can’t be bothered to click the link – what does he say?

Well.

It starts like this.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 9.56.39 AM

Reminds me of “Maximum Happy Imagination” from Robin Sloan’s excellent “Mr Penumbra’s 24hr Bookstore”.

“Have you ever played Maximum Happy Imagination?”

“Sounds like a Japanese game show.”

Kat straightens her shoulders. “Okay, we’re going to play. To start, imagine the future. The good future. No nuclear bombs. Pretend you’re a science fiction writer.”

Okay: “World government… no cancer… hover-boards.”

“Go further. What’s the good future after that?”

“Spaceships. Party on Mars.”

“Further.”

“Star Trek. Transporters. You can go anywhere.”

“Further.”

“I pause a moment, then realize: “I can’t.”

Kat shakes her head. “It’s really hard. And that’s, what, a thousand years? What comes after that? What could possibly come after that? Imagination runs out. But it makes sense, right? We probably just imagine things based on what we already know, and we run out of analogies in the thirty-first century.”

After a lot of stuff that anyone with mild extropian/protopian/Rodenberrian exposure might nod along to, Andreesen’s stream of consciousness ends like this.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 10.12.21 AM

His analogies run out in the 20th century when it comes to the political, social and economic implications of his maximum happy imagination.

Consumer-capitalism in-excelsis?

That system of the world was invented. It’s not really natural. To imagine that capitalism is not subject to deconstruction, reinvention or critique in maximum happy imagination seems a little silly.

If disruption is your mantra – why not go all the way?

He states right at the start that there are zero jobs in the sectors affected by his future. Writers on futures such as Toffler and Rifkin, and SF from the lofty peaks of Arthur C. Clarke to the perhaps lower, more lurid weekly plains of 2000AD have speculated for decades on ‘The Leisure Problem’.

Recently, I read “The Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford which extrapolates a future similar to Andreesen’s, wherein the self-declared market-capitalist author ends up arguing for something like a welfare state…

Another world is possible, right?

I’ll hope Marc might grudgingly nod at that at least.

It’ll need brains like his to get there.

In the UK, the conservative government is trying to remove art and design subjects from the core of their new curriculum, the ‘EBacc’, which the Tories want to focus around readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmetic.

This is, of course, pretty disastrous.

An age of STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics – (rather than just STEM) is what the UK needs to survive in the foothills of the 21stC. The PM David Cameron et al make a lot of noise about supporting “Tech City” etc., but without nurturing inventive thinking at early stages of kids educations, we won’t be able to compete against bigger and better resourced countries.

A friend of mine, Joe McCloud got a bunch of design firms to get behind a campaign against this – called “#includedesign” which you can read about here: http://includedesign.org/

I’m pleased to say our company, BERG is signed up.

I was contacted by a journalist from Dezeen with a couple of questions about the campaign, the importance of design teaching in secondary education etc.

Sir Jony Ive in the mean-time signed up to the campaign, so I imagine that was a bit more newsworthy, so understandably my answers weren’t used in the piece!

FWIW, I thought I would post my responses here:

1. Why do you think its important that design is taught in schools?

Three reasons to come to mind.

1) is brutal economics. Global competition for jobs, work, wealth means we as a small country need to out imagine the bigger ones. We’re good at that at the moment. Why not invest in that? We’re not going to ‘out-grammar’ or ‘out-times-table’ China or India. Art and design sharpen the imagination, even if you go on to to be a biologist or a banker. It’s beyond foolish to drop them. We need to invest in our Gross National Imagination to survive the 21stC.

2) is improving engagement in schools. I’m not a teacher but I think there is a halo effect from good design teaching that makes other subjects shine for kids.When I was a kid CDT (Craft Design and Technology) was the great leveller. I had great teachers. The nerdy kids and the tough kids did as well as each other – and stereotypes of how well you were meant to do broke down. That lead to kids breaking out of their pre-assigned paths to not-much, and got them enjoying education. Design education could be an engine of social mobility!

3) Being ready for the future. Most of the jobs we do every day at BERG hadn’t been invented when I was at school. Teaching design, making, and inventive thought at young ages will prepare kids for the jobs we can’t imagine now. With a bit of luck they’ll invent them.

2. What do you think will happen if the proposals to drop design become a reality?

I think a lot of people who wish it was still the 19th Century will be very happy – until they realise that they’ve undermined the UK’s place in the creation of business and culture for a generation.

Visit #includedesign, and if you can contribute your voice to the campaign, please do.

Is the things.

Or to be more specific, the fetishisation of the things.

To be clear, I like things.

I even own some of them.

Also, my company enjoys making and selling things, and has plans to make and sell more.

However, in terms of the near-term future of technology – I’m not nearly as interested in making things as making spimes.

NEED SETUP

Spimes and the Internet Of Things get used interchangeably in discussion these days, but I think it’s worth making a distinction between things and spimes.

That distinction is of course best put by the coiner of the term, Bruce Sterling – in his book which is the cause of so much of this ruckus, “Shaping Things“.

I’m going to take three quotes defining the Spime from Shaping Things as picked out by Tristan Ferne in, coincidently, a post about Olinda.

“SPIMES are manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES being and end as data. They are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn.” [Shaping Things, p.11]

“The key to the SPIME is identity. A SPIME is, by definition, the protaganist of a documented process. It is an historical entity with an accessible, precise trajectory through space and time.” [Shaping Things, p.77]

“In an age of SPIMES, the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation. My consumption patterns are worth so much that they underwrite my acts of consumption.” [Shaping Things, p. 79]

“…the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation” – this sticks with me.

A spime is an ongoing means, not an end, like a thing.

As I say, I enjoy things, and working in a company where there are real product designers (I am not one).

A while ago, back when people used to write comments on blogs, rather than just spambots, I wrote about the dematerialisation of product through the expansion of service-models into domains previously centred around product ownership.

It was partly inspired by Bruce’s last Viridian note, and John Thackara‘s writing on the subject amongst others.

But now I feel ‘Unproduct‘ is a bit one-sided.

The stuff I was struggling towards in negroponte switch has become more important.

The unmet (and often unstated) need for a physical ‘attention anchor’ or ‘service avatar’ as Mike Kuniavsky puts it in his excellent book ‘Smart Things‘.

Matter is important.

For Bryan Boyer

To which you quite rightly cry – “Well, duh!”

It is something we are attuned to as creatures evolved of a ‘middle world’.

It is something we invest emotion, value and memory in.

Also, a new language of product is possible, and important as the surface of larger systems.

Icebergs & Photons

I tried to pick at this with ‘Mujicomp‘.

A product design language for the tips of large service-icebergs: normalising legibility, fluent and thresholding.

Making beautiful seams.

Things that are clear, and evident – unmagical (magic implies opacity, occulting of meaning, mystery and hence a power-relationship) but delightful, humble, speaking-in-human, smart as a puppy.

And perhaps, just perhaps – by edging them toward being spimes, they can become fewer-in-number, better made, more adaptive to our needs and context, better at leaving our lives and being remade.

Another thing I’m re-evaluating are glowing rectangles.

I’ve long held somewhat of a [super]position that the more we can act and operate in and on-the-world rather than through a screen – the better.

I’m not sure it’s as clear as that anymore.

The technological and economic momentum of the glowing rectangle is such that, barring peak-indium or other yet-unseen black-swans getting in the way, personally-owned screens full of software and sensors reacting to a ‘dumb’ physical world seems to be a safer bet for near-to-mid-term futures, rather than ‘ubiquitous’ physical-computing based in the environment or municipal infrastructures.

A lot of friends are at an event right now called “Laptops & Looms”, debating exactly these topics.

Russell Davies, who organised it, wrote something recently that prompted this chain of thought, and I wish I could have been there to chat about this with him, as he’s usually got something wise to say on these matters.

Work commitments mean I can’t be there unfortunately, but I know they are querying and challenging some of the assumptions of the last decade of interaction design, technology and punditry as much as possible.

The hype about 3d printing, ubiquitous computing and augmented reality could really be grounded by the personal experiences of a lot of people attending the event, who know the reality of working within them – they have practical experience of the opportunities they afford and the constraints they present. I really hope that there will be lots to read and digest from it.

Personally, returning to the source of some of these thoguhts, Bruce’s Shaping Things – has been incredibly helpful. Just reminding oneself of the wikipedia clift-notes on Spimes has been galvanising.

Physical products are fantastic things to think about and attempt to design.

And, bloody hard to do well.

But a new type of product, a new type of thing that begins and ends in data, and is a thing only occasionally – this is possible too – along with new modes of consumption and commerce it may bring.

The network is as important to think about as the things.

The flows and the nodes. The systems and the surface. The means and the ends.

The phrase “Internet Of Things” will probably sound as silly to someone living in a spime-ridden future as 1990s visions of “Cyberspace”, as distinct realm we would ‘jack into’ seem to us now as we experience the mundane-yet-miraculous influence of internet-connected smartphones on our ‘real’ geographies.

In that sense it is useful – as a provocation, and a stimulus to think new thoughts about the technology around us. It just doesn’t capture my imagination in the same way as the Spime did.

You don’t have to agree. I don’t have to be right. There’s a reason I’ve posted it here on my blog rather than that of my company. This is probably a rambling rant useless to all but myself. It’s a bit of summing-up and setting-aside and starting again for me. This is going to be really hard and it isn’t going to be done by blogging about it, it’s going to be done by doing.

This is just what I what I want to help do. Still.

Better shut-up and get on with it.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Many have done this already. Here’s 5 of mine (sort-of). Bit of a scratchpad as don’t have much time for writing in length these days. Half-formed thoughts. But that’s the point. Right? No?

Oh well.

  • “Internet of things” ubicomp as a ‘lost future’ vs a world of glowing rectangles. This is a big deal for me a (and our little company) as I/we have been thinking about the former for years now, and believe that being in the world is a net Good Thing – and will win out. At the moment it seems like most of us (myself included) are voting with out feet for a world where our attention is consumed by glowing rectangles that live in our pockets, on our laps, in our houses and increasingly on the facades of our towns and cities. The seemingly-manifest-destiny of manufacturing and sourcing economics plays a huge role here – unseen and perhaps un-engaged with by most interaction designers. The world-factory is tooled for glowing rectangles of Cupertino’s design for quite some years. Aaaand of course our sociotechnical futures aren’t ever so neat – a gestalt of the two will probably emerge. At least until we hit Peak Indium. Which leads me to…
  • Going beyond PeakX: as a way of thinking = throw up hands and say hey-ho, that’s that then, isn’t everything complicated and terrible! Aren’t we wicked! There’s nothing to be done. How about ‘precious X’? ‘Resilient X’? ‘Chronodynamic design’ was something prententious that I wrote down a while back on a post-it, suggesting a Loewy-esque aesthetic celebration of an object’s resilience through time. Although at first blush, this might just be vernacular design – it might have legs as a more spectacular-vernacular. The High-Viridian Aesthetic. Moving beyond “Resource Constraints = design”, to source of ornament, cultural-invention, semantic-wealth. Charles & Ray Eames’s definition of the act of design still rings like a bell: do the best, for the most, with the least. Rhys, Raph and others work on Homegrown remains inspiring. I like Adaptive Path’s (at least that’s where I heard it first) conceit of ‘constraint-storming‘. Of course, most of the 1st-world isn’t even thinking about PeakX yet, and we don’t feel the pinch until we feel the pinch, so yeah. Anyway. I probably need to re-read “In The Bubble”, and wear a “John Thackara Was Right” (hair)t-shirt…
  • SpaceTime as a design material. Slow/long services. Still not done anything with it. Want to. Maybe/probably in an app context.
  • The boiling frog of population shock. More is different. Older is different. We don’t seem to get that. Many of our western/northern cultural tropes/beliefs/ways-of-living are based in the 18/19th century when world population was below 1 billion. We still believe it’s like in Britain, and it’ll kill us. Y’know – village green romanticism. We’re probably going to plateau at 10 billion in a couple of decades. We need a way to discuss the bigger/different crew of SpaceShipEarth without it sounding sinister. Permafutures not middle-class, ‘organic’, austerity-nostalgia that will only work for a less-crowded planet. I think it’s kind of exciting. 10 billion minds.
  • The longish-now of me. This is a bit self-centred to say the least. I’m going to be 40 soon. I find myself thinking about how to become a sustainable/resilient 50 year old. That is – well – 50 might be halfway through. Hell, it might be a third of the way through my life… I’ve been very lucky for the past 20 years. What the hell am I going to do with all that time? How am I going to pay my way? How do I stay involved and useful? More making? More teaching? Maybe.

If I could cheat and have six things I’m thinking about I’d say turning tablet computers into The Primer. But, then, I’m always thinking about the Primer, and Maneki Neko. So they don’t count.

Also, I just finished Anathem and it blew my mind. Between it, “Galileo’s Dream” and Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life” there’s something brewing I’m a bit scared to think about to hard in case I end up rocking and drooling. So. Yeah. A mess of things.

Did a fun 15mins chat with Ken Hollings on cities, futures, cosmism and many other things from an arcology floating in deep-space (via the magic of radio) which will be going out tonight at 7pm, and podcast shortly.

Here’s the description for the show:

“Enter Hollingsville at 7:00pm this evening. In this new series Ken Hollings and guests Steve Beard and Matt Jones discuss voodoo science parks, cities as battle suits, pods, capsules and world expos. Specially commissioned musical interludes are by the Hollingsville composer in residence, Graham Massey. Hollingsville is open for 12 weeks only”

http://resonancefm.com/archives/3638

I just sent this through to my MP using 38degrees: DON’T RUSH THROUGH EXTREME WEB LAWS. More at BoingBoing, and ORG.

Dear Mr Raynsford

I’m writing to you today because I’m very worried that the Government is planning to rush the Digital Economy Bill into law without a full Parliamentary debate.

The law is controversial and contains many measures that concern me. The controversial Bill deserves proper scrutiny so please don’t let the government rush it through.

Many people think it will damage schools and businesses as well as innocent people who rely on the internet because it will allow the Government to disconnect people it suspects of copyright infringement.

For instance, I’m a partner in a small technology design business, and our type of business is often cited by the government as the type of company and the type of industry that the UK needs to succeed. We’ve been cited by the UKTI for instance for innovation being promoted abroad. Currently we compete with the best firms in Silicon Valley for business. We invent and create intellectual property – we are far from against fair copyright laws and being rewarded for our efforts and research, but our copyright debate has been dominated by incumbent industry that haven’t responded to technology or their customers for too long.

It galls me that lobbyists for incumbent behemoths like the BPI will screw up the nascent technology industry in the UK, without my representative in the House debating it. It galls me that this Bill has been rushed through, and seems ill-considered. It galls me that the Labour party, which historically I have supported, and I have seen as a champion of progressive forces in both society and technology in-particular seems to be siding with vested interests representing the least-progressive side of the music industry instead of championing the infrastructure we need to invent our way out of our economic, environmental and societal difficulties across the spectrum.

Industry experts, internet service providers (like Talk Talk and BT) and huge internet companies like Google and Yahoo are all opposing the bill – yet the Government seems intent on forcing it through without a real debate.

As a constituent I am writing to you today to ask you to do all you can to ensure the Government doesn’t just rush the bill through and deny us our democratic right to scrutiny and debate.

Best regards,

Matt Jones
Greenwich

Which is a pun headline that will only work for a very few people.

The critical writing that has gathered around my “city as battlesuit” post has gathered something like critical mass – and it’s way more interesting and better written than what I dashed out for io9.

Go read:

As for the ‘testosterone-fuelled technoptimism‘ aspects of my writing, well – it’s a fair cop. In my defense I was writing with limited time in a busy week for a science-fiction site, rather than for my critical theory phd advisor, so y’know.

Which is not to say that phds in critical theory are bad things either.

Gah.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry if using the term ‘battlesuit’ seemed to trivialise war, the military, weaponry etc. all things I have no direct experience of – and hope never to experience.

This was not my intention. I was simply trying to use an attractive metaphor to grab people’s attention on a science fiction site trafficked by people as adolescent as me and get them interested in the critical discourse of clever people, like you.

The most important part of the sentence for me was ‘surviving the future’ – for which I still believe cities are the key.

This is why I stopped blogging, isn’t it.

And this is why Russell ends his posts with “anyway“.

Anyway.

Navarro Redwoods, CA

I was asked to write something for Howies‘ Autumn catalogue on the theme of “Positive Energy”.

I was in a particularly punchy mood as I wrote I think, and the backdrop of a summer thunderstorm tipped me in a direction that… Well, let’s just say I wasn’t exactly surprised when it wasn’t printed – it’s not quite ‘on-brand” for them – but it’ll fit in just fine round here. So – remembering that although I’ve added some links, it’s written for print, not the web – here’s what I turned in:

Positive Energy / for Howies / Matt Jones / 871 words. 7.7.09

As I write this there’s a thunderstorm over my head.

It’s a cracking one too, literally. The thunderclaps are ear-splitting and it’s blowing the rubbish around on the dilapidated flat roof our studio windows over look.

The energy released by an average thunderstorm, according to wikipedia amounts to about the equivalent of a 20-kiloton nuclear warhead going off. A large, severe thunderstorm might be 10 to 100 times more energetic.

In a digital window in front of me, I’m reading the twitter posts of a friend (Gavin Starks, @agentgav, founder of carbon calculator http://www.amee.cc) who’s attending the “World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment” with luminaries such as Lord Brown, former head of BP, Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist and Mr Inconvenient Truth himself, former vice-president Al Gore. It’s an impressive line-up to be sure. But some of the most impressive things he’s recounting are coming from a delegation from China.

For instance, this from Dr Christine Loh (1), of Civic Exchange, China: “China believe they’ve cracked thin-film solar for domestic use” To explain it very simplistically: thin-film solar technology brings the price of renewable energy of the sun into the same ball-park as non-renewable sources such as oil and coal. That China, the factory of the world, is going to start cranking this stuff out could be game-changing, and biosphere-saving.

That China could become the world’s number one economic superpower has been received wisdom for a while now. What’s new is the suspicion they might be able to turn around their rapid ascent to claiming the top polluter crown from the USA. In fact, they might take the lead in clean, green technology from the West.

Gavin also reported this factoid from Al Gore: “China now plants twice the number of trees than the rest of the world put together. Every citizen must plant three”

Not should, not encouraged – MUST. And of course that’s part of the inconvenient truth about China – that their political system and attitudes to individual freedom are very different to those we hold dear in ‘The West’.

But – what if that’s what it takes to survive?

Al Gore again: “We must connect the soil to the energy to the built environment, to our population and to our politics”. We’re in a highly individualistic democratic society. Do we have something positive and captivating enough as a vision to get us there?

We’ve done it before. Over the last month I’ve been watching the commemorative programmes on the telly marking the 40th anniversary of the manned landings on the moon. Not only were they the product of the NASA Apollo space programme – more broadly speaking, they were the product of an ideological battle between the USA and USSR in the cold war.

And it got me thinking strange thoughts: would it have been better for the long term future if McCain and Palin had got in? If America were seized by a new ideological battle – frustrated and bruised from a prolonged, controversial war on an abstract noun, nationalist fervour was directed into a technological crusade to make sure China doesn’t reign supreme in green.

Instead of a space race, an earth race…

Technology isn’t the answer to everything – but hair-shirt green thinking isn’t either. Back-to-the-land doesn’t scale when there’s going to be 10 billion of us on it, and that’s even without the now-almost-inevitable changes in the climate. It’s certainly not the route China’s going to take.

Now, wondering whether GM food or nuclear power might have to gain widespread acceptance, or whether freedom is compatible with survival, or that Obama’s not going to push the US and the West far enough away from legacy thinking is pretty challenging to my personal politics. But, thinking through these kind of ‘counter-factual’ scenarios can throw up interesting possibilities. When we’re ready to think about throwing away the things that we hold most precious, we can see new ways to hold on to them.

Another friend, Sascha Pohflepp, just graduated from the Royal College of Art with a fascinating project illustrating a counter-factual history where Jimmy Carter won against Ronald Reagan, and gave us a 1980s where the arms race was transmuted into an energy race; where a fictional government agency – “The Golden Institute” (2), turns Nevada into a weather lab and Vegas into an array of gaudy lightning catchers that supply the USA with power; where the kiloton energies of thunderstorms are engineered with silver-iodide balloons, and giant gyroscopes near the North Pole harness the world’s rotation to keep the lights on in the West, while slowing down the Earth just enough to make the days longer in the USA than Russia…

Fantastic, crazy, impossible stuff – imagined with the scale and scope and audacity and sacrifice and ruthlessness that got us to the moon. That showed us the Earth. That might keep us here.

That China might be ready for.

Where’s our vision of a bright green future?

There’s the thunder again.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Loh
(2) http://www.pohflepp.com/?q=goldeninstitute



What Anarchists Drive, originally uploaded by Ben Terrett.

“The sequence of events in the successfully waking world was generally more or less as follows. The starting point, it will be remembered, was a plight like that in which our own Earth now stands. The dialectic of the world’s history had confronted the race with a problem with which the traditional mentality could never cope.

The world-situation had grown too complex for lowly intelligences, and it demanded a degree of individual integrity in leaders and in led, such as was as yet possible only to a few minds. Consciousness had already been violently awakened out of the primitive trance into a state of excruciating individualism, of poignant but pitifully restricted self-awareness. And individualism, together with the traditional tribal spirit, now threatened to wreck the world.

Only after a long-drawn agony of economic distress and maniac warfare, haunted by an increasingly clear vision of a happier world, could the second stage of waking be achieved. In most cases it was not achieved. “Human nature,” or its equivalent in the many worlds, could not change itself; and the environment could not remake it.

But in a few worlds the spirit reacted to its desperate plight with a miracle. Or, if the reader prefers, the environment miraculously refashioned the spirit. There occurred a widespread and almost sudden waking into a new lucidity of consciousness and a new integrity of will.

To call this change miraculous is only to recognize that it could not have been scientifically predicted even from the fullest possible knowledge of “human nature” as manifested in the earlier age. To later generations, however, it appeared as no miracle but as a belated wakening from an almost miraculous stupor into plain sanity.”

- Olaf Stapledon, Starmaker, Chapter Nine.

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