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Sufficiently-advanced literature

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Recently, I wrote a guest post for the science-fiction blog io9.com, for their feature on “Future Metro”, entitled “The city is a battlesuit for surviving the future”.

It referred to a talk I’d given at Webstock covering similar territory – and both the talk and the post featured images from the Usbourne book “The World of the Future: Future Cities” by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis.

Tom Coates shared those images with me as we reminisced about the book – and the influence it had on us during our formative years.

Many other people of my generation have remarked on it and other books in the series looking at future engineering and technology as being early inspirations.

Imagine my surprise when one of the authors of this ur-object showed up in the comments of my io9 piece – and my dismay as he – very politely – complained about a lack of credit.

David – my apologies.

It was remiss of me not to credit the image, and also not to fully acknowledge the impact your book had on me when I was young. Thank you very much for your work, and thank you for taking the time to comment on my writing. I hope posting this helps make up for that.

David is still writing on science, engineering and technology – and running a couple of sites that are still right up my street: Starcruzer and Scale Model News – the latter with childhood hero and total mind-gangster Mat Irvine!

Irvine used to create special effects for Dr Who and Blakes’ 7, then come on Saturday morning kids tv shows to tell you how you could do exactly the same with your pocket money that afternoon.

He was an early DIY/Maker culture hero – but that’s for another blog post…

Scrambled Hertzian Tales. Apt!

From Tony’s preface to the 2005 edition:

“The ideas in Hertzian Tales were developed between 1994 and 1997 while I was completing my Ph.D. thesis in the Computer Related Design department at the Royal College of Art in London. The first edition was publisjed through the Royal College of Art in 1999.

It is interesting to look back and think about the technological developments made since then. Bluetooth, 3G phones, and wi-fi are all now part of everyday life. The dot-com boom has come and gone. And in the United Kingdom, large parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are about to be deregulated.

Yet very little has changed in the world of design.”

I requested a copy of Hertzian Tales from MIT Press as ‘payment’ for reviewing a draft of an about-to-be-published interaction design book. I was familiar the the work, but had never read the whole thing.

I was very glad I did.

Tony’s ideas from 1999 held up incredibly strongly in terms of the practice of interaction design and design in 2009 I thought.

It seems to me that his 2005 fear – that very little has changed in design since he first wrote the book – might now be dispelled by the breaking down of silos between digital and physical designers, and the advanced towards the mainstream of ‘the internet of things’.

Jack of course studied at the RCA and I’ve taught there a few times, and I like to count Tony as a friend, but despite those influences, it really does seem like a key text to return to if you are working in the emerging field of digital/physical interaction, product or service design.

Tony’s wonderful line “All electronics products are hybrids of radiation and matter” alone has enough pertinence, poetry and punch to fuel a revolution in design!

Here’s a few quotes from the ‘dog-eared’ pages that stood out for me:

p16

“Another form of dematerialisation is defined by electronic objects’ role as interfaces. With these objects the interface is everything. The behaviour of video recorders, televisions, telephones and faxes is more important than their appearance and physical form. Here design centres on the dialogue between people and machines. The object is experienced as an interface, a zone of transaction.”

p17

“The material culture of non-electronic objects is a useful measure of what the electronic object must achieve to be worthwhile but it is important to avoid merely superimposing the familiar physical world onto a new electronic situation, delaying the possibility of new culture through a desperate desire to make it comprehensible”

“How can we discover analogue complexity in digital phenomena without abandoning the rich culture of the physical, or superimposing the known and comfortable onto the new and alien?

p19

“No effort need be made to reconcile the different scales of the electronic and the material. They can simply coexist in one object. They can grow obsolete at different rates as well. Robert Rauschenberg’s Oracle has had its technology updated three times over thirty years, but it’s materiality and cultural meaning remain unchanged. Cultural obsolescence need not occur at the same rate as technological obsolescence.

Perhaps the “object” can locate the electronic in the social and cultural context of everyday life. It could link the richness of material culture with the new functional; and expressive qualities of electronic technology.”

p33

“A range of possibility exists between the ideas of the “pet” and the “alien”. While the pet offers familiarity, affection, submission and intimacy, the alien is the pet’s opposite, misunderstood and ostracised”

p71

“In the case of electronic products, hte “unique qualities” of the object of interaction is their potential as an electronic product to persuade the users as protagonists, through the user’s use of the object, to generate a narrative space where the understanding of the experience is changed or enlarged. By using the object, the protagonist enters a space between desire and determinism, a bizarre world of the “infra-ordinary” where strange stories show that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and that our conventional experience of everyday life through electronic products is aesthetically impoverished.”

p89

“The space of the model lies on the border between representation and actuality. Like the frame of a painting, it demarcates a limit between the work and what lies beyond. And like the frame, the model is neither wholly inside or wholly outside, neither pure representation nor transcendent object. It claims a certain autonomous objecthood, yet this condition is always incomplete. The model is always a model of. The desire of the model is to act as a simulacrum of another object, as a surrogate which allows for imaginative occupation. (Hubert, `1981)”

p90

“From a product design point of view these models lack industrial realism; they look like craft objects, hand-made and probably one-off. But an expanded view of the conceptual design model might regard it as embodying the essence of the design idea, a “genotype” rather than a prototype, constructed from the materials at hand. If taken up for mass manufacture its construction and structure would undoubtedly change. The object’s “content” or “genes” are important, not it’s appearance. In the context of design, the conceptual model as genotype rather than prototype could allow it to function more abstractly by deflecting attention from an aesthetics of construction to an aesthetics of use.”

p101

“It might seem strange to write about radio, a long-established medium, when discussion today centres on cyberspace, virtual reality, networks, smart materials and other electronic tehcnologies. But radio, meaning part of the electromagnetic spectrum is fundamental to electronics. Objects not only “dematerialise” into software in response to minituarisation and replacement by services but literally dematerialise into radiation. All electronic products are hybrids of radiation and matter. This chapter does not discuss making the invisible visible or visualising radio, but explores the links between the material and the immaterial that lead to new aesthetic possibilities for life in an electromagnetic environment. Whereas cyberspace is a metaphor that spatialises what happens in computers distributed around the world, radio space is actual and physical, even though our senses detect only a tiny part of it.”

p111

“Objects designed to straddle both material and immaterial domains arouse curiosity about the fit between these worlds. Many military aircraft are now “teledynamic”, designed to fly undetected through fields of radar-frequency radiation. But teledynamic forms are not aerodynamic and to remain airborne their outline needs to be constantly adjusted by a computer. These aircraft fly through fusions of abstract digital, hertzian and atmospheric spaces.

Objects that I call “radiogenic” function as unwitting interfaces between the abstract space of eletomagnetism and the material cutlures of everyday life revealing unexpected points of contact between them.”

p111

“Aerialness” is a quality of an object considered in relation to the electromagneic environment. Even the human body is a crude monopole aerial. Although in theory precise laws govern the geometry of aerials, in reality it is a black art, a fusion of the macro world of perception and the imperceptible world of micro-electronics.”

Science & Science Fiction at the Royal Institution

A funny, interesting but sometimes scatter-gun talk at the Royal Institution by two engaging academics in the field of science communication.

My favourite quote is above in the title of this post, which they take from Prof Mark Rose: “Science Fiction is the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic”.

Rough notes follow.

Science & science-ficiton / RI
7.4.09
——
Introduced: Jenny rowan , lablit magazine
Prof Mark Brake / Rev Neil Hook (uni of glamorgan)
Their book: “Difference engines: how science drives fiction and fiction drives science”

“I like to think of the earth as an alien planet” (this reminds me of BLDGBLOG/Geoff Manuagh’s contention that “the earth is becoming unearthly“)

copernican revolution made it that way

infinite, inhuman universe as opposed to earth-centric Aristotelean cosmos (earth myths populated heaven)

“if copernicus wasn’t enough, then came Darwinism”

“a series of demotions”

“SF is a response to the cultural shock of discovering our marginal place in an alien universe”

“an attempt put the stamp of humanity back on the universe”

we can identify 4 themes (based on prof mark rose)

1. space
2. time
3. machine
4. monster

SPACE

something to be conquered, part of dominion over nature

TIME

flux, change, process, revealed over time
contradiction, paradoxes

MACHINE
computers atom bombs, robots, but also 1984, Brave New World: social machines

MONSTER
about us, the monster within.
remaking of human.
super heroes = upbeat monsters

SPACE

copernican rev:
if the earth is a planet, then the planets can be earths
Galileo gave this evidence: mountains, craters, features on moons
sudden decentralisation, diversity, possibility
Kepler: 1st book of sci-fi 1630s “Somnium”
Bishop Godwin: 1st alien contact story

new discoveries, mediated by SF: the play between: alienation / sensawunda

kepler to gallileo: “there will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered flight…” look up

Bishop Godwin of Llandaff: “man in the moon” – kept it secret, published posthumously
shipwrecked Spanish buccaneer trains flock of 40 geese in an apparatus, geese fly to the moon in winter, moon white because covered in geese, so travels to the moon.
meets king of moon
moon = utopia, earth is the dumping ground for the moon’s rejects.

robert goddard wrote to h.g. wells to tell him how he was inspired by ‘wotw’

rocket launch countdown was invented by fritz lang as a cinematic shortcut, and then adopted by science.

TIME

industrial revolution, earth working, fossil record: the long now evident, species that walked the earth

time was something to be mastered (baconian/enlightment science: nature to be mastered)

mechanised time travel = industrialised britain

kronos/ charios – Greek words for time

kronos – more concerned with measurement and mastery of time
industrialised time

HGWells: 4th dimension, to be measured, managed and mastered

1894 The Time Machine / 1905 special relativity

space-time is born. a revolution in time.

the time machine – double meaning to the title.
time traveller sets out to master time, but finds time is the master.
we are all trapped in the time machine.

Ballard, Drowned World: (not mentioning his fixation race-memory, mitochondrial time?)

MACHINE

Carel Kapek Rossums Universal Robots
Asimov’s 3 laws (+ zeroth law) – based on Hippocratic oath
now enshrined in s. Korean laws!
machine takes human form (stamping humanity on the unknown)
martin rees – industrialisation might be a mass-extinction event (a 400 year ELE)

atom bomb imagined by hg wells in ;the world set free 1914 (cf. de groot)
influenced leo szilard, initiated/lobbied roosevelt to create manhattan project

red alert peter george 1956, adapted by kubrick to strangelove

MONSTERS & ALIENS

Godzilla: a proxy for dealing with the consequences of the WW2 atomic warfare
took a machine and turned it into a monster (with two legs and two arms – again the stamp of the human on the new)

Most monsters and aliens are proxies or cyphers for ourselves
(only unknowable alien in SF is Lem’s Solaris)

Giger’s Alien and Hannibal Lecter are the same? Monsters and aliens – we are in the middle, examining ourselves through these characters.

closing remarks from prof. brake.
we’re the first generation living in a science-ficitonal world, sf is hardcore reality, not escapism…

——
q&a:

aldiss: SF is ‘hubris clobbered by nemesis’
prof mark rose: SF is: ‘the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic’

questioner mentions: greg egan short story (wang’s carpets? may have misheard) sea of carbohydrates performing computation.

question (from a biologist): the attitude to progress and evolution in much of SF
is not very sophisticated in it’s understanding of biology. eg. 2001.

Brake: much of SF is very physically determinist, hierarchical in its view and many of the 20th’s spokespersons about biology thought there was not life other than on earth. interesting to see what astrobiology brings to it.

NASA Kennedy Space Center, originally uploaded by moleitau.

“I have no sort of objection now to telling the whole story. The subscribers, of course, have a right to know what became of their money. The astronomers may as well know all about it, before they announce any more asteroids with an enormous movement in declination. And experimenters on the longitude may as well know, so that they may act advisedly in attempting another brick moon or in refusing to do so.”

The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale

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The spacewalking taikonautics of last week, a successful launch into orbit of SpaceX Falcon-1 and this news all make for a fantastic new dawn of a post-NASA era, foregrounded against the spectacular collapse of western late-capitalism.
Charlie Stross is right – you couldn’t make it up.

A sketch I did of the great man a few years ago.
Rama, Heuristically programmed Algorithmic Computer: 9000 model, Stargates, 1:4:3, Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1, Space elevators, Clarke’s 3rd Law (how many times has a technologist or designer invoked that in a talk or meeting?), and of course, The Nine Billion Names of God.
Like many, Clarke’s work rewired my brain from a young age, and he’s got my thanks for that.
Whatever’s next for him, I hope it’s “something wonderful”.
RIP, Arthur.

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