Late Capitalism

Charlie Stross on why he mainly no longer reads science fiction books.

The exercise of substituting “SF” for “Design” or “Speculative Design” is left to the reader.

Similar to the sad baggage surrounding space battles and asteroid belts, we carry real world baggage with us into SF. It happens whenever we fail to question our assumptions. Next time you read a a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

Some of these things may feel like constants, but they’re really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn’t exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygeine: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and unpleasant (to them) social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren’t.

Similarly, if I was to choose a candidate for the great clomping foot of nerdism afflicting fiction today, I’d pick late-period capitalism, the piss-polluted sea we fish are doomed to swim in. It seems inevitable but it’s a relatively recent development in historic terms, it’s clearly not sustainable in the long term. However, trying to visualize a world without it is surprisingly difficult. Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: “advertising”, “trophy wife”, “health insurance”, “jaywalking”, “passport”, “police”, “teen-ager”, “television”.

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our sea water and settles for draining the local aquarium (or even just the bathtub) instead, or settles for gazing into the depths of a brightly coloured computer-generated fishtank screensaver. If you’re writing a story that posits giant all-embracing interstellar space corporations, or a space mafia, or space battleships, never mind universalizing contemporary norms of gender, race, and power hierarchies, let alone fashions in clothing as social class signifiers, or religions … then you need to think long and hard about whether you’ve mistaken your fishtank for the ocean.

And I’m sick and tired of watching the goldfish.

Azeem’s excellent Exponential View newsletter this week published some predictions for 2018, which you should go take a look at.

A couple of weeks ago in a late night fugue of amateur futurism I sent an email to a few friends, looking a little bit further out and laden with bias / fiction / wishful thinking. Anyway – putting it here to re-examine in ten years time…

1) Hard Brexit happens to the UK by default, rather than planning.

2) UK becomes virtual client state of EU anyway, any business wanting to make money in goods or services (apart from hardliners like Witheredspoons and Dyson) has to ditch ideology and comply with EU regs, without any of the benefits to citizenry. Well done everyone.

3) USA becomes increasingly insular, either as result of second Trump term or more likely to concentrate on recovering from the first… GAFA gets bashed a lot over next 5yrs and plateaus, net-non-neutrality locks in incumbent value chains but favours big carriers/media not big tech.

4) GDPR and other citizen-centred regulation in EU (plus net-non-neutrality) push value models to ‘federated-edge’, Europe becomes IoT2.0 leader, esp around energy, manufacturing, logistics, auto/vehicular. Neural architectures start to dominate, blockchain-like federation of devices lowers reliance on centralised models of computing (and business)

5) European (esp French, German) startups focus on EU and Africa, to an extent Asia Minor and South Asia as markets. Edge-computing hybrids leapfrog solely cloud-centric business models in hipness if not value (yet).

5.1) EU open banking and finance laws + mobile money innovation around Africa make very attractive markets for edge-focussed fintech startups. The Swiss go all-in for this…

6) one of the Gulf states cashes out on oil, goes all-in on becoming a silicon manufacturer/designer/licenser, with focus on neural architectures, Indian and Chinese manufacturers license, buy or copy.

6.1) Tim Cook moves Apple corp HQ to Dubai. Significant automation in Apple supply chain + IP risks allow edge manufacturing of most of their premium hardware. Other members of GAFA pay attention as the fruit company leaves the plateau of the last few years behind.

7) Chinese firm announces it has an AGI running on a supercomputer running on UAE-designed chips.

8) Bezos announces Amazon to HQ in Zurich (and an orbital solar-powered blockchain datacore at LaGrange Point L1)

9) It’s 2027 and 60% of tech ‘unicorns’ are HQ’d in EU, UAE, India or Singapore.

10) UK joins special economic area of EU in order to adopt data laws formally. Press starts to refer to this as Brentrance…

The WSJ published an “explainer” on visual facial recognition technology recently.

They’re to be commended on the clear wording of their intro, and policy on personal/biometric info…

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As most people who have known me for any length of time will tell you, unless I’m actively laughing or smiling, most of the time my face looks like I want to murder you.

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While this may have had unintended benefits for me in the past – say in negotiations, college crits or design reviews – the advent of pervasive facial recognition and in particular ’emotion detection’ may change that.

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“Affective computing” has been around as an academic research topic for decades of course, but as with much in machine intelligence now it’s fast, cheap and going to be everywhere.

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I wonder.

How many unintended micro-aggressions will I perpetrate against the machines? What essential-oil mood enhancers will mysteriously be recommended to me? Will my car refuse to let me take manual control?

Perhaps I’ll tell the machines what Joss Weedon/Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk divulges as the source of his powers:

“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”

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?


It starts like this.

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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.”


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


“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.

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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.

Just finished reading “Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products” by Leander Kahney, which is mainly fascinating because of the abscence of it’s subject. Ive has said so little in public (aside from in corporate pr films) that the book paints a detailed picture of everything around him – the design culture he was raised in, both in education and industry, the design group and wider engineering/manufacturing culture at Apple – right down to gems like this:

“Enter the need for so-called friction stir welding (FSW), a solid-state welding process invented in 1991. It’s actually less of a weld than a recrystallization, as the atoms of the two pieces are joined in a super strong bond when a high-speed bobbin is moved along the edges to be bonded, creating friction and softening the material almost to its melting point.”

Needless to say I really enjoyed it – but Ive is just the hook the book hangs off. It wouldn’t exist or sell as a book without him, although it’s full of fascinating detail about how Apple products are designed and made.

The little you do learn about Ive as a design leader is good. A little hagiographic, but hey. I’d recommend it more for the insights into the design, making and manufacturing approach at Apple than the man at the centre of it however.

‘In America, on the other hand,’ Milton explained, ‘designers are very much serving what industry wants. In Britain, there is more of the culture of the garden shed, the home lab, the ad hoc and experimental quality. And Jony Ive interacts in such a way … [he] takes big chances, instead of an evolutionary approach to design – and if they had focus-grouped Ive’s designs, they wouldn’t have been a success.’

If the education system in America tended to teach students how to be an employee, British design students were more likely to pursue a passion and to build a team around them.

‘As an industrial designer, you have to take that great idea and get it out into the world, and get it out intact. You’re not really practising your craft if you are just developing a beautiful form and leaving it at that.’

I can’t have people working in cubicle hell. They won’t do it. I have to have an open studio with high ceilings and cool shit going on. That’s just really important. It’s important for the quality of the work. It’s important for getting people to do it. – ROBERT BRUNNER

He wanted a ‘small, really tight’ studio. ‘We would run it like a small consulting studio, but inside the company,’ he said. ‘Small, effective, nimble, highly talented, great culture.’4 Setting up a consultancy inside Apple seemed in line with the company’s spirit: unconventional, idea driven, entrepreneurial. ‘It was because, really, I didn’t know any other way,’ Brunner explained. ‘It wasn’t a flash of brilliance: that was the only thing I knew how to do.’

In 1997, English contributed photos to Kunkel’s book about the design group, AppleDesign, but he also worked with a lot of other design studios in the Valley. To his eye, Apple seemed different. It wasn’t just the tools and their focus; the place was rapidly populated with designer toys, too, including spendy bikes, skateboards, diving equipment, a movie projector and hundreds of films. ‘It fostered this really creative, take-a-risk atmosphere, which I didn’t see at other firms,’ said English.

Brunner also made about half a dozen of the designers ‘product line leaders’ (PLLs) for Apple’s major product groups: CPUs, printers, monitors and so on. The PLLs acted as liaisons between the design group and the company, much in the way an outside design consultancy would operate. ‘The product groups felt there was a contact within the design group,’ Brunner said.

Brunner wanted to shift the power from engineering to design. He started thinking strategically. His off-line ‘parallel design investigations’ were a key part of his strategy. ‘We began to do more longer-term thinking, longer-term studies around things like design language, how future technologies are implemented, what does mobility mean?’ The idea was to get ahead of the engineering groups and start to make Apple more of a design-driven company, rather than a marketing or engineering one. ‘We wanted to get ahead of them, so we’d have more ammunition to bring to the process.’

In hindsight, Brunner’s choices – the studio’s separation from the engineering groups, its loose structure, the collaborative workflow and consultancy mind-set – turned out to be fortuitous. One of the reasons Apple’s design team has remained so effective is that it retains Brunner’s original structure. It’s a small, tight, cohesive group of extremely talented designers who all work on design challenges together. Just like the designers had done at Lunar, Tangerine and other small agencies. The model worked.

‘Bob did more than lay the foundations for Jony’s design team at Apple – he built the castle,’ said Clive Grinyer. ‘After Bob, it was the first time that an in-house design team was cool.’

Jony was looking for the Mac NC’s ‘design story’. As his dad, Mike, had instilled in him, developing the design story was an essential first step in conceiving something entirely new. ‘As industrial designers we no longer design objects,’ Jony said. ‘We design the user’s perceptions of what those objects are, as well as the meaning that accrues from their physical existence, their function and the sense of possibility they offer.’

‘When you see the most dramatic shift is when you transition from an abstract idea to a slightly more material conversation,’ Jony said. ‘But when you made a 3-D model, however crude, you bring form to a nebulous idea, and everything changes – the entire process shifts. It galvanizes and brings focus from a broad group of people.

Though Jobs rejected all five names, Segall refused to give up on iMac. He went back again with three or four new names, but again pitched iMac. This time, Jobs replied: ‘I don’t hate it this week, but I still don’t like it.’43 Segall heard nothing more about the name from Jobs personally, but friends told him that Jobs had the name silk-screened onto prototypes of the new computer, testing it out to see if he liked the look. ‘He rejected it twice but then it just appeared on the machine,’ Segall recalled. He came to believe that Jobs changed his mind just because the lower-case ‘i’ looked good on the product itself.

Boxes may seem trivial, but Jony’s team felt that unpacking a product greatly influenced the all-important first impressions. ‘Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging,’ Jony said then. ‘I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.’

‘Innovation,’ he wrote, ‘is rarely about a big idea; more usually it’s about a series of small ideas brought together in a new and better way. Jony’s fanatical drive for excellence is, I think, most evident in the stuff beyond the obvious; the stuff you perhaps don’t notice that much, but which makes a difference to how you interact with the product, how you feel about it.’

‘Apple designers spend ten percent of their time doing traditional industrial design: coming up with ideas, drawing, making models, brainstorming. They spend ninety percent of their time working with manufacturing, figuring out how to implement their ideas.’

On iPhone launch day, Jobs turned to Kay and casually asked, ‘What do you think, Alan? Is it good enough to criticize?’ The question was a reference to a comment made by Kay almost twenty-five years earlier, when he had deemed the original Macintosh ‘the first computer worth criticizing’. Kay considered Jobs’s question for a moment and then held up his moleskin notebook. ‘ “Make the screen at least five inches by eight inches and you will rule the world,” he said.’

‘I have literally seen buildings where as far as the eye can see, where you can see machines carving, mostly aluminium, dedicated exclusively for Apple at Foxconn,’ said Guatam Baksi, a product design engineer at Apple from 2005 to 2010. ‘As far as the eye can see.’

Unibody represents a giant financial gamble by Apple. When it started investing seriously around 2007, Apple contracted with a Japanese manufacturer to buy all the milling machines it could produce for the next three years. By one estimate, that was 20,000 CNC milling machines a year, some costing upward of $250,000 and others $1 million or more. The spending didn’t stop there, as Apple bought up even more, acquiring every CNC milling machine the company could find. ‘They bought up the entire supply,’ said one source. ‘No one else could get a look in.’

Apple spent $9.5 billion on capital expenditures, the majority of which was earmarked for product tooling and manufacturing processes. By comparison, the company spent $865 million on retail stores. Thus, Apple spent nearly eleven times as much on its factories as on its stores, most of which are in prime (that is, expensive) real estate locations.

Enter the need for so-called friction stir welding (FSW), a solid-state welding process invented in 1991. It’s actually less of a weld than a recrystallization, as the atoms of the two pieces are joined in a super strong bond when a high-speed bobbin is moved along the edges to be bonded, creating friction and softening the material almost to its melting point. The plasticized materials are then pushed together under enormous force, and the spinning bobbin stirs them together. The result is a seamless and very strong bond. In the past, FSW required machines costing up to three million dollars apiece, so its use was confined to fabricating rocket and aircraft parts. More recent advances allowed CNC milling machines to be retrofitted to perform FSW at a much lower cost. In addition to its other advantages, FSW produces no toxic fumes and finished pieces that require no extra filler metal for further machining, making the process more environmentally friendly than traditional welding.

‘That’s probably the single greatest effect, that we nowadays expect many things to have better designs. Because of Apple, we got to compare crappy portable computers versus really nice ones, crappy phones versus really nice ones. We saw a before-and-after effect. Not over a generation, but within a few years. Suddenly 600 million people had a phone that put to shame the phone they used to have. That is a design education at work within our culture.’

The chairman writes:

*Everybody’s got a theory about the Internet-of-Things and its killer applications.

*It reminds me of the days when the Information Superhighway was all about 500-channel television. Nowadays we’ve got five zillion channel television, and it’s scarcely recognized as an existent technical reality. Those historical acts of foresight are so beside the point now that they’re “not even wrong.”