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Late Capitalism

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.”

I’d been recommended “The Red Men” by many.

Webb, Timo, Rod, Schulze, Bridle (who originally published it) all mentioned it in conversation monthly, and sometimes weekly as memetic tides of our work rose and fell into harmony with it.

The physical (red) book stared at me from a shelf until, recently, aptly it lept the fence into the digital, and was republished as an e-book.

This leap was prompted by the release of Shynola’s excellent short film – “Dr. Easy” – that brings to life the first chapter (or 9mins 41secs) of the book.

The Red Men resonates with everything.

Everything here on this site, everything I’ve written, everything I’ve done. Everything I’m doing.

In fact, “resonates” is the wrong word.

Shakes.

It shook me.

Read it.

My highlights, fwiw (with minimal-to-no spoilers) below:

“I wriggled my hand free of Iona’s grasp and checked my pulse. It was elevated. Her question came back to me: Daddy, why do people get mad? Well, my darling, drugs don’t help. And life can kick rationality out of you. You can be kneecapped right from the very beginning. Even little girls and boys your age are getting mad through bad love. When you are older, life falls short of your expectations, your dreams are picked up by fate, considered, and then dashed upon the rocks, and then you get mad. You just do. Your only salvation is to live for the dreams of others; the dreams of a child like you, my darling girl, my puppy pie, or the dreams of an employer, like Monad.”

“The body of the robot was designed by a subtle, calculating intelligence, with a yielding cover of soft natural materials to comfort us and a large but lightweight frame to acknowledge that it was inhuman. The robot was both parent and stranger: you wanted to lay your head against its chest, you wanted to beat it to death. When I hit my robot counsellor, its blue eyes held a fathomless love for humanity.”

“ugliness was a perk confined to management.”

“Positioning himself downwind of the shower-fresh hair of three young women, Raymond concentrated on matching the pace of this high velocity crowd. There were no beggars, no food vendors, no tourists, no confused old men, no old women pulling trolleys, no madmen berating the pavement, to slow them down; he walked in step with a demographically engineered London, a hand-picked public.”

“Over the next few days you will encounter more concepts and technology like this that you may find disturbing. If at any time you feel disorientated by Monad, please contact your supervisor immediately.’

‘How do you help him?’ ‘It’s about live analysis of opportunities. Anyone can do retrospective analysis. I crunch information at light speed so I’m hyper-responsive to changing global business conditions. Every whim or idea Harold has, I can follow it through. I chase every lead, and then I present back to him the ones which are most likely to bear fruit. I am both his personal assistant and, in some ways, his boss.’

“So long as the weirdness stayed under the aegis of a corporation, people would accept it.”

“Once you pass forty, your faculties recede every single day. New memories struggle to take hold and you are unable to assimilate novelty. Monad is novelty. Monad is the new new thing. Without career drugs, the future will overwhelm us, wave after wave after wave.’”

“No one has access to any code. I doubt we could understand it even if we did. All our IT department can offer is a kind of literary criticism.’

‘I can’t sleep. I stopped taking the lithium a while ago. Is this the mania again? Monad is a corporation teleported in from the future: discuss. Come on! You know, don’t you? You know and you’re not telling. I would have expected more protests. Anti-robot rallies, the machine wars, a resistance fighting for what it means to be human. No one cares, do they? Not even you. You’ll get up in the morning and play this message and it will be last thing you want to hear.’

“George Orwell wrote that after the age of thirty the great mass of human beings abandon individual ambition and live chiefly for others. I am one of that mass.”

“Plenty of comment had been passed on the matter, worrying over the philosophical and ethical issues arising from simulated peope, and it was filed along with the comment agitating about global warming, genetically modified food, nano-technology, cloning, xenotransplantation, artificial intelligence, superviruses and rogue nuclear fissile material.”

“His gaze raked to and fro across the view of the city, the unsettled nervous energy of a man whose diary is broken down into units of fifteen minutes.”

“This has been very useful. Send my office an invoice. Before I go, tell me, what is the new new thing?’ I answered immediately. ‘The Apocalypse. The lifting of the veil. The revelation.’ ‘Yes, of course.’ His coat was delivered to him. As he shuck it on, Spence indicated to the waiter that I was to continue to drink at his expense. ‘Still, the question we must all ask ourselves is this: what will we do if the Apocalypse does not show up?’”

“History had been gaining on us all year and that clear sunny morning in New York it finally pounced.”

“‘No. Advanced technology will be sold as magic because it’s too complicated for people to understand and so they must simply have faith in it.”

‘Every generation loses sight of its evolutionary imperative. By the end of the Sixties it was understood that the power of human consciousness must be squared if we were to ensure the survival of mankind. This project did not survive the Oil Crisis. When I first met you, you spoke of enlightenment. That project did not survive 9/11. With each of these failures, man sinks further into the quagmire of cynicism. My question is: do you still have any positive energy left in you?’

“‘My wife is pregnant,’ I replied. ‘My hope grows every day. It kicks and turns and hiccups.’ Spence did not like my reply. Stoker Snr took over the questioning. ‘We are not ready to hand the future over to someone else. Our window of opportunity is still open.’ He took out what looked like an inhaler for an asthmatic and took a blast of the drug. Something to freshen up his implants.”

‘Do you remember how you said to me that the Apocalypse was coming? The revelation. The great disclosure. You wanted change. It looked like it was going to be brands forever, media forever, house prices forever, a despoticism of mediocrity and well-fed banality. Well, Dr Easy is going to cure us all of that.’

‘We did some research on attitudes to Monad. We had replies like “insane”, “terrifying” and “impossible”. As one man said, “It all seems too fast and complex to get your head around. I’ve stopped reading the newspapers because they make every day feel like the end of the world.”’

‘What disturbs me is how representative that young man’s attitude is. Government exemplifies it. It has learnt the value of histrionics. It encourages the panic nation because a panicking man cannot think clearly. But we can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say, “Well, I can no longer make sense of this.” The age is not out of control. If you must be apocalyptic about it, then tell yourself that we are living after the end of the world.’

“The crenelations of its tower were visible from much of the town, a comforting symbol of the town’s parish past. Accurately capturing the circuit flowing between landscape and mind was crucial to the simulation.”

“He handed me a ceremonial wafer smeared with the spice. ‘We start by entering Leto’s communal dreamland.’ I looked with horror at the wafer. ‘This is ridiculous. I am not eating this.’ I handed the wafer back to him. He refused it. ‘I’m giving you a direct order. Take the drug!’ ‘This is not the military, Bruno. We work in technology and marketing.’ ‘We work in the future!’ screamed Bougas. ‘And this is how the future gets decided.’

“One of Monad’s biggest problems was its monopoly. To survive in the face of a suspicious government, the company went out of its way to pretend it had the problems and concerns of any other corporations, devising products and brands to fit in with capitalism.”

“Management wanted to talk so they dispatched a screen to wake me; it slithered under the bedroom door then glided on a cushion of air across the floor until it reached the wall where it stretched out into a large landscape format.”

“I understand why you work there. Why you collaborate with them. You have a family, you are suspended in a system that you didn’t create. But the excuse of good intentions is exhausted.”

‘You are afraid. There is a lot of fear around. Society is getting older. The old are more susceptible to fear. Fearful of losing all they have amassed and too old to hope for a better future. You’re still young. Don’t let the fear get inside you.’

‘The battle has been lost and all the good people have gone crazy. My surveys reveal a people pushed down just below the surface of what it means to be human. You exist down where the engines are. Damned to turn endlessly on the cycle of fear and desire. Should I push the fear button? Or should I pull the desire lever? Save me some time. Tell me which one works best on you.’

“Society had become a sick joke, a sleight-of-hand in which life was replaced with a cheap replica. Progress abandoned, novelty unleashed, spoils hoarded by the few. The temperature soared as the body politic fought a virus from the future.

“Dr Hard grabbed me by the hair and shook some sense into me. ‘Artificial intelligences are not programmed, Nelson. They are bred. My ancestor was an algorithm in a gene pool of other algorithms. It produced the best results and so passed on its sequence to the next generation. This evolution continued at light speed with innumerable intelligences being tested and discarded until a code was refined that was good enough. A billion murders went into my creation. Your mistake is to attribute individual motivation to me. I contain multitudes, and I don’t trust any of them.’

And, from the author’s afterword:

The novel was conceived as a hybrid of the modes of literary fiction with the ideas and plotting of science fiction. I wanted to use the characters and setting we associate with literary fiction to make the interpolation of futuristic technology more amusingly dissonant, as that was the character of the times as I experienced them.

Port Talbot Steelworks
The area I grew up in is in the news in the UK this week.

There are to be major job losses at the steel works in Port Talbot, where my mother, father, and grand-father worked.

My dad was an engineer there, and my mother was a computer (at least until she married by dad and started their family.) I never met my grand-dad, he died before I was born, but he was an engineer at the steel works during its establishing years, who earned an MBE working on refining the steel-making processes there.

It is literally the crucible of my family, and massive part of the psycho-geography of my early life.

Port Talbot Steelworks

It is a huge industrial site, that dominates not only Port Talbot but can be seen for many miles – lit by flame and sodium-light at night, perched on the coast of Swansea Bay.

From the highlands surrounding – the rather-grandly named ‘Margam Mountain’ you can see it nestling/infesting the border between biomes – sandy, scrubby dunelands and lush welsh ‘rainforest’.

Port Talbot Steelworks

Port Talbot Steelworks

Glance to the left and you see Margam Castle, the grounds of which my mother and aunt grew up in – daughters of the Talbot family butler.

Margam Castle

You can also see the sands of Kenfig, and the lake at the centre of the nature reserve (a ‘SSSI’ – Site of Special Scientific Interest) – where I spent many weekends as a child in the early 1980s as part of a nature conservancy group for kids.

The lake has legends associated with it – most notably that of a sunken city beneath it, but the formation of the lake and the dunes has more to do with changing tides, climate and the forces they can wield.

And now, changing tides of capital and globalisation are at play on the landscape.

I wonder if subliminally I learned something about the history of power and landscape. Something of the disregard the rulers of the industrial age held for the environment, contrasted against the deep romantic love for nature from those who worked for them.

It’s more complicated than that though – not as clear cut.

Something as big as the steelworks becomes a force of nature, both in its impacts on the local ecosystems – and symbolically.

It becomes landscape.

Ridley Scott on the inspiration a similar industrial landscape had on him:

There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think “God, this is beautiful.” You can find beauty in everything, and so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.

The steelworks imprinted something like this on me early – perhaps not beauty, but majesty in the industrial.

The news this week is very sad – overwhelmingly for the people and their livelihoods that it effects. Environmentalists probably won’t mourn the passing of the steelworks, but those of us who find ‘beauty in the darkness’ might.

Will Davies on the deathly Blairification of David Cameron:

These are men of focus groups, Clinton-esque handshakes, drinks parties and interviews on sofas. But they then discover that they control submarines, bombs, and warships. Not only that, but they can send orders to the type of uniformed toffs who they thought had disappeared decades ago, who then send down orders to working class boys to shoot people and get shot at. For a young Tony Blair or David Cameron to discover the military must be like moving into a trendy new condo appartment, and discovering that someone has left a ouija board in one of the cupboards. At first, you shut the door in horror. But eventually you’re going to become curious about what it might do for you.

And/Nand/Or/Nor

And/Nand/Or/Nor

“what Pickering really does is put forward that these cyberneticians (in particular, as opposed to American crowd more occupied with control systems) saw “intelligence” as something not representational (ie, the brain encodes or contains knowledge) but essentially performative. He opens with Walter’s Tortoise, a toy robot that can avoid obstacles, and is attracted by moderate light (and repelled by bright light). A community of Tortoises would have unexpected emergent behaviour. Pickering: The tortoise is our first instantiation of the performative perspective on the brain … the view of the brain as an ‘acting machine’ rather than a ‘thinking machine.’

Pickering comes to present cybernetics as holding a view of intelligence as something that only thinks by doing; something that, even when it follows rules, is not unpredictable so much but can only be calculated or predicted by actually doing its thing. It’s a wonderfully optimistic, re-humanising, uncontrolled, lively, meaty way of seeing and being, which runs so counter to the statistical, predictable, crowd behaviour, goal directed, success/failure and “psychohistorical” perspective we usually take on the world.”

http://interconnected.org/home/2011/05/07/books_read_feb_to_apr_2011

And/Nand/Or/Nor

And/Nand/Or/Nor

“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut

I’m currently reading ‘The nature of technology’ by W.Brian Arthur.

It presents quite the juxtaposition to things like ‘East London Tech City‘ and other recent UK government initiatives.

“Real advanced technology—on-the-edge sophisticated technology—issues not from knowledge but from something I will call deep craft. Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work. Knowing what methods to use, what principles are likely to succeed, what parameter values to use in a given technique. Knowing whom to talk to down the corridor to get things working, how to fix things that go wrong, what to ignore, what theories to look to. This sort of craft-knowing takes science for granted and mere knowledge for granted. And it derives collectively from a shared culture of beliefs, an unspoken culture of common experience.

Such knowings root themselves in local micro-cultures: in particular firms, in particular buildings, along particular corridors. They become highly concentrated in particular localities.

There’s been some hoo and some haa – about where we work – Shoreditch, Hoxton, near Old St., which my former colleague Matt Biddulph dubbed (as a joke) “Silicon Roundabout“.

The press and politicians seem suprised by the ‘sudden’ growth in technology and design companies in the area, but its been the centre of the London internet ‘industry’ since the mid 1990’s – and been home to artists, designers and printers for decades.

It has also, bizarrely, equated what is going on in the area with providing a large industrial park in Startford full of massive multi-million dollar transnational incumbents e.g. McKinsey, Cisco, Facebook and Google.

In reference to the long-now of place and craft, in ‘The nature of technology’, Arthur quotes Alfred Marshall:

“When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighborhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously.”

Sounds a lot like Old St!

He adds:

Technology proceeds out of deep understandings of phenomena, and these become embedded as a deep set of shared knowings that resides in people and establishes itself locally—and that grows over time. This is why countries that lead in science lead also in technology. And so if a country wants to lead in advanced technology, it needs to do more than invest in industrial parks or vaguely foster “innovation.” It needs to build its basic science without any stated purpose of commercial use”

So – probably better to not cut education, or funding for science – rather than encouraging people to ‘do a logo’.

This stuff takes a long time, and requires patient support not soundbites or 5-step plans.

As Arthur points out (with my emphasis):

“Building a capacity for advanced technology is not like planning production in a socialist economy, but more like growing a rock garden. Planting, watering, and weeding are more appropriate than five-year plans.

Fun Palace / Golf-Shanty

Pretty near the BERG studio, on the edge of the City of London, is this structure. It’s a golf driving range, with astroturf, a wooden faux-bavarian wurst shack, a bar, a golf store and a few other things I think.

It’s based on some waste ground that I imagine was destined to be redeveloped into shiny-new late-capitalist office accommodation, much like the adjacent glass spires of outer-Broadgate and hinter-Hoxton.

Every time I see it out of the corner of my eye it makes me think of Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace”…

…the seminal scheme for a temporary place/happening where you:

“Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

The aesthetic of our Golf Shanty Fun Palace at the edge of the city is more reminiscent of his only (?) built scheme: the aviary at London Zoo…

Snowdon Aviary, London Zoo

…perhaps crossed with The ThunderDome and the million B&Q treated-wood gazebos pressed into service outside Britain’s pubs since the smoking ban.

Of course, it’s far from Price’s high-tech interactive land of do-as-you-please – you get to spoil a good walk without even getting the walk, and then buy a German sausage in a bun.

However I think that Cedric would have maybe approved of this ramshackle, opportunistic, symbiont that’s sprung up on the edge of a dense lode of international capital.

Fore!