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Sufficiently-advanced literature

“Did you know cake tastes better on the moon? If you went to Earth and had cake you’d be so disappointed. It’d be flat and heavy and solid. It’s to do with pore size and crumb structure, and crumb structure is so much better on the moon. Every cake you make is three kinds of science: chemistry, physics and architecture. The physics is about heat, gas expansion and gravity. Your raising agents push up against gravity. The less gravity, the higher it raises. You might think, so, if lower gravity makes for better crumb structure, wouldn’t the perfect cake be one you made in zero gee? Actually, no. It would expand in all directions and you’d end up with a big ball of fizzing cake mix. When you came to bake it, it would be very difficult to get heat to the centre of the cake. You would end up with a soggy heart.”

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.

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

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.

From an essay by John Berger on Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti.

I’ve been thinking at BERG about other senses and empathies engaged by real and robotic dogs as companions, and found this just perfect and lovely.

30 December 2010 - 13.14.55-2

We live our daily lives in a constant exhange with the set of daily appearances surrounding us – often they are very familiar, sometimes they are unexpected and new, but always they confirm us in our lives. They do so even when they are threatening: the sight of a house burning, for example, or a man approaching us with a knife between his teeth, still reminds us (ungently) of our life and its importance. What we habitually see confirms us.

Yet it can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light of glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it.

The speed of a cinema film is 24 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past our daily perception. But it is as if at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we se between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for — night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales… Perhaps it was destined not only for animals but for lakes, slow-growing trees, ores, carbon…

Our customary visible order is not the only one: it co-exists with other orders. Stories of fairies, sprites, ogres were a human attempt to come to terms with this co-existence. Hunters are continually aware of it and so can read signs we do not see. Children feel it intuitively, because they have the habit of hiding behind things. There they discover the interstices between different sets of the visible.

Knock! Knock!
Who’s there?
Guess who!

Dogs, with their running legs, sharp noses and developed memory for sounds, are the natural frontier experts of these interstices. Their eyes, whose message often confuses us for it is urgent and mute, are attuned both to the human order and to other visible orders. Perhaps this is why, on so many occasions and for different reasons, we train dogs as guides.

Probably it was a dog who led Sammallahti to the moment and place for taking of each picture. In each one the human order, still in sight, is nevertheless no longer central and is slipping away. The interstices are open.

The result is unsettling for those who are not nomads. There is more solitude, more pain, more dereliction. At the same time, there is an expectancy which we have not experienced since childhood, since we talked to the dogs, listened their secret and kept it to ourselves.

“‘Beauty pierces through like that ray through the clouds,” Orolo continued. “Your eye is drawn to where it touches something that is capable of reflecting it. But your mind knows that the light does not originate from the mountains and the towers. You mind knows that something is shining in from another world. Don’t listen to those who say it’s in the eye of the beholder.'”

“In our buildings and music, beauty was always present even if I didn’t notice. Orolo was onto something; when I saw any of those kinds of beauty I knew I was alive, and not just in the sense that when I hit my thumb with a hammer I knew I was alive, but rather in the sense that I was partaking of something – something was passing through me that it was in my nature to be a part of.”

Anathem, Neal Stephenson, p 114

Really, really enjoyed this. First of KSR’s books I’ve read – arrived on my radar as I was finishing my talk on Time, and it’s a lovely meditation on time, science and humanity. Recommended.

Galileo’s Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson)
– Highlight Loc. 1497-1502 | Added on Tuesday, January 05, 2010, 08:33 AM

“Materials and power available are terrifically advanced compared to your time. And there is a principle called redundancy at the criticalities, do you know this term? Replacement systems are available in case of failures. Bad things still sometimes happen. But there you are. They do anywhere.’ ‘But on Earth,’ Galileo objected, ‘on Earth, in the open air, the things you make don’t have to work for you to survive.’ ‘Don’t they? Your clothing, your language, your weapons? They all have to work for you to stay alive, right? We are poor forked worms in this world. Only our technologies, and our teamwork, allow us to survive.’”

Galileo’s Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson)
– Highlight Loc. 2182 | Added on Thursday, January 07, 2010, 11:24 PM

“analepsis”

Galileo’s Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson)
– Highlight Loc. 3535-38 | Added on Thursday, January 21, 2010, 08:48 AM

“Humans sensed only a small part of reality. They were as worms in the earth, comfortable and warm. If God had not given them reason, they would not by their senses know even a minim of the whole. As it was, however, by the cumulative work of thousands of people, humanity had slowly and painfully built a picture of the cosmos beyond what they could see; and then had found ways to use that knowledge, and move around in the cosmos.”

Galileo’s Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson)
– Highlight Loc. 3676-82 | Added on Thursday, January 21, 2010, 08:49 AM

The present is a three-way interference pattern.’ ‘Like chips of sunlight on water. Lots of them at once, or almost at once.’ ‘Yes, potential moments, that wink into being when the three waves peak. The vector nature of the manifold also accounts for many of the temporal effects we experience, like entropy, action at a distance, temporal waves and their resonance and interference effects, and of course quantum entanglement and bilocation, which you yourself are experiencing because of the technology that was developed to move epileptically. In terms of what we sense, fluctuations in this manifold also account for most of our dreams, as well as less common sensations like involuntary memory, foresight, déjà vu, presque vu, jamais vu, nostalgia, precognition, Ruckgriffe, Schwanung, paralipomenon, mystical union with the eternal or the One, and so on.’

Galileo’s Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson)
– Highlight Loc. 4853-57 | Added on Sunday, January 31, 2010, 11:07 PM

“Really there was nothing but asynchronous anachronism. Time was a manifold full of exclusions and resurrections, fragments and the spaces between fragments, eclipses and epilepsies, isotopies all superposed on each other and interweaving in an anarchic vibrating tapestry, and since to relive it at one point was not to relive it at another, the whole was unreadable, permanently beyond the mind. The present was a laminate event, and obviously the isotopies could detach from each other, slightly or greatly. He was caught in a mere splinter of the whole, no matter how entangled with the rest of it.”

Galileo’s Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson)
– Highlight Loc. 4870-72 | Added on Sunday, January 31, 2010, 11:17 PM

But in the garden he would sit still, and think. It was possible, there, to collapse all the potentialities to a single present. This moment had a long duration. Such a blessing; he could feel it in his body, in the sun and air and earth sustaining him. Blue sky overhead-it was the part of the rainbow that was always visible, stretching all the way across the dome of sky.

Galileo’s Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson)
– Highlight Loc. 8926-40 | Added on Tuesday, March 09, 2010, 09:59 AM

“Reality is always partly a creation of the observing consciousness. So I’ve said what I like; and I knew him well enough to think I got it mostly right. I know he was like us, always looking out for himself; and unlike us, in that he acted, while we often lack the courage to act. I wrote this for Hera, but no matter what time you are in when you read it, I’m sure that the history you tell yourself is still a tale of mangled potentiality, of unnecessary misery. That’s just the way it is. In all times people are greatly lacking in courage. But sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they keep trying. This too is history. We are all history-the hopes of people in the past, the past of some future people-known to them, judged by them, changed by them as they use us. So the story keeps changing, all of it. This too I’ve seen, and so I persist. I hope without hope. At some point the inclined plane can bottom out and the ball begin to rise. That’s what science is trying to do. So far it hasn’t worked, the story has been ugly, stupid, shameful, sure; but that can change. It can always change. Because understand: once I saw Galileo burned at the stake; then I saw him squeak his way clear. You have to imagine how that feels. It makes you have to try. And so when sometimes you feel strange, when a pang tugs you or it seems like the moment has already happened-or when you look up in the sky and are surprised by the sight of bright Jupiter between clouds, and everything suddenly seems stuffed with a vast significance-consider that some other person somewhere is entangled with you in time, and is trying to give some push to the situation, some little help to make things better. Then put your shoulder to whatever wheel you have at hand, whatever moment you’re in, and push too! Push like Galileo pushed! And together we may crab sideways toward the good.”