An afternoon with the Dutch Future Society.

Updates on travels to Burgundy, Manchester & Belgrade in the past weeks at a later point, popping this one off the stack first…

“The World in 50 Years & How Do We Get There” was the promising title of the recent afternoon-long mini conference put together by the Dutch Future Society. “The State of Futurism & How The Fuck Do We Get Past This” may have been more appropriate. Bit harsh? Maybe, but honestly I was kind of shocked at the level of the talks given. Brief histories, general overviews & shallow case studies may be passable for introductory client presentations, but for an audience supposedly consisting of professionals in the field? Kindergarten shit.

There will be Robots! Climate change is a thing! Have you guys heard of the Singularity? Fuck. Off. This isn’t a Michio Kaku Discovery Channel special. Futurism isn’t about Prediction? It’s impossible to foresee the future? You don’t say! Oh you made a list of signals? Tell me more!

No, seriously though. Tell me more. Enough of this ‘starting conversations’. This was a room full of people who have real influence on strategic & policy decisions in high-level government & corporate settings. How about steering conversations? What are desirable futures for ‘the world in 50 years’? What are the real world challenges you have encountered in the projects you’re describing? What strategies can be employed to embed the seeds of mid-to-long term desirable change? What tactics have you used to overcome biases in organisations blocking paths to these futures?

“The learning loop ‘Are you right?’ doesn’t seem to exist in this profession” – Mark Turrel

It’s a damn shame that the last talk, by a self-proclaimed ‘not-a-futurist’ was the only one to even scratch the surface of navigating futures in the 21st century. The ‘poll’ taken in the final workshop asks what kind of Futurist one is, and the two choices are basically that you do strategy or trends. During the discussion voices in the room lament the lack of cross-over from other fields, “in the US they have access to resources like Science Fiction writers, here we don’t have that so much”. You’re fucking kidding me, right? “We tried a thing with some VJ’s but it didn’t work very well because they hadn’t thought about this much in any depth”. Oh yeah? How about next time you actually research who you ask?

Keep flailing around with your crowdsourcing & your Foresight 3.0 (I shit you not, this was a thing), or actually go out and maybe find out what’s happening in your field. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. While you’re doing what are basically poorly designed Delphi method questionnaires online, entire new fields of exploratory practice are being developed. We have Critical Design, Design Fiction & Infrastructure Fiction to name just a few.

My twitter feed contains Critical Futures, Cynical Futures, Feral Futures, Unknown Futures, Planetary Futures, Thriving Futures, Retro Futures, Applied Futures, Gonzo Futures, African Futures, Optimistic Futures, Infrastructure Futures, Mystical Futures, Speculative Futures, the list goes on. All of those people know how to properly design a fucking slide deck too. I’m being harsh because I like you, Dutch Future Society, but you may want to step your game up.

A Rough Design Fiction Maturity Continuum?

If you’re reading this you probably already know about Design Fiction. You may also have seen Bruce Sterling‘s recent talk at NEXT Berlin on Fantasy Prototypes and Real Disruption. At around the 12:30 mark Bruce calls out the need for a system of categorisation for design fictions, ‘a taxonomy of dragons’ if you will. I don’t think this fits the bill exactly, but it may be a useful reference in thinking about the matter. (click image for full size)

design_maturity

I came across this image on /r/criticaldesign a few days ago, it was created by one Jess McMullin back in 2005. It is meant to illustrate various levels of maturity of design thinking within organisations, but this may also be a useful way of thinking about the substance of design fictions and identifying some of the issues with the homogenous glossy corporate futures identified by Scott Smith as ‘Flatpack Futures‘. The continuum would then break down as follows:

Framing

Design Fictions redefining the challenges facing the organisation planet. ‘Disruptive innovation lives here’ as the graphic says. ‘Thick’ futures imagining deep systemic changes to our society.

Problem Solving

Design Fictions exploring new opportunities to solve existing problems. “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in this slum had access to solar-powered communal water purification & toilet/bathing facilities? Here’s what that might look like!” etc.

Function & Form

Design Fictions to show things working better. Future product demonstration videos with little further substance. Most ‘flatpack future’ videos live here.

Style

Design Fictions as the gateway to being hip and cool. The rest of the ‘flatpack future’ videos live here. Just gloss that says nothing about people’s real lives.

‘No conscious design’ doesn’t really fit the continuum as by definition with any design fiction there would have to be design involved, but you could possibly apply this category to videos that may be mistaken for design fictions. Your basic throwaway Sci-fi utopias & dystopias in which the future hasn’t even been designed but just copy/pasted from a Tupac video. Shit happens all the time.

In order for a design fiction to be doing any real work I think it needs to live in the top two boxes. That’s where Paul Graham Raven‘s Infrastructure Fiction goes as well I guess. As for the lower two boxes, well there’s nothing wrong with it also looking great (please make your work look great) but shine without substance won’t cut it if your design fiction is to ever actually mean anything.

Opening #UTS think tank 6/6 – Bruce Sterling

6/6 rambling paraphrased summaries of the talks given at the Under Tomorrow’s Sky public think tank, June 16th in MU. Each speaker introduced their ideas for the workshop session on the 17th, which will shape the model city for the exhibition.

Bruce Sterling

Self proclaimed “basic network society dilettante”. No introduction should even be necessary. Deliverable for this project is a story set in the city to be outlined the next day.

So that’s the Leap Motion. Like most of us Bruce was skeptical about this video after first seeing it, but his colleagues at Wired checked it out and it’s legit. Volumetric technology being sold as a game controller as that’s the surest way to get their money back. The potential applications of this device are huge.

When we’re talking about 3D architectural cyberspaces we’ve got to move beyond the superficial visual aspects and ask deeper questions. Who are building these spaces? Why are they building them, what problems are we trying to solve?

The problem the Leap technology potentially solves is registration, an issue core to the success of Augmented Reality. There have been 6 or 7 ways tried to solve this previously, none of which actually really work. They just produce these annoying kind of MS Clippy like entities that jitter around on screen.

That video is based on a Kinect hack. The Leap has 200x better resolution than Kinect, though unfortunately it only registers within a small box of space. Assuming this limitation will be overcome, what would a city be like if it was mapped out in 3d on micrometer scale?” If we can watch & map everything, what would that mean? What happens if we strap one of these onto a seagull? Or all of them?  Eventually you’d have a model of the city so good you could just print out another city. It has more weird implications than we can figure out. The city should definitely mash up this idea with others like Rachels.

And now, neologisms! What do we call this new space? Interspace? Predator Lidar? Bruce rattles off a long list of name, some names are actually already in use, others are made up, it’s up to us to spot the differences. My terrible note taking couldn’t keep up but fortunately part of the list has since been posted up on Beyond the Beyond:

“Augmented Ubiquity.” “Spatial Operating Environments.” “Dematerialized Urbanism.” “Interactive Spatiality.” “Everted Cyberspace.” “Interoperable Voxels.” “Fine-grain geolocativity.” “Realtime 3d Battlespace Surveillance.”

Under Tomorrows Sky opens August 10th at MU in Eindhoven.

Opening #UTS Think Tank 5/6 – Warren Ellis

5/6 rambling paraphrased summaries of the talks given at the Under Tomorrow’s Sky public think tank, June 16th in MU. Each speaker introduced their ideas for the workshop session on the 17th, which will shape the model city for the exhibition.

Warren Ellis

Just survived having his face shot full of drugs and worked over with cow horns, it’s a miracle he’s even alive. Fortunately Bruce Sterling brought the cure-all and he has adequately self-medicated. May be somewhat more flushed & puffy than usual.

Warren has nothing prepared due to his adventures in British dental surgery, but explains he’s probably here because he wrote a thing called Transmetropolitan. Considers we’re here to do what fiction shouldn’t do. Fiction is there to ask questions, but we’re presumably in persuit of answers. In this we must tread carefully. The session is opened up to Q&A.

Juha asks where Warren lives. The short answer is Southend on Sea. The long answer involves a treatise on the seat of Saxon kings, the growth of cities as cancers, how Western culture works like a car thats kind of reliable but needs kicking before it goes, and ends in concluding that “cities have become machines for keeping us alive just that little bit longer”.

Which brings us to the first point, that the weather is not our friend. “What is the legal status of the weather?” Warren asks. Every 5 or 6 years it rains for AN ENTIRE FUCKING YEAR. Not only a depressing nuisance but the minor floods, landslides, and other dangers to our infrastructure are an actual threat condition. What happens when we just dump the weather off onto our neighbors like Moscow did to ensure neat parades back in the 60’s?

Bruce asks if the city in Transmet is like an ideal now. Despite the gunfire and riots and whatnot Warren isn’t too bothered by the situation there, and doesn’t see it as dystopian. “It’s not so bad” he says, it comes off as a dystopia, really it’s just how we’re already living writ large. “So where would you want to live?” Bruce asks, “Some place where the weather can be controlled” says Warren, Bruce: “No I mean like, contemporary. Copenhagen?” “No, I ran out of there both screaming and yawning.” Warren thumbs down for you, Copenhagen. He likes Reykjavic though, plenty of sun as you would obviously be there in summer. It’s small, but very much a city of the people rather than things faceless.

Vancouver is nice too apparently. The Global Frequency TV pilot was shot there as are a lot of other shows, because Vancouver looks like every major American city without being any of them. You can drive 10 minutes out of town and then there’s forest separating the small towns that all still look like the American ideal of a small town, which in actual America has pretty much ceased to exist. Remember Stargate SG1? Every alien planet on that show (and many others) is shot within 30 minutes of Vancouver.

A follow up asking which historical city would be ok to inhabit leads us to a brief rant on archaeoacoustics, and the question “Why dont we design cities with sound?” We don’t design cities either to reflect or absorb sound, they are loud and acoustically ugly, and there’s just no reason for it. It’s a failure of imagination.

So how about that Russian with the petrol-powered leaping boots? They may not be that good for the city but they sure as shit are more fun than the Segway. Remember a few months before that came out? A group of high powered Silicon valley types were invited out to to a Dean Kamen garden party and they all came back raving about how what they had seen would define the future of transportation, change the way cities are designed. Then when this world changing invention was unveiled it was the fucking Segway. Now mostly transportation for twats and tourists. Oh, and of course George Bush. “The future of the city died with George Bush falling off a segway.”

Are we designing a future city or are we designing a future city state? What what about the neighbors if we’re fucking with the weather? Should the state be entirely self sufficient? The muttering becomes incomprensible. There are more questions and there is much stabbing of air with cigarette.

Liam asks about role of Science Fiction. It has always been a tool with which to examine our present day condition, Warren says. Making predictions isn’t the point of the exercise but a side effect. The broader social aspects of the investigations executed through Science Fictional universes are lost on those who are disappointed by so called predictions that didn’t come to pass.

Simon asks if we’re not missing a trick by sidelining dystopias and just focusing on positive developments as is one of the trends in Science Fiction? Warren responds that you can’t ever really get rid of them, as one mans dystopia isn’t the others. A previously stated dystopias are often just our present condition writ large. If you dont like it then by all means don’t look out the window. And what is this positive Scifi stuff really anyway? What is positive? Heinlein often gets cited as being inspirational and exemplary, but he’s really not that optimistic about people. This misreading of Science Fiction doesn’t get us anywhere.

Juha asks about the militarisation of cities, what with the olympic rooftop missiles and drones etc. “Ah yes, now there’s a throwback” says Warren. The idea of Big Brother may come from Britain but in truth they’re a bit shit at it. If the roof missiles are ever launched, the main effect will be that the building is set on fire. Then, if they intercept their target, a cloud of burning shrapnel travelling 4/500 miles an hour will rain down a over suburban area, killing more than just any terrorist missile might have. So yeah it’s a concern, but in Britain you can only laugh because its so crap. It’s theater. Very expensive theater.

Drones on the other hand are more interesting but why aren’t more people thinking about how they can be used for public good? For example a swarm could constantly be collecting atmospheric data over the city. Maybe if we have enough of them they could heat the place up a little.

“I don’t even need an orbital death ray, I will take the low altitude local version.”

Under Tomorrows Sky opens August 10th at MU in Eindhoven.

Opening #UTS Think Tank 4/6 – Rachel Armstrong

4/6 rambling paraphrased summaries of the talks given at the Under Tomorrow’s Sky public think tank, June 16th in MU. Each speaker introduced their ideas for the workshop session on the 17th, which will shape the model city for the exhibition.

Rachel Armstrong

 Synthetic Biologist & Senior TED Fellow. Does not need a microphone in small spaces. Video below is an extended talk that includes the projects I’ve cut out of this summary.

We’re looking for an evolutionary process to create materials through an open ended, bottom up approach, something at such an awe instilling scale that it would become immersive but is still accessible and cost effective. Chemical reactions that are so slow they aren’t lifelike, but are not inert, using simple forms of chemical computation to produce the compounds and structures we require.

In all of this we must not reduce synthetic biology to technology and commodity, but aim for a Hylozoic ground. Synthetic soils as the substrates cities can grow on. Soil as materiality, infrastructure, method of transformation and precondition for life. Right now we live in soulless, dead soil that has undergone geometric reduction to it’s brick form. Our cities are deserts, we need to move beyond just hydrophonic gardens and green roofs, to a new unity of technology and nature.

“It’s time to reveal what it means to be an ecological human.”

Under Tomorrows Sky opens August 10th at MU in Eindhoven.

Opening #UTS Think Tank 3/6 – Paul Duffield

3/6 paraphrased summaries of the talks given at the Under Tomorrow’s Sky public think tank, June 16th in MU. Each speaker introduced their ideas for the workshop session on the 17th, which will shape the model city for the exhibition.

Paul Duffield

Spent the entire evening supporting the talks by live sketching. UPSIDE DOWN.

Paul showed material from FreakangelsSignalSinging Sentinels, the upcoming book “Archeology, Anthrology & Interstellar Communication” and The Firelight Isle to give us a feel for his aesthetic & the direction he would be pushing in as one of the key concept artists on the project. He notes popular culture’s current obsession with ruin, and observes that the color has gone missing from cities, it would be nice to get some of that back.

Under Tomorrows Sky opens August 10th at MU in Eindhoven.

Opening #UTS Think Tank 2/6 – Simon Ings

2/6 rambling paraphrased summaries of the talks given at the Under Tomorrow’s Sky public think tank, June 16th in MUEach speaker introduced their ideas for the workshop session on the 17th, which will shape the model city for the exhibition.

Simon Ings

“Editor of Arc. Author of Dead Water, Biographer of scientists under Stalin. A shining example of something or other.”

“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

By now we should take this quote as self evident. The future must be something felt & personal, we must move away from the grinning Stalinist policy that would enforce utopia from the top down. Through fiction we can explore and analyze, investigate the fates of losers as well as winners and bring texture and ambiguity into our visions of the future.

Cities are marketplaces, what is unsettling about them is that capital is simplifying life through hyperautomation. We’re forgetting the grit. The grimy, less polished fringe are where interesting things happen. We need to beware this isn’t ironed out, for happiness comes from engagement with rich world. Humans want to have fun.

We may have to think of capitalism as coming uncoupled in the city. Capitalism couples aspiration to consumption, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the trouble is eventually you run out of stuff. Then your city is overrun by rioters motivated by a nihilism more akin to that of the Russian revolution than any event in the recent history of England. You can make a market out of anything, it doesn’t have to be materialism.

If we can survive another 60 years of clever monkeys burning stuff, how will we keep a vibrant complex city going when the population drops of from 11 to 3 billion? It would be nice if it wasn’t complete twaddle. The new market may be one of companionship. As robotics advance, the anthropomorphism we thrust upon our automated servants may give rise to a more animistic sense of intelligence. A more Japanese approach that sees every thing as bestowed of spirit. Some more than others though obviously.

Under Tomorrows Sky opens August 10th at MU in Eindhoven. 

Opening #UTS Think Tank 1/6 – Liam Young

1/6 rambling paraphrased summaries of the talks given at the Under Tomorrow’s Sky public think tank, June 16th in MUEach speaker introduced their ideas for the workshop session on the 17th, which will shape the model city for the exhibition.

Liam Young

Host of the event whom you may know from Tomorrows Thoughts Today. Did an excellent job of not exploding while wrangling multiple livestream & powerpoint issues. 

The evening is intended to open the dialogue on the city Under Tomorrow’s Sky, engaging the think tank to explore emerging futures, forming an outline for the model city that is to be constructed and exhibited at MU. To demonstrate what we will not be dealing with, we open with an edited version of the video above, showing the 1964 Futurama 2 exhibit.

Those old futures do not concern us, as we imagine wandering amidst the ruined cities of futures past. The lifeless, stripped corpse of an Archigram walking city with it’s belly slumped in the dust, the overgrown ruinporn that remains of what was once Corbusier’s Radiant City. The futures of our youth, promised to us by the likes of the Usborne Book of the Future have not come to pass.

“The physical city as we know it is kind of destroying itself”, says Liam. It is now defined by invisible boundries, airspace, traffic flows, data flows. Is the city even a city anymore? The idea of the speculative city has been abandoned for some time, but now amidst our current collapse the future is a possibility again. There’s a new city under tomorrows sky, we’re going to figure out what that might be.

Under Tomorrows Sky opens August 10th at MU in Eindhoven. 

 

What a beautiful world this will be

What a glorious time to be free. An essay on why Donald Fagen’s I.G.Y is the single best science fiction song. Ever.

Full disclosure/disclaimer. The Nightfly album has been played to me since before I was able to make memories. It was grafted into my mind during the period in which I began to experience conscious thought, which may have resulted in a mild bias and the smoking of Chesterfield cigarettes.

Despite my bias and the opinions of a bunch of people who are wrong on the internet, I maintain that this song stands alone as the best sci-fi song ever, standing above others in several respects. First let’s take the lyrics, this song features the following:

  • An intercontinental vacuum evacuated tube train.
  • A Goddamn Space Casino. Or orbital weapons platforms, take your pick. I like the casino.
  • Solar powered cities and geoengineerd weather.
  • The liberation of mankind through automation & information technology. A singularity even, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Not to mention “more leisure time for artists everywhere” and Spandex jackets for everyone. That’s a rich world to build in just six minutes.

The Wikipedia entry for I.G.Y. states that “The song is sung from an optimistic viewpoint during the IGY”. (International Geophysical Year, a period of international cooperation in Earth Sciences, during which Russia launched Sputnik and the Space Race kicked off.) On the surface the lyrics indeed shine with the graphite and glitter of the golden age, but the fact that this song was written in the early 80’s betrays a very different sentiment.

As a childhood member of the Science Fiction Book Club, Mr. Fagen cites several sci-fi authors as having influenced his lyrics, and admits to stealing most from the dark humor and satire of Alfred Bester (also William Gibson’s favorite). Instead of Space Age optimism this song oozes with cynicism for futures that never came to pass. The very same cultural zeitgeist that fueled what would then be the next major movement in sci-fi literature, ‘the cyberpunkers’ as Fagen calls them.

This record stands lyrically in perfect balance between the two major movements in (american) 20th century science fiction, using the imagery of the golden age in sarcasm to express the sentiment that fueled cyberpunk. A feeling my generation has grown up with, and which now haunts us through the new art brought forth from our relationship with the machines.

Science fiction is a native 20th century art form that came of age at the same time as jazz. Like jazz, science fiction is very street-level, very American, rather sleazy, rather popular, with a long and somewhat recondite tradition. It’s also impossible to avoid, no matter how hard you try. – Bruce Sterling

Then the music itself. Tastes differ obviously, and we can probably agree that chart positions don’t mean much in determining how good a song really is, but there is something to be said for distribution and staying power. This song is ubiquitous at a level probably only paralleled by other Steely Dan records. It gets airtime on every inoffensive easy cool smooth mellow jazz rock station and supermarket the world over. Whether you like it or not, you know this song.

Music can, to some extent, be judged on its technical merits, the quality of its sound. In this case I.G.Y. stands entirely in a class of its own. This track is so impeccably produced that professional audio engineers use it to calibrate their systems. It’s been called ‘the Freebird of Pro Audio‘ but it’s more like the International Prototype Meter. It’s a benchmark. Hifi geeks know this song so well that when listening to it they no longer necessarily hear the song, they hear the quality of the system it’s playing on. No other record even comes close to being used as widespread in this way.

In conclusion, as Science Fiction is a literary genre we return to the lyrics. Note that nothing in the text is entirely unfeasible, or even improbable. There are no aliens, no transporters, no FTL drives, no dragons, no other dimensions and no magic wand bullshit. Politics aside humans could build everything in this song in a matter of decades. It’s an aspirational world Fagen has built, and it’s an achievable one. That is straight up hard science fiction. I don’t care how many synths you built or how spaced out your video is, this is the best science fiction song. I rest my case, thank you for your time.

I.G.Y.

Standing tough under stars and stripes We can tell This dream’s in sight You’ve got to admit it At this point in time that it’s clear The future looks bright

On that train all graphite and glitter Undersea by rail Ninety minutes from New York to Paris Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K.

What a beautiful world this will be What a glorious time to be free

Get your ticket to that wheel in space While there’s time The fix is in You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky You know we’ve got to win

Here at home we’ll play in the city Powered by the sun Perfect weather for a streamlined world There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be What a glorious time to be free

On that train all graphite and glitter Undersea by rail Ninety minutes from New York to Paris (More leisure time for artists everywhere)

A just machine to make big decisions Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision We’ll be clean when their work is done We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be What a glorious time to be free

Get it on iTunes or Amazon.


Bonus reading: The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi An essay by Donald Fagen himself on his Science Fiction influences.