Being burgled for the first time is probably a great prompt for developing a hacker-esque mindset. Which isn’t to say i’d recommend it; as of last night, I’ve been burgled four times in my life, and while it’s markedly less horrible a mental experience each time out, it’s still pretty nasty — even when you’re lucky, as i was this time, and didn’t lose many things or suffer much damage.
The first thing you realise is how easy it is — not just to do, but to get away with. A lot of hackers and pen-test security types make a hobby out of lockpicking, not just because it’s good training for the pen-test mindset (or actual black-hat action), but because it’s a way to remind yourself that there is no lock that cannot be picked, or bypassed somehow. Thence flows the second realisation: that security is as much a social phenomenon as a technical one: the lock (or the password, or the security patrol, whatever) is not there to stop theft, so much as to make theft sufficiently risky or time-consuming that most folk simply won’t bother. The value of the protected goods is the other factor in play; you wouldn’t try cracking Fort Knox for last year’s flatscreen and a few hundred bucks, but for a pallet of bullion? Different story.
The third realisation is that it’s this calculus of risk and reward that allows one to distinguish the professional from the desperate amateur. My guess would be that most home break-ins are not professional jobs, in the sense that they are not done by career burglars; flogging used electronics, average jewellery and other household stuff gets a very poor return for the risk of getting caught, because no fence with sense will pay more than half what they think they can shift it for, which will almost certainly be much less than half the object’s retail value, and furthermore, anything sufficiently valuable to make the return tempting is usually hard to sell on unless you’re nicking to order.
This is how I know last night’s uninvited guests were amateurs. Going on the ratio of mess made (lots) to stuff actually taken (one 22″ TV, which is currently getting a magnesium makeover courtesy of South Yorks CID), it’s clear they were looking for cash or mass-produced consumer goods, because those are easy to move on quickly; they never so much as touched my guitars, for example, despite them being out in plain sight, because they’re a bitch to carry and easy to trace. Plus the musician community has always been pretty good at looking out for one another when it comes to fenced stuff, and the interwebs have only made that easier in recent years. Sure, stuff still walks, and channels exist — but you’d need to know the right people, and the hardware you were taking, to make it worth the hassle.
This may seem contradictory: if they knew what to take, surely they’re not amateurs? And yeah, they know the basics — but so do you, if you think about it. Stay quiet, wear gloves, drop everything and leg it if disturbed; that’s no more a professional approach than not sticking your hand in the flame while cooking on gas. Professionalism is about the long game, not the single exploit; it’s about making one job count, instead of having to take the risk time and again for the sake of a few hundred quid, maximum.
Sadly, even amateurs are hard to catch; without prints or a good visual ID to tie someone to the scene, they’re probably gonna walk. Someone on Twitter last night tried to reassure me that just one DNA sample would be enough to nail the perps, and they were technically right; problem being, CID aren’t going to test for DNA at a household burglary unless they think they’re gonna net someone big, and they know they’re unlikely to net someone big for doing a hiusehold burglary. Amateurs of this sort will usually fuck up at some point and get themselves caught, because they’re too desperate to think far ahead; my guess would be folks with some sort of junk habit. But it’ll take that fuck-up to catch them, because the cops are professionals, and they’re not interested in wasting time and resources on a case that’s not going to stick.
So here’s the fourth realisation, which is pretty innate to anyone with an underclass background, but almost unthinkable to the middle class: the cops aren’t there to prevent crime, because they know (whether consciously or not) that they can’t; they’re there to mop up afterwards. The cops protect capital, the state, and property. Protecting anything that can be picked up and carried (or driven) away is up to you. If this wasn’t the case, there would be no domestic insurance industry. QED. The best way — indeed, probably the only way — to avoid having your stuff stolen is to have nothing worth stealing. (Though of course value is context sensitive, as any homeless person who’s been beaten shitless for the sake of a damp sleeping bag with a broken zip will tell you.)
The other thing being burgled does to a bleeding-heart leftist/anarchist like myself is force them to look to their stated principles. For example, I consider myself a pacifist, but there were a good few hours last night during which I actively fantasised about the opportunity to take a six-cell security Maglite to the knuckles of my visitors. Faced with them in the flesh, I like to think I’d not have done it — I’d probably have been as scared as them, if not more so — but you never know until you’re there in the moment.
But what now of my high-minded reformism, eh? Don’t I want to see someone pay for this crime, see someone suffer in return for my suffering?
In all honesty, no; I retain my belief that the sort of people who do this sort of amateur crime do so precisely because they’ve already suffered. No one embarks on a career of burgling terraced houses in a destitute shithole like Woodhouse because they think there’s a future in it; they do it because they can’t see a future more than a month ahead of them, if that. Poverty will do that to you, as will poor education, an unstable family environment (or no family at all), and a national culture that has reminded you daily, pretty much since birth, that you’re unlikely to ever amount to anything, while also hammering hard on individualism, and the idea that you are what you own.
I’m no utopian; i don’t believe a solid welfare state or mutualist support system would eradicate crime overnight and usher in a peaceable paradise of mutual respect and cooperation. But I do believe that what those things do is give people more options, more choices — and that it really doesn’t take many alternative options to make the option of burgling for chump change look like a bad choice.
Of course, the counterargument is “but fitting better locks and security systems would have the same effect!” And yes, it would — but only for one house at a time. Security technology doesn’t prevent crime; it simply displaces it onto those least able to afford security technology. To address the disease rather than the symptoms requires a social approach.
Maybe you could even call it “social security”.
So, I sold a story a while ago. Not quite as long ago as I wrote the story in question, mind — that was during the second semester of my Masters, which feels like a lifetime ago.
Anyway, the sale went to Ian Whates at NewCon Press. Here’s as much as anyone other than Ian knows about the project in question:
“… the project that started life as ‘write me something featuring a femme fatale’ has evolved considerably. In fact, what began as a single anthology has subsequently budded, amoeba-like, and developed into two independent volumes; a duo-anthology (no, I’m not too sure what that means either, but it sounds impressive). La Femme and Noir, two thematically linked books, each with their own distinct identity.
Both books will be launched on the Friday evening of this year’s Eastercon in Glasgow, 6.00 pm on April 18th, unveiled at a launch party which will also see the release of a new collection from Eric Brown and ”The Moon King”, Neil Williamson’s debut novel.”
Two books, two TOCs:
- Introduction – Ian Whates
- Stephen Palmer – Palestinian Sweets
- Frances Hardinge – Slink-Thinking
- Storm Constantine – A Winter Bewitchment
- Andrew Hook – Softwood
- Adele Kirby – Soleil
- Stewart Hotston – Haecceity
- John Llewellyn Probert – The Girl with No Face
- Jonathan Oliver – High Church
- Maura McHugh – Valerie
- Holly Ice – Trysting Antlers
- Ruth E.J. Booth – The Honey Trap
- Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Elision
- Introduction – Ian Whates
- E.J. Swift – The Crepuscular Hunter
- Adam Roberts – Gross Thousand
- Donna Scott – The Grimoire
- Emma Coleman – The Treehouse
- Paula Wakefield – Red in Tooth and Claw
- Simon Kurt Unsworth – Private Ambulance
- Jay Caselberg – Bite Marks
- Marie O’Regan – Inspiration Point
- Paul Graham Raven – A Boardinghouse Heart
- Simon Morden – Entr’acte
- James Worrad – Silent in Her Vastness
- Paul Kane – Grief Stricken
- Alex Dally McFarlane – The (De)Composition of Evidence
Very chuffed to be there… and very chuffed to have sold that story, which collected apologetic personal rejections from all of the best genre ‘zines on the interwebs. Just my luck someone was doing an anthology where grimly ambiguous tales of monumental self-pity, possibly fraudulent magic, police violence and certifiable drug abuse would be a good fit, eh?
In other writy-publishy news, I just finished a commissioned book chapter. Don’t congratulate me; it was originally due in November last year. Given it’s for a collection of scholarly essays, I expect it’ll take at least as long to get to press as the story above, if not longer… always assuming, of course, that the editors don’t wisely decide that the piece I’ve sent them is that little bit too much weirder than even my abstract had led them to expect. Guess we’ll see…
“Networks weird people.” Quinn Norton and Ella Saitta explain the yin-yang nature of network effects — and the complicity of hackers and “geek culture” in such — to the Chaos Communications Conference.
This is of considerable interest to me, for two reasons. First of all, because legibility is a big part of what my doctorate is about: the systems on which we depend are illegible to us, and in the same way that the state needs to “see” its citizens to interact with them effectively, we need to “see” our infrastructure; however, this would be counterproductive for those who own and control infrastructure, leading to the ironic endgame of the atemporal, wherein the illusion that society is separate from nature is both sustained by and projected upon the very metasystem which binds them inseparably together.
Secondly, because I’m increasingly convinced that an unexamined methodological positivism is at the root of solutionism and geek exceptionalism alike; it’s the dark side of scientific epistemology, a faux-empiricist position wherein that which cannot be quantified cannot exist. It’s also a central plank of neoclassical economics, and neoliberal political theory. Ironically, however, it has created the ultimate machine for forcing humans to confront the subjectivity of the human experience, namely the internet. This is the ideological paradox at the heart of atemporality: the more finely the metanarratives are shredded by our distrust, the more desperate we are for someone to stitch us together a comforting and authoritative story from the fragments. In such an environment, curatorship is power, as Rupert Murdoch knows very well; curation imposes a narrative on the fragments it collects together by excluding the ones it discards.
But what if you gave an exhibition and nobody came? Curation with no visitors is like art with no audience, a scream in the wilderness. So the complementary power to curation is that of distribution: the ability to not only shape the narrative, but to get it in front of the right audience.
He who owns the pipes controls the flow.
Julien Cuny and Louis-Pierre Pharand, former producers and creative directors at Ubisoft on Assassin’s Creed and FarCry, have formed a new development studio named PIXYUL. Their goal: to map our planet at 1:1 scale using drones, and use the resulting 3D recreation as the setting for a survival RPG called ReRoll.
Tell ‘em how it goes, Georgie Borges…
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
— Eleanor Saitta (@Dymaxion) January 31, 2014
Hey, you — here’s your new favourite band! Always assuming, of course — you being after all, gentle reader, merely by dint of your very readership, an unimpeachable model of discernment in such matters of taste! — that your new favourite band has two guitarists, no bass player, and sounds something like Earth and My Bloody Valentine arguing over the last line of ketamine. Thought Forms, ladies and gentlemen:
Spotted as support band to the reliably brilliant 65daysofstatic at their homecoming show this Monday. Did you know 65dos wrote and recorded an alternative soundtrack for Silent Running? Well, they did.
Yes, I do have an essay due in at midday tomorrow! Why do you ask?
Someone keeps stealing time. Someone or some thing, some force or presence… not quite a deity, but certainly something with character, cunning and malice, and terrible hunger for time. I believe its name may be Age.
So, I’m just coming to the end of my first semester of my first year of my doctoral research. Which doesn’t sound like much, until I remind myself that The Rules now say that you’d better finish and submit your thesis within three and a bit years of starting Or Else… which means I’ve had maybe a tenth of the time allowed me already. Sounds pretty scary when you put it that way, somehow. So it’d be nice to avoid thinking that way, but part of the game is planning and managing your time effectively, and you can’t do that without being aware of how much time is available, and how much has been used. I imagine there being some sort of Zen peace to be found when someone finally resolves this paradox; corner offices unfurnished but for a single lily in a plain white bowl, a beatifically-smiling PR consultant, legs pretzeled into a very respectable full lotus, hovering six inches above the industrial carpeting, his Blackberry and laptop orbiting him like lunar familiars… until I meet that person, however, I’m going to conclude that fretting about time and trying to manage it are inseparable functions, at least for me.
(Maybe one day I’ll theorise an excuse for the sort of procrastinatory displacement syndrome that forces me to write the first proper blogpost I’ve done in literally months because it’s a way to avoid doing all the other stuff I’m actually supposed to be doing right now. In the meantime, that one gets filed under “I’m a writer, I don’t have to justify anything”. At least until deadline day, anyhow.)
But hey, I have things to show for all that lost time, see? Like my first review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, which saw me being disappointed — to say the least, and at some length — by Paul di Fillipo’s latest collection, Wikiworld, which felt like the dead hand of Cambellian short fiction trying to slip into the motion-capture glove of postcyberpunk and pass for a generational native, with little success; it felt in fact very symptomatic of the old-guard stance in ongoing generational schism in The Undefined Agglomeration Of Affinities That Think Of Themselves As Being Either Fandom, Or To Do With Fandom, Or A Hegelian Negation Of Fandom That Will Reform And Reconstitute Fandom Dialectically, Or Sometimes Just As People Who Care About A Certain Marketing Category Of Books (also known as The Agglomoration Which One Must Not Lazily Label “Fandom” For Fear Of Marauding Fandom Ontologists Calling Out Your Deplorable Reductionism. Or, more simply, “fandom”). The review’s rather more hatchet-jobby than I’d have preferred to write, perhaps, with poor diFi ending up as avatar for a bigger thing by far… but then I think about the Cat Women story again, and think nope, he stepped into the politics ring and took the first swing. He’s a grown-up, he knows how the game is played.
(And I didn’t even mention the diFi-Broderick collaboration “Cockroach Love”, which is that rarest of things: a story featuring people fucking cockroaches in which the people fucking cockroaches aren’t the most distasteful aspect of the story.)
Tim Maly did another one of the Things for which Tim Maly is notorious; this time it was a collection of essays on Medium chewing over the legacy of Sterling’s Viridian Design movement/manifesto/experiment, so yours truly took the opportunity to take to task both the solutionist and Hairshirt Green responses to climate change, and (no surprises here) point out the infrastructural elephant in both of their rooms.
Those are the good things I can actually show you or tell you about. I have also sold a short story to Ian Whates at Newcon for an anthology to be launched this Easter, the ToC announcement of which is (I’m told) fairly imminent; I’m pretty stoked about this, as the story in question was written for the Short Form module of my Masters, and it duly did the rounds of all the genre mags worth considering, only to gather a gratifying yet frustrating train of polite “we quite like this, but it just doesn’t fit with what we’re looking for” bounces. I’m glad it’s found a home at last. I’ll announce the ToC for the anthology here at VCTB when I am informed of it.
Also in the pipeline: I’ve been invited to speak about infrastructure fiction and futures work at the FutureEverything conference/festival in Manchester, which should be fun. I went as an attendee guest last year (if only for one day, due to weather and plague), so I know the general scene is going to be to my liking; added bonus is that quite a few of the people I consider myself aligned with in the futures universe — Ella Saitta, Anab Jain, Dan W, Jim Bridle, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg — are also speaking, so it feels like rolling out with a crew rather than just lone-wolfing it. Gonna be a stimulating couple of days, I think.
There are other possibles in the pipeline, too, and a big scary definite that I can’t yet talk about. I’ve never been keen on that whole OMFG Seekrit Project!!1 thing when I’ve seen other people do it, but now I’m thinking maybe I understand the motivation; I just never had a Seekrit Project too awesome to keep quiet about. But I must keep quiet, so I shall… you’ll probably hear of it next during the period running up to its deadline, when I’ll be panicking about getting it finished, and making it good. Which will be the run-up to FutureEverything, incidentally (late March)… odd how these things all have a tendency to cluster around one another, isn’t it?
What else? Went to Amsterdam for a long weekend with members of the Institute for Atemporal Studies and aligned forces, which was very nice indeed; travelled by train all the way, hardly touched the internet or took a picture all weekend, much needed. Christmas and New Years were their normal boring selves, apart from the brief and dubious thrill of a minor burglary on NYE morning; that’s what can happen if you don’t lock the back door before going to bed, see. (Little lost or damaged, other than my sense of streetwiseness.) Last weekend saw me pop down to Cambridge to hang out with Tiff Angus, who taught one of my Masters modules; nice to get a weekend of nice weather in which to wander around and talk writer-shop, not to mention commiserate over the PhD process. Naturally, despite telling myself I wouldn’t buy any books while I was there, the temptations of Cambridge’s charity stores and market stalls were too strong to resist:
My Women’s Press SF collection is coming along nicely; I must look up the full list of titles. Didn’t entirely expect to find three of them in Cambridge… but then again, Cambridge is the sort of town where Cash Converters puts a cello in the front window.
So, here I am and here we are: exam week next week (hence deadlines), then semester the second, with my first adventures as… a teaching assistant. Will our hapless hero prevail? Stay tuned for further episodes…
One of the reliable bright lights in the gloom of my January is the annual Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky show, a.k.a. their State of the World conflab at The Well. All sorts of chewy futurism and near-field hindsight going on, as always, but sometimes it’s a minor aside that snags my mind, like this little zap at transhumanism:
“… you’re never going to put some magic cyberdevice inside your human body that has no human political and economic interests within its hardware and software. All human artifacts, below the skin or above them, are frozen social relationships. If you’re somehow burningly keen to consume a thing like that, you’d better, as William Burroughs liked to put it, have a look at the end of the fork.”
The great joy of my first semester of my PhD has been being formally introduced to the basics of sociological theory, and thus discovering that a lot of the woolly notions I’d come to independently have been thought far more thoroughly and comprehensively before, by smart people who gave those ideas proper names. Through this lens it’s even more apparent than before that the echoing lacuna at the heart of Movement Transhumanism — the canonical ‘philosophy’ expounded by Dr Max Biggerbetterfastermore and friends, rather than the more personal morphological meddlings of the grinders and back-alley self-modders — is the notion of any system of social relations beyond the mechanisms of soi-disant anarchocapitalist “free market” economics.
If nothing else, it goes some way to explaining the overlap between MT and the Neoreactionaries: both seem to assume that inconvenient truths might be moved aside by merit of resetting the sociopolitical clock to a time before anyone had formulated them. Not just a river in Egypt, eh?
It’s not quite the anniversary of my arrival here in Sheffield, but it’s close enough – and as the next three years of my life will take their triplet tempo from the semester cycle, the start of the academic year makes a suitable kick-drum-cymbal-crash. Yes, yours truly is now a registered PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, working from a rather chaotic and quickly-built proposal under the strap-line “Making Infrastructure Legible”.
No, I didn’t expect to end up here either. But I’m pretty chuffed I have.
My funding comes off the back of an EPSRC Doctoral Training Grant earmarked for research to bridge the engineering and social science faculties in the infrastructural sectors. For an assortment of reasons, this means that I’ve ostensibly part of the engineering faculty (still with the Pennine Water Group, in fact, who just happen to be the largest urban water research group in the UK), but most of my learning and research will be from the social science side of things, which means I’ll be spending a fair amount of time in the department for town and regional planning. This also means no one is sure what I’m currently timetabled for, nor what I should be timetabled for, and – to go by the two empty lecture-rooms I sat in yesterday – not on the mailing list for amendments to timetable. However, I am assured this is completely normal. Given the university has just inhaled another year’s worth of undergrad intake, one has to expect its lungs to be a bit strained. Besides, it’s not like I haven’t got plenty of work to be getting on with. I have an advantage over many new postgrads, in that I’ve got two years of research under my belt already; in theory, I already have a good idea of where I want to go with my doctorate. But there’s a whole lotta methodologies to be learned along the way, and I’m told that theses have a tendency to mutate wildly in their first year of life; looking back at the last year from this brief moment of calm and reflection, that looks eminently plausible.
It has, after all, been a year in which the going got weird, and the weird accidentally turned pro. Having had a while to chew over the stuff I’d been working on for the All-in-One project, I’d been kicking around the vague concept of “infrastructure fiction” with assorted colleagues from the unevenly-distributed contraPanglossian futurist caucus, which ended up more as a sort of methodological manifesto for doing design fiction at the infrastructural scale. I made it into a rather rambling essay, and Team Superflux generously agreed to post it on their blog.
Cue far more interest than I’d expected the idea to merit. Chairman Bruce himself described it as being “as full of good, crooked, crunchy stuff as a cracked walnut,” which will probably be my business-card strap-line blurb for life.
Not long after that, Honor Harger of Lighthouse Arts in Brighton invited me to speak at this year’s Improving Reality conference, which just so happened to be themed around the (re-)revealing of otherwise invisible underpinnings of our tech-saturated world. I accepted with pleasure, and with no small degree of Imposter Syndrome.
By this point I was getting pretty close to the end of my RA contract, so in addition to finishing things up on the contract project, I was also desperately applying for jobs at a rate of one per weekday; I won’t belabour the point, but thirty applications yielded not a single invitation to interview. While this is a general problem in all job markets, and especially in the research sector, it was compounded by me being underqualified. I was very, very lucky to get my RA post; it’s hard enough landing one with a doctorate, let alone without one.
But I didn’t want to drop out of the research game; I like this work, in a way I’ve never actively liked any work I’ve ever done before, and I hazard I’m doing it pretty well so far. If I wanted to keep doing research work, the only likely way to secure anything more secure and long-term than six-month part-time contracts here and there was to take a doctorate. This, if all goes according to plan, would have the added bonus of leaving me better qualified to fight for work in the research sector going forward, not to mention better qualified in general.
This decided, I still had to hustle hard to land the studentship – though I should acknowledge and thank the support and assistance of my supervisors, because I’d not have managed it without their help. So a few hectic weeks of drafting proposals and filling out applications – punctuated by an brutal interview, which I honestly thought I’d blown spectacularly – were added to the normal work and the job applications and everything else and, long story short, I damn near went and made myself ill again like I did back in the spring, and indeed I’m not sure I ever completely recovered from that particular crash. It’s been a mad, mad year, and I’ve never worked so hard in my damned life.
And I landed the studentship, in spite of the dreadful interview.
I heard that news not long before Improving Reality, which happened to coincide pretty closely with my contract end date, meaning I got to spend a few days doing nothing in Brighton before the conference. I’ve always adored Brighton, and even lived there (precariously, using a friend’s tiny lounge as a bedsit) for six months, and it was lovely to get the time to really just wander round the place. I got to catch up with Tim Maughan, Natalie Kane, Justin Pickard, George Voss, Jeff Noon (oh, did I just name-drop?); the weather was gorgeous, and we had a meal at a Lebanese place where the portions were so generous that half of us couldn’t finish our mains.
In the run-up to IR, I had a piece at ARC on the protohistory of infrastructure and a piece at The Graun about the artist as engineer. All the IR talks were video’d for the purpose of internets, so I’m planning to publish my slides and script when I can put the video up at the same time; I’ll probably do so at Futurismic.
Since then I’ve been doing what I was advised to do, though more through force majeur than choice; my supervisors suggested I rest, and I laughed, and decided to use the time before my course began to catch up on the countless other little commitments and scribblings I’d promised to people. And I tried to do exactly that, but – with the assistance of colder and darker evenings and mornings, I seem to have spent a great deal of it sleeping, or staring blankly into the middle distance. So apologies if you’re one of the people waiting on one of those things; I did manage to finish a ~4k assault on the immortalist canon of The Transhuman Reader for ARC, and do a thing for Frank Swain on Medium where I tell some hypothetical seventeen year old what I wish someone had told me at that age.
And there’s more wild times and weirdness to come, I’m sure – but this evening I’m caught in the space between two beats, and it feels good to breathe, to feel the anticipation, to prepare to play my next part. Lectures proper start next week. Game on, wot?
So I’ve been here, what, eight months now? Close enough; my wee terraced house here has felt superficially like home for a while, but arriving back after the long round trip to Colombia, it had all the magic of a beacon or the landing lights on an airstrip. Home is where your cat sleeps, some say, and that certainly helps, but there’s more to it than that by this point, and while I don’t yet know Sheffield well, I know it enough to know I like it here. The job helps, of course, but it’s a matter of place, also; its flawed and patchwork city centre, its grubby hidden backstreets and zones of decay, its garrulous streetlife, its background radiation – a hum of life engaged with the messy, painful, joyous confusion of living. Woodhouse in the spring could almost be a country town, with fields and copses bursting with green. Every now and again I’ll be walking back from the shop and notice anew the wind turbines on the hill beyond the site of the old Orgreave works, and smile. You never see them down south; no prizes for guessing why that might be.
I don’t miss London; it was a fun place to live for a year, and I had some great times there, but it was never home. Portsmouth was home for longer than anywhere else I ever lived – longer than all the other places put together, in fact – but I don’t miss it either. Even on a day like this, the first bright sunny Friday of late spring, when I know all the people will be heading toward the front or the common, like wild creatures who all at once found their cage doors unlocked and the wilderness waiting beyond, whispering the possibility of adventure…
No, I don’t miss Portsmouth. But I do miss my people. Less the press or totality or them all, but that potential: the knowledge that, if the mood took me, I could easily go somewhere and find some familiar faces. Nothing formal, bot a “night out”, just hangin’ times, no questions, no pack drill, the comfort of an old pair of jeans. I miss that, and those faces.
So I’m a little lonely here, as much as I like it. Which ain’t to play my tiny violin, you understand – but I recognise, as I did far more painfully during my year on the banks of the Styx in Stockport, that I’m in an awkward part of life as far as moving goes. Most thirty-somethings, or so it seems, are settled – either into family life with kids, or well-cemented circles of friendship and routine, or both. No matter where I go out, I feel a bit of a fraud or interloper, either surrounded by the chatter and increasingly alien music of the bright young things, or by what feels like the ossified rituals and greatest-hits nostalgia of the folk I still can’t help but think of as “grownups”; a square peg touring the round holes, hopeful, but stubbornly unwilling to plane away his corners. I miss knowing where the two-bit local gig of the week will be, knowing who’ll be carping about the bands at the back of the room – usually the band that played the week before. Ligger and hanger-on that I am, I miss knowing the face behind the turntables, talking trash with shoestring show promoters and artists with miserable rations that keep them fed, keep them angry enough to do the real work between shifts. I miss being not just on the scene, but of it; an aging hipster, from an era when hipsters were called something else, adrift on an unfamiliar sea, an unknown fish in a new pond.
Oh, I know they’re out there. These things take time, I tell myself, especially once you’ve acquired a proper job and lost the relentless energy of youth, realised you can’t go out every night and talk to random interesing-looking strangers apropos of nothing. They’re out there somewhere, the freaks and queers and artists and oddballs, haunting the interstices that it took them so many years to find, to carve out. Portsmouth has them, but so does every other town, and nowhere do they feel the need to advertise. You have to seek them out, earn your entry visa, make those first connections and get caught up in the network. It’s not called the underground for nothing, nor just for the sake of vanity. If it were easy, I wouldn’t want to be part of it; funny how it takes losing it to learn this.
But it’ll come to me eventually, or me to it, in some grubby pub or run-down club. I’ll know it when I see it, and maybe it’ll know me when it sees me, too. For now, I’ll just keep looking, listening: searching for family, looking for tribe.
I’ve been back for the best part of a week, but Colombia still haunts me.
From the air, it’s a country of lush green mountains, wide flood-plains with fat brown rivers winding and ox-bowing their way through the rich russet soil; fertile, not so much tamed by its people as persuaded into an agreement where no one is quite sure who’s getting the better of the deal. As in many other Latin countries where the scars of colonialism are still bright and angry beneath the new skin of change, there are plenty of places where it looks like “progress” – that deathless shibboleth – has the upper hand: industrial farming practices and the new uptick in gold mining, courtesy of the volatile markets for food and precious metals, have gouged red-brown wounds out of the land, left rivers low and mountains decapitated. But you don’t have to drive far to see how fast nature can reclaim its territory when left to its own devices, nor the rural communities which live lightly – if untidily by European standards – upon the land. The humid air whispers of a barely restrained fecundity; growth is everywhere.
Economic growth is, of course, more unevenly distributed, and Medellín (pronounced Meh-deh-jEEn – the Latin double-l changes its sound considerably from place to place) showcases these inevitable inequities clearly. Its mild but variable climate, a function of its position in a deep valley high in the mountains, belies its closeness to the Equator; known to Colombians as “the City of Eternal Spring”, its skies boil with turbulent clouds between bursts of bright blue clarity, and thunder grumbles sullen from the peaks most afternoons. The temperature hovers around the low- to mid-twenties Centigrade most of the year; rain is commonplace and occasionally torrential, but rarely stays for long. The central valley is spattered with light and heavy industries, along with a newish rash of corporate postmodernist architecture; the lower slopes have sprouted a forest of red-brick towerblocks which look uniform from a distance, but whose variety becomes clear at close range. In the interstices – and further up the slopes, where the incline and the possibility of flash flooding precludes large-scale construction and reliable infrastructure – the higgledy-piggledy terraces and jumbled bricks’n'breezeblock stacks of the underclass spread wherever they can, their narrow streets a lively riot of mural’d concrete walls, barrowboys chattering their patter through jury-rigged PA systems, and the buzz and rasp of the city’s countless motorcycles and scooters as they struggle against the gradient. The gap between wealth and poverty is made all the clearer by their mutual proximity, a cheek-by-jowl life that is not without its frictions; gothic high-tech and favela chic stand across the avenidas from one another, studiously ignoring one another while they wait for the future to arrive.
There are, of course, people trying to bridge that gap and skry that future – which is what I was invited there for, along with my fellow Fractal facilitators: Johanna Blakley, director of research at the Norman Lear Center, University of SoCal; Keiichi Matsuda, architect, film-maker and augmented reality authority; and Reshma Shetty, MIT PhD and co-founder of Ginkgo BioWorks, a synbio start-up based in Boston.
We spent one morning talking to the management team of UNE, a Medellín-based media outfit that sells not just bandwidth but content; they were looking for new ways in which they might provide more useful services to the less well-off of the region, and picked our brains about applications and systems that might add value to their current offers. At the same time, we got to learn some high-level cultural home truths that would serve us well later in the week, not least the fact that – despite being an incredibly friendly and helpful people – Colombians are very slow to trust one another, even at the neighbourhood level. Given the country’s recent history of political unrest and paramilitary conflict – which is, sadly, what Medellín is still best known for here in Europe, to go by the reactions I got when I told people where I was going – this probably isn’t entirely surprising. But it’s not the sort of thing you’d notice as a tourist; hospitality is a big deal to Colombians, and that seems to include an instinctive elision of their domestic troubles. (Compare and contrast to we Brits, who seem increasingly keen to download our sociocultural angst on anyone who’ll listen.)
The main event, however, took place at the Botanical Gardens; the format was largely without precedent, as far as anyone involved was aware, and might be best described as a kind of community-engagement design-fiction experiment. Rather than have four guests do their talking-heads schtuck to an attentive but otherwise passive audience, the Fractal crew decided that we were there to facilitate the audience in telling stories about the three topics in play, namely augmented reality, 3d printing and synbio.
The initial run was done on the Friday afternoon with a thirty-strong gang of schoolkids, aged 11 or so. We’d introduce the topic, then encourage the audience to ask questions and talk about what sort of things they’d do with the technology in question, were it already a reality; then we’d gradually segue into storytelling, with yours truly introducing a character and an opening scene and encouraging the audience to step to the mic and continue the action.
The stories the kids came up with were predictably wild, but the adults attending the three longer sessions the next day weren’t exactly holding themselves back, either, once they’d got into the spirit of the thing. Every time with every story, there’d be a clear pivoting point where everyone suddenly grokked the possibilities, grasped the idea and its implications… and that’s when the stories started getting weird. From my own vantage point, it felt like that point was close to the boundary between the purely physical and the spiritual; while I don’t want to lay any claim to anthropological insight, here, it seem that – much as in the other Latin countries I’ve visited – the division between the earthly and the spiritual is more permeable in Colombian culture, which is still fairly conservative and religious in character, and it was in that disputed territory that speculative thinking really came alive for our audience. Which isn’t to say that there was much handwringing about “playing god”; indeed, it was only raised twice, and without much drama, though one must assume that the audience for a futures event would be somewhat self-selecting in that direction.
But, by way of validating what any fiction writing tutor worth their salt will tell you, it was the human dramas foregrounded against the technological innovations that engaged people with the ideas – and while the stories were far wilder and more playful than one would expect from, say, an established English-language science fiction zine, the central issues and dilemmas of these imminent innovations came quickly to the fore. I got a real kick out of watching people take their turns at the mic, watching their faces as they really got into what they were saying; even though the concrete results of a futures event like this are incredibly hard to measure or quantify, it was plain to see that, when “given permission” to extrapolate and imagine, ordinary people are just as capable as futurists and technologists – if not more so, in some ways – of engaging with complex technologies and understanding how they might change the world they live in, for the better and for the worse.
Full kudos for this ambitious and ground-breaking experiment should go to Vivi and Hernan, the dynamic duo who have somehow assembled and run Fractal events for the past five years while holding down other jobs. There’s no top-table TED schmoozing or delegation of responsibility to paid flunkies, either; both of them seemed, at times, to be surgically attached to their phones and laptops, constantly hustling and arranging and fixing, keeping in touch with their extensive network of helpers and contacts, almost all working on a voluntary basis, wrestling with the bureaucracy of local government, making sure contracts were signed and exchanged, permissions secured, meetings organised. At the same time, they were consummate hosts, constantly on hand, showing us the sights, introducing us to local businesspeople and academics, and feeding us what seemed like endless (not to mention excellent) Colombian food. I can’t remember ever being made to feel so valued (which was hell for my Imposter Syndrome), or so very welcome; as weeks of ostensible work go, it was a hectic delight, and the closest thing I’ve had to a proper holiday in quite some time.
So thanks again to Vivi and Hernan, for inviting me to Medellín and making me feel so welcome; I consider myself very much in their debt. And the world futures community would do well to keep an eye on Medellín and Fractal: they’re busily finding ways to take the control and creation of futures narratives out of the hands of “experts” and put them into the hands of ordinary people, and that’s something we should all make an effort to learn from.
It’s been a busy couple of months. I hope regular readers will forgive this recap of the past two months or so, which is as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s; I transcribe it here in what I suspect is the hope that I’ll be able to convince myself it all actually happened.
The corollary of getting my contract extended mid-March was that a lot of theretofore speculative deadlines became concrete things, which made for a whole lot of heads-down keyboard-mashing; this was complicated somewhat by my first encounter with true physical burn-out, which, it turns out, feels a lot like being in the lingering run-down phase of a nasty cold for something close to six weeks. Still, it’s good to know your limits, and to have a precedent for the signs that you’re about to hit them.
Chronology is a suitable framework, so: My last post here followed directly after Weird Shi(f)t Con UK, a gathering of some of the more peripatetic irregulars of the Institute for Atemporal Studies and allied forces which took place in in the endearingly cobwebbed decay of Limehouse Town Hall (whose chilliness may well have contributed toward the aforementioned burn-out); many profound matters were discussed, and the post-it notes were plentiful.
Afterwards we went to Wilton’s Music Hall, which was full of people attending a stage version of The Great Gatsby; not perhaps an ideal aftervenue given the circumstances, but apropos in an atemporal kind of way. (Wilton’s is ace, though; recommended to all and sundry as one of LDN’s most characterful places to hang out, especially on nights when there’s no show on.)
That Sunday I went to see the legendary Damo Suzuki perform with a Sheffield noise/drone/kraut band in the cellar bar beneath a former picture-house. (Stuffed-animal venues are a definite theme of my life these days.)
Monday following was the final internal meeting for one of the projects I’ve been working on with the PWG; the website for the project is currently offline (nothing to do with me, I might add), but should hold various documents and presentations for public edification. One of the larger papers to come out of the All-in-One project with my name in the author list is now in press at the journal Futures, by the way; drop me a line if you’d like a copy but don’t have institutional access to Elsevi*r’s rentier knowledge-silo.
After the dissemination bash, it was back to Sheffield to see Gojira and Ghost at the Academy. Gojira were good enough, if a little lost on a too-large stage; Ghost were laughably bad, all (obvious and done-to-death) gimmick and no substance. Utterly at a loss to understand why they’re so popular right now. Kids these days.
March 21st saw me pop over the Pennines for the first day of the FutureEverthing conference in Manchester; a chance to catch up on interesting ideas in digital urbanism, reassert my believe that marketing is the only profession with a higher shysters-per-capita than futurism, and hang out with Justin Pickard and Scott Smith, co-conspirators in contraPanglossian gonzo foresight. (Usman Haque dropped Borgesian bombs, which made me want to marry him.) Regrettably, the physical symptoms of burn-out were digging in hard by this point, and I skipped the next day of the conference due to exhaustion and the promise of snow. (Productivity took a serious nosedive around about his point of the proceedings.)
Week after that I fielded a call from a journalist for the Boston Globe; apparently she couldn’t find anyone else willing to argue against the transhumanist narrative that animal uplift is obligatory. So I did.
That weekend, thinking I was over the worst of the exhaustion, I went over to Bradford for the Saturday of EightSquaredCon, the 2013 Eastercon. It was a decent day — what I can remember of it, anyway. I was drafted onto a panel within twenty minutes of arriving; spent some time chatting to various people, but probably making little sense, including an addled attempt to explain to Cory Doctorow what I’d been up to recently (sorry, Cory; I really shouldn’t have been out of bed at that point). My booked train home was cancelled, which shunted me onto a slower and longer route, with the last leg an all-stations stopping service on an old diesel train with no heating or window seals.
I expect that frigid transit contributed to rebooting the exhaustion, which hit me like Chicxulub in the days to follow, and sent me into a serious emotional slump on the side; the black dog bites hardest when my immune system is low, but that’s a knowledge I’m slowly internalising — or so I hope, at any rate. The week following was an agony blended from anxiety over a massive workload and the utter inability to give more than three hours of coherent attention a day to anything at all. Somehow I still managed to go to Lincoln on the Friday and give a paper at the New Genre Army conference in celebration of Edam Rarebits…
… or rather, I gave a methodological manifesto for an as-yet incomplete prototype of the genre of Cut-up Critique; the moral of this story is that if one decides to try trolling the academy, one should be prepared to have one’s bluff called. Luckily for me, the general tone of the day — unsurprisingly, given its object — was one of irreverence blended with seriousness, and I got away with it. (It’s my native medium, after all.) Whether I got away with another cold train-ride home is an open question, however. Maybe my mum’s right, and I just need to buy a new coat.
I believe there was video taken of the papers at New Genre Army, but I haven’t seen them yet, and there’s no sign of them on YouBoob. I’ve been meaning to post the script and slides of my paper here, but… yeah. *adds another thing to the to-do list*
Then followed a week of frantic paper-writing, as deadlines were looming like limits to growth. The week after that, at the final dissemination event for All-in-One, I got to try explaining design fiction to infrastructure engineers and risk analysts for the first time, which involved first explaining it a bit more thoroughly to myself; the former was slightly more successful than the former. (Attempts toward codifying a theory of design fiction in the infrastructural context are ongoing; watch this space.)
I then went to Darlington to talk to a roomful of young water industry professionals about the postmodern crisis of infrastructure management; Borges, Latour, scientific hyperreality, the model is not the system, path dependency and progressive incrementalism, integral futures, that sort of thing. Got a much more positive reception than I’d hoped for, actually, but the other presentations were pretty dry, so I may have benefitted from delivering a shake-up at the end of the day; selah.
Day after Darlington was the annual PWG conference, which was more of a social cohesion operation than a proper conference; got to find out what else goes on in the further, more soc-sci orientated corners of the group, which is valuable knowledge to a generalist/synthesist like yours truly. We went for a nice meal afterwards. Lovely.
The last few weeks have been a little easier, although there were still a fair amount of deskjockey targets to be met, including editing a collaborative paper which has been accepted by (but is not yet in press at) Energy, and writing another paper on choice architecture, social media and gamification as applied to water use behaviour (which has just entered the reviewing process). Also wrote one of my increasingly editorial-esque book reviews for ARC (Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, as yet not posted), and a deeply tangential rant about some halfway-passable psyche-rock album that the Demon Pigeon lads threw at me.
This Wednesday just gone, I got to talk as part of a panel at the WriteTheFuture conference, which was an excellent bolt-on gig connected to the Clarke Award. Not many folk at this stage of their careers can say they’ve spoken on stage at the Royal Society. What was I speaking about? These tweets capture the gist of it:
“There are an unknowable number of things that we once knew but don’t know that we knew it.” Paul Graham Raven #WTF13
— Andrew Curry (@nextwavefutures) May 1, 2013
— MELISSA STERRY (@MelissaSterry) May 1, 2013
There’s a Storify of the whole day, courtesy the tireless (and triumphant) Tom Hunter. As for the Clarke itself, it went to Chris Beckett for Dark Eden; I don’t care much for awards as a reader and a critic, but it’s always nice to see them go to an author whose work you admire, especially when you consider them a friend as well. For the same reasons, I’d have been happy to see it go to Ken MacLeod, as well. Having read none of the shortlisted titles, however, that’s as far as my opinionating goes.
Friday just gone I went to see Owen Hatherley talk about Pulp, Sheffield and failed urbanism. It was interesting stuff, and naturally I bought the book (Uncommon) on which it was based (as it promises to provide another thematic spoke for the vague “secret history of the 1990s” novel idea I’m kicking around in spare moments), but — like many excellent writers of non-fiction — Hatherley’s not at his best behind a podium. To be fair, he may have been more than a little intimidated by the audience, which had to be close to 300 strong. Glad I went, though.
And now, here am eye, becalmed in the I of the storm, collecting my thoughts and task-lists before the madness starts up again in a new form, mutatis mutandis (and with, dare I say it, my earthly husk finally recovered from the burn-out). This Thursday coming I’m off to Brighton to talk conferences, drone art, infrastructure fiction and gonzo futurism with assorted colleagues, old and new, and around this time next week I’ll be heading off toward Heathrow, so as to catch an early Monday plane to Colombia via Madrid. In fair Medellin, I’m honoured to be an invited guest of Hernán and Vivi for Fractal’13, a design fiction conference with a difference (in that the audience does the fictioning, and the guests merely facilitate said fictioning). In effect, I think this is the closest thing I’m going to get to a holiday this year, and so I’m intending to enjoy it to the fullest.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing Medellin. I’m very much not looking forward to two long transits through the geopolitical unspaces of airport security theatre, but you gotta take the rough with the smooth, I suppose. If nothing else, I should take it as an opportunity to reread Ursula LeGuin’s Changing Planes…
Having unlocked my phone and demothballed my Flickr account, I’m planning to share my adventures in Medellin here at VCTB, and indeed to start sharing interesting in general from time to time. Chairman Bruce may claim (with justification) that blogging is dead, but even he’s got a Tumblr these days; having always had my own domain, I can’t see the point of tumblring on a service that claims the results as their own when my own site can do just the same job with me keeping control*. So it lacks the social features of Tumblr, sure; I’m increasingly unconvinced that’s a drawback and not a bonus. Besides, everything that happens here gets tweeted. Selah.
So, yeah; that’s what I’ve been up to. Who knows what’ll happen next, eh?
[ * - I still maintain that a social network with Twitter-, Tumblr- and Facebork-like characteristics could be built as a plug-in based interstitial peer-to-peer protocol for individual CMS-based websites; all the sharing and social, none of the centralised data collection and huckster leverage advertising attempts. Problem being that, by definition, such a service would be impossible to monetise externally, meaning it'd only get done by a team of FOSS nerds with a lot of time on their hands and no eye toward a lucrative IPO. So not something to hold your breath for at present, I'd guess. ]
“For a long time I have suspected there is no way out. I can do nothing I am not. I have been living destructively towards the writer in me for some time, guiltily conscious of doing so all along, cf. the critical justification in terms of the objective death of a historical tradition: a decadent at a tremendous turning point in history, constitutionally incapable of turning with it as a writer, I am living my personal Dada. In all of this there is a terrible emotional smear. The steel of the logic has to be daily strengthened to contain the volcanic element within. It grows daily more hard to contain. I am a kind of bomb.”
– from Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi, 1960; quoted in Lipstick Traces by the staggeringly prolix but insightful Greil Marcus