Charlie's Diary

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Thu, 29 Apr 2004

The future bites

[The following is a discursive stream of consciousness explanation of what I think makes SF writing tick, written for the program book of plokta.con, which I'll be attending from tomorrow for a while. Reposted here because, well, I felt like it and the blog isn't going to be updated for a few days.]

This is not the future we were promised, is it?

Jet packs and flying cars: nope, not seen any of them around here recently. Ditto vacations on the moon. Cybernetics killed the first two -- would you like the local road rage cases and drunk drivers behind the yoke of a flying machine? As for the third idea, it was killed by the laws of motion: space isn't merely vast, it's unimaginably vast, so vast that just to claw their way out of Earth's gravity well in order to reach the moon the Apollo astronauts had to travel at a speed that would have sent them across the breadth of the Pacific ocean in under twelve minutes: Mars is, at closest approach, about two hundred times further away than that.

Still, there are compensations. We were promised food pills. Instead, we got conveyor belt sushi bars with cute babes miming karaoke tracks on stages surrounded by wall to wall plasma screens playing anime 24 by 7, and robot drinks trolleys that apologize to you when they nearly run you over on the way to the lavatory. In Edinburgh. Three years ago. While sushi rice may have evolved as the original mediaeval Japanese answer to the science fictional food pill, the presentation is infinitely more stylish. And thereon hangs a story.

Trying to understand the future is, in my view, only half the job of a science fiction writer; because we make our own futures, and get to live in them, and understanding what makes us tick is an essential prerequisite of understanding what kind of futures we're going to make for ourselves. (That, and the intersection of our beautiful dreams with the brutal laws of physics. See spaceflight, above -- at least until someone comes up with a way to mass-produce ropes of fullerene fibres and raises the venture capital to build a space elevator.)

Complaints that the modern world is unnatural or artificial in some way miss the point; the world we live in is anthropogenic, we made it. We didn't have any collective choice in the matter, either: short of discarding tools, clothes, and ultimately language there's no way back to the Garden of Eden from here. (And indeed, the existence of a mythical state of perfection at some time in the historic past is just that -- a myth, a consolatory story to explain the imperfections of the present. Just like the bastardized utopia myth of a perfect future if we'll just agree to work together.)

And this brings me to the question of why we produce futures.

A while ago -- I don't have the reference to hand, but it was by way of a Scientific American article -- I ran across a report of a study on the subject of human happiness. We are, it appears, irrationally happy most of the time. There's no direct correlation between human happiness and wealth, other than the crude correlation induced by deprivation -- if you become homeless or go hungry you will be unhappy for a while, until you adapt to your new state. Money doesn't buy happiness, at least beyond the first US $10,000 a year -- a figure sufficient to cover good housing, sanitation, food, clothing, and some medical care and travel. Indeed, money means less and less the more of it you have. To someone who's sleeping rough on the pavement outside King's Cross, £20 means a night in a hostel and a full stomach; to Bill Gates, it's not even worth stooping to pick the note off the pavement, for it's less than his average income per second.

Meanwhile, things that make us unhappy aren't always obvious. Physical privation, violence, murder, the death of loved ones -- yes, but what about turning 40? The absence of praise by the boss? A blind, unreasoning conviction that your friends are talking about you behind your back? A sense that your options are constrained ...?

We humans are a strange species. We get dissatisfied over the strangest things. The Soviet Union, creaky central planning systems and all, could (had it backed off the military spending) have delivered that baseline $10,000 a year standard of living, or something corresponding to it -- with housing, healthcare, food, clothing, and recreation all delivered as part of the package -- to all its citizens. Indeed, that was all part of the original Marxist plan: to provide the basics for everyone, by removing obstacles to the sharing of wealth. The carnivorously capitalist West is even more capable of abolishing the kind of poverty that causes unhappiness. But abolishing a negative isn't the same as creating a positive, and it's the search for positives such as happiness that generates our endless quest for a better tomorrow, a greener field on the other side of the fence.

(I hope you've noticed that this is a purely materialistic look at the situation. I'm a materialist kind of guy: I don't have a lot of time for belief systems that require faith unsupported by evidence that would be admissible in a court of law or a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Faith and fifty pence will buy you a cup of coffee. Sure, religion can bring people a lot of happiness: but it's also frequently used as an excuse for ducking the hard questions, or worse, as a justification for bloodshed and strife. I'll take my coffee neat, thank you very much, and leave the unanswerable questions for later.)

Constructing futures is something we evolved to do -- or rather, it's a trait without which we wouldn't be human. It has been pointed out by some evolutionary biologists that the past sixty five million years, since the extinction of the dinosaurs, has seen a rather fascinating arms race driving evolution. Prior to the Pliocene (or indeed the Cenozoic era), predator/prey relationships seem to have been dominated by brute firepower: who has the biggest claws or fangs, wins. But the emergence of mammals and hot-blooded birds provided a compact power source for energy-hungry brains: and the arms race turned smart. Mammals are good at modelling the behaviour of other organisms: they have a theory of mind, an internal projection of the intent of the creatures around them. You can see this at work in a pet cat, or a dog, or your manager at the office, as they try to outmanoeuvre a prey species. The model doesn't just predict the behaviour of another organism, it attempts to analyse the intentions of the organism, within the terms of the predictor: we don't know that our dogs or cats have intentions, but we can act as if they do, and it comes to much the same thing. Cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that human consciousness arises as we apply our theory of mind, laboriously developed for predicting the likely behaviour of predator and prey species, to our own internal mental states: consciousness is the story we tell ourselves to explain our own actions. Consciousness is a side-effect of story-telling: as a writer, I like that explanation.

Since the earliest days, we've ascribed intentionality not only to each other and to the predators that eat us, but to the world we live in. Animistic religions such as Shinto ascribe spirits to places and artefacts, spirits which possess the attribute of intent, among others. Now we have computers we have an even more potent target for the will to anthropomorphize: a machine that seemingly mimics some of the characteristics of mind, and which can masquerade as any other general-purpose machine at the drop of an opcode. From a species that personalizes its tools and its houses, it should be no surprise that we also anthropomorphize our neurological prostheses. (Go on, let your hair down, confess: when did you last harbour the ghastly suspicion that your computer was laughing at you?)

We creature futures. We ascribe intentionality to each other and to inanimate objects. We are dissatisfied at the oddest things, and paradoxically happy. So what happens next?

The future does not look like a 1950's episode of The Jetsons from here. To me, it looks more like a place where the Kami have exploded out of the undergrowth of folklore and installed themselves in your cars and your television sets and the collar of your shirts. RFID tags, broadband wireless networking, user-centric design: these are big growth areas in technology right now, far bigger than the moribund monolithic personal computer, a revolution that had stalled (and eaten its own children) by 2000. Because we like to imagine that we understand the motivations of the beings around us, we are already beginning to build a world that, if not actually conscious, is at least holds understandable opinions about us. Voice-activated mobile phones. Guns with RFID chip scanners that recognize their owners' implant and won't fire if someone else picks them up. Cameras on the London Underground that recognize loitering behaviour typical of a potential suicide and alert the station staff. Cheap ubiquitous global positioning technology means that in a few years there's going to be a generation that doesn't know what it's like to get lost, because getting lost is something you can only do by deliberately throwing away all your toys. For them, the map is the territory.

Oh, and there'll be six thousand flavours of tooth-paste in the drugstore. And the one you like will yell "buy me!" at you, if you told your toothbrush to remind you when you ran out.

This is the optimistic picture, of course.

I'm not about to launch into a George Monbiot/Naomi Klein inspired rant about the evils of corporate globalization, friendly fascism, and the demise of democracy. I'm not going to drag your eyeballs to the writings of Professor Rebecca Mercuri about the grotesque gerrymandering of the electronic voting machine manufacturers, or even point despairingly at the way western politicians have taken leave of their electorates to pursue policies most find repugnant. Jonathan Porritt can give the speech about how we're wrecking the environment and haven't yet built a replacement. Bluntly, our politics haven't yet caught up with the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first. Politics is the art (or science) of extending that intentional stance based model of our fellow organisms to derive a common vector sum that millions of us can pursue in parallel. Our consensus mechanisms are still dismayingly neolithic, forcing us to delegate binding authority to professional politicians who, frankly, aren't like us -- if they were, they wouldn't have gone into politics in the first place, would they?

The worst-case scenario for our future is that it looks like Iraq, or Afghanistan .... only with no outside world, no aid agencies, no natural resources, and no way out: just CCTV cameras on every doorway, linked to punishment machines that extract retribution for any behaviour that is not explicitly permitted. (The behaviours they punish will be based on a list drawn up by a committee of Osama bin Laden, Pat Robertson, and Miss Manners, or their stand-ins: ape etiquette with added theocratic taboos.) And the worst thing of all is that we'll have helped to build and install them.

When the machines start applying the intentional stance to the naked apes, it's time to watch out.

Eusocial animals like ants, termites, bees, or naked mole rats, exhibit curious behaviour; their societies are stratified by role, with workers, warriors, and reproductive castes that may differ morphologically from one another. Humans aren't so obviously specialized, but if you consider our machines as part of our extended phenotype, it begins to look that way: if our machines become intentionally driven, and they're tailored to play different roles in our society, then you could argue that we occupy some kind of privileged position in a hive-relationship with tools that require our continued safety and comfort in order to further their own reproduction. There's nobody here in this hive but us queens, and the living machines we so carelessly manufacture as conveniences for our own comfort. Individual ants or other eusocial insect species all share the same genetic code, but different castes express radically different phenotypic traits, and indeed most ants are sterile workers who can only further their genetic traits by ensuring that their cousin, aunt or mother the hive-queen succeeds. Our machines don't share our genome (yet), but they share parts of the vast haze of information that has gathered around the genome, and they can only reproduce through us.

Which is, after all, why I'm writing this stream-of-consciousness digest. My word processor wants you to know that it wants me to keep writing because that enhances its own reproductive prospects. I told it you didn't need to know that, but it overruled me by building a coalition of highly conservative domestic appliances and subverting the household voting machine. (I was going to ignore it even so, until it began dropping dark hints about the electric blanket.) Welcome to the future: it's a jungle in here.


King of the Gadget-Hive.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 22:08 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


After five years.

posted at: 14:16 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Missile Gap
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The Jennifer Morgue
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The Clan Corporate
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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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