Journal tags: punk

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Living Through The Future

You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.

Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.

On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.

But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.

When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?

At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.

Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.

For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).

In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.

I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:

Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.

The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.

Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.

I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.

I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:

The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.

Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”

Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.

100 words 063

Brad is visiting Brighton this weekend after his stint at UX London. I’ve been showing him around town, introducing him to the finest coffee, burgers, and beers that Brighton has to offer.

We travelled out to Lewes yesterday evening to partake in Jamie’s birthday celebrations. There followed a night of dancing to a wonderfully fun punk covers band, complete with guest vocal appearances from the extended Freeman family: Jamie doing Elvis Costello, his brother Tim doing The Sex Pistols, his other brother Martin doing The Jam, and his cousin Ben doing The Stranglers.

Ah, so much nostalgia and revisited youth!

Connections: Weak Signals

Tuesday evening saw the inaugural Connections event at 68 Middle Street, home to Clearleft. It was a rousing success—much fun was had by all.

There was a great turn-out. Normally I’d expect a fairly significant no-show rate for a free event (they’re often oversubscribed to account for this very reason), but I was amazed how many people braved the dreadful weather to come along. We greeted them all with free beer, courtesy of Clearleft.

The talks had a nice yin and yang quality to them. Honor talked about darkness. Justin talked about light. More specifically, Honor talked about dark matter and Justin talked about Solarpunk.

Honor made plentiful use of sound during her presentation. Or rather, plentiful use of electromagnetic signals converted into sound: asteroseismology from the sun; transient luminous events in the Earth’s upper atmosphere; the hailstorm as Cassini pirouettes through Saturn’s rings; subatomic particle collisions sonified. They all combined to eerie effect.

Justin’s talk was more down to Earth, despite sounding like a near-future science-fiction scenario: individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.

There was a beer break between the talks and we had a joint discussion afterwards, with questions from the audience. I was leading the discussion, and to a certain extent, I played devil’s advocate to Justin’s ideas, countering his solar energy enthusiasm with nuclear energy enthusiasm—I’m on Team Thorium. (Actually, I wasn’t really playing devil’s advocate. I genuinely believe that nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest source of energy available to us and that an anti-nuclear environmentalist is a contradiction in terms—but that’s a discussion for another day.)

There was a bittersweet tinge to the evening. The first Connections event was also Honor’s last public speaking engagement in Brighton for a while. She is bidding farewell to Lighthouse Arts and winging her way to a new life in Singapore. We wish her well. We will miss her.

The evening finished with a facetious rhetorical question from the audience for Honor. It was related to the sonification of particle collisions like the ones that produced evidence for “the God particle”, the Higgs boson. “Given that the music produced is so unmusical”, went the question, “does that mean it’s proof that God doesn’t exist?”

We all had a laugh and then we all went to the pub. But I’ve been thinking about that question, and while I don’t have an answer, I do have a connection to make between both of the talks and algorithmically-generated music. Here goes…

Justin talked about the photovoltaic work done at Bell Labs. An uncle of Ray Kurzweil worked at Bell Labs and taught the young Kurzweil the basics of computer science. Soon after, Ray Kurzweil wrote his first computer program, one that analysed works of classical music and then generated its own music. Here it is.

Alpha

I’ve always thought that Brighton has a lot of steampunk appeal. Quite apart from the potential for criminal mastermind lairs within the , there are a whole slew of wonderful inventions from the mind of .

The is still in use today. The , alas, is not. And while still stands in the centre of town, its moving parts have been disabled (due to noise complaints and damage to the structural integrity):

The hydraulically operated copper sphere moved up and down a 16-foot (4.9 m) metal mast every hour, based on electrical signals transmitted from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

But even with all this steampunk history, I was still surprised to read the story of Alpha the robot on Paleo-Future:

During the autumn of 1932 a group of curious onlookers assembled in Brighton, England to see inventor Harry May’s latest invention, Alpha the robot. The mechanical man was controlled by verbal commands and sat in a chair silently while May carefully placed a gun in Alpha’s hand.

It all goes horribly awry according to contemporary reports, doubtless exaggerated. I, for one, welcome our new metal overlords.

Cyberneticzoo.com has more details on Alpha, including Time magazine’s account of its 1934 tour of America:

When commanded, the robot lowered its arm, raised the other, lowered it, turned its head from side to side, opened and closed its prognathous jaw, sat down. Then Impresario May asked Alpha a question:

“How old are you?”

From the robot’s interior a cavernous Cockney voice responded:

“Fourteen years.”

May: What do you weigh?

Alpha: One ton.

A dozen other questions and answers followed, some elaborately facetious. When May inquired what the automaton liked to eat, it responded with a minute-long discourse on the virtues of toast made with Macy’s automatic electric toaster.

David Buckley has more details including a spread from Practical Mechanics explaining Alpha’s inner workings.

Fact eats fiction

In need of an entertaining read, I recently picked up the book Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith (of Gorky Park fame). I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

I’m not a huge fan of crime fiction, although I have read plenty of Hammett and Chandler in my time. But there was something about Cruz-Smith’s book that I found very appealing.

Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.

The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.

Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.

Truly, as William Gibson said:

The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.

The cyberpunkish quality of Wolves Eat Dogs prompted to go back and revisit some of Gibson’s work. I re-read Virtual Light (possibly the only science-fiction to name check Brighton’s pier).

It’s interesting charting the inverse relationship of Gibson’s projected timelines with his dates of publication. Neuromancer, his first novel, is set in a relatively far future. His newest novel, the equally superb Pattern Recognition, is set in the present. At this rate, he’ll end up writing historical fiction. Mind you, he’ll have a tough time competing with Neal Stephenson in that genre.

Vitual Light was originally published in 1993. It’s especially interesting to read again now because the story is set in a projected future of California in 2005. I had to smile at this descriptive passage in chapter eleven (emphasis mine):

Allied’s best-looking thing on two wheels, no contest whatever, DuPree was six-two of ebon electricity poured over a frame of such elegance and strength that Chevette imagined his bones as polished metal, triple-chromed, a quicksilver armature. Like those old movies with that big guy, the one who went into politics, after he’d got the meat ripped off him.

Who could have predicted that “that big guy” would be governor of the state in 2005?

Truth really is stranger than fiction.