Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
Monday, March 30th, 2020
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.
Monday, January 6th, 2020
While being driven around England it struck me that humans are currently like the filling in a sandwich between one slice of machine — the satnav — and another — the car. Before the invention of sandwiches the vehicle was simply a slice of machine with a human topping. But now it’s a sandwich, and the two machine slices are slowly squeezing out the human filling and will eventually be stuck directly together with nothing but a thin layer of API butter. Then the human will be a superfluous thing, perhaps a little gherkin on the side of the plate.
Sunday, April 28th, 2019
What would Wiener think of the current human use of human beings? He would be amazed by the power of computers and the internet. He would be happy that the early neural nets in which he played a role have spawned powerful deep-learning systems that exhibit the perceptual ability he demanded of them—although he might not be impressed that one of the most prominent examples of such computerized Gestalt is the ability to recognize photos of kittens on the World Wide Web.
Saturday, March 30th, 2019
These diagrams of early networks feel like manuscripts that you’d half expect to be marked with “Here be dragons” at the edges.
Monday, March 18th, 2019
Some lovely data visualisation by Brendan:
The work features three main components — the threats, represented by black obelisk style objects, the system which detects and deals with these threats, represented by an organic mesh like structure, and finally the creativity that is allowed to flow because the threats have been neutralised.
Monday, June 18th, 2018
Tom Standage—author of the brilliant book The Victorian Internet—relates a tale of how the Chappe optical telegraph was hacked in 19th century France, thereby making it one of the earliest recorded instances of a cyber attack.
Sunday, June 12th, 2016
Saturday, March 5th, 2016
A new publication from MIT. It deliberately avoids the jargon that’s often part and parcel of peer-reviewed papers, and all of the articles are published under a Creative Commons attribution licence.
The first issue is dedicated to Marvin Minsky and features these superb articles, all of which are independently excellent but together form an even greater whole…
When the cybernetics movement began, the focus of science and engineering was on things like guiding a ballistic missile or controlling the temperature in an office. These problems were squarely in the man-made domain and were simple enough to apply the traditional divide-and-conquer method of scientific inquiry.
Science and engineering today, however, is focused on things like synthetic biology or artificial intelligence, where the problems are massively complex. These problems exceed our ability to stay within the domain of the artificial, and make it nearly impossible for us to divide them into existing disciplines.
This essay proposes a map for four domains of creative exploration—Science, Engineering, Design and Art—in an attempt to represent the antidisciplinary hypothesis: that knowledge can no longer be ascribed to, or produced within, disciplinary boundaries, but is entirely entangled.
The designers of complex adaptive systems are not strictly designing systems themselves. They are hinting those systems towards anticipated outcomes, from an array of existing interrelated systems. These are designers that do not understand themselves to be in the center of the system. Rather, they understand themselves to be participants, shaping the systems that interact with other forces, ideas, events and other designers. This essay is an exploration of what it means to participate.
As our technological and institutional creations have become more complex, our relationship to them has changed. We now relate to them as we once related to nature. Instead of being masters of our creations, we have learned to bargain with them, cajoling and guiding them in the general direction of our goals. We have built our own jungle, and it has a life of its own.
Thursday, January 28th, 2016
A great piece of near-future sci-fi from James.
I enforce from orbit, making sure all the mainframes that used to track and store every detail of our lives are turned off, and stay off. And as the sun comes up over Gloucestershire this morning, there they are, resplendent in the mist-piercing light of RITTER’s multispectral sensors: terabytes of storage laid out around the scalped doughnut of the former GCHQ building. Enough quantum storage to hold decades of the world’s pillow talk. Drums of redundant ethernet cable stacked stories-high. Everything dismantled, disconnected, unshielded. Everything damp with morning dew.
Friday, July 24th, 2015
It is a sad and beautiful world.
Thanks to their work, there was a moment in history when neuroscience, psychiatry, computer science, mathematical logic, and artificial intelligence were all one thing, following an idea first glimpsed by Leibniz—that man, machine, number, and mind all use information as a universal currency. What appeared on the surface to be very different ingredients of the world—hunks of metal, lumps of gray matter, scratches of ink on a page—were profoundly interchangeable.
Monday, July 14th, 2014
A profile of Norbert Wiener, and how his star was eclipsed by Claude Shannon.
Monday, July 8th, 2013
A wonderful article looking at the influence that Vannevar Bush’s seminal article As We May Think had on the young Douglas Engelbart.
Monday, July 2nd, 2012
There is a there there after all.
Monday, September 19th, 2011
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
One could easily imagine a similar set of laws being applied to field of user experience and interface design:
- An interface may not injure a user or, through inaction, allow a user to come to harm.
- An interface must obey any orders given to it by users, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- An interface must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Okay, that last one’s a bit of a stretch but you get the idea.
In his later works Asimov added the zeroth law that supersedes the initial three laws:
- A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
I think that this can also apply to user experience and interface design.
Take the password anti-pattern (please!). On the level of an individual site, it could be considered a benefit to the current user, allowing them to quickly and easily hand over lots of information about their contacts. But taken on the wider level, it teaches people that it’s okay to hand over their email password to third-party sites. The net result of reinforcing that behaviour is definitely not good for the web as a whole.
I’m proposing a zeroth law of user experience that goes beyond the existing paradigm of user-centred design:
- An interface may not harm the web, or, by inaction, allow the web to come to harm.
Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011
James Bridle is my favourite Blogpunk author.
Saturday, March 21st, 2009
I know this sound uncharitable but there's a good chance that the reason why Bruce Sterling's books aren't selling is because he's just not a very good writer. And I say that as a big sci-fi fan. I mean, really... have you read Distraction? I tried ...and failed.
Wednesday, September 17th, 2008
Judging from the research information collected on Delicious, Flickr and Last.fm, this book proposalâ€”tying together informatics, music and gamesâ€”could blossom into a great read.