On Super Punch, set of photos of a beautiful, enbubbled, betailfinned Los Angeles land yacht spotted on the 101. Hoo-ah.
In a fascinating installment of the IEEE Techwise podcast [MP3], Rice University Computational Engineering prof Moshe Vardi discusses the possibility that robots will obviate human labor faster than new jobs are created, leaving us with no jobs. This needn't be a bad thing -- it might mean finally realizing the age of leisure we've been promised since the first glimmers of the industrial revolution -- but if market economies can't figure out how to equitably distribute the fruits of automation, it might end up with an even bigger, even more hopeless underclass.
I think the issue of machine intelligence and jobs deserves some serious discussion. I don’t know that we will reach a definite conclusion, and it’s not clear how easy it will be to agree on desired actions, but I think the topic is important enough that it deserves discussion. And right now I would say it’s mostly being discussed by economists, by labor economists. It has to also be discussed by the people that produce the technology, because one of the questions we could ask is, you know, there is a concept that, for example, that people have started talking about, which is that we are using, we are creating technology that has no friction, okay? Creating many things that are just too easy to do.
Many of these ideas came up in this Boing Boing post from January, which also touches on Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, a book that Vardi mentions in his interview.
Slate, the New America Foundation and Arizona State University have kicked off a new podcast called "Future Tense," hosted by Internet scholar Tim Wu. The inaugural episode is an interview with Neal Stephenson wherein Neal and Tim talk about where the future has gone -- why we no longer seem to dream of jetpacks and instead focus on fiddly mobile phones. Stephenson gets some very good points in on the lack of predictivity in science fiction, and what sf really contributes to the future.
There are six installments in all -- coming episodes include conversations with Margaret Atwood and me!
Bruce Sterling's speech from NEXT Berlin is a blast of cold air on the themes of startup life, disruption, and global collapse. Bruce excoriates the startup world for its complicity with the conspiracy of the global investor class to vastly increase the wealth of a tiny minority, and describes the role that "design fiction" has in changing this.
Over at Fast Company, our pal Chris Arkenberg wrote about how advances in synthetic biology and biomimicry could someday transform how we build our built environments:
"Cities Of The Future, Built By Drones, Bacteria, And 3-D Printers"
Innovations emerging across the disciplines of additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions. Construction itself may be handled by bacterial printers and swarms of mechanical assemblers.
Tools like Project Cyborg make possible a deeper exploration of biomimicry through the precise manipulation of matter. David Benjamin and his Columbia Living Architecture Lab explore ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing--the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.
Boing Boing friend Marina Gorbis is executive director of Institute for the Future, a non-profit thinktank where I'm a researcher. Marina has just published a compelling, provocative, and grounded book about how technology is enabling individuals to connect with one another to follow their passions and get stuff done, outside of large corporations, governments, and the other institutions that typically rule our lives. Marina calls it "socialstructing." I call it making the future better than the present. The following is an excerpt from Marina's book, "The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World." - David Pescovitz
Putting the Social Back Into Our Economy
by Marina Gorbis
My mother never heard the term social capital, but she knew its value well. In the Soviet Union, where she lived and where I grew up, no one could survive without it, and she leveraged her social capital on a daily basis. It enabled her to provide a decent life for her family, even though she was a widow without much money, excluded from the privileged class of the Communist Party. We never worried about having enough food. My sister and I always wore fashionable clothes (at least by Soviet standards). We took music and dance lessons. We went to the symphony, attended good schools, and spent summers by the Black Sea. In short, we enjoyed a lifestyle that seemed well beyond our means.
How was my mother able to provide all these things on the meager salary of a physician in a government-run clinic in Odessa, Ukraine? Social connections were a powerful currency that flowed through her network of friends and acquaintances, giving her access to many goods and services and enabling our comfortable, if not luxurious, lifestyle. Read the rest
Read the rest
In Bruce Sterling's barn-burning closing keynote for SXSW 2013, he confronts the realities of disruption -- that disruption leads to destruction. Our wonderful things destroy other wonderful things. The future composts the past. We roast the 20th century over our bonfire, let's not shamefully pretend that we did it by accident. Let's eat our kill.
Los Angeles is not full of self-driving pod cars (and other disappointments from a 1988 view of 2013)
PDX event for "Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology"
Hey, Portlandians! Brian David Johnson and James H Carrott are doing a talk and signing for their new book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology, a fascinating look at the historical significance of steampunk, and an exploration of what the popularity of steampunk today's means about tomorrow's technology, at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell's on March 25 at 7PM.
Steampunk, a mashup in its own right, has gone mainstream, with music videos from the likes of Nicki Minaj; America’s Next Top Model photo shoots; and Prada’s Fall/Winter menswear collection featuring haute couture, steampunk style. Some steampunk fans revile this celebrity. But James H. Carrott, co-author of Vintage Tomorrows, says that’s just how cultural change happens. “Things get appropriated; they affect the culture in some way or another, and the people who are at the heart of trying to make that change move onto the next key idea.”
So what is steampunk, exactly, and why should we care? Carrott, a cultural historian, says “steampunk is playing with the past.” The world that steampunk envisions is a mad-inventor’s collection of 21st century-inspired contraptions, powered by steam and driven by gears. It’s a whole new past; one that has a lot to say about the futures we want to see.
In Vintage Tomorrows, Intel’s resident futurist Brian David Johnson (@IntelFuturist) joins Carrott (@CultHistorian) in a globe-spanning journey to dig beyond definitions and into the heart of this growing subculture. Through interviews with experts such as Margaret Atwood, China Miéville, William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, and James Gleick, this book looks into steampunk’s vision of old-world craftsmen making beautiful hand-tooled gadgets, and what it means for our age of disposable technology.
A replica of the TWA Moonliner II -- centerpiece of the TWA Moonliner at Disneyland's Tomorrowland from 1955-1962 -- sits atop the old TWA headquarters in Kansas City, MO, at 1795 West Baltimore Ave. This is an important fact that no one brought to my attention in a timely fashion when I was in KC on the Pirate Cinema tour, for which I blame all of you.
It's the 50th anniversary of "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow," the theme from they Disney Carousel of Progress (which debuted at the 1964 World's Fair in NYC). Keith met Richard Sherman, part of the Sherman brothers songwriting team responsible for the song.
He sez, "Last month I had the great pleasure of singing 'There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow' with Richard Sherman at his home. After we were done singing, he said to me, 'That's the first time I did that since Walt and my brother.' And yep, I filmed it! Coolest moment of my life. Wanted to share it with the whole world, basically."
On IO9, Vincze Miklos rounds up some of the finest sovkitsch futuristic imagery from three 1970s issues of the Soviet YA technology magazine Youth Technics (1, 2, 3) and other sources, presenting a gallery of streamlined jetpack socialism.
Some of the most famous images of Soviet futurism come out of the 1920s and 30s, when the Revolution was young and propaganda posters were like stark works of realist art. But the nation continued to produce works of incredible futurism throughout its reign — including during the trippy period before the Iron Curtain fell in the late twentieth century. Here are some visions of tomorrow, from the USSR in the 1970s.
From the March 12, 1967 episode of Walter Cronkite's CBS show "The 21st Century," a short clip illustrating the home office of tomorrow, with satellite news summaries and consoles that bring the work to us. Paleofuture has a great post about the whole episode:
This equipment here will allow [the businessman of the future] to carry on normal business activities without ever going to an office away from home.
This console provides a summary of news relayed by satellite from all over the world. Now to get a newspaper copy for permanent reference I just turn this button, and out it comes. When I’ve finished catching up on the news I might check the latest weather. This same screen can give me the latest report on the stocks I might own. The telephone is this instrument here — a mock-up of a possible future telephone, this would be the mouthpiece. Now if I want to see the people I’m talking with I just turn the button and there they are. Over here as I work on this screen I can keep in touch with other rooms of the house through a closed-circuit television system.
With equipment like this in the home of the future we may not have to go to work, the work would come to us. In the 21st century it may be that no home will be complete without a computerized communications console.
A terse Disney press release announced yesterday that the new Brad Bird movie will be called "Tomorrowland," and star George Clooney. It's not clear what it'll be about, but I have hopes for something gloriously, Gerbackianally retrofuturistic.
The Walt Disney Studios has announced that its live-action release previously known as 1952 will be titled Tomorrowland. The film will be released domestically on December 19, 2014. George Clooney (The Descendants) is set to star.
Tomorrowland is written by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird from a concept by Lindelof and Jeff Jensen. Lindelof (Star Trek, Lost, Prometheus) will produce and Bird (The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) will produce and direct.
My Institute for the Future colleague Jake Dunagan is hosting a 24-hour online forecasting game to imagine the future of government services and civic engagement. It's called Connected Citizens and there are still a few hours left to play!
The near future holds epic opportunities for rapid innovation in government services. New civic technologies will be built with open data, ubiquitous cloud connectivity, and real-time sensing. Connected Citizens is a global conversation about how connectedness will change the relationship between citizens and governments, and how government services will be designed and delivered in the future.Connected Citizens
Here's a 15-minute industrial film promoting the Monsanto House of Tomorrow, an all-plastic house shaped like a wheel of gouda, which guarded Disneyland's Tomorrowland for many years, starting in 1957. As John Frost notes on The Disney Blog:
There was a time when Disneyland’s Tomorrowland positively reeked of futurism. Mass transportation, space exploration, and the benefits of scientific research were all put on a pedestal for the American public. One of the most famous examples of this was a partnership with Monsanto, MIT, and Imagineering to build a home made of plastics.
The home sat at the entrance to Tomorrowland, where the Pixie Hollow meet & greet is now, from 1957 to 1967. Touring inside the “House of the Future”, you would find a variety of innovations each with the promise of making living easier and more comfortable. From plastic furnishings to a microwave oven or electric dishwasher guests were wowed with what the future would bring. At least for a few years before these things actually did start to make it into the common household.
Fifty years ago this week, The Jetsons premiered. It only lasted 24 episodes (not including the mid-1980s "revival"), but it truly embodied the tech optimism of the time. In the world of professional futurism, The Jetsons (like a lot of science fiction) can be a great provocation for discussion. For example, every episode is filled with examples of futuristic tech that never happened, at least in the way that we imagined them in the 1960s. (Roomba vs. Roomba!) Clips of The Jetsons are also a fun way to draw out insights about the history of the future and why certain visions of tomorrow caught on at specific points in history. Over at Paleofuture, Matt Novak is has launched a series of posts titled "50 Years of the Jetsons: Why The Show Still Matters." His introductory post and recap of the first episode ("Rosey the Robot") are fantastic. From Paleofuture:
“The Jetsons” was the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster. People point to “The Jetsons” as the golden age of American futurism because (technologically, at least) it had everything our hearts could desire: jetpacks, flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks. But the creators of “The Jetsons” weren’t the first to dream up these futuristic inventions. Virtually nothing presented in the show was a new idea in 1962, but what “The Jetsons” did do successfully was condense and package those inventions into entertaining 25-minute blocks for impressionable, media-hungry kids to consume."50 Years of the Jetsons: Why The Show Still Matters"
And though it was “just a cartoon” with all the sight gags and parody you’d expect, it was based on very real expectations for the future. As author Danny Graydon notes in The Jetsons: The Official Cartoon Guide, the artists drew inspiration from futurist books of the time, including the 1962 book 1975: And the Changes to Come, by Arnold B. Barach (who envisioned such breakthroughs as ultrasonic dishwashers and instant language translators). The designers also drew heavily from the Googie aesthetic of southern California (where the Hanna-Barbera studios were located)—a style that perhaps best represented postwar consumer culture promises of freedom and modernity.
During World War II, a time when most manufacturing was concentrated on the war effort and Americans were living with ration books and scrap metal drives, advertising became a very strange thing. Companies wanted to make people aware they still existed, even though they weren't currently offering much for sale and unnecessary consumption was being discouraged. More importantly, the companies wanted Americans to associate their brand name with the promise of life after the War. So, what you got, were a lot of advertisements touting what this or that company was going to do just as soon as the Germans and Japanese were defeated.
The image above comes from a 1944 advertisement by the Association of American Railroads. That room is actually the lounge car on a train — or, rather, the hypothetical lounge car on an imaginary train that might be built after the War is over (provided the development of air travel and the construction of the interstate highway system don't doom the train industry to a slow decline). Basically, you had a lot of time when companies had little more than dreams to offer, so the dreams just kept getting bigger and bigger.
At the Paleofuture blog, Matt Novak writes about this ad as part of a larger trend, and offers up some examples of how the tendency to make big promises about the future of technology was being heavily critiqued even as it happened. Novak's posts help make sense of some of the more-ridiculous branches of midcentury futurism. For instance, by 1944 techno-dreamers were already beginning to imagine a future with a flying machine in every carport. At the time, it was helicopters, but it's not much of a leap to catch up to the more-iconic flying car.
The trouble — as pointed out in a 1944 issue of Science and Mechanics — is that owning a flying machine comes with safety and social concerns that make it a hard sell in the real world:
Read the rest
Reportedly snipped from an Archie comic from 1972 in which he time travels to 2012. Even if the 1972/2012 bit is off, it's a great panel anyway. (via @coseyfannitutti)
Science fiction writers aren’t fortune tellers. Fortune tellers are fakes. Fortune tellers are either deluded or charlatans. You can find science fiction writers who are deluded or science fiction writers who are charlatans — I can think of several of each in the history of the field. Every once in a while, somebody extends their imagination down the line, far enough with a sufficient lack of prejudice, to imagine something that then actually happens. When it happens, it’s great, but it’s not magic. All the language we have for describing what science fiction writers and futurists of other stripes do is nakedly a language of magic.
I’m having a week where some well-intentioned person on the internet describes me as “oracular.” As soon as one of the words with a magic connotation is attached — I know this from ongoing experience — as soon as someone says “oracular,” it’s like, boom! It’s all over the place; it’s endlessly repeated. It’s probably not bad for business. But then I wind up spending a lot of time disabusing people of the idea that I have some sort of magic insight…. You can also find, if you wanted to Google through all the William Gibson pieces on the net, you can find tons of pieces, where people go on and on about how often I’ve gotten it wrong. Where are the cellphones? And neural nets? Why is the bandwidth of everything microscopic in Neuromancer? I could write technological critique of Neuromancer myself that I think could probably convince people that I haven’t gotten it right.
Because the thing that Neuromancer predicts as being actually like the internet isn’t actually like the internet at all! It’s something; I didn’t get it right but I said there was going to be something. I somehow managed to convey a feeling of something. Curiously, that put me out ahead of the field in that regard. It wasn’t that other people were getting it wrong; it was just that relatively few people in the early 1980s, relatively few people who were writing science fiction were paying attention to that stuff. That wasn’t what they were writing about.
I published an essay with my take on this in Locus: A Vocabulary for Speaking about the Future.
(Photo: Jason Redmond/Wired)
Warren Ellis has posted a transcript of "How To See The Future," they keynote he gave at the Improving Reality conference in Brighton, England this week. Ellis works his way through McLuhan's statement that "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." He's onto something -- our world is a strange admixture of the mundane and the fantastic, and as usual, Ellis's acerbic wit and vision is a bracing tonic that wakes us from our perambulatory slumber:
Imagine living in a Martian culture for a moment, where this thing is a presence in the existence of an entire sentient species. A mountain that you cannot see the top of, because it’s a small world and the summit wraps behind the horizon. Imagine settlements creeping up the side of Olympus Mons. Imagine battles fought over sections of slope. Generations upon generations of explorers dying further and further up its height, technologies iterated and expended upon being able to walk to within leaping distance of orbital space. Manufactured normalcy would suggest that, if we were the Martians, we would find this completely dull within ten years and bitch about not being able to simply fart our way into space.
Now imagine a world where space travel to other worlds is an antique curiosity. Imagine reading the words “vintage space.” Can you even consider being part of a culture that could go to space and then stopped?
If the future is dead, then today we must summon it and learn how to see it properly.
The Vintage Ads LJ group is having a theme-park ad theme-week, and as you might expect, this pleases me greatly. It's no surprise that the redoubtable Man Writing Slash has come through with some of the best submissions, including this smashing Space Mountain construction advertorial.
New father Charlie Brooker has caught himself shouting at the machines in his life, given the matter careful consideration, and decided that it's OK -- more than OK, really. For Brooker, the future will involve lots of shouting at machines. Makes me wonder if there isn't something to be said for designing machines that understand why you're shouting at them.
I used to play vertical-scrolling shoot-em-ups in which a blizzard of angry pixels swirled around the screen like a synchronised galaxy impersonating a flock of starlings, accompanied by a melodic soundtrack of pops and whistles apparently performed by an orchestra of frenzied Bop-It machines. But at least then you could press pause. Now I find it hard to cope with seeing a banner ad slowly fading from red to green while the The One Show's on in the background, which is why over the past few weeks I've ratcheted down my engagement with anything not made of wood. There's a baby to attend to, and his old man needs a lie down.
Because the alternative is to surround myself with technology designed specifically for shouting at. And that's the more uplifting feature of the horrible future I pictured for this baby I'm talking about, the baby I vowed to never mention in print because to do so would instantly mark me out as a prick: in the future, we'll have specially designed anguish-venting machines – unfeeling robots wearing bewildered faces for older people to scream into like adult babies, just to let out all the stress caused by constant exposure to yappering, feverish stimuli. Tomorrow will consist of flashing lights and off-the-shelf digital punchbags, consumed by a generation better equipped to deal with it than me, which won't matter because by then I will have withdrawn entirely from the digital world: an old man, enjoying his lie down.