Who Will Make The Bricks?

John-Rhys Newman’s exploration of New Measures of Things in a series of conventional measuring instruments that act as kinds of epistemological wrenches, changing perceptions and confusing the traditions of quantification. Very intriguing objects. I’m curious about the history of measurement and quantification. There’s lots there. I find myself knee deep in the muck of Medieval history. More to come. Want one?

The Near Future Laboratory’s Overseas Bureau of Avuncular Insights and Apropos Turns of Phrase found this clattering off the network’s teletypes — a wonderful short dispatch from Bruce Sterling referring in high-style to the challenges confronting our forward-facing resources for imagining new, near future worlds. Science-fiction has a history; hasn’t always been around. It participates in imagining the future — the title of the essay is this conflation of Design and Fiction, suggestive of this point that fiction can participate in design. But, ultimately, the science-fiction-design trio results in imaginary things. Things that are never hewn beyond the words and the story and the imagination. They are, therefore, fantastic “crap.” Design fiction sits somewhere in between science-fiction and the materialization of the imagination. It is tied more closely to the stuff that appears in the world. You can tell because it resonates closely with either things now, things about to happen, or things that are discussed and activated. Or, the design fiction becomes a reference point — a way of describing something that, oh — some geeks are tooling in the laboratory.

What truly interests me here is the limits of the imaginable.

Design fictions of the best sort are like design & style manuals for making things. They lead to conversations like this — “Yeah, it’s kinda like that thing? The reputation servers in that book, um…Distraction? Oh, you didn’t read it? Well, you should. It’ll help us talk about what we’re trying to do. It’s got some cool things in it.”

What are the constraints to imagining new kinds of future worlds? Writing is constrained by language, which may have been the literati’s excuse for not creating a future imaginary worthy of our time, money and attention to materialize.

Design, by contrast, is less verbal. Design is busily inventing new ways to blow itself apart. Design is taking more risks with itself than literature. That is why contemporary design feels almost up to date, while literature feels archaic and besieged.

Design and literature don’t talk together much, but design has more to offer literature at the moment than literature can offer to design. Design seeks out ways to jump over its own conceptual walls-scenarios, user observation, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, critical design, speculative design. There is even “experience design,” which is surely the most imperial, most gaseous, most spectral form of design yet invented.

Now, talking again? With a more common landscape brought to us via digital networks, digital data, digital communications and sharing? Could that be the effective culture of the Internet? To bring together language and material? Expressive of both in a way. Not just stories, but their material, lived in the world?

Perhaps apropos of the recent Milan Design Week chatter, the way I read this nice compact essay is that the vector cross-product of a failed capitalism with an inability of (design/engineering/science/technoculture-writ-large) to imagine a future-forward equals variously trouble or opportunity. The opportunity being — new kinds of “bricks.” New units of assemblage to create more habitable (broadly — sustainable, creative, articulate, mindful, generous, etc.) future worlds. We need new measures of meaning. New systems of quantification that do not ultimately, in the end, result in an unbalanced equation.

Read the whole thing here. I’ve excerpted my favorite part below. (Well, it’s short enough of an essay that the whole thing can be a favorite part, but this is what this morning’s coffee-sit-down favored.)

We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of search engines and cross-links, of keywords and networks, the solid smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out. Instead of being armored in technique, or sheltered within subculture, design and science fiction have become like two silk balloons, two frail, polymorphic pockets of hot air, floating in a generally tainted cultural atmosphere.

These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow-not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them. Could it be because they were both born with blind spots, with unexamined assumptions hardwired in 80 years ago?

There is much thoughtful talk of innovation, of transformation, of the collaborative and the transdisciplinary. These are buzzwords, language that does not last.

What we are really experiencing now is a massive cybernetic hemorrhage in ways of knowing the world.

Even money, the almighty bottom line, the ultimate reality check for American society, has tripped over its own infrastructural blinders, and lost its ability to map value. The visionaries no longer know what to think-and, by no coincidence, the financiers can no longer place their bets.

I scarcely know what to do about this. As Charles Eames said, design is a method of action. Literature is a method of meaning and feeling. Hearteningly, I do know how I feel about this situation. I even have some inkling of what it means.

Rather than thinking outside the box-which was almost always a money box, quite frankly-we surely need a better understanding of boxes. Maybe some new, more general, creative project could map the limits of the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu. Plug that imagination gap.

That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried. It seems to me like a good response to events.

The winds of the Net are full of straws. Who will make the bricks?

Continue reading Who Will Make The Bricks?

Dog Eared "Distraction"

Turn Over LA "River" Thursday March 12, 21:39:03

Running the blog-the-dog-eared-pages algorithm on Bruce Sterling‘s fantastic “Distraction“, I’ve selected these gems. They’re all intriguing speculations about a near future world to be, complete with some insights and implications that trace the now to the then if you think about how such moments, conversations, objects and designed artifacts could come to be in the year 2050. Particularly at this agitated moment amongst the the various and multiple worlds’ and their financial-political-socio-technocultures.

Oscar took the opportunity to learn how to use a Moderator laptop. He had been given one, and he rightly recognized this gesture as a high tribal honor. The Moderator device had a flexible green shell of plasticized straw. It weighed about as much as a bag of popcorn. And its keyboard, instead of the time-honored QWERTYUIOP, boasted a sleek, sensible, and deeply sinister DHIATENSOR.

Oscar had been assured many times that the venerable QWERTYUIOP keyboard design would never, ever be replaced. Supposedly, this was due to a phenomenon called “technological lock-in.” QWERTYUIOP was a horribly bad design for a keyboard — in fact QWERTYUIOP was deliberately designed to hamper typists — but the effort required to learn it was so crushing that people would never sacrifice it. It was like English spelling, or American standard measurements, or the ludicrous design of toilets; it was very bad, but it was a social fact of nature. QWERTYUIOP’s universality made it impossible for alternatives to arise and spread.

This is a good one. I’ve been fascinated with the ways a particular configuration or design like this — the keyboard layout — becomes a kind of expressive social object. There are all of these deep histories it seems, depending on who you believe, about all standards which are always social-political-historical compromises that lock-in specific meanings. Sometimes you hear that QWERTY was a way to slow typists down so that the mechanical aspects of pre-digital keyboards would not jam the machines in early typesetting and so forth, as Sterling describes in this passage. I’ve also heard that QWERTY was a way to help early typewriter salespeople sell the typewriter because they could easily type out the word “typewriter” only using the top row of letter keys and impress early would-be purchasers. (QWERTYUIOP gives you each letter of “typewriter”, which is something many people to recognize.) In this passage, Sterling is reminding us of this first point — that things set in place, like someone etching their name in drying concrete and, even if flawed, these become “social facts of nature” leaving the inscriptions of all the considerations that will always flow forth from those early debates and conventions and compromises, which become especially resonant when the “lock-in” is for something that spreads widely becoming a universality. p.382

We love those Regulators like brothers and sisters. We got nothing in common with you. Except that…well, we’re Moderators because we use a Moderator network. And the Regulators use a Regulator interface, with Regulator software and Regulator protocols. I don’t think that a newbie creep like you understands just how political a problem that is.

Protocols, interfaces, software, networks yielding to differentiation at the level of social and political factions is a very curious extrapolation. At the same time, it is a kind of embodiment of the politics of protocols as well-expressed in Alexander Galloway’s fascinating two network books Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization and
The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (also with Eugene Thacker).

Without the high-flying theory and Deleuzian barnstorming, Sterling captures the reasonable future world in which the world wide network has fractured in this way between Moderators and Regulators for some reason having to do with social and political differences between these two groups. A near future such as this seems reasonable, international standards bodies notwithstanding. Receding back into the recent past of incompatible networks would be an outcome of the collapsed world Sterling depicts in Distraction, where global networks may be seen as creating exploitable linkages between teetering giant centers. For instance, the interconnectedness of financial institutions that allowed them to become too tightly connected in strategic terms — able to trade amongst each other too easily so that the game of hot potato that led us to today’s crisis finally caught everyone with bad potatos in the end — could be something that is regulated and controlled. In other words, if an outcome is that institutions must insulate themselves in some fashion, or they become categorized as to who they can do business with, a result could be different kinds of network protocols optimized for that specific business. Regulated banks use the Regulator network; Moderate banks use the Moderator network. p.335

But this was not the strange part. The strange part was that brand-new nomad manufacturers were vigorously infiltrating this jungle of ancient junk. They were creating new, functional objects that were not commercial detritus — they were sinister mimics of commercial detritus, created through new, noncommercial methods. Where there had once been expensive, glossy petrochemicals, there was now chopped straw and paper. Where there had once been employees, there were jobless fanatics with cheap equipment, complex networks, and all the time in the world. Devices once expensive and now commercially worthless were being slowly and creepily replaced by near-identical devices that were similarly noncommercial, and yet brand-new.

When “DIY” attains to its logical zenith, fake becomes the new real. I actually can’t wait for this to happen. The pinnacle of knowledge circulation in the networked age. How-to, tutorials, maker culture, sharing of knowledge (or maybe just descriptions and step-by-step procedures) all coming together so that people make their own stuff, from new materials that do not have to be tuned for epic scale levels of manufacturing. You need something, make one or two rather than having 100,000 of them made offshore someplace and shipped at great expense and with enormous carbon footprint. Natural experimentation with alternative materials, features, etc. p.329

Motility Network

Kevin bought four sets of earclips from a blanket vendor. “Here, put these on.”

“Why?” Greta said.

“Trust me, I know my way around a place like this.”

Oscar pinched the clamp onto his left ear. The device emitted a little wordless burbling hum, the sound a contented three-year-old might make. As long as he moved with the crowd, the little murmur simply sat there at his ear, an oddly reassuring presence, like a child’s make-believe friend. However, if he interfered with the crowd flow — if he somehow failed to take a cue — the earcuff grew querulous. Stand in the way long enough, and it would bawl.

Somewhere a system was mapping out the flow of people, and controlling them with these gentle hints. After a few moments Oscar simply forgot about the little murmurs; he was still aware of them, but not consciously. The nonverbal nagging was so childishly insistent that accomodating it became second nature. Soon the four of them were moving to avoid the crowds, well before any approaching crowds could actually appear. Everyone was wearing the earcuffs, so computation was arranging human beings like a breeze blowing butterflies.

The fairground was densely packed with people, but the crowd was unnaturally fluid. All the snack-food stands had short, brisk lines. The toilets were never crowded. Children never got lost.

Just a fascinating extrapolation into the near future of a number of ideas, such as a kind of flash mob concept, where a crowd is optimized to itself, allowing for smooth flows and transfers — a meta surveillance and control system that does not have the nasty baggage that such things normally. Ground traffic control system that helps you get from “A” to “B” in an optimal way, whatever “A” or “B” might be. This is a concept expressed here that is quite intriguing to me, such as strategies for exploring especially urban space, like the analog Near Future Laboratory project, “Drift Deck” and other psychogeography and cartography explorations. p.326-327

There was a long uneasy silence. Then Griego burtst out in a fury. “Don’t get all high-and-mighty with me, Mr. Third-in-His-Class. You think it’s easy running corporate R&D? It was just fine, as long as the guy didn’t have anything. Jesus, nobody ever thought a goddamn sugar engine would work. The goddamn thing is a giant germ in a box! We build cars up here, we don’t build giant germs! Then they pull this crazy stunt and..well, it just makes our life impossible! We’re a classic, metal-bending industry! We have interlocking directorates all throughout the structure, raw materials, fuel, spare parts, the dealerships…We can’t get into the face of our fuel suppliers telling them that we’re replacing them with sugar water! We own our fuel suppliers! It’d be like sawing off our own foot!”

“I understand about interlocking directorates and mutual stock ownership, Ron. I was sitting right next to you in business school, remember? Cut to the chase — what about the battery?”

“Batteries have the highest profit margin of any automobile component. We were making money there. You can’t make real money anywhere else in our business. The Koreans are building auto bodies out of straw and paper! We can’t support an industry when cars are cheaper than grocery carts! What are we gonna tell our unions? This is a great American tradition at stake here! The car defines America: the assembly line, suburbs, drive-ins, hot rods, teenage sex, everything that makes America great! We can’t turn ourselves inside out because some big-brained creep has bult an engine out of bug guts! There wouldn’t be anything left of us! The guy is a menace to society! He had to be stopped.”

“Thank you for that, Ron. Now we’re getting somewhere. So tell me this — why didn’t you just pull his damn funding?”

“If only it were that simple! We’re required by federal fiat to invest in basic R&D. It was part of our federal bailout deal. We’re supposed to have trade protection, and we’re supposed to catch our breath, and jump a generation ahead of our foreign competitors. But if we jump a generation of the damn Koreans, our industry will vanish entirely. People will make cars the way they make pop-up toast. Proles will build cars out of bio-scrap, and compost them in the backyard. We’ll all be doomed.”

So you’re telling me that you’ve achieved a tremendous scientific R&D success, but as a collateral effect, it will eliminate your industry.”

“Yeah. That’s it. Exactly. And I’m sorry, but we just can’t face that. We have stockholders to worry about, we have a labor force. We don’t want to end up like the computer people did. Jesus, there’s no sense to that. It’s total madness, it’s demented. We’d be cutting our own throats.”

Well, this is very much like the collapse of the automotive industry in the US, clearly. I also like this dig at corporate R&D. This idea that things discovered that could turn into something that is to the larger good would be hidden away if it would overturn the existing order. R&D in this way is ultimately conservative. I’m not sure I believe in R&D, for these reasons and others, but that’s a longer post. p.295-297


“But the economy’s out-of-control. Money just doesn’t need human beings anymore. Most of us only get in the way.”

“Well, money isn’t everything, but just try living without it.”

Kevin shrugged. “People lived before money was invented. Money’s not a law of nature. Money’s a medium. You can live without money, if you replace it with the right kind of computation. The proles know that. They’ve tried a million weird stunts to get by, roadblocks, shakedowns, smuggling, scrap metal, road shows…Heaven knows they never had much to work with. But the proles are almost there now. You know how reputation servers work, right?”

“Of course I know about them, but I also know they dont really work.”

“I used to live off reputation servers. Let’s say you’re in the Regulators — they’re a mob that’s very big around here. You show up at a Regulator camp with a trust rep in the high nineties, people will make it their business to look after you. Because they know for a fact that you’re a good guy to have around. You’re polite, you dont rob stuff, they can trust you with their kids, their cars, whatever they got. You’re a certifiable good neighbor. You always pitch in. You always do people favors. You never sell out the gang. It’s a network gift economy.”

“It’s gangster socialism. It’s a nutty scheme, it’s unrealistic. And its fragile. You can always bribe people to boost your ratings, and then money breaks into your little pie-in-the-sky setup. Then you’re right back where you started.
“It can work all right. The problems is that the organized-crime feds are on to the proles, so they netwar their systems and deliberately break them down. They prefer the proles chaotic, because they’re a threat to the status quo. Living without money is just not the American way. But most of Africa lives outside the money economy now — they’re all eating leaf protein out of Dutch machines. Polynesia is like that now. In Europe they’ve got guaranteed annual incomes, they’ve got zero-work people in their Parliaments. Gift networks have always been big in Japan. Russians still think property is theft — those poor guys could never make a money economy work..”

I love this idea of reputation servers — a possible near future for today’s social networks, friend followers, etc. Somehow participation in today’s networks yields a new index of sorts — your trust ranking or something like this. A nice substitute for today’s “credit rating” systems, which are ridiculously opaque, operating on algorithms we who are rated can only guess about. Besides, in the near future, when the role of banks will have possibly whithered to a collapsed prune of their former selves, we may in fact circulate and leverage financial activities within networks of trust that are more peer-to-peer, like this Susu financial practices that is a cornerstone of various expat communities. p.256-257 (See also http://www.theworld.org/node/24945

Continue reading Dog Eared "Distraction"