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A talk by writer Warren Ellis
September 9, 2012 5:54 PM   Subscribe

How to See the Future.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (36 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here’s another angle on vintage space: Voyager 1 is more than 11 billion miles away, and it’s run off 64K of computing power and an eight-track tape deck.

That's the past, and it's a pretty impressive future, right there.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:02 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here’s another angle on vintage space: Voyager 1 is more than 11 billion miles away, and it’s run off 64K of computing power and an eight-track tape deck.

We could not imagine doing this today, it would be be said to be impossible.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:09 PM on September 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm surprised the tape hasn't outgassed to the point of being totally brittle and unusable.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:11 PM on September 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Our smartphones make Captain Kirk's whatsitdoodad look like a retrofartsy gadget from the past-future but then again, we don't live in a society where everybody is equal and all nations have come together to build a better future, regardless of race, age, or creed. When Steve Jobs was talking about buying into magic, he was talking to middle/upper-class Americans who could afford the premium, not the vast majority who would be lucky to have an OLPC. Focusing on the inherent wonder that is technology is great and everything but what's the point if the ones who can afford it aren't really keen on sharing?
posted by dubusadus at 6:18 PM on September 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


Very interesting essay. But electronic cigarettes? I guess everyone has a differently tuned sense of wonder.

The Olympus Mons metaphor is good one, because we are on the threshold of so many amazing things. I think when they write the histories of this era future people will enjoy drawing a contrast between the enormous potential (and enormous danger) of our emerging technologies, and the small minded ethos that permeates an era where we use our miracle smartphones to catch the latest tweets from Snooki.
posted by Kevin Street at 6:19 PM on September 9, 2012


we don't live in a society where everybody is equal

Neither did Captain Kirk, if you notice.
posted by muddgirl at 6:22 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


The banality of reality is only due to your constricted expectations of it.
posted by basicchannel at 6:27 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, no, yes. No. The debate on whether we're slouching towards the End of History, the idea that culture and the ideas it generates are like a marble rolling inexorably down the slopes of a basin that shapes the limits of our imagination and understanding, or whether that notion itself is just another illusion that can be upset, randomly, miraculously, by unforeseen events which radically alter our perception of what's possible, has not been settled I think. On the one hand it does not seem possible to go back to an imagined reality where invisible superbeings can suspend the laws of physics to part seas, or to plausibly posit a vision of abundant, exotic extraterrestrial life right around the corner. On the other hand the improbable innovations in miniaturization and digitalization are only a few decades old and who knows what's just around the corner. What makes me edge towards the less exuberant statis hypothesis however is how little effect these innovations, despite being nothing short of miraculous, seem to have had. Despite the breathless proclamations to the contrary, I'm really not living in the future I imagined and this has nothing to do with perception bias. There really aren't any spacebabes, there really isn't any FTL, there really isn't any "human-level AI" anywhere in sight. More prosaically, air travel really is a total drag, robots exploring space really aren't that interesting [to me], and none of these miraculous machines have made me into the effortless genius I imagined I would be.
posted by deo rei at 6:50 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


But with Wikipedia and the Khan Academy you can sound like an effortless genius. Human nature is still the same it was 10 000 years ago, but these technologies are raising the potential of what everyone can do.

And remember, most cell phones are in the third world. Teenage farmers in Bangladesh can follow Snooki's tweets, or learn about Ice XII, if they know English. We're on the edge of a time where anyone will have the potential to look up anything, probably in the language of their choice. That's just huge, and we probably haven't yet seen more than the hazy beginnings of what it means.
posted by Kevin Street at 7:08 PM on September 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


these technologies are raising the potential of what everyone can do [...] Teenage farmers in Bangladesh can follow Snooki's tweets

Hahahahahahaha
posted by deo rei at 7:18 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


if you were a wizard you'd just use magic to get a beer.
We're on the edge of a time where anyone will have the potential to look up anything, probably in the language of their choice.

in what way is a thing that allows a person to find out anything not a panopticon

but worse, because at least with a panopticon you can leave the grounds and your daily life isn't routed through the thing, but worse, because when bots are advanced enough it won't even need people to run it, but worse, because there is not even any central authority (ignoring for the moment the American government's best efforts) in charge but an acephalous thing against which no revolt is possible

ballardian indeed
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:28 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interesting article.
The Olympus Mons mountain on Mars is so tall and yet so gently sloped that, were you suited and supplied correctly, ascending it would allow you to walk most of the way to space.
Once you got past the up to 5 mile high cliff that surrounds it, perhaps.
Voyager 1 is more than 11 billion miles away, and it’s run off 64K of computing power and an eight-track tape deck.
He means 64K memory and an 8 bit word length, of course.
We live in the Science Fiction Condition, where we can see under atoms and across the world and across the methane lakes of Titan.
Looking under atoms has always been a particular passion of mine.
posted by jamjam at 7:28 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Would you care to explain what you mean, or is that comment going to sink like a lead balloon?
posted by Kevin Street at 7:28 PM on September 9, 2012


Sorry, that was addressed to deo rei.
posted by Kevin Street at 7:28 PM on September 9, 2012


@deo rei

to be fair, they could also be following some hipster's joke twitter. you don't know!
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:30 PM on September 9, 2012


I'm sorry, I couldn't resist. I'm not a pessimist. I do believe there is genuine progress. Some of it even coming from Snooki's tweets perhaps. And I think this progress helps alleviate a lot of real human suffering. But I also don't think it is inconceivable that cultural development at some point becomes more a matter of filling in gaps rather than opening up brand new vistas, which I surmise is what the article hints at.
posted by deo rei at 7:30 PM on September 9, 2012


The debate on whether we're slouching towards the End of History,

Here's a blog post about Francis Fukuyama (yes, that one) building his own unmanned drone.

It's about half a year old.

More prosaically, air travel really is a total drag, robots exploring space really aren't that interesting [to me], and none of these miraculous machines have made me into the effortless genius I imagined I would be.

What's your argument here? You're bored, because nobody's entertained you? You're unimpressed, because nobody's done the work for you?

I concede the point. Sorry; I'd love to keep talking but I've got stuff to, y'know, do.
posted by mhoye at 7:37 PM on September 9, 2012


What's your argument here? You're bored

No... and I really have to dig deep here to see why you're so hostile. It's great that you have stuff to do. If you're angry because you feel you're not doing enough or you're not getting the results you were hoping for, then perhaps that's closer to my argument. I don't know what your problem is.
posted by deo rei at 7:48 PM on September 9, 2012


Meh. The future's not what it used to be.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:56 PM on September 9, 2012


Personally I am fascinated with my iPhone. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't recall a time in my attic bedroom when I just wished that I had a computer that I could play chess with. This is whilst having a cheap Zenith B/W TV that had 7 channels. The first time that I saw the game Space War on a science show I was blown away. It was a mainframe computer. And it had two "space ships" and a "Sun". When I watched that I felt a yearning inside of me that I had never felt before.

Many years later I found a version of that in an arcade. It had the same ships and an alien that would drop by occasionally. This was amongst pinball games and the like. This game, though, cost a quarter!

I played it until my mother dragged me away.

The next day at school I could not concentrate at all. All I could do was draw pictures of this wonderful game in my notebook.

Now I will be swiping the screen or pinch expanding something and it will still hit me. What a fucking marvelous device this is. Even Star Trek (any of them) didn't have what I do now.

I have a "phone" that has no buttons! I use a touch screen. For everything. Holy fucking shit. I'm in my future.
posted by Splunge at 8:27 PM on September 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


we don't live in a society where everybody is equal
Neither did Captain Kirk, if you notice.


The replicator goes a long way on the equality front. I'd happily manually tune my cellphone if I could create food and tools at the touch of a button.
posted by zvs at 9:05 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


in what way is a thing that allows a person to find out anything not a panopticon

but worse, because at least with a panopticon you can leave the grounds and your daily life isn't routed through the thing, but worse, because when bots are advanced enough it won't even need people to run it, but worse, because there is not even any central authority (ignoring for the moment the American government's best efforts) in charge but an acephalous thing against which no revolt is possible

ballardian indeed


Reminds me of this. (Google BrainLink™? Not that I think that that sort of access is even possible; the computational theory of mind's notions of "uploading your mind to a mainframe"/Matrix-style "I know kung-fu!", etc., is a bit naïve.)
posted by Philofacts at 9:11 PM on September 9, 2012


except that this isn't outer-limits magic stuff or sci-fi brain uploading, it is just things getting slowly grayer via tech we essentially have now

also isn't most translation software designed in english-speaking countries, etc.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:29 PM on September 9, 2012


The referenced Venkatesh Rao article adds a lot of depth.
posted by zvs at 9:57 PM on September 9, 2012


Rao is generally great but I'm not convinced Ellis really understood what Rao was getting at. actually Ellis seems almost like part of the problem rather than the solution in what Rao's describing
posted by Bwithh at 10:03 PM on September 9, 2012


From the Rao article: "What is interesting is how this psychological pre-disposition to believe in an unchanging, normal present doesn’t kill us."

I happen to think that Rao's article is fundamentally flawed -- as though there are, as the article states, thing that (some intentionally, some not) conspire to generate a "manufactured normalcy field."

No, dude. It's just the fact that, at least thus far in human history, most people who are reasonably open minded and willing to accept change find that the incremental changes they have seen in their life made sense, one atop the next.

I didn't fall asleep in 1992 with a phone plugged into a wall and the smartest computer in my house a school calculator, then wake up in 2012 with an iPhone in my grip. I observed every incremental change between then and now.

There has not been, in modern history, anything like an "unchanging, normal present." There has been, for my entire life, the ever-blossoming "next year" turning into "next month" and "tomorrow" turning into "today." I believe in an ever changing, evolving present that is easy to see a month from now (hey, new shiny iPhone 5), fairly straightforward to see a year from now (likely iPhone 6 and iPad 4, or whatever generation name they'll have). And increasingly hazy further and further out.

"When larger global Fields break, we experience “dark” ages. We literally cannot process change at all. We grope, waiting for an age when it will all make sense again."

There is some real chicken-littling going on here, and the "dark" ages had nothing to do with being unable to process change. It's because (in the original post-Roman European "dark age") a hegemony collapsed due to many factors (the LACK of new technologies to support a huge empire being among them) and the subsequent reconfiguration of the post-hegemonic state not only confounded communication due to the splintering of vernacular language among various barbarian tongues, many of them even lacked a written form. Or you can believe Rao that somehow it was because people couldn't process the speed of techological change in the late Roman Empire.

It's like Rao is trying to make humanity out to be perpetually in, or in eternal peril of Future Shock. There certainly is a case to be made connecting the rise of Fundamentalism (in many stripes) and neo-Luddism (anti-vax, anyone?) to some people falling prey to Future Shock, but I, for one, reject the article upon the basis that its fundamental premise is flawed. If there is anything that "asserts normalcy" in a rapidly changing world, it is the so-far unequalled capability of humanity (on the whole) to accommodate change.
posted by chimaera at 10:29 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


What makes me edge towards the less exuberant statis hypothesis however is how little effect these innovations, despite being nothing short of miraculous, seem to have had.

History doesn't seem to have ended so much as it has collapsed. I imagine that a great many people, being only dimly aware about history's unfortune, do feel trapped in the "videogame now" where the future is always just around the corner, the big payoff will come but still, no matter how many levels you advance, no matter how many new weapons and power-ups you acquire, nothing really changes, the fundamental unyielding logic of the game cannot be defied or escaped. This is perhaps the meaning of the modern condition and why only video games are modern while all other art shuffles off to die in musuems.

Ellis' speech is charming but I think he and so many other culture spammers have it almost perfectly backwards. (A less charitable interpretation: futurists, like economists, have no purpose but to tell comforting lies.) There is nothing of the "future" about his future of new things to consume. If he is pleading with men to rediscover awe in the act of consumption then he surely doesn't understand his audience's predicament. The internet changes nothing. For all its new technologies and power-ups, will not the logic of the game be exactly the same? The IPad isn't a revolution, it's $600. This is what matters. Isn't, as the politicians love to point out, somebody going to have to pay for all this?

It is because the future means nothing in a videogame that the crisis now accelerates and becomes perfectly self-reinforcing: endless consumption, "advancing" level after level just to get more, have more, acquire more, will not work when endless consumption is the very problem. You cannot spend your way out of debt unless you get lucky at the casino and nobody ever gets lucky at the casino that's why they're called casinos. The Future of More is gone, if it was really ever there in the first place (who doesn't think it was all just government propaganda?) and now people will have to deal with the real future, the murderous, dangerous, fantastically unpredictable future that has plagued mankind from the very beginning, the Future of Less. It is a future of austerity, of demand destruction and ever-rising insurance premiums of less and less and then even more loss. Who can blame the conservatives for clinging so desperately to videogames?

Ellis keeps the game going by asking people to imagine more, to think about all the wonderful things they have to gain. This is his job and that is why the people with money pay science fiction authors to write science fiction. But this is a trap. If you want to see the future you should imagine less and think about all the wonderful things you have to lose. You should do a careful accounting, in fact, of what you have already lost. Look at your pay stub from ten years ago and be sure to factor in what inflation has taken. You should imagine not that you'll be walking into space in fifty years but rather that you'll be lucky to live to see the next decade. This is where innovation comes from, this is why "necessity is the mother of all invention," this, in fact, is the future. It's right there, actually, if you're willing to just look.
posted by nixerman at 10:48 PM on September 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Wittgenstein hinted (maybe, said) that how, why, when, where, we are or will be does not matter - only THAT we are is the source of wonder. I find comfort in that.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:04 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


all I know is, people aren't improving as quickly as technology is, and there isn't much we can do about that.
posted by davejay at 12:52 AM on September 10, 2012


We're on the edge of a time where anyone will have the potential to look up anything, probably in the language of their choice.

While, at the very same time, at least in the US, powerful forces are hard at work dismantling the institutions that would teach individuals how to critically evaluate and understand what they look-up.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:13 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The IPad isn't a revolution, it's $600.

Prices start at $399.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:28 AM on September 10, 2012


The future is popular because that's the only place hope lives.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 5:35 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Warren Ellis on the Future Happening Everywhere
posted by homunculus at 10:32 AM on September 11, 2012


Good Morning Sinners with Warren Ellis: Print Your Own Penis
posted by homunculus at 10:34 AM on September 11, 2012


Bringing the Future Back from the Dead
posted by homunculus at 5:03 PM on September 18, 2012


Supergod: Warren Ellis's horrific arms-race endtimes
posted by homunculus at 12:28 PM on October 8, 2012


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