“Ready Lawnmower Player Man One”, or VR’s persistent future

For the last couple of years I have given a lecture that takes the “Virtual/Real” distinction and deconstructs it using various bits of geographical theory. I also talk about the enduring trope of the sort of eschatological narrative of VR, tying it back to a little bit of history, mainly focusing on how this has been propagated in pop culture. This year, for fun, I have decided to be a little bit more creative than resorting to my usual trick of showing the trailer for Lawnmower Man or Ready Player One – I’ve made a quick mashup of the two, which I think show quite nicely how the underlying narratives of the ‘virtual’ somehow counterposed to the ‘real’ but also in some way ‘crossing over’ is an enduring theme.

The other enduring theme here is that the forms of gameplay drawn upon are characterised as highly masculine (and normatively heterosexual – no queering of the digital here, sadly), which is something I will try to also blog about sometime…

Other film examples might include:

Bernard Stiegler: “Rethinking an industrial policy in the era of the Anthropocene and automation”? [translated]

A young man standing in a cloud of yellow smoke

I recently came across an edited interview with Bernard Stiegler published on the website of Philosophie Magazine (17/12/18) [a] in which Stiegler ties together a very brief reading of the ‘yellow vests’ phenomena with the experiments he has been leading in the creation of an ‘economy of contribution’ – a more-or-less as a ethico-political-economic response to the ‘Anthropocene’. It is important to note here that for Stiegler not only means the current global cultural/environmental/social crisis embodied in a new ‘epoch’ but also significantly means the apparently rapid changes in employment/work largely due to technology. I have translated conversations with Stiegler about this topic before and these might be helpful in fleshing out the argument translated below, especially:

Here, in a similar vein to the discussion of previous periods of civil unrest in France (see in particular the books: The Decadence of Industrial Democracy, Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals and The Lost Spirit of Capitalism) Stiegler diagnoses a form of immiseration that comes from a loss of capacities that needs to be addressed through a form of therapeutic response. The ‘yellow vests’ movements are a symptom of a broader cultural-environmental-social ‘entropy’ that is ‘The Anthropocene’ needs to be addressed through a re-imagined industrial policy – to engage in what he terms a form of ‘negentropy’. having said all of this, what is important perhaps about this brief interview is that it locates pragmatic action by talking through what Stiegler and colleagues are doing in the Plaine Commune experiments (for more information follow the links above).

As I have previously observed, I still find it curious that underlying the apparent radicalism of re-thinking industrial strategy, acting together towards (political) therapeutic ends, is a strange sort of unflinching (dare-I-say even conservative) faith in the state and institutions. In particular, the model for the central strategy of ‘contributory income’ is the intermittent entertainment policy of the French government for subsidising freelance and somewhat precarious forms of work in the ‘creative industries’. I’m not criticising this, I think it merits greater discussion – not least because it is being trialed in Seine-Saint-Denis – but there’s something curious about this rather measured scheme being central to the strategy, given the almost apocalyptic and incredibly urgent tone of books like The Neganthropocene and Age of Disruption.

ADD. 24/01/19. I think I probably missed a final step to the thought expressed in the paragraph above: while the scheme for a ‘contributory income’ (based upon the intermittent scheme) currently underway in Plaine Commune is perhaps limited, and while the idea of such an income is, in-itself not especially ‘revolutionary’, perhaps I/we should see this as the beginning of a reorientation – the instigation of a different/new therapeutic ‘tendency’, in Steigler’s terminology – away from a competitive individualised economic rationale towards a collective means of flourishing together, whilst also acknowledging that we need to take some form of collective responsibility. In that vein, as others have pointed out, Stiegler’s ‘activist’ thought/activities take on a particular ethical/moral stance (in this way I have some sympathy with Alexander Galloway calling Stiegler a ‘moral philosopher’).

As usual I have included in square brackets original French, where I’m unsure of the translation, or clarifications. I have also maintained, in the Conversation piece, all of the original francophone hyperlinks unless there is a clear anglophone alternative.

I welcome comments or corrections!

Notes

a. The interview appears in a section entitled Gilets Jaune, et maintenant– something like ‘Yellow vests, now what?’

Bernard Stiegler: “Rethinking an industrial policy in the era of the Anthropocene and automation”

For this thinker of technics, the “yellow vests” movement highlights the desperate need for a new policy that would value work rather than employment. Among his proposals is the widening of the government scheme for irregular workers in the creative sector to everyone.

I was struck by the rapid evolution of the “yellow vests” movement, by the way it was presented and in which it was perceived. In the beginning, occupations of roundabouts [and crossroads] were reminiscent of the Tea Party phenomenon in the United States, which paved the way for Donald Trump’s election, and of Sarah Palin’s astonishing statement: “I like the smell of exhaust emissions!”However, despite the presence of the “ultra-right” which is of course very dangerous, the rise of this movement has evolved positively – and very unexpectedly. Compared with the “protest” scene, well-known in France for decades, the “yellow vests” are obviously a very singular and very interesting event, beyond its extreme ambiguities. Amongst the demands made by these leaderless demonstrators, the proposal to create a deliberative assembly for ecological transition is particularly illustrative of what fundamentally new emerging from this movement. This is confirmed by the encouraging sign, which must be interpreted without being under any illusions: the protest and climate march at a junction, in Bordeaux, on the 8th of December.

When we listen to the “yellow vests”, we hear the voices of people who are a bit lost, often living in unbearable conditions but with the virtue of expressing and highlighting our contemporary society’s limits and immense contradictions. In the face of this, the Macron government seems unable to take the measure of the problems being raised. I fear that the measures announced by the President on the 11th of December resolve nothing and fix in place the movement for the longer term, precisely because it expresses – at least symptomatically – the collective awareness of the contemporary crisis. The political horizon throughout Europe is not at all pleasant: the extreme right will probably draw the electoral benefits of this anger, while failing to answer the questions legitimately posed by “yellow vests” movement. This highlights the lack of a sense of history by President Macron and his ministers, and equally underlines the vanity of those who pretend to embody the left, who are just as incapable of making even the simplest statement at the height of what is the first great social crisis characterised by the Anthropocene. 

For me, a “man of the left”, the important question is what would be a leftist comprehensive industrial policy to take up the challenges of the Anthropocene and automation – which is to say, also addressing “Artificial Intelligence”. To confront this question is to attempt to overcome what is not thought in Marxian criticism, namely: entropy. All of the complex systems, both biologically and socially, are doomed to differential loss – of energy, biodiversity, interpretation of information – that leads to entropic chaos. The concept of negentropy, taken from the works of Erwin Schrödinger, refers to the ability of the living to postpone the loss of energy by differentiating organically, creating islands and niches locally installing a “différance” (as Derrida said) through which the future [l’avenir] is a bifurcation in an entropic becoming [devenir entropique] in which everything is indifferent. 

The fundamental point here is that, while entropy is observed at the macroscopic level, negentropy only occurs locally through energy conversion in all its forms – including libidinal energy. Freud was, with Bergson, the first to understand this radical change in point of view required by entropy. The “nationalist retreat” is a symptomatic expression of the entropic explosion provoked by the globalization [that is the] Anthropocene. This needs to be addressed by a new economic and industrial policy that systematically values negentropy. 

It is in response to such issues that the Institute of Research and Innovation and Ars Industrialis with Patrick Braouezec (President of the Plaine Commune public territorial establishment) are leading an experiment in Seine-Saint-Denis. In this district of 430,000 we are experimenting with putting in place a local economy of contribution, based upon a new macro-economy at the national level. Above all, this scheme values work rather than employment and aims to generalize the system of intermittent entertainment [added emphasis] [1]: The idea is to be able to guarantee people 70% of their most recent salary in the periods when they do not work, provided that within ten months they begin another freelance [intermittent] job. In the case of freelance [intermittent] performers, they must work for 507 hours, after which they have “replenished their right” to a contributory income. We are currently constructing workshops in the areas of child care, quality urban food, construction and urban trades, the conversion of combustion vehicles into clean vehicles, and so on. This experiment is supported by the Fondation de France, Orange, Dassault Systèmes, Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, Societe Generale, Afnic Foundation and Emmanuel Faber, General Manager of Danone. Every one of which are stakeholders in the search for a new conception of industrial economy fully mobilized in the fight against the Anthropocene and for the restoration of very-long-term economic solvency, based on investment, not speculation. It is by taking bold initiatives of this kind that we will truly respond to the “yellow vests”.

Notes

1. There is no direct translation for ‘intermittent entertainment’/ ‘intermittents du spectacle’ – this refers to state-subsidised freelance workers in the entertainments industry, an arrangement backed by long-standing legislation in France to support their native creative sectors.

Practising speculation and tech futures

Glitched AT&T 1990s advert

I’ve had a sort of moment of realisation this morning that a bunch of tabs I’ve had open, saved, reopened (etc etc) for the past few months are all more-or-less about doing speculative work around A.I., automation and suchlike.

This is interesting for me cos I wrote a PhD (and I am by no means the only one) about rationales for and forms of speculative practice in computing R&D (my fieldwork for this was, soberingly, now approximately ten years ago). It’s also interesting cos I have, in the last eight or so years, pitched for funding to do this sort of work and miserably failed three times.

I think what interests me most is the ways in which story telling is more-or-less the method. I’m not sure how good we are at this, as academics. There’s some good work that analyses speculative things, such as architects visualisations, but I’m not sure I’ve seen much work doing speculation that is not design-oriented. I am not seeking to criticise speculative design practices, I really admire that work, I just wonder if there is a way of de-centring the ‘design’ bit to engage in broader forms of ‘speculation’. I’m also not sure how one can tread the line between evoking particular kinds of scenario/ story (or dare I say imaginative geography) and affirming them. Likewise, I don’t think it is sufficient to simply refer to Black Mirror – it’s fun but it’s not the only way of doing speculation about technology (as afrofuturism demonstrates). I don’t think we want to merely replicate the sorts of ‘visioning’ practices of the likes of Microsoft, Samsung or Beko, not because they’re not interesting but because I’d like to think academics doing this kind of thing want to critically reflect on, not simply propose (or impose!), possibilities.  Playful examples that I think are successful include Superflux’s excellent “Uninvited Guests” – though again, this is perhaps more design-oriented: it’s more about the function in relation to the individual rather than the kinds of world that are necessary for those functions to work.

I do not claim any special insight here – I’m curious about speculative methods – they seem to have some analytical/ explanatory/ critical power but also that also seems to be rather hard to negotiate. In practice, I think you may have to be in the right context, and I’m not convinced academic geography is (without quite a bit of work, given particular kinds of disciplinary assumptions and proclivities – happy to be proven wrong!), and you may have to work with non-academic partners in a way I am not skilled in doing. Good examples, I think, are work like Anne’s Counting Sheep project, which is a canonical example of interesting and provocative speculative design. As I’ve said – I’m not so sure about where non-design-oriented work sits and how this is, or can be, done well. I’m interested in some of the attempts anyway, and here’s some examples, listed below.

UPDATE: Sam Hind shared this piece from Warwick concerning issue mapping techniques that allowed for speculative reflection on driverless cars:

Surfacing Social Aspects of Driverless Cars with Creative Methods, Noortje Marres, Rebecca Cain, Ana Gross, Lucy Kimbell and Arun Ulahannan – “The Warwick workshop explored the potential of creative social research methods – such as design research and debate mapping – to surface still hidden social dynamics around the operation of intelligent technologies in everyday environments, and to complement more established approaches to societal testing of these technologies.”

This made me also think of the speculative policy making practices that arose from “Open Policy” work at the British Cabinet Office’s PolicyLab, which I think involved folks from Strange Telemetry and Superflux.


Crafting stories of technology and progress: five  considerations, Cian O’Donavan & Johan Schot – From Technology Stories the website of the Society for the History of Technology comes this brief post that refers to the longer report from the International Panel on Social Progress concerning the fairly classic Science and Technology Studies issue of how to tell stories about “progress” without necessarily resorting to (unreflexive) forms of determinism. There are four ‘stories’ by several researchers linked from this article that address a number of issues:

Economic Science Fictions, edited by William Davies – I’m not really sure why the “science” is in the title but there we go… From the blurb: “Rooted in the sense that our current economic reality is no longer credible or viable, this collection treats our economy as a series of fictions and science fiction as a means of anticipating different economic futures.”

Designing the future, Justin Reynolds – reviews the above book on the New Socialist site, with some interesting commentary.

Future Perfect conference/event, coordinated by Data & Society – characterised as “speculative fiction in the public interest” this event was first run in 2017 as an invitation-only thing but had an open call in 2018. From the 2018 event blurb: “Future Perfect is an annual workshop and conference dedicated to different approaches to understanding, living in, and challenging dominant narratives of speculative fiction in a time where powerful actors in technology and politics treat the future like a foregone conclusion.”

Robot Futures, Illah Reza Nourbakhsh – “Future robots will have superhuman abilities in both the physical and digital realms. They will be embedded in our physical spaces, with the ability to go where we cannot, and will have minds of their own, thanks to artificial intelligence. In Robot Futures, the roboticist Illah Reza Nourbakhsh considers how we will share our world with these creatures, and how our society could change as it incorporates a race of stronger, smarter beings.”

Reblog> Idols of Silicon and Data

Deep Thought, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

From LM Sacasas:

Idols of Silicon and Data

In 2015, former Google and Uber engineer, Anthony Levandowski, founded a nonprofit called Way of the Future in order to develop an AI god and promote its worship. The mission statement reads as follows: “To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.”

A few loosely interconnected observations follow.

Read the full post.