Man vs. Nature: This Time, it's Robotics!

I want you to watch this video, for one reason, and one reason only.

No, not for the booming, 90s club techno soundtrack. For the part where the snake climbs up the guy's leg.

If this does not strike fear into your human's animal heart, I do not know what will.

We've reached a new uncanny here. The famous "uncanny valley" is an uncomfortable element of robotics, in that mirror stage, "I wonder if my pleasure bot is ethical" sort of way. This, on the other hand, is an uncanny of motion, an uncanny of physicality that is distinctly primary narcissism, "the womb which I held dear now rises against Me to strangle me with that lonely umbilical which was my only Love."

What? You want me to explain? Okay, check this, which you might have seen.

Why is it when we see these sorts of robots, the thing many of us automatically think of is being pursued by a pack of these robotic "animals", who hunt us down, clawing us to death with their efficient metal grippers, as their servos yap merrily, and without so much as a face to show us their merciless hate/desire/pack instinct? Other than them being sponsored by DARPA, that is?

Because they don't have human faces! Because they move like animals, and are so resolutely unhuman, that they move and appear like animals. This is not the technology, with which we have mastered the world. This is nature--the unknown, which will eventually kill us, no matter what weapon we use, or how fast we run.

The Terminator is killable. You can stab out his eye, or pull off his arm, crush his legs, and eventually burn his torso. Even the T-1000 is a fluid, a bodily essence that only has to be purged with fire. The car assembly robots of the last generation are human machines; they have arms, legs, fingers, heads, and most importantly, brains and nervous systems. But how do you kill something without a body, or can self-assemble and re-assemble, and even, perhaps, replicate?

A paranoia begins to rise in us. It is a fear that is constant, equivocal across the terrain, because these things do not even return to the dark of the woods when the sun comes up. They are as numerous and ubiquitous as the air we breath, as the molecules of which we are made. We are no longer afraid of animals--but we are afraid of germs.

This is a revolution in robot design. Because we are afraid of them, we are truly approaching a level of ubiquity when a robot can actually insinuate itself into an environment, and be part of it. They are no longer an assembly line, or a museum exhibit, but they are learning how to move and live in our nature.

I ranted before about the droids in Star Wars. These are possibly one of the greatest sci-fi blunders, and what makes Star Wars fall resolutely into fantasy for me, rather than actually science fiction. The issue: who the hell designs a humanoid robot?

Humans, and their bipedal form, have been designed over a long period of time, due to the fate/probability pathways, over which they have managed to survive. The bipedal form is not "good" for anything; it has merely been the way things have worked out (check out constructural law, if you've never had the pleasure) no different than the branching of a river delta. This has worked pretty well for us. But, we are designing robots to be better than us, not to imitate us. We want robots to do the tasks we are not designed for. So, for running a bipedal 100M dash we have athletes, for creating brilliant art work we have artists, but for chasing human beings like the little bits of fleshy prey that we are, we will build robots.

Look at C-3PO. In every battle scene, of which the droid is somehow constantly ending up in the midst, he is falling all over the place, because he is a flat-footed, heavy thing that cannot even bend his legs and arms correctly. R2D2 is a bit better--he looks like the water cooler/electronics controller that he is. Give him some wheels perhaps, but even these fail when he is expected to get across rough terrain.

In the three prequel films, there is a massive droid army, that everyone is supposed to cower before. Give me a break! What idiot droid designer decided to make a battle droid that is disabled if you knock its head off? What manager approved that design? What testing facility gave it the OK? And you have to arm them separately by handing it a blaster? Of which it can then be disarmed? How many facilities are needed to manufacture both of these things? Is this a government sponsored plan?

You want to know my design for the perfect battle droid? A metal sphere with blasters bristling out of every direction. A giant gun with legs. A guided missile. All of these make sense, because they are robots designed with their task in mind. It is pretty ridiculous that the Star Wars vehicles fire unguided rockets, and yet send hordes of robots into battle with arms thinner than their hand guns.

Don't even get me started on the fact that robots have "chain of command". That's human crap.

Naturally, what we design is limited by what we can imagine. We can imagine a hive, or a pack, or even the distributed chemical diffusion of bacteria, reacting in feedback loops to the secretions of their clones. All of these, as nature has shown, react amazingly well to certain environments, and certain tasks--often much better than reasoning, bipedal, heat engines like humans. These sorts of "animal" robots, robots designed to swim and crawl, but not giving a damn about Turing tests or displaying Honda emotions, are the future, just as the vast distribution of nature has been the past, for distinct, evolutionary reasons.

And just as naturally, these robots will cause fear in humans, the same way fear towards that which moves fast without legs, that which sees without eyes, and that which can think and decide without a brain has evolved to feel uncomfortable when we apprehend it. But, we can also overcome this fear, in the same way we've learned to harvest bacteria as protein synthesizers, install symbiotic species inside our own bodies, create harmonies with species like dogs, and even more importantly, introduce technology into our physiology. Can you even imagine running without shoes? How about eating without a stove? Speaking without a language? We'll incorporate nature into our technology, and with good purpose, just as we always have. Because at the root of it, all our technology is natural, from the ion pump to the lever.

But in the meantime, let's relish this horror, eh? What is nature, if not the primal hunting ground of our unconscious? Hey, our psychical technology needs exercise too!

I'm imagining an epic horror/sci-fi film, in which technology is hunting us. Our every day devices form into lethal killing machines. A chain of mating toasters pursues people down the street, climbing their still running legs to strangle them. The components of a car divide and let the passengers fall to the speeding asphalt below. Alone in a consumer electronics store, a character feels stalked by predators. This is no Transformers, no Gremlins, and no self-aware Cyberdyne network. The technology has been shrunk down to tiny components, which work together in an organic system. Until it evolves... until nature takes technology back. Scientists try and reprogram the devices to fight for us, but they can't discover what is making them turn against us. They look, but their devices conspire against them, and they cannot observe the nature of the problem. They can't look past the flat earth of the technological/nature divide, and they can't get around the heliocentrism of being human. Looking at nature from the human perspective, after all, is science's only power. There is no bug, no virus, and no communications link to sever. It is merely the course of evolution. Nature is killing us, just like it always has. But this time, nature has the weapons, because the weapons have become nature.


Staying Content with Forms

Reading this article, I had a little thought about some descriptive terms for media, so please bear with me, (or don't, it's a free Internet) while I flesh these out.

The article is discussing the difference between "content" and "experience" with media. e.g., Music consumers care more about the experience than the content, so they will buy iPod and iTunes, rather than simply downloading them for free, because this experience trumps both free torrents and big box music retailers.

This argument aside, (which characteristically, I believe to be a narrow interpretation of a wider ISSUE which I will now lay down the metaphysics upon), it got me thinking about two similar terms, which I have thrown around a bit: "content", and "form".

I'll cut to the chase, and say like all dualities, these are two elements of a compound. So, if you are quick on the dialectics, you could probably skip to the end. However, I'll probably do some loop-de-loops before then, so look out.

The effect of the deployment of "form" and "content" depend on where you draw the line. Basically, we are taking a material/ideal ruler, and laying it down somewhere, over top of another discussion. "Content" ends up being the more material aspects of a particular thing, while the "form" is more ideal. You can pick your own example. This is a good differentiation to make, useful for many things, not the least of which is splitting between the specific and the general. Within the general form of poetry, we find many specific instances of content, which might vary, but still fall under the same taxonomy. And because this is a taxonomy, we can move our duality-rubric around, deciding that two examples of poetry have the same poetic content, while being under the same form of writing or linguistic expression. It's all relative, of course. "Content", as a material classification of the specific, tends to be different than other similarly defined content, whereas "forms" unite various content by their similarities. And this extends up and down micro/macrocosms in various directions, overlapping and subsuming previous distinctions, as we need to. After all, "form/content" are only words, and they must work for us. As long as they work, who cares?

But when we're trying to understand media, of which words are only one form of "content" (heh heh), we should probably be a bit more delicate. Especially if we are attempting to predict the future of a particular medium, and its associated technology. Calling something an exemplary form (or "experience") does not necessary speak for itself. Different people will privilege content over form, or form over content, in various instances, depending on what they are referring to by each. It's the writing that matters; no, its the technology; no, it's the delivery; no, its media form itself; etc.

If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you will probably have noticed that I tend to deploy the "material" aspects of a particular situation, over the "ideal". This is because I read a bunch of books by this guy with a beard one time, and it has kind of stuck as a habit. However, if you really follow what I'm trying to say, (if I am not totally opaque and obtuse), you will notice that normally I am rounding upr aspects of what be called "ideal", in order to point out that it is actually more effective when they are considered part of the "material". I am shifting the taxonomy, playing my own little word game, but for this reason: "ideals", "genera", and "forms" are often used as givens, or unchangeable elements of a situation; whereas "materials", "species", and "content" are seen as mutable, able to be manipulated, and at various levels of accessibility and provenance--also known as available through PRAXIS (to use another of those words lodged in my brain).

My point is, we should not honor boundaries of Form, simply because we have identified them as such. Even the most dogmatic of beliefs are usable as a material to be built upon, and tools to be deployed to improve our praxis. The evolution of the word praxis is exemplary; like many philosophical terms, it has been re-appropriated from its original, Platonic and Aristotelian uses, to more, ahem, material forms. (Riddle me that.)

Anyway, back to media. When we think of content, as opposed to form, we might very well think of music or literature, opposed to iPods or Kindles. And yes, it would seem that the form is more important to the user's experience than the content. If you have a good technological form, you can move units of content.

But, we could also pose it this way: think of, as content opposed to form, sound waves or words opposed to genres of music or literature. If you have a good genre, can you move crap words to the consumer? Sometimes yes, but not always. You can't just put a heavy bass line over some shitty hook, and then sell mp3s of it. I'm giving people with bad taste the benefit of the doubt, thinking of them more as "ill-informed" than really liking crap music. I don't think this is going out on a limb--if you look at the demographics of people who buy "bad" music, they are often those whom, for whatever reason, have not had a chance to be exposed to anything better. But I think this is moving away from the point--which is, you must have some content that is, experienceable (regardless of merit) before you can sell anything to anyone. Even if its vampire fiction or club bass, someone has to like the content before they're willing to buy anything. This is a lesson the media industry has yet to take seriously.

Let's move in another direction. To oppose "content" to "form", let's oppose iPod to Digital Media Player. Ah ha--now it seems that it is not the form which really prevails, but the specific instance of that form. Now, I'm aware the article I was reading talked about "experience", not "form", to quote exactly. But they are deploying "experience" as both content and form, depending on what aspect of it they are referring to. It is form, in the sense that it is a digital media player, but it is content in the sense that it is THE iPod.

This brings us to an important point, which might make it a bit clearer how they are using both content and form: commodification is the unification of content with form. The material becomes the ideal, and vice versa. It is not just any media player, it is The Ideal music player, though it is still very much only a music player. Any IT object is not only what it is, but the ideal of that classification. It might function very well as what it is, or not at all. But it must be both material and ideal, content and form, for it to be a commodity.

Apple succeeded in this regard, but a commodity is nothing new. However, the delusion that commodity-status is necessary to move units is new. This is the erroneous belief of the publishing industry, which is desperately searching for its "iPod moment"; they think that when the content of publishing can be unified in form, suddenly everyone will want them, and they can sell Primo-Golden-Hyper-Books, or whatever. Making a commodity isn't going to save any industry, though it might generate sales in the short term. Some books still sell lots of copies, because they are commodified. But a single commodity is not an industry. You must continue to refine and produce new content in addition to interacting with the formal aspects of the medium, if you want to move units. Nobody will buy simply The Idea of anything, any more than they will buy a bunch of words tossed in a heap.

For evidence of this, look at an iPod now. It's a completely different device than the original, crappy LCD, click-wheel crap. It plays games now! It has a compass, a telephone. It's a goddamn video camera/DVR/baby monitor! The fact that it can also be an end-device for digital music is now entirely incidental. The content of the thing, in terms of its technology and functions, have far exceeded the form it was supposed to maintain.

Technology is content itself. Technology is a medium. The Internet is Language. The fact that content now let's use view other content, by nature of their combined content is interesting, but not a revolution in form. Once reading and writing was also a unique form, but it doesn't mean that linguistic communication was new. You can call it HTML if you want, or mp3, or even YouTube: it is all language. It is a language which enables the expression of other languages. Code is both a form and a content. It all depends on what you want to manipulate. If you want to write English language books, you probably see English words as content, and the book as the form. If you want to sell consumer electronics, you probably look at mini-processors and touch-screens as the content, and slick, thin form-factors and UI as the form. If you want to distribute literature to many people who want to read it, you probably should look at quality literature as the form, to which acceptable content-networks are applied. The genera of form can help you think about the species of content, but in the end, the generic and the specific are merely ways of thinking about meaning.

Which brings me to a last, elusive point, which I will not fully explain. Because content and form are really interchangeable depending on your conscious point of view (a coordination of content and form itself), neither are material in the sense that they cannot be transmuted into an ideal perception of material (what we call specific objects, as opposed to just things). If you really want to access the material roots of both content and form, you will have to go after something on which it is much more difficult to maintain a metaphysical handle: the human "expression" of form and content, and both the production and the consumption of this expression. Expression is found in both content and form, and controls the interaction between the two categories in our mind. It is closer to Kant's Transcendental Ideal, but between you and me, we might just say it is the force flowing through the pipes, no matter what sort of liquid they contain, nor where they might take it.

[For further reading, by a pair of dudes who grip it way better than I do, you might want to check out Deleuze and Guattari's essay on form, content, and expression in A Thousand Plateaus. It might be, "A Geology of Morals", but I can't remember right now. I'll check when I have the book in front of me.]

[Also, it should go without saying (though I'm saying it) that this argument about the form and content of material in space, also applies to Time. Say wha? Never mind! Another time then.]


Auto-Tune Historicization

I know, I spend a lot of time yelling about things and what I think they mean.

This, I don't have any idea what it is or what it means. But I hope in ten years from now, when I think back to 2009, most of what I can remember looks a lot like this.

Better yet, this needs to be preserved in an uncorruptable medium, so when archeologists dig up this strange, warped period of history, this is all they can find. I think it pretty much gives them everything they'd need to know.

Elektronika, Ausgezeichnet!

This was supposed to be a follow-up to my post on David Borden and sci-fi synth aesthetic, but it got lost in the fog. Anyway, more retro-futurism for you.

My last post [sic] was very much about the music of David Borden specifically, because of its counterpoint technique. However, another group that certainly gets the aesthetic is Kraftwerk, although the correspondence to SF cinema is not quite the same. Kraftwerk works more in a niche of politics and history, which is interesting in its own right. The video for "Trans-Europe Express" plays like a newsreel, not a techno-fantasy. Techno-critique, perhaps.

Anyway, here are some fun videos. Synth, away!

Synth with animation probably deserves a close look. Fantastic Planet, and that ilk, for sure. (See part 2 here.)

I think Apple should plan their keynote product releases more along these lines.

It is important to have a useful and efficient work area


Weaning Production Off Of Bosses

Here are the outlines of a presentation given entitled, "Artisanal Retro-Futurism and Team-Scale Anarcho-Syndicalism".

Wow! That's the tag list for my perfect blog post!

K, but besides that, it is an interesting little bunch of tidbits about promoting the ideals of anarcho-syndicalism in an office workplace. I don't really understand what the reference to retro-futurism is, because the full presentation is not available, and I haven't read Infinite in All Directions, which I take this element of the presentation to heavily relate to.

Nevertheless, I find this quite interesting, because you rarely hear those lovely words, "anarcho-syndicalism" brought up in appreciative context by anyone with an actual job. Of course, anarcho-syndicalism could itself be a retro-futurism, or just another utopian scheme, if you choose to view it that way.

However, being the good atemporalist I try to be, I think it is important to realize that despite the plodding narrative of history's victors, there are many things that are no longer done, but are still relevant. Furthermore, history has a way of surprising us. There have been a few factory takeovers in this economic recession already. Why not some more? Don't want the federal government taking over your bank? Why don't you do it? Funny how despite the death of organized labor, labor can still... well, organize.

It's kind of a nice component to the lean production material I've been reading lately. In all of it there are some small homages to the workers, mostly talking about the importance of them being on board for lean production changes, and some small murmurs about profit sharing as an incentive to do so.

But of course I, who wears the ol' anarchist hat as well as my metaphysical time-travel hat (if my head wasn't so damn big I could never fit them all on), reads lean production from the bottom-up approach. You know what could be easily cut out of most production processes? Management. All office-based cartoons and characatures aside, there are few production environments that could not be managed by the people actually working, if these workers took the responsibility upon themselves. Of course, responsibility is the thing we all try and escape at work. But this is why anarcho-syndicalism flips all of this around. You don't need a union representative to organize. You do it every day. So instead of just shrugging your shoulders when the boss comes round, messing stuff up, why not boot him/her out? You don't have to do it literally. Rather than conform to the crappy break schedule, why not make your own schedule with your fellow workers, one that actually works, and then say "this is the way its going to be." You don't have to strike. You don't have to threaten. You just take the responsibility back for yourself, and then let management enjoy the results. First the break schedule. Then the training schedule. Then the work schedule. Then the production schedule. One step at a time, and you'll be your own boss.

And then, when the boss is staying home every day, reaping the benefits of your labor-run facility, you stop sending the checks, change the locks, and have a good, hard talk with the bank. It's easy to eliminate waste. You just isolate it from the production process, and production continues. Once the waste gets dusty, and all use for it is gone, you just take it out to the curb.


Now Is The Time To Establish Moon Bases!!!

So, I was preparing a long post about Sci-Fi and SF, and the future of literature, but it got way too long for a blog post, and I was dreading trying to find pictures for its entire, narrow length.

But luckily, that means it became a Brutalitarian article! Now there is only one picture at the top.

You can read about human capacity for the speculative, the death of form and plot, and the routing of busty Sci-Fi sidekicks by the forces of cyber-time here.

Also! There are two new short stories on Brute Press as well. Both are very short, and very speculative. One is about a piece of paper. That's it. Just a piece of paper. The other is a short piece of action/fantasy involving wetsuits, protazoan light sources, and sexy tentacles. Just for fun, and because I thought it up.

You can read "With Due Warrant" here.

You can read "Around Me, Dark Tentacles" here.

I'm finding my sci-fi-leaning work getting shorter and shorter. Largely in line with the arguments I put forward in the Brutalitarian essay: it seems difficult to advance a long SF plot without straying into territory that has been covered elsewhere, and by others. That's okay though. The short stuff is fun. Also, if you don't have to spend a long time figuring it out, you can write more of it, and more like a fun exercise or a break. And besides, who wants to read a long cephalopod romance/action/adventure novel?

I sure wouldn't. Nope.

You can read a few more author notes about each piece on the front page of Brute Press, if you're interested.


Feel the Vibe?

Speaking of Making with a purpose in mind, here is a perfect example. A bit spendy, perhaps--but this is the direction we should be thinking towards. Harnessing that "orgy of feelings" but for a good use: less battery waste.

Now you really can plug anything into a USB!


The Philip Glass Network

A blog I really dig is The Bomb Party. Good material, good commentary, and often much shorter and sweeter than my own tendency to ramble on.

I mention this because I recently found these two re-postable Philip Glass artifacts through the blog. I nerd out for anything with Glass' music in it, but these are particularly good.

The first is direct evidence that Sesame Street sought to reprogram children with gnostic wisdom, normally reserved for people stoned enough to have enjoyed Lawnmower Man.

The second is a clip from the film The Church, written by Dario Argento. This is probably my favorite part with Glass' music in it--the film tends to whip it out during the most bizarrely esoteric parts of the film, saving Emerson and Goblin for the more typical horror/thriller bits. You get a taste of both here.

I really love artists like Philip Glass for not only making great art, but managing to sneak it into possibly hundreds of sources, of which it would be nearly impossible to find all, unless you had access to his bank account. You find him everywhere, and it loops together this great network of awesomeness that can only be delved into by happenstance and serendipity.

The Heaven Makers

Coincidentally enough, because what is the Internet if not a maze of incidences that we are now about to deem "co-", Cory Doctorow published this interesting column for Locus online about Makers and the horizontal growth of technology, relevant to my last post.

Here's a lever pull for ya:

In the age of cheap facts, we now inhabit a world where knowing something is possible is practically the same as knowing how to do it.

This means that invention is now a lot more like collage than like discovery. Bruce Sterling's new Imaginary Inventions project is seeking to catalog the imaginary inventions of fiction, hucksters, failed entrepreneurs, and other imaginers. I sent him some excerpts from my forthcoming novel Makers (Tor, HarperCollins UK, Fall 2009), which concerns hardware hackers whose principle activity is thinking up stuff that would be cool, then googling to figure out how to build it, and Bruce replied,

There's hardly any engineering. Almost all of this is mash-up tinkering. It's like the Burroughs cut-up method applied to objects. These guys are assembling hardware in the same crowd-pleasing spaghetti at the wall approach that Web 2.0 web designers use in assembling features and applications.

That's exactly right. That's the plausible premise right there — spaghetti-at-the-wall hacking that assembles, rather than invents. It's not that every invention has been invented, but we sure have a lot of basic parts just hanging around, waiting to be configured. Pick up a $200 FPGA chip-toaster and you can burn your own microchips. Drag and drop some code-objects around and you can generate some software to run on it. None of this will be as efficient or effective as a bespoke solution, but it's all close enough for rock-n-roll.
From one of the lords of Democratized Technology himself y'all, and BoingBoing editor to boot.

The interesting part to me is that Cory is bringing up this article in the context of SF--he says, while back in the day the SF author had a lock on the sort of new/cool tech ideas that could be thrown out into the sphere and then later actually invented, these days the makers are the one's doing the speculation, and then the inventing/building right afterward if not at the same time.

In my last post I somewhat hinted at the negotiation between the ascetic ideal of technologists and those of writers. Scientists study the human facts of "anger, fear, voluptuousness, revenge, hope, triumph, despair, cruelty." But these emotions, the Nietzschean "pack of savage hounds," are detrimentally taken advantage of by the ascetic priest to further his own goals. Technologists, often just like these ascetic priests, utilize these emotions to further their own pursuits, via their clever devices that latch into our emotional fetishes rather than our actual needs (though, granted, with a certain amount of tangible benefit, much as religion has provided both the good and the bad.)

But writing, as an art form and a technology, is in a rare sort of middle ground as most of the arts are. It uses the emotional retinue as its material, but purportedly with a purpose. This purpose can be small or large, but mostly it is more complex than the generic "market cool" self-promotion which many techologists are after.

And of course, writing can also be worse. The power of writing is a demonic technology itself, causing humans to call it a crime, persecute its users, and control its material throughout its history. The democratization of writing is in this way little different from the democratization of technology; open-source and free speech go hand in hand, giving the masses the power of these powerful tools, for self-determination, self-discovery, and self-empowerment. Despite how prevelent writing and technology are, few are interested in analyzing the forces behind them, or how they might best be used.

I love the psychoanalytical model of treatment, and I try to replicate it as much as possible in my writing. Without delving into the dearth of clinical history, let's just outline it by saying:

-The clinical relationship between the patient and the analyst is one of power, and is therefore strictly controlled.

-Language (both spoken and with the body) is the clinical material, but it is not the entirety of the problem. It is only the tool for accessing the unconscious, where the real work must take place.

-The working-through of trauma is an ongoing process of repetition, and well, work; both members of the clinical partnership must be equally invested in the process; there may be multiple levels of trauma that are only uncovered as the analysis progresses.

And so on. There are many, many more important aspects of the clinic, but I think you can see where I'm going. There is an almost eccesiastical level of seriousness to the process--bordering the magical. My metaphor is chosen purposefully, because we see the origin of many people's distrust of psychoanalysis. It's like letting some priest of a religion only 100 years old go transubstantiating around in your memories and unconscious desires. Heresy! Almost as dangerous as writing, or, say, inventing gadgets.

But what is different between psychoanalysis and Maker/technologist culture, however, is what separates a White Mage from a televangelist/medium/new-age hippie. (Not that I actually believe any of these things exist in real life, of course.) Psychoanalysts, while perhaps having certain personality traits leading them to be the butt of Woody Allen jokes, do have an understanding of their power and a professional ethic. Makers, on the other hand, may sell kits and write Instructables, or merely make cool YouTube videos, or sell out their open-source buddies to VC capital. Other than the general free-vibe of the culture, there is no ethic whatsoever. And I'm not talking about a control structure--I'm talking about a professional ethic, taking the culture, the task, and its material effects seriously. You ever visit a "free-culture" house? Freegan/anarchist/etc? Sometimes they work great. But sometimes the void of "constraints" leads to chaos, or worse, to let autocratic and self-righteous personalities take over a supposedly "free" space.

And all this coming from the anarchist, anti-state, up-bloggers guy.

But anyway, back to SF.

I'm not aware of any professional SF ethics that have ever existed, but in some ways, it might have never needed them, because the authors had their own. I think of the golden age authors I know and love--Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Herbert, Blish, La Guin. When you read these guys (and gals), you know they have a plan. There is no void of "the point" here. There is plenty of the emotional orgy of human feelings (I'm mean, these guys are still selling novels, here) but there is always, and ultimately, a point of the book, even if it ambiguous or troublesome. They are speculating, and in the course of this we get cool tech. We also get some male heroes, constantly in the horrible state of searching for existential meaning while beautiful women through themselves at them. We get utopias, and we get paranoid delusions. And we get god-men, and secret agents, and cities flying through space. But while we are wide-eyed with wonder, we also get the point. And I often disagree with the point, especially when it comes to folks like Heinlein. But at least I can engage with it head-on, because the reading-writing relationship is almost clinical. I can mess around with my unconscious almost anywhere these days; but with these authors we get the whole clinical package, the emotional pieces and the ethic, and that package is the point of SF.

So I have to disagree with Cory. I don't think SF will be reduced to the point where it is completely crowd-sourced, and flying along the nape of the technologist's flat earth. The more technologically crazed the world is, the higher SF is going to have to fly to be able to maintain coherence on its "point". If your telecommunicator badges are being outdated every six months, it's time to think of plot lines that will not succumb. Otherwise, the point get's lost, and you'd really be better off reading a tech blog. I would imagine we see less tech in SF. Steve Jobs and his ilk are the gadget swingers now--the SF authors of the near future will be known for other things.

And while I take Bruce's comment out of context, I think it is a good description of what would happen if SF falls into the gears of the technologists. "These guys are assembling hardware in the same crowd-pleasing spaghetti at the wall approach that Web 2.0 web designers use in assembling features and applications." He's talking about the Makers--but the point is about the ethic, and applies to writers as well. "Crowd-pleasing", "spaghetti", "Web 2.0". Do you really want the future of SF to look like a MySpace clique? How about the future of technology? There is no plan, other than what feels good, looks good, is cheap, is possible, and will generate some hits on the blog. Most technologists are designing memes, not materials. In writing, they call this flash-fiction. Cut out all of the contextual work, the characters, and just write something quick. Wanna see a squid get shot with a steam-punk turbolaser? Bam. You got it. It's similar to fan-fiction, the remake, and the sequel. Let someone else do the hard part and develop the point. Now all you have to do is say, "Hmm, what do I want my action figures to do today? Sexually explicit robot submarine chase? Fall over some CG waterfalls? Done and done." There's no point anymore, except tickling the brain's emotional orifice.

"Close enough for rock and roll", but aren't most of those rock and roll guys dead or suing to try and up the millions they receive on DRM-encrusted media bits?

I envy the well-read writers as much as I do the guys and gals fabricating circuit-bent roller skates and flamethrower chopper bikes in their garage, and wish I had some cool output from my own hobbies. But the further folks get into these techs, the more they are going to have to think about what the "point" is. Mainstream industry (both publishing and tech goods, and even infrastructure) clearly haven't gotten to it. Will the "democratizing" forces? Or by the time that Makers are the only technology left, will it be laisse-faire free for all?


Technology and Its Discontents

A little reinterpretation of Nietzsche for the long weekend:

"The means employed by the ascetic priest that we have discovered up to now--the general muting of the feeling of life, mechanical activity, the petty pleasure, above all "love of one' neighbor," herd organization, the awakening of the communal feeling of power through which the individual's discontent with himself is drowned in his pleasure in the prosperity of the community--these are, by modern standards, his innocent means in the struggle with displeasure; let us now turn to the more interesting means, the "guilty" ones. They all involve one thing: some kind of orgy of feeling--employed as the most effective means of deadening dull, paralyzing, protracted pain; hence priestly inventiveness in thinking through this single question--"how can one produce an orgy of feeling?"--has been virtually inexhaustible."

"Fundamentally, every great affect has this power, provided it explodes suddenly: anger, fear, voluptuousness, revenge, hope, triumph, despair, cruelty; and the ascetic priest has indeed pressed into his service indiscriminately the whole pack of savage hounds in man and let loose now this one and now that, always with the same end in view: to awaken in men from their slow melancholy, to hunt away, if only for a time, their dull pain and lingering misery, and always under cover of a religious interpretation and "justification". Every such orgy of feel has to be paid for afterward, that goes without saying--it must make the sick sicker; and that is why this kind of cure for pain is, by modern standards, "guilty." Yet, to be fair, one must insist all the more that it was employed with a good conscience, that the ascetic priest prescribed it in the profoundest faith in its utility, indeed indispensability--and even that he was often almost shattered by the misery he had caused..."

"The ascetic ideal has a goal--this goal is so universal that all the other interests of human existence seem, when compared with it, petty and narrow; it interprets epochs, nations, and men inexorably with a view to this one goal; it permits no other interpretation, no other goal; it rejects, denies, affirms, and sanctions solely from the point of view of its interpretation (and has their ever been a system of interpretation more thoroughly thought through?) [...] Where is the match of this closed system of will, goal and interpretation? Why has it not found its match?--Where is the other "one goal"?
But they tell me it is not lacking, it has not merely waged a long and successful fight against this ideal, it has already conquered this ideal in all important respects: all of modern is supposed to bear witness to that--modern science which, as a genuine philosophy of reality, clearly believes in itself alone, clearly possesses the courage for itself and the will to itself, and has up to now serviced well enough without God, the beyond, and the virtues of denial. Such noisy agitators' chatter, however, does not impress me: these trumpeters of reality are bad musicians, their voices obviously do not come from the depths, the abyss of the scientific conscience does not speak through them--for today the scientific conscience is an abyss--the word "science" in the mouths of such trumpeters is simply an indecency, an abuse, and a piece of impudence. The truth is precisely the opposite of what is asserted here: science today has absolutely no belief in itself, let alone an ideal above it--and where it still inspries passion, love, ardor, and suffering at all, it is not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather the latest and noblest form of it. Does that sound strange to you?
Today there are plenty of modest and worthy laborers among scholars, too, who are happy in their little nooks; and because they are happy there, they sometimes demand rather immodestly that one ought to be content with things today, generally--especially in the domain of science, where so much that is useful femains to be done. I am not denying that; the last thing I want is to destroy the pleasure these honest workers take in their craft: for I approve of their work. But that one works rigorously in the sciences and that there are contented workers certainly does not prove that science as a whole possesses a goal, a will, an ideal, or the passion of a great faith. The opposite is the case, to repeat: where it is not the latest expression of the ascetic ideal--and the exceptions are too rare, noble, and atypical to refute the general proposition--science today is a hiding place for every kind of discontent, disbelief, gnawing worm, despectio sui. bad conscience--it is the unrest of the lack of ideals, the suffering from the lack of any great love, the discontent in the face of involuntary contentment.
Oh, what does science not conceal today! How much, at any rate, is it meant to conceal! The proficiency of our finest scholars, their headless industry, their heads smoking day and night, their very craftsmanship--how often the real meaning of all this lies in the desire to keep something hidden from oneself! Science as a means of self-narcosis: do you have experience of that?

--On the Genealogy of Morals, third essay
Like Nietzsche or hate him, the great thing about him is that his words are written in such a polemic style as to be timeless. I'm no Jungian, but there definitely seem to be repeating aspects of culture, especially with such concepts left over from previous centuries we haven't fully dealt with.

So when the man rants against the "ascetic ideal", a morality of guilt and debt encompassing the span of human emotions and violences in society, I of course read him as speaking about Christianity (still a problem), but also of Capitalism, Christianity's second coming. If "orgy of feeling" doesn't find its expression in our culture of rampant consumerism, then I must be looking at a different mall that you. And as for its expression as an overarching ideal, wiping other interpretations clean off the map, one need look no further than its continual reign in the shadow of its recent overarching failure of exuberance. I can accept the facts of history, but clearly the "free market" is a hopeless excuse for a lack of thinking.

But the "scholars of science" really spoke to me in the last section I quoted. Not in terms of scientists, who were the erstwhile champions of reason in half-hearted handholding with Christian morals during the 19th century. These folks have, amazingly, really come around. I think it has something to do with the last eight years. The onslaught of abuse by the ruling powers in this country against science and learning as a whole let scientists finally shrug off their "culture war"detractors, not so much refute post-modernism as eagerly conscript it, and turn around to fight against its true enemies, and promote actual, useful learning. We're facing some pretty harsh trials on the natural science front, and for a good eight years, the scholars had to learn to stand up for themselves. The scientist is no longer the patsy of the science-industrial complex, and now the hero of mankind against the ignorant tyrants. I think they've done admirably, all things considered. They held their ground, and now seem to be preparing to be humanity's only hope. Whether they succeed is another question--but I do believe they are finding a good motivation within themselves. As the idiot anti-choicers and the creationists dash their own brains out upon the infinite progress of history, science steps over their fallen corpses with grace.

But there is a set rising to take the place of science--to triumph the ascetic ideals within their own head music, tooting their own horns in obliviousness to the motions of traffic around them.

Who are these noisy, agitating chatterers? The newest and noblest form of the ascetic ideal? The technologists.

I give the same caveat as the philosopher: far be it from me to disparage the happy craftsperson, hard at work. I do approve of their products--in certain ways. But yet, while science has perhaps found its true calling, to keep us from asphixiating ourselves off the planet, the technologists are tinkering, talking, and more often than not thinking very highly of themselves.

We see some benefits, and to argue against the existence of positive technology is just to be ignorant. It is lovely that our gardens are starting to tend themselves, that we can twitter composting recipes across the planet, and that our human-powered transportation processes waste oil into biofuel while we ride. But what is the goal here? The majority of the Instructables, the Maker projects, and other DIY, open-source, crowd-sourced, personal-tech, haker-savvy projects are somehow linkable to greeness, sustainability, and some flavor of democracy. But to what goal? They are mostly parlor tricks, or bragging rights, or homages to the very technologies they claim to be advancing a "cause" against.

I'm already feeling guilty for opening a line of complaint against these folks, who are doing their best to refute capitalism with the tools they have. Surely there can't be anything wrong with simple creativity. It's a technological arm of artistic expression, right? If not purely harmless, it has to be a good thing.

And it is. Like I said, I could never tell a worker that s/he is wrong for working on what s/he chooses. And yet, the ascetic ideal rears its ugly head.

Again, I slap myself as I open my mouth, but a create example of the ascetic ideal is the TED conferences. Here is a yearly gathering of very smart people, getting together to share ideas and promote feelings of generally making the world a better place. I am currently listening to all of the TED talks, via their audio podcast, and I love them. I've learned about some great stuff, and some of it is really inspiring.

But you know what is also a feed for learning about new, inspiring work? Gizmodo. Can you believe they made a TV that big, that light, that crystal clear? How about the new handheld device that will change the world? Did you hear about the new wireless service that will revolutionize how you get information?

Technology is interesting, it's ex'citing, and its moving very rapidly, spurred on by some really creative and talented people. And, it is, first and foremost, a business. Technology is capitalism. This is an unavoidable fact.

Let's just skip the arguments about consumer culture, and greenwashing, and carbon footprints. We know how technology affects these. Let's talk about the culture and its proponents, the technologists.

Every person who takes the stage at TED is there to promote something. What they are promoting maybe be as overtly capitalist as a Hollywood movie, or a VC startup. Or, it could be as benign as an art exhibit about climate change, or as positively helpful as a new mapping software to help aid organizations. But yet it is a something, a particular technological object promoted for its abilities, and a fetish as a datapoint of personal ingenuity. "Hi, I'm ___, and I'm here to tell you about my amazing invention." Or take the Maker culture. "Hi, I'm ____, and I'm here to show you how I warped this technology into something new." This is how new technologies come about, but it also how the ascetic ideal is renewed, and perpetuated.

The words I am looking at are "new", "invention", "hack", "creative solution", and "technology". All of these things are objects, no different in their literal objectivity from a piece of rock, or a rotting plant. Except, these things are meant to grab our attention, because of their specific, amazing quality of being on the cutting edge. "Hey! This is different! Look over here! Be an early adopter of this! Tweet this url to your friends! Buy one today! Make your own! Add your comments!" Technologists' tools may be the soldering bench, the drawing board, and the creative faculties of the mind, but their real domain is the orgy of feelings. They seek to excite you, draw you in, distract you, and in the end, sell you something (even if it is for free).

Technology is changing our world for the better. But you don't need a single bit of it. The only technology you need are molecules. Oxygen. Water. Proteins. Maybe some sunlight. This is not the domain of the technologist--this is the domain of the scientist. Twitter might revolutionize mass protest, but you know who is still computing your dietary needs? No, not an iPhone app. A scientist, working somewhere, not holding press conferences, and not networking for VC at a light and sound show in California.

Who traffics in "anger, fear, voluptuousness, revenge, hope, triumph, despair, cruelty"? Psychologists might study these things. But technologists market them. (I like to think that although writers traffic in these as well, they could do so with the psychoanalytic skill of a scientist... but perhaps this is too much wishful thinking). A handheld device triumphs you over your world, and others. An open-source hack is your revenge on the proprietary marketers. Your biodiesel car is your bandaid against the fear of climate change, and your live-tweet of the election is your libidinal investment in hope. The real material which technology interfaces with is not the world in which we live, but our emotions. Technology is not a mere tool or a thing, but it is a fetish, an idol, a signifier standing in for thousands of emotions we are channeling, thanks to the efforts of technology's proponents. A portable phone is now a tool, but a smart phone is TECHNOLOGY! Wikipedia is now simply a reference, but CitizenTube is a Democratizing Technology! A light bulb goes on and off, but a power-saving LED bulb built from repurposed film canisters is a Technological, Open-Source Hack!

Don't get me started on black hoodies with circuit boards sewn to them.

Look--technology is good. Experimentation is good. Open-source is great (when compared to proprietary copyrights, anyway). As the man said, these technological priests act with good conscience, and don't intend the harm in which they take part. The greatest lesson that Nietzsche teaches, which is the true timeless lesson, is that our biggest enemies are those closest to us, and those that lie within ourselves. It would be easy enough to rail against Christians, or Capitalists, or some other easily indentifiable enemy. But Nietzsche is not asking us to fight the Christians. He's showing us how to win our ongoing fight against that tyrannical priest within ourselves.

But the fact remains--we live in a world which is locked within an ascetic ideal. We live in a world which privileges pain, individual achievement, and glosses over the facts of reality with a debasing appeal to our lower instincts. We are distracted from our power to think clearly, and to look at the human species as a magnificent engine, by the ideals telling us our individual dramas are a sign of our own worth. We are encouraging ourselves to take our material things as the objects of our desire, to channel all of our efforts into mere products, and to attain the highest state of fetishistic engagement with these things, which is promoted not as the religion that it is, but as real love, and real desire.

When a social network develops that encourages its members to throw down their gadgets in the same wild abandon with which they will throw off their clothes and make love in the streets, when the Internet actually starts connecting peoples' body parts, rather than selling them porn for behind closed doors, and promoting opportunities for individualized, closeted alcoholic repression, and when we start hacking our bodies so that we can better express our desires, rather than to better sublimate them, then I will believe technology has become free from the fetters of the ascetic ideal, and found its true internal purpose as part of the pursuit of humanity. Until then, it's just a bigger and more HD TV.