All posts by Justin

Speculative techno-geographies: Hussites & Heliographs

(Excerpt from a piece published in The State, the UAE’s premier themed critical-spec-lit-cultural journal-thing. There may be another to follow, and this one might turn up again sometime in the future as an RPG campaign book, or the setting for some short fiction. Be warned.)

Hory Kutné, Commonwealth of God, 1519

Kuneticka Hora

(image by Marek Prokop, CC-A-NC)

Messianic Christianity, mine-ready steam pumps, and an early modern internet-of-lighthouses.

In 1270, a Bohemian merchant travelling in the Mongol Ilkhanate secures access to a collection of works by Al-Razi, a 10th-century Persian physician. Alongside treatises on medical ethics, pharmacy, and metaphysics, the documents include a method for creating mirrored surfaces by coating glass with a thin layer of molten silver. Upon the trader’s return home to Prague, copies of Al-Razi’s writings are appropriated by the ruling Premsylid dynasty. While the texts’ anatomical insights are studied by court healers and apothecaries, decorative mirrors are embraced by a fashion-hungry ruling class, who see the reflective baubles as a means of flaunting wealth and status.

Silver deposits are discovered in the monastery town of Hory Kutné in 1298. With the recent outbreak of ‘mirror madness’ still fresh in the minds of its rulers, the King of Bohemia takes control of the mine; silver is declared a royal monopoly. This will prove to be one of the richest silver operations in Europe. It produces—at its peak—as much as twenty tonnes of silver a year, pulling in labour from across central Europe, and stoking the fires of the Bohemian economy. As the combination of commodity and silvering technology spreads through the various strata of society, it reaches the newly-established Charles University in Prague.

Within the university’s gates, Al-Razi’s work is adopted—and adapted—by the Knights of Judith Bridge, a secretive group of scholars and natural philosophers. Over the next few years, they dedicate their energies to perfecting the technology, juggling an ever-shifting assemblage of candles, shutters and silvered lenses. Riddled with flaws, the cast-offs and aborted failures nonetheless colonise the walls and towers of the university. They provide a sprawling communication infrastructure: a localised network of signalling lanterns, embraced by students and professors alike.

These mighty strides in the science of optics coincide with a period of significant religious turmoil. Elsewhere in Europe, as many as three competing popes lay claim to the religious authority of the Western church; the Bohemian king continues to espouse a policy of strict neutrality. However, Jan Hus—a reformist priest and rector of Prague’s university—finds the space to condemn the strict structural hierarchies and temporal excess of the church. Hus and his confederates issue a manifesto calling for the provision of worship in the local vernacular, rather than Latin, and an end to clerical authority. While attracting accusations of heresy from the religious elite, these calls prove popular among the independent-minded Bohemian peasantry, who have come to bristle at the barefaced corruption of Rome.

With Bohemia’s ruling dynasty keen to find a conclusion to the spiritual strife, in 1415 Hus finally accedes to his lords’ request to help negotiate peace and church reform. He feels secure in their guarantee of his liberty. Upon his arrival in the imperial city of Konstanz, however, he is promptly accused of heresy and imprisoned. Refusing to recant his complaints, a conclave of attendees condemn Hus to execution by burning.

News of this betrayal sparks a popular insurrection against an already ill-regarded church authority, along with the Bohemian monarchy and the imperialism of the Holy Roman Empire. Priests are driven from their parishes, towns and villages are put to the torch, and in Prague, the burgomaster and governing council are thrown from the windows of the town hall by a crowd of self-declared ‘Hussites.’ With the support of sympathetic students and professors expelled from Charles University, Hussite forces erect and fortify a series of mirrored signalling towers. Hussite-controlled towns and cities across Bohemia—and later, Poland and Hungary—are brought into constant contact.

The combination of swift communication, highly-mobile fortifications and widespread popular support proves decisive. Agile and networked, Hussites forces rout two, then three crusades launched by the anti-Christ in Rome. At the same time, they are able to successfully suppress domestic resistance from papists and royalists, outbreaks of disease, and the malign influence of smugglers and war profiteers. In 1432, Hussite knights execute the remaining members of the Bohemian royal family during their flight across the Alps; in 1447, the flag of the red chalice is raised over Prague. This symbol signals the formal declaration of a Commonwealth of God. It will be a decentralised empire bound by messianic and mystical Christianity, an elective monarchy, and an increasingly sophisticated trunk network.

By 1519, Inner Bohemia has become the economic heartland of an empire which covers a third of Europe: it stretches from the wind-battered Baltic port of Králove to the rocky shores of the Adriatic. Hory Kutné, the Silver City, is among its most important settlements. As a centre of mines and markets, production and consumption unfold cheek-by-jowl. The city is rife with catacombs and exhausted mine shafts. Subsidence and landslides become accepted as an inevitable cost of doing business, with neither the means nor the political will to ensure the safety of workers and inhabitants.

Once every few years, at the discretion of a good-tempered pit-boss, there may be a large enough gap for a technological quick-fix. Born of a need to keep the silver mines free from flooding by groundwater, Hory Kutné becomes the birthplace of the first functional steam pumps. As a key element in the race to exploit ever-less-accessible silver deposits, these pumps kick start a secondary market for coal. By 1519, the coal-burning revolution is at a dizzying peak of overinflated expectations, with mine bosses using the new pumps to support complexes of ever-greater capacity. The full impact of coal smoke on the health and livelihood of the city’s inhabitants will not be felt for a decade yet. By the time the environmental crisis hits the cities, some of the worst smogs will require those venturing out to wear scarves soaked in vinegar across the face, while cities keep their signal towers lit as landmarks for wayward travellers.

Hory Kutné is also home to the Commonwealth ossuaries, a vast necropolis of churches, crypts and catacombs given over to the bones—primarily, the skulls—of the those martyred to the Hussite cause. At the interface of these ghoulish remains and the flashing gleams of the signalling towers, a singular bureaucracy has arisen; a teetering machinery of cowled clerks and officials spend their days chasing genealogical memoranda, heraldic records, and chits governing the movement of bodies—living and dead.

*dramatic chord*

‘Tracks through the haze': mobility futures and HS2

12.04.81 Kings Cross Class 254 HSTs
(CC-A-SA philstephenrichards)

Really enjoyed this futures-literate editorial on the UK’s plans for HS2, a high-speed rail connection intended to link Manchester and Leeds with London, and (via the Channel Tunnel) continental Europe, and one of the few pieces of capital infrastructure investment supported by the current government:

“In the 1980s, the challenge of the railways appeared to be the challenge of Dr Beeching – managing decline. But then came an unforeseen twist around the tracks, and passenger numbers steadily doubled. When the great slump caused purchases of everything else to fall away, ticket sales held up. The cry to move freight off the roads and on to rail once seemed hopelessly nostalgic but now big businesses such as Tesco are starting to act upon it. All this is good news. It makes more remote the noisy, congested and fumy future that lies down the road of too many cars. Strong demand for train travel also bodes well for Mr McLoughlin’s London-Birmingham-Manchester/Leeds expressway. For, as he explains, the name of the game is not just faster journeys but relieving capacity in the rest of the system, which should allow for all sorts of other improvements. The niggling caveat, however, is the proliferation of known unknowns.

The reasons for Britain’s unanticipated rail renaissance remain barely understood. On the sunniest scenario, the advent of laptops has simply made trains a more attractive way to get about, by breathing productive life back into once-dead travel time. If so, the fall in private vehicles in London recently recorded in the census could soon prefigure a wider decline from “peak car” use. But what if the next great technological wave does not require more train travel but instead enables many more of us to work from home? This is already feasible far more often than it is actually done, and as corporate culture catches up with things like Skype, fewer treks across the country may be required. If so, sinking £32bn into HS2 would soon seem a weird thing to do. Monday’s announcement was about links to Leeds and Manchester, but further uncertainties attach to claims of regenerating the regions. Speedier travel to the capital should bolster provincial businesses but could also lead London-based companies to judge they no longer need regional offices, and thereby worsen the metropolitan slant of UK plc.

All these uncertainties make it tricky for HS2 to justify all the funds involved in advance. The cautious thing to do would be to muddle through with a far cheaper incremental programme of improvements – a longer platform here, an extra bit of track there. But such crippling caution ignores the way bold transport policies can redraw the map. Think of east London, where the Docklands light railway, overground and Jubilee extensions combined to spur a boom that is resetting the centre of the capital’s gravity. And for all the vagueries about the dynamics between north and south, a better connected country ought to be a more efficient one. Even if HS2 can’t encourage business north, it should encourage commuters in that direction, thereby reducing London rents and easing Britain’s great imbalance through another means. Since the 1930s many regional policies have been tried and failed, and HS2 may not work out as intended either – but it will at least bequeath something valuable.”

Take-aways: change is non-linear, culture matters, uncertainty is rife, the state is (currently) the only entity large enough to make strategic capital investments, and infrastructure can generate positive market externalities — though it’s hard to recognize them in advance.

‘The Beeching Report’ by iLIKETRAINS — which, on reflection, should probably replace ‘The People’s Flag’ as the One Nation Labour anthem.

Système D

It’s been a breakneck sort of week, pivoting from one hashtagged context to the next, without any real time for decompression. Life continues as a series of bubbles, loosely coupled.

Informal Economy Symposium. A Barcelona caught between the tightening plates of austerity and an impersonal, technocratic EU; an architectural Rubik’s Cube stuffed with inebriated twentysomethings; cosmopolitan capital of a pre-figurative nation.

A barnstormer of an opening keynote by economic anthropologist Keith Hart, remediating his work on ‘the informalization of the world economy’ for a wide-eyed, modish audience of designers, edgeworkers and collapsitarians.

SVA lecturer and innovation strategist Richard Tyson was also extremely good value, upending the dominant mythos of globalization, which he recast in terms of de- and re-localization. Pirate stock markets, terrorism, asymmetric power, and all that jazz; classic ‘Outlaw Planet’.

Scott Smith did his thing, with a set of slides on ‘Big Informality’ (cf. ‘Big Science’) somehow managing to conjure images of a black market Large Hadron Collider, paid for in BTC, and held together with recycled girders, Shanzai know-how, and the animal spirits of capitalism and ritual sacrifice.

Went for dinner and drinks with a bunch of strangers, as the (unexpected) outcome of an umbrella-sharing optimisation strategy. Staccato conversations, good food, and an ease and presumed intimacy that took me entirely by surprise.

On the Saturday, Near Future Laboratory’s Fabien Girardin gave me a kick-ass tour of Barcelona – crisis aside, a city doing a pretty convincing impression of the urban landscape envisaged in Dan Hill’s ‘Street as Platform’ back in 2008.

This, in turn, was a strange mirroring of Emile Hooge‘s half-day introduction to Lyon, back in February; and architect Bobby Zylstra‘s equivalent for Chicago, in August. Certainly, there’s a hell of a lot to be said for being shown around a city by net-native, ethnographically-minded residents; especially those with a disciplinary base in innovation studies, architecture, and/or urbanism.

*takes photo of innocuous, but culturally-revealing street furniture*

Newly returned from Catalonia, and wrestling with a course module on firms and markets, the en-Nobelment of economist Alvin E. Roth led me to his 2007 paper on ‘repugnance’ as a constraint on markets. Representative quote:

‘When my colleagues and I have helped design markets and allocation procedures, we have often found that distaste for certain kinds of transactions can be a real constraint on markets and how they are designed, every bit as real as the constraints imposed by technology or by the requirements of incentives and efficiency. In this essay, I’ll first consider a wide range of examples, including slavery and indentured servitude, lending money for interest, price-gouging after disasters, selling pollution permits and life insurance, and dwarf tossing.’

An energy drink company helped an Austrian man skydive from space. Some American businessmen dumped a bunch of iron filings into the Pacific, for money, angering the United Nations. The European Union won a Nobel Peace Prize. My university advertised a position to ‘develop and maintain a flying [honeybee] robot’.

I met my secondary PhD supervisor, Prof. Andy Stirling, for the first time. He’s thoughtful, friendly, and has an analytical approach with meshes closely with my interests. Convenient, that.

Newsnight’s Paul Mason interviewed Spanish arch-sociologist Manuel Castells about the crisis, and what happens next. There’s a podcast. It’s really good.

On Tuesday, I met a friend from my time at Goldsmiths to lend a hand with his pitch for a science communication residency in Bristol. We talked about superhydrophobic logic gates.

The fine folks at Demos Helsinki calculated my material footprint, ahead of a pan-European internet workshop on sustainable lifestyles, as part of the European Union’s SPREAD 2050 project. I’m slightly more environmentally-friendly than the average Finn, but, as you can see, there’s still a long way to go.

(‘Système D‘)

State of the Author, Autumn 2012

After a summer in Iceland, the US, and West Bengal, I’m (finally) back on solid ground. There’s a lot going on, so I’m thinking it’s best to get it all down here, in writing, before I wander off, distracted by other things.

Said summer was a fantastic experience, kicking off with a couple of days in Reykjavik – where I got to catch up with information activist Smári McCarthy, and was, at one point, woken by this. I saw a woman leave a live starfish at the reception of the changing rooms at an artificial thermal beach. Lacking appropriate day/night signals, I accidentally went for a hike at 11.30pm. From Iceland, I flew onward to Boston-Cambridge, to brunch with and cat-sit for the ever-excellent Deb Chachra.

From Massachusetts, it was down to North Carolina, for five weeks as a teaching assistant at Duke, as part of their TIP Programme, drilling gifted teenagers – both American and international – in the ways of technology foresight, innovation, leadership, and project planning. During my time at Duke, I helped Scott Smith formulate a set of four scenarios for 2025, mentored a Chinese student working on the hard sell for a state-supported ‘internet-of-water-sensors,’ saw Neko Case in concert; experienced temperatures upward of 40°C, slept too little, worked too hard, and was (briefly) an item in a scavenger hunt.

Recovering from Duke, I spent few weeks knocking around North Carolina and DC, hanging out with friends and colleagues, before grabbing a cheap video camera and joining Hilary Dixon, my internet pen-pal of 2+ years, for a super-dense two-week road trip, hitting Asheville and the Appalachians, Washington DC, Detroit, and Chicago, interviewing a smorgasbord of interesting futures-y people for a no-budget video about US regional identity, community, attitudes and expectations regarding the future. At the time of writing, I’m waiting for the final dregs of footage to sync to a Dropbox account, from which Hilary and I will begin picking and slicing. Keeping most of the details hidden for now, but many thanks, again, to those who helped and participated, in whatever form. We owe you.

I parted ways with Hilary in Chicago. As she headed back to DC, I continued west, to a Portland, for the start of a singular gathering of the internet tribes. Though addled by sleep deprivation and time zone distortions, enjoyed hanging out with host Adam Rothstein and chatting with a heap of spiky and interesting attendees.

From Portland, I flew down to Los Angeles, then back across to London, repeating my airborne ritual of listening to Stone Roses on the in-flight entertainment system while oscillating in and out of consciousness. Spending one night at my parents’ house in Sussex, the following day saw me taking another flight, to Dubai, and, from there, on to recently post-Communist West Bengal.

I was in Kolkata for a series of scoping workshops ahead of a PhD at Sussex’s STEPS Centre, focusing on the lived, everyday experience of climate-linked uncertainty in urban India. With my research forming only a small part of a substantially bigger project taking in work at a number sites across India, this was an opportunity for Sussex’s project team to touch base with their regional research partners, lock in some core themes and research questions, and make sure everyone was on the same page. Two days hashing out specifics in the hotel were followed by two days in the Sundarbans, a tidal mangrove swamp home to tigers, fiddler crabs, and any number of subsistence farmers still recovering from the devastation of Cyclone Aila in 2009.

Being out in the field – however briefly and shallowly – and present for our team questioning entire groups of villagers about their experiences around climate, weather, politics and livelihood, was extraordinarily interesting. Ultimately, it gave me a bit more confidence around my capacity to stomach my own iteration of field research come 2014/15. It was also interesting to navigate the mix of state-subsidised mangrove plantings, tiny goats, satellite TV dishes, privately-sponsored water pipes, mobile phones, handicrafts, tiger-based ecotourism, and rice paddies.

Since returning to the UK, I’ve moved to a shared house in Fishersgate, just west of Hove, where suburban sprawl meets a smattering of business and light industry. Within flailing distance of our house, there’s a gas-burning power plant, an unexpectedly high density of rooftop photovoltaics, a surf shop, wind-battered palm trees, boarded-up pubs, and a fully-functioning port. I’ll be here for the next year, at least, studying for an MSc in Science & Technology Policy as a lead-in to the PhD. My first term looks like an stimulating, if dense, mix of heterodox economics and political sociology of science, and, though it’s still early days, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

Outside of the classroom, over the next few weeks, you’ll be able to find me at:

Further out, come February 2013, I’ve been invited to speak at Lift 13, in Geneva. I’ll be talking about 3D printing, as part of a session on noise, spam, and acceleration – particularly as linked to the diffusion of technological innovations. My first big-audience presentation is a faintly terrifying prospect, for sure, though it’ll be awesome to meet fellow presenter Venkatesh Rao in the flesh, catch up with futures stalwart Noah Raford, and touch base with the rest of the Lift crew.

In terms of inputs, I’ve been reading some short stories by Haruki Murakami, Jake Dunagan on designer governance, and picking at chunks of Rory Hyde’s Future Practice. While waiting for our house to be connected to the internet, I finally got around to reading SITRA’s Recipes for Systemic Change; and now that we’re back online, I’m keeping a close eye on Quartz News. I’m resisting impulse buying a heddle loom, after accidentally watching a TV programme on weaving; swallowing the jealousy incurred by the deluge of other peoples’ photos from this summer’s Unknown Fields expedition; and proselytizing on behalf of James Burke’s brain-meltingly awesome dConstruct talk, ‘Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll.’

In terms of outputs, I published a couple of deeply, deeply idiosyncratic counterfactual techno-geographical scenario sketches in the second volume of Emirati cultural journal The State, under the title “Chalice Flag, Hydroelectric Sublime.” I also have an uncharacteristically bombastic article in the September edition of Arc, ‘celebrating’ the Luddite bicentennial by taking a closer look at the peculiar ties between early-19th century machine-breaking, Alan Turing, and our very own economic crisis. Worth checking out, if I say so myself.

On foresight and innovation: Jugaad jiayóu!

“Action stations!” here at Pickard Towers.

Emerging, bleary-eyed, from the other side of the 2012 Duke TIP Futures Institute, and before throwing myself back into the fray for a second session, I wanted to take a moment to flag my co-instructor Scott Smith’s after-action report – laying out some of the scaffolding and topics, student project details, and what we, as instructional staff, are taking away from the experience.

One of the most significant thinks I took from our fortnight together was the emphasis on non-market and informal innovation, including a closer look at those activities that sneak under the radar, or emerge from the struggle and foment at the bottom of the pyramid. Ultimately, it’s all about the next billion(s).

Combine that with this trailer for Kickstartered book-turned-media-channel The Misfit Economy (2013) …

… newly-certified crazy person Tobias Revell‘s final-year Design Interactions project, ‘New Mumbai’ …

… a kick-ass talk from IBM Research’s Steve Daniels on innovation under conditions of scarcity …

… and the fact that I’m starting a PhD in Sustainability & Innovation in the autumn, as part of a project on climate-linked uncertainty in South Asia … and, well, things start to get interesting.

“Jugaad jiayóu!”

Jugaad jiayóu: a hybrid phrase, made by mashing Hindi and Mandarin together; a solid translation of which would be “refuel your bodged, faintly perilous custom vehicle!”

Now, I suspect this is an attitude to innovation (and development) that we’ll see more and more, particularly as power begins to shift from America and Europe to the BRICSAM nations.

Best set of tools for the 2010s? Direct eye contact, jazz hands, and a heap of electrical tape. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

photo by: Meanest Indian

Glitch Politics (Smith)

‘In 1982, we … could jam a screwdriver into the circuits because we faced no retribution. We could trip the computer and watch it fall, because it couldn’t respond in kind. Now, in 2012, we can be bullied and controlled. We awake to news of drones laying waste to those on our terror watchlist. We are virtually stripped naked at airport security. We are witness to car accidents, prostitution and murder on Google Earth. We are denied a loan because the formula says no. In short, the noose of technology has become tighter. We’re developing a grudge. And when we dislike, we mock. We photobomb the system. We parody. We use code to avoid the encoded.

Our current power politics are built on technology, which is why many clap with glee when masked jokesters hack corporate Web sites, when mustachioed avatars front takedowns of intelligence agencies, when former Russian spies do lad mag shoots and hackers get talk shows. We get a chance to see these tools of power corrupted against “the system.” Power structures 932, People 5. It’s an unfair fight, but we can sleep at night knowing the machine has a flaw, somewhere. Its vision is faulty, its logic not watertight. It wants us to be machine-readable, symmetric, processable. We laugh by wearing t-shirts with its own distorted machine graphics. We blast the glitchy, whomping distortions of its delicate audio circuitryWe use the physical against the digital. In 1983 we played tic-tac-toe against your mainframe. Now we loop images of your mistakes, alongside celebrity wardrobe malfunctions and kitten comedy. We know your secret formula.’

Scott Smith, ‘Glitched Out,’ 23/04/2012

photo by: lightwerk

Im/possibilities (Schlegel)

‘I am fascinated by possibilities. There’s nothing I like better than seeing what can be, than perhaps transitioning those possibilities into this world. In the past few years I have honed my ability to see possibilities (and a process to make them real). I can see around corners, juggle variables and play a metaphorical shell game with data, research & time extrapolations to create a cone of plausability, mine the possibilities in and around it (wildcards fall on the edge or outside of them) and identify (sometimes multiple based on your valueset/variables) preferred futures.’

— heathervescent, ‘Reflections on Preferred Futures, Possibilities & Impossibilities

[reading list] Filter Bubbles, Old and New

Stone Foam
Creative Commons License photo credit: Orin Zebest

Been dipping in and out of Eli Parisier’s The Filter Bubble (2011), as part of a longer piece I’m working on. Had some rough thoughts and jottings I wanted throw out into the darkness:

  • ‘Personalized search for everyone’ (Google’s stated mission, for a time)
  • The filter bubble provides ‘a unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (Parisier, 2011: 9)
  • ‘When the technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens.’ (Parisier, 2011: 13)
Air conditioning as a mark of privilege in India and China providing a sterile environment, freedom from pollutants. Mary Douglas’ seminal work Purity and Danger (1966). Favela clearances, ethnic cleansing, right-wing nationalism. Gated communities. Rhetorics of multiculturalism (‘melting pot’, ‘stir fry’) and contagion. Benedict Andersson’s Imagined Communities (1983), in which he argues that nationalism is basically an accretion of shared in-jokes.
  • Pillarisation (verzuiling) — ‘a term used to describe the politico-denominational segregation of Dutch and Belgian society …  “vertically” divided into several segments or “pillars” (zuilen) according to different religions or ideologies.’
  • Doorbraak (‘breakthrough’) ‘an attempt to renew the politics of the Netherlands after the Second World War.’

Starting to wonder if the our best chance of filter bubble-busting Doorbraak might have been something like ChatRoulette. Certainly, one of my highlights of 2010 was encouraging my neighbour to play guitar to a baffled Chilean dentistry student.

Simpler times!

Design-Politics-Futures (Candy)

‘To both design and politics, futures affords some tools to crack open times-to-come as a far richer domain for discussion. It also offers the holistic systems-thinking and temporal reach that are necessary to move beyond ideology-driven argumentation about ‘the (singular) future’ into more systematic and multi-dimensional exploration. Politics, in its theoretical aspect, gives futurists and designers a sensitivity to power relations and a range of conceptions of the good and the just at the social level, and in its activist aspect, represents a tradition of exploring and concretely operationalising these ethics in the world. Designers give to futures and politics practitioners a much-needed dose of communications acumen and facility with media, along with a fusion of aesthetic (used here in the narrow sense) with the pragmatic; a necessary equilibrium between form and function.’

Stuart Candy, ‘The Futures of Everyday Life‘ (2010)