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.