2013: The Year in Review

2013 was a chain of islands in a rough and inky sea.

A gathering together of network-enabled weirdos: in a listed former town hall, an empty office block in Manchester, a Brighton coffee shop, a Dutch art gallery, on an East German fishing boat, at a synthetic biology conference at a London university.

A four-thousand word essay on the open hardware efforts of a Polish-American physics graduate. Twenty-thousand words of MSc thesis, written at speed. A preliminary PhD research proposal. A fast-talking, gin-fuelled podcast on science, technology and innovation. A blog post for The Guardian. A series of slightly-too-long talks on 3D printing, design futures, and philanthropy & appropriate technology.

A day lost in Harvard’s Arnold arboretum. A compendium of surreal Japanese ghost stories, translated by a Greek-Irish journalist a hundred year prior, read from the Kindle in an American burger restaurant as the Snowden saga unwound, in real-time, on satellite TV. A feather from a dead turkey found while walking in the New Hampshire woods.

Sensible questions asked of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider. A day spent pretending to be an African subsistence farmer. A day spent trying to convince people I wasn’t a Cylon.

A Sunday morning in Eno River State Park with a university friend, his wife, their dog, and my hangover. Terrible country music, North Carolina barbecue, and Bomberman on the Wii.

A lidar elephant. The bar-tailed godwit. Drones and solar panels and shipping containers and ramps and data-sniffing bins and Google Glass.

2×2 matrices, sketched out with masking tape on an auditorium wall. A tower of smartphones, stacked face-down. Golden rice.

Coffee with a sound artist, with an urbanist, with any number of self-consciously grumpy PhD students. Beer with my brother, my father, former lecturers, and friends. Wine on the roof of a seafront apartment block, after an academic conference, shared with friends on a train. Honest conversations about the future, about family, responsibility, and adulthood in an absence of ready-made scripts.

Private security on campus, and friends on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Skype lag, power outages, and the weight of national borders.

A desk of my own.

The eldritch peaks and troughs of a theremin in the old police cells beneath Brighton town hall, and again, later, layered over field recordings of Arctic wind in the museum’s ice age gallery. A moment of clarity in the middle of an otherwise utterly overwhelming homecoming gig. Mallorcan bagpipes at an ethnomusicology conference. The thrumming of a flatmate’s electric guitar.

Digital photos of Google Maps, postal addresses, and Twitter DMs. Brunch in a diner in Dalston, then a walk along Regent’s canal. A live reading of Jose Luis Borges in a library conference room for Día de Muertos. Birdwatching at Birling Gap.

A stuffed bluejay and a squirrel with an ear trumpetA fictional court case. The drawing of a fly in the men’s urinals at Amsterdam-Schiphol airport, both in itself, as something real, and again, later, as an illustration of ‘nudge’ theory.

 The effervescent froth of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, watched, with colleagues, in a North Carolina movie theatre. One hundred episodes of The Good Wife. The second season of Enlightened; the fourth season of Arrested Development. The second episode of the second series of Black Mirror. Borrowed graphic novels. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight BehaviourWelcome to Night Vale. YouTube videos of someone else playing The Last Of Us. Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, read in a half-hearted attempt to ignore the turbulence on a night flight from North Carolina to London Heathrow, as the flight crew talked about David Bowie and danced in the aisle.

The reedy voice of David Willetts, UK Minister for Science and Universities. An incorrect bet on the outcome of the German elections. The ever-present ghost of climate change.

A crowdfunded adventure game about a non-existent Kentucky highway.

Misgivings, judgements, anxiety, stress and exhaustion. Grumpy emails sent and received. Procrastination. Insomnia. Failure to leave the house. Friends, new and old, who caught me as I fell.

28 American teenagers wandering, baffled, through a $1.2 million smart home. An Indian tourist visa. Christmas carols, e-cigarettes, and the internet-of-things. The sketchbook of a friendly Angeleno graffiti artist encountered at RDU.

Bitcoin sent to the wrong address, a dead mobile phone, and love for a standard issue Zimbabwe bush pump. An improvised Chinese hornet-killing flame thrower. The invisible, propositional contours of an anarchist innovation studies.

A photoshopped image of the author as Winston Churchill, pasted by an unknown student into a collaborative, live-authored spreadsheet. A pulvarised jet engine, spread upon the floor.

The dangers of ‘technology’ (Leo Marx)

‘In contemporary discourse, private and public, technologies are habitually represented by “things”—by their most conspicuous artifactual embodiments: transportation technology by automobiles, airplanes, and railroads; nuclear technology by reactors, power plants, and bombs; information technology by computers, mobile telephones, and television; and so on. By consigning technologies to the realm of things, this well-established iconography distracts attention from the human—socioeconomic and political—relations which largely determine who uses them and for what purposes. Because most technologies in our corporate capitalist system have the legal status of private property, vital decisions about their use are made by the individual businessmen who own them or by the corporate managers and government officials who exercise the virtual rights of ownership. The complexity and obscurity of the legal relations governing the use of our technologies, abetted by the reification that assigns them to the realm of things—all of these help to create the aura of “phantom objectivity” that envelops them.’

 Leo Marx, ‘Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept’ (2010)

Futures & representational materiality (Michael, 2000)

Great Innovation

‘My treatment of these representations of the future has been just that – a consideration of representations: stories, characters, discourses, motifs, metaphors and so on and so forth. However, … these representations are grounded in the material. The performativity of these representations does not take place in some abstracted a-material domain. It is conducted in material settings, where bodies and texts, for example, come into contact or close proximity…’

— M. Michael, ‘Futures of the Present’, in Contested Futures (2000)

Cyborg practices?

‘More abstractly, actor-network theory has inspired politically and philosophically intriguing debates about the relation between humans and the non-humans with whom they are their lives, but has ironically done so in ways that divert attention away from more ordinary questions about what these cyborg/hybrid entities are actually doing.’

— Elizabeth Shove et al., The Dynamics of Social Practice (2012), p. 10.


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‘)