‘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)
This has been rattling around my head for a good couple of weeks now. Significant.
‘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.
I was in Geneva last week for Lift13, the eighth iteration of an annual conference exploring ‘the business and social implications of technological innovation’. I’d tunnelled into last year’s conference with a press pass, and helped Nicolas Nova run a workshop exploring some possible futures at the intersection of nomadic work, mobility and big data, which went something like this …
This year, I gave a talk about 3D printing and design. My first talk to an audience of this size, it was slightly too long and – in retrospect – wildly overambitious, but seemed to go down well. A great learning opportunity and a broad success, particularly you take into account I’d spent most of the preceding fortnight substituting coffee for sleep. I’ll probably get around to putting up the slides at some point, but, in the meantime, you can watch it here.
Much more importantly, I fell into a series of incredible 1-on-1 conversations with gnarly, multi-faceted individuals, and was lucky to be able to bask in the reflected glory of the other speakers. IMO, those talks that worked best tended to approach the question of technology and innovation from an oblique angle, and I want to spotlight a few of my favourites. I’m going to pass on offering any notes or commentary (for now, at least), as I think they speak for themselves.
And with that out of the way, I can brute force the phantom conference syndrome and reverse culture shock, start processing some of the many new inputs, and get on with the rest of my life.
(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
(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.
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.
Education Innovation Science! Speculations Technology [future shock]
“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.
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?
Material/Digital Politics/Economics Speculations Technology [future shock]
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‘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 circuitry. We 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
Cartesian Minefield Politics/Economics Speculations Technology
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‘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‘