Monday, April 23, 2012

Baffling Wonders of the 21st Century

[Pic: MMA fighter Nick Newell, via]

The other day the New York Times ran a story about amputee mixed martial arts fighters. A few weeks earlier, the Sunday magazine featured a profile of Oscar Pistorius, the South African amputee sprinter, and the question of whether he is disadvantaged or advantaged by his disability and the prosthetic blades that let him run 400 meters in 45 seconds. Establishment examinations of the unique capabilities of a legless wrestler, and the awesome physics of a bionic runner, evidence the 21st century's evolution of very different ways of thinking about our relationships with our bodies.

[Pic: Sprinter Oscar Pistorius, via NY Times]

A smart friend of mine once joked that the reason Teletubbies have television sets in their tummies is to condition our children for their future life as cyborgs. We are already cyborgs in many respects, our neural networks adapted to the electronic tools that network us with the world. But I think these athletes are the vanguard of a more spectacular generation of altered humans, clearing the trail for the thousands of young men coming home from our decade of far away wars without all the homegrown parts they once had (see, e.g., the excellent Michael Chorost piece on military prosthetics in this month's Wired). I have long wondered how long it will take before the puritanical Chariots of Fire vision of white cotton athletics untainted by the unnatural finds its force inevitably flipped into a celebration of altered marvels. I even invented a secondary character in a story to make this point, and the idea revealed such truth that he nearly took the whole thing over like some postmodern Burt Reynolds crashing a Bruce Dern acid party:

Crile scratched his silvery buzzcut, flexing a bicep that pulsed with the texture of manufactured tendons and polymerically enhanced blood vessels. He was one of the alpha generation of real celebrity cyborgs, a Texas star college quarterback who was among the first to go straight to the UFL. The Ultimate Football League was the first to abandon professional athletics’ anachronistic insistence on the prohibition of performance enhancements, be they pharmaceutical, bio-mechanical, or genetically engineered. It was a genius stroke by the founders. The audience was far more interested in superhuman performances than fidelity to nature, and the athletes were addicted to the potential of even greater power. Crile hadn’t played in a decade, but was still a public figure, famous for his stamina in withstanding fifteen-plus years of pounding on behalf of the Los Angeles fans...

[Pic: Giants pitcher Brian Wilson, out for the season for extreme elbow surgery, quoted Monday as saying he looked forward to the "opportunity to get a better arm" and "get to throw harder." Via]

Crile appears in "Edge Lands," a story of mine that appears in the new issue of The Baffler. He previously appeared in a related story included in an sf anthology a couple years back, but I am very excited to have him pulling his creaky Kilroy head into the pages of a magazine whose readers might not typically read science fiction. This is thanks to the courage of The Baffler's new editor, John Summers, to include representatives of the self-appointed "literature of ideas" in the inaugural issue of his relaunched run of this amazing magazine that brings cutting edge scholarly thinking and critical intelligence to a general audience.

The fiction in Baffler 19 includes an excerpt from Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, 2312, and a remarkable Lyudmila Petrushevskaya story beautifully translated by Anna Summers. The stories (and the fantastic selection of poetry) are just popcorn to complement the potent lineup of essays and other nonfiction from the likes of Thomas Frank, James Galbraith, Maureen Tkacik, Barbara Ehrenreich, Will Boisvert, Rick Perlstein, and Chris Lehmann (full table of contents here). It's thrilling for me to have one of my efforts at socio-political speculative fiction find itself in such superior company, even more so to be grouped with other pieces exploring the theme of how techno-utopian discourse (to which science fiction is a major contributor) masks cultural decay.

The most compelling piece of science fictional speculation in the issue is the social anthropologist David Graeber's amazing essay, "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit." Graeber uses the well-worked "dude, where's my flying car" meme as the launching point for a deep critique of the interrelation between capitalism and technological progress. Graeber starts by noting how much of our technological power is devoted to the *simulation* of technological marvel rather than its actual achievement (see , e.g., the science fantasies now responsible for the majority of Hollywood's take-home pay). Breaking out the anthropological toolkit, he sweepingly elucidates the ways in which American-style corporate bureaucracy and the singular focus on competition chill true breakthroughs and banish the eccentric and the imaginative to mom's basement.

Graeber, citing Giovanni Arrighi, draws a compelling contrast between contemporary techno-capitalism and British industrial capitalism after the South Sea Bubble through the early twentieth century—a period in which Britain largely avoided the corporate form in favor of a combination of high finance and family-run businesses, and integrated eccentric thinkers into the the culture, often as rural vicars whose "amateur" experimentation produced many of the mind-blowing scientific discoveries of the day. The absence of "poetic technologies" from the real world of the 21st century evidences the failure of capital, argues Graeber, with a compelling call to "...break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history."

Graeber's argument makes me rethink my dismissal of the steampunk explosion as evidence of sf's political failings—perhaps steampunk is transcendently political: an atemporal expression of our collective pent-up yearnings for a technology that liberates, rather than enslaves. I have remarked elsewhere how the cyberpunks helped us discover unlimited quanta of liberated territory—only to find it rapidly sectioned off by Capital for devotion to productive use. Networked computers have become the principal instruments of our alienation, and Guy Fawkes masks on YouTube really don't provide plausible architectures for change.

I was thinking about all this last week as I walked the campus of Stanford University. An objectively beautiful place full of beautiful people, almost like a Hollywood simulation of a college campus, full of those preppy blonde white kids that in other parts of California (like Berkeley) have become about as common as unicorns. So beautiful, and so boring—seemingly devoid of the experimental self-expression and naive political speech that should characterize any community of several thousand twenty-year-olds.

When you leave the original campus for the post-1999 quad—the archipelago of smart buildings named after Gordon Moore and Jerry Yang and the other cyber-barons who paid for them—you understand. You have arrived at Gattaca State: a corporate youth camp devoted to the indoctrination and reproduction of future members of the establishment within the new paradigm of techno-capitalism, the principal ethos of which is consumer marketing practiced as a branch of mathematics, supported by the Moore's Law of alienation: the capacity of information microprocessors to propel human brains into ever more efficient cubicle-bound servants of the numbers. Each of them lured by the illusory dream of the liberation from work. Instagram, anyone?

Baffler 19 provides a pretty potent radical diagnosis of the contemporary condition, and science fiction writers and readers should pick up a copy and and consider the critical speculations that accompany the fictions—and the implicit invitation to better integrate critical political economy into expressions of the speculative imagination. Essays like Graeber's remind us of the potential for science fiction to not just preserve our sense of wonder in the ghetto of filking conventions, but to help envision better ways to integrate imaginative wonder into the structuring of our societies. As network culture reveals the crumbling foundations of our socio-economic institutions, there's a whole lot of talk going on about what the world should look like on the other side of the current crisis, and science fiction has an important role to play in that conversation.

You can subscribe or buy individual copies of The Baffler (including electronic version) here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Web-@nywhere: A look at the near future of the recent past

About a month ago, a coworker bought a number of archaic digital watches for everyone in the office. He found them in the bargain bin of a thrift store in Waxahachie, and since they cost about a buck each, he thought they would be a fun gag gift. With replacement batteries I ordered online for $1.50 each, we managed to get the watches working again.
But these are no ordinary wrist-watches. These are Web-@nywhere personal computation devices, a conceptual waypoint between the calculator watch of the 80s and the first smart phones of the mid-noughts. It has an LCD graphic display with a resolution of literally dozens of pixels, but its big selling point is the ability to surf the web. It interfaces with a PC through the serial port and a bulky proprietary clasp that fits around the entire watch. With the help of an installation diskette (compatible with Windows 95/98), you can establish a data link with your PC, and then browse the web from the two-inch display on your wrist.
Like most modern consumers of the internet, you are probably thinking to yourself right now: "Why would I browse the web on my watch, if it's already connected to my PC?" But for the consumer of the turn of the millenium, this was the first foray into an exciting new realm of mobile computing.
Archeological web searching uncovers tantalizing hints about the history of this gadget. The original website for the Web-@nywhere company is long abandoned, the domain snatched up and re-cycled as a trashy SEO spam blog (the ultimate fate of all web properties who don't have owners who love them). But there are still third-party references to the product, disused auction listings and dusty forum posts, which we can piece together to form a narrative of a product that burst onto the scene and then faded away.

We first see mention of the Web-@nywhere watch in early 2001. America is still reeling from the bursting tech bubble and the realization that an illiterate buffoon has cheated his way into the White House. We are a nation that is newly cynical of the future. We want our gadgets and our "information superhighway," but we want them wrapped in the vestiments of a more familiar era. On March 9, 2001, the Web-@nywhere earns a brief but gushy mention on the Entertainment Weekly website. The retail price is $85, which in turn of the millenium dollars could pay for a household's restaurant budget for two months or more. It appears to have been listed in the SkyMall catalog, along with other seemingly-advanced yet useless gadgets like the spider-vacuum and the inflatable car passenger. In 2002 a verbose review of the Web-@nywhere by a consumer highlights its many design and software flaws, and admits that the core design feature of the watch, the ability to download 128k of text-only web content for later reading, is not terribly useful.
By the end of 2002, the cost of the Web-@nywhere has collapsed to $55, and then $20. By 2003 the first smartphone Blackberries take to the market and the Web-@nywhere disappears from the digital record like the Anasazi.
The consumer of 2001 must have been dazzled by the Web-@nywhere's technological promise. The front face is dominated by two main interface features. One is a four-directional rubber knob reminiscent of a joystick or early laptop control nubs. The other is a large button that functions a little like an enter key and a little like a left-click button.
The buttons along the sides of the watch are design holdovers from the age of digital wrist watches.The buttons on the right are mainly selectors. By pressing them repeatedly you scroll through lists of features and menu options. The interface is neither intuitive nor efficient. In the coming years, improved GUIs will make watch-style buttons like these redundant.
The most fascinating anachronism on the watch is the button on the lower left side. It wasn't until I had actually pressed the "backlight" button, and admired its under-stated green glow, that I realized I hadn't seen a backlight button in a very long time. In our modern age, although we still employ LCD interfaces in our mobile devices, their design aspects are much different than the late-twentieth-century watch backlight. We don't have a dedicated button for backlights because a color LCD screen is essentially invisible unless lit. Any attempt to interface with the modern mobile device will trigger a luminescence to rival the flashlights of my childhood. The power for this light comes from the fantastic improvements in lithium ion batteries we've seen in the last decade. The batteries power a long-range microwave transmitter, so there's more than enough juice to spare for mere display purposes. The poor Web-@nywhere watch has only a modest 3-volt power source, what popular vernacular had once designated a "watch battery." However, the Web-@nywhere display has one advantage over most modern devices in that it's perfectly readable in normal light and only needs a backlight when in a darkened room.

Sadly, the Web-@nywhere serial port connector and the proprietary software are lost to time. We may never know what games could be downloaded into the 128k memory. We will never have the joy of reading text-only web content from a two-inch screen. Nor will we be able to store our contacts and phone numbers on our wrist.
The only functioning taste of 2001's future is a series of pre-programmed animations, and the option to change our local time to Paris.
I wanted to end this article with the declaration: The Web-@nywhere is the last holdover from the Dick Tracy vision of the future. How do you make a gadget more hightech and convenient? You mount it on your wrist of course.
But then I found out this morning that Sony is releasing a "smart watch." Like the Web-@nwhere it does not have its own internet connection, but has to be tethered to a device that does, like your smartphone, which almost certainly has a much larger and more convenient interface.
So in ten years, are we going to be looking back at the Sony SmartWatch and marveling at its weirdly useless design concept?

Friday, April 6, 2012

You sunk my littoral combat trimaran!

The front page of this morning's New York Times has a stroke piece about the Navy's new combat vessels that reads like a page from the technical manual of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds!. It even includes a cross section in the style of a Silver Age comic, with a sidebar explaining how different modules can be installed onboard for different missions.


Like maybe Thunderbird 4!

Sure, the story goes through the motions of presenting some kernels of serious political analysis, noting the debate about how many $700 million littoral interceptors we might really need, and the annoying questions about whether the things actually do what they are supposed to. But the lead paragraph is pretty clear where the Times comes down—on the side of: Dude, that is fucking cool!

"The Navy’s newest ship is designed to battle Iranian attack boats, clear mines from the Strait of Hormuz, chase down Somali pirates and keep watch on China’s warships. The ones built here even look menacing, like Darth Vader on the sea."

No wonder, as the story makes clear, both the President and his Republican buddy Jo Bonner from Mobile want more. They are so cool we are going to name one after Gaby Giffords! Because, you know, it will represent the spirit of frontier vengeance against tyrants...

Do you suppose it's a coincidence that this story appears at the same time as the military-entertainment complex launches its marketing campaign for Battleship—a movie based on the Milton-Bradley boys war game, brought to you by the post-9/11 joint venture of Hasbro, Universal Studios, and the United States Navy? Starring Taylor Kitsch as the prodigal SEAL, Liam Neeson as stone-faced Admiral Shane, and introducing Rihanna as the Esther Williams of deck gunners, the movie appears to be a brainless summer live action video game devoted to the semiotic fetishization of deep sea techno-leviathans. General Dynamics has the best product placement, and they don't even have to pay for it.

You know the globalist masterminds are behind this youthful propaganda when you see that the film features a Tora! Tora! Tora!'s worth of subtitled multinational naval officers united under a single command—blue helmets versus aliens who want to steal our oil! Bring the boys home, and instead get back to projecting our power with video game consoles attached to gigantic naval robots. The only people we'll kill with Rihanna's deck guns are alien others, and you can't even see them on the screen. How much do you want to bet Barry Obama played the game as a kid in Hawaii, after seeing it during commercial breaks of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?

When you read stuff like this:

"A tour at the Mobile yard of a ship that is nearly complete, the Coronado, shows a bridge with consoles of video screens that allow the captain to drive with a joystick or from a laptop. The 400-foot ships can go faster than 40 knots, or nearly 50 miles an hour (the ones built in Mobile have aluminum trimaran hulls — creating less drag in the water and more speed), and are able to operate in 20 feet of water. They have relatively small crews of 75, decks for helicopters and a variety of equipment modules that can be swapped for different missions, like mine-hunting, submarine warfare or special operations."

You can't help but wonder the extent to which our 21st century geopolitics is influenced by the science fictional imaginations of a whole bunch of inner 11-year-olds with good lobbyists (and better publicists).

Is it too obscenely heretical to suggest the deep psychology of our escalating drone wars, of the ultimate Virilian combat system that replaces The Right Stuff with the stuff of first person shooters, is more Jared Loughner than U.S.S. Gaby Giffords?