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robertogreco : crapfutures   12

crap futures — The automated island
"(For some background to this discussion of automation in our very eccentric and local context, revisit one of our first posts - ‘The pleasures of prediction’ [ ].)

There’s a spot we often go swimming in Madeira called Ponta Gorda, ‘Fat Point’. It’s like a public swimming pool - in fact it does have a decent saltwater pool - but most people who go there dive straight into the open sea, which gives you the thrill of swimming in very deep water - 2,000 metres close to shore descending to 4,000 metres further out. So the sea is a public swimming pool, and you pay your euro for amenities like the changing rooms and cafe. It’s a good place for lunch or a cold beer when the sun is shining. Umbrellas and sunbeds cost extra, but we prefer to bake on the hot concrete after a cool swim.

Into this idyllic scene comes automation. There’s a person who works in the entrance booth and takes your euro, and adjacent to the booth is a row of turnstiles. Presumably until a couple of years ago you paid your money and went straight in. Since we’ve been going to Ponta Gorda, however, a newer system has been in place: an automated scanning system.

The system is supposed to work like this: first you buy a barcoded ticket or charge your card with the person in the booth; then you scan your ticket, unlocking the turnstile, and you walk through. (The scanner uses that red laser thing to read the barcode.)

What actually happens is this: we arrive at the booth, say hello to the friendly woman who works there - because we all know each other by now - pay for a ticket or charge our card (if we’ve remembered to bring it, which is rare), try to scan the barcode under the laser in the bright midday sun, fail miserably, smile at the woman in the booth to signal our failure, wait as she grabs her keys and comes out of the booth, watch as she tries in vain to scan it several times, exchange sympathetic smiles when she too fails, together blame the sun, stand by while she unlocks the gate at the side, and walk through.

We’re not sure why the automatic gate always fails. Things often don’t work on this island. They remain broken for months or years, and people get used to working around them. The parking garages and supermarket checkouts are the same: there is always someone to help you scan your ticket or purchases because the scanner never works properly. These are de-facto semi-automated systems that require the same human worker they required before the machine was installed. So why have a scanner at all? Who said this was a good idea? What was wrong with the old way?

Well, it’s progress, innit? Unfortunately what may work under ideal conditions in, say, London or Oslo may not necessarily work under less than ideal conditions, and without maintenance support, in Madeira. It’s like those tractors in the Soviet Union under collectivisation that broke down or simply ran out of petrol and were left to rot in the fields. Not to mention the fact that automation is often about efficiency, and efficiency - in terms of saving either time or labour - is not something this sleepy island particularly wants or needs.

People in Madeira are adaptable, they get along fine with less than optimal technology. But significant resources are wasted in the pursuit of Mainland ideas of progress. Then there are the side-effects of automation that are not particular to islanders: deskilling, alienation from labour. Few people actually lose their jobs because the technology can rarely be trusted - but everywhere you see people sitting idle in their work, passive, mere appendages of the machines they are paid to assist. Is this the techno-utopia we were waiting for? Sometimes on the periphery, as Laura Watts said to us recently, small perturbations are felt more distinctly than in the centre.

In his frankly curmudgeonly but still insightful essay ‘Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer’ (1987), Wendell Berry lays out his ‘standards for technological innovation’. There are nine points, and in the third point Berry states that the new device or system ‘should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better’ than the old one. This seems obvious and not too much to ask of a technology, but how well does the automated entrance at Ponta Gorda fulfill that claim?

Berry also has a point, the last in his list, about not replacing or disrupting ‘anything good that already exists’. This includes relationships between people. In other words, solve actual problems - rather than finding just any old place to put a piece of technology you want to sell. Even if the scanners at Ponta Gorda did work, how would eliminating the one human being who is employed to welcome visitors and answer questions improve the system? In Berry’s words, ‘what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody’. The person who works there is a ‘good that already exists’, a human relationship that should be preserved, especially when her removal from a job would be bought at so little gain.

In the next post we’ll go deeper into a taxonomy of automation. Now we’re going for a swim."
crapfutures  automation  labor  madeira  wendellberry  technology  problemsolving 
june 2017 by robertogreco
crap futures — Back to nature
"We live on a remote island - mountainous, mid-Atlantic, still heavily forested and pretty wild - and for that reason nature sometimes sneaks into our otherwise technology-centred work. It is hard not to think local when you live in a place like this. We’re neither farmers nor pioneers - except in the sense that resident aliens on this island are few - but lately our reading has got us thinking about ancient paths and rural places. We’ll discuss the paths today and save most of the farm talk for a future post.

Paths v roads

In his 1969 essay ‘A Native Hill’, Wendell Berry - the American writer, farmer, activist, and ‘modern Thoreau’ - makes a useful distinction between paths and roads:
The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand … embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape. … It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.

Aside from conversation as usual, the reason we are talking about Berry is the arrival of a new film, Look & See, and a new collection of his writing, The World-Ending Fire, edited by Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain Project fame. Berry and Kingsnorth, along with the economist Kate Raworth, were on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week recently chatting about the coming apocalypse and how it might best be avoided. It is a fascinating interview: you can actually hear Berry’s rocking chair creaking and the crows cawing outside the window of his house in Port Royal, Kentucky.

The normally optimistic Berry agrees somewhat crankily to read ‘the poem that you asked me to read’ on the programme. ‘Sabbaths 1989’ describes roads to the future as going nowhere: ‘roads strung everywhere with humming wire. / Nowhere is there an end except in smoke. / This is the world that we have set on fire.’ Berry admits that this poem is about as gloomy as he gets (‘blessed are / The dead who died before this time began’). For the most part his writing is constructive: forming a sensual response to cold, atomised modernity; advocating for conviviality, community, the commonweal.

Paul Kingsnorth talks compellingly in the same programme about transforming protest into action, although in truth no one walks the walk like Berry. Kingsnorth says: ‘We’re all complicit in the things we oppose’ - and never were truer words spoken, from our iPhones to our energy use. In terms of design practice, there are worse goals than reducing our level of complicity in environmental harm and empty consumerism. Like Berry, Kingsnorth talks about paths and roads. He asks: ‘Why should we destroy an ancient forest to cut twelve minutes off a car journey from London to Southampton? Is that a good deal?’

It’s a fair question. It also illustrates perfectly what Berry was describing in the passage that started this post: the difference between paths that blend and coexist with the local landscape, preserving the knowledge and history of the land, and roads that cut straight through it. These roads are like a destructive and ill-fitting grid imposed from the centre onto the periphery, without attention to the local terrain or ecology or ways of doing things - both literally (in the case of energy) and figuratively.

Another book we read recently, Holloway, describes ancient paths - specifically the ‘holloways’ of South Dorset - in similar terms:
They are landmarks that speak of habit rather than of suddenness. Like creases in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the result of repeated human actions. Their age chastens without crushing. They relate to other old paths & tracks in the landscape - ways that still connect place to place & person to person.

Holloways are paths sunk deep into the landscape and into the local history. Roads, in contrast, skip over the local - collapsing time as they move us from one place to the next without, as it were, touching the ground. They alienate us in our comfort.

Here in Madeira there are endless footpaths broken through the woods. Still more unique are the levadas, the irrigation channels that run for more than two thousand kilometres back and forth across the island, having been brought to Portugal from antecedents in Moorish aqueduct systems and adapted to the specific terrain and agricultural needs of Madeira starting in the sixteenth century.

Both the pathways through the ancient laurel forests and the centuries-old levadas (which, though engineered, were cut by hand and still follow the contours and logic of the landscape) contrast with the highways and tunnels that represent a newer feat of human engineering since the 1970s. During his controversial though undeniably successful reign from 1978 to 2015 - he was elected President of Madeira a remarkable ten times - Alberto João Jardim oversaw a massive infrastructure program that completely transformed the island. Places that used to be virtually unreachable became accessible by a short drive. His legacy, in part, is a culture of automobile dependency that is second to none. The American highway system inspired by Norman Bel Geddes’ (and General Motors’) Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair almost pales in comparison to Jardim’s vision for the rapid modernisation of Madeira.

But when you walk the diesel-scented streets of the capital, or you drive through the holes bored deep into and out of towering volcanic mountains to reach the airport - and even when you think back in history and imagine those first settlers sitting in their ships as half the island’s forest burned, watching the dense smoke of the fires they lit to make Madeira favourable to human habitation - it’s hard not to think what a catastrophically invasive species are human beings.

Bespoke is a word we use a lot. In our vocabulary bespoke is not about luxury or excess - as it has been co-opted by consumer capitalism to suggest. Instead it is about tailored solutions, fitted to the contours of a particular body or landscape. Wendell Berry insists on the role of aesthetics and proportionality in his approach to environmentalism: the goal is not hillsides covered in rows of ugly solar panels, but an integrated and deep and loving relationship with the land. This insistence on aesthetics relates to the ‘reconfiguring’ principles that inform our newest work. The gravity batteries we’ve been building are an alternative not only to the imposed, top-down infrastructure of the grid, but also to the massive scale of such solutions and our desire to work with the terrain rather than against it.

Naomi Klein talked about renewable energy in these terms in an interview a couple of years ago:
If you go back and look at the way fossil fuels were marketed in the 1700s, when coal was first commercialized with the Watt steam engine, the great promise of coal was that it liberated humans from nature … And that was, it turns out, a lie. We never transcended nature, and that I think is what is so challenging about climate change, not just to capitalism but to our core civilizational myth. Because this is nature going, ‘You thought you were in charge? Actually all that coal you’ve been burning all these years has been building up in the atmosphere and trapping heat, and now comes the response.’ … Renewable energy puts us back in dialog with nature. We have to think about when the wind blows, we have to think about where the sun shines, we cannot pretend that place and space don’t matter. We are back in the world.

In a future post we will talk about the related subject of sustainable agriculture. But speaking of food - the time has come for our toast and coffee.
2017  crapfutures  wendellberry  paths  roads  madeira  bespoke  tailoring  audiencesofone  naomiklein  sustainability  earth  normanbelgeddes  albertojoãojardim  levadas  infrastructure  permanence  capitalism  energy  technology  technosolutionsism  1969  obstacles  destruction  habits  knowledge  place  placemaking  experience  familiarity  experientialeducation  kateraworth  paulkingsnorth  darkmountainproject  modernity  modernism  holloways  nature  landscape  cars  transportation  consumerism  consumercapitalism  reconfiguration  domination  atmosphere  environment  dialog  conviviality  community  commonweal  invasivespecies  excess  humans  futurama  ecology  canon  experientiallearning 
may 2017 by robertogreco
crap futures — Maybe I like the misery
"Working within such a system each day we become less and less conscious, less in control, more passive in meeting our needs and fulfilling our desires. The system calculates, the system learns, and of course, the system benefits. As this piece in Wired reminds us, ‘The more we use the butler, the more power it will have.’ This includes the power to manipulate its putative master. In the case of our cafe, there were no discernible ulterior motives - they just wanted to keep the line moving. In the case of the big four tech companies, control is very much an issue. So we should always ask: Who or what is taking control of our desires? Who or what do we increasingly rely on for the handling and fulfillment of those desires, and what do we give them in return? Whose script are we living by?"

"What will this reality look like? What dark aspects of ourselves will we reveal? Will it be a sexy-lonely vibe, like Spike Jonze’s Her, or something more adversarial-sinister-anarchic, like Chaplin’s Modern Times? One point to keep in mind: when automation is employed to play to its strengths, the potential consequence is that we in turn become automated – less emotional, more rational, programmed and predictable. Technology effectively replaces human thought. This in turn brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s critique (in Minima Moralia): ‘Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men.’"
crapfutures  automation  smarthomes  iot  internetofthings  technology  2017 
february 2017 by robertogreco
crap futures — A Crap Futures Manifesto
"Challenge #1: reverse this statement

‘We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture, people must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.’

Paul Mazur, Lehman Brothers, 1927

Challenge #2: reclaim the means - stop obsessing with the ends

‘Modern anthropology … opposes the utilitarian assumption that the primitive chants as he sows seed because he believes that otherwise it will not grow, the assumption that his economic goal is primary, and his other activities are instrumental to it. The planting and the cultivating are no less important than the finished product. Life is not conceived as a linear progression directed to, and justified by, the achievement of a series of goals; it is a cycle in which ends cannot be isolated, one which cannot be dissected into a series of ends and means.’

John Carroll

Challenge #3: (as things become increasingly automated) facilitate action not apathy

‘[W]hen it becomes automatic (on the other hand) its function is fulfilled, certainly, but it is also hermetically sealed. Automatism amounts to a closing-off, to a sort of functional self-sufficiency which exiles man to the irresponsibility of a mere spectator.’

Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects

Challenge #4: bring an end to this vacuous celebrity designer BS

‘My juicer is not meant to squeeze lemons; it is meant to start conversations.’

Philippe Starck

Challenge #5: interrupt legacy thinking and product lineages

‘All inventions and innovations, by definition, represent 
an advance in the art beyond existing base lines. Yet, most advances, particularly in retrospect, appear essentially incremental, evolutionary. If nature makes no sudden leaps, neither it would appear does technology.’

Robert Heilbroner

Challenge #6: rather than feed the illusion of invincibility, work from the reality of uncertainty and transience

‘Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales. But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past.’

J.G. Ballard, The Miracles of Life

Challenge #7: set aside the easier work of critique and take up the more difficult challenge of proposing viable alternatives

‘It is true that I can better tell you what we don’t do than what we do do.’

William Morris, News from Nowhere

Challenge #8: ask yourself (before putting things in the world): am I qualified to play God?

‘It’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough.’

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

Challenge #9: design ecologically

‘One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it … all things are one thing and one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.’

John Steinbeck, The Sea of Cortez

Challenge #10: adopt a khadi mentality

‘True progress lies in the direction of decentralization, both territorial and functional, in the development of the spirit of local and personal initiative, and of free federation from the simple to the compound, in lieu of the present hierarchy from the centre to the periphery.’

Pyotr Kropotkin

Challenge #11: be patient for the quiet days

‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.’

Arundhati Roy

Challenge #12: start building the future you want, with or without technology

‘People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.’

Ray Bradbury, Beyond 1984: The People Machines"
manifestos  crapfutures  paulmazur  desires  needs  anthropology  johncarroll  means  ends  jeanbaudrillard  apathy  action  philippestarck  celebrity  legacy  robertheilbroner  invention  innovation  evolution  invincibility  jgballard  uncertainty  transience  ephemeral  ephemerality  critique  williammorris  viability  making  ursulaleguin  ecology  environment  johnsteinbeck  khadi  decentralization  function  functionality  arundhatiroy  patience  quiet  raybradbury  future  futurism  technology  utopia  resistance  peterkropotkin 
november 2016 by robertogreco
crap futures — counter-constraint #1: non-progress dogma
"The world’s fairs also offer their insights into this dichotic system. For example, Futurama’s hidden agendas are strikingly revealed in E. L. Doctorow’s novel World’s Fair (1985). As a family leaves the exhibit, the father says: ‘“When the time comes General Motors isn’t going to build the highways, the federal government is. With money from us taxpayers.” He smiled. “So General Motors is telling us what they expect from us: we must build them the highways so they can sell us the cars.”’

Bel Geddes’s vision of super-highways largely came true, but so did various dystopian imaginaries that were generated out of the Futurama vision. In ‘Futurama, Autogeddon’, Helen Burgess describes the way in which ‘a messy, always-under-construction, polluted highway system, beaming cheerfully forward into the future, is reflected back to us in the second half of the century as a degraded landscape in J. G. Ballard’s Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. In these tales,’ Burgess writes,

Bel Geddes’ optimistic narrative of the Interstate has collapsed … because the Interstate system is unsustainable - both narratively and ecologically. The ghosts of the highway call back to us from these future narratives, reminding us that death is just around the next bend.

Progress dogma as an eternally recurring phenomenon

The progress boosterism in the West of the 19th century was followed by two highly regressive world wars. Yet the postwar period saw an almost immediate return to … optimism! Progress dogma was reborn! America, isolated from the worst ravages of the two World Wars, kept blowing the trumpet for progress, and the other western countries followed. The lessons of history continued, and continue, to fall on deaf ears.

Designing counter-constraints

We realise now that we’ve not set ourselves an easy task. These are massive, complex systems that are more easily identified and critiqued than challenged with alternatives. But inaction is no solution. So we’ll go on, inspired by historical examples of how critical approaches have impacted on specific research directions and undermined progress dogma. The public inquiry into genetically modified food development in Europe and the consequent demonising of an entire scientific area (‘Frankenstein foods’) led by certain newspapers is one example of technology being steered away from its intended trajectory. In that case, however, the approach was problematic because the debate was simplified as a contest between good and evil, dystopia vs. utopia, rather than being an open and constructive dialogue. As this article suggests, the reality is often more nuanced and complex than a simple binary opposition can express.

So how do we move toward a more constructive approach to counter-constraints?
Here, as a discussion starter, are some first steps:

1. Stop assuming that, through technology, the future will be better than the present.
2. Be wary of too-positive presentations of technological future solutions.
3. Don’t assume that any of society’s problems will be solved by technology alone.
4. Do assume that for every benefit a new technology brings there will be unforeseen implications.
5. Remember to ask: ‘Progress for whom?’
6. And: ‘What in this specific case does progress actually mean?’
7. Remember that progress is easily confused with automation. Or efficiency.
8. Watch Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self (and then watch it again).
9. Find ways of encouraging a critical perspective in others, without being a dystopian dick about it.
10. Actively start building the future you want, with or without technology.

One approach where we have first-hand experience and that begins to address point 10 is speculative design, which aims to facilitate a more critical and considered approach to future-formation. By countering the constraints that limit normative design to slavishly serving the market, speculative design is free to present futures that are neither explicitly utopian or dystopian. Using this approach we can explore possible scenarios when specific emerging technologies collide with everyday life. Or we can see what happens when we apply alternative configurations of contemporary technologies or systems to generate fresh perspectives on particular problems (a counter-constraint to constraint no. 2: legacies of the past, which we’ll return to in a future post). Speculation is time well spent.

We’ll give further thought to counter-constraints over a game of ping-pong on our rough-hewn autoprogettazione table, followed by coffee and toast. More, much more, to come. "
crapfutures  counter-constraints  futures  speculativedesign  design  2016  technosolutionism  technology  progress  progressdogma  automation  efficiency  normanbelgeddes  eames  productification  utopia  dystopia  resistance  richardbarbrook  processfatigue  eldoctorow  helenburgess  interstatehighways  cars  history  optimism  sustainability  boosterism  adamcurtis  thecenturyoftheself  statusanxiety  bladerunner  pollution  traffic  futurama  world'sfairs  1939  1964  ibm 
february 2016 by robertogreco
crap futures — counter-constraints
"In recent posts, starting with ‘how the future happens’, we have been exploring the factors that keep us to established paths or limit the potential for preferable futures. But as we aim in this blog (and in life generally) to go beyond mere critique, the next batch of posts will outline the concept of counter-constraints.

Counter-constraints take the identified constraining factors and invert, work around, or ignore them entirely to propose fresh perspectives and possibilities. The resulting new ways of thinking about technological futures may be more inclusive, imaginative, socially-orientated, non-corporate, or they might simply facilitate a more meaningful relationship between science and society.

For example, open-source everything can be seen as a series of counter-constraints to restrictive infrastructure such as copyright laws, gated knowledge systems, and complex production lines. Back in the 1970s, Italian designer Enzo Mari sought to democratize furniture construction with autoprogettazione?, a DIY approach to ‘making easy-to-assemble furniture using rough boards and nails’. Mari wrote:

In my job as designer, or rather as an intellectual who contradicts the actual state of things, I try within the network of commissions and projects to ‘smuggle in’ moments of research and ways of creating the stimulus to free oneself from ideological conditioning, standard norms, behaviour and taste.
The book is full of beautiful stuff - we’ve already made two ping-pong tables and a couple of chairs from his instructions. Taking Mari’s lead, it is possible for anyone - without sophisticated tools or machinery - to sidestep the usual trip to Ikea.

Well, almost anyone - you still need basic building skills. The Enzo Mari example also relates to another constraint we’ve discussed, that of education. We’ve used his book to teach students the kinds of skills that are becoming rarer these days thanks to over-digitalisation, the consequential focus on 3D printing and laser-cutting, and the rapid shift toward sealed-box design.

Time for coffee and toast. In our next post we’ll look at how to ‘counter-constrain’ progress dogma.

note: apologies to the Mari purists. We used screws rather than nails for dismantleability."
constraints  counter-constraints  enzomari  2016  diy  furniture  autoprogettazione  inversion  futures  future  design  crapfutures  democratization  1970s  science  society  technology  knowledgesystems  perspective  possibilty 
february 2016 by robertogreco
crap futures — constraint no. 4: education
"We hesitated a bit before tackling this one, because education is such a vast and complex subject. But as far as constraints on possible futures go, education is impossible to ignore. Skill sets and thought paths are determined at an early age, shaping and constraining future possibilities for entire generations of pupils. (It is worth rediscovering Ken Robinson’s 2008 talk on changing paradigms in relation to educational constraints.) There are serious consequences to enforcing the constraint of economic utility on education, drastically narrowing curricula to what are considered core subjects, replacing older - not to say obsolete or useless - technologies with newer ones in the classroom, and so on. Maslow’s evocative maxim, often attributed to Mark Twain for reasons unknown, comes to mind: ‘It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.’ Today this might be paraphrased as: ‘Give a child a computer, and everything has to be coded.’ Or 3D printed. Or laser cut. Or CNC machined. Obviously the more of these tools girls and boys are given, the better for them and the country they live in.

Unfortunately, recent educational trends in the UK paint a rather bleak picture where constraints are concerned. An article from the BBC on the rise of 3D printing in schools states: ‘the key inspiration … has been what is loosely termed the “digital maker” movement’. But why digital maker movement and not simply maker movement? The article goes on to tell us that ‘"Fab lab" stands for a “fabrication laboratory”, where digital ideas are turned into products and prototypes.’ Again, why digital ideas and not just ideas? What is it about a fablab that needs to be wholly digital and not a hybrid of materials and practices? (Some spaces and curricula do seek to fuse the old ‘shop’ class with the new computer lab, but other concerns may arise - as in the case a few years ago of controversial DARPA military funding to put a thousand DIY workshops in US high schools.)

A UK Government report, meanwhile, that lays out the agenda on 3D printing in education there, includes the following ‘points to consider’: ‘Who will use it? What will it be used for?’ These are good questions, too seldom asked. As for the questions that were not asked, they might include: ‘What will happen to the old machines?’, ‘What will happen to the old knowledge?’ and ‘What is lost in the headlong rush to full digitalisation?’ 3D printing holds an enormous amount of potential, as boundary pushing movements like 3D Additivism demonstrate. But the 3D printer and the laser cutter shouldn’t be the only tools in the box, and deskilling leads to a narrowing of possibilities for everyone.

Roland Barthes, writing in the 1950s about the sudden shift from traditional wooden toys to plastic ones, observed:
Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time. Yet there hardly remain any of these wooden toys…. Henceforth, toys are chemical in substance and colour; their very material introduces one to a coenaesthesis of use, not pleasure. These toys die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child.

A word of warning to those who would abandon old areas of knowledge and useful materials too quickly."
crapfutures  2016  rolandbarthes  wood  education  children  durability  materials  time  slow  plastic  future  futures  3dprinting  digital  digitization  3dadditivism  fablabs  darpa  diy  making  makermovement  economics  purpose  additivism  fablab 
january 2016 by robertogreco
crap futures — constraint no.3: non-ecological thinking
"When we think of the power to focus on a particular problem and solve it, we generally think of it as a useful ability. But what if the power to focus comes at the exclusion of the larger picture? Those responsible for putting new technological products into the public domain are often guilty of thinking in very localised terms - in other words, non-ecologically. This constraint is essentially about a chronic lack of lateral thinking; of being so focused on the immediate action or problem that implications for the broader ecology are ignored.

This was pioneering ecologist Charles Elton’s advice in 1927:
When an ecologist says ‘there goes a badger’, he should include in his thoughts some definite idea of the animal’s place in the community to which it belongs, just as if he had said, ‘there goes the vicar.

More recently, the cultural critic Neil Postman described technological change as ecological (in ‘Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change’, 1998):
Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. I can explain this best by an analogy. What happens if we place a drop of red dye into a beaker of clear water? Do we have clear water plus a spot of red dye? Obviously not. We have a new coloration to every molecule of water. That is what I mean by ecological change. A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.

So what happens when that dye is added? There are some obvious history lessons. To return to the nature analogy, for example, there is the introduction of humans - and with them rats, pigs, dogs, and monkeys - to Mauritius in 1505. (It was the Portuguese who first landed in Mauritius, a few years after discovering our little previously uninhabited island.) Mauritius was the home of the fabled, and sadly flightless, dodo bird. The dodo had evolved to fill a niche and naturally became complacent on its peaceful island, too relaxed in a world without predators to handle the first signs of globalisation. The flightless birds were completely unprepared for the new mammals … and as a result, they didn’t last long. Interestingly, the story of the dodo is not yet over: although the bird became extinct centuries ago, a certain species of tree that depended on the dodo for its own existence is only now following its path to extinction.

In market terms, meanwhile, there is the demise of independent local shops since the 1970s - made obsolete by supermarkets, shopping malls, and big box stores. The incursion of these consumer flytraps destabilized the harmony of communities and destroyed the fragile ecosystems of the high street and city centre - ecosystems that local governments have for years now been trying to regenerate, with varying degrees of success.

Of course, there are legitimate reasons why disruption occurs. Megastores like Whole Foods and Costco are nice to have nearby (as we at Crap Futures know very well, living on a remote island without their convenience). Food is usually cheaper and everything is in one place. Likewise Uber, which provides a better, neater, cleaner, cheaper, more efficient service than the established taxi companies in many places. The old taxi companies, like the flightless birds, became complacent in their gentle habitat; the Uber dogs came along and ate them up. But it won’t end there. As Uber’s Travis Kalanick said in a recent speech: ‘We don’t want to be like the taxi guys who came before us – we embrace the future.’ Uber drivers could well be replaced by the autonomous car in the not-too-distant future - a contingency Uber is aware of and hopes to see happen under its own control.

As the complexity of human ecosystems increases, the potential disruptors are becoming more subtle.

Perhaps the best example is the mobile phone. It started as just a portable phone, then a particularly small portable phone (what Germans sensibly named a ‘handy’). At this stage it still had relatively limited potential to disrupt. But then ‘smart’ features and supporting networks were gradually added, until suddenly the mobile phone had the ability to stir up and irreparably alter huge swathes of the urban ecosystem with app-based service companies such as Uber. In the past, interactions between user and product were temporary and limited - telephone cables fixed the context, isolating and containing the effect. The ubiquity and mobility of products today means that the effects of interaction create a complexity that cannot be readily understood - implications are far harder to imagine and more far-reaching. This only means that it is increasingly important to find ways of imagining these knock-on effects before they happen.

John Steinbeck paints a beautiful image of ecological complexity in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), an account of the six-week specimen-hunting trip Steinbeck took in the Gulf of California with the marine biologist Ed Ricketts:
One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it … all things are one thing and one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

Steinbeck’s description of life in the tide pool poetically captures the complexity of scales, timeframes, and interactions that operate in a natural ecosystem - a complexity that is echoed in technological and cultural systems.

Some important questions to ask are:

How will a product be used, and by whom?

How will it interact with other (especially networked) products in the environment?

What happens when the product is moved to another habitat, possibly one it was not intended for, or to which it is not ideally suited?"
crapfutures  charleselton  1927  1998  neilpostman  ecosystems  systemsthinking  technology  future  complecity  production  environment  bighere  longnow  johnsteinbeck  nature  huamsn  anthropocene  globalization  2015  change  mauritius  dodo  disruption  local  power 
january 2016 by robertogreco
crap futures — constraint no. 2: legacies of the past
"We are locked into paths determined by decisions or choices made in previous eras, when the world was a much different place. For various reasons these legacies stubbornly persist through time, constraining future possibilities and blinkering us from alternative ways of thinking.

Here, sketched as usual on a napkin over coffee and toast, are some thoughts on legacies of the past that exercise power over our future.

Infrastructure. Take energy, for example. Tesla’s invention of alternating current became the dominant system - rather than Edison’s direct current - essentially because it allowed electricity generated at power stations to be capable of travelling large distances. Tesla’s system has, for the most part, been adopted across the world - an enormous network of stations, cables, pylons, and transformers, with electrical power arriving in our homes through sockets in the wall. This pervasive system dictates or influences almost everything energy related, and in highly complex ways: from the development of new energy generation methods (and figuring out how to feed that energy into the grid) to the design of any electrical product.

Another example is transportation. As Crap Futures has discovered, it is hard to get around this volcanic and vertiginous island without a car. There are no trains, it is too hilly to ride a bike, buses are slow and infrequent, and meanwhile over the past few decades the regional government - one particular government with a 37-year reign - poured millions into building a complex network of roads and tunnels. People used to get to other parts of the island by boat; now (and for the foreseeable future) it is by private car. This is an example of recent infrastructure that a) perpetuated and was dictated by dominant ideas of how transportation infrastructure should be done, and b) will further constrain possibilities for the island into the future.

Laws and insurance. There is a problematic time-slip between the existence of laws and insurance and the real-life behaviour of humans. Laws and insurance are for the most part reactive: insurance policies, for example, are based on amassed data that informs the broker of risk levels, and this system therefore needs history to work. So when you try to insert a new product or concept - a self-driving car or delivery drone - into everyday life, the insurance system pushes back. Insurance companies don’t want to gamble on an unknown future; they want to look at the future through historical data, which is by nature a conservative lens.

Laws, insurance, and historical infrastructure often work together to curb radical change. This partly explains why many of the now technologically realisable dreams of the past, from jetpacks to flying cars, are unlikely to become an everyday reality in that imagined form - more likely they will adapt and conform to existing systems and rules.
"No great idea in its beginning can ever be within the law. How can it be within the law? The law is stationary. The law is fixed. The law is a chariot wheel which binds us all regardless of conditions or place or time." — Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays (1910)

It is true that laws sometimes outstay their welcome or impede progress. The slow pace at which laws change becomes more and more apparent as the pace of innovation increases. But there are positive as well as negative constraints, and laws often constrain us for good (which of course is their supposed function). At best, they check our impulses, give us a cooling off period, prevent us from tearing everything down at a whim.

So the law can be a force for good. But then of course - good, bad, or ineffectual - there are always those who find ways to circumvent the law. Jonathan Swift wrote: ‘Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.’ With their shock-and-awe tactics, companies like Uber manage to overcome traditional legal barriers by moving faster than local laws or simply being big enough to shrug off serious legal challenges.

Technology is evolutionary. (See Heilbroner’s quote in the future nudge post.) Comparisons between natural and technological evolution have been a regular phenomenon since as far back Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin’s revolutionary work inspired philosophers, writers, and anthropologists - Marx and Engels, Samuel Butler, Augustus Pitt-Rivers - to suggest that technological artefacts evolve in a manner similar to natural organisms. This essentially means that technological development is unidirectional, and that radical new possibilities do not happen.

Viewing technology in evolutionary terms would appear to constrain us to only the possibilities that we could reasonably ‘evolve’ into. But this does not have to be the case: natural evolution works by random mutation and natural selection with no ‘plan’ as such, whereas technological innovation and product design are firmly teleologic (literally ‘end-directed’). In other words, the evolutionary model of technological change ignores basic human agency. While natural organisms can’t dip into the historical gene pool to bring back previous mutations, however useful they might be, innovators and designers are not locked into an irreversible evolutionary march and can look backward whenever they choose. So why don’t they? It is a case - circling back to constraint no. 1 - of thinking under the influence of progress dogma."
2015  crapfutures  constraints  darwin  evolution  innovation  future  progress  progressdogma  transportation  infrastructure  law  legal  time  pace  engels  friedrichengels  technology  californianideology  emmagoldman  anarchism  insurance  policy  electricity  nikolatesla  thomasedison  systems  systemsthinking  jonathanswift  samuelbutler  karlmarx  longnow  bighere  augustuspitt-rivers 
january 2016 by robertogreco
crap futures — constraint no. 1: progress dogma
"Despite the name, Crap Futures is not all gloom and doom. We may view notions of progress with a sceptical eye, but we still subscribe - heartily, even - to the pursuit of a better world, however small our contribution might be.

In that spirit of improvement - and to introduce the first in our new series on constraints - let us turn for a moment to Ray Bradbury, the presiding Crap Futures muse. In his short story ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), the protagonist, Eckels, travels back to the Late Cretaceous period to track and kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The slogan of the company that organises these tours, Time Safari, Inc., is straightforward: ‘Safaris to any year of the past … we take you there, you shoot it.’ Time Safari’s main job, aside from organising tours, is making sure each hunter leaves no footprint, literally or figuratively, in or on the past (or future - whatever, it’s confusing).

The spark in Bradbury’s cautionary tale is Time Safari’s meticulous treatment of the prehistoric ecosystem. With the vast timeframes involved, minute changes to a particular point in the past - increasing exponentially through time - can lead to dramatic differences in everything proceeding from that point. To avoid contaminating the past and altering the future, an ‘anti-gravity metal’ path hovers above the prehistoric jungle, from which hunters are instructed never to stray in even the slightest. The possible impact of any deviation from the path is conveyed in dramatic terms by the tour guide: ‘Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity.’ The hunters even wear special ‘oxygen helmets’ to avoid introducing ‘bacteria into the ancient atmosphere’.

Naturally enough, however, Eckels panics at the sight of the Tyrannosaurus and accidentally steps off the path. This leads to a typically Bradburyesque climax - which we won’t spoil here for those of you who haven’t read it.

The key message of Constraint No. 1 is that unlike Time Safari, most of those with a hand in ‘how the future happens’ have no motivation to think about long term consequences of their actions. So blinded are they, in fact, by the bright lights of progress and its successor innovation that any potentially negative impact is ignored. This positivistic message about technology is endemic, and is only being exacerbated by the ‘thumbs up’ and ‘like’ culture of the social network. Unfortunately, as we know, life is complicated and unforeseen negative outcomes happen.

Progress dogma keeps us on the current technological trajectory - it is belief as a motivational force of change. It gives this trajectory huge momentum, meaning that is is virtually impossible to change course. If you’ll pardon the bleak image, it’s a bit like the Titanic sailing directly into potentially fatal waters without a care in the world.

Once we remove the constraints of positive thinking, it becomes possible to more realistically apprehend the future in (some of) its complexity, helping us to figure out what to avoid as well as where to aim. So, how can we rethink progress to identify possible implications? How can we disconnect from the utopian mantra and twentieth-century mindset of positivist corporate culture?'
crapfutures  raybradbury  design  titanic  dinosaurs  sciencefiction  scifi  innovation  constraints  progress  technology  systemsthinking  time  longnow  bighere  skepticism  timesafari  implications  consequences  caution  positivism  future  duediligence  diligence  change  ecosystems  californianideology  2015 
january 2016 by robertogreco
crap futures
[via: ]

"Crap Futures is a blog about futures, innovation, politics, technology.

Crap in this context means underwhelming, disappointing, poorly thought out, badly done, inadequate, or sad. Nonsense or drivel.

Crap Futures casts a critical eye on corporate dreams and emerging technologies. It asks questions about where society is heading, who is taking us there, and whether ‘there’ is where we really want to end up.

who we are

James Auger is an Associate Professor at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute, Portugal. On graduating from Design Products at the Royal College of Art in 2001 James moved to Dublin to conduct research at Media Lab Europe (MLE) exploring the theme of human communication as mediated by technology. After MLE he worked in Tokyo as guest designer at the Issey Miyake Design Studio developing new concepts for mobile telephones. Between 2005 and 2015 James was part of the critically acclaimed Design Interactions department at the RCA, teaching on the MA programme and continuing his development of critical and speculative approaches to design and technology, completing his PhD on the subject in 2012. Running parallel to his academic work, James is half of the speculative design practice Auger-Loizeau, a collaboration founded in 2000. Auger-Loizeau projects have been published and exhibited internationally, including MoMA, New York; 21_21, Tokyo; The Science Museum, London; The National Museum of China, Beijing and Ars Electronica, Linz. Their work is in the permanent collection at MoMA.

Julian Hanna is an Assistant Professor at M-ITI. His writing on modernist and avant-garde culture has appeared in academic journals as well as the Atlantic, 3:AM, Berfrois, and elsewhere. Since joining M-ITI in 2013 his research has shifted toward futures studies, digital storytelling, design fiction, and livability."


"Here’s a bit of background on the authors, in the form of an interview.

James: Julian, as someone coming from literature, etc., what is your interest in the future?

I was never as interested in science fiction, or what I thought was sci-fi, as I was in other types of experimental literature - modernists like Joyce and the sort of stuff you were meant to read in university. At a certain point I had to make up for lost time, and began devouring Bradbury, Le Guin, Wells and the rest. What I did read a lot of during my studies, though, were manifestos - and all those improbable visions of the Futurists and Vorticists and Situationists still shape my thinking about futures, including what we’ll call ‘crap futures’. The Futurist Fortunato Depero, for example, who was a brilliant designer, wanted to design toys that not only stimulated children’s creativity, but also prepared them for the total and perpetual war that the Futurists were always promoting. So that was an early crap future.

But as far as literature informing my thoughts about futures - I remember feeling a mix of gratitude and relief when I heard Warren Ellis’s closing keynote (‘Some Bleak Circus’) at FutureEverything last year. Ellis spoke about the future through manifestos and ideas drawn from literature, and without resorting to a bunch of tech jargon. He looked like a storyteller, sitting in his old leather armchair and reading from a Kindle. That’s when it hit me that talking about the future wasn’t just the business of foresight consultants. But in fact there is a long history - Marshall McLuhan, for example, couldn’t go two pages in a future prophecy without mentioning Finnegans Wake.

The other way I engage with futures is through my training in critical thinking, close reading, and so on. I found I could look at the fictions propagated by the corporate world about possible futures the same way I could look at other types of storytelling. Thankfully this critical approach to futures has been gaining ground in recent years, establishing some much needed resistance to the kind of boosterism that dominates not only the corporate world but also a lot of tech research in the academic sphere. For various reasons the question of why more innovation in needed is far too seldom asked.

Julian: And you, James: as a designer - etc.! - how do you see the future?

It would be fair to say that I am approaching the time of life when men typically become grumpy. I am becoming increasingly grumpy about design and about the future.

As a young design student in the 90s I was proud to be practicing in my chosen discipline and happily set about learning how to develop new products that people might want to own. But looking back I realise that my education (and the majority of other designers’) desperately lacked any critical or philosophical foundation.

Myths taught at design school:

1. Design is good

2. Design makes people’s lives better

3. Design solves problems

Of course design can be and do all of these things but it has become so intrinsically linked to the complex systems of commerce and innovation that it has essentially been reduced to a novelty machine. Optimism is endemic meaning that it is unnatural for designers to think about the implications of their (technological) products: technology is good; products are good; and the future (through technological products) will therefore also be good!

I have recently been thinking a lot about constraints (it is normal for a designer), but going beyond the immediate and obvious such as costs, material, physical etc. to consider what are the constraints that reduce the possibilities of the future, or perpetuate certain trajectories.

Or alternatively the un-constraints of libertarian thinking - the techno-utopian dictatorships of Silicon Valley …

I will explore these over the coming weeks …"]

[See also: ]
tumblrs  crapfutures  future  futures  futurism  julianhanna  jamesauger  criticism  innovation  politics  critique  technology 
january 2016 by robertogreco

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