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Science fiction, nostalgia and dystopia

February 23, 2015 Leave a comment

This post is prompted by a question that was posed in a Linkin group I follow. The question was basically about the way ‘robots’ have developed in the last half-century or so and whether it’s been a good thing. The term ‘robots’ was meant in a pretty generic way to include all kinds of cybernetics, but the question was largely directed at industrial production and its effects on employment.

Now this was of interest to me for a couple of reasons. One was to do with SF magazines in the 1960s when I was growing up, along with films such as 2001: A Space Odyssy and the ultimately-flawed HAL computer that pretty much ran the spaceship. the other was a series of seminar discussions and informal stuff when I was taking my degree, which revolved around the idea ‘what are we all going to do when robots do all the work?’ Even though cybernetics was in its infancy at that point, it as pretty clear it was going to become a huge part of life.

You’ll have to forgive me for not remembering all the names and all the stuff we read, though it included people like Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, Ivan Illich, and a small blue book with white writing and a diagram on the cover, the title of which I can’t now remember and I can’t spot the book on my shelves.

Among the predictions were that:

1. Robots would mean the same goods could be produced by massively fewer people, so we’d all be on five-hour weeks (or something like that) for the same real wages we were on before the robots were used (that wasn’t an option I mentioned in my Linkedin reply and I don’t think many people thought that was a realistic scenario)

2. We would necessarily live in a socialist society because cybernetics would mean unemployment for 90% of more of people. Unemployed people would nonetheless receive state benefits as a reward for acquiescing to this mode of production, and nonetheless live productive lives through following creative pursuits largely for their own and others’ pleasure. Alternatively, given the way the demographics were going, the majority of human jobs would be in  care for the elderly.

3. There would be a two-tier society where a proportion of the population would cease to live in a robot-centric money economy. Instead we’d learn skills in informal Ivan Illich style free universities (he founded such an institution, CIDOC, in 1961 though it subsequently turned out to be quite a complex little place, as the Wikipedia article in the link makes clear). Or there would be free forms of education provided through labour unions (if anyone remembers what they were) or the workers’ education movement, or places like seminars run in pubs (which have happened at times) plus the Cafe Culturel and Cafe Scientifique setups (these tend to be regionally organised: examples include the UK North-east CC and the American CS main website). Some people might also use redundant, hand-me-down or military surplus equipment repurposed for their own needs to make specialist stuff to distribute in a barter-style economy. That just made me think of the kind of performance art created by people like Survival Research Laboratories, but a more mundane example would be the way some vintage car clubs have bought the original production machinery from the car factories when they were closed, so they can continue to produce original components for vintage cars. And I’ll just mention we’ve recently had a gear linkage component for our ageing campervan replaced by a semi-retired guy who works out of a small workshop and specialises in manufacturing gear linkage components for campervans – the kind of thing that’s a niche market no big business would want to touch, but literally keeps the wheels moving.

4. We’d all move to a Chinese-style economy circa 1980, in which large numbers of people would be allocated to work groups from which they’d draw a salary even though their job was a sinecure. There’s another book somewhere on my shelves about this but I can’t find it; it was written by a Western manager sent to China in the 1980s to run a Western/Chinese joint enterprise making cast-iron goods. Suggestions for what it might have been called are welcome and as another clus, my copy had a brownish cover.  The Chinese economy as a whole has, if I understand it correctly, moved away from this kind of model since that time.

5. There would be a new type of feudalism in which most of us would use robot-made goods while the rich would have the rest of us on retainers or as servants, producing handmade and bespoke craft goods and carrying out roles that robots could not fulfil or that some people preferred to have done by a person.

6. The rise of robots would reach some sort of plateau because we would discover a point at which it would be uneconomic or unfeasible to use robots for a range of tasks, and where for some purposes people actually prefer to be served by other humans.

Coupled with neoliberalism since the 1980s, and the increasing number of people living on low wages and supplemented by benefits of various types (in the UK, for example, tax credits) we seem to be moving towards a society that has characteristics of models 2 and 6 above – at the cost of producing, by this point, at least two and possibly three generations of people who are ‘surplus to labour requirements’ and for whom there isn’t an alternative workable social model that looks remotely like the other models I mentioned.

The discussions I had in the 1970s didn’t really take a global view because at that point the globalisation processes of the 1970s were only just beginning (though I guess we’d seen them before, during the era of colonial and empire trading in the 1800s!). So at that point we didn’t take account of the fact that robots could manufacture but not assemble electronic items (as in mobile phone components) and the assembly work would be done by an army of cheap labour in China. Nor did we take account of the argument that using robots would be economically viable with some goods but not others, which would be too cheap to warrant anything other than low-paid human labour (or high-priced enough to command handcrafted work such as setting diamonds in watch faces). But the idea that you’d have a dual economy in one country or city was part of the discussion, because again, we could all see even then that it was staring to happen with sweatshops using imported labour in the UK and so on.

I don’t have a real conclusion to this post, other than to say that the more I’ve seen Blade Runner the more it looks like it describes the way we’re headed: many people unemployed or on low pay or in casual work, all of the kind that it’s not economic to automate for one of two reasons – people are cheaper, or the goods and services are sold at a premium as handcrafted or individualised things. The more I look at our current economic ills the more it looks to me like the juggernaut of international capitalism is running on flat tyres and with a missing cylinder, and though it will go on in some form it may actually become less relevant to the way we lead our lives. And it doesn’t surprise me that the government has a lot of issues with legalising cannabis because (remembering I’m a criminologist and study these things) I’m aware of small subcultures in the UK and where for the last 20 or so years the basic unit of currency hasn’t been the pound but the teenth, ten-wrap, or ounce. I once met a career criminal who sold stuff he’d stolen in exchange for cannabis, in quantities that meant he either resold it for cash or traded it for many of the things he needed on a more everyday basis. That’s the more dystopian take on the multi-tier society I guess. But as to robots – in many respects we had opportunities to use them positively and in many respects we have used them positively; but we’ve done it in the context of an almost 19th-century attitude to industry and economics, a fixation on consumer society and without any long-term planning for their multiple social impacts. Which, I guess, is something we could have predicted back in the seventies. But we were a little more optimistic back then.

Arts, (lack of) money and the need for inventiveness

March 30, 2011 5 comments

The unsurprising news emerged yesterday that many UK arts organisations will have their public funding reduced or cut entirely. The arts generally is always a bit of a soft target, open to a range of criticisms from less eligibility (‘how can you spend money on the arts when there are no many funding shortfalls in health/welfare/education?’) to profligacy to poor taste (‘you mean my taxes paid for that crap to be displayed in the gallery?’).

I have, I confess, very mixed views about this. On the one hand, my own ‘involvement in state funded art’ amounts to reading my stories at a couple of events that received Arts Council and local authority subsidies. That’s probably about as much as any writer does. On the whole we work in a sector of the arts that gets probably less public funding than any other. On the other hand, I’m aware I go to events, exhibitions and the like that cost vastly more to put on than can be paid for through ticket sales, so I’m benefiting from arts funding in that sense.

State funding isn’t always the best kind of funding to have, and a lot of the most innovative work often happens in obscure holes and corners of the art world (I mean ‘art’ in its broadest sense to include the whole spectrum of artistic endeavour), funded in ways that range from impromptu to implausible, and in some cases the artwork itself is carried out in secretive and illegal ways – yes, I’m thinking here mainly of graffiti. But that said, we also need to recognise that what’s obscure and innovative at one point in time is the orthodoxy twenty years later, and that the UK as a whole is a major global producer in the economy of signs and images. It relies heavily on the flow of artistic and cultural talent in all kinds of areas from music to art to scriptwriting, screenwriting, niche areas of film and even niche areas within film such as special effects. And, of course, development of computer games… it would wind up being a long list.

Anyway. Rant over. What intrigued me today was a BBC article, ‘Arts world gets creative in funding crisis‘. Ideas being tried out now are crowdfunding through multiple small donations via the Wedidthis, Sponsume and Wefund websites; sponsoring individual members of an orchestra, with side benefits including dinners with them; venues being opened up to events such as weddings and receptions; and increasing numbers of in-person and online courses in creative areas run by people who have public reputations in those areas.

The arts are being squeezed in all sorts of directions; not just public funding, but the role of the internet in providing free access to many arts products, whether because the artists have to put it out free for promotional reasons, or internet piracy (which in music and now increasingly in writing means that artists get paid nothing for their work and need to build other income streams – live performance or whatever).

It probably won’t all work out alright in the end. There will be casualties along the way, including, probably, the collapse of some well-known and well-respected organisations. The people who are most recession-proofed, however, will be those who’ve struggled without funding already, trying to get their artistic vision across in unconventional ways. I’d hope that those people, who are often the real cutting edge of new art talent, will be able to struggle for a bit longer, become even more inventive about how they operate, and not just survive but prosper. I’m hoping at least some people will find that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. And I’m hoping that’s not a vain hope.

Birthday, mud, and thoughts about electricity

February 1, 2011 5 comments
mud clock

Mud Clock

It was my birthday recently, and one of the presents I got was a mud-powered clock.

Yes, you read that right: a clock powered by mud (not supplied as part of the kit).

Sorry about the pic, it was done on my mobile phone which seems to have a few problems focusing (ok, I know, so it’s like me in that regard. Heard that one before).

It’s actually not a recent idea. Mud is slightly acidic, so that if you have two metal strips a short distance apart, one copper and one zinc, you’ll get a small electrical charge between them. It’s a variant of a novelty item that was sold quite a few years ago, a lemon-powered clock (lemon juice is of course rather more acidic).

The pic of the clock shows two small containers of mud, each about two inches high and generating half a volt. Two of them in series create one volt which is enough to power the clock.

I didn’t set it up for a couple of days because I was lazy and the garden was frozen. Some friends offered to send me some of their mud instead, but I declined. It’s working now, though, and sits on top of the fish tank. And it set me thinking.

Bigger metal strips and/or more strips in series, in the garden or even a window box, would generate more current. So in theory, it would be possible to power a 12-volt electrical system by this means.

In fact, add in a solar trickle charger, some control equipment and a battery – the kind you use in campervans (RVs if you’re in the States) and you could have yourself a complete 12 volt household system. And the significance of this is that 90% of the stuff you plug in to your regular mains supply runs off 12 volts or thereabouts, with a transformer either in the equipment casing or as part of a ‘wall wart’ style plug.

Think about it this way: the majority of electrical products you use at home, you can alo buy in-car chargers for and they run off a 12-volt car battery.

The things that would still require mains voltage: some lights, electric cooker, washing machine, dishwasher, big aircons. Not all lighting, though, because a lot of those little halogen bulb spotlight type systems you see run off 12 volts with a transformer. And that’s about it, since you can get all kinds of household equipment – fridge-freezers, TVs and DVD players for example – that work off car batteries.

Imagine, though: once you have the system set up, your electricity bill would be massively decreased because you’re generating electricity literally out of the earth in your garden, window box, or even pot plants. (NB: this is not an excuse to set up a cannabis farm – ‘Your honour, I was only growing the plants to see if the pots could generate enough electricity for the lights they require and then use the excess to power my TV’ – that’s not going to work, is it…)

I started investigating whether this – the 12-volt system, I mean, not the cannabis farm – was actually feasible and came across a number of websites by people who have done this kind of thing. A guy called Nev Sweeney, in Australia, has done it in his house and details are on the Selfsufficientish website.

He even runs most of his house lighting off it, though in his case he runs the system off car batteries and charges them primarily from the mains. And there are other, quite specific, plans at the Halfbakery website, which lists a whole load of ideas that seem half-baked but could actually work. A 12-volt system, they note, does tend to lose some power through the wiring itself, but ‘Power losses from the wiring are more than made up for by eliminating step-down transformer losses’.

One problem with a mud-powered electrical system would be a drought. The mud needs to have some water content to remain electrically conductive, and it does need to be acidic. My clock instructions suggest that a small quantity of vinegar added to the mud periodically will increase the available voltage. On a medical website, though, I came across this piece of information: ‘During sleep, decreased pulmonary ventilation causes respiratory acidosis. As a result, a first waking urine specimen is usually highly acidic.’

See where I’m going with this?

That probably means it’s time to end this post, apart from noting that if you use ‘12 volt home’ as a Google search it brings up some quite amusing sponsored ads – such as ‘Buy 12 Volt Home
up to 50% cheaper’. Huh?

 

Beware, the future has just arrived!

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

When I was about 14 or 15 I read a science fiction story, probably in Analog, in which the protagonist has a problem with his domestic appliances. They’re all coin-operated and won’t co-operate because he’s run out of change. In fact, he finds he can’t even leave his apartment because the rent is paid via a coin mechanism on the door every time he wants to open it.

This last point is just an extension of how doors in some public toilets used to work, but as to the domestic appliances – it’s intriguing how SF seems to be able to predict the future, or alternatively how anything SF writers imagine turns up as part of reality a decade or two later.

The reason this occurs to me is because something just came through the letterbox. No, not the stuff ordered from Amazon two weeks ago that was dispatched the same day and supposed to arrive last week (thanks, Royal Mail – and I’ve just been reading news articles about how once something isn’t delivered within the target time it gets added to the massive stockpile of delayed stuff, and there’s no target for clearing that so it can wait for weeks to get to you).

Okay, end of rant. What came through the letterbox was a leaflet: ‘Need a new TV, washer or fridge freezer? Pay in easy instalments via coin meter!’

The meter is apparently ‘discrete’ (I imagine they mean ‘discreet’) and emptied by a company representative once a month. I’m left wondering whether you have to pay every time you open the fridge freezer, or once a week, or whatever, and what happens if you don’t pay. Is the door locked, or does it turn off the power?

Frankly, I’m just hoping none of my stories end up presaging the future… If they do we’ll have 20% of the population turning into serial murderers or drug dealers, and everyone they don’t kill being attacked by vampires, zombies, aliens, or the ghosts of people who died in industrial accidents.

 

Looking to the future

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Just before Christmas I came across a piece on the BBC website, ‘Futurology: The tricky art of knowing what will happen next’. And I’ve spent Christmas in a pensive frame of mind, wondering what kinds of predictions we might be able to make about the next fifty or so years.

The BBC piece is based on a 1972 book by Geoffrey Hoyle that’s recently been reissued, and to some extent the predictions made in it are less to do with scientific advances and more to do with social developments.

For example the book depicted everyone wearing jumpsuits, a style that back then, with the film of 1984 still in the public consciousness, had connotations of centralised planning and loss of individual liberty. A great deal of science fiction – and I assume this well known – is less about science per se and more about social and political critique, which is often carried in such apparently trivial details. So if I were to try to make any predictions, they wouldn’t be sweeping and scientific ones, they’d be relatively modest, devil-is-in-the-detail type ones.

If you want big and sweeping ones, earlier this year the New York Daily News (23 June 2010) carried a piece called ‘A Global Status Report: January 1, 2050 – predictions of year 2050 world scenario’. Among other things this concluded on the basis of a poll that more than 71% of the US population thinks cancer will be ‘cured’, 74% that most of our energy will come from renewables, 53% that ‘ordinary people’ will travel in space, almost 90% that a woman will be president of the US by 2050, and 69% that the president will be Hispanic (there’s no separate figure for the proportion who think there will be a Hispanic woman president by that tine). Oh, and 72% see a looming energy crisis while 59% think there will be another world war and 53% a major nuclear terrorist attack on the US.

Finally, to keep matters in perspective, 41% say that by 2050 we’ll see the second coming of Jesus Christ: whether that will happen before or after the energy crisis and the world war isn’t reported.

Certain predictions are almost not worth making. For example I wrote a short story some time ago in which people had jackets and other fashion items with communications technologies – phone and video – woven into the fibres. But of course such things already exist as prototypes, as followers of trendhunter.com will have seen.

So – my predictions? More socio-political than technological, I think.

1. Life will become more complex and interconnected, in an attempt to try to keep everything going. It will also become more random, as the resiliance of our systems against everything from the weather to volcanic ash and earthquakes to social protest and financial crises will be tested to the limit. The interconnectedness of systems will itself become problematic. That’s the thing about interconnectedness – when one system goes down, it affects everything it’s connected to.

2. Life will become more complex as rules and regulations increase. But mostly we’ll all end up ignoring the rules and regulations because they’ll become impossible to comply with, mutually contradictory, etc. We’ll find ways round them, multiple identities, whatever. Even today, a large proportion of crimes are seen on CCTV, but the proportion of crimes actually solved through CCTV is a bit over 1%. My prediction is just that phenomenon, writ large.

3. Small will be beautiful. Here’s a story. A music shop near me just closed. Trwenty years ago it was an independent store. It got bought up by a chain of stores, which was sold and re-sold a number of times to ever larger and more remote investment and venture capital companies. Eventually the local store was just a branch of a subsidiary of a company that was owned by some larger company that tried to micro-manage it and knew nothing about the music industry. So the company went bankrupt and the store closed quite suddenly. Now, round the corner from the empty shop unit, there’s a new small independent music company. That’s the microcosm; I can see a lot more of that kind of thing happening in the future.

4. Hats will become more popular. Especially ones with wide brims or veils that partly hide the face.

Any other thoughts, suggestions or predictions welcome!

Ebook publishing – new styles and possibilities?

August 1, 2010 8 comments

In surfing the net I came across a couple of things that made sense to me (though whether I’ll be able to act on them is another question).

They’re basically thoughts about how ebook publishing in future might look a lot less like ‘publishing’ and much more like some other things, like running nightclub events or selling software. Or a mix of both.

First: Doug Toft’s Posterous Blog. Headline details: publishers had five main functions: curating (i.e. maintaining and developing a ‘collection’ of authors), editing/publishing, printing, distribution, promotion of their authors’ works. However, 90% of the work involved in publishing disappears with digital versions. OK, so the files need to be edited, put into multiple digital formats, and someone needs to do a lot of SEO work – but even so, the one key issue that digitalisation doesn’t change is the ‘curating’ function.

So what can publishers deliver that makes it worthwhile for an author to do business with them? Answer: readers. He describes the new functions of a publisher, apart from curating, as creating, leading, and connecting together potential members of a ‘tribe’.

Book publishing then comes to look a lot more like – this is my view, I should say, not his – being involved in promoting a band, or running a successful nightclub event.

Second: a thought about the future of ebooks from the NY Times article ‘E-Books Fly Beyond Mere Text’. Headline details: ebooks offer publishers and writers all kinds of new possibilities, such as embedding video, games, music, easter eggs and so forth. For many books the key attraction will remain the story – plot, characters, language style and so forth – but obviously these new possibilities are available and can be exploited, just as they can in Word files, if you want to do it. And savvy writers can build them into the text.

Again my take on this is that few authors will be able to do it by themselves, but within a collective that involves multi-media people (or a multi-media publisher, of course) it will become increasingly common, accepted, even expected. After all, many if not most textbooks are already supported by dedicated websites – with an ebook, the dedicated support can be built into the book – including, perhaps, letting the reader know the support materials have been updated and allowing them (for a payment?) to upload the amended version, in the same way software companies get you to buy a product and then charge for the update/upgrade.

Any thoughts?

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