We are so excited by the idea of machines that can write, and create art, and compose music, with seemingly little regard for how many wells of creativity sit untapped because many of us spend the best hours of our days toiling away, and even more can barely fulfill basic needs for food, shelter, and water. I can’t help but wonder how rich our lives could be if we focused a little more on creating conditions that enable all humans to exercise their creativity as much as we would like robots to be able to.
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021
Tuesday, September 7th, 2021
A profile of Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Monday, September 6th, 2021
At its core, and despite its appropriation, Solarpunk imagines a radically different societal and economic structure.
Tuesday, August 17th, 2021
Letters to a Young Technologist is a collection of essays addressed to young technologists, written by a group of young technologists.
Wednesday, July 28th, 2021
Rationality does not work for ethical decisions. It can help you determine means, “what’s the best way to do this” but it can’t determine ends.
It isn’t even that great for means.
Tuesday, July 20th, 2021
An excellent thoughtful piece from Angela Saini (as always):
Popular opinion, “common sense” and the closely related priors of scientific enquiry have never been reliable guides when it comes to decoding human difference. After all, European biologists once thought it was obvious that colour-coded races were different species or breeds that had evolved separately on each continent. It was obvious to taxonomist Carl Linnaeus that monster-like and feral races of humans surely existed somewhere in the world. More recently, neuroscientists were happily insisting that women were innately less intelligent than men because they had smaller brains. A few neuroscientists still do.
History shows that many supposed “facts” about human nature were actually always cultural constructions. Race is one. Gender is another. Now, some researchers believe that sex—generally seen as determined by anatomy, including chromosomes, hormones and genitalia—may to some extent be constructed, too. Binary categories of male and female, they say, certainly don’t fully encompass all the natural variation and complexity that we see in our species.
Monday, July 19th, 2021
My talk on sci-fi and me for Beyond Tellerrand’s Stay Curious event was deliberately designed to be broad and expansive. This was in contrast to Steph’s talk which was deliberately narrow and focused on one topic. Specifically, it was all about solarpunk.
I first heard of solarpunk from Justin Pickard back in 2014 at an event I was hosting. He described it as:
individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.
The sci-fi subgenre of solarpunk, then, is about these communities. The subgenre sets up to be deliberately positive, even utopian, in contrast to most sci-fi.
Most genres ending with the -punk suffix are about aesthetics. You know the way that cyberpunk is laptops, leather and sunglasses, and steampunk is zeppelins and top hats with goggles. Solarpunk is supposedly free of any such “look.” That said, all the examples I’ve seen seem to converge on the motto of “put a tree on it.” If a depiction of the future looks lush, verdant, fecund and green, chances are it’s solarpunk.
At least, it might be solarpunk. It would have to pass the criteria laid down by the gatekeepers. Solarpunk is manifesto-driven sci-fi. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s one thing to apply a category to a piece of writing after it’s been written, but it’s another to start with an agenda-driven category and proceed from there. And as with any kind of classification system, the edges are bound to be fuzzy, leading to endless debates about what’s in and what’s out (see also: UX, UI, service design, content design, product design, front-end development, and most ironically of all, information architecture).
When I met up with Steph to discuss our talk topics and she described the various schools of thought that reside under the umbrella of solarpunk, it reminded me of my college days. You wouldn’t have just one Marxist student group, there’d be multiple Marxist student groups each with their own pillars of identity (Leninist, Trotskyist, anarcho-syndicalist, and so on). From the outside they all looked the same, but woe betide you if you mixed them up. It was exactly the kind of situation that was lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with its People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front. Steph confirmed that those kind of rifts also exist in solarpunk. It’s just like that bit in Gulliver’s Travels where nations go to war over the correct way to crack an egg.
But there’s general agreement about what broadly constitutes solarpunk. It’s a form of cli-fi (climate fiction) but with an upbeat spin: positive but plausible stories of the future that might feature communities, rewilding, gardening, farming, energy independence, or decentralisation. Centralised authority—in the form of governments and corporations—is not to be trusted.
That’s all well and good but it reminds of another community. Libertarian preppers. Heck, even some of the solarpunk examples feature seasteading (but with more trees).
Politically, preppers and solarpunks couldn’t be further apart. Practically, they seem more similar than either of them would be comfortable with.
Both communities distrust centralisation. For the libertarians, this manifests in a hatred of taxation. For solarpunks, it’s all about getting off the electricity grid. But both want to start their own separate self-sustaining communities.
Independence. Decentralisation. Self-sufficiency.
There’s a fine line between Atlas Shrugged and The Whole Earth Catalog.
Thursday, April 22nd, 2021
I’ve lately been trying an exercise where, when reading anything by or about tech companies, I replace uses of the word “infrastructure” with “means of production.”
Wednesday, November 18th, 2020
Sunday, August 30th, 2020
RFC 8890 maybe the closest thing we’ve got to a Hippocratic oath right now.
A community that agrees to principles that are informed by shared values can use them to navigate hard decisions.
Many discussions influenced this document, both inside and outside of the IETF and IAB. In particular, Edward Snowden’s comments regarding the priority of end users at IETF 93 and the HTML5 Priority of Constituencies were both influential.
Friday, August 7th, 2020
I too am a member of The British Interplanetary Society and I too recommend it.
(Hey Matt, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of solar sails, be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed of Centauri Dreams—Paul Gilster is big into solar sails!)
Saturday, July 4th, 2020
The Machines Stop
The Situation feels like it’s changing. It’s not over, not by a long shot. But it feels like it’s entering a different, looser phase.
Throughout the lockdown, there’s been a strange symmetry between the outside world and the inside of our home. As the outside world slowed to a halt, so too did half the machinery in our flat. Our dishwasher broke shortly before the official lockdown began. So did our washing machine.
We had made plans for repairs and replacements, but as events in the world outside escalated, those plans had to be put on hold. Plumbers and engineers weren’t making any house calls, and rightly so.
But the gas stovetop was fixed. And so too was the dishwasher, eventually. Just last week, we got our new washing machine installed. Piece by piece, the machinery of our interier world revived in lockstep with the resucitation of the world outside.
As of today, pubs will be open. I won’t be crossing their thresholds just yet. We know so much more about the spread of the virus now, and gatherings of people in indoor spaces are pretty much the worst environments for transmission.
I’m feeling more sanguine about outdoor spaces. Yesterday, Jessica and I went into town for Street Diner. It was the first time since March that we walked in that direction—our other excursions have been in the direction of the countryside.
It was perfectly fine. We wore masks, and while we were certainly in the minority, we were not alone. People were generally behaving responsibly.
Brighton hasn’t done too badly throughout The Situation. But still, like I said, I have no plans to head to the pub on a Saturday night. The British drinking culture is very much concentrated on weekends. Stay in all week and then on the weekend, lassen die Sau raus!, as the Germans would say.
After months of lockdown, reopening pubs on a Saturday seems like a terrible idea. Over in Ireland, pubs have been open since Monday—a sensible day to soft-launch. With plenty of precautions in place, things are going well there.
I’ve been watching The Situation in Ireland throughout. It’s where my mother lives, so I was understandably concerned. But they’ve handled everything really well. It’s not New Zealand, but it’s also not the disaster that is the UK.
It really has been like watching an A/B test run at the country level. Two very similar populations confronted with exactly the same crisis. Ireland took action early, cancelling the St. Patrick’s Day parade(!) while the UK was still merrily letting Cheltenham go ahead. Ireland had clear guidance. The UK had dilly-dallying and waffling. And when the shit really hit the fan, the Irish taoiseach rolled up his sleeves and returned to medical work. Meanwhile the UK had Dominic Cummings making a complete mockery of the sacrifices that everyone was told to endure.
What’s strange is that people here in the UK don’t seem to realise how the rest of the world, especially other European countries, have watched the response here with shock and horror. The narrative here seems to be that we all faced this thing together, and with our collective effort, we averted the worst. But the numbers tell a very different story. Comparing the numbers here with the numbers in Ireland—or pretty much any other country in Europe—is sobering.
So even though the timelines for reopenings here converge with Ireland’s, The Situation is far from over.
Even without any trips to pubs, restaurants, or other indoor spaces, I’m looking forward to making some more excursions into town. Not that it’s been bad staying at home. I’ve really quite enjoyed staying put, playing music, reading books, and watching television.
I was furloughed from work for a while in June. Normally, my work at this time of year would involve plenty of speaking at conferences. Seeing as that wasn’t happening, it made sense to take advantage of the government scheme to go into work hibernation for a bit.
I was worried I might feel at a bit of a loose end, but I actually really enjoyed it. The weather was good so I spent quite a bit of time just sitting in the back garden, reading (I am very, very grateful to have even a small garden). I listened to music. I watched movies. I surfed the web. Yes, properly surfed the web, going from link to link, get lost down rabbit holes. I tell you, this World Wide Web thing is pretty remarkable. Some days I used it to read up on science or philosophy. I spent a week immersed in Napoleonic history. I have no idea how or why. But it was great.
I’m back at work now, and have been for a couple of weeks. But I wouldn’t mind getting furloughed again. It felt kind of like being retired. I’m quite okay with the propsect of retirement now, as long as we have music and sunshine and the World Wide Web.
That’s the future. For now, The Situation continues, albeit in looser form.
I’ve really enjoyed reading other people’s accounts throughout. My RSS reader is getting a good workout. I always look forward to weeknotes from Alice, Nat, and Phil (this piece from Phil has really stuck with me). Jessica has written fifteen installments—and counting—of A Journal of the Plague Week. I know I’m biased, but I think it’s some mighty fine writing. Start here.
Sunday, May 3rd, 2020
Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now.
Kim Stanley Robinson knows the score:
Margaret Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society,” and Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” These stupid slogans marked the turn away from the postwar period of reconstruction and underpin much of the bullshit of the past forty years.
Thursday, April 16th, 2020
Naomi Kritzer published a short story five years ago called So Much Cooking about a food blogger in lockdown during a pandemic. Prescient.
I left a lot of the details about the disease vague in the story, because what I wanted to talk about was not the science but the individuals struggling to get by as this crisis raged around them. There’s a common assumption that if the shit ever truly hit the fan, people would turn on one another like sharks turning on a wounded shark. In fact, the opposite usually happens: humans in disasters form tight community bonds, help their neighbors, offer what they can to the community.
Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
Ted Chiang’s hot takes are like his short stories—punchy, powerful, and thought-provoking.
Tuesday, March 31st, 2020
I just love the way that Laurie Penny writes.
In the end, it will not be butchery. Instead it will be bakery, as everyone has apparently decided that the best thing to do when the world lurches sideways is learn to make bread. Yeast is gone from the shops. Even I have been acting out in the kitchen, although my baked goods are legendarily dreadful. A friend and former roommate, who knows me well, called from Berlin to ask if I had “made the terrible, horrible biscuits yet.” These misfortune cookies tend to happen at moments of such extreme stress that those around me feel obliged to eat them. They say that if you can make a cake, you can make a bomb; if the whole thing implodes, my job will not be in munitions.
Friday, March 27th, 2020
An interview with Joanne McNeil about her new book, Lurking:
Someone who was creating, say, a small decentralized community for a specific group of people would not have luck finding investors, as opposed to Facebook, which sought to build a platform for all.
‘Sfunny, when I was on Quarantine Book Club the other day, this is exactly what I talked about one point—how Facebook (and venture capital) moved the goalposts on what constitutes success and failure on the web.
Friday, March 20th, 2020
How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?
It’s okay if you’re not. This is a tough time.
It’s very easy to become despondent about the state of the world. If you tend to lean towards pessimism, The Situation certainly seems to be validating your worldview right now.
I’m finding that The Situation is also a kind of Rorschach test. If you’ve always felt that humanity wasn’t deserving of your faith—that “we are the virus”—then there’s plenty happening right now to bolster that opinion. But if you’ve always thought that human beings are fundamentally good and decent, there’s just as much happening to reinforce that viewpoint.
I’ve noticed concentric circles of feelings tied to geography—positive in the centre, and very negative at the edges. What I mean is, if you look at what’s happening in your building and your street, it’s quite amazing how people are pulling together:
Our street (and the guy who runs the nearby corner store) is self-organizing so that everyone’s looking out for each other, checking up on elderly and self-isolating folks, sharing contact details, picking up shopping if necessary, and generally just being good humans.
This goodwill extends just about to the level of city mayorships. But once you look further than that, things turn increasingly sour. At the country level, incompetence and mismanagement seem to be the order of the day. And once you expand out to the whole world, who can blame you for feeling overwhelmed with despair?
But the world is made up of countries, and countries are made up of communities, and these communities are made up of people who are pulling together and helping one another.
Best of all, you can absolutely be part of this wonderful effort. In normal times, civic activism would require you to take action, get out there, and march in the streets. Now you can be a local hero by staying at home.
That’s it. Stay inside, resist the urge to congregate, and chat to your friends and relatives online instead. If you do that, you are being a most excellent human being—the kind that restores your faith in humanity.
I know it feels grim and overwhelming but, again, look at what’s triggering those feelings—is it the national news? International? I know it’s important to stay informed about the big picture—this is a global pandemic, after all—but don’t lose sight of what’s close to hand. Look closer to home and you’ll see the helpers—heck, you are one of the helpers.
On Ev’s blog, Fiona Cameron Lister quotes the president of the Italian Society of Psychiatrists:
Fear of an epidemic is as old as mankind itself. In this case its effect is amplified by incomplete, even false information which has caused public confidence in our institutions to collapse.
She points out that the media are in the business of amplifying the outliers of negative behaviour—panic buying, greed, and worst-case scenarios. But she goes on to say:
It doesn’t take much to start a panic and we are teetering on the brink.
Not to be the “well, actually” guy but …well, actually…
That view of humanity as being poised on the brink of mass panic is the common consensus viewpoint; it even influences public policy. But the data doesn’t support this conclusion. (If you want details, I highly recommend reading Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball.) Thinking of ordinary people as being one emergency away from panicking is itself giving into fear.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re feeling misanthropic about your fellow humans right now, try rebalancing your intake. Yes, it’s good to keep yourself informed about national and global events, but make sure to give plenty of attention to the local level too. You may just find your heart warming and your spirits lifting.
After all, you’re a good person, right? And you probably also think of yourself as a fairly ordinary person, right? So if you’re doing the right thing—making small sacrifices and being concerned for your neighbours—then logic dictates that most other people are too.
When this is over, I hope we will be proud of how well we loved one another.
Thursday, March 19th, 2020
COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.
It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.
But it’s not the same though, is it?
I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”
Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:
It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.
Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.
I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”
Wednesday, January 8th, 2020
- The developed world used less water, despite population growth
- The (whole) world became less transphobic than it once was
- The ozone layer started healing
- Investment in green energy far, far exceeded investment in fossil fuels
- The world got greener
- Homicide rates fell worldwide
- Weather forecasting became a lot more accurate
- The number of people without electricity fell below one billion
- Universal health care went from privileged ideal to global ambition