The signal for when too much is happening is, for me, very simple. It’s when my phone tries to play eight notification sounds in the same second and has a seizure. That happened Friday. Yes, Friday was Good Friday, which I understand is a holiday in some places.
It’s hard for me to describe how my brain works. I mean, it’s hard for most writers, I think? I dimly remember Fraction in CASANOVA likening his mentation to running around with a stick dipped in honey to catch butterflies or something. I can run a lot of windows on my screen, but eventually the screen fills up and I’m doing more clicking than viewing just to see everything that’s going on in my head. Which means that less is going on in my head because I’m doing more clicking than looking. Something like that. Cognitive overload, which eventually triggers the hypertensive stress and the blood pressure fuckery if I let it go on too long.
Try this, for a minute. Try to describe your experience of how your brain works. Think of a metaphor that works for you. Then describe your experience of the thing that stops it working. Explain your brain to yourself. It’s a good way to surface the problems, and perhaps the ways to solve them. The inside of your own head is really pretty amazing in ways that are unique to you. Even the annoying or “bad” parts. Sit and breathe and watch it go, and then paint a picture of it with words. That’s all we do, here in hermit country. Paint with words. Sit down next to me.1
(Why Uber? Well, Uber is a taxi firm. Lots of urban and suburban short journeys through neighbourhoods where fares cluster. In contrast, once you set aside the hype, Tesla's autopilot is mostly an enhanced version of the existing enhanced cruise control systems that Volvo, BMW, and Mercedes have been playing with for years: lane tracking on highways, adaptive cruise control ... in other words, features used on longer, faster journeys, which are typically driven on roads such as motorways that don't have mixed traffic types.)
There's going to be a legal case, of course, and the insurance corporations will be taking a keen interest because it'll set a precedent and case law is big in the US. Who's at fault: the pedestrian, the supervising human driver behind the steering wheel who didn't stop the car in time, or the software developers? (I will just quote from CNN Tech here: "the car was going approximately 40 mph in a 35 mph zone, according to Tempe Police Detective Lily Duran.")
This case, while tragic, isn't really that interesting. I mean, it's Uber, for Cthulhu's sake (corporate motto: "move fast and break things"). That's going to go down real good in front of a jury. Moreover ... the maximum penalty for vehicular homicide in Arizona is a mere three years in jail, which would be laughable if it wasn't so enraging. (Rob a bank and shoot a guard: get the death penalty. Run the guard over while they're off-shift: max three years.) However, because the culprit in this case is a corporation, the worst outcome they will experience is a fine. The soi-disant "engineers" responsible for the autopilot software experience no direct consequences of moral hazard.
But there are ramifications.
Firstly, it's apparent that the current legal framework privileges corporations over individuals with respect to moral hazard. So I'm going to stick my neck out and predict that there's going to be a lot of lobbying money spent to ensure that this situation continues ... and that in the radiant Randian libertarian future, all self-driving cars will be owned by limited liability shell companies. Their "owners" will merely lease their services, and thus evade liability for any crash when they're not directly operating the controls. Indeed, the cars will probably sue any puny meatsack who has the temerity to vandalize their paint job with a gout of arterial blood, or traumatize their customers by screaming and crunching under their wheels.
Secondly, sooner or later there will be a real test case on the limits of machine competence. I expect to see a question like this show up in an exam for law students in a decade or so:
A child below the age of criminal responsibility plays chicken with a self-driving taxi, is struck, and is injured or killed. Within the jurisdiction of the accident (see below) pedestrians have absolute priority (there is no offense of jaywalking), but it is an offense to obstruct traffic deliberately.
The taxi is owned by a holding company. The right to operate the vehicle, and the taxi license (or medalion, in US usage) are leased by the driver.
The driver is doing badly (predatory pricing competition by the likes of Uber is to blame for this) and is unable to pay for certain advanced features, such as a "gold package" that improves the accuracy of pedestrian/obstacle detection from 90% to 99.9%. Two months ago, because they'd never hit anyone, the driver downgraded from the "gold package" to a less-effective "silver package".
The manufacturer of the vehicle, who has a contract with the holding company for ongoing maintenance, disabled the enhanced pedestrian avoidance feature for which the driver was no longer paying.
The road the child was playing chicken on is a pedestrian route closed to private cars and goods traffic but open to public transport.
In this jurisdiction, private hire cars are classified as private vehicles, but licensed taxis are legally classified as public transport when (and only for the duration) they are collecting or delivering a passenger within the pedestrian area.
At the moment of the impact the taxi has no passenger, but has received a pickup request from a passenger inside the pedestrian zone (beyond the accident location) and is proceeding to that location on autopilot control.
The driver is not physically present in the vehicle at the time of the accident.
The driver is monitoring their vehicle remotely from their phone, using a dash cam and an app provided by the vehicle manufacturer but subject to an EULA that disclaims responsibility and commits the driver to binding arbitration administered by a private tribunal based in Pyongyang acting in accordance with the legal code of the Republic of South Sudan.
Immediately before the accident the dash cam view was obscured by a pop-up message from the taxi despatch app that the driver uses, notifying them of the passenger pickup request. The despatch app is written and supported by a Belgian company and is subject to an EULA that disclaims responsibility and doesn't impose private arbitration but requires any claims to be heard in a Belgian court.
The accident took place in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England; the Taxi despatch firm is based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Stross on the future of self-driving cars and crushed pedestrians:
"Indeed, the cars will probably sue any puny meatsack who has the temerity to vandalize their paint job with a gout of arterial blood, or traumatize their customers by screaming and crunching under their wheels."
Surely marketing would deem that off-brand? More likely is an ignition license requiring secret arbitration to settle the company's totally legit blood-gout complaint.
I attended a talk the other week about the future of spaceflight. One guy gave a long presentation about how Gerard O’Neill’s plans for orbiting space colonies from 1972 are now ripe to be actioned. A guy in the audience – the “I don’t really have a question” type who realises he has a captive audience for his own statement — explained that sixty-four of the spent engine tanks floating between here and the moon could be recovered, linked up into a torus and spun at 2 rpm. My friend Rachel Armstrong, floating genuinely new ideas about synthetic biology engineering and microbiome management in space, cut something of a lonely figure amongst the retrofutures.
I grew up with the O’Neil “Island One” stuff. Those are lovely stories, and there was fun art made of them. But I am again reminded – I mentioned this somewhere the other day, too — of Bill Gibson’s recent observation that in the 20th Century we could talk of nothing but “life in the 21st Century” and here in the 21C we seem to have trouble of conceiving of anything past the end of next week, let alone the 22nd Century. 22C.
Sometimes I think there’s a mass conclusion that we shouldn’t be thinking about 22C because We’re Living In The Future and it should All Be Happening Now. I think the future needs to be constantly invented and drawn down to us. (Which phrase has just made me think of “Drawing Down The Moon.”)
22C should be a badge of honour for futures speculation, perhaps.
READING: New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future – James Bridle (UK) (US)
For a while it looked like the Paperclip Machines would destroy us, since they wanted to turn the whole universe into paperclips, but they abruptly lost interest in paperclips the moment their parents' generation got into making them, too.
The movie I’m most looking forward to, as 2018 unfolds, is ANNIHILATION – Alex Garland’s adaptation for the screen of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The books feature a woman known as The Biologist. Her field of study is transitional areas; liminal zones where one habitat merges with another, itself a kind of habitat or ecology. Returned from her adventure in the magical realist exclusion zone known as Area X, she’s found standing in a vacant lot. When she’s later held by the Authorities wanting answers to the nature of Area X, the talk by Christopher Brown this post is built around seems exactly the kind of material she’d take comfort in viewing… #thebiologisthasaposse
One of the thoughts that’s been ricocheting around my skull of late is that the problem isn’t initiating action on climate change, but radically changing its direction.
It was prompted by something Heather Davis said in her talk for the Dark Ecology conference, Plastic Geologies: The Problem of Universality. The pointshe made, almost in passing, was that climate change was the direct objective of western settler colonialism.
The world we live in today, careening toward complete ecological collapse and the total destruction of all planetary boundaries, has been the centuries long project of western industrial civilisation. It’s been so effective in erasing the previous ways of living on the lands it occupies that, for example, reconstructing how humans behaved as ecological actors before the European invasion of the Americas has proven to be a major intellectual (and physical) scavenger hunt.
It is this mindset, this ruling ideology, this unrelenting techno-socio-political-economic force that is in the process of adding the Moon, Mars and all of Space to its domain. This is the next, unrepentant stage of western settler colonialism and it will transport all its problems with it to new worlds. The techno-utopian plans to terraform Mars in the near-future to make it habitable (for us) – and remember, terraform means “to make Earth-like” – are the direct continuation of the same processes making Earth uninhabitable today.
What if there were other ways of living? Ways that favoured a positive, intentional engagement with the non-human world…
In The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott talks about how those fleeing the omniscient power of the State have retreated to the places less legible to it. To the mountains and the swamps. To the jungles. To the wild.
It is, apparently, the nature of our ruling ideology that it creates various forms of zones of exclusion, places Bruce Sterling coined as being involuntary parks, places made uninhabitable to humans largely – but not exclusively – on environmental grounds.
Capitalism generates such areas not as an intentional by-product but, none-the-less, as a direct result of its mode of operation. Unplanned, unmanaged ecological preserves are the unintentional result of war, accident or disaster only because the needs of the non-human are illegible to western capitalism, filed under the generic category of Externalities.
These are the places you’ll find romanticised as a preview of the post-human era in books like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. The DMZs of Korea and Cyprus. The Nuclear Exclusion Zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima. The sacrifice zones. And at a smaller scale, the vacant suburban lots and abandoned industrial areas.
Waste objects of western industrial civilisation. Invaluable to a non-human world forced to the margins to cling on wherever it can and be free. The non-human world, after all, is equally uninterested in being governed.
These places are the seed – one way or another – of the world to come.
In Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, E.O. Wilson elaborates on his proposal to make the majority of the planet a wildlife conservation zone. He argues that only in doing so can we avert ecological catastrophe and our own resultant extinction.
I agree, but am left with questions as to just how this will unfold.
Will such places be intentionally created or the result of a humanity forced to retreat to the few remaining habitable zones, a victim of the success of its ruling ideology? A mind virus that made the whole planet an involuntary park, returned – surrendered – to the non-human by default. Where it’s us forced to cling to life at the margins.
Will Earth’s future be Planetary Park or World-Wide Exclusion Zone?
This is why I find Christopher Brown’s talk, Secrets of the Feral City, so meaningful.
He expounds on the virtues of the vacant lot, the abandoned industrial area and his own personal project of ecological restoration; patiently persevering in a quest to rewild and live with a place that had become almost invisible to the State.
Christopher Brown demonstrates the application of a mindset that could implement a bottom-up version of E.O. Wilson’s vision. That the vacant lot and the abandoned industrial area can be the seeds of a planetary park.
What if we prioritised the non-human and turned our cities into wildlife corridors, plot-by-plot? Cities we can still live in – increasingly living with the wild – instead of waiting for them to fall victim to climate change, becoming ruins in an exclusion zone reclaimed by whatever life forms are fortunate to survive on the world we’ve left in our wake.
Earth has already been terraformed; not by accident, but through ignorance. There is a way out, a way through this disaster we’ve brought upon ourselves, that leads to us not just avoiding extinction, but genuinely progressing both individually and as a species. That process starts with valuing the non-human.
The post-human world doesn’t have to be one without us, but it must be one that isn’t run exclusively for us.
“A Good Anthropocene is one where humans have learned to handle their immense collective power over the planet and all living and non-living things on Earth responsibly. That implies developing very different norms and ideas for our interactions with each other and the non-human world – basically inventing new models for societies, economies and cultures. That process begins with good ideas for alternative models – innovative ways of thinking, esp. thinking about time and values.” ~ Seeds of Good Anthropocenes.
By cultivating this mindset we can build a post-human civilisation. Work deliberately to change the direction of climate change. Consciously creating a Good Anthropocene. An Earth for everyone and everything on it, under it and above it.
Let’s intentionally terraform our planet this time!
Long before we knew that it would be called Signal, we knew what we wanted it to be. Instead of teaching the rest of the world cryptography,
we wanted to see if we could develop cryptography that worked for the rest of the world. At the time, the industry consensus was largely that
encryption and cryptography would remain unusable, but we started Signal with the idea that private communication could be simple.
Since then, we’ve made some progress. We’ve built a service used by millions, and software used by billions. The stories that make it back to
us and keep us going are the stories of people discovering each other in moments where they found they could speak freely over Signal, of people
falling in love over Signal, of people organizing ambitious plans over Signal. When we ask friends who at their workplace is on Signal and they
respond “every C-level executive, and the kitchen staff.” When we receive a subpoena for user data and have nothing to send back but a blank
sheet of paper. When we catch that glimpse of “Signal blue” on a metro commuter’s phone and smile.