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Month: June 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Conversion Ratio

The following short story was written by ReTech and edited for this venue.

Bright neon Wheel of Fortune machine in a casino. Photo by La super Lili.

Photo by La super Lili.

Swen saw the glow from his forearm underneath his shirt. He’d muted his phone, so now someone was pinging him. It was almost an even bet: either his boss or Sully. After a long week it felt nice to be offline, even if it was only for a few ticks.

“Should’ve muted ’em both,” Swen thought as he slid his sleeve up. The loop was swinging underneath the south pass of the Rockies so the cabin dimmed for a moment as the lighting adjusted. His dermdisplay lit up his face as he read: WTF? Need to talk ASAP. You don’t just get recoded and go offline like that. Lemme know where you are. Ping back dammit. (-.-) Sul

Sully might be genuinely worried or he might think that he’d be on the hook. After all, Sully was the one who took him to the clinic, so maybe he was feeling nervous. Swen thought, “I’ll let him sweat till I get to the strip. It’s only twenty more minutes.” He smiled and muted his arm in the same motion as slipping his sleeve back down. The flesh no longer glowed.

Fourteen days ago Swen’s hours had been increased at work. He was given no say in the matter. He was on mandatory rotations for the next three years. Swen had gotten shafted with the most depressing job he could imagine: death-sitter. More accurately, or more officially, “Hospice End-of-Life Observer”. People were too busy to give a shit about a dying family member and headchats just weren’t the same as holding a hand.

Since 2031, WellSys had mandated death-sitters as part of their Grace in Dying initiative. Marketing had originally called it Dignity in Life and Death Options. Apparently not a single person working on the multimillion-coin campaign had abbreviated that. Exactly two hours after the campaign hit the feeds, DILDO was pulled and rebranded as the GD hospice plan. The lesser of two evils.

Thirteen days ago Swen held the hand of a 147-year-old woman who did not receive one call, one text, a single feed mention, nor have anyone claim her things after she died. This was not the sad part to Swen. Millions died like that every year. What made him maudlin was that he’d end up in a bed the same way, in a hundred or so years. The thought of some young forty-year-old sitting with him as he died, just because the kid had to, was repulsive enough.

But the thought of an adventureless life nauseated Swen.

Twelve days ago, he asked Sully if he still had friends that recoded. Swen didn’t try to get Sully drunk first. He didn’t do it over dinner or in some coy fashion, just-so-happening to mention the topic in conversation. Instead Swen walked into Sully’s apartment, smiled, said hello, kissed him lightly, and asked matter-of-factly: “Can you get me in touch with a recoder? I’m tired of being on basic and I want to make enough money so I’m not stuck anymore.”

Sully paused mid-breath for a moment. A slice of black hair slid down over his left eye. He didn’t bother to push it back. He didn’t even bother to breath until his brain reminded him to. Then, slowly, he sputtered: “Is this legal money or illegal?”

Swen’s smile broadened. “It’s legal if you win it.”

Read more

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City of Smog

huge Dyson billboard in smoggy Los Angeles

I’m in Los Angeles, and I spotted this Dyson billboard covering the height and breadth of an apartment complex. LA is not particularly cyberpunk overall, but an exhortation to pay up in order to breathe clean air within your own home indicates a techno-dystopian trend.

That’s all. Super quick email today because I’m tired and have to prepare for my talk tomorrow. If you want more to read, I recommend “An Oral History of the First Cyberfeminists”.

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Corporate Ecology

Sci-fi author Charlie Stross wrote the following in 2010:

“Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.) […]

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.”

This is true to an extent, insofar as any way of regarding a system can be true. But it’s more complex than what Stross has laid out. Real life is always more complex than the aesthetically appealing description.

To grab the most recent counterexample, the results of the Brexit referendum were abhorrent to London’s financial sector. It remains to be seen whether and how the UK will withdraw from the EU, or if it will have to relinquish Scotland in the process, but it’s pretty clear that outcomes fiercely opposed by the corporatized elite can come to pass and gain tremendous public prominence.

This is also a simplification: “those who participate within [a corporation] subordinate their goals to that of the collective”. Not exactly. I might say “those who participate in a given system act according to the system’s incentive structure” instead.

You get ahead in a big company — companies of most sizes, actually — by making your boss look good. Raises and promotions are allocated to employees who boost their supervisors’ status. (Wisdom from my dad, who’s worked for the same giant enterprise tech company for thirty years.) Making your boss look good may or may not align with helping the company succeed as a whole.

In 2007, political humorist and journalist Jon Schwarz defined the Iron Law of Institutions:

“[T]he people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in powerwithin the institution than for the institution to ‘succeed’ if that requires them to lose power within the institution.” [Italics in original.]

This could be summarized as “people care about their status among members of their ingroup, not members of the outgroup(s)”. Almost all cultural entities — and corporations are encrusted with culture — can be examined as communities going through hipster hype cycles and jockeying for power among themselves.

But of course, reality is also more complex than this paradigm. People can and do raise a cause above their individual wellbeing.

Corporations are assemblages of different types of people arranged in various idiosyncratic feedback loops. For the corporation to be sufficiently successful and stick around, the system must be reasonably optimized for its own survival. But it doesn’t have to work well from any objective standpoint. It can lurch in one direction or another on both macro and micro levels (the infamous Nokia acquisition and employee rating system are beautiful examples).

Anyway, we should not forget that regarding a company as a united entity with clear goals is just a rhetorical device, not a 1:1 reflection of reality.

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AgriCULTURE: “Who doesn’t want to save the world?”

I interviewed agricultural researcher Tom Geiger via chat. We talked about the technological struggles of sustainable farming and the grim future-present. This Q&A is heavily edited to be more readable, but Geiger had a chance to review the edits and make sure his meaning was preserved. He works at a university on a Caribbean island.

Okra photographed by Rebecca Wilson.

Okra photographed by Rebecca Wilson.

Tom Geiger: My current project has two parts: vegetable variety trial and irrigation equipment evaluation. The variety trial part is comparing three different okra varieties to see which one is the best for our local conditions. The okra is being irrigated with four different kinds of plastic drip irrigation lines, with emitters spaced every foot. We are comparing pressure-compensating and non-pressure-compensating drip lines. [There is an expanded explanation available if you’re interested.]

We have no rivers or streams on the island. All fresh water comes from wells, harvested rainwater, or desalination. Water conservation is especially important here and in island communities in general. One goal of this project is to encourage local farmers to increase their irrigation efficiency by switching to pressure-compensating drip tapes.

This current project isn’t automated, but I am working on another project using sensors to control irrigation in hydroponic cucumbers. Sensor-based irrigation is increasingly popular, especially with larger farms and greenhouses.

Vegetable irrigation trial. Photo courtesy of Tom Geiger.

Photo courtesy of Tom Geiger.

Exolymph: So how did you get into doing this work personally? Is it what you studied?

Tom Geiger: I started out as an engineering student but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I thought it would be. During my sophomore year I attended a lecture on world food issues, which really opened my eyes to the problems and possibilities of agriculture. I switched my major to horticulture and started working as a researcher here in the Caribbean after graduation. I had planned on working for commercial growers but research has been a nice experience.

Exolymph: Do you find that most of your colleagues have similar motivations?

Tom Geiger: I think people get into agriculture for a lot of different reasons, but yeah, there are many people who choose this field for idealistic or ideological reasons. Who doesn’t want to save the world? Agriculture can be improved at local, regional, and global levels. You have people with all sorts of different perspectives and all of them are important.

Exolymph: Do the commercials farmers you talk to feel similarly?

Tom Geiger: Yes, it’s common. Or at least people here feel like they are doing a good thing for the island. Local agriculture definitely makes sense on an island. People need to eat every day. It’s easy to feel good about contributing to that.

Exolymph: Does academic agriculture have its own culture separate from production agriculture or do they intermingle a lot?

Tom Geiger: Well, it is academia. We go to conferences and publish in journals. But I don’t think ag researchers are as much in the ivory tower as other academic types. I know a lot of commercial farmers personally. Small farms because it’s an island. We work with the farmers, and you’ll find that a lot of universities have agriculture extension services.

Exolymph: What are some good first steps for people looking to incorporate higher tech into their gardening? Does it make sense for laypeople to do that at all?

Tom Geiger: Knowing when and how much to irrigate is the hardest part besides pest control. Scalable, automated irrigation systems could make gardening accessible to more people, whether they have a plot of land or only a potted tomato plant on the patio. Decentralization is cool, but I’m not against large farms.

I would like to see more gardens and less lawns. That would be a great way to decentralize and localize production in places where people have a yard. The hard part is for people to find the time to take care of their gardens. I’d like to see some kind of decentralized gardening service, like Uber for gardens, that would connect people who have small plots of land with people who have the skills to grow produce.

Exolymph: Are some people opposed to large farms no matter what?

Tom Geiger: I’d say that small and local is popular right now, but it needs to be done right. Imagine ten small farms with ten tractors, ten small walk-in coolers to store the produce, ten minivans to transport it to the co-op… Versus one farm ten times as big which only needs one of each of those things.

It’s hard to wrap your head around everything that goes into running a vegetable farm. There’s a lot to consider, like economies of scale and the carbon footprints of the farm, transportation, and storage. We need more research to find a balance between efficiency and sustainability.

Even defining local food is hard. What is local? Ten miles, fifty, 100? Half the global population lives in cities. It might be possible for a city like Los Angeles to source all of its food locally by some definition but probably not efficiently or sustainably.

Exolymph: Why do you think people prefer small farms?

Tom Geiger: It’s mostly political. Wendell Berry and all that. People want food sovereignty. They want to know where their food comes from, to feel a connection to it, to strengthen the community and keep food dollars in the local economy. They want to support small farmers who they know and can relate to, rather than faceless corporations which often seem more interested in the wellbeing of their shareholders than the people and the environment. All of those are good and noble reasons to support local food.

Exolymph: Do you think people who don’t work closely with agriculture have a realistic view of “how things ought to be”?

Tom Geiger: I totally agree that small and local is ideal sometime in the future, especially once we have more data on what you get at different levels of small and local. We have seven billion people on the planet — like I said, half of them live in cities.

When it comes to feeding the urban population it’s hard to define “small” and “local” in a way that’s still meaningful. “Large” and “distant” agriculture is the reality for many people and it will be that way for a long time despite our best efforts. I think the kind of people who demand everything small and local don’t really understand how big of a challenge it is.

Irrigation control gadget. Photo courtesy of Tom Geiger.

Photo courtesy of Tom Geiger.

Exolymph: How does technology play into this? Is the use of the type of irrigation gadgets that you’re researching well understood but needs to be adjusted for specific microclimates, or is it greenfield? (Excuse the pun.)

Tom Geiger: Like William Gibson said about the future not being evenly distributed, the technology is here — it just needs to be used. For example, you can irrigate based on evapotranspiration data from weather stations or satellites, but not everyone is using it so they are likely over- or under-irrigating. The moisture sensors are better for greenhouse crops. I don’t see any reason not to use evapotranspiration for field crops, and it has been researched since the 1960s. Add in self-driving tractors, drones, and automated harvesting. But then what do all those people do that are replaced?

Exolymph: Oof, yeah. Technological unemployment has already hit agriculture really hard. Do you have any prospective answers?

Tom Geiger: I have no idea. Basic income. And then what?

Exolymph: You mentioned earlier, “One goal of this project is to encourage local farmers to increase their irrigation efficiency by switching to pressure-compensating drip tapes.” How is that goal progressing? What’s the reason for farmers not to switch — just inertia, or the up-front expense, or…?

Tom Geiger: Mostly inertia. Using your old drip tapes until they’re full of holes, not knowing what is available, not having good options because there are no local distributors, being broke. Agriculture is seriously underappreciated. I know many farmers that are just getting by. But we have to keep food prices low, because if people can’t afford to eat they will demand higher wages.

Fixing things is a tough question because even the answers people usually give like “buy local” are not silver bullets. Know your farmer, buy local, and buy fair trade if you can, but don’t get all elitist on the people who don’t or can’t. I mean, it’s great if your food comes from farms that do XYZ and maybe that’s the ideal situation, but we can’t fix agriculture overnight.

Exolymph: It’s rough. Especially when you look at proteins as well as produce — ethically raised meat is sooo expensive.

Tom Geiger: Yes, and in fact manure is extremely useful for sustainably managing soil nutrition. To get high yields you are using either synthetic fertilizers or animal byproducts. Some people who are against synthetic fertilizers are also against raising livestock but it’s really hard to have it both ways. I used to work on an organic farm that used fish emulsion, bat guano, and composted turkey litter. A lot of people don’t realize the importance of livestock on organic vegetable farms.

Exolymph: What do you think of the various ~omg future of food~ initiatives like Soylent and cricket flour and such?

Tom Geiger: They have their place, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see those things as a staple. If people stop reproducing so much we won’t have to worry about a future like that, but that’s not really my area of expertise.

Exolymph: “If people stop reproducing” is my wheelhouse in terms of ethical commitments, but I have no idea how to make people do that.

Tom Geiger: Right?

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Good & Normal Babies

My friend ReTech created these sculptures. I find them profoundly unsettling, and hopefully you will too. Dread the mechanized infants…

Update: ReTech deleted the Imgur galleries, but I saved a couple of photos.

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The Cloned-Consciousness-as-Continuous-Consciousness Fallacy

Two essays about the future of minds written by people more rigorous and educated than me both make a mistake — at least what I perceive as a mistake — that seems like a very strange mistake for such intelligent people to make. My hypothesis is that I’m missing something. Maybe explaining why I think they’re wrong will lead one of you to point out what I’m missing.

Note: usually “artificial intelligence” is a pretty broad term, but in this case regard it as “conscious intelligence housed in a non-human, non-flesh substrate”.

One of the essays I found puzzling was written by Scott Aaronson, a quantum computing theorist who is a professor at MIT, soon to be a professor at UT Austin instead. He wrote Quantum Computing since Democritus, published by Cambridge University Press.

Most of Aaronson’s relevant post is about quantum physics’ implications on the nature of consciousness, which I thoroughly do not understand. But then there’s an idea within the larger context that seems easy to refute.

Image of digital clones via Ian Hughes.

Image via Ian Hughes.

Aaronson explains at length that a computer couldn’t fully replicate a brain because there’s no way to fully replicate the initial conditions. This has something to do with quantum states but also makes common sense, if you roll with the quantum states element of the argument. He continues:

“This picture agrees with intuition that murder, for example, entails the destruction of something irreplaceable, unclonable, a unique locus of identity — something that, once it’s gone, can’t be recovered even in principle. By contrast, if there are (say) ten copies of an AI program, deleting five of the copies seems at most like assault, or some sort of misdemeanor offense! And this picture agrees with intuition both that deleting the copies wouldn’t be murder, and that the reason why it wouldn’t be murder is directly related to the AI’s copyability.”

To refute this, let’s conduct a thought experiment. Pretend that you can copy a human brain. There are ten copies of me. They are all individually conscious — perfect replicas that only diverge after the point when replication happened. Is it okay to kill five of these copies? No, of course not! Each one is a self-aware, intelligent mind, human in everything but body. The identicalness doesn’t change that.

Why would this be any different when it comes to an artificial intelligence? I suppose if the AI has no survival drive then terminating it would be okay, but then the question becomes whether the boundary of murder is eliminating a survival drive — in which case stepping on bugs would qualify — or eliminating a consciousness.

Earlier in the essay, Aaronson poses this question:

“Could we teleport you to Mars by ‘faxing’ you: that is, by putting you into a scanner that converts your brain state into pure information, then having a machine on Mars reconstitute the information into a new physical body?  Supposing we did that, how should we deal with the ‘original’ copy of you, the one left on earth: should it be painlessly euthanized?  Would you agree to try this?”

No, of course I wouldn’t agree to being euthanized after a copy of me was faxed to Mars! That would be functionally the same as writing down what I consist of, killing me, and then reconstructing me. Except wait, not me, because I am not the clone — the clone just happens to be a replica.

My own individual consciousness is gone, and a new one with the same memories and personalities is created. The break in continuity of self means that actually there are two selves. They each feel their own pain and joy, and each will have its own fierce desire to survive.

Aaronson goes on:

“There’s a deep question here, namely how much detail is needed before you’ll accept that the entity reconstituted on Mars will be you? Or take the empirical counterpart, which is already an enormous question: how much detail would you need for the reconstituted entity on Mars to behave nearly indistinguishably from you whenever it was presented the same stimuli?”

Commenter BLANDCorporatio expressed much the same point that I want to:

“My brain is on Earth at the beginning of the process, stays on Earth throughout, and I have no reason to suspect my consciousness is suddenly going to jump or split. I’ll still feel as if I’m on Earth (regardless of whether a more or less similar individual now runs around on Mars). Conversely, if the me on Earth is destroyed in the copying, then I’m gone, however similar the Mars one is.”

So that’s that.

The second instance of this fallacy, which could maybe be called the cloned-consciousness-as-continuous-consciouness fallacy, comes from an essay that Robin Hanson wrote in 1994. (Per Slate Star Codex, “He’s obviously brilliant — a PhD in economics, a masters in physics, work for DARPA, Lockheed, NASA, George Mason, and the Future of Humanity Institute.”) You may be familiar with Hanson as the speculative economist who wrote The Age of Em. His instance of the CCaCC fallacy emerges from a different angle (remember the hyper-specific definition of “artificial intelligence” that I mentioned in the beginning):

“Imagine […] that we learn how to take apart a real brain and to build a total model of that brain — by identifying each unit, its internal state, and the connections between units. […] if we implement this model in some computer, that computer will ‘act’ just like the original brain, responding to given brain inputs with the same sort of outputs. […] Yes, recently backed-up upload soldiers needn’t fear death, and their commanders need only fear the loss of their bodies and brains, not of their experience and skills.”

But… no! By the same argument I used to refute Aaronson, when an “upload” soldier dies, that is still a death. Reverting to a previous copy is not the same as continuing to live.

This seems really simple and obvious to me. So what am I missing?

Hat tip to the reader who recommended that I check out Hanson’s work — I can’t remember which one of you it was, but I appreciate it.

If you’re interested in further discussion, there are thoughtful comments on this page (just scroll down a bit), on Facebook, and on Hacker News. I particularly like what HN user lhankbhl said, because it expresses the problem so succinctly:

You are placed in a box. Moments later, you are told, “We have successfully made a copy of you. We are sending it home now. You must be disposed of.”

Will you allow them to dispose of you?

This is the question being posed, not whether a copy will have no idea if it is the original. The point is that it isn’t relevant if one is a copy. No one was moved, it’s only that a second person now exists and killing either is murder of a unique person.

(Again, uniqueness is not a question of whether these people will think or react to situations in the same way, but rather that there are two different consciousnesses at play.)

One of the commenters below recommended this video that investigates the Star Trek angle:

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Optimism (or Lack Thereof) with Civilization Fiction

I interviewed the mysterious curator behind Civilization Fiction via Tumblr chat (that was a new one). Civilization Fiction is a collection of fascinating images of futuristic cityscapes. The blog’s sidebar admonishes, “The trick is not to mind that we’re all just still-warm worm food.” (Luckily that’s never bothered me.)

From the archive grid.

From the archive grid.

Here’s our Q&A, lightly edited and condensed for readability.

Exolymph: Is this an aesthetic you’ve always been interested in?

Civilization Fiction: I’ve been collecting photos and concept art of skylines and futuristic cities for five years now. When I discovered Tumblr it was a great source of pictures for me, and it was the right platform to share my collection as well. What I’m looking for is the mood and feeling of being slightly lost or lonely in the setting of a huge metropolis.

Exolymph: Your sidebar says, “The trick is not to mind that we’re all just still-warm worm food. Bring back optimistic sci-fi.” Do you view the images you collect as optimistic? What about the economic trend they represent?

Civilization Fiction: They are somewhat optimistic because they show progress, especially in technological and economic regards. I’m not much of a tech person, but I’m interested in new technologies, especially in terms of how people use them. That’s also why I called the blog Civilization Fiction — it’s stressing the life with new technologies.

Artwork by novaillusion, recently posted by Civilization Fiction.

Artwork by novaillusion, recently posted by Civilization Fiction.

Civilization Fiction (continued): The “we’re all just still-warm worm food” line is my way of accepting death as an inevitable consequence of life. It is optimistic in the sense that we’re supposed to live our lives as compassionately as we can, because it’s the only chance we have to be good and nice company for each other. It doesn’t really matter if a Star Trek-like utopia is scientifically plausible when it manages to inspire people to hope and work for a better world.

Exolymph: Do you feel optimistic about the state of the world in general?

Civilization Fiction: I’m afraid not. However, I try to be optimistic and still hope for a brighter future. After all, we only have this world and a single attempt at life, so it would be a shame to waste it and not try to make it a better place.

Exolymph: Can you elaborate on your worries?

Civilization Fiction: While I see a lot of potential in many technologies, I see them also wasted. The internet is a prime example: it can be (and is) used for worldwide communication and education, but as far as I’m aware, most of the data sent is selfies, pornography, and marketing campaigns.

And I expect that when AI technologies are achieved, they won’t first be applied to medical problems, solving world hunger or anything like that, but rather to make a profit at the stock market. That’s just my take on human nature and I really hope the future proves me wrong.

Exolymph: Me too… But I have similar worries.

If you frequent Tumblr, I recommend following Civilization Fiction, and the collection of images is worth perusing regardless.

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International Labor Economics, Ugh

The "Bread and Roses" Lawrence textile strike of 1912. Photo via Library of Congress.

The “Bread and Roses” Lawrence textile strike of 1912. Photo via Library of Congress.

In recent musings about Las Vegas, I called myself bourgeois. Refresher: according to Karl Marx, the bourgeoisie are the capitalist class, prone to consumerism — also often associated with snobbery and intellectual affectations. Think New Yorker readers.

I bring this up because commenter gaikokumaniakku said, “There are a lot of folks who thought they were bourgeois, and then they woke up one morning to another rejected job prospect and realized that they were lower-class.” I agree with Scott Alexander that class does not solely hinge on money, but the point is a good one.

gaikokumaniakku also asked what I think of the term “precariat”, which is a play on “proletariat” (opposite of the bourgeoisie). The precariat are people without financial reserves or job security. Macmillan Dictionary’s BuzzWord blog published this in 2011:

“New, international labour markets, significantly expanding the available workforce, have weakened the position of workers and strengthened the position of employers. Increasingly, workers are in jobs which are part-time and/or temporary, have unpredictable hours, low wages and few benefits such as holiday or sick pay. This means that employers can follow what demand dictates and simply [fire people] if work is not available, and are also not obliged to pay anyone that isn’t actually working.”

I find it plausible that globalization is a big part of this. That’s been an ongoing trend: jobs once located in [country where labor is expensive] disappear offshore to [country where labor is cheap]. Workers don’t have the same freedom of movement that employers do, so they can’t easily respond to market changes. Larger companies especially, which rely on many people’s labor, can shift operations to wherever costs the least.

Demonstrators in New York City during the 1913 May Day parade. Signs feature Yiddish, Italian, and English. Photo via Library of Congress.

Demonstrators in New York City during the 1913 May Day parade. Signs feature Yiddish, Italian, and English. Photo via Library of Congress.

Priest and professor Giles Fraser wrote a Guardian editorial on this very topic:

“In this era of advanced globalisation, we believe in free trade, in the free movement of goods, but not in the free movement of labour. We think it outrageous that the Chinese block Google, believing it to be everyone’s right to roam free digitally. We celebrate organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières for their compassionate universalism. But for all this talk of freedom from restriction, we still pen poor people into reservations of poverty. […] At present, globalisation is a luxury of the rich, for those of us who can swan about the globe with the flick of a boarding pass. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is globalisation for the poor.”

The other macro factor that might be creating (and provoking) the precariat is technological unemployment. The machines are taking our jobs!!!!! Ahhhhh!!!!! My guess is that we’ll adjust to new levels of productivity, like we did after the Industrial Revolution, but the transition phase will be very painful. (I basically stole this theory from Ben Thompson.)

Beyond that, I don’t have any particular insights. If you do, hit reply and let me know?

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More Slim Jims; Less Soylent

Noir cyberpunk artwork: The Fat Man by Samuel Capper

The artwork above is Samuel Capper’s The Fat Man. Note the figure’s left arm, the one pointing at the screen. I love the unabashed grotesquerie of this image — so often cyborg bodies conform to the ideals of celebrity magazines and mainstream porn.

I’m not saying that fatness is inherently grotesque, but that within the context of modern beauty norms, obesity is viewed with contempt. It is radical to combine the triple chin and robot arm in one character — this implies a future in which sophisticated body mods are available, but the pressure to be thin and “fit” is either gone or disregarded.

I also love the allusion to The Maltese Falcon, both in the portrait’s title and its style. (Sydney Greenstreet’s character is dubbed the Fat Man.) Cyberpunk is often cited as a genre with noir roots, but aside from Blade Runner the visuals have often tended more toward space-age sleekness than old-school back-alley grime.

Give me more nastiness, more cigarettes, more computers held together with duct tape. More Slim Jims and less Soylent. And more body diversity — but I want that from all media.

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