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Tag: futurism (page 1 of 4)

The Fleet Can Withdraw

For work I had to read Lyft co-founder John Zimmer’s manifesto about the future of cities. A quote that jumped out at me:

Technology has redefined entire industries around a simple reality: you no longer need to own a product to enjoy its benefits. With Netflix and streaming services, DVD ownership became obsolete. Spotify has made it unnecessary to own CDs and MP3s. Eventually, we’ll look at owning a car in much the same way.

I think he’s right. No doubt rich car enthusiasts will keep their toys, like people still cherish their record players. Who knows whether it will be legal for a human to drive on regular streets at that point? I’m not the first person to ask that question, but it hasn’t stopped being worth asking.

Nor am I the first person to identify the inevitable next step. When you don’t own any of the equipment that you use, someone else controls your access. They can cut you off. (Pretty sure there are multiple Black Mirror episodes about this.) Consider that your ability to challenge an access provider may be limited. Lyft, for example, includes an arbitration clause in their terms of service:

YOU AND LYFT MUTUALLY AGREE TO WAIVE OUR RESPECTIVE RIGHTS TO RESOLUTION OF DISPUTES IN A COURT OF LAW BY A JUDGE OR JURY AND AGREE TO RESOLVE ANY DISPUTE BY ARBITRATION, as set forth below. This agreement to arbitrate (“Arbitration Agreement”) is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act and survives after the Agreement terminates or your relationship with Lyft ends. ANY ARBITRATION UNDER THIS AGREEMENT WILL TAKE PLACE ON AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS; CLASS ARBITRATIONS AND CLASS ACTIONS ARE NOT PERMITTED. Except as expressly provided below, this Arbitration Agreement applies to all Claims (defined below) between you and Lyft, including our affiliates, subsidiaries, parents, successors and assigns, and each of our respective officers, directors, employees, agents, or shareholders.

Caps not added. I will never understand the aesthetic conventions of contracts.

For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, this passage from a Nathan Jurgenson essay about the glut of modern media feels related:

From 24-hour television to the online posts being cycled through algorithms optimized for virality, the constant churn of news seems to make everything both too important and of no matter. Every event is explained around the clock and none of these explanations suffice. Everything can be simultaneously believable and unbelievable.

Maybe because we don’t own the information we consume. Of course, we never owned our everyday data, except in the banal sense that people had to buy newspapers.

More likely the correspondence is that we dip in and out of infostreams — open up social media for a minute, scroll, close the app to switch to email — the way we duck in and out of rideshares.

Rhythms of engagement. Cycling like a heartbeat. Blood in, blood out.


Header artwork by Leonardo de Moura.

Perils of the Connected Farm

Note from the editor: My friend Greg Shuflin posted the following story on Facebook. I asked if I could redistribute it here, and he said yes.


It was a pretty crazy day on the farm — the farm of the neocyberpunk 2040s that is, where cybernetically modified agrohackers wielded vast armies of AI-controlled smart tractors and fertilizer drones to eke their genejacked grain out of the dry soil of the post-Ogallala hellscape that was once a polity called “Kansas”.

Old Farmer Mauricio had programmed his cyberbrain to start nanofabbing caffeine molecules at 6am, and ever since then he’d been dealing with shit — some web bandits had exploited a quantum memory zero-day and broken into half of his private cloud’s namespace. Probably some fucking thirty-something LOMPs [low-marginal-product-of-labor proles on basic income] with nothing better to do than fuck with people, Mauricio thought to himself darkly.

Before the sun was finished rising, Mauricio had patched the vuln, killed as many of the malware AIs as he could find on his network, and had started to restore the water-recycler control AI from backup. He grabbed a quick breakfast of rice porridge and a Chinese doughnut, then woke up his lazy teenage nephew Chuck, who was staying with him during the growing season.

“Time to get up, Chucko,” he said, as the sleepy teen fumbled for his ocular implant on the pile of dirty laundry near his bed. “We’ve been hacked. I really need your help today.”

Chuck quickly brushed his teeth, threw on some work clothes, and went to the hovertractor in order to go do a hard reset on the network node out in field #3. But as he pulled the tractor out of the garage, he found that his way forward was blocked.

All of the AI-controlled wheel hoes that his uncle owned were spinning in circles and brandishing their spikes, in the most menacing fashion that their hardware allowed. Of course, the damn wheel hoes were behind the same firewall as everything else! So they had been infected and turned by the LOMPs’ fuckery too.

Mauricio let his nephew set out, with a word of warning: “Watch yourself, kid. These hoes ain’t loyal.”


You may be wondering, “Was that whole story really just build-up for a pun based on a Chris Brown song?” The answer is that yes, yes it was. Watch out for the LOMPs at work today, y’all.


Header photo by Michele Walfred.

Reclaiming the Panopticon

The following is Tim Herd’s response to the previous dispatch about sousveillance.


A tech executive was quoted saying something like, “Privacy is dead. Deal with it.” [According to the Wall Street Journal, it was Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. He said, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”]

I think he’s right, for most working definitions of “privacy”. I think that security professionals, privacy advocates, etc, are fighting rearguard actions and they will lose eventually.

Less than a year after Amazon rolls out Alexa, cops pull audio from it to get evidence for a conviction. That microphone is on 24/7, and in full knowledge of this people still buy them.

Why?

Information is valuable. The same technology that lets me look up photos of your house for shits and grins, or to stalk you, is what powers Google Maps.

Privacy and these new technologies will, and have already, come into conflict. The value of the new tech is way, way more than the value of the privacy lost.

This can devolve into 1984 lightning fast. On the other hand, think about this: “Probably the best-known recent example of sousveillance is when Los Angeles resident George Holliday videotaped police officers beating Rodney King after he had been stopped for a traffic violation.” [From the Steve Mann paper.]

The same surveillance tech that makes us spied on all the time, makes other people spied on all the time. I can’t get up to no good, but cops can’t either.

It’s a tool, and it all depends on how it’s used.

Take me, for example. With a handful of exceptions that I am not putting to paper, there is nothing in my life that is particularly problematic. If the government were spying on me 24/7, it wouldn’t even matter. I have nothing to hide.

(I understand the implications regarding wider social norms. I’m working under the assumption that That Ship Has Sailed.)

The people who do have things to hide, well, we made that shit illegal for a reason. Why should I care when they get burned? That’s the whole goddamn point of the law.

(Aside: I believe that the more strictly enforced a law is, the better it is for everyone overall, because consistency of expectations is important. I bet that the roads would be much safer and more orderly if every single time anyone sped, ever, they automatically got a speeding ticket. Always. No matter what. No cat-and-mouse games with cops, no wondering which lights have speed cameras. Just a dirt-simple law. Here is the rule. Follow it and we are fine. Break it and you will always lose. So many problems are caused by people trying to game the rules, break them whenever possible, and follow them only when they have to.)

(Continued aside: Obviously shit would hit the fan if we started automatically 100% enforcing every traffic law. But you better believe that within a month of that policy being rolled out nationwide, speed limits would rise by at least 50%.)

The reason we care about surveillance is that a lot of things are more illegal than we think they should be.

Obvious example: In a world of perfect surveillance, 50% of California gets thrown in federal prison for smoking weed.

All of this is build-up to my hypothesis:

  • The fully surveilled world is coming, whether we like it or not.
  • This will bring us a ton of benefits if we’re smart and brave enough to leverage it.
  • This will bring an unprecedented ability for authorities to impose on us and coerce us, if we are not careful.

Which brings me to the actual thesis: Libertarianism and formal anarchy is going to be way more important in the near future, to cope with this. In a world of perfect surveillance, every person in San Francisco can be thrown in prison if a prosecutor feels like it. Because, for example, literally every in-law rental is illegal (unless they changed the law).

The way you get a perfect surveillance world without everyone going to prison is drastic liberalization of criminal law, drastic reduction of regulatory law, and live-and-let-live social norms that focus very precisely on harms suffered and on restorative justice.

A more general idea that I am anchoring everything on: A lot of people think tech is bad, but that is because they do not take agency over it. Tech is a tool with unimaginable potential for good… if you take initiative and use it. If you sit back and just wait for it to happen, it goes bad.

If you sit back and wait as Facebook starts spying on you more and more, then you will get burned. But if instead you take advantage of it and come up with a harebrained scheme to find dates by using Facebook’s extremely powerful ad-targeting technology… you will benefit so hard.


Header artwork depicting Facebook as a global panopticon by Joelle L.

Clean Water for Sale

Riyan Ramanath V reported this interesting development:

Slum dwellers will get safe drinking water in water scarce pockets as the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) plans to distribute around 2,500 smart cards that can be swiped in the water ATMs for water.

At present, 10 ATMs machine have been installed at Jharana Basti, Gandamunda, Jadupur, Dumduma, Pokhariput, Siripur, Ganganagar Square, Bhimtangi, Sundarpada and Bhoi Sahi, Barmunda. People can recharge their smart cards, which look like debit cards, at the ward office. A litre of water will cost 30 paise.

An official source said the BMC has signed a MoU with the private firm, Piramal Sarvajal, for the project. Bhubaneswar is the second city in the country to have water ATMs after New Delhi. Among the smart cities, it is the first. The private agency has provided technical assistance to BMC to install the ATMs and maintain it for five years.

How ’bout that proprietary infrastructure, huh?

So, this is not that technologically exciting. Credit and debit cards have been around for ages. But there is literally an equivalent feature in The Water Knife, which is a post-resources corporatized dystopia.

That’s it tonight. I’m tapped out. (Pun intended. I’ve got enough juice for puns, at least.)

It Shouldn’t Be Easy to Understand

Mathias Lafeldt writes about complex technical systems. For example, on finding root causes when something goes wrong:

One reason we tend to look for a single, simple cause of an outcome is because the failure is too complex to keep it in our head. Thus we oversimplify without really understanding the failure’s nature and then blame particular, local forces or events for outcomes.

I think this is a fractal insight. It applies to software, it applies to individual human decisions, and it applies to collective human decisions. We look for neat stories. We want to pinpoint one factor that explains everything. But the world doesn’t work that way. Almost nothing works that way.

In another essay, Lafeldt wrote, “Our built-in pattern detector is able to simplify complexity into manageable decision rules.” Navigating life without heuristics is too hard, so we adapted. But using heuristics — or really any kind of abstraction — means losing some of the details. Or a lot of the details, depending on how far you abstract.

That said, here’s Alice Maz with an incisive explanation of why everything is imploding:

Automation is transforming bell curve to power law, hollowing out the middle class as only a minority can leverage their labor to an extreme degree. Cosmopolitan egalitarianism for the productive elite, nationalism and demagoguery for the masses. For what it’s worth, I consider this a Bad Outcome, but it is one of the least bad ones I have been able to come up with that is mid-term realistic.

Which corporation will be the first to issue passports?

Rushkoff argued that programming was the new literacy, and he was right, but the specifics of his argument get lost in the retelling. The way he saw it, this was the start of the third epoch, the preceding two ushered in by 1) the invention of writing, 2) the printing press.

Writing broke communal oral tradition and replaced it with record-keeping and authoritative narration by the literate minority to the masses. Only the few could produce texts, and the many depended on them to recite and interpret. This the frame (pre-V2 maybe) that Catholicism inhabits.

The printing press led to mass literacy. This is the frame of Protestantism: the idea is for each man to read and interpret for himself. But after a brief spate of widely-accessible press (remember Paine’s Common Sense? very dangerous!) access tightened up. Hence mass media as gatekeeper, arbiter of consensus reality.

The few report, and the many receive. Not that journalists were ever the elite, just as the Egyptian scribes. They were the priestly class, Weber’s “new middle”. (Also lawyers. Remember the backwoods lawyer? Used to be all you needed was the books and a good head. Before credentialism ate the field.)

The internet killed consensus reality. Now anyone can trivially disseminate arbitrary text. But the platforms on which those texts are seen are controlled by the new priests, line programmers, which determine how information flows. This is what critics of “the Facebook algorithm” et al are groping at. The many can create, but the few craft the landscape that hosts creation.

It’s still early. Remains to be seen if we can keep relatively open platforms (like Twitter circa 2010; open in the unimpeded sense). Or if the space narrows, new gatekeepers secure hold. But that will be determined by programmers. (Maybe lawmakers.) Rest along for the ride.

That’s all copy-pasted from Twitter and then lightly edited to be more readable in this format.

I included the opening quote about complex systems because although this neat narrative holds more truth than some others, it’s still a neat narrative. Don’t forget that. Reality is multi-textured.


Header photo by kev-shine.

Absolute Worstest Worst?

So today the task I’ve assigned myself is talking about the worst case scenario for modern empires. Luckily the heat death of the universe will come for the human race eventually, but maybe we’ll be wiped out by global warming before then?

Or knocked back to medieval levels of civilizational development. But wait, maybe first the Zika virus will spread everywhere! (By the way, read Spillover. Your paranoia levels will shoot up.) All kinds of exciting possibilities!

Arcology. Artwork by Robin Weatherall.

Artwork by Robin Weatherall.

In the near-term, I think it would be pretty bad for basically the whole globe if Donald Trump won the US election, but not as catastrophic as the Twitterati sometimes makes it out to be.

For someone who often shares links with captions along the lines of “I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW DYSTOPIAN THIS IS”, I have little to say about worst-case scenarios. Truthfully, I’m an optimist. My views roughly conform to the Exponent podcast’s latest episode.

I think the internet will have a positive long-term effect. But yes, of course, settling into the next economic paradigm will be painful.

“[I]t is important to understand that technology always is situated and gets developed within a particular set of political and economic institutions — institutions that from time to time must be reconfigured in order for a country’s political economy to be able to maximize the productivity benefits of emergent technology platforms.” — Nils Gilman

I mean, really, just go read Gilman’s essay.

Neural Fintech x2

“Neural Fintech” got more responses than anything else I’ve ever asked you all about, so it’s back *TV infomercial voice* by popular demand! If you missed the beginning you don’t strictly need to read it, but you can if you want to.


In the examination room there was machine that looked like an old-school MRI unit — Sasha remembered them from the hospital shows her grandma used to watch, 2D video of handsome doctors clumsily enhanced for her parents’ RoomView.

Next to the machine stood a beaming nurse with sleek brown hair. Everyone working for Centripath seemed to smile all the time, Sasha thought.

Jake the recruiter exclaimed, “Becky! Help me welcome our newest participant!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sasha,” the nurse said in a warm voice. On the machine’s side screen, Sasha could see the permission form that she had signed with Jake a few minutes ago.

“You’re in Becky’s hands from here,” Jake said, winking at Sasha as he slipped back out through the door.

The next few hours were busy and regimented. Multiple tests, the first inside that big machine, and then more forms. Sasha was glad that she hadn’t made plans for the rest of the day, but a little annoyed that no one had told her how long it would take.

She found out from Becky that she had “stellar capacity” for a crypto mine. Sasha tried to ask again how much they would pay, but Becky said she’d have to find out from her case manager. “That’s your next stop!” she told Sasha brightly. “Then installation!”

The case manager’s office was like Jake’s, and he even looked a bit like Jake. The nose and chin were different, but much the same smile. “Sasha, right?” he asked, half-rising from his desk.

“Hi,” she answered. Sasha could hear that she was tired.

“Would you like a drink of water?”

“Yes, thanks.” He handed it to her, and Sasha sat down.

“I really want to know how much this will pay. No one will tell me so far.”

“Of course, of course! You get a percentage of the yield from the mine. It can vary depending on your physical state, since all the energy is sourced from your body.”

Sasha didn’t say anything, just kept looking at him.

The case manager paused, waiting for her to acknowledge what he said. When she stayed silent, he continued. “It’s usually 5%, but that fluctuates based on the price of the cryptocurrency at hand, the daily processing efficiency, and so on.”

“Please estimate, in real money, how much I can earn from this.”

“Well, Sasha, I can’t promise anything. I can’t make a guarantee. But I can tell you that you’ll be able to pay half of the monthly fees for a nice PodNiche.”

She sighed. “Okay. I hoped it would be more. But okay, what the fuck. Let’s do the installation.”


Header image by Liz West.

Momentary Stasis by PR Adams

PR Adams asked me to share his dystopian spacepunk novel, Momentary Stasis. I haven’t read it yet so I don’t have any detailed thoughts, but I like this bit of the blurb:

Humans discover alien technology and start colonizing worlds outside the solar system. Genetic modification produces miracles. Science advances the human condition. And, for the first time in history, the nations of the world have achieved real peace with each other.

But only the elite truly benefit from all the advancements. Most people are still trapped on an Earth ruined by chemical pollution, nuclear accidents, and chaotic weather changes. Rebellious “genies” — genetically engineered servants — cause more harm than good. And global corporations have stripped the idea of nations and freedom of any real meaning.

Maybe a little on the cheesy side, but that’s not always a bad thing!

Neural Fintech

“See, it’s a simple program.” The recruiter had very white teeth, Sasha noticed. He was wearing a navy blue suit and smiling big. The identity module said his name was Jake.

“A very simple program,” he repeated. “You know that old expression — humans only use 10% of our brain power? That other 90% is an opportunity, and we at Centripath have the software to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Sasha nodded. “Yeah.” She knew all of this from the promos she had watched. The exact figures weren’t true and Sasha knew that also, but it didn’t matter as long as they paid enough.

“Ae you familiar with cryptocurrencies?” Jake asked. “The one you’ve probably heard of is called bitcoin.”

“Uh-huh, I know bitcoin,” Sasha told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Wonderful!” Jake exclaimed. “Well, what this program does is harness your brain’s under-utilized processing power. The technical details aren’t important, but basically all that extra energy runs a cryptocurrency mine. Not always bitcoin, but that’s certainly one of the assets we harvest.”

Sasha was sitting forward on her armchair, leaning toward the recruiter with her elbows on her knees. “So you pay me rent for that. For using my brain. It doesn’t say on your website, so I wanted to ask how much you pay.”

“Ahhh, yes,” Jake answered, still smiling. “We have to analyze the capacity you have available, of course, and then we’ll give you a quote.”

“And this crypto mine won’t interfere with my daily life? I’ll still be able to think, like, normally? I watched the testimonials, but…”

“Then you know that you won’t feel a thing! It’ll be like nothing happened. Everything about the Centripath program is perfectly safe. All of this equipment has gone through rigorous testing. Really, you’re signing up for free money.”

Sasha bit her lip, thinking for a moment. “Okay, I want to take the scan. Or however you test people’s brains.”

Jake clapped his hands together. “Sasha, I am so glad to hear that! First let’s go over this paperwork — it should show up momentarily…”

Sasha felt the ping. “Got it.”

“Alright. I need to you read this and add your bioprint here… Here also…”

They sped through the details, then Jake led Sasha into the examination room.


Let me know if you want me to continue this. Otherwise I’ll leave it as microfiction. I owe the idea to my boyfriend, Alex Irwin. Header photo by Pantelis Roussakis.

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