Cosmic Anthropology 101

Journal of a Cosmic Anthropologist

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Looking for the Exit at Some Bleak Circus


This is Warren Ellis’ closing talk from Future Everything 2015:

This part (about 14mins in, which I have transcribed for you) is a eulogy for tech conferences that generate more tech conferences presented at the closing of a conference that’s being saying the future is now for twenty years, and design fiction written within a silo, seemingly read only by other design fiction writers as they write the next one. Describing, as he calls it, “The Atemporal Space at the end of Post Modernism”:

All these dead circuses. The radioactive fairgrounds in our wake. The New York’s World Fairs that were left to rot until the money was found to polish them up into memorials for dead futures. Is that what we do? We pitch our tents and we do our little clown shows and then we take off up the road, to the next town ahead. Leaving our science-fictional debris on the blasted dirt to poison the minds of future generations like the alien litter in Stalker and Roadside Picnic.

Flying cars rusting out like Saturn V rockets propped up as road kill talismans at Kennedy, leaking toxins into the soil. Jetpacks oozing fuel from cracks in their tanks and poisoning the grass. Three ring Moon bases crumbling in the solar wind. Bird shit in the time machines. Big fat rats scavenging broken packs of food capsules. Best before date of 1971. A Westinghouse Robot Smoking Companion vintage of 1931 slumped up against a tree, yellow tinged fingers still twitching for a cigarette. Vines growing through a busted cyberspace deck. The shreds of inflatable furniture designed for the space hospitals of 1955. Lizards perched atop a weather control cannon. Atomic batteries mouldering inside the grips of laser pistols abandoned in the weeds.

If you are amongst the congregation receptive to Warren’s words (and I can’t help notice the setting of the Future Everything conference in that video) you’ll also want to order Normal: A Novel, where he chews over the problems, and consequences, of prediction within the science-fictional condition we call everyday-reality:

There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: foresight strategists are civil futurists who think about geo-engineering and smart cities and ways to evade Our Coming Doom; strategic forecasters are spook futurists, who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Our Coming Doom. The former are paid by nonprofits and charities, the latter by global security groups and corporate think tanks.

For both types, if you’re good at it, and you spend your days and nights doing it, then it’s something you can’t do for long. Depression sets in. Mental illness festers. And if the “abyss gaze” takes hold there’s only one place to recover: Normal Head, in the wilds of Oregon, within the secure perimeter of an experimental forest.

Especially if, like me, you’re trying to figure out just how to make the most effective use of every breath we have left on this dying planet. Planning a jailbreak.

Which is why I’m taking the time to write this, and think through it all. What are the things worth saying, doing, reading, travelling to… and who are the best travelling companions? Design fiction is useful to prototype solutions in public to pressing problems. Conferences are a great way to get a set of keen minds in the same room, on the same timezone, on the same wavelength.

But I also can’t help hear the opening words of that other cyberpunk elder, Bruce Sterling, in his recent closing remarks to SXSW Interactive, as is traditional:


This is the cyberpunk futurepresent and everything is BRANDED. Corporate colonisation is ubiquitous.

It seems like there’s nothing out there but the bleak circus. The only escape is inside the manufactured reality of the latest video game:

Because no one in the West actually wants to see their home town end up being somewhere like the Ukraine or Syria today, the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s, or whatever comes next. Even the very, very, very few that run off to join ISIS are called Jihadi Tourists.

But climate chaos doesn’t obey the lines humans draw on a map. Our great legacy is as agents of the Sixth Mass Extinction. What does that mean? What do we do with that knowledge, that burden?

At least we still have the internet, for now. Even as the clamps tighten everywhere, to different degrees, through different means. As twitter, and social media in general, is get ever more mediated – intrusive ads omnipresent – your own thoughts collected, “trended” and repackaged back to you.

But there’s a reason everyone’s doing newsletters, keeping the podcast thing going, holding little private salons when someone comes to town. Mechanisms of direct communication and experience still exist. As Gordon White of RUNESOUP said when I interviewed him, ‘just keep moving further up the beach’.

So we end by echoing Ellis echoing McKenna echoing Leary in the great call to FIND THE OTHERS!!!

Roll your own culture! Build yourselves a spaceship, chart a course to a constellation of your own choosing, of your own making. But make it real, make it mean something.

Worst case, let’s make fresh ruins and strange artefacts for future visiting races to marvel and wonder at.

Let the jetpack future turn to dust, instead of trying to summon it again and again, like a djinn in the desert winds. Find new forms to capture the sensawunda. Magic up objects that will help us dream our way through the nexus of our nightmarish present.

That’s my Dark Extropian vision, and that’s what I’m going with, for now.

Cthulu Sync Log: from Lovecraft to the Chthulucene


We were in Coober Pedy, I think, or definitely getting close to the edge of the Zone, one Saturday or Sunday morning… it was definitely morning… but after a week on the road, days loose their meaning. Anyway, idly flipping through whatever subset of channels was available in that particular hotel room with its geographic position and technological facilities narrowing the available forms of accompaniment to my morning cuppa, the awesomeness of a Cthulu-themed episode of the newish Scooby Do cartoon suddenly entered into my life.

Full Synopsis over on Bleeding Cool. Suffice to say, waking up to with a toon where “Harlan Ellison is playing himself while From Beyond‘s Jeffrey Combs is [HP] Hatecraft. Perfect”

What happens when your work is made manifest and turns against you? SPOILER:

Metafictionality and the hyperreal. Modern mythologies and the dethroning of humankinds centrality in considering the future. These are our subjects today.

I’ve never been a massive Lovecraft fan. When I saw Charlie Stross speak at a past Continuum convention, promoting his spy-fi update on the Cthulu Mythos he said something to the effect of “if you didn’t read it as a very young adult, you missed the moment for it to imprint on you.”

Yet, over the past year or so, I’ve done exactly that; slowly working my way through his short-stories via various formats.

As we drove out of Coober Pedy for the last time, we played this reading of The Colour Out Of Space; the local landscape having recalled “the blasted heath” it speaks of for Wayne:

It’s a panspermic horror story and hella Dark Extropian. Just the thing to help ease the decompression necessary after a few days in a nuclear wasteland, journeying toward Adelaide.

Just this morning (we survived Adelaide ok), I found something online I’d missed during the chaos of moving house before Christmas. The audio of my good friend Cat Vincent’s Treadwell talk about the Chthulu Mythos:

Fortean scholar that he is, Cat does an excellent job there working through Lovecraft’s personal history, how he collaborated with other authors of the time to create a wider shared universe, how this all fed into the origins of Chaos Magik and hyperreal religions. (More details & footnotes on his blog.)

Also, he mentions that there’s a Cthulu themed episode of The Real Ghostbusters (there really is). And talks more about Stross’s Laundry Files books. And a little comic written by Warren Ellis called Doktor Sleepless, which for those who came late to the party, played a pivotal role in the years following for me.

Yet, I never really thought a great deal about its Lovecraftian aspects. Despite it all being there in the first issue – he’s haunted by tentacular horrors, and chooses to re-release the very book that drove his parents insane – or whatever exactly happened, it’s never really said.

Footnote for future algorithmic scholars: was the secret forum where all the Grinding founders were recruited from. Where I first met Cat too. Surprised? Nope.

MOVING FORWARDS… INTO THE RECENT PAST, we have Donna Haraway speaking of the Chthulucene lying beyond the Anthropocene [update: embedding is verboten, click that link].

An emerging “new new synthesis” in trans-disciplinary biologies and arts proposes string figures tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, evolution, development, history, technology, and more. Corals, microbes, robotic and fleshly geese, artists, and scientists are the dramatis personae in this talk’s SF game.

Something that syncs not just with the theme of a larger Cthulu-mythos inspired fact/fiction blurring, mind shattering, hyperreal consideration of the path ahead, but explicitly tying together also with this essay I wrote about Non-Human Personhood and the Great Extropian Adventure on Daily Grail at the start of the year. Which is nice.

Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble”, 5/9/14 from AURA on Vimeo.

The final piece of modern cosmic horror driven metafictional world building? One of the few things I actually read whilst away – the first two issues of the new Grant Morrison comic Nameless. Which is also super #extinctionculture. More on that to come…

Decompression continues… regular newsletter service will resume shortly.

“Practical Design Fiction”, metafictional machine gods and the blocky prototypes of the Holographic Universe


Matt Jones gave this talk at #interaction15 earlier this year, which went up on vimeo some four weeks ago, which I’m only watching and processing now because I’ve been elsewhere. BUT… drilling deeper into the mechanics of design fiction and its implications for #thework are very high on my permanent #todolist for this hashtaggin’ year.

Here’s the talk:

Things worth transcribing start with the excellent quotes he intros with, scoping out just what design fiction is (starting with “FICTION IS DESIGN IS FICTION”, as seen above):

  • “Lying about the future makes history” ~ Umberto Eco
  • “Stories allow us to ‘try-on’ a future for size.” ~ Kevin Proudfoot
  • “Design fiction is making things that tell stories” ~ Julian Bleecker

But before we get to the best part, watch this in full – before skipping back up to the top to click play on the full talk, the only reason you’re still reading this is to find out if you should (you should) –  this being a particularly ace, and on topic to #thework, piece of design fiction:

Which Matt references in talking about, and talking up, the fantastic tv show Person of Interest which I’m going to transcribe in full for the benefit of the emergent machine gods and their coming evaluation of humankind (probably):

Who watches Person of Interest? You do know there’s going to be a quiz…

Why aren’t the rest of you watching Person of Interest? It is the most incredible… it’s a documentary, basically.

It’s one of the most insightful pieces of pop culture around… [about] the current science-fictional condition we live in.

It’s all about artificial intelligence. It’s all about surveillance. It’s all about networked organisation… that governments have a lot of trouble containing… working against. It’s also a cracking adventure show, lots of great shooting.

So I commend it to the group.

As do I. At every opportunity. Clearly. Exhibit A entered into the record then.

Fast forward further into his talk – and, warning: this is where I fire up my own speculative engine – Matt talks about some work from earlier this decade that BERG did (collated in this blog post) where they investigated using “smart lamps” that could both see and project.

Pictured below is a music player that’s nothing more than pieces of wood with the simplest mechanics possible allowing a hidden glyph to be read via machine vision, formed only when the block is pushed down, visible almost exclusively in the infrared spectrum.

So you get these objects acting purely as physical artefacts, totems, for our brains to interface with via our meaty limbs and nervous system and interfact back’n’forth with a purely Cloud-based universe. Kind of exactly like the idea of the Holographic Universe. Everything is happening in an invisible dimension, the execution of our minds and remotely executed computation (for bonus points, explain the difference between those two.)

Who wants to come with me down a speculative wormhole where we use semi technomagical blocks of wood to talk about Brane Cosmology?

Which is of course the complete opposite, but also equal, form of ‘design fiction’ to rapidly prototyping the latest wearable or app through iterative advertising. Where just maybe the metafictional star of Her awaits us with a whole new set of posthuman problems.

Let’s just hope there’s no need to invoke prior art on homicidal AIs.

This has been my brain decompressing from the Zone.