Benjamin H. Bratton’s work spans philosophy, art, design and computer science. He is professor of visual arts and director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego. He is program director of The New Normal program at Strelka Institute of Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow and is a professor of digital design at the European Graduate School and Visiting Faculty at SCI_Arc (The Southern California Institute of Architecture).
AFTER-PARTY PROMETHEUS BY STANISLAW LEM
The English translation of Stanlslaw Lem’s “lost” novel-essay, After-Party Prometheus, was worth the wait. The unfinished manuscript was intended to be the follow-up to Summa Technologiae, the Polish science-fiction writer’s 1964 collection of “philosophical essays,” but was never completed. As such, the plot remains a bit loose. The action takes place in the once near-future of 1975. It features an astronaut who returns from an unknown mission and convinces a Finnish farm boy to steal a plane and land it in Red Square in Moscow. The boy manages to do so, distracting the Soviet Air Defense into thinking the country might be under attack. This false alarm would train all those authorized to fire retaliatory nuclear strikes not to trust their radar signals too much, and as the astronaut explains, suspicion of sensing instrumentation will soon prevent all-out war. The prescient Lem includes expository commentary on various technologies that were hypothetical at the time of the book’s writing but today are nearly commonplace. Some of these are Surface-Sensing (we call it “machine vision”); DigiMarks (essentially Bitcoin); Scramble-Masks (a mix of GAN’s and what Philip K. Dick called a “scramble suit” in his 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly); as well as pervasive environmental and urban-scale remote sensor arrays. With his characteristic philosophical depth and wry wit, Lem provides insightful commentary on these technologies and their geopolitical implications despite the fact that one of them yet existed—or perhaps because of it.
THE BURNING OF MUSEU NACIONAL DO BRASIL
An arson-by-neglect, the burning of the national museum of Brazil is, like many tragedies, both stupid and unnecessary. Two centuries worth of treasures, the accumulated archive of the nation, including priceless archives of pre-Columbian and Indo-American cultures, were lost because there was not enough water in the fire hydrants to extinguish the blaze. The hydrants were empty due to massive budget cuts, specifically to the Ministry of Culture, by former President Michel Temer. Also, there were also no working sprinklers inside the building. More than 90 percent of the holdings were lost, including mummies from Egypt and South America, vast entomological samples, a fresco from Pompeii that had survived the eruption of Vesuvius—although a meteorite from 1785 survived no problem. Recordings of indigenous languages, spoken and chanted, as well as maps of ethic groups dating back to the 1500s were destroyed. Very little of the holdings were digitized, and so it’s impossible to know exactly what was lost. In 2009, Google had begun an effort to 3D scan the museum’s holdings for a cloud-based public archive, including the linguistic recordings. Part of the plan was also to teach AI’s to “speak” the indigenous languages based on the extensive samples: a kind of “seed bank” for vanishing tongues and native ontologies. However, the project received considerable negative publicity and was popularly condemned as a form of “digital colonialism.” The whole initiative was scrapped and no back-up of the museum’s holdings now exists. To date, the far-right Bolsonaro government has refused to utilize the incomplete index from this project to assist the salvage operation, arguing that Google is “so very liberal… (and) has no business telling Brazilians what is and is not their culture.”
MARK BOOKER COMES CLEAN
British artist Mark Booker announced that his ongoing performance piece “to be the most twee, unlikable, self-congratulatory, politically-adolescent Art Brat imaginable” would come to a close. He posted that the work meant to demonstrate “basically the worst aspects of MFA psychosis plus Targeted Individual Syndrome.” Booker’s performance was based on Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here, in which the actor pretended to make a dramatic career change, have a mental breakdown, and involved unsuspecting entertainment media into the hoax. For Booker, the initial gesture was to establish a fictitious art collective with Dustin Diamond, the actor who played “Screech” on the’90s TV show, Saved By The Bell, whose own works as independent artist include publicly watching every single episode of the show consecutively and “getting arrested” in Atlanta, Georgia while berating the officers with drunken racist abuse. Booker and his accomplices utilized art world media channels and social media platforms to coordinate the release of several interconnected works: installations with stereotypical anti-Trump slogans, slapstick parodies of relational aesthetics, dramatic “call outs” of various antagonists to his virtual persona, and a robotic series of tweets about the virtues of “sincerity.” Some of the work was accepted into the Cyprus Triennial, but Booker refused to participate and launched an open-ended protest against the curators. Unbeknownst to Booker, his gallery arranged to have some of the work “stolen” to generate secondary publicity. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the performance was Booker’s efforts to close Twitter accounts of those who criticized the work or questioned his intentions. He formally ended the performance when Twitter suspended his own account after he re-posted alt-right memes under the heading, “Some call these memes harmless. Zero tolerance,” along with his comments that any portrayal whatsoever of such images is equivalent to direct endorsement of their content and effects.
Bitcoin fell from a high of roughly one coin per 19,000 units of United States “Federal Reserve fiat currency” to under 4000 by year’s end. As goes the meme: did bitcoin drop against the dollar, or did the dollar rise against bitcoin? In this case, the answer is both. For all the pedantic comparisons with the dawn of the internet, the fact is that the early web was an extremely useful technology without an immediately obvious business model, whereas bitcoin is an immediately obvious business model without extreme usefulness (as of yet). Now that there are so many people with wallets full of cheap coin, perhaps the collective incentive to make those tokens valuable based on practical function will push the larger blockchain project to be less “speculative” and closer to the aspirations of its more thoughtful proponents. It may be that distributed digital ledgers will untether from a deflationary currency with a Gini Index similar to a despotic state. Will the incredible energy appetite of coin mining be accounted for by this global accounting mechanism, perhaps by making proof of clean energy sourcing part of the bargain? If so, could blockchains enable the pervasive carbon sensing, indexing, pricing, and value distribution platform that has eluded the sovereigns of normal jurisdictions? In the meantime, keep an eye out for that guy you know who quit his job to run a crypto fund with starter funds from his rich relatives overseas. He hasn’t been seen for over six weeks.
THIRTY METER TELESCOPE AT MAUNA KEA GETS THE GREEN LIGHT
The Supreme Court of Hawaii issued approval for the once-delayed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Mauna Kea peak near several other operational astronomic instruments. The name refers to the diameter of the mirror that will be used to focus light and capture traces of what lies beyond our little perch. The telescope will be used for diverse scientific initiatives including the study of early galaxy formation, the physics of black holes, the mapping of exoplanets, and, perhaps most importantly, understanding the dark matter and dark energy that fills most of the universe but which was, until recently, undetected. Like the Hubble Deep Field images which processed light from galaxies formed soon after the Big Bang, the Thirty Meter Telescope may be used—along with others networked across the surface of the planet—to construct some of the most significant images composed by homo sapiens. Plans for the telescope were not uncontroversial. Hawaiian sovereignty supporters, many of whom hold Mauna Kea to be a sacred mountain, worked to block construction. In traditional culture, the summit of Mauna Kea is held to be the exclusive “region of the gods.” A few hundred protesters blocked initial construction and university students protested on their campus in Monoa. They were joined in their campaign by the New Church of Jesus Christ Without Christ, a Young Earth Creationist group, based at Santa Claus Lane near Carpinteria, California, which holds that “Big Bang is a moral abomination,” as well as by the Hollywood actor Jason Momoa—star of Aquaman—who turned over his Instagram account for a week exclusively to images of himself with anti-telescope slogans written on his bare chest and/or dressed in traditional garments and raising a long staff threateningly at existing telescopes, from a safe distance.
CRISPR BABY DOCTOR DISAPPEARS
In late November, a scientist from Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, named He Jiankui, claimed via a treacly YouTube video that he had used the CRISPR gene-editing technique to modify the CCR5 gene in a set of twin girls—Lulu and Nana—who had been born to parents concerned about passing on the father’s HIV to their children. Independent verification of the edits was delayed, impossible, established and/or proven inconclusive, all at once. Condemnation and confusion from genomics research and bioethics communities was swift and unequivocal. Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences published an announcement in the Lancet condemning his research. Then his lab was shut down by authorities and he mysteriously disappeared, reportedly “under house arrest,” his exact whereabouts unknown. The South China Morning Post reported that one of core investors in his commercial enterprise, Direct Genomics, is a venture capital group overseen by Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Meng was recently arrested in Canada, ostensibly because of the company’s violation of an embargo on technology exports to Iran. Her case rests on how closely Huawei (and she herself) is or is not connected with the Singapore-based Skycom. Intense competition between the USA and China over the global rollout of 5G technologies may also play a part. Among Skycom’s other investments is a joint initiative with the China Academy of Sciences (not to be confused with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences) to build a deep sea research base, called Hades, 20,000–35,000 feet underwater in the South China Sea from which unmanned submarines would be launched by AI-controlled robotic systems. As of this writing, the leading candidate for the base’s location is deep in the Manila Trench.
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User Instructions: This text is a work of para-fiction. In years such as 2018, when what is real seems fake and what is fake seems real, such para-fictions are literary realism. It’s important to follow the parables where they lead and to mark where they cut and fold into one another. Speculative Design can be articulated through images, artifacts, cinema, and also through text. But this is not the same as Sci-Fi. Science-Fiction uses narratives about the future as an alibi to frame what is realer-than-real in the present, but “theory-fiction” winds in the other direction, using analysis of present as an alibi to frame what is most unreal about the future. For the reader, the latter requires something other than suspension of disbelief or belief. It requires a willingness to consider each additional piece of information as potentially what makes all the others true or false. All fortune, no cookie.