Tag Archives: speculation

The Architecture of Readymade Air – BLDGBLOG

[Image: Haus-Rucker-Co, Grüne Lunge (Green Lung), Kunsthalle Hamburg (1973); photo by Haus-Rucker Co, courtesy of the Archive Zamp Kelp; via Walker Art Center]. I’ve got a short post up over …

Source: The Architecture of Readymade Air – BLDGBLOG

Green Lung pumped artificially conditioned indoor air from within the galleries of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle to members of the public passing, by way of transparent helmets mounted outside; the museum’s internal atmosphere was thus treated as a kind of readymade object, “playing with questions of inside vs. outside, of public vs. private, of enclosure vs. space.”

Put into the context of Haus-Rucker-Co’s general use of inflatables, as well as today’s emerging fresh-air market—with multiple links explaining this in the actual post—I suggest that what was once an almost absurdist art world provocation has, today, in the form of bottled air, become an unexpectedly viable business model.

TBD Catalog – the story

TBD Catalog – the story.

How might the promise of what at the time was called an “internet of things” play out in the near future? What would the future look like in a world blanketed by advances in protection and surveillance technologies? If Autonomous Vehicle innovations continued its passionate race forward, what would it be to pick up the groceries, take a commercial airline flight, commute to work, have mail and parcels delivered, drop off the dry cleaning, meet friends at a bar across town, go on cross-country family vacations, or take the kids to sports practice or school? Would food sciences offer us new forms of ingestible energy such as coconut-based and other high-caloric energy sources, or caloric burners that would help us avoid exercise-based diets? In what ways would live, streaming, recorded and crowd-authored music and filmed entertainment evolve? How might advances in portable spring power hold up against traditional chemical battery power? How would emerging forms of family and kinship be reflected in social networks? How will Chinese migration to Africa shape that continent’s entry into the world of manufacturing, and how would that inevitability shape distribution and production economies? What is to become of open-source education and the over-supply of capable yet unemployed engineers? Would personal privacy and data hiding protocols be developed to help protect our families and businesses from profile pirates and data heists? What happens to our sense of social relations as today’s algorithmic analytic interpersonal relationship matchers get too good and algorithms effectively pre-pubscently “couple us off” before we have a chance to experience the peculiarities of dating life? Will crytocurrency disrupt today’s national currencies? What will become of coffee and plant-based protein products?

[…]

Ultimately though, our task was to decant even the most preposterous idea through a series of design procedures that would make it as normal, ordinary, and everyday blasé as, for one retrospective example, the billions of 140-character messages sent into the ether each day – a form of personal individual communication that must have, at its inception, seemed to most of the world to be the most ridiculous idea ever. The point being that the most extraordinary preposterous social rituals have often made their ways into our lives to become normal and even taken for granted.

A report (or catalog, such as TBD) offers a way to normalize those extraordinary ideas and represent them as entirely ordinary. We imagined it to be a catalog of some sort, as might appear in a street vending box in any neighborhood, or in a pile next to the neighborhood real estate guides or advertising-based classified newspapers near the entrance to your local convenience store.

[…]

Rather than the staid, old-fashioned, bland, unadventurous “strategy consultant’s” report or “futurist’s” white paper (or, even worse – bullet-pointed PowerPoint conclusion to a project), we wanted to present the results of our workshop in a form that had the potential to feel as immersive as an engaging, well-told story. We wanted our insights to exists as if they were an object or an experience that might be found in the world we were describing for our client. We wanted our client to receive our insights with the shift in perspective that comes when one is able to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible.

[…]

During our workshop, we used a little known design-engineering concept generation and development protocol called Design Fiction. Through a series of rigorous design procedures, selection protocols, and proprietary generative work kits, Design Fiction creates diegetic and engineered prototypes that suspend disbelief in their possibility. Design Fiction is a way of moving an idea into existence through the use of design tools and fictional contexts that results in a suspension of one’s disbelief, which then allows one to overcome one’s skeptical nature and see possibility where there was once only skepticism or doubt.

There were a variety of tools and instruments we could put in service to construct these normal ordinary everyday things. For example, several canonical graphs used to represent trajectories of ideas towards their materialization would come in handy. These are simple and familiar graphs. Their representations embody specific epistemological systems of belief about how ideas, technologies, markets, societies evolve. These are typically positivist up-and-to-the-right tendencies. With graphs such as these, one can place an idea in the present and trace it towards its evolved near future form to see where its promise might end up.

We also had the Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit, a work kit useful for parceling ideas into their atomic elements, re-arranging them into something that, for the present, would be quite extra-ordinary. But, in the near future everyday, would be quite ordinary.

[…]

No. Not prediction. Rather we were providing thought provocations. We were creating a catalog of things to think with and think about. We were creating a catalog full of creative inspiration for one possible near future – a near future that would be an extrapolation from todays state of things. Our objective was to create a context in which possible-probables as well as unexpected-unlikelies were all made comprehensible. Were one to do a subsequent catalog as a reflection on another year, it would almost certainly be concerned with very different topics and, as such, materialize in a rather different set of products.

[…]

There were no touch-interaction fetish things like e-paper magazines, no iPhones with bigger screens, no Space Marine Exo-Skeletons, no time-traveling devices, not as many computational screen devices in bathroom medicine cabinets as one may have hoped or feared. There was no over-emphasis on reality goggles, no naive wrist-based ‘wearables’, a bare minimum of 3D printer accessories. Where those naive futures appeared we debased them – we represented them with as much reverence as one might a cheap mass-produced lager, an off-brand laundry soap, or an electric toothbrush replacement head. We focused on the practicalities of the ordinary and everyday and, where we felt necessary, commoditized, bargainized, three-for-a-dollarized and normalized.

What was most interesting is that the deliverable – a catalog of the near future’s normal ordinary everyday – led us in a curious way to a state that felt rather like the ontological present. I mean, the products and services and “ways of being” were extrapolated, but people still worried about finding a playmate for their kid and getting out of debt. As prevalent as ever were the shady promises of a better, fitter, sexier body and new tinctures to prevent the resilient common cold. People in our near future were looking for ways to avoid boredom, to be told a story, find the sport scores or place a bet, get from here to there, avoid unpleasantries, protect their loved ones and buy a pair of trousers. Tomorrow ended up very much the same as today, only the 19 of us were less “there” than the generations destined to inherit the world designed by the TBD Catalog. Those inheritors, the cast of characters we imagined browsing and purchasing from this catalog in the near future, seemed to take things in stride when it came to biomonitoring toilets, surveillance mitigation services, luxurious ice cubes, the need for data mangling, living a parametric-algorithmic lifestyle, goofy laser pointer toys, data sanctuaries, and the inevitable boredom of commuting to work (even with “self-drivers” or other forms of AV’s.)

[…]

The near future comes pre-built with the expectation that, being the future, it must be quite different from the vantage point of the present. This is an assumption we were trying to alter for a moment – the assumption that the future is either better or worse than the present. Quite less often is the future represented as the same as now only with a slightly different cast of characters. Were we to take this approach, which we did, it would be required that the cast of characters from the future would be no more nor less awestruck by their present than we are today awestruck by the fact that we have on-demand satellite maps in our palms, that the vapor trail above us is a craft with hundreds of souls whipping through the stratosphere at breakneck speeds, and that when we sit down at a restaurant fresh water (with ice) is offered in several varieties from countries far away, with or without bubbles.

[…]

It was important that the concepts be carefully represented as normal, rather than spectacular. Were things to have a tinge of unexpected social or technical complexity as suggested, for example, by regulatory warnings, a hint of their possible mishaps, an indication that it may induce a coronary or require a signed waiver — all the better as these are indications of something in the normal ordinary everyday.

[…]

the near future may probably be quite like the present, only with a new cast of social actors and algorithms who will, like today, suffer under the banal, colorful, oftentimes infuriating characteristic of any socialized instrument and its services. I am referring to the bureaucracies that are introduced, the jargon, the new kinds of job titles, the mishaps, the hopes, the error messages, the dashed dreams, the family arguments, the accidental data leak embarrassments, the evolved social norms, the humiliated politicians, the revised expectations of manner and decorum, the inevitable reactionary designed things that reverse current norms, the battalions of accessories. Etcetera.

Also, concepts often started as abstract speculations requiring deciphering and explication. These would need to be designed properly as products or services that felt as though they were well-lived in the world. Predictive design and speculative design lives well in these zones of abstraction. To move a concept from speculative to design fictional requires work. To materialize an idea requires that one push it forward through the gauntlet any design concept must endure to become the product of the mass-manufacturers process of thing-making. To make an idea become a cataloged, consumable product in the world requires that it be manufacturable, desirable and profitable. Each of these dimensions in turn require that, for example, the thing be imagined to have endured regulatory approvals, be protected as much as possible from intellectual property theft, be manufactured somewhere, suffer the inevitable tension between business drivers, marketing objectives, sales goals and design dreams while also withstanding transcontinental shipping, piracy of all kinds, the CEO’s wives color-choice whims (perhaps multiple CEOs over the course of a single product’s development) and have a price that is as cheap as necessary in many cases but perhaps reassuringly expensive in others. Things need to be imagined for their potential defects, their inevitable flaws and world-damaging properties. A product feels real if it has problems it mitigates as well as new, unexpected problems it introduces. Things need names that are considered for certain categories of product, and naive or imbecilic for others. Things need to be imagined in the hand, in use in “real world” contexts – in the home, office, data center, one’s AV, amongst children or co-workers. They should be forced to live in their springtime with fanfare, and their arthritic decline on the tangled, cracked and chipped 3/99¢ bin. To do this requires that they live, not just as flat perfect things for board room PowerPoint and advertisements, but as mangled things co-existing with all of the dynamic tensions and forces in the world.

[…]

Ultimately, things are an embodiment of our own lived existence — our desires and aspirations; our vanities and conceits; our servility and humility. A Design Fiction catalog of things becomes an epistemic reflection of the times. One might read such a catalog as one might read a statement titled “The Year In Review” – a meditation on the highlights of a year recently concluded. This would not be prediction. It would be a narrative device, a form of storytelling that transcends naive fiction to become an object extracted from a near future world and brought back to us to consider, argue over and discuss. And, possibly, do again as an alternative to the old journalistic “The Year In Review” trope. Is there a better name or form for the thing that looks forward with modesty from today and captures what is seen there? What do we call the thing that stretches into the near future the nascent, barely embryonic hopes, speculations, hypotheses, forces, political tendencies – even the predictions from those still into such things? Is it Design Fiction? An evolved genre that splices together naive fiction, science-fiction, image-and-graphic mood boards and the now ridiculously useless ‘futurist’ predictions and reports? Something in between crowd-funding as a way to prototype a DIY idea and multiform, transmedia shenanigans?

[…]

We started receiving inquiries from individuals around the world who wanted to order items and provide crowd-funding style financial backing for product concepts. Some entities demanded licensing fees because a product the “catalog” purported to “sell” was something they had already developed and were selling themselves or, in some cases, they had even patented and so were notifying us that they would pursue legal remedies to address our malfeasance.

We found that products and entire service ecosystems we implied through advertisements actually existed in an obscure corner of the business world. Of course, there were items in the catalog that we knew existed already. In those cases, our task was not to re-predict them, but to continue them along their trajectory using one or a combination of our graphs of the future (see following pages). In these cases, it can be expected that an unwitting reader of TBD Catalog would naturally make contact with us to find out why they had not be made aware of the new version of the product, how could they get a discounted upgrade, or how they could download the firmware update for which they simply had not already been aware.

[…]

One could write quite didactically about innovation of such-and-so, or make a prediction of some sort or commission a trend analysts report or a clever name-brand futurists’ speculation. Or, one could start with the names of some things and fill out their descriptions at their “consumer face” and let the things themselves come to life, define the sensibilities of those humans (or algorithms?) that might use them. How would those things be sold – what materials? what cost? what consumer segment? Three-for-one? Party colors? Or one could do a very modern form of combined prototyping-funding such as the ‘Kickstarter model’ of presenting an idea before it is much more than a collection of pretty visual aids and then see what people might pay for an imaginary thing. Design Fiction is the modern form of imagining, innovating and making when we live in a world where the future may already have been here before.

China: USB External Hard Drive to the French – Super Colossal

China: USB External Hard Drive to the French – Super Colossal.

In Tianducheng, on the outskkirts of Hangzhou in east China’s Zhejiang Province a Pariisan streetscape facsimile is taking shape. It has all the bits you make expect from an alternate Paris: an Eiffel Tower, a tree lined boulevard, mansard roofs galore. 2000 people reportedly live there,

We are aware that reporting on zany building in China is cliché, but then it struck us: what if China wasn’t behind this after all? What if France was? What if it is an act not of banal facsimile, but one of pre-emptive preservation?

Perhaps France is making a backup copy of itself.

Emails circulated the architecture mail system several times over last year with pictures of Ronchamp sitting in the dusty Chinese city of Zhengzhou. An interesting novelty. But with a portion of Paris also turning up, a pattern is forming.

Could China be the USB external hard-drive of the French built environment? Regular backing up of our data is a just a fact of life for most of us worried that we may lose important data. External USB hard-drives are being made for less and with higher capacities every day, such that the delete button is increasingly becoming irrelevant. So why limit our backups to data? China’s construction industry seems perfect for the task of backing up bricks rather than bits – cheap and powered by the brute force of sheer population. Copies of places may be made in a fraction of the time that it took to create them.

If in the event of a catastrophic episode, the part of France in question could be restored and life would go on as it was before.

NHM | 51n4e

NHM | 51n4e.

NHM is a project for a Dutch National History Museum that does not own a collection and is not planning to build up one.

This strategic choice allows the museum to have an immense flexibility in presenting itself in different media. At the same time the manifestation as a building has the ambitions to stimulate a physical and collective experience which is directly related to a spatial concept for a museum.

The proposal thrives through the contrast of its two parts: an extra-large exhibition space and a compact slab housing all other museum related functions like reception, education, meeting, lingering. The overscaled space takes the absence of a collection as an opportunity and allows the display of potentially any kind of object, from a middle-age coin to the latest windmill model. Different eras, cultures and societies are brought into dialogue. The space in itself is an abstract and absent background. It can be used for separate parallel exhibitions, presentations, concerts and collective events of any scale. Past and present are shown and happening side by side.

The various rooms of different functions in the thin slab become balconies to the internal landscape of the exhibition hall. For whatever activities the NHM is visited, the exhibition of history is always present. Overviewing the space from a distance, one can individually look back and reflect.

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (February 8, 1996)

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

wonderful attention to detail.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

[…]

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge . Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.

[…]

Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.

[…]

We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.

Davos, Switzerland

February 8, 1996

by John Perry Barlow <barlow@eff.org>

The Moral Hazards and Legal Conundrums of Our Robot-Filled Future | Science | WIRED

The Moral Hazards and Legal Conundrums of Our Robot-Filled Future | Science | WIRED.

robot-morality-inline

Whether you find it exhilarating or terrifying (or both), progress in robotics and related fields like AI is raising new ethical quandaries and challenging legal codes that were created for a world in which a sharp line separates man from machine. Last week, roboticists, legal scholars, and other experts met at the University of California, Berkeley law school to talk through some of the social, moral, and legal hazards that are likely to arise as that line starts to blur.

[…]

We May Have Feelings for Robots

Darling studies the attachments people form with robots. “There’s evidence that people respond very strongly to robots that are designed to be lifelike,” she said. “We tend to project onto them and anthropomorphize them.”

Most of the evidence for this so far is anecdotal. Darling’s ex-boyfriend, for example, named his Roomba and would feel bad for it when it got stuck under the couch. She’s trying to study human empathy for robots in a more systematic way. In one ongoing study she’s investigating how people react when they’re asked to “hurt” or “kill” a robot by hitting it with various objects. Preliminary evidence suggests they don’t like it one bit.

Another study by Julie Carpenter, a University of Washington graduate student, found that soldiers develop attachments to the robots they use to detect and defuse roadside bombs and other weapons. In interviews with service members, Carpenter found that in some cases they named their robots, ascribed personality traits to them, and felt angry or even sad when their robot got blown up in the line of duty.

This emerging field of research has implications for robot design, Darling says. If you’re building a robot to help take care of elderly people, for example, you might want to foster a deep sense of engagement. But if you’re building a robot for military use, you wouldn’t want the humans to get so attached that they risk their own lives.

There might also be more profound implications. In a 2012 paper, Darling considers the possibility of robot rights. She admits it’s a provocative proposition, but notes that some arguments for animal rights focus not on the animals’ ability to experience pain and anguish but on the effect that cruelty to animals has on humans. If research supports the idea that abusing robots makes people more abusive towards people, it might be a good idea to have legal protections for social robots, Darling says.

Robots Will Have Sex With Us

Robotics is taking sex toys to a new level, and that raises some interesting issues, ranging from the appropriateness of human-robot marriages to using robots to replace prostitutes or spice up the sex lives of the elderly. Some of the most provocative questions involve child-like sex robots. Arkin, the Georgia Tech roboticist, thinks it’s worth investigating whether they could be used to rehabilitate sex offenders.

“We have a problem with pedophilia in society,” Arkin said. “What do we do with these people after they get out of prison? There are very high recidivism rates.” If convicted sex offenders were “prescribed” a child-like sex robot, much like heroin addicts are prescribed methadone as part of a program to kick the habit, it might be possible to reduce recidivism, Arkin suggests. A government agency would probably never fund such a project, Arkin says, and he doesn’t know of anyone else who would either. “But nonetheless I do believe there is a possibility that we may be able to better protect society through this kind of research, rather than having the sex robot cottage industry develop in seedy back rooms, which indeed it is already,” he said.

Even if—and it’s a big if—such a project could win funding and ethical approval, it would be difficult to carry out, Sharkey cautions. “How do you actually do the research until these things are out there in the wild and used for a while? How do you know you’re not creating pedophiles?” he said.

How the legal system would deal with child-like sex robots isn’t entirely clear, according to Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that simulated child pornography (in which young adults or computer generated characters play the parts of children) is protected by the First Amendment and can’t be criminalized. “I could see that extending to embodied [robotic] children, but I can also see courts and regulators getting really upset about that,” Calo said.

Our Laws Aren’t Made for Robots

Child-like sex robots are just one of the many ways in which robots are likely to challenge the legal system in the future, Calo said. “The law assumes, by and large, a dichotomy between a person and a thing. Yet robotics is a place where that gets conflated,” he said.

For example, the concept of mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) is central to criminal law: For an act to be considered a crime, there has to be intent. Artificial intelligence could throw a wrench into that thinking, Calo said. “The prospect of robotics behaving in the wild, displaying emergent or learned behavior creates the possibility there will be crimes that no one really intended.”

To illustrate the point, Calo used the example of Darius Kazemi, a programmer who created a bot that buys random stuff for him on Amazon. “He comes home and he’s delighted to find some box that his bot purchased,” Calo said. But what if Kazemi’s bot bought some alcoholic candy, which is illegal in his home state of Massachusetts? Could he be held accountable? So far the bot hasn’t stumbled on Amazon’s chocolate liqueur candy offerings—it’s just hypothetical. But Calo thinks we’ll soon start seeing cases that raise these kinds of questions.

And it won’t stop there. The apparently imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles will raise new questions in liability law. Social robots inside the home will raise 4th Amendment issues. “Could the FBI get a warrant to plant a question in a robot you talk to, ‘So, where’d you go this weekend?’” Calo asked. Then there are issues of how to establish the limits that society deems appropriate. Should robots or the roboticists who make them be the target of our laws and regulations?

In Praise of Idleness By Bertrand Russell

In Praise of Idleness By Bertrand Russell.

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. Everyone knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. this traveler was on the right lines.

[…]

Whenever a person who already has enough to live on proposes to engage in some everyday kind of job, such as school-teaching or typing, he or she is told that such conduct takes the bread out of other people’s mouths, and is therefore wicked. If this argument were valid, it would only be necessary for us all to be idle in order that we should all have our mouths full of bread. What people who say such things forget is that what a man earns he usually spends, and in spending he gives employment. As long as a man spends his income, he puts just as much bread into people’s mouths in spending as he takes out of other people’s mouths in earning. The real villain, from this point of view, is the man who saves. If he merely puts his savings in a stocking, like the proverbial French peasant, it is obvious that they do not give employment.

[…]

In view of the fact that the bulk of the public expenditure of most civilized Governments consists in payment for past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money to a Government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of the man’s economical habits is to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling.

But, I shall be told, the case is quite different when savings are invested in industrial enterprises. When such enterprises succeed, and produce something useful, this may be conceded. In these days, however, no one will deny that most enterprises fail. That means that a large amount of human labor, which might have been devoted to producing something that could be enjoyed, was expended on producing machines which, when produced, lay idle and did no good to anyone. The man who invests his savings in a concern that goes bankrupt is therefore injuring others as well as himself. If he spent his money, say, in giving parties for his friends, they (we may hope) would get pleasure, and so would all those upon whom he spent money, such as the butcher, the baker, and the bootlegger. But if he spends it (let us say) upon laying down rails for surface card in some place where surface cars turn out not to be wanted, he has diverted a mass of labor into channels where it gives pleasure to no one. Nevertheless, when he becomes poor through failure of his investment he will be regarded as a victim of undeserved misfortune, whereas the gay spendthrift, who has spent his money philanthropically, will be despised as a fool and a frivolous person.

[…]

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

[…]

Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

[…]

To this day, 99 per cent of British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man. The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.

[…]

The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. In England, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief. When I was a child, shortly after urban working men had acquired the vote, certain public holidays were established by law, to the great indignation of the upper classes. I remember hearing an old Duchess say: ‘What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.’ People nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment persists, and is the source of much of our economic confusion.

[…]

If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment — assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure. In America men often work long hours even when they are well off; such men, naturally, are indignant at the idea of leisure for wage-earners, except as the grim punishment of unemployment; in fact, they dislike leisure even for their sons. Oddly enough, while they wish their sons to work so hard as to have no time to be civilized, they do not mind their wives and daughters having no work at all. the snobbish admiration of uselessness, which, in an aristocratic society, extends to both sexes, is, under a plutocracy, confined to women; this, however, does not make it any more in agreement with common sense.

[…]

Industry, sobriety, willingness to work long hours for distant advantages, even submissiveness to authority, all these reappear; moreover authority still represents the will of the Ruler of the Universe, Who, however, is now called by a new name, Dialectical Materialism.

[…]

For ages, men had conceded the superior saintliness of women, and had consoled women for their inferiority by maintaining that saintliness is more desirable than power. At last the feminists decided that they would have both, since the pioneers among them believed all that the men had told them about the desirability of virtue, but not what they had told them about the worthlessness of political power. A similar thing has happened in Russia as regards manual work. For ages, the rich and their sycophants have written in praise of ‘honest toil’, have praised the simple life, have professed a religion which teaches that the poor are much more likely to go to heaven than the rich, and in general have tried to make manual workers believe that there is some special nobility about altering the position of matter in space, just as men tried to make women believe that they derived some special nobility from their sexual enslavement.

[…]

A large country, full of natural resources, awaits development, and has has to be developed with very little use of credit. In these circumstances, hard work is necessary, and is likely to bring a great reward. But what will happen when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?

In the West, we have various ways of dealing with this problem. We have no attempt at economic justice, so that a large proportion of the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of whom do no work at all. Owing to the absence of any central control over production, we produce hosts of things that are not wanted. We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labor by making the others overwork. When all these methods prove inadequate, we have a war: we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered fireworks. By a combination of all these devices we manage, though with difficulty, to keep alive the notion that a great deal of severe manual work must be the lot of the average man.

[…]

The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. We have been misled in this matter by two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect. The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth’s surface. Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to the actual worker. If you ask him what he thinks the best part of his life, he is not likely to say: ‘I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am fulfilling man’s noblest task, and because I like to think how much man can transform his planet. It is true that my body demands periods of rest, which I have to fill in as best I may, but I am never so happy as when the morning comes and I can return to the toil from which my contentment springs.’ I have never heard working men say this sort of thing. They consider work, as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy.

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime.

[…]

The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy, because they are making money; but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profit-making is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.

When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours’ work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit. It is an essential part of any such social system that education should be carried further than it usually is at present, and should aim, in part, at providing tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently. I am not thinking mainly of the sort of things that would be considered ‘highbrow’.

[…]

The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.

In the past, there was a small leisure class and a larger working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; this necessarily made it oppressive, limited its sympathies, and caused it to invent theories by which to justify its privileges. These facts greatly diminished its excellence, but in spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.

The method of a leisure class without duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful. None of the members of the class had to be taught to be industrious, and the class as a whole was not exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers. At present, the universities are supposed to provide, in a more systematic way, what the leisure class provided accidentally and as a by-product. This is a great improvement, but it has certain drawbacks. University life is so different from life in the world at large that men who live in academic milieu tend to be unaware of the preoccupations and problems of ordinary men and women; moreover their ways of expressing themselves are usually such as to rob their opinions of the influence that they ought to have upon the general public. Another disadvantage is that in universities studies are organized, and the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be discouraged. Academic institutions, therefore, useful as they are, are not adequate guardians of the interests of civilization in a world where everyone outside their walls is too busy for unutilitarian pursuits.

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

[…]

Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.

WELCOME TO UTOPIA

WELCOME TO UTOPIA.

Before dawn I emerge above deck to find Steve Quinto at the ship’s wheel, where I left him last night. Steve is a rich American businessman. He once owned an international airline, pioneered low-cost travel across the United States. Steve believes the world I know is in the second phase of certain self-destruction.

[…]

Beyond those mountains is Steve’s utopia, an 800ha living ark that he has spent the past eight of his 79 years creating, investing his life’s fortune in the shipment of 300 tonnes of materials from around the world to the very edge of human existence. Paradise. Salvation. A new world for when the old one dies. He calls it Edenhope.

[…]

In coming months Ruth and Steve will ­disconnect themselves totally from the civilised world. “You have found us at an extraordinary moment in our lives,” Steve says. “As we make our transition.” Ruth has left behind houses and cars and furniture and expensive ornaments and jewellery.

The errant baby tomato beneath her feet is more precious to her than any of it. “The world of man proceeds on a suicidal journey,” she says. “We’ve turned all of life into a commodity. Everything has a price. Everything is for sale … and it finally became impossible for us. We couldn’t go on participating in it.”

There is, Steve estimates, room enough on the ark for 23 people to live comfortably. And Australians are welcome. Singles, couples, families, believers. All that’s required is a $300 one way ticket from Brisbane to Luganville and a commitment that means forever.

[…]

The turning track straightens to a clearing and there it is: the dream, Edenhope, a new world among the trees, a network of wooden bridges and paths and staircases weaving through manicured garden beds and rolling orchards with fruit trees in the hundreds and a kitchen hut and 10 octagonal bungalows made of high-end red hardwood timbers. The wondrous dreamscape includes wild blue flowers and bird of paradise plants and trees so big their root ­systems form houses of their own. There’s a communal library; a warehouse filled with ­endless tools and hardware; a surgery stocked with enough medicines to last two decades.

It’s a staggering work of human endeavour. Steve brought an earthmover and a front-end loader here from Canada. He rallied workers, paid and paid for their services for eight years; organised thousands of nine-hour sailing journeys back and forth between civilisation and sanctuary, hauling floors and sacks of concrete and machinery and miscellaneous goods in preparation for the apocalypse. He walks to a patch of dirt in the centre of his village. “It started here,” he says. “It was nothing but Ruth and I in two hammocks tied to trees.”

 

Glastonbury: the pop-up city that plays home to 200,000 for the weekend | Cities | theguardian.com

Glastonbury: the pop-up city that plays home to 200,000 for the weekend | Cities | theguardian.com.

An aerial view of the Glastonbury Festival.

In June of (almost) every year, a medium-sized city emerges for a weekend in the West Country, then disappears again. The population – over 200,000 people at its peak – would make it the seventh largest city in the south of England, after London, Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Brighton (possibly its nearest relative).

Regarding the Glastonbury Festival as a “city” might seem counter-intuitive, given its premise of a partial return to ancient rural civilisation – fake stone circles and all. But a city it is, with a massive system of infrastructure and spatial organisation that is no less impressive for being temporary. This is a place where at least one of the dreams of the 1960s lives on – or where it went to die, depending on your view of the festival and its attractions.

In the 60s, the sharpest edge of British architectural culture was represented by Archigram, a collective of designers moonlighting from day-jobs working for London County Council (LCC) who put out a magazine of the same name, full of proposals for what future cities should or could look like. Many of those designs are now safely slotted away in the category of “impossible but fun” – the Walking City, the Floating City … all of them rendered in gloriously lurid Terry Gilliam-like drawings, with attendant functionalist justification for the seemingly absurd.

At the LCC, many in the group had a major role in the design of London’s South Bank Centre, but as Archigram, their ideas for festivals of culture were far away from heavy husks of concrete housing orchestras and art galleries. In particular, the Instant City took the form of an airship that would move over an area which was poorly served, culturally speaking – urban, rural, it didn’t matter – and dispense cinemas, theatres and concert halls in lightweight, disposable structures that could be packed up as quickly and easily as they were unpacked. Habitually, Archigram’s legacy is reduced to the massive static art gallery of Paris’s Pompidou Centre, but the Glastonbury ‘city’ proves just how prescient they were.

It didn’t need an airship to drop the contents on Worthy Farm, but as Douglas Murphy points out in his book The Architecture of Failure, Archigram’s Instant City really was achieved at Glastonbury and its like. “If we follow the stream of Archigram thought to its logical conclusion,” Murphy writes, “there is literally no better spatial embodiment of their obsession with transience, fun, media entertainment and spectacle than the pop-up cities of the music festival – 50,000 middle-class people in a field staring at Bono is where the Archigram version of utopia takes you.”

[…]

So what sort of a city is Glastonbury, and how well is it planned? In terms of built structures, from its inception, the main stage at the festival has been the Pyramid, a lightweight structure based directly on the pyramid of Giza – eternal-looking, but still basically pop-up.

The lovely, rolling Somerset fields feature several campsites with attendant portaloos, ‘streets’ of stalls, and bars run by the Workers Beer Company that are named after various Labour heroes. Although rain can make the city look dystopian, there are extensive networks that keep it together, many of which draw on the festival’s environmentalist legacy.

Volunteer workers sort rubbish for recycling at the Glastonbury Festival.
Volunteer workers sort rubbish for recycling at the Glastonbury Festival. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Much of the infrastructure is adapted into the site’s other life as a working farm: the Pyramid Stage has doubled as a cow shed, and the waste from the 6,000 portable toilets is used as compost. Most of the stages and installations are kept for the rest of the year in the Green Barn in flat-pack form; during the festival, this barn is an event control centre with a staff of 500.

The sheer scale of the planning can be ascertained from the 3 million-litre reservoirs needed for storing water. Oxfam provides the stewards, but amazingly the site was not policed until 1989. As the organisers now point out on their website: “The festival is a town in its own right, and the town needs policing.” The Avon and Somerset police force carries out “regular visible patrols” and maintains an office (or rather a ‘Police Village’) on site.

This being England, there is even CCTV. Yet compared with festivals that occur in permanent cities such as Leeds and Reading – where security guards are always ready to enforce purchases of alcohol and food from only the licensed vendors – Glastonbury still feels a relatively free city. A super-fence may keep out most of those who haven’t paid, but if you work at a stall or volunteer to clean up afterwards, you can still get in for free.

Ultimately, the thing that most distinguishes Glastonbury City from a real one is its lack of paving. When it rains, a real taste of the pre-industrial metropolis can be obtained, as tens of thousands of people stomp around in a sea of slurry. Indeed, it’s this tendency to transform into a bog which might explain why the Glastonbury model of giant-festival-on-a-farm may be in decline, in favour of those that combine various musical attractions with a chic city break: Sonar in Barcelona, Transmediales in Berlin, Unsound in Krakow. There, the attractions of a certain kind of creative city are part of the appeal, rather than rolling hills, instant infrastructure and misty views of the Tor.

Alongside this, some music festivals have started appropriating earlier spaces of modern architecture itself – such as the Pontins camp in Camber Sands, which has played host to music festivals since All Tomorrow’s Parties set up there in 1999. The Camber Sands site, with its little glazed chalets, laid-on electricity and grid-planned order, is a product of a rather more demotic, proletarian modernism than that propounded by Archigram. It is a lot more conformist and clean – “canned”, they might have said – than the world of travellers and free festivals.

Yet this less adaptable, less alternative modernism of the holiday camp festival holds an obvious appeal to anybody who has found themselves covered in slop during one of Glastonbury’s rain years. The Instant City has been transformed back into an older model altogether, the Radiant City: clean, elegant, precise, and – English weather permitting –sun-soaked. It is a small council estate filled with only middle-class people, and Throbbing Gristle playing in the background.

The Fermi Paradox – Wait But Why

The Fermi Paradox – Wait But Why.

Great Filter

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an organization dedicated to listening for signals from other intelligent life. If we’re right that there are 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, and even a fraction of them are sending out radio waves or laser beams or other modes of attempting to contact others, shouldn’t SETI’s satellite array pick up all kinds of signals?

But it hasn’t. Not one. Ever.

Where is everybody?

It gets stranger. Our sun is relatively young in the lifespan of the universe. There are far older stars with far older Earth-like planets, which should in theory mean civilizations far more advanced than our own. As an example, let’s compare our 4.54 billion-year-old Earth to a hypothetical 8 billion-year-old Planet X.

[…]

The technology and knowledge of a civilization only 1,000 years ahead of us could be as shocking to us as our world would be to a medieval person. A civilization 1 million years ahead of us might be as incomprehensible to us as human culture is to chimpanzees. And Planet X is 3.4 billion years ahead of us…

There’s something called The Kardashev Scale, which helps us group intelligent civilizations into three broad categories by the amount of energy they use:

A Type I Civilization has the ability to use all of the energy on their planet. We’re not quite a Type I Civilization, but we’re close (Carl Sagan created a formula for this scale which puts us at a Type 0.7 Civilization).

A Type II Civilization can harness all of the energy of their host star. Our feeble Type I brains can hardly imagine how someone would do this, but we’ve tried our best, imagining things like a Dyson Sphere.

A Type III Civilization blows the other two away, accessing power comparable to that of the entire Milky Way galaxy.

If this level of advancement sounds hard to believe, remember Planet X above and their 3.4 billion years of further development. If a civilization on Planet X were similar to ours and were able to survive all the way to Type III level, the natural thought is that they’d probably have mastered inter-stellar travel by now, possibly even colonizing the entire galaxy.

Continuing to speculate, if 1% of intelligent life survives long enough to become a potentially galaxy-colonizing Type III Civilization, our calculations above suggest that there should be at least 1,000 Type III Civilizations in our galaxy alone—and given the power of such a civilization, their presence would likely be pretty noticeable. And yet, we see nothing, hear nothing, and we’re visited by no one.

So where is everybody?

Welcome to the Fermi Paradox.

[…]

In taking a look at some of the most-discussed possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox, let’s divide them into two broad categories—those explanations which assume that there’s no sign of Type II and Type III Civilizations because there are none of them out there, and those which assume they’re out there and we’re not seeing or hearing anything for other reasons:

Explanation Group 1: There are no signs of higher (Type II and III) civilizations because there are no higher civilizations in existence.

Those who subscribe to Group 1 explanations point to something called the non-exclusivity problem, which rebuffs any theory that says, “There are higher civilizations, but none of them have made any kind of contact with us because they all _____.” Group 1 people look at the math, which says there should be so many thousands (or millions) of higher civilizations, that at least one of them would be an exception to the rule. Even if a theory held for 99.99% of higher civilizations, the other .01% would behave differently and we’d become aware of their existence.

Therefore, say Group 1 explanations, it must be that there are no super-advanced civilizations. And since the math suggests that there are thousands of them just in our own galaxy, something else must be going on.

This something else is called The Great Filter.

The Great Filter theory says that at some point from pre-life to Type III intelligence, there’s a wall that all or nearly all attempts at life hit. There’s some stage in that long evolutionary process that is extremely unlikely or impossible for life to get beyond. That stage is The Great Filter.

If this theory is true, the big question is, Where in the timeline does the Great Filter occur?

It turns out that when it comes to the fate of humankind, this question is very important. Depending on where The Great Filter occurs, we’re left with three possible realities: We’re rare, we’re first, or we’re fucked.

1. We’re Rare (The Great Filter is Behind Us)

One hope we have is that The Great Filter is behind us—we managed to surpass it, which would mean it’s extremely rare for life to make it to our level of intelligence. The diagram below shows only two species making it past, and we’re one of them.

This scenario would explain why there are no Type III Civilizations…but it would also mean that we could be one of the few exceptions now that we’ve made it this far. It would mean we have hope. On the surface, this sounds a bit like people 500 years ago suggesting that the Earth is the center of the universe—it implies that we’re special. However, something scientists call “observation selection effect” suggests that anyone who is pondering their own rarity is inherently part of an intelligent life “success story”—and whether they’re actually rare or quite common, the thoughts they ponder and conclusions they draw will be identical. This forces us to admit that being special is at least a possibility.

And if we are special, when exactly did we become special—i.e. which step did we surpass that almost everyone else gets stuck on?

One possibility: The Great Filter could be at the very beginning—it might be incredibly unusual for life to begin at all. This is a candidate because it took about a billion years of Earth’s existence to finally happen, and because we have tried extensively to replicate that event in labs and have never been able to do it. If this is indeed The Great Filter, it would mean that not only is there no intelligent life out there, there may be no other life at all.

Another possibility: The Great Filter could be the jump from the simple prokaryote cell to the complex eukaryote cell. After prokaryotes came into being, they remained that way for almost two billion years before making the evolutionary jump to being complex and having a nucleus. If this is The Great Filter, it would mean the universe is teeming with simple prokaryote cells and almost nothing beyond that.

There are a number of other possibilities—some even think the most recent leap we’ve made to our current intelligence is a Great Filter candidate. While the leap from semi-intelligent life (chimps) to intelligent life (humans) doesn’t at first seem like a miraculous step, Steven Pinker rejects the idea of an inevitable “climb upward” of evolution: “Since evolution does not strive for a goal but just happens, it uses the adaptation most useful for a given ecological niche, and the fact that, on Earth, this led to technological intelligence only once so far may suggest that this outcome of natural selection is rare and hence by no means a certain development of the evolution of a tree of life.”

[…]

If we are indeed rare, it could be because of a fluky biological event, but it also could be attributed to what is called the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which suggests that though there may be many Earth-like planets, the particular conditions on Earth—whether related to the specifics of this solar system, its relationship with the moon (a moon that large is unusual for such a small planet and contributes to our particular weather and ocean conditions), or something about the planet itself—are exceptionally friendly to life.

2. We’re the First

For Group 1 Thinkers, if the Great Filter is not behind us, the one hope we have is that conditions in the universe are just recently, for the first time since the Big Bang, reaching a place that would allow intelligent life to develop. In that case, we and many other species may be on our way to super-intelligence, and it simply hasn’t happened yet. We happen to be here at the right time to become one of the first super-intelligent civilizations.

One example of a phenomenon that could make this realistic is the prevalence of gamma-ray bursts, insanely huge explosions that we’ve observed in distant galaxies. In the same way that it took the early Earth a few hundred million years before the asteroids and volcanoes died down and life became possible, it could be that the first chunk of the universe’s existence was full of cataclysmic events like gamma-ray bursts that would incinerate everything nearby from time to time and prevent any life from developing past a certain stage. Now, perhaps, we’re in the midst of an astrobiological phase transition and this is the first time any life has been able to evolve for this long, uninterrupted.

3. We’re Fucked (The Great Filter is Ahead of Us)

If we’re neither rare nor early, Group 1 thinkers conclude that The Great Filter must be in our future. This would suggest that life regularly evolves to where we are, but that something prevents life from going much further and reaching high intelligence in almost all cases—and we’re unlikely to be an exception.

One possible future Great Filter is a regularly-occurring cataclysmic natural event, like the above-mentioned gamma-ray bursts, except they’re unfortunately not done yet and it’s just a matter of time before all life on Earth is suddenly wiped out by one. Another candidate is the possible inevitability that nearly all intelligent civilizations end up destroying themselves once a certain level of technology is reached.

This is why Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom says that “no news is good news.” The discovery of even simple life on Mars would be devastating, because it would cut out a number of potential Great Filters behind us. And if we were to find fossilized complex life on Mars, Bostrom says “it would be by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover,” because it would mean The Great Filter is almost definitely ahead of us—ultimately dooming the species. Bostrom believes that when it comes to The Fermi Paradox, “the silence of the night sky is golden.”

Explanation Group 2: Type II and III intelligent civilizations are out there—and there are logical reasons why we might not have heard from them.

Group 2 explanations get rid of any notion that we’re rare or special or the first at anything—on the contrary, they believe in the Mediocrity Principle, whose starting point is that there is nothing unusual or rare about our galaxy, solar system, planet, or level of intelligence, until evidence proves otherwise. They’re also much less quick to assume that the lack of evidence of higher intelligence beings is evidence of their nonexistence—emphasizing the fact that our search for signals stretches only about 100 light years away from us (0.1% across the galaxy) and suggesting a number of possible explanations. Here are 10:

Possibility 1) Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000, a little blip of time—if contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it. Further, recorded history only goes back 5,500 years—a group of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes may have experienced some crazy alien shit, but they had no good way to tell anyone in the future about it.

Possibility 2) The galaxy has been colonized, but we just live in some desolate rural area of the galaxy. The Americas may have been colonized by Europeans long before anyone in a small Inuit tribe in far northern Canada realized it had happened. There could be an urbanization component to the interstellar dwellings of higher species, in which all the neighboring solar systems in a certain area are colonized and in communication, and it would be impractical and purposeless for anyone to deal with coming all the way out to the random part of the spiral where we live.

Possibility 3) The entire concept of physical colonization is a hilariously backward concept to a more advanced species. Remember the picture of the Type II Civilization above with the sphere around their star? With all that energy, they might have created a perfect environment for themselves that satisfies their every need. They might have crazy-advanced ways of reducing their need for resources and zero interest in leaving their happy utopia to explore the cold, empty, undeveloped universe.

An even more advanced civilization might view the entire physical world as a horribly primitive place, having long ago conquered their own biology and uploaded their brains to a virtual reality, eternal-life paradise. Living in the physical world of biology, mortality, wants, and needs might seem to them the way we view primitive ocean species living in the frigid, dark sea. FYI, thinking about another life form having bested mortality makes me incredibly jealous and upset.

Possibility 4) There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location. This is an unpleasant concept and would help explain the lack of any signals being received by the SETI satellites. It also means that we might be the super naive newbies who are being unbelievably stupid and risky by ever broadcasting outward signals. There’s a debate going on currently about whether we should engage in METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the reverse of SETI) or not, and most people say we should not. Stephen Hawking warns, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Even Carl Sagan (a general believer that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be altruistic, not hostile) called the practice of METI “deeply unwise and immature,” and recommended that “the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.” Scary.[2]

Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it’s an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move—because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

Possibility 6) There’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive and we’re listening for the wrong things. Like walking into a modern-day office building, turning on a walkie-talkie, and when you hear no activity (which of course you wouldn’t hear because everyone’s texting, not using walkie-talkies), determining that the building must be empty. Or maybe, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, it could be that our minds work exponentially faster or slower than another form of intelligence out there—e.g. it takes them 12 years to say “Hello,” and when we hear that communication, it just sounds like white noise to us.

Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. This is an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.

Possibility 8) Higher civilizations are aware of us and observing us (AKA the “Zoo Hypothesis”). As far as we know, super-intelligent civilizations exist in a tightly-regulated galaxy, and our Earth is treated like part of a vast and protected national park, with a strict “Look but don’t touch” rule for planets like ours. We wouldn’t notice them, because if a far smarter species wanted to observe us, it would know how to easily do so without us noticing. Maybe there’s a rule similar to the Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” which prohibits super-intelligent beings from making any open contact with lesser species like us or revealing themselves in any way, until the lesser species has reached a certain level of intelligence.

Possibility 9) Higher civilizations are here, all around us. But we’re too primitive to perceive them. Michio Kaku sums it up like this:

Lets say we have an ant hill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the ant hill, they’re building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is “Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?

So it’s not that we can’t pick up the signals from Planet X using our technology, it’s that we can’t even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they’re trying to do. It’s so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet.

Along those lines, this may also be an answer to “Well if there are so many fancy Type III Civilizations, why haven’t they contacted us yet?” To answer that, let’s ask ourselves—when Pizarro made his way into Peru, did he stop for a while at an anthill to try to communicate? Was he magnanimous, trying to help the ants in the anthill? Did he become hostile and slow his original mission down in order to smash the anthill apart? Or was the anthill of complete and utter and eternal irrelevance to Pizarro? That might be our situation here.

Possibility 10) We’re completely wrong about our reality. There are a lot of ways we could just be totally off with everything we think. The universe might appear one way and be something else entirely, like a hologram. Or maybe we’re the aliens and we were planted here as an experiment or as a form of fertilizer. There’s even a chance that we’re all part of a computer simulation by some researcher from another world, and other forms of life simply weren’t programmed into the simulation.

BLDGBLOG: Perspectival Objects

BLDGBLOG: Perspectival Objects.

…there’s something strangely compelling in the idea that a seemingly gratuitous new consumer product—just another smartphone—might actually owe its allegiance to a different technical lineage, one less connected to the telecommunications industry and more from the world of architectural representation.

It would be a smartphone that takes us back to, say, Albrecht Dürer and his gridded drawing machines, making the Fire Phone a kind of perspectival object that deserves a place, however weird, in architectural history. Erwin Panofksy, we might say, would have used a Fire Phone—or at least he would have written a blog post about it.

In this context, the amazing image of billionaire Jeff Bezos standing on stage, giving a kind of off-the-cuff history of perspectival rendering surely belongs in future works of architectural history. Smiling and schoolteacher-like, Bezos gestures in front of an infinite grid ghosted-in over this seminal work of urban scenography, in one moment aiming to fit his product within a very particular, highly Western tradition of representing the built environment.

[…]

Five hundred years ago, we’d instead be reading about some fabulous new system of mirrors, lens, prisms, and strings, all tied back to or operated by way of complexly engineered works of geared furniture. Unfolding tables and adjustable chairs, with operable flaps and windows.

These precursors of the Fire Phone, after seemingly endless acts of fine-tuning, would then, and only then, allow their users to see the scene before them with three-dimensional accuracy.

Now, replace those prisms and mirrors with multiple forward-facing cameras and infrared sensors, and market the resulting object to billions of potential users in front of gridded scenes of Western urbanism, and you’ve got the strange moment that happened yesterday, where a smartphone aimed to collapse all of Western art history into a single technical artifact, a perspectival object many of us will soon be carrying in our bags and pockets.

[…]

…is there a type of architecture—Classical, Romanesque—particularly well-suited for perspectival objects like the Fire Phone, and, conversely, are there types of built space that throw these devices off altogether? Further, could artificial environments that exceed the rendering capacity of smartphones and other digital cameras be deliberately designed—and, if so, what would they “look like” to those sensors and objects?

cityofsound: Essay: The street as platform

cityofsound: Essay: The street as platform.

Crossing

The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Imagine film of a normal street right now, a relatively busy crossroads at 9AM taken from a vantage point high above the street, looking down at an angle as if from a CCTV camera. We can see several buildings, a dozen cars, and quite a few people, pavements dotted with street furniture.

Freeze the frame, and scrub the film backwards and forwards a little, observing the physical activity on the street. But what can’t we see?


We can’t see how the street is immersed in a twitching, pulsing cloud of data. This is over and above the well-established electromagnetic radiation, crackles of static, radio waves conveying radio and television broadcasts in digital and analogue forms, police voice traffic. This is a new kind of data, collective and individual, aggregated and discrete, open and closed, constantly logging impossibly detailed patterns of behaviour. The behaviour of the street.

Such data emerges from the feet of three friends, grimly jogging past, whose Nike+ shoes track the frequency and duration of every step, comparing against pre-set targets for each individual runner. This is cross-referenced with playlist data emerging from their three iPods. Similar performance data is being captured in the engine control systems of a stationary BMW waiting at a traffic light, beaming information back to the BMW service centre associated with the car’s owner.

The traffic light system itself is capturing and collating data about traffic and pedestrian flow, based on real-time patterns surrounding the light, and conveying the state of congestion in the neighbourhood to the traffic planning authority for that region, which alters the lights’ behaviour accordingly. (That same traffic data is subsequently scraped by an information visualisation system that maps average travel times on to house price data, overlaid onto a collaboratively produced and open map of the city.)

In an adjacent newsagent’s, the stock control system updates as a newspaper is purchased, with data about consumption emerging from the EFTPOS system used to purchase the paper, triggering transactions in the customer’s bank account records.

Data emerges from the seven simultaneous phone conversations (with one call via Skype and six cellular phones) amongst the group of people waiting at the pedestrian crossing nearest the newsagent.

The recent browser histories of the two PCs with internet access in a coffee shop across the road update sporadically with use, indicating both individual patterns of websites accessed and an aggregate pattern of data transfer throughout the day. At the counter of the coffee shop, a loyalty card is being swiped, updating records in their customer database. The flat above the shop is silently broadcasting data about the occupant’s usage of his Sky+ box, DAB radio with internet connection, and Xbox Live console. His laptop noisily plays music, noiselessly accreting data to build a profile of the user’s taste in music at the web-based service Last FM. This track has inaccurate or no metadata, which means it is not registered by Last FM, in turn harming its latent sales prospects.

A police car whistles by, the policewoman in the passenger seat tapping into a feed of patterns of suspicious activity around the back of the newsagent on a proprietary police system accessed via her secured BlackBerry. A kid takes a picture of the police car blurring past with his digital camera, which automatically uses a satellite to stamp the image with location data via the GPS-enabled peripheral plugged into the camera’s hot-shoe connection.

Across the road, a telecoms engineer secures a wireless device to the telephone exchange unit on the pavement, which will intermittently broadcast its state back to base, indicating when repairs might be necessary.

Walking past, an anxious-looking punter abruptly halts as the local Ladbrokes triggers a Bluetooth-based MMS to his phone, having detected him nearby, and offers discounts on a flutter on the 3.30 at Newmarket (the Ladbrokes is constantly receiving updates on runners, riders and bets, linked to a national network aggregating information from local nodes at racecourses and bookies). The potential punter had earlier received a tip on said race from his chosen newspaper’s daily sports bulletin, delivered via his mobile’s newsfeed reader software.

As he wonders whether he could discreetly sidle into the bookies to place the bet he’d promised himself he wouldn’t, the street-lamp above his head fades down as its sensors indicate the level of ambient daylight on the street is now quite sufficient, switching into a mode where the solar panel above collects energy for the evening and delivers any potential excess back into the grid, briefly triggering a message indicating this change of state back to the public-private partnership that runs the lighting services in this borough, in turn commencing a transaction to price up the surplus electricity delivered to the grid.

The same increase in daylight causes a minor adjustment in four of the seven CCTV cameras dotted along the street, as they re-calibrate their exposure levels accordingly, the digital video accruing on the array of remote disk drives at a faraway control centre is rendered slightly differently in response.

In an apartment over the bookies, the occupant switches on her kettle, causing the display on her Wattson device that monitors real-time electricity usage in the flat to jump upwards by a hundred watts, whilst triggering a corresponding jump in the sparklines displaying usage on the Holmes software that tracks that data over time, and which compares her consumption to four of her friend’s houses in the same neighbourhood.

Three kids are playing an online game on their mobile phones, in which the physical street pattern around them is overlaid with renderings of the 19th century city. They scuttle down an alleyway behind a furniture showroom as the virtual presence of another player, actually situated in a town forty miles away and reincarnated as a Sherlock Holmes-ian detective, indicated on their map by an icon of a deerstalker andgently puffing pipe, stalks past the overlaid imagined space. The three play a trio of master criminals, intent on unleashing a poisonous miasma upon the unsuspecting and unreal caricatures generated by the game.

Approaching the furniture showroom’s delivery bay to the rear, the driver of an articulated lorry grinds down through his gears in frustration as he realises the road over the lights narrows to a point through which his cab will not fit, information not made clear by the satnav system propped on his dashboard. The RFID chips embedded into the packaging of the seven armchairs in his trailer register briefly on the showroom’s stock control system, noting the delivery time and identity of the driver. When formally checked in later by the showroom’s assistant with a barcode-scanner, the damage to one of the chairs is noted and sent back to base, automatically triggering the addition of a replacement armchair to the next lorry out to this town, while recalculating stock levels.

In the shoe-shop next door, a similar hand-held scanner, unknowingly damaged in a minor act of tomfoolery a day earlier, fails to register the barcode on a box of sneakers, resulting in a lost sale as the assistant is unable to process the transaction without said barcode. The would-be customer walks out in disgust, texting his wife in order to vent his furious frustration on someone. She sends a placating if deliberately patronising message back within a few seconds, which causes him to smile and respond with an ‘x’ two seconds after that. In doing so, his allocation of SMSs for the month tips over to the next tier in his payment plan, triggering a flag in an database somewhere in Slough.

Deciding to spend his money – that he unwittingly has less of than he did a few moments ago – on a book instead, he steps into the only local bookstore on the street, using the now more expensive data plan of his mobile phone service to retrieve aggregated reviews for the latest Andy McNab, which he half-reads whilst perusing the back cover of the book. Unfortunately the corresponding prices offered up by the review system are in US dollars, as the service is not localised and thus he can’t compare prices. This is fortunate for the shop, however, and so during the resulting purchase of the book, the store’s stock control system automatically orders a fresh batch of the now best-seller whilst the on-counter top 10 displays McNab’s seemingly inexorable rise up the charts on a battered old LCD monitor.

Round the corner, the number of copies of the McNab book in the municipal library remains exactly the same. Instead, the large external LED display hoisted over the door at huge expense conveys the volume of ISBNs of books being swiped by librarians inside the building, in real-time. Part of an installation by students at the local art college, the most popular genres of books taken out, inferred from the aggregate of ISBNs and cross-referenced with Amazon, are displayed every five minutes via a collage of randomly-selected movie clips from YouTube that match broadly that same genre and keywords (filtered for decency and sensitivity by bespoke software which is itself receiving updates, detailing what is considered obscene at this point). Currently, a 2-second sequence of a close-up of David Niven’s nose and moustache from The Bridge Over The River Kwai morphs into the bulging right arm of Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, cradling a stolen Soviet rocket launcher. The patterns of clip consumption at YouTube twitch accordingly.

Looking up at the display in fascination and bewilderment, an elderly lady stumbles over a pothole in the pavement. Helped back to her feet by a younger man, she decides to complain to the council about the pothole. The man suggests he can do that right now, from his iPod Touch and using the library’s open public wifi, by registering the presence of a pothole at this point on the local problems database, Fix My Street. The old woman stares at him quizzically as it takes him fifty seconds to close the website he had been looking it on his mobile (Google Maps directions for “hairdressers near SW4”, a phrase he’ll shortly have to type in again, having neglected to bookmark it) and access fixmystreet.com. He spends the next few minutes indicating the presence of a pothole outside the library on Fix My Street (unaware of the postcode, he has to select one from a few possible matches on street name), before he moves on, satisfied with his civic good deed for the day. The elderly lady had long since shuffled off, muttering to herself. Although Fix My Street smartly forwards on all issues to the corresponding council, a beleaguered under-trained temp in the also underfunded ‘pavements team’ is unaware of fixmystreet.com and unable to cope with the levels of complaint, and so the pothole claims five more victims over the next two weeks until someone rings up about it.

The LED display board can also sniff what is being accessed via the library’s public wifi network, and displays fragments of the corresponding text and imagery. It switches briefly over to this mode, in order to denote that Fix My Street was being accessed, and displays some details of the transactions detailing the pothole issue. Before flicking back to the YouTube x ISBN installation, the display then conveys some information from the local council about a forthcoming street upgrade, blissfully unaware of the possible connection to be made between that and the pothole. Unfortunately, at that point, the pale sunlight hits the screen at such an angle that it cannot be read by two hurrying passers-by anyway. The display then dissolves into a slow pan across Keira Knightly’s delicately arched eyebrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the swinging briefcase of one of the passers-by, an Amazon Kindle e-book reader briefly connects to the public library – having previously visited the library, the owner had registered the public wifi in her settings. It commences a rapid-fire series of handshakes with Amazon’s systems, swapping personal details back and forth with user profile information, and thus beginning to download a new book by Ian McEwan to the device. Despite the wealth of metadata in this rich stream of data, the Kindle’s closed system means that the library’s databases, and LED display installation, cannot possibly be made aware of this literary transaction being conducted using its infrastructure. Either way, with seven seconds the Kindle user is out of range and the download automatically fizzles out, settling back to wait for the scent of open wireless.

Behind the library, a small 19th century cottage that’s been on the market for a year now is being re-valued by estate agents. This new figure, a few thousand pounds less than the previous, is entered automatically via the estate agent’s PDA and ripples through their internal databases and then external facing systems. It doesn’t trigger any change in three other proprietary databases listing average house prices in the neighbourhood until three weeks later. This house price change subtly affects the average for the area, which is later recombined into the aforementioned map that compares with commuter times for the borough.

An employee of the local water company knocks on a door up the street, calling in order to take a reading from the house’s meter. She uses a bespoke application on her mobile phone, which should indicate the location of the meter on the property. In this case, it doesn’t, so she has to ask.

Five TomTom satnav systems in five of the twelve cars on the street suddenly crash for reasons unknown, causing an instantaneous reboot and login sequence over the course of twenty seconds. One driver notices.

The four other drivers are slightly distracted by the glow of a giant TV screen, installed and operated by the council but paid for through corporate sponsorship, which glowers over the end of a pedestrianised-shopping mall at the end of the street over the lights. It’s broadcasting the Australian Open tennis, which is being played live in Melbourne. A homeless person is sleeping underneath the screen, soaking up some of its transmitted warmth. An on-street information kiosk stands beside the screen, offering a scrollable map of the local area and directory of local businesses. It’s little-used, as the directory of businesses was always incomplete and intermittently updated, its data now rusty and eroded by time. Plus maps are available on most people’s mobile phones. Still, the printer installed in its base occasionally emits a money-off coupon for some of the local businesses.

Under the pavement on one side of the street, a buried sensor records the fact that some fibre-optic cables are now transmitting data with 10% less effectiveness than when they were installed. A rat ascends from an accidentally uncovered grille under the library’s down-pipe nearby, its whiskers containing trace elements of plastic cladding.

A blogger posts an entry on her weblog regarding some new graffiti on the library’s rear, uploading the image via her mobile phone, thanks to her blog platform’s relationship with Flickr, a popular photo sharing site. She adds a cursory description of the stencilled representation of the Mayor’s face superimposed onto a £50 note instead of the Queen’s. Shortly afterwards, she receives an SMS from the service Twitter, indicating that two of her friends are heading for a café up the street, and she decides to intercept them to discuss her find, sending back the URL of her post and the time of her imminent arrival. Her phone’s Google Maps application triangulates her position to within a few hundred metres using the mobile cell that encompasses the street, conveying a quicker route to the café. Unfortunately, none of their systems convey that the café is newly closed for redecoration.

Working from home in his small house backing onto the old cottage, a lawyer files his case notes via the password-protected intranet his company operates, his wifi network encrypted to prevent leakage of such confidential data. He then closes his network connection, switching instead to his neighbour’s wifi network – which has been left purposefully open in the interests of creating a cohesive civic layer of wireless coverage on their street – in order to watch the watch the highlights of his football team’s two-nil victory the night before. In this way, his own remarkably cheap wireless network data plan never goes beyond its monthly cap. This parasitic wireless activity is only curtailed months later, when the previously benevolent neighbour uses some free sniffer software she downloaded to detect the presence of the wifi router that’s responsible for the majority of the data usage in the street.

A local off-license has an old monitor in the window that cycles through a series of crude screen-grabs of faces of shoplifters of local stores, derived from the various CCTV systems owned by a local association of shopkeepers. Unfortunately, the face of the purchaser of the Andy McNab book is mistakenly added to the system three weeks later.

(Coincidentally, in a meeting being conducted several miles away, a project team working on council tax systems briefly considers whether a system of localised screens displaying which houses in the street had not paid their council tax yet, updated wirelessly, would be ethically sound.)

Waiting at the lights, someone pays their council tax by mobile phone, triggering an internet-based bank transfer via SMS. Across the road, a car belong to a city-wide car-sharing network patiently waits to be activated by a swipe of a member’s RFID card. It transmits its location and status back to the car-sharing network’s database every few minutes.

Also in a prime position by the lights, a café is briefly office to two businesspeople having an informal meeting. Although the café’s wireless network is closed, their usage charges are paid for by the company they work for, and they barely notice the cost. The company credit card details are retrieved automatically over a secure transaction. Though it has poorer muffins, the café opens 90 minutes earlier than the library.

A series of small high-resolution displays, hanging under each traffic light and angled towards stationary drivers, alternately communicates the number of accidents that have occurred around these lights in the last year, and then the current speed limit, which can be calibrated to an optimum level for the current traffic conditions in the borough. The traffic lights also house the city’s congestion charging system’s cameras, logging the number-plates of cars passing through its network of inner-city streets.

A wireless sensor network, carefully and discreetly embedded in the trunks of trees lining one side of the street, silently monitors the overall health of the limes and planes, collating data and waiting patiently for the council’s tree surgeon to inspect the arboreal vital signs.

At the end of the line of trees, a new bench has been installed on the street. At either side of the bench, there are two standard electrical power-points freely available for citizens to recharge their phone or laptop. A small LED winks to indicate this, alongside a standardised explanatory icon drawn up by the department also responsible for the highways’ signage systems. The power running to the bench is carried via flexible cables that can twist and stretch around the growing roots of the nearest trees. The bench also carries a WIMAX transmitter as part of a research project led by the local university. As such, this bench appears as a key node on several GIS.

A cab drives through the traffic lights as they switch to green and it quickly signals to turn left, looking to nose back on itself as the presence of a fare is indicated at a nearby hairdressers, via the in-taxi control system. A faraway voice crackles over the intercom a few seconds later attempting to verify that the driver is en-route. The driver clarifies she is en-route but that she’ll take a few minutes more than usual as her satnav system indicates high traffic levels across the three normal routes taken.

At another building on the street, a new four-storey commercial office block inhabited by five different companies, the building information modelling systems, left running after construction, convey real-time performance data on the building’s heating, plumbing, lighting and electrical systems back to the facilities management database operated by the company responsible for running and servicing the building. It also triggers entries in the database of both the architect and engineering firms who designed and built the office block, and are running post-occupancy evaluations on the building in order to learn from its performance once inhabited.

In turn, and using this feed, the city council’s monitoring systems note the aggregated energy usage for the commercial buildings on the street, constantly shuffling its league table of energy-efficient neighbourhoods. The current score for the street, neighbourhood and city is displayed outside the nearby library, on a trio of vertical axis wind turbines with LEDs embedded in their blades.

A prototype of a similar monitoring system, but embedded in the bus-stop opposite the library, records the performance of the lights, travel information displays, large plasma-screen advertising display, and the chilled-beam cooling system newly installed for comfort. The travel information displays themselves receive updates in real-time via a slice of radio spectrum allocated to such data, indicating the proximity of the next five buses. This same system also conveys the latest information on the whereabouts of the no. 73 in particular, in the form of an SMS to a prospective passenger who has selected this as her ‘favourite bus’ via the transport company’s website. Around the corner, she breaks into a trot accordingly.

The plasma display is currently running an advert for the local radio station’s breakfast show (displaying a live stream of SMS messages sent to the show, filtered for obscenity and likelihood of libel). As the slightly out-of-breath imminent passenger arrives within range of its Bluetooth-based transceiver, it cross-fades to a display from the city’s premiere modern art gallery, with whom she has registered her mobile phone as a preferred mode of communication and whose systems are quickly cross-referenced for her attendance record for the last few years, and thus it informs her of a new exhibition about to start.

This she doesn’t notice at all, but one person in the loosely-defined queue around the bus stop does, and scribbles the details on his hand. Four seconds later, the display recognises another mobile phone with an open Bluetooth connection and an active account within the agglomeration of companies that have registered their databases with this advertising service, and shifts its display accordingly. The call-and-response between the queue and the screen continues until the bus finally pulls in and the screen’s transient audience dissipates. It settles back to a carousel of generic advertising messages and local information tailored to that street and its surrounds.

As the bus departs, the new passengers on-board swipe their RFID-based integrated transport system ID cards, updating mass transit databases with every possible aspect that can be gleaned from this simple activity (time of day, location, frequency of use, favourite entry points etc.) The now-empty seat in the bus-stop registers that it is indeed now empty using simple sensors, and wirelessly logs this fact with a database monitoring the usage and state of street furniture in the neighbourhood. Powered by solar panels on top of the bus-stop, it creates a pulsing ambient glow.

Across the road, another billboard displays the number of reported burglaries and bag-snatches in the neighbourhood in the last three months, live data direct from the police force systems. This causes several passers-by to feel a touch more anxious than they did a moment ago. Had they walked past a moment before, the billboard would have been displaying information on a forthcoming community sports day at the local park. One of the passers-by would have recognised their son in the video of last year’s winners, running in slow motion under the crisp typography. A moment before and the passers-by would have been subjected to a tortuous promo for a Portuguese avant-garde play currently running at the local theatre, within which a QR code displayed in the top-right hand corner could’ve been read with a mobile phone’s IR reader, delivering the website for the theatre to the phone’s browser.

Of the two bars, two pubs and three cafés on the street, only one has recently checked that the location and description data overlaid on Google Maps is present and correct, and thus is fortunate to receive the custom of two hungry Hungarian tourists for a full English breakfast with all the trimmings.

Twenty metres below the ground, a tube train scurries under the crossroads, outrunning its halo of data that details its location and speed from the engine control systems, while CCTV conveys images of the carriage directly underneath. The carriage contains forty-four mobile phones seeking a signal, some with Bluetooth headphone sets; ten BlackBerries and four other PDAs likewise; thirteen mp3 players of varying brands, a couple also with Bluetooth headphones; seven sleeping laptops.

Directly overhead, ten thousand metres up, the distant roar of a commercial airliner’s Rolls-Royce engines, beaming their performance data back to engineers via satellite in real-time …

And press play …

[…]

The snapshot above, without the explanatory narrative of the systems being touched by these activities, would just like a freeze-frame of a few people and vehicles set against a backdrop of buildings. A photograph or drawing would show only a handful of people, a few vehicles and some buildings.

[…]

Forty years ago, the British architects Archigram suggested that “When it’s raining on Oxford Street, the buildings are no more important than the rain”. The group’s David Greene subsequently asked “So why draw the buildings and not the rain?”. Why indeed? The sketch above tries to describe data rather than rain, but they’re similarly ephemeral.

Richard Branson launches plane-shaped skyscraper and moon hotel – Dezeen

Richard Branson launches plane-shaped skyscraper and moon hotel

Describing the plane-shaped London tower, he explained: “This building is going to be the best looking building in the city but it also has the best unique features.”

“One of the very unique features about this building is that it can turn or the floor can turn in order to face the sun, to either generate energy from the sun or to heat a particular floor or heat the whole building.”

Not content with launching the project in every continent, Branson also wants to take the technology to the moon and open a space hotel.

“We’re looking at being the first company in the world to have a building on the moon, and we thought, if we’re going to do it lets try and pay for it by making it a hotel, and of course a pretty good-looking hotel,” he said.

[…]

Asked about the timing of the announcement a Virgin representative told Dezeen “there are no coincidences at Virgin”.