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Posts Tagged ‘future

“The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become”*…

 

Octavia Butler

 

Tim Maughan, an accomplished science fiction writer himself, considers sci-fi works from the 1980s and 90s, and their predictive power.  Covering Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Steven King, P.D. James, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Bladerunner, he reserves special attention for a most deserving subject…

When you imagine the future, what’s the first date that comes into your mind? 2050? 2070? The year that pops into your head is almost certainly related to how old you are — some point within our lifetimes yet distant enough to be mysterious, still just outside our grasp. For those of us growing up in the 1980s and ’90s — and for a large number of science fiction writers working in those decades — the 2020s felt like that future. A decade we would presumably live to see but also seemed sufficiently far away that it could be a world full of new technologies, social movements, or political changes. A dystopia or a utopia; a world both alien and familiar.

That future is, of course, now…

Two science fiction books set in the 2020s tower over everything else from that era in their terrifying prescience: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). These books by the late master kick off in 2024 Los Angeles and are set against a backdrop of a California that’s been ravaged by floods, storms, and droughts brought on by climate change. Middle- and working-class families huddle together in gated communities, attempting to escape the outside world through addictive pharmaceuticals and virtual reality headsets. New religions and conspiracy theory–chasing cults begin to emerge. A caravan of refugees head north to escape the ecological and social collapse, while a far-right extremist president backed by evangelical Christians comes to power using the chillingly familiar election slogan Make America Great Again.

Although it now feels like much of Butler’s Parable books might have been pulled straight from this afternoon’s Twitter or tonight’s evening news, some elements are more far-fetched. The second book ends with followers of the new religion founded by the central character leaving Earth in a spaceship to colonize Alpha Centauri. Butler originally planned to write a third book following the fates of these interstellar explorers but, sadly, passed away in 2005 before she had a chance. She left us with a duology that remains more grounded and scarily familiar to those of us struggling to come to terms with the everyday dystopias that the real 2020s seem to be already presenting us.

Not that this remarkable accuracy was ever her objective.

“This was not a book about prophecy; this was an if-this-goes-on story,” Butler said about the books during a talk at MIT in 1998. “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is I certainly hope not.”

In the same talk, Butler describes in detail the fears that drove her to write this warning: the debate over climate change, the eroding of workers’ rights, the rise of the private prison industry, and the media’s increasing refusal to talk about all of these in favor of focusing on soundbite propaganda and celebrity news. Again, these are fears that feel instantly familiar today…

What Blade Runner, cyberpunk– and Octavia Butler– had to say about the age we’re entering now: “How Science Fiction Imagined the 2020s.”

* William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

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As we honor prophets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1984 that Apple aired an epoch-making commercial, “1984” (directed by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott),  during Superbowl XVIII– for the first and only time.  Two days later, the first Apple Macintosh went on sale.

 

Written by LW

January 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The future isn’t what it used to be”*…

 

Blade runner

 

When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released in 1982, its dystopian future seemed light years away. But fans of the critically-acclaimed science fiction film might [be] feeling a little funny. As its opening sequence informs us, the movie takes place in Los Angeles, November 2019…

That’s to say, from now on, Blade Runner is no longer set in the future.

220px-Blade_Runner_(1982_poster)

For a list of other works whose futures are already past, visit Screen Crush (the source of the image at the top); and for a more complete list, click here.

* variously attributed to Paul Valéry, Laura Riding, Robert Graves, and (with the substitution of “ain’t” for “isn’t”) Yogi Berra

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As we adjust our expectations, we might send imaginative birthday greetings to Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler; she was born on this date in 1914.  Better known by her stage name, Hedy Lamarr, she became a huge movie star at MGM.

By the time American audiences were introduced to Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr in the 1938 film Algiers, she had already lived an eventful life. She got her scandalous start in film in Czechoslovakia (her first role was in the erotic Ecstasy). She was married at 19 in pre-World War II Europe to Fritz Mandl, a paranoid, overly protective arms dealer linked with fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. After her father’s sudden death and as the war approached, she fled Mandl’s country estate in the middle of the night and escaped to London. Unable to return home to Vienna where her mother lived,  and determined to get into the movies, she booked passage to the States on the same ship as mogul Louis B. Mayer. Flaunting herself, she drew his attention and signed with his MGM Studios before they docked.

Arriving in Hollywood brought her a new name (Lamarr was originally Kiesler), fame, multiple marriages and divorces and a foray into groundbreaking work as a producer, before she eventually became a recluse. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lamarr’s life isn’t as well known: during WWII, when she was 27the movie star invented and patented an ingenious forerunner of current high-tech communications…

The story of the movie star who invented spread-spectrum radio, the secure signal technology that helped the Allies avoid having their radio communications intercepted by the Axis forces, and that lies at the heart of the cellular phone system that we all use today: “Why Hedy Lamarr Was Hollywood’s Secret Weapon.”

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” – Hedy Lamarr

220px-Hedy_Lamarr_Publicity_Photo_for_The_Heavenly_Body_1944 source

 

Written by LW

November 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”*…

 

12_population

 

Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Over more than 40 years, his books on the environment, population, food and energy have steadily grown in influence. He is now seen as one of the world’s foremost thinkers on development history and a master of statistical analysis. Bill Gates says he waits for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie. The latest is Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?
Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it. It’s not good enough just to say life is better or the trains are faster. You have to bring in the numbers. This book is an exercise in buttressing what I have to say with numbers so people see these are the facts and they are difficult to dispute.

Growth is a huge book – almost 200,000 words that synthesise many of your other studies, ranging across the world and exploring far into the past and future. Do you see this as your magnum opus?
I have deliberately set out to write the megabook on growth. In a way, it’s unwieldy and unreasonable. People can take any number of books out of it – economists can read about the growth of GDP and population; biologists can read about the growth of organisms and human bodies. But I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that…

The always-illuminating Jonathan Watts interviews the always-provocative Vaclav Smil: “Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’.”

Pair with “Minimal Maintenance,” the essay version of a talk by Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.  As Patrick Tanguay suggests: it is a “really excellent read which ties together maintenance, degrowth, libraries, museums, environmental justice, and architecture…[it] frames degrowth not as blanket anti-growth but as a critique of growth as an end in itself.”

See also Astra Taylor’s “Bad ancestors: does the climate crisis violate the rights of those yet to be born?” and. for a look at the challenges ahead, The Economist‘s “The past, present and future of climate change.”

* Miles Davis

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As we ponder progress, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying premiered on Broadway.  A musical comedy by Frank Loesser, with book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, it was based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book of the same name.  It follows young, ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch, who, with the help of the self-help manual How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, rises from window washer to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company.

The play, which starred Robert Morse and Rudy Vallée, ran for 1,417 performances; it won seven Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

220px-How_to_Succeed_in_Business_Without_Really_Trying_1961_Original_Cast_Recording source

 

 

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”*…

 

Beef

 

We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago. This is primarily a protein disruption driven by economics. The cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar. They will also be superior in every key attribute – more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety. This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace.

The impact of this disruption on industrial animal farming will be profound. By 2030, the number of cows in the U.S. will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry will be all but bankrupt. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe.

This is the result of rapid advances in precision biology that have allowed us to make huge strides in precision fermentation, a process that allows us to program microorganisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule.

These advances are now being combined with an entirely new model of production we call Food-as-Software, in which individual molecules engineered by scientists are uploaded to databases – molecular cookbooks that food engineers anywhere in the world can use to design products in the same way that software developers design apps. This model ensures constant iteration so that products improve rapidly, with each version superior and cheaper than the last. It also ensures a production system that is completely decentralized and much more stable and resilient than industrial animal agriculture, with fermentation farms located in or close to towns and cities.

This rapid improvement is in stark contrast to the industrial livestock production model, which has all but reached its limits in terms of scale, reach, and efficiency. As the most inefficient and economically vulnerable part of this system, cow products will be the first to feel the full force of modern food’s disruptive power. Modern alternatives will be up to 100 times more land efficient, 10-25 times more feedstock efficient, 20 times more time efficient, and 10 times more water efficient.1,2 They will also produce an order of magnitude less waste.

Modern foods have already started disrupting the ground meat market, but once cost parity is reached, we believe in 2021-23, adoption will tip and accelerate exponentially. The disruption will play out in a number of ways and does not rely solely on the direct, one-for-one substitution of end products. In some markets, only a small percentage of the ingredients need to be replaced for an entire product to be disrupted. The whole of the cow milk industry, for example, will start to collapse once modern food technologies have replaced the proteins in a bottle of milk – just 3.3% of its content. The industry, which is already balancing on a knife edge, will thus be all but bankrupt by 2030.

This is not, therefore, one disruption but many in parallel, with each overlapping, reinforcing, and accelerating one another. Product after product that we extract from the cow will be replaced by superior, cheaper, modern alternatives, triggering a death spiral of increasing prices, decreasing demand, and reversing economies of scale for the industrial cattle farming industry, which will collapse long before we see modern technologies produce the perfect, cellular steak…

A provocative look at the (or at least a plausible) future of food and agriculture. Read the full report here (email registration required).

As to what’s happening in the meantime…

• Undocumented ship-to-ship transfers funnel illegal, unreported, and unregulated fish to market. It’s probably worse than we thought: “Clandestine Fish Handoffs.”

• With a new California Cattle Council now in play, the state’s beef producers will up the ante in research and education: “California cattle producers beef up state’s cattle business” .

• “Eat Less Red Meat, Scientists Said. Now Some Believe That Was Bad Advice

* Hippocrates

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Teressa Bellissimo, at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, created Buffalo Hot Wings as a snack for her son and several of his college friends.  Her “invention”– an unbreaded chicken wing section (flat or drumette), generally deep-fried then coated or dipped in a sauce consisting of a vinegar-based cayenne pepper hot sauce and melted butter, and served with with celery and carrot sticks and with blue cheese dressing or ranch dressing for dipping– has become a barroom and fast food staple… and has inspired a plethora of “Buffalo” dishes (other fried foods with dipping sauces).

220px-Buffalo_-_Wings_at_Airport_Anchor_Bar source

 

Written by LW

October 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“But enough about me, let’s talk about you…. what do you think of me?”*…

 

Century

 

The 21st century is the most important century in human history.

At least that’s what a number of thinkers say. Their argument is pretty simple: Mostly, it’s that there are huge challenges that we have to surmount this century to get any future at all, making this the most consequential of all centuries so far. Furthermore, a solution to those challenges would likely mean a future farther from the brink of destruction — which makes this century more pivotal than future centuries, too…

[The case for this century as most important, unpacked]

Sure, we have some pretty good arguments for the importance of our era. But … doesn’t everybody? Are the arguments for the 21st century really that much stronger than the arguments for the 1st century, or for centuries yet to come?

Under this view, sure, we have some serious challenges ahead of us. But it’s a mistake to think we’re in a unique moment in history. There’s every reason to think that the challenges faced in future centuries will be as significant…

[The cases for other periods as most important, explored]

But it’s not just an abstract philosophy argument… If this is the crucial moment in human history, foundations that’ll be around for centuries aren’t a top priority. If humanity’s biggest problems are best left to our grandchildren and their grandchildren, then it doesn’t seem so strange to try to set up enduring human institutions with the power to influence successive generations. If this is the critical moment, the balance of our efforts should probably be spent less on long-term priorities questions and more on action — like political efforts to reverse course on dangerous human activities, and research on how to mitigate the immediate dangers of present threats…

A philosophic argument over the relative importance of our present era (and why it matters): “Is this the most important century in human history?

(Your correspondent would note that, even if this is the most important century in human history so far, it doesn’t follow that there won’t centuries that are at least as important to come…  so it’s surely prudent to invest energy and resources in assuring that foundational institutions and infrastructure, options, and resources are available to our successors…)

* variously attributed to “CC Bloom” (Bette Midler in Beaches) and NYC Mayor Ed Koch, among others

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1520 that Suleiman I (AKA Suleiman the Magnificent) was proclaimed Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  The tenth and longest-reigning Sultan, he ruled over at least 25 million people at the apex of Ottoman economic, military, and political power, and at the broadest range of its geographical reach.  A distinguished poet and goldsmith, he also became a great patron of culture, overseeing the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire in its artistic, literary and architectural development.

220px-EmperorSuleiman source

 

 

Written by LW

September 30, 2019 at 1:01 am

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