The following essay was originally serialised on The State from May 20, 2013.
genesis and forking timelines
It’s the early 90s. In the form of an Australian teenager finishing high school, with a head full of Heinlein, I tried to join the Army. That future never eventuated—in this timeline, anyway. I entered university still full of techno-optimism, studying computer science & software engineering. Top of my class in AI, I was offered a summer research position, the first step to a career in the lab, building better machine minds. That future exists only in a parallel universe.
Instead, a year later I was in the middle of an inter-corporate war on the other side of the planet. I was sat in a trailer, trying to help usher in the home internet age for a very minimum wage. This is the story of that reality: my journey through the corporate R&D wormhole and out the other side into the blogosphere; my first-hand witness of how the future is—and mostly isn’t—created; how I became an anarchist futurist, a Doktor of Mystery and, above all else, a grinder.
Once upon a time, broadband internet was just a dream. Specifically, ADSL was. The idea that you could compress a high-bandwidth internet connection across the existing PSTN network of twisted copper pairs (ie the stuff which people make landline phone calls with) was technically possible, but practically unachievable for every engineer working furiously in research labs across the planet. This was how I came to claim a ~$1000 prototype ADSL modem from its fate in a landfill, to use in a scifi short I never made. Because a network effect-dependant device without a network is useless. Or Chindōgu.
It’s the mid-90s, now. Much easier to instead piggy-back on that other existing network, cable television, and dream up high-bandwidth infrastructure projects involving laying fibre optic cable. But should it be to the home, or to the curb? Oh, the decisions the megacorps put to the governments of the first-world, whilst deploying their lowliest employees to build on their existing assets.
So there I am, sat in a trailer, making machines go ping, churning out code, whilst my managers fight other managers from competing divisions within the same megacorp for the right to justify their existence. Because the truth was, my division of this Dutch megacorp only existed in Australia as a tax break to offset the sale of consumer white goods in that country, whilst the American competitor was a formerly local brand still resisting the idea that they’d been scooped up by a ton of eurotrash dollars. This is how the future is built: begrudgingly, staring down the authoritative, figurative barrel of a former Texas Ranger.
It’s the late 90s now, and the techno-utopians of WIRED have declared the Long Boom. Great progress has been made. ADSL has been actualised; the Australian Commonwealth-owned telco monopoly Telstra is being privatised, and has set about creating a duplicate network with its new competitor Optus. Because the privatisation zealots want the fattest cow possible to sell, and the idea of cleaving the monolithic telecom company into two parts—infrastructure and services—is anathema to that. This is how politicos leave a nice, stinking legacy for the future. Especially when they see everything with free market eyes.
Now, being a good employee of this Dutch megacorp, you’d think they’d be future-friendly by now. That when the prophets of the Long Boom came to Melbourne to speak, the whole staff would be encouraged, nay mandated to go drink at this fount of futurism. The reality is that software development is incredibly short-term focused. Get that compile working, get those bugs fixed, get that next version out. To the degree that my friend and I had to beg for a day off—with no pay—to go to such an event. This is how the future is ignored, sometimes for the best.
On the cusp of the millennium I graduate and, believing in the hype and trusting the Global Business Network front that WIRED is, take off to travel the world with my girlfriend of the time, working in pubs in London, feeling secure in the knowledge that this promised future will still be there, waiting for me when I returned.
The reality? There is no Long Boom. There is parasitic capitalism instead. Rushed IPOs, cash-outs; for a snapshot, go watch Startup.com. And on came the DotCom Bust, or… a Short Crash. Caused by pretty much the same players that got bailed out ten years later in the global financial crisis. Just sayin’.
What also happens is that the Dutch sell off that whole division to a French military/telecommunications megacorp, and the software with 100K human hours on it becomes cannibalised to run the cameras for the Sydney Olympics, then abandoned. Because nearly every software project fails.
What crushing existential fatigue?!
I return just in time to catch it, mid-2000. Joining the swelling ranks of a start-up that is in freefall and doesn’t know it. Being bribed with future shares that would never vest. Sitting through round upon round of redundancies, and being racked with survivor’s guilt, until the whole façade falls down a year, and in swoops the investment company that will really profit from the whole collapse.
This is what makes a veteran. This is how eyes are forced open. This is how I become a mercenary software dev: pragmatic, scheming, taking the maximum money for the expected effort, and no longer fuelled by the passion of programming. Joining another R&D division of a different geopolitically based megacorp, that is part tax write-off, part rich from the one-time sale of broadband to an entire country (Turkey) leaping into the futurepresent. It’s a great trick, as they say, that can only be done once.
There is a legend at this place of a room full of developers who’d been left with nothing to do for several months, as “resources” for a project always just about to start, so they wrote their own First Person Shooter game mod, sold it and quit. This is how the future succeeds, in spite of obstacles… for those guys anyway.
By this stage I am thoroughly back into reading comics for the first time since my military scifi-driven youth with its dreams of becoming Shatterstar, and being recruited by Cable to fight for the future of the mutants. Having now cottoned onto the fact that comics are the most efficient, cost-effective place to absorb prototyped futures; stories and scenarios that will be watered down into big budget spectaculars. Future visions that would inspire the techno-cultural actions needed to deploy millions of dollars in research.
Yes, like many others, I have progressed from haunting forums dedicated to dissecting The Matrix, to reading The Invisibles (which said film “borrowed” heavily from) and the other works of Grant Morrison, and his fellow travellers, including one Warren Ellis.
enter: doktor sleepless
Once upon a linear time a new comic came into the world, and its name was Doktor Sleepless. It was heralded as Warren Ellis’s first big, long, major meaty work since the legendary Transmetropolitan, which had inspired—and continues to inspire—angry young journalists like Penny Red to go out into the world and call it on its bullshit.
From the first whiffs of it leaking onto the ‘net, I could just tell this would be the equivalent for me:
“You are never going into space. You will never own a jet pack. Your car will never fly. HIV will not be cured in your lifetime. Cancer will not be cured in your lifetime. The common cold will not be cured in your lifetime. Don’t these things bother you?
Suicide is the third biggest killer of teenagers in the United States. In 1999 more people in America died from suicide than from homicide. Do you think about this?
As anyone who ever read MyDeathSpace.com for any period of time know, the leading cause of death in America is automobile accident. This is generally interpolated into a number placed under the heading “accidental death.” When the operation of cars is the leading cause of loss of life I’m not entirely sure how it comes under the term “accidental death.” It wasn’t a fucking accident, it was done by someone with a car. It’s 2007 and we don’t know how to operate cars without killing people. It’s not a fucking accident if it was caused by someone getting into a one-ton metal bullet that cannot be operated with complete control at all times.
In Europe in 2004, 13000 kids—persons under the age of fourteen—died due to poor water. It’s 2007 and the society does not yet understand how to operate water.
Are you thinking about this now?
People keep asking me what DOKTOR SLEEPLESS is about. This is what it’s about.
Someone stole your future. Don’t you ever wonder who?”
To say my life was primed for this comic would be… accurate. On top of this, Ellis was doing rather experimental things with how the comic interacted with the world. Starting with deliberately creating a “datashadow” for it, inspired by the way fans of the show Lost obsessed over every episode for hidden clues. And hiding clues within the comic. And on the datashadow itself.
This is the story-within-the-story of the hereto-now secret origins of grinding.be
It began with a Ning. Remember Ning? The once free social-networking site? That since-boarded-up squatters’ zone—like Geocities and many other angel investor-driven user-generated, cyber wotsits—that swallowed its community with it, only traces of which were preserved on the wiki. It was from there that the ‘elite mental patients of the future’ were recruited. I think I was member #9 of that place; somewhere in the top ten. Hitting refresh on the datashadow almost hourly, waiting for a promised revelation. And there it was, hidden in a link to the text within the story that drove Doktor Sleepless’ madness, The Darkening Sky.
It was in that place that the most obsessive fans gathered to dissect each issue, and to theorise on the larger themes and possible story arcs. It was there that I made the closest friends that I’ve still never met. That I still talk with daily. From which a message went out from the Internet Jesus: who wants to bring the Sleepless into the world? And five were chosen, and Grinding lurched into the world with the dawning of 2008, from the Backmatter of issue #4 of the comic itself:
Our mission? To find outbreaks of the future. Seeds of the near-future microcosm captured in the comic.
Or was it? As we spread our techno-tendrils out into the internet, captured them in our RSS Readers and Google Alerts and links from fellow travellers, and revealed the seeds of that science-fictional dystopia … well, it was that last word that stung the most over time. Dystopia. Like cyberpunk before it, this was a Warning Sign of a future that had been stolen.
Surely the real message was to find the seeds of a better world, whilst continuing the core mandate: to remind people that they live in the future, that they’re science-fictional creatures.
This was how I came to realise that in actuality, the grinding.be team was a human-machine dropped into the really real world to aid in the formation of planetary rescue; a metafictional outreach program from the mind of Warren Ellis to paradoxically prevent the creation of the universe he created. To stand in the gap, as Hickman puts it in S.H.I.E.L.D. To embrace the co-evolution of human and machine and to build the best of all possible futures.
And the alt-me from the AI ‘verse winked.
“The things that surround us that are of the future we don’t pay attention to as much as we should. Possibly because they are not the things we were promised.”
~ Warren Ellis, Captured Ghosts
And our remit was also to give them, the readers, the Grinders, a narrative constructed for that purpose. Because narratives are ontological engines, through which we can radically reframe people’s self-awareness and vision, and thereby create Ontological Rescue Mission Squads. Along the way, as I’ve grinded my futurist stats, I’ve been fortunate to find myself a proper mentor of sorts: Futurist, inventor of VRML, and legendary techno-pagan, Mark Pesce. And having an epiphany one day some years ago now, I put it to him that I was now a Militant Futurist, fighting for a better world. And he succinctly replied, as all gurus do, “there’s another kind?”
So we shine an equal light on the seeds of future worlds both better and worse, that they may be seen as what they truly are, and might become. And scatter into the winds of the internet thought-bombs to be exploded in the minds of the post-public. Which is how a single tweet sent from a supermarket car park can catalyse a world-wide movement of networked resistance.
And the soldier-me from the other timeline smiled.
“The best way to predict the future, is to build it.”
~ Peter Drucker
This is what they don’t teach you in Futurist School. Because no such place exists.
What does exist instead, is MBA programs. Where you’ll find many futurist types lecturing, and key science-fiction books such as Charles Stross’s Accelerando being commoditised. Whilst Charlie himself keeps jobbing away, his advance for that book long gone, having to half-seriously contemplate the high-selling paranormal romance market to keep himself in delicious sandwiches.
enter: doktors of mystery
Cut to the-now, and OG Cyberpunk / Futurist / Journalist / Design Fiction / Perpetual Visionary in Residence of Some/Nowhere, Bruce Sterling releases just such a story, direct to ebook.
“We Futurists can’t help but be confusing, to the straights and the mundanes! The future, the past, all mixed up, because you can see it all at once…”
~ Love Is Strange (A Paranormal Romance)
Walk through any office and you’ll see cubicle convicts covertly—or not-so-covertly—making the day bearable by trolling through the internet, cover to cover. Longing to join their imagined glorious ranks. Not knowing that most of it is generated in coffee-stained track pants, in between bowls of ramen. Or that the blog post they half-read, whilst listening out for the return of their boss, took between five and fifty hours to prepare, for zero to fifty actual Linden Dollars.
This is what they don’t teach you in Blogging School, because no such place exists. This is what you learn once you jump into the deep end of the virtual pool, and play the game for realz. Albeit with the safety net provided when the not-all-engineered financial crisis sees you thrown out into the world with only the immediate promise of a newspaper column cling to. (Secret: newspapers don’t pay either.) They also don’t teach you, in Futurist Blogging School, that you grow tired of writing about the latest iteration of DARPA’s program to create to cyborg insects to totally not spy on people, no way, no matter how cool Charlie Jade is.
By now you realise that you’ve been waiting for the contact lens-based tech, Clatter in Doktor Sleepless for 6 years now, tracking every advance in the still very young technology of putting pixels into contact lenses. And then we get Google Glass and everyone goes either wild for, or against it. Yawn (not Wired, Tired!). Or you grok how the tech mainstream is just catching onto the grinding scene’s very existence. Hi The Verge, hi eventual Discovery Channel piece (#spoilerssweetie)!
The one thing you do learn in what might approximate for Futurist School, because it’s repeated over and over in every ‘intro to futurism’ piece ever:
Rule #1 – If you want to predict something, go back twice as far as you want to go forward.
And if that thing is what people are calling the Singularity, you end up in pre-history, waiting for the Starchild. (#spoiler: it’s always been about climate.)
Because the truth of it is, if you stare at the future close-enough, for long-enough, time slows down to a trickle and you can spot the glitches and wait, this isn’t the Matrix is it? ARE WE STILL IN THE GAME?! Because eXistenZ was a better movie and Cronenberg rules, but Cloud Atlas seriously redeems the Wachowskis and you still haven’t written that blogpost on it, and eternal recurrence, because you’re still thinking in Deep Time.
Which is how you become a Futurist Anarchist.
And then, there are the futurist anarchists. This is not a title that you will likely hear, because those who approximate it are not often interested in identification. Doubtful that they would even call themselves anarchists, the futurist anarchists are more interested in time itself, than any particular political philosophy’s relationship with time. Rather than aligning themselves with any particular theoretical legacy or rejecting them wholesale, these few interact with history in an atemporal way. History is not a resource that can have its value either extracted or preserved, but another piece of infrastructure, that can be liberated, turned against its current masters, and ridden away, into the horizon of the oncoming future. It is with their seized atemporal productions, that futurist anarchists go about constructing their semblance of politics in the present.
Since engaging my political self whilst touring Europe’s former Eastern Bloc on my backpacking adventures and flirting with Lenin, but realising, like Dane in The Invisibles that:
…the Anarchist part is fully formed.
And maybe you’ve been a cyberpunk kiddy ever since you found that old issue of OMNI in your high school library. Imagining yourself in the middle of a Shadowrun scenario on the way to the corner store. Sneaking into the computer lab at recess to learn vector graphics on an Apple IIe. Uniting those two is something different altogether, like folding bits of your consciousness into one superpositional form, forming like Voltron.
“Truth is singular. Its “versions” are mistruths.”
~ Sonmi-451, Cloud Atlas
“History is a lie!”
~ DaVinci’s Demons tagline.
So as you journey back through time, riding the waves of history in your personal TARDIS made of fringe theory objects you begin to notice all sorts of funny things. Like the overlap between the worlds of esoteric mysticism and the intelligence community. Rumours that Crowley was in the OSS and Gurdjieff’s protégé was British Intelligence, and yet the initiate of the Sarmoung Brotherhood was also alleged by the Russians to have taught Hitler about the Mandela, and went to school with Stalin. And some things are so fantastic they can only be true.
Doktors of Mystery and their allies, Archaeologists of the Future, know many such hidden, occluded things. Such as the chapter that was removed from Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, which speculated that one of the more interesting uses of the technology could be to reanimate the dead. It was felt this sensational idea might distract from the pure techno-utopianism of the text, and damage its acceptance. (For the citation hungry, this is recounted in my technopagan guru’s book, The Playful World.)
Another factoid to shock the ardent materialists: the final of the nine arguments Turing proposed to test the possibility of machine intelligence involved telepathy. That an artificial mind could only be equal and, crucially, indistinguishable from any other humans if it could replicate any of its observed behaviours, however anecdotal and ‘unscientific’ they may be to the author himself. The test itself reads like a scene from the tv show on the same subject, lending all the more authenticity to its wild flashbacks:
Let us play the imitation game, using as witnesses a man who is good as a telepathic receiver, and a digital computer. The interrogator can ask such questions as ‘What suit does the card in my right hand belong to?’ The man by telepathy or clairvoyance gives the right answer 130 times out of 400 cards. The machine can only guess at random, and perhaps gets 104 right, so the interrogator makes the right identification.” There is an interesting possibility which opens here. Suppose the digital computer contains a random number generator. Then it will be natural to use this to decide what answer to give. But then the random number generator will be subject to the psycho-kinetic powers of the interrogator. Perhaps this psychokinesis might cause the machine to guess right more often than would be expected on a probability calculation, so that the interrogator might still be unable to make the right identification. On the other hand, he might be able to guess right without any questioning, by clairvoyance. With E.S.P. anything may happen.
If telepathy is admitted it will be necessary to tighten our test up. The situation could be regarded as analogous to that which would occur if the interrogator were talking to himself and one of the competitors was listening with his ear to the wall. To put the competitors into a ‘telepathy-proof room’ would satisfy all requirements.
(That one comes to us via Rupert Sheldrake, fringe theorist and deliverer of highly combustible TED Talks, in his presentation to the Waag Society.)
Like the wire-frames of the Matrix, the present is built out of the invisible tension of secret histories and strange facts, and Robert Anton Wilson was more right than even he suspected, even if he was kidding most of the time. But George Bush, Sr wasn’t really the grandson of Crowley, conceived in one of the greatest rituals performed in the 20th Century.
“As the lie commonly agreed upon, history becomes the apology for whatever class is in power or wishes to come to power.”
~ William Irwin Thompson, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light
“The future used to be deep, and agreed on. We were going into space and we were going to conquer the universe. That’s not going to happen. It creates a sense of anxiety. We can’t all agree on the future, ’cause the future is something that happens to us, rather than something we built together.”
~ Matt Jones of BERG, Captured Ghosts
If one thing is resolutely clear to me now, through all this ponderous, reflexive thought, it’s that the future isn’t a passive force that washes over us—much as it seemed as World War II ended, and the Space Age kicked off. The idea we inherited by osmosis. We didn’t get jetpacks precisely because we ceded our agency to a conjured narrative. We have met the enemy and he is us. But we did get more civil rights… for some.
If we’re going to succinctly summarise my futurist philosophy, we need to talk about Archery. Archery is very now, very Zeitgeist, and an absolutely palaeolithic technology. Hawkeye in The Avengers, the eponymous star of Arrow, and the world of the successor to Tolkien, Game of
Think of the future as a target you want to hit. The further away it is, the more forces you have to consider—wind speed, politics, gravity, economics—and if it’s in motion, social change and the inertia of history, of course. Moore’s Law as the culture equivalent of Newton’s Second Law of Motion.
Which gives us our poster girl for the future, the genetically engineered super girl, Hanna:
Raised in the wilderness to be more badass than the literary Starship Troopers, fluent in multiple languages, strong in heart and mind, and above all, resilient. An atemporal hero for the futurepresent. The Anarchist Futurist Exemplar. The woman you’d want to lead a new Knight’s Templar. In an inverted Game of Thrones, her direwolf companion would be the Alpha from The Grey. And far more palatable than the purely techno-utopian, crypto-fascist Hitler Jurgen of Ender’s Game fame.
The future belongs to the mutants. That’s the future I’m fighting for. Mutants trying to climb the fractal of history. Updating themselves with every recursion. With only one motto: Adapt or die.
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