I Woke Up Too Early

6am. And 1000 years too early.

That was a bit of a strange week. Some psycho-drama nonsense going on with friends and relationships, lots of time spent thinking about 21st century life and how Northern Europe can manage to be quite so cold and grey. Also caring for a sick cat.

Other things too, oblique and yet central to current projects: the churning vitality of central London restaurants, the vast silent vaults behind huge buildings in the West End. Archives, institutions, massive preservation set against my usual storm of ephemera. Games and MP3s that dissolve into nothing in the space of afternoon. I fire off another 1000 words on something with a colon’d name “Super War: Battles Of Fire”, writing a quick 6/10 epitaph, as if that’s my way of forgetting this thing exists. We have to move on.

It’s been useful to listen to the likes of Bruce Sterling talk (22mb mp3) about their contemporary future perspective out there in Austin. Sterling seems to have created this intellectual techno-future fantasy and made it a reality for himself and thin tier of peers. I’m there with the borderless human-amongst-the-data-flow stuff, and yet I not comfortable with Sterling’s way of talking about it. No matter how anchored these speeches are intended to be, they still seem to miss something. Sterling is hyper-nerdesque, but also politically driven and observant. He’s paradoxical to listen to: excitingly aware and yet missing something crucial. What? I don’t know what. I think he’s getting an outsider perspective, but one that delivers its sermons from a tight-knit club of outsiders, all of whom share a certain ideological filter. Their mirror of the world has a certain sheen that worries me.

Echoes of Josh Ellis’ Grim Meathook, I suppose. But it’s not that which really concerns me. I’m more concerned by the way all this stuff (from the bright shiny geek theory to the starving refugee story) slides off the suburbs and backwaters of the developed world. I can’t help thinking the strongest aphorisms of the 21st century aren’t to be found in Sterling’s ‘nation borders are like speedbumps’ and ‘I’m living out of my laptop’, or any of the grim analysis about disease and prejudicial madness in the poorest regions. Instead I find myself catching the occasional observations made about a rather more mundane future faced by millions – the Ballardian future of local boredom and widespread repetition. It’s The New Quiet Desperation, these masses. They’re working in the offices and commuting home to a hillside development near Canterbury. It’s a small suburban home. Hermitic and yet engulfed. Fish out the mobile phone and order three types of vegetarian pizza (illusion of comparative health value judgement in junkfood) to eat while watching Lost, or Invasion or some other sophisticated entertainment. And these middling classes need to be distracted, so they’re all getting good at filter feeding: we’re bottom dwellers, down in the cultural silt – rapidly getting sensitive enough to root out the most nutritious, the most interesting sediment, the most worthwhile jetsam that floats down from the higher strata. And it doesn’t have to have a jot of intellectual bulk, we can live on spectacle alone. As long as the flow is steady.

Cutting back to my hack work and I wonder if that’s why videogames are ‘a little bit of the future’. If society is going through disorder and fundamentalist to reach a homogenous bland of a balanced future, then the parts of the world that have the time and technology will need to find ways to sink emotional excess into something exciting and escapist. If we’re going to be calm and quiet while we wait for the rest of the world to finish tearing itself to pieces then we’re going to need profound distractions, re-useable distractions. Themeparks aren’t versatile or lazy enough, books are too much like edification. And we do need to waste time on needless adventure – the crazies are all doing it… and don’t we envy their release?

13 Responses to “I Woke Up Too Early”

  • Kieron Gillen Says:

    Geometry Wars is awesome.


  • jwh Says:

    Fucking hell, man. You’re onto it. That went down like the bloody mary I’m drinking. (I’m not sure what that means, but it works somehow.) The observable Now is becoming more and more a chomped up Then left behind by the unknown but celebrated elite of our televised culture. There are days when, despite living in San Francisco and living a rock solid healthy and stimulated life, I wonder how it is I feel like I’m still subsisting on junk food.

    It’s probably because the consequence of our lifestyles haven’t caught up to us yet. When they do, watch out. And yet, humans have a wild way of maintaining the flotsam and the sediment, enough so that when I’m in my apartment and I hear gunshots just a block away it doesn’t seem so dangerous. It’s a hundred yards and a thousand life realities away from me. That gap requires a bridge the average “modern” life doesn’t readily provide. A social numbness is western civilization’s background noise and it can be easy to miss.

    So thanks for sparking that kind of thinking.

    I enjoy what you post on this site, so thanks for all that too.

  • Rossignol Says:

    jwh: thanks, check back for more futurismo ramblings in coming weeks.

    bob: Stu’s site is vanished!

    Kieron: you bummer.

  • TheDood Says:

    mmmmmm resonance

  • Alex Says:

    Hi Jim – I think you’re A1 on your misgivings with Bruce Sterling et al’s futuristic imaginings. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it for ages but keep getting snarled up and riled by the useless, self-centred ideas that come from so many “web 2.0 startups”. So much of this wired thinking has any scope outside its “thin tier of peers”, as you say.

    I totally agree that these people need to start addressing the less glamorous and further afield demographics of the suburbs. However, I’d be careful about the your somewhat crude stereotyping of the British suburbs… As the Centre for Suburban Studies at Kingston Univ says: “The old stereotypical associations are no longer relevant to these vibrant sites of social mobility and ethnic diversity”.

    If you haven’t come across them before, take a look at the work of FAT and Dunne and Raby – architects and designers that are really getting to grips with suburban realities.

  • Tom Says:

    cheer up mate, might never happen!

  • Tom Says:

    p.s. i love the way ballard claims to pick most of his character names from the local phone book, amazing recycling skillz there, i think we should all do that for our own children! Bathe in that numbing enya light of mundanity!

  • Drew Bell Says:

    We’re only seeing the clear, optimistic part of these techno-futurists’ minds. Their thoughts about the next hundred years are probably a bit different when they’re drunk and screaming. I know I can feel great about RFID and folksonomies when I’m sitting in front of my PowerBook in the morning with a cup of coffee, but my head goes elsewhere when I’m staggering home from work dead tired in the rain.

  • Dwayne M. Says:

    If we’re going to be calm and quiet while we wait for the rest of the world to finish tearing itself to pieces then we’re going to need profound distractions…


    I don’t know.

    From where I sit, here in the US, land of optional truth and belief in angels, the “tearing itself to pieces” scenario doesn’t seem limited to other places but is happening all around me – hidden in those allegedly quiet burbs (no one thinks of cities as tranquil…though they mostly are too), but gathering force. No RPGs…yet but things are not stable.

    Sterling talked about ‘borders as speedbumps’ and life out of laptop and all that; yes.

    But he also focused on the incredible and willful dis-embrace of reality going on in the US – where forward movement of all sorts is not only speed bumped but Berlin walled.

    People still try to lecture me on WMDs and “long wars” and so forth. They’re quite delusional; believing, as they do, in limitless American power and competence…but their delusions are of a specific sort so we think it’s all part of normal, everyday back and forth discourse and therefore outside of the perceptual crisis Sterling’s talking about.


  • Tony Says:

    He also focused on the incredible and willful dis-embrace of reality going on in the US – where forward movement of all sorts is not only speed bumped but Berlin walled.


    Of course the forward movement will continue apace notwithstanding. The fundies’ future shock and revolt against the masses (including science and academics and truth and their own principles) is recognizable. They just don’t want to see it. They have seen the future — in which their part asymptotically approaches zero — and blame liberalism: meaning of course, reason.

    The Tao is change. The moving hand having writ ….

  • JonBro Says:

    Bruce Sterlings talk may remind you of the grim meathook future, but this blog post reminds me of “the guy I almost was“, a story about technologists and futurists pulling the wool over everyones eyes, including their own. I think that these old guard cyberpunk writers are slowly approacing non-fiction however, and someday we may catch up with what sterling is talking about. Right now, “the missing something” may be the last vestige of trickery/fiction leaking into their talks.

  • fred Says:

    I can never tell if Sterling is intentionally posturing as Marshall McLuhan the way Alvin Toffler did. His assertions are important, but his literary bent has Phil Dick’s veneer of hallucinatory intuition. These talks, articles, and novels are about potential future styles he invents. It takes an honest science fiction writer to work as a design professor.