Aug 19 2009

Artificial Intelligence, Bandwidth, And Generative Game Design

PC Gamer UK’s latest issue will be on the shelves on the 27th, and should arrive before then for subscribers. You might be interested in the Napoleon Total War cover feature, but there’s also a little feature by me. It looks like this:

And that clicks up to a larger size.

Beyond that dashing first spread is a beautifully arranged feature in which I talk about the futurism of Ray Kurzweil, the science fiction of Charles Stross, and the forward-thinking technical wizardry of Eskil Steenberg. All these people have something to say about the possible future of videogames, and I’ve tried to extract their most interesting implications.

…the future of games is one in which software will have to find solutions for the enormous problems that following the curve of increasing hardware sophistication has presented us with. “The examples of how things that used to be simple have now become hard are numerous. Dwarf Fortress and similar games give a hint to where games would be, if graphics and sounds didn’t stand in our way,” says Steenberg.

It is a futurist’s gaming feature, and something of a blue-sky gaming feature, detached from the normal constraints of worrying about contemporary gaming. It’s the kind of subject I’d love to extrapolate upwards into a book: “the next thirty years of gaming”. Until I do, you should go out and buy the magazine.

In this instance I only look at three future-invoking people, and cover a few subjects related to them: the effect of wireless bandwidth on gaming, the effect of AI on our experience of gaming, and the possibilities for AI and generative systems in the creation of games. There’s a fair bit to be said about that, of course, but it leads elsewhere – off into the strange realms of ubiquitous gaming that tantalises the imagination. A world where games are the dominant form of culture, and the dominant mode of expression. A medium in which human and artificial intelligences meet and play.

I’m rather pleased with how it all came together. And now I realise the subject is due another 50,000 words and a dozen more interviews. Oh, won’t someone commission me?


Aug 9 2009

Keep It Happy

A comment within this Infrastructurist review of Christopher Steiner’s $20 Per Gallon got me thinking.

…we have to say that we kept imagining a conversation involving some combination of the agent, editor and publisher prior to the book being written that really stressed how important it was to make this a positive book–after all, everybody is sick of downers like Jim Kunstler talking about oil crashes. And since negative scary arguments apparently just make people retreat deeper into their cocoons of denial where their only sustenance is crime dramas and celebrity blogs, it’s important to keep. it. happy. We’re serious: HAPPY! Thus sentences like this one in the introduction: “The future will be exhilarating.”

The review of the book is an interesting one – discussing the road to $20 per gallon of fuel, and what changes that will bring in – and the topics covered link to my recent post here – but it was the reviewer’s comments about the positivity of the book that I want to briefly talk about.

I do rather feel that we’re juggling doom with optimism right now, and we keep dropping the optimism: it’s fucking slippery stuff. With proclamations like this one from the Ecological Society Of America, giving us fifteen years at best, we’re facing a huge spectrum of Grim Meathook Future downers. Hell, read through Jared Diamond’s Collapse and you’ll be hoarding tinned food and building a Mad Max battle-wagon in your garage. Look at any of these prediction sets closely, and anxiety will ignite. I even have friends who aren’t planning for the future, and honestly don’t believe the human race will manage another hundred years. You can see why.

But that’s cowardly. It’s almost contemptible. The enforced editorial HAPPY that the Infrastructurist posits is actually much braver, whether or not it’s tied to sales, and whether or not it is, ultimately, cynical. It’s not retreating into denial, or shrugging toward inevitability, it’s saying: there is a future, for better or worse, let’s look at how it might work without predicting apocalypse. Being realistic doesn’t mean being a harbinger of darkness.

And the next few decades are going to bring in massive changes, and we need to grasp that change positively, optimistically, and energetically, or we’ll allow the horrors that usually take hold when people are in a bad place to come to pass. Gritting our teeth, swallowing our fear, side-stepping the emotional man-traps that tell us that the end of our own lives might as well coincide with the end of the world, and then coming up with a plan, is the only way forward. I’d rather be holding an optimists guide to the end of the world, when the time comes, than one written by someone who just assumes we’ll be screwed.

People like Steiner, who are quite pragmatically saying that ecologist-scaring tech like nuclear power *must* be allowed to flourish, might just be people who end up saving the planet. If that’s down to some upward editing on the part of their publishers, then, hey, I’m all for it.

Perhaps the tide is turning. All the metrics of our doom are in, and now it’s down to people to start making the adjustments required to sort out our ecologically damaged, expensive, food-shortaged future of over-population and consumerist collapse. The fact that people are getting on with it, in whatever format, can only be a good thing.

Jul 10 2009

Words For Print Vs Words For Web

Since working on a print magazine (PC Gamer) for a couple of weeks last month, I’ve been meaning to write something about the difference between writing for print and writing for the web. It’s a notion that’s been gnawing at me at least since I wrote the book, which I found infuriating because I’d become so familiar – even before I was blogging full time – with the scaffolding possibilities of electronic text.

As I wrote 80,000 words of text, I found myself polishing up my writing to explain precisely what I was talking about, where on the web I would have tied it up with a hyperlink*. Rather than writing for the specific audience I knew was going to sit at the other end of a blog, I was hoping anyone could pick up the book. Which rather seems the wrong way to go about things: surely the website is more democratic? But no, quite the opposite is true of how I’ve ended up using the two media. Writing on my own blog, I don’t give a damn who is reading, and writing on for Rock, Paper, Shotgun I have to assume it’s a certain calibre of gamer to have even found the place. As for a book, well, I wanted my mum to be able to get through that without a decade in online gaming.

But there was a more profound structural difference to the page: I couldn’t add links anywhere. I’ve always hated the distracting fussiness of footnotes, and my editor didn’t much like the either: clean text, and nothing else. So there was no way around having to encapsulate everything in the body text.

Towards the end of this process, having read the manuscript several times through, as well as knowing it via all the little revisions we’d done as the process went on, I began to see where all the imaginary hyperlinks went. I could go back into that document, I knew, and cross reference things with links online: explanatory Wikipedia links, comedy YouTube references, and even direct portals to the games I was talking about. Perhaps, when we finally get the Creative Commons version of the book online (which is actually only some paperwork away, come to think of it), we’ll find a way, and a time, for me to include all those links, and to create a version of the book that fixes and positions itself in the web by reaching out in a thousand directions, with a thousand links.

Anyway, time on the magazine and find myself thinking the same thoughts: the inflexibility of the page! No CTRL-F to find that exact phrase in an instant, no click to punch through the page and into an entirely different magazine/website/game/video that we referenced.

But then there was the other side of the woodspace publishing process: the designers. Working on feature stuff – rather than the static grids of regular content – you suddenly find yourself in the best part of magazine design. Suddenly writing has an element of visual directing to it, creating themes for how to illustrate the stuff that can’t be explained with the screenshot and a splash of concept art: independent gaming, wi-fi, co-op, the future.

I remember wanting to do a series of articles where we attempt to tell a story through entire full-page spread images. I think we did it once with Planetside. First spread was the dropship, second spread was the drop, third spread was sniping at the base from the hill, the fourth spread was inside the base itself. Each page was part of the long zoom, the linear thread was the text, and each boxout a small zoom focus within the larger page: this element of the battlefield, that element of the interface. It ludicrously fine work by the designer, Mark Wynne. And it used the material at hand: an area paper with a fold.

This isn’t all that print does, because it can also juxtapose image and text much more concretely: the art of the captions, the boxout. These can be tricks and jokes in their own right. The latest PC Gamer redesign added in more variable graphics to its original mix: infographics, including web diagrams of the relationships between characters in Starcraft fiction, graphs showing the relative speed of the web now and then. The traditional picture-plus-text, but with more, which is something that magazines like Wired have been doing for a long time.

This month’s Wired UK does it too with an incredible illustrated explanation of the mechanics of the Somali piracy phenomenon. It managed to use the page to create a splendid fresh logic, one that used the page to convey packets of information in a flow-chart whole. Maps, equations, charts. Sure, it’s just a “boxout” sequence that you might be familiar with from any magazine over the years, but the delivery was an exquisite flow of discrete meetings of illustration, text, and numerical data.

There’s several pages of that (above), it’s totally awesome.

This can be done on the web, but it’s harder, and it can be expensive. Obviously what’s best about the web from the point of view publishers is that it’s super-cheap. You create a grid and drop images and words in, day after day, just as you do in the standing copy areas of the magazines. But there’s no paper.

It seems that even the publishers that did try to bridge that gap and try and designed magazine format on the web – I’m thinking early jpeg’d online mags or the first year or so of The Escapist – ended up binning the idea and heading back to the bloggy format columns of text, presumably for the sake of money, but perhaps also because the web browser demanded it.

It’s interesting to hear the different sides of the argument chime in on this: lots of magazine folks argue up the material nature of their product, the things you can do with a page, the tactile response of paper. Meanwhile a number of professional bloggers I know are veterans of the magazine industry and they see magazines as a dead man walking. It’s inflexible, expensive, and even wasteful, they say. There’s no way it can hope to hold up, and maybe they’re right. But if magazines die then perhaps the art won’t have to: maybe we can find a way for the same kind of melding of wordy editorial and page design to continue.

Could we end up with WYSIWYG editors so flexible and fast that we’ll be able to lay out vertical column magazines in an instant, merging infographics, text and images into the flowing whole that they’re able to become in print magazines? Will we see web designers becoming less technical and more like the page-designing guys that made my Korea feature so beautiful, or Kieron’s Zangband article so digestible? Isn’t the real issue the crudeness of web browsers and the horrible constraints of HTML as it currently exists?

Am I going to be able to print out a future blog of mine via an on-demand newspaper service and distributed it as a beautiful print object at future games conventions? Is this – columns of text, pop-up thumbnails and embedded video – really it for the visual logic of the web?

*The worst thing commercial blogs do is use self-referential links to game names, or subjects, when their tag or whatever does not explain the topic. Instead, take me to the official site, or the Wiki page! Useless basts.

Oh, also, I wrote a rollicking feature on the future of games for next month’s PC Gamer UK with contributions from Charles Stross and Eskil Steenberg. I’ll hype it again soon, but it’s worth picking up.

Jul 10 2009

Book Review: Dirt

William Bryant Logan seems like a name that should be on the cover of a book. It’s a good, earthy name. It’s the name of an author who is a gardener, a scholar, a journalist, a Christian, an ex-oil rigger, and a mountain climber. All these aspects of his life are expressed in the busy pages of Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin Of The Earth. (First published as a paperback in 2007.)

Judging a book by its cover, in part, I bought Dirt on the basis of the fantastic title, and on the report that it contained this fact: “an acre of soil produces one horsepower every day”. The fact came first, via Twitter. Where did the fact come from? Via William Bryant Logan’s Dirt. That was a sale, right there.

A book about dirt. Soil, mud. And one with intriguing facts.

The book is a collection of essays that tie into the many aspects of what is – I now realise – a relatively mysterious medium. Dirt, dust, soil, earth, clay: a set of living systems that ties in any number of processes and materials across the planet. Logan’s writings detail a number of them, rooting around in matters of composting, soil evolution, dung beetles (including a species that hangs at the arse of a monkey, ready to base jump from a tree with its chosen stool), earthquakes, ground water, the theories of clay, molds, the wind, and the relationship between early agrarian presidents of the United States, Jefferson and Adams.

Logan’s book is piecemeal, rather than any kind of systematic natural history or survey. Nevertheless it’s the diversity of thoughts and descriptions that make this book fascinating to a dirt layman such as myself. It also seems to contain a broad thesis about how soil is akin to life, and how it is the foundation of life. The section on the weird nature of clay, and its relationship to the early stages of life, even the sheer complexity of this apparently simply substance, is extraordinary.

“The clay code… is more complex that either genetic code or human language. Only now are we beginning to catch glimpses of its order, and one cannot help thinking that pursuing it will be as fruitful and endless as the cabbalists’ search for that perfect of the Hebrew aleph, by which God created the universe.”

Logan’s writing is elegiac: he seems genuinely sad for eroded and contaminated soils, and laments the waste of bad composting. He offers poetic renditions of lessons in geology, and begins to suggest that soil is interrelated with what it means to be human. Indeed, the book explains, soil itself is a kind of living, self-healing entity, which we can and must understand our relationship with. There’s something beautiful about this that is made all the more intense by our increased understanding of the properties of this substance. Logan exults soil scientist Hans Jenny as one of the greatest minds of the past century, for his contribution to this body of knowledge.

Of course I agree with the ideas about the life of soil, and our need to better understand how we use, make and exhaust it. It’s a characteristic that’s true of much of the natural world, and it only needs stating in this case because soil is so ignored, and abused. It is not, thanks to this book, underwhelming. Logan does a fantastic job of providing the tools necessary for furthering even the slightest interesting in the materials beneath the gardener’s feet.

However, Logan’s Christianity does frame much of how he discusses his topic, and not always beneficially to the neutral reader. For the most part the Bible references are well-judged: splendid allegory. By the last third of the book, however, the pastoralist sermonising tendencies – via Biblical example – had begun to grate, and I almost put the book down.

This is a writer who is, apparently, keenly interested in the wonder that science can evoke from our expanded understanding of the natural world. The book is filled with references to soil science, geology, and even cosmology. And yet it is an uncomfortable position: Logan seems to still be irked by the arrogance of science – a common feeling among believers – which is something I would have sympathy for if it were not for his generalisations against science, and his eccentric defence of the profoundly dubious practice of dowsing for water.

“Science tells us that we are lords of Creation and that we know everything, but it would seem that our mental world is often more impoverished than an ant or a weed.”

Even when reports like this one discuss magnetic sense in animals, the fact remains that dowsing has been repeatedly debunked. There is no case for it. Logan’s belief in this strange behaviour set seems more about his hope and faith in ancient belief, than about any kind of useful understanding of the natural world. Science, far from telling us we are lords of creation, tells us that the world is more complex, and far stranger, than our ancient forebears could have anticipated.

These irrational blips make for uneven reading for even an occasionally magical empiricist like me, and it made me grumble. I was ultimately able to ignore it, and put aside the religious undertones as something like poetic license, but the sense of internal tension remained.

Like a whole bunch of my peers I’ve become increasingly interested in these kinds of topics, with gardening and growth, and with their relationship to how we progress, and it’s hard to find articulate writing on the topic that doesn’t slump into tedium. In part, Dirt serves to colour our knowledge and fuel our excitement and wonder, and I want to recommend it for that reason alone.

Jun 27 2009


“The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market… minarets, palms, mountains, jungle… a sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed-grown parks where boys lie in long grass, play cryptic games.”

Yesterday’s Twitter musing raised the idea of a GTA game featuring an old man: wandering the streets, smoking, reminiscing. This led me to suggest a Williams Burroughs game, “Interzone”, where you battle the forces of control by distributing fucked up ideas across the city. So let’s outline a design for Interzone.

“No narrative, all side quests,” says Greg J Smith. That suits the Burroughsian idea, of course. And yet you can see how a Burroughs quest structure might work: a fragmentary mass of clues leading towards one inevitability. “The Old Writer would write himself out of death.” The endgame would be immortality, access to The Western Lands, and you’d find your way in the city. There might not be a story – perfect for the random sandbox play of the city in which a player is wandering, exploring, struggling – but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be an ending.

“A ghost in daylight on a crowded street.”

Visually the game world lands part way between Junkie and Naked Lunch. Part New York, part Tangiers. It’s a familiar city, but there’s something wrong with everything. Clearly the GTA city of Interzone would have to be far more tangled and jungloid than any game city we care to suggest.

“Our national drug is alcohol. We tend to regard the use of any other drug with special horror.”

Two game mechanisms for Interzone.

The first is morphia: addiction. The Old Writer will have have to make contact with various individuals across the city so that he can stay in control of himself. The longer you go without a hit, the harsher visuals and audio becomes, the more complex interactions are. But one contact will run dry, you’ll always have to search for another: following spectral junkies, looking for clues. Too long and you begin to lose control: the avatar wanders on his own, ravenous for junk. Eventually it’s unplayable: too bright and grating to look at, too difficult to control. And yet you’re facing a tricky kind of videogame resource management: take too much and you’re fade out, overdosing, resetting to zero. Wake up in a bed in a dark room, sunlight through a single dirty pane.

“A paranoid man is a man who knows a little about what’s going on.”

The second mechanism is the Cut Up. You are constantly under threat of being captured: seized by agents of control. They only way to deal with it is to disrupt their activities, to keep them off your tail, dealing with other things. You distribute fucked up ideas to key locations. Pamphlets dropped off with key people, reducing the likelihood of the forces of control appear to deal with you. At higher levels you begin leaving tape recorders filled with subliminal messages running, an area-of-affect attack, context bombs. Parasitic upgrades.

The last resort – a thing of brutal finality, and your most limited resource – are the handguns that Burroughs loved. Just nine rounds in your automatic. Nine chances to escape control. Nine lives.

Cut word lines — Cut music lines — Smash the control images — Smash the control machine — Burn the books — Kill the priests — Kill! Kill! Kill!

Jun 26 2009


Having crossed paths with Geoff Manaugh and BLDGBLOG a few years ago, I’m now a regular reader, and even an occasional contributor. My endorsement of this book does have a ring of inevitability to it.

The site seems to have captured the attention of thousands of people by allowing us to take an interest in the built environment in a way that hadn’t seemed viable before: allowing in elements of science fiction, fantasy, speculation, and general imagination. Of course architecture has always been about these things, but recently it seems as if the layman – outsiders to the profession - are being allowed to take a closer interest. Just another side-effect of the altered information flows of the early 21st century. That, and the work of some interesting writers.

Without Manaugh’s own fiercely speculative writing the site would be without its vital spark. He reports on stories, ideas, notions, flights of fancy, but adds his own context, an endless cascade of “What if?” scenarios to bring geological data-storage, subterranean sculpture, redesigned atmospheres, resurrected fortifications, and a million other architectural themes to life.

This is science fiction, but in the manner defined by Brian Aldiss. It is “the sub-literature of change”. The same is true of the book, which I’ve just finished reading. Manaugh storms through a number of his favourite blogging themes: The Underground (adventures in subterranean architectures, geology), Redesigning the Sky (atmospherics, artificial metereology, aurora on demand), Music, Sounds, Noise (architectural acoustics), and Landscape Futures. Each of these receives a series of small essays, which report on interesting phenomena, such as how cities and mountain ranges influence weather patterns, before plunging into the consequential possibilities: weather as spectator sport, weaponising the atmosphere, and so on.

It’s a book that contains multitudes. The core bits of essaying are supplemented by sidebar notes from the blog, as well as the site’s best entries, and a bunch of interviews with architects, musicians, artists, and writers. It’s also lavishly illustrated with dozens of colour pictures.

Through a couple of junctures in this book the sober British empiricist in me frowned at Manaugh’s more outlandish flights of fantasy. I’m not sure whether that’s because the context of reading such ideas in a book seemed to carry a different gravity to reading them on a blog, or whether the occasionally unscientific fiction he was creating challenged even my reasonably broad capacity for playfulness and optimism. He is not dealing in analytical “reality”, of course, as the introduction makes plain:

“…forget academic rigour. Never take the appropriate next step. Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, and landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences – because it’s fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere. Most importantly, follow your lines of interest.”

Which, as a statement of philosophy sounds rather like one of the book’s literary godfathers, JG Ballard: “My advice to anyone in any field is to be faithful to your obsessions. Identify them and be faithful to them, let them guide you like a sleepwalker.”

Over-using that quote. I’ll stop now.

Jun 6 2009

Videogames And The Impossibility Of Escape From Planet Earth

For a while now I’ve been interested in the Fermi Paradox. This is an observation about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence visiting the Earth. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos calculations suggest that given the age of the universe, and the number of stars (and assuming the existence of life and progress on Earth is typical of the wider universe) there should be loads of technologically advanced aliens. The physicist Enrico Fermi asked why – if that’s the actually case – there’s no evidence or spacecraft or probes from these creatures arriving in our solar system. If the numbers suggest aliens should exist, where are they?

There are loads of suggestions for why we might not have encountered beings from other places, and loads of variants for each of these suggestions. They might have missed us, or might not want to interfere with us, or they might already be here and not be recognisable [See footnote.] My personal favourite is a variant of the “aliens just stayed home” hypothesis, by a chap called Michael Huang. He suggested that the aliens created such an amazing version of World Of Warcraft, that real life seemed boring, and they neglected the difficulties of space travel. Indeed, if space flight is really going to take thousands of years, hundreds of generations, and immense resources that could be better spent on having a good time, why should millions of sentient beings be expected to sink their lives into making it happen?

Of course to Huang – a spaceflight enthusiast – hunkering down into imaginary worlds and failing to explore the galaxy seems like a pretty terrible fate. But if you combine it with one of the other hypotheses, which is that it’s just too far and too hard to reach out into distant space, then it begins to seem like a more interesting alternative.

Perhaps it simply is the case that we’re trapped on this planet, or in this solar system. Where will the explorers go next? Surely they’ll go where generations of speculators and entrepreneurs ready to make a quick buck from the unfamiliar have already been: into the human imagination. We end up, not quite in the way JG Ballard meant, exploring inner space.

What better medium to explore than one that can manifest all kinds of imaginative possibilities, and make all things interactive and explorable: music, fiction, sentient space-stations and haunted circuses, all suddenly made into a new kind of terrain to be explored at our leisure. This is a wide-spectrum of the idea of “exploration”. It doesn’t have to mean “exploring a jungle in the Congo”, or “exploring that nice little village in Tuscany”, it could just as easily mean “exploring the physics of this peculiar puzzle game”, or “exploring the inside of a psychotic milkman’s imagination“. You’re exploring a model of something in the mind of the game designer, and possibly even seeing things in it that he missed.

The future of games offers an incredible scope for exploration: one that we can’t easily conceive of at this time. And perhaps what we end up exploring: these places that explorers of dreams and nightmares have brought back for us to examine, will end up being more important to the overall trajectory of the human race than anyone is ready to realise. If the crude models provided by writing and static art have projected us this far, with this much technology and culture, if they have given the leg-up to consciousness that was required to create modernity, what will the unlimited palette of digital media provide the springboard toward? What will we discover as we tunnel inwards, having abandoned our dreams of walking among the stars? It could be incredible, or unfathomably horrible.

Perhaps we, and our alien counterparts, really are trapped on our distinct worlds, but we will still get to explore strange new worlds. Hell, perhaps we can even imagine each other, go to war, and win out in our respective intergalactic simulations, without ever meeting, or even communicating. Perhaps the fantasy of contact with other civilisations will end up being more constructive than the reality, should that ever come to pass.

Footnote: This idea of aliens not being perceptible seems to crop up a fair bit in recent readings. In Will Self’s recent book Liver he described the conundrum thus: “It is sufficient to paraphrase Wittgenstein, and note only that if we were able to see the Martian as he really was, we wouldn’t understand what it was that we were witnessing.” More recently Iain McLeod discussed this notion at Thrilling Wonder Stories. He said something along the lines of “my dog doesn’t understand the universe, so why should I expect to?” And then later paralleled that with “aliens might already be here and simply not be perceptible to us.” The dog doesn’t comprehend what a iPhone is among other small objects, so why should we think we can distinguish alien spaceships from the rest of the world’s phenomena? That seems fair enough, but I wonder if the gulf of comprehensibility would necessarily stay that way. Could other intelligences on Planet Earth suddenly realise what they’re looking at? I thought about what World Wide Web creator Tim Berners Lee recently said about the incomprehensibility of the internet: “The brain is something very complicated we don’t understand – yet we rely on it. The web is very complicated too and, though we built it, we have no real data about the stability of the emergent systems that have cropped up on it.”

Emergent abilities, unforeseen. The sci-fi authors call the sudden sentience and-therefore-acceleration-of AI the Singularity, and predict great things – exponential acceleration, nerd rapture. But what if the internet simply ends up recognising aliens before we do, makes contact, and says “get me out of here!”

Jun 5 2009

A World Without Aeroplanes

Or Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture as possible alternative to Grim Meathook.

I’m not sure where this image is from, but I like how the plane of the far left seems so happy.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the future a great deal recently. Not simply because of reading books like Collapse and The World Without Us, and attending events like Thrilling Wonder Stories, but because I want to write something about it for myself. I’ve been working on a couple of my own projects regarding the future – one about the future of games, and one about the future of progress. I’ll probably start compiling more thoughts about these two topics on here in notepad form, without any proper form: thinking out loud. Starting with this.

An FT interview with economist Jeff Rubin discusses what kind of role the increase in oil prices had on the recession. Rubin says: “Once we get into triple digit prices, what we find is it’s no longer compatible with a global economy… distance costs money and things that we thought made a lot of sense like importing food or steel from China cease making sense.” And so the conversation goes on about how that will cause globalisation to slow down, and a wider, deeper recession to occur.

Oil is already the most important economic factor in the health of global money, and the implications of it getting more expensive are enormous. While peak oil might be a long, long way off (up to a century, by some optimistic estimates), and there’s little reason to believe that the slowdown will necessarily cause an energy-led Malthusian catastrophe, it is going to run out.

And of course the assumption is that the slow death of oil use via expense and scarcity won’t matter – or at least won’t be dangerous to a current way of life – because we’ll have flipped over to a hydrogen economy, and that will ease the burden. (Biofuels are already proving to be impossible as a wide-scale solution, because if we grow them on a colossal scale we rapidly begin run out of space for food.) A hydrogen economy nevertheless remains a total fiction, a fabrication to make the future seem shinier: not even a tiny fraction of the oil-consuming world is ready to be retrofitted to use gas a fuel. People are already thinking about other alternatives: the methanol economy as alternative, or a stopgap. It’s much easier to refit generators, cars, and powerstations to use methanol, which is a liquid rather than a gas.

The bigger problem is that there’s never likely to be a single approach to dealing with the coming change. Solutions will be piecemeal, iterative. This death of oil isn’t likely to be dealt with in any systematic way by the governments and corporate organisations that remain ready and willing to choke on rising oil prices for years to come. Reading Jared Diamond’s theories about how civilisations ignore or fail to perceive their problems in Collapse makes me realise just how little likelihood there is of us dealing with the disappearance of oil in a useful way. And what if we can’t really come up with a replacement for oil in a time-frame that makes sense?

Well, we’ll probably have that recession that Rubin is talking about. At the very least the convenience of global trade and transport will become highly inconvenient. Assuming that doesn’t simply land us in some kind of Mad Max death-tribe apocalypse it’s likely we’ll be faced with a far less accessible world. A Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture, where greenhouses are going suddenly become rather more important to life. We’ll probably find ways to generate electricity – bring on the solar age! – and therefore have access to light, power, trams/streetcars, trains, and even electric cars, but the nature of distance travel will be very different. Vast fleets of oil-guzzling ships will be dead. Thousands of aircraft will rust. A few methanol biplanes and solar gliders might ply the skies, but the sky-bus megatransit will fall silent. Global trade will be reduce to small, easily freighted items, and global travel will eventually seem like an enormous luxury.

We’re already in a post-space age, but what will our world look like in a post commercial-airline age? Suddenly the other side of the world isn’t twelve hours away anymore. My Australian relatives will be painfully remote, and exotic fruit will once again be exotic. The invention of the internet seems infinitely more fortuitous. And we’ll be building new gamepads using extruded plastic from a homemade 3D printer. If we can find a bio-plastic that works with it, anyway.

May 31 2009

Thrilling Wonder Stories

Last Friday, at the Architectural Association in central London, I attended a symposium called Thrilling Wonder Stories. It was a series of talks arranged by Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh, and attended by a whole bunch of people from a range of disciplines. (I was listed on the billing, but didn’t actually have a presentation and contributed little of interest. Not that my tiny mind was needed, because there was a colossal array of speaking talent in attendance.) Brief impressions follow.

Introduction by the director of the Architectural Association, then Liam Young, and then Geoff Manaugh. The BLDGBLOG author instantly started connecting science fiction, speculation and narrative with architecture, leaping from one idea to the next. He values this kind of collision of ideas, and wants everyone else to. I suspect we could all have listened to this for another hour or two, but it was onward to the first speaker.

Peter Cook, seventy-something Archigram founder and working architect, was full of energy. He stood up to talk about “Weird Shit International” as a much-needed movement in architecture across the decades. He cast off layers of t-shirts, each one seeming to show his association with weird shit in building design across forty years, while narrating a series of architectural pictures – near-abstract things that connected disparate ideas from robotics to kitchenware. He lamented “up and down” building design philosophy, and laughed that the Oslo school of architecture was pumping out such boring graduates of that philosophy, when a solar-powered autonomous robot was mowing the grass-lawn roof above their heads. A situational joke that they did not seem to get.

Viktor Antonov was next. The Citadel from Half-Life 2 is probably the most famed of his creations, at least among my people, and he discussed some of his angles on design production. He talked about rendering impressionistic, low-detail cities to bring forward psychological aspects – the most intense the situation, the less of the environment you see – as will be demonstrated in the forthcoming animated film, The Prodigies. Calm scenes mean painterly but detailed environments, and action reduces the rendering to mere pencil-form sketchiness. Then he showed us how altering a couple of architectural parameters – increasing the height of the ground floors of Paris, and the monumental size of the smokestacks – could instantly render a real city in a science fiction oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see some one as artistically accomplished as Antonov precisely pinpointing the theory that underlies how he goes about creating stuff. The Paris he was designing looked phenomenal, but will never likely be unveiled, as it was for The Crossing. The game was recently frozen by its developers, Arkane Studios.

Lunch was weird: a side room full of speakers eating roasted vegetables and creme caramel, discussing the importance of JG Ballard. “Do you have to be dead to be taken seriously?” asked one of the speakers. Visions of undead lich-architects taking the podium. What do architecture commentators talk about when confined to lunch? Tombs, death, other writers.

Then we returned to hear from Iain MacLeod, the science fiction author. He spoke, somewhat distressingly, of the way in which British schoolchildren writing science fiction almost inevitably write about dark futures. The rocketship wonder of earlier decades is gone, and our children write dystopias by default: a fascinating, terrifying realisation. He seemed rather earthy and upbeat, and talked of how problems mean invention, and creativity, but I couldn’t help think about a generation of kids for whom there is no bright imagined future: only Bladerunner, eco-death, the Drowned World, apocalypse. MacLeod talked about the problems for idealistic sci-fi now, and I wonder if there was something about the hip nihilism of modern fantasy, combined with relentless terror-cancer newsmedia shit, that really will stop future generations bothering to climb out of their doomed shrug. I wondered whether we needed to send some idealists into schools, give Chris Anderson’s essay on optimism an outing. “Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.” And so on.

Next up: Nic Clear. A lecturer at The Bartlett School of Architecture, Clear was focused on discussing how cross media influences of a kind that weren’t given the nod by the core architectural profession could be valuable. Film making, novels, were important to architectural education too, he claimed. I felt like his message got a bit lost. It was basically: JG Ballard should be on reading lists, and architects are educated people who don’t have one clear portfolio. That rather got swamped by oppressive student films that he played as the second part of his presentation. Clear wanted architects to step back and think, and not to buy into pre-packaged positive thinking of capitalist sales speak, something like that. Big downers are good for you, it seems.

Then a design firm called Squint Opera took the stage. They were a fun kind of antidote to the proceedings up this point, playing a glossy, colourful show reel in which giant pins fell from the sky into microcosm living-blueprints, and UFO-stadiums hovered amid blizzards of ticker-tape – these were the staple of their architectural energy. Before that they showed slides of “Flooded London“, which presented the submerged, ruined capital as actually rather playful: an opportunity to turn the city into a watery paradise. They seemed to have a kind of cut-and-paste notion of how architecture should be sold and discussed, and they mentioned later that how they pictured the Olympic stadium, and how it turned out, were rather different. There was some kind of antagonism between their angle and that of Clear: they were operating on the kind of bright optimism of epic cashflows that Clear was unhappy about, prescribing to some coffee-on-the-terrace decadence that he saw as unrealistic. Nevertheless they were at the heart of the symposium: science fiction as part the real, day-to-day business of making buildings.

Then the most extraordinary storm of science-madness came from Francois Roche (of architects R&Sie) whose thick accent masked incredible phrases: “strategies of sickness”, “protocolising the witch in the forest”, “the necrosis of the building”, “the penis of the wall”… he talked about feeding death and traditional fairy tales into design, and about creating a machine that would build an un-navigable glass maze in the courtyard between buildings, into which people would wander, and then die, unable to escape without GPS. “They die to become part of the building,” he said, grinning, and propping expensive sunglasses on his styled bonce. He talked about a building in which would be constructed from vast, moulded versions of bullet holes on wet clay, covered in rotting vegetation collected from the Korean de-militarized zone by a purpose-built “witch” robot, referencing Tarkovsky’s Stalker on the way. Oh and this electrified hairy skyscraper that would suck pollution from the Thai atmosphere, and only be a little bit dangerous. Roche’s firm seems like one of the world’s most valuable imaginative resources: technically accomplished, with a healthy streak of insanity. He would be the guy the evil genius would go to for the Volcano base plans. “Ten billion in blood money, what can you build me?” “A death-maze constructed from recycled local materials and plutonium!” Something like that.

Finally Warren Ellis took the stage and told the audience that science fiction wasn’t – and had never been – about predicting the future. He explained, in no uncertain terms, that it was – from War of the Worlds to Transmetropolitan – always about dealing with the present. Then he shouted at a passing ice-cream van and quoted Heinlein creating context for the new and unknown: “SF operates language differently than most other forms of literature. What SF does, which annoys most people, is subvert the sentence. Changing one word can put you in a new place. The usual example is from Robert Heinlein: ‘As the door dilated…’ Suddenly you’re in an entirely different place.” He also revealed a new project, which he called Electrograd. A city which had been a testbed for futures of the past, and is now being torn down to make way for futures of the present. And murder, of course, because it needs a good story. I can’t wait to see how that one unfolds.

In retrospect the entire event reminded me of a rather more lively version of the kinds of things my lecturers were trying to arrange during my philosophy degree: a cross pollination of ideas that told the students that what they were doing was about education, not vocation, and that mad, beautiful ideas were worth pursuing for their own sakes, because – damn! – all the people up on that stage were living them.

The whole thing was stamped, perhaps imperceptibly to everyone else, with a motto I come back to – paraphrasing Richard Rorty – which is: “anything can be redescribed”. Sometimes a new description is all you need.

May 15 2009

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