(Dis)embodied futures?

Posted December 13, 2013 by jonturney
Categories: fiction, futures past, science fiction, talks and events

Tags: , , ,

Haven’t posted here for a while, but this is kind of futures related, so I’ll put it here.

Below is the text of a talk a gave in Birmingham as part of this interesting event in the terrific new Library of Birmingham.

It involved various cunning artistic responses and representations to famous dead thinkers – I was responding to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. None of us quite knew how it was going to go, I think. But the whole set of talks ran twice, and having heard them all, at the second round I realised that the question I was trying to ask, or answer, had crystallised more clearly: how close can we get through representations, especially new digital representations, to an actual person who is no longer around? That seemed to be the main theme of the day. My subsidiary question, as it were, was how our view of the answer to the big question is affected by whether we think it is essential for persons that they are embodied, or that some kind of encoded form of a person can be substrate independent.

That said, this was my slightly rambling response, more or less as given – (there were some pics but I’ve left those out here because copyright)


I’m here to tell you about life after death. I’m going to look at some varieties of immortality, taking my cue from Mary Shelley and trying to think through what might have been added to the discussion of how we cheat death since her time.

There are a range of options for maintaining some sort of presence in the world after your normal lifespan – lets take the biblical standard of three score years and ten as a starting point – as in fact we’ve just seen.

If you are one of a select few, and Mary is, you might achieve literary immortality, fascinating us with the works you left behind. You might do so, as she did, by writing a story which is itself about immortality, of another kind, involving body parts reassembled and reanimated. Or, as when we heard from Mary just now, you might be recreated digitally, another way of speaking to people who never met you in the flesh.

Let’s start with the story she created, long before digital technology was thought of. Frankenstein has a number of overlapping themes. That’s one reason it has endured for so long, in so many re-tellings. An important one, for me, is our ambivalence about the effort to eliminate the imperfections of humanity. That seems, at first blush, a highly desirable thing to do. But there’s a catch. (There’s always a catch). The effort to make us more perfect can only be made by humans as they are now, imperfect as we know them to be.

The rather large imperfection of mortality is, as it were, the major sub theme here. And the Frankenstein plot revolves around the first ideas about how to overcome this which were drawn  from science, as opposed to involving supernatural power. Delving into the secrets of the body, and of electricity, Dr Frankenstein achieves – well, not immortality, but reanimation or resurrection. That is a step beyond exhumation, the option highlighted in our title today, but which – strictly – has the drawback that simply being exhumed doesn’t stop you being dead.

Is this immortality, though?  The creature is not a continuation of some former person – the other subplot of failed parenting requires him to be, in effect, a newborn in monstrously enlarged adult form.

His limbs and organs are alive again, but he has no memory or personality. Indeed, he is patched together, one gathers, somewhat randomly from gathered parts, so is a composite in any case. His mind, apparently new, is formed by, among other things, reading many of Mary Shelley’s favourite books. So the good old technology of print is already, as we might now think of it, functioning to externalise memory. It can be used to furnish a mind with ideas which are themselves reanimated when they are active in a new brain.

The modern version of a Frankensteinian revival is perhaps resurrection after cryogenic preservation. The idea is that your body or –  if you have less cash or are indifferent to what happens below the neck – just your head is placed in cryogenic suspension. You become a corpsicle. If you have arranged to keep up the payments on the freezer, you will stay there until future technologists are clever enough to repair whatever killed you, along with the incidental cell damage caused by the freezing, and you will live again. Since technologies that can do that (nanobots that get inside the cells to fix them are the current favourite speculation) will be effective at preventing normal wear and tear, So you’ll probably be immortal this time around. 

This scenario is speculative, but the freezing part, at least is non-fictional. The scheme was first proposed by Robert Ettinger in the 1960s. He founded the Cryonics Institute in Michigan in the 1970s, had his mother and two wives put in storage, and when he died himself in 2011, aged 92, he was frozen, too. So, one day, maybe, he’ll come back to say, “I told you so!”.

On the face of it, this version of immortality is firmly focussed on the body. But there is, I think, a strong strain in the advocacy of cryonics that the body has a basic design flaw – it runs down – which needs fixing. The revived body, I suppose, would operate pretty much like it did before (perhaps with invisibly resident nanobots).

That might not be good enough, of course. Ettinger was preserved at 92 A lot of people over 80 have dementia, so this route to new life raises serious questions about when to go into suspension, or whether externalised memories, perhaps preserved digitally, would need to be on hand to restore a sense of self to the revived brain/mind.

Staying with bodies for now, the next set of routes to immortality are simpler, in one way – they involve not dying. There are people now who  believe this is a realistic scientific and technological prospect, not merely a perennial wish. The most often heard from is Aubrey de Grey, proponent of SENS (strategies for engineered negligible senescence). As this suggests, it would prevent ageing, so not guarantee immortality – violent deaths would still happen. But others would simply go on living as long as they wanted. An important aspect of this is that they would not, as many stories of longevity suggest, have to endure extended decrepitude. Rather, they would have an indefinitely prolonged middle age.

De Grey’s programme is basically to accelerate a bunch of lines of biological research which would allow us to prevent various kinds of cell damage and cell death. It is not that far from conventional medical research on diseases of the elderly. Western medicine, essentially, is oriented to preventing death.  a clear descendant of the Frankensteinian project.

Alternatively, and here we move closer to the digital world, there is another set of routes to prolonging life through technology. They share an attitude to the body apparent in the advocates of biological life extension – that it is a flawed piece of engineering, a collection of evolutionary kludges, splendid in its way and on its day, but in need of fixing for the long term.

The engineer’s approach here is to go down the road of prostheses and implants toward a full-blown cyborg. If missing or malfunctioning body parts can be replaced with non-biological components, perhaps in the end we merge completely with our technology. There are a range of endpoints here, depending on whether the brain ends up maintained in an artificial body, or is itself replaced by some kind of electronic substitute.

If you could do that, then you would have yet a further range of options, digitally speaking. That electronic substitute would have to be programmed, and furnished with memories. If these are somehow obtained from a living brain, and encoded in digital form for transfer to the new medium, then we’ve achieved a real version of the Cartesian separation of mind and brain. And mind, perhaps, can be given independence – analogous to software – from the hardware (presently wetware) in which it is operating.

Is this taking the computer metaphor for the brain too far? Time will tell. But there are those who believe in immortality achieved by a kind of resurrection through digitisation.

The best known is Ray Kurzweil, who argues it will be possible to record the contents of a brain, and then “upload” the mind it supports into a computer. This would be immortality sans body (though presumably simulating all the experiences which go with having one, if desired). Consciousness reborn in this form might go on for ever, or at least until the cosmos runs down which is quite a long time.

Kurzweil wants this, not for future beneficiaries, but for himself. Meantime, he is also at work building an avatar of his late (40 years dead) father, now using a pre-digital archive. He is compiling all the letters, documents and pictures he can, to use in programming a computer which will think and talk like his dad.

With much more extensive digital recording, it seems, once we have mind uploading technology, perhaps we can can also construct a simulacrum of a former mind, using whatever information we can gather about the contents of that mind.

And if the actual mind hasn’t been dissected and digitised, there might be enough on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest and Instagram to generate, well, something.

A provocative example: a robot made a few years ago which looked and spoke like the science fiction Author Philip K Dick. Dick left millions of words of text, which were uploaded into intelligent software and used to generate new conversations with people who spoke to his new avatar. Sometimes they made excellent sense, sometimes not – quite like the man himself.

The whole project is documented in David Dufty’s splendid book Losing the Head of Philip K Dick. That story ends when the head is indeed lost, in an airport. However, the creator has since made another, better version – so the digital resurrection of Dick has itself been resurrected!

That result: now you see him, now you don’t, here he is again – reminds one of a lot of science fiction where the mind uploading trope is now taken for granted. There are a host of stories where people routinely make backup copies of themselves, and hardly anyone ever dies – they are just rebooted. It is contemporary science fiction’s advance on cloning, which is a way of replacing yourself but of course requires all the Frankensteinian chores of education and training to furnish the clone’s mind with the same experiences as the original “authentic” person.

SF loves to play around with such notions – once the idea is articulated, then never mind the technical obstacles. Lets just leap forward to a world where it has been perfected and see what plots it helps create.

From our present day perspective, though, it is clear there will be many, many steps on the road to this kind of digital revival. So let me finish be mentioning one very interesting recent fiction which works with a partial, and seriously malfunctioning, version of digital re-creation.

 The young British novelist James Smythe’s The Machine features a traumatised war veteran who has his worst memories erased by the eponymous machine, and the gaps replaced with a narrative he ought to find it easier to live with.

Unfortunately, the machine erases his mind entirely, and the novel relates the efforts of his wife to rebuild it, with the aid of an illicitly acquired machine of her own. It is a pretty compelling story, as what she creates seems to take on a life of its own, and has some excellent twists I won’t spoil. The blurb describes it as “A Frankenstein tale for the 21st Century”. So it is. I think Mary Shelley would have loved it.

Thank you.

The whole day was immense fun and I enjoyed being able to revisit some ideas from a book on the Frankenstein myth I did in 1998 – it seems a long while ago now – with references to a novel that appeared in 2013. Thanks to Jason and Samara for having me.












Events: Manchester, Cardiff, Nottingham

Posted July 9, 2013 by jonturney
Categories: talks and events

A few talks coming up which touch on the future in various ways. Do say hello if you happen to hear any of them…

Tomorrow I’m the duller half (I think) of a duo of talks at Manchester Festival, preceding design futurist Melissa Sterry‘s take on future cities. We’re part of a mini-series helping launch Manchester (or Salford’s) Biospheric project – an urban farm in a reclaimed building. Apparently it is fully booked, so hope there’s time for some good discussion. Reinventing historic cities may be the most complex thing we need to think about over the next fifty years, which is why I’m mostly leaving it to other people. But I’m always intrigued to see what’s changed in this city since I was a carefree grad student there 30 – blimey, no nearer 35 – years ago.

At the end of the month I’m doing a free event for the new (secular) Sunday School series on Cardiff Bay, talking about science fiction, design and technology along the lines of last year’s paper for NESTA. It’s on July 28 at lunchtime. All welcome.

In between I’ll be at the Science in Public Conference in Nottingham – dipping into an academic conversation I used to be part of more regularly. There are panels on responsible innovation and science fiction where I’ll be making suitably futuristic contributions, possibly.

Then it all goes quiet again for a bit.

Imagining Technology – Science fiction and innovation.

Posted March 28, 2013 by jonturney
Categories: design fiction, science fiction, technology

Tags: , , , ,

My NESTA working paper on SF and tech is now published. I had a lot of fun doing it.

Thanks to all those who helped (see the acknowledgements), but especially to Cheryl Morgan, who knows far more about SF and the people who write it than I do.

You can download it from here.

There’s an interestingly complementary companion piece from the Sussex group who looked into the same question here.

If you’d just like to know where my review of all this ends up, here’s the conclusion…

…the stories embodied in technologies, or designs, and fiction form an intricate, evolving web. Efforts to pinpoint causes and effects are rarely convincing. They might not be especially useful even if they were. We are discussing the weaving of culture, and no individual case is likely to be repeatable. But there does seem to have been a gradual, general movement over time.

It can be roughly summarised.

Technology, and plans for technology, revolve around stories. These, minimally, say: we will make a thing that does this.

 Science fiction asks, if we made a thing like this, how might the world look? What effects might it have?

 Design fiction says: here is a thing we could make: what do you feel about a possible world that has such things in it?

These kinds of stories are not mutually exclusive. Each can influence the other. Technologists promoting their projects can adopt ideas from science fiction to say: the thing we will make will be like this. In film, they can sometimes insert the image of what they hope to make. People who want to discourage particular technological projects can of course do likewise. Design fiction is more like an open question. If the capacity to make things like this comes about, what would we like to do with it? Nor do any of the stories necessarily have the effects their authors hope for. But all three benefit from the illimitable flexibility of fiction. As Rudy Rucker put it, before design fiction was conceived: “The reason why fiction thought experiments are so powerful is that, in practice, it’s intractably difficult to visualize the effects of new technological developments. Only if you place the new tech into a fleshed-out fictional world and simulate the effects on reality can you get a clear image of what might happen.” Or, more briefly, when it comes to technology assessment, “inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis”.

And a concluding question about where one might take all this…

The collection of diverse items – texts, discussions, projects, artworks, events and videos – which can be gathered under the heading of design fiction also deserve more investigation. It is not easy to know what effect or impact they have had, individually or collectively. Have they influenced any subsequent real-world design projects or prototypes? What has been their public reach compared with other influences on public attitudes to technology, or other images of possible futures – including more conventional science fiction texts? Finally, what scope it there for making more use of design fiction, and who might support such efforts? There are interesting affinities emerging, for example, between design fiction and art/science/design projects intended to provoke discussion about synthetic biology – an area of technology which promises to make design a meaningful notion in the life science. For example, Alexander Ginsberg’s Irrational Genome Project is, in effect, a challenge to others to create design fictions drawing on the ambitions of synthetic biologists. It also points toward other, more participatory modes related to design fiction, such as biohacking

There seem to be an increasing number of routes to using our increased awareness of the importance of images of possible future technologies in shaping what actually gets developed. More research and thinking about the whole collection, gathered under the heading of design fiction, might help us see more clearly how they can be exploited to help selection and development of technologies which can be part of our preferred futures.

I hope some will read the whole thing. It’s a discussion paper, so any reactions are welcome – I think there’ll be some discussion on NESTA’s  blog, or you can  comment in the space below.

Science fiction and innovation – nearly there

Posted March 24, 2013 by jonturney
Categories: fiction, futures past

Tags: , ,


Seems a while since I trailed the project I did for NESTA on science fiction and innovation, but it is now about to be published.

I’ve commented on retro-futures here quite a bit. For this piece, I  assembled a little composite, to enliven the beginning of a long review paper. Here it is, as a taster for the whole (quite big) thing.

As you sip your perfect coffee, you scan the morning’s personalised news on your vidscreen. Finance: yields on your undersea city bonds look poor after the pressure seal scare on the prototype dome, but asteroid mining shares are up. Win some, lose some.

Your wrist phone chimes with a message from your spouse. Her business trip to review the Sahara forest project will finish early and she ought to make the noon hypersonic shuttle and be home by teatime. Maybe you can still make the premiere of that new zero-G dance show tonight.

Time to leave. You signal the table to resorb the scant remains of your nutritionally balanced breakfast. The kids couldn’t wait. They are already in the media room for the day’s first lesson – their artificially intelligent tutor-cum-playmate is conducting a virtual reality tour of the first Olympic Games, reconstructed from the latest time probe results. You don’t want to interrupt, so you record a farewell reminder to check their gear for the afternoon’s sub-aqua games at the local leisure park.

The autopilot banks your flying car over the scattered houses, course set for the city, and you see clouds breaking up as the neighbouring county’s early morning shower clears on schedule. Here, robot cultivators tirelessly tend the fields below. On the horizon the nuclear reactor that powers them all gleams in the sun…

And so it never quite came to pass. We slightly jaded, technology fatigued, 21st century citizens recognise the story I have just invented as a parody of the future as it used to appear. Some of the inventions that earlier writers conjured up really exist. Some don’t. Some they never imagined have also entered our lives. But everyday life is as gloriously imperfect as ever, and few expect that to change.

What does science fiction have to do with any of this?

My answer appears on Thursday, along with a second paper from a team at Sussex U answering the same question. I’ll put up a link then for the download.


Publishing futures…

Posted March 12, 2013 by jonturney
Categories: futures past, things not understood

Tags: , , , ,

My version of the future is receding into the past, as they all do – but the vagaries of contemporary publishing have made that happen a bit faster than I anticipated.

Yes, folks, Rough Guide to the Future is going out of print. (Shocking, I know.) There may still be a copy in your local bookstore, but you can no longer get the publisher to ship you one.

I mention this partly because I’m giving a talk tonight and the book is named in the blurb, so seems as well to record that it’s now harder to get hold of. Also because, there is a certain wry amusement in the author of a futures book being able to add the following. So acute are my powers of prediction that I also failed to foresee the additional news in the standard regretful email from the esteemed commissioning editor telling me the book was going away. Rough Guides Reference Division is also ceasing to be…  Some of their volumes do remain available but there will be no new titles (and no jobs there), as far as I know.

So…  my book now has a nice double distinction: it was shortlisted for a prize, and it broke the publisher,  or feels a bit like that.

It also leaves an annoyingly untidy situation for any prospective readers at this late date, which I share because it is a small example of where book publishing is at – that is, in a mess. The print rights (which I don’t really care about – update it? No thanks) revert to me now, I think. The eBook rights, maybe not. After all an eBook can’t go out of print… can it? And even if the rights did come to me, that wouldn’t include RG’s design work, or the images and diagrams, so all I would have would be a plain text. Some of that might be worth drawing on for new works, I suppose (feel free to ask), but the whole thing would be dull to swallow.

So rather overpriced eBook – which, stupidly, cost more than the paperback after Amazon’s print book discount – remains on offer from them, and from Rough Guides, and other sellers I guess although I haven’t checked. I doubt that they’ll actually sell any, but then keeping a web page up costs virtually nothing so they aren’t going to lose, either.

I do, as it happens, also have DRM-free PDF and ePub files of the actual book here. It goes without saying these are strictly for my own personal use…

Starting a futures discussion – some docs

Posted January 8, 2013 by jonturney
Categories: futures studies

Tags: , , , ,

I’m giving a talk to some masters students in London tomorrow and was asked to suggest something for them to read in advance.

I wasn’t quite sure where they were starting from, or where we might want to take the discussion in a single 90 minute session, so in the end I provided a selection. These are not samplings from the Dark Mountain, or cornucopian blatherings, more entries into some kind of conversation about how we think about the future, and why. Aside from that

The criteria were fairly simple arbitrary:

not by me

not too long


easily available

exemplifying different approaches/points of view

on my hard drive already

It occurs to me they might be of use to a few other people, so here is the list, with web links.

20 Ways the Future has Let Us Down

One of those, where’s my flying car? pieces…  LINK

A Primer on Futures Studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios  Dr Joseph Voros, Swinburne University of Technology LINK (pdf)

The Future of Humanity Nick Bostrom

Big picture/deep time thinking from Oxford LINK (pdf)


H. G. Wells – “The future is as fixed and determinate as the past”

(or: The Discovery of the Future) as printed in the New York Times, 1913 LINK (pdf)


The Future and How to Think About It.

(old Cabinet Office Paper – gives flavour of some government thinking in UK) LINK (pdf)


Outsights – 21 Drivers for the 21st Century

A flavour of independent consultancy in this area. LINK


Paul Saffo – Six Rules for Effective Forecasting

Harvard Business Review 2007  LINK


And I’ll add a couple of very recent documents which result from large scale, institutional foresight efforts from establishment global elite points of view –

The World Economic Forum – Global Risks 2013 LINK

US National Intelligence Council – Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds

(latest in a series dating back some years) LINK

Also very thought-provoking is this new essay in the American Historical Review on the conflicted roots of post WW2 futurology. LINK

Feel free to add others which might be better in the comments…

SF and innovation – what happened?

Posted December 11, 2012 by jonturney
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

Returning here after a pause, in case anyone wonders what happened to the promised piece for NESTA on SF and innovation.

As is the way of these things, some of the futures think pieces they commissioned (not mine – old journos do deadlines) took longer to produce than originally planned. So we are having a meeting to discuss them tomorrow, and think about what it all means.

Intriguingly, I learn that the SF and Innovation commission ended up doubled. That is, another contractor got some money to examine the same question. Neither of us, I think, knew the other (the other team in their case) was at work.

That means we both spent time reviewing the same literature, which may or may not be beneficial, but also (and better) that if our conclusions are similar they may gain force from independent verification. We may talk about that tomorrow as well.

The whole set of projects will be published, I believe, as NESTA working papers, but not until some time next year. All the folk who helped me do mine will be properly acknowledged then, but thanks to all now as well – and especially to Cheryl Morgan for advice on science fiction and authors.

Frau im Mond - ready for launch, unlike this report

Frau im Mond – ready for launch, unlike this report

Meantime, and in advance of the meeting, here is a 12 point version of the quite long (15,000 word) paper I’ve ended up with.

Science fiction and technological innovation –

1. Science fiction and innovation influence each other

(although that could just be ‘cos “everything influences everything else”)

2. Technology, at the design stage, is a kind of story-telling

(a point I’ve taken from David Nye, among others)

3. SF is a characteristic mode of story-telling of industrial society

(or “the dreamtime of industrial society – W Gibson)

4. This affinity promotes their mutual influence

5. SF’s treatment of technology has a history

(and that is a story itself)

6. Most (but not all) simple stories of SF inspiring, or even influencing technology fall apart on close examination

7. Past influence has been largely positive

(though not because the balance of depictions is positive – but cheerleading works better than doomsaying and awful warnings)

8. Mass exposure to SF has now moved into the cinema, where some depictions of technology have qualities which lend them particular influence

9. Contemporary SF authors neither predict nor, in the main, attempt to influence technology

(they said, when asked)

10. Nevertheless, a growing self-consciousness about SF and technologies mutual influences has arisen

(among media, critics, corporations, and all)

11. One of its most striking manifestations is design fiction

(which comes under various other names, but all are trying to open up a conversation about possible futures)

12. This approach might be developed to deepen relations between fiction and technology, and enrich public debate about technological futures.

If anyone wants to see the whole thing now in late draft, for comment or just for interest, or nab the references (the bibliography is quite long, too)  email me and I’ll let you have a not-for-distribution PDF.