Archive for the ‘futures past’ category

(Dis)embodied futures?

December 13, 2013

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.













Science fiction and innovation – nearly there

March 24, 2013


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…

March 12, 2013

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…

The dreams our stuff is made of – Science fiction and future technologies

April 10, 2012

I have a new, and somewhat futuristic project on the go


NESTA have asked for a review and reflection on the role of science fiction in technological innovation. It will be published in the early Autumn alongside a couple of reports on more, ahem, formal futurological methods. I’ll be blogging thoughts about this here as I go.

Now, though, a simple request for help. There’s obviously stuff I need to know about. I can think of lots of different areas to explore – and will of course be doing a (limited) literature review and compiling a bibliography in academic mode.

But there are too many disciplines relevant here for one person to cover. There is also, I suspect, a fair bit of grey literature – some in print and, perhaps, more on the web.

So a little crowdsourcing seems in order. I’d be very grateful for any pointers to relevant items – research, commentary, discussion, etc – which I should ponder. Assume I will revisit the histories of SF and technology, literature on innovation, and journals in (science fiction) literature, science and technology studies and design. But anything outside those areas which I might miss is of interest.

I am particularly interested in:

  • Robots – as a case study
  • Design fiction/interaction design/speculative design
  • Examples from non-Anglophone countries
  • Projects in which tech development organisations (public or private) have dallied with science fiction in various ways.
  • and, to ensure the project is as much fun as I intended when I pitched for it, exemplary fictions!

And the questions in NESTA’s original call were about:

  • The direct impact of science fiction on those undertaking technological development, and the extent to which it has influenced research, product design, or the ambition and direction of innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the demand for innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the social status of innovation
  • The creative processes and techniques that science fiction writers use to imagine and flesh out possible futures.

You might think, at first look, some of these will be easier to tackle than others. Me too…

If anything comes to mind in response to any of the above, do please take a moment to pass it on. If you use the comment space below, others can avoid repeating if they care to read through.


(working already – WordPress’s auto link search just gave me this…)

Styling the future

March 4, 2012

What does the future look like? Does it matter? A piece of book karma prompts an attempt to amplify a thought I was trying to air last week. Talking to an audience at UCL, including quite a few old friends, I mentioned an idea which has come up here, and in other talks, a few times – that the accumulation of old futures has interesting effects on the way we respond (if we do) to current future talk.

The accumulation is real, and takes various forms – there are quite a few coffee table books. But it is most often encountered, I reckon, in websites, often very nicely curated ones, which feature images and designs from past futures efforts – Worlds Fairs, magazines, comics and so on. As I said on the night, hardly any need to illustrate these. Do a google image search for retrofuture or palaeofuture and you’ll get thousands of them.

Next day I called in on my favourite London odds and ends bookshop, Judd Street Books (don’t look there, incidentally, it’s in Marchmont Street). More or less the first title I set eyes on on the front table was this.

It is a beautifully crafted graphic novel, only published in 2009, which I unaccountably missed when it came out. The narrative is a little didactic, but the imagery covers much of the history of decayed futurity, and comments on it perceptively. There’s a clever, and also nicely realised, interwoven narrative of a made-up comic book which enriches the author’s take on the feelings which were in play in all the episodes he depicts so well, from the New York World’s Fair in 1939 – which I talk about as well – to the final Apollo moon landing in 1975.

I won’t summarise it, as plenty of others have – here and here for example.

But what I like about it is that it takes such trouble to go beyond the images. The very interesting discussion after the talk moved a few times to talk about imagery and design like this and how they get used now. And it seemed to me, though I didn’t formulate the thought clearly at the time, that this is part of the problem. The images are so easy to come by that folks get caught up in talking about the look and style of the future.

I love looking at these pix, but I don’t actually care what the future looks like, or much about changing fashions in futuristic design. What matters is surely how the future might feel, what past futures tales tell us about that and, if we can fathom them, what the mentalities of times past made of their imagined futures.

This book makes a good stab at representing that, going beyond and reworking the images. It has affinities with David Gelernter’s splendid but quirky Lost World of the Fair, but is more accessible. It is well worth getting hold of as a discussion starter.

Incidentally, and back to images again, the notes to the other book point to a fascinating compilation of visitor shot cine of the World’s Fair, at

like this 

Death, where is thy sting?

December 17, 2010

When people suggest that the mood of the times is uncommonly pessimistic – as happens quite often – I tend to think of the depths of the cold war and the months and years before World War Two as the most obvious counter-examples. OK, there are real concerns now about climate change, food supply, biodiversity and WMDs, not to mention the economy. But a little reflection suggests there was more cause for immediate worry during the Cuban Missile Crisis, say – when it was reasonable to believe that civilisation was going to destroy itself within the next few days –  or in the longer period before the outbreak of war in 1939, when there was a pervasive sense of things moving inexorably toward a terrible, necessary conflict. Sample Louis MacNiece’s brilliant Autumn Journal for a sense of what a life lived in that mood was like.

A better example, though, might be the later Middle Ages, because people were not just in fear of apocalyptic times, they were living through them. The fourteenth century, in particular saw a truly dreadful combination of recurrent famines, the Black Death, and the Hundred Years War, a conflict marked by a shift toward wider population involvement in wars and higher mortality rates. In Europe, the net result was a massive die-off, accounting for around half the population.

The population loss is often put lower, but John Aberth’s compelling From the Brink of the Apocalypse argues convincingly for the higher figure. And that is just the average. In many places, it was higher – near total wipe-out. Only the remotest corners of Europe, such as Finland, escaped lightly.

Aberth’s book, first issued in 2000 but republished in a second edition in 2010, is interested in the cultural effects of all this mayhem and mortality. What did it produce? Well, eventually, the Renaissance. European society, by whatever means,  reconstituted itself, gained a new cultural and economic momentum, and invented the idea of progress. That all took another century and a half or so, but still seems remarkable when you read of the devastated towns, mass graves, incinerated villages, and dormant croplands of the great age of disaster which went before.

How did they manage it? The answer Aberth explores relates to a crucial difference between then and now. It might explain, not how our forebears created the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, but how they coped with the daily reminders of mass mortality. They believed in the afterlife. The culture, as he illustrates at length, was proccupied with death to an unusual degree – understandably so. The image of the times, as featured on the book’s cover, is Breughel’s Triumph of Death. But in art and much other commentary it was usually depicted as a necessary prelude to the life to come. That did not make it welcome, and the century majored in some of the more horrible ways to die, but did perhaps make it easier to bear.

This is a description, not a prescription. Aberth declares there is no possibility of going back to a widespread belief in the afterlife (even in the US). But it offers a connection with another, slimmer, volume I’ve been dipping into again. Robert Heilbroner’s admirably succinct Visions of the Future (1995) also charts the rise and then decline of the belief in progress. He ends with a suggestion that the twentieth century’s interest in futurology is basically a substitute for belief in the afterlife. It is, as he puts it, a “secular analgesic”.

The phrase comes in a passage worth quoting at length:

“It is to find some secular analgesic for what the theologian Paul Tillich called “existential anxiety” that people…  seek to foresee the future. At a primal level it is simply to assure ourselves that human life will go on; at a more rational level, to depict its contours and design as best we can; and at a level that stands in for religious faith, to express what hope we can for the life of humankind.”

Hmm, seem to have arrived at a Futurist thought for the day there, so I’ll stop.

Taking care of the basics…

November 23, 2010

The first review of the Rough Guide to the Future is a short in New Scientist. The heading “Futurology that’s tied to the present” gives a good sense of the reviewer’s take. He goes on:

As the author drily points out, an accident of branding has made for an apt title: no work about the future can hope to be anything more than a rough guide. Explaining why this should be so makes for a sprightly opening account of futurology’s past and present (but not, as it happens, its future).

The momentum wanes, however, through a succession of chapters on such over-familiar issues as population, climate, energy and food security. Turney has clearly done his homework and deftly uses quotes, facts and asides to enliven the text, but the result nonetheless smacks more of present-day preoccupations than horizon-scanning prescience.

Not much here will be new to dedicated students of the future. A more creative structure might have shown the material off to better advantage, and greater licence to speculate would have helped too. For a rough guide, this is a little too polished.

This is all fair enough, I reckon. I do (not surprisingly) think it misses the point slightly, though. The whole point of a Rough Guide – the brand and the general idea beyond that – is to take care of the basics as smoothly as possible, isn’t it? If you know them all already, and are, indeed, a dedicated student of the future, you probably don’t need to read it, certainly not all the way through. It might be rather more use to other people though. I hope so!