Cyberpunk is dead ⊗ On serendipity ⊗ The return of the night train ⊗ Imagine a future of distributed coops ⊗ What is a weird internet career? — No.104

This week → Cyberpunk is dead ⊗ On serendipity ⊗ The return of the night train ⊗ Imagine a future of distributed cooperatives ⊗ What is a weird internet career?

A year ago → The Digital Maginot Line.

If you’ve been wondering what the paid membership Dispatches look like, after a few more issues have been sent I’ll probably unlock the first couple so you can get a better idea. In the mean time, the topics so far were: “Design,” “Ideas & tools from my process,” and “Maintenance.” Peter Bihr, a friend and long time supporter, had some kind words to say in the latest issue of his own excellent newsletter, have a read for a quote from Maintenance, and some of his own notes.


Cyberpunk is Dead

I really enjoyed this piece by John Semley for the Baffler until just about the last …150 words. Cyberpunk is dead because it has become a parody of itself, focusing on the same foundational vision of “the future,” having not really re-invented itself. Semley does a great recap of the genre’s authors and key titles, showing us how it infused its mythology in the tech created in the last few decades until now, when “cyberpunks have become the corporate overlords, making the transition from the Lo-Teks to Pharmakom, from Kuato to Cohaagen. In the process, the genre and all its aspirations have been reduced to so much dead meat.” The author believes (and I agree) that there needs to be a reinvention of the genre but that’s where the last 150 words come in; his “solution” is underwhelming. Still, if you ever loved this genre, it’s worth a read.

Gibson’s intense, earthy descriptions of these body modifications cue the reader into the fundamental appeal of Neuromancer’s matrix, in which the body itself becomes utterly immaterial. Authors from Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) to Ernest Cline (Ready Player One, which is like a dorkier Snow Crash, if such a thing is conceivable), further developed this idea of what theorist Fredric Jameson called “a whole parallel universe of the nonmaterial.” […]

The idea of the cybernetic body as a metaphor for the politicized human body was theorized in 1985, cyberpunk’s early days, by philosopher and biologist Donna Haraway. Dense and wildly eclectic, by turns exciting and exasperating, Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” is situated as an ironic myth, designed to smash existing oppositions between science and nature, mind and body. […]

Cyborgs and cyberpunk are connected in their resistance to an old order, be it political and economic (as in Neuromancer, Johnny Mnemonic, etc.) or metaphysical (as in Haraway). The cyborg and the cyberpunk both dream of new futures, new social relationships, new bodies, and whole new categories of conceptions and ways of being. […]

[T]he realization of many technologies envisioned by cyberpunk—including the whole concept of the internet, which now operates not as an escapist complement to reality, but an essential part of its fabric, like water or heat—has occurred not because of scrappy misfits and high-tech lowlifes tinkering in dingy basements, but because of gargantuan corporate entities. […]

[A] present where the liberating possibilities of technology have been turned inside-out; where hackers become CEOs whose platforms bespoil democracy; where automation offers not the promise of increased wealth and leisure time, but joblessness, desperation, and the wholesale redundancy of the human species; where the shared hallucination of the virtual feels less than consensual.

On serendipity

For the last few months I’ve been using the word “eclectic” when I’ve had to describe this newsletter somewhere or other. I think the general mix of topics is proof enough, but this article is probably an especially good example. There’s no great insight or mind blowing conclusion, it’s simply a number of excerpts from a written “decades-long conversation between friends about books, photography and life, exploring what it is to know, to look, to see.” I liked their idea of formalizing a years-long serendipitous series of conversations as a more purposeful, written (and daily!) one with a fixed duration, and I liked a good chunk of what they shared (even if the tone is a bit affected).

I do wake up and find, nearly always, that something has germinated in the night. I have the direction of that day’s contribution. I can lie there and muse on it, moving ideas around to find the best sequence. Soon enough I start getting phrases, things I feel I should quickly note down before I lose them. Then it’s just a matter of getting myself into my chair. […]

[J]ust make literal something we all already know about reading, that it’s never straightforward, never a linear march from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, page to page, chapter to chapter? No, there’s always a large measure of serendipity in the mix. Where are you reading? When? What time of day, or night? Who is with you? What are you drinking? Most importantly, what are you thinking, what are you going through? Why are you reading? […]

But even before the digital, long before, I knew that most of my reading was unstable. The beam of focus was moving all over – glancing ahead, winding back, rereading passages, etc. It’s worse now. Staying the course – taking in one sentence after another, from page one to the end – that’s the welcome anomaly, and when it happens I want to cry out some variant of ‘Look Ma, no hands!’

The return of the night train

I like this very embryonic return to night trains, in part because I like trains, in part for the role it can play in decarbonizing, but also in the context of “slack” as described in this interview with Vaclav Smil which I’ve linked to before. On the topic of degrowth he said this: “We could halve our energy and material consumption and this would put us back around the level of the 1960s. We could cut down without losing anything important. … Not much is going to happen to their lives. People don’t realise how much slack in the system we have.” Night trains are an excellent example of this. Just stepping back from privatisation, toning down the personal search for efficiency which encourages flying, and using more night train wouldn’t adversely affect anything, wouldn’t change your lifestyle much (maybe for the better actually!), and yet that could significantly cut carbon emissions.

In 2014, Deutsche Bahn ended its City Night Line routes that connected Paris to Berlin and the rest of Germany; in 2016, France dismantled its network of night trains inside and outside its borders; and in 2013, and Spain halted its Elipsos route between Paris and Barcelona and Madrid. And in Italy, sleeper train services were being reduced. […]

He points to Swedish services, where the government cut prices and actually bothered to advertise services, and ticket sales climbed by 65 per cent. Invest in a service and market it well, and passengers will buy tickets; run poorly maintained trains at high prices, and no-one will – meaning you can point to poor revenue when you withdraw services. “French railways decided they’re not going to work, so they don’t work,” he says. […]

”If you read the reports [that saw the services removed] you see that the CO2 emission costs were forgotten.” If the real financial and environmental costs were considered, he argues, the night trains never would have been cut in the first place.

Imagine a Future of Distributed Cooperatives, or DisCOs

On reading this, my initial reaction was “I love this idea!” The article is an introductory post by David Bollier, presenting the new report and manifesto for DisCOs: ”A P2P/Commons, cooperative and Feminist Economic alternative to Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (or DAOs).” After browsing through the report, my reaction is rather “this is so intriguing!” Part of the futures (and presents) of work will be this kind of distributed collaboration, and I definitely see coops as a resurgent way of organizing groups. Are they trying to tie together too many ideas here? Perhaps. Do they really need a blockchainy stack? Unsure. So I’m sharing it here because I love what they are saying, even though I’m unsure it will pan out, and it’s certainly one example of potential structures / groupings we’ll be seing more of.

DisCOs, by contrast, start from a different set of premises about humanity. They regard we humans as a cooperative species whose members need and want to engage with others, personally. Earned trust among people and open collaboration can then achieve some remarkable things. That’s the essential goal of DisCOs, which consist of a set of organizational tools and practices for people who want to work together in a cooperative, commons-oriented, and feminist economics form. […]

1. Geared toward positive outcomes in key areas (such as social and environmental priorities) 2. Multi-constituent 3. Active creators of commons 4. Transnational 5. Centered on care work 6. Re-imagining the origin and flow of value 7. Primed for federation.

Also → Worker-Owned Apps to Fix the Gig Economy’s Exploitation.

What is a weird internet career?

Quick read I just had to include. This first post in a series is an excellent description of how I’ve been operating for years, and a framing I think many readers will also resonate with. These types of careers are also good candidates for aggregating around potential DisCOs as above.

Weird Internet Careers are weird because there is no one else who does exactly what they do. They’re internet because they rely on the internet as a cornerstone. […]

The cornerstone of a Weird Internet Career is that you a) make a thing on the internet that people value and b) provide a way to convert that value into money. (If you have the first but not the second, it’s not a career, at least not yet.

Miscellany

  • ☀️ 🏗 This could be huge. So far there aren’t any real alternative ways of powering these industries. Secretive energy startup achieves solar breakthrough. “The breakthrough means that, for the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes. In other words, carbon-free sunlight can replace fossil fuels in a heavy carbon-emitting corner of the economy that has been untouched by the clean energy revolution.” On the same topic: Cement has a carbon problem. Here are some concrete solutions, and the previously featured Flash Forward episode, The Cement Ban.
  • Charlie Stross’ Sucker bet (a thought experiment) is interesting. You’re worth $100Bn. With the climate crisis, tensions generated by late-stage capitalism, and rampant nationalist populism, what is your optimum survival strategy? 575 comments so far, from the dumb to the interesting (I’ve only read a few). From his own answer lower down: “If we could shift everyone to a vegan but meat-equivalent diet within a couple of decades — much like switching to electric vehicles in the same time frame — we’d be in a much better place to feed everyone, both the population overshoot up to 11 billion mouths, and with environmental degradation.”
  • 👻 🚢 🇨🇳 Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai. “Now, new research and previously unseen data show that the Manukai, and thousands of other vessels in Shanghai over the last year, are falling victim to a mysterious new weapon that is able to spoof GPS systems in a way never seen before.”
  • 🤮 The messy legal scrap to bring celebrities back from the dead. “[N]ewly-formed IP licensing firm Worldwide XR announced that it holds the rights to more than 400 dead celebrities, actors, historical figures, musicians and sportspeople. The lid of Pandora’s box has flung wide open, and we could be about to see a whole glut of dead celebrities reappearing on our screens.”
  • 🌱 What America Lost When It Lost the Bison. “Their actions change the landscape. In areas where bison graze, plants contain 50 to 90 percent more nutrients by the end of the summer. This not only provides extra nourishment for other grazers, but prolongs the growing season of the plants themselves. And by trimming back the plant cover in one year, bison allow more sunlight to fall on the next year’s greenery, accelerating its growth.”
  • 🧮 Major Quantum Computing Advance Made Obsolete by Teenager. “For quantum computing, Tang’s result is a setback. Or not. Tang has eliminated one of the clearest, best examples of a quantum advantage. At the same time, Tang’s paper is further evidence of the fruitful interplay between the study of quantum and classical algorithms.” (2018)
  • 📚 🎬 👾 Lists: Best of the 2010s Decade. Lots of books, movies, and games so far but a growing breadth of topics.

Header image: René Magritte, Le banquet (1957).