William Gibson keeps his scifi real ⊗ A persistence of magical thinking? ⊗ Mediating consent ⊗ The Internet can learn from the printing press — No.108

This week → How William Gibson keeps his science fiction real ⊗ A persistence of magical thinking? ⊗ Mediating consent ⊗ What the Internet can learn from the printing press

A year ago → When Automation Bites Back – Near Future Laboratory.

How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real

This interview with William Gibson has already been very widely circulated and is almost a month old but it was by far my favorite read over the holidays so it has to be in here. It’s a great piece to discover Gibson, or to learn more about his life and career, but I picked the quotes below with an eye to observing the world, forecasting, and some things to ponder around collage and curation.

Some speculative writers are architects: they build orderly worlds. But Gibson has a collagist’s mind. He has depicted himself as “burrowing from surface to previously unconnected surface.” His language connects contemporary jargon, with its tactical-technological inflections, to modern states of anxiety and desire. […]

Often, at the center of the story, there’s a Gibson-like figure—an orphaned collagist of actual or digital bits. […]

Checking his Vancouver bank balance from an A.T.M. in Los Angeles struck him suddenly as spooky. It didn’t matter where you were in the landscape; you were in the same place in the datascape. It was as though cyberspace were turning inside out, or “everting”—consuming the world that had once surrounded it. […]

A physical object was also a search term: an espresso wasn’t just an espresso; it was also Web pages about crema, fair trade, roasting techniques, varieties of beans. […]

For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient “now” to stand on. We have no futures because our present is too volatile. . . . We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.

A Persistence of Magical Thinking?

Nicolas Nova shares some of the observations he’s been making around magical thinking and superstition in the use of technology. From the patron saint of transmissions, to ghosts of Dropbox, and automatic door myths. Then on to Jobs, Ive, Arthur C. Clarke, and a form of consumerist seduction.

These examples highlight the extent to which the behavior of technological objects is opaque and mysterious, requiring users to build their own assumptions about their mechanisms and operation. This explains why, for some people, the automatic door seems to “have a mind of its own,” or why someone might raise their hand hoping the gesture will strengthen their cell phone signal. […]

[T]he intentional use of the term “magic” by digital organizations is also an important phenomenon, reflecting how technological illiteracy is skilfully maintained, with advertisers and marketing professionals leveraging their systems’ opacity to seduce would-be users. […]

[“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” was] Originally a statement about the extraordinary, mythical quality of many technological objects, particularly in fiction, its apparent ubiquity in talks and design publications raises the possibility of the claim having become an objective in itself.

Mediating Consent

Renee DiResta on our current state of un-shared reality, on the unprecedented tensions around building consensus and preserving harmony. How can we find ways to achieve consensus or how can we find ways to “preserve harmony within a pluralist dissensus?” The piece ends up being more of a recap of the evolution from old media to today’s faction-rich media landscape and tribal realities than an opening towards new ways of mediating consent, but it’s a useful look at the landscape and framing of the problems.

This portends a societal transformation: our information ecosystem no longer assists us in reaching consensus. In fact, it structurally discourages it, and instead facilitates a dissensus of bespoke pseudo-realities. […]

Today, there is no institution with the legitimacy capable of bridging these gaps and restoring our capacity for achieving consensus, and neither are there credible technological means with which to create and preserve harmony within a pluralist dissensus. […]

Anyone — not just the powerful media companies of old — can now create pseudo-events. Within some of the echo chambers of the internet this happens with such intensity and regularity that it creates what might best be termed a full-on pseudo-reality: an unending stream of fabrications, truthiness, and distraction, filtered to reinforce and strengthen the beliefs of the members. […]

Can we redesign or create an information ecosystem that engenders sufficient consensus for governance functions? If not, how do we transition to a non-toxic form of dissensus that can sustain governance at least as well as older processes of manufacturing consent, for all their faults, did? […]

The path forward requires systems to facilitate mediating, not manufacturing, consent. We need a hybrid form of consensus that is resistant to the institutional corruption of top-down control, and welcomes pluralism, but is also hardened against bottom-up gaming of social infrastructure by malign actors.

What the Internet Can Learn From the Printing Press

Cullen Murphy at The Atlantic looks back to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s (historian of the printed word) study of Gutenberg to make a parallel with the internet and tries to give us a better grasp of just “how unforeseeable (and never-ending) the ‘unforeseeable’ really is.”

Venice, with its dense cluster of print shops, played the role of Silicon Valley. The printing press would soon upend the social order in ways that no one had anticipated and that few today give much thought to. […]

Her larger point is that the world was never the same again. As she explained to me, we no longer register the impact of the printing press because we have no easy way to retrieve the ambient sensation of “before.” […]

The printing press transformed religion, science, politics; it put information, misinformation, and power in the hands of more people than ever before; it created a celebrity culture as poets and polemicists vied for fame; and it loosened the restraints of authority and hierarchy, setting groups against one another. This shattered the status quo in ways that proved liberating but also lethal: If the printing press deserves some of the credit for democracy and the Enlightenment, it also deserves some of the blame for chaos and slaughter. […]

Dewar made a crucial distinction: between technologies, such as knives and microwave ovens, whose intended consequences far outweigh the un­intended ones, and tech­nologies, such as cars and air-conditioning, whose unintended consequences dwarf the intended ones. The study’s main message was that the internet, which originated as a form of military communication, was technology of the second kind. Its consequences would be “dominated” by the unforeseeable and the uncontrollable.


Header image: Stamps, Scientific Charts, and Hand-Drawn Maps Occupy Every Inch of Travel Notebooks by José Naranja.