Thursday, 19 May 2011

Community Without Propinquity?

Remember all those breathless predictions about how the aerotropolis (such as South Korea's New Songdo) will become the dominant organizing principle of urban living?:

"There will never be enough time in the day, but space is fungible; it can be overcome with speed. Karl Marx called it the “annihilation of space by time. Distance is less of an obstacle to daily life than it is a resriction on our ability to get things done, which we can measure by the time and effort involved in commuting from Point A to Point B. The sociologist Melvin Webber dubbed this idea “the elastic mile,” because our perception of just how far a mile is shrinks as we move faster, leading Amos Hawley to note that we tend to live our lives within a sixty minute radius from home. While that once meant a life maybe six miles wide,today it means a commute between Barcelona and London. And e-mail bound for customer service or colleagues in India is returned instantly".

From there, it is only a few short steps to J.G. Ballard's claim that "the airport will be the true city of the 21st century", which some might like to supplement with Virilio quotations. However, I'm more inclined to the view that much of this is hyperbole. The problem with a lot of futurists then, it seems, is that they have scant regard for human factors, including, as Rowan Moore's critical review points out,

"...the fear of planes falling on your head, or attachment to a place, or political manoeuvring, or the persistence of non-aeronautic networks, counteract that other human factor, the desire for eye-contact, which seems to drive the immense machinery of air travel".

As I've said in previous posts, another problem is that futurists are often funded by private consultancy firms eager to push their agendas onto the public. Keep this in mind next time you hear someone switch from extolling the virtues of the aerotropolis to an explanation of how universal replicators will eliminate food shortages, classism, and world poverty. As for biotech and nanotech, we are led to believe they will cause speciesism to disappear because we will be able to grow fur on our bodies. Similar claims have been made about how racism will become a thing of the past when we can change our skin colour at will, as supposedly will sexism and homophobia, once we have all become hermaphrodites.

Everyone knows or can easily guess what effect transhumanists think these technologies will have on ageism, so I won't go over that well-worn ground. So here's another, even more bizarre example instead. There are people such as David Levy who have naively suggested that the availability of artificial companions will relieve the suffering of millions of lonely people who cannot compete on the marriage/relationships market. This raises an obvious question: do they honestly believe, aside from the dubious sexual politics their position entails (as it seems to be predominantly males who are interested in this), that the purchase and maintenance of such a companion will enable them to escape from the market criteria that contributed to their dropping out of the "organic" relationships market in the first place? I remember watching a documentary on this subculture in which one guy attempted to justify his obsession with sexbots by saying, "they can't leave you because you do not have enough money". As well as acquainting himself with feminism, I recommend that he and those of a similar ilk take another look at Blade Runner's Tyrell Corporation for an instructive account of how and why we can expect cold, hard cash to remain a central determinant of relationships- irrespective of whether they are synthetic or human. If anything, all the availability of synthetic companions would mean, I suspect, for the average wage slave at least (i.e. most people), is sexual experiences that are only affordable on an episodic basis, as per the services that have been offered by ("organic", read: human) sex workers since time immemorial. Again, Blade Runner offers a more plausible glimpse of what the future is likely to hold in this respect, in the form of the character Pris (described in the film as "your basic pleasure model").

Things just aren't as simple then as, "can't find a friend? Well, go ahead and (literally!) make one". As the film also makes clear, once synthetics develop sentience, it is reasonable to expect them to demand more reciprocal relationships. You can already find some examples of where this might be leading. Just google "davecat" and then savor the irony of a self-proclaimed "sythetiks advocate" and sex-doll owner having to defend himself against historical comparisons with slave owners (davecat himself is African American). Remember that it was a slave revolt in Blade Runner, notwithstanding the fact that the replicants were all white, which brought them to Earth. Other than prostitutes then, the only means left for future Davecats to avoid negotiating intimacy on a more equitable basis would be to settle for cheaper, non-sentient alternatives, which have already been around for a long time. But it is hard to believe these would be acceptable either, given the frequent complaints about the lack of versimulitude associated with blow-up dolls and the like. 

I've said too much here about this prurient topic--partly prompted by the fact that a couple of earlier postings on RealDolls continue to draw the most web traffic to this site and I'd like to dissuade any return visits by criticising the folly of this pastime-- so to avoid losing sight of the bigger picture, I'll try to sum things up with this salutary thought: any decent stakeholder driven society (as opposed to a shareholder driven society) has sufficient grounds for questioning the wisdom of investing in these dreams. One cannot opt out of propinquity simply by investing more in technoscience. And why would we want to do that anyway? Afterall, it appears highly unlikely that there could ever be universal access to such benefits (ahem!) because the state would surely have great difficulty footing the research and development bills. Corporations will therefore do their utmost to patent their discoveries to prevent cheaper generic alternatives from competing with their products.Like I said, the interests of shareholders are always their first priority.

Well, you can plainly see I'm sceptical about what the technophiles have to offer. But I'm no Luddite either. I'll keep an eye on this Wikipedia timeline to see how things pan out, and will fire the odd critical salvo into cyberspace whenever I feel the situation demands it:

List of future events (structured by topic)

Artificial intelligence and robotics

  • Robots capable of manual labour tasks--
    • 2015–2020 – every South Korean household will have a robot and many European, The Ministry of Information and Communication (South Korea), 2007[2]
    • 2018 – robots will routinely carry out surgery, South Korea government 2007[2]
    • 2022 – intelligent robots that sense their environment, make decisions, and learn are used in 30% of households and organizations – TechCast[3]
    • 2030 – robots capable of performing at human level at most manual jobs Marshall Brain[4]
    • 2034 – robots (home automation systems) performing most household tasks, Helen Greiner, Chairman of iRobot, 2004[5]
  • Military robots
    • 2015 – one third of US fighting strength will be composed of robots – US Department of Defense, 2006[6]
    • 2035 – first completely autonomous robot soldiers in operation – US Department of Defense, 2006[6]

[edit] Biology and medicine

[edit] Communications

[edit] Computing

[edit] Culture and leisure

  • Entertainment channels
    • 2010 – 30% by value of U.S. music, movies, games, and other entertainment is sold online – TechCast[3]
  • Virtual reality
  • Sport
    • 2050 – a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots can win against the human world soccer champion team – RoboCup, 1997[23]

[edit] Demographics

[edit] Energy

  • Peak oil – global oil production peaks
  • Other energy milestones
    • 2020 – U.S. carbon emission market exceeds $1 trillion – New Carbon Finance[31]
    • 2023 – alternatives to carbon-based fuels provide 30% of all energy used worldwide – TechCast[3]

[edit] Environment

[edit] Nanotechnology

[edit] Politics and economics

[edit] Transportation

[edit] Space

Top 12 areas for innovation through 2025

This list is part of research and consulting firm Social Technologies technology foresight project, published as an press release in 2007.[53]
  • Personalized medicine
    • creation of an individual’s genome map for a retail price of less than $1,000
    • correlation of specific genes and proteins with specific cancers, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes, which will allow both ** physicians and patients to anticipate, plan for, and mitigate, if not cure, DNA-based health challenges development of pharmaceuticals that treat gene-based diseases, replacing surgeries and chemotherapy
  • Distributed energy
    • advanced electric storage devices and batteries at all scales
    • new power systems with source-switching flexibility
  • Pervasive computing
    • very simple and inexpensive computing devices with integrated wireless telephone and Internet capabilities (the worldwide $100 computer)
    • the Semantic Web, enabled by Web data that automatically self-organizes based on its content, allowing search tools or software agents to identify the actual relevance of Web pages—not just find keywords on them
    • intelligent interfaces, in some cases enabled by virtual reality
  • Nanomaterials
    • the function of nanomaterials will move from “passive” to “active” with the integration of nanoscale valves, switches, pumps, motors, and other components.
  • Biomarkers for health
    • individualized, private, and self-administered diagnostics for multiple physical parameters such as blood sugar, urine, C-reactive proteins, HDL, and LDL, as well as home diagnostic kits that detect early signs of diabetes, heart disease, and types of cancers
    • personalized exercise equipment and regimens that deliver customized benefits (for weight control, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc.)
    • advanced CAT scans, MRIs, and brain scans to identify disorders earlier and more accurately at less cost
  • Biofuels
    • high-energy (as measured in British thermal units, or Btu) blends of gasoline and diesel with biofuels (beyond the ethanol blends known today)
    • biomass production of a methanol that can be used as a fuel for fuel cells
    • new discoveries in plant genetics and biotechnologies specifically for energy content
  • Advanced manufacturing
    • advanced computer-aided design and control
    • multiple variable and inexpensive sensors linked with computers
    • expert systems and advanced pattern-recognition software for very tight quality control
  • Universal water
    • ultra-fine filters (probably from nanotechnology)
    • new energy sources for desalination and purification, including hybrid systems that combine conventional and alternative power—especially solar power
    • smart water-use technologies for agriculture and industry
  • Carbon management
    • effective “measure, monitor, and verify” systems
    • affordable and effective carbon capture and storage technologies and systems for coal-burning power plants
    • low to zero emission controls for transportation
  • Engineered agriculture
    • identification of specific genomes for desired growing and use qualities
    • crop-produced pharmaceuticals and chemical feedstocks
    • crops designed specifically for energy content and conversion
  • Security and tracking
    • completely autonomous security-camera systems with algorithms able to correctly interpret and identify all manner of human behavior
    • multiple integrated sensors (including remote sensing)
    • radio frequency (RF) tags for people and valuables
  • Advanced transportation
    • organized and coordinated personal transportation through wireless computer networks, information systems, and Internet access
    • onboard sensors and computers for smart vehicles

No comments: