Imperica's pick of interesting, long-form articles on contemporary culture from around the Internet.
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Few authors have crafted more vividly realized future worlds than William Gibson. In timeless classics such as Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, he dreamed up environments filled with fantastical technology and innovative social arrangements. Those works are often held as seminal works of modern dystopian literature, but in his latest outing, Gibson explores the past, too. Along with co-author Michael St. John Smith and an array of artists, Gibson has created Archangel, a comic book published by IDW that follows a group of time travelers sent from an apocalyptic 2016 back to the smoking ruin of 1945 Berlin. Their mission is to avert world-ending catastrophe, though the contours of that catastrophe remain a mystery for much of the work. As part of Vulture’s Dark Futures week, we caught up with Gibson to talk about Archangel, but also about dystopian and apocalyptic literature in general.
Demographics are destiny. We grew up in the world and mind of the baby-boomers simply because there were so many of them. They were the biggest, easiest, most free-spending market the planet had ever known. What they wanted filled the shelves and what fills the shelves is our history. They wanted to dance so we had rock ‘n’ roll. They wanted to open their minds so we had LSD. They did not want to go to war so that was it for the draft. We will grow old in the world and mind of the millennials because there are even more of them. Because they don’t know what they want, the culture will be scrambled and the screens a never-ending scroll. They are not literally the children of the baby-boomers but might as well be—because here you have two vast generations, linking arms over our heads, akin in the certainty that what they want they will have, and that what they have is right and good.
The members of the in-between generation have moved through life squeezed fore and aft, with these tremendous populations pressing on either side, demanding we grow up and move away, or grow old and die—get out, delete your account, kill yourself. But it’s become clear to me that if this nation has any chance of survival, of carrying its traditions deep into the 21st century, it will in no small part depend on members of my generation, Generation X, the last Americans schooled in the old manner, the last Americans that know how to fold a newspaper, take a joke, and listen to a dirty story without losing their minds.
I went to the 2017 Blockstack Summit to try and get a feel for the current state of the cryptocurrency technology and market. Many of the people I follow in the cryptocurrency space were either attending or speaking, including Naval Ravikant, Nick Szabo and Balaji Srinivasan. It gave a good overall picture of current state of the technology, so I thought I’d publish my notes on a few of the panels here.
I also give my high level thoughts after the notes for where I think the technology is heading over the next few years.
It is no secret that we live in an era of vast and unprecedented technological advancement. We are inundated in computers of all sorts, smart phones, drones (both commercial and military), juiceros, a growing and inescapable surveillance presence, robotic radiosurgery systems, the list goes on and on. Some of this technology is miraculous, some of it is frivolous, some of it is downright scary. At times, it seems as though the conditions of the world as we know it are less than half a step away from the teeming circuitboard studded eco-systems of Cyberpunk fiction. The comparison has been made before, in this excellent Washington Post editorial, for example.
The backdrop of my favorite Cyberpunk works are commercialized wastelands; the walls built and buttressed by corporate power, floorboards laid by cyber crime and corporate espionage, furnished with wires, neon and advertising. With every passing day our world more and more resembles this speculative and cautionary setting.
However, Cyberpunk is more than a warning to me… it’s a road map. Cyberpunk, in many ways, leads us through the boundaries and pitfalls that it seems to predict. That’s not to say that Cyberpunk is a monolith, by any means. However, by examining the common narrative strands shared by different Cyberpunk works, themes and trajectories become all the more apparent and applicable to our lived experience.
Many readers will be familiar with blockchain as the underlying enabling technology developed for Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, provides this summary in his book on the Fourth Industrial Revolution: “In essence, the blockchain is a shared, programmable, cryptographically secure and therefore trusted ledger which no single user controls and which can be inspected by anyone.”
Blockchain has the potential to become a powerful disruptive force. A survey of 800 executives, featured in the same book, suggests 58 percent believe that up to 10 percent of global GDP will be stored using blockchain technology.
Blockchain technology may provide several important features that could be leveraged for use in the creative economy:
- Transactions are verified and approved by consensus among participants in the network, making fraud more difficult.
- The full chronology of events (for example, transactions) that take place are tracked, allowing anyone to trace or audit prior transactions.
- The technology operates on a distributed, rather than centralized, platform, with each participant having access to exactly the same ledger records, allowing participants to enter or leave at will and providing resilience against attacks.
The implications of such features reach far beyond blockchain’s original use in financial transactions. Any transaction, product life cycle, workflow, or supply chain could, in theory, use blockchains.
If there is one style of corporate branding that defines the 2010s, it is this: sans-serif lettering, neatly presented in black, white, and ultra-flat colors. Cobalt, for example. Its goal is noise reduction, accomplished by banishing gradients, funky fonts, and drop shadows, and by relegating all-caps to little “BUY” buttons. The abundance of white space around words, photos, and playful doodles exudes a friendly calm. You’ll find the information you need in seconds, and what a pleasing few seconds they will be.
Sans-serif typefaces have been in circulation since at least the 18th century. (Serifs are the little lines that decorate the ends of letters in fonts like the one you’re reading right now. Sans serifs omit them.) Minimalist design in marketing isn’t new either, but this genre of branding has become especially, almost predictably, concentrated among venture-backed lifestyle startups like Outdoor Voices, Bonobos, Frank And Oak, Lyst, AYR, Reformation, Glossier, Allbirds, and Thinx. Some use it for nearly everything on their websites but the logo, and some use it for nearly everything, including the logo.
Artificial Intelligence is colossally hyped these days, but the dirty little secret is that it still has a long, long way to go. Sure, A.I. systems have mastered an array of games, from chess and Go to “Jeopardy” and poker, but the technology continues to struggle in the real world. Robots fall over while opening doors, prototype driverless cars frequently need human intervention, and nobody has yet designed a machine that can read reliably at the level of a sixth grader, let alone a college student. Computers that can educate themselves — a mark of true intelligence — remain a dream.
Jettzen Shea has a mop of pale blond hair and a voice that rings out like a little bell as he chimes in from the middle rows of Claremont McKenna College’s Pickford Auditorium. “I’m on Twitter,” he says. He’s just shy of age 10, and his claim to fame is a brief part on the TV show Chicago Fire. His seat looks as though it might swallow him up at any second. “When I go on a show or movie, my mom — well of course after the movie airs, otherwise you're gonna get in trouble — she posts a picture of the cover of the movie or the show.”
Next to him, another boy pipes up. “I use [social media] for every time I'm on my way to an audition. I start posting stuff on social media and Twitter, and then right after I make a YouTube video.”
These two young social prodigies aren’t alone. Around the room, kids are volunteering their favorites kinds of social media. YouTube and Snapchat are big, but Instagram is bigger. One girl proclaims that she is “sooo over Facebook” and a few others agree. On the auditorium stage, Michael Buckley is diligently taking mental notes. He paces and nods. He quips in response to each child’s answers and offers fatherly advice: don’t get tattoos of the YouTube play button like he did. Make good choices on Snapchat. And, as the conversation takes a more earnest tone, he sagely tells the group that you get back what you put in.
South Park turns 20 years old this summer, meaning that if those foulmouthed, crudely fashioned 8-year-olds that were first introduced on August 13, 1997 followed the rules of linear time, they’d all be adults farting down the barrel of 30. Similarly, there’s now an entire generation of people—spanning high-schoolers to middle-aged people who remember watching its early seasons in college, and who can’t believe they’re reading/writing 20-year retrospectives on it now—who were actually raised on South Park.
The show celebrated this existential crisis-inducing fact last year with a tongue-in-cheek ad, depicting South Park as a sort of benevolent guarantor keeping reliable watch over a girl from infancy until her first trip to college. It was a typically self-effacing joke, but it’s true: Our world is now filled with people for whom South Park has always been there, a cultural influence that, in some cases, is completely foundational to their point of view. The ad doesn’t end with the girl logging onto Twitter to complain that social justice warriors are ruining the world, but otherwise, spot on.
In 2005, British student Alex Tew had a million-dollar idea. He launched www.MillionDollarHomepage.com, a website that presented initial visitors with nothing but a 1000×1000 canvas of blank pixels. At the cost of $1/pixel, visitors could permanently claim 10×10 blocks of pixels and populate them however they’d like. Pixel blocks could also be embedded with URLs and tooltip text of the buyer’s choosing.
The site took off, raising a total of $1,037,100 (the last 1,000 pixels were auctioned off for $38,100). Its customers and content demonstrate a massive range of variation, from individuals bragging about their disposable income to payday loan companies and media promoters. Some purchased minimal 10×10 blocks, while others strung together thousands of pixels to create detailed graphics. The biggest graphic on the page, a chain of pixel blocks purchased by a seemingly defunct domain called “pixellance.com”, contains $10,800 worth of pixels.
Everyone’s done it. Well, at least lots of people have, given 70 million customers visit Starbucks each week.
You’ve gone to Starbucks, given the barista your order and name, waited patiently for your drink and then received a surprise at the counter. “That’s not how you spell my name!”
The entitled monster inside you might be tempted to complain. You decide not to be that monster.
Instead, like thousands of others, you take your seat by the window, position your sunglasses so the sun glints magically just below the Ray Ban sticker and snap the obligatory Starbucks cup shot, captioning it “Lol why can’t @Starbucks ever spell my name right”. Cue a couple of consolatory likes. Then move on with your deadpan scroll through other people’s lives.
The Brandwatch React team, who are feeling a little existential before their morning coffee today, decided to take a look at this phenomenon.
How much free advertising has Starbucks got from the incorrect (and correct) spelling of their baristas?
So far, artificial intelligence has not gone beyond the first level – ANI. This technology is embedded everywhere, from the navigation system on your smartphone, to the spam-filter on your email account.
Compared to previous inventions, ANI has evolved, and transformed our lives, at an unprecedented rate. In science speak, this is the law of accelerating returns. Progress made during a set duration of time (say 100 years) accelerates over time (from one century to the next). In everyday terms, it’s why printed maps now seem about as helpful as a telegram.
Despite this progress, the second level – AGI – has not yet emerged. It would require not only an increase in computing power, but also a boost in machines’ intelligence. In other words, machines would need to be able to learn.