A few things are certain: we have not always existed; we will not always exist; we exist right now. Whatever nothingness truly…

“A few things are certain: we have not always existed; we will not always exist; we exist right now. Whatever nothingness truly is, we are all something right now. And whatever exists right now, it did, at some level, come from nothing, no matter how you define nothing. And as best as we understand the Universe, it will return to a state approaching an infinite, physical nothingness as well. But as to just what the nature of the ultimate “nothingness” truly is? That’s still, perhaps, the secret we’re all fundamentally searching for.”

Ethan Siegel

The Biggest Building Boom in History

Medium, climate change, green economy, crisis, opportunity, economics, worldchanging, Alex Steffen

I’ve written and given a lot of talks on how building a sustainably prosperous global economy is an opportunity — a set of investments that will leave us better off, even while we avoid the worst of the planetary crisis we face. It’s only now becoming clear what the scale of that opportunity is. It is only now easy to see that a giant building boom is what successful climate action looks like. The Guardian reported last week on a new study saying that over the next 15 years, to meet our climate goals, we’ll need to shift $90 trillion worth of new infrastructure spending to low- or zero-carbon models

via https://medium.com/@AlexSteffen/the-biggest-building-boom-in-history–7684cffc5d3e

Do we need new utopias?

Medium, utopias, utopia, dystopia, futures, visionary adaptation, Johannes Kleske

This question has been on my mind for over a year now. In a time that seems to become more dystopian each day, it might be rather normal to yearn for new positive visions. I’m also not very fond of the utopian visions of Silicon Valley’s libertarians (Musk, Brin & Page, Zuckerberg, Kurzweil, etc.). Furthermore, ten years of Merkel here in Germany might play a role. So I’ve been investigating the topic of utopia, read books (fiction and non-fiction), essays, articles, etc. It has been quite easy because of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, last year. But I’m still finding it hard to answer the question if utopias are what we need right now, and if yes, what kind of utopias. Because the track record of past utopias is not exactly stellar.

via https://medium.com/@jkleske/do-we-need-new-utopias–14af5fab6a69

A Sequence of Spankingly Bad Ideas

Medium, age verification, ORG, digital economy, surveillance, security, privacy, bad ideas, Alec Muffett

Last Thursday, with friends and colleagues from Open Rights Group, I spent a few hours at the Adult Provider Network’s Age Verification Demonstration (“the demo”) to watch demonstrations of technologies which attempt to fulfil Age Verification requirements for access to online porn in the UK. Specifically: Age Verification (“AV”) is a requirement of part 3 of the Digital Economy Bill that seeks to “prevent access by persons under the age of 18” to “pornographic material available on the internet on a commercial basis”. There are many contentious social and business issues related to AV[…] there are many open questions and many criticisms of the Digital Economy Bill’s provisions; but to date there appears to have been no critical appraisal of the proposed technologies for AV, and so that is what I seek to address in this posting.

via https://medium.com/@alecmuffett/a-sequence-of-spankingly-bad-ideas–483cecf4ba89

The government is now recruiting clinical psychologists and therapists in its attempts to cut welfare spending. Friedli and…

“The government is now recruiting clinical psychologists and therapists in its attempts to cut welfare spending. Friedli and Stearn (2015) have shown how ‘psycho-compulsion’ (a range of psychological ‘assessments’ and ‘interventions’) now control the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens with disabilities and mental health service users. Psycho-compulsion involves the imposition of psychological explanations for an individual’s unemployment. 5 This originates in the neoliberal view that unemployment is caused by ‘faulty’ beliefs about the reasons the person is unemployed. These beliefs in turn give rise to ‘faulty’ attitudes and behaviours, especially so-called ‘benefit dependency’. Consequently, unemployed people end up on benefits long-term, and resist seeking paid employment. This has led to a variety of assessments aimed at identifying the ‘faulty’ personal beliefs and attempts to ‘rectify’ them through ‘therapy’. These psychological ‘assessments’ and ‘therapeutic interventions’ are imposed on benefit claimants. If they refuse to comply, their benefits are suspended or stopped. Psychologists and therapists are recruited to modify the beliefs of people on benefits, who are punished if they fail to comply (Friedli& Stearn, 2015, p. 42).
Psycho-compulsion draws heavily on the ‘strengths-based’ literature of positive psychology, especially notions of confidence, resilience, optimism and self-efficacy in recovery. Positive psychology is suspicious of conventional ‘depth’ psychology that encourages the person to reflect inwardly on feelings, beliefs and past experiences, especially relating to trauma and adversity (Binkley, 2011). Instead, it encourages the person to take responsibility for his or her own feelings, dwelling on the importance of finding ‘happiness’. 6 It explicitly rejects attempts to understand the person’s problems in terms of past or current adversity, and instead focuses on future action. It renounces the main object of therapeutic work – the painful exploration of difficult emotional states by talking about them. It is not interested in engaging with suffering. It isolates and alienates the person from her or his peers; in doing so it fragments solidarity, thus weakening the possibility of collective action.”

Thomas P (2016) Psycho politics, neoliberal governmentality and austerity. Self& Society,

At the center of every significant change in our lives today is a technology of some sort. Technology is humanity’s accelerant….

“At the center of every significant change in our lives today is a technology of some sort. Technology is humanity’s accelerant. Because of technology everything we make is always in the process of becoming. Every kind of thing is becoming something else, while it churns from “might” to “is.” All is flux. Nothing is finished. Nothing is done. This never-ending change is the pivotal axis of the modern world.”

Kevin Kelly (viainthenoosphere)

Accelerationism… and Degrowth? The Left’s Strange Bedfellows

politics, Accelerationism, degrowth, economics, collapsonomics, capitalism, utopianism, pluralism, d

While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point – at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable. To conclude, accelerationism comes across as a metaphor stretched far too thin. A napkin sketch after an exciting dinner-party, the finer details colored in years afterwards—but the napkin feels a bit worn out. Big questions need to be asked, questions unanswered by the simplistic exhortation to “shift the gears of capitalism.” When the gears are shifted, the problem of metabolic limits won’t be solved simply through “efficiency”—it must acknowledge that increased efficiency and automation has, and likely would still, lead to increased extractivism and the ramping up of environmental injustices globally. Or another: what does accelerationism mean in the context of a war machine that has historically thrived on speed, logistics, and the conquest of distance? Is non-violent acceleration possible, and what would class struggle look like in that scenario? To be fair, the word “degrowth” also fails to answer many big questions. There has been little discussion on whether mass deceleration is possible when, as Virilio shows, all mass changes in social relations have historically occurred through acceleration. Can hegemony decelerate? If degrowth lacks a robust theory of how to bring about regime shift, then Williams and Snricek’s brand of accelerationism doesn’t allow for a pluralist vocabulary that looks beyond its narrow idea of what constitutes system change. And yet, the proponents of each ideology will likely be found in the same room in the decades to come. Despite their opposite ‘branding’, they should probably talk. They have a lot to learn from each other.

via http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016–09–29/accelerationism-and-degrowth-the-left-s-strange-bedfellows

A Return to Machine Learning

Medium, Machine Learning, RNN, CNN, autoencoder, visualization, visualisation

This last year I’ve been getting back into machine learning and AI, rediscovering the things that drew me to it in the first place. I’m still in the “learning” and “small studies” phase that naturally precedes crafting any new artwork, and I wanted to share some of that process here. This is a fairly linear record of my path, but my hope is that this post is modular enough that anyone interested in a specific part can skip ahead and find something that gets them excited, too. I’ll cover some experiments with these general topics: Convolutional Neural Networks, Recurrent Neural Networks, Dimensionality Reduction and Visualization, Autoencoders

via https://medium.com/@kcimc/a-return-to-machine-learning–2de3728558eb

The Hive is the New Network

Medium, hive, networks, hivemind

Because of the increased frequency of interactions, a hive behaves more intelligently, and because of the decreased friction between nodes, a hive can do more than transfer data. It responds and evolves based on that data. The hive isn’t just more networked. It’s more densely populated with organic, living components. Though not obvious, the hive is becoming central to the way we think, behave and interact. The best way to understand emergent human hives is to observe how hives operate in nature.

via https://medium.com/@arjunsethi/the-hive-is-the-new-network–260b432a6720

Recap: Financial Thingclash At Sibos

Medium, thingclash

At the invitation of Innotribe, the internal innovation team of international payments network manager SWIFT, we ran a special Thingclash workshop last week at Sibos, the largest annual gathering of financial services organizations. In a condensed, 45-minute taster session, Susan Cox-Smith and I introduced the concept of Thingclash, and guided a dozen teams through quick-fire rounds of scenario creation, generating some intriguing future situations where out-of-the-box IoT solutions ran up against unexpected users — in unanticipated places.

via https://medium.com/@changeist/recap-financial-thingclash-at-sibos–1b648bc05165

A Brief History of City Charters

Medium, urbanism, smart cities, charter cities

Most cities, as Cohen points out, are comfortable staying — nay, even consolidating the 2.0 status quo. He holds out Singapore as an example. On the contrary, Vienna, Barcelona, Medellin, and Vancouver seems to be playing with a greater appetite for genuine co-creation. Still, most of what’s going on seems to be playing at the edges. There isn’t much evidence that the capabilities of smart city technology are being leveraged to truly re-think what local government is for, and create a new legal framework for governing. If we want power in government to flow in different directions, we need to re-do the plumbing.

via https://medium.com/@anthonymobile/a-brief-history-of-city-charters-e50ce7b2c7d8

Chinese Island Building and You

Medium, geopolitics, south china sea, spratly islands

Submitted for your consideration are the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea. The competing territorial claim situation there is just another border dispute in the millennia-long “Land Control Epic.” This one deserves your attention, even if only as an academic exercise because it’s one of the more interesting case studies in political power in recent times. It deserves your consideration economically because of trillions of dollars of trade and natural resources hinging on the outcome. It deserves your attention in a practical sense because if a hot war starts between America and China, this will be the spark.

via https://thearcmag.com/chinese-island-building-and-you-a650baa91b8b

Our burger is made from simple, all-natural ingredients such as wheat, coconut oil, and potatoes. What makes the Impossible…

food, food science, heme, meat, meat substitutes, molecular gastronomy, burger

Our burger is made from simple, all-natural ingredients such as wheat, coconut oil, and potatoes. What makes the Impossible Burger unlike all others is an ingredient called heme. Heme is a basic building block of life on Earth, including plants, but it’s uniquely abundant in meat. We discovered that heme is what makes meat smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty. Consider it the “magic ingredient” that makes our burger a carnivore’s dream.

(via The Burger Formerly Known as Plants)

Decolonising Science Reading List

Medium, science, decolonisation, colonialism, history, narrative, reading list

There are two different angles at play in the discussion about colonialism and science. First is what constitutes scientific epistemology and what its origins are. As a physicist, I was taught that physics began with the Greeks and later Europeans inherited their ideas and expanded on them. In this narrative, people of African descent and others are now relative newcomers to science, and questions of inclusion and diversity in science are related back to “bringing science to underrepresented minority and people of color communities.” The problem with this narrative is that it isn’t true. For example, many of those “Greeks” were actually Egyptians and Mesopotamians under Greek rule. So, even though for the last 500 years or so science has largely been developed by Europeans, the roots of its methodology and epistemology are not European. Science, as scientists understand it, is not fundamentally European in origin. This complicates both racist narratives about people of color and innovation as well as discourse around whether science is fundamentally wedded to Euro-American operating principles of colonialism, imperialism and domination for the purpose of resource extraction.
via https://medium.com/@chanda/decolonising-science-reading-list-339fb773d51f

Graal & Truffle

Medium, truffle, graal, PLT, programming, programming languages, language design

Truffle is a framework for writing interpreters with annotations and small bits of extra code in them which, when Truffle is paired with its sister project Graal, allow those interpreters to be converted into JIT compiling VMs … automatically. The resulting runtimes have peak performance competitive with the best hand-tuned language-specific compilers on the market. For example, the TruffleJS engine which implements JavaScript is competitive with V8 in benchmarks. The RubyTruffle engine is faster than all other Ruby implementations by far. The TruffleC engine is roughly competitive with GCC. There are Truffle implementations in various stages of completeness

via https://medium.com/@octskyward/graal-truffle–134d8f28fb69

How and why we built an internet connected solar panel

Medium, IDEO, solarpunk, solar, IoT, blockchain, solarcoin

So what happens when you cross blockchains and internet of things? One outcome is buzzword overload. In the coLAB, we don’t like that very much. We like to make things tangible, and we learn what’s possible by building prototypes.So we built a proof of concept solar panel kit that automatically creates renewable energy certificates as it generates power. Why energy? What are renewable energy certificates? Let us explain.

via https://medium.com/ideo-colab/how-and-why-we-built-an-internet-connected-solar-panel–727d720d3803

The Indigenous memory code

memory, songlines, Australia, ABC, Lynne-Kelly, interview, knowledge, space, spatial-memory

Lynne Kelly, author of The Memory Code has studied the way memory is embedded in landscape in many cultures. Drawing on these techniques she’s developed her own memory code or Songline to remember swathes of information she was not otherwise able to do. As with many oral cultures, she’s used the environment around her.

Lynne Kelly: Well, I started with the countries of the world. So I started in my studio, my office where I work, and in each location around that office, the first 10, I’ve put the top 10 countries of the world, starting China, India, the United States. Then I go out, right around the garden, right around the house, down the street, pick up the bread and come back, and by the house not far from home I’m down to Pitcairn Islands with 66 population. Each house and each location represents a country. So now if I’m watching the news and a country comes up, like Reunion when they found the plane crash parts, my brain automatically goes to that position. It doesn’t have to go in sequence because it’s fixed in sequence by the landscape, and I can add that bit of information and it just grows and grows because there is a structure. So I’ve done all of prehistory and history. I start 4,000 million years ago, walk around, prehistory, takes about a kilometre to do that. Right around history, back to today, on a portable device, sort of like the Aboriginal tjuringa but modelled more on the African Luba, Western African lukasa. I’ve encoded a complete field guide to the 408 birds of Victoria.

via http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/indigenous-memory-code/7553976#transcript

Terra0: The Self-Owning Augmented Forest

terra0, forest, augmented-ecology, DAO, art, ethereum, forestry, resource-management

Terra0 is an ongoing art project whose goal is to set up an alternative economic unit on the Ethereum Blockchain, while exploring the relationship between art and capital by functioning as a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO). The idea behind the project is to create a situation in which a forest creates capital by selling licenses for the logging of its trees through automated processes, smart contracts and blockchain technology. Terra0 reflects on ownership, personhood and autonomy. According to the project’s initiators, blockchain technology and smart contracts enable non-human actors to administer capital and therefore to claim the right to property for the first time. “Property is discussed now as something which is not separable from a natural or legal entity. Terra0 begins in this legal grey area, originating in the technological change brought about with the invention of blockchain technology and smart contracts,” adds Hampshire.

via http://networkcultures.org/moneylab/2016/09/29/terra0-the-self-owning-augmented-forest/

What makes online content viral?

information operations, io, infowar, ShadowBrokers, guccifer2, cyberwar


A paper on viral content. Information warfare is about dissemination of narratives and information. I think studying how those pieces of information are diffused to a wider audience is probably worth understanding.

Why are certain pieces of online content (e.g., advertisements, videos, news articles) more viral than others? This article takes a psychological approach to understanding diffusion. Using a unique data set of all the New York Times articles published over a three-month period, the authors examine how emotion shapes virality. The results indicate that positive content is more viral than negative content, but the relationship between emotion and social transmission is more complex than valence alone. Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal. Content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral. Content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral. These results hold even when the authors control for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is (all of which are positively linked to virality), as well as external drivers of attention (e.g., how prominently content was featured). Experimental results further demonstrate the causal impact of specific emotion on transmission and illustrate that it is driven by the level of activation induced. Taken together, these findings shed light on why people share content and how to design more effective viral marketing campaigns.

As always, page views is king, so being able to force that huge firehose of clicks from a mainstream media site is way better than using a lower tier journal. The trick is really about climbing the ladder of media hierarchy. Turning low level tweets into blog posts, into gizmodo coverage, to WIRED, to NYT.

It’s well know that high valence content is central to high interaction, but here they show that it isn’t the only factor. Generating anger is extremely effective, so is making content surprising or interesting. This is what the ShadowBrokers are trying to do. And Guccifer2.

I wonder if they have studying how to make content more effective for information warfare, or just focussed on creating the “correct spin.”

HT: https://twitter.com/macloo/status/782338073577164800

a related paper to consider as a followup “the structure of virality”: https://5harad.com/papers/twiral.pdf

What makes online content viral?

What can we learn from Songdo IBD, a $35 billion, 1500 acre model for future smart city?

Medium, urbanism, korea, smart cities, Songdo

In South Korea, 35 miles away from Seoul, Songdo IBD, which is probably the smartest city in the world, has been built ground up near Yellow Sea. 1500 acre, with more than $35 billion investment, it is a utopian pilot land for developers to invest enormously in technologies, so what experience does this ambitious prototype provide us for future smart cities?

via https://medium.com/cusp-civic-analytics-urban-intelligence/what-can-we-learn-from-songdo-ibd-a–35-billion–1500-acre-model-for-future-smart-city–7146af64f3d2



v. [with obj.]

1 destroy or present (a person or animal) to cause death: the government had impressed the day / [with two objs] I impressed them well / [with obj. and infinitive] the present had impressed the company in the school.

(of a person) understand or experience something else to be perceived: what is impressed that the talk is a session of self-defence.

2 [no obj.] (of a person) make a strong or showing manner in a particular direction: he impressed a few times a suggestion.

(of a person) provoke a particular condition or thing to a particular thing: the two statements had impressed in the morning.

(of an action or situation) extend or display one’s facts or procedures: the third company impressed the project.


1 a person who is likely to happen or be done in a particular way: the match is a major impress of consumer moral harm.

2 [LAW] an institution or offence which is a particular proposal or course of action: a prime school impressed to the baby.

in impression

Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction Everything Change features twelve stories from our 2016 Climate Fiction…

fiction, ASU, climate change, climate fiction, cli-fi, climate futures

Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction

Everything Change features twelve stories from our 2016 Climate Fiction Short Story Contest along with along with a foreword by science fiction legend and contest judge Kim Stanley Robinson and an interview with renowned climate fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi.

“a lot of near-future science fiction is also becoming what some people now call climate fiction. This is because climate change is already happening, and has become an unavoidable dominating element in the coming century. The new name thus reflects the basic realism of near-future science fiction, and is just the latest in the names people have given it; in the 1980s it was often called cyberpunk, because so many near-future stories incorporated the coming dominance of globalization and the emerging neoliberal dystopia. Now it’s climate change that is clearly coming, even more certainly than globalization. That these two biophysical dominants constitute a kind of cause and effect is perhaps another story that near-future science fiction can tell.” 

– Kim Stanley Robinson

Everything Change is free to download, read, and share

FULL SCREEN AND HEADPHONES YIELD THE BEST RESULTS NONE is a short film that explores the balance of light and darkness.  It has…

video link


FULL SCREEN AND HEADPHONES YIELD THE BEST RESULTS NONE is a short film that explores the balance of light and darkness.  It has a personal narrative which plays with the notion of finding yourself amidst the noise around you. More information - CREDIT DIRECTOR / DESIGNER / CG ARTIST - Ash Thorp CO-DIRECTOR / DESIGNER / CG ARTIST - Christopher Bjerre CHARACTER DESIGNER - Alex Figini COMPOSER - Ben Lukas Boysen SPECIAL THANKS Raphael Rau Cornelius Dammrich Vitaly Bulgarov Turbo Squid Otoy NONE Ash Thorp

A Logarithmic Map of the Entire Known Universe. Logarithmic scale conception of the observable universe with the Solar System at…


A Logarithmic Map of the Entire Known Universe.

Logarithmic scale conception of the observable universe with the Solar System at the center, inner and outer planets, Kuiper belt, Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri, Perseus Arm, Milky Way galaxy, Andromeda galaxy, nearby galaxies, Cosmic Web, Cosmic microwave radiation and Big Bang’s invisible plasma on the edge.

How Murderous Are Humans?

evolution, history, violence, murder, Hobbes, José-María-Gómez

Gómez’s study is the first thorough survey of violence in the mammal world, collating data on more than a thousand species. It clearly shows that we humans are not alone in our capacity to kill each other. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, have been known to wage brutal war, but even apparently peaceful creatures take each other’s lives. When ranked according to their rates of lethal violence, ground squirrels, wild horses, gazelle, and deer all feature in the top 50. So do long-tailed chinchillas, which kill each other more frequently than tigers and bears do.

via http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/humans-are-unusually-violent-mammals-but-averagely-violent-primates/501935/

Gómez’s study is the first thorough survey of violence in the mammal world, collating data on more than a thousand species. It…

violence, humans, José María Gómez, census, history, evolution, murder, Hobbes

Gómez’s study is the first thorough survey of violence in the mammal world, collating data on more than a thousand species. It clearly shows that we humans are not alone in our capacity to kill each other. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, have been known to wage brutal war, but even apparently peaceful creatures take each other’s lives. When ranked according to their rates of lethal violence, ground squirrels, wild horses, gazelle, and deer all feature in the top 50. So do long-tailed chinchillas, which kill each other more frequently than tigers and bears do.

The primates—the order that includes us, apes, monkeys, and lemurs—seem to be especially violent. While just 0.3 percent of mammal deaths are caused by members of the same species, that rate rose to 2.3 percent in the common ancestor of primates, and dropped slightly to 1.8 percent in the ancestor of great apes. That’s the lethal legacy that humanity inherited.

That isn’t to imply determinism. Even within the apes, chimps are notably more aggressive than bonobos, which suggests that group-wide capacities for violence can be tempered by other factors. And history shows that humans have also varied greatly in our violent tendencies. We are influenced by our history, but not saddled to it.

Gómez’s team showed that by poring through statistical yearbooks, archaeological sites, and more, to work out causes of death in 600 human populations between 50,000 BC to the present day. They concluded that rates of lethal violence originally ranged from 3.4 to 3.9 percent during Paleolithic times, making us only slightly more violent than you’d expect for a primate of our evolutionary past. That rate rose to around 12 percent during the bloody Medieval period, before falling again over the last few centuries to levels even lower than our prehistoric past.

Little Printer: designing the new domestic landscape

Medium, design, little printer, 2013, BERG, IoT, connected devices, Dan Hill

Little Printer is a product of now. It is a product, a tangible thing, but is also a product, in the sense of a consequence, of contemporary culture. It humbly and accessibly exemplifies how physical and digital have merged to become one, to become hybrid objects, to demonstrate how objects might become networked, and how domestic objects might behave.

via https://medium.com/a-chair-in-a-room/little-printer-a-portrait-in-the-nude–4a5659ea731

An ethnographic interview with an AI


Tech anthropologist Genevieve Bell (previously) delivered one of the keynotes at last week’s O'Reilly AI conference in New York City, describing how you could do anthropology fieldwork on an AI – specifically, how you could do an ethnographic interview with one.

This proves to be a surprisingly useful tool for interrogating AI and where it’s come from, what role it plays in our world today, and where it’s going. I always have time for what Bell has to say, but this is a particularly good one even by her high standards.


Three stages of design fiction (energy futures, Part 2)

Design Fiction, speculative design, madeira, Renewable Energy, futures, austin houldsworth, sasha pohflepp, charles eames


Here we describe the complex relationship between reality and fiction, how this is managed in the design fiction process and how, in a successful project, fiction influences future reality.

1. Establishing the coordinates of reality: understanding the non-storyworld

A thorough awareness of these coordinates is an essential starting point for any work of design fiction. The origin is provided by the core theme of the project - in our case energy infrastructure. Factors informing the coordinates are therefore political, economic, ecological, material, behavioural, historical, and social.

In developed countries the dominant approach to energy is based on a national grid system, a model typically implemented in the early 20th century. Such systems were designed for a one-way flow of electricity - from remote state or corporate-owned centralised generating stations to individual consumers via transmission and distribution lines.


In the 21st century a growing demand for energy, combined with environmental concerns and climate action, has led to major shifts in policy. Two examples are the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) and the European Commission’s Smart Grids Task Force. Such acts essentially call for classic grid topologies to evolve towards more distributed systems, exploiting bidirectional energy flows facilitated by, for example, wind turbines, solar PVs, and hydroelectric, and also two-way flows of information aimed at optimising supply and demand and making the system more transparent, safe, and efficient.

While such changes are in essence positive, substantive change is limited by constraint no. 2: legacies of the past. The key issues are:

  • The radial model of central generation (through burning fossil fuels or nuclear fission) and distribution via a grid system have led to a well-established system of governance and ownership of energy infrastructure (both state and private)
  • These owners are reluctant to cede control
  • Alternative means of generating energy such as renewables could provide sufficient means but currently rely on connection to the grid (on terms dictated by its owner)
  • The ubiquity of the grid system has resulted in an ‘always there’ approach to energy consumption meaning that it is easily taken for granted by consumers
  • The ubiquity of the grid system means that all electrical products are adapted to it (with a few unique exceptions such as the wind-up radio)
  • Solutions tend towards the generic one-size-fits-all, ignoring the potential of bespoke possibilities based on unique landscapes or contexts

Once the problematic has been well defined it becomes possible to begin developing the storyworld by carefully manipulating the constraining coordinates.

2. Creating a fictional storyworld with a new set of constraints

As we consider this point it becomes apparent that this is perhaps where speculative design and design fiction differ. A kind of chicken-and-egg conundrum: strategically, what comes first - world or object?

Speculative design starts with and centres on the object. It extrapolates existing product lineages guided by the promise of an emerging technology and contemporary trends. Auger-Loizeau’s Audio Tooth Implant (2001) is a classic example. The storyworld is then built around the artefact to examine its potential implications, or it is left up to the viewer to imagine the future society in which the hypothetical artefact exists.

Design fiction starts with the storyworld. The artefacts follow, designed for that world like props in a film. The main reason for developing a storyworld - in the design fiction approach - is to provide a new context or set of circumstances to design for. These are carefully crafted to counter or address the key issues identified in Stage 1.

Fiction writers have given us countless carefully described storyworlds through the ages. Scholars have written at length on the details of their construction. But there are specific (and very recent) approaches to developing a design fiction storyworld that are worth noting. In his study of alternative monetary systems, for example, Austin Houldsworth has developed a methodology he calls ‘ counter-fictional design’. Houldsworth’s approach borrows existing storyworlds - storyworlds drawn from literary history - and asks how money would function in these alternative societies. A monetary system designed for B. F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two, for example, describes a payment system that challenges the established monetary function of ‘a store of value’.

This approach works well when a novel can be found that aligns with the particular theme in question. For example, George Orwell’s 1984 would be a good match for redesigning things based on alternative constructs of privacy. The problem is that the storyworld of many sci-fi and fantasy novels resides too far along the fictional end of the fact-fiction scale, resulting in a design solution that, in Žižek’s terms, ‘shatters the coordinates of our reality’. With the loss of plausibility, the value (at least for design fiction purposes) is diminished.

An approach that more directly manipulates the coordinates of reality is counterfactual history - a method that begins by changing a specific historical event and extrapolates the consequences to build the storyworld on a parallel timeline. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one commonly cited example: it imagines an alternative history in which the Axis Powers have defeated the Allies in World War II and Germany and Japan have divided America - the story playing out in Japanese-occupied 1960s San Francisco.

A design fiction example of this approach is Sascha Pohflepp’s project, The Golden Institute, based on a different outcome to the 1980 US general election. A Carter victory would have enabled a continuation of energy-friendly initiatives undertaken during his previous term; these were promptly cancelled by Reagan when he took office. Pohflepp’s project described the research developed by the fictional institute, creating a poignant reminder of what might have been lost. The storyworld here simply provides a logic to furnish an alternative history in which large resources are funneled into renewable energy.

In the case of our project the motivations are somewhat similar - to develop a storyworld framework to inform the design of an alternative energy infrastructure. Likewise the project takes place in a real location: Madeira. Thus the storyworld is an alternative version of the island that retains some of its eccentric and original elements: the complex and rich history of the levada irrigation system, alternative modes transportation, and sometimes hubristic notions of transportation infrastructure and island planning.


What has changed, however, are the elements that led to the problems identified in Stage 1, the 20th century forces that shaped the island’s energy history. In our storyworld with its counterfactual history, the island of Madeira has:

  • No radial model of central generation
  • No central ownership and control
  • No generic solutions
  • No patenting and knowledge protection
  • No consumption of fossil fuels

These fundamental differences allow for the imaginary reconstruction of society and human behaviour - from how energy is generated, to the rethinking of products that no longer have wall sockets ready to provide them with always-available power.

3. Designing in the fictional world: new constraints, new possibilities

When the fictional world has been constructed in sufficient detail, it can become a testing ground for new ideas and approaches.

We mentioned Mohammed J. Ali’s energy-focused project, A New Scottish Enlightenment, in an earlier post. Similar to The Golden Institute it describes an energy related counterfactual history, in this case an alternative outcome to the 1979 Scottish independence referendum leading to a split from the United Kingdom. New Scotland’s key policies include legislation aimed to deliver increasing resources and independence to its citizens. This simple counterfactual history provides a powerful framework through which to rethink energy. Redesigning Madeira is essentially a re-location of Mo’s project (we are working with him) but with the key goal of actually implementing the design solutions.

Charles Eames once described design as ‘a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose’. Eames’s statement can be used to compare and contrast the function of normative design and approaches to technological application with the strategies/methods being developed for this project. As with energy, dominant approaches to the design of products and services were formulated last century, and likewise the systems and infrastructures in which designers operate exist along similar topologies with the elements being gathered and arranged at central locations and distributed radially around the globe. The role of the consumer is limited to simply interacting with the end product – for the time that it remains viable. Building on participatory design methods, combined with open-source knowledge practices, Redesigning Madeira will draw its elements from the local context: both natural elements in the landscape (as a source of energy) and cultural elements in the landscape (that can be potentially reused and recycled).

The plan is informed by local knowledge and terrain. Our island’s unusual landscape (as we’ve noted previously) is ideal for experimentation. It holds the potential to inform and inspire the design of numerous bespoke energy generation and storage solutions, from highly radical macro speculations to more pragmatic, plausible human-scale solutions. The unique approach of jointly designing for the real world and its fictional counterpart means that prototyping is possible on different levels. Tangible concepts can be prototyped in the engineering sense, made to function better in specific real locations; while speculative concepts, as well as longer term social and ecological impacts (of functioning prototypes), can be tested in the storyworld.

The final stage will be to make more deliberate use of the diegetic prototypes, not only to suspend disbelief about change with the purpose of facilitating:

Conclusions: beyond autonomy

In a famous lecture to Cornell University students in 1948, Nabokov declared: ‘Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.’ But however untrue, fiction can still inspire real action in the world by giving the designer permission to bypass existing constraints and work with an entirely new, fictional set of constraints. On the more practical end of the scale, ideas conceived to meet these fictional constraints can provide alternatives to entrenched realities: new forms of energy generation and new models of consumption, for example.

Another passionate believer in the autonomy of art, Oscar Wilde, overturned conventional wisdom more than a century ago in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’, when he declared: ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.’ But again, this apparent proclamation in support of autonomy and l’art pour l’art has important real-world implications. Wilde argues in the same essay that the best art and literature teach life how to be: not through dull didacticism, but by imagining and giving shape to preferred futures. This is one essential function of design fiction: by allowing our imaginations to travel beyond pragmatic (e.g. industry) constraints, we open up the potential for radical new discoveries.

Important questions remain: Who is design fiction for? What is the ideal medium? Does it exist more as a framework to help the designer? Or is it a fully fledged genre, aimed at a public audience? How much is too much fiction?

Our overall approach, which blends speculative and practical design, aims to be agile and versatile. Although our current project is focused on the theme of energy and based on the characteristics of one particular island, it also stands as an example of a methodology - an approach that facilitates the imagining of alternatives and also the means to artificially test them in real life. The approach could equally be used to explore energy alternatives in other locations, or different themes such as transportation. The key goal, once again, is to close the loop - from fiction back to reality.

As Wilde states at the end of ‘The Decay of Lying’: ‘Come! We have talked long enough.’ Time for a swim.



Turbo Generator - Siemens Pressebild; Bullock Carro, Funchal, Madeira - Harry Pollard. Both images CC BY-SA 3.0.

Barreirinha swimming complex, Madeira - James Auger.

Exploring energy futures through design fiction (Part 1)

futures, energy, design


With the autumnal equinox upon us, Crap Futures is nearing its first anniversary. We began shooting ideas back and forth last September when James arrived in Madeira. Now, after a long, hot summer, it seems like a good moment to take stock and reflect on the past year whilst also making plans for what comes next.


In the post When the sun shines we gave an overview of our ongoing design project. This has been ticking along in the background since early 2016, with time spent articulating the research methodology, transforming the concept into funding proposals, and identifying and discussing with potential collaborators. Back in April we described the problem of using renewable energy sources on the island (and beyond), identifying some of the factors currently hindering their implementation - for example historical legacies. The project asks:

What might our energy infrastructure look like if it were not constrained by these outdated constructs?

A key motivation has always been to move beyond the discursive, the critical, the speculative and the fictional. As we wrote at the time: ‘With this project (unusually) we’re not interested in fiction.’ In retrospect this statement seems a bit rash. So before moving into the making phase, we thought it necessary to probe a little deeper into the relationship between fact and fiction. Or more precisely, What is the role of fiction when trying to make change - desperately needed change - in the real world?

To start with Bruce Sterling’s familiar definition:

Design fiction is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.’

There are several keywords here that demand closer examination. First, fiction - in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek describes the viewer’s reading (of cinema) by stating that, ‘if something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled in with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality - we have to fictionalise it’. This statement is helpful as it succinctly describes two states of being and the relationship between them: the nonfiction world, defined by the coordinates of reality, and its fictional counterpart (diegesis).

Second, diegetic - from diegesis: the world in which the story takes place and for which the prototypes are designed. Through the manipulation of a particular set of coordinates, a fictional or alternative world can be constructed.

Third, a more complex issue is raised by the use of design when combined with the term change. The recent emergence of counter or oppositional forms of design (such as design fiction etc.) suggests that there are problems or limitations with mainstream design; for example, design’s affiliation with the market and the prevailing demands of consumption and innovation. These are the (normative) designer’s coordinates of reality: in practice experienced as constraints that limit the potential of design to make substantive change (see Future nudge). Designing for a carefully crafted diegesis can provide new constraints, in turn facilitating new solutions.

Fact and fiction should not exist as a dichotomy but rather an elastic scope of possibility. Good design fictions do not shatter the coordinates of reality; they stretch and manipulate them in carefully crafted ways, hence the suspension of disbelief. But, and this is important, to what end? Sterling’s phrase ‘deliberate use’ suggests purpose … but what is the purpose?

In Building Imaginary Worlds, Mark J.P. Wolf examines why authors find it necessary to invent other worlds. He concludes that the answer lies in ‘ the changing of Primary World defaults, to amaze, entertain, satirize, propose possibilities, or to simply make an audience more aware of defaults they take for granted’.

In his introduction to Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury offers some additional motivations:

‘Sometimes writers write about a world that does not yet exist. We do it for a hundred reasons. (Because it’s good to look forward, not back. Because we need to illuminate a path we hope or we fear humanity will take. Because the world of the future seems more enticing or more interesting than the world of today. Because we need to warn you. To encourage. To examine. To imagine.)’


In the closing sentence of his book Technophobia! Daniel Dinello suggests that ‘At its best, science fiction projects a dark vision of the Technologist’s posthuman future that encourages us to create a better one.’

But does highlighting wrong paths lead us to preferable ones? 

This question was raised in Republic of Salivation, a post on MoMA’s ‘online curatorial experiment’ Design and Violence:

‘Do violent, dystopian visions ever lead to positive, substantive change?’

Design fiction futures, it is true, are often dystopian - this is one of several lines of critique aimed at design fiction projects. The upcoming Speculative Now! conference in Split, Croatia, for example, has chosen to focus debate on the role of speculative design in the ‘real world’. Similarly with our project we aim to advance the goals and practice of design fiction by defining positive paths. Our approach will bring fiction-based prototypes back into real life, seek to produce tangible societal outcomes, and work to turn (positive) aspects of fiction into fact. Design fiction can help us work toward ‘the future we actually want’, imposing our own agency in how the future happens.

In our next post we will examine three stages of design fiction, explaining how a carefully contrived diegesis can provide the ideal framework for redesigning the real world.


Christian Schussele - Men of Progress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; SAFEGE test track at Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, France (used in filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451), via Wikimedia Commons