Fabbulousness and the taste of masses.

Bruce Sterling allowed Starship Sofa to podcast his novella The Kiosk the other day, and it’s two hours well spent if you’re in the least interested in the (possible) disruptive tendencies of fabbing and rapid manufacturing. Go listen to it before it disappears, then come back here. (You can skip the first ten minutes to get to the story)

Skip the first ten or so minutes, which are of more interest to sci-fi people rather than you, and take notes on which predictions you agree with. Having listened to the story, I had to remind myself that rapid prototyping is still in its infancy and not a foregone conclusion, lest I give up on it in favour of something more bleeding edge.

Day of the Triffids: Post-apocalypse made for TV

A while back I read The day of the triffids, a 1951 novel by John Wyndham. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale where one accident leads to another: A cosmic light blinds the majority of the worlds population, and the poisonous, ambulating, and possibly intelligent plants which are being harvested for oil — the eponymous triffids — escape from captivity. So let’s loose a bunch of murderous plants on a blind humanity, leaving the few remaining sighted to help or ignore the suffering. Aaaand, action!

The book starts with Bill Masen waking up in his hospital bed, where he’s been treated for a triffid sting to his eyes. His head is bandaged, so he is unable to see the global borealis which almost everyone else is watching. As luck would have it, this spares his vision, and when the next day neither nurse nor doctor check in on him, he removes his dressing and discovers that everyone is blind but he. In the book, the panic that our protagonist feels is overwhelming, and I found myself mirroring Masens fright at things going bump in the night.

Much like in a zombie story, the humans who have been afflicted walk with outstretched arms, grasping for the non-affected; Wyndham might not have enjoyed killing off civilisation as we know it, but he sure enjoys traumatising his characters:

What was going on was a grim business without chivalry, with no give, and all take, about it. A man bumping into another and feeling that he carried a parcel would snatch it and duck away, on the chance that it contained something to eat, while the loser clutched furiously at the air or hit out indiscriminately. Once I had to step hurriedly aside to avoid being knocked down by an elderly man who darted into the roadway with no care for possible obstacles. His expression was vastly cunning, and he clutched avariciously to his chest two cans of red paint. On a corner my way was blocked by a group almost weeping with frustration over a bewildered child who could see but was just too young to understand what they wanted of it.

As it happens, BBC chose to interpret the book in a two part miniseries, and I had the first episode with breakfast. So far, it’s not all that impressive; The cold war story has become one of nature striking back, and man’s inhumanity to man is business as usual with some people being douche bags. Most of the immense tragedy — millions of Londoners blinded, fighting for food, reassuring their children — is almost glossed over.

No problem in the adaptation seems so big that it can’t be reasoned about; The sense of despair which enthralls the reader is missing, substituted with interpersonal disputes. The actors are more or less convincing, but the script lets them down. Eddie Izzard plays the evil guy, who appears in the book as a fascist character late in the story, but here is an egotistic opportunist, and the main foil for our dislike. We are left not judging the everyday humans who try their best but fail, but Izzards character Terrance who is stopping them from doing their best for his own selfish ends. The triffids become a backdrop in front of which Terrance and Bill fight over the girl, the bereaved radio journalist Jo Playton. The apocalypse happened and the guys are comparing dicks.

The most surprising anti-hero is played by Jason Priestly of 90210 fame, as a brash American who kidnaps the sighted so that they can guide the blind. At the end of the first episode he is redeemed and the audience no longer has to wonder if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. So despite good acting, there’s so little faith in the audience that the story of disaster and new beginnings, becomes one of action and getting the girl.

Of course it’s much more difficult to show someone’s internal struggle on the screen, where you can’t supplement it with your own imagination, but lets draw comparisons with another post-apocalyptic movie: In 28 weeks later there’s a scene where a main character abandons his wife, believing that she’s lost to the zombies. We see him run away from the house where she’s trapped, and he’s sobbing until out of breath — from fright of the zombies, his impotence in the face of the threat, his guilt over the abandon, his grief at losing his wife — leaving us not only conflicted about the moral correctness of his actions, but also with an understanding that there’s a limit to the human reasoning we can marshal under extreme circumstances.

Also, if you’re partial to graphic novels, you might have already heard of Walking Dead, which captures human emotions far better than either 28 days/weeks later or this adaptation of Day of the triffids.


Update: Part two was crap. The story jumped in time, seemed to skip most of the character developement which might have explained what the hell people are doing — Hey, he’s alive! He’s dead! I don’t trust them! I trust them! —  and hopped from one action sequence to another, lest the audience lose interest. Even if you don’t compare it to the original story, this is just shit storytelling, despite some good acting. Booh!

The future! The future!

The Singularity is no longer talked about as the geek rapture which will make people happy and good and content with life; Just as our capacity for rational and creative thought will be multiplied hundredfold in a short time, our capacity to act according to our own morals increases accordingly. No longer a world where anyone can build an atom bomb, but one in which each of us is a walking one. The will to power will out, and just because there’s no need to fight over oil or water doesn’t mean someone won’t want to kill us all.

Ray Kurzweils movie Trancendent Man seems like an interesting overview of the mans ideas, and h+ has an interview with him which you might want to read before the movie makes it onto the torrent sites; He is good at articulating the problems which might appear as a result of technological advances (eternal life, nano-tech, AI) and because of his technological background actually has numbers he can throw at you when it comes to the hard sci-fi predictions.

James Hughes over at Changesurfer Radio interviewed professor of philosphy Asher Seidel about his book, and it’s a good guide to the kinds of questions that might challenge our successors. I started listening to the transhumanist Changesurfer Radio ten years ago in Karlstad, and it’s a great source of interesting ideas and people. I heartily recommend it, if for no other reason than that James is a politically conscious person who doesn’t let his interviewees get away with just technological solutions to human problems; Humans are social and political beasts and use technology accordingly. Which, incidentally, also is the lesson that good science fiction can teach us.


Lately, between fattening myself on crisps and ramen, and watching The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I’ve been reading. Since none of you heathens got me an ebook reader for the holidays, I’ve been perched in my comfy new fake leather armchair, reading off the screen or on paper.

Mostly I’ve been rekindling old flames: Iain M. Banks Matter as well as the abridged Transition; Peter F Hamiltons Starflyer books — Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained — have sent me back to the first two parts of the Dreaming Void trilogy, and I can hardly wait for the last installment which is due out in fall of 2010, and where I’m guessing we’re going to see a fascist universe be created in the Void.

Matter is a Culture novel and as such it’s a fascinating read. More than in other novels there is intervention by the Culture — a futuristic, egalitarian galactic society which tries to nudge more primitive civilizations along —  into the life and society of a Victorian era feudal world which exists on a shell world; a spherical world within a world within a world, built for unknown purposes. The king is murdered and his daughter, who has gone off and joined the Culture, returns for his funeral, getting mixed up in a world she’d left behind. If you enjoy Iains style of prose, you’ll love this book — its imagery is powerful and the language just the right amount of funny.

Petter gave me Foreskins Lament by Shalom Auslander — known from This American Life as the Jew who hates God — and it’s a good read so far. If you need a reason for why religion might be more damaging to your mental health than a regular abusive home, look no further than to his description of how he was taught about God. Apatheism is the way to go, people. Trust me on this — just focus on an existential issue other than theism, and make that issue the cornerstone of your personal ontology and moral conviction.

I still haven’t slogged through 45 by Bill Drummond, a collection of essays which Olle lent me, but I’m getting there, although that has been delayed by my adorable mom, who just sent me a Polish account of two years spent in Tokyo. It being mom I have to prioritize that, even though it reads like a punny Lost in Translation. Never an endorsement.

Required reading, doing, being: Everyware.

We are now a predominantly urban species, with over 50% of humanity living in a city. The overwhelming majority of these are not old post-industrial world cities such as London or New York, but large chaotic sprawls of the industrialising world such as the “maximum cities” of Mumbai or Guangzhou. Here the infrastructures are layered, ad-hoc, adaptive and personal – people there really are walking architecture, as Archigram said.

→ Future Metro, Matt Jones: The city is a battlesuit for surviving the future

Lalvani is anxious that his work not be portrayed as the development of trendy shapes; this is an entire system for generating infinitely variable form. Like Fuller before him, he cleaves to the idea that when science begins to mimic nature at a molecular level, it moves into a realm outside of fashion.

→ Core.form.ula, Peter Hall: Bending the Rules of Structure originally published in Metropolis 2004

In everyware, the garment, the room and the street become sites of processing and mediation. Household objects from shower stalls to coffee pots are reimagined as places where facts about the world can be gathered, considered, and acted upon. And all the familiar rituals of daily life, things as fundamental as the way we wake up in the morning, get to work, or shop for our groceries, are remade as an intricate dance of information about ourselves, the state of the external world, and the options available to us at any given moment.

→ Adam Greenfield: Introduction to Everware

If you wanted an allegorical portrait of modern western capitalist society, you could do a lot worse than a man alone at a shaving mirror, intent on his own reflection, while from the other side of the glass a vast global corporation is watching, recording and planning what to sell him next.

→ Guardian.co.uk, Thomas Jones: Cutting Edge


Yes, yours may not look exactly like the original, but it’s recognizable as a copy, right? What this exercise illustrates is a different kind of seeing. As you were drawing, you weren’t thinking about drawing the nose exactly right, because you may have not known it was a nose.

→ Kirk Bjorndahl: Learn how to draw

Filled fountain pens should always be stored nib up, as they would be in a shirt pocket. You should never store a fountain pen nib down…Gravity works. Filled fountain pens should never be stored for an extended period of time. When you fill a pen, consider it a commitment to use it.

→ Bertrams inkwell: How to care for your fountain pen

The Pirate eBay and other scenarios.

I’ve been trying to get my head around 3D printing. In the futuristic sense of the word it’s the manufacture of a hot dog complete with relish and mustard. It’s such a transformative technology that I’d like to get in on the game somehow, not only read about it. This is an attempt to put stuff onto paper. Pardon the rambling.

Let’s divide the making of things into five mechanical categories, and see if something useful comes of it: Additive, subtractive, shaping, combining. (Molding might be the fifth, or perhaps it’s of the combination order where the object that is being created is the mold, which combined with steel or what–have–you causes the negative object. Ignore for now.)

The combination of things requires things to combine, the shaping of things requires a material that is malleable besides whatever other qualities you need, the subtractive production (milling, cutting, etc.) need a hunk of material that is bigger than your end result. The additive model allows you to work in multiple materials, at once combining things for whatever function you need them to fill. Today this mostly means a working ball bearing or a surgical knee replacement. This is the technical side of things.


Some are predicting wholesale piracy, and once the technology becomes cheap enough eBay will surely be flooded by original copies just as The Pirate Bay will be flooded by CAD/CNC program instructions. The joke isn’t lost on anyone that the name of The Pirate Bay will rub off on the auction site once everyone with a RepRap or MakerBot gets up to speed with replicating materials. And why not?

If the remix and DIY approach will hold true for personal fabrication (fabbing) then you’ll be forced to shift gears from “is it what it says it is?” when you relate to objects, to “is it what I want?” Trending and social constructions will still exist because we’re social critters, but they will have to take something else into account (another quality or justification, however arbitrary) and branding of objects might become less relevant.

Michelangelo’s David has been 3D scanned by Stanford and they’re limiting access to the the model, but how long before it’ll be pirated? Once you have an accurate replica next to your garden gnome, does the original matter at all? (If being original is the bees knees, why so afraid of copies? If it’s only a matter of making money by selling the reproduction rights, the losing battle that the music, film and game industries has fought the past ten years is on the doorstep of museums and industrial designers.) Home fabbing is killing IKEA!

We’ll manufacture and use stuff as if it was real but with no sense of “real” left. It’s the post-scarcity of technocrats combined with a corruption of the traditional understanding of materials. It’s a change in volume and sheer numbers, if not in the way we approach things. Material nihilism maybe?

[flv:https://www.monocultured.com/blog/blog_video/Bruce.flv https://www.monocultured.com/blog/blog_video/Bruce.png 640 360]

Above is the latter part of the end keynote that Bruce Sterling gave at the ReBoot conference. [via Warren Ellis] It’s his take on where we’re heading ideologically and how we can find value in life. He does sound like a whiny old fart part of the time, and there’s little love for his audience, but it’s an articulate rant and I’m not one to scoff at someone who thinks about these things for a living.

Sterlings notion that we ought to get a proper bed and a proper chair make sense if what is left of the objects are our use of them and if the value they provide are somehow measurable by us in a non-arbitrary way. (“Being well rested” is a concept we understand. Extend this to more arbitrary objects and you’ll notice that we have few things that actually carry meanining in the sense that an object in and of itself carries meaning.)

Jamais Cascio referenced the speech with specific regard to how Sterlings ideas relate to 3D printing. Cascio draws parallells to what Postscript and LaserWriter did for desktop publishing in the mid 80’s. (Hollow, bold, underline, cursive Chicago, anyone?) The article is The Desktop Manufacturing Revolution and it’s a good overview of the technology and some of it’s implications.


We should stop saying ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’ and start saying, ‘What’s going on?’. It’s a quote attributed to Marshall McLuhan by Liss Jeffrey and it’s a sensible suggestion.

While teaching future architects at Chalmers I was impressed by their approach to materials and created objects. It is as much a part of their problem as it’s a boon, but they all treated their models as incidental to the process of architecture. The objects didn’t hold any value except what they said of the overall project.

This is in line with how rapid prototyping has been used up to now, and also diametrically opposed to how many artists approach objects. Technically speaking, an artist can’t take a shit without creating an objet d’art, so we tend to guard whatever physical objects we produce. (Piece of art and piece of shit is interchangable in some peoples minds, but even for them it’s the piece that is important.)

But where an architect might view the printed 3D object as a stepping stone to a real object, fabbing offers a rejection of specificity of objects all together – i.e. a knife at your throat bears meaning on your life and well being, but it’s not really important what kind of knife it is. In this hyperbolic example you would do well to ask the McLuhan question: Is the thing at my throat sharp enough to harm me?

I’m being silly and perhaps these ideas don’t apply to all situations, so let’s focus on art and 3D printing. First of all, we’ll have the meta art: “Ooh, you’ve carved a small replica in wood of something that you randomly generated in your 3D printer to make a point about originality. Good for you!” It’s unavoidable and to a certain degree interesting for the debate and theory (I made my Virtual Photography series because I wanted to make a point about virtual worlds and photography) but it’s the next step that will be interesting: The abandon of material sacrament.


Artist scientists, spefically mathematicians, have experimented with rapid prototyping and sculpture. They are in the odd position of celebrating the pure æsthetics of mathematical shapes and concepts. Carlo H. Séquin is a physicist who has collaborated with artists and sculptors who work with pure form. His article – Rapid prototyping: a 3d visualization tool takes on sculpture and mathematical forms – is the only artistic reference Wikipedia has on 3D printers, and it has very little to do with modern art. The area seems ripe for experimentation.

What I recently wrote about ARGs (Alternative Reality Games) seems applicable to 3D printers. You get an excuse and a means to remake the world in your own imagination or buy into someone elses, literally. Interpretation and allegory – traditionally the priviledge of priests and artists – is now a technological issue, not a metaphysical one: If you can print anything that money can buy you might as well print money. Fake money buying fake things in a fake world; Truly a map on a 1:1 scale if there ever was one.


If it wasn’t for the inertia of societies the end of this process would find us in a copy of Second Life where we’re all pointing at colourful things and going “meh”. As it stands, this process of virtualising maybe isn’t about shifting the way we manufacture and appreciate things, but will help us remove the clutter – take away everything that isn’t interesting and special and super and reveal the social superstructure onto which the objects were fixed; That designer lamp you liked is only a Google Warehouse click away. (Much in line with what Sterling is suggesting, but not because of an appreciation of craftsmanship or purposeful living but because it’s meaningless in a literal sense.)

Besides the artisan or mundane stuff that we for one reason or another love, objects are deconstructed in a way we should recognise, that of Platonic idea and instance. (But here the idea of an idea isn’t a reductionist problem but the foundation for discussion, the new modernity as Nicolas Bourriaud put it in a recent lecture at Valand.) It’s as if the object becomes stretched out in two directions until you have the plastic, wood and metal in one hand, and an idea or social category in the other. Ceci n’est pas une pip and so on.

I might be lacking whatever gene it is that makes some of the bicycle people not as enthusiastic about my boom-bike as I am. I see it as an instance of a bike, an embodiment of features and designs and materials that under other cicumstanced would be a fancy Bianchi. So when I see the titanium rapid prototyping that Arcam offers I imagine that I could recreate my beater as it was built. The object is incidental, what we imbue it with is not.

You could argue that I am a vulgar person with no appreciation for workmanship. And you would be right.

You are a screw; A spirally inclined plane.

The Manual tells us that in the beginning the Builder decreed six fundamental Machines. These are his six aspects, and all we do we must do with the Six. We need no other machines. I believe this with all my heart. I do. And yet sometimes I seem to intuit the existence of a seventh Machine, hovering like a blasphemous ghost just beyond apprehension. There is something wrong with me, and I don’t know what it is.

→ William Shunn: Inclination.

Although we refer to the six simple machines there is really only three – the lever, the wheel & axle, and the inclined plane. The wedge, the pulley, and the screw are modifications of the first three.

→ Balmoral Science Department: Simple Machines.

A simple machine is a mechanical device that changes the direction or magnitude of a force. In general, they can be defined as the simplest mechanisms that use mechanical advantage (also called leverage) to multiply force. A simple machine uses a single applied force to do work against a single load force

→ Wikipedia: Simple machine.