Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: Quick Notes

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Quick notes on this book by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs, a popularisation of a 10-year study in which 32 middle-class Los Angeles families opened their doors to archaeologists and anthropologists to photograph, count, and classify every single visible object in their house.

Introduction

  • In general, it’s fascinating to look inside a wide range of American households. The houses were not specially tidied for the photographer so it’s a raw and realistic portrait.
  • The photos were taken from 2001-2005, so they’re pretty dated.
  • They didn’t look inside cupboards or wardrobes or boxes. I’m sure this is partly unavoidable due to privacy concerns, but it would skew the findings somewhat. Neither did they count “abundant stacks of papers, mail, and magazines, which we deemed impossible to tally with accuracy…”
  • If you were doing the study today, you’d get a grad student to walk inside with a SLR or 4K video camera and try to use machine vision to classify everything. If it worked well, you could identify every visible book, album, picture, and even do stuff like estimate the total mass and volume of objects. It’d make for a good cross-departmental research project.
  • The authors spend a little too long talking about just how much work the project took, which I don’t doubt but probably doesn’t warrant mentioning so many times. We already bought the book!
  • If you’re wondering how the researchers selected the 32 houses, this book won’t tell you. I assume the process is detailed in one of the original research papers, but it’s surprising they don’t include it here.

General & Storage

  • Americans own way more shit than I ever imagined. No wonder you’re all in debt.
  • A lovely turn of phrase: the US is the “most materially rich society in global history”.
  • At the time of writing, the US had 3.1% of world’s children, but 40% of the spending on toys.
  • One parent: “The closet is extremely unutilised because we usually can’t get to it.”
  • “Cars have been banished from 75% of garages to make way for rejected furniture and cascading bins and boxes of mostly forgotten household goods.” The authors estimate that 90% of the total square footage of garages in Los Angeles is used for storage.

Kitchens & Food

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  • “The typical Los Angeles refrigerator front panel is host to a mean of 52 objects.”
  • Making dinners with “mostly” convenience foods is only about 10% (or 5 minutes) faster than dinners that use mostly raw ingredients. Measured differently, convenience foods involve 26 minutes of “hands on” preparation time, versus 38 min for raw foods (excluding any oven/microwave time). A 12 minute different in preparation time isn’t as small a margin as the authors make it out to be, especially for busy and tired parents, but they do point out that convenience foods reduce complexity and shopping/planning time.
  • 14% of meals were from take out!
  • “Stockpiling is an efficient foraging strategy for parents who want to minimise the number of times they have round up young children…”

Everything Else

  • No-one uses their back yards.
  • Most of the houses are single storey, including the big ones.
  • I would love to see a longitudinal study to observed the effects of the recession and the impact of smartphones and tablets on the total material load inside US households.
  • Toilets have been unchanged in form for many decades. I note that out of all the rich tech companies I have visited over the years, only Google X had those fancy Japanese toilet/bidets.
  • This has not aged well: “At no point during tens of thousands of years of human history have people been as deeply engaged with nonessential technologies as we are today. Ownership of devices associated with entertainment and mobile communication has escalated from fad to addiction.” I should add that the edition I read was published in June 2017, long after it had become apparent that computers cannot be considered “nonessential technologies” that are only good for addictions.

A verse from Pablo Neruda, reflecting on the possessions at his home in Chile

They told me
many things, everything.
not only did they touch me
and take the hand I gave them
but they were bound to my life
in such a way
that they lived in me
and were such a living part of me
that they shared half of my life
and will die half of my death.

I really need to stop paying attention to The Verge’s book reviews. They loved The Gone World, which struck me as a novel-length SCP written by a fan of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. Gratuitously gruesome, weirdly incompetent (woman) protagonist, plot that doesn’t hold up under inspection at all. So… let’s make it into a movie!

Read ebooks? Fuck you! (says the book industry)

It is 100% impossible for humanity to invent a technology superior to printed books. Who doesn’t love the feel of the printed page, suffused with organic volatiles that emit its distinctive scent, bound into a form so perfect that it’s hard to believe humans invented it, that –

Me. I don’t love printed books.

Now, I own hundreds of printed books. Some of my best friends are printed books. And yet I prefer to read books on my phone and tablet. Call me old fashioned, but you just can’t beat a good backlit screen that you can read in the dark.

I’m not here to convert you, though. I just want the book industry to stop hating me. Continue reading “Read ebooks? Fuck you! (says the book industry)”

How to Succeed in Digital Storytelling

Stop the presses: storytelling has just entered the digital age! Every month, daring authors are creating new kinds of interactive experiences that push the boundary of what’s possible, featuring such innovations as ‘branching storylines’, ‘non-linear narratives’, and ‘illustrations’ – none of which would be possible in printed books. These authors are being aided by risk-taking, forward-thinking publishers, and together they are trailblazing paths into imaginative new territories.

You too can be part of this revolution! But it’s not enough just to write a good digital story – the true mark of success is not critical praise, popular acclaim, or financial success, but rather, it’s being covered in mass media.

That’s why I conducted an exhaustive survey of digital storytelling coverage on traditional media such as newspapers, trade publications, and general interest websites. By means of a proprietary deep learning algorithm I developed last night, I extracted the precise elements that will help – or hinder – your quest to get coverage, and assigned each one a point value. Naturally, nothing is guaranteed, but if your digital story ends up with a high point score, you can be confident you’ll be lauded by the likes of the New York Times and BBC.

Without further ado, the guide!:

+10 points if you’ve been engaged by a traditional publisher (bonus 20 points if it’s by a well-known one such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins)

+10 if you’re an established novelist (bonus 20 if you hate apps and have never used a smartphone before)

+10 if it comes out at the same time as the traditional novel it was so clearly originally written as

-10 if your digital stories have sold more than 10,000 copies (-20 if they’ve sold more than 100,000; no-one likes that populist stuff)

-50 if anyone has ever called or compared it to ‘a game’

+20 if it’s episodic

+20 if its chapters can be read in any order

+20 if it has pretty illustrations that’ll look great in an article (bonus 20 if it has animations)

+20 if you hate Twitter, would never use it, and are prepared to write a piece saying so

+30 if you claim you have never played games or interactive fiction, yet are confident that your story is superior and more innovative

+5 if it does stupid-ass locational bullshit that means the journalist can get a day out of the office to try it out

+10 if the author is willing to say that “this kind of thing is just a bit of fun and will never replace real books”

-20 if it’s science fiction, fantasy, or romance

+10 if it’s based on Shakespeare, Dickens, or similarly out-of-copyright classic authors

+10 if it’s for kids (bonus 5 points if it’s ‘educational’)

+20 if your story involves Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Apple (bonus 10 points if it’s actually made by them)

+20 if your publisher has raised $1 million+ in VC

-20 if your publisher is profitable

-30 if your publisher has existed for more than 5 years

With thanks to Naomi Alderman, who provided essential help on the survey

Books of January 2016

This year, I’ve committed to reading more books, for reasons I discuss in this podcast. So far, I’ve read eight books, which is six ahead of my ’25 books in 2016′ schedule:

  1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Not sure what all the fuss was about. The worldbuilding and descriptions of magic were well done, but ultimately rendered empty by the flat characters, who were quite literally plot devices.
  2. Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald: Game of Thrones meets The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but in a good way.
  3. What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly: Achieves that rare feat of being a book about technology that doesn’t feel instantly dated. Worth reading, and a new take on the techno-optimist slant.
  4. Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton: Great fun, as expected from the webcomic.
  5. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett: Surprisingly enough, a novel with great worldbuilding and decent characters that isn’t part of a 7-book series.
  6. Sword of My Mouth: A Post-Rapture Graphic Novel by Jim Monroe
  7. Common Sense by Thomas Paine: Still stirring; decided to read this after the related In Our Time. Not exactly book-length, I know.
  8. Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton: Also great fun.

Currently reading Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock; so far, so good, except for the feeling that it would’ve made for a killer 20,000 word New Yorker piece rather than an entire book.

Railhead = YA Hyperion + Culture

I’ve been a fan of Philip Reeve after reading his thrilling Mortal Engines quartet. Strictly speaking, Philip Reeve is a young adult SF/fantasy author, but I found this series to be more imaginative and darker than many other ‘adult’ novels. A lot of his other books have been for younger children, but when I heard that he’d written an out-and-out SF novel called Railhead, I had to check it out.

Railhead is an exciting amalgam of two of my favourite SF series: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (well, the first two books, anyway), and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. The Hyperion part stems from Railhead’s network of wormholes, connected by – of course – railways; plus the presence of godlike AIs with their own cryptic plans. The Culture part is represented by the slightly-smarter-than-human AI trains, with appropriately Banksian names, plus the well-written action, explosions, drones, and AI avatars. There’s also a dash of Dune and Hunger Games in there, as well.

Perhaps the most Banksian thing – and the most surprising to see in a young adult SF novel – is Railhead’s refreshingly modern treatment of gender norms and sexuality. Some characters are gay, and some characters regularly switch sexes, leading to offhanded passages like this:

She was gendered female, with a long, wise face, a blue dress, silver hair in a neat chignon.

and

Malik got a promotion. He got himself a husband, a house on Grand Central, a cat.

and

And, to cut the story short, it fell in love with him. And he fell in love with it. In the years that followed, Anais came to him again and again. Sometimes its interface was female, sometimes male. Sometimes it was neither. Different bodies, different faces, but he always knew it.

An unexpected but pleasant surprise!

Initial Thoughts on KSR's Aurora

Spoilers abound for the entire plot of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy changed my life. I was 14 and reading plenty of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov when I idly flipped through our monthly book club brochure. They usually didn’t have any science fiction, so I was surprised to see an entire page devoted to a book called Red Mars. It was by some author I’d never heard of and therefore of questionable quality, but Arthur C. Clarke himself urged readers to give it their time. “The ultimate in science fiction,” or something similarly unambiguous.

We bought the book – we had to, that’s how book clubs worked – and I fell in love with the idea of colonising Mars. I felt as if Kim Stanley Robinson had demonstrated that not only was it possible, not only was it sublime, but it was absolutely necessary for the project of humanity becoming a fairer, more enlightened people. At an impressionable age, this book made the biggest impression, and was enough to spark my ambition to write an essay, win a competition, travel to a Mars conference in the US on my own, organise youth groups, speak at TED, and so on.

I am not active in the Mars exploration movement, or even the space exploration movement any more. I remain deeply interested, but it became clear to me that the road to Mars would be much longer and much harder than anyone had expected. Even now, even with SpaceX, it feels as if the decades keep ticking up. What once might have happened in 2020 will now happen in 2030, or 2040, or later. And when we get there, what then? Creating a world from scratch is hard, slow work.

Kim Stanley Robinson regrets the effect the Mars trilogy had on people like me. At least, that’s the impression I got from Aurora, a tale of the near-impossibility, and hence near-pointlessness, of creating an Earth-like environment outside of Earth. It’s not his fault; the science has changed since the 90s. We now know that Mars has much less nitrogen than we need for growing plants, and the vast amounts of perchlorates on the surface are a serious hazard to humans. These, and other new obstacles, could lengthen the time to terraform Mars from centuries to millennia, or tens of millennia. Perhaps our technology will advance to meet the challenge, but there’s no question the challenge is herculean.

Yet no-one seems dissuaded by this. In fact, I had never even heard of the nitrogen and perchlorates problem until reading Aurora. It’s as if merely asserting that colonising Mars is an imperative for the survival of humanity suddenly makes it possible. What must happen, will happen.

And why is colonising Mars an imperative? Because, in part, of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

So Aurora is a corrective. We follow an attempt to colonisation a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, light years from Earth. In short, it fails. Everything fails. Not the just colonisation of Tau Ceti, but the very starship that took the colonists there as well. All the beautifully designed miniature Earth-like biomes on the starship fail, because that’s what happens to enclosed ecosystems with a wide variety of flora and fauna, all evolving at different rates.

Our colonists do try, though. A engineer/biologist is positively heroic in her efforts to keep the starship running, a rather unusual note in a science fiction novel (although not, to be fair, The Martian); and some colonists are so determined to press on with the project in Tau Ceti that they choose to take the one in ten thousand chance of creating a new world. Those are, of course, terrible odds. Only in a certain kind of story do you win that gamble, and this is not that kind of story.

What kind of story is it, then? An anti-space exploration story? Not really. Robinson describes a solar system full of thriving outposts and colonies, all trading with one and another, and most crucially, with Earth. He talks about the eventual colonisation of Mars – in a few thousand years time. This is not the imagination of someone who wants to smash rockets. In his world, Space exploration is exciting, it’s laudable, it’s inevitable, but it’s not a solution to preserving the future of humanity. And while volunteers will line up to take the riskiest of gambles, it’s not so clear that their children and grandchildren, left on a fragile miniature ecosystem too far from Earth, should have to risk their lives as well. No, the future of humanity is best assured by preserving the future of Earth’s ecosystem.

This kind of talk used to sound like sedition to me, spread by shortsighted fools who’d say, “Why explore space when we have problems on Earth?” It still does, sort of. It may not seem like it, but humanity is wealthier than ever, and I still think we can well afford to explore and travel in space, and to Mars.

The problem is, it’s not just on Mars that the facts have changed, with its nitrogen and perchlorates – it’s Earth as well, with its warming air and rising seas and fraying ecosystem. So I don’t feel unjustified in changing my mind as well about our priorities and how we think about the future of humanity, not after reading Aurora.

It’s been almost twenty years since I first opened Red Mars, but I’m still impressionable – at least, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

A History of the Future, Now Free

Two years ago, A History of the Future in 100 Objects was published. The book describes a hundred slices of the future of everything, spanning politics, technology, art, religion, and entertainment. Some of the objects are described by future historians; others through found materials, short stories, or dialogues.

Today, I’m making all 100 chapters available online, for free.

The book has sold a few thousand copies – reasonably well for a first author. More importantly, it was received well by the people whose opinions I value; I was invited to speak at the Long Now Foundation last summer by Stewart Brand, and it was praised by the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders and by Grantland’s Kevin Nguyen, who called it one of the ‘overlooked books of 2013‘. Next month, I’ll be speaking about the same ideas at the Serpentine Gallery’s Transformation Marathon.

So, at this point I’m much more interested in spreading the ideas far and wide. Of course, you can still buy the book via Amazon or directly from me (it’s very nicely formatted), but I’m just as happy if you read it on the web.

I wrote A History of the Future in 100 Objects because I’ve always been deeply fascinated by what’s coming next. I’m a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist by training, and a games designer and CEO by trade. It’s my job to think up new ideas and ways to improve people’s lives, and perhaps because of that, I’m optimistic – cautiously, skeptically optimistic – about the future.

The future that I want to realise is the hard-fought utopia of Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain Banks and Vernor Vinge, not the dystopia that dominates fiction nowadays. But I’m not naive, and technoutopianism brings me out in hives, so don’t expect me to tell you that technology will make everything better.

This book is my small contribution to the exploration of the future. It turns out that writing a hundred short stories was far, far more difficult than I had ever imagined, and in truth only some of the chapters hit the mark perfectly. But even so, I think there are plenty of fun ideas there.

Why The Circle Won’t Happen

(in which, yes, I discuss the plot of the book)

This week, Nest announced a ‘beautiful’ new smoke alarm that’s more advanced, more connected, more user-friendly, and more expensive than anything else on the market. Naturally, the press jumped on it like a Republican on a closed national monument.

It does a lot — it monitors both smoke and carbon monoxide, it’s wirelessly networked and internet connected so you can make sure your house isn’t burning down while you’re on holiday, and it communicates with Nest’s thermostat product.

But it doesn’t have everything. It doesn’t, for example, have a camera. Adding a camera would turn the alarm into a great home security product, one that would let you peek into every room in your house. Sounds great, right? Up until last week, I’d have agreed, but now the very suggestion brings me out in hives. The reason is because I’ve read Dave Eggers latest novel, The Circle.

www.randomhouse

The Circle is a near-future company that melds Facebook, Twitter, Google (and, to an extent, Apple). Its founders have a zealous conviction in the power of openness, transparency, and most importantly, the sharing of everything that can possibly be shared. As Mae Holland, a new customer support team member, works her way up the ranks at The Circle, we see the company driving forth its message with radically disruptive cheap technology that practically enforces transparency and sharing throughout the world. Things get very dramatic.

All of the characters in the story are basically stand-ins for Silicon Valley types (the VC, the hacker, the evangelist, the skeptic, the oldies, etc.) and the plot is rather predictable – but by god, what a plot it is! Eggers really takes Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that the world would be better if no-one felt they had to keep secrets and runs with it as far as he possibly can, which makes for a very dark world. By the end, I was appalled, and the thought of putting more cameras in my flat seemed suicidal.

Now, I expect that a lot of technically-minded people will object to pretty much every single aspect of novel; I know I did when I began reading it. Many of those objections are legitimate, but like 1984, the question is not whether the technology is correct but whether the philosophy of the world it depicts is one that we believe in — because if it is, then maybe we will end up in something like that world.

Eggers makes a strong case for why we’re heading in the direction of his dystopia. He understands our fear of crime and child abuse; he understands the seductive promise that radical transparency and surveillance could solve those problems and many others besides, like corruption and inefficiency and disaster relief. He extrapolates from our seemingly-compulsive use of social media and casual games, and sees a future where we’ll gradually, willingly, happily hand over our agency and individuality to everyone else to the owners of the communications platform that underpins everything.

It’s an awful future. And it’s one that I don’t believe will happen, and here’s why: Continue reading “Why The Circle Won’t Happen”

6. Smart Drugs

2019; Unified Korea

Can we change who we are? For millennia, we’ve eagerly bought potions and medicines that promised to make us smarter and wiser, and for just as long, we’ve been bitterly disappointed. Yet we kept coming back; there was just something irresistible about improving ourselves without any effort.

And then the promises came true.

Today, we might pity those who never had access to personality reconstruction and metacognitive mapping, but it’s easy to forget that mind-altering substances have always given a cruder kind of relief and variety to our lives.From alcohol and caffeine to cannabis and amphetamines, we’ve never lacked ways to stimulate and relax our minds.

It was much trickier, however, to create drugs that increase elements of our intelligence, like improved attention or wakefulness, without harmful side-effects. It wasn’t until the teens and 20s that we had the tools to produce the first true cognitive enhancers, or ‘smart drugs’. Completely unprecedented in history, they caused quite a stir.

I have a range of samples lined up here, provided generously by Prof. Arienne Niyonshuti at the Kigali Museum of Medicine. All of them are from the first wave of readily available consumer-grade smart drugs in 2019. On the left here, we’ve got an orange pill called Tricity, which improves memory formation and recall; next to it, there’s a square chocolate that helps with language; a green pill, Numony, that reduces tiredness and stress; and finally on the right I have a pill of the most well-known smart drug: Ceretin, a wide-spectrum cognitive enhancer.

So, let’s try one out! Here’s a glass of water… and I think I’ll take the Ceretin. Now, I’m told that we’re not supposed to take these drugs any more since they get automatically expunged by our neural laces, but I’ve had Prof. Niyonshuti’s team temporarily disable my lace’s usual functions aside from recording. Prof. Niyonshuti will now explain exactly what’s going on in my brain right now:

“We can see quite clearly that the active components of Ceretin are entering your bloodstream, crossing the blood-brain barrier, and altering the behaviour of your synaptic neurotransmitter receptors in the frontal cortex and cerebellum. It takes a few minutes for the drugs to take effect, though, so we’ll wait a little while before giving you the cognitive tests I’ve prepared.”

What’s extraordinary about these drugs is that their creators actually had very little idea about how they operated. Scientists could observe their effects and check for any harmful side-effects, and they had hypotheses about their method of action, but they would lack anything even approaching a complete model of the brain for at least another decade.

It looks like the Ceretin has now taken effect, so I’m going to take a few old-fashioned tests to assess my memory skills, along with reasoning and attention. I won’t bore you with the details, but they basically involve things like predicting the next symbol in a series, and distractor tests.

…And here are the results! Across the board, my cognitive performance has increased anywhere from fourteen to twenty percent compared to the tests I took beforehand. These results don’t prove anything in themselves, of course — I’m just one person, and this wasn’t a double-blinded experiment — but I definitely feel a fair bit sharper. I can only imagine how appealing it must have felt back then.

These weren’t the first smart drugs on the market — modafinil, an ‘alertness’ drug, was released in the 2000s — but they were the first to gain widespread popularity. The biggest markets for drugs like Ceretin tended to be countries such as China, Japan, Singapore, and Unified Korea, where they were heavily advertised on Starcraft and ZRG casts; North America and the EU lagged behind due to safety concerns.

Smart drugs helped students gain an edge when it came to the exams that controlled entry to meritocracies; they also eked out another percentage point of inaccurately-measured ‘productivity’ in large corporations. However, their high cost prompted violent protests by those who argued that they should either be made freely available or banned — with mandatory drug testing before exams. One Unified Korean chaebol, NSK, provided Mnemosyne for all of its thirty thousand employees.

Of course, it was impossible to stop smart drugs from being illegally imported and sold in other countries at inflated prices. This caused further tensions in highly unequal countries like the US, where they became another symbol of the power the rich had to simply ‘buy’ success. In 2024, President Martinez addressed the issue head-on by legalising not just smart drugs but also recreational drugs, and allowing for the production of cheap ‘generic’ smart drugs just five years after their initial release to market.

Smart drugs had their downsides. Though it was difficult to tell at the time, we now know that the benefits conferred by any given first or second-generation smart drug usually came at the expense of other cognitive functions like creativity, long-term memory formation, or empathy. The drugs also contributed to the damaging ‘speed-up’ culture of the time, increasing the pressure on already-frantic workers.

It’s time to turn my lace back on now, and that means the Ceretin will be flushed out within a few seconds. While it’s doing that, it’s fascinating to look back on how smart drugs, however crude they were, paved the way for our laces. Not long after the first wave, researchers were testing ways of combining them with portable transcranial magnetic stimulation, which offered superior temporal and spatial resolution to drugs, truly changing people’s mental capacities and even personalities. But it all started here, with these four pills…

Follow me at @adrianhon and @futureobjects

A History of the Future in 100 Objects will be available on Kindle, iPhone and iPad this summer as an eBook and iOS Newsstand app. A lovely coffee-table book will be out this autumn.