The viral popularity of Pokémon Go, and with it the abrupt arrival of Augmented Reality in the mainstream has prompted me to track down a short story I read a few years back: To Hie from Far Cilenia by Karl Schroeder. It’s about the combination of two kinds of AR: Augmented Reality and Alternate Reality. Augmented reality superimposes additional information on the real world, and in the story, this is used to construct parallel societies. Imagine a future “game” where you don’t just have to go to certain places, but rather get directed to do certain things:

… they tended rooftop gardens or drove vans containing produce from location to secret location. Everything they needed for basic survival was produced outside of the formal economy and took no resources from it.

With AR glasses seemingly just a few years off, this does not seem like a particularly futuristic idea.

While tracking down this story, I finally got around to reading the entire anthology it was published in: Metatropolis, which is excellent. The book’s second story, Stochasi-City by Tobias Buckell, contains some fascinating ideas about the combination of AR and the gig economy (called turking, after Amazon Mechanical Turk). The ability to get instructions in real-time, from a potentially anonymous source, could be devastatingly effective in organising a crowd-sourced insurgency:

All you did for a turked army was to put a brick down by the side of a road. And maybe all it took was a few hundred other bricks placed to create a roadblock. Individually, you could claim you were just making a buck […] as a whole, a vast and complicated and decentralized attack, they could bring armies down to their knees before anyone knew what had happened. […] I could see [him] opening fire on some starving teenager with a toy gun, while the cameras relayed the horrible results live to some hungry, waiting news service. Then after the cameras shut off, the kids with the real guns, who looked just like the others, moved in to attack.

Of course, this doesn’t need to be violent — later in the story, the technology is used to organise a protest, keeping ahead of the police with superior coordination. Pokémon Go has already been shown to be able to almost instantly mobilise large crowds — it does not take huge leaps of imagination to connect this to protests. In fact, PoGo players were lured to an anti-anti-immigration protest just recently in Germany (link in German).

I don’t really have a big message here — I just had to get those quotes out of my head. Pokémon Go might be the first popular AR game, but it probably won’t be the last, so it’s interesting to consider where those technologies might lead.

Log 1/2016

Stacks in the field and unexpected sequels

Busy few months since the last time I wrote one of these. Attended the chaos communication congress again, did a little bit of travelling and a lot of physics. Luckily, I found some time for reading as well, so here are some things I found interesting.

The future of the book is once again under discussion. Craig Mod, as usual, has some thoughts. Here’s an interesting discussion on new storytelling modes emerging.

Speaking of Craig, there’s also his field report from Myanmar, where smartphones are most people’s first and only computers and Facebook reigns supreme. I had not quite realised the implication of one billion Facebook users. It really puts all of our navel-gazing about platform lock-in, privacy and emerging social networks into perspective. The Stacks are here, and they’re here to stay.

That field report is an off-shoot from a research project run by Studio Radio Durans (annual report/obsessively designed duffle), a consultancy which would be quite at home in the pages of a William Gibson book. I found myself re-reading his Bridge trilogy recently, which still manages to be surprisingly relevant.

Reading science fiction to understand the present seems more appropriate than ever. Vice’s Terraform is definitely on the right track, publishing stories exploring that boundary. I particularly liked The End of Big Data and Headcold recently.

To my great delight, I found out (via this short story) that a sequel to Blindsight (previously) exists. It’s great, dark and thoroughly depressing. Not a particularly pleasant future. But what a ride!

Personally, I hope we manage to reverse the trend toward a cyberpunk dystopia, and end up in a solarpunk situation instead.

Completely unrelated, but very pleasant: A beautifully illustrated sci-fi piece about Tokyo.

You’re probably working too much. Particularly if you’re in academia.

Week 32-40

It’s been a while; I’ve been travelling, to the Chaos Communication Camp, to Croatia, to Venice (where I saw the marvellous Anomalisa), and now, finally, to London. I’ll stay here for the next two years, working on a Master’s degree in physics. Going to be fun, that.

I did have some time for reading over that break, so here’s some quick notes on that:

  • The Information, by James Gleick: Bought this book in 2013 (!), finally finished it. It’s a good overview of the history of information theory, maybe not the most academically deep, but fun and quite comprehensive.
  • Light and Nova Swing by M. John Harrison: Deeply peculiar science fiction books. Darkly beautiful prose, set in a wonderfully disturbing universe.
  • Luna by Ian McDonald: Perfect world-building; People living on the moon, where corporations rule and everything is a contract. He really is a master of creating a sense of place. The plot is fine, the characters are relatable enough, the cliffhanger is brutal.

Otherwise, due to spotty internet connectivity and just generally not having a routine, I haven’t really kept up. Some news still managed to sneak in. The TSA master keys got leaked and promptly 3d printed. I got sucked into this hilariously long article series on humanity, evolution and the future. Burning Man took place, and people have been writing increasingly damning things about it. Whiz Kalifa got arrested for riding a hoverboard. (Another delightful sentence.) Fez, a game I quite enjoyed, still hasn’t given up all its secrets. Ashley Madison got hacked, and The Awl has a great piece on the implications. The inventor of soylent wrote a description of his current lifestyle (grimly cyberpunk), and Warren Ellis brilliantly wrote about that:

It is that time in the cycle where the Libertarian App Future Brothers start living off the grid, buying guns and getting good and weird out there alone in the dark. I wonder how we’ll look back at this whole period of the last five or ten years. At how the digital gold rush and the strange pressures of a new, yet accelerated, period of cultural invention cooked a whole new set of mental wounds out of the people swept up in it. Yes, sure, it gave us sociopaths who prefer humans to be drones and believe that everything is rotting. But I think, reviewing the era, that we will be sad. I think we may look back and consider that, one more time, we saw the best minds of our generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves after an Uber that isn’t actually there because Uber fake most of those little cars you see on the Uber app map.

Week 31

Finished both books I mentioned the last time. Aristoi feels like a spiritual sibling to the Golden Age books. They’re all sci-fi books using the trappings of their genre to construct situations in which hopelessly regressive politics can be applied.

I still don’t know where to place Annihilation. It’s somehow unsettling, but not quite enough to make it a genuine horror novel, and the main character remains strangely out of focus. I have moved on to the sequel, Authority. Maybe these books only make sense as part of an ensemble.

This article might amuse you: The Jaguar and the Fox, an account of the rivalry between Feynman and Gell-Mann. Both made immense contributions to physics, but you probably know only one of them…

It’s been two great weeks for futuristic drone headlines! Amazon has plans for new airspace rules for delivery drones. Personally, I don’t quite understand the point of delivery drones, particularly in densely populated cities. Do they just drop off the packages on the roof? On a balcony? Do they try to fly in through the window?

Some kid got arrested for strapping a handgun to a quadcopter. Here’s an immensely gratifying gif of a first-person drone race.

We’re also basically screwed.

Week 29

Ideology, linguistics and existential horror

Back in the land of the living, clutching a bachelor’s certificate to my chest, panting.

Here’s an examination of the ideology underlying Pixar movies on The Awl:

In every Pixar film, the protagonist’s arc is oriented toward the ultimate goal of being an efficient, productive worker—whether employment has been thematized as being a father, princess, robot janitor, toy, ant colonist, harvester of screams, adventurer in South America, or otherwise.

Incidentally, The Verge recently published a delightful profile of The Awl, which not only gives a clear-eyed survey of the current media landscape, but also contains gems like this:

It’s really a giant lesbian Australian socialized collective with capitalism in the mix in a really gross way.

The community on Tumblr has apparently started evolving its own linguistic conventions.

Now that free time is a thing in my life again, I started reading the Southern Reach trilogy. It’s nice and mysterious and creepy, like a less high-octane nightmare fuel version of Liminal States. I’m also reading Aristoi, but it’s a bit hard to parse all the neologisms.

After refusing to even admit that vlog is an actual word for years, I finally got around to watching Casey Neistat’s. I’m still struggling to make sense of it all.

Beme is strangely amusing; I’m sirmarcel there. (The article is fun too, with its barely contained undertone of “what the hell are those kids up to today?”)

Week 25

Maker future, connected future, everything future

But this “future”—a dusty, meaty world where human skin and sweat and hair were all around, but so were lasers and UAVs and freaking wind-walking robots? That was a future I could live in. A future devoted to pleasing one another.

I’ve been reading short books this week, starting with Cory Doctorow’s recently award-winning novella The Man Who Sold the Moon. It’s basically him thinking about the future in terms of the maker subculture, which he really gets. He also published an essay in the Guardian last week, talking about the internet and its role in society:

There are many fights more important than the fight over how the internet is regulated. Equity in race, gender, sexual preference; the widening wealth gap; the climate crisis – each one far more important than the fight over the rules for the net.

Except for one thing: the internet is how every one of these fights will be won or lost. Without a free, fair and open internet, proponents of urgent struggles for justice will be outmanoeuvred and outpaced by their political opponents, by the power-brokers and reactionaries of the status quo. The internet isn’t the most important fight we have; but it’s the most foundational.

The other book was Cunning Plans, a compilation of speeches given by Warren Ellis. He talks about the future, about technology and magic, and it’s glorious:

I’m just an ageing white man with eight teeth and a tin can with rusty water in it. It’s too late for me. All I could do was gather you up into a room and then lock it. It’s not too late for you. It’s not too late for the future. Start talking. Start building it. Make it calmly, and make it complex and inclusive. Make it real. Make it human. Make it weird and wonderful. No more circuses. Make Future Everything.

I’ve been enjoying Cortex recently, much to my bewilderment. It’s a new podcast, and it’s just two guys I never even heard about talking about how they get their work done. I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoy it so much, but I do.

All my remaining free time was consumed by Sense8. The show’s premise is pure sci-fi: Eight strangers across the world suddenly become mentally linked; but this premise is used to tell a beautiful, inclusive story about human connection. The editing is masterful, weaving together scenes from around the globe, making the show feel post-geographical rather than merely international. It seems contemporary and native to the twenty-first century in a way I haven’t quite seen before.

Speaking of the twenty-first century.

Week 24

Mysterious books, drone races and delicious sentences

Gibsonesque things are afoot in the Valley:

A mysterious little book called Iterating Grace is floating around San Francisco right now. At least a dozen people have received the book in the mail—or in my case, by secret hand-delivery to my house. (Which is a little creepy.)

The book, a darkly satirical piece on a programmer-turned-sage, is, somewhat surprisingly, really good:

He began to see, in their tweets, hints of some elusive, but irrefutable wisdom: a string of logic that underwrote the universe like code. For him, the tossed-off musings and business maxims of these men (they were almost all men) shimmered with a certain numinous luster. He contemplated individual tweets for days, sometimes weeks, expounding on them at length in the margins of his books about the sea, meditating on them as though they were koans.

Alexis Madrigal, who received a copy and thankfully transcribed it, has a nice round-up of the entire affair. It feels like something straight out of Pattern Recognition.

Speaking of start-up culture, I honestly couldn’t tell if this was a joke or not. Subsequently, I found out that they are not only entirely serious, but also part of a thriving sub-genre of cooking gadget start-ups. The future is profoundly weird.

See also: The Tamborzão Goes to Thailand, a delightful tale about the migration of Brazilian dance music to Thailand that also manages to make some beautiful points about music and globalisation.

I see a glimmer of hope for new global connections born in the rapture of music rather than in the trauma of colonialism.

People are racing drones around abandoned warehouses. That’s a sentence I wouldn’t have expected to type a few years ago. Another delicious sentence: Jacob Applebaum and Ai Weiwei collaborated on an art project. (Previously.)

To round this missive off, here’s a little photo story of a café crawl (it’s a thing) in Tokyo. And some music and Mars colonisation.

Week 23

QFT, poetry, Kurzweil and depressing futures

I’ve been reading Introduction to Quantum Field Theory, and occasionally, I have to just step back and marvel at how utterly insane it all looks. Came across this timely post by Warren Ellis, who writes:

Science can produce the greatest poetry of the age. Even headline writing at otherwise sober institutions like take on mad poetry, just because that’s the way things are now.

Now I can’t stop thinking about the fact that what I do every day is basically indistinguishable from performance art or hermetic poetry to most people. That’s comforting, in a way.

Still digesting the monumental Seveneves, so no particular news on the reading front. Had a blast re-reading the first chapter of Snow Crash, just for the sheer kinetic thrill of it.

Kurzweil is being Kurzweil and predicts computers in everybody’s brain by 2030. I still find it insane that he works for Google DARPA 2.0 now.

There’s also this video of some voice search app being fast and smart.

The Awl has a brillant, depressing riff on the way our transition to a fully automated economy might turn out. In a similar vein, here’s a nice rant on “optimistic” jetpack-and-spires sci-fi.

There are whole generations of moviegoers for whom jetpacks don’t mean shit, whose first memories of NASA are the Challenger disaster. And you know what? Those same generations believe in driverless cars, solar energy, smart cities, AR contacts, and vat-grown meat. […] They don’t want the depiction of an “optimistic” future. They want a future where their concerns are taken seriously and humanely, with compassion and intelligence and validation.

Also: Goodbye, Community. You had a good run, and a perfect final episode. And even a perfect last tag.

Books I particularly enjoyed in 2014

As every reader should, I keep track of the books I read.1 Here are the ones I particularly enjoyed in 2014.

  • The Peripheral by William Gibson: Probably my book of the year. Gibson’s future visions are just so perfectly poignant.2 A warning though: This book dumps you in its world, and then lets you figure things out for yourself. Fortunately, there’s Gibson’s beautifully layered prose to keep you company.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir: An astronaut gets stranded on Mars and has to survive with the tools at hand. Weir manages to blend technical accuracy (or at least a convincing impression of it), a snarky protagonist and a certain sense of optimism beautifully. This novel is an engineer’s dream come true, and refuses to be literary in any sense. I love it for that.
  • A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge: A far-future first contact story with masterful world-building and great characters. Some of them are spiders, and that’s no big deal.
  • The Dervish House by Ian McDonald: Set in a near-future Istanbul, the novel throbs with the energy of this metropolis. McDonald makes this city feel like an actual place, and in a way, like home.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts: Basically Solaris on crack, with a side order of crystal-clear prose and boatloads of pragmatism. It’s depressing, it’s cynical, it’s great.
  • Diaspora by Greg Egan: I’m technically cheating here, this was a re-read, but I just have to plug it again. Diaspora is a truly hard sci-fi book, with serious digressions into mathematics and physics, but also some of the best post-singularity world-building I have come across so far. Quite a ride.

I read a lot of science fiction last year, mainly because it’s my home genre and I was too busy to stray. I want to change it this year, just for variety’s sake. Or maybe because reality is catching up to science fiction far too quickly… just looking at the news, we’re basically living in the early days of a cyberpunk dystopia. Let’s try to not end up in one.

1. Only 33 this year, incidentally. Quite depressing.

2. You should follow Gibson on Twitter, by the way. He’s like a one-person magazine on the emerging future.


Some photos from my summer holiday on the island of Hvar, which I completely forgot to post for a few months. Maybe they’ll help you feel warm in this soggy winter?

On the ferry there.

That’s Stiller by Max Frisch, one of the summer reads I still haven’t finished. It’s not the book’s fault, though. I’m just easily distracted by other books.

This is a great novella, go read it!

The island has been inhabited since about 3500 BC. Apparently, the archeologists are quite enthusiastic about that. So am I!

Couldn’t resist the good old shallow focus and sunset combo.

Archaeology is funny!

Hi, I'm Marcel. This is where I put stuff on the internet. You can follow me on Twitter, or read the about page (if you're into that sort of thing).