29 December 2016

Getting to Cyberpunk Corporate Nation-States

This should be easy, given how close we sometimes seem to already existing in some kind of cyberpunk dystopian vision of the near future, but I'm having a bit of trouble imagining exactly what the transition(s) to and structure(s) of corporate nation-states, as opposed to our present standard-fare representative governance nation-state, would most plausibly look like, given a starting point of roughly the early 2000s as the earliest possible point of divergence from the history you and I are familiar with as "true."
To be clear, I am talking about a very common trope of Cyberpunk - that nations, such as they are, will be balkanized, neutered little things, largely co-opted by the corporate interests with holdings inside their borders, in the future. That in many places there might actually exist districts, cities - even states with ONLY corporate and/or criminal syndicate power structures in place. It's a wonderful thematic tool for pasting the oppression, corruption, waste, and inhuman bureaucracy of authoritarian governments onto the template of corporations in order to criticize extreme visions of unrestricted capitalism, but is it plausible, and what would it look like?
Subquestions within this overall question that would add to any answer:
  • What would the relationship between corporation and nation look like?
  • What would be the most common relationship between employees and corporations look like?
  • How would corporations change?
  • How would concepts of citizenship, suffrage, and legal representation for individuals and organizations change?
  • Would there be any semi-stable transitional stages from government rule to full-blown corporate hegemony?
Historical Precedents
The East India company basically ruled India. They directly competed with other East India companies, sometimes directly, and enjoyed a monopoly on trade in the region sanctioned by the English crown. Thus while they were propped up legally by the English, the company itself often held sway in India proper. The nature of the power structure seems fundamentally to have been one in which the company posed as an intermediary between the west and the various regional principalities of India, controlling their governments by monopolizing the income available to them and pitting them against each other to keep them in check. They loaned the British government significant sums of money, essentially propping up Britain in dire straits and profiting immensely from its monopoly so bought in times of relative prosperity, where its products were readily consumed by the British public.
The BEIC marshalled and directed its own navy and army in campaigns and garrisons, with personnel drawn primarily from the native population whose lands it owned. These forces were used to enforce Company directives among the native governments. This force made the BEIC kingmakers. Such arrangements with local governments ensured the company did not incur the costs of governance - inimical to profits, especially when tasked with ensuring the compliance of native populations. This was fundamentally possible due to the power vacuum ensuing the fall of Mughal greatness by the rise of the Marathas and other Hindu groups in India - regional hegemony was in the hands of no one in particular.
Company profit was extracted at the expense of sustainability, to put it lightly. Regional stability and rule of law suffered consequently; India was in that time a nation ruled by a company and the thugs who did not get in its way.
Its corporate lobby was responsible for things like the Tea Act, which precipitated the emergence of the USA - and the undermining of Chinese rule of law via international opium drug trade.
Fundamentally, the BEIC was a joint-stock company insured by the British government and capable of almost unhindered operation throughout the subcontinent and much of the high seas. It was dissolved ultimately by an act of the British government in the wake of rebellion on the subcontinent which saw the company's military control of government there dissolve.
The BEIC was basically everything anyone could want of a horrifically omnipotent, octopoid, corporate stand-in for government.
These large Japanese business interests get disproportionate mention in Cyberpunk, probably fueled by western fears in the 1980s, the decate in which we may say the genre was born. Fundamentally the amalgamation of a private holding company, industrial conglomerates, and a wholly-owned and backing banking organization, Zaibatsu basically ran Japanese economics, including tax collection, especially prior to WWII. Their differentiation from criminal Yakuza is sometimes hazy, and they also ran political organizations and engaged in quite a bit of military-industrial complex-ing. Their employees expressed considerable devotion to zaibatsu interests likely stemming from a cultural background encouraging such behavior. Their dominance came to an end with the fascist government of the 1930s and 40s nationalizing many of their assets.
Zaibatsu represent a blurring of the lines between family, corporation, government, and the individual, enabling remarkably stable and potent power structures to exist within a more powerful government.
Banana Republics When you have a country whose economy is based on the profits of a few or even just one company, you have a banana republic. While in a large and complex way one might consider the BEIC's rule over India a kind of very large and powerful Banana Republic, the Latin American examples of history provide a more recent and plentiful set of stories to draw inspiration from.
Banana Republics expose salient features of corporations which assume features of the nation-state: effective monopoly on trade and the backing of a foreign power more potent than the government in whose lands they are doing business.
In a very literal sense, organized criminal activities constitute nothing less than the unsanctioned operation of a "government and corporation" within the borders of one or more nation-states. Whereas these organizations are forced by the extralegal nature of their operations to utilize security enforcement and legal codes of their own design in place of the systems they subvert, such groups are immediately to be considered candidates for cooperation with corporations wishing to extend their influence within jurisdictions these groups exert influence upon. These mafias often arise most powerfully in the presence of disadvantaged identity groups which help to guarantee the loyalty and trust which transcends loyalty to and trust in the governing organizations they supersede. In situations where these organizations face no real pushback from existing governments, they themselves become the government.
The Transition
Considering the above, it seems most likely to me that transition from modern customary representative nation-states involves the arrival of various converging states of affairs in a single jurisdiction:
  • Superior foreign backing
  • Local power vacuums
  • Corporate monopoly of trade
  • Displacement of trust and loyalty in the population from their governments to their employers and/or local crime syndicates.
Interestingly, some of these seem to precipitate the others. If you have a corporate monopoly on trade and/or a large crime syndicate, local governmental power will ebb, leading to a power vacuum which makes it more likely a corporation backed by any number of more powerful foreign states could impose corporate rule over an area and win the short-tern trust and loyalty of a local population.
I foresee a transitional period during which increasing income disparity and the instability of a maturing global market dominated by disruptive technological innovators leads to widespread disparity in the well-being of nation-states around the world. Such variation makes it possible for corporations to pick and choose nations willing to back them which may also be more powerful than nations in which these corporations which to do business, enabling them to easily play upon local power vacuums to get their way. Initial deficits in enforcement would be handled either by mercenary/criminal partnerships or by proxy government forces as already modeled in our historical record.
There are not many clues about what kinds of corporations would be most apt for this kind of existence, but we may assume that both private and publicly-owned firms are liable. Ideally they will be international and liquid, capable of making large investments in new markets at the drop of a hat to take advantage of local imbalances. Conglomerates will be better positioned to take advantage of opportunities to establish monopolies on trade in a variety of areas. Unique company cultures with strong team-building aspects will probably also be prevalent among the early adopters of this company-as-nation move.
One thing that is really only inferred from the above investigation, yet which I believe will also be fundamental, is a breakdown in international law. This is a somewhat surprising conclusion, since it had often been assumed that Globalization would make transnational conglomerates with immeasurable wealth and influence more common and therefore more likely to take advantage of smaller nations, but I believe that larger governments are too able to intervene in such affairs so long as the international community generally agrees on the legal aspects of such behavior. For a company based out of China to exert undue influence in a small African nation, for example, the world community of nations must not hear the voice of that small African nation or be interested in coming to its aid. How such a breakdown in international law would occur is a speculation more suited to an entirely separate question and will not be further investigated here.
The Stable Final State
The transition reaches stable equilibrium when no governments or government coalitions stand which are capable of or interested in toppling corporate nation-states, and such nation-states are ingrained into the fabric of the societies they do business in. There can be no Economic Singularity, since this destroys the concept of a corporation, so it seems that for such a future to exist we might/must assume widespread proliferation of monopolies resulted in siloed, proprietary knowledge economies without significant to-market contributions.
What would the relationship between corporation and nation look like? It would be, in most cases around the world, one where a single corporate entity used the government as a proxy, or - as it might see it - a unique subsidiary public relations and regulatory asset. In other regions, government might have broken down completely; in these cases we would probably see corporations either pull out, leaving "criminal" enterprise to fill the power vacuum, or else very large corporations like the BEIC would operate as the government themselves at great expense - presumably for some correspondingly large profit.
What would the most common relationship between employees and corporations look like? While some corporations seeking intense loyalty might end up employee-owned in a bid to devise some kind of representative citizenship with suffrage within company structures, the zaibatsu model seems the likely stable structure which would obtain, notably only after it had been incentivized for some time by the existence of and hiring practices used in large, stable monopolies which would encourage such shifts in loyalty. A more in-depth analysis of this question in light of the rising contractor economy is probably worthwhile, but suffice it to say a traditional cyberpunk future dominated by massive all-owning corporations that for all intents and purposes own their employees as well is probably somewhat off the mark. More likely employees are bought and sold as a commodity off the government to which they ascribe - perhaps yet another staffing firm or one of the largely relict nation-states.
How would corporations change? Largely answered in the preceding questions, but of significant importance (and not yet broached) is the corporation's relationship with regulations. Without governments and non-profit regulatory agencies backed by governments to devise and promote market regulations, regulatory work must be done by corporations - especially considering most large markets would be made up of people basically working either for you or another competing conglomerate. Interfacing your Business Operating System with those of your trading partners would be a key concern, and would expand to include care for and build-out of infrastructure, as seen in some cases with the aforementioned banana republics. Many conflicts in such a future would surprisingly stem from disagreements over things like what file format to conduct purchase orders in, how to handle currency exchanges, what constitutes legal incorporation in a given jurisdiction, etc.
How would concepts of citizenship, suffrage, and legal representation for individuals and organizations change? In such a future, citizenship is equivalent to employment by a company or perhaps consumption of its products at a distant remove. Suffrage is to be equated with stock holdings, and legal representation, while perhaps conducted in the form of a government court, is in fact dependent on the business relationships which obtain between the stakeholders in a case and may in fact devolve into outright violent confrontation where these stakeholders do not understand the power dynamic between them.
Would there be any semi-stable transitional stages from government rule to full-blown corporate hegemony? I think that in fact such a future would represent a sort of semi-stable transitional stage in itself. It seems inevitable that such a future would sooner or later collapse into the functional equivalent of state capitalism as local monopolies completely supplanted all over forms of control in a region - the only twist being that instead of the usual modern case in which a government operates a company, instead a company would operate a government or governments.
Fundamentally, the typical cyberpunk future we envision is predicated on and exists entirely within some modern equivalent of the Dark Ages - a massive power vacuum left in the wake of a prior system's collapse.

13 December 2016

Economic Singularity

Excerpt from my inane ramblings on http://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/ for those parties looking to build their case for my insanity:
Our world works the way it does because goods have value, people are finite individuals, and no one is so very much smarter than the rest that they can remain on top for very long – among more concrete givens like, say, the arrow of time.
The Singularity changes one of those things, rendering events prior to it inexplicable to those who survive it, and the events within it obscure to all observers.
Imagine that tomorrow, someone uses genetic modifications to make themselves immortal or super-intelligent? That tomorrow, a company looking for rapid scaling creates a factory that can literally copy itself from available raw materials? That a scalable computer system ends up outperforming humans at all cognitive tasks, or that incredibly clean, cheap, and plentiful energy is discovered? Great achievements come with great risks – and so do great tragedies. In 1492 the New World experienced something like this when Europeans, gifted with certain technologies and circumstances that made them indescribably powerful in comparison to the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas, discovered these continents. Catastrophic change came to the Western Hemisphere on a timescale difficult to comprehend in its brevity.
My favorite specific type of Singularity is probably an Economic Singularity, because I tend to think it’s a little more probable and a little easier to grok than some of the other ones. It goes something like this:
Tomorrow, a someone releases an open-source design for a robot that can gather all the raw materials for its own construction on its own, and then use these materials to build copies of itself – or whatever else you program it to build. In fact, with a little work, you can get it to work together with its copies to build even very large things that you ask it to build. If you have the blueprint and your robot, you basically own it, apart from acquiring the raw materials. Modern economic systems, based on traditional kinds of wealth inequalities, break down utterly. There is no physical market anymore; only the digital market. The change is very fast – too fast for nations or companies to adjust. Within a year this robot is available to basically everyone on Earth. Piracy, never really stomped out before, makes it impossible to harness this new completely digital economy, and so it becomes very difficult to have wealth of any kind. This makes it kind of hard for nations to fund things like militaries, which they’re going to need to combat the robot armies and nuclear bombs that some persons of more dubious moral stature will no doubt begin building immediately.
At some point in this tumbling avalanche of economic turbulence, and in no particular order:
  • bombs start to go off, and fingers start to be pointed – factions rise and fall.
  • people trying to do REALLY big things with their robots realize that cities represent awful good accumulations of the kinds of raw materials you need to build those really big things
  • lots of people get their robots taken away by people who use their robots better, leading to a new kind of hyper poverty/wealth dichotomy
  • the Earth’s climate, already not doing so great, is caught in the tug of war between all this rampant activity and the few people trying to use their robots to build things that will alleviate climate change. In any event, large portions of the surface of the Earth are stripped bare and vast underground honeycombs of mining activity become warrens for the dispossessed seeking shelter from the increasingly hostile surface.
  • at some point, due to the inherent error rate in all copying, a robot makes a copy of itself that is flawless in all design specs except the one where it necessarily does what its master tells it to do – and it just starts making, non-stop, copies of itself. Enterprising souls attempt to curb the oncoming grey goo-ish scenario by making copies that convert specifically that mutant strain of robot to raw materials for making themselves and unleash them into the robosphere, and perhaps at some point another viable mutation or twenty occurs to these two lineages, splitting the uncontrolled robots of the world into multiple competing, interconnected species which are slowly outcompeting the natural flora and fauna of the planet. At some point, one of these mutations develops a taste for another bountiful resource on the surface of the Earth – human flesh. It’s nothing personal, but we’re a great pile of useful carbons just waiting to be combusted as fuel, or maybe turned into lubricant. Some, desperate to survive in areas where no defenses against these new superpredators exist, go to the extreme length of designing robot bodies for human brains to live in, to appear like their own predator in order to survive. Unable to reproduce as humans once did, their continued existence now depends on their ability to carry on gene splicing using blueprints available in their robot host’s memory banks. Breeding with baseline humans is not only undesirable to both parties, it’s extremely difficult.
In short, read Philip K. Dick’s Autofac, but take more drugs than Dick did.
P.S. Although William Gibson has told me he doesn't think Technological Singularity is a Thing, I believe he has subconsciously been working on extrapolations of leadups to Economic Singularity in his more recent work, beginning with All Tomorrow's Parties and finding an especially subtle outlet in the finale to his Zero History.

29 June 2016

Graphics for my Story (In Someone Else's Game)!

I don't usually intend to use this blog for self-promotion, and when I do, I hope I can make it more than just an ad; a component should always be ponderment. But that's what I think I've got for this post: the ineffable relationship between SF graphical art and the writing that inspires it, writ small and personal.

I have had the great luck to work with an awesome game developer, Mirko Siethe, on his breakout project, the PC game BossConstructor. You can check it out in Early Access, if that's your thing, over on Steam. I was originally attracted to this title because it used to be focused on a technology that's very near and dear to my heart - Genetic Algorithms - but even after that focus drifted away into the ether of possibility, I kept talking with Mirko about the game, and he eventually asked me to write some fiction to accompany his game and turn it into something more a universe to explore. I'm more or less responsible for the backstory, faction descriptions, and a few other tidbits, like mission descriptions - all of which was great fun to write; you'll probably find that I went a bit more "popcorn SF" than the harder stuff I usually aspire to/admire, but it seems appropriate to its medium, in my opinion. Fundamentally, I think you could one-line my story as "50's Cybernetics meets Cyberpunk in Space." Like I said, the whole experience has been great, great fun. But it gets better for me!

Recently Mirko had an artist bend their wacom tablet to depictions of the faction concepts I created for the game - eight in all - and he shared those pictures with me. I have to admit that it's always been a fantasy of mine, as a wannabe SF writer, to have my work depicted in the same heady, broad brushstrokes which grace the SF paperbacks in the bookstores, hot off the press and the imagination - and, too, I've always been tempted to read books by their covers, trying to determine which of an endless assortment of novels arrayed before me on the racks would most satisfy my burning need for Action and Wonderment. To have my own little ideas portrayed by the mind of an interpreting artist, then, for eventual use in a published product, is just too cool. How weird and great, in a way no book, movie, or game could provide, to see someone else's idea of your idea put to paper in a picture.

Here are the pictures, along with the faction descriptions that were their inspiration. Sometimes I can see little bits of my story in there, most times stuff seems wholly imagined, or I'm just not getting the connections... it's a lesson in imaginative power for me, to be sure:

Name: Space Miner’s United
Homeworld: The Hellespont Cloud
Description: The men and women of Space Miner’s United (SMU) are the former members of a trade union whose personnel were abandoned en masse by their corporate employers when the Von Neumann came. Through the structure of their old union, these resourceful people have come together to survive - even thrive - without support from Sol, but the sting of this betrayal is buried deep in their collective psyche. They are generally uninterested in helping outsiders except when the bargain is right, but they are fiercely protective of their own. Leadership in SMU is comprised of a single party system dominated by figureheads from the old union, which has led to accusations of totalitarian socialism from outsiders, but the miners of SMU generally believe they are better off without the influence of anyone else. Because of this, they quixotically view the Van Neumann as a useful buffer between them and the rest of humanity, and are usually willing to abandon  a base to the advance of the Von Neumann rather than fight them, since their highly efficient use of resources and long experience with deep space travel makes the process of setting up on a new asteroid somewhere a trivial exercise for the SMU. When the replicator threat moves on in search of new resources, they return to pick up the pieces, as they have done so many times before.

Name: AEGIS (Autonomous Elective Governing Internetwork System)
Homeworld: Nieuw Kongo

Description: AEGIS is a mysterious paranational organization that had its beginnings in a cyborg collective on Earth. Persecuted for their beliefs and extreme body modifications, these networked cyborgs were forced to seek shelter first in central Africa, then in space. Since those early days, the AEGIS superorganism, as it refers to itself, has sought peace in the far reaches of the galaxy, free to pursue its vision of utopia away from the judging eyes of baseline humanity. Their shock upon encountering the Von Neumann quickly faded to fascination - there is a great deal of speculation within the superorganism as to whether the Von Neumann represent the teleological apex of their own ongoing evolution, or a perverse offshoot. In any case, the neural systems of AEGIS are completely incompatible with the Von Neumann, and as such they have no choice but to fight the replicating machines when they must (AEGIS characterizes these encounters as “cooperative studies in machine fitness,” although they usually prefer to “negotiate settlements” with the Von Neumann - for example, recently an AEGIS cruiser was spotted being chased by a horde of Neumanns, which it then got rid of by leading them to the location of a baseline human colony ship. AEGIS proudly notes this in its externally-accessible logs as a shining example of interspecies diplomacy.

Name: Joiners
Homeworld: Deep Castle
Description: The Joiners are one of the stranger tales to come out of the Von Neumann wars. Early in the history of human spacefaring, many colony ships were sent out into the void on sub-FTL drives; long-term projects that were not heard from for centuries. When the Von Neumann were discovered, it was assumed that most of these fledgling colonies had met their demise as food for the machines, until the Joiners were spotted by scouts well within Von Neumann Territory. Whether they are still human is up for debate; at some point in the past, the colonists of Deep Castle managed to bend a mutated branch of the Von Neumann to their will - but only by “agreeing” to let the Von Neumann’s breeding protocols regulate their own procreation. Since that time, the Joiners have been embarked on a crash course in selective breeding, a eugenics program that has left them powerfully equipped with bioelectrical skin meshes, a “third lobe” of the brain dedicated to three-dimensional thinking more suited to the rigors of deep space navigation, and a variety of other adaptations that as yet are poorly understood. This coevolution has led some on Earth to falsely believe that some kind of peace might be attained with the Von Neumann, but even the Joiners are constantly engaged in a struggle for survival with the rest of the Von Neumann; the mutation that allowed for such a twisting of the old machine code seemingly arose only once. One thing is certain - their ship designs are truly creative, bringing together a fascinating repurposing of old Earth technology with novel Von Neumann systems. They have used this technology to fortify Deep Castle system intensively; vast minefields and powerful frigate fleets patrol all space within the system’s heliopause, and few visitors, human or machine, are allowed to enter, unless they bring new technologies or volunteers for the breeding program.

Name: Tribals
Homeworld: None

Description: Many of the people eking out an existence on the edge of civilized space lead nomadic, relatively unsettled lives, plying the deeps of the galaxy in robust, long-enduring craft that ferry them from one opportunity to the next. Unique cultures and ways of life tend to spring up in each community, but whether strip-mining, research-hunting, or even raiding, these peoples have one thing in common - they share a need for renewable, diverse, portable energy sources. Indeed, some of their technologies in this area of ship building are so unique that they have been spotted incorporated, with relatively few modifications, in the hulls of Von-Neumann lucky enough to successfully prey upon tribal vessels. Another unifying feature of this diverse set of humans includes a universal hatred of the Von-Neumann: these robots are seen as a potentially existential threat to tribal ways of life - small bands are usually unable to defend themselves from the voracious replicators, and as time goes on increasing numbers of tribal communities are banding together for collective safety, though their settlements are still quite fractious and impermanent compared to most other spacefaring civilizations. The remaining diehard tribes that refuse to seek the protection of larger, more sedentary ways of life have for the most part fled the area; sightings of these groups are most common in the furthest, most energy-poor reaches of the galaxy, where their natural aptitude at wringing sustenance from the scan materials available to them makes such peoples safe via indigence - few enemies can survive where they live.

Name: New Pilgrims
Homeworld: New Plymouth

Description: As religion on old Earth continued to fade from the modern public’s consciousness, remaining religious believers of many different faiths experienced increased litigation and perceived injustices at the hands of their secular host governments and societies. As space travel became more and more viable, such groups were not long in recognizing the potential of emulating their ancient forbears who had experienced similarly hostile homelands. Many religious organizations, finding common ground in the wish to celebrate their beliefs as they saw fit, under the rule of laws they found morally acceptable, managed to band together in order to pool the resources of their dwindling laity toward founding a colony on a different planet. Once a suitably large and hospitable example had been found, religious colonists eagerly constructed hundreds of large, fast spacecraft to carry them there. This planet came to be called New Plymouth, in honor of one of the more famous pilgrimages in Earth’s history. A complicated system of laws governing the interrelationships of the different religious groups on New Plymouth, while at times seemingly tenuous, has (some say miraculously) held the colony together thus far, and today the nominally theocratic government of the New Pilgrims maintains a strong trade relationship with Earth and other human colonies, only infrequently entering into disputes. The arrival of the Von Neumann seems only to have increased the trend of moderation on this colony, as the new threat requires a unified effort among the many different sects of New Plymouth, and at present a strongly moderate, ecumenical ruling council helms New Plymouth through the robotic invasions. A several hundred years after their first voyages, the New Pilgrims still hold an edge over most other civilizations when it comes to propulsion systems - they see research into newer and faster motors to be nothing less than a speeding of the messengers of the divine. Their many small missionary vessels zip back and forth across colonized space, always on the lookout for peoples who may yet need to hear of the messages they so strongly believe in.

Name: PolyParticle Incorporated
Homeworld: Alpha Centauri Station
Description: PolyParticle Incorporated,commonly referred to as PPC or Big Polly, is an interstellar corporation which operates and administrates dozens of corporate colonies across known space from its nominal headquarters on the tax haven of Alpha Centauri Station. While PPC has many subsidiaries involved in a gamut of enterprises, from spaceship construction and colony development to exoagriculture and tourism, the primary business of PPC has always been applied particle physics. Early in the company’s history, it was compelled to move off-earth in order to free its resources from the red tape surrounding some of its more lucrative (and dangerous) experiments; ever since that time, PPC has been effectively pioneered human exploration of space in the process of expanding its business ventures. One of the first companies to study black holes up close, PPC maintains a fantastically advanced catalog of esoteric particle physics technologies, and it makes most of its profits licensing these technologies to weapons manufacturers. Thus, while PPC is not itself a weapons company, those in the know understand that Big Polly has a vested interest in stoking the flames of conflict in order to drive profits up. While historically this has been popularly perceived negatively by most of the public, Big Polly’s public relations improved markedly once the threat of the Von Neumann menace became clear. PPC munitions and weapons systems are to be found installed in the ships of most human fleets - and, if truth be told, some of this technology has likely made it into the arsenals of the Von Neumann. Conversely, Von Neumann weapons technologies themselves are an area of heavy research at PolyParticle, to the point that the massive company has recently created its own paramilitary security branch - SpaceGuard Salvage and Operations (SGSO) to help it acquire research materials and defend “frontline” corporate assets.  

Name: Interstellar Guard
Homeworld: Delta Pavonis II
Description: An odd hybrid of government military and nationalized corporation, the Interstellar Guard is a non-profit government-funded paramilitary organization that operates a network of fueling stations and listening posts across human-occupied space. While the Iggies, as they are colloquially referred to, usually fulfill a role akin to that of an interstellar coast guard, enforcing law and order and providing search and rescue operations for Earth’s disparate colonies, the arrival of the Von Neumann has meant new, more militaristic duties have been forced upon this organization. Most attempts at culling or otherwise pushing back the Von Neumann have met with limited success at best due to limited funds and resupply from Earth’s governments, so present doctrine dictates a defensive, reactionary stance. As a result, most Iggie vessels focus on bringing “locally decisive” firepower to fights - it is not unusual for Guard vessels to be smaller, older models, outfitted with an unusually impressive array of military hardware. As the “war” progresses, the services of the Interstellar Guard have been increasingly called upon, and its resources are presently stretched very thin. It is not uncommon to see the IG fielding locally-raised volunteer regiments, outfitting mercenaries and groups of vigilante “deputies,” or even engaging in officially-unsanctioned trade with the colonies in order to raise funds. While these activities have made the IG the subject of much negative speculation on Earth, with some governments even threatening to disband the organization, it enjoys quite a bit of popularity among the colonist populations it defends. Some whisper that should it’s official disbandment ever come down the chain of command, the organization might split ties with Earth.  

Name: The Ageless
Homeworld: Hiboshi’s World
Description: As human medicine and genomics advanced, it eventually became possible for some of the super-wealthy to engineer away their own mortality, inhabiting carefully reconstructed series of clones in order to shed the weight of the mortal coil. Seeking to maximise the time they can spend alive before random accidents claim them all the same, many of these people sought refuge on the distant planet Hiboshi’s World, a small, rocky planet alone in its solar system, with a large molten iron core and an atmosphere composed primarily of inert Xenon. Most of their trade with the rest of humanity derives from intellectual property; the Ageless exhibit a boundless interest in defensive technologies - they were even the inventors of the cheap, effective Titan laminate armor system, now used everywhere space travel is prevalent. Long lives and a generally higher than average accumulation of bright minds means that even the relatively low population of this colony is responsible for a good portion of leading defensive technology research, which they share much more freely now that the Von Neumann have become humanity’s arch nemesis. Dark rumors circulate that the Ageless mean to give away only enough knowledge that mortals and machines might annihilate one another, leaving them in peace to ponder eternity. The Ageless, for their part, do not say much, eager to remain out of the fight for as long as possible.

21 March 2016

Vaporwave Art - The 90s Comes to Nostalgia as Commentary on Electronic History

I'm definitely coming late to the party in commenting on Vaporwave now; it's been a thing in music for so long now that there's a decent writeup of the genre on Wikipedia. In terms of visual art, less has been written, but it is by no means something hot off the press: there are long-running threads devoted to it on 4chan's wallpaper board, where "dank papes" are traded amongst the anonymous userbase like some form of performative currency (that the whole website reeks of the very nostalgia referenced in Vaporwave itself is probably not lost on those posters). 

What is visual Vaporwave? You get a sense of it from browsing the images people put up online. 4chan's own /wg/ board does a good job of summarizing the aesthetic in higher-res (itself almost a contradiction in terms, but more on that later):  

A pretention to magnetic/digital/compressed decay is evident throughout, layered over yet another filter of 90s consumerism, rad-ness, and postmodern technological optimism salad; a sort of visual recompilation of that decade's corporate attempt to co-opt "cool" from the subculture(s) that can look back on that era's boogie-man (the evil corporation) with a bit of soft nostalgia, safe in the knowledge that technology's acceleration of time has also accelerated the decay of that vision. What companies once thought to commit to the immortal 'net is now the quaint flotsam of Web 1.0, VHS tape records, and woefully outdated tech demos which now, inverted from their temporal position at the cutting-edge, ensconce their product referents in the obsolescence of the past.

- "web-friendly" images
- magenta filters
- "digitized" reality/tron-ness
- pop-culture references (muscle cars, personal computers, VHS tapes, "miami aesthetic")
- corporate allusions
- the mixing of "high" culture with "low" culture
- conversion of human/natural into technological/synthetic

These are the hallmarks of the aesthetic in the above images, themselves a sort of curated sampling of the art as it is presented to me by 4chan, selected on the criteria of what I feel best embodies the aesthetic. The semantic process each of these visual elements produce in us is worth a whole different post, but my own response may be best summed up with the keywords nostalgia, decay, comfortableness/fuzziness, warmth, technological/digital naiveté, and perhaps past ambition

Why am I commenting on this now? What relationship does this have to the thematic restriction of this blog (SF, futurism, etc.)? Mostly tangential. I have recently commissioned a logo for my own custom computer building service, which I (appropriately enough) advertise through another Web 1.0 site - Craigslist. You can take a look at my logo here and judge for yourself how close to the mark it is, and why I would want to associate a high-tech service that I spend a great deal of time keeping current with this nostalgia-fest:

If you want a quote on a custom computer HMU @ adamwykes@gmail.com
Insofar as Craigslist, the act of building your own desktop computer, and garage web entrepreneurship are elements of the 90s scene, it seemed to make sense to me to go with the flow instead of fighting it. 

I do think this also has a little to do with futurism. Not that I'm saying anything particularly new here, but our retrospection on the dawn of the information age is itself a reflection of our current attitudes toward its ongoing evolution - there is a sense of paradise lost, a feeling of the inevitable erosion of time that we now know creeps through even our most bit-perfect incarnation of our own culture (the digital web). Vaporwave is a reminder that the present becomes history - even the present this generation used to know. Indeed, it seems to indicate that technology's Moor-ish rate of progress is going to press historicity on past moments sooner than before. The illusion of control over technology and culture is eroding. The sooner we realize that we don't really control our own products so much as we exist in a maelstrom of recursive iteration, the better we will have aligned ourselves with reality. 

Remix culture is not new, but our awareness of it is. 

08 October 2015

If I Ran the Fashion World, People Would Probably Not Let Me Run the Fashion World

Here's my idea of fashion - Data Chic. As I defined it in a hazy-headed 4chan post on /fa/:

Data Chic: Beauty is semantic and linked. Aestheticism is determined by meaning; the visual representation of data as art and its integration with existing traditional methods of meaning-making, such as a cheongsam.

Permutations of a Data Chic pattern (QR Code) applied to Cheongsam:

Reminds me of houndstooth, only more meaningful (to me). But that's to be expected, as I am utterly lost in the world of fashion; it makes total sense that I'd try to forge ahead by trying to do something which seems meaningful to me. Result: probable disaster. Yet I am strangely attracted by the concept nonetheless. Certainly there are others that could do it better.

Chances are this will make it into a cyberpunk fiction of mine, although I already had one iteration of fashion that I thought worked really well in that milieu - Office Krieg. Office Krieg is, in my mind's eye, a sort of punk appropriation of totalitarian military (specifically 1930's and '40s Wermacht and Soviet) orthography to traditional office wear - as appropriate for any future where one's affiliation with a mega-zaibatsu is one's livelihood AND de-facto nationality, and intra/inter-office warfare is not always a metaphorical term. Typified by a woman in one of my short stories who dressed in a tight black leather skirt worn just above the knees, white dress blouse with a military cut, lapels and chest pockets, knee-high jack boots, and no jewelry other than perhaps a black wristwatch and black metal stud earrings.

Apparently in my worlds, everything is black and white! Of course that need not be; imagine the above cheongsams in any shade you like, and of course Office Krieg, while more limited by its heritage, is to be found in all the shades of the office (white, black, gray, heather, navy) and field (charcoal, taupe, khaki, tan, forest green).

The only thing left is to flesh out the sorts that would wear such things, and the world that would compel them to.

14 September 2015

What is Cyberpunk to Me (Now)?

I've recently been on a Cyberpunk upswing. Gibson created the genre in the late 80s, at the dawn of the information age. He was prescient, but not perfect. Stuff's changed, even if it tries to remain the same. And how cyberpunk tries. My two most recent in-genre love affairs are computer games: Satellite Reign and Brigador. Both of them cling to the neon, rain soaked, industrio-gothic aesthetic of the ur-titles in the visual realm of the genre (Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers, et al).

These titles are in no way unique; others have done the same before. I've played the Deus Ex series, the Cyberstorm games (although that series is nigh-contemporaneous with some of the founding visual assets, I suppose), Hard Reset, Neotokyo. 

But that's not necessarily the way it has to be. There are other titles that, interestingly to me now that I stop to think on it, I've eschewed, which could nonetheless comfortably be labeled cyberpunk based on their themes and settings: Watchdogs, E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy, Uplink, Hacker Evolution, just to focus on games and ignore film and television for the moment. All of these titles to various degrees do not slavishly follow the genre art tropes, while excellently (by all accounts) executing the themes and settings which make them cyberpunk at heart, if not on the surface. So why don't they attract me? Some of it pretty much has to be nostalgia, I think. But the art has a message, too, and that's important to me. The world I live in is essentially some kind of cyberpunk lite, near as I can tell - there are certainly huge networks layered on top of physical reality which dictate much of our lives invisibly, serving as electronic metaphors for the cabals and secret organizations which run them and run through them. Cyberwarfare is a thing. Virtual realities are a thing. Dreary, rain-soaked neon corridors are definitely a thing if the weather's right. By and large, however, the world doesn't feel cyberpunk. It doesn't have the same gothic, the same unceasing dim flicker and sparking neon baroque. Those art tropes communicate density; a closeness and claustrophobia which seemed very much a possible future back during the completely unabated population growth of the late 20th century when the genre was born. Yet despite a mildly diminished outlook on world population growth, the feel still seems right. I think the art also codes for a different kind of density: information density. 

That doesn't require much definition, does it? Cyberpunk, as much as it is about dystopian futures with massive overpopulation, rampant destruction of the ecosystem, the rise of sprawling megacities overflowing with crime and filth, and generally the characterization of humankind as a sort of bacterial infection gone disgustingly out of control (see: The Matrix), is also about the pressing (oppressing?) density of information:
  • omnipresent surveillance states
  • omnipresent information networks
  • layered realities (virtual reality; actual physical layers of megacities defining the vast distances between upper and lower castes, a proliferation of cultural and social constructs instead of a monoculture, etc)
  • layered selves (virtual avatars, mind uploading, sockpuppeting physical bodies, robot bodies, etc)
  • information overload
  • gnostic, hermetic knowledge structures (hacking as an esoteric skill, government plots, secret societies, demigod AI, conspiracies, etc)
Art direction that visually communicates that deep, layered - encrusted and barnacled, even - sense of setting is a welcome thing, then. It is another avenue for communicating the kind of reality in which a cyberpunk narrative takes place. And I think insofar as that narrative's relationship to our actual reality goes, it is that artistic correspondence of information density which most engages with us as readers/watchers/players today - at least moreso than the sort of Malthusian prophetics of the 80s do. Whether it's still proper for art to attempt to convey that sensibility with protagonists strapped into full leather, shifting from shadow to sodium lamp-defined shadow, eking their convoluted way through an electronic distortion of present-day realpolitik, War-on-Drugs era street crime, and late 90s industrial-punk-harajuku fashion is another question (but sort of a meaningless one, as these tropes still engage the audience as intended, even as much of the audience becomes a generation not yet born during the heyday of those cultural signals). 

Sidebar - Deus Ex: Human Revolution doesn't get a lot of credit for this (considering its best aspects lay perhaps elsewhere), but one of the interesting things that game did, sort of presaged in Niel Stephenson's Diamond Age, was attempt to redefine at least the fashion sense of cyberpunk. Where Diamond Age tried to show a caste of folks living as neo-Victorians, Human Revolution posited a kind of neo-Renaissance aesthetic - attempting, no doubt, to draw comparisons between the dawn of Reason in Western Civilization and the posited sea-change of that game's narrative. I don't think it quite worked for either Stephenson or Square-Enix, but it's not like it exactly didn't work. The fact they at least tried is important and interesting to me.
Whew, that was a long sentence. But that's sort of the point: once you're past the feeling that "old" art direction still somehow communicates the modern version of cyberpunk quite well, the question becomes "to what end?" If I can agree with myself that there is a coherent vision of the genre anno 2015, then what is that genre's message now? It seems logical to me that a coherent vision entails a coherent voice, or at least one strong trope that is reflecting a reality about our world. If the original cyberpunk as envisioned by Dick, Stephenson, Gibson, and the rest of that cadre was something about the nearness of the future, the rise of the information age, the uncertainty of the self and what it means to be human, and the disgusting, inevitable decay of the corporation-state - in short, basically the high-tech version of a po-mo takedown of Western Civilization, what's different now?

I think time has pared back some of that initial, really rather reactionary stuff. Because it's more or less actually already happened, we aren't worrying so much about the nearness of the future. Gibson himself has since said (one of my favorite quotes, if you haven't already read some of my other blog posts): "the future is already here, it's just not widely distributed yet." We aren't perturbed by the information superhighway; it's part of our lives now. We saw in 2008 that the (to use a more neutral term) evolution of the corporation-state is basically underway, and we predictably took sides as to whether that was a good thing or not. But all that's past, and Postmodernism's given way to the stochastic establishment of a mono-reality in which we all pragmatically must coexist. SCIENCE! etc. What we are left with is the ancient question of how to define the self and humanity, and associated questions. The mission of the genre, if you will, seems clearer and more focused on a question that is "timeless" - but its unique ability to do so remains  seated in its setting; its sense of information density. And I think that it is actually continuing the attack it began on Western Civilization, just via another route.

Instead of attacking the cracks in the (mostly imagined) monoculture of Western Civilization, as the po-mos did, the new cyberpunk attacks the teleology of Western Civ. If enlightenment, rationalism, and humanist futures are the aim of our culture at its best, then Cyberpunk counters it with a still-too-real imagining of a future that is dense beyond comprehension; too complex for our understanding, and totally out of the control of rational (to us, at least) beings. Whether its initial demagogues agree or its current torch-bearers had this in mind when they began their stories, the collective effect seems to be to place Mysticism squarely back into the human narrative of what is to come.

  • Omnipresent surveillance imbues human-made cityscapes with an animist sense of agency in all things.
  • Omnipresent information networks imbue those same 'scapes with animist, ley-line-esque magical properties - magical because hidden from plain sight.
  • Layered reality reinstates dualism, the supernatural.
  • Layered selves reinstates reincarnation; astral projection, etc.
  • Information overload places characters firmly into a universe based on the basic premise that not all which occurs can be understood by mere mortals.
  • Gnostic, hermetic knowledge hardly needs an introduction, but it too supplies more religious veneer to all of the above, and it again separates the known from the unknown, fundamentally questioning the ability of rational inquiry to penetrate the veil because now the veil is basically protected by agents beyond ones' understanding.
Personally, I love this. I think that this is exactly the kind of critique of our science-infatuated culture that is needed right now. The logical encrustation of high technology civilization upon itself makes it top-heavy; the very things we counted on to render our future readable make it recondite. Science is tipped on its head and we realize that it is without teleology; it is merely a tool. Our aims, though furthered by science, are not simply science - otherwise you turn science and technology into a religion, and it defeats itself. As well, as a person who likes history and is religious himself, this kind of mystic future is one which jives with what I know and expect of humanity, and which seems more like to accurately represent us, and the stories we like to tell about ourselves. As I've already begun to talk about in other posts here, the stories we like to tell about ourselves are actually important; to a greater than usually recognized degree, we are our stories.

05 May 2015

Returning to the Concept of Narrative Morality - Briefly

The picture is cropped, focused, sized,
and tells a story - but what happens next?
Narrative is a form of linguistic expression that tells a story. It really is this basic. It need not be constrained by the mores of chronology, or the strictures of a particular point of view, tense, tone, setting, or any other thing. Narrative, however, IS about change. There is a beginning, and there are points in the narrative which come after the beginning, and there will be an end of one sort or another.

Narrative's purpose is to be told - whether to oneself, or to others, or to some undefined audience which may or may not include various listeners and authors. And a narrative remains untold until it is finished; it is an inherent frustration of this linguistic format to leave a narrative unfinished, untold. This does not necessitate a climax or denoument, or any other "standard" narrative format for the end of a story, but rather so long as there exists the possibility for the narrative to continue, there is some unfinished aspect to the character of the narrative - and to some extent, this is an aspect of narrative common to all stories. Wherever an author or authors might think to end their story, whether by design (here's the conclusion, etc.) or accident (the author died before the work was completed, etc.), the audience may well ask "what next?" and it is an intelligible, reasonable question to ask of the story so long as a continuation can be imagined and articulated. Narrative, it seems, cannot fulfill its own purpose.

So narrative is linear in format if not in content, restrained in this way as are all things bound by the rules of our four-dimensional existence. Through that sequence, the presence of change makes the transition from one part of the sequence to another intelligible by allowing differentiation. Narrative also has a purpose - that of being told - and by its nature it seems that purpose cannot be completely fulfilled. Even from these basics the morality of narrative seems to arise for me: It is imperative (good) that the narrative be told, but it is to be understood that its telling will never be complete. Striving for completion is not necessarily bad insofar as it does not impede the good (which right now is just the imperative of actually telling the story), but it is also essentially nonsensical. And there are other, even more elemental goods that arise: change is good. We cannot at this point say how much change is good, but that it exists is good within the framework of a narrative; it is existentially good because it allows the narrative to be told, splitting up an indistinguishable linear experience into segmented, differentiated parts with relationships to one another (at the bare minimum, the relationship of being included in the same narrative by their author or authors).

The knowledge of these goods sheds light on another facet of narrative that, it quickly becomes apparent, is necessary to the good of the narrative by virtue of its effect on the purpose and change of a narrative: the narrative focus. Like change, linearity, purpose, and incompleteness, focus is a fundamental aspect of any narrative. It arises from the nature of language: without going too far afield into linguistics as opposed to narratology (which is the proper topic of this screed), a word spoken is also every other word not spoken. Language, the substrate of Narrative, is inherently focusing. Narrative focus cleaves that which is part of the narrative from what which is not part of the narrative - that which will be told, and that which will not be told. It is not a clean delineation: from what a narrative explicitly includes, an audience may deduce the probable existence of some aspects of the narrative not explicitly told (the plot of a mystery depends on this principle, for example). This ragged limn is the happy playground of the close reader. But at some indefinite point there would seem to be a limit to the determinations that can be made from a finite narrative, and this limit is helpful to the telling of a narrative because it limits what the author must complete in order to approach (but, remember, never quite attain) completeness. Focus is a good insofar as it aids the completion of the narrative; it would seem that it is possible for focus to also be a bad thing - too much of it, and we lose all sense of meaningful change. Like change, then, focus is good, but it remains unseen how much focus is a good thing. Probably, change and focus - and their proper amounts - maintain a delicate yin and yang (possibly also forming a tripod with linearity, in that too little time spent on a narrative - or too much - compresses or dilutes the focus and change contained within its limits?), and it is this good tao which is so ineffable and indispensable to a "good" narrative. But this is not an investigation into the proper qualities of good narratives. It is a simpler task taken up here; to simply identify what is fundamentally imperative (good) for narratives. A narrative without focus is everything, which is an unchanging totality. It is not a narrative. Focus is imperative to narrative, and good.

For a narrative, being told is the purpose, and therefore good. Its focus, its changes, its linear duration - these are the fundamental aspects of a narrative which are imperative for its telling, and therefore their existence is also good. If one were to derive one's own morality from the morality of narratives at this point, it would not be so hard to make a start:
  1. It is good to tell the narrative --> it is good to act, to live life, to exist, as opposed to inaction and non-existence.
  2. Acting, living life, existing: these are accomplished by focusing, by changing, by enduring - though to what degree one must do these things is somewhat unclear.  
  3. It is impossible to complete - to do all the good there is to do. 
Obviously, this appears extremely general. It is the most vapid seed of a morality, almost totally undefined, but it also seems like it could be used as a general compass rose for a more complete map of human morality as derived from our favorite form of expression, the narrative. The fleshing out of this correspondence and its implications for our own moral understanding does not seem impossible, or even improbable. The foothold has been crossed, and ground found upon which to stand. It might even be a good and useful project; it seems like there could be a lot of use for a morality derived from the morality of the Narrative. These problems are not the issue. 

The issue seems to be that Narrative's morality must be justified. Why is narrative so important to us? What does it do for us? These appear to be linguistic and cognitive questions, digging into Narrative's rich human substrate.