Tag Archives: fiction

Exit: Moon. A Short Story About Staying With The Trouble

I spent two weeks in August at Planetary Futures, a summer school at Concordia University in Montreal organised by Orit Halpern, Marie-Pier Boucher, and Pierre Louis Patoine, and hosted at Milieux, the centre for art, technology, and culture at Concordia. The course made links between planetary scale catastrophe and the Anthropocene, and histories of infrastructure, colonialism, and investigated design and fiction as vehicles of speculation about the future(s). It brought

“together the disciplines of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences to collectively investigate this question of how we shall inhabit the world in the face of the current ecological crisis and to rethink concepts and practices of environment, ecology, difference, and technology to envision, and create, a more just, sustainable, and diverse planet. The course will include field visits to extraction sites, energy infrastructures, earth science installations, and speculative architecture and design projects.”

Our group of twenty-odd PhD students from North America and Europe made some interesting journeys, from an open pit gold mine, the largest in Canada, to the Mohawk reservation in Kahnawage outside Montreal, and to the idea of inhabiting a Moon Village decades in the future. I documented these journeys on Instagram as we went along. Towards the end of the course found myself wanting to construct a narrative with these images inspired by a central theme in one of the best lectures (IMHO) on the course; Sarah Sharma, director of the Marshall McLuhan Center in Toronto, spoke to us about her work on the notion that there are exits (there aren’t; or not for everyone at least), and on critical temporalities (how do we assign value and measurement to whose time, on what, matters?).

I got an opportunity to put these images together into a story thanks to an invitation from Tel Aviv-based interaction designer and artist, Mushon Zer Aviv. Mushon and I spoke at re:publica’s Thessaloniki event this week, and my part of the talk was the story-made-of-Instagram images. Unfortunately, the livestream broke halfway through our talk and the recordings aren’t up yet. However, here are the text and images from my story and I’ll post the video once the recording is ready.

EXIT:MOOON. A SHORT STORY ABOUT STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE.

It always rained now. Neither temperate nor extreme, the weather had been controlled so it stayed at just one ‘setting’. The rising temperature, and simultaneous flooding, hurricanes, and drought, was creating serious disruption in the markets. I think it was the monster tidal wave that destroyed Shanghai and Shenzhen that made them wake up to how bad it was. The re-insurance portfolios couldn’t be re-insured any more. Banks were in a death spiral of virtual lending. They found a way to fix the disaster response system and an ingenious little hack to deal with flooding, but the temperatures still rose. So, there was no more monsoons or droughts, but the price we paid was that it rained all the time. It was the best possible outcome given how bad things were. Everything on earth was in a state of permanent emergency. The apocalypse happened in drips and drabs whittling away at our spirit. No one was Raptured away and the Messiah did not appear. Neither did the robot army, nor aliens.

All this had happened because we simply refused to manage our addictions.

So, many left. Those who could, that is. For the moon.

They had discovered vast repositories of precious minerals deep in the heart of the moon. They found things we had on Earth like malachite, copper, cobalt, uranium, amethyst and gold – and with new elements we had never encountered before. The surface of the moon was barren and harsh but underneath it was a rich tropical forest.

They needed teams to set up extraction facilities that could extract, test, and evaluate how much lay under there, and figure out ways to trade and make money off these minerals. The Chinese had built incredible, vast towers of server farms and data centres, to handle the explosion in Moon minerals trading. We traded these Moon minerals and other Moon products on specialised commodities exchanges on earth.

I worked with teams that isolated and tested the minerals. My role was to build algorithms that could predict values of these minerals based on what was being found, and its quality, and considering the cost of being able to actually extract and use them. It was a computational exercise and I had to work closely with extraction teams, which I liked a lot. I liked going out there with them in the field. Otherwise, my field was just a screen, and a coffee machine. And bad internet. No matter how big and shiny the Chinese server farms were.
Being on the Moon was very freeing for scientists. They were getting to do some exciting work towards exoplanetary exploration. Mars was now that much closer to being accessible. It was a very exciting time for anyone in science and tech. Mars is a place for rugged outdoor types too.

The more Planet Earth crumbled, It seemed like our skill, creativity, and ingenuity as a species grew. We built amazing things. We got very good very fast at building almost-intelligent robots. We had near total Uplink for all humans and non humans to communicate. Still those pesky last mile delivery issues though. Poor people being left behind was still a thing. We just didn’t know how to fix the old hard stuff: culture, bodies, history, politics. So we just ignored it. It was inefficient.

But we ignored it at our own peril. We kept forgetting how to make these things work because we found that we liked applying algorithms to all kinds of complex problems – water shortage, poverty, gender violence. The reality is that algorithms and data work very well in science and engineering – like predicting climate change – but terribly when it comes to things involving humans. But that’s what we did.

I was part of one of the first crews of scientists to leave. Out here things are quite exciting, to be honest. There is a sense of discovery, and of actually being able to start over. It is like Mordor meets the Garden of Eden but without talking snakes, organic apples, or naked and happy people. We had imported some cool solar energy innovations, and architectural and design inventions with radical new sustainable materials we made in labs. We learned from plants. We built things mimicking capillary action in tall trees, and how mushrooms grow. The word for world is forest.

We had all this on earth, all these amazing technologies and ideas but in the end, none of it scaled. We just couldn’t unplug two hundred years of belief and value in rationality and graft on new ways of being. With exponential growth, you need exponential solutions. But we didn’t make it to those exponential solutions. Yet, it is a difficult balance to be here. We have all this cutting edge stuff, very hi-tech, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t sorrowful about the state of things at home. In a way, our guilt at escaping made us feel virtuous – in the best sense of the word; and dedicated to working hard to develop strong solutions. We were the pioneers colonising a new world to support the old one. No one really wants to live on this godforsaken barren little satellite. We want to be back on our messed up, falling-apart little blue planet.

Then, one day, things went wrong. An outdoor survey team that I work with picked up some disturbing electromagnetic signals. A significant planetary disturbance was predicted. Now planets wobble in their orbit all the time, and the bigger the planet, the bigger the wobble and the more dramatic the effects. It was Jupiter. But Jupiter was far away and it would be years before we would feel it, which would give us time to fortify our station. However, Jupiter wobbling was affecting the asteroid belt and sending rocks hurtling out of orbit at very high speeds. The reason we have craters on the moon is because it has been hit by asteroids so many times anyway. So this wasn’t something out of the blue. was always one of the biggest risks with being on the Moon; we knew this could happen. But as usual scientists fought with each other about who had the better data about what was going to really happen. How much should we invest to offset some future disaster that we cannot really know the shape of? “It was unlikely that something seriously negative was going to happen”. Unlikely is a word that policymakers use a lot when they don’t want to commit to doing something.

We are a small and fragile community up here Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, Pakistani, Israeli, Iranian. We have amazing technologies but we still only have each other, eventually. Friendship and taking care of each other. We rely on these things much more, eventually, than we do on data. Data is the new nothing, really. It’s just data. We were faced with hard choices. Hard choices always end up being utilitarian ones. Sacrificing a few for the greater good. This is what the data tells you to do. If you don’t buy this logic, then it is as if you are naive, and don’t know how the real world really works.
Some people had the option of leaving. Those people who don’t have to take care of anyone else, or anything else. Who feel like they can sever their connections and move on to the next thing. Some times this is survival. Some times it is escape, it is exit.

But I am done exiting. There is no exit. It’s time to stay with the trouble.

Thanks to the organisers, Concordia U, and the fellow travelers who made the Planetary Futures Summer School joyful and inspiring.

“Imagining Ethics”: Testing out SF as a method

Back in early April on a trip to the Theorizing the Web conference in New York, two artists-in-residence at New Inc, Stephanie Dinkins and Francis Tseng, invited me to test out something at their monthly “AI Assembly”.

I believe that it is difficult for everyday users to understand and make sense of digital technologies; and specialists like computer scientists or lawyers can be restricted by their disciplinary training in being able to see the ways in which technology and society interact.

Yet, I think we have to inspire a wider conversation about digital literacies given the present and future of ubiquitous computing and artificial intelligence. From data breaches, to the complex decision-making expected of machine learning, what are the ways in which people may conceptualise values and norms for regulating human-machine relationships in a near future?

There are a number of methods to map out the social-political-economic dimensions of future scenarios, and they’re commonly used across different fields in the automotive industry. (Mathematical modeling for predicting crashes has in fact been around since the 1980s). I’ve also been thinking about using SF (speculative fiction, science fiction, speculative feminism, science fabulation, string figuring: Donna Haraway expands SF beyond ‘science fiction’) as a way of telling stories about power, society,and technology.

Inspired by these, I’m curious about the imagination, and the role that imaginaries play in shaping and articulating how people think about a near future with machines and technology. I believe that ‘socio-technical imaginaries’, a concept developed by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyung Kim, underlie and shape the development of technologies in society, may be an interesting theoretical framework to adopt and adapt. I’m trying to find a way to bring these elements together, and the New Inc experiment is part of that.

Here’s more about all this on the Cyborgology blog here.

Character assassination I, II, III

Character Assassination

n
the act of deliberately attempting to destroy a person’s reputation by defamatory remarks

I
I could write about the auburn-haired woman who I sit across from at work, the one with the tics and the lazy eye. She is an only child with that peculiar sense of phantom wholeness only children have. People think she is a bureaucrat, and it may be that I am the only one who can sense the evil lurking in her. She doesn’t take risks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the world needs people who can look at things rationally and calmly for a long time before acting. She is someone out of a book written by Lionel Shriver about a family full of broken people. She would be the dark horse – or the roan maybe – quietly spinning lies and deceit in the corner and all the while seeming to be the most gentle. What is it like to get into the head of a character that you dislike and yet feel empathy for? I think I would write this character falling in love with a boy much below her class – these things are very important to the English, did I mention she was English – and did madcap things with him, like walk naked down the high street and almost get arrested for it.

II

I could write the heartbreaking story of my best friend who fell apart from anger following the tragic death of her roommate from breast cancer. The roommate was one of those unlucky young women – 31 when she was diagnosed – who unknowingly harboured a lump like a dark grudge. She was diagnosed and dead within six months. It was six months of my friend visiting her in the hospital, accompanying her to chemotherapy, comforting the boyfriend and the girl’s family. My friend couldn’t bring herself to attend the funeral or the memorial. She was so wrapped up in her own grief, it seemed at the time, that she couldn’t reach out to the roommate’s husband (the boyfriend married her while she was dying in hospital), sister or family. She mourned for weeks and the decision to stay in their shared apartment took an additional toll on her. Months later, when I couldn’t keep quiet about it any longer,I asked her what she needed to do to get over it and move on from the roommate’s death. A lot of Old Monk later, sprawled across the divan staring at the ceiling fan, a tear rolled out of the corner of her eye and she said that she fucking hated them all, her dead roommate’s family that is. They didn’t really thank her enough for all that she did and she has never forgiven them for it. She was furious that she had been “passed over” without enough praise and thanks. She felt used. She wasn’t going to get over it until they thanked her properly for everything she had done.

III
There is the woman with the watery grey eyes and a gaze so steady that I believe it gives her the power of endurance, as if she could stand in a light blizzard in her mustard yellow coat and not move for hours. She arrives at her studio-office every morning, which is on the ground floor of my apartment building. She is an illustrator for school text books. Every morning she has müsli and a cafe latte at the Swiss bakery and then goes to her studio after checking for mail, sometimes pausing to look at the junk mail. She makes herself a second cup of coffee, usually black because the milk has gone bad. She sniffs at the milk every morning. She is at her desk by five minutes to 9 o’clock. She spends a few minutes rearranging her papers, checking on her pencils, scanner, computer. She then gets down to work and does not move for three hours. She refills her coffee cup in a sort of daze and then returns to her desk. She is fixed, but fluid, for those three hours, sitting in one place but appearing to be very far away somewhere inside herself, or her work. At twelve o’clock she goes for a walk, and to eat lunch if she hasn’t brought a sandwich with her. She comes back looking alert, bright-eyed, and flushed as if she has been exerting herself by walking up a hill; the approach to our building is flat however. Her afternoon routine is in complete contrast to her morning one in that there is no routine. It’s difficult to know how she will spend her afternoons. Some days she just reads, other days she types furiously at her computers, and some days she browses through what must be clickbait – there’s a sort of glazed look in her eyes as her index finger clicks through at a regular beat. The days she reads she revisits some of the morning’s deep torpor, unmoving, lost in what she is doing. And then there are those days when she lies on the chaise lounge and cries. This is preceded by a lazy pacing of the studio, staring at the floor and then collapsing into the chair with deep sobs that seem to come from very deep within and wrack her narrow frame. She seems to be able to cry for hours on end, sustaining herself through a particular rhythm. Each long, slow wave of tears building up to a crescendo as if the memories or feelings come faster and harder like contractions, they take hold of her and she seems to be as if possessed for she can seem to go on crying for a while at a loud, fevered pace. Then it ebbs and you can see her gasping for breath, realising her own tiredness, eventually stopping with a series of whimpers and falling back till the next fresh wave crashes over her. Hours later, exhausted, she falls into a deep sleep. She leaves the studio every evening at five o’clock.

Soft, soft droning

There is a sound in this city, a soft, constant tattoo of hundreds of thousands of fingertips on keyboards. Ragged bitten grimy short Vietnamese precision manicured false brittle not enough calcium in the diet not enough vitamin D pitted nicotine marked. A global army beating its retreat from some unbearable now. Also, wires, fans, battery heat, dead metal hums that are no language just pure industrial noise and perfect background score for falling in between the cracks. Your etsy-ing, your artisanal gins and lake swimming are cute, but I think the logic of despair entails a long moment of flailing in full view on a super fast connection.

 

Hot Flash

A dwarf called Warren runs the Internet of Things facility and I am in love with him. You can never really rationally explain why you love someone, you just do. Warren is in trouble with his refrigerator.  The refrigerator started messaging HOMELYNX about how the cucumber supply was going down faster than usual. For one thing, there shouldn’t even be cucumbers in the refrigerator, and while the most recent supply could be rationalised by the tubs of hummus, labneh and borani – guests – it was still going down very fast. Had anything else reported something irregular about the cucumbers?  It turns out that the waste disposal unit could verify that cucumber peels had been identified and the toilet could detect traces of it; so we know they hadn’t been thrown out of the window at an unsuspecting passerby. That would have been funny, actually, especially if there was such a thing as a window or a passerby around here. No, all you have here is the hum and rinse of electricity through your hair.

The thing is, Warren doesn’t even eat cucumbers, they were left over from the crudite plate at the farewell party for the Chief. Not wanting to waste them, and knowing I love cucumbers, Warren just put the extras in the fridge. Some things are perfectly rational and explain-able but the problem with rationality is that everyone has their own version of it.

Warren maintains a section of the main server farm, MEM046Z where the Internet of Things is made, and he isn’t supposed to fall in love. He certainly isn’t supposed to fall in love with someone he met online who can only stand to eat cucumbers and yoghurt all summer and thinks she is a Timurid’s Wife. The Internet of Things is a high security facility and no one is allowed to enter except authorised personnel and certainly not any Central Asian types – real or imaginary.

The irony doesn’t escape us that it all started with the very same tattling refrigerator having a Twitter exchange with @thetimuridswife. I also love melons and ice-cream and the refrigerator was telling me about the history of ice-cream making, and kulfis in particular, long before modern refrigeration.  (Kulfi has been appropriated by the Indians but it actually came from Central Asia.) If you pulled up the logs you’d see Twitter exchanges about flavours and their pairings, tweets that made sense to no one else but the two of us. It started with the refrigerator tweeting ‘beetroots & mustard’. Then, I tweeted

@thetimuridswife parmesan and chocolate

hesitantly, and waited to see what would happen. And then it came:

@coolhuntings23 blue cheese and pear

@thetimuridswife chocolate and onions

@coolhuntings23 green beans and oranges

There are no secrets with a dwarf. The dwarf had hacked into the refrigerator’s Twitter ID and was tweeting as it, without the refrigerator realising it had been compromised. It had always been him, and me;  the refrigerator was just a.. Trojan horse.

Over a series of Twitter exchanges I told Warren all about my travels and reincarnation. I am a Timurid’s wife and the fleshy concubine to a Sassanid warlord in ancient Samarqand, “a city so steeped in poetry that even medical doctors wrote their treatises in verse.” As a result I am something of a secret agent with very high levels of security clearance. Uzbek, in those days, far outstripped Persian as a language. Persian had one word for crying; Uzbek had over a hundred. Crying like a baby hiccuping, crying as if you have lost your keys, crying as if your parents have died, crying over beautiful poetry, crying for the way you used to love someone and don’t anymore. Samarqand was so far advanced in the sciences, art, architecture, medicine, astronomy, poetics… . Warren thinks that sometimes I’m doing other people’s share of make believe as well.

He lied about there being another person in the house eating cucumbers. He said he had changed his diet but it turns out the feeds from the heat sensors revealed a second person in the house. Once they all started pooling all their data and looking at everything that wasn’t Warren, they found me.  I couldn’t help it, I’m menopausal, and all that seems to keep me cool is a diet of cucumbers and yoghurt. (Dill and garlic in the mix never hurt)

It wasn’t easy to hide from a house; it’s like being 12 again and all the girls are whispering about you behind your back and you absolutely know they are but can’t seem to get even the smallest piece of information from anyone about it or make them stop. It is like the time your best friend found and read your secret diary.

Warren said we should just continue as normal – quietly, he going about his work and me reading, studying and writing. In the evenings we would eat and cheat at cards and giggle over other people’s data streams. It was only a matter of time before they came for us. Till then he told me to play with his hair and tell him about the siege on Samarqand.