The Event

“After I arrived, I was ushered into what I thought was the green room. But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to me: five super-wealthy guys – yes, all men – from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own. […]

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“Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked: “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?”

“The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr Robot hack that takes everything down.

“This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers – if that technology could be developed in time.

“That’s when it hit me: at least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the ageing process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape…”

Text: Douglas Rushkoff,  How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse

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Creatures, human or otherwise

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“Craters are not just vestiges of war. They are geographic testaments to the anthropogenic force of bombs. Research shows that when a bomb bursts, it alters long-term soil formation, vegetation growth, and hydrology. It also affects how people use the land in the future. It’s a phenomenon so disruptive that it has given rise to a new field of science with an evocative name: bombturbation.

“Simply put, bombturbation is the cratering of a land surface and “mixing the soil with an explosive device,” says Joseph P. Hupy, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the father of the field. The device can be an aerial bomb, a propelled explosive, or an “in situ” bomb such as a landmine.

“If you look at a cross-section of undisturbed soil, you’ll see horizons: surface vegetation and organic matter over topsoil, subsoil, parent material (partly weathered rock), and bedrock. A bomb blast shatters those horizons. It releases forceful energy that creates a supersonic shock wave, penetrating soil and rock, setting sediment in motion, and ejecting materials at high speed. A crater forms — its shape and dimensions dependent on the type and strength of the explosion, and the ground where it occurs. Explosions at or below the surface typically result in craters surrounded by a rim of ejected debris. Bedrock is often exposed in the bottom.

“If you look at a cross-section of undisturbed soil, you’ll see horizons. A bomb blast shatters those horizons.

“Each crater is unique, and its future depends on its environment. Over time, leaves and forest litter accumulate in the crater (if they are there), and water percolates through (or not). Organic matter seeps into the underlying bedrock, and microbes flourish (or not). Regardless of local conditions, the crater fosters a new soil environment that would not have evolved otherwise. Different plants take root. Runoff patterns shift. Creatures — human or otherwise — adapt to that new landscape in different ways. It’s not necessarily good or bad, but it’s changed — and that’s critical.”

Text: Karen J. Coates, Bombscapes: Of War and Earth, Undark 

“A beguilingly simple, yet fatal problem…”

 

“It’s 2025, and 800,000 tons of used high strength steel is coming up for auction.

“The steel made up the Keystone XL pipeline, finally completed in 2019, two years after the project launched with great fanfare after approval by the Trump administration. The pipeline was built at a cost of about $7 billion, bringing oil from the Canadian tar sands to the US, with a pit stop in the town of Baker, Montana, to pick up US crude from the Bakken formation. At its peak, it carried over 500,000 barrels a day for processing at refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

“But in 2025, no one wants the oil.

“The Keystone XL will go down as the world’s last great fossil fuels infrastructure project. TransCanada, the pipeline’s operator, charged about $10 per barrel for the transportation services, which means the pipeline extension earned about $5 million per day, or $1.8 billion per year. But after shutting down less than four years into its expected 40 year operational life, it never paid back its costs.

“The Keystone XL closed thanks to a confluence of technologies that came together faster than anyone in the oil and gas industry had ever seen. It’s hard to blame them — the transformation of the transportation sector over the last several years has been the biggest, fastest change in the history of human civilization, causing the bankruptcy of blue chip companies like Exxon Mobil and General Motors, and directly impacting over $10 trillion in economic output.

“And blame for it can be traced to a beguilingly simple, yet fatal problem: the internal combustion engine has too many moving parts.”

Text: Seth Miller, This Is How Big Oil Will Die, NewCo Shift.

Pic: Simon Stalenhag, The Mascot, from Electric State.

The World Was Absorbing

“We were in a lounge on the second floor of the renovated studio; concept art hung beside a whiteboard covered with Post-its. The furniture was bright, simple, IKEA. Sitting in front of a flat-screen TV the size of a Hummer windshield, Murray loaded up a demo of the game that he had created for E3: a solar system of six planets. Hoping to preserve a sense of discovery in the game, he has been elusive about how it will play, but he has shared some details. Every player will begin on a randomly chosen planet at the outer perimeter of a galaxy. The goal is to head toward the center, to uncover a fundamental mystery, but how players do that, or even whether they choose to do so, is open to them. People can mine, trade, fight, or merely explore. As planets are discovered, information about them (including the names of their discoverers) is loaded onto a galactic map that is updated through the Internet. But, because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance. As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal…”

Thomas Cole - An Evening in Arcadia

“Each planet had a distinct biome. On one, we encountered a friendly-looking piscine-cetacean hybrid with a bulbous head. (Even aggressive creatures in the game do not look grotesque.) In another, granular soil the color of baked salt was embedded with red coral; a planet hung in the sky, and a hovering robot traversed the horizon. “Those are drones,” Murray said. “They will attack you if they find you killing animals or illegally mining resources.” On a grassy planet, doe-eyed antelope with zebra legs grazed around us. Mist rose off the grass as I headed down a ravine shaded by trees. “This is a place where no one has been before,” Murray said. The biome was Earth-like in light and in color, naturalistic. As I descended, the ravine deepened until rock façades took shape on either side. In spite of the work’s semi-finished state, the world was absorbing. “I’m sorry there’s no game-play element on this planet yet,” Murray said. His mind turned from the screen in front of us—the six planets, tidily assembled for the demo—to the full version of No Man’s Sky on the operating table on the studio’s first floor, below us. Until many improvements were fully realized, the whole of it would inevitably look worse than what we were seeing. “You can lose sight that it once looked like this,” he said.”

Text: World Without End, The New Yorker.

Image: Thomas Cole, An evening in Arcadia, 1843/ Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, USA

An Enclave Within an Enclave

“What is different today […] is that companies have become much more adept at identifying their top customers and knowing which psychological buttons to push. The goal is to create extravagance and exclusivity for the select few, even if it stirs up resentment elsewhere. In fact, research has shown, a little envy can be good for the bottom line.

“When top-dollar travelers switch planes in Atlanta, New York and other cities, Delta ferries them between terminals in a Porsche, what the airline calls a “surprise-and-delight service.” Last month, Walt Disney World began offering after-hours access to visitors who want to avoid the crowds. In other words, you basically get the Magic Kingdom to yourself.

“When Royal Caribbean ships call at Labadee, the cruise line’s private resort in Haiti, elite guests get their own special beach club away from fellow travelers — an enclave within an enclave.

“We are living much more cloistered lives in terms of class,” said Thomas Sander, who directs a project on civic engagement at the Kennedy School at Harvard. “We are doing a much worse job of living out the egalitarian dream that has been our hallmark.”

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“For companies trying to entice moneyed customers, that means identifying and anticipating what they want. “The premium customer doesn’t want to be asked questions,” said Mr. Clarke of PricewaterhouseCoopers. “They don’t want friction. They want things to happen through osmosis.”

“But for people at the lower end of the market, as well as in the middle, plenty of friction remains. The trade-off is that the amount of hassle is precisely calibrated to just how much you are willing to pay.

“At the low end, people’s expectations have fundamentally changed,” Mr. Clarke said. “Because it’s a fraction of the cost, people say, ‘I’m willing to take some discomfort because my wallet is staying full.’”

Text: In an Age of Privilege, Not Everyone Is in the Same Boat, New York Times

Image: Jan Tichy, Things To Come, 1936-2012. Three-channel digital video projection
Edition of 5. Richard Gray Gallery

Simply Choose an Algorithm

“A team of technologists working with Microsoft and others have produced a 3D-printed painting in the style of Dutch master Rembrandt. The portrait was created after existing works by the artist were analysed by a computer.

“A new work was then designed to look as much like a Rembrandt as possible – while remaining an original portrait. It was then 3D-printed to give it the same texture as an oil painting.

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“We really wanted to understand what makes a face look like a Rembrandt,” Emmanuel Flores, director of technology for the project, told the BBC.

“After they had been digitally tagged by humans, data on Rembrandt’s paintings was gathered by computers which discovered patterns in how the Dutch master would, for example, characteristically shape a subject’s eyes in his portraits.

“Then, machine-learning algorithms were developed which could output a new portrait mirroring Rembrandt’s style.

“To limit the many possible results to a specific type of individual, the computer was asked to produce a portrait of a Caucasian male between the ages of 30 and 40, with facial hair, wearing black clothes with a white collar and a hat, facing to the right. “We found that with certain variations in the algorithm, for example, the hair might be distributed in different ways,” explained Mr Flores.

“But humans didn’t decide the final look and feel of the final portrait – they simply chose algorithms based on their efficiency and let the computer come up with the finished result.

Text: Computer paints ‘new Rembrandt’ after old works analysis, BBC News

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, c. 1636-38, Dutch, 1606-1669. Oil on panel
panel: 24-7/8 x 19-7/8 in. (63.2 x 50.5 cm); framed: 32-1/2 x 27-1/2 in. (82.6 x 69.9 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation © The Norton Simon Foundation

“A research panel has exposed 50 paintings as falsely attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn, the 17th-century Dutch master, the group announced Friday. Among the exposed paintings are a 1637 portrait of Rembrandt, on display in the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., and the 1635 “Landscape with Carriage,” owned by the Wallace Collection in London.The Norton-Simon Museum acquired the portrait, which the panel attributes to Rembrandt contemporary Carel Fabritius, for about $3.8 million in 1969, the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool reported. A spokeswoman with the Norton-Simon Museum said the museum was unshaken by the finding and the portrait would remain on exhibit. “We are going to leave the Rembrandt on display. We don’t endorse the methods of the research project,” said Vicky Rogers, reading from a prepared statement.”

Beyond the Reach of Archaeology

“In English, the word “apocalypse”—ety. Greek, n. apo (un-) + kaluptein (-veil)—has three non-exclusive meanings. The first and most common is simply the end of the world, whether by divine punishment or whatever transpires in movies directed by Roland Emmerich. The second is any form of calamity, representational or real, man-made or no, that resembles the end of the world, like the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Chernobyl, or the movies directed by Roland Emmerich themselves. The third is what the Greeks intended apocalypse to mean: the revelation of knowledge through profound disruption, which is why the final book of the New Testament is called “Revelations” (composed, it is thought, to reassure Christians during their widespread persecution by the Roman emperor, Domitian). In other words, the apocalypse either is the end, looks like the end, or helps us understand the end.

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“Like books, movies, and the visual arts, video games are well acquainted with the apocalypse. Scores of them have been set in the final days of mankind; countless more ask the player to prevent them. Yet, as mere setting, the apocalypse can never be true to its name—when Mass Effect 3 ends and the galaxy has been saved/altered/destroyed, you can always boot up the series’s first act and play it all again. The finale is not the end. In the curious lexicon of games criticism, we often speak of “world-building,” yet rarely do we stop to think about its opposite. Anything made can be destroyed, yet destruction in games is rarely the destruction of games. What masterpiece of eschatological design could possibly convey the all-encompassing, crushing finality of a true apocalypse?

“Since the 1990s, when the rise of reliable home Internet access made persistent game worlds both commercially and technically viable, the game industry has developed over 300 massively multiplayer online games, some gargantuan (The Old Republic, etc.) and others slight, like the thoughtful browser-based government simulator NationStates. The majority of MMOs, of course, don’t experience the runaway success of World of Warcraft or EVE Online and eventually adopt a free-to-play model once it becomes clear that subscriptions alone can’t sustain ongoing costs. But a smaller number—44, if Wikipedia is to be believed—have shut down, and with their closure, their persistent worlds simply phase out of existence, beyond the reach of any archaeology….”

Text: Will Partin, When a Video-Game World Ends, The Atlantic

Image: Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle, 1915.