Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. – Terence McKenna

Two contrasting views on worldbuilding in fiction

M. John Harrison thought worldbuilding was unnecessary and dull:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.

Charlie Stross (who points to Harrison in this piece) thinks it’s the defining part of science fiction:

[Humans] exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we’re going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists’ social context…

For instance, stories about modern life (non-science fiction) fall flat if they don’t connect with the increasingly-bizarre context we live in today:

We’re living in a world where invisible flying killer robots murder wedding parties in Kandahar, a billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars, and loneliness is a contagious epidemic…These things are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don’t have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren’t lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note.

By the way, here’s that sports car, which launched today and is currently orbiting Earth:

The big opportunity, to Stross, is building worlds different enough from our own context to illuminate other ways of being; where you can tell other types of stories:

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our seas and settles for draining the local aquarium, or even just the bathtub, instead.

Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring – Desmond Tutu

Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

Great overview of the “forgetting curve“, the way that we immediately forget almost all the information we take in:

For many, the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.

That describes many of my reading experiences quite well; sometimes I feel like the characters in this Portlandia skit. The key to avoiding this is recalling and re-encountering the information again:

If you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out…Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.

The most well-known technique for recalling information systematically is spaced repetition:

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

This website has always served as my outboard brain, but I don’t re-encounter my own thoughts on a regular basis. I’ve tried a few times to set up a system to send me random past posts; worth getting that going.

Bicyclopolis

A fun exploration of a future world where bicycles reign supreme

Notes from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

A few years back I was talking with a friend about how much more frequent and easier air travel had gotten even since I was a kid. I mentioned that our kids would probably travel constantly and never settle down, and he responded “or maybe we’ll run out of resources and they won’t be able to travel at all.”

That was the first time I really considered that our way of life might not continue growing forever, and may end or transform completely. Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a short, poetic exploration of how we might come to terms with our mortality as a civilization, and if we must die out, learn how to die well. It’s a dark book, but offers an unexpected olive branch in the form of the humanities as a way to avoid the worst of what might come.

The Big Idea

Humanity’s survival through the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism and into the new world of the Anthropocene will hinge on our ability to let our old way of life die while protecting, sustaining, and reworking our collective stores of cultural technology. (23)

Scranton highlights that the foundations of our civilization are the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell stories about endless technological progress and individual fulfillment, we are likely to fall into chaos once our resources run out. But if we tell stories about what’s best–and most basic–about human culture, we build knowledge and a support system for harder times.

Rather than technology, this emphasizes the humanities as the most important area to develop in ourselves and our children. Scranton argues that reading, writing, singing and drawing new stories about “the good life” is the best way to protect against the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, and societal collapse.

The first step, though, is to personally and as a society realize our mortality and shift to a mindset of collective responsibility.

5 favorite quotes

  • Politics, whether for bees or for humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. This is where the ideas of the vote, the town hall meeting, and the public debate get their power: humans come together to resonate on one frequency or another. (55-56)
  • Accepting this emptiness, letting go of my self, was only the first step in coming to understand my responsibility to and participation in a larger collective self, a kind of human existence transcending any particular place or time, going back to our first moments in Africa 200,000 years ago, and living on in the dim, fraught future of the Anthropocene.(93-94)
  • “All the wisdom and reasoning in this world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.” – Michel de Montaigne (91)
  • The only inherent trait of the human ape that differentiates us from other animals is our knack for collective symbolic manipulation. (94)
  • The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life…The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself. (99; 110)

Next steps

I’ve long wanted to write simple children’s books about the future, and illustrating possible good lifestyles in a challenging environment seems like a good way to do that. Will make that a priority this year.

Update – Just found out I posted this on the day Ursula Le Guin died. Sad news. A quote of hers that applies quite nicely here:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

Investment and love

Dan Ariely on why we love our kids so much (and more than others):

Kids really come with no instructions. Very tough to deal with, difficult, complex, but incredibly involving and time consuming and I think the love that comes out of it is an example of the effect of a tremendous investment.

Big man power

Conor Dunne, patron saint of tall cyclists, shows what it would take for me to ride in the WorldTour:

“The average rider would do well to be able to hold 390w for five minutes,” he adds. “For Conor to be able to sustain that for over four and a half hours in this bike race shows you how much you have to have in the tank to compete at this level.”

Harnessing AI to build better UI

A fascinating article (and set of demos) about how generative and improvisational AI techniques could help us invent better interfaces, and better ways of thinking for humans:

At its deepest, interface design means developing the fundamental primitives human beings think and create with…

We’ve described a third view, in which AIs actually change humanity, helping us invent new cognitive technologies, which expand the range of human thought. Perhaps one day those cognitive technologies will, in turn, speed up the development of AI, in a virtuous feedback cycle.

So not just computers quickly generating lots of options based on existing pieces, but helping us think up new ways to frame the questions, and build new tools to explore them. Your next design colleague could be a machine.

Gratitude increases patience and self-control – as the author asserts, a good way to keep those New Year’s resolutions!