Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hurricane Irene, the 7th Sigma and Cyberpunk Futures

Last night, I turned the pages of Steven Gould's 7th Sigma--basically a cyberpunk Western set in the arid hills of New Mexico.  For me, on Day 4 of no power in post-Hurricane Irene Baltimore, the words flickered in the candlelight and the novel seemed entirely appropriate.  In particular, the cyberpunk/steampunk mash-up of pre-industrial technologies with advanced IT--since I was simultaneously checking news and email on an iPhone.  Gould's novel, though, is interesting even if you don't live in a area recovering from a natural disaster.

We do not live in a world where technological and economic development move in lock-step.  In fact, just the opposite--vast swathes of the planet are locked into miserable underdevelopment; other zones explode into hyperdevelopment.  We are used to thinking about a "digital divide" that tracks closely along other forms of inequality: race, class, nationality, ethnicity.  But our everyday experience of technology is not particularly consistent, either.  In my case, legacies of earlier periods of urbanization (electrical wires mounted on poles) have led to the current, Stygian darkness at my house.  But there are lots of other areas of technological dissonance we encounter every day: taking trains, driving, filing papers, mailing letters.  Advertisements suggest that this is only a temporary, temporal anomaly, that we are moving inextricably towards an integration singularity that will sync my family with my entertainment system and my laptop.  But what if it's not?

What if we considered our technological futures as a palimpsest of different temporalities, the past, present and future cobbled together, with newer technologies overwritten on older ones?  There are plenty of people who do this when designing new technologies/ front ends/ use-interfaces for the present.  But what if we jettisoned our myths of technological convergence, those assumptions that these temporal discontinuities will all eventually approach equilibrium?  If it will never be the case that the technologies we might develop will be in perfect sync with the lives and organizations that antedate them, how might that change the ways people imagine technological futures?  Could those legacies move from being considered an obstacle of progress to being exploited in design?