When Gadgets Fail—Tech Hubris Roundup

Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melting because he used them too ambitiously. Dr. Frankenstein created a monster that destroyed his loved ones. In reality, just as in myth, technology is often used with hubris, or is hubris itself; and tech gadget marketing especially so. We are forever trapped in the retro-future, a regressive imaging of the progressive, a desire to have something that others do not, a gateway to an expanded reality. We want it first and we want it shiny and, often, we want it to give us some power over our environment that we did not have before.

These truths inspire product developers and advertisers to chase all kinds of rabbits and dive down all kinds of holes in an effort to create the next big—and importantly, the next revolutionary—technology. As the authors of the following articles describe, these goals are not without their problems, and sometimes those mishaps are the result of tech being deployed before its time. Other times, technology malfunctions in ironic ways. And, finally, sometimes its users make bad choices. 

One example of tech being deployed before it should is wearable gadgets. “Several other devices had to crash and burn so modern wearables could flourish,” writes Victoria Song at Gizmodo. Song also points out the very interesting retrotech fact that Chinese tech geeks in the 1700s could wear abicusess. Song’s article chronicles the Seiko T001, a watch with a TV like in Dick Tracey, “revolutionary” at the time but burdened with a terrible picture and a “walkman-sized receiver” the wearer had to carry around to make the watch work—truly an example of a technology before its time, if by “its time” we mean a tech innovation lacking a larger tech infrastructure for support. 

What about tech going wrong in almost-poetically ironic ways? Just a couple of weeks ago, Yoni Hesler reported that a much-celebrated voltage tester was recalled by the U.S. Product Safety Commission because of the risk of electrocution associated with its use. Being attacked by voltage while using a voltage tester is the very kind of irony science fiction writers love. 

Then we have human foibles. This article details two instances of such stumbles in the development or deployment of military technology. The first scenario is a kind of Babel-like parable: try to make something too big and you’ll pay. Shortly before the Japanese Empire invaded Pearl Harbor, its Navy built the largest battleship ever built and equipped it with “cannons that could fire 18-inch shells over 26 miles and 9×450 mm guns” — ending up with a monstrosity displacing 63,000 tons of water, creating “a four foot high tidal wave, flooding the riverbank homes of Nagasaki” and capsizing hundreds of ships in the surrounding harbor. “Frightened citizens rushed into the streets as water poured through their doors, completely bewildered by the source of the flooding.”

But the vanity trope is even more interesting than the Babel trope. The true fumble of our epoch occurred in 2010 when two pilots from “Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 41” were flying their copters over Lake Tahoe and one of them nose-dived into the water because the pilots were trying to take Facebook selfies. In many ways, this sad anecdote evokes the myth of Icarus. 

In fact, we’ve seen many examples of people getting seriously hurt and even dying while trying to get selfies on high buildings and cliffsides, in front of wild animals or tidal waves, on the edges of waterfalls or roaring fires. But oftentimes, it’s easy to dismiss those events—they happen to civilians (untrained yahoos) rather than highly trained pilots or crack soldiers. Part of the technological mythos is the cult of expertise, and there’s a virtue assumed about the well-trained that the helicopter story savagely deconstructs. 

All of which suggests that the problem of tech hubris could also be called by its good old-fashioned wry characterization “operator error,” but perhaps with the prefix “egregious.” 

Tiny Universes and the Stories They Hold

A few years ago, science and tech media began reporting on the phenomenon of “spacetime foam,” alternatively called “quantum foam.” Though it has only recently received media attention, it is not necessarily a new theory; in fact, it’s been around since the theory of relativity has been clashing and intersecting with quantum theory: decades. The issue until recently, however, was that scientists could not figure out what space was filled with. Energy and mass that we predicted would be in certain places was found not to be there—it was “effectively hidden.” To explain this phenomenon, physicists and astronomers have hypothesized that this “emptiness” isn’t smooth, but actually full of “messy” stuff: that “spacetime might not be the trampoline-like plane scientists once envisioned. Rather, it might be a foamy mess of bubbles, each containing mini-universes living and dying inside our own.”

Conceptually, quantum foam feels difficult to grasp, but read articles about it and I promise you’ll almost understand it. There’s also a great book about it as well: Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam

One scientific press release describes spacetime foam in this way: “At the smallest scales of distance and duration that we can measure, space-time – that is, the three dimensions of space plus time – appears to be smooth and structureless. However, certain aspects of quantum mechanics, the highly successful theory scientists have developed to explain the physics of atoms and subatomic particles, predict that space-time would not be smooth. Rather, it would have a foamy, jittery nature and would consist of many small, ever-changing, regions for which space and time are no longer definite, but fluctuate.”

Fictional accounts of microverses—universes within universes—have existed since long before the development of quantum foam theory. A strong theme within such stories has been radical empathy, a call to recognize the beings who inhabit the smaller universe. Notably, microverses aren’t any more far-fetched than the existence of multiple universes. Researchers speculate that these universes could interact at the quantum level, and one researcher even says interaction at higher than quantum levels “is no longer pure fantasy.”

Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who is a familiar example of an encounter between the “big” everyday world and a tiny world. Although Whoville is in this iteration a “world,” or more likely a planet, it is symbolically close enough to the theme for us to assume it’s a kind of “closed system” universe (plus, if this Whoville is the same as the Whoville of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it would appear that Whoville is part of a larger world-system). The story’s moral, that we should extend ethical recognition to beings “no matter how small,” is similar to other literary references to tiny universes. The story uses sound as a method of contact between the two worlds, with a small child in Whoville providing the decisive extra decibels to attract the attention of the skeptics in the bigger world.

Arthur C. Clarke’s The Wall of Darkness jumped emphatically into quantum foam many years before others did, and in fact did so before the public really had the opportunity to contemplate the theory at all. The Wall of Darkness is considered part of the genre of “Mathematical [Science] Fiction” and takes place in a universe consisting of one star and one planet. The planet intersects with an impenetrable wall, inspiring two men to attempt to scale the wall to see what is beyond it. Like the Seuss story, the Clarke work is fundamentally about barriers. Unlike the Seuss story, The Wall of Darkness articulates the quantum reality of multiple universes and suggests a somewhat absurd method of contact. 

The idea of tiny universes is provocative for many reasons—universes smaller than ours suggest the existence of universes larger than ours, and even the possibility that we are ourselves a tiny universe inside a bigger one. (We might even ask how this could not be true if quantum foam is an actual thing?). Even more provocative, as suggested by Horton Hears a Who and The Wall of Darkness, is the potential of communication or contact past our own universe and with the wholly other. 

Re-reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

As most people know, H.G. Wells was a utopian socialist. And, in many ways, we can legitimately call Wells’s famous novel, The Time Machine, a kind of late-steampunk, socialist fable—late steampunk because it depicts advanced technology arising from the limits and material context of mid-period industrial revolution and the early use of electricity. (For justifications for using early electricity in steampunk, see this post and also this one).  

But what makes The Time Machine explicitly socialist, apart from the known beliefs and aspirations of the author? In fact, its political undertones and overall theoretical approach may be what makes the novel most interesting. Wells writes about material transformation not just from the perspective of Jacobin reformism and high-minded utopianism. Rather, The Time Machine reveals not just socialist sentiment but Marxist analysis and it utilizes base-superstructure Marxist dialectical materialism to explain the evolution of two races—Eloi and Morlocks—in the year 802,701 AD. 

In the novel, the Time Traveler encounters the Eloi—fruit-eating, childlike with short attention spans, communal and mimicking the mannerisms of the upper class of Wells’s time. They’re depicted as very weak, both in strength and constitution. Later on in the novel, the Time Traveler encounters the Morlocks, who are stronger and smarter than the Eloi, but who manifest as outcasts and monsters. The Time Traveler decides that the Morlocks have served the Eloi as, the Marxist would say, the proletariat serves the bourgeoisie. But the upper class became so weak from its dependence on the workers that the upper class was eventually rendered inert and nearly helpless. Thus, thanks to the fruit-bearing trees abundantly growing wild (flora and fauna have overtaken the inert civilization), the Eloi can still eat without much effort, but they are also subject to being eaten—by the Morlocks. 

And the Morlocks do, literally, eat the rich. Accordingly, their bodies and society have formed out of their material conditions.

A great post on the Shadows of Light blog, a site devoted to utopian and dystopian fiction, describes these material antagonisms. Wells paints the Eloi as descendents of the English factory owners of his time, while the Morlocks

are the descendants of the poor factory workers who, having to work to survive, kept getting exiled out of the sunlight by the bourgeois until they had no choice but to live underground and adapt to the darkness. They ended up living in pitch blackness for so long that their bodies adapted until they no longer resembled normal humans.

The Eloi were physically transformed too—weakened from lack of need or stimulation, in many ways embodying Frederick Douglass’s (dialectical materialist) observation that “if there is no struggle there is no progress.” The Eloi don’t eat meat, but the Morlocks need to, because they’re actually doing work. So they eat the Eloi. And because they eat them, and given that the Eloi have lost any ability to exert influence over their circumstances, the relationship between the Morlock and the Eloi has transformed into something like ranchers (Morlocks) and cattle (Eloi). 

There is a transcendence here that manifests one of the principles of change found in Dialectical Materialism as a theory: the transformation of quantity into quality. Granted, this wasn’t a Leninist minority-driven revolution or a classic majority-driven revolution. There’s probably no conflict point where the proletariat had to overcome bourgeois hegemony through battle and bloodshed. Instead, the Morlocks gradually gained control over the Eloi by allowing (and in some way engineering) the culmination of the material and labor relationship already there. But whether sudden and apocalyptic, or gradual with countless slices and cuts into the micropolitical and cultural fabric over time, dialectical transformation involves some kind of violent disruption. Such violence is the only possible way to break from the violence embedded in existing oppressive structures in the first place. 

Finally, and notably, consider that the Eloi don’t know they’ve been overthrown. It is definitely time to reread this multilayered and fascinating work, with an eye to its socialist undertones. 

Gadget Oddities Roundup

We never seem to tire of new technology. It flows into our lives, sometimes providing solutions to problems we were very aware we had and, more often than not, creating solutions to problems we never knew we had. Over the past few months, as people from across the internet continue to fight pandemic fatigue, we’ve uncovered many blog posts devoted to emerging tech like electric pets, robot taskrabbits, and high-tech health aids. We’ve assembled a few of the best of each here. 

For Real and Unreal Pets: Lauren Wadowsky at the Gadget Flow blog: lists a number of new technologies from 2020, and three of them are strongly associated with pets. There’s a very attentive and proactive cat litter box—a “smart cat toilet,” one might say—that the Consumer Electronics Show bestowed an innovation award on, and it has “…built-in stool and urine image recognition” and “excretory behavioral algorithms.” And for those who would like to invent new pets rather than rummage through the leavings of established ones, there’s “the Petit Qoobo Tailed Cushion Robot,” a headless android pet designed to comfort people (like folks in nursing homes) who can’t keep an actual pet. And then there’s an adorable rolling ball robot (think of a “tennis ball that follows you around.”). This delightful (or irritatingly cute) ball doesn’t just adorably follow you, it also serves as a calendar, a to-do list, even a remote control for your IoT (internet of things) devices. It also has a built in camera and can thus serve as a security guard for your domicile.  

We’re Taking Care of You: More recently (April 2021), Adrian Willings of Pocket-lint.com made a rather long and ubiquitously impressive list of new gadgets, the most interesting of which were devoted to safety and survival. Willings discusses a sonic fire extinguisher, designed in 2017 by researchers at George Mason University. The device uses sound waves to extinguish fires, and appears to work. The implications of not needing to use as much water to put out a fire are substantial. Then there is an edible aid drone, which can be used for disaster relief, lost parties, and the like. Named Pouncer, its wings are stuffed with food and its frame and skin can be used for firewood and tent shelter. Finally, Singapore is experimenting with roads made not only of gravel and concrete but also of “non-toxic UV absorbing minerals” that absorb light to enable “a safe glow at night.” A glowing road can increase safety, for drivers, passengers and pedestrians. It’s a great idea; we knew someone was eventually going to develop it. 

Do You Believe We Can Fly? And in January, Angela Moscaritolo of PC Mag covered the famous and influential Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and shared some favorites. Of those, one stands out in particular. Audaciously named “The Cadillac Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicle,” it hauls humans one-at-a-time to wherever they need to go. In other words, it is a zero-emissions “air taxi service that generates zero emissions.” We’ve covered jetpacks in a past blog post and the VTOL vehicle comes close: it is a tiny one-person flying machine that “can carry [singular] passengers at up to 55 miles per hour.” However, taking a cue from the Gadget Flow list mentioned above, is the next logical step is to create a one-person flying drone with a sidecar for pets? Personally looking forward to future iterations with space for my furry friends.  

Crime Control and Public Spending: Two Ships Passing in the Night

When it comes to policing and public safety, governments tend to “buy in bulk.” So even when resources are tight, police departments get tons of money from municipal coffers. Those municipalities must often cut other services to fund the police, even when those other services offer front-end crime prevention that would cost considerably less than we spend on policing. On top of that, local police forces receive tons of federal money and equipment, and are incentivized into over-policing to keep those coffers flowing. 

And all of this occurs despite the lack of any consistent relationship between public spending on law enforcement and overall crime rates. The conventional wisdom is that if we spend more on police and policing, there will be less crime. It doesn’t appear to be that simple. Writing for the Washington Post, Philip Bump points out that an examination of spending relative to crime since 1960 concludes “that there is no correlation between the two.” Bump says this is especially true of violent crime, and is even true when you account for the delayed effects of increased or decreased spending.

There’s also no correlation between overall crime rates and public perceptions of crime rates, but that’s beyond the scope of this short post. This lack of correlation should tell us that we are making decisions about public spending, law enforcement and criminalization, itself, using obsolete tools.

Broadly speaking, the reason we don’t know how to properly spend money on public safety is that we don’t actually know what genuine public safety is. Furthermore, we don’t know what causes or prevents crime because the parameters of “crime” are themselves so artificial. “Crime,” write Paul and Patricia Brantingham, “must be thought of as a broad range of actual behaviors, which, while sometimes appearing similar, may be the results of many different incentives or etiological processes.” As for cause, they continue, crime is like backaches, “never . . . attributable to any single cause . . . the result of a variety of causes. No single factor or etiology is likely to explain all similar criminal events.”

In 2011 the DOJ argued that the complete absence of police (due to strikes) is consistently correlated with a sharp increase in crime. But does this assume a unitary kind of “policing?” Does it preclude different conceptions and structures of public safety? The Defund movement points out that police don’t often intervene in ongoing violent crimes, but if such intervention is warranted, “a service that provides expert specialized rapid response does not need to be connected to an institution of policing that fails in every other respect.” Rather, a hyperspecialized conflict intervention, criminal apprehension, or other service is just that — a service, that specialists rather than generalists (masses of cops with weapons, often incompetent, often looking for trouble themselves) could provide for a fraction of the resources we spend now. 

Taylor Miller Thomas and Beatrice Jin at Politico explain further: “Studies have shown that an increase in sworn police officers reduces instances of crime. However, increases in other factors — such as social welfare, access to health care, employment and other social services — have also been shown to decrease crime rates. It’s unclear the extent to which increases in police spending are responsible for falling rates of violent crime.”

In other words: cut armed policing, fund social services and do good social policymaking in general. Leave actual instances of violent crime up to well-trained and strictly regulated security specialists.

That’s the kind of thinking that needs to replace the “buying in bulk” model of police spending. More is not better. While the thought was, perhaps, that lots of patrol officers would mean lots of successful interventions stopping or solving crimes, while also having a deterrent effect on future crimes. Instead, we’ve created a large-scale public legitimacy crisis, drained local budgets, and haven’t influenced crime rates. Solving the causes of crime at the earliest possible time, designing genuine crime prevention programs tied to security and well-being for everyone, might mean not only defunding most policing per se, but also most of the need for it. That would be true fiscal responsibility.  

Strange Superpower Roundup

Consider this my meta-analysis of strange superpowers. After reading a number of posts purporting to list the weirdest, strangest, most esoteric superpowers, I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the weirdest among the actual, non-satirical superheroes. 

Although I think it’s probably true that it’s easy to run out of ideas when you are creating comic book characters, I don’t think that can explain the most bizarre of the bizarre among superpowers. I actually think the writers and artists have fun coming up with weird powers, and some of them also serve as artifacts of social criticism. 

From ScreenRant’s list of seven weird powers, the following stand out: Sweating and/or vomiting acid (yes, I know… this is a pair of heroes in Marvel’s X-Force), and a villain named Ruby Thursday who can shape shift only her head (organic matter of such has been replaced with “an organic computer made of malleable plastic”). Bonus: Ruby can make her head explode.

Entertainment website CBR.com lists the weirdest powers in anime and the most interesting of those deal with things growing from bodies, including Bobobo-Bo Bo-Bobo’s nasal whip. He can literally whip people with his incredibly long nose hairs (!). Meanwhile, another anime character, a chef, can slice things with his nose hairs — I guess that lethal nose hair is a thing. Moreover, a character in My Hero Academia has grape-like growths on his head, which he rips off and throws at people. 

Comics Alliance, another reliable comics site, posted their list of “most bizarre” superpowers and mentioned characters like the “cibopath” detective Tony Chu, working off “psychic impressions from the food he eats.” Then there’s Silver Age Superman — that is, Supes in the 1950s when the comic books had to compete with George Reeves’ TV Superman. Silver age artists and writers took interesting turns, including giving him the power to project a foot-high version of himself, emanating from his hands. The miniature projection has all of Superman’s powers. As far as I know, this only happened in one story; and, given how wacky it is, I doubt it had any continuity value. Nor can we forget Swarm, a very evil villain entirely made of bees. This is not only a creepy kind of weirdness, but a somewhat poetic one. We tend to valorize the collective consciousness of a society of bees. Why not make a story, and a character, out of that collective identity? Perhaps a reiteration of Swarm as fighting those forces who are hastening colony collapse is presently in order. 

Superman, by the way, has a bunch of other really esoteric powers that are hardly ever used. Blogger Chris Arrant made a list of little-known Superman powers last year that included telekinesis, shapeshifting, and super-ventriloquism. 

But my vote for weirdest superpower goes to X-Force’s Gin Genie, who first appeared in 2001. Gin Genie grows more powerful as she consumes more alcohol. In other words, she’s the authentic iteration of what many heavy drinkers mistakenly believe about themselves. The power is the generation of seismic waves. Richard Milner devotes a whole piece to Gin Genie at Grunge, where he points out that “it’s basically always in her best interests to be an ornery drunk while strapping some brown jugs of whiskey to her belt as she slurrily slides into combat,” and he laments that, like many of her X-Force teammates, Gin Genie died in a helicopter gunfight against terrorists. A fittingly dissonant end to such a tragically premised hero. 

Quantum Phones Today, Quantum Communication Tomorrow?

Last year, Samsung developed the world’s first smartphone with quantum technology, installed as a security package. This year, Korean technology company KT launched its own “scrambler-free quantum smartphone” enabler. Quantum scrambling and quantum generation of randomness are vast improvements on conventional cryptography. In its basic sense, cryptography encrypts data by “converting plain text into scrambled text” readable only by a key. But quantum cryptography uses the randomness of quantum mechanics, through the medium of quantum computing, to transmit data in a way that is so radically random it can’t be predicted to the degree required to hack it. 

This is astounding in and of itself, but I want more. The only thing quantum about your quantum phone, for practical purposes, is cryptography. Granted, there is an additional sense in which smartphones “use” quantum mechanics — they are designed with quantum theory in mind to control the “billions of transistors and other semiconductor elements” inside the things. But the data processed by these transistors are quite traditional and subject to the limitations thereof.  

But if I can be greedy for a second, I want quantum communication on my quantum phone. Unless I have friends traveling to other planets, delays in cell communication on Terra are pretty innocuous. But it’s the principle of the thing. Ever wonder why the Star Trek universe gets faster-than-light communication and we don’t? It’s “subspace” and its theory seems unachievable, reliant on loopholes humans aren’t likely to be able to create or control anytime soon. “As a very rough approximation,” BBC Future reported a few years ago, “you would need the energy the sun produces over 100 million years to make a wormhole about the size of a grapefruit.” And who would we trust with that kind of power over energy production, given who produces our energy now? There must be a better way. 

Quantum physics has a different approach: communication can be instantaneous because we’re already there. That’s an oversimplification, but not by much. According to Astronomy Magazine as cited by the QuantumXChange blog, “quantum entanglement occurs ‘when two particles are inextricably linked together no matter their separation from one another . . .'” Einstein described all this as “spooky action at a distance.” It would make communication instant because it would activate that part of the universe where two particles are essentially existing as one. And we haven’t figured out how to do that; but if we have a theory, that’s a start. 

And, if we can achieve instantaneous communication via the quantum field, can’t we reverse part of that field and thus communicate into our own past? That’s the basic thesis of the movie Primer, which relies on a theory expressed in the “Feynman Diagrams.” It illustrates how a quantum-based cycle can flow both forward and backward in time. If I could call backwards in time, I could call myself, for example, and warn me not to do something stupid. I could also call myself with sports scores and stock tips, of course, but you should watch the movie to see why that’s a bad idea. 
Richard Bach’s anarchist morality fable Jonathan Livingston Seagull presciently created a metaphor for the “perfect speed” we seek and which quantum theory may fulfill. A mentor magic gull-being tells the main character: “You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed […] is being there.” That’s what we want — to just be there. Is that too much to ask?

Three Weird Retrofuture/punk Subgenres

Bruce Bethke has a wonderful post describing what led to his creation of the word “cyberpunk” and his publication of a short story of the same name, forty-one years ago in 1980. He writes, “I would have bloody well trademarked the thing” if he’d known how revolutionary the word was  which is pretty un-cyberpunk, if we take as a cyberpunk axiom that the self is, if not a completely artificial construct, at least very much bound up with the artifices around it. 

Those ties between the self and the artifices around the self are the thematic ground for cyberpunk’s derivatives. Some of those derivatives are “retrofuture” (such as steampunk, atompunk and dieselpunk) and others are post-cyberpunk and contemporary-to-futuristic (including the very-optimistic solarpunk and other less-optimistic derivatives). 

The subjectivity with which characters encounter the technology around them has been a central feature of cyberpunk and its derivatives from the start. “Classic cyberpunk characters,” writes Lawrence Person, “were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change. ” And while that alienation and pessimism is not an essential trait of the “punk” meta-genre, in each iteration there is a clear intent to make the reader feel encircled by the aesthetic of the age. We feel steampunk, for example, seeing its archetypal goggles. The image of characters’ arms wired and connected to machines is iconic to original cyberpunk. 

Here are three -punks I find especially interesting: 

First, Clockpunk: Clockpunk is “a little further back” than steampunk. “Clockpunk machines may literally have to be wound with a key. Science-savvy audiences may note that the amount of energy stored in a clockpunk device often seems far greater than the amount of energy it takes to rewind them.” It is renaissance/Baroque in aesthetic. Thus, in L’apprendista di Leonardo, Luca Tarenzi re-tells the Second Italian War in 1499 as a murder mystery contextualized by complex weaponry and enhanced human abilities through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci’s apprentice. 

What’s interesting is that there is at least one historically organic “clockpunk” novel written in 1666 by English writer Margaret Cavendish called The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. Submarines figure significantly as a mode of transportation in the story. 

Next we have Rococopunk.Talk about the centering of aesthetics on these derivatives! I think that the visual manifestation of rococopunk is its defining characteristic. “Rococo” itself is defined by elaborate ornamentation from the late baroque period. Artist Prince Poppycock and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood both manifest rococopunk. While in the 1980s, Adam and the Ants dressed in and played what we would now perhaps call rococopunk rock, a seductive new wave/postpunk sound contextualized by their rich costumes. 

Rococopunk stories are still rare, and this would be a great subgenre for the up-and-coming, romantic-minded alternative history/sci-fi writer to explore. 

Finally, my personal favorite: Islandpunk. The Best Science Fiction Books blog points out that islands have been a staple setting for science fiction. Islandpunk isn’t just science fiction set on islands, though. It’s about island-based technologies that develop when castaways or pilgrims build micro-civilizations on islands. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and most especially the television series Gilligan’s Island manifest this sub-genre. The technological development is tied to immediate needs and limited by availability and the skills of the characters. The technology helps define the mini-society’s sociology and social parameters, and is always integral to the plot lines. What results is a microcosmic analysis of human behavior and our relationship to technology — a foundational feature of speculative fiction. 

Fossil Fuel Death Count

We are on the cusp of ending our reliance on energy sources that kill us and kill the planet. But the cusp often feels like the longest part of the journey. Even as we can envision, and are materializing, a world where the majority of inputs to the power grids are clean and renewable, many are still choking on the dirty air of the carbon age — and choking at different rates, depending on circumstances beyond their control.

We received the highest cost estimate of pollution from fossil fuels ever, in brand new research that says 8.7 million deaths a year occur from particulates generated by diesels, gasoline-powered vehicles, coal-fired power plants, and other fossil fuel-based energy and transportation sources. The researchers point out that this 8.7 million death toll (based on analysis of 2018) is much higher than previous estimates, and is “roughly equal to deaths attributed to smoking.” 

Particulate pollution is ubiquitous. Not only that, it moves around, ignoring human conceived borders. Its mobility is partly attributable to the fact that the particles “hover in the atmosphere ‘up to one to two weeks,’ and can therefore “be transported long distances.” And it doesn’t take much: even a little bit of particulate pollution can be deadly. That’s a newer finding — we had never really asked before how much it takes to be linked to mortality.

But now we know. And, combining this new information with our existing knowledge, we also know that most of the people who will die from fossil fuels will be poor. The most concise statement of this disproportionality comes from the United Nations Environmental Program, citing the World Health Organization. 

“The poor,” UNEP says, “tend to be priced out of the leafy suburbs where there are fewer highways and air quality is better.” This disparity can be found at all scales: municipal, regional, national and international. 

A post by the Borgen Project goes into greater detail, explaining that it’s not just location, but the entirety of inequality — material inequality — between rich and poor. “Even when both affluent and impoverished people experience the same exposure,” the post reads, “air pollution affects the health of the impoverished more.” This is because of other differences that compound exposure or which are comorbidities, like access to healthcare and the likelihood of working in hazardous or polluted environments. According to this Atlantic article, In China, a vast portion of urban workers are internal migrants or disproportionately outdoors in very polluted cities like Beijing. Workers delivering messages and packages via bike, walking or public transit, or those who work in industries with poor air circulation, will breathe a lot more of those particulates than executives working in air-filtered and environmentally-controlled offices. 

A shift to renewables will make things better eventually, but in the meantime large infrastructure projects, automobile traffic, and the burning of coal — among other things — continue to produce more deadly particulates. And, building the infrastructure for renewables still produces particulates, along with (ironically) CO2. 

What’s clear, however, is that the problem we are contending with is not simply the use of fossil fuels but environmental racism and classism, as well as the refusal to give up long outdated and toxic forms of production, construction, energy use, and transportation. With new indications that the death toll of fossil fuels is even greater than we thought, a transition to renewable and non-toxic energy sources is all the more urgent. 

Edgy Science Roundup

The lifeworld and deathworld meeting and overlapping; viruses evolving into unique protective bodily organs; ethical questions raised by VR communication “with the dead”; a nation’s official insistence that it isn’t building a time machine. In this post, we look at some recent science on the edge — or several edges — of lifeworlds and deathworlds, of the possible and impossible. 

First, we have the placenta, which is unlike any other organ, and which evolved from a retrovirus over a hundred million years ago. One of the coolest science pieces I’ve ever read describes a scientist’s early experience watching a birth and being fascinated by the placenta, and then subsequently learning that “once upon a time some retrovirus infected an egg-laying vertebrate. And by chance, that virus settled into that animal’s egg cells. And it just so happened that that particular infected egg was fertilized. The baby that was hatched — whatever kind of protomammal it was — now had copies of that virus’ DNA in all its cells.” What this shows is that things can be both agents of breakdown/death and incubation/birth — that’s what edgy science is all about. 

Second is the rumor (substantiated by some weird documents) that Chinese researchers are messing around with time. “Earlier this month,” according to Popular Mechanics, “unsubstantiated documents began circulating online that seemed to suggest the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics is partnering with the private Ruitai Technology Development Technology on something called the ‘Space-time Tunnel Generation Experimental Device.'” The article then includes a series of leaked documents including a powerpoint presentation about a device that can allegedly “distort time and space, control the flow rate of time,” and be used to travel through time. The documents include mention of a “base” for the experiment eventually being built at some select location in China. 

But the article goes on to say that shortly after the leak of the powerpoint, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics put the nix on the rumors (or at least tried to), denying the accuracy of the documents and calling the whole thing “false propaganda.” In fact, to make things weirder, one of the companies mentioned in those leaks, Ruitai Technology, was created at the end of 2020 — right on December 31. The documents also refer to a Nobel Laureate who doesn’t actually exist. Upon further investigation, it also appears that the processes upon which these phantom researchers are speculating aren’t so much “time travel” as hibernation — suspended animation so that people can “journey” into the future without getting old. That’s moving forward through time I suppose. 
Third and finally: though avatars of the dead are ubiquitous and pre-date digital technology, a new type of projection has been developed and parents of deceased children are now able to visit with those kids via VR. A company will collect data about the child, including their favorite places, aspects of their voice and personality, and other unique information, and program it into a visual image using a child actor as a model for the simulation. The grieving parent can then don VR equipment and visit with the child. It is, however, not very interactive… yet. But as Futurism.com asks: “how far can we be from a platform that lets anyone upload footage of a deceased loved one and then interact with a virtual version of that person? Years? Months? And what sort of impact will that have on the grieving process?” The article notes that a handful of startups and entrepreneurs are collecting data on people, both generally and specifically, to create templates for eventual simulations, which might even include “robot clones of real people.” Naturally. Or, unnaturally.