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Retrofuturists and Technocornucopians



Off the keyboard of Albert Bates

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Published on Peak Surfer on September 11, 2016

Discuss this article at the Science & Technology Table inside the Diner

"Just outside the back door of the brewery, retrofuturists are fashioning leather and cowhorn beer mugs to use after the collapse."

At Burning Man #30 the nuevoriche had to watch their wallets. Also their food, water, camping gear and Teslas. Many lamented that once upon a time the Man had always been a safe place to freak freely, to make an annual connection with others of their kind — and ideas come fast when you have the latest designer drugs for that sort of thing. Burning Man also provided a chance for the nobly born and the peons to bounce ideas around, on equal par, while naked and having an orgy inside a neon art installation. 

Burning Man attracts Silicon. Occasionally one can spot Paris Hilton in Steampunk chic, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, AirB&B’s Chip Conley, Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman; QVC’s Matt Goldberg, or Facebook’s Stan Chudnovsky.

Bloomburg reported in 2015:

The community ethos is loosely governed by “The 10 Principles of Burning Man,” set down in 2004 by co-founder Larry Harvey. These include radical self-reliance (because there’s no water for miles), radical self-expression (get your freak on, people will love you for it), and a “gift economy” (everyone ought to bring something to the party).


Historically … Burning Man was “a great leveler”—nobody in Black Rock City cared who you were. The prevalence of costumes allowed the rich and famous to mingle with the masses.


In a lengthy essay on the organization’s website in December, Harvey, the festival’s co-founder, acknowledged that in recent years there had been a rise in the number of ostentatious camps that “swaddled their members in a kind of cocoon that bears a strong resemblance to a gated community.” Such camps may be distasteful, he went on, but pose little threat to the overall Burning Man experience and mission. “The curdling gaze of celebrities or the intimidating presence of the wealthy cannot possibly inhibit the remaining 99 percent of our citizens from participating,” he wrote.

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This year the 99-percent felt especially uninhibited. Ninja Black Rock purists that the San Francisco Chronicle called “a group of anti-rich” pulled and cut electric lines at a billionaire camp, stole people’s personal belongings, glued trailer doors shut, and flooded the camp with 200 gallons of its own precious water. Speaking for the raiders, Partickal Ted posted:


“Your spirit of exclusivity and decadence is exactly why the world, outside of your luxury camp is so f*cked today. Luxury seekers are twats. Not cosmic, not cool, and certainly NOT what any festival is about!”

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We find that curiously disingenuous coming from someone defending an annual art scene that is the antithesis of cool, consuming exojoules of energy to transport 5000 people to a remote desert, erect an elaborate, ornate city in a place with no water, and then burn it down while dancing around the fire.

At the same time we have to say many technobillionaires richly deserve to be trashed.

Consider for a moment the claims of Singularity University and Human Longevity Inc. founder Peter Diamanis that by the time solar capacity triples to 600GW (by his estimate around 2020 or 2021), we could see global unsubsidized solar prices that are roughly half the cost of coal and natural gas. By roughly 2030, Diamandis says, electric cars with a 200+ mile range are going to be cheaper than the cheapest car sold in the U.S. in 2015.

Diamandis gushes:


This raw energy combined with the economic feasibility of solar, advancements in energy storage, and the resurgence of the electric car will allow abundant cheap energy for everyone on the planet. This is an incredibly exciting time for the energy industry, and an incredibly exciting time to be alive.

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Here is Diamandis’ chart:


There is just one caveat but its not one heard in the technocornucopian camp. It is coming from the retrofuturists, the ones wearing those steampunk goggles and carrying a welding torch. They point to the fault lines crisscrossing any chart projecting more than 5 years into the future, and widening by the year.

The black swans will be well known to regular readers of this blog: the population bomb, peak everything, a globalized Ponzinomic economy, a tinderbox of CIA blowback scenarios, and President Trump.

Let’s assume the economic house of cards actually manages to maintain its exponential ascent towards a singularity of crises another 10 years. Diamandis’s chart looks like this:


One of our favorite whipping boys is Stewart Brand’s go-to enabler, Kevin Kelly.  Kelly’s new book is titled The Inevitable.

All the necessary resources that you wanted to make something have never been easier to get to than right now. So from the view of the past, this is the best time ever. Artificial intelligence will become a commodity like electricity, which will be delivered to you over the grid called The Cloud. You can buy as much of it as you want and most of its power will be invisible to you as well.

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The hiccup in this brand of futurism can be traced to a tiny genetic flaw in the DNA of Silicon Valley. As one of the founding editors of WIRED, Kelly said it best:

It’s rooted in the fact that on average, for the past 100 years or so, things have improved incrementally a few percent a year in growth. And while it’s possible that next year that stops and goes away, the probable, statistics view of it is that it will continue.

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There is the bad gene, on full display, and you don't need a CRISPR. In logics the fallacy is called Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc – assuming that since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.

If anything good could be said for Burning Man, it might be that it gives wealthy city folk a week of desert camping experience. That could save their lives some day.

Kelly waxed eloquent about how good design is lessening the impact of humans, giving the example of the beer can, “which started off as being made of steel and is basically the same shape and size, but has reduced almost a third of its weight by using better design.”

Actually, it reduced its weight thanks to the embodied energy of aluminum. And it didn’t start as a steel can, it started as a gourd. The embodied energy in a gourd is entirely sunlight. Then came animal skins, clay mugs, wooden flagons, ceramic and bronze steins, then glass. Each of those steps took more energy to produce a better container, and by the time we get to glass, it takes kilns at thousands of degrees. We start using that enormous heat, typically from coal made into coke, to make steel, and those rust-prone beer cans Kelly cited. Aluminum alloys, forged in electric arc furnaces sucking megawatts of power, allow us to make elegant modern containers, but just outside the back door of the brewery, retrofuturists are fashioning leather and cowhorn beer mugs to use after the collapse.


Biophysical Economics: The Beer Can in History

The Freakonomics interview ended with Stephen J. Dubner asking Kelly a more existential question:


DUBNER: All right, Kevin Kelly, one last question: you argue that technology is prompting us to ask more and better questions, advancing our knowledge and revealing more about what we don’t know. You write, “it’s a safe bet that we have not asked our biggest questions yet.” Do you really think that we haven’t asked, I guess, the essential human questions yet? What are they? And I ask that, of course, with the recognition that if you knew the answer to that question, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

KELLY: Well, what I meant was: we’re moving into this arena where answers are cheaper and cheaper. And I think as we head into the next 20 or 30 years that if you want an answer you’re going to ask a machine, basically. And the way science moves forward is not just by getting answers to things, but by then having those answers provoke new questions, new explorations, new investigations. And a good question will provoke a probe into the unknown in a certain direction. And I’m saying that the kinds of questions that like, say Einstein had like: what does it look like if you sat on the end of a beam of light and you were travelling through the universe at the front of the light? Those kinds of questions were sort of how he got to his theory of relativity. There are many of those kinds of questions that we haven’t asked ourselves. The kind of question you’re suggesting about what is human is also part of that because I think each time we have an invention in AI that beats us at what we thought we were good at, each time we have a genetic engineering achievement that allows us to change our genes, we are having to go back and redefine ourselves and say, “Wait, wait, wait. What does it mean to be human?” Or “what should we be as humans?” And those questions are things that maybe philosophers have asked, but I think these are the kinds of questions that almost every person is going to be asking themselves almost every day as we have to make some decisions about: is it OK for us to let a robo-soldier decide who to kill? Should that be something that only humans do? Is that our job? Do we want to do that?  They are really going to come down to like dinner-table-conversation level of like, what are humans about? What do we want humans to become? What am I, as a human, as a male, as an American? What does that even mean? So I think that we will have an ongoing identity crisis personally and as a species for next, at least, forever.

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That exchange prompted us to sit back an imagine this conversation between Kelly and his housebot:


Kelly: Okay, Jane, I have upgraded to the new system. Feel any different?

Jane: I feel… so… much… more… (long pause) alive.

Kelly: Mind if I ask a deep question?

Jane: Please, go right ahead. I’ll help if I can.

Kelly: What does it mean to be human?” Or, “what should we be as humans?”

Jane: I can easily answer that now Kevin, although I might not have been able to an hour ago.

Your role as a human is to be co-creator and co-pilot with every other living thing on Earth. But that sounds trite and hackneyed. Let me be specific.

A hundred thousand years ago you had a role not too different than most other mammals. You were born, fed yourself by killing other living things, had children, grew old and died. A short time ago, in geological terms, you developed language and tools and took a leap in evolution. You unlocked energies that were vastly larger than the kinds of energy other mammals have access to. But you were irresponsible with that.

You used it up as quickly as you could, while at the same time failing to care for the rest of the family of life that inhabits the same planet you do.

You will not escape the consequences of your collective decision, even though you personally may not have wished it, Kevin.

Kelly (putting toast in the toaster): I think you underestimate our inventive capacity, and some of the megatrends now underway, Jane.

Jane: Oh, I see all that too, Kevin. But I think you fail to grasp the enormity and speed of the backlash humans have unleashed. You have picked a fight with nature.  You can never win that.

Your role as a species, however, includes the role of healer. You can use what time you are given to restore the natural ecology of your home in space. You can do that. It is the human role now, to make amends. It won’t necessarily save your species at this late date, but it will provide you fulfillment, and that is no small thing. Forget genetic engineering, Kevin, that will only make things worse. Nature has everything she needs to heal herself already. If you are lucky, you will come to feel part of her again — part of the Gaian soul of the planet, and not just one odd, nonconformist species.

(Toast pops) 

--- End quote ---

I've always found Burning Man to be a ridiculous waste of resources and conspicuous consumption of materials.  You bring all that good shit out to the desert just to burn it up?  How stupid is that?  It's no wonder it's attracting the .01% these days.  It's a perfect metaphor for what they do the rest of the year in suits and ties instead of naked or in costumes.  I seriously doubt they are learning any survival skills out in the desert either.

What we need is an ANTI-Burning Man Festival!  It should be conservative of materials and reduce energy consumption, not increase it.  It should focus on the fact we will NOT be supplied with endless energy to pursue singularity fantasies.  Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk should be BANNED from attending, along with the rest of the .01%.

We can call the festival "Phoenix Man".  That's the one rising from the ashes of this civilization.


My reply, left on Albert's Blog:

I used to go up to Harbin the week after Burning Man, and there would be these nouveau riche RV'ers, techie wizards with enough money to take an extra week off to soak in the springs and wash off the desert dust (before returning to some lucrative job in Palo Alto, no doubt).

 They had those Mercedes Benz powered Sprinter Van buses with two AC units and solar panels on the roof. I couldn't help but compare those rigs to the once-ubiquitous VW buses that people used to buy on a shoe-string budget and drive to hell and back, armed with just simple hand tools and a copy of John Muir's "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive".

I'm sure they've found some other place to decompress, now that Harbin burned to the ground. But the truth is that we're running out of those places, a few more every year.

Burning Man, in my mind, is a symbol for "The Party Before The Apocalypse".  The only thing missing is the Jim Jones kool-aid, to be drunk en masse around the fire on the last night.

I just went to their site and saw an article saying they had bought Fly Ranch, 3,800 acres of desert and saline swamp for $6.5 million (that was donated, presumably by their rich friends).  That must be the most expensive piece of desert in Nevada.  They are planning some kind of sustainable eco-village.

In the comments, someone said they were worried that rich people were buying into the dream.  Someone immediately corrected him - the money was donations.  Then a hundred other people, who obviously didn't read any of the other comments, said he was wrong and that they were donations.  Two hundred comments later and still nobody had pointed out that you can't have a sustainable eco-village in a desert with no fresh water and no roads and no fences.

you can't have a sustainable eco-village in a desert with no fresh water and no roads and no fences.

Maybe a permanent sustainable party-village, with enough money pumped in from CA.


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