Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Kitchen of the Future: Fire (Part III, The Shores of Bohemia)

The modest kitchen featured in Blade Runner or the even more radically modest dispensertopian kitchenette pod in Fifth Element will almost certainly remain out of reach for the 20% of the population who will not live in cities 50 years from now. For billions of people the kitchen of the future will be a fire and very little more.

Still, all futures are now haunted by the possibility of the Singularity and the kitchen of the future is no exception, so this future paucity may not be an entirely bad thing. The best case scenario I can convince myself of for both the future poor and the coming Geek Rapture is something like Bruce Sterling’s short story The Shores of Bohemia. In contrast to the cornucopia machines and smart mater of the rosiest Singularians (you know who I’m talking about Ray). Sterling is far more sanguine. His story imagines a post-singularity world of material scarcity – goose quill pens, straight razors, bedpans and sponge baths. (Sterling sets the scene with great economy; I love his character's aside about the “true allure of money.”)

In his story the singularity has come and gone long ago (a Chinese coin has “the ancient symbol of a television” on it). Near immortal post-humans have their place within a larger, but by then, immaterial and invisible “gerontocracy” called the Convention – “a global data system”, in which the "megatechnic infrastructure has miniaturized, and woven itself into on a cellular level into the ontological information-processing structure of what was once the natural realm."

The embodied “youth” of this world (those under 100), live a lot like my grandmother did in her childhood, and like billions of others do around the world right now. They live materially modest lives and, one imagines, cook, heat, and launder with coal or wood. The middle-aged (100-400?) wander the world as “Wild Men.” Sterling describes them as naked hairy and unwashed. These wild men and women are accompanied by their Domestics; “cybernetic-organic incarnation of the former industrial urban environment.” In the story we meet one Domestic, a bear named Baltimore.

I love that idea that in the future the urban character of whole cities will be distilled down to talking bears, horses, beds of ants, or some other avatar hijack from the natural world protectively shadowing dirty naked people lost in a haze of higher order contemplation.

In Sterling’s story the embodied post-humans are not reciting the names of God, or some other mystical endeavor however. Instead these wild-people have a crucial place in the disembodied consciousness of the Convention; they “Talk about thinking. And think about talking.”

But more crucially Sterling imagines the humans in the story as active players in this super-consciousness; the post-humans personify the Convention. Sterling imagines us as evolutionary partners, like sled-dogs something more akin to a hippocampus. This is so much more rosier picture of post-singularity life then the most obvious best-case-scenario I find myself dwelling on: we’ll make great pets, or fond memories.

Embodiment is one of the stickier issues in my mind as I consider the possible reality of Strong AI – if consciousness is, as Antonio Damasio describes, “the feeling of what happens,” and I believe it is, what, if anything, can the experience of a disembodied consciousness be? My anxiety is strong AI will be unimaginably alien - possibly insane and sociopathic. But I seriously doubt a super intelligent AI would wait around to kill us or enslave us like the AIs in the Terminator and Matrix films - unless we make the hideously stupid mistake of basing our AIs on the sadistic neural framework of cats.

But a strong disembodied AI may value human life so little that it might have no qualms about use nanotechnology to break the entire solar system into concentric clouds of smart matter forming a massive Matrioshka Brain like the one described in Charles Stoss’s book Accelerando. What’s scariest about disembodied AI is not that it would be malevolent, but that in the absence of a body, it would literally have no moral qualms – because without a body to feel, an AI would no have feelings what so ever – moral or not.

“We are its soul!” is the answer Sterling came up with in 1990 (early for a post-singularian narrative). It is an elegant and comforting scenario. In my imagination Sterling’s wild people occupy an additional role in their world (this is where I bring it back to the kitchen of the future). In Charles Mann’s book 1492 he describes the role of what he calls Indigenous Fire. All that is necessary is to replace the word Indian (his term not mine, he explains the choice in the book, which is totally worth reading):

“Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both... Sometime in the first millennium A.D. the Indians who had burned undergrowth to facilitate grazing began systematically replanting large belts of woodland, transforming them into orchards for fruit and mast (the general name for hickory nuts, beech nuts, acorns, butternuts, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and chestnuts)... In Colonial times, as many as one out of every four trees in between southeastern Canada and Georgia was a chestnut - partly the result, it would seem, of Indian planting and burning." Charles Mann, 1492; 282-3, 297.

In addition to the North American antropogenic (human-created) forests and prairies, Mann explains that native South Americans used fire just as aggressively, and perhaps even more effectively. Mann describes “terra preta” or anthropogenic soils – pre-columbian Amazonian natives practiced some sort of “slash and char” agriculture creating thick black topsoil rich in charcoal are far superior to the tropical soil of the region – and unlike all other forms of agriculture the Amazonian natives charcoal driven agriculture improved the soil.

In his latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand writes that prehistoric humans were terraforming the Americas. European diseases put a stop to that activity – according to Mann, as many as a 100 million Native Americans died in immediate aftermath of first contact – and not coincidently, Brand points out the global temperature dropped, sparking a Little Ice Age that lasted into the 19th century.

Brand argues that humans have been shaping their environments and altering the climate for tens of thousands of years. Pointing out that the cycle of true ice ages seems to hve been interrupted by human activity. This is the secondary role I image humans having in the future:

"Gardens are fashioned for many purposes with many different tools, but all are collaborations with natural forces. Rarely do their makers claim to be restoring or rebuilding anything from the past; and they are never in full control of the results. instead, using the best tools they have and all the knowledge that they can gather, they work to create future environments." Charles C. Mann, 1491: 366.

Picturing my grandmother as an eleven year old girl struggling to get the hang cooking and boiling laundry is heartbreaking for me – according to Burkhard Bilger’s New Yorker article, in villages without liquid fuel or electricity “burns are among the most common injuries and smoke is the sixth leading cause of death.” I have no doubt that there are a millions of 11 year old girls struggling to work with dangerous stoves right now.

In my twenties I lived for six years at the end of a dirt road with no running water. During that time I lived with wood stoves for heat, but this is crucial – I did not depend on those stoves for cooking and laundry, and neither did any of my neighbors. I had found my way from downtown Chicago to a community of log cabins in the back woods of Washington State (hippy its too lame a term for such a beautiful a group of people). The life we led (and they still lead) was physically challenging, but I'm not fooling myself, I was still living in a wealthy country and had access to cars, restaurants and laundromats. But even in the mild climate of the Olympic Peninsula life would have been unbearable if I had to cook and launder with a wood stove. I seriously doubt I would have lasted out the first year.

The future Sterling’s story evokes is one of post-human fire, of self-regulating climate engineering by cooking in a globe spanning garden. The kitchen of the future does not have to be a dispensertopia doled out in plastic wrapped single serving sizes, it could be a healthy reengagement with fire, both intimate and Whole Earth. That the singularity could leave room for intact human appetites as part of intact human bodies (not the emptied out pleasure models Ray Kurzweil imagines) and intact human worlds.

A good kitchen is not just a place to prepare food with nifty things and ingredients, ideally its a pleasant place to sit and talk, or just think. I like to imagine that something like Sterling's Convention could ride herd over billions of small fires. That the singularity won't be an apocalypse, but could instead could be a super-consciousness choreographing an end to the tragedy of the commons and transforming the full spectrum of the human and nonhuman world into a Jovian kitchenette rich with interesting things to talk about and cook.

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