View profile

Productive Procrastination #27 – The Future is Cyberpunk


Productive Procrastination

May 1 · Issue #27 · View online

This newsletter has moved to

Welcome back.
I recently found a message in my Twitter DMs, telling someone that I would get back to them soon because January was a bit chaotic, but everything should be a bit more manageable in February. Oh, how young and naive I still was at the beginning of the year. 2017 hasn’t taken a breather yet. But now that Igor is back from his well-deserved road trip in the US (you can follow him again on Instagram without the imminent danger of wanderlust-inducing imagery), I can pick up some loose ends, like this newsletter. 

I went to San Francisco
I still need to give a shoutout to all of you who sent tips and made introductions for my trip to San Francisco: Jasmine, Debcha, Matt, Mark, Patrick, David, Eliot, Hannes, Josh, and Daniel. You can find a set of photos from the trip on my blog. Let me try and write up a couple of observations:
  • I’ve never really written field notes before. But labeling this trip ‘research’ somehow made me do it and – surprise, surprise – it was pretty helpful.
  • San Francisco is a gorgeous city. I have no problem imagining myself living there. All the water, the green mountains to the north and the east, the hills, the parks – I get why all the tech people working in the Valley still want to live there.
  • I spent the first 2.5 days walking more the 50 kilometers through the city, observing and absorbing it. Seeing how it can change completely within two blocks. Feeling how your legs get used to the hills rather quick but you never stop being amazed by the vista when you come over a top.
  • That whole concept of shuttle busses taking a huge chunk of the population out of the city every morning and bringing it back in the evening is as weird as you would imagine it. But then I went to Oakland and saw the vast parking spaces around the BART stations and realized that SF still has the typical commute of people coming into the city in the morning and leaving in the evening. So basically, the heartbeat of SF is a constant exchange of the population: tech workers departing in the morning for the Valley while workers are coming in and then the other way around in the evening. In some sense, SF has two populations, while most other cities just empty out in the evening.
  • I started reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture during the trip, and my only regret is not having read it earlier. It added a whole new layer. Like walking around Haight and knowing that this was the area where Brautigam handed out his poem ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ in the 60s, one of the first symbols of the counterculture’s fascination with technology. In general, I understood much better how the Bay area’s tech industry is built on a tradition that is more than 50 years old. Companies like Facebook can be seen as the sixth generation of tech companies, all profiting off the learnings and experiences of earlier generations. This is why calls for a “European Google” sound incredibly naive and why, if you want to get to a European Google, you might start to invest in the European military industrial complex now to get there in 50 years.
  • Also, most of the hippies who got rich from the tech industry, still live in the area and invest. So there’s tons of “weird money” available to fund crazy ideas.
  • A friend who went to Tim O'Reilly’s Foo Camp told me that during the introduction round, anyone who does anything interesting is doing it for one of the big tech corporations. They have learned a lot from the startups about quick iterations (agile, scrum), the have enough money to buy anyone talented and to invest in any research. And they are the only ones who have enough data to work on AI. Thus my feeling was that the hype around startups as the current “incubators of innovation” is over. If you’re a smart person who wants to work on cutting edge ideas, you don’t found a startup, you go to Facebook, Google, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce or Apple. And at the moment, nobody can compete with that. AI is the biggest topics of them all and startups can’t do it because they don’t have the data. Others from AR/VR to drones and robotics, all happening within the few big corps. When I got back and told Igor about it, he said: “So the future really is cyberpunk…”
  • Talking about AI, I spent half a day at Facebook where a former intern of Third Wave is working now. She showed me around the campus, and we had some animated discussions about Facebook’s role and responsibility in the world. I got the impression that they all are very aware of the challenges and that they are doing their best. But to me, Facebook seems almost helpless. Their vision and culture have gotten them to the point where they are now. But ‘move fast and break things’ just isn’t working anymore when you have two billion users and ‘breaking things’ means that teenagers kill themselves on your streaming service. The big tech corporations have had ginormous success, but that came with new wicked problems. In my opinion, that’s why they are all so crazy about AI. It’s their Hail Mary, their prayer of “Please God, let this work,” to solve these problems, because they don’t have any other answers for them. (Which, btw., is a tremendous opportunity for anyone outside the Silicon-Valley-based tech approach). Also, hiring some older people might be a good start. I was struck by how young everyone seemed on the campus and at the bus stops. A bit more experience might be helpful right now. 
  • What I miss most about SF is the friendliness. I’m more of an introvert. But I found it impossible to not end up in conversations. Not because they were forced on me but because one floats so effortlessly into them. I went to The Interval (the cafe of the Long Now Foundation – really nice place) to sit at the bar and read my book about Stewart Brand. Two hours later I still hadn’t read one page. I’ve experienced the US way of small talk in previous trips. People say “Hello. How’s your day?”, and when you answer with anything but “Great. How are you?” you get a look. In SF, the same question usually lead to a ten-minute conversation about Berlin, Trump and what’s good in the city. Kinda like the opposite of what small talk is like in Berlin where you just get growled at. 
Articles I've written (in German)
Wohin entwickelt sich die Tech-Branche?
10 Thesen zur Digitalisierung in Unternehmen
Monika Bielskyte über faule Zukunftsvisionen und Virtual Reality
Reading Recommend
Corporations in the Age of Inequality
a brave new space | The Fifth Sense | i-D
Artificial intelligence is ripe for abuse, tech researcher warns: 'a fascist's dream'
Confirmation Bias
Keeping America Compatible with Facebook
2047: Artificial Infatuation (Part 1) – dxFutures
transmediale 2017 | Singularities - YouTube
Favorite Quotes
“Every act of future making is an act of future taking.”
Barbara Adams, New School
“The future will resent us in exact proportion to our failure to have attempted to meaningfully address those systemic problems that we will be known to have been quite aware of.”
“There will be no Singularity. We will remain the responsible parties when it comes to history.”
Thank you
Did you enjoy this issue?
In order to unsubscribe, click here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Powered by Revue