Of “Here”, Chris Ware, and transcendence in the graphic novel.

There are numerous developments that have traversed my inbox this week, so it was a bit of a debate with myself as to whether I would blog about technology or a new graphic novel that is hit the streets this week. Moved by my artistic side, I decided to comment on a glowing review, by none other than Chris Ware, of the graphic novel Here. The “game-changing” graphic novel is the work of artist, illustrator and apparent bass player Richard McGuire.

According to Ware’s review which appeared in the guardian, the idea for the book originated with a short story in the pages of RAW in 1989.

“Across six black-and-white pages, it simply pictured the corner of a room from a fixed viewpoint, projecting a parade of moments, holidays, people, animals, biology, geology – everything, it seems, that defines and lends human life meaning – on to windows of space labelled by year (1971, 1957, 1999, 100,097BC). Birthdays, deaths, dinosaurs. In 36 panels, the universe.”

After putting down the magazine, Ware says, “It was the first time I had had my mind blown.” In other words, in those few short pages, in what was for all intents and purposes a comic, the author was able to transcend time and space by evoking the thought of the reader to probe deeper into their own existence. Ware continues,

“You could say it’s the space of the room, the arbitrary geometry imposed by a human mind on a space for reasons of shelter and as a background to this theatre of life. But you could also claim it is the reader, your consciousness where everything is pieced together and tries to find, and to understand, itself. This is a big step forward for graphic novels, but it is so much more than that. With those first six pages in 1989, McGuire introduced a new way of making a comic strip, but with this volume in 2014, he has introduced a new way of making a book.”

 

Here by Richard McGuire

Here by Richard McGuire

Wow, what a review, and by a legend no less! I will have to get it this book, but it also made me think—again—about the power of visual narrative and perhaps the power of art in general. I admit that at times i can get so wrapped up in moving my story forward and completing each panel with all the technical 3D gyrations and rendering passes, that I might forget about the potential power of the narrative itself. Ware and McGuire are visionaries in the field of comics and visual narrative. Ware breaks the boundaries of time and space continually in books like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and most recently with Building Stories. He engages readers to stop not only to think but to touch and even to make. This takes the already multi-modal experience that is so unique to comics into new dimensions literally and conceptually.

I believe that the highest achievement of any literary form is to make you think about your world and your place in it—maybe even your purpose in life. Having your “mind blown” seems too lofty a goal, but as I creep toward the midway point in The Lightstream Chronicles, I think about the day when it may be in print, hardbound and laying open while nestled in the lap of a reader. As they turn the page, they pause, look across the silent room—and think.

Nice.

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The synthetic human may be closer than we think.

It seems like a trope, but the synthetic humans of stories like Blade Runner, and Prometheus are not that far-fetched. We’re tinkering with this everyday and the march toward a synthetic human is already underway. While we may still be many years away from the T-Class model that is featured in The LIghtstream Chronicles , it looks like it could happen long before we get to 2159. On page 101 we see a warm, breathing, touchable, figure that for all intents and purposes could be human. It begs the question, in the future, whether or not we will be able to tell or not.

There are some interesting developments in humanoid synthetics already on the table, so to speak. The University of Arizona at Phoenix recently began using synthetic cadavers with a beating heart, flowing blood and a liver that makes it’s own bile.1. The company that manufactures the cadaver SynDaver™ Labs also has a skinned version which has “…the ability to control arms, legs, jaw, eyes, respiration, and pulse using a separate wireless tablet.”

The synthetic cadaver.

On the potentially scarier side of the equation is DARPA the Department of Defense research group. These are the people that brought us robotic mules that can outrun a human, robotic soldiers and warrior drones. But that’s old hat now, and DARPAs new focus is on biotech, stuff like living tissues, and artificial DNA. According to web site Motherboard, “The goal is to create man-made, living supermaterials that can be used for next-gen mechanical and electrical products, self-repairing materials, renewable fuels, solar cells, and so on.”2

In the April 2014 article Motherboard continues, “Just last week researchers manipulated DNA to engineer the first synthetic, custom “designer” chromosome, “designed on a computer and made from scratch in a laboratory,” as the Economist explained it. It’s being heralded as the first step toward a man-made artificial organism.” You might want to check out an earlier blog that paints a bleak picture of what could go wrong here. Of course, DARPA paints this as “all good” and all designed to benefit mankind. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Out of Vancouver, BC, comes The Synthetic Human Project or Synthius project. This is a huge endeavor that brings together people like Autodesk (they guys who make my 3D software) and the University of British Columbia to, “…fully simulate the organic whole of a real human.”3

There is actually tons of research going on in all aspects of synthetic humanoids, humanoid robots and artificial life. And of course there are sex robots, too. And people think I make this stuff up.

 

1. http://ktar.com/22/1673453/UA-College-of-Medicine-cuts-deal-for-synthetic-cadavers

2. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/darpas-new-biotech-unit-will-try-to-create-artificial-life-forms

3. http://grand-nce.ca/newsandmedia/news-container/2014/the-synthetic-human-project

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A Science Fiction Graphic Novel About Design and the Human Condition

Page 100

We’ve reached page 100 and in some cases, The Lightstream Chronicles is already longer than many graphic novels. Nevertheless, as meaty as the author has worked it to be, there is so much more in the developing story. I was asked recently, “Where is it going?”

Expect some intrigue, angst and an action packed climax, but as with most science fiction and even design fiction, it is about people.

If you know anything about the author, you know that I’m a designer, heavily ensconced in research in the area of Design Fiction, Speculative Design, and Design Futures. The Lightstream Chronicles is a foray into a future world where we, like it or not, have been changed by the design and technology that we have embraced over the years. We are different. Our behaviors and expectations have changed. This is what design does to society and culture. Don’t get me wrong; it is not necessarily a bad thing. Design is a product of which we are as human beings. It is a reflection of humanity. Hence, it will reflect both bad and good, something that I believe is not a “fixable” tweak in our DNA. It is the essence of our design. In many respects, without it, we cease to be human. We have the choice between good and evil and depending on what we choose, our design and the various manifestations of it will reflect those choices.

As I wrote,

“In The Lightstream Chronicles, the author creates a science fiction graphic novel and asks that the reader ponder the same self-rationalizing tendency as it applies to slick new enhancing technologies and the “design” decisions that fostered them. It looks at not only the option to make the decision, but the ethics of whether the decision should be made, as well as society’s competency to choose wisely.1”

Perhaps then, it becomes a graphic novel about the human condition. In a way then, it is like most fiction, but it is that and more. It also examines where we find meaning, especially when most of what we would consider our greatest fears—of death, disease, physical or mental decline, of enough food and water, sustaining the environment or having enough energy—have vanished. Is it enough to satisfy us, to fulfill us, and give us meaning or does it leave us wanting?

The only thing that seems to have survived the grasp of man and his ability to wipe it away is evil. The perfection of synthetic humans would seem to be the answer, though even then, man has found a way to twist them. And if we become the creators are not our creations still made in our image?

What do you think?

 

1.Denison, E. Scott. When Designers Ask, “What If?”. Electronic MFA Thesis. Ohio State University, 2013. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center.
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Privacy is dead. Is the cyberpunk future already here?

This week, a brief thought to provoke thought. Surprisingly it has been 30 years since William Gibson released his groundbreaking work Neuromancer, that ushered in a decade of artistry inspired by the genre known as cyberpunk. Just a few days ago Paste Magazine ran an article, “Somebody’s Watching Me; Cyberpunk 30 Years On, and the Warnings We Didn’t Heed.” Therein, writer Brian Chidester delineates the fascinating influence of Gibson’s work on the music of the day as well as the ripples it continues to send into the present.

With my futurist, sci-fi, cyberpunk leanings, I was caught up with the observation of how much of Gibson’s, “…near-future where computer technology was woven into our DNA—where a virtual data sphere played the dominate role in the human interface,” is already here—and we didn’t notice—or as Chidester notes, “…quietly came to pass.”

The music connection is deep and profound but it is also intertwined with the events of the days and the decades to follow. From DARPA’s creation of the internet, to post-9/11 paranoia, the Patriot Act, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Google, Twitter and Facebook, to the ubiquitous storage of cookies and individual user preferences (most of which are freely—even blithely—given), we, “…have, in essence, created business models that are a dream come true for the CIAs, FBIs and NSAs of the world.”

Yet perhaps more chilling than where we are, is how we got here.

“Google, Twitter and Facebook, lauded as broadening the scope of human potential, in fact, built algorithms to drive us to predictable results. Cookies store information on individual user preferences. They have, in essence, created business models that are a dream come true for the CIAs, FBIs and NSAs of the world.

Facebook has nearly a billion users, with tons of personal data on each one, proving that plenty of individuals are willing to provide private information to get something that is free and fun. Simply put: We’ve allowed ourselves to be smitten. The computer is now miniaturized, or, as Bruce Sterling predicted, ‘adorable.’ Christopher Shin, the engineer of Cellebrite, a device that aids the U.S. government in collecting information from cellular users, contends that the iPhone holds more personal information than any other device on the market.”

So if we can go from cyberpunk, science fiction, to present day future in 30 years, given the exponential growth of technology, were will be be smitten next: genetic engineering, transhumanism, synthetic biology?

Chidester concludes:

“If we stop to ask how we got here, we may look back and find the signs embedded in cyberpunk literature of 20-30 years prior. We may then wonder how we might better have heeded its warnings. But it is too late. Privacy, under the current paradigm, is essentially dead.”

What other cherished possession will be the next to fall?  Or have they all already fallen?

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Who is paying attention to the future? You’re standing in it. 

If you are familiar with this blog you can that tell that I am enamored of future tech, but at the same time my research in design fiction often is intended to provoke discussion and debate on whether these future technologies are really as wonderful as they are painted to be. Recently, I stumbled across a 2012 article from the Atlantic.com (recommended) magazine (Hessel and Goodman) that painted a potentially alarming picture of the future of biotech or synthetic biology, known as synbio. The article is lengthy, and their two-year-old predictions have already been surpassed, but it first reminds us of how technology, historically and currently, builds not in a linear progression, but exponentially like Moore’s Law. This is an oft quoted precept of Ray Kurzweil, chief futurist for Google and all around genius guy, for the reason that we are avalanching toward the Singularity. The logic of exponential growth in technology is pretty much undeniable at this point.

Hessel and Goodman take us through a bit of verbal design fiction where in the very near future it will be possible to create new DNA mathematically, to create new strains of bacteria, and new forms of life for good and for not so good. The article also underscores for me how technology is expanding beyond any hope of regulatory control, ethical considerations or legal ramifications. No one has time to consider the abuse of “good technology” or the unintended consequences that inevitably follow from any new idea.  If you are one of those people who, in an attempt to get through all the things you have to read by taking in only the intro and the conclusion. Here is a good take away from the article:

“The historical trend is clear: Whenever novel technologies enter the market, illegitimate uses quickly follow legitimate ones. A black market soon appears. Thus, just as criminals and terrorists have exploited many other forms of technology, they will surely soon turn to synthetic biology, the latest digital frontier.”

If you want to know how they dare make that assertion you will have to read the article and it is not a stretch. The unintended consequences are staggering to say the least.

Of course, these authors are only dealing with one of dozens if not hundreds of new technologies that because of the exponential rate of advancement are hanging over us like a canopy filling with water. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, we will —all of us—demand to bring these ideas into collaborative discussion.

In addition to my research, I write fiction. Call it science fiction or design fiction. It doesn’t matter to me. As dystopic as The Lightstream Chronicles may seem to my readers, in many ways I think that humanity will be lucky to live that long—unless we get a handle on what we’re doing now.

Some links for the incredulous:

http://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/

http://www.genewiz.com/index.aspx

http://mashable.com/2013/05/15/personal-genetics-resources/

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A taste of future-tech in the graphic novel.

If you are a regular to The Lightstream Chronicles, then you know that what you see on the Web is only a fraction of the detail that is available from the high-resolution PDF that accompanies each page. This week I thought I would highlight a few examples of plausible future tech that have occurred on recent pages.

The coffee

Just your average beverage replicator

Just your average beverage replicator

For example, soon after Kristin and Keiji entered her office back on page 93 Kristin offers Keiji coffee. There’s no Keurig in the office—at least not one that we would recognize—but there is a beverage replicator similar to the one that Marie used back on page 80 when she whipped up a Cabernet for Kristin. The beverage replicator, in this case, the same one that Marie used, a Maitre-deux™ kitchen food and beverage replicator. Model FVX-GNN42H71000.

Kristin “taps” in her favorite blend and delivers a freshly brewed cup of coffee including the cup. Since the flavor configuration can vary as well, Kristin prefers a French Press style at a precise 92.6 C. 325.309 ml. If you look closely into the background of page 93 you can see her making her selections.

The cups

A nanotherm cup.

A nanotherm cup.

The coffee cups that Kristin dispenses to hold a precise 325.309 ml. and are replicated bone china with a nanothermic structure that keeps the contents steaming hot—indefinitely—or until the liquid evaporates. That’s why you’ll catch a whiff of steam throughout this scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The desk & tablet

A simple intermediary.

A simple intermediary.

Kristin’s desk is an active surface. In other words it is able to transmit, receive and display (or project) information from any other active surface including the luminous implants that both Keiji-T and Kristin have embedded into their fingertips. (Everyone else in the world has them, too.)

The thin glass tablet that Keiji is “porting” to is simply an intermediate storage device that Kristin then transfers to her desk surface and, ultimately to holographic projection above her desk. The tablet can also store vast amounts of data for later access.

Just a sampling of some of the details in the background—a lot like the design and technology we take for granted everyday.

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What does it mean to be human?

Earlier this week, just a couple of days after last weeks blog on robophobia, the MIT Technology Review (online) published an interview with AI futurist Martine Rothblatt. In a nutshell Ms. Rothblatt believes that conscious machines are inevitable, that evolution is no longer a theory but reality, that treating virtual beings differently than humans is tantamount to black slavery in the 19th century, and that the FDA should monitor and approve whatever hardware or software “effectively creates human consciousness.” Her core premise is something that I have covered in the blog before, and while I could spend the next few paragraphs debating some of these questionable assertions, it seems to me more interesting to ponder the fact that this discussion is going on at all.

I can find one point, that artificial consciousness is more or less inevitable, on which I agree with Rothblatt. What the article underscores is the inevitability that, “technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics”1. Scarier yet is the idea that the FDA, (the people who approved bovine growth hormone) would be in charge of determining the effective states of consciousness.

All of this points to the fact that technology and science are on the cusp of a few hundred potentially life changing breakthroughs and there are days when, aside from Martine Rothblatt, no one seems to be paying attention. We need more minds and more disciplines in the discussion now so that as Rothblatt says, we don’t “…spend hundreds of years trying to dig ourselves out.” It’s that, or this will be just another example of the folly of our shortsightedness.

1.Wood, David. “The Naked Future — A World That Anticipates Your Every Move.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

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Social discrimination—against robots. Is it possible?

As we know if you follow the blog, The LIghtstream Chronicles is set in the year is 2159. Watching the current state of technology, the date has become increasingly uncomfortable. As I have blogged previously, this is a date that I chose primarily to justify the creation of a completely synthetic human brain capable of critical thinking, learning, logic, self-awareness and the full range of emotions. The only missing link would be a soul. Yet the more I see the exponential rate of technological advancement, the more I think we will arrive at this point probably 50 to 60 years sooner than that. Well, at least I won’t have to endure the critiques of how wrong I was.

As the story has shown, the level of artificial intelligence is quite literally, with the exception of a soul, Almost Human. (A term I coined at least two years before the television series of the same name). The social dilemma is whether we should treat them as human, with their human emotions and intelligence, are they entitled to the same rights as their human counterparts (that are nearly synthetic)? Do we have the right to make them do what we would not ask a human to do? Do we have the right to turn them off when we are finished with them? I wrote more about this in a blog some 50 pages ago regarding page 53 of Season 2.

Societally, though most have embraced the technology, convenience and companionship that synthetic humans provide, there is a segment that is not as impressed. They cite the extensive use of synths for crime and perversion and what many consider the disappearance of human to human contact. The pro-synthetic majority have branded them robophobes.

As the next series of episodes evolve we will see a pithy discussion between the human Kristin Broulliard and the synthetic Keiji-T. In many respects, Keiji is the superior intellect with capabilities and protocols that far exceed even the most enhanced humans. Indeed, there is an air of tension. Is she jealous? Does she feel threatened? Will she hold her own?

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Will computers be able to read your mind? Uh, yes.

As we see on Page 92 of The Lightstream Chronicles, synthetic human Keiji-T casts a sidelong glance at Detective Guren with a sort of, “What’s his problem?” look. But, in fact, there is really little question. This far into the future, what we know as the computer, will be ubiquitous computing—something that is embedded in the walls, the door handles, your coffee cup and your bodysuit. In other words, everything will have some level of monitoring, transmission or computing power already in the make up of the device.

For example: the walls of your apartment are active surfaces, they can become visual representations of whatever you are thinking, any transmissions you are receiving or constructs that you wish to create. Hence, if you want your office environment to be a courtyard in a small Tuscan village then the walls will comply, fixtures, tables or any other device can comply with the illusion. The data being transmitted to your mind will trigger sensations of air temperature, wind, olfactory cues (like olive trees), and sounds like children playing in the distance, or music from an upstairs room across the street. When you pick up a stylus or touch an interface, you also become part of the network. Literally everything is part of the mesh.

Rewind to the present day. How could this happen you may think, but think again. In your pocket or on your desk is probably a smart phone. On this phone is stored the meta data on everywhere you have been since you owned it. This is courtesy of something called location services, which is probably in the ON position for numerous apps. This data, when matched with the day and time projects a pattern of activity; where you are on Tuesdays at 8:00 AM, who you call on your way home from work, when you text, from where, and to whom.

When it comes to your preferences, your smart phone can tell what sites you visit (your interests), when you visit them (behavioral timing), and the intensity of your interest (time allotted). If you are interacting with others, their data overlaps with yours. If you are not actually interacting, your contact list is a perfect tool for cross referencing. Now the data has tangents. Already we have enough information to predict where you are on Tuesdays, and who you are likely to be with. If you have recently used your smart phone to debit a venti red-eye, we can determine if you are caffeinated. If you have purchased two, then your friend is likely caffeinated as well. And that just scratches the surface.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and this sort of technology would be considered primitive. In an instant, a minor chip embedded in our brain could analyze all the public domain data on anyone we meet and make an assessment of their intentions.

So as Keiji-T gives Detective Guren the look, it’s safe to say he knows exactly what he’s thinking.

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Synthetic emotions? Sounds like science fiction but it’s not.

If you think the idea of feeling, emotive synthetic humans is pure science fiction fantasy, well, you’re wrong.

As we see on page 91 of The Lightstream Chronicles, Toei-N is quite in a lather about having met Chancellor Zhang in person. Not surprising; she is probably the most famous, if not the most important person in the world in 2159. The figurehead of the largest nation on the planet she oversees the governing influences of billions of people. An emotional response is consistent so I can see why someone might be just a bit nervous about meeting her, especially unexpectedly. But, let’s not forget that Toei-N is an N-Class synthetic—not human. Typical science fiction you might think, but you might want to think again.

If it was purely the stuff of sci-fi, then you might not see quite so many scholars with it on their Google Alerts. For example, there is the International Journal of Synthetic Emotions. Published semi-annually, the IJSE describes itself thus:

The International Journal of Synthetic Emotions (IJSE) covers the main issues relevant to the generation, expression, and use of synthetic emotions in agents, robots, systems, and devices. Providing unique, interdisciplinary research from across the globe, this journal covers a wide range of topics such as emotion recognition, sociable robotics, and emotion-based control systems useful to field practitioners, researchers, and academicians.

Tooling around Amazon, you could stumble upon the Handbook of Research on Synthetic Emotions and Sociable Robotics: New Applications in Affective Computing and Artificial Intelligence, by Jordi Vallverdu.

The technology that we often dismiss as science fiction is progressively becoming less so,  and though it may not be developed to the extent that we see in The Lightstream Chronicles, it’s fair to say that it just a matter of time.

When futurist, inventor and singularity forecaster Ray Kurzweil reviewed the Spike Jonze film, Her, he placed the reasonable plausibility of the Samantha character at 2029, “when the leap to human level AI would be reasonably believable.” Of course, in the movie, Samantha does not have a body such as Toei but Kurzweil says this is a minor detail. “The idea that AIs will not have bodies is a misconception. If she can have a voice, she can have a body. ” Kurzweil is also a proponent of the idea that technology develops exponentially not in any kind of linear fashion. ” If human-level AI is feasible around 2029, it will, according to my law of accelerating returns, be roughly doubling in capability each year.”1

His theory is hard to argue with and the smart phone is my perennial example. The Motorola Razr was developed in 2003. In just eleven years the iPhone 6 is a thousand times more powerful, and if we buy the exponential theory, that should double in just a couple of years. Have you seen the Apple Watch?

 

The Motorola Rasr. 700 bucks in 2003.

The Motorola Rasr. 700 bucks in 2003.

1.http://www.kurzweilai.net/a-review-of-her-by-ray-kurzweil
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About the Envisionist

Scott Denison is an accomplished visual, brand, interior, and set designer. He is currently Assistant Professor of Design Foundations at The Ohio State University. He continues his research in epic design that examines the design-culture relationship within a future narrative — a graphic novel / web comic. The web comic posts weekly updates at: http://thelightstreamchronicles.com. Artist's commentary is also posted here in conjunction with each new comic page. The author's professional portfolio can be found at: http://scottdenison.com There is also a cyberpunk tumblr site at: http://lghtstrm.tumblr.com
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