Islands at the Speed of Light

A recent paper published in the Physical Review has some astonishing suggestions for the geographic future of financial markets. Its authors, Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer, discuss the spatial implications of speed-of-light trading.

Trades now occur so rapidly, they explain, and in such fantastic quantity, that the speed of light itself presents limits to the efficiency of global computerized trading networks.

These limits are described as “light propagation delays.”

[Image: Global map of “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” based on the earth’s geometry and the speed of light, by Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer].

It is thus in traders’ direct financial interest, they suggest, to install themselves at specific points on the Earth’s surface—a kind of light-speed financial acupuncture—to take advantage both of the planet’s geometry and of the networks along which trades are ordered and filled. They conclude that “the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface” is thus economically justified, if not required.

Amazingly, their analysis—seen in the map, above—suggests that many of these financially strategic points are actually out in the middle of nowhere: hundreds of miles offshore in the Indian Ocean, for instance, on the shores of Antarctica, and scattered throughout the South Pacific (though, of course, most of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Bos-Wash corridor also make the cut).

These nodes exist in what the authors refer to as “the past light cones” of distant trading centers—thus the paper’s multiple references to relativity. Astonishingly, this thus seems to elide financial trading networks with the laws of physics, implying the eventual emergence of what we might call quantum financial products. Quantum derivatives! (This also seems to push us ever closer to the artificially intelligent financial instruments described in Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando). Erwin Schrödinger meets the Dow.

It’s financial science fiction: when the dollar value of a given product depends on its position in a planet’s light-cone.

[Image: Diagrammatic explanation of a “light cone,” courtesy of Wikipedia].

These points scattered along the earth’s surface are described as “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” each site “maximiz[ing] profit potential in a locally auditable manner.”

Wissner-Gross and Freer then suggest that trading centers themselves could be moved to these nodal points: “we show that if such intermediate coordination nodes are themselves promoted to trading centers that can utilize local information, a novel econophysical effect arises wherein the propagation of security pricing information through a chain of such nodes is effectively slowed or stopped.” An econophysical effect.

In the end, then, they more or less explicitly argue for the economic viability of building artificial islands and inhabitable seasteads—i.e. the “construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes”—out in the middle of the ocean somewhere as a way to profit from speed-of-light trades. Imagine, for a moment, the New York Stock Exchange moving out into the mid-Atlantic, somewhere near the Azores, onto a series of New Babylon-like platforms, run not by human traders but by Watson-esque artificially intelligent supercomputers housed in waterproof tombs, all calculating money at the speed of light.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image from NOAA featuring a geodetic satellite triangulation network].

“In summary,” the authors write, “we have demonstrated that light propagation delays present new opportunities for statistical arbitrage at the planetary scale, and have calculated a representative map of locations from which to coordinate such relativistic statistical arbitrage among the world’s major securities exchanges. We furthermore have shown that for chains of trading centers along geodesics, the propagation of tradable information is effectively slowed or stopped by such arbitrage.”

Historically, technologies for transportation and communication have resulted in the consolidation of financial markets. For example, in the nineteenth century, more than 200 stock exchanges were formed in the United States, but most were eliminated as the telegraph spread. The growth of electronic markets has led to further consolidation in recent years. Although there are advantages to centralization for many types of transactions, we have described a type of arbitrage that is just beginning to become relevant, and for which the trend is, surprisingly, in the direction of decentralization. In fact, our calculations suggest that this type of arbitrage may already be technologically feasible for the most distant pairs of exchanges, and may soon be feasible at the fastest relevant time scales for closer pairs.

Our results are both scientifically relevant because they identify an econo-physical mechanism by which the propagation of tradable information can be slowed or stopped, and technologically significant, because they motivate the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface.

For more, read the original paper: PDF.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

Ground TV

[Image: An otherwise unrelated temple complex in Indonesia].

“Hardened lava from Indonesia’s Mount Merapi covers ancient temples in the historic city of Yogyakarta,” Archaeology News reports. As if fishing in the ground for lost architecture, “Scientists are using remote sensing equipment to locate them.”

The Jakarta Post elaborates, pointing out that “objects recently found underneath cold lava,” thus “requiring archeologists to use remote sensing equipment to find them,” remain physically ambiguous when they cannot be directly excavated. Indeed, “the equipment cannot determine precisely whether rock is part of a temple construction or not.” In some cases, then, it’s a question of forensic interpretation.

Nonetheless, five entire temples have been discovered so far, locked down there in old lava: the Morangan, Gampingan, Kadisoko, Sambisari and Kimpulan temples, “buried between 2 and 9 meters deep.” That’s nearly thirty feet of rock—a once-liquid landscape covering blurred remnants of an otherwise overwritten past, architectural history by way of subterranean remote-sensing.

I should point out, meanwhile, that Archaeology News also links to a quick story taking place out here in greater Los Angeles: a parking lot in Ventura, at the intersection of Palm and Main streets, is under archaeological investigation. “Researchers this week are crisscrossing the parking lot using ground-penetrating radar,” the Ventura County Star explains, “in search of anomalies below the asphalt that could be artifacts or building foundations from years past. Archaeologists will return to excavate by hand those areas believed to contain artifacts.”

I love the idea that the surface of a parking lot could become something like a new screen technology—a depth-cinema of lost evidence from earlier phases of human history, shining from within with archaeological remains as researchers walk back and forth above.

Imagine the archaeological cinema of the future—some massive open parking lot in Istanbul, say, where crowds arrive, milling about, tickets in hand, and then, like the giant LED screen from the Beijing Olympics, the city’s archaeological past is revealed in 3D: hologram-like structures shivering there inside the surface of the earth, below everyone’s feet in real-time, the planet become an immersive TV screen on which we can view the debris of history.

The Museum of Speculative Archaeological Devices

Perhaps a short list of speculative mechanisms for future archaeological research would be interesting to produce.

[Image: A toy antique oscilloscope by Andrew Smith, courtesy of Gadget Master and otherwise unrelated to this post].

Ground-scanners, Transparent-Earth (PDF) eyeglasses, metal detectors, 4D earth-modeling environments used to visualize abandoned settlements, and giant magnets that pull buried cities from the earth.

Autonomous LIDAR drones over the jungles of South America. Fast, cheap, and out of control portable muon arrays. Driverless ground-penetrating radar trucks roving through the British landscape.

Or we could install upside-down periscopes on the sidewalks of NYC so pedestrians can peer into subterranean infrastructure, exploring subways, cellars, and buried streams. Franchise this to London, Istanbul, and Jerusalem, scanning back and forth through ruined foundations.

Holograph-bombs—ArchaeoGrenades™—that spark into life when you throw them, World of Warcraft-style, out into the landscape, and the blue-flickering ancient walls of missing buildings come to life like an old TV channel, hazy and distorted above the ground. Mechanisms of ancient light unfold to reveal lost architecture in the earth.

[Image: An LED cube by Pic Projects, otherwise unrelated to this post].

Or there could be football-field-sized milling machines that re-cut and sculpt muddy landscapes into the cities and towns that once stood above them. A peat-bog miller. Leave it operating for several years and it reconstructs whole Iron Age villages in situ.

Simultaneous milling/scanning devices that bring into being the very structures they claim to study. Ancient fortifications 3D-printed in realtime as you scan unreachable sites beneath your city’s streets.

Deep-earth projection equipment that impregnates the earth’s crust with holograms of missing cities, outlining three-dimensional sites a mile below ground; dazed miners stumble upon the shining walls of imaginary buildings like a laser show in the rocks around them.

Or a distributed iPhone app for registering and recording previously undiscovered archaeological sites (through gravitational anomalies, perhaps, or minor compass swerves caused by old iron nails, lost swords, and medieval dining tools embedded in the ground). Like SETI, but archaeological and directed back into the earth. As Steven Glaser writes in the PDF linked above, “We can image deep space and the formation of stars, but at present we have great difficulty imaging even tens of meters into the earth. We want to develop the Hubble into, not away from, the earth.”

Artificially geomagnetized flocks of migratory birds, like “GPS pigeons,” used as distributed earth-anomaly detectors in the name of experimental archaeology.

[Image: “GPS pigeons” by Beatriz da Costa, courtesy of Pruned].

So perhaps there could be two simultaneous goals here: to produce a list of such devices—impossible tools of future excavation—but also to design a museum for housing them.

What might a museum of speculative archaeological devices look like? A Mercer Museum for experimental excavation?

(Thanks to Rob Holmes and Alex Trevi for engaging with some of these ideas over email).

Extreme agricultural statuary

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I mentioned a recent issue of Mark Magazine the other day, but I deliberately saved one of the articles for a stand-alone post later on. That article was a long profile of the work of Philip Beesley, a Toronto-based architect and sculptor, whose project the “Implant Matrix” BLDGBLOG covered several years ago.

In issue #21 of Mark, author Terri Peters describes several of Beesley’s projects, but it’s the “Endothelium” that really stood out (and that you see pictured here).

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

Peters refers to Beesley’s work as a “lightweight landscape of moving, licking, breathing and swallowing geotextile mesh” – a kind of pornography of ornament, or the Baroque by way of David Cronenberg. “Inspired by coral reefs,” she continues, “with their cycles of opening, clamping, filtering and digesting,” Beesley’s biomechanical sculpture-spaces are “immersive theatre environments” in which “wheezing air pumps create an environment with no clear beginning or end.”

I’m reminded of the penultimate scene in James Cameron’s film Aliens, when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) meets the alien “queen.” The queen is laying eggs, we see, through a gigantic, semi-prosthetic, peristaltically-powered external ovarian sac – and the scene exemplifies the encounter with the grotesque in all its H.R. Giger-influenced, sci-fi extremes. Put another way, if organisms, too – not just buildings – can reach a point of ornamental excess, then James Cameron’s aliens are perhaps exhibit number one.

[Images: Screen grabs from James Cameron’s Aliens].

In any case, Beesley’s work is a fascinating hybrid of advanced textile design, geostructural modeling, and rogue biology experiment. Peters’s descriptions of the “Endothelium” are worth quoting at length:

[The structure consists of] a field of organic “bladders” that are self-powered and that move very slowly, self-burrowing, self-fertilizing and are linked by 3D printed joints and thin bamboo scaffolding. The bladders are powered using mobile phone vibrators and have LED lights. It works by using tiny gel packs of yeast which burst and fertilize the geotextile.

This latter detail – “using tiny gel packs of yeast which burst and fertilize the geotextile” – brings to mind something at the intersection of an improvised explosive device (or IED) and a green roof: you hire Philip Beesley to design a landscape-machine for installation atop a new building downtown, and, over the course of many decades, it vibrates, yeast-bursts, rotates, crawls, and grows through extraordinary cycles of grotesque architectural fertility. A solar-powered landscape of mold and microroots, generating its own soil. Within a few years, the original sculpture it all came from is gone, archaeologically undetectable beneath the vitality of the forms that have consumed it.

One wonders what Philip Beesley would think of the mushroom tunnel of Mittagong.

[Images: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

Elsewhere in the article, Peters writes:

Endothelium is an automated geotextile, a lightweight and sculptural field housing arrays of organic batteries within a lattice system that might reinforce new growth. It uses a dense series of thin “whiskers” and burrowing leg mechanisms to support low-power miniature lights, pulsing and shifting in slight increments. Within this distributed matrix, microbial growth is fostered by enriched seed-patches housed within nest-like forms, sheltered beneath the main lattice units.

I’m a bit rhetorically stuck on “between” statements, I’m afraid, but it’s as if Beesley’s work falls somewhere between a loaf of sourdough bread and a sculpture by Jean Tinguely.

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I’m curious, meanwhile, if you could bury a Philip Beesley sculpture in the woods of rural England somewhere, and allowed it to articulate new ecosystems slowly, over the cyclic course of generations. In fact, I’m reminded of an article in the New York Times last week, spotted via mammoth, in which we learn that two abandoned landfills in Brooklyn have since been used as unlikely foundations for new ecosystems:

In a $200 million project, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection covered the Fountain Avenue Landfill and the neighboring Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill with a layer of plastic, then put down clean soil and planted 33,000 trees and shrubs at the two sites. The result is 400 acres of nature preserve, restoring native habitats that disappeared from New York City long ago.

“Once the plants take hold,” the article adds, “nature will be allowed to take its course, evolving the land into microclimates.” But what if those weren’t landfills down there but sculptures by Philip Beesley? Strategically sown seed-patches and gel packs of yeast wait underground for new roots to rediscover them.

It’s living geostatuary, buried beneath the surface of the earth – a kind of extreme agriculture, with soil-preparation by Philip Beesley.

[Images: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I’d genuinely like to see what Beesley might do if he was hired by, say, a NASA R&D program dedicated to terraforming other planets. Could you fly a modular, self-unfolding Philip Beesley sculpture into the depths of radiative space, land it on a planet somewhere, and watch as revolting pools of bacteriological mucus begin to coagulate and form new fungi?

Beesley’s whiskered vibrators begin to shiver with signs of piezoelectric life, as small crystals surrounded by radio transmitters and genetically engineerined space-seed-patches imperceptibly tremble, evolving into mutation-prone “organic batteries” unprotected beneath starlight. Give it a thousand years, and vast infected forests, the width of continents, take hold.

You’ve colonized a distant planet through architecture and yeast.

For more, check out Mark Magazine‘s issue #21. Beesley’s also got a book out, called Hylozoic Soil, that I would love to read.

Terrain Deformation Grenades

Something I mentioned the other day in my talk at the Australian National Architecture Conference – and that came up again in Peter Wilson‘s conference summary – was the game Fracture by LucasArts.
Specifically, I referred to that game’s “terrain deformation grenades” (actually, ER23-N Tectonic Grenades).

[Image: A screenshot from Fracture, courtesy of LucasArts].

The game’s own definition of terrain deformation is that it is a “warfare technology” through which “soldiers utilize specialized weaponry to reshape earth to their own strategic advantage.” In an interview with GameZone, David Perkinson, a producer from LucasArts, explains that any player “will be able to use a tectonic grenade to raise the ground and create a hill.”

He will also be able to then lower that same hill by using a subsonic grenade. From there, he could choose to throw another tectonic to rebuild that hill, or add on another subsonic to create a crater in the ground. The possibilities are, quite literally, limitless for the ways in which players can change the terrain.

Other of the game’s terrestrial weapons include a “subterranean torpedo.”
In any case, if you were at the conference and want to know more about either the game or its implications for landscape design, I thought I’d post a quick link back to the original post in which I first wrote about this: Tactical Landscaping and Terrain Deformation.
While we’re on the subject, though, it’d be interesting if terrain deformation weaponry not only was real, but if it could be demilitarized… and purchased at REI.
You load up your backpack with tectonic grenades, head off to hike the Appalachian Trail – and whenever the path gets boring, you just toss a few bombs ahead and create instant slopes and hillsides. An artificial Peak District is generated in northern England by a group of well-armed hikers from Manchester.
In other words, what recreational uses might terrain deformation also have – and need these sorts of speculative tools only be treated as weaponry?
If Capability Brown had had a box of Tectonic Grenades, for instance, England today might look like quite different…

Planet Harddrive

[Image: “Conceptual diagram of satellite triangulation,” courtesy of the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO)].

I’ve long been fascinated by what I might call the geological nature of harddrives – how certain mineral arrangements of metal and ferromagnetism result in our technological ability to store memories, save information, and leave previous versions of the present behind.

A harddrive would be a geological object as much as a technical one; it is a content-rich, heavily processed re-configuration of the earth’s surface.

[Image: Geometry in the sky. “Diagram showing conceptual photographs of how satellite versus star background would appear from three different locations on the surface of the earth,” courtesy of the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO)].

This reminds me of another ongoing fantasy of mine, which is that perhaps someday we won’t actually need harddrives at all: we’ll simply use geology itself.

In other words, what if we could manipulate the earth’s own magnetic field and thus program data into the natural energy curtains of the planet?

The earth would become a kind of spherical harddrive, with information stored in those moving webs of magnetic energy that both surround and penetrate its surface.

This extends yet further into an idea that perhaps whole planets out there, turning in space, are actually the harddrives of an intelligent species we otherwise have yet to encounter – like mnemonic Death Stars, they are spherical data-storage facilities made of content-rich bedrock – or, perhaps more interestingly, we might even yet discover, in some weird version of the future directed by James Cameron from a screenplay by Jules Verne, that the earth itself is already encoded with someone else’s data, and that, down there in crustal formations of rock, crystalline archives shimmer.

I’m reminded of a line from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Ticket That Exploded, in which we read that beneath all of this, hidden in the surface of the earth, is “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

[Image: “An IBM HDD head resting on a disk platter,” courtesy of Wikipedia].

In any case, this all came to mind again last night when I saw an article in New Scientist about how 3D holograms might revolutionize data storage. One hologram-encoded DVD, for instance, could hold an incredible 1000GB of information.

So how would these 3D holograms be formed?

“A pair of laser beams is used to write data into discs of light-sensitive plastic, with both aiming at the same spot,” the article explains. “One beam shines continuously, while the other pulses on and off to encode patches that represent digital 0s and 1s.”

The question, then, would be whether or not you could build a geotechnical version of this, some vast and slow-moving machine – manufactured by Komatsu – that moves over exposed faces of bedrock and “encodes” that geological formation with data. You would use it to inscribe information into the planet.

To use a cheap pun, you could store terrabytes of information.

But it’d be like some new form of plowing in which the furrows you produce are not for seeds but for data. An entirely new landscape design process results: a fragment of the earth formatted to store encrypted files.

Data gardens.

They can even be read by satellite.

[Image: The “worldwide satellite triangulation camera station network,” courtesy of NOAA’s Geodesy Collection].

Like something out of H.P. Lovecraft – or the most unhinged imaginations of early European explorers – future humans will look down uneasily at the earth they walk upon, knowing that vast holograms span that rocky darkness, spun like inexplicable cobwebs through the planet.

Beneath a massive stretch of rock in the remotest state-owned corner of Nevada, top secret government holograms await their future decryption.

The planet thus becomes an archive.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Geomagnetic Harddrive).

Fossil Cities

[Image: Art by Joe Alterio; view larger].

I’m thrilled to announce that BLDGBLOG and Wired Science have teamed up with Swissnex to host a live interview—free and open to the public—with University of Leicester geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, author of The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, from Oxford University Press.

The event will be from 7-9pm on Wednesday, December 17th, at Swissnex, 730 Montgomery Street, in San Francisco; here’s a map.

Zalasiewicz’s book offers a fascinating and sustained look at what will happen to the material artifacts of human civilization 100 million years from now, when cities like Manhattan are mere trace fossils in flooded submarinescapes, Amsterdam is an indecipherably fragmentary presence in the lithified mudflats of a new, future continent, and cities like Los Angeles and Zurich have been eroded away entirely by a hundred million years of rockslides and weather.

To quote an early chapter from Zalasiewicz’s book at length:

The surface of the Earth is no place to preserve deep history. This is in spite of – and in large part because of – the many events that have taken place on it. The surface of the future Earth, one hundred million years now, will not have preserved evidence of contemporary human activity. One can be quite categorical about this. Whatever arrangement of oceans and continents, or whatever state of cool or warmth will exist then, the Earth’s surface will have been wiped clean of human traces.
(…)
Thus, one hundred million years from now, nothing will be left of our contemporary human empire at the Earth’s surface. Our planet is too active, its surface too energetic, too abrasive, too corrosive, to allow even (say) the Egyptian Pyramids to exist for even a hundredth of that time. Leave a building carved out of solid diamond – were it even to be as big as the Ritz – exposed to the elements for that long and it would be worn away quite inexorably.
(…)
So there will be no corroded cities amid the jungle that will, then, cover most of the land surface, no skyscraper remains akin to some future Angkor Wat for future archaeologists to pore over. Structures such as those might survive at the surface for thousands of years, but not for many millions.

The book goes on to explore buried cities, flooded cities, and cities destroyed by erosion; the long-term traces of different materials, from concrete and steel to nuclear waste and industrial plastics; and the future magnetic presence of urban metals that have been compressed into the thinnest bands of underground strata. We’ll be talking about cities like New Orleans, London, Hanoi, and Shanghai; New York, Los Angeles, Cairo, and Geneva. What “signals” of their one-time existence will these cities offer in 100 million years’ time? About Mexico City, Zalasiewicz writes:

Mexico City has a good short-term chance of fossilization, being built on a former lake basin next to active, ash-generating volcanoes; but its long-term chances are poor, as that basin lies on a high plateau, some two kilometers above sea level. The only ultimate traces of the fine buildings of [Mexico City] will be as eroded sand- and mud-sized particles of brick or concrete, washed by rivers into the distant sea.

With visions of cities become not spectacular, vine-covered ruins but but vast deltaic fans of multi-colored sand, the book looks at the future geological destinies of everything from plastic cups to clothes.

Alexis Madrigal, from Wired Science, and I will also have five copies of Zalasiewicz’s book to give away to attendees, and there will be drinks and light food after the event, so it will be well worth coming out.

If you get a chance, please RSVP at the Swissnex site, so that they can keep track of expected visitors.

(With special thanks to Joe Alterio for the artwork!)

For whom the bell tolls

[Image: Diagram of Taipei 101’s earthquake ball via the Long Now Foundation].

Earlier this week, the Long Now Foundation looked at earthquake dampers inside skyscrapers, focusing specifically on Taipei 101—a building whose unanticipated seismic side-effects (the building’s construction might have reopened an ancient tectonic fault) are quite close to my heart.

As it happens, Taipei 101 includes a 728-ton sphere locked in a net of thick steel cables hung way up toward the top of the building. This secret Piranesian moment of inner geometry effectively acts as a pendulum or counterweight—a damper—for the motions of earthquakes.

[Image: The 728-ton damper in Taipei 101, photographed by ~Wei~].

As earthquake waves pass up through the structure, the ball remains all but stationary; its inertia helps to counteract the movements of the building around it, thus “dampening” the earthquake.

It is a mobile center, loose amidst the grid that contains it.

[Image: Animated GIF via Wikipedia].

However, there’s something about discovering a gigantic pendulum inside a skyscraper that makes my imagination reel. It’s as if the whole structure is a grandfather clock, or some kind of avant-garde metronome for a musical form that hasn’t been invented yet. As if, down there in the bedrock, or perhaps a few miles out at sea inside a submarine, every few seconds you hear the tolling of a massive church bell – but it’s not a bell, it’s the 728-ton spherical damper inside Taipei 101 knocking loose against its structure.

Or it’s like an alternate plot for Ghostbusters: instead of finding out that Sigourney Weaver’s New York high-rise is literally an antenna for the supernatural, they realize that it’s some strange form of architectural clock, with a massive pendulum inside—a great damper—its cables hidden behind closet walls and elevator shafts covered in dust; but, at three minutes to midnight on the final Halloween of the millennium, a deep and terrifying bell inside the building starts to toll.

The city goes dark. The tolling gets louder. In all the region’s cemeteries, the soil starts to quake.

(Thanks to Kevin Wade Shaw for the link!)

Planet Battery

A few months back, Nature published an article stating that the “Earth beneath our feet might act as a gigantic circuit built by microbes to power their metabolic systems.”

It’s not a planet at all, then, but a bio-electrical deposit rotating in space. A living battery.
And while that obviously sounds far-fetched, we actually read that these microbes function as a “geological battery,” and that this battery is made from “networks of tiny wires linking individual bacterial cells into a web-like electrical circuit.” These circuits could extend for miles – hundreds of miles – whole continents and island chains, linked by reefs.
Who knows?
The article also describes these things as “sediment batteries” – so I have a hard time not imagining some old river in the Andes coming down out of its mountain chain, weathering through and eroding the outer soils and bedrock, exposing elemental belts of copper, silver, zinc, and gold, then depositing those fragments in vast, glittering deltaic arrays downstream.
Over the years, microbes move in; the sediments, hundreds of feet deep now and miles wide, begin fluttering with an undetectably faint electrical trace; finally, that remote riverbed, with its weird subsurface nets of energy, and its scattered metals, and its rare microbes, begins generating power… Birds flock toward it, their migration routes scrambled. Nearby compasses go akimbo.
Over the hills, there is a valley of light. You walk toward it.
The Earth is shining.
Religions develop. Their adherents worship geological deposits.
The person in charge of researching all this is called a geobiologist. One such researcher quips that he’s been studying “microbe-driven sediment batteries.”
Someday you’ll just take a power cord – and plug it into the Earth.

(You can read the original article in this PDF. See also BLDGBLOG’s look at the wire garden – and, of course, Merry Christmas! May your day be free of desolation and abandonment. And thanks, Steve, for originally pointing this story out to me).

Comparative Planetology: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

[Image: The face of Nicholson Crater, Mars, courtesy of the ESA].

According to The New York Times Book Review, the novels of Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson “constitute one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern science fiction.” I might argue, however, that Robinson is fundamentally a landscape writer.
That is, Robinson’s books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but his novels are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. “Politics,” in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.

In his most recent trilogy – Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting – we see the earth becoming radically unlike itself through climate change. Floods drown the U.S. capital; fierce winter ice storms leave suburban families powerless, in every sense of the word; and the glaciers of concrete and glass that we have mistaken for civilization begin to reveal their inner weaknesses.
The stand-alone novel Antarctica documents the cuts, bruises, and theoretical breakthroughs of environmental researchers as they hike, snowshoe, sledge, belay, and fly via helicopter over the fractured canyons and crevasses of the southern continent. They wander across “shear zones” and find rooms buried in the ice, natural caves linked together like a “shattered cathedral, made of titanic columns of driftglass.”
Meanwhile, in Robinson’s legendary Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars – the bulk of the narrative is, again, complete planetary transformation, this time on Mars. The Red Planet, colonized by scientists, is deliberately remade – or terraformed – to be climatically, hydrologically, and agriculturally suited for human life. Yet this is a different kind of human life – it, too, has been transformed: politically and psychologically.
In his recent book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Fredric Jameson devotes an entire chapter to Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Jameson writes that “utopia as a form is not the representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them.”
Across all his books, Robinson is never afraid to imagine these radical alternatives. Indeed, in the interview posted below he explains that “I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms.”

In the following interview, then, Kim Stanley Robinson talks to BLDGBLOG about climate change, from Hurricane Katrina to J.G. Ballard; about the influence of Greek island villages on his descriptions of Martian base camps; about life as a 21st century primate in the 24/7 “techno-surround”; how we must rethink utopia as we approach an age without oil; whether “sustainability” is really the proper thing to be striving for; and what a future archaeology of the space age might find.
This interview also includes previously unpublished photos by Robinson himself, taken in Greece and Antarctica.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in the possibility that literary genres might have to be redefined in light of climate change. In other words, a novel where two feet of snow falls on Los Angeles, or sand dunes creep through the suburbs of Rome, would be considered a work of science fiction, even surrealism, today; but that same book, in fifty years’ time, could very well be a work of climate realism, so to speak. So if climate change is making the world surreal, then what it means to write a “realistic” novel will have to change. As a science fiction novelist, does that affect how you approach your work?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I’ve been saying this for a number of years: that now we’re all living in a science fiction novel together, a book that we co-write. A lot of what we’re experiencing now is unsurprising because we’ve been prepped for it by science fiction. But I don’t think surrealism is the right way to put it. Surrealism is so often a matter of dreamscapes, of things becoming more than real – and, as a result, more sublime. You think, maybe, of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, and the way that he sees these giant catastrophes as a release from our current social set-up: catastrophe and disaster are aestheticized and looked at as a miraculous salvation from our present reality. But it wouldn’t really be like that.

I started writing about Earth’s climate change in the Mars books. I needed something to happen on Earth that was shocking enough to allow a kind of historical gap in which my Martians could realistically establish independence. I had already been working with Antarctic scientists who were talking about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and how unstable it might be – so I used that, and in Blue Mars I showed a flooded London. But after you get past the initial dislocations and disasters, what you’ve got is another landscape to be inhabited – another situation that would have its own architecture, its own problems, and its own solutions.

To a certain extent, later, in my climate change books, I was following in that mold with the flood of Washington DC. I wrote that scene before Katrina. After Katrina hit, my flood didn’t look the same. I think it has to be acknowledged that the use of catastrophe as a literary device is not actually adequate to talk about something which, in the real world, is often so much worse – and which comes down to a great deal of human suffering.

So there may have been surreal images coming out of the New Orleans flood, but that’s not really what we take away from it.

[Image: Refugees gather outside the Superdome, New Orleans, post-Katrina].

BLDGBLOG: Aestheticizing these sorts of disasters can also have the effect of making climate change sound like an adventure. In Fifty Degrees Below, for instance, you wrote: “People are already fond of the flood… It was an adventure. It got people out of their ruts.” The implication is that people might actually be excited about climate change. Is there a risk that all these reports about flooded cities and lost archipelagoes and new coastlines might actually make climate change sound like some sort of survivalist adventure?

Robinson: It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.

It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.

And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.

So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.

Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.

[Image: New Orleans under water, post-Katrina; photographer unknown].

BLDGBLOG: Mars has a long history as a kind of utopian destination – and, in that, your Mars trilogy is no exception. What is it about Mars that brings out this particular kind of speculation?

Robinson: Well, it brings up an unusual modern event that can happen in our mental landscapes, which is comparative planetology. That wasn’t really available to us before the modern era – really, until Viking.

One thing about Mars is that it’s a radically impoverished landscape. You start with nothing – the bare rock, the volatile chemicals that are needed for life, some water, and an empty landscape. That makes it a kind of gigantic metaphor, or modeling exercise, and it gives you a way to imagine the fundamentals of what we’re doing here on Earth. I find it is a very good thing to begin thinking that we are terraforming Earth – because we are, and we’ve been doing it for quite some time. We’ve been doing it by accident, and mostly by damaging things. In some ways, there have been improvements, in terms of human support systems, but there’s still so much damage, damage that’s gone unacknowledged or ignored, even when all along we knew it was happening. People kind of shrug and think: a) there’s nothing we can do about it, or b) maybe the next generation will be clever enough to figure it out. So on we go.

[Images: Mars, courtesy of NASA].

Mars is an interesting platform where we can model these things. But I don’t know that we’ll get there for another fifty years or so – and once we do get there, I think that for many, many years, maybe many decades, it will function like Antarctica does now: it will be an interesting scientific base that teaches us things and is beautiful and charismatic, but not important in the larger scheme of human history on Earth. It’s just an interesting place to study, that we can learn things from. Actually, for many years, Mars will be even less important to us than Antarctica, because the Antarctic is at least part of our ecosphere.

But if you think of yourself as terraforming Earth, and if you think about sustainability, then you can start thinking about permaculture and what permaculture really means. It’s not just sustainable agriculture, but a name for a certain type of history. Because the word sustainability is now code for: let’s make capitalism work over the long haul, without ever getting rid of the hierarchy between rich and poor and without establishing social justice.

Sustainable development, as well: that’s a term that’s been contaminated. It doesn’t even mean sustainable anymore. It means: let us continue to do what we’re doing, but somehow get away with it. By some magic waving of the hands, or some techno silver bullet, suddenly we can make it all right to continue in all our current habits. And yet it’s not just that our habits are destructive, they’re not even satisfying to the people who get to play in them. So there’s a stupidity involved, at the cultural level.

BLDGBLOG: In other words, your lifestyle may now be carbon neutral – but was it really any good in the first place?

Robinson: Right. Especially if it’s been encoding, or essentially legitimizing, a grotesque hierarchy of social injustice of the most damaging kind. And the tendency for capitalism to want to overlook that – to wave its hands and say: well, it’s a system in which eventually everyone gets to prosper, you know, the rising tide floats all boats, blah blah – well, this is just not true.

We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.

It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place – you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

The future needs to be taken into account by the current system, which regularly steals from it in order to pad our ridiculous current lifestyle.

[Images: (top) Michael Reynolds, architect. Turbine House, Taos, New Mexico. Photograph © Michael Reynolds, 2007. (bottom) Steve Baer, designer. House of Steve Baer, Corrales, New Mexico, 1971. Photography © Jon Naar, 1975/2007. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, from their excellent, and uncannily well-timed, exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas].

BLDGBLOG: When it actually comes to designing the future, what will permaculture look like? Where will its structures and ideas come from?

Robinson: Well, at the end of the 1960s and through the 70s, what we thought – and this is particularly true in architecture and design terms – was: OK, given these new possibilities for new and different ways of being, how do we design it? What happens in architecture? What happens in urban design?

As a result of these questions there came into being a big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print, which had no notion that the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution was going to hit. Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time. And I think it is.

[Image: American President Jimmy Carter dedicates the White House solar panels, 20 June 1979. Photograph © Jimmy Carter Library. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture].

This is one of the reasons I’ve been talking about climate change, and the possibility of abrupt climate change, as potentially a good thing – in that it forces us to confront problems that we were going to sweep under the carpet for hundreds of years. Now, suddenly, these problems are in our face and we have to deal. And part of dealing is going to be design.

I don’t think people fully comprehend what a gigantic difference their infrastructure makes, or what it feels like to live in a city with public transport, like Paris, compared to one of the big autopias like southern California. The feel of existence is completely different. And of course the carbon burn is also different – and the sense that everybody’s in the same boat together. This partly accounts for the difference between urban voters and rural voters: rural voters – or out-in-the-country voters – can imagine that they’re somehow independent, and that they don’t rely on other people. Meanwhile, their entire tech is built elsewhere. It’s a fantasy, and a bad one as it leads to a false assessment of the real situation.

The Mars books were where I focused on these design questions the most. I had to describe fifteen or twenty invented towns or social structures based around their architecture. Everything from little settlements to crater towns to gigantic cities, to all sorts of individual homes in the outback – how do you occupy the outback? how do you live? – and it was a great pleasure. I think, actually, that one of the main reasons people enjoyed those Mars books was in seeing these alternative design possibilities envisioned and being able to walk around in them, imaginatively.

BLDGBLOG: Were there specific architectural examples, or specific landscapes, that you based your descriptions on?

Robinson: Sure. They had to do with things that I’d seen or read about. And, you know, reading Science News week in and week out, I was always attentive to what the latest in building materials or house design was.

Also, I seized on anything that seemed human-scale and aesthetically pleasing and good for a community. I thought of Greek villages in Crete, and also the spectacular stuff on Santorini. One of the things I learned, wandering around Greek archaeological sites – I’m very interested in archaeology – is that they clearly chose some of their town sites not just for practical concerns but also for aesthetic pleasure. They would put their towns in places where it would look good to live – where you would get a permanent sense that the town was a work of art, as well as a practical solution to economic and geographical problems. That was something I wanted to do on Mars over and over again.

[Image: Photos of Greece, inspiration for life on Mars, taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].

Mondragon, Spain, was also a constant reference point, and Kerala, in southern India. I was looking at cooperative, or leftist, places. Bologna, Italy. The Italian city-states of the Renaissance, in a different kind of way. Also, cities where public transport on a human scale could be kept in mind. That’s mostly northern Europe.

So those were some of the reference points that I remember – but I was also trying to think about how humans might inhabit the unusual Martian features: the cliffsides, the hidden cities that I postulated might be necessary. I was attracted to anything that had to do with circularity, because of the stupendous number of craters on Mars. The Paul Sattelmeier indoor/outdoor house, which is round and easy to build, was something I noticed in Science News as a result of this fixation.

There was a real wide net I could cast there – and it was fun. If you give yourself a whole world to play with, you don’t have to choose just one solution – you can describe any number of solutions – and I think that was politically true as well as architecturally true with my Mars books. They weren’t proposing one master solution, as in the old utopias, but showing that there are a variety of possible solutions, with different advantages and disadvantages.

[Image: A photograph of Santorini taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of archaeology, one of the most interesting things I’ve read recently was that some archaeologists are now speculating that sites like the Apollo moon landing, or the final resting spot of the Mars rovers, will someday be like Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: they’ll be excavated and studied and preserved and mapped.

Robinson: Yes, and places like Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, will be quite beautiful. They’ll work as great statuary – like megaliths. They’ll have that charismatic quality and, in their ruin, they should be quite beautiful. As you know, that was one great attraction of the Romantic era – to ruins, to the suggestion of age – and there will be something nicely contradictory about something as futuristic as space artifacts suggesting ruins and the ancient past. That’s sure to come.

The interesting problem on Mars, and Chris McKay has talked about this, is that if we conclude that there’s the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, then it becomes really, really important for us not to contaminate the planet with earthly bacteria. But it’s almost impossible to sterilize a spaceship completely. There were probably 100,000 bacteria even on the sterilized spacecraft that we sent to Mars, living on their inner surfaces. It isn’t even certain that a gigantic crash-landing and explosion would kill all that bacteria.

So Chris McKay has been suggesting that a site like the Beagle or polar lander crash site actually needs to be excavated and fully sterilized – the stuff may even have to be taken off-planet – if we really want to keep Mars uncontaminated. In other words, we’ve contaminated it already; if we find native, alien bacterial life on Mars, and we don’t want it mixed up with Terran life, then we might have to do something a lot more radical than an archaeological saving of the site. We might have to do something like a Superfund clean-up.

Of course, that’s all really hard to do without getting down there with yet more bacteria-infested things.

[Image: Two painted views of a human future on Mars, courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: That’s the same situation as with these lakes in Antarctica buried beneath the ice: to study them, we have to drill down into them, but by drilling down into them, we might immediately introduce microbes and bacteria and even chemicals into the water – which will mean that there’s not much left for us to study.

Robinson: They’re already having that problem with Lake Vostok. The Russians have got an ice drill that’s already maybe too close to the lake, and in the sphere of influence of the trapped bacteria. And now people are calculating that the water in Lake Vostok might be very heavily pressurized, and like seltzer water, so that breaking through might cause a gusher on the surface that could last six months. The water might just fly out onto the surface – where it would freeze and create a little mountain up there, of fresh water. Who knows? I mean, at that point, whatever was going on, in bacterial terms, with that lake in particular – that’s ruined. There are many other lakes beneath the Antarctic surface, so it isn’t as if we don’t have more places we could save or study, but that one is already a problem.

[Image: Architecture in Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].

Also, I do like the archaeological sites in Antarctica from the classic era. Those are worth comparing to the space program. Going to Antarctica in 1900 was like us going into space today: as Oliver Morton has put it, it was the hardest thing that technology allowed humans to do at the time. So you could imagine those guys as being in space suits and doing space station-type stuff – but, of course, from our angle, it looks like Boy Scout equipment. It’s amazing that they got away with it at all. Those are the most beautiful spaces – the Shackleton/Scott sites – even the little cairns that Amundsen left behind, or the crashed airplanes from the 1920s: they all become vividly important reminders of our past and of our technological progress. They deserve to be protected fully and kind of revered, almost as religious sites, if you’re a humanist.

[Image: Shackleton’s hut, Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].

So archaeology in space? Who knows? It’s hard enough to think about what’s going to go on up there. But on earth it’s very neat to think of Cape Canaveral or Baikonur becoming like Shackleton’s hut.

Thinking along this line causes me to wonder about the Stalinist industrial cities in the Urals – you know, like Chelyabinsk-65. These horribly utilitarian extraction economy-type places, incredibly brutal and destructive – once they’re abandoned, and they begin to rust away, they take on a strange kind of aesthetic. As long as you wouldn’t get actively poisoned when you visit them –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Robinson: – I would be really interested to see some of these places. Just don’t step in the sludge, or scratch your arm – the toxicity levels are supposed to be alarming. But, in archaeological terms, I bet they’d be beautiful.

• • •

BLDGBLOG owes a huge and genuine thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson, not only for his ongoing output as a writer but for his patience while this interview was edited and assembled. Thanks, as well, to William L. Fox for putting Robinson and I in touch in the first place.
Meanwhile, the recently published catalog for the exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas offers a great look at the “big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print” that Robinson mentions in the above interview. If you see a copy, I’d definitely recommend settling in for a long read.

Mars Bungalow and the Prison of Simulation

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

Following a few links from the perennially great things magazine, I discovered this new attempt at a future Martian architecture.

Meant to house “visitors,” we read, at the Martian north pole, “ANY Design Studios has designed a robot on legs built of Martian ice.” It comes complete with padded walls and a nice little bed.

Note, however, that the walls (on the right) have been painted to look like the Pacific northwest: even on Mars, we will live within simulations.

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

“What would it be like to spend nearly two Earth years at the Martian north pole,” we’re asked, “a place where darkness falls for nine months of the year, carbon dioxide snow flutters down in winter and temperatures drop to a chilly minus 150 centigrade?” I, for one, think it would be wonderful.

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

The architecture itself is “a self assembling six module robotic design on tracked landing legs.” It’s thus a cluster of smaller buildings that, together, “would allow for ten people to live indefinitely at the pole.”

The architects behind the project go on to explain that they “have also been exploring the possibility of reproducing programmable Earth environments in a room we have called the ‘Multi Environment Chamber’. Settlers on Mars may well be able to make themselves a cup of tea and settle into a chair with the sun gently warming their skin, cool breezes, and the sound of songbirds of an English orchard on a warm July afternoon” – assuming that such an experience wasn’t precisely what you were trying to get away from in the first place.

These “programmable Earth environments,” though, should undoubtedly include a setting in which you are sitting in a room in southern California, which has been kitted out to look like a Martian base – inside of which a man sits, reminiscing about a room in southern California that he once decorated to look like a Martian bungalow… Which would be referred to as the interplanetary architecture of et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Phrased otherwise, of course, all of this would simply be an inversion of what William L. Fox describes in his recent book, Driving to Mars. There, Fox writes about “the idea of practicing Mars on Earth” – which means simply that, even as I write this, there are teams of astronauts on a remote base in northern Canada, acting as if they are already surrounded by Martian topography.

It’s a form of psychological training: act as if you have already arrived.

So you simply turn that around and find, here, that anyone living inside this “self assembling six module robotic design on tracked landing legs” will really be “practicing Earth on Mars.”

Act as if you never left.

But why not practice, say, Jupiter, instead? Why not be even more ambitious and use each planet in this solar system as a base from which to simulate the rest?

Or you could just abandon simulation altogether, of course, and experience Mars as Mars.

It’s interesting, though, in this context, to look at the naming practices used by NASA through which they claim – or at least label – Martian territory. Landscapes on Earth toponymically reappear on the Martian plains; there is Bonneville Crater and Victoria Crater, for instance; there is Cape Verde and a cute little rock called “Puffin.”

Mars is an alien landscape, then, in everything but name.

Even more fascinating, at least for me, is the small range of Martian hills now “dedicated to the final crew of Space Shuttle Columbia.” Accordingly, these hills now appear on maps as the Columbia Hills Complex. An entire landscape named after dead American astronauts? Surely there’s a J.G. Ballard story about something exactly like this?

Then again, according to one reviewer: “A story by J.G. Ballard, as you know, calls for people who don’t think.” Uh oh.

(Note: For more on Martian architecture don’t miss the unbelievably weird proposal behind Mars Power!, discussed earlier on BLDGBLOG).