Books Every Futurist Must Read

Posted in books, culture, hobbies, technology by johnsnavely on November 2, 2011

I’m a big fan of science fiction. I read plenty of novels for pleasure, but I’m also constantly trying to find good ideas to steal from books. A few weeks ago, I was chatting with co-workers about which books we thought every futurist needed to read. That’s a pretty tall order, what came to mind were all the books that I’ve recently stolen ideas from. They’re not great literature necessarily, in fact some are rather pulpy (which I love), but all of them have some great concepts in them. Here’s a short list in no particular order.

via Alyssa B.

Old Man’s War
Scalzi is a fun and funny writer. I just finished Agent to the Stars one of his earlier novels. In this novel he imagines a future where the elderly leave earth and are given new bodies and amazing technology to fight an interstellar war. James Cameron must have read this before making Avatar. Some ideas I want to build: Brain Pal and Emotional Instant Messaging

Kiln People
Brin’s novel is a hard boiled detective story. It’s set in a world where people can make copies of themselves, with limited expiration dates and then inload the memories of those copies. The whole concept of parallel lives in this novel basically changed how I understood social networking. Now, when anyone says they want to add “Social” (ugz) to a project I wonder how I can make it more like this novel.

Diamond Age
This book was recommended by a friend. For some reason we were talking about how little cultural groups form and joking about a “Helvetica Tribe”. The Illlustrated Primer, a “magic” book, is artfully done. I keep returning to it as an example.

Gibson’s book has been at the top of many of my lists for a while. Almost everything he’s written about in the novel has come true in some form or other.

Ghost in the Shell (1,2, and 1.5)
These graphic novels are works of art. They’re like a Donna Hathaway’s gorgeous nightmare. Machines and people are melded seamlessly and you can never tell the difference between a robot and a human.

Mary Poppins (the movie is pretty good too)
A shout out to the Berg folks. I read all of these when I was very young. (As well as the whole Doctor Doolittle series.) In today’s world, you expect the newest gadget to do something amazing, these books which use magic bluntly applied to the everyday, without the slickness of technology. I’ve been coveting Mary Poppin’s mirror and her endless carpetbag.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
In Cory Doctorow’s book, nobody dies and a band of people lives and works in an abandoned DisneyLand. Also, there is no money, only reputation points called “Whuffie”– it’s an idea sort of stolen from eBay but it’s evolved into something better here. I’m trying to unify “Whuffie” and “BitCoin” in my brain.

This is one of Nicholson Baker’s early softcore novels. Many of his books dilate time in one way or another, but in this one it’s quite literal: the main character can stop time. The story is both sexually explicit and remarkably boring. Often when I’m thinking about new amazing technology, I’ll try and ask myself how the main character in this story would use it.

Currently, I’m reading “Super Sad True Love Story” which was recommended to me as a book that every futurist must read. Any other suggestions?


I like American Music.

Posted in culture, fashion by johnsnavely on February 1, 2011

If you ever been to my house (maybe for a Salon or something) you know that I am a bit hypocritical. I’m a designer, supposedly I care about how things look. Supposedly I make them look better.

But I haven’t taken much care with my own living quarters. There’s a mish mash of things I like, but not a true sense of style. I’ve been thinking more about making/designing some furniture for K and I and I’ve started collecting images in my never-used tumblr account. There’s a furniture company called bddw which has nailed it, imho. The look is distinctly American, drawing from the Shaker tradition with the furniture, but really a melting pot of patterned rugs and minimalistic decor. Here’s a few images:


Posted in architecture, art, culture by johnsnavely on January 10, 2011

A friend of mine asked me to come and guest lecture at a class he’s teaching at UW. It’s a graduate seminar in design– a theory course. There’s a fairly dense reading list already in the syllabus for each week, but for my guest lecture/discussion, I get to choose the readings.

There is a little irony in this task, since I’m pretty skeptical of theory and criticisms role in the design process. I often think of theory and criticism, especially as it is presented in the pedagogy, as working against the creation of good designers, as it diverts attention from the art making things to the art of talking about them.

As the syllabus has a decidedly modernist bent to it, I’ve decided to inject some pomo into the precedings. Here’s my draft list of readings (and a few comments):

Fredric Jameson
“Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review I/146, July-August 1984

Jameson is the bomb. He pretty much identifies most of the major problem areas within post modernism’s uneasy co-dependence on (Late Capitalist) culture. I’ve chosen the article instead of his book, because the article is a much easier read, the philosophical thought is much less dense, but the banter and critique situate his writing better historically.

Jameson comes down pretty hard on pomo stuff– his description of pastiche being the zenith of the attitude. Jameson is the foundation of the lecture; the rest of the articles are a slush of ideas that put his writing into tighter focus.

Yves Behar
Review of TechnoCraft Exhibition at Yerba Beuna Center for the Arts

They haven’t finished the catalog for this show, so we’ll have to read a review of it first. I’m not Behar’s biggest fan, but this show was quite good and very well curated. It presented a nice summary of a certain set of design trends that have taken root as a response to the same cultural forces of capitalism with which Jameson wrestles. (There’s also an uncomfortable naivete to the show and its design principles that is difficult to stomach.)

Andy Warhol
Final Interview

Jameson holds Warhol up to the fire a bit and it’s only fair to let Warhol defend himself. Warhol’s last living interview does so, in Warhol’s traditional laconic style. The artist’s remarks on The Last Supper and the price of Jasper John’s paintings are to be noted.

Ryan Trecartin
Shades of Notware
Ryan’s Web 1.0

While not entirely criticism, Trecartin’s work hints at much different processes and mental states for designers and artists to inhabit, with new tools and new ways of thinking. Web 1.0’s behind the scenes unveils what a designer’s thought process could look like, if they were as amazing as Mr. Trecartin. The idea that what Jameson calls design/art making might have little in common with the practice we give that name should be in question.

Keehnan Konyha, 2TheWalls
In Praise of Expedit
Dark-est Nostalgia
Lady Fag
Vader Barton
Michael Graves

Keehnan Konyha is an architectural and cultural critic who focuses mainly on interior design. Posts on his blog, 2TheWalls, consist of tightly curated mashups of text and image. Most entries tend to show their postmodern roots and yet, there are often carefully injected contemporary moments that bring the result outside of mere historicism and into current discourse. 2TheWalls might be what Jameson’s work might have looked like if he had been working 30 years later.

Who didn’t make the cut?

Tao Lin
Tao Lin is this decade’s Andy Warhol. A chapter of Richard Yates would have been enough to show some subtleties that Jameson did not see in Warhol. But there’s something to be said for the man himself. Interviews with Warhol read like Tao Lin novels. And so, Warhol stayed and Tao Lin left.

Sylvia Lavin
Sylvia Lavin says some beautiful things:

“[T]o be contemporary- to be on time, to move with time and the times, subject to its losses, entropies, provisionalities, obsolescences, currencies, intensities, fads, and flourishes is a possibility that architecture assiduously avoids.”

– From Lavin’s book Crib Sheets

But ultimately, her focus is much too architectural and her call to action, although compelling, lacks some substance. (Read my friends Stephanie Teurk’s review of Crib Sheets for more.) 2thewalls does more, better and can speak to an audience that Lavin cannot.

Wes Jones
Wes Jones’ article PostCool is pretty great. They should probably read it. Unfortunately, Jones is already in the syllabus and I didn’t want to repeat.

Quentin Tarantino
He’s too good for this lecture.

So that’s what I’m having people read. I’m not sure if I have to give a presentation or what. Are there any texts that you would include? I also don’t have a title for the set of readings…. suggestions?

Artificial Diane Arbus

Posted in culture, technology by johnsnavely on December 1, 2010

This article (via:kottke) about two conjoined twins, who share a portion of their brain was fascinating.

Adding to the conundrum, of course, are their linked brains, and the mysterious hints of what passes between them. The family regularly sees evidence of it. The way their heads are joined, they have markedly different fields of view. One child will look at a toy or a cup. The other can reach across and grab it, even though her own eyes couldn’t possibly see its location. “They share thoughts, too,” says Louise. “Nobody will be saying anything,” adds Simms, “and Tati will just pipe up and say, ‘Stop that!’ And she’ll smack her sister.” While their verbal development is delayed, it continues to get better. Their sentences are two or three words at most so far, and their enunciation is at first difficult to understand. Both the family, and researchers, anxiously await the children’s explanation for what they are experiencing.

Beyond the extraordinary physiological and psychological implications, the article made me wonder if their experience is what it might be like to share our consciousness with an AI of some sort… You would “know” things, without knowing how you knew them.

Ghost in the Shell

Posted in culture, fashion by johnsnavely on July 21, 2010

I’ve Got Five On It

Posted in culture, projects by johnsnavely on March 24, 2010

I totally misread this site:

As suggested things you can do for 5 bucks. Not things you would do. (which is basically begging to be the mechanical turk of porn).

I’d rather have a yelp/craigslist sort of site that lists stuff that would be fun that costs $5 (or maybe even $10) in Seattle. In fact, I think this is such a good idea I might even build it this weekend.

Blush without Blushing

Posted in culture by johnsnavely on March 16, 2010

Had a thought:

Seeing as we’re steps away from LED paint– a paintable display screen– I wondered what it would be like if other things could take advantage of paintable LED’s. (Other than architectural interiors, that is.)

Makeup might become really unusual if you could paint an LED display (or a nature tattoo on your chest) onto yourself.

You might be able to make an “invisibility cloak”, where an image of what is behind you is displayed on your painted body.

The other thing I wondered is if the light emitted by this paint wasn’t in the visible spectrum at all, but IR? Basically, a display which could communicate with other displays, devices, etc, but non-visually. So I could be wearing makeup that no one sees, that tells a secret to the makeup on your face, which makes you blush without blushing.


Posted in culture by johnsnavely on March 15, 2010

I wanted to write more about androgyny, mentioned in that last post. I’m probably biting off much much more than I can chew, since I can tell you I know pretty much zilch about gender & queer studies.

I am not however, that interested in ambiguity, which I think is often used as a form of artistic laziness. Androgyny comes from the Greek words Andras, meaning man and Gyne, meaning woman– i.e. having male and female characteristics. In short, I prefer both to neither.

In my previous post, I called it a “current” trend in fashion, but that’s probably a bit misleading. Gender mixing/flux has been around for a while. From Greek drama to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to David Bowie.

On the other hand, the word “unisex” has only been around since the 1960’s, a period where much of America transitioned from the fairly aggressive gender roles and stereotypes (as well as many other values) that buttressed the 1950’s to something a little more free form. I’m guessing this was when we saw androgyny really enter into pop culture, setting us up for all sorts of things like Boy George, and Tilda Swinton as Conan O’Brian.

Or this site which shows a series of clothes for men and women… using a bit of emaciation to remove secondary sex characteristics (like breasts and musculature) that might help identify gender.

What I’m interested in is not necessarily the androgen, but the moment in the viewer when they are incapable of differentiation or categorization or separation and therefore, more open to the strange and new.

Indifference is subverted for just a moment and…well, the rest is up to the designer. So I’ve been trying to round out this post with some cool examples… but, uh, I haven’t found any good ones. (A revival of shoulder-pads with short skirts?)


The addendum to all of this is the “genderlessness” of the digital world. (Of course, this is a fiction, since the majority of people on the web are white, male, heterosexual, middle class etc.) Online there’s not ambiguity not androgyny, and I think this leads to all sorts of problems as well as some of the best moments of art out there. More later…

Culture Shock

Posted in books, culture, movies by johnsnavely on February 18, 2010

Last night I watched half of District 9. I probably should have watched it sooner.

It’s the story of a white man, sent to investigate (infiltrate) an alien culture, with the ultimate aim of relocating (or eradicating) that culture. Eventually the man finds himself a member of that culture and must battle against his former friends and colleagues who wish to oppress his new found community.

If this doesn’t sound remarkably familiar, then you haven’t watched Avatar.

Now Avatar is a steamy pile, but it has been dipped in golden technology and buffed with Cameron’s millions. It’s pixel perfect. But I couldn’t help to compare the two movies.

In my mind, they use the same plot but for very different ends. Avatar is about fantasy and escape– which is why people are getting depressed with reality after watching it:

In District 9, however, crossing a fictional cultural divide is about shedding some light on our own cultural problems and proclivities. That’s not to say Avatar hasn’t inspired some District 9 like repercussions/reinterpretations: Witness a Palistinian protest in full Naavi costume.

I’ve been leaving my Lamour obsession behind and getting back into science fiction. I’ve just read Snow Crash, started Steal Across the Sky, and am rereading a collection of Phillip K. Dick’s short stories (including Minority Report). I enjoy science fiction because like Avatar it offers fantasy and escape; but I come back to it because like District 9 it tells me something about the world I live in, or in the best case will live in.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness presents a similar dilemma of a man struggling to integrate with an alien race. Only this race has no concept of “he” or “she” for the majority of their lives. The main character’s difficulty in understanding the world he’s faced with is written in such a way that we (the reader) have the same trouble picturing what these aliens look like or how to understand what their interactions mean. Only partway through the novel, do we realize that the main character is black. There are all these shorthand ways of “understanding” that can be rooted in our pre-configured notions of gender or race.

I think I might need to re-read the book just to more fully understand the fashion world’s current obsession with androgyny, which by and large, I think has produced some pretty creative designs.

Anyway, now that I’m reading again. Do you (gentle & few) readers have some suggestions?

Salon Number Four

Posted in culture, friends by johnsnavely on February 5, 2010

Salon Fremont Number Four. This Saturday.