GUEST INFORMANT: Rachel Armstrong, on Where The Future Went

Where did the future go?

(Image: Christian Kerrigan)

Dr Rachel Armstrong specialises in the confluence between synthetic biology and architecture.  She is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Greenwich, a researcher, an author and a Senior TED Fellow.  She’s also one of the nicest and most fascinating people I met last year.  I’m delighted that she somehow found the time to write this for me and you.

We have been promised flying cars and ray guns for more than a century and it seems that somewhere along the line humanity has failed to deliver on its promises. But is it possible to ‘reboot’ the future, which Tim Leberecht notes, appears to have been stuck in a permanent ‘beta’ phase of development.

Yet, will jet pack boosters lead us towards fertile new pathways of imagining and exploring the world? Or have our hopes for sustainable prosperity been irretrievably betrayed by malignant cultural cynicism and free market capitalism, which have stripped the future of its assets?

But is our idea of ‘the future’ still relevant to the 21st century in terms of what we actually expect it to ‘deliver’? At LIFT13, I launched ‘The Age of the Inpossible,’ which is a different kind of future to that which we have become familiar with over the course of the 20th century. An inpossible idea, or event, is not goal based on a deterministic worldview but describes a creative process that explores unchartered territories. The point being that when we set a fixed goal in embarking on a journey of discovery, we end up chasing our preconceptions, rather than being open to new possibilities, which may result in radical ideation.

(Image: Balazs Gardi)

The ‘future’ we recognise today is a deterministic view of the future. It extrapolates from things we already know, to calculate an end point. In other words, it’s an extreme version of ‘now’ – not, something new. So, based on the existence of aeroplanes and cars, a deterministic view of the future proposes the advent of flying cars.

But, with computer power accelerating at the speed of Moore’s Law and cross-fertilization between new technologies, described as NBIC (Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno) convergence, emerging technologies may not be deducible by an understanding their different part. Indeed, such experimental juxtapositions and fusions are likely to produce technologies that are entirely new. For example, the convergence of nanotechnology, biology and information technology has produced strange projects such as cyberplasm, a semi-living robot.

To respond to the greater complexity and uncertainty of our world, the Age of the Inpossible proposes a different framework for thinking based on ‘21st century science’. It takes a probabilistic perspective where events need to be co-authored, rather than controlled through top-down design blueprints. It is exploratory rather than didactic in its methods, being grounded in the theory of networks, relationships and flows. These qualities are never really ‘fixed’ and are always under construction. The Age of the Inpossible proposes that ‘the future’ does not actually exist as a deterministic point in time. Rather, the visionary ideas proposed in aspiring to ‘future’ events serve as avatars, rather than goals. These are flexible proposals that can continue to evolve and respond to changing circumstances and ideas.

So, the ‘future’ – as we have previously imagined it – does not exist as a ‘thing’ but can be a ‘tool’ for dealing with the unknown. In other words a ‘flying car’ is not a product with a sell-by date, but a conversation that we need to hold – and continue to need to have – about our transport systems. In other words, it is entirely appropriate that we may not yet have flying cars or ray guns because we’ve had conversations about transport and how to deal with emerging technologies for over a century, which have contributed to their considered evolution.

For example, the Future Venice project that I am working on proposes to grow an artificial limestone reef under the city using a giant natural computer using ‘smart’ droplets. These are real technologies with life like properties, which would be engineered to move away from the light and to produce a solid substance from dissolved minerals and carbon dioxide at rest to produce a kind of ‘biocrete’. They can be thought of as a ‘natural computer’, a term inspired by Alan Turing’s interest in the computational powers of nature. The reef would be constructed by titrating droplets to need, into the light soaked waterways of the city where they would move to the darkened foundations that stand of narrow wood piles. This is a bit like the city standing in stiletto heels on the soft delta soil on which it’s been founded. Here they would produce a biocrete accretion technology that would spread the weight of the city over a much broader base – and put platform boots on Venice. Interestingly, the marine organisms in the waterways already produce a kind of biocrete and it is hoped that the natural computer will work with the marine animals to co construct an architecture that is meaningful to both the creatures of the lagoon as well as the city inhabitants. Notably, if the environmental conditions of Venice change and the city dry out rather than drowns as currently predicted then the computer could change the range of its outputs. So rather than growing sideways to spread the minerals over a broad base, it deposits them closely on the woodpiles, sealing them from the air and stopping them from rotting.

Future Venice has many resonances with Bruce Sterling’s idea of Design Fiction, which proposes that the production of ‘diegetic’ objects (which are loaded with interior meaning that speaks of another way of living) can prepare us for change. In the case of Future Venice, the reef is a ‘diegetic’ object and a tool for imagining alternative futures for the historic city. Design Fiction has audiences rather than consumers and acts as a kind of entertainment. The Age of the Inpossible considers Design Fiction’s as being relevant – not only to designers but also to many kinds of ‘futurologists’. These groups, whose popularity has been surging with the turn of the new millennium, play a valuable role in acting as cultural catalysts, which help us hold critical conversations about our current paradigms of practice.

Yet, the Age of the Inpossible also proposes that Design Fictions are more than entertainment – they are tools that can bring about change by reflecting the ideas found in ‘diegetic’ objects, scenarios and architectures – back on to our current practices. This provides the opportunity for the re-assimilation of ideas, which may be midwifed by convergent technologies into new ideas pathways and practices. For example, the reef-like structure proposed in Future Venice was developed as a prototype and installation for the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, where I designed tiny ‘reefs’ to be suspended with a jungle-like cybernetic installation by Philip Beesley, where they changed colour in the presence of carbon dioxide exhaled by the gallery visitors – like a giant taste, or smell system!

Yet, right now, ‘the future’ is not lyrical or poetic and so, does not cater for self-expression. Indeed, it has been productized and homogenized by corporate giants. Think of IBM’s ‘Smarter Planet’, or Hewlett Packard’s ‘Internet of Things’, who have vested interests in ensuring a particular kind of reality and lifestyle to ensure our continued custom and dependence on their products. Governments, appear to be more than happy to delegate the responsibility for our ‘future’ to global businesses for the short-term gain of reducing national deficits, which are already being heavily subsidized to shape our ‘smart’ future cities.

The Age of the Inpossible offers an alternative lyrical as well as practical approach towards imagining our shared ‘future’. Yet, without predetermined outcomes, there are many big questions still to be addressed such as, viable economic models and the redistribution of power. Groups such as Tomorrow’s Company and Bruce Cahan are looking at different kinds of economic principles that are founded on different value systems to our current practices. Yet, these approaches are as much as development as Future Venice is. The Age of the Inpossible offers a fresh context for vital conversations, experiments, pioneering projects to help us develop ways of dealing with uncertainty and change, as we face the significant challenges of this 21st century. Even if Sterling’s cautionary view – that the visionary ideas embodied in Design Fictions are simply destined to be a form of ‘entertainment’ – they nonetheless provide important cultural counterpoints to the prevalent top down corporate narratives and an opportunity for us to challenge the status quo. I believe we should seize these new spaces and opportunities to ‘Occupy’ the future – which has not ‘gone’ anywhere.

It has evolved.

You can find Rachel at and @livingarchitect.

GUEST INFORMANT: Moon Wiring Club’s Six Most-Played and/or Puzzling Records Of 2012

Every year, Ian Hodgson of the magnificent Moon Wiriing Club tells me about the six strange records he loved the most in 2012.  Here we go:


Biosphere ~ L’incoronazione di Poppea

Biosphere’s Bandcamp page presented a number of delightful archive releases during 2012, and while every home should own a copy of the flawless Kill By Inches Theme, the most puzzling artefact to emerge was L’incoronazione di Poppea, comissioned for a theatrical performance inspired by Monteverdi’s opera of the same name. Samples of the original opera (presumambly taken from vinyl) are isolated and looped into increasingly fragmented states. While this might recall the work of Philip Jeck, William Baskinski, The Caretaker and Biosphere’s own (deeply splendid) Shenzhou album of 2002, the application of a peculiar ossilation effect coats everything with an audio zoetrope of flickering disorientation. At first, learning to love Poppea is a little like learning to love motion sickness, and the suspicon arrises that something hasn’t downloaded properly or of rum equipment happenings at the Biophon studio. But after repeated listenings the beauty and simplicity shine through, and you’re left with an album of deeply rewarding post-queasy bliss that unquestionably puts you in mind of cold sunlight eternally filtering through the fingertips of a rotating marble statue.

Suzanne Ciani ~ Lixiviation

Retrospectives of seldom-mentioned, slightly unknown electronic musicians can occasionally be formidable or strictly academic in their sequencing. Nothing wrong with that, there’s never going to be 10 CD GRM collection that isn’t emotionally welcomed or worthy of time investment. But Lixiviation is an immediately interesting proposal; an archive release that spans 1969-1985 with music ranging from experimental ballet commissions to PBS tv spots. Suzanne Ciani is well known as a New Age composer, and there is a unique, dreamy deeply splendid calmness filtering through many of these pieces. You can loop ‘Second Breath’ all day and never tire of where it takes you. But it’s the cohesive consecution of shorter, corporate logotones between these wistful reveries ~ Princess With Orange Feet is a joy of experimental tape-delay drift charmingly sandwiched alongside ultra-polished Atari & Coca-Cola idents ~  that gives the feeling of being absorbed by a 1979 sentient Sears catalogue. What a treat!

Peter Cusack ~ Sounds From Dangerous Places

(Note from Warren: not crashing that guy’s site by linking his self-hosted audio from here! But listen to “Cuckoo and radiometer, Pripyat” over there for a moment. Eerie.)

Albums of environmental/sound recordings are often all about context. Curious noises that suggest ghostly harmonics or distant constellations can be swiftly altered when you read about the expert use of contact microphones and a faulty hairdryer, or the idiosyncratic malfunctions of the air conditioning. While this is part of the appeal, Sounds from Dangerous Places quietly opens and captivates with what could only be some form of radiation detection equipment, whilst wind whispers through trees and a man reads out an increasing series of numbers in an ominous voice. This potent album presents a thoughtful guide to Chernobyl and how the nuclear disaster of 1986 has effected the surrounding area in a way uniquely suited to the medium. While the expected sounds of empty, echoing spaces are represented, folk songs and wildlife make this a recording rich in varied atmosphere and also highly informative. Questions are also posed. Do bird sounds recall the crackle of power lines and faulty radiometers only because of what has been played before? Does the recording of a skipping cd player in a Chernobyl bar slowly suggest an altering of the entire environment? Repeated listenings provide further details and connections. A supremely rewarding and often unsettling listen, this album also contains a second disc of recordings from Caspian Oilfields and UK Nuclear sites both deactivated and active.

Laurel Halo ~ Quarantine

A year ago, I pondered where Laurel Halo would go next after the Hour Logic EP. The answer was into deep space, and to discover a new genre of music ~ Space Dementia. A lonely astronaught wanders a starship with only her memories for company. Vocals seem to be unconsciously sung in an upfront, direct and often off-key manner, giving the impression of being recorded unaware, seemingly uninterested that anyone else could be listening. Someone accompanying the sound of their environment whilst plugged into headphones. Quarantine organically lurches around and fizzles, hardly ever forming into a solid song structure, often suggesting a pulsating sci-fi atmosphere of data-capture rooms or the holodeck drumming it’s fingers. Wow sounds like a sympathetic lifeform floating in the blackness, singing along whilst folding in on itself. To my ears this was a splendidly confusing record, and doesn’t really sound like anything else currently orbiting. Of course it could all be taking place in a launderette or be a dysfunctional break-up/down record rather than a thought experiment in spacial relativity, but if inventive music allows you to conjure up your own narrative then this could well be the new Silent Running or Time for the Stars and a most delightful/disturbing perplexment.

(Note from Warren: Laurel, I still owe you that book list, I know!)

Max Richter ~ Recomposed: Vivaldi the Four Seasons

Re-togging your old relatives can result in the unwelcome lucidity of touched-up Laurel & Hardy, or a chorus of affronted griping so loud it makes the whole potentially worthwhile endeavour nowt but a tedious chore. So it was with some surprise that Max Richter caused extreme and delightful temporal displacement with Recomposed: Vivaldi the Four Seasons. Rather than serving up the expected polite remix and coaxing, this album masterfully plays with expectation and familiarity. In many ways The Four Seasons are as recognisable and unremarkable as your shadow. Here they are lolling around an advertisement. They’re waiting at the dentist. Yes, I will hold, and what a touch of class they provide. No, I don’t really want to specifically listen to them. The conversation has dried-up. However, by re-splicing the DNA an audio hall of mirrors appears, allowing you new rooms to stroll around in the most familiar of places. Overfamiliar apathy is extinguished ~ by the time you’ve realised where you are the funfair has rolled smoothly along, and you happily jog on to catch up. I can’t honestly recall experiencing this sensation before in music. It’s very nearly a remix, very nearly the extended version, but slyly skips through the gaps in the fence to build a classy new pad of its own.

Hacker Farm ~ UHF

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm / after they’ve seen Paree? sang Nora Bayes in 1919, precisely pre-empting the media interest that now deservedly envelopes this curious-murky, rich hooch-broth mutating hot pot of an album. Trapped in the countryside, getting off the wrong bus at the wrong stop, menaced by scraggy bullocks, vaulting a fence into a bathtub of dung, impaling wellingtons on submerged antique-rusty thresher components and staggering to an abandoned out-house festooned with arcane insignia whilst reclaimed VHS surveillance equipment skipped by Rumbelows in 1992 tracks your every move. All of these things happened to me as I listened to UHF. A quagmire delirium of a record and the finest proper industrial album in many a moontime, EU farm subsidy regulations calmly dictate that every home requires a copy by 2014. Send your complaints to

It would be amiss not to mention essential work from Mark Van Hoen, Time Attendant, Laurie Spiegel, Pye Corner Audio, Nina Kravitz, Georges Vert, Datassette, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Belbury Poly, Terrence Dixon, the primal wallop of Carter Tutti Void, exceptional archive releases from Death Waltz Records, and most certainly The Wyrding Module, whose Mellifluous Ichor From Sunless Regions is well worth a free DL from

Whether consciously or subconsciously, during the past year the influence of the much-missed Coil seeped into music (and the language of music) more than ever before, and It’ll be interesting to see how that continues to manifest. England’s Hidden Reverse (David Keenan’s influential and long OOP guide to Coil, Nurse With Wound & Current 93) is happily due for a re-print by Strange Attractor sometime soon, and remains a favourite book about music(k). Other points of 2012 interest include the myriad proliferation of broken reverby techno (not a bad thing) and it’s possible forthcoming mutation into a new strain of Electronic Listening Music, last spotted in the early 90s. (1990s).

Things to deliriously anticipate in 2013 include the first vinyl releases from the always exquisite Clay Pipe Music ~ both Shapwick by Jon Brooks and Plinths Small Lighthouse should be snapped up as soon as they emerge from the harbour. The Elektrik Karousel, the new album by The Focus Group (and friends) should be a whirligig of confusing fun, while absentee music-box tinkerer Colleen returns from an extended holiday with The Weighing of the Heart.

The marvellous new Moon Wiring Club record is called TODAY BREAD, TOMORROW SECRETS. You can find Ian on Twitter @moonwiringclub.