Blog Archive

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Here To Eternity

I am glad you are here with me at the end of all things. Ten years ago, I opened a blog called A World To Come. In the ancient days of 2006, before people had Snapchat and Instagram, they would start these personal weblogs where they wrote all sorts of stuff to share online. At the time I was using the Prophet handle, so the title was chosen based on that theme. Officially, I was looking for a way to learn HTML and CSS. I made the site mostly black and plastered space artworks in the title banner - not much has changed in that regard. Quickly I added lots of tiny cringeworthy posts about music and videogames and made superficial jokes about political news I barely understood. 
Over the years the posts became sparser, but at least somewhat better. The general look went from gentle blue to gritty red to polished white, topics shifted away from videogames towards technology and recently history. The microfiction became less silly and more utilitarian, the policital commentary more informed. The biggest constant of course were music reviews, mostly of metal albums, but with occasional deviations strewn inbetween.
In 2012, the site was switched from German to English in the delusion that it was the language that limited interest. Personal blogs had gone out of fashion and the "blogosphere" had vanished, almost all sites that were active when I started had already stopped or slowly became derelict. Tweets were now dragged into mainstream news. A World To Come was also extended onto Twitter, where it was exactly as popular as in blog format (i.e. not), even though I learned to enjoy the shorter format as well.

In the last years writing was an occasional joy, but in the current format and with the inherent identity of the blog, the hobby from ten years ago feels like a relic from a bygone era. A different person than me started the site, and that person - thankfully - doesn't exist anymore. With the ten year mark coming up, as I announced earlier, I decided to put an end to A World To Come. Ten years is an immense timespan in Internet terms, and the site witnessed ISDN as much as smartphones. Google doesn't promote Blogger much anymore and Picasa is shutting down too, so the big anniversary seemed like the right time.

Some of my favourite posts included
In Correspondence with Dr. Stallman - THE Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project replied to my e-mail about corporate IT and free software 
Axis Mundi - the longest short story I've ever written, set in a near-future cyberpunk world where hackers and AIs populate the fragmented networks that were left in the meltdown of the internet of things 
Escape Vehicle - my all-time favorite micro-fiction on here, with crystal prisons, space war, digitized minds and horrendous alien spiders 
Worship Consumption - a hopefully poignant rant on consumerism and its place in society
I'd like to thank PhanThomas, Madse and Okami Itto for the constructive comments, Balthazzar for his contributions to a much earlier version of the site, and blogs like Sinnlos im Blog, pottCast, Tot zu Mittag or Darth Puma from the really early days for the sense of company.

So where do we go from here?

A World To Come will remain online at least for the rest of 2016. After that, I will delete the site and all the pictures that were uploaded to Picasa for it. Furthermore, I will eventually delete all accounts attached to the A World To Come identity. A World To Come will disappear from the Internet and no connection from anything new, whatever format it will take, will be made. I do not intend anyone to ever find me based on the AWtC ecosphere. You will not hear from me again. This persona will evaporate as completely as possible. Yours truly will create new accounts, and some of them might even be on platforms that allow the creation and distribution of content, but there's nothing definite yet.

And how about the rest of the universe? Let's finally do the name some justice and look at the world that awaits us in the future. For the last time, let's voyage to that undiscovered country.

In a world to come, as much as I love Science Fiction and the idea of humanity leaving the shore of the cosmic ocean to travel to the stars, I think it will be the same things that we've always struggled with that will keep on holding us back. The war between the rich and the poor will remain the most defining conflict of our time, and instead of finding better ways of living in peace and prosperity, we will find better ways to drown out reality and force our will upon others. We will have amazing technology in the hands of billions of people, and we'll use it for banal shit. I am convinced that humanity will never leave the solar system, will never colonize Mars or the Moons of Jupiter and will never establish a wide-scale, fully functional relationship with spaceship Earth. We are all stuck with each other on this tiny island in an infinite hostile ocean of darkness and radiation that almost instantly kills us, and we're slaughtering each other over whose imaginary friend is better or who gets to own which goods. No help will come from outside, yet we laugh at the suggestion that we can change the systems we created. The world population will keep growing and basic resources like clean drinking water will become the justification for immeasurable suffering. I genuinely expect that the last human being ever to live will die on Earth, either from starvation, dehydration or some form of poisoning. With him or her will go compassion, art, philosophy, engineering, and the wasted potential of a species of monkeys that learned how to make a pointy stick.
In a world to come, people will live under the yoke of mass surveillance and won't care because the biased media will keep them sedated. The infantilization of society will go on and a tiny portion of society will reign over people whose every requirement will entirely rely on computers that they have no understanding of. There won't be many humanoid robots around to serve as universal butlers, but single-purpose AIs will seamlessly move between the physical and the virtual world. Convenience will be the highest valued principle in the world and remain firmly in the moral-free hands of technology. Many people's jobs will become obsolete as more and more is automated, not just blue-collar jobs, but administrative and analytical positions as well. Banal full-life-simulation soap operas with 24/7 point of view cameras will be the new television or Youtube channel and identity will, to an even larger degree, be defined by the products we consume.
In a world to come, everything will be reminiscent of something prior. Innovation will be exhausted and every piece of art will instantly be linked to an older style or era, unless the knowledge about a genre or a style will be entirely lost and things only appear new because nobody can remember the original. The amount of data in the world will be unimaginably huge, but trades and skills will be forgotten and most people will work jobs where they only contribute a single step in a production cycle, alienating them from the product and the goal of the labor. Yet skilled trade will be shockingly rare, and for one plumber there'll be twenty psychiatrists or dance instructors.
In a world to come, the cultural identities of many nations will shift. When Indians start to approach the living standards of East Europeans or when the rural Chinese population approaches the living standards of urban Chinese, both Europe and the United States will be set back in the cultural hegemony they have established. The European Union will be severely shaken over and over again, and eventually become as uninvolved and useless as the UN.
In a world to come, we will get face to face with both our dreams and our nightmares, both our hopes and our fears. The peak of our knowledge and the pit of our ignorance will be further apart than ever. I would love to be proven wrong on my eternally pessimistic outlook. I would happily accept the revelation that in a thousand years, even the poorest people in the world will have clean water and enough to eat, that humans will embrace the cosmic perspective and realize how much we depend on each other and the fragile sphere we're all standing on, that Mars will have cities, that disease will come to an end, that we overcome hate and violence yet don't overpopulate. But I really wouldn't bet on it. Not in this order and its grip on our minds. Not as long as we gather power faster than wisdom. Maybe there will be a complicated multi-causal gradual collapse of our world order and a new dark age in which we forget what we've learning since the Enlightenment, and maybe a new Renaissance that will look back on the good parts of our current cultures and build something better out of it. 

Most likely, everything in this last paragraph is plain wrong.

In my favourite book of all time, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, the science of psychohistory allows Hari Seldon to predict the future of mankind with mathematical precision. In reality, any attempt to really get an idea of what society will be like even fifty years in the future has been doomed to failure. Even an overwhelming genius like Asimov managed only to speculate on small aspects correctly, but missed the most significant changes that signify the age we live in. So what's the point of trying to figure out what the universe has in store for us? With a quote from the same Asimov, I release you back into the world of today to shape a tomorrow that proves me wrong. 
"You don't need to predict the future. Just choose a future -- a good future, a useful future -- and make the kind of prediction that will alter human emotions and reactions in such a way that the future you predicted will be brought about. Better to make a good future than predict a bad one."

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What We All Come To Need

I've written a lot of music album reviews over the years, but there are some records that I have never put the spotlight on. The following are nine albums that represent something for me. They aren't my most frequently played ones, my current favorites, long time companions or mandatory listening. They're just here to reflect a moment or a development in my life, good or bad. This starts in about 2003 and of course there were memorable records before that, but they weren't mine. These, I sought out.

Rage against the Machine - Battle of Los Angeles []
I loved both the songs and the score of The Matrix Reloaded, but some tracks I only skipped over. One of them was Calm Like A Bomb by Rage Against The Machine, which I totally ignored. Talking about the two-disc album at school, the song was pointed out to me and I had no idea which one of them it was. I went home, put in the CD again and waited out the bass-intro that I had always skipped over before. Then the actual song started and I was blown away. The door was wide open, all other RatM records and similar music soon followed, and anger and guitars were the defining characteristics that made music good. In stark contrast to anything I'd ever heard before, these songs actually had meaning and a message so I would religiously study the lyrics. What I learned was that life-changing music can be right under your nose and sometimes it takes help from outside to point it out to you.

Soulfly - Prophecy []
I had just started enjoying metal music and read in an actual paper magazine (!) at the very bottom of the special interests column about this release. It was portrayed as an exciting and experimental but mean record, so after a while of struggling to find it, to my surprise, I actually had trouble getting into it because it was too tough for me. The shitty little new-metal record from the same guy who wrote Beneath the Remains or Arise was too brutal, too blunt, too primitive for teen me at the time. The lack of clean vocals, the midtempo breakdowns and the chugging guitars didn't appeal to me. I chewed through it more and more and eventually learned to liked Prophecy and Soulfly in general (shameful in retrospect), but that was the first album where I realized how much more there was in terms of hardness, that I was still very far from really mean music. I understood that as a challenge.

Mastodon - Leviathan []
Leviathan used to be my favorite album for many years, the definition of a perfect record. It splendidly balanced the finer proggy elements with the brutal sludgy ones, had memorable riffs, godlike drumming, was deep but easy to enjoy. Blood Mountain, despite some wonderful songs, didn't quite live up to this album for me, so that was a bit of a letdown. When Crack The Skye was released a bunch of years later, I was butthurt how they could sell out so badly. Gone was the crushing power of the Leviathan record, replaced by progrock and nasal vocals. To this day I think Leviathan is an almost perfect metal album, but I don't want to associate with the band that made it anymore. At this point, I was done with "rock music". Twenty years earlier people were mad about Metallica selling out. For me, Mastodon took that place. I learned that sometimes, fans want their favorite bands to stagnate.

Death - Symbolic []
I might as well have chosen the Human album - both are perfect masterworks of Death Metal, complex, intelligent, skillful, dynamic, powerful, harsh yet precise, a timeless joy that will never cease to be great. Today, both are candidates for my all-time favourite records. I hated both at first. The reason was Chuck Schuldiners voice. The screeching didn't connect with me at all and even though Death was praised everywhere, I just didn't get it. Other Death Metal I enjoyed, but I didn't like Death. So what I did was keep listening, one song at a time, with increasing frequency. And gradually, I found my path into it until I wholeheartedly embraced some of the best music I had ever heard in my life. I learned that appreciating a good thing can take an effort at first and through the years, what you once thought unbearable might ultimately reveal itself in all its glory. That lesson would repeat itself.

SUNN O))) - Black One []
Another example where I didn't get an album at first. However in this case, it wasn't a gradual process. When I started listening to Black One, I did it because I am a disgusting hipster and the incoherent drone was so inaccessible that I wanted that obscure aesthetic in my life without caring for the sonic product. Years later, I was driving home from work after a very long day. The night was pitch black, it was so cold my hands were shaking, it was heavily snowing, I was dead tired and my mind kept wandering off. Then Cursed Realms of the Winter Demons started, I turned up the volume as much as I could stand and it instantly clicked. Sometimes it takes special circumstances to make you appreciate a work of art because it only connects with the audience under the right circumstances. For the Xasthur vocals and the wall of noise in SUNN's best album to date, it was a frostbitten winter night. Trve as fvck.

Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine []
This is relatively recent. I had never consciously listened to Kraftwerk before, but Internet radio streams nudged me towards it. The Man-Machine, in my eyes, is a brilliant work of art that is so aesthetically and culturally significant, it instantly makes everything else seem flawed by comparison. Another example, though a very different one, would be Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Both perfectly make the feeling they want to transport blossom in the listeners brain. Timeless classics that everybody should have access to. As a form of self-reflection, I am glad to be able to enjoy music outside of my comfort zone of Death, Thrash and Black Metal - as the great Fenriz himself put it, "we're not living in a fucking trailer park and only listen to Anthrax all day". This Kraftwerk album should be quaint and antiquated, instead it contains the Zeitgeist of our technological age. Genius.

Portal - Vexovoid []
Vexovoid is a wonderful album that is unbearable to everybody I know. Hypnotic, repetitive, grimy, brutal, it drags you down into the pit, suffocates you, crushes you and shits you back out. You will probably wonder why anybody would ever use these terms to describe something in a positive way. Another example is Bolt Thrower and the steamroller image, where people question why anybody would ever want to be steamrolled. Sounds horrible, doesn't it? These people miss the point. When you lose yourself to this small cosmos of music, when you fully embrace it and let it sink into you, permeate you instead of looking at it from a distance, you're not being steamrolled. Your are the steamroller. You are the gharstly pit. You are the spooky colossus. That's why it feels so empowering. That's why you feel better afterwards. That is my esoteric of explanation music like this. For a moment, you ARE the abyss.

Of course I am leaving out dozens if not hundreds of albums that I could discuss endlessly. Some are too obvious to bring up, many I've already written about and mentioned as my favorite album of the year, at least when I caught them in the year of their release. I was tempted to put Cro Magnox, Black Future, Wavering Radiant, Obscure Verses For The Multiverse, From This Day Forward, Behind the Realms of Madness, Red Album, A Blaze in the Northern Sky and many many more on here, but those are the ones that best represent the points I was trying to make. I hope that at least some of the music I recommended found their way into other people's homes, because it were personal recommendations that got me started in finding a new approach to music that went beyond all I ever hoped for and helped me through the bad times. The knowledge that, when everything seems pointless and frustrating there's always this sweaty long haired 200 pound guy burping about blood and guts over the sound of a trashcan falling down the stairs there to console you, is beautifully comforting.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Fermi Inference

There are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy and there are more than a hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. Every bit of understanding about the natural world has shown how neither any group of humans, nor humanity itself, nor Earth, nor our solar system, nor our galaxy are extraordinary, except of course for intelligent life, civilization and technology - as far as we know. Italian physicist Enrico Fermi famously condensed this conundrum into the Fermi Paradox, which asks the question why, although the universe contains a lot of stuff that is similar to the stuff we are made of, there has been no sign of life elsewhere yet. Considering the unimaginable scale of the universe and the observation that we are carbon-based lifeforms and carbon is all over space, it seems almost implausible that there shouldn't be places that have had at least slightly similar developments - so why is there no proof of life elsewhere?

There are many hypothesis that attempt to answer Fermi's question. A plausible combination of them sounds something like this:
Space is large. Like, really large. Even if a tiny sub-percentage of planets were to develop what we consider life, it would be too far apart to ever get in touch, even if two cultures both developed the means to travel towards each other. This not only relates to space, but also to time. If a radiowave-emitting high civilization existed at the time of the dinosaurs, there was nobody there yet to receive their broadcasts. We might be missing alien broadcasts right now because we're not paying attention to the right kind of signal or don't have the technology to recognize it yet. This also works in reverse. There could be a dozen planets not terribly far from our own in the Milky Way that host lifeforms, but when it's all on the level of our animals or even eye to eye with 17th century humanity, there is no way to communicate. On a more basic level, complex lifeforms might be much rarer than we think and Earth really is the one big exception in this spiral arm, this galaxy or the entire universe.

Let's not delve into more exotic theories like the zoo hypothesis or other speculations that involve complex schemes and conspiracies. We simply don't know, but there can only be one of two essential outcomes to the big question whether we're alone or not. Bottom line, it's one or the other. Either our idea of life, consciousness, intelligence and civilization exists elsewhere, or it doesn't. Face to sort-of-face or not, we are the only ones, or we aren't.

If we aren't alone and instead there are at least some other forms of life that also managed to gain consciousness and shape their environment and understand the universe they live in, and we can prove it, then this would be one of the most important events in all of human history forever. It would also mean that we would have to reconsider our place in the cosmos and most importantly shake us off our high horse. We assume everything is normal because we have no reference but ourselves. Leaving our planet's atmosphere and looking back at the unspeakable beauty and fragility has shaken our understanding of our world and the environment. Imagine what it would do to our understanding of ourselves if we were to learn how others made their way to the present. 

If indeed we are alone, the only conscious if not particularly intelligent life in all of the cosmos or at least this galaxy, then this fact can only be understood as a mission statement. If we knew we are, were and will remain the only ones to ever begin an understanding of how the universe works, with no one else to know it, any sane person would first feel very arrogant about the special position and then crushingly burdened with the responsibility. Human life would, for lack of a better word, be sacred. Not that you couldn't say that now, but if in that regard Earth really is the center of the galaxy, we ought to treat all of it and all of us much more like we would temples and saints of our religions.

Personally, I find it more than plausible that some form of life exists elsewhere, but I don't think humanity will ever make contact, because the distances are just too vast and the technological challenges are so gigantic that a form of society would be required to master them that is not obtainable with our lack of wisdom or sustainable before we start turning on each other again. From that perspective, the best thing we can do is assume we carry that responsibility by ourselves and make sure that if anyone ever happens to come along, there is something left of us for them to admire.

PS: The wonderful Kurzgesagt (or In a Nutshell, because der Americaner can not say ze name correct) made a great illustration on this topic better than anything I could ever write.