Enda Duffy in The Speed Handbook tells us that modernity brought about a series of new human-scaled and immediately vastly popular technological inventions of the beginning of the twentieth century, centrally and most importantly the motorcar, offered to masses of people that rarest of things: a wholly new experience, the experience of moving at what appeared to be great speeds, and the sensation of controlling that movement.1 The modern city would give birth to the road, the boulevard, the speed-zone of linear geometry, world where machines could roam at will but humans must fear to tread.
Anna Greenspan in her book on Shanghai’s future Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade reminds us that the modern vision of the ‘Contemporary City’ is not tied to any particular place and time. Instead, it is produced on an empty, abstract plain. It is precisely this abstraction that makes the modern metropolis continually futuristic. Its time, writes Robert Fishman, was ‘the time of the present, not any calendar day or year, but that revolutionary ‘here and now where the hopes of the present are finally realized’. ‘It is called contemporary,’ Le Corbusier insists, ‘because tomorrow belongs to nobody.’ In much of the world the Contemporary City may be a relic, but in Shanghai dreams of the future metropolis live on.2
Reading Kevin Kelley is always like taking a trip down fantasy lane, a utopian future full of electronic gadgets, goo-gaws, and fantastic wonders that usually forget the mistakes of the past, a wild ride into an optimistic world of the Jetsons unhinged – a retro-futurism of the pure instant. Was reading his essay on Watson AI and its mutation into a Cloud computing environment where his estimation is actually truncated and mundane for once:
The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the Internet, the global economy, and civilization. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize. This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. (Read: Three Breakthroughs… )
Where there is optimism can pessimism be far behind?
Samuel Butler in his anti-utopian or dystopian work Erewhon once said: “There is no security against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A jellyfish has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organized machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time.” Hundreds if not thousands of SF novels, short stories, and essays have been written about such fantastic worlds full of helpful and harmful agents, as well both Utopian and monstrous visions of AI dystopias.