What’s the future of being human? Beats me, but here are some guesses.

A prize-nominated portrait of an android

A prize-nominated portrait of an android, discussed in a recent New York Times article here.

It isn’t necessarily the job of science fiction writers to predict the future, any more than it’s necessarily the job of other fiction writers to describe the present or reconstruct the past. I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you what I’m going to wear to work tomorrow, much less tell you what anyone else will have on, and if I were a science fiction writer it’d be no different. As a second-look review of Isaac Asimov’s SF novel Foundation recently pointed out, that book premised on the possibility of predicting the future failed to anticipate changes in the social roles of women that were just around the corner. But then Asimov wasn’t trying to see the future; he was just playing the old “what if” game. That baseball-playing font of wisdom Yogi Berra hit something home when he remarked, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” What’s more, we can’t always say after the fact whether somebody got it right. Novelist William Gibson is sometimes credited with foreseeing the Internet in Neuromancer, published in 1984, but networked computers already existed when he wrote that book, and no one yet experiences the Internet as the enveloping virtual space that he termed a “consensual hallucination.” In some cases we can’t even be sure about the past; about 10 years ago, no one knew whether that line about predictions should be traced to Berra or Niels Bohr. (Maybe that’s been settled now; to adapt another supposed Berra-ism, the past ain’t what it used to be, any more than the future is.)

Still, it can be fun to try predicting the future, Continue reading

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Getting back to work in Houston: the drama of Harvey and the Alley Theatre

Not long after Hurricane Harvey put much of Houston underwater and practically turned it upside down, the Houston Astros played two baseball games in their hometown and reportedly sold out both. It turned out that Houstonians wanted to see the games—it was something normal amid the disorder. I imagine the team wanted it too. Baseball is their job; it’s their duty, in a way; it’s something they know how to do and do well. If they didn’t play, the storm would’ve taken away, for a while, their raison d’être. It’s a simple and fundamental feeling: when the world around us goes awry, whether it’s the illness of someone we know or a large-scale disaster, most of us want to be able to do something.

The same is true for the workers of the Alley Theatre in Houston, which is about to premiere a play by Rajiv Joseph. Continue reading

Before and after Pong: a new book traces the rise of video games

Comic Book History of Video Games cover (w)

In The Comic Book Story of Video Games, due out in a few weeks, the author and the artist present a history of video games that’s knowledgeable and wide-ranging but somewhat eccentric. Initially, Jonathan Hennessey focuses equally on “electronic games and electronic screen displays,” but much of the book covers the highways and byways of computer history, in which he finds that computers, which were “intended only for military, scientific, government, and industry use,” were soon used for games as well: a tennis game, a mouse-in-a-maze game, a billiards game, even a clever text-based game called Colossal Cave Adventure, which used only words on a screen. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who already knows the story of computers, but it’s presented in a rather colorful way. Continue reading

The Way We Protest Now: Zeynep Tufekci on activism in the age of social media

On January 28, 2011, a man on Cairo’s Talaat Harb Street, near Tahrir Square, tries to pick up and throw back a tear-gas canister.

On January 28, 2011, just days after the first protest gathering, a man on Cairo’s Talaat Harb Street, near Tahrir Square, tries to pick up and throw back a tear-gas canister. (Photo by Alisdare Hickson. Original image here. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

For the better part of a decade, we’ve been watching protest movements arise around the world and wondering what role was played by Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Did Facebook bring down the Egyptian government in 2011? How did the Tea Party movement in the United States elect sympathetic legislators while the Occupy Wall Street movement did not? Did Chinese government censorship of online platforms thwart the democracy activists in Hong Kong in 2014? Was it their methods or the activists themselves that succeeded in some cases and not in others? In Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who has been studying and often participating in digitally networked movements since the late 90s, discusses the new technologies, how they’re used by protest movements, and how they’re used as well as countered by governments and opposing groups.

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What to do before the sun goes out: reading suggestions

Depending on which way you lean, you may feel that a darkness is upon the land. Relax—it’ll get worse soon! A total eclipse of the sun—not to be confused with this—will cut a swath across the United States on August 21, leading perhaps to “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!” (as the original Ghostbusters had it) or maybe just a lot of oohs and aahs and other exclamations of epic awesomeness. The few, the proud, the unimpressed may not be moved, but hardly anyone will be able to say, “I’ve seen better.”

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Not all pearls last forever: New York loses a classic theater company

Where is the past when you need it? If you want to read an old novel, you can buy it or get it from a library. If you want to see an old film, you may be able to buy it, rent it, stream it, catch it on a cable channel, see it in a revival house. Old music? Regardless of what you mean by that, it’s probably been recorded. And if you want to read an old play, you can find it the same as other books. But most of us no more want to read a play than we want to study the blueprints of a building, the sketches and patterns and fabric swatches that led to a piece of clothing, the score for a piece of music. We want to see or hear the thing realized. Some old plays still turn up in production; many do not, except in the work of classic theater companies. Luckily, New York City has a handful of such companies, but it now has one less than it did for a long time: on June 17, the Pearl Theatre Company announced it was shutting down, after 33 seasons.

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Shakespeare’s crazy mix is perfectly clear in TFANA’s ‘Measure for Measure’

Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Escala (January LaVoy) in Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience.

Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Escala (January LaVoy) in Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

What manner of beast is this play Measure for Measure? The ruler of a city decides it needs to be cleaned up and straightened out, but instead of doing it himself he gives someone else the job and goes on vacation. The man he appoints, a strict moralist, cracks down on crime as expected, but he also proves to be prone to corruption. (Shades of contemporary crusaders such as former New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer here.) It looks as if either a nun must lose her virginity or her brother must lose his head. But this disaster-in-the-making doesn’t come about, because the play changes course. The duke hasn’t left town after all. He sticks around, disguised as a monk, to see what happens, and he ends up having to fix the fixer, so to speak: he must become the one who guards against the guardian, as Plato might’ve put it, which the duke does through a set of relatively comic maneuvers that often recall Much Ado About Nothing. Continue reading