Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 8 2016 12:36 PM

How Apple Killed the Cyberpunk Dream

Rightly or wrongly, we tend to speak of science fiction authors as prophets: We’re delighted to find that Philip K. Dick inveighed against the internet of things half a century ago and terrified to learn that Octavia Butler somehow anticipated Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 1998. The richer stories, however, are often visions of the future that don’t quite come to fruition, especially when they go awry in unexpected ways. It’s all the more striking when the authors themselves are in a position to watch their own dreams dissolve.

Taking in Apple’s Wednesday press event, cyberpunk progenitor William Gibson had just such an opportunity. As industry analysts predicted, the company announced that it was eliminating the standard headphone jack on its next generation of iPhones, and pushing consumers toward its new wireless Airpods. Soon after, Gibson posted a tweet that read as at once bemused and mournful:

In Gibson’s near future novels of the mid-’80s, the term jack in served as a euphemism for accessing his narrative universe’s immersive version of the internet. There’s something fantastical about the phrase, which opens up sometimes bizarre technological vistas, as when Gibson writes in the 1984 novel Neuromancer, “When Case jacked in, he opened his eyes to the familiar configuration of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority’s Aztec pyramid of data.” Even at the time, “jacking in” was already vaguely anachronistic, referring back to telephone jacks (which would, to be fair, feed information to modems for years to come) instead of attempting to imagine some newer form of connective infrastructure.

Though Gibson’s work arguably helped shape the modern internet, his vision of the world was always a wired one, tied to an analog past, even as it looked forward to a digital future. Analog phones crop up regularly throughout Neuromancer, sonic bridges between yesterday and today—between the real and the virtual. Reading his early work now, those traces of old-fashioned technology can be jarring, but they’re also essential to his worldview, speaking to the earthy, gritty quality of his fiction. Peppering traces of recognizable technology into his narrative universe allowed him to ground his stories of improbably powerful computers, making them feel like they could be true.

It’s little wonder, then, that “jack in” found resonances well beyond Gibson’s own work. Perhaps most notably, it crops up in 1999’s The Matrix, which drew much of its vocabulary (down to its title) from Gibson’s vernacular. Lana and Lilly Wachowskis’ filmic universe offers us what may be our clearest vision of jacking in, with its characters literally plugging needle-like cables into ports on their bodies. The film also inherits Gibson’s preoccupation with midcentury telecommunications infrastructure: While there are a handful of cellphones in the film, the only way to escape the Matrix was to lift up a hardwired handset.

There is a lesson in such stories: Power cables and headphone cords may be irritating, but they also serve as tethers, helping bind us to a world that we can manage. Following their tangled paths, we intuit something about the currents—of information, of energy, of power in every sense—that course through them, even if we don’t fully understand what those pulsations mean. Though the prefix “cyber-” has roots in notions of control, it still suggests an incomprehensible electronic ether.  In that sense, cords were cyber’s punk counterpoint: The knowledge that we still had to plug in assured us that we could always unplug if things got weird. A cord was punk because it was crummy—because it inevitably fell out, frayed, or failed—and because it was punk it held out a distant possibility of resistance.

In its attempt to free us from cables and wires—or at least pushing us toward such an inevitability—Apple hopes to bind us more fully into its own infrastructure. Tim Cook and his compatriots envision a world from which we can never disconnect, one in which would float, drifting freely on seas of information. This is arguably the real rationale behind the company’s insistence on water resistance, for example. It wants to ensure that we will take our gadgets with us at all times, wherever we’re going, and that Apple will be able to filter and record our experiences for us as we wander.

Ultimately, then, the disappearance of cords is bound to be a story about control. A world without cords may be tidier or more convenient, but it’s also one in which we no longer direct the flow of energy, even in passing. In Gibson’s 1984, wires and cables were our pipeline to the future. In 2016, they’re an increasingly unwelcome shackle to the past. Apple’s ideal world is the tomorrow that we’re living in today. It may already be too late to jack out.

Sept. 7 2016 3:47 PM

Apple’s New iPhones Don’t Have Headphone Jacks, Because “Courage”

We’ve reached the point in the iPhone’s evolution where the latest generations are more notable for features they don’t sport than for any they do.

Apple on Wednesday announced the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and as expected, they look a lot like their immediate predecessors. Also as expected, based on a preponderance of credible rumors: They’re the first iPhones to dispense with an analog headphone jack.

In place of the venerable 3.5mm port, Apple proposes two alternatives.

First, the new phones will come boxed with a set of earbuds that connect via the Lightning port, as well as an adapter for your old headphones. Yes, the Lightning port is the same one you use to charge the phone. Yes, that means you won’t be able to charge the phone and listen to headphones at the same time.

Second, Apple will begin pushing wireless earbuds, which you’ll have to buy separately if you want them. Conveniently, Apple now owns Beats, which specializes in making headphones, a new line of which will be wireless.

Conveniently for them, I mean. Not for you.

Apple will also launch its own brand of wireless earbuds, called Airpods. (I was rooting for Airbuds.) These come with a chip that Apple says will allow them to switch seamlessly between your iPhone and Apple Watch, and to pair with your devices without the hassle of Bluetooth. These will set you back $159, or “just $159,” as Apple VP Phil Schiller halfheartedly put it. They look nifty, and they just might be the future, if for no other reason than that Apple has decreed them thus.

Apple’s own explanation for the change was a little baffling. Schiller said the rationale for jettisoning the headphone jack could be summed up in one word: “courage.” What kind of courage? “The courage to move on, and to try something new that betters all of us,” he elaborated. OK then!

For the most part, though, we knew or suspected all of this going into Wednesday’s event. So for those mourning their soon-to-be obsolete headphones, the real question was: What would Apple offer in exchange?

Well, for one thing, you can now drop your iPhone in the toilet. I mean, you could do that before, but now when you get it back out, there’s a decent chance it will continue to function. Eliminating the headphone jack enabled Apple to seal the phone at last, making it “dust and water resistant,” albeit not fully waterproof.

Meanwhile, the iPhone for the first time will have stereo speakers, a feature that will be welcomed by the kind of oblivious jerks who walk around with their phone’s sound turned on.

For those who have no plans to either drop their phone in the toilet or annoy passersby by blasting One Republic, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus will also come with more than the usual performance upgrades.

They’re powered by a new, four-core processor that Apple calls the A10 Fusion. Two high-performance cores will offer a step up from Apple’s previous A9 chip, while the other two cores will be optimized for power efficiency, saving battery when you run apps that don’t require peak performance. An Apple-designed “performance controller” will take on the task of shifting the load between those cores.

Apple has also invested heavily in the new phones’ cameras, adding dual 12MP rear-facing cameras to the 7 Plus, which will work in tandem to offer 2x optical zoom, along with 10x digital zoom. Optical image stabilization, previously limited to the 6 Plus, will be included in both the 7 and 7 plus. The flash is brighter, and a new “image signal processor” with will help to automatically adjust your photos for various conditions. Apple calls it a “supercomputer for photos.”

In other news, the home button will no longer click. Instead, it will be a solid-state button with “taptic” feedback, a technology (and neologism) it borrows from the Apple Watch. Basically, you’ll feel a little tap when you push hard enough to register the equivalent of a click.

screen_shot_20160907_at_2.30.50_pm_1
Profiles in courage.

Screenshot via Apple.com

Apple says the new iPhones will also offer an extra hour or two of battery life­, aka “the longest battery life ever on an iPhone,” in Apple’s breathless parlance.

It adds up to what inevitably feels like another underwhelming iPhone launch. It’s worth remembering, though, that it’s already a remarkable device, and totally reinventing it every 365 days would be crazy. Incremental upgrades are still upgrades, and a better processor and camera will probably make more of a difference to the average iPhone user than any number of flashier gimmicks the company could have introduced.

Not that Wednesday’s event was without flashy gimmicks, although they skewed retro, as with the announcement of the first Mario game for iOS and the coming debut of Pokémon Go on the Apple Watch. The watch itself came in for its own round of upgrades, which my colleague Jacob Brogan has covered here.

But the iPhone 7 won’t be remembered primarily as the one that introduced the dual rear camera or the A10 Fusion chip or the taptic home button, nor even as the first iPhone to prove toilet-worthy. Rather, it will be remembered in one of two ways: the device that killed wired headphones for good—or the one that tried and failed.

Sept. 7 2016 2:42 PM

Wow, This Nike Apple Watch Looks Like a Dystopian Nagging Machine

At its Wednesday event, Apple worked hard to make a case for its Apple Watch product line. To some extent, that meant suggesting it would be partially unshackling the wearables from paired iPhones, on which they previously relied for much of their functionality. Accordingly, the company announced it would be incorporating independent GPS into new models, making it easier to weave hiking apps, mapping tools, and, inevitably, Pokémon Go into the device. But even as it separated watch and phone, it sought to wrap the watch itself even more tightly around owners’ wrists, nowhere more so than in its collaboration with Nike.

The clumsily named Apple Watch Nike+ has apparently been designed with runners in mind. Fittingly, then, it has a unusual look, with a band that resembles a pair of sneakers more than anything that’s emerged from the austere mind of Jony Ive in recent decades. If the images Apple showed onstage are to be believed, the device’s display also differs from the company’s other products, beaming out at users in radioactive shades that bring to mind the screen of the classic Apple IIe.

It’s possible that these peculiar design choices will appeal to some consumers, but it’s hard to imagine why anyone would embrace the device’s most prominent features. Arguably the pushiest wearable of all time, the Apple’s Nike watch takes everything that irritates you about every other naggy app on your phone and glues it to your wrist. As Apple and Nike representatives explained onstage, the collaboration watch prods users with a steady stream of inducements to exercise. “Are we running today?” the sample watches on screen asked again and again and again, reminding runners how long it’s been since they made it out last.

What’s more, thanks to its integration with Nike’s Run Club service, the device has other ways to shame its owners, including telling them just how much farther their friends have run than them. And, because there’s apparently no such thing as a day off in Nike and Apple’s universe, it bugs wearers even more on Sundays, apparently on the assumption that people who exercise on Sundays are more likely to get outside the rest of the week.

Thanks for the nightmares, Apple. But if we wanted a glimpse of a dystopian hellscape, we'll just check the latest election news.

Sept. 7 2016 1:36 PM

A Mario Game Is Finally Coming to Your iPhone

Shortly after taking the stage at his company’s big presser on Wednesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook turned to gaming, bragging that there are more than 500,000 games available through the App Store. But one game, he acknowledged, has always been missing.

Moments later, the celebrated video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto joined Cook onstage to announce that Mario would be coming to iOS. “For the past 30 years, every time Mario has encountered a new platform … he has continued running toward a new goal,” Miyamoto said, speaking in hesitant English before switching to his native Japanese to debut the game itself.

Soon, Miyamoto explained, players around the world would be playing with Mario on mobile platforms. “And they’ll be doing it in a new game, Super Mario Run. The magic of Mario is that anyone can pick up a game and instantly start playing,” he said.

In Super Mario Run itself, the title character runs automatically to the right, collecting coins and seeking to reach the flag pole at the end of the level in time. Tapping makes him jump and “the longer you tap, the higher he jumps.” In later levels, Mario will be able to collide with boxes that change his running direction and otherwise affect his pace through the level.

Miyamoto stressed that the game, which appears to run in vertical mode, will be playable one-handed. “That means you can play while holding the rail on the subway, while eating a hamburger, or while eating an apple,” he said. The game also includes a more competitive mode that lets players test their pace against one another.

Some elements of this new title will be familiar with those who played Nintendo’s earlier mobile title, Miitomo. Indeed, several social elements of the Super Mario Run draw on that title’s clunky aesthetics, which the company has been employing since the release of its Wii console. Unlike Miitomo, Super Mario Run reportedly won’t be free.

Super Mario Run will reportedly be available in time for the 2016 holidays. Though there’s no word yet on if and when it will be playable outside the Apple ecosystem, nothing that Miyaoto or Cook said on stage precluded that possibility.

Sept. 7 2016 10:02 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: Back to the Futurography

Greetings, Future Tensers,

This week, we’re excited to announce the return of Futurography, a series of monthlong courses in which we explore both the practicalities and potential of emerging technologies. Though we have a host of exciting topics coming in the months ahead, we’re starting very, very small with an investigation of nanotechnology.

We’ll be publishing a range of articles on the topic in the weeks ahead, but, as always, to kick it off we have a conversational introduction and a cheat sheet. And if you’re left wondering just how small this stuff is, we’ve put together a quick video on the size of the nanoscale. We hope you’ll follow along throughout the course, but we also invite you to sign up for our separate Futurography newsletter (there’s a link on this page) to get updates when new topics and articles are available.

Part of our goal with Futurography is to provide a nonalarmist account of technological conditions: To understand why that’s important, read this piece, in which psychology professor David LaPorte discusses how paranoid delusions often mirror technological advancements. While LaPorte looks at some unfortunate responses to technological anxieties, there are healthier ways manage those feelings, as Katrina Gulliver found when she started knitting to resist other digital distractions. It might also help to chart your technological entanglements like these two designers did when they mapped their smartphone usage over the course of a week.

Here are some of the other stories we read while trying to remember our old Dropbox passwords:

  • Clean energy: Thanks to wind power, Iowa (of all states!) is producing massive amounts of electricity from renewable sources.
  • Apple: The EU recently hit Apple with a huge tax bill, but things are more complicated than they seem. Law professor Adam Chodorow breaks it down.
  • Healthy eating: Kavin Senapathy argues that though food stamp benefits should be usable online, we should be suspicious of organizations pushing dubious claims about organic and gluten-free products.
  • Spaceflight: A SpaceX rocket exploded last week, taking an expensive satellite with it. As you’ll see, Mark Zuckerberg is rightly frustrated.

Events:

  • On Monday, Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. in Washington, D.C., Francis Fukuyama will host a Future Tense screening and discussion of Children of Men as part of our “My Favorite Movie” series. For more information and to RSVP click here.

Booting up our atomic microscope,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Sept. 7 2016 9:02 AM

RSVP Now for a Screening of Children of Men Hosted by Francis Fukuyama

Join Future Tense and Francis Fukuyama on Sept. 19 in Washington, D.C., for a screening and discussion of Children of Men, the haunting adaptation of P.D. James’ dystopian novel. The 2006 film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is set in 2027, when all women have become infertile and humanity is facing extinction.

Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute and the author of The Origins of Political Order and The End of History and the Last Man. This is the latest installment of Future Tense’s “My Favorite Movie” series, in which thought leaders host screenings of their favorite movies and lead short conversations about them.

The screening of Children of Men will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 19, at Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema at 555 11th Street NW.  If you would like to attend, please RSVP to futuretensedc@gmail.com with your name, email address, and any affiliation you’d like to share. You may RSVP for yourself and up to one guest. Please include your guest’s name in your response. Seating is limited.

Sept. 1 2016 5:44 PM

SpaceX’s Rocket Wasn’t the Only Thing That Went Up in Smoke

When SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket went up in a fireball of epic proportions on a Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch pad Thursday morning, the good news was that it was unmanned and no one was hurt. It exploded in the course a “static fire test,” a sort of dress rehearsal for a launch.*

The bad news is that, when said rocket went up in said fireball, so did its payload—a $200 million Israeli satellite that, among others, Facebook was counting on to beam internet service to sub-Saharan Africa as part of its ambitious Internet.org project. That’s despite the fact that it was only a static fire test, rather than the real thing.

Oh, and more bad news: It isn’t clear that the losses will be covered by the launch insurance policy, because the explosion happened during the fueling process, prior to intentional ignition.

In other words, this isn’t just a major setback for SpaceX, whose ambitions include flying astronauts to the International Space Station and ultimately colonizing Mars. (Not a joke.) It’s also a blow to everyone involved in the satellite, which was called AMOS-6.

Spacecom, the Israeli company that owned the satellite, declared it a “total loss,” and the company’s stock fell 9 percent, the Los Angeles Times reports. Eutelsat, the French-based satellite operator that had partnered with Facebook on the AMOS-6 lease, said it expected to lose out on upward of 45 million euros in revenue over the next three years.

For Facebook, meanwhile, the satellite was to be a linchpin of Internet.org, the free, stripped-down Internet service it is rolling out in less-developed countries (and, in at least one case, rolling back in). CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in Kenya when he heard the news, having scheduled an Africa trip this week to coincide with the satellite’s launch, the Verge’s Russell Brandom notes. He was … not pleased.

It is possible to read this as a sincere expression of sadness from Zuckerberg emanating from a place of deep concern for the people who will now have to go longer without access to his “Free Basics” data service. It is also possible, thanks to verbiage such as “deeply disappointed,” “destroyed,” and “SpaceX’s launch failure,” to read it as a stone-cold smackdown of SpaceX and its own CEO, Elon Musk. Probably the statement contains some of each, seasoned with a healthy dose of righteous posturing from a man who has anointed himself champion of the sick and the poor. To be fair, on that score, Zuckerberg has put plenty of money where his mouth is.

At this point, we don’t know whether the explosion stemmed from any sort of negligence on the part of SpaceX or anyone else, or whether it was simply the kind of thing that inevitably happens in the spaceflight business, because the spaceflight business is exceedingly hard.

What we know is that both Zuckerberg and Musk are among a handful of Silicon Valley tech titans who are using their money and power to push boundaries in their respective ways. That is admirable, and it is also risky. Here’s the rub: It’s risky not so much for them personally—they’ll be just fine, I’m confident—but for all the people they’ve persuaded to count on them.

*Update, Sept. 1, 2016: This sentence was rephrased to remove the implication that anyone would have been hurt if it were a real launch rather than a static test.

Sept. 1 2016 1:05 PM

Republicans Are Coming Around to This Public Internet Idea

Government-built infrastructure, we’re told, only ends up hampering free market competition.

That’s one of the reasons that opponents of public broadband support state pre-emption laws to restrict cities and towns from building their own fiber networks.

They say things like, “It’s government entry… that brings unfair competition to the market,” and, “Government entry into the broadband market drives out competition and puts taxpayers at financial risk,” and, “The asymmetric subsidized entry of a municipal system is ... anticompetitive in nature.”

That’s why the “Private Industry Safeguards Act,” a model policy of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which purports to advance free-market priorities in the statehouses, has been recommended to the organization’s enormous body of state-level lawmakers from across the country since 2002. More than 20 states have prohibitions on municipal broadband on the books.

All this may sound pretty rich at a time when internet providers have effective monopolies in many regions and rates rise faster than download speeds. But publicly owned broadband, to critics, could well be the thin end of the socialist wedge.

Sept. 1 2016 11:21 AM

SpaceX Rocket Explodes During Test-Fire, No Casualties Reported

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was doing a customary test-fire on Thursday morning at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida when it exploded. The large blast, which included subsequent, smaller explosions over several minutes was caught on radar and shook buildings several miles away, according to the Associated Press

Sept. 1 2016 11:11 AM

Trump Just Said Hillary “Bleached” Her Emails. Uh, Not Really.

Fresh off his big immigration speech in Arizona on Wednesday night, Donald Trump took his mediocre-cop/vile-cop routine to the American Legion’s national convention in Ohio on Thursday morning. The GOP nominee’s roughly 20-minute speech was relatively uneventful, though he appeared to break from the script briefly on the topic of Hillary Clinton and her private email server in order to offer up some highly questionable tech analysis:

In this future, we will have an honest government that includes an honest state department, not pay for play. She probably didn’t mention that to you yesterday. Government access and favors will no longer be for sale, and important email records will no longer be deleted and digitally altered, which is something they just found out two days ago. Bleached. Bleached. Expensive process. Why? Why? 33,000 emails bleached through a very expensive process. You ask yourself, what’s going on?

What is going on here? Trump, it would seem, is referring to recent comments from House Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy suggesting that Clinton used a software tool called BleachBit to delete emails from her personal server so that “even God can’t read them.” BleachBit, however, isn’t nearly as sinister as Gowdy has made it out to be—nor does it involve actually dousing your computer with chemicals, as Trump likes to suggest.

As Slate’s Laura Wagner has explained, BleachBit is one of a number of free, open-source software programs that anyone can use to clear unneeded files from computers to free up space and keep systems running smoothly. As one computer security expert put it to CNN last week: “Someone trying to cover their tracks would likely pay for and use a much more expensive, specialized data destruction tool.” Meanwhile, the software’s creator has even said that some of the emails that Clinton deleted could still be recovered from third-party servers, which in theory Gowdy’s omniscient creator would have knowledge of.

Trump, however, would much rather repeat the word bleached a few times and leave the actual facts left unsaid—and unknown to average Americans, let alone the roomful of aged American veterans he was speaking to on Thursday.

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