Defining "Things That Should Exist"

An attempt to scope this newsletter, and a list of 5 speculative projects that I think about semi-regularly

This is the first issue of Things That Should Exist, a newsletter cataloguing speculative projects and ideas that would make the world a slightly better place, if they existed.

To the four subscribers that have signed up(as of 2/7) based on my initial blurb, I want to say that I’m amazed and thankful that you subscribed. Thank you for giving me a shot. I am truly grateful for your attention, and I will do my best to consistently write this newsletter to the best of my ability.

Starting With ‘Why?’

For starters, let me explain why I started this newsletter.

First, I’ve wanted to start a newsletter under my own name for a long time, and I’ve always loved the idea of “The Speculative”.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time in a the non-profit art gallery that my mother ran, along with a small staff. The gallery was in a large building that shared offices with a local film festival and other non-profits.

I spent a lot of time wandering around the building, subsisting on a diet of Hershey’s Kisses, dutifully doled out by Sherry, the secretary, and spent most of my time there bored out of my mind. I remember many days laying on a cot in my mom’s office, waiting for my mom to leave her office so that I could use her Mac to draw in Kid Pix, or to play SimAnt.

“Why do people come here to look at these paintings?”, my kid-brain seemed obsessed with this question. It didn’t make sense to me.

Sometimes, my mom would pay me 5 cents per envelope to put together mailers for upcoming events and fundraising calls, which seemed like backbreaking labor at the time, but I guess was actually good for me, although I’m still pretty lazy today.

While the day-to-day at D-Art(which stood for “Dallas Art”, I guess), was excruciatingly boring to a 9 year-old, I have positive memories too: of art openings, of learning to play slide guitar with a butter knife by Louis, the janitor, and of one sculpture exhibit where you could actually touch the art(!).

I suppose growing up in that environment didn’t hurt as far as learning to love art, and along with it, the implied possibilities of it, of artworks and art-making.

Around that same age, I developed a deep fandom for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Along with my friends, Stephen, Will, and Melissa, I would dress up in my Starfleet uniform and go to Star Trek conventions to see my heroes and have them sign my action figures and magazines.

I credit Star Trek for shaping my love of thinking about the future, in a big way.

25 years later, I’m still searching for ways to think about the future, with stops including:

  • Spending eight years working in film and video production

  • Attending two NYU ITP Camps, and School for Poetic Computation

  • Project managing a confidential VR project for Google’s Jigsaw unit

  • Moving to NYC twice, and possibly a third time in 2021

  • Joining Yak Collective

What Is Yak Collective?

Yak Collective is a decentralized collective of independent consultants. It was formed in the wake of the Covid pandemic in the US in March 2020, by writer and consultant Venkatesh Rao.

From March to August, I served as nominal “Chief Editor” for Yak Collective’s Yak Talk newsletter. Yak Talk often contained speculative ideas and material, as speculative thinking is, more or less, Yak Collective’s raison d'être.

After launching the newsletter, and publishing weekly for 12 weeks, I stepped down. It’s tough to write, edit, and publish a newsletter with 1-3 articles per week, especially when quality is the chief concern.

I look back on running(and writing for) Yak Talk was an experiment. Our impact was modest. We had just over 300 subscribers when I left, and most of that came from those that had joined Yak Collective, about 600 or so members in late August 2020. It was a tricky audience to write for, and we struggled to truly engage with them in that three-month period.

That said, doing Yak Talk was also a great experience, mostly because it helped me dispel my own fears about having what it takes to publish a newsletter with any sort of consistency.

Also, the team was phenomenal and I’ll plug links to their writing at the end of this issue.

Defining “The Speculative”

“The Speculative” is a term that I’m using to encompass speculative art, and other modes of thinking about and envisioning possible futures.

There is also the double-meaning, that of “to speculate”, ie to invest in “stocks, property, or other ventures”. There is a dialectical relationship between thinking deeply about that which is possible vs. having/acquiring the actual monetary or material resources to make a thing become real.

From Wikipedia, Speculative art itself can encompass topics as diverse as: Fantasy art, Science fiction art, Futures Studies(“a systematic study of social and technological advancement exploring how people will live and work in the future”), Futurism(“a social movement in the 20th century), Surrealism, Absurdism, Dada, Speculative poetry, and Speculative fiction.

Full disclosure, I’m not an academic, and can’t/won’t pretend to be one. I don’t aspire to “academic rigor” or a completeness of canon with regards to speculative art and future studies. I acknowledge that many great future thinkers are/were academics, but there are many “outsider” and non-academic visionaries whose work deserves equal attention.

My goal here is curatorial, random, and driven by my own curiosity, in the hopes that sharing what fascinates me will be interesting to the audience for this newsletter.

Some questions that I seek to explore in Things That Should Exist are:

  • What are good criteria for determining if a thing should exist?

  • Where do we find these ideas?

  • How do these ideas become real?

And maybe even more importantly:

  • What prevents a good idea from becoming real?

Any thing that should exist more than likely has a story–there’s a reason Arthur O. Lovejoy coined the term history of ideas. Good ideas rarely exist in a vacuum. I would argue that behind every truly groundbreaking idea is a grand story that can be told.

For instance, to tell the story of the iPhone, you have to tell the story of Steve Jobs. To tell the story of space travel, you have to talk about John F. Kennedy’s election as the youngest, and first Catholic to hold presidential office.

We need stories to make sense of the speculative because without context, art is, in a very real sense, meaningless.

The Speculative vs. “To Speculate”

When we speculate, we make an intuitive and/or data-driven guess as to…something.

On a grand scale, when working with The Speculative, we might be imagining an entirely new world.

Tech companies are prone to these delusions of grandeur. Look at Elon Musk and his fanatical desire to colonize the very radioactive surface of Mars. Even if you spent only three hours of every three days outside, you would still have an 33x exposure to the sun’s radiation on Mars, as compared to the average exposure on earth.1

I’d argue that speculating is one step further than hypothesizing. Speculating is investing in your hypothesis.

This aligns with the financial meaning of the word speculate, which is to “invest in stocks, property, or other ventures”. To buy a stock, a property, or any other kind of asset or security is to make a value judgement on the worth of the thing you are buying, and then to put your money figuratively, but tangibly, where your mouth is.

“Investing in your hypothesis” does not always have to be as literal as buying property or buying stock.

One could argue that artists speculate by their very nature, whether their hypotheses, and the meanings in their work are made implicit or not. Future-thinkers like Vinay Gupta and Venkatesh Rao “invest” in their own hypotheses via their written and spoken work, and providing us with arguments towards considering certain speculative futures.

Maybe the metaphor is stretched a bit thin here, but what I’m getting at, is that…

Defining “Should Exist”

What does it mean that something “Should Exist”? Proper case is intentional here.

Some things really Should Exist but they don’t.

Things like socialized medicine and affordable housing in the US.

As a basic precept, these things Should Exist because people are dying. Housing is not affordable for the working class, and neither is medicine, and the result is that millions of people die for a variety of related reasons.

Some are unable to afford the medical care they need to fight a possibly terminal illness. Others become homeless because they cannot afford extreme rent prices on meager wages.

The loss of life in this country due to bad policy is impossible to fathom. Not because it can’t be calculated, but because those that have died from Covid, homelessness, drug addiction, etc were all people that were fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, etc. These were all people who likely mattered to others, and now they’re gone. “Senseless” seems to be the only word I can use to adequately describe the loss of life in this country, and it dates back to colonial settlement and slavery.

America is sick. Is it possible to imagine an America in the future that’s not, that cares for the health and well-being of it’s citizens?

Furthermore, is America a thing that Should (continue to) Exist?

I’m not sure, but I’m not in favor of violent insurrection, or of violence period, even though the dispensing of it seems inextricably linked to statehood.

The Stakes of Speculative Art

I’ve only read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism once(actually it was via the audiobook on YouTube), but that was enough to internalize his thesis, which is that,

“It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Another way to say this is that our own desires and sense of possibility is shaped by the market, which only increases the need for good speculative art.

To speculate is to imagine. Maybe that’s obvious.

There are, and will always be, alternatives to free-market capitalism. In the short term, this is at least true theoretically, and on a long enough timeline, realistically. Alternatives are inevitable. However, they must be imagined first, before anything else.

Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Trilogy provides a much more sane and holistic imagining of humanity’s colonization of space, as opposed to Musk’s techno-libertarian wet dream.

That said, we can’t simply dream our way out of climate change, or the pandemic, or other very real and massive societal problems.

Tech utopianism has shown itself to be naive, the trickle down economics of our era. The “sharing economy” could more accurately be called the “techno-serf economy”.

A Decarbonization Proposal, and “Irrational Exuberance”

I suppose I’ll write more about policy and similar grand-scale things as this newsletter evolves. With regards to things that definitely Should Exist, these things are top of mind, I just don’t yet know where to begin.

I did have a small foray thinking about this stuff in 2020, co-writing this proposal with Varun Adibhatla(much more knowledgeable than me wrt policy and urban studies).

I include it here because the proposal charts a path to use financialization and the irrational exuberance of a viral social movement to “disrupt” climate change, or at least to kickstart a process to deescalate the mass use of carbon-producing technologies.

In the proposal, we laid out a strategy to disrupt carbon emissions in US commerce by incentivizing decarbonization for consumers by a combination of financializing “green” consumer behaviors(one example being “Thunberg Bonds”, which would function much like WWII US war bonds), and social recognition programs.

We created the proposal in response to this open call by VC Chamath Palipitiya.

I really enjoyed working on the proposal with Varun. It’s not writing that I typically do, but it was a great experience(even if we’re still waiting for a call back from Chamath - ha).

5 Speculative Art Projects That I Often Think About

I’m also writing this newsletter to learn more about speculative art, future studies and design fiction, by writing about these things.

  1. Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series. As mentioned earlier. Her writing is water for a thirsty mind.

  2. “Institutional Performance”. A friend recently turned me onto this sub-genre of fine art. One popular example of institutional performance is Nathan for You’s “Dumb Starbucks” episode. Here’s an article by The Guardian on Starbucks’ response, and the original sketches. There’s also Unauthorized SFMOMA Show.

  3. Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon”. A short story in which the narrator lets loose a balloon that covers half of Manhattan for a few weeks or so. Hear it read here.

  4. Odyssey Works creates experiences “for an audience of one”. I’ve attended several of their workshops. This piece by the Baltimore Sun gives a pretty good description of what an Odyssey Works experience can contain.

  5. “Seafaring Art”. I found Mary Mattingly’s work via a talk at Pioneer Works that was co-hosted with the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY. I missed their 2016 exhibit, Radical Seafaring, but did buy a copy of the book of the same title that surveys the history of seafaring art. It’s one of my favorite art books that I own. I love seafaring art because the sea implies a lot of the same freedoms(and risks) existing in space does. In way, I find the sea more interesting. It’s bit more romantic to me.

Also, for those curious for a primer on speculative thinking and design, a good place to start is with Speculative Fiction: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming by Dunne and Raby(pdf link here).

What I’m Working On Right Now

  1. This newsletter. Twice per month is the goal.

  2. Posting more on Twitter. To build an audience and find a new job.

  3. The notes app I’m currently building, which is basically a digital media archive app. I’m using Glide, a no-code platform, to build it.

The End

That’s all for now. What parts did you like best? What was just ok? What parts should I have deleted entirely?

Leave a comment and help me improve this newsletter. Thanks, and have a great week!

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1

The average annual dose due to cosmic radiation in the US is 0.34 mSv (34 mrem) per year. See cdc.gov.