Nightmares of the Future: Escape from the Prison Planet

Earth: a Prison Planet. A planetary panopticon where the convicts happily write their own police files and track their own movements, sharing them with the Stacks [Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft]. As will be explored in detail in this post, through understanding this, and planning a planetary jailbreak, a bright green future may await the escapees; and those that were built to hunt us down may lead the way.


Spoiler Warning: key aspects of the current season of Person of Interest are shown and discussed below.


Narratives involving cities or countries split into Exclusion Zones are a popular part of contemporary science fiction films and TV shows. From Monsters, and its plot of a North America divided following a panspermic alien invasion at the start of this decade, through to the new series Cleverman where "The Zone is all at once an exclusion area, a prison, a refugee camp, a refuge, a camp, and a ghetto." The TV shows Colony and Containment being two other obvious examples.

Monsters (2010)

Colony (2016)

Containment (2016)

The idea of the Zone stretches back into the 20th Century of course, to the book Roadside Picnic via the film Stalker and made real by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Zone the Strugatsky brothers wrote of was a dream-like, magical place. The Zones audiences are watching today are the stuff of nightmares - and the building blocks of a Prison Planet.

This is the nature of the post-cyberpunk condition. What was previously a utopian dream - we're talking about the Internet in particular here - has become an ever-increasing dystopic nightmare. But to opt out is to lose your voice in the global conversation, and the chance to plant the seeds of change; even if those seeds grow into nothing more than dank memes - retweeted and forgotten. What is to be done?

As science fiction writer and futurist David Brin recently advised, in essence - get thee a narrative that can do both:

You don't have to choose! Between pessimism and optimism, that is. A sane person uses dollops of both - simultaneously - to help navigate a path ahead. Because making a better world requires two phases. First finding the errors, snake-pits, land mines and quicksand that lie in wait, as we charge into the future. Those dangers are best revealed by eager complainers shouting “look out, you fools!” It is the supreme value of reciprocal criticism -- and science fiction has played a role, by issuing very effective self-preventing prophecies.”

And that's the point of this post, to act as a "self-preventing prophecy" - to take a tour through the construction project that is the nascent Prison Planet we all occupy, that it might then never come to exist. This will start by examining the commonality between the real-life origins of the space age in 19th Century Russia and the fictional future the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks imagined in his Culture novels. We then move into the present, leaning on the TV series Person of Interest to explain our post-cyberpunk condition - and how it ties into the effects of climate chaos and war - and see how distressingly close the Terminator universe is to being realised. With that understanding established, we'll visit some previous times in history people have attempted to flee the Empire, and learn that this place has its own pseudo-nation - and make some extrapolations about its application today in the "never offline" world.

The film The Matrix was in part a depiction of Philip K. Dick's idea of the Black Iron Prison. The heroes journey the Wachowski sisters gave us started with Neo's seeking to understand the true nature of his life and free his mind. That goal is repeated in this post. See you on the other side.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


A few years ago Benedict Singleton wrote an essay, Maximum Jailbreak, that significantly changed my perspective on humankind's multi-century project to spread beyond the planet we call home. In it he explains just who the Russian Cosmists of the late 19th Century to early 20th Century were, what their legacy is, and how that project maps onto the current area of thinking known as Accelerationism.

Singleton neatly summarises the Cosmist worldview with three phrases: "Storm the heavens", "Conquer Death" and "the Earth is a trap." It's that third phrase that we'll be focusing on here to help frame an elaboration of Earth's potential looming future as a Prison Planet.

...this is the characteristic gesture of cosmism, what we might call the “cosmist impulse”: to consider the earth a trap, and to understand the common project of philosophy, economics, and design as being the formulation of means to escape from it: to conceive a jailbreak at the maximum possible scale, a heist in which we steal ourselves from the vault. [Maximum Jailbreak]

As he continues to elaborate - looking at traps as a form of design thinking - there's a coevolution of intelligence at work between predator and prey; between the hunter and the hunted:

It’s a knowledge of traps and how they function that enables one most easily to undo a trap that one is in: a talent for escape is predicated on the same intelligence that goes into entrapment—indeed, in the example of the traps that people set for each other, it’s clear that—as Hyde puts it—“nothing counters cunning but more cunning.” To outfox is to think more broadly, to find the crack in the scheme, to stick a knife into it, and to lever it open for new use. Freighting the environment with a counter-plot is the best device for escaping the machinations in which one is embroiled: a conversion of constraints into new opportunities for free action, technological development as a kind of Hydean accelerationism. [Maximum Jailbreak]

Escaping the trap of Prison Planet will require cunning: most immediately by understanding that it's already well under construction, and crucially, that it may be the impetus for us to fulfill the Cosmists' vision.

That the Prison itself contains the pieces required to not just defeat it, but craft a much better future. Just as the cliche of the inmate using sheets to make a rope and a spoon to dig a tunnel, the things that would be used to contain us may become the instruments of our salvation.

As an event in this alternative history of design, cosmism arrives as a kind of absolutization of its basic principles into a project of generalized escapology... If design is a hustle, then cosmism is the long con—or perhaps more precisely, the most extravagant gesture of lengthening the hustle into a con: not simply an aggregation of hustles—a chain of coin-tricks, each self-sufficient, without bearing on the next—but a process of nesting them into a cultivated scheme or expanding plot, so that each gambit paves the way for the next. [Maximum Jailbreak]

This post will form a bridge between the ideas examined in the Plutocratic Exit Strategy series and those earlier outlined in as an Atemporal People's Republic. Between an Earth where the freedom of movement of 99.99% of humanity is increasingly restricted and every activity and thought monitored - just as the 0.01% are poised to storm the heavens - and a space-based republic where all of humanity is just a fraction of the population of its citizenry; where AIs and Uplifted animals are ... Read More »

News Briefs 17-06-2016

“He who wonders discovers that this in itself is wonder.”

Quote of the Day:

“As far as I know, there is no proof whatever of the existence of an objective reality apart from our senses, and I do not see why we should accept the outside world as such solely by virtue of our senses.”

Maurits Cornelis ‘M.C.’ Escher

News Briefs 16-06-2016

What happens if more than 50% of a country’s population decide they don’t believe in democracy anymore?

Thanks to Michael Prescott.

Quote of the Day:

Curb your dogma.

Principia Discordia

Modern Magic: Using Acoustic Waves to Levitate Objects

Legends abound of ancient people building their monumental megalithic structures by levitating the massive blocks into place. While such ideas don't seem to have any real evidence to back them up, modern science has figured out one way to pull off this levitation 'magic': by using acoustic waves. Though, rather than 200 ton stones, researchers are using - rather disappointingly - styrofoam balls and water droplets.

Nevertheless, it's a cool effect, and the science behind it is fascinating to boot. Destin Sandlin of the excellent Smarter Every Day YouTube channel walks us through it all in the embedded video above.

(h/t Kat)

News Briefs 15-06-2016

Be careful what you wish for

Quote of the Day:

“I wish my wish would not be granted!”

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Fantastic Beasts and Imaginary Cities: Lessons on the Dangers, and Benefits, of Anomaly Hunting

Microbe ruins

When snorkelers off the Greek island of Zakynthos came across what appeared to be the flooded ruins of an ancient city (such as the 'columns' above), archaeologists were left to ponder their origin. Which civilisation built them, and how had they ended up underwater? But, when they went to investigate further...

...archaeologists found nothing else — no shards of pottery or other flotsam and jetsam of everyday existence — that would suggest that people had once lived there (and perhaps had been forced to flee by rising sea levels).

Scientists have now discovered the reason there were no signs of human habitation at the site. The columns and other objects, they say, are not stonework at all, but a natural byproduct of the breakdown of methane gas. And they were made by an ancient civilization of microbes, not people.

The search for 'lost civilisations' is a fascinating one, and our good friend Graham Hancock wrote an intriguing book about the search for ruins of civilisations that could feasibly have been lost beneath rising seas after the end of the last Ice Age (Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization). But the recent news story above should also be a warning to us that things aren't always what they seem.

There have been numerous discoveries in recent decades of what, at first glance, appear to be man-made, ancient structures, ranging from the Japanese underwater site of Yonaguni to the so-called 'Bosnian pyramid'. But simply 'looking artificial' is not enough to draw a conclusion - for example, visitors to the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland will know that nature does produce artificial-looking geometric structures (see this recent video we posted for more discussion on this topic).

Wishful thinking isn't enough - there has to be more evidence than simply 'this looks like the real deal' to label something as such. In the absence of evidence, it's still fine to speculate...just as long as you make clear that is what you are doing.

On the flipside, however, sometimes - often times - when anomalies do turn up, they are immediately discounted as being imaginary, misinterpretations of normal things, or outright hoaxes. Another story of the past week illustrates this: more than 200 years ago, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt reported witnessing electric eels leaping out of the water to attack possible threats.

Humboldt published his account of leaping electric eels in 1807, but for two centuries it has been regarded as a fantasy. Why?

No one had seen such behaviour in the 200 years since Humboldt’s account. In 1881, another German scientist said that the story was “poetically transfigured.” In 1947, The Atlantic called it “tommyrot.”

But now, researchers have caught this behaviour on video:

It turns out that Humboldt was telling the story exactly as he had witnessed it - and yet it took more than 200 years for any scientist to investigate it seriously.

I discuss a similar topic in my article in the upcoming release of Darklore (Volume 9): meteors. Scientists dropped the ball on meteors for many years, writing off witness reports as fantastical and untrustworthy. And even after finally seeing the light, they repeated the exact same mistake for many more decades when it came to witness reports of electrophonic sounds being emitted from bright fireballs - because those reports didn't seem to agree with the science of the time.

Each of these stories provides a lesson to us, as we try to gain fresh insights and discover new things. When we come across an anomaly, we must be skeptical, in the sense of examining it with critical thinking, and progressing cautiously. But we should also guard against being overly-skeptical, and dismissing things that don't fit within our current frame of knowledge. Feel free to speculate, make leaps of logic where needed - but always note carefully that is what you are doing.

Anomaly hunting is fun. But let's do it right.

News Briefs 14-06-2016

Thanks to all those kind readers who have got us almost half-way to our first funding goal on Patreon! Still a long way to go though - can you afford to chip in just $1/month to help keep this site running?

Quote of the Day:

Intolerance is the most socially acceptable form of egotism, for it permits us to assume superiority without personal boasting.

Sydney J. Harris

Ayahuasca in Australia

Australian broadcaster SBS recently reported on the use of ayahuasca in 'the lucky country' (video embedded above), which for a change gave some serious screen time to people who used the shamanic brew for self-improvement. One of those they talked to was ayahuasca 'facilitator' Julian Palmer - author of the book Articulations: On The Utilisation and Meanings of Psychedelics - who has over the years championed personal exploration of the mind using shamanic plants.

The feature also mentioned an upcoming meeting of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) at which they will be reviewing submissions "to legalise a small amount of DMT for religious ceremonies". While those who think shamanic plants should be legal to use might feel that this is an exciting step forward, it may not be quite as big a deal as it sounds. Respected Australian ethnobotany figure Torsten Wiedemann has posted a detailed critique of this submission. Some of his points include:

1) I am not sure what the application is trying to achieve. The TGA schedules are not a law. They are merely recommendations to the states which have ultimate control over the schedules under the state health acts. At best the proposal could provide for a federal guide, but I very much doubt the states will simply go along with it. Having some state based ministerial support would have been crucial for this.

2) There were suggestions that the TGA is taking this seriously simply because they tabled it. They did not decide on this process. All applications to the TGA have to be considered and decided upon by the delegate. By making the application they have no choice but to process it. There have been frivolous/ridiculous/unwinnable applications in the past, so the mere acceptance means nothing and we should not read anything into that.


8) Much has been made of the religious aspect. 'religious purposes' was a big issue in the USA and some other countries, but has little meaning in Oz. Our federal constitution only guarantees that the federal government can't make laws that discriminate on the basis of religion, but it does not have any control over state law [which is what the TGA schedules are empowered by]. A constitutional scholar friend of mine tells me that a TGA ruling against the proposal is not an infringement of the constitution. There may be recourse under state charters, but so far nothing like that has been successful. I have been saying for years that state support is needed to make progress on this because ultimately these are all state law matters. I think the federal approach is a waste of time unless there is a plan on launching a constitutional challenge in the Northern Territory or ACT. The hopeful view of translating religious freedom exemptions to australia is not likely to be of any merit.

9) My friends in law enforcement policy tell me that DMT is very much on the agenda - and not in a good way. The TGA will toe the line of the federal drugs council [whatever the name is escapes me right now] which is focussing to come down harder on DMT rather than to weaken their stance. The TGA has no interest or incentive to buck the trend. I am not going to waste any time on making a submission as I do not see any chance of voluntary rescheduling (ie without a court case). And even if I was wrong then rescheduling by the TGA achieves nothing in practical terms. I see the only viable options for progress on this issue via the victorian charter or a federal constitutional case. I also do not see any level of government doing this voluntarily - like so many progressive policies this needs to be imposed by a court.

(Read the full post)

In short: some natural plants, and exploration of your own consciousness, remain illegal things in the year 2016, and may soon be cracked down on even harder.

News Briefs 13-06-2016

Klaatu barada ni...ah, never mind. Go for it Gort.

Thanks to @tenebrisvacuum and @djp1974.

Quote of the Day:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

Bertrand Russell

Newly Decoded Text on Antikythera Mechanism Gives New Insights Into the Functions of an 'Ancient Computer'

Antikythera Mechanism (Brett Seymour / WHOI)

The enigmatic 'Antikythera Mechanism' has been back in the news recently, with researchers unveiling the results of a decade-long project to decipher tiny inscriptions on the device. Previous research had largely focused on the mechanics of the 'ancient computer' that was salvaged from a shipwreck in 1901 by sponge divers.

The approximately 2100-year-old clock-like device could be used to calculate the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets, as well as predict eclipses, using a system of gearwheels, with the user able to 'travel' backwards and forwards in time by winding a handle.

In a special issue of the journal Almagest, researchers have broken down the various sections of the mechanism. Firstly, the front:

The bronze plate known as the “Front Cover” of the Antikythera Mechanism had inscriptions on its outside face... The texts give data on synodic cycles for the five planets, and it may be conjectured that lost lines described the behaviour of the Sun and Moon. The data strongly support the idea that planetary motions were displayed on the front face of the Mechanism using simple epicyclic or eccentric models. Previously unattested long and accurate period relations are given for Venus and Saturn, which are favourable for geared representation and probably of Greek, rather than Babylonian, origin.

The dial at the center of the front face of the Antikythera Mechanism was surrounded by two scales, one representing the zodiac, the other the Egyptian calendar year. The Zodiac Scale was inscribed with the names of the zodiacal signs as well as series of index letters in alphabetic order, while the Egyptian Calendar Scale was inscribed with the Greek names of the Egyptian months. In addition, two rectangular plates, the remains of which survived displaced from their original positions, bore an inscription, called the Parapegma Inscription, comprising an alphabetically indexed list of annually repeating astronomical events relating to the Sun and to fixed stars.

The new discoveries about the mechanism were made possible by modern imaging technologies ("computed tomography and polynomial textual mapping") being applied to the tiny engraved text found on it - some of which were barely 1mm in height!

Antikythera Mechanism text

On the back of the mechanism they found dials showing lunar calendars, a 'Games' (i.e. an athletic competition, such as the Olympic Games) calendar, and information about predicting eclipses:

The rear face of the Mechanism consisted of a rectangular "Back Plate" dominated by two large spiral dials. The upper five-turn Metonic Dial represented a 235-lunar-month calendrical cycle while the lower four-turn Saros Dial represented a 223-lunar-month eclipse prediction cycle. A subsidiary quadrant "Games" dial was situated inside the Metonic Dial, and a subsidiary three-sector Exeligmos Dial inside the Saros Dial. Preserved text inscribed around the dials (from the lower right quarter of the plate), probably representing about a quarter of the original inscription, provided further information associated with the predictions of eclipses.

The Metonic Dial inscriptions imply a calendrical scheme similar to that described by Geminos. It was intended to be a version of the calendar of Corinth as it was practiced either at Corinth itself or in some locality of Epirus. The Games dial shows six competitions, four Panhellenic (Olympics, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean) plus Naa (Dodona) and very probably Halieia (Rhodes).

On the Saros dial there were probably originally about 50 or 51 month cells with a lunar and/or solar eclipse prediction, each carrying a "glyph" and an index letter. Predicted eclipse times (in equinoctial hours) on the glyphs were calculated as times of true syzygy according to solar and lunar models that both involved anomaly, with the simple Exeligmos dial extending the predictions over three or more Saros cycles.

The additional information referred to by index letters from the Saros dial was grouped into paragraphs; that for lunar eclipse prediction probably ran down one side of the plate, and that for solar eclipse prediction down the other. Statements about direction may imply a meteorological aspect by referring to predictions of winds attending the eclipses. Five references to colour and size at eclipse are the only Greco-Roman source known to us that suggests prediction of eclipse colors, and might conceivably be linked with astrology.

The press have run with this 'astrology' attribution, but it's just a small part of what this research has uncovered, and even then I think it's still just a 'possibility' (note the wording above, "might conceivably").

The researchers also translated text that was inscribed on a plate - possibly a protective cover - that was found lying against the rear face of the Antikythera Mechanism in situ on the shipwreck. Only small fragments remain of this plate, but some of the text was, amazingly, preserved "as offsets on a layer of accreted matter that built up against it". It was found that the text on this plate provided "a systematic description of the dials, pointers, and other external features of the Mechanism, beginning with the front face and continuing with the rear face."

The best preserved passages include descriptions of features on lost parts of the Mechanism: a display of pointers bearing small spheres representing the Sun and planets on the front dial, and a dial on the upper back face representing a 76-year "Kallippic" calendrical cycle.

Lastly, the research team was able to use the 'data' that drove the device to guess at the likely location of the person who compiled it, finding that it corresponded to observations from a latitude of around 35 degrees - that ruled out Egypt the north of Greece, but matches the island of Rhodes.

It is hoped that ongoing excavation of the shipwreck will uncover more fragments of gears and inscriptions that could shed further light on this amazing contraption.

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