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Warren Ellis on futurism, the New Aesthetic, and why social media isn't killing our children

Warren Ellis on futurism, the New Aesthetic, and why social media isn't killing our children


The usually-cynical writer and futurist says everything is amazing, and it's making science fiction harder to write

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warren ellis
warren ellis

Warren Ellis is a sardonic English comic and book author who has attracted a cult following through dark, smart classics like Transmetropolitan, a cyberpunk take on gonzo journalism and The Authority, a bold superhero comic marked by wide panels and cinematic violence. The "beloved internet curmudgeon," as Vice dubbed him, also maintains a vocal presence on Twitter, Tumblr, and his personal website, as well as in places like Vice, Reuters, and Wired. His pet subjects include space travel and the comics industry, but he's often in his best form when griping about social media fads, plugging odd Kickstarter projects, or just tweeting about being hungover.

Ellis has a new novel coming out in January, called Gun Machine, a detective story about an apartment stacked with guns connected to unsolved murders that spirals into a vast institutional conspiracy. Fox bought the television rights, sight unseen. Ellis took time out of his jam-packed schedule to answer a few questions about the present, the past, and of course, the future.

Your new novel, Gun Machine, is set in the present day. Are you losing your enthusiasm for futurism?

I think of it as "near-as-damnit present day." There's a few little spots of temporal weirdness in there. But, you know, I also wrote Fell and Scars, which were straight-ahead crime (graphic) novels like this one. I like to write a crime book every now and then.

"Futurism's gotten harder to write, because the future arrives so quickly."

Futurism's gotten harder to write, because the future arrives so quickly — even a few years ago, I was having to rewrite comics on the fly because the future had caught up to their speculation before the damn book had been drawn — but it's too much fun to drop for long. The next novel will likely have a bit more of Our Doooomed Future in it.

Speaking of the future arriving, you've been interested in the New Aesthetic art movement that started in the UK. Can you shed some light on it for those of us across the pond?

I'm less than half as smart as the people involved in identifying and discussing the New Aesthetic, so I'm probably the last person you should be asking. See, I don't think it's a "movement," not as we commonly understand "artistic movements." I think the New Aesthetic is a series of observations. I think most of the trouble people have had with it comes from a misunderstanding of it as a movement.

The New Aesthetic is an act of noticing, as much as anything: we are already in a machine-vision world, we are already in a world where the digital is erupting into the physical, and we just didn't really notice it, in the entire breadth of its creeping wave, until now. From my perspective, James Bridle collected all this shit up from public sources, put it all in one place for the first time and said "oh, shit." Some people had real issues, it seems, with what James did next, which was to say, "Let's start talking about what this means."

It could become an artistic movement. But, to me, the New Aesthetic is about the sighting of the New Normal.

You recently gave an inspirational speech in which you encouraged people to "Act like you live in the Science Fiction Condition." How can we do this, practically, other than gushing about the miracles of technology every time we use our iPhones?

To some extent, I want to say "see above."

Seriously, just take five minutes a day to make yourself look around. Just a couple of minutes to be where you are, take it in, and compare it to memories of ten, twenty years ago. I'm in the middle of writing a thing for Vice right now, and I opened it by talking about how we can measure the contemporary day by the things that have become absent. Things we perhaps only notice peripherally.

For instance, here in Britain, the soundtrack of every single early morning (except Sundays) was the hum and crunch of a milk float. I don't know if you had these in the States? Electric light vehicles stacked with crates of milk for doorstep delivery. Twenty years ago they were a permanent feature of the soundscape. Today they're almost all gone, because home delivery got killed by cheap milk in supermarkets. So, if you're of a certain age, there's a gap in the ambient soundscape. That denotes futuricity (which may not be a word) just as strongly as the absence of great mountains of horseshit in our cities denoted a futuristic condition in the 1950s.

Even if we are living in the Science Fiction Condition, there must be some things we haven’t anticipated. Do you have any predictions based on the narcissistic obsession with social media? I think a lot of people would like to know if it's killing our children, for example.

I think the great joy of it is that there will be some things we don't anticipate. That's also the great scary thing, too.

I mean, on the evidence I have on hand at home, social media isn't killing our children. It isn't killing families, either, because the constant long bloody phone calls that parents complained to their teenagers about in decades past are gone. Social media — and my kid and her friends use them fairly judiciously, and avoid Facebook, which fascinates me — enables an endless rolling group conversation that shifts protocols from virtual to real time. They continue daytime conversations on their apps and pick them up at school the next morning, and they police group interaction online as carefully as they would in the common room or wherever. And this certainly doesn't stop my kid from having conversations at home, even if it's only to denounce me for some foul infraction or other.

"Social media isn't killing our children."

I try to avoid prediction. It's a mug's game, and not (from my perspective) the point of science fiction. I mean, I could call out simple stuff like the potential for sheet computers, which will be the foldable, rollable version of the tablet. Or the possibility of civic drone flocks, loaded with sensors and staying in the air for months at a time, but reporting environment and alerts to street-level phone apps and tv screens. I could talk about the early stages of protocell engineering and synthetic biology, and the chances to test the idea of growing a building.

But you were talking about social media. And social media's in a bad place right now. Most people have gotten next to the fact that the transaction is as follows: we get given great tools to use for "free," in return for handing over certain streams of data about ourselves. A friend of mine recently extrapolated that out, in a think-tank session about the future of the city, as "Facebook as citizenship," as it were. Reversing the proposition a bit: unless you turn over your rolling personal data stream, you don't get access to social services. Which is a thought that, when you see Facebook becoming the default login system for apps and services, can make you a wee bit paranoid.

On the other hand: Facebook uses our data to convince brands to pay for advertising on the service, but also demands that brands pay extra money to have that Brand's page reach all the people who clicked Like on it. Which, eventually, someone will get angry about.

Twitter's in an awfully similar boat, in that it needs to make A Lot Of Money, but all its monetization plans seem designed to piss everyone off. And if you're one of the global brands that Twitter desperately needs to keep afloat, then you may eventually think twice about paying A Lot Of Money to wade into a sea of, at best, indifference.

So you could have the extrapolation that you'll need to log into Facebook to take a piss at the train station instead of paying thirty pence but your timeline will be jammed with ads when you open your phone, or the one that says that in four years Twitter will be a noble Roman ruin, revered as the last great social service that could claim to earn hundreds of millions but somehow never made anyone a penny.

You're very active on Twitter, Tumblr, your blog, etc., but you're still incredibly prolific. How do you keep the internet from distracting you from work?

Not as active as I used to be. I think blogging is a muscle that most people wear out. Also, Twitter's taken over the curational role in large part, so that the interesting weird stuff comes to me rather than me having to seek it out and paste it on my blog so I don't lose it. Tumblr's my visual notebook, these days.

"For me, the internet's like music. I don't like working without it."

But, really, for me, the internet's like music. I don't like working without it. I will tune it out for hours at a time, as I get lost in the work, but I'd know if it wasn't there. If that makes sense.

What’s your media diet?

I read the Guardian on the iPad every morning, and usually skim Foreign Policy and BBC News as well as taking a topsight of and Google+ and Facebook have failed me as any kind of content source, sadly, though I live in hope that I will eventually find friends and acquaintances who post things on those services that aren't about their cats or genitals. And then I'll go through most of the last eight hours or so of Twitter, which is where the story surfacing happens for me. I've got a podcast playing on the phone while this happens, which will either be new music or something cultural like In Our Time.

I go through The Economist and the Times Literary Supplement once a week, London Review Of Books every two weeks, and The Wire and National Geographic once a month, on iPad and Kindle. I've got a hundred feeds in Google Reader that usually all get processed by the end of each week, which is where I find most of my new music and arts coverage, tech stuff, opinion, and, you know, weird shit.

Like everyone, I fall behind — I should actually be listening through a couple of podcasts right now, but Hacker Farm just emailed me a new record they want me to write a liner note for, so I'm listening to that while I write this, instead...

Interview has been condensed and edited.