Scratch Activism

This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 03, which highlights the unexpected artists moving culture forward today.

Somewhere between Earth now and Mars when (2026, according to Mars One) is a new dimension of pop culture inspired by science fiction and fueled by the desire—and need—for a new now. So strap on your seat belts and come along on a fantastic voyage into the not-so-distant future of infrared highs, on-demand dreams, and robot ethics (because robots are people, too, you know).


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Issue 03 • 2017 Get Issue 03

Earthlings & Otherkin

Sitting in New Orleans with a motley crew of 20somethings (think: cartoonist, grad student, bike messenger, jazz tubaist, and the like), conversation got deep. Vince, an artist and musician, kicked things off: “I still look at all science and all facts that we agree with as Earth facts.” This lead to a debate about the relativity of truth, expanding worlds, and existence. Seth, a pink-haired bike messenger in a dress, questioned whether we were real or a figment of his imagination (in fairness, we were all a few glasses in). Others disagreed, saying that while we may not exist, “You could make scientific conjectures by touching us, feeling us, hearing us, seeing us.” Mae, a PhD in evolutionary biology, was more clear-cut: “I find science to be truth, or as close to truth as we can get. It’s systematic and heavily vetted.”

This type of debate among grad students and the cultural fringe isn’t that surprising. But lately, we seem to be heading down the metaphysical rabbit hole a lot more often. What began one year ago with teens talking to us about BasedWorld, higher consciousness, and the universe (“I’m trying to figure out how, exactly, the forces of the universe work,” said Shae, then 17), inspiring us to write Indigo Kids (see Humanly, Issue 2), has only picked up steam. Case in point: Last year, Vogue listed “cleaning out bad energy” as the most popular New Year’s resolution; Stranger Things, the zeitgeisty Goonies-meets-X Files Netflix series, jumped to a top TV show among young people; and Jaden Smith, who has been tweeting philosophical ever since his riff on existence to T Magazine in 2014, landed on Time magazine’s Most Influential Teens list. The year finished with “spacey” baby names, like Cosmos and Mars, climbing the charts, according to BabyCenter’s 2016 roundup. And somewhere along the way, Neil deGrasse Tyson and the rapper B.o.B got into a Twitter spat turned rap battle about the flat Earth theory—a world view that soon swept through the NBA, including the Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, the Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, and the All-Star Shaquille O’Neal. You can’t make this shit up.

Cut to 2017, and the trend shows no signs of slowing: Tarot cards are having a renaissance, and Akashic record readings—an intuitive energy practice—are next to take off, according to Nylon’s wellness trends of 2017 list. Trendsetters are talking about natural highs from infrared treatments (see sidebar); spending their lunch breaks floating in sensory deprivation tanks; and burning copal incense, made from the resin of Bursera trees, to stave off energy blockages. Even Mark Zuckerberg announced this January that he’s found God—or at least is no longer an atheist. Simply put, metaphysics has gone mainstream: 85% of millennials and Gen Zs agree, “Everything is relative.”

New York City's HigherDOSE
I think many of us have profound experiences that seem to transcend the physical Earth realm. It feels more logical to believe that there are metaphysical realms all around us, coexisting. Jed, 30, Portland, OR
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New York City’s HigherDOSE, which promotes its service with the tag line “Get hot. Get high” and counts Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams, and myriad models as patrons, uses heaters that emit the same rays as sunlight (minus those pesky UV rays). The benefits supposedly include better skin, lower blood pressure, the release of toxins, and of course, feeling “blazed”—pun intended.

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I would much prefer to have the fate of the world rest in the hands of a team of scientists than in a group of tarot and palm readers. Dan, 27, Brooklyn

Meanwhile, there’s equal momentum brewing on the other side of the philosophical fence. Jeremy, a 32-year-old entrepreneur and extreme foodie in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, complained that he’s fed up with the “postfact era.” After a rant about SNAGs (aka Sensitive New Age Guys), he echoed Mae’s sentiments from the NOLA discussion: “One of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment was the development of facts, a corpus of knowledge that was seen as objective, that everybody could agree on, a foundation to base things on. I feel that foundation has been eroded.” He has a point. Fake news made national headlines during the 2016 election, and the Oxford Dictionaries dubbed post-truth the word of the year. The result is
a palpable craving for science: 60% of 18- to 39-year-olds say they crave science over art (40%), and 43% of Zs say they are pursuing or plan to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (this compares with 35% who are opting for the liberal arts route). Citizen scientists are hitting the streets to help the pros gather data on water, stars, animals, and more (see Scratch Activism, page 40), and last year then-president Obama injected a massive $4 billion into computer science programs through his Computer Science for All Act. Earth Day 2017 was marked by the March for Science, a nonpartisan rally to celebrate science that took place in more than 600 cities around the world. Back to baby names, STEM-inspired options like Newton, Edison, Darwin, and Elon (as in Musk) are also trending—right alongside Cosmos and Mars.

So, which is it? Or, perhaps, more aptly, what’s the meaning of it all?

Weird Science

Beyond the search for meaning (more on that later), these divergent movements are combining to create a new cultural wave that mixes the best of both worlds: science and fiction, machine and art, neo-spirituality and just plain facts. The result—and the first stop on our journey—is a range of wild and otherworldly creations, all coming soon to planet Earth.

Take, for instance, Google’s recently launched Magenta program, which uses the company’s machine learning system to crunch out melodies. Magenta’s purpose is to explore the relationship between technology and art, a burgeoning field dubbed AC, or Artificial Creativity, by techies. Similarly, Sony’s Computer Science Laboratories is using algorithms to create custom tracks. Drawing on a list of 13,000 songs, algorithms analyze which notes, beats, and rhythms work best together and then produce new compositions based on a user’s musical taste. While some critics say AC takes the art out of, well, art, the French composer Benoît Carré, who is partnering with Sony on its CSL project, disagrees, calling it “a new creativity.” Google isn’t quite as bullish. It admits it has no idea what will result from Magenta, but that’s the point: “We don’t know what artists and musicians will do with these new tools, but we’re excited to find out,” the Google Brain team writes on its Magenta web page. “Look at the history of creative tools. Surely Rickenbacker and Gibson didn’t have Jimi Hendrix or St. Vincent
in mind.” Touché.

An example of designer Patrick Ian Hartley’s face “corsets”

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The designer Patrick Ian Hartley’s face “corsets” distort the facial features of the wearer (think: two sets of lips, exaggerated cheekbones, and elaborate neck armor) to create a sci-fi meets sadomasochism look.

Futuristic food is also having a moment. The Silicon Valley start-up Memphis Meats blends science and culinary arts to cook up (technically, lab grow), you guessed it, meat. While faux meat has been talked about conceptually for years, it could be on grocery-store shelves by 2021, according to representatives from the company. Already, Memphis Meats has successfully grown small amounts of meat using cells harvested from cows, pigs, and chickens, and last year it made waves when it revealed “the world’s first cultured meatball.” If fake meatballs aren’t your thing, there’s also Project Nourished (see Humanly, Issue 2), a “gastronomical virtual reality experience,” in which users strap on an Oculus Rift to trick their brains into thinking algae jelly is, say, hanger steak (more on mind hacking later, but for the record, we’re on Team Meatball).

At a more basic level, the sci-fi aesthetic is permeating pop culture: The designer Patrick Ian Hartley recently debuted a line of otherworldly facial “corsets” (see page 57). Pastel goth, a trippy take on the goth movement (think: Effie Trinket meets Marilyn Manson), continues to trend, with more than one million tags on Instagram. And the rapper Lil Yachty’s videos—the visual inspiration for this trend—have an intergalactic vibe, or, at the very least, feel like they’re from another planet.

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The National Geographic miniseries Mars, which premiered late last year, blends fact and fantasy. Set in 2033, it follows humanity’s first (fictional) colonization of Mars, anchored in real-world interviews with scientists, photos from the International Space Station, and links to related material.

Fi-Sci

Science fiction’s influence on culture runs deeper than rainbow hair and virtual steak. The marketing agency SciFutures sees it as an innovation game changer. The consultancy works with 100 science fiction writers to “dream up preferred future narratives” for its clients. Like thinking outside the universe rather than the proverbial box, SciFutures’s fantasy-forward approach to ideation helps companies “work backwards from a [future] narrative to dream up bolder ideas… and a much more interesting and challenging path forward.” The founder and CEO, Ari Popper, admitted to us that he thought people would laugh at him when he launched the concept. But five years in—and several Fortune 500 companies later (the firm counts Visa, Ford, and Hershey’s, among others, as clients)—it’s working. SciFutures’s best-known project is the Holoroom, a collaboration with Lowe’s Innovation Labs, in which shoppers are able to “see” how various remodeling plans would look in their own homes simply by donning Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets. While not yet a reality in most Lowe’s stores, it’s oddly reminiscent of the holodeck frequented by characters on Star Trek.

This is not the first time that businesses have tapped into the Star Trek set for inspiration. Sci-fi fantasy has played a key role in creating reality throughout history: Submarines, Skype, and iPods were all dreamed up in the writing rooms of science fiction authors before they were churned out by engineers. And it was the fictional writings about space travel that inspired the creation of NASA—not the other way around. As for the Lowes, foray into virtual reality? The Oculus chief scientist, Michael Abrash, credits The Matrix with proving VR’s viability.

Dubai office interior photo Dubai office exterior photo

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Dubai’s Museum of the Future revealed “the world’s first 3-D printed building” in May of last year. The 2500-square-foot building was printed in 17 days and installed in 2 days for $140,000 and used half the typical human labor.

Although fiction’s influence on science isn’t entirely novel, digital technology is giving it a huge boost. Instead of dreaming up the future on a typewriter, futurists now have screens and social collaboration to super-fuel creation. This marks the second stop on our voyage: rapid prototyping reality.

Already, social media has been an incubation lab and a production studio for the design of new genders (hundreds on Tumblr alone), sexual orientations (saposexuality, for instance), and racial identities (Blaxican, for example), each of which emerged within virtual communities before taking shape in real-world ones (see High Stakes ID, Humanly Issue 2). Next up: digitally produced cities. In May 2016, Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of UAE and the ruler of Dubai, opened the Office of the Future, touted as the first 3-D printed building in the world. It was created by a 20-foot-high 3-D printer that “prints” buildings to scale (see sidebar). Dubai plans to construct 25% of the city’s buildings with 3-D printers by 2030. This April, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that it, too, had created a robotic system that can build the basic structure of a building in less than 14 hours. In Stranger Things speak, it’s a digital upside-down world, where computer screens are portals through which otherworldly creations are zapped to Earth. If that’s too geeky to get your head around, think of it as Frank Lloyd Wright constructing Fallingwater by hitting the Enter key.

An electrode from Halo Neuroscience’s Halo Sport headset, which hacks the brain to push physical limits.

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An electrode from Halo Neuroscience’s Halo Sport headset, which hacks the brain to push physical limits.

Biohacking

Like any good trip, this fantastic voyage has highs and lows—and no shortage of ethical in-betweens. Chrissy Teigen and John Legend famously chose the gender of their firstborn (a girl), bringing new attention to—and heated debate over—the pros and cons of PGD (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis) and NGS (Next-Generation Sequencing). The pros include advance learning about the genetic health of an embryo. The cons: all that could go wrong when helicopter parents customize their kids.

Genetic modification aside (admittedly, it’s a bit beyond our pay grade), biotech is fueling a whole new realm of mind and body hacking, the third stop on our trip.

Late last year, the San Francisco start-up Halo Neuroscience released its neuro-priming headset, Halo Sport. Like Adderall for jocks, the Beats-like headgear promises to help professional athletes—and us regular folks, too—run faster, jump higher, and learn quicker, no prescription required (techy details made simple: electric stimulation to the user’s brain supercharges physical learning). While some skeptics doubt its effectiveness, Olympians, NFL players, and gaming geeks alike say it works. It sold out on preorder last summer and is now available for $749. The company cofounder and CEO, Daniel Chao, told Rolling Stone that enhancing physical abilities “is the tip of the iceberg.” He asks: “What if you could learn to speak Chinese faster? Think of all of the things you’d like to learn, but it takes too much time.”

But just because we can do something, should we?

We spoke with Moran Cerf, a professor of business and neuroscience at Northwestern University, about the possibilities and pitfalls of mind hacking. According to Cerf, what neuro-priming does—in layman’s terms—is override the brain’s natural instincts: Instead of your brain telling your body to stop, it says to keep running, jumping, learning—you get the idea. Cerf, who has been studying the possibilities of mind control during sleep states, does see the potential. For example, he’s found that by exposing smokers to smells of both nicotine and rotten eggs at the exact right moment in REM cycles, they’ll be less inclined to light up. He also says we are just a few years shy of being able to program our dreams, Netflix style (hello sexual fantasies, good-bye nightmares!). But he warns that these advancements aren’t without serious ethical considerations: “We can think of bad applications: people making you love them or making you want something you didn’t want before. Right now, there is no legalization or policy around how it can be used.”

Body hacking also presents an ethical conundrum. On the one hand, mechanical parts could be life-changing for some: The BMXer Steven Sanchez, paralyzed from the waist down in a biking accident, took his first steps (again) with SuitX’s Phoenix, a 27-pound, $40,000 exoskeleton. On the other hand, it’s a slippery slope into a cyborg reality: The color-blind artist Neil Harbisson had an antenna implanted into his brain so he could train his eyes to “hear” color. Moon Ribas, a self-described cyborg activist, implanted a magnet into her elbow to feel earthquake tremors from around the world in real time. She’s now considering toe implants to take her “seismic sense” to the next level. While these “upgrades” are harmless on an individual basis (minus the surgery, of course), they beg the question: Are we on the verge of creating a class of superhumans, individuals who can afford to be physically and mentally superior? And what about those who can’t?

Neil Harbisson wearing his cyborg antenna

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Neil Harbisson, an artist who implanted an antenna into his skull, is recognized by the British government as a cyborg.

I (Heart), Robot

Moving on from cyborgs to the last stop on our voyage, let’s address the robot in the room.

A few years back, we met then-new Jibo, the world’s first social robot for the home. It (he, she, xe?) was pretty darn cute. Jibo has thus far failed to make it stateside, but since Jibo’s “birth,” several new robots have come to market. Among the more intriguing are Hasbro’s new line of pet robots, designed as companions for the elderly, and Toyota Motor’s robot child, created to appeal to the growing ranks of the childless in Japan.

This influx of artificial intelligence has opened up a hot new debate about whether robots are, legally speaking, human. In response, early this year, the European Union’s Legal Affairs Committee report called for creating an agency and rules governing the legal and ethical uses of robots. Tech giants, too, are joining forces to better understand the implications of AI in everyday life: Google, IBM, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and others have come together to create the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society (let’s call it POAITBPAS for short), with the mission of studying and developing best practices in the areas of ethics, fairness, privacy, and collaboration between people and AI systems.

But let’s get back to Earth and the meaning of it all.

In the name of sustainability, 15% of millennials and Gen Zs would opt for a robot pet over a real one. 9% would try out a robot baby.

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Exoskeletons, such as SuitX’s Phoenix model and the EksoGT (shown here), help paraplegics walk again.

UNIVERSAL TRUTHS

Late last year, Stephen Hawking—the king of sci-fi himself—gave humanity’s chance for survival on Earth an expiration date of 3016. In his words: “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” With this in mind, the fantastic voyage is, arguably, a necessary one. Let’s agree: Before rocketing to Mars—a planet best known for massive dust storms and sub zero weather (the average temp is a cool 81°F below zero)—most of us will give faux meat and robot pets a try. All joking aside, sustainability is what drives many of the innovations on our voyage. Printing homes is not only faster and cheaper than building them the old-fashioned way, it also reduces waste generated from construction by up to 60 percent. Furthermore, it’s a low-cost solution to building homes for the some 9.7 billion people expected to populate Earth by 2050 (that’s two billion more than today). Infrared highs and dream therapy could be less costly ways to address addiction, which has numerous negative social and environmental side effects. And those meatballs? Memphis Meats claims they use up to 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, consume fewer nutrients from the Earth, and don’t require antibiotics or other additives that are used in traditional meat production. Interestingly, 24% of millennials and Gen Zs say they’d give them a try—and 57% would prefer faux meat to no meat (43%).

These environmental and social realities aren’t lost on the next generation. Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez became a climate-change activist at age six. Now 16, he was one of 21 teen activists who famously sued the Obama administration for failing to ditch fossil fuels. And Vince, from our New Orleans discussion, told us: “I’ve had conversations with people who are studying oceanography. They had the most depressing look on their faces, like the kind of look that you can’t fake...a complete depression because where we are sitting right now is going to be underwater in 40 to 50 years. It’s going to happen.” He moved to New Orleans to witness what he describes as a modern-day Atlantis. With several top cities expected to be underwater within the century, it will most likely fall on Gen Zs to dream up a feat of sci-fi–inspired engineering to keep New York, Miami, and Los Angeles dry.

Beyond environmental concerns, at the heart of this fantastic voyage is a quest for inspiration and a new now. Three-quarters (79%) of millennials and Zs agree that the last decade has been downright depressing, and an equal 80% say they are soul-searching for a new way forward. If nothing else, science fiction is good for just that. Hawking’s advice? “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

The (Future) Ethical Line

We asked 1,000 millennials and Gen Zs whether the following future scenarios were ethically sound. According to respondents, electrical brain stimulation, dream programming and robot assistants are all A-Ok. What crosses the line? Customizing your kids (we agree) and making Adderall prescription free.

  • 73% Electrical stimulation to help quit an addictive habit
  • 63% Customizing, or programming, dreams
  • 62% Electrical stimulation to aid quicker learning
  • 57% Tech implants to provide superhuman strength or senses
  • 55% Hiring a robot assistant rather than a human assistant
  • 52% Electrical stimulation to increase physical abilities
  • 48% Customizing the physical features of a child
  • 47% Preselecting the gender of a child
  • 45% Making Adderall over-the-counter
  • Numbers represent percent who believe the scenario is ethical.

This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 03, which highlights the unexpected artists moving culture foward today.

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