The Grim Meathook Future

People have been asking about the origin of the phrase "Grim Meathook Future" that I've been tagging posts with for a while now; it is the creation of one Joshua Ellis, who wrote the following. This isn't on his site, and I like it, so I might as well paste it here for posterity: Update: Joshua put the longer version on his site: Update 2: And then he changed the URL, because he doesn't know what the "U" stands for:

I think the problem is that the future, maybe for the first time since WWII, lies on the far side of an event horizon for us, because there are so many futures possible. There’s the wetware future, the hardware future, the transhumanist future, the post-rationalist (aka fundamentalist) future.

And then there’s the future where everything just sort of keeps going on the way it has, with incremental changes, and technology is no longer the deciding factor in things. You don’t need high tech to change the world; you need Semtex and guns that were designed by a Russian soldier fifty-odd years ago.

Meanwhile, most of the people with any genuine opportunity or ability to effect global change are too busy patting each other on the back at conventions and blue-skying goofy social networking tools that are essentially useless to 95% of the world’s population, who live within fifteen feet of everyone they’ve ever known and have no need to track their fuck buddies with GPS systems. (This, by the way, includes most Americans, quite honestly.)

You can’t blame them for this, because it’s fun and it’s a great way to travel and get paid, but it doesn’t actually help solve any real problems, except the problem of media theory grad students, which the rest of the world isn’t really interested in solving.

Feeding poor people is useful tech, but it’s not very sexy and it won’t get you on the cover of Wired. Talk about it too much and you sound like an earnest hippie. So nobody wants to do that.

They want to make cell phones that can scan your personal measurements and send them real-time to potential sex partners. Because, you know, the fucking Japanese teenagers love it, and Japanese teenagers are clearly the smartest people on the planet.

The upshot of all of this is that the Future gets divided; the cute, insulated future that Joi Ito and Cory Doctorow and you and I inhabit, and the grim meathook future that most of the world is facing, in which they watch their squats and under-developed fields get turned into a giant game of Counterstrike between crazy faith-ridden jihadist motherfuckers and crazy faith-ridden American redneck motherfuckers, each doing their best to turn the entire world into one type of fascist nightmare or another.

Of course, nobody really wants to talk about that future, because it’s depressing and not fun and doesn’t have Fischerspooner doing the soundtrack. So everybody pretends they don’t know what the future holds, when the unfortunate fact is that — unless we start paying very serious attention — it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.

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58 Responses:

  1. postmaudlin says:

    nicely encapsulated. concise. elegant. like a shiv. thanks. :)

  2. [Holds up lighter in rock-concert tribute]

    • On cue, from the NYTimes:

      WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 - The House of Representatives rushed through a $6.1 billion package of hurricane-related tax breaks today, sending the bill to the Senate, whose members also planned to pass it quickly.


      One cut being considered is a delay in the start of the new Medicare prescription drug coverage for one year to save $31 billion and eliminating $25 billion in projects from the newly enacted transportation measure. The list also proposes...ending support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

      Because a great way to make it up to the poor folk who got their clocks cleaned by the hurricane is to cut Medicaid. And if they hurry up with the elimination of public broadcasting, maybe there won't be as much bad news following Rita.

      • wsxyz says:

        One cut being considered is a delay in the start of the new MediCARE prescription drug coverage for one year

        Because a great way to make it up to the poor folk who got their clocks cleaned by the hurricane is to cut MediCAID.

        Hopefully the adult reading programs will be fully funded.

        • Five of one, half a dozen of the other.

          • darkengobot says:

            Actually, the Medicare prescription drug program isn't the same thing as Medicaid at all. Medicaid is for the poor--Medicare prescription drug is for the richest per-capita section of the population, but who also vote regularly and reliably. Vote-buying is vote-buying, and IMO it's more heinous to cater to a large voting block with government goodies so that you can maintain your power than it is to give tax breaks to corporations.

            Corporations at least have payrolls. Old farts just clog up Denny's and wield their AARP cards like shurikens.

            • Actually, the Medicare prescription drug program isn't the same thing as Medicaid at all.

              Yeah, I realized my typo and was apparently too subtle in my self deprecation -- 'specially since I didn't do poor old folks.

              Anyway, base point still stands: the Big Help sent by the neo-cons is actually a tax-break bonanza and opportunity grab at program killing. It's arguably good to give something to small businesses to spark job growth in the area, but to me it just smacks of more of the same failed trickle-down program.

  3. autodidactic says:

    "Grim meathook future" sounds a lot like growing up in Anacostia, circa 1979-1982.

    And, Fischerspooner sounds like they sniff Giorgio Moroder's jockstrap for inspiration. This doesn't mean I don't like them, somewhat, but...


    • relaxing says:

      since Giogio isn't making records anymore I welcome any record smelling remotely like his jockstrap.

      • king_mob says:

        I believe the point was more "How futuristic is retro disco, exactly?" Not that I don't kinda like Fischerspooner too, the little I've heard, but I'm really, really not Mr. Dance Music Guy.

        My own tangential observation would be that punk rock clearly failed and I have lived far too long.

        • relaxing says:

          The point of the article was that at this moment you, I, and Cory Doctorow (or some reasonable caricature of that trio) want Fischerspooner playing in our future, rather than whatever grim meathook folk music undoubtedly awaits.

          My point was that being "retro" does not in itself make music good or bad, but anyway fuck it I've got to go do some more cocaine before oil prices make it too expensive to import.

  4. I'd throw in that Hunter S. Thompson used the phrase "grim meat hook reality" in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, this feels like a reasonable extrapolation of the phrase. Nice little essay.

  5. saltdawg says:

    Very well put.

    While the rest of the world is distracted by all this middle-east hoo-ha, The battle lines for the real opening batttlefields of the 'grim meathook future', eastern africa, are falling quietly into place.

  6. jcterminal says:

    this is excellent. thank you.

  7. ultranurd says:

    Thanks! I googled it, but was confused by hits for different people named Ellis. TSOR failed me, but your explanation is great.

  8. pavel_lishin says:

    It's scary that I recognize the authors and the band. Makes me feel... like... i'm in tune with some sort of culture, God Forbid.

  9. It's... wow.. I mean.. um.. wow.

  10. wetzel says:

    it's pathetic, but every time i see that phrase i think of this meathook.

  11. So what's the difference between "grim meathook future" and "doomed"?


    • jwz says:

      Well, the "grim meathook future" is a very specific, peak-oil-and-fascism sort of doomed. "Doomed" covers all sorts of upsetting eventualities, like man-made black holes, killdozers, and our new robot overlords.

      I don't pretend that my categories are the most concise possible.

      • babynutcase says:

        Natural gas is going to become a crisis before oil does. The reason is that you can transport oil on ships around the world with relative ease compared to the ability to first expend energy freezing natural gas into a liquid, putting it on a ship as a highly explosive cargo then expending energy to re-gassify it once it arrives at the destination. So far only one shipment of natural gas from Russia has arrived in the US. When natural gas is not available in North America then there will be shortages.

  12. transgress says:

    Of course, nobody really wants to talk about that future, because it's depressing and not fun and doesn't have Fischerspooner doing the soundtrack. So everybody pretends they don't know what the future holds, when the unfortunate fact is that -- unless we start paying very serious attention -- it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.

    I only wish I could write a response that was as graceful, honest, and insightful.

  13. valacosa says:

    "Feeding poor people is useful tech, but it's not very sexy and it won't get you on the cover of Wired. Talk about it too much and you sound like an earnest hippie. So nobody wants to do that."

    I would say it's very difficult to make money off of poor people, but very easy to make money off of horny Japanese teenagers.

    Very well written piece.

  14. ciphergoth says:

    Also, of course, poor people do not primarily go hungry through lack of technology.

    • cananian says:

      What the fuck is that supposed to mean?

      The third-world is a technological wasteland. There are *millions* of subsistence farmers who can't grow enough to feed their family, but could if they had access to, say, modern agricultural techniques (which is certainly a form of technology). Millions more die because they don't have clean water -- and wells and purification are sure as hell technology. Browse through ThinkCycle if you need a ton more examples of simple technology which the underprivileged desperately need. Of course, you may not think that low cost eyeglasses, better sand filters, cheap IV drip controls for cholera treatments, or passive incubators are sexy technology, but technology they are, and poor people definitely need it. People don't want to invest in it. But there is plenty of technology which could help.

      Even if you mean "email and computers" by your use of technology, I can assure you that these are used and useful in the third world as well. Small farmers can make more money (thus feed their families better) if they know the prices of their crops in surrounding communities. They can't afford to take a week off from tending their crops to walk around and survey the prices. One project here is trying to supply extremely low-cost solar-powered email stations to connect villages so that farmers can know their markets better. These also help get medical aid, etc, to the rural communities when it is needed. When your mother is sick, walking three days to the nearest hospital and then walking three days back with the medicines for your mother is no fun, let me assure you. Most of these projects rely on a sneaker-net/pony-express style of message transfer, since there is no network infrastructure. But store-and-forward email works just fine as long as there are some people making regular rounds of the villages.

      It's easy to say, "oh, technology can't help" but it *can*. As a higher-level example, wireless technologies are a godsend to the third world, because they can't afford to install wired infrastructure. (Heck, even MIT can't afford wired infrastructure: they are giving up on trying to upgrade their wires and moving their entire dormitory network to wireless.) The third world has really impressive cell-phone penetration, because the national telcos are corrupt, incompetent, unreliable, and habitually ignore poor areas (because they can't afford to bribe their local bureaucrats). Similarly, email is much more reliable than the national postal services (although it doesn't work so well for packages).

      • I assume <lj user="ciphergoth">'s point is that there's already enough food calories being produced in the world, it's just that no one in power has any particular incentive to distribute the food evenly. Why are you responding so angrily?

        • cananian says:

          Because it seemed a cheap "well I can't do anything about it" cop-out, since I would guess that most of the readers of this blog are technologists, not politicians. Even if we can't fix the food distribution problem (global politics), we can certainly *do something*, and we can even use the *technology* we have/know.

          If the comment was meant as just a cynical aside, then my anger stands. If it was making some other point entirely (or was just ill-informed) then I'll apologize.

          • It's kindof wallpapering over the cracks though, innit. If you have a social problem (unfair distribution of calories, say) then chances are a technological solution is just a profitable way to postpone or ignore the social solution.

            It's like trying to solve inner-city smog by proposing that SUVs be required to use hybrid engines, rather than by restricting downtown traffic. It's a great solution from the point of view of the car manufacturers, coz they get to make people buy new cars. But it doesn't solve the problem. Traffic just keeps scaling up.

            The whole point of the meathook is that technology is not the answer, it's the distraction from the question. Obey the meathook.

            • There's a solid Health Care Engineering stream at my grad school, and I sat in the first lecture of one of the classes the other day. The prof has spent much time in the third world, and emphasized the problem with 'poisoned gifts', where unscrupulous companies give fancy equipment to countries that can't afford to actually run them.

              A huge part of being an engineer is finding the cheapest solution that solves the problem, and a big part of health care is coming up with new, cheaper, safe diagnostic and treatment tools. Also look into Engineers Without Borders.

              Technology doesn't cop out, people cop out.

          • mark242 says:

            That response shows why you're (we're) part of the Cory Doctorow side of the grim meathook equation. I'm sorry, but coding up novel new uses for consuming Flickr photos doesn't mean jack shit to the refugee in Darfur. And I'm pretty sure that the woman locked in her attic in New Orleans doesn't really care about the DRM in her DVD player.

            As for "we can certainly *do something*" -- yeah, we can, absolutely. We give money to organizations that know that the answer is getting feet on the ground and meals on (makeshift) tables.

            • darkengobot says:

              Dunno how much we can do. Giving money to organizations is a lot like an appeal to sorcery. "Well, I tossed *my* virgin into the volcano--if it erupts, it sure won't be *my* fault."

              Whether those organizations can actually do anything or not is often dependent on the country in question not being run by corrupt sociopath dictators. Getting rid of corrupt sociopath dictators requires either A) a long, uncertain process dependent on international diplomatic pressure; or B) a short, uncertain process dependent on military might. Well, I guess there's always C) God turns said sociopath dictator into a donkey, but that hasn't happened since Nebuchadnezzar.

            • cananian says:

              Um, I certainly didn't mention Flickr in my post. Wrt DRM -- I would say that wikipedia (for instance) is a heck of a lot more useful to poor folk than a DRM'ed Brittanica. If you want to prevent pervasive DRM from eventually swallowing up wikipedia, more power to you. But the refugees in Darfur (or New Orleans, or Galveston) *would* like an application to help them locate and contact lost family members. That can be done with code, and that does help real people. I refuse to lump that together java sex-locators on 3G phones.

      • saltdawg says:

        The technology that powers my six hundred and sixteen foot ship, the technology that helps us navigate from Galveston or Lake Charles or where ever we load our 41,054 short tons of cargo to Africa certianly helps distribute the calories.

        And I'm going to generalize here, and most people won't understand unless they have seen the way they live through tradition over there, but it's rare that folks there want to work, even for subsistance. They would take your non-sexy technology and find some way they could make a quick buck off of it instead of using it as intended.

        But that's just my thoughts on the matter. I'm just a simple seaman.

  15. lovingboth says:

    There are other crazies mostly in bits of the world that the US isn't interested in, but yeah.

    I always thought Goodnight Lover was Fluke's pitch for doing a Bond soundtrack.

  16. baconmonkey says:

    right song:
    The Cure - "Meathook" from "Three Imaginary Boys", 1979

  17. lohphat says:

    ...where can you get one of those phones?

  18. susano_otter says:

    This "grim meathook future" is just shorthand for what has consistently been the human experience, in all its ups and downs and all its successes and failures, since the dawn of time?

    Sounds like a pretty unrealistic (and pessimistic) view of a process that has brought more polio vaccines to more people with every passing decade.

    And a greater percentage of people today are part of the wealthy elite, by historical standards, than in the middle ages, or in slave-powered ancient Egypt? Oh noes! Teh grim meathooke future si upon us!!etc.

    • jwz says:

      You know what, though? That which has consistently been the human experience has been endless toil, disease, and early death under the boot of a dictator. This is, in fact, still the case in most of the world today. I hope that the last hundred years or so of industrialized society are not just a blip, but that's far from assured.

      Energy Curve of History?

      The Past Sucks. Call it "business as usual" all you like, it still sucks and I don't want to go there.

  19. shadowblue says:

    I've seen other people reference "grim meathook x", and I always assumed it was a reference to this bit of Fear & Loathing. That doesn't make it any less fitting, but I just thought I'd point it out.

  20. The "longer version" link is 404ing...

  21. mademelaugh says:

    So let me get this straight: sometime around WWII we passed an "event horizon". (I assume you know an event horizon is a point where events occurring beyond the horizon *cannot* affect the observer, which is exactly what history is *not*. The present I suppose is sort of one-way event horizon, where things in the future can't affect the past (aside from Marty McFly) but things in the past certainly affect the future!)

    Anyway, this "event horizon" made futures possible that previously were not possible. Huh? So you just claimed that a future impossible in 1937 then in 1946 became a possible future? Perhaps you think 1946 was not actually a future of 1937? All possible futures in our present time were possible futures from any point in our history. Actually, we have fewer possible futures today than we did at any point in our past. These futures now have a greater *probability* than they did previously, due to the elimination of other futures (such as the one where Kennedy was not assassinated).

    Consider this. Two people: P1 and P2, at two times: T1 and T2, where T2 is in the future of T1. P1 time travels forward to T2, meeting P2, who is down a probability path of the T1. P1 takes P2 back to T1, which is in the history path of T2. However, once back at T1, time begins progressing forward. The actual future path of P1 from T1 may not lie in the history of T2, in which case P2 now becomes a paradox because T1 has more potential futures than T2, unless the presence of P2 forces T1 into the exact set of potential futures that will cause T2.

    So your Grim Meathook Future is a nice Sprockets vision of how self-absorbed gloom, and about as humorous and worthy of serious consideration.

    As far are you view of current events, you write of it as:
    "a giant game of Counterstrike between crazy faith-ridden jihadist motherfuckers and crazy faith-ridden American redneck motherfuckers, each doing their best to turn the entire world into one type of fascist nightmare or another."

    Wow, do you honestly believe this? You view the American forces as no different than an Al Queda terror cell, both trying to turn the world into a fascist nightmare?

    First off, it's quite incredible that you would believe that there is a faith requirement to be a member of the American military. Do you have friends or family who have served or are currently? I do. My family is not religious, and neither are most of my friends. And you throw out a racial insult, too, believing that the army is full of "rednecks". You may not think "redneck" is racist, but any discrimination on race is racism. But consider: haven't special interest group been hammering the argument that the military is disproportionately composed of blacks and hispanics? Now both those populations have a high penetration of religion. Perhaps you should correct that comment with some more suitable black & brown racial slurs? As a hispanic, my family members who served I'm certain feel left out from your analysis.

    Meanwhile, you believe this American war machine is pushing for a "fascist nightmare" (please, labeling everything fascist or Nazi when you don't agree with it is such a lazy political epithet) and not out there defending the current American way of life. Do you not understand that the American military exists to preserve your ability to post a rant like this without consequence? Or do you think America is a "fascist nightmare"? If you lived under a caliphate like the Islamic terrorists seek, you would not be allowed to criticize their religion (witness what happens to those who do: Theo van Gogh) and would probably have a wall dropped on you for calling them "crazy...motherfuckers".

    And I do hope you realize the hilarious irony of posting your catchy, empty, MTV-grade theories mocking "blue-skying goofy social networking tools that are essentially useless to 95% of the world's population" on the LiveJournal virtual community. ROFL.

    Before you start criticizing the world of dangling from a grim meathook, you should take a good look at yourself, and consider how your bigoted, narrow, hateful, pessimistic worldview is shaping our future.

    • jwz says:

      Ok, first of all, I didn't write that; here in the future, we click the link.

      And second, way to reply to a two year old post.

  22. ronebofh says:

    The link broke again; apparently, Ellis suffered a catastrophic disk failure. Fortunately, the Wayback Machine remembers.

    • jwz says:

      Oh jesus, what a tool.

      If the guy doesn't even know how to make backups of the single culturally relevant thing he's ever written, i can't be bothered to edit the URL. Welcome to the memory hole, doof.