Chaotic Agamemnon’s mind

June 13th, 2012 — 7:45pm


Aulis at dawn, the sea still, and the wind

Not even whispering.


The hunger of men waiting for war

Hangs in the silence, breathless. Calchas shrugs

What sense is there in questioning the Gods?

It was her father’s boast that cost Iphigenia’s life.

Her throat is white and soft as bread

Under his wrist. The garland in her hair.

The knife ready to strike and slice.


Flares, bucked ribbons, coil

Thrown by magnetic bursts

Loop out

The surface boils, cells divide.

Like hearts of sunflowers, grasses, grains

Run, streams melt.

Mitosis, interference races to the Earth. Artemis leaps.


A pattern in the flight of birds acts like an augury

Like those Augustus saw at Actium.

And Romulus above the Palatine.

A shark, deep in the Pacific

Changes direction

And our thoughts collide. Just then.

Long strands of light dive through the water

Strobing the chancel, green with dusk,

Swirl and shimmer as the black fish swims.


The machine is seeing things, learning to talk,

Mapping space in signals, bit by bit.

We process metaphors the same way you read code

And one day you will have to live the way we do

With death in our eyes and calculations

That we cannot make clutching our chests.



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Industrial Society and its Future

May 21st, 2012 — 6:44pm

This is the title of an essay written by Theodore (Ted to his friends) Kaczynzki, otherwise known as the Unabomber. It was published by the New York Times and The Washington Post in full (all 35,000 words) after Kaczynski said that he would halt his campaign of bombings, which had gone on for nearly 20 years and killed 3 people and wounded 23, on that one condition.

Far too many words have probably already been wasted on Kaczynski and his case. What is always striking when you read the stories of men like this, killers, terrorists, would-be revolutionaries, is how pathetic (and never tragic) they are. When you read about Tim McVeigh for instance, or even Anders Breivik, what is remarkable is how empty their lives were, how slender their accomplishments, and most of all their loneliness. In McVeigh’s case, his shyness and lack of success with women is often cited as one of the factors that finally drove him to commit his appalling crime.

Allied to this is a seeming inability truly to contemplate the devastation they have wrought. McVeigh seemed to admit during his trial that had he known there was a daycare facility at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, he would have selected a different target. The implications of this are somewhere between the grotesque and preternaturally naive. Did he suppose that if he had only killed scores of adults, his bombing would have been somehow more morally justifiable, less repulsive? The division of victims into adults (fair game) and children (sacrosanct) in the killer’s mind is somehow both warped and ridiculously sentimental.

What has often fascinated people about Kaczynski is his extreme intelligence. McVeigh was not a stupid man, and nor, by all accounts, is Anders Breivik. But Ted Kaczynski was something else. His IQ was off the charts. He was hired as an assistant professor of Mathematics by Berkeley at 25, and wrote a groundbreaking paper on an obscure mathematical topic called ‘Boundary Functions ‘ that was regarded by some of his colleagues as an absolutely amazing feat of logic. He was perhaps one of the 20 most gifted mathematicians of his generation. He possessed a truly powerful mind.

But what becomes very clear to the reader of his essay ‘Industrial Society and its Future’ is that this is a mind that is out of sync, out of kilter. It is insane, in the sense that it has lost its balance. The essay is full of vituperative attacks on loosely defined groupings – ‘Leftists’, and so on… as well as bizarre obsessions that recur and recur throughout the writing. Of course Kaczynski’s style, if we may call it that, is well-bred – at least to the extent that he makes use of formal and rhetorical tropes that are familiar from philosophical, sociological and other critical discourses. But the argument he makes, when all is said (and believe me he says a lot) is bonkers. And in many ways, if it weren’t so beside the point, it would be sad to find a mind so capable and so exact having gone off on such a fruitless tangent.

It’s also a highly unoriginal tract, full of familiar ideas about the destructive exploitation of nature by industry, and the alienating impact this has on people. Kaczynski tries to set this out in a new way, through what he calls the ‘power process’, which he believes is disrupted by modern industry and technology. He claims that men’s natural ‘drives’ (here he hardly elaborates) are replaced with synthetic ones in the industrial society, in the ‘system’ and that this replacement, or displacement, causes a sort of spiritual emptiness which is dangerous and possibly even fatal.

Anyway, this could go on, and on, but despite the almost total lack of interest in this essay, there is one short passage which did strike me:

“The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way. […] Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin. We use the term “oversocialized” to describe such people.”

What on earth does he mean by this? Does he really believe that somehow moral ethics stand outside our relationships with each other, that they and the process of ‘socialization’ are inimical? Certainly he believes that we can be ‘oversocialized’ and that this makes it too difficult for us to live and think morally. The complexity of our social system and our social networks (for want of a better phrase) seem to rule out the possibility of anybody adhering strictly to a moral way of life. But what here does he mean by ‘moral’ and by ‘non-moral’. How can feelings and actions have either a moral or non-moral origin?

There seems to be a conflict, for the author, between some perceived higher law of how we should live – call it the good life – and the increasing demands placed on us by our highly developed, and concentrated, society. So, rather than more frequent human contact helping us to become ‘better’, it actually militates against a properly ‘moral’ way of life. It’s hardly surprising, after reading this, to learn that for much of his life Kaczynski was a recluse who lived alone in a wooden cabin he had built without electricity or running water.

For me, Kaczynski’s critique of ‘Industrial Society’ then is really not a critique of technological progress at all. It is fundamentally a rejection of the greater frequency and velocity of human exchange, of human contact, brought about by urban living and civilisation. It is a hermetical and solipsistic attack on living together, based on an attempt to dissociate the good life from the life well-lived, the social life, the life that takes joy and learns its moral lessons from being with others. It is emblematic of the psychology of the narcissistic killer, and it has nothing at all to say about the future, except as an unintended warning to stick together, to cling to each other, to belong to one another.

Update – having re-read this short passage a few times I think I have completely mis-interpreted it. I reach the same conclusion now, only by a slightly different route. What Kaczynski actually seems to be saying is that the process of ‘socialization’, and therefore by extension our Industrial Society itself, imposes on people a very strict set of moral rules which make them feel very guilty. They therefore cannot any longer acknowledge their more primitive or animal nature and instincts. Instead they have to ascribe moral values to these feelings – hence guilt and shame. So, he argues, this increasing superposition of a moral framework on our human natures drives us away from our true selves, restricts us and makes us weak. It prevents us from doing what we would like to and ought to do by binding us up in imaginary moral dogmas.

This is related to (but distinct from) a kind of Rousseau-ian argument, that civilisation itself de-natures human beings and makes them less truly themselves. It is society that is dangerous and evil. Man in his natural state is simple, primitive and inscrutably noble. This is rot. And hardly worth dealing with.

But again, at its root (for Kaczynski if not for Rousseau, who at least apparently had much more complex motivations) this is an attack on the idea of humans living together in large numbers, a yearning for the pastoral, the simple, but above all the private, the wild, the remote. It is a desire to be alone, or nearly alone, for there to be no other people around you to interfere with your own individual nature at its most pure. It is not an appealing vision.

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the half-life of a tweet

April 16th, 2012 — 6:21pm

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the nature of time and persistence in digital media. Most tweets evaporate from the mind (if they are read at all) very quickly – within a few moments, or perhaps a day, or a week at most. Their impact on the consciousness of the reader is ephemeral (and what the marketeers of the world wouldn’t give to know just how long they last, which sodium channels they aggravate or unblock, which neuronal clusters they re-arrange or make deposits on). Ultimately, their half-lives in our attention are minimal. This is not to say, by any means, that they disappear completely. Anything that has been indexed by a search engine takes a very long time to die indeed. Instead it pools, along with all the other flotsam and jetsam of the web, into a great polluting mass, deep in the server farms of Mountain View or Sunnyvale. It is very much like the floating dead-zone of plastic in the Pacific ocean, and, just like that other collection of junk, it is growing all the time.

But unlike tweets, or status updates, or individual comments in forums or on message boards, there are things, digital things, that can mark us profoundly and go on to have a long-lasting effect on us. On the way we think, or read, or write, or create things. It is interesting to note the growing trend for arcana or anachronistic content on the Web. Among geeks there is a reverence, almost an obsession, with the very early history of the Web, and with its pre-history. Not just as a matter of asserting different interpretations of what it meant, a kind of dry historiological debate, but as an archaeology of the material and culture of the time. This is related I think to the rise of steampunk, the retro-outfitting of technology to make it look old even when it is new. The eras of the internet age pass in months, weeks and days. New cultures, sub-cultures and ideas, groups and crazes spring up all the time and quite soon rise to replace what went before. So, rescuing or reviving a particular stratum takes on a certain importance. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to do.

Geocities is a good example of this. It was a platform supported by Yahoo in the early-mid 1990s. It was one of the first widely-available domains in which people with very few skills in web design (the general public) could actually build their own websites. It was wildly popular. Most if not all of the websites that were created, from a purely aesthetic view, were tasteless and commonplace. This shouldn’t have come as any surprise – you only need to have a passing acquaintance with interior design to know what happens when you let people loose on their own domiciles.

But now, in the formulaic era of Facebook, when everybody’s individual profile looks exactly the same, Geocities is seen as a kind of noble savagery, and we have all become ardent primitivists. We enjoy the naivety of Geocities, the lack of regimented, controlled space. We like the fact that it does not follow a template. We like its honest-to-goodness tackiness. Geocities has become, for some, a symbol of the freedom of a more honest, less cynical time. It is a cause celebre for those who believe that the internet now has become a giant machine for corporate surveillance and for turning our personal creativity into stilted, tabular networks and ultimately into profit.

Before there was Geocities, there was Usenet. Usenet was not even a website as we know it today. It was a series of ‘newsgroups’, essentially message boards where users could post messages and content, which could be accessed through a reader. Usenet had none of the visual cutesie-ness of Geocities, but it did have the same sense of being beyond the control of ‘the man’ and of being driven first and foremost by like-minded individuals connecting and sharing instead of some huge company. In fact, some activists have recently advocated a return to a type of Usenet-based internet layer, to evade the kinds of control, monitoring and blanding-out of the Web that seem to be encroaching on us ever more rapidly.

Usenet declined, without much fanfare, from 1993 onwards, but it was rescued (in archived form) to great applause by Google in 2001[1]. Geocities and Usenet are important for two reasons: first, they are important parts of the history of how the internet became what it is today, and second because they represent alternatives, alternative models, alternative presents, that have not come into being. They are appealing because, however crude or whatever faults they had, they are different from what we have today. But the point is that they both were superseded very quickly, and have only recently been archived or preserved, in part. They made a lasting impression on the people who used them, who now feel a sense of regret and nostalgia that they are no longer with us.

If Moore’s law holds true, and processing power and bandwidth and memory continue to increase and improve exponentially, then our devices will change, and our software will change, too. It might change more rapidly than ever. Perhaps Apple Inc’s homogenizing effect on these things is only a temporary event, and in fact the Long Now will see periods of great diversity and fragmentation of tools and operating systems. Perhaps, sooner or later, everybody will write their own, unique software. And then be written by it.

The question for me is, does this ephemerality mean that the Web can only do things that are short-lived? Is it a permanent condition of the digital object or text to be transitory?

I don’t really believe that the human attention span is capable of being significantly shortened by twitter. What is more probable is that the competing demands for our attention, which have recently exploded, impose smaller and smaller windows of attention on us. We have to divide our time more parsimoniously among them because there are so many more things to look at or read or respond to. And if this trend continues, there is every reason to expect that things which reward longer and more reflective forms of attention will be increasingly squeezed.

On the other hand, I don’t really think that things like the 10,000 year clock are the answer. We can’t deliberately slow down the pace of exchange and extend the patterns of attention, or deepen the resonance of our communications, by arbitrarily setting up very long-term projects with vast timescales. What we need to try to invent are the encoded experiences[2] that repay greater levels of attention or that mark us in a more profound way than a 140 character message can.

These inventions are already being made, by writers, artists, game designers, film makers, musicians and others, but it still feels as if something is missing. What I suspect will happen increasingly is that what we think of as games now will evolve in the direction of what we think of as novels and films and theatre and dance. Of course this is already going on, to some extent as the result of deliberate experimentation, and to some extent because gamers are not ‘playing the game(s)’ but playing with the games.

I think it’s most likely that the conventions of these different practices and artforms will be elided further and further over the next few years and that what will emerge, ultimately, may look a bit like a game, but will put the kinds of demands on us that great art does, not the kinds that more traditional games have done. Games already capture our attention for long periods. They just haven’t tended to do very much with it, or know why they should do anything different with it in the first place. Art has always known this, and in fact it might be one of the distinguishing features of art that it does aspire to leave its marks very deep in us. If these two forces can be combined, I am sure that the result can be enormously powerful.

As for twitter, its beauty is perhaps in its evanescence, the fact that tweets disappear so quickly. It is not just about now, it is about this exact moment. When the moment is gone, it loses some of its power. Twitter is perfectly adapted to provide the feeling of constant interconnectedness that is such a strong mirage of the internet. If tweets lingered longer, they would be dangerous, embarrassing, they would become something laborious, studious. But as they are they give us a perfect feeling of immediacy, and constantly cause us to forget what happened five minutes ago. Twitter will be superseded in time, but for now it is gloriously suited to the chopped-up attention of our generation[3].


[1] – in fact, archiving began in 1995, carried out by Deja News but Google acquired the archive in 2001

[2] h/t James Bridle

[3] it might be interesting to compare the demographic (age-range) and internet use of twitter users – (older, professional, often very familiar/professional users of digital technology), with those of other services like BBM (younger, often from lower socio-economic groups, the misconstrued digital ‘natives’)

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Guantanamo Bay considered as a Sado-Masochistic board game

February 10th, 2012 — 12:09am

I find it impossible not to be struck by the resemblance of prisoners at Camp X-Ray with the participants in an outlandish ritual of domination and submission. They half-kneel on the gravel in their orange nylon uniforms, wrists shackled in front of them, ankles chained together, faces hidden under rubber masks and mouths covered with surgical pads. They are contorted, hobbled, their midriffs and buttocks bulge out from the ill-fitting uniforms. They look like supplicants in front of some insectoid deity. Meanwhile, guards in camouflage fatigues, hair vengefully cropped, stride between them, barking commands.

We see them through the diamond-weave of wire, in their narrow pen, surrounded on all sides by long metal barriers, overhung by razor-coils. All this reinforcement for what? As if they could escape, paralysed as they are by their chains, watched over by men with machine guns, on a remote bluff at the far end of an obscure island, thousands of miles from home. No, these props, this fascia, has to have been built as a stage set for the playing out of some fanatic’s psychodrama. The paradox of fantasy is that its instantiation has to appear as realistic as possible without ever being realised. Because, for the fantasist, the reality destroys the illusion. Not so in the War on Terror. For the leaders and apparatchiks who invented and sanctioned this prison camp, and the brutality that is visited on its inhabitants, the thrill is in the vindicating connection of ideology and action. In the acting out of their repressed dreams of power.

Of course it would not be surprising to learn that the Guantanamo scenario had now become a popular fantasy, that some people liked to imagine being kidnapped, bound and detained in such a facility, interrogated by ruthless ‘contractors’. These kinds of imaginings are common, innocent, if politically tasteless. And this raises the distinct possibility of a sub-genre of BDSM literature, involving the conversion of Guantanamo into a kind of pornographic icon.

But this is to trivialise the very real connection between psychopathic mania and the exercise of political, military and judicial power. The delight of the Sadist is in the suffering of another, an object who is acted upon, controlled, abused, but who is close enough to observe and empathise with. The Sadist enjoys, up to a point, the signals of distress and suffering that come from their partners. The psychopath is unable to interpret them or appreciate them. In his world, there simply is no affective connection. The other is merely an object, to be manipulated, controlled, or killed, not for any vicarious pleasure but out of a confused self-interest. The psychopath is cunning and sophisticated, but illogical. His patterns of thought ultimately unravel because he cannot understand the world around him, or why his attempts to control it fail.

Guantanamo is the product of a psychopathic, paranoid rage, directed at the wild unpredictability of the foreign, the alien, the oriental. It is, ironically enough, an attempt to tidy up, to neaten the world, a kind of penal singularity, a black hole with its own event horizon. It is designed quite literally to take people ‘off the map’, to disappear them, to hold them in a place that is not visible, that is not recognisable, to maroon them forever in a legal vacuum. It is supposed to be out of sight, just as the CIA’s ‘black sites’ are out of sight because no information escapes from them, so that those who are sent there, the untidy, the awkward, are never seen again.

Of course it would be fatuous to deny the real danger that is posed by some of the people who have been detained in this way. But just because they pose a danger does not mean that they can simply be erased from the world. In fact, the opposite is true, and the act of trying to wipe them out undermines their prosecution and the defeat of their ideology and their movements.

Perhaps it is mere coincidence that the aesthetics of Guantanamo bear such a striking resemblance to those of a certain kind of BDSM sub-culture. But with what we know of the deliberate use of physical humiliation in interrogations, the sexual degradation meted out to Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and the deep fetishization of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and the rhetoric and mechanics of torture, how can we be so sure? It is part of a pattern of behaviour that, taken together, points to a vast subliminal desire to exert dominance over these captives, to humiliate and punish them in a way that goes beyond simple retribution.

At the centre of power, at the heart of this web of barely-concealed paraphilias, lie the security and military elite of the US Government. The Bush administration, and principally Dick Cheney, is responsible for introducing many of these measures and encouraging many abuses. The zeal of men like Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, their palpable pleasure in the suffering of detainees such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in their custody, their almost eagerness to see him tortured and broken, their smarmy amusement at the suggestion that this enhanced interrogation might not be morally excusable, all hint at a perverted eroticism, an intense love of punitive revenge.

It is the joy of the bully, the ecstasy of the insecure and the weak, to see your opponents crushed and destroyed. It borders very closely on a Sadistic delight. Especially when the opponent is, once captured, so puny, so helpless in the brawny arms of the Superpower. Of course, it is quite natural to feel ambivalent or even enthusiastic about the defeat and punishment of your enemy. But the symptoms exhibited by these lions of the neo-conservative movement, these heroes of the Project for the New American Century, are more like the symptoms of a psycho-sexual obssession.

And so it is hardly surprising that the prison they have designed for these ‘detainees’, the conditions they have subjected them to, the micro-management of the regime they live under and the ways in which they are coerced and questioned, the clothes they are made to wear and the positions they are forced to adopt, remind us of the appurtenances of a giant SM establishment. These counters have landed on the heads of snakes, they have slithered down to the bottom of the board, they have been thrown into Prison and they will not pass Go ever again.


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Keynes, probability theory and uncertainty

January 11th, 2012 — 9:41pm

‘The Long Run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the Long Run we are all dead.’ – The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

It has become almost a cliché to talk of Keynes’ distinction between risk that can be calculated accurately and what he called ‘irreducible uncertainty’. John Gray in the London Review of Books devotes a long essay to this distinction. And it is equally commonplace for commentators to quote passages in the General Theory, out of context, to suggest that Keynes was inimical to mathematics in general.

But few people now pay attention to one of his most extraordinary books, the ‘Treatise on Probability’, published in 1921. The Treatise (TP) is important for at least two reasons: on the one hand it is, in its own right, and by any measure, a powerful and profound contribution to mathematics and logic, and on the other hand it also plays a central role in his more famous economic theory, especially in relation to his ideas about uncertainty.

What Keynes shows in the TP is that probability can only be calculated to the precision of a single number answer in certain cases. In many more cases it can only be described in terms of what he calls an ‘interval estimate’ between points. So, some probabilities may be calculated as a single number (or ‘point estimate’), a decimal between 0 and 1 where 0 is no probability at all and 1 is what we know to be true (Boolean algebra), but some can only be calculated between ‘bounds’ or ‘intervals’ such as 0.2-0.5 or 0.6-0.8. Keynes further demonstrated that, where two probabilities can only be calculated as intervals and where those intervals overlap, they cannot be compared. Sufficient uncertainty exists about the exact nature of the likelihood of the propositions being true that we cannot tell whether one is more likely than the other.

But Keynes also makes an even more fundamental leap. Instead of defining probability simply as the likelihood of a proposition being true, he introduces a new set of variables. He represents probability as the likelihood of the proposition being true combined with information bearing on the proposition. A relationship he categorizes algebraically as a/h where a is the proposition itself and h is the available information relevant to the proposition. In other words, he describes for the first time in mathematical terms the complex relationship between likelihood of an outcome and the unknown (and perhaps unknowable) information bearing upon this outcome. He criticizes the Bayesian or classical idea of the Principle of Indifference, showing that it holds only when we do not know anything that might impact upon the relative probabilities of an outcome which is apparently equiprobable.

Keynes also saw the importance of ‘non-linearity’ in the calculation of probabilities, and the relationship between this insight and the insights made in the General Theory about economic prediction is all too obvious. Probability need not be continuous, depending on the conditions of our knowledge about a proposition or outcome. Factors that we know nothing about might affect the truth of a proposition or the likelihood of a certain outcome, and unless we know and can calculate the likelihood of those factors with any certainty, we cannot rely on the continuity of probability for the proposition itself.

This may seem obvious, but that is probably my fault for describing it wrongly. In essence, Keynes redefined our understanding of mathematical and statistical probability fifty years before anyone else caught up with him. He used terms no-one else had ever used because he had to invent them to describe his theory. He built on the work of George Boole and presented a strong challenge to the then dominant view of mathematical probability, just as he would do, 15 years later, to the economic consensus.

Not only does this demonstrate that he was a highly sophisticated mathematician, but it also underscore his views about uncertainty, knowledge and risk. Keynes understood that some risks could not be calculated or compared because they relied on assumptions about the future which had no basis in probability, they ignored the non-linear nature of some risks, and they assumed that financial risks, in particular, could be calculated with an actuarial and statistical precision that was simply wrong. Thus the famous passage in the General Theory:

“Too large a proportion of recent “mathematical” economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.” (GT, Book 5, Chapter 21)

Here, Keynes is not criticizing mathematics, or even the application of mathematics to economics per se. He is making a more specific point about the liability of recent economic tracts to put mathematics before logic, and to lose the wood for the trees. And he is also, I think, talking very particularly about the models of probabilistic causation used by these writers to predict economic events or uphold economic propositions which, when examined purely in deductive terms, or from experience, prove to be untrue.

In 2008, a large part of the destruction of capital on Wall Street could ultimately be attributed to risk models adopted by the major banks that simply ignored the insights Keynes provided in the General Theory. No matter how complicated the equation, some risks will always be incalculable, and some uncertainties will always be irreducible because the future is simply unknowable. But also because factors may bear on these risks that we cannot foresee and have no way of calculating. And because probability may be non-linear or discontinuous in its distribution. In fact, all of this is a vast simplification of Keynes, but if only our bankers and economists today had a millionth of his sophistication, indeed if they had only bothered to read what he wrote, just on this subject quite apart from his more famous works, the global economy would not be in such a dire position today.

I am indebted to Michael Brady’s excellent essay ‘Keynes, Mathematics and Probability: A Reappraisal’

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Cosmism, Transhumanism and Space Exploration

December 4th, 2011 — 1:06pm

Yet another triumph for the BBC’s Storyville documentary series was George Carey’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door – Space Race’, broadcast last week – a quite amazing film about the birth of the Russian space program and the ideas that prefigured it and were inspired by it. And it is a fascinating portrait of some of the early pioneers and thinkers who began Russia’s race for the stars. Most people are familiar with the broad outlines of America’s entry into the space race, the Apollo missions, the Right Stuff, Chuck Yeager and all that, but few know about the origins of the Soviet space industry and the curious combination of ideas that gave birth to it (the film is still on iPlayer at the time of blogging, so go and watch it. It is astonishing and moving, especially the interview with Tamara Filatova, Yuri Gagarin’s niece).

Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov is the philosophical great-grandpapa of the Russian dream of space exploration. He believed in the perfectibility of the human race through evolution, and thought that we would one day conquer death and bring about the resurrection of the physical body through science, and live forever. He also thought that we would extend human presence throughout the solar system and beyond. His ideas about human evolution, and in particular the idea that humans should take control of the process and direct it towards their own goals (i.e. achieving greater intelligence and conquering physical limitations) have led directly to the ‘transhumanist’ movement in Russia, and are echoed, albeit in a less poetic way, in the work of the famous proponent of the ‘Singularity’ Ray Kurzweil.

Fyodorov not only believed that we must overcome the natural decrepitude and entropy of the body as a biological system, but that we would also one day be able to ‘regulate nature’ so that natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes and so on no longer threatened the human population. Fyodorov is identified with the Cosmists, who advanced ideas about the proletariat conquering space and venerated the machine and technological progress. They saw the rise of the proletariat classes as a universal and inevitable phenomenon that would soon extend into the cosmos thanks to the ever-growing power of machines. A kind of intergalactic Marxist/Leninist tide of worker-explorers flooding across the universe waving the banner of Russia.

But Fyodorov goes much further and is much more radical than the other Cosmists. His ideas concern the very fundamental questions of what it is to be human, what the nature of a human being is or can be, and the purpose and direction of life itself. This is the origin of Transhumanism in the 20th century and has led to whole genres of science fiction, scientific speculation, and the development of experiments and technology to explore the reality of these concepts. The contemporary efforts to preserve life indefinitely through cryogenics follow on from Fyodorov’s writings. There are now scientific institutes in Russia which carry on research into these ideas, attempting to allow humans to communicate directly with cosmic intelligences by ‘tuning’ themselves in, a complicated process of spiritual preparation or clearing. The subject attempts to develop a new awareness, a new kind of sensitivity through which they can receive or respond to the faint communications of other minds.

Fyodorov’s ideas directly inspired another great figure in the history of Russian space science, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. As a young, dyslexic boy studying in the Chertkov Library in Moscow, Tsiolkovsky met Fyodorov (who was at the time the Library’s chief cataloguer), and the philosopher took the boy under his wing and helped him to learn about mathematics. Tsiolkovsky went on, in 1903, to publish a paper that explained in detail what would be needed to propel a rocket into Earth orbit – Изслѣдованіе міровыхъ пространствъ реактивными приборами (The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reactive Devices [Rockets]). It was the first time anyone had looked at the problem so closely, or even cosidered it a realistic scientific question. His paper was published a few months before the Wright Brothers, in Massachussetts, made the world’s first powered flight.

Tsiolkovsky’s paper did not at first attract any great praise or reaction. The unprecedented nature of his achievement was not recognised. He remained an obscure figure until a follow-up paper, published in 1911, attracted more attention from the Soviet establishment and he was elected to the Academy of Sciences. He continued to research and write about the practical problems of rocket propulsion, and in the 1920s published further papers which set out important calculations about the need for fuel, velocities, reaction mass and so on, which are now fundamental to any space launch. One of the students who was inspired directly by Tsiolkovsky’s work was the young  Sergey Korolyov, who would go on to become the Russians’ chief rocket scientist and design the launcher for Yuri Gagarin’s historic first flight into space in 1961.

Tsiolkovsky, like Fyodorov before him, also held much wider philosophical views about human progress and space exploration. In 1928 he published a book called ‘The Will of the Universe. The Unknown Intelligence’ in which he claimed that humans would colonise and explore the entire galaxy. He believed that the basic physical constituents of the universe and space also had mental properties, that the cosmos itself has a kind of soul with which it might be possible to commune, and he imagined incorporeal beings whose intelligence far exceeded humans inhabiting distant realms of space. But unlike Fyodorov, Tsiolkosky’s vision of eternal life was not of a coherent physical existence, but rather a joining with the stuff of the cosmos, a re-cycling of ‘happy atoms’ into new shapes, new forms of life.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, the rover Curiosity, launched this week to the Red Planet. With the help of a hovering crane it will touch down in the basin of Gale Crater in approximately 8 months’ time. It is the largest robot ever sent to another world. On board there are instruments that will allow the study of rocks, surface samples, high resolution images, gas spectrometry and other types of experiment. The rover will be capable of moving approximately 100m per day in good conditions, and if it lands in the right place will be able to study millions if not billions of years of Martian geology. Together with the ESA’s Mars Express, and the continuing mission of NASA’s previous Opportunity lander, this will give us our most sophisticated picture of Mars by far.

The ‘Roadmap for Space Exploration’, a strategy co-published by 12 of the world’s space agencies, lays out a clear vision for future exploration until the early 2030s. It calls for the development of a range of new technologies, including advanced in-space propulsion systems, more efficient rocket launchers and better radiation shielding for spacecraft to allow future human missions. Our progress in the exploration of space has been tantalisingly slow so far, but there are increasingly signs that this process will accelerate. There is now a political commitment to concerted exploration efforts, and in the private sector spaceflight is becoming a reality. Once the cost of getting to space and reaching orbit gets lower, I think we are likely to see a rapid increase in the advancement of robotic and human exploration.

You don’t have to be Ray Kurzweil to believe that by the end of this century we may be on the brink of a new era of space travel and possibly even permanent habitation on other planets. We are still far from the enormous dreams of men like Fyodorov and Tsiolkovsky, but our determination to explore and push the boundaries of human knowledge has never been greater. Our pursuit of space exploration today does not have the same philosophical and spiritual corona surrounding it. We are inspired by science, by the pursuit of verifiable knowledge, but not by the dream of overcoming death or coming into closer relationships with matter and energy, praying to the angels of the cosmos. And we tend to draw a neater distinction between science and philosophy than those early prophets of the space age did. But we should not lose sight of their visions and their teachings because they still have the power to revive our desire for flight, our dream of visiting the edges of the galaxy and finding out what our human nature truly means.

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5 things we can learn from Apple

November 3rd, 2011 — 10:53pm

Yes, there have been far too many uncritical paeans to Steve Jobs already, some bordering on the hysterical, but here are 5 simple things that, whatever your stripe, you’d have to admit he got right.

1. Profit is more important than market share

Many eulogies to Steve Jobs talk about his pursuit of perfection, of his disdain for cheap, affordable devices, almost as if he was Wittgenstein or Kant, paring away at human knowledge searching for some essential truth and would settle for nothing until he found it. But more fundamental than any desire for quality is the calculation that profit is more important than market share. As long as Apple was highly profitable, it would have the cash to invest in research, new products and technologies and new routes to market. Who cares how many phones you sell if you sell them for next to nothing?

2. The user experience is everything

Everything Apple made under Jobs was designed to be delightful and simple to use. Everything was designed with the user in mind. Every design decision was about making the experience better and more intuitive for the user. Start by asking, ‘What do I need? And what would I use it for? And how can I make it as enjoyable to use as possible?’

3. The details are not the details

Jobs was notorious for his obssession (certainly latterly) with every aspect of product design – to the extent that he almost scared people with his attention to detail. It paid off. The details are not the details.

4. Sell the experience

Steve Jobs certainly knew how to sell things. The basic idea is to associate your product with cool things and beautiful people and fun. Make people think they too can be beautiful, cool and fun if they own your products, then they will tear at each other’s throats to get into your shops and buy stuff. Jobs was intimately involved in Apple marketing campaigns and of course contributed in his own not quite inimitable – Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook have both given passing impressions recently – way.

5. People don’t know what they want five years from now

Market research is important, but you don’t get to be a ‘path-breaking innovator’ or a ‘genius’ just by focus-grouping a bunch of slack-jawed Sunnyvale mopes. You have to use your intuition to guess what will be important and desirable in the future, to spot trends before they become established. The best way to do this, according to the Book of Jobs, seems to be to ask yourself, ‘What would be insanely cool?’ and then make it.

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The assault on Liberalism

November 2nd, 2011 — 10:38pm

(Warning, this is highly wonkish. And I have no idea what inspired it. I just felt it needed to be written.)

The political debate (behind the scenes) at the moment is all about Communitarianism. This is a relatively new branch of political philosophy that has emerged as a response to Liberalism as it developed in the middle of the 20th century, and specifically to the ideas of people like John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin. It’s very fashionable at the moment with influential ideologues like Maurice Glasman and Philip Blond who have the ears of ministers and party gurus. Therefore it is a very important shaping force in the formulation of policy. And it needs to be understood and criticised.

Communitarianism represents something of a ‘Third Way’ (not like Blair and Brown’s Third Way, which was little more than a pragmatic fudge – as we now know – the idea that by treading a middle path between deregulation of industry and moderate fiscal expansion you could pay for the necessary infrastructure investment through the proceeds of increased growth). No, an actual ideological Third Way which looks to take away power both from the centralised State and Capital and distribute it instead to organised groups of citizens.  Maurice Glasman has been closely involved with London Citizens, for example, and sees this group as a model of how distributed power handed back to communities could be effectively harnessed for social good.

Philip Blond (of Red Tory fame) on the other hand, comes from a totally different perspective. His idea is much more in line with the traditional small Statism of the Notting Hill set and people like Nick Boles, Francis Maude, Michael Gove and Oliver Letwin. In this group, Communitarian ideas are simply a veil for a further attack on the State, presenting local people and ‘close to the ground’ decision making as much more efficient and democratic than the bureaucracy of Whitehall and even of local authorities.

But let’s take a look at some of the intellectual foundations of this idea. Michael Sandel is one of the most prominent philosophers today associated with Communitarian thought, and his version of this set of ideas is largely critical of Rawls’ ‘Theory of Justice’, one of the most important works of liberal philosophy of the 20th century (and one which many so-called liberals today have not read or even heard of – they still think of a liberal as someone whose closest intellectual godfather is John Stuart Mill. I’ve got nothing against Mill, he’s very important, but times change, and ideas develop). Sandel and fellow thinker Charles Taylor have argued that Rawls’ classic formula of the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ rests on a depiction of the individual self that is too separate, too disconnected, from the community and the family to which he belongs. That Rawls’ thought experiment can only remain an experiment because in reality each of us is formed by, and only exists as, a set of connections (see Bakhtin again).

I disagree with this position and actually I think that Rawls’ idea of how we must arrive at a consensus about political authority is very strong. I don’t think that the Communitarian argument, as advanced by Sandel and Taylor, actually weakens Rawls’ argument in any sense, because Rawls is asking each of us to perform the same thought experiment, to imagine an ideal scenario. That was the point, because only by thinking in this abstract, idealised way can we arrive at the necessary agreements.

Anyway, whether you agree with Sandel or not is not really the point. Even if you do, you would have to see that the ideas put forward by people like Philip Blond and Maurice Glasman are incredibly shallow and weak versions of his arguments. They are a kind of pop-philosophy version of Communitarianism.

Glasman himself is more deeply influenced by the Hungarian thinker Karl Polanyi, whose major work was ‘The Great Transformation’, published in 1944. Polanyi’s main arguments are loosely grouped under the term ‘Substantivism’, but his ideas about the ways in which economic activity is embedded in the social and political context of the community are analogous in many ways to Sandel’s Communitarianism. Where Sandel enphasizes the individual’s connections with community, family and society, Polanyi talks about the place of markets in society and the conflict between what he calls the ‘Self-Regulating Market’ and man’s social nature.

There is a similar appeal in both of these philosophies, an appeal based on the notion of a return to traditional values, of the human scale, of the organic popular movement, of the homely authority of the people, of going back to a simpler, less atomised and less alienated (to throw in some Marxist terminology) time. There is a desire to re-establish the connections between people, to strengthen communities, to give capitalism a more human aspect. At least there is, I think, on the part of the progressive left. On the right, I am more suspicious that these ideas are simply a convenient way of masking deeper objectives, objectives of strengthening private capital against the counterweight of an active and interventionist state.

In this way, there is a danger that Glasman’s Blue Labour movement, and people like James Purnell’s hasty adoption of the red flag of Keir Hardie and the history of the Labour movement, actually plays directly into the hands of the conservative right’s agenda. If Labour, for instance, decides not to stand up for the state but instead to promote the increasing re-distribution of power to communities, they will, unwittingly perhaps, be strengthening the control and influence of capital. I believe that the state is the only effective force that can balance the enormous power of global private capital. And in many ways, as we know to our cost, it has proved too weak over the last twenty or thirty years, and too apt to be seduced or bought outright by the financiers.

Although there are attractive features about the Communitarian/Substantivist ideal, I simply can’t see how the kinds of groups and community organisations they advocate can provide a proper check on corporate power. Liberalism, in its classic form (at least if you take Locke’s view) and in its more recent updating by Rawls and Berlin, not to mention its application in practical political economy by Keynes and social reforms by Beveridge, recognises the vital importance of balance between the state and the private sector and private capital. That recognition came after centuries of struggle, oppression, and gradual progress. The danger of a new political Communitarianism and other assaults on Liberalism is that they have not taken that history into account and they will simply reduce the power of democratic political institutions to protect people from the rampant power of private capital.

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September 22nd, 2011 — 5:06pm

I’ve been asked to talk tomorrow at the Alphaville festival of post-digital culture, alongside Patrick Hussey from Arts and Business. I’m very flattered to have been invited, especially to be speaking with such an illustrious colleague. And since I was, I’ve started to think a bit about what ‘post-digital’ means. It’s a phrase you hear more and more often these days in geek circles.

I suppose I take ‘post-digital’ to mean the condition of being fully reconciled to the disruption brought about by digital technology, and in particular the Web. It is much the same, in that sense, as ‘Postmodernism’, which really means the condition of having overcome the ‘shock of the new’, the culture of high modernism, and having absorbed its lessons. Being post-digital, we are, to repeat my previous post, through the future-shock and over the nostalgia (largely – we can still be nostalgic, in increasingly kitsch ways, for modernism and for ‘digital’). ‘Digital’ in this sense, and lord knows it is rapidly becoming the most bandied-about and meaningless term in the dictionary, refers to the technologies that have disrupted our industries, our communications and our patterns of behaviour.

Being ‘post’ anything usually leads to a period of self-reflexivity and a prevailing irony about ‘progress’ that undercuts conscious artistic ambition. There’s a danger that this urge leads to a degeneration, a period in which the only statements are jokes, in which Rorty’s ‘contingency’ is so much to the fore that it is impossible to be naive. So, we look back on the period of disruption and shock and criticise it as an abnormal era, an era of extremes and wild hopes that could never be fulfilled, however deeply influential it really was (which we can only ascertain from a greater perspective, at a greater distance). This trend is evident already in many people’s analysis of the ‘digital’ era, and especially the so-called Web 2.0 period. I do it myself, all the time, pricking the bubble of technological utopianism that blew up in the early-mid naughties and whose chief inflaters were people like Kevin Kelly and Chris Anderson. 

The fact is, that, insofar as it is meaningful to talk about the ‘digital’ in this way, we are still very much intellectually in its grip. And will be for at least the foreseeable future. But what is noticeable is that instead of simply evangelizing about the wonders  of the Web or shying away from it, sticking our fingers in our ears and whistling and hoping it will all go away, the questions are getting much more sophisticated and more practical. Instead of asking what is an API and why do I need one? people are much more likely to be asking, what is the right way to build open APIs, how will the use of each social network help me to fulfil specific goals? and so on…

In other words this stuff is just normal now. It’s becoming just as much a part of the planning process as print marketing, or programming. Or, to put it more accurately, digital questions are being considered at the same time as, and alongside those other fundamental questions. They are intertwined with them. The process of entering the ‘post-digital’ realm then is really a process of acceptance and integration, or digestion. Something that was first viewed as radical, alien and even threatening has now been internalised. Nixon declared ‘we are all Keynesians now’ (would that we still were), but it seems more appropriate now to say that ‘we are all (whatever the collective noun for Vint Cerf’s disciples is) now’.

But in addition to this sense of being ‘okay’ with the arrival of disruptive technologies, I think the term ‘post-digital’ also implies a whole set of other attitudes and characteristics, largely born out of the rhetoric about ‘democratisation’ that has reared its head again since the Arab spring. Notions of real political progress and transparency have been elided with much more superficial ideas about the scalable nature of open platforms and widespread use of social networks in this catch-all term. Post-digital implies a certain allegiance to the ideas of openness, interconnectedness and community that sprang up in the early days of the Web.

It implies a lack of attachment to existing hierarchies and infrastructures that have defined 20th century industries and distribution systems, a capacity for being fleet-of-foot, nimble, interested in process and criticality as well as social engagement (from an artistic point of view), and, interestingly, multiple or collective authorship. It seems to be, at its most engaged, against, or rather critical of, the mass media, the production line, the institution. Yet it is still entranced or persuaded by long-cherished ideas of individual artistic genius and talent.

Anyway, this may all be navel-gazing, but it’s the stuff that’s swirling round in my brain at the moment, and some of it is probably likely to exit through my cake-hole tomorrow. So watch out.


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Attention Deficit

September 20th, 2011 — 11:32pm

‘Culture is the formation of attention’ – Simone Weil

One of the things that is changing most dramatically in the way that people now experience art and culture online is the amount of time they are prepared to commit to it. The Web, because of its interconnectedness and its vastness, makes it easy to move from one thing to the next, to compare and contrast, to graze from one site to another, to another, to another. It does not make it easy to concentrate on just one thing for long periods of time. The on-demand model of content distribution and the box-set have removed the need to wait for anything. There’s no need to go through a whole week waiting for the next instalment, no need to delay your gratification. You can have it now. And why shouldn’t you?

And of course protesting that it is just good for the soul to have to wait occasionally is a feeble argument. But if I cannot wait, if I cannot bear the suspense, or resist the temptation, does that mean that I will no longer be able to commit myself to something that might take a long time to unfold? Does it mean that I will be less prepared to make the investment in a novel or a thesis, or something that requires sustained attention? And will there ever be, therefore, online texts or narratives that can sustain that same degree of concentration, that can hold me for as long as a good book? Until there are, perhaps we cannot really speak of an online culture. We have learned to invest effort in reading long novels or watching feature-length films or visiting exhibitions at least partly because we have been taught that it is worth putting in that effort, going through the pain barrier, for the sophisticated rewards we get from these cultural experiences.

I was reading Matt Locke’s blog over on Storythings when this question really came into sharper focus. Or rather these questions, because there are at least two: how do you grab people’s attention? and once you’ve got it, how do you hold onto it? I think the first question is much easier to answer, and has been addressed in various ways by marketers, promoters, experts in social media and advertising and so on. You can quite easily (assuming you have money or access to ‘celebrities’ or other influencers) get people interested in something. But in order to sustain their interest for a long time, in an online narrative or work of art, there are many different considerations, most of which haven’t yet been fully understood.

Anything that is online has to hold its own against the galaxy of other sites, links, videos and nuggets of information that are just a click away. The competition for attention is overwhelming. And yet people do devote long periods of time online to gaming, playing in virtual worlds and artificial environments, and so on.

A great novel holds our attention for all kinds of reasons, reasons that are very complex, some to do with structure and plot, some to do with voice and character, some to do with what Wallace Stevens called ‘the surface of things’, and so on…. We want to find out what happens next, but we also simply enjoy entering the imaginative world of the story and deepening our relationship with the characters. The writer has learnt how to enthral us, drawing on a huge tradition of literary works that demonstrate what can and can’t be done, what works and what doesn’t.

I think the anxiety I feel about this is a misplaced anxiety, for much the same reason that the anxiety about the possible death of print (much overblown) is misplaced. It is misplaced because I am expecting the same thing from the internet as I get from books and other existing cultural forms – the exhibition, the feature film, the concert. I have got over the future-shock of disruption, but I am still trapped by nostalgia. The fully-realised forms of artistic work that the internet will allow have not been created yet. The thing that I am worrying about is in fact this reluctance to let go of the cultural expectations that I have grown up with. I want novels because that is what I am used to. There is a distictive pleasure in a novel that I do not want to relinquish. And, more than that, I want it to be preserved so that other people will enjoy it, too.

I don’t think there’s any real danger of the novel dying out as a form of storytelling in the near future. For me it does serve some particular need that I have to experience a story in a particular way (and the rapid growth in ebook sales seems to confirm that there’s really no end in sight for ‘long-form’ writing just yet). I relish the well-crafted sentence. It is too deep now for me to break or forget that addiction. It is sensual. I have trained myself to read novels. The question I should be asking, though, is more like this: ‘will the internet provide new ways of telling stories that can capture my attention and hold it for long periods, and which provide similar cultural rewards and pleasures to those of a well written novel, or a play, or an exhibition of paintings or sculptures?’

I have an enormous confidence that it will, in time, do just that. But in order for the artists who will make those works to invent their new stories, or their new installations or images, they will have to free themselves of the expectations and the conventions of the existing forms. Or at least they will need to understand how those conventions and expectations can be adapted to these new kinds of work. Perhaps the ‘novels’ of the future are really going to be much more like video games, in terms of their presentation, but they will be marked by the knowledge of writers about characters, stories, speech, relationships, and so on. Instead of the kinds of games we have now, things like Grand Theft Auto or even LA Noire, we will see more work like Dear Esther, by Dan Pinchbeck.

And perhaps one day soon writers will really start to see how stories can be told in a way that links many different sites, platforms and media all together, in a web rather than a teleologically straight line. These stories, perhaps inspired by the ‘Garden of Forking Paths’, will start to make full use of the networked, immersive nature of the Web, to understand its grammar. In fact, this process has already begun, the first steps have been taken, and we get closer and closer to the moment when the first great storyteller of the internet emerges. It may even have happened already, known to some small coterie or network of friends or admirers, but not yet broken through to a wider audience and consciousness.

I do know this: when those stories start to arrive I won’t be able to put them down. And I will start to overcome my baseless fears about the death of the novel.

Update – I was re-reading this post yesterday and it occurred to me that I hadn’t properly developed one of the central points I was trying to make. In retrospect it seemed to be staring me in the face. I said that the internet is full of distractions, which makes it harder to concentrate on one individual story. But what I didn’t go on to say, and should have, is that that implies that in order successfully to hold a reader’s attention, online stories may have to cut the reader off from those distractions. Or rather, shutting out some of those distractions puts the storyteller at an advantage when it comes to holding the attention online.

Try watching a show on iPlayer (it actually works even better on ITVplayer, but that’s so buggy I don’t want to put you through it) in the normal/windowed player. Now try watching it  in full screen. This isn’t rocket science, by any means, but it just becomes very clear how the experience of paying attention to content within a frame, within a page, within a tab, within a browser window, which may also have many other tabs open at the same time, is very different from watching it when it’s all there is to look at.

Apple seems to be moving  ever closer to the edge-to-edge approach with its screens, removing or shrinking the bezel at the edge of the glass so that all you can see is the film, or the photo, or the app you are working in. They did this with the transition from Quicktime 7 to Quicktime X (incidentally culling several advanced and useful features at the same time). But the point is Apple has understood that if you want people to become engrossed in something, you have to make that the only thing they can see, or hear, or touch. (I wonder, idly – and does one ever wonder in any other adverbial way? – whether it is this single consideration, this desire for pristine, immersive visual presentation, above all others, that was the genesis of the iPad and continues to drive the development of iOS? Who knows?).

So although I think the very best stories will always hold their own, always grip us and draw us in, we make it a lot easier for them to capture our full attentions if we also block out the surrounding noise, hide the forking paths that our browsers hold open for us, leading perhaps to something just a little bit more exciting, or more tempting, or greener.

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