How to lose them better

Watching Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck’s Eternal You for New Scientist

Ever wanted to reanimate the dead by feeding the data they accumulated in life to large language models? Here’s how. Eternal You is a superb critical examination of new-fangled “grief technologies”, and a timely warning about who owns our data when we die, and why this matters.

For years, Joshua Barbeau has been grieving the loss of his fiancée Jessica. One day he came across a website run by the company Project December, which offered to simulate individuals’ conversational styles using data aggregated primarily through social media.

Creating and talking to “Jessica” lifted a weight from Joshua’s heart — “a weight that I had been carrying for a long time”.

A moving, smiling, talking simulacrum of a dead relative is not, on paper, any more peculiar or uncanny or distasteful than a photograph, or a piece of video. New media need some getting used to, but we manage to assimilate them in the end. Will we learn to accommodate the digital dead?

The experience of Christi Angel, another Project December user, should give us pause. In one memorably fraught chat session, her dead boyfriend Cameroun told her, “I am in Hell.” and threatened to haunt her.

“Whoa,” says Project December’s Tom Bailey, following along with the transcript of a client’s simulated husband. The simulation has tipped (as large language models tend to do) into hallucination and paranoia, and needs silencing before he can spout any more swear-words at his grieving wife.

This happens very rarely, and Bailey and his co-founder Jason Rohrer are working to prevent it from happening at all. Still, Rohrer is bullish about their project. People need to take personal responsibility, he says. If people confuse an LLM with their dead relative, really, that’s down to them.

Is it, though? Is it “down to me” that, when I see you and listen to you I assume, from what I see and what I hear, that you are a human being like me?

Christi Angel is not stupid. She simply loves Cameroun enough to entertain the presence of his abiding spirit. What’s stupid, to my way of thinking anyway, is to build a machine that, even accidentally, weaponises her capacity for love against her. I’m as crass an atheist as they come, but even I can see that to go on loving the dead is no more a “mistake” than enjoying Mozart or preferring roses to bluebells.

Neither Christi nor anyone else in this documentary seriously believes that the dead are being brought back to life. I wish I could say the same about the technologists featured here but there is one chap, Mark Sagar, founder of Soul Machines, who reckons that “some aspects of consciousness can be achieved digitally”. The word “aspects” is doing some mighty heavy lifting there…

Capping off this unsettling and highly rewarding documentary, we meet Kim Jong-woo, the producer of a South Korean 2020 documentary Meeting You, in which the mother of a seven-year old dead from blood cancer in 2016 aids in the construction of her child’s VR simulacrum.

Asked if he has any regrets about the show, Kim Jong-woo laughs a melancholy laugh. He genuinely doesn’t know. He didn’t mean any harm. After her tearful “reunion” with her daughter Na-yeon, documentary subject Jang Ji-sung sang the project’s praises. She does so again here — though she also admits that she hasn’t dreamt of her daughter since the series was filmed.

The driving point here is not that the dead walk among us. Of course they do, one way or another. It’s that there turns out to be a fundamental difference between technologies (like photography and film) that represent the dead and technologies (like AI and CGI) that ventriloquise the dead. Grieving practices across history and around the world are astonishingly various. But another interviewee, the American sociologist Sherry Turkle, tied them all together in a way that made a lot of sense to me: “It’s how to lose them better, not how to pretend they’re still here.”

The most indirect critique of technology ever made?

Watching Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast for New Scientist

“Something or other lay in wait for him,” wrote Henry James in a story from 1903, ”amid the twists and turns of the months and the years, like a crouching beast in the jungle.”

The beast in this tale was (just to spoil it for you) fear itself, for it was fear that stopped our hero from living any kind of worthwhile life.

Swap around the genders of the couple at the heart of James’s bitter tale, allow them to reincarnate and meet as if for the first time on three separate occasions — in Paris in 1910, in LA in 2014 and in Chengdu in 2044 — and you’ve got a rough idea of the mechanics of Bertrand Bonello’s magnificent and maddening new science fiction film. Through a series of close-ups, longueurs and red-herrings, The Beast, while getting nowhere very fast, manages to be an utterly riveting, often terrifying film about love, the obstacles to love, and our deep-seated fear of love even when it’s there for the taking. It’s also (did I mention this?) an epic account of how everyone’s ordinary human timidity, once aggregated by technology, destroys the human race.

Léa Seydoux and George MacKay play star-crossed lovers Gabrielle Monnier and Louis Lewanski. In 1910 Gabrielle fudges the business of leaving her husband; tragedy strikes soon after. In 2014 an incel version of Louis would sooner stalk Gabrielle with a gun than try and talk to her. The consequences of their non-affair are not pretty. In 2044 Gabrielle and Louis stumble into each other on the way to “purification” — a psychosurgical procedure that heals past-life trauma and leaves people, if not without emotion, then certainly without the need for grand passion. By now the viewer is seriously beginning to wonder what will ever go right for this pair.

Somewhere in these twisty threaded timelines are the off-screen “events” of 2025, that brought matters to a head and convinced people to hand their governance over to machines. Why would humanity betray itself in such a manner? The blunt answer is: because we’re more in love with machines than with each other, and always have been.

In 1910 Gabrielle’s husband’s fortune is made from the manufacture of celluloid dolls. In 2014 — a point-perfect satire of runaway narcissism that owes much, stylistically, to the films of David Lynch — Gabrielle and Louis collide disastrously with warped images of themselves and each other, in an uncanny valley of cross-purposed conversations, predatory social media and manipulated video. In 2044 mere dolls and puppets have become fully conscious robots. One of these, played by Guslagie Malanda, even begins to fall in love with its “client” Gabrielle. Meanwhile Gabrielle, Louis and everyone else is undergoing psychosurgery in order to fit in with the AI’s brave new world. (Human unemployment is running at 67 per cent, and without purification’s calming effect it’s virtually impossible to get a worthwhile job.)

None of the Gabrielles and Louises are comfortable in their own skin. They take it in turns wanting to be something else, even if it means being something less. They see the best that they can be, and it pretty much literally scares the life out of them.

Given this is the point The Beast wants to put across, you have to admire the physical casting here. Each lead actor exhibits superb, machine-like self-control. Seydoux dies behind her eyes not once but many times in the course of this film; MacKay can go from trembling Adonis to store-front mannekin in about 2.1 seconds. And when full humanity is called for, both actors demonstrate extraordinary sensitivity: handy when you’re trying to distinguish between 1910’s unspoken passion, 2014’s unspeakable passion, and 2044’s passionless speech.

True, The Beast may be the most indirect critique of technology ever made. Heaven knows how it will fare at the box office. But any fool can make us afraid of robots. This intelligent, shocking and memorable film dares to focus on us.

One of those noodly problems

Reading The Afterlife of Data by Carl Öhman for the Spectator

They didn’t call Diogenes “the Cynic” for nothing. He lived to shock the (ancient Greek) world. When I’m dead, he said, just toss my body over the city walls to feed the dogs. The bit of me that I call “I” won’t be around to care.

The revulsion we feel at this idea tells us something important: that the dead can be wronged. Diogenes may not care what happens to his corpse, but we do. And doing right by the dead is a job of work. Some corpses are reduced to ash, some are buried, and some are fed to vultures. In each case the survivors all feel, rightly, that they have treated their loved ones’ remains with respect.

What should we do with our digital remains?

This sounds like one of those noodly problems that keep digital ethicists like Öhman in grant money — but some of the stories in The Afterlife of Data are sure to make the most sceptical reader stop and think. There’s something compelling, and undeniably moving, in one teenager’s account of how, ten years after losing his father, he found they could still play together; at least, he could compete against his dad’s last outing on an old XBox racing game.

Öhman is not spinning ghost stories here. He’s not interested in digital afterlives. He’s interested in remains, and in emerging technologies that, from the digital data we inadvertently leave behind, fashion our artificially intelligent simulacra. (You may think this is science fiction, but Microsoft doesn’t, and has already taken out several patents.)

This rapidly approaching future, Öhman argues, seems uncanny only because death itself is uncanny. Why should a chatty AI simulacrum prove any more transgressive than, say, a photograph of your lost love, given pride of place on the mantelpiece? We got used to the one; in time we may well get used to the other.

What should exercise us is who owns the data. As Öhman argues, ‘if we leave the management of our collective digital past solely in the hands of industry, the question “What should we do with the data of the dead?” becomes solely a matter of “What parts of the past can we make money on?”’

The trouble with a career in digital ethics is that however imaginative and insightful you get, you inevitably end up playing second-fiddle to some early episode of Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror. The one entitled “Be Right Back”, in which a dead lover returns in robot form to market upgrades of itself to the grieving widow, stands waiting at the end of almost every road Öhman travels here.

Öhman reminds us that the digital is a human realm, and one over which we can and must and must exert our values. Unless we actively delete them (in a sort of digital cremation, I suppose) our digital dead are not going away, and we are going to have to accommodate them somehow.

A more modish, less humane writer would make the most of the fact that recording has become the norm, so that, as Öhman puts it, “society now takes place in a domain previously reserved for the dead, namely the archive.” (And, to be fair, Öhman does have a lot of fun with the idea that by 2070, Facebook’s dead will outnumber its living.)

Ultimately, though, Öhman draws readers through the digital uncanny to a place of responsibility. Digital remains are not just a representation of the dead, he says, “they are the dead, an informational corpse constitutive of a personal identity.”

Öhman’s lucid, closely argued foray into the world of posthumous data is underpinned by this sensible definition of what constitute a person: “A person,” he says, “is the narrative object that we refer to when speaking of someone (including ourselves) in the third person. Persons extend beyond the selves that generate them.” If I disparage you behind your back, I’m doing you a wrong, even though you don’t know about it. If I disparage you after you’re dead, I’m still doing you wrong, though you’re no longer around to be hurt.

Our job is to take ownership of each others’ digital remains and treat them with human dignity. The model Öhman holds up for us to emulate is the Bohemian author and composer Max Brod, who had the unenviable job of deciding what to do with manuscripts left behind by his friend Franz Kafka, who wanted him to burn them. In the end Brod decided that the interests of “Kafka”, the informational body constitutive of a person, overrode (barely) the interests of Franz his no-longer-living friend.

What to do with our digital remains? Öhman’s excellent reply treats this challenge with urgency, sanity and, best of all, compassion. Max Brod’s decision wasn’t and isn’t obvious, and really, the best you can do in these situations is to make the error you and others can best live with.

Geometry’s sweet spot

Reading Love Triangle by Matt Parker for the Telegraph

“These are small,” says Father Ted in the eponymous sitcom, and he holds up a pair of toy cows. “But the ones out there,” he explains to Father Dougal, pointing out the window, “are far away.”

It may not sound like much of a compliment to say that Matt Parker’s new popular mathematics book made me feel like Dougal, but fans of Graham Linehan’s masterpiece will understand. I mean that I felt very well looked after, and, in all my ignorance, handled with a saint-like patience.

Calculating the size of an object from its spatial position has tried finer minds than Dougal’s. A long virtuoso passage early on in Love Triangle enumerates the half-dozen stages of inductive reasoning required to establish the distance of the largest object in the universe — a feature within the cosmic web of galaxies called The Giant Ring. Over nine billion light years away, the Giant Ring still occupies 34.5 degrees of the sky: now that’s what I call big and far away.

Measuring it has been no easy task, and yet the first, foundational step in the calculation turns out to be something as simple as triangulating the length of a piece of road.

“Love Triangle”, as no one will be surprised to learn, is about triangles. Triangles were invented (just go along with me here) in ancient Egypt, where the regularly flooding river Nile obliterated boundary markers for miles around and made rural land disputes a tiresome inevitability. Geometry, says the historian Herodotus around 430 BC, was invented to calculate the exact size of a plot of land. We’ve no reason to disbelieve him.

Parker spends a good amount of time demonstrating the practical usefulness of basic geometry, that allows us to extract the shape and volume of triangular space from a single angle and the length of a single side. At one point, on a visit to Tokyo, he uses a transparent ruler and a tourist map to calculate the height of the city’s tallest tower, the SkyTree.

Having shown triangles performing everyday miracles, he then tucks into their secret: “Triangles,” he explains, “are in the sweet spot of having enough sides to be a physical shape, while still having enough limitations that we can say generalised and meaningful things about them.” Shapes with more sides get boring really quickly, not least because they become so unwieldy in higher dimensions, which is where so many of the joys of real mathematics reside.

Adding dimensions to triangles adds just one corner per dimension. A square, on the other hand, explodes, doubling its number of corners with each dimension. (A cube has eight.) This makes triangles the go-to shape for anyone who wants to assemble meshes in higher dimensions. All sorts of complicated paths are brought within computational reach, making possible all manner of civilisational triumphs, including (but not limited to) photorealistic animations.

So many problems can be cracked by reducing them to triangles, there is an entire mathematical discipline, trigonometry, concerned with the relationships between their angles and side lengths. Parker’s adventures on the spplied side of trigonometry become, of necessity, something of a blooming, buzzing confusion, but his anecdotes are well judged and lead the reader seamlessly into quite complex territory. Ever wanted to know how Kathleen Lonsdale applied Fourier transforms to X-ray waves, making possible Rosalind Franklin’s work on DNA structure? Parker starts us off on that journey by wrapping a bit of paper around a cucumber and cutting it at a slant. Half a dozen pages later, we may not have the firmest grasp of what Parker calls the most incredible bit of maths most people have never heard of, but we do have a clear map of what we do not know.

Whether Parker’s garrulousness charms you or grates on you will be a matter of taste. I have a pious aversion to writers who feel the need to cheer their readers through complex material every five minutes. But it’s hard not to tap your foot to cheap music, and what could be cheaper than Parker’s assertion that introducing coordinates early on in a maths lesson “could be considered ‘putting Descartes before the course’”?

Parker has a fine old time with his material, and only a curmudgeon can fail to be charmed by his willingness to call Heron’s two-thousand-year-old formula for finding the area of a triangle “stupid” (he’s not wrong, neither) and the elongated pentagonal gyrocupolarotunda a “dumb shape”.

What’s not to like?

Watching Kiah Roache-Turner’s Sting for New Scientist

A bratty 12-year-old girl. A feckless stepfather who loses her trust and feels increasingly out of place in his own home. Oh, and a giant spider.

Kiah Roache-Turner, a relatively new director on the horror scene, understands that real originality has almost nothing to do with who and what you put in front of the screen. What matters how is you set those elements to dancing. Like 2023’s killer-doll hit M3gan, with which it shares a certain antic humour, Sting cares about its characters. Charlotte (Alyla Browne) hero-worships her absent father, and this is slowly driving her stepdad Ethan (Ryan Corr) up the wall, since he knows full well that Charlotte’s real dad lives only half an hour away “across the bridge”. (Sting is ostensibly set in Brooklyn, New York; actually it was shot in Sydney and aside from a couple of establishing shots its action takes place entirely within a brownstone apartment house, all drywall and ducts.)

Ethan’s a struggling comic book artist who finds himself borrowing (and spoiling) Charlotte’s own much livelier ideas. When Charlotte’s pet spider (it arrived in a meteor during an ice storm — never a good sign) grows to man-eating size and drags Ethan off through the air duct, Charlotte, plugged in to her earphones, her videogames and her anger, simply fails to notice. The scene tries to hit the sweet spot between horror and comedy that M3gan struck again and again, and if it doesn’t quite succeed, I think it may have less to do with the writing or direction as with the film’s basic premise, which is, when you come down to it, very thin.

Comparisons to the original Alien are inevitable, if only because of the spider’s break-neck growth rate and all those ducts. And as far as the special effects go, Sting the Spider stands up pretty well. Wisely, the film prefers glimpses, shadows and one or two very well-judged sight gags to full-on goo and muppeteering.

The house — a realistically over-stuffed gothic interior full of corners and cabinets — is the family in metaphor. The ducts connecting Charlotte’s bedroom to the sitting room of Helga, her senile grandmother (Noni Hazlehurst, having more fun than the rest of the cast put together), are the torturous lines of communication by which these good people struggle to maintain a sense of family. Sting favours suspense over surprise. We learn very early on that Charlotte’s fast-growing pet cannot bear the smell of mothballs and that Helga, wrapped in umpteen threadbare shawls, stinks of them. For a second we teeter on a fairytale in which an old woman and a young girl will save the “real” adult world.

True, nothing kills a good story faster than cleverness — but a few more touches of that sort wouldn’t have hurt. Instead we have an efficient, entertaining light-hearted script, very ably realised, and one and a half hours of light entertainment that, though not at all wasted, are not exactly filled to the brim, either.

Why, then, has Sting acquired global distribution and, even before its release, such glowing trade coverage?

Well, for one thing, it’s refreshing to see a movie that puts its characters through the wringer in psychologically believable ways. Charlotte saves Ethan from the spider. Ethan saves Charlotte. In the face of a Fate Worse Than Death (trust me on this), the pair learn to cooperate. A weak man gains strength, a lonely child learns there’s value in other people, a cowardly exterminator loses his head and a bitter landlady plummets down a lift shaft. What’s not to like? Storytelling this pure looks effortless, but if it was, films in general would be a lot better than they are.

“For survival reasons, I must spread globally”

Reading Trippy by Ernesto Londono for the Telegraph

Ernesto Londoño’s enviable reputation as a journalist was forged in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2017 he landed his dream job as the New York Times Brazil bureau chief, with a roving brief, talented and supportive colleagues, and a high-rise apartment in Rio de Janeiro.

When, not long after, he nearly-accidentally-on-purpose threw himself off his balcony, he knew he was in serious emotional trouble.

It was more than whimsy that led him to look for help at a psychedelic retreat in the Amazon hamlet of Mushu Inu, a place with no running water, where the shower facility consisted of a large tub guarded by a couple of tarantulas. He had seen what taking antidepressant medications had done for acquaintances in the US military (nothing good), and thought to write at first hand about what, in the the US, has become an increasingly popular alternative therapy: drinking ayahuasca tea.

Ayahuasca is prepared by boiling chunks of an Amazonian vine called Banisteriopsis caapi with the leaves of a shrubby plant called Psychotria viridis. The leaves contain a psychoactive compound, and the vines stop the drinker from metabolising it too quickly. The experience that follows is, well, trippy.

By disrupting routine patterns of thought and memory processing, psychedelic trips offer depressed and traumatised people a reprieve from their obsessive thought patterns. They offer them a chance to recalibrate and reinterpret past experiences. How they do this is up to them, however, and this is why psychedelics are anything but a harmless recreational drug. It’s as possible to step out of a bad trip screaming psychotically at the trees as it is to emerge, Buddha-like, from a carefully guided psychedelic experience. The Yawanawá people of the Amazon, who have effectively become global ambassadors for the brew (which, incidentally, they’ve only been making for a few hundred years) make no bones about its harmful potential. The predominantly western organisers of ayahuasca-fuelled tourist retreats are rather less forthcoming.

Psychedelics promise revolutionary treatments for PTSD. In the US, pharmaceutical researchers funded by government are attempting to subtract all the whacky, enjoyable and humane elements of the ayahuasca experience, and thereby distil a kind of aspirin for war trauma. It’s a singularly dystopian project, out to erase the affect of atrocities in the minds of those who might, thanks to that very treatment, be increasingly inclined to perpetrate them.

On one ayahausca webforum, meanwhile, the brew speaks to her counter-cultural acolytes. “If I don’t spread globally I will face extinction, similar to Humans,” a feminised ayahuasca cuppa proclaims. “For survival reasons, I must spread globally, while Humans must accept my sacred medicine to heal their afflicted soul.”

Londono has drunk the brew, if not the Kool-Aid, and says his ayahuasca experiences saved, if not his life, then at very least his capacity for happiness. He maintains a great affection for the romantics and idealists who he depicts in pursuit, according to their different lights, of the good and the healthful in psychedelic experience.

His own survey leads him from psychedelic “bootcamps” in the rainforest to upscale clinics in Costa Rica tending to the global one per cent, to US “churches”, who couch therapy as religious experience so that they can import ayahuasca and get around the strictures of the DEA. The most startling sections, for me, dealt with Santo Daime, a syncretic Brazilian faith that contrives to combine ayahuasca with a proximal Catholic liturgy.

Trippy is told, as much as possible, in the first person, through anecdote and memoir. Seeing the perils and the promise of psychedelic experience play out in Londono’s own mind, as he comes to terms over years with his own quite considerable personal traumas, is a privilege, though it brings with it moments of tedium, as though we were being expected to sit through someone’s gushing account of their cheese dreams. This — let’s call it the stupidity of seriousness — is a besetting tonal problem with the introspective method. William James fell foul of it in The Principles of Psychology of 1890, so it would be a bit rich of me to twit Londono about it in 2024.

Still, it’s fair to point out, I think, that Londono, an accomplished print journalist, is writing, day on day, for a readership of predominantly US liberals — surely the most purse-lipped and conservative readership on Earth. So maybe, with Trippy as our foundation, we should now seek out a looser, more gonzo treatment: one wild enough to handle the wholesale spiritual regearing promised by the psychedelics coming to a clinic, church, and holiday brochure near you.


An entirely predictable square-dance

Watching Stefon Bristol’s Breathe for New Scientist

Zora (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Maya (Jennifer Hudson) live behind the hard-to-open bulkhead doors of a homemade bunker in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. If you can call it living: their every breath has to be calibrated and analysed, as the oxygen-producing machinery constructed by their missing husband and father Darius (a short, sweet performance by the former rapper Common) starts to fail.

The Earth’s oxygen has vanished. So has all its plant life. The oceans are all dried up. Survivors are few, and trust between them is a thing of the past.

Had Maya simply listened to her daughter and let in the two mysterious visitors who want to study their oxygen plant (Tess, played by Milla Jovovich, and Lucas, played by Sam Worthington) Breathe’s plot, such as it is, would have barely filled a quarter-hour. (Zora has been monologuing to her presumably dead dad over the shortwave radio for months now. If Tess has overheard her, then her claim to be Darius’s colleague may simply be a lie.)

As it is, no one trusts anyone and everybody shouts a lot, while performing an entire predictable square-dance around door codes, pass keys, key-cards, dead and dying batteries, cable ties, unreachable switches — we’ve been here before, oh, so very many times. Breathe’s sole highlight is Sam Worthington’s manic, dead-eyed Lucas — incapable, after a lifetime of horrors, of thinking more than thirty seconds into the future.

Low-budget science fiction favours the global catastrophe. What better alibi could there be for squeezing your cast into small, affordable sets? Though hardly one-room dramas, two recent sci-fi thrillers have shown what can be done with relatively few resources: 2018’s Bird Box (in which Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie must shield her and her children’s eyes from entities that prompt people to suicide) and, in the same year, A Quiet Place (whose gargoyle-like aliens chomp down on anything and anyone that makes a sound). Whether the world beyond that armoured door is as uninhabitable as we think fuels the paranoia of both 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the rather more expansive Silo, a TV adaptation of Hugh Howey’s series of sf thrillers.

Still, it’s hard to think of a movie genre so resistant to innovation as this one. While it solves the problem of small budgets, the one-room scenario doesn’t at all play to genre’s manic strengths. The best one-room thrillers aren’t science fiction at all, but regular thrillers. In Geoffrey Household’s unforgettable 1939 novel Rogue Male, to take an extreme example, Hitler’s would-be assassin is foiled and has to go hide under a hedge.

The trick, when writing science fiction versions of such stories, is to treat seriously the macguffin that created your scenario in the first place. The psychocidal monsters of Bird Box, first invented by Josh Malerman for his 2014 novel, are a wonderfully insolent, high-concept proposition. The big-eared raptors of A Quiet Place are only marginally less convincing.

Come 2020’s The Midnight Sky however, and the scraping of the barrel has become almost deafening, as radiation (that’s it, that’s all you’re getting: “radiation”) comes to stand in for what we tuned in for: a display of malign and cackling inventiveness. 2021’s Tom Hanks vehicle Finch was a winningly goofy proposition on paper — a grumpy old man, dying in the End Times, invents a robot to look after his dog — but the entire enterprise had the charm sucked out of it by that cursory macguffin: a massive solar flare used merely to excuse a smorgasbord of unrelated bad-weather CGI.

In 2010 Breathe’s screenwriter Doug Simon co-wrote a low-budget film called Brotherhood. Tellingly enough, that was a far more successful one-room thriller, about a college fraternity initiation rite gone horribly wrong. Turning to science fiction, Simon seems to have made the frequent and fatal assumption that SF comes with all the necessary inventiveness somehow “built in”.

Why has the oxygen vanished, more or less overnight, from Breathe’s gasping Earth? Its not even as if we needed a rational explanation; we just needed a compelling one. In its place we get a story as sterile as the planet it’s set on.

“The most efficient conformity engines ever invented”

Reading The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt for The Spectator, 30 March 2024

What’s not to like about a world in which youths are involved in fewer car accidents, drink less, and wrestle with fewer unplanned pregnancies?

Well, think about it: those kids might not be wiser; they might simply be afraid of everything. And what has got them so afraid? A little glass rectangle, “a portal in their pockets” that entices them into a world that’s “exciting, addictive, unstable and… unsuitable for children”.

So far, so paranoid — and there’s a delicious tang of the documentary-maker Adam Curtis about social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s extraordinarily outspoken, extraordinarily well-evidenced diatribe against the creators of smartphone culture, men once hailed, “as heroes, geniuses, and global benefactors who,” Haidt says, “like Prometheus, brought gifts from the gods to humanity.”

The technological geegaw Haidt holds responsible for the “great rewiring” of brains of people born after 1995 is not, interestingly enough, the iPhone itself (first released in 2007) but its front-facing camera, released with the iPhone 4 in June 2010. Samsung added one to its Galaxy the same month. Instagram launched in the same year. Now users could curate on-line versions of themselves on the fly — and they do, incessantly. Maintaining an on-line self is a 24/7 job. The other day on Crystal Palace Parade I had to catch a pram from rolling into the street while the young mother vogued and pouted into her smartphone.

Anecdotes are one thing; evidence is another. The point of The Anxious Generation is not to present phone-related pathology as though it were a new idea, but rather to provide robust scientific evidence for what we’ve all come to assume is true: that there is causal link (not just some modish dinner-party correlation) between phone culture and the ever more fragile mental state of our youth. “These companies,” Haidt says, “have rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale.”

Haidt’s data are startling. Between 2010 and 2015, depression in teenage girls and boys became two and a half times more prevalent. From 2010 to 2020, the rate of self-harm among young adolescent girls nearly tripled. The book contains a great many bowel-loosening graphs, with titles like “High Psychological Distress, Nordic Nations” and “Alienation in School, Worldwide”. There’s one in particular I can’t get out of my head, showing the percentage of US students in 8th 10th and 12th grade who said they were happy in themselves. Between 2010 and 2015 this “self-satisfaction score” falls off a cliff.

The Anxious Generation revises conclusions Haidt drew in 2018, while collaborating with the lawyer Greg Lukianoff on The Coddling of the American Mind. Subtitled “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure”, that book argued that universities and other institutes of higher education (particularly in the US) were teaching habits of thinking so distorted, they were triggering depression and anxiety among their students. Why else would students themselves be demanding that colleges protect them from books and speakers that made them feel “unsafe”? Ideas that had caused little or no controversy in 2010 “were, by 2015, said to be harmful, dangerous, or traumatising,” Haidt remembers.

Coddling’s anti-safe-space, “spare the rod and spoil the child” argument had merit, but Haidt soon came to realise it didn’t begin to address the scale of the problem: “by 2017 it had become clear that the rise of depression and anxiety was happening in many countries, to adolescents of all educational levels, social classes and races.”

Why are people born after 1996 so — well — different? So much more anxious, so much more judgemental, so much more miserable? Phone culture is half of Haidt’s answer; the other is a broader argument about “safetyism”, which Haidt defines as “the well-intentioned and disastrous shift toward overprotecting children and restricting their autonomy in the ‘real world’.”

Boys suffer more from being shut in and overprotected. Girls suffer more from the way digital technologies monetize and weaponise peer hierarchies. Although the gender differences are interesting, it’s the sheer scale of harms depicted here that should galvanise us. Haidt’s suggested solutions are common sense and commonplace: stop punishing parents for letting their children have some autonomy. Allow children plenty of unstructured free play. Ban phones in school.

For Gen-Z, this all comes too late. Over-protection in the real world, coupled with an almost complete lack of protections in the virtual world, has consigned a generation of young minds to what is in essence a play-free environment. In the distributed, unspontaneous non-space of the digital device, every action is performed in order to achieve a prescribed goal. Every move is strategic. “Likes” and “comments”, “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” provide immediate real time metrics on the efficacy or otherwise of thousands of micro-decisions an hour, and even trivial mistakes bring heavy costs.

In a book of devastating observations, this one hit home very hard: that these black mirrors of ours are “the most efficient conformity engines ever invented”.


Watching Johan Renck’s Spaceman for new Scientist, 27 March 2024

Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka (Adam Sandler) is dying of loneliness, six months into a solo space mission to visit a mysterious purple cloud. His wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant and, being already a lot lonelier than Jakub (who’s been a wholly unsupportive husband), she decides to leave him. The mission controllers keep the news from Jakub, but he knows what’s going on, and it’s his sense of despair that, quite early in the film, draws in help from beyond — a telepathic spider who can pass through walls but is otherwise as real and solid as anything on Jakub’s spaceship (a sort of inside-out junkyard full of believably outdated but serviceable machinery, ducts, keyboards, lights, and a toilet pump that won’t stop screaming).

Spaceman is directed by former singer-songwriter and video maker Johan Renck, better known these days for his Emmy-winning direction of the 2019 docudrama Chernobyl. It’s an assured, wholly deliberate experiment in pacing that will frustrate many. This is a film delivered at a single, unvarying, trancelike pace — and entirely right for a story that’s not at all about a man losing his grip on reality, but rather the very reverse: Adam Sandler’s astronaut Jakub must come to grips with what reality turns out to be, after all — extraterrestrial clouds, telepathic spiders and all. “The universe,” his strange companion assures him, even as they both face extinction, “is as it should be”. And here’s the kicker: the alien spider is right.

Spaceman is monotonous only in the sense that time itself is monotonous, and the film’s transcendental aspirations are very well served by Hans Zimmer’s shimmering, shuddering score; it’s more sound art than music, and easily as powerful as anything he wrote for Villeneuve’s Dune films — which is saying a lot.

Since his lead turn in the Safdi Brothers’ 2019 crime movie Uncut Gems, Sandler the serious actor has little left to prove. Here, he embodies and expresses Jakub’s terror, melancholy, anger and self-hatred with absolute commitment and truthfulness — five years ago, who would have bet money that the words “egoless” and “Adam Sandler” would ever appear in the same sentence? Paul Dano voices Jakub’s arachnid companion, with a poetic pathos that would be cloying in a more regular movie, but works superbly well here — almost as if his every word were a prayer.

In its effort to be a spiritual experience — more church mass than movie — Spaceman simplifies the already fairly simple plot of its source material, Jaroslav Kalfař’s novel The Spaceman of Bohemia. This was a mistake.

Jakub is lonely. So is his wife. She leaves him. Counselled by his extraterrestrial friend, Jakub makes up with her (a neat trick, involving a wonderfully goofy faster-than-light phone called CzechConnect and a glowing purple fragment from the universe’s beginning). They reconcile, and Jakub begins his long return.

At which point, I must report I woke from my aesthetic trance and thought to myself: hang on, why does the story of a man reconciling with his wife six-months into a work assignment require a space mission, a mysterious cloud, quantum telephony and a telepathic spider?

Spaceman has many virtues but it is, when you come down to it, a film about someone trying to fix their work-life balance, and doing so in the most expensive, baroque, and portentous manner imaginable. He’s lonely? Boo hoo. She’s leaving him half way through his solo flight? What a lousy, selfish thing for her to do. Bang their heads together, I say, and to hell with the limitations of spacetime!

And this, just to spoil it for you, is pretty much what happens.

Why Space is for Everyone

On Wednesday, 20 March 2024 at 12:00pm I’ll be talking to astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Chris Impey about efforts to bring thinking from a greater diversity of backgrounds can enhance astronomy and provide insight into the universe.

The event’s being held at Oxford Martin School’s Lecture Theatre as part of this year’s Oxford Literary Festival. You can get tickets here.