Langlands & Bell move the furniture

Talking with Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell for the Financial Times, 29 September 2020

Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell have spent forty years making architecturally inspired art: meticulous cardboard models of real buildings hung in hardwood frames, or inset under glass in the seats of sculptural kitchen chairs you cannot sit on.

What’s at the centre of their work? What have they done with its heart?

Langlands and Bell split their time between Whitechapel and their studio in Kent. In person, they are warm and funny and garrulous. But just as their house (called Untitled) is designed to melt unobtrusively into the landscape, so their art has a tendency to vanish into the warp and weft of things. This is literally true of their show “Degrees of Truth”, which opened at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London just days before the Coronavirus lockdown. On 1 October, when the museum reopens, visitors may need a minute or two to adjust to the fiendish way the partnership’s new and old work has hidden itself among the eighteenth-century architect’s eclectic collection of stones, carvings, statues, curios and models.

“Soane liked models; we like models,” Langlands says. “But while Soane used models for understanding how to build something, we use them for understanding how and why it was built.”

The couple’s investigative process invites comparisons with Trevor Paglen (who tilts at surveillance systems) and Forensic Architecture (who rebuild erased moments in history using point-clouds and plaster). But while they are known for tackling big political themes, their preferred environment is the domestic interior. They renovated houses for money when they were students; days before the lockdown they invited me to their place in Kent, a self-built house-studio-gallery they designed themselves. No-one at the time imagined they would soon find themselves marooned there. (“We got a lot done over the summer”, Ben Langlands admits over the phone, “but the virtual and the real are different places. It’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll get real-world inspiration off the internet.”)

They say they are neither architects, nor designers, and in the same breath they say their work is about the relationships people establish with each other through their buildings and their furniture. The first work they ever collaborated on, as students at Middlesex Polytechnic (the former Hornsey College of Art) was a pair of kitchens: through a window let in to the wall of the worn, grimy old one, you got a fleeting glimpse the brand-spanking new one. They believe (rightly) that it is possible to read a world of social relations into, say, the position of chairs around a table.

Not all architectures are material, and this may be why the point of their work sometimes vanishes from sight. Globe Table (2020) is a piece made for the show which now languishes behind the locked doors of Sir John Soane’s Museum. It is a giant white marble laced with black lines, marking the world’s major air routes. Nearby, in a case that once held a pistol that supposedly belonged to Napoleon, Virtual World, Medal of Dishonour (2008) is a disc whose enamel rings combine three categories of codes; codes for airports, like LHR or JFK or LAX, then for NGOs involved in reconstruction or disaster relief like UN WHO or USAID; finally the acronyms of geopolitical players: IRA, CIA, ETA, ISIS.

A bit of a jump, that, from seating arrangements to airline schedules and security agencies. But this is the territory Langlands and Bell have staked out. Since 1990 they have been exploring the space where physical structures, images, logos and acronyms bleed into each other. Their next show, opening at CCA Kitakyushu in Japan on 16 November, is a museological skit built around the signatures of curators they’ve run into over a 45 year career.

They began from a place of high seriousness. Logoworks (1990), modelled the new corporate offices rising in Frankfurt, and they garnered headlines again when they tackled some iconic West Coast companies in Internet Giants: Masters of the Universe (2018) showing how, in Bell’s words, “companies subliminally bring their identity to the forms of their buildings”.

And the seriousness becomes positively deadly in an upcoming show at Gallery 1957 in Accra. “The Past is Never Dead…” brings to the slave forts of the Ghanaian ‘Gold Coast’ the same forensic eye the artists applied to the “campuses” of Apple and Facebook. There’s the same consistency in typology on show, only this time the buildings’ spiny, angular forms are driven, not by brand marketing, but by the need to defend against sea-borne cannon attack.

“I think architecture is changing,” says Nikki Bell, “in that it’s becoming more object-based.” Algorithmic design encourages planners and architects to treat buildings like scaleless objects, like those vector graphics that expand endlessly without loss of resolution. Some of the most ambitious buildings of our age are, architecturally speaking, simply scaled-up logos.

And, says Ben Langlands, there is another, even more powerful force eroding architecture. “Up until now the most profound influences exercised on us culturally have come from architecture,” he says, “so tangible, so enduring, so powerful, so massive, so complicated and expensive, that it has huge effects on us that last for centuries. ” Today, however, those relations are being shaped much more powerfully by social media, “a new kind of architecture which is much more stealthy and hidden.”

Langlands and Bell are committed to studying the world in aesthetic terms, and everything else they might feel or think or say follows from their way of seeing. Once I stop ransacking their work for ideological Easter eggs (are they dystopian? are they anti-capitalist? are they neo-Luddite?), I begin to see what they’re up to. They are looking for beauty, sincere in their conviction that through beauty they will find truth.

Between Logoworks and Internet Giants, and in the shadow of the first Gulf War, the artists began making reliefs, “two-and-a-half-dimensional” wall sculptures that reflected how reconnaissance planes at high altitude saw structures tens of thousands of feet below. “You would get these collapsed views at very compressed angles which now appear very typical of that time.”

Marseille, Cité Radieuse (2001), for example, presents a distorted view of the facade of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. It’s a model made from a photograph taken at an angle, a meticulous white sculpture that depends almost entirely on the way it’s lit to be at all comprehensible.

Developments in photography and in architecture since the 1990s have replaced those evocative compressed-angle images with drone footage, and this has in its turn informed the tiresome surveillance typology of umpteen videogames — though not before Langlands and Bell earned a Turner Prize nomination for The House of Osama bin Laden. which included a virtual render, explorable via joystick, of a lake-side house bin Laden once occupied.

Forty years into their career, Langlands and Bell continue to chip away at the world with tools that Sir John Soane would have recognised: a sense of form, light, movement and beauty. They say they like new things to investigate. They say they are always travelling, always exploring. But what else can an architecturally minded artist do, once the very idea of architecture has begun to dissolve?

“Langlands & Bell: Degrees of Truth” at Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP, from 1 October 2020.

“Curators Signatures” at CCA Kitakyushu from 16 November 2020 to 22 January 2021.

“’The Past is Never Dead…’ the architecture of the Slave Castles of the Ghanaian Gold Coast”, at Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana, will open in 2021.

Modernity in Mexico

Reading Connected: How a Mexican village built its own cell phone network by Roberto J González for New Scientist, 14 October 2020

In 2013 the world’s news media, fell in love with Talea, a Mexican pueblo (population 2400) in Rincón, a remote corner of Northern Oaxaca. América Móvil, the telecommunications giant that ostensibly served their area, had refused to provide them with a mobile phone service, so the plucky Taleans had built a network of their own.

Imagine it: a bunch of indigenous maize growers, subsistence farmers with little formal education, besting and embarrassing Carlos Slim, América Móvil’s owner and, according to Forbes magazine at the time, the richest person in the world!

The full story of that short-lived, homegrown network is more complicated, says Roberto González in his fascinating, if somewhat self-conscious account of rural innovation.

Talea was never a backwater. A community that survives Spanish conquest and resists 500 years of interference by centralised government may become many things, but “backward” is not one of them.

On the other hand, Gonzalez harbours no illusions about how communities, however sophisticated, might resist the pall of globalising capital — or why they would even want to. That homogenising whirlwind of technology, finance and bureaucracy also brings with it roads, hospitals, schools, entertainment, jobs, and medicine that actually works.

For every outside opportunity seized, however, an indigenous skill must be forgotten. Talea’s farmers can now export coffee and other cash crops, but many fields lie abandoned, as the town’s youth migrate to the United States. The village still tries to run its own affairs — indeed, the entire Oaxaca region staged an uprising against centralised Mexican authority in 2006. But the movement’s brutal repression by the state augurs ill for the region’s autonomy. And if you’ve no head for history, well, just look around. Pueblos are traditionally made of mud. It’s a much easier, cheaper, more repairable and more ecologically sensitive material than the imported alternatives. Still, almost every new building here is made of concrete.

In 2012, Talea gave its backing to another piece of imported modernity — a do-it-yourself phone network, assembled by Peter Bloom, a US-born rural development specialist, and Erick Huerta, a Mexican telecommunications lawyer. Both considered access to mobile phone networks and the internet to be a human right.

Also helping — and giving the lie to the idea that the network was somehow a homegrown idea — were “Kino”, a hacker who helped indigenous communities evade state controls, and Minerva Cuevas, a Mexican artist best known for hacking supermarket bar codes.

By 2012 Talea’s telephone network was running off an open-source mobile phone network program called OpenBTS (BTS stands for base transceiver station). Mobiles within range of a base station can communicate with each other, and connect globally over the internet using VoIP (or Voice over Internet Protocol). All the network needed was an electrical power socket and an internet connection — utilities Talea had enjoyed for years.

The network never worked very well. Whenever the internet went down, which it did occasionally, the whole town lost its mobile coverage. Recently the phone company Movistar has moved in with an aggressive plan to provide the region with regular (if costly) commercial coverage. Talea’s autonomous network idea lives on, however, in a cooperative organization of community cell phone networks which today represents nearly seventy pueblos across several different regions in Oaxaca.

Connected is an unsentimental account of how a rural community takes control (even if only for a little while) over the very forces that threaten its cultural existence. Talea’s people are dispersing ever more quickly across continents and platforms in search of a better life. The “virtual Taleas” they create on Facebook and other sites to remember their origins are touching, but the fact remains: 50 years of development have done more to unravel a local culture than 500 years of conquest.

Nuanced and terrifying at the same time

Reading The Drone Age by Michael J. Boyle for New Sceintist, 30 September 2020

Machines are only as good as the people who use them. Machines are neutral — just a faster, more efficient way of doing something that we always intended to do. That, anyway, is the argument wielded often by defenders of technology.

Michael Boyle, a professor of political science at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, isn’t buying: “the technology itself structures choices and induces changes in decision-making over time,” he explains, as he concludes his concise, comprehensive overview of the world the drone made. In everything from commerce to warfare, spycraft to disaster relief, our menu of choices “has been altered or constrained by drone technology itself”.

Boyle manages to be nuanced and terrifying at the same time. At one moment he’s pointing out the formidable practical obstacles in the way of anyone launching a major terrorist drone attack. In the next, he’s explaining why political assassinations by drone are just around the corner, Turn a page setting out the moral, operational and legal constraints keenly felt by upstanding US military drone pilots, and you’re confronted by their shadowy handlers in government, who operate with virtually no oversight.

Though grounded in just the right level of technical detail, The Drone Age describes, not so much the machines themselves, but the kind of thinking they’ve ushered in: an approach to problems that no longer distinguishes between peace and war.

In some ways this is a good thing. Assuming that war is inevitable, what’s not to welcome about a style of warfare that involves working through a kill list, rather than exterminating a significant proportion of the enemy’s population?
Well, two things. For US readers, there’s the way a few careful drone strikes proliferated under Obama and especially under Trump into a global counter-insurgency air platform. While for all of us, there’s the peacetime living is affected, too. “It is hard to feel like a human… when reduced to a pixelated dot under the gaze of a drone,” Boyle writes. If the pool of information gathered about us expands, but not the level of understanding or sympathy for us, where then i’s the positive for human society?

Boyle brings proper philosophical thinking to our relationship with technology. He’s particularly indebted to the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, whose The Technological Society (1964) transformed the way we think about machines. Ellul argued that when we apply technology to a problem, we adopt a mode of thinking that emphasizes efficiency and instrumental rationality, but also dehumanizes the problem.
Applying this lesson to drone technology, Boyle writes: “Instead of asking why we are using aircraft for a task in the first place, we tend to debate instead whether the drone is better than the manned alternative.”

This blinkered thinking, on the part of their operators, explains why drone activities almost invariably alienate the very people they are meant to benefit: non-combatants, people caught up in natural disasters, the relatively affluent denizens of major cities. Indeed, the drone’s ability to intimidate seems on balance to outweigh every other capability.

The UN has been known to fly unarmed Falco surveillance drones low to the ground to deter rebel groups from gathering. If you adopt the kind of thinking Ellul described, then this must be a good thing — a means of scattering hostels, achieved efficiently and safely. In reality, there’s no earthly reason to suppose violence has been avoided: only redistributed (and let’s not forget how Al Quaeda, decimated by constant drone strikes, has reinvented itself as a global internet brand).

Boyle warns us at the start that different models of drone vary so substantially “that they hardly look like the same technology”. And yet The Drone Age keeps this heterogenous flock of disruptive technologies together long enough to give it real historical and intellectual coherence. If you read one book about drones, this is the one. But it is just as valuable about surveillance, or the rise of information warfare, or the way the best intentions can turn the world we knew on its head.

Thoughts from a Camden bench

Reading The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz for the Telegraph, 26 September 2020

Economist Noreena Hertz’s new book, about our increasing loneliness in a society geared to mutual exploitation, is explosive stuff. I would guess it was commissioned a while ago, then retrofitted for the Covid-19 pandemic — though I defy you to find any unsightly welding marks. Hertz is too good a writer for that, and her idea too timely, too urgent, and too closely argued to be upstaged by a mere crisis.

Loneliness is bad for our physical and mental health. Lack of social interaction makes us both labile and aggressive, a sucker for any Dionysian movement that offers us even a shred of belonging. These lines of argument precede Covid-19 by years, and have been used to explain everything from changing dating patterns among the young to Donald Trump’s win in 2016. But, goodness, what a highly salted dish they make today, now that we’re consigned to our homes and free association is curbed by law.

Under lockdown, we’re now even more reliant on the internet to maintain our working and personal identities. Here again, our immediate experiences sharpen Hertz’s carefully thought-out arguments. Social media is making us unhappy. It’s eroding our civility. It’s driving up rates of suicide. And so on — the arguments here are well-rehearsed, though Hertz’s synthesis is certainly compelling. “Connecting the world may be their goal,” she writes, thinking of the likes of Instagram and Tik Tok, “but it seems that if in the process connections become shallower, crueller or increasingly distorted, so be it.”

Now that we spend so much time indoors, we’re becoming ever more aware of how our outdoor civic space has been dismantled. And here is Hertz once again, waiting for us outside the shuttered wreck of an abandoned library. Actually libraries are the least of it: these days we don’t even get to exchange a friendly word with the supermarket staff who used to check out our shopping. And heaven help us if, on our way back to house arrest, we try to take the weight off our feet on one of those notorious municipal “Camden benches” — tiered and slanted blocks of concrete designed, not to allow public rest of any sort, but to keep “loiterers” moving.

Having led us, Virgil-like, through the circles of virtual and IRL Hell, Hertz ushers us into the purgatory she calls The Loneliness Economy (the capital letters are hers), and describes some of the ways the private sector has tried to address our cultural atomisation. Consider, for example, the way WeWork’s designers built the corridors and stairways in their co-working spaces deliberately narrow, so that users would have to make eye contact with each other. Such strategies are a bit “nudgy” for my taste, but sooner them than that bloody Camden bench.

The trouble with commercialising solutions for loneliness should be obvious: the lonelier we are, the more money this sector will make. So the underlying social drivers of loneliness will be ignored, and only the symptoms will be addressed. “They want to sell the benefit of working in close proximity with others, but with none of the social buy-in, the *hard work* that community requires.” Hertz writes, and wonders whether the people joining many of new, shiny, commercialised communities “have the time or lifestyles that community-building demands.”

Bringing such material to life necessarily means cherry-picking your examples. An impatient or hostile reader might take exception to the graduate student who spent so long curating her “Jen Goes Ziplining” Instagram post that she never actually went ziplining; also to the well-paid executive who lives out of his car and spends all his money on platonic cuddling services. The world is never short of foolish and broken people, and two swallows do not make a summer.

Still, I can’t see how Hertz’s account is harmed by such vividly rendered first-person research. And readers keen to see Hertz’s working have 130 pages of notes to work from.

More seriously, The Lonely Century suffers from the same limitation as Rutger Bregman’s recent (and excellent) Humankind, about how people are basically good. Let’s give each other a break, says Bregman. Let’s give each other the time of day, says Hertz. But neither author (and it’s not for want of trying) can muster much evidence to suggest the world is turning in the direction they would favour. Bregman bangs on about a school that’s had its funding cut; Hertz about a community cafe that’s closed after running out of money. There are other stories, lots of them, but they are (as Hertz herself concedes at one point) a bit “happy-clappy”.

One of Hertz’s many pre-publication champions calls her book “inspiring”. All it inspired in me, I’m afraid, was terror. The world is full of socially deprogrammed zombies. The Technological Singularity is here, the robots are us, and our open plan office-bound Slack messages constitute, at a global level, some great vegetative Overmind.

Hertz doesn’t go this far. But I do. Subtitled “coming together in a world that’s pulling apart”, The Lonely Century confirmed me in my internal exile, and had me bolting to door to the world even more firmly. I don’t even care that I am the problem Hertz is working so desperately hard to fix. I’m not coming out until it’s all over.

A private search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Watching John Was Trying to Contact Aliens for New Scientist, 27 August 2020

You have to admire Netflix’s ambition. As well as producing Oscar-winning short documentaries of its own (The White Helmets won in 2017; Period. End of Sentence. won in 2019), the streaming giant makes a regular effort to bring festival-winning factual films to a global audience.

The latest is John Was Trying to Contact Aliens by New York-based UK director Matthew Killip, which won the Jury Award for a non-fiction short film at this year’s Sundance festival in Utah. In little over 15 minutes, it manages to turn the story of John Shepherd, an eccentric inventor who spent 30 years trying to contact extraterrestrials by broadcasting music millions of kilometres into space, into a tear-jerker of epic (indeed, cosmological) proportions.

Never much cared for by his parents, Shepherd was brought up by adoptive grandparents in rural Michigan. A fan of classic science-fiction shows like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, Shepherd never could shake off the impression that a UFO sighting made on him as a child, and in 1972 the 21-year-old set about designing and constructing electronic equipment to launch a private search for extraterrestrial intelligence. His first set-up, built around an ultra-low frequency radio transmitter, soon expanded to fill over 100 square metres of his long-suffering grandparents’ home. It also acquired an acronym: Project STRAT – Special Telemetry Research And Tracking.

A two-storey high, 1000-watt, 60,000-volt, deep-space radio transmitter required a house extension – and all so Shepherd could beam jazz, reggae, Afro-pop and German electronica into the sky for hours every day, in the hope any passing aliens would be intrigued enough to come calling.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Killip to play up Shepherd’s eccentricity. Until now, Shepherd has been a folk hero in UFO-hunting circles. His photo portrait, surrounded by bizarre broadcasting kit of his own design, appears in Douglas Curren’s In Advance of the Landing: Folk concepts of outer space – the book TV producer Chris Carter says he raided for the first six episodes of his series The X-Files.

Instead, Killip listens closely to Shepherd, discovers the romance, courage and loneliness of his life, and shapes it into a paean to our ability to out-imagine our circumstances and overreach our abilities. There is something heartbreakingly sad, as well as inspiring, about the way Killip pairs Shepherd’s lonely travails in snow-bound Michigan with footage, assembled by teams of who knows how many hundreds, from the archives of NASA.

Shepherd ran out of money for his project in 1998, and having failed to make a connection with ET, quickly found a life-changing connection much closer to home.

I won’t spoil the moment, but I can’t help but notice that, as a film-maker, Killip likes these sorts of structures. In one of his earlier works, The Lichenologist, about Kerry Knudsen, curator of lichens at the University of California, Riverside, Knudsen spends most of the movie staring at very small things before we are treated to the money shot: Knudsen perched on top of a mountain, whipped by the wind and explaining how his youthful psychedelic experiences inspired a lifetime of intense visual study. It is a shot that changes the meaning of the whole film.

Flame brightly and flame out

Reading Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes for New Scientist, 19 August 2020

How we began to unpick our species’ ancient past in the late 19th century is an astounding story, but not always a pretty one. As well as attaining tremendous insights into the age of Earth and how life evolved, scholars also entertained astonishingly bad ideas about superiority.

Some of these continue today. Why do we assume that Neanderthals, who flourished for 400,000 years, were somehow inferior to Homo sapiens or less fit to survive?

In Kindred, a history of our understanding of Neanderthals, Rebecca Wragg Sykes separates perfectly valid and reasonable questions – for example, “why aren’t Neanderthals around any more?” – from the thinking that casts our ancient relatives as “dullard losers on a withered branch of the family tree”.

An expert in palaeolithic archaeology, with a special interest in the cognitive aspects of stone tool technologies, Sykes provides an fascinating and detailed picture of a field transformed almost out of recognition over the past thirty years. New technologies involve everything from gene sequencing, isotopes and lasers to powerful volumetric algorithms. Well-preserved sites are now not merely dug and brushed: they are scanned and sniffed. High-powered optical microscopes pick out slice and chop marks, electron beams trace the cross-sections of scratches at the nano-scale, and rapid collagen identification techniques determine the type of animal from even tiny bone fragments.

The risk with any new forensic tool is that, in our excitement, we over-interpret the results it throws up. As Sykes wisely says, “A balance must be struck between caution and not ignoring singular artefacts simply because they’re rare or wondrous.”

Many gushing media stories about our ancient ancestor don’t last beyond the first news cycle: though Neanderthals may have performed some funerary activity, they didn’t throw flowers on their loved ones’ graves, or decorate their remains in any way. Other stories, though, continue to accumulate a weight of circumstantial evidence. We’ve known for some years that some Neanderthals actually tanned leather; now it seems they may also have spun thread.

An exciting aspect of this book is the way it refreshes our ideas about our own place in hominin evolution. Rather than congratulating other species when they behave “like us”, Sykes shows that it is much more fruitful to see how human talents may have evolved from behaviours exhibited by other species. Take the example of art. We may ask whether the circular stone assemblies, discovered in a cave near Bruniquel in southern France in 2016, were meant by their Neaderthal creators as monuments? We may wonder, what is the significance of the Neanderthal handprints and ladder designs painted on the walls of three caves in Spain? In both cases, we’d be asking the wrong questions, Sykes says: While undoubtedly striking, Neanderthal art “might not be a massive cognitive leap for hominins who probably already understood the idea of representation.” Animal footprints are effectively symbols already, and even simple tracking “requires an ‘idealised’ form to be kept in mind.”
Captive chimpanzees, given painting materials, enjoy colouring and marking surfaces, though they’re not in the least bit invested in the end result of their labours. So the significance and symbolism of Neanderthal art may simply be that Neanderthals had fun making it.

The Neanderthals of Kindred are not cadet versions of ourselves. They don’t perform “primitive burials”, and they don’t make “proto-art”. They had their own needs, urges, enjoyments, and strategies for survival.

They were not alone and, best of all, they have not quite vanished. Neanderthal nuclear DNA contains glimmers of very ancient encounters between them and other hominin species. Recent research suggests that interbreeding between Neaderthals and Denisovans, and Neanderthals and and Homo sapiens, was effectively the norm. “Modern zoology’s concept of allotaxa may be more appropriate for what Neanderthals were to us,” Sykes explains. Like modern cattle and yaks, we were closely related species that varied in bodies and behaviours, yet could also reproduce.

Neanderthals were never very many. “”At any point in time,” Sykes says, “there may have been fewer Neanderthals walking about than commuters passing each day through Clapham Common, London’s busiest train station.” With dietary demands that took a monstrous toll on their environment, they were destined to flame brightly and flame out. That doesn’t make them less than thus. It simply makes them earlier.

They were part of our family, and though we carry some part of them inside us, we will never see their like again. This, for my money, is Sykes’s finest achievement. Seeing Neanderthals through her eyes, we cannot but mourn their passing.

Know when you’re being played

Calling Bullshit by Jevin D West and Carl T Bergstrom, and Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie, reviewed for The Telegraph, 8 August 2020

Last week I received a press release headlined “1 in 4 Brits say ‘No’ to Covid vaccine”. This is was such staggeringly bad news, I decided it couldn’t possibly be true. And sure enough, it wasn’t.

Armed with the techniques taught me by biologist Carl Bergstrom and data scientist Jevin West, I “called bullshit” on this unwelcome news, which after all bore all the hallmarks of clickbait.

For a start, the question on which the poll was based was badly phrased. On closer reading it turns out that 25 per cent would decline if the government “made a Covid-19 vaccine available tomorrow”. Frankly, if it was offered *tomorrow* I’d be a refusenik myself. All things being equal, I prefer my medicines tested first.

But what of the real meat of the claim — that daunting figure of “25 per cent”?  It turns out that a sample of 2000 was selected from a sample of 17,000 drawn from the self-selecting community of subscribers to a lottery website. But hush my cynicism: I am assured that the sample of 2000 was “within +/-2% of ONS quotas for Age, Gender, Region, SEG, and 2019 vote, using machine learning”. In other words, some effort has been made to make the sample of 2000 representative of the UK population (but only on five criteria, which is not very impressive. And that whole “+/-2%” business means that up to 40 of the sample weren’t representative of anything).

For this, “machine learning” had to be employed (and, later, “a proprietary machine learning system”)? Well, of course not.  Mention of the miracle that is artificial intelligence is almost always a bit of prestidigitation to veil the poor quality of the original data. And anyway, no amount of “machine learning” can massage away the fact that the sample was too thin to serve the sweeping conclusions drawn from it (“Only 1 in 5 Conservative voters (19.77%) would say No” — it says, to two decimal places, yet!) and is anyway drawn from a non-random population.

Exhausted yet? Then you may well find Calling Bullshit essential reading. Even if you feel you can trudge through verbal bullshit easily enough, this book will give you the tools to swim through numerical snake-oil. And this is important, because numbers easily slip  past the defences we put up against mere words. Bergstrom and West teach a course at the University of Washington from which this book is largely drawn, and hammer this point home in their first lecture: “Words are human constructs,” they say; “Numbers seem to come directly from nature.”

Shake off your naive belief in the truth or naturalness of the numbers quoted in new stories and advertisements, and you’re half way towards knowing when you’re being played.

Say you diligently applied the lessons in Calling Bullshit, and really came to grips with percentages, causality, selection bias and all the rest. You may well discover that you’re now ignoring everything — every bit of health advice, every over-wrought NASA announcement about life on Mars, every economic forecast, every exit poll. Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier reached this point last year when he came up with Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. More recently the best-selling Swiss pundit Rolf Dobelli has ordered us to Stop Reading the News. Both deplore our current economy of attention, which values online engagement over the provision of actual information (as when, for instance, a  review like this one gets headlined “These Two Books About Bad Data Will Break Your Heart”; instead of being told what the piece is about, you’re being sold on the promise of an emotional experience).

Bergstrom and West believe that public education can save us from this torrent of micro-manipulative blither. Their book is a handsome contribution to that effort. We’ve lost Lanier and Dobelli, but maybe the leak can be stopped up. This, essentially, is what the the authors are about; they’re shoring up the Enlightenment ideal of a civic society governed by reason.

Underpinning this ideal is science, and the conviction that the world is assembled on a bedrock of truth fundamentally unassailable truths.

Philosophical nit-picking apart, science undeniably works. But in Science Fictions Stuart Ritchie, a psychologist based at King’s College, shows just how contingent and gimcrack and even shoddy the whole business can get. He has come to praise science, not to bury it; nevertheless, his analyses of science’s current ethical ills — fraud, hype, negligence and so on — are devastating.

The sheer number of problems besetting the scientific endeavour becomes somewhat more manageable once we work out which ills are institutional, which have to do with how scientists communicate, and which are existential problems that are never going away whatever we do.

Our evolved need to express meaning through stories is an existential problem. Without stories, we can do no thinking worth the name, and this means that we are always going to prioritise positive findings over negative ones, and find novelties more charming than rehearsed truths.

Such quirks of the human intellect can be and have been corrected by healthy institutions at least some of the time over the last 400-odd years. But our unruly mental habits run wildly out of control once they are harnessed to a media machine driven by attention.  And the blame for this is not always easily apportioned: “The scenario where an innocent researcher is minding their own business when the media suddenly seizes on one of their findings and blows it out of proportion is not at all the norm,” writes Ritchie.

It’s easy enough to mount a defence of science against the tin-foil-hat brigade, but Ritchie is attempting something much more discomforting: he’s defending science against scientists. Fraudulent and negligent individuals fall under the spotlight occasionally, but institutional flaws are Ritchie’s chief target.

Reading Science Fictions, we see field after field fail to replicate results, correct mistakes, identify the best lines of research, or even begin to recognise talent. In Ritchie’s proffered bag of solutions are desperately needed reforms to the way scientific work is published and cited, and some more controversial ideas about how international mega-collaborations may enable science to catch up on itself and check its own findings effectively (or indeed at all, in the dismal case of economic science).

At best, these books together offer a path back to a civic life based on truth and reason. At worst, they point towards one that’s at least a little bit defended against its own bullshit. Time will tell whether such efforts can genuinely turning the ship around, or are simply here to entertain us with a spot of deckchair juggling. But there’s honest toil here, and a lot of smart thinking with it. Reading both, I was given a fleeting, dizzying reminder of what it once felt like to be a free agent in a factual world.

“Cut the cord!”

Watching Alice Winocour’s film Proxima for New Scientist, 31 July 2020

THE year before Apollo 11’s successful mission to the moon, Robert Altman directed James Caan and Robert Duvall in Countdown. The 1968 film stuck to the technology of its day, pumping up the drama with a somewhat outlandish mission plan: astronaut Lee Stegler and his shelter pod are sent to the moon’s surface on separate flights and Stegler must find the shelter once he lands if he is to survive.

The film played host to characters you might conceivably bump into at the supermarket: the astronauts, engineers and bureaucrats have families and everyday troubles not so very different from your own.

Proxima is Countdown for the 21st century. Sarah Loreau, an astronaut played brilliantly by Eva Green, is given a last-minute opportunity to join a Mars precursor mission to the International Space Station. Loreau’s training and preparation are impressively captured on location at European Space Agency facilities in Cologne, Germany – with a cameo from French astronaut Thomas Pesquet – and in Star City, the complex outside Moscow that is home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. She is ultimately headed to launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Comparing Proxima with Countdown shows how much both cinema and the space community have changed in the past half-century. There are archaeological traces of action-hero melodramatics in Proxima, but they are the least satisfying parts of the movie. Eva Green is a credible astronaut and a good mother, pushed to extremes on both fronts and painfully aware that she chose this course for herself. She can’t be all things to all people all of the time and, as she learns, there is no such thing as perfect.

Because Proxima is arriving late – its launch was delayed by the covid-19 lockdown – advances in space technology have already somewhat gazzumped Georges Lechaptois’s metliculous location cinematography. I came to the film still reeling from watching the Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour lift off from Kennedy Space Center on 20 May.

That crewed launch was the first of its kind from US soil since NASA’s space shuttle was retired in 2011 and looked, from the comfort of my sofa, about as eventful as a ride in an airport shuttle bus. So it was hard to take seriously those moments in Proxima when taking off from our planet’s surface is made the occasion for an existential crisis. “You’re leaving Earth!” exclaims family psychologist Wendy (Sandra Hüller) at one point, thoroughly earning the look of contempt that Loreau shoots at her.

Proxima‘s end credits include endearing shots of real-life female astronauts with their very young children – which does raise a bit of a problem. The plot largely focuses on the impact of bringing your child to work when you spend half your day in a spacesuit at the bottom of a swimming pool. “Cut the cord!” cries the absurdly chauvinistic NASA astronaut Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) when Loreau has to go chasing after her young daughter.

Yet here is photographic evidence that suggests Loreau’s real-life counterparts – Yelena Kondakova, Ellen Ochoa, Cady Coleman and Naoko Yamazaki – managed perfectly well on multiple missions without all of Proxima‘s turmoil. Wouldn’t we have been better off seeing the realities they faced rather than watching Loreau, in the film’s final moments, break Baikonur’s safety protocols in order to steal a feel-good, audience-pandering mother-daughter moment?

For half a century, movies have struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing realities of the space sector. Proxima, though interesting and boasting a tremendous central performance from Green, proves to be no more relevant than its forebears.

 

A shockingly dirty idea

Watching UCP/Amblin’s production of Brave New World for New Scientist, 15 July 2020

THE 20th century produced two great British dystopias. The more famous one is 1984, George Orwell’s tale of a world unified into a handful of warring blocs run by dictators.

The other, Brave New World, was written in the space between world wars by the young satirist Aldous Huxley. It had started out as a send-up of H. G. Wells’s utopian works – novels such as Men Like Gods (1923), for instance. Then Huxley visited the US, and what he made of society there – brash, colourful, shallow and self-obsessed – set the engines of his imagination speeding.

The book is Huxley’s idea of what would happen if the 1930s were to run on forever. Embracing peace and order after the bloody chaos of the first world war, people have used technology to radically simplify their society. Humans are born in factories, designed to fit one of five predestined roles. Epsilons, plied with chemical treatments and deprived of oxygen before birth, perform menial functions. Alphas, meanwhile, run the world.

In 1984, everyone is expected to obey the system; in Brave New World, everyone has too much at stake in the system to want to break it. Consumption is pleasurable, addictive and a duty. Want is a thing of the past and abstinence isn’t an option. The family – that eternal thorn in the side of totalitarian states – has been discarded, and with it all intimacy and affection. In fact, no distinct human emotion has escaped this world’s smiley-faced onslaught of “soma” (a recreational drug), consumerism and pornography. There is no jealousy here, no rage, no sadness.

The cracks only show if you aspire to better things. Yearn to be more than you already are, and you won’t get very far. In creating a society without want, the Alphas have made a world without hope.

Huxley’s dystopia has now made it to the small screen. Or the broad strokes have, at least. In the series, Alden Ehrenreich – best known for taking up the mantle of Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars story – plays John. Labelled a “savage” for living outside the walls of the World State, he encounters the Alpha Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) and Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), his Beta pal.

Bernard and Lenina are vacationing in Savage Lands, a theme park modelled a little too closely on Westworld in which people act out the supposedly sinful values of the old order for the entertainment of tourists. It is while they settle into their hotel room at the park that Lenina and Bernard suddenly realise they want to be alone together – a shockingly dirty idea in a world that has outlawed monogamy and marriage – and that “it could be our wedding night”.

“In Huxley’s book, characters were given a hard choice between freedom and happiness”

“We’re savages,” gasps Lenina, as it dawns on the two what they actually want. It is a scene so highly charged and sympathetically played that you only wish the rest of the show had lived up to it. The problem with Brave New World is that it is trying to be Huxley’s future in some scenes and trying to be our future in others. The two do not mix well.

Some of Huxley’s ideas about the future loom over us still. The potential eugenic applications of CRISPR gene editing keep many a medical ethicist awake at night. In other respects, however, Huxley’s dystopia has been superseded by new threats. Artificial intelligence is changing our relationship with expertise, so who needs human Alphas? At the other end of the social scale, Epsilons would struggle to find anything to do in today’s automated factories.

Squeezed by our technology into middle-ranking roles (in Huxley’s book, we would be Betas and Gammas), we aren’t nearly as homogenous and pliable as Huxley imagined we would be. Information technology has facilitated, rather than dampened, our innate tribalism. The difference between the haves and have-nots in our society is infocentric rather than genetic.

In Huxley’s book, the lands left for those deemed savages featured an unreconstructed humanity full of violence and sorrow. Characters were given a hard choice between freedom and happiness. None of that toughness makes it to the screen. At least, not yet.

The TV series is a weirdly weightless offering: a dystopia without lessons for the present day. It is as consumable and addictive as a capsule of soma, but no more nutritious.

An intellectual variant of whack-a-mole

Reading Joseph Mazur’s The Clock Mirage for The Spectator, 27 June 2020 

Some books elucidate their subject, mapping and sharpening its boundaries. The Clock Mirage, by the mathematician Joseph Mazur, is not one of them. Mazur is out to muddy time’s waters, dismantling the easy opposition between clock time and mental time, between physics and philosophy, between science and feeling.

That split made little sense even in 1922, when the philosopher Henri Bergson and the young physicist Albert Einstein (much against his better judgment) went head-to-head at the Société française de philosophie in Paris to discuss the meaning of relativity. (Or that was the idea. Actually they talked at complete cross-purposes.)

Einstein won. At the time, there was more novel insight to be got from physics than from psychological introspection. But time passes, knowledge accrues and fashions change. The inference (not Einstein’s, though people associate it with him) that time is a fourth dimension, commensurable with the three dimensions of space, is looking decidedly frayed. Meanwhile Bergson’s psychology of time has been pruned by neurologists and put out new shoots.

Our lives and perceptions are governed, to some extent, by circadian rhythms, but there is no internal clock by which we measure time in the abstract. Instead we construct events, and organise their relations, in space. Drivers, thinking they can make up time with speed, acquire tickets faster than they save seconds. Such errors are mathematically obvious, but spring from the irresistible association we make (poor vulnerable animals that we are) between speed and survival.

The more we understand about non-human minds, the more eccentric and sui generis our own time sense seems to be. Mazur ignores the welter of recent work on other animals’ sense of time — indeed, he winds the clock back several decades in his careless talk of animal ‘instincts’ (no one in animal behaviour uses the ‘I’ word any more). For this, though, I think he can be forgiven. He has put enough on his plate.

Mazur begins by rehearsing how the Earth turns, how clocks were developed, and how the idea of universal clock time came hot on the heels of the railway (mistimed passenger trains kept running into each other). His mind is engaged well enough throughout this long introduction, but around page 47 his heart beats noticeably faster. Mazur’s first love is theory, and he handles it well, using Zeno’s paradoxes to unpack the close relationship between psychology and mathematics.

In Zeno’s famous foot race, by the time fleet-footed Achilles catches up to the place where the plodding tortoise was, the tortoise has moved a little bit ahead. That keeps happening ad infinitum, or at least until Newton (or Leibniz, depending on who you think got to it first) pulls calculus out of his hat. Calculus is an algebraic way of handling (well, fudging) the continuity of the number line. It handles vectors and curves and smooth changes — the sorts of phenomena you can measure only if you’re prepared to stop counting.

But what if reality is granular after all, and time is quantised, arriving in discrete packets like the frames of a celluloid film stuttering through the gate of a projector? In this model of time, calculus is redundant and continuity is merely an illusion. Does it solve Zeno’s paradox? Perhaps it makes it 100 times more intractable. Just as motion needs time, time needs motion, and ‘we might wonder what happens to the existence of the world between those falling bits of time sand’.

This is all beautifully done, and Mazur, having hit his stride, maintains form throughout the rest of the book, though I suspect he has bitten off more than any reader could reasonably want to swallow. Rather than containing and spotlighting his subject, Mazur’s questions about time turn out (time and again, I’m tempted to say) to be about something completely different, as though we were playing an intellectual variant of whack-a-mole.

But this, I suppose, is the point. Mazur quotes Henri Poincaré:

Not only have we not direct intuition of the equality of two periods, but we have not even direct intuition of the simultaneity of two events occurring in two different places.

Our perception of time is so fractured, so much an ad hoc amalgam of the chatter of numerous, separately evolved systems (for the perception of motion; for the perception of daylight; for the perception of risk, and on and on — it’s a very long list), it may in the end be easier to abandon talk of time altogether, and for the same reason that psychologists, talking shop among themselves, eschew vague terms suchas ‘love’.

So much of what we mean by time, as we perceive it day to day, is really rhythm. So much of what physicists mean by time is really space. Time exists, as love exists, as a myth: real because contingent, real because constructed, a catch-all term for phenomena bigger, more numerous and far stranger than we can yet comprehend.