Of Martians and machines

1908: The Island (work in progress)

Thought arises, not from matter, but from the way it is organised. Alexander Bogdanov, science fiction pioneer, philosopher, physician, Lenin’s friend and rival, explored the idea of automating society. The West calls this cybernetics and it fuels consumer culture. But in the Soviet Union, Bogdanov’s philosophy was discredited and suppressed. On Tuesday 18 December at 7.30pm I’ll be asking why the Soviets abandoned their early dreams of automating Man.

The talk’s at Pushkin House, 5A Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA, and you can find more details here.

Let maths illuminate your life!

Thanks to the review I wrote of Thinking in Numbers, an excellent collection of essays about the psychology and culture of numbers, the RSA has invited me along to talk with the author Daniel Tammett on 27 Nov 2012 at 13:00. Follow this link for details of venue etc; you can also follow the event remotely through the following links



BioPunk comes to the Durham Literary Festival

On Saturday 27 October, 2012 I’ll be reading from and discussing “The Wrestler”, one of the stories that make up Bio-Punk: stories from the far side of research. It’s a new anthology edited by Ra Page of Comma Press, pairing up writers and scientists. (Dr Ian Vincent McGonigle was my collaborator on “The Wrestler”: he’s currently studying Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of Chicago, with research interests in bioethics, epistemology, ethno-pharmacology and medical anthropology.)
Other writers in the anthology include Toby Litt, Sara Maitland, Adam Marek, Justina Robson, Jane Rogers and Dilys Rose.
On Saturday, Dilys and her collaborator Dr Jane Haley will be with me at Durham Town Hall at 2pm to launch the book with readings and discussion. Thanks to Waterstones Newcastle for their support, and the long-suffering Rebecca Wilkie of New Writing North for finding me the correct train ticket. (I was LOST, I tell, you LOST, the Interwebs had BROKEN…)

Electric Shadows

From 12-14 October 2012, the Kontraste Festival – curated by Sonic Acts – reverberates across Krems, a pretty town on the Danube famous for its art galleries, staggeringly good white wine, and one of the world’s best preserved panopticon prisons. On Saturday I’ll be discussing how, adapted as we are to a rich visual world, we will have to learn to tolerate the limited colour palette and visual monotony of the rest of the universe. This is one of the more left-field contributions; for the most part the weekend is filled with a wild assortment of scientifically literate sound artists Playing with Our Brains. This sort of thing:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYuahvxS2KM&w=640&h=480]

There’s also a film programme, like this:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnzvjaXbLIc&w=640&h=480]

with a touch of this:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrvbHEov3L8&w=853&h=480]

If you can’t make it up the Danube, there’s always the book.

Finally, I get to meet Bruce again…

… after a gap of – what? Twenty years? Last time I saw him he and William Gibson were launching their steampunk collaboration on an indifferent British public – further evidence, if any were needed, that to succeed in this game what you need most is longevity and a taste for the slow hand-clap.

Anyway, Bruce Sterling, Rachel Armstrong, Warren Ellis and I are going to be in Eindhoven, designing the city of the future this coming weekend, in a free event organised by Liam Young of Tomorrows Thoughts Today.

The exhibition Under Tomorrow’s Sky will open on August 10 at MU. (See www.undertomorrowssky.com and www.mu.nl for updates.) Our weekend-long public think tank kicks off the project by debating the social, cultural, ethical and environmental consequences of emerging technologies.

“Eavesdrop on the conversations, take part in the debates on what the future city may be and contribute to the discussions on why such speculations on tomorrow may be of critical importance for today.”

To which I would add: buttonhole me afterwards and we’ll go get a drink.

Emmasingel 20
5611 AZ Eindhoven
T +31402961663
Saturday June 16 start at 8 pm
Sunday June 17 start at 11 am
Free entrance

Keep Friday free: we’re plotting the return of Lawrence Durrell

It’s time we revalued “the old boy”. Poet. Excoriator of Pudding Island (the British Isles to you). Cocksman. Loudmouth. Shit. Author of experimental novels. Tipped for the Nobel. Despised then and now for writing seriously and sincerely about sex.

I want to save him from the lovies. From the old club-room farts with their tales of “Dear Larry”. From the cryptocolonial world-builders, the literary pudendum-collectors, the ex-pat snob-fantasists. I want people to remember Durrell’s teeth. His breath. His savage, uncompromising, funny-weird, gut-wrenching prose. And when the British Library came along asking, did I want to chair and contribute to a panel about Lawrence Durrell today? well, I grabbed at the chance, all the while thinking, Can’t they get anyone, well, let’s face it, bigger?

No. They cannot. (Faber got Jan Morris to write a new foreword to the Alexandria Quartet recently. I’ve read it: a pompous, contemptuous flob. Please God DBC Pierre does a better job with The Black Book.)

Why is it proving such an uphill struggle to recast Durrell for a new generation? For an answer, I fear we need look no further than the title to this week’s event: Reach Upwards to the Affirming Sun. Yes, I know where this line comes from, and yes, I still hate it. Reach upwards to the affirming sun, indeed – forgetting that Durrell was the all-time undisputed master of bathos. One might just as well have quoted from The Black Book:

The robin sits upon the bough
The postman has a nasty cough

which at least has some energy about it. But we’re lumbered. Reach Upwards to the Affirming Sun: Lawrence Durrell in 2012 takes place from 18.30 to 20.00 this Friday, 15 June 2012, at the Conference Centre, British Library,
96 Euston Road

Joining me – and fielding some very different opinions – will be Nicoletta Demetriou, Andrew McKie, and Joanna Hodgkin, author of Amateurs in Eden, The Story of a Bohemian Marriage: Nancy and Lawrence Durrell.

Do come if you can and watch the fur fly. The evening costs £7.50 / £5 concessions, and don’t forget the Old Boy’s secret sign (revealed below)

Healthify yourself!

Come along on Wednesday 16 May at 7pm to the last of my talks at Pushkin House; I’m exploring Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.



The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example.

Tickets: £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs)

More details here

Start the Week explores the digital future

Listen on Monday morning to Radio 4: you’ll find the wild and wonderful writer Nick Harkaway, design guru Anab Jain, business expert Charles Arthur and myself discussing the digital future with Andrew Marr.

Arc, New Scientist’s new digital quarterly of futures and science fiction, regularly darkens the hand towels at Anab’s outfit Superflux as we prepare a year of events, interventions, pop-up surprises and generally making things up. Nick Harkaway, on the other hand – well, you’ll have to wait till Monday to find out what we’re up to with him. Even Charles Arthur is formerly of the New Scientist (and the Independent, during Andrew Marr’s stint there in the late 1990s).

I think some of this lack-of-separation set alarm bells ringing somewhere because the show’s producer rang us all beforehand telling us not to be nice to each other. (Face to face, it’s the obvious thing to do; on air, it’s an excruciating waste of the listener’s time.)

This got me thinking about how we behave on different media. Susan Greenfield’s belief that we’re all going to hell in a handcart because of our love of new media has become the stuff of parody and legend; still, she’s on to something. We learn to behave differently as we engage through different media; we develop new responses, new forms of interaction – even new ethical codes. Not all of these have to be pretty.

It’s a stalwart reader – or an obtuse one – who takes much comfort from Charles Arthur’s new book Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Battle for the Internet. The pace at which the digital economy is deskilling the workforce is breathtaking: the very idea of “digital commerce” is being called into question as the number of serious players on the web falls toward single figures. The internet doesn’t like democracy. The internet doesn’t want to be free. The internet wants to be a vertical monopoly. It wants to be Hollywood, circa 1930. Or, just possibly, something worse.

Nick Harkaway thinks we can still harness this grinning Stalinist golem to our own humble, human needs. The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World is his attempt to resuscitate the idea of the internet as a civic space. Myself, I think the tide is against him, but he makes a hell of a splash.

Anab is a designer, entrepreneur, TED Fellow and founder of Superflux, a multidisciplinary design company. (I guess you need a CV of that sort if you want to be profiled in both Popular Science and Marie Claire.) It’s Superflux’s job to realise ideas about the future in props, videos, stories and working models. Superflux designs everything from mechanical bees to prosthetic vision systems for the blind, seeing these concepts through from drawing board to real-world trials. Anab is upfront about the fact that her work is provocative. It might not be a great idea to let the world’s bee population go hang and rely instead on synthetic pollinators. “But the technology that could allow this is waiting to happen. If we don’t create these experience prototypes and stories, it’s difficult for us to fully interrogate the technology before it’s out in the world.”

I don’t think it’s any accident that, as we try to imagine our digital future, we reach, not just for stories, not just for opinions, but also for props, for things we can handle; for toys, basically. “Futurism” is a very serious-sounding idea; yet 99 per cent of the job is – has to be – play.


The Rise of Augmented Reality



Thanks to the rise of smartphone technologies, the virtual territories of cyberspace are increasingly free to roam around in the real world.

LondonCalling.com is hosting a panel discussion on the current and future trends of augmented reality on Tuesday 27 March, 6.30pm – 9pm, at The Vibe Gallery, Bermondsey. (That’s five minutes from Bermondsey tube station on the Jubilee Line.)

Tamara Roukaerts, head of marketing at the AR company Aurasma and Frank Da Silva, creative director for Earth 2 Hub (a sort of thinktanky thing, with video) are going to be singing the technology’s praises, I assume, while I crouch in the corner painting my face with ashes and portending doom. Because I am a writer, and that is my job. (Think Emile Zola; think railways.)

Tom Hunter’s in the chair. (Or is he…?) More details at http://bit.ly/x2xflN

Come and heckle if you’re in London. It’s free, and it’s about the closest you’ll ever get to being in an episode of Nathan Barley.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95azfZKJo4Q?wmode=transparent]