Stalin in Bristol

The Bristol Festival of Ideas have invited me along to Waterstones, The Galleries, Bristol, to talk about Stalin’s scientists on 24 April at 7pm. “The Soviet Union’s sciences were the largest and best funded in history,” it says in this here programme, “and were at once the glory and laughing stock of the intellectual world” — a description that might well apply to me. Anyway, I’m going to be speaking. Come listen. Tickets are £6.

“Some only appear crazy. Others are as mad as a bag of cats”

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Stalin’s more eccentric scientists are the subject of this blogpost for Faber & Faber.

Stalin and the Scientists describes what happened when, early in the twentieth century, a handful of impoverished and under-employed graduates, professors and entrepreneurs, collectors and charlatans, bound themselves to a failing government to create a world superpower. Envied and obsessed over by Joseph Stalin — ‘the Great Scientist’ himself — scientists in disciplines from physics to psychology managed to steer his empire through famine, drought, soil exhaustion, war, rampant alcoholism, a huge orphan problem, epidemics and an average life expectancy of thirty years. Hardly any of them are well known outside Russia, yet their work shaped global progress for well over a century.

Cold War propaganda cast Soviet science as an eccentric, gimcrack, often sinister enterprise. And, to my secret delight, not every wild story proved to be a fabrication. Indeed, a heartening amount of the smoke shrouding Soviet scientific achievement can be traced back to intellectual arson attacks of one sort or another.

I’ll leave it to the book to explain why Stalin’s scientists deserve our admiration and respect. This is the internet, so let’s have some fun. Here, in no particular order, are my my top five scientific eccentrics. Some only appear crazy; others have had craziness thrust upon them by hostile commentators. Still others were as mad as a bag of cats.

1. Ilya Ivanov
Ilya Ivanov, the animal breeding expert who tried to mate humans with chimpanzees

By the time of the 1917 revolution, Ilya Ivanov was already an international celebrity. His pioneering artificial insemination techniques were transforming world agriculture. However, once he lost his Tsarist patrons, he had to find a research programme that would catch the eye of the new government’s Commissariat of Education. What he came up with was certainly compelling: a proposal to cross-breed humans and chimpanzees.

We now know there are immunological difficulties preventing such a cross, but the basic idea is not at all crazy, and Ivanov got funding from Paris and America to travel to Guinea to further the study.

Practically and ethically the venture was a disaster. Arriving at the primate centre in Kindia, Ivanov discovered that its staff were killing and maiming far more primates than they ever managed to capture. To make matters worse, after a series of gruesome and rapine attempts to impregnate chimpanzees with human sperm, Ivanov decided it might be easier to turn the experiment on its head and fertilise African women with primate sperm. Unfortunately, he failed to tell them what he was doing.

Ivanov was got rid of during the Purges of the late 1930s thanks to a denunciation by an ambitious colleague, but his legacy survives. The primate sanctuary he founded in Sukhumi by the Black Sea provided primates for the Soviet space programme. Meanwhile the local tourist industry makes the most of, and indeed maintains, persistent rumours that the local woods are haunted by seven-foot-tall Stalinist ape-men.

2. Alexander Bogdanov
whose Mars-set science fiction laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s first blood transfusion service — and who died of blood poisoning

Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov, co-founder of the Bolshevik movement, lost interest in politics, even as control came within his grasp, because he wanted more time for his writing.

In his novels Red Star and Engineer Menni, blood exchanges among his Martian protagonists level out their individual and sexual differences and extend their lifespan through the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

These scientific fantasies took an experimental turn in 1921 during a trade junket to London when he happened across Blood Transfusion, a book by Geoffrey Keynes (younger brother of the economist). Two years of private experiments followed, culminating in an appointment with the Communist Party’s general secretary, Joseph Stalin. Bogdanov was quickly installed as head of a new ‘scientific research institute of blood transfusion’.

Blood, Bogdanov claimed, was a universal tissue that unified all other organs, tissues and cells. Transfusions offered the client better sleep, a fresher complexion, a change in eyeglass prescriptions, and greater resistance to fatigue. On 24 March 1928 he conducted a typically Martian experiment, mutually transfusing blood with a male student, suffered a massive transfusion reaction and died two weeks later at the age of fifty-four.

Bogdanov the scientist never offered up his studies to the review of his peers. In fact he never wrote any actual science at all, just propaganda for the popular press. In this, he resembled no-one so much as the notorious charlatan (and Stalin’s poster boy) Trofim Lysenko. I reckon it was his example made Trofim Lysenko politically possible.

3. Trofim Lysenko
Stalin’s poster-boy, who believed plants sacrifice themselves for their strongest neighbour — and was given the job of reforesting European Russia.

Practical, working-class, ambitious and working for the common good, the agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko was the very model of the new Soviet scientist. Rather than studying ‘the hairy legs of flies’, ran one Pravda profile in August 1927, this sober young man ‘went to the root of things,’ solving practical problems by a few calculations ‘on a little old piece of paper’.

As he studied how different varieties of the same crop responded to being planted at different times, he never actually touched any mathematics, relying instead on crude theories ‘proved’ by arbitrary examples.

Lysenko wanted, above all else, to be an original. An otherwise enthusiastic official report warned that he was an ‘extremely egotistical person, deeming himself to be a new Messiah of biological science.’ Unable to understand the new-fangled genetics, he did everything he could to banish it from biology. In its place he championed ‘vernalisation’, a planting technique that failed dismally to increase yields. Undeterred, he went on to theorise about species formation, and advised the government on everything, from how to plant oak trees across the entire Soviet Union to how to increase the butterfat content of milk. The practical results of his advices were uniformly disastrous and yet, through a combination of belligerence, working-class credentials, and a phenomenal amount of luck, he remained the poster-boy of Soviet agriculture right up until the fall of Khrushchev in 1964.

Nor is his ghost quite laid to rest. A couple of politically motivated historians are even now attempting to recast Lysenko as a cruelly sidelined pioneer of epigenetics (the study of how the environment regulates gene expression). This is a cruel irony, since Soviet Russia really was the birthplace of epigenetics! And it was Lysenko’s self-serving campaigns that saw that every single worker in that field was sacked and ruined.

4. Olga Lepeshinskaya
who screened in reverse films of rotting eggs to prove her theories about cell development — and won a Stalin Prize

Olga Lepeshinskaya, a personal friend of Lenin and his wife, was terrifyingly well-connected and not remotely intimidated by power. On a personal level, she was charming. She fiercely opposed anti-semitism, and had dedicated her personal life to the orphan problem, bringing up at least half a dozen children as her own.

As a scientist, however, she was a disaster. She once announced to the Academic Council of the Institute of Morphology that soda baths could rejuvenate the old and preserve the youth of the young. A couple of weeks later Moscow completely sold out of baking soda.

In her old age, Lepeshinskaya became entranced by the mystical concept of the ‘vital substance’, and recruited her extended family to work in her ‘laboratory’, pounding beetroot seeds in a pestle to demonstrate that any part of the seed could germinate. She even claimed to have filmed living cells emerge from noncellular materials. Lysenko hailed Lepeshinskaya’s discovery as the basis for a new theory of species formation, and in May 1950 Alexander Oparin, head of the Academy of Sciences’ biology department, invited Olga Lepeshinskaya to receive her Stalin Prize.

It was all a fraud, of course: she had been filming the death and decomposition of cells, then running her film backwards through the projector. Lepeshinskaya made a splendid myth. The subject of poetry. The heroine of countless plays. In school and university textbooks she was hailed as the author of the greatest biological discovery of all time.

5. Joseph Stalin
whose obsession with growing lemons in Siberia became his only hobby

Stalin, typically for his day, believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics – that a giraffe that has to stretch to reach high leaves will have long-necked children. He assumed that, given the right conditions, living things were malleable, and as the years went by this obsession grew. In 1946 he became especially keen on lemons, not only encouraging their growth in coastal Georgia, where they fared quite well, but also in the Crimea, where winter frosts destroyed them.

Changing the nature of lemons became Stalin’s sole hobby. At his dachas near Moscow and in the south, large greenhouses were erected so that he could enter them directly from the house, day or night. Pruning shrubs and plants was his only physical exercise.

Stalin shared with his fellow Bolsheviks the idea that they had to be philosophers in order to deserve their mandate. He schooled the USSR’s most prominent philosopher, Georgy Aleksandrov, on Hegel’s role in the history of Marxism. He told the composer Dmitry Shostakovich how to change the orchestration for the new national anthem. He commissioned the celebrated war poet Konstantin Simonov to write a play about a famous medical controversy, treated him to an hour of literary criticism, and then rewrote the closing scenes himself. Sergei Eisenstein and his scriptwriter on Ivan the Terrible Part Two were treated to a filmmaking masterclass. And in 1950, while he was negotiating a pact with the People’s Republic of China, and discussing how to invade South Korea with Kim Il Sung, Stalin was also writing a combative article about linguistics, and meeting with economists multiple times to discuss a textbook.

Stalin’s paranoia eventually pushed him into pronouncements that were more and more peculiar. Unable to trust even himself, it came to Joseph Stalin that people were, or ought to be, completely readable from first to last. All it needed was an entirely verbal theory of mind. ‘There is nothing in the human being which cannot be verbalised,’ he asserted, in 1949. ‘What a person hides from himself he hides from society. There is nothing in the Soviet society that is not expressed in words. There are no naked thoughts. There exists nothing at all except words.’

For Stalin, in the end, even a person’s most inner world was readable – because if it wasn’t, then it couldn’t possibly exist.

 

 

Achievement, naivety and dread

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Talking Stalinist science with Tom Hunter of the Arthur C Clarke Award

Tom Hunter: At what point did you first realise the history of Soviet science would be the subject of your next book, why this subject and how long did you work on it?

Simon Ings: Stalin and the Scientists grew out of my love of popular science, and these odd, self-conscious, incredibly rigorous bits of our world we lump together as “the sciences”. But I had no real vehicle for that enthusiasm until I got talking to Will Hammond, an editor at Penguin and, like me, a fan of the writings of Alexander Luria. Luria, who was born in 1902, is the soviet psychologist who is generally considered the founder of modern neuroanatomy and, thanks to books like Mind of a Mnemonist, the godfather of the literary genre we call popular science.

Will and I talked about producing a new biography but the problem with Luria’s life is that, from a Western perspective, it looks absolutely normal. He had a successful international career, his work has never been out of print, he was loyal to his friends and his friends were loyal to him; he had a happy marriage. To have achieved all that under the regime of Joseph Stalin, while at the same time conducting cutting edge research with huge political implications, was extraordinary, but unless you know the context, the story is invisible.

Which is why a modest biography that should have taken me a bit less than a year became a five-year behemoth that burned through three editors and which takes in more or less every major scientific advance and controversy in the Soviet Union from Russia’s failed liberal revolution of 1905 to Khrushchev’s removal in a bloodless coup in 1964. A book that nearly killed me. A book that — since by then I had actually got myself an honest job — I had to write on the bus. (The 521, to be exact.)

Tom Hunter: You also write fiction as well as popular science. Are these completely different creative processes for you as a writer, or do you find at the end of the day it’s still all about getting in the keyboard hours?

Simon Ings: The processes are completely different. They have virtually nothing in common aside from the brute athletic business of smashing the words out. Fiction is, or should be, a pure experiment, a working hypothesis that gradually acquires an integrity all its own, however crazy it turns out. That’s true of certain kinds of non fiction as well, of course, but it most certainly is not true of popular science. Popular science is a more or less equal mixture of history and the kind of simplified, triumphalist whig-history you need to employ to make the science comprehensible. And whatever the proportions, that final mix can be tested against the world. In fiction, you ought to be drawing on your own resources, so far as you can, so far as you dare. When I write non-fiction I’m clambering about on the shoulders of giants.

Tom Hunter: Is there a single best or favourite example you can share with us that might best highlight the story of Stalin and the Scientists for us?

Simon Ings: Finding a reading from this book, I realised that the three key elements the extract had to somehow cover were achievement, naivety and dread. Soviet science, from genetics to ecology to psychology, and eventually extending to physics and space science, was extraordinarily accomplished. In so many fields at different times the Soviet Union led the scientific world. But most disciplines enjoyed their golden age when the government was weak, young, and driven by a sometimes clueless and often savage enthusiasm, and so many of the researches described here often ended in personal and professional disaster as the state’s enthusiasm for science turned dogmatic and overbearing. So the story of Ilya Ivanov, though a bit of an outlier, for me is a sort of emblem for the story of Soviet science as a whole. By the time of the 1917 revolution Ivanov was already an international celebrity — a pioneer of artificial insemination who had increased the breeding rate of horses at a time when horses provided most of the power available to agriculture. When he lost his Tsarist patrons, he looked for a research programme that would catch the eye of the new government’s Commissariat of Education. Which is why he came up with a proposal to cross-breed humans and chimpanzees. We now know there are immunological difficulties preventing the cross, but the cross itself is not at all a crazy idea, and Ivanov got funding from Paris and America to further the study. Ethically the venture was a disaster. It turned out that Ivanov had attempted to fertilise African women without their knowledge. The pre-revolutionary Academy of Sciences threw a fit and their upstart rivals the Communist Academy took advantage and seized control of the project, even as extreme negative eugenics was sweeping across Europe and making eugenics a poison chalice. Ivanov was got rid of during the Purges of the late 1930s thanks to a denunciation by an ambitious colleague; still the primate sanctuary he founded later provided primates for the Soviet space programme. So there you have it!

Tom Hunter: On the one hand it seems popular science is becoming ever more, well, popular with readers, but at the same time one can’t help noting the ‘Britain has had enough of experts’ mentally that seems to becoming equally popular/prevalent.

Simon Ings: Politically that’s certainly true. We’re doing this interview even as Donald Trump teeters on the brink of becoming President of the United States. But then, look at someone like Derren Brown: a hugely popular entertainer whose entire shtick is that he’s studied psychology enough to debunk charlatans. People are sick of *certain kinds* of authority, and that’s largely because the public’s always keen nose for hypocrisy has for the last couple of years been shoved repeatedly into a trough of social and immediate media. Quite frankly, we’re drunk on the stuff to the point of paranoia. A new balance will emerge fairly quickly. Authority will reacquire enough of its status to be useful, and will stand, please God, on a firmer footing. When it comes to the public perception of science I can’t summon much anxiety. I grew up in the heyday of Von Daniken and Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, not to mention the Hitler diaries. We survived.

Tom Hunter: Continuing on the same theme, in your view will it ever be possible to decouple science from political influence or, the reverse, how might we better put science at the heart of driving policy rather than being subservient to it?

Simon Ings: Scientific government is *exactly* what the Bolsheviks were about, and their sincere experiment destroyed the food base of an empire and set fields in which the Soviet Union was a world leader into mothballs for over thirty years. The last thing we should wish for is scientific government. Even talk of “evidence-based policy”, which we’re all supposed to be wildly enthusiastic about at the moment, makes my blood run cold, because at the back of it is the assumption that it is possible to gather reliable evidence from human society in real time. That’s a *really* big ask, and no amount of big data or surveillance is going to get around the formal difficulty of modelling an unpredictable system on the fly. In many cases, having more data makes the problem worse. So there’s always going to be this tension between politics, which is an historically contingent activity, and science, which as much as possible treats the world and everything in it as if it were a linear, symmetrical system. So, then, look at this the other way: can we ever actually *separate* science and politics? No. There’s no way citizens can be expected to simply hand money over to some scientific priesthood and expect *no* return for their investment. But the bitter truth is that any experimental activity is a hugely wasteful, and demanding rigid outcomes and takeaways is a sure-fire way to deaden and demoralise your science base. This is what the biologist Steve Jones is talking about when he talks about the “Sovietisation” of contemporary western science.

Tom Hunter: Back to the book, and for all its flaws and politically biased research and so forth, it seems this period in Russian history is, in many ways, as culturally influential as other great periods of human development — the Renaissance perhaps, or the Industrial Revolution or the first Space age — and is worthy of far more critical attention than it might perhaps have received?

Simon Ings: It’s true to say the Cold War has done historians no favours, and there is much about this place and this period that’s still to enter the public consciousness. I reckon Stalin and the Scientists might, with a following wind, make a chink in the wall. But it’s a bloody big wall. No sooner are the archives being opened up to international researchers than Putinist academics are asserting their own politically motivated versions of Stalinist “successes”, hence various recent attempts to recast the charlatan Trofim Lysenko as a pioneering epigeneticist. Which, while we’re on the subject, is rather like saying that someone who believes in mermaids is a marine biologist. The biggest difficulty for an outsider, and especially for a non-academic outsider like me, is to get enough perspective to be able to distinguish between scientific troubles and political ones, during a time when the two spheres were deliberately and sincerely run together in speech and practice. I’ve really just introduced the problem to a popular audience. There’s much more heavy lifting to do.

Tom Hunter: And finally, as Culture Editor for New Scientist is your job effectively to reconnect the arts and the sciences, and if you dare which side do you think has to do the most work to make that happen?

Simon Ings: I am a great believer in CP Snow’s Two Cultures and a firm champion of them both. Long may they continue, distinct and separate. What we want is not fusion or collaboration, but conversation. And for that conversation to be worthwhile, it’s necessary for both parties to be awake. We can no longer afford to indulge an arts base that remains wilfully disengaged from the great and besetting problems of our age. Science can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting and it really is time the humanities climbed out of their Deleuzian oubliette and read some Stanislaw Lem (anything, but especially the Summa), some Amitav Ghosh (The Great Derangement will do) even some object-orientated ontology (try Graham Harman’s Immaterialism). Intellectually, those of us who are not scientists need to toughen up and stand on our own two feet. We have a job to do. Culturally there’s a lot to play for in the next fifty years of human habitation on this planet — and everything to lose.

Fitbitters of the world, unite!

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for The Guardian, 2 November 2016

At this year’s Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, I happened upon a robot made of hacked and 3D-printed surgical components that can perform DIY keyhole surgery. Its builder, the Dutch artist Frank Kolkman, was inspired by YouTube videos in which impoverished hackers and makers, largely without insurance, share medical tips and tricks. No money for bridgework? Try Sugru moldable glue.

A revolution is afoot in medicine. And like all revolutions, it is composed of equal parts inspirational advance and jaw-dropping social catastrophe. On the plus side, there are the health and fitness promises inherent in the artefacts of a personal health surveillance industry – all those Jawbones and Fitbits and Scanadu Scouts, iPhones and Apple Watches – that promises to top $50bn in annual sales by 2018. The devices aren’t particularly accurate (yet), and more than half of them end up at the bottom of a drawer after six months. Still, DIY devices are already spotting medical problems before their users do, raising the likelihood of a future in which illness and medical conditions are treated long before the patient gets sick.

On the minus side, there is Kolkman’s terrifyingly practical robot, and its promise of a future in which DIY medicine is the only medicine the ordinary individual can afford. The sunny west coast self-reliant rhetoric of the “making” and “hacking” and “quantified self” movements disguise the disturbing assumption that they can be a substitute for civic life.

We have been here before. Not much more than a century ago the Russian empire was a ramshackle agglomeration of colonies, held together by military force and hooch. There were no institutions for reformers to reform: no councils, no unions, no guilds, no professional bodies, few schools, few hospitals worth the name; in many places, no roads.

The responsibility for improvement and reform inevitably fell on the individual. Utopia was a personal quest in Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? – according to Lenin, “the greatest and most talented representation of socialism before Marx”. Even more hysterical, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata prefers the prospect of human annihilation to its current unreformed (read: lustful) condition. Outside the library and drawing room, pre-revolutionary Russia floundered in a sea of cults, from machinism and robotism to primitive reticence, antiverbalism, nudism, social militarism, revolutionary sublimation, suicidalism … One outfit called itself the Nothing, its members neither writing, reading or speaking.

Into this stew came the railways and the clock and all of a sudden self-regulation became easy and practical. In Leningrad in 1923, a theatre critic, Platon Kerzhentsev, founded the League of Time, in order to promote time-efficiency. Eight hundred “time cells” were set up in the army, factories, government departments and schools. The “Timists” carried “chronocards” in order to monitor time-wasting, wasted motion and lengthy speeches. Without watches, they tried to guess the passage of minutes and hours, and were awarded medals for spontaneous “time discipline”. They kept meticulous diaries of their every daily action. Lenin had the league’s personal productivity posters pasted up on the wall behind his desk.

“Man will finally begin to really harmonise himself,” Leon Trotsky prophesied in 1922: “He will put forward the task to introduce into the movement of his own organs – during work, walk, play – the highest precision, expediency, economy, and thus beauty.”

The poet Alexei Gastev – whose forbidding toothbrush-moustache and crew cut concealed a lot of mischief – took Trotsky at his word. He built a “social-engineering machine”. This giant structure of pulleys, cogs and weights was a thing of no fathomable use whatsoever, yet Gastev insisted that a few hours’ workout would turn you into a new kind of human being. He rolled these machines out across the young Soviet Union, as a sort of mascot for his Central Insitute of Labour which, with Lenin’s personal backing, taught peasant workers how to behave in modern factories. A class at the Central Institute of Labour was a sort of drill practice: pupils stood before their benches in set positions, with places marked out for their feet. They rehearsed separate elements of each task, then combined them in a finished performance. (Judging by the sheer popularity of the classes, and the speed of the institute’s expansion, the classes must have been quite enjoyable.)

Joining Gastev at the beginning of his career was the young Nikolai Bernstein, whose childhood spent assembling radios and building models of steam engines and bridges, set him in good stead when it came to mechanically registering the movements of the human body. He developed a high-speed camera called the kymocyclograph. The shutter, a round plate with holes in it, rotated before the camera lens, so that the photographic plate would record multiple images, each exposed a fraction of a second after its neighbour. (Motion-capture cinema, VR – and all the other technologies that keep Gollum actor Andy Serkis on the talkshow circuit – begin here.)

By the end of these studies, Bernstein had good evidence that motion could not be a simple matter of Pavlovian “reflexes”. His more nuanced model of motor responses amounted to a fully fledged theory of cybernetics, decades before Norbert Wiener coined the term in 1948.

The early Soviet Union gathered unprecedented amounts of data on human motion, fitness, behaviour and genetics, making it a world leader in the field. A new kind of human being – healthy, fit, psychologically integrated and free of heritable disease – seemed, for a few heady days in the 1920s, an achievable aspiration.

Then, in 1927, a miner called Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov went to work in a mine. He was no superman, but he was energetic and intelligent, and he could see ways of organising his work crew to increase the amount of coal they were able to dig in a single shift. On 31 August 1935, it was reported that he had mined a record 102 tonnes of coal in four hours and 45 minutes – 14 times his quota. Barely three weeks later, on 19 September, Stakhanov and his crew more than doubled this record.

Others rushed to follow Stakhanov’s example, and newspapers and newsreels across the Soviet Union celebrated their efforts. In Gorky, a worker in a car factory forged nearly 1,000 crankshafts in a single shift. A shoemaker in Leningrad turned out 1,400 pairs of shoes in a day. On a collective farm, three female “Stakhanovites” proved they could cut sugar beet faster than was thought humanly possible. Such workers were awarded higher pay, better food, access to luxury goods and improved accommodation. Stakhanovism soon became a mass movement. “In factories and even in scientific institutes,” wrote the American psychologist Richard Schultz, “the workers’ names may be posted on a bulletin board opposite a bird, deer, rabbit, tortoise or snail relative to the speed with which they turn out their work. A great deal of prestige is attached to the ‘shock brigade’ worker.”

For as long as human beings labour for others, their lot will improve only so far as their productivity rises. Investment beyond this point makes no sense. The Soviet Union of the 1920s was an impoverished state dotted with institutes of labour, health and maternity clinics, mental health services, housing offices and countless censuses. Coming to power at the end of the decade, Joseph Stalin replaced all this social engineering with, well, engineering. Magnitostroi, which is still the largest steelworks in the world, housed its workers in tents downwind of the chimneys. The construction of the White Sea Canal cost 12,000 lives – around a 10th of the workforce.

Drunk as we are on the illusion of personal control, we should remember that data trickles uphill toward the powerful, because they are the ones who can afford to exploit it. Today, for every worried-yet-well twentysomething fiddling with his Fitbit, there is a worker being cajoled by their employer into taking a medical test. The tests are aggregated and anonymised, and besides, the company is giving the worker a cut of the insurance savings the test will make. So where’s the harm?

Well, for a start, anonymising data is incredibly hard to do. The bigger the datapool, the easier it is to triangulate data sets and home in on an individual. And while people can get thrown in jail for this sort of thing, algorithms are a lot harder to police. Has the computer said “no” to your mortgage application? Well, sorry, but there may simply be no human to blame: the machine has figured things out on its own.

An even bigger worry is the way that, in our smartphone-enabled and meta-data-enriched world, complete knowledge of human affairs is becoming increasingly possible, making redundant the entire gamble of insurance. At that point the scope for individual self-determination shrinks to zero and we are living in the world of Andrew Niccol’s excellent 1997 film Gattaca.

Unregulated wellness programmes are begging to be used as tools of surveillance, and that’s not because anybody’s actually doing anything wrong. It’s because we have taken control of our own data, while at the same time forgetting that data ultimtely belongs to whoever can make the most use of it.

And it need not even be a problem, unless the class in power decide to replace social engineering with, well, engineering, health services with “making” and “hacking”, and civic societies with a desert, littered with the grinning skulls of people who aspired to west-coast “radical self-reliance” – and failed.