Tyrants and geometers

Reading Proof!: How the World Became Geometrical by Amir Alexander (Scientific American) for the Telegraph, 7 November 2019

The fall from grace of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s superintendant of finances, was spectacular and swift. In 1661 he held a fete to welcome the king to his gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte. The affair was meant to flatter, but its sumptuousness only served to convince the absolutist monarch that Fouquet was angling for power. “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France,” Voltaire observed; “at two in the morning he was nobody.”

Soon afterwards, Fouquet’s gardens were grubbed up in an act, not of vandalism, but of expropriation: “The king’s men carefully packed the objects into crates and hauled them away to a marshy town where Louis was intent on building his own dream palace,” the Israeli-born US historian Amir Alexander tells us. “It was called Versailles.”

Proof! explains how French formal gardens reflected, maintained and even disseminated the political ideologies of French monarchs. from “the Affable” Charles VIII in the 15th century to poor doomed Louis XVI, destined for the guillotine in 1793. Alexander claims these gardens were the concrete and eloquent expression of the idea that “geometry was everywhere and structured everything — from physical nature to human society, the state, and the world.”

If you think geometrical figures are abstract artefacts of the human mind, think again. Their regularities turn up in the natural world time and again, leading classical thinkers to hope that “underlying the boisterous chaos and variety that we see around us there may yet be a rational order, which humans can comprehend and even imitate.”

It is hard for us now to read celebrations of nature into the rigid designs of 16th century Fontainebleau or the Tuileries, but we have no problem reading them as expressions of political power. Geometers are a tyrant’s natural darlings. Euclid spent many a happy year in Ptolemaic Egypt. King Hiero II of Syracuse looked out for Archimedes. Geometers were ideologically useful figures, since the truths they uncovered were static and hierarchical. In the Republic, Plato extols the virtues of geometry and advocates for rigid class politics in practically the same breath.

It is not entirely clear, however, how effective these patterns actually were as political symbols. Even as Thomas Hobbes was modishly emulating the logical structure of Euclid’s (geometrical) Elements in the composition of his (political) Leviathan (demonstrating, from first principles, the need for monarchy), the Duc de Saint-Simon, a courtier and diarist, was having a thoroughly miserable time of it in the gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles: “the violence everywhere done to nature repels and wearies us despite ourselves,” he wrote in his diary.

So not everyone was convinced that Versailles, and gardens of that ilk, revealed the inner secrets of nature.

Of the strictures of classical architecture and design, Alexander comments that today, “these prescriptions seem entirely arbitrary”. I’m not sure that’s right. Classical art and architecture is beautiful, not merely for its antiquity, but for the provoking way it toys with the mechanics of visual perception. The golden mean isn’t “arbitrary”.

It was fetishized, though: Alexander’s dead right about that. For centuries, Versailles was the ideal to which Europe’s grand urban projects aspired, and colonial new-builds could and did out-do Versailles, at least in scale. Of the work of Lutyens and Baker in their plans for the creation of New Delhi, Alexander writes: “The rigid triangles, hexagons, and octagons created a fixed, unalterable and permanent order that could not be tampered with.”

He’s setting colonialist Europe up for a fall: that much is obvious. Even as New Delhi and Saigon’s Boulevard Norodom and all the rest were being erected, back in Europe mathematicians Janos Bolyai, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Bernhard Riemann were uncovering new kinds of geometry to describe any curved surface, and higher dimensions of any order. Suddenly the rigid, hierarchical order of the Euclidean universe was just one system among many, and Versailles and its forerunners went from being diagrams of cosmic order to being grand days out with the kids.

Well, Alexander needs an ending, and this is as good a place as any to conclude his entertaining, enlightening, and admirably well-focused introduction to a field of study that, quite frankly, is more rabbit-hole than grass.

I was in Washington the other day, sweating my way up to the Lincoln Memorial. From the top I measured the distance, past the needle of the Washington Monument, to Capitol Hill. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant built all this: it’s a quintessential product of the Versailles tradition. Alexander calls it “nothing less than the Constitutional power structure of the United States set in stone, pavement, trees, and shrubs.”

For nigh-on 250 years tourists have been slogging from one end of the National Mall to the other, re-enacting the passion of the poor Duc de Saint-Simon in Versailles, who complained that “you are introduced to the freshness of the shade only by a vast torrid zone, at the end of which there is nothing for you but to mount or descend.”

Not any more, though. Skipping down the steps, I boarded a bright red electric Uber scooter and sailed electrically east toward Capitol Hill. The whole dignity-dissolving charade was made possible (and cheap) by map-making algorithms performing geometrical calculations that Euclid himself would have recognised. Because the ancient geometer’s influence on our streets and buildings hasn’t really vanished. It’s been virtualised. Algorithmized. Turned into a utility.

Now geometry’s back where it started: just one more invisible natural good.

Nothing to do except try not to die

Moving to Mars for New Scientist, 18 October 2019

Step into Moving to Mars, an exhibition of Mars mission and colony design at London’s Design Museum, and you are confronted, immediately, with some very good reasons not to move there. Minatory glowing wall texts announce that Mars was not made for you; that there is no life and precious little water; that, clad in a space suit, you will never touch, taste or smell the planet you now call “home”. As Lisa Grossman wrote for New Scientist a couple of years ago, “What’s different about Mars is that there is nothing to do there except try not to die.”

It’s an odd beginning for such an up-beat and celebratory show, but it provides some valuable dark ground against which the rest of the show can sparkle — a show that is, as its chief curator Justin McGuirk remarks, “not about Mars; this is an exhibition about people.”

Next up: a quick yet lucid dash through what the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls “the history of Mars in the human mind”. A Babylonian clay tablet and a Greek vase speak to our early cosmological ideas about the planets; a poster for the film Total Recall (the good one, from 1990), reminds us of Mars’s psychological menace.

The bulk of the show focuses on our current plans for the red planet. There are real space suits and models of real rovers, maquettes of 3D-printed Martian settlements and prototypes of Mars-appropriate clothing and furniture. Mission architectures and engineering sketches line the walls. Real hammers meant for the International Space Station (hollow, and loaded with ball bearings to increase their utility in zero-gravity) are wall-mounted beside a nifty low-gravity table that has yet to leave, and may indeed never leave, Earth. This, of course, is the great strength of approaching science through design: reality and speculation can be given equal visual weight, drawing us into an informed conversation about what it is we actually want from the future. Some readers may remember a tremendous touring exhibition, Hello Robot in 2017, which did much the same for robotics and artificial intelligence.

Half way round the show, I relaxed in a fully realised Martian living pod by the international design firm Hassell and their engineering partners Eckersley O’Callaghan. They’d assembled this as part of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge — the agency’s programme to develop habitat ideas for deep space exploration — and it combines economy, recycling, efficiency and comfort in surprising ways. Xavier De Kestelier, Hassell’s head of design technology and innovation, was on hand to show me around, and was particularly proud of the chairs here, which are are made of recycled packaging: “The more you eat, the more you sit!”

So much for the promise of Martian living. The profound limitations of that life were brought home to me a working hydroponic system by Growstack. Its trays of delicious cress and lettuce reminded me, rather sharply, that for all the hype, we are still a very long way from being able to feed ourselves away from our home world. We’re still at the point, indeed, where a single sunflower and a single zinnia, blossoming aboard the ISS — the former in 2012, the latter in 2016 — still make headlines.

The Growstack exhibit and other materials about Martian horticulture also marked an important cultural shift, away from the strategic, militarised thinking that characterised early space exploration in the Cold War, and towards more humane, more practical questions about how one lives an ordinary life in such extraordinary, and extraordinarily limited, environments.

it’s no surprise that the Russian were thinking seriously about these questions long before the rest of us, and it was good to see Russian space cultures given their due in this impressively international show. All through the 19th century, researchers for the Tsarist government tried to develop agriculture in mostly frozen and largely infertile Siberia. Well into the Soviet era, soil scientists undertook extreme expeditions over vast distances in pursuit of insane agricultural speculations. It shows up in their popular culture. “Hold on, geologist,” ran one pop song of 1951, “hold out, geologist, you are brother of the wind and sun!” And then there are the films of Pavel Vladimirovich Klushantsev, born 1910 in St Petersburg.

Klushantsev’s documentary Road to the Stars (1957), a meticulous, scientifically accurate vision to the physics, engineering, ergonomics of space travel, was followed seven years later by Moon (1965), describing the exploration, mining, settlement and domestication of a new land. Both films feature succulent gardens glistening under space domes, and workers eager to tend them, and bowls full of peaches beside every workstation, offering a little, literal taste of home.

I was delighted to see here a screen showing *Mars* (1968), a much less celebrated effort — Klushantsev’s saturated, multicoloured vision of man on the Red Planet. It’s the film with the dog in the spacesuit: an image people who’ve never heard of this director treasure for its kitsch value. It’s the film that earned him a telegram which read: “Due to the low quality of your work, we hereby inform you that we are terminating your contract with the studio.”

So much for the Soviet imagination.

But other cultures, each with their own deep, historical motivations, have since stepped up with plans to settle Mars. My favourites projects originate in the Middle East, where subterranean irrigation canals were greening the desert a full millennium before the astronomer Percival Lowell thought he spotted similar structures on Mars. (The underground networks called khettaras in Morocco irrigated much of its northern oasis region right up until the early 1970s, when government policies began to favour dam construction.)

Having raised major cities in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth — and this in less than a generation — we should hardly be surprised that the rulers of the United Arab Emirates believe it’s feasible to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2117. A development hub, “Mars Scientific City”, is scheduled to open in Dubai in the next three to four years, and will feature a laboratory that will simulate the red planet’s terrain and harsh environment. It will be, I suppose, a sort of extension of the 520-day Mars 500 simulation that in 2011 sent six volunteers on a round trip to the Red Planet without stepping out of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

The playfulness of “Martian thinking” is quite properly reflected in this playful and family-orientated exhibition. The point, made very well here, is that this play, this freedom from strictures and established lines of thought, is essential to good design. Space forces you to work from first principles. It forces you to think about mass, and transport, and utility, and reusability. And I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Eleanor Watson, the assistant curator on this show, has been chosen to curate this year’s Global Grad Show, which in November will be bringing the most innovative new design thinking to Dubai — a city which, in contending with its own set of environmental extremes, often feels half way to Mars already.

As I was leaving Moving to Mars I was drawn up short by what looked like some cycling gear. Anna Talvi, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, has constructed her flesh-hugging clothing to act as a sort of “wearable gym” to counter the muscle wasting and bone loss caused by living in low gravity. She has also tried to tackle the serious psychological challenges of space exploration, by permeating her fabrics with comforting scents. Her X.Earth perfumed gloves “will bring you back to your Earth-memory place at the speed of thought”, with the the smell of freshly cut grass, say, or the smell of your favourite horse.

Those gloves, even more than that hydroponically grown lettuce, brought home to me the sheer hideousness of space exploration. It’s no accident that this year’s most ambitious science fiction movies, Aniara and Ad Astra, have both focused on the impossible mental and spiritual toll we’d suffer, were we ever to swap our home planet for a life of manufactured monotony.

There’s a new realism creeping into our ideas of living off-world, along with a resurgence of optimism and possibility. And this is good. We need light and shade as we plan our next great adventure. How else can we ever hope to become Martian?

The three-dimensional page

Visiting Thinking 3D: Leonardo to the present at Oxford’s Weston Library for the Financial Times, 20 March 2019

Exhibitions hitch themselves to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci at their peril. How do you do justice to a man whose life’s work provides the soundtrack to your entire culture? Leonardo dabbled his way into every corner of intellectual endeavour, and carved out several tasty new corners into the bargain. For heaven’s sake, he dreamt up a glass vessel to demonstrate the dynamics of fluid flow in the aortic valve of the human heart: modern confirmation that he was right (did you doubt it?) had to wait for the cardiologist Robin Choudhury and a paper written in 2014.

Daryl Green and Laura Moretti, curators of Thinking 3D at Oxford’s Weston Library, are wise to park this particular story at the far end of their delicate, nuanced, spiderweb of an exhibition into how artists and scientists, from Leonardo to now, have learned to convey three-dimensional objects on the page.

Indeed they do very good job of keeping You Know Who contained. This is a show made up of books, mostly, and Leonardo came too soon to take full advantage of print. He was, anyway, far too jealous of his own work to consign it to the relatively crude reproductive technologies of his day. Only one of his drawings exists in printed form — a stellated dodecahedron, drawn for his friend Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione of 1509. It’s here for the viewing, alongside other contemporary attempts at geometrical drawing. Next to Leonardo, they are hardly more than doodles.

A few of Leonardo’s actual drawings — the revolving series here is drawn from the Royal Collection and the British Library — served to provoke, more than to inspire, the advances in 3D visualisation that followed. In a couple of months the aortic valve story will be pulled from the show, its place taken by astrophysicist Steven Balbus’s attempts to visualise black holes. (There’s a lot of ground to cover, and very little room, so the exhibition will be changing some elements regularly during the run.) When that happens, will Leonardo’s presence in this exhibition begin to feel gratuitous? Probably not: Leonardo is the ultimate Man Who Came to Dinner: once put inside your head there’s no getting rid of him.

Thinking 3D is more than just this exhibition: the year-long project promises events, talks, conferences and workshops, not to mention satellite shows. (Under the skin: illustrating the human body, which just ended at the Royal College of Physicians in London, was one of these.) The more one learns about the project, the more it resembles Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald, who flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions — and the more impressive the coherence Green and Moretti have achieved here.

There are some carefully selected geegaws. A stereoscope through which one can study Arthur Thomson stereographic Anatomy of the Human Eye, published in 1912. The nation’s first look at Bill Gates’s Codescope, an interactive kiosk with a touch screen that lets you explore the Codex Leicester, a notebook of Leonardo’s that Gates bought in 1994. Even a shelf full of 3D-printed objects you are welcome to fondle, like Linus with his security blanket, as you wander around the exhibition. This last jape works better than you’d think: by relating vision to touch, it makes us properly aware of all the mental tricks we have to perform, in order to to realise 3D forms in pictures.

But books are the meat of the matter: arranged chronologically along one wall, and under glass in displays that show how the same theme has been handled at different times. Start at the clean, complex lines of the dodecahedron and pass, via architecture (the coliseum) and astronomy (the Moon) to the fleshy ghastliness of the human eyeball.

Conveying depth by drawing makes geometry comprehensible. It also, and in particular, transforms three areas of fundamental intellectual enquiry: anatomy, architecture, and astronomy.

Today, when we think of 3D visualisation, we think first of architecture. (It’s an association forged, in large part, in the toils of countless videogames: never mind the plot, gawp at all that visionary pixelcrete!). But because architecture operates at a more-or-less human-scale, it’s actually been rather slow to pick up on the power of 3D visualisation. With intuition and craft skill to draw upon, who needs axonometry? The builders of the great Mediaeval cathedrals managed quite happily without any such hifalutin drawing techniques, and it wasn’t until Auguste Choisy’s Histoire de l’architecture of 1899 that a drawing style that had already transformed carpentry, machinery, and military architecture finally found favour with architects. (Arguably, the profession has yet to come down off the high this occasioned. Witness the number of large buildings that look, for all their bulk, like scale models, their shapes making sense only from the most arbitrary angles.)

Where the scale is too small or too large for intuition and common sense to work, 3D visualisation has been most useful, and most beautiful. Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome (1543) stands here for an entire genre of “fugitive sheets” — compendiums of exquisite anatomical drawings with layered flaps, peeled back by the reader to reveal the layers of the body as one might discover them during a dissection. Because these documents were practical surgical guides, they received rough treatment, and hardly any survive. Those that do (though not the one here, thank God) are often covered with mysterious stains.

Less gruesome, but at the same time less immediately communicative, are the various attempts here to render the cosmos on paper. Robert Fludd’s black square from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617-21), depicts the void immediately prior to creation. Et sic in infinitum (“And so on to infinity”) run the words on each side of this eloquent blank.

Thinking 3D explores territories where words tangle incoherently and only pictures will suffice — then leaps giggling into a void where rational enquiry collapses and only artworks and acts of mischief like Fludd’s manage to convey anything at all. All this in a space hardly bigger than two average living rooms. It’s a show that repays — indeed, demands — patience. Put in the requisite effort, though, and you’ll find it full of wonders.

“The best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins”

Talking to Arthur Mamou-Mani for the Financial Times, 22 December 2018

Sir John Soane’s Museum, on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, is very carefully arranged. This is as well. The eighteenth century architect and antiquarian made it a condition of his bequest to the nation that future custodians can’t go fiddling about with its layout.

Still, the current management contrive all manner of mischief — witness the robot playing Jenga in one uncharacteristically uncluttered corner.

Suspended from its gantry on four wires, this digitally-controlled robot is building something out of hand-size wooden blocks. It’s a slow beast, and some hours must pass before its construction becomes apparent: a dome, of the sort that John Soane produced for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Polibot does not look like a game changer. But according to Arthur Mamou-Mani, whose architectural practice built it, Polibot’s children are going to change the world.

Mamou-Mani, who studied at the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Malaquais, now lectures at Westminster University. He also runs FabPub, a commercial, community-minded digital fabrication space. “I think a lot of people see the work we do as not real architecture,” he says, “but I think things could be a bit different, and that’s why I have my own practice.”

When Mamou-Mani was studying at the Architectural Association, around 2003, computer-generated design was a fairly dry topic. Patrik Schumacher (the principal of the architecture practice Zaha Hadid Architects) had already given this style of working (using computers to evolve forms according to a set of parameters) — its own term of art: parametricism. “But by styling this work, we’re constraining something that, so far as I can see, hasn’t blossomed yet,” Mamou-Mani says. “I feel it’s evolving into a much more material craft. It’s not about computers. It’s about developing and understanding the craft of marrying new machines and new materials. It goes way beyond code.”

Festival-goers at this year’s Burning Man in Nevada got a taste of his aesthetic as they helped assemble — and then ritualistically burned — Mamou Mani’s Galaxia temple, its distinctive spiral shape formed from twenty timber trusses that converged towards the sky. Documentation of the project appears here alongside some of Soane’s own more jaw-dropping architectural imagery. Joseph Michael Gandy’s watercolour
A bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England springs to mind: the building rendered as ruins, laid out as though for archaeologists of the future.

Through experiments in robotics, Mamou-Mani’s practice is out to develop new ways of building that will make architects, engineers and contractors work more closely together, to the point where design, technology and construction become a single, more or less collegiate field. The point, then, is not what Polibot is, but what it could become. It’s not just a pick-and-place machine. It’s the early prototype of a universal builder.

There have been many experiments in the large-scale 3D printing of buildings. But the kinds of hefty, industrial robot arms that are usually employed for this work are far too cumbersome and delicate to wheel onto a building site. MX3D’s exceedingly elegant 3D-printed steel bridge, for example, years in the developing, will be installed on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in Amsterdam’s red light district around the middle of 2019. It was supposed to be printed on-site, but whole business –with six-axis robots building a six-metre-wide structure from layers of molten steel — proved far too dangerous to set going in a public space.

Gigantic mecha robot arms will never spew out quick-setting skyscrapers at a single sweep, Mamou-Mani says, for the simple reason that it would make construction less, not more efficient. “Really, construction is mostly about bringing big chunks of stuff together. Currently, concrete is still the material of choice for the construction industry, but we’re slowly switching to timber, and this will be a revolution, because once you start working with timber, you’re no longer casting anything on site. You’re thinking entirely in terms of prefabrication and assembly.”

Mamou-Mani dreams of building simple towers from elements (“prefabricated properly, by robotic arms, like cars”), and assembled on-site by gigantic Polibots. In the exhibition that accompanies his dome-building robot show, hangs a visualisation of his practice’s “DNA Blockchain skyscraper”, soaring above its fictive city’s skyline like a monstrous chromosome. As I stare, somewhat aghast, Mamou-Mani explains his vision of buildings that can expand and contract, depending on the economy. “We don’t need to surround ourselves with buildings that we construct when everything is going well, only to leave them empty when their time is past. Why do we think that permanence is necessary?” Elsewhere in the exhibition, the wall information proclaims that “the best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins.”

Soane’s antiquarian ghost must surely be clanking his chains over that one. Indeed, its by no means obvious at first how this exhibition relates to its hallowed venue. The more the visitor learns, however, the nicer the fit appears. This museum, in Soane’s lifetime, was more an experimental workshop than a collection of architectural curios. Soane — no slouch when it came to technical innovation — filled it with peculiar and playful juxtapositions, with originals and fakes, copies and fantasias, in his pursuit of new concepts and techniques.

Mamou-Mani — the man who would rob future generations of their ruins — puts it well: “There is a reason we protect things, and build traditions around them. It’s because these things were revolutionary. We preserve them because they still have the power to inspire us. We can’t go on like the modernists, constantly wiping the slate clean.”

If there is a contradiction here, so be it. There is never just one style of architecture at work in the world. As for the evident gap between little Polibot’s game of solitaire, and its creator’s vision of a transformed construction culture, I know better than to huff about it. All great advances in industrial culture are prefigured by model-making. Model aircraft, to take an obvious example, have been flying a great deal longer than people have. Nor is the toy and model scene any less relevant to that industry today, witness the stellar career of SpaceShip One’s designer Burt Rutan — a man who still turns up at modelling conventions to complain about the lack of balsa wood.

Mamou-Mani’s animated wooden construction kit at the Soane is both a charming toy and an important vision of our necessary future. “Depending on trees for construction will give us lots of trees, but more than that, it’ll make us think about our materials in a new way, from their growth to their assembly, to their disassembly and their reuse or recycling.” Mamou-Mani’s sense of urgency is compelling, and rooted in some hard truths. Construction is arguably the least sustainable industry on earth. “We’re going to need to rethink everything. If architects and planners think they can just continue doing business as normal, then we’re doomed,” he says. “It’s as bad as that.”

Future by design

The Second Digital Turn: Design beyond intelligence
Mario Carpo
MIT Press

THE Polish futurist Stanislaw Lem once wrote: “A scientist wants an algorithm, whereas the technologist is more like a gardener who plants a tree, picks apples, and is not bothered about ‘how the tree did it’.”

For Lem, the future belongs to technologists, not scientists. If Mario Carpo is right and the “second digital turn” described in his extraordinary new book comes to term, then Lem’s playful, “imitological” future where analysis must be abandoned in favour of creative activity, will be upon us in a decade or two. Never mind our human practice of science, science itself will no longer exist, and our cultural life will consist of storytelling, gesture and species of magical thinking.

Carpo studies architecture. Five years ago, he edited The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992-2012, a book capturing the curvilinear, parametric spirit of digital architecture. Think Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – a sort of deconstructed metal fish head – and you are halfway there.

Such is the rate of change that five years later, Carpo has had to write another book (the urgency of his prose is palpable and thrilling) about an entirely different kind of design. This is a generative design powered by artificial intelligence, with its ability to thug through digital simulations (effectively, breaking things on screen until something turns up that can’t be broken) and arriving at solutions that humans and their science cannot better.

This kind of design has no need of casts, stamps, moulds or dies. No costs need be amortised. Everything can be a one-off at the same unit cost.

Beyond the built environment, it is the spiritual consequences of this shift that matter, for by its light Carpo shows all cultural history to be a gargantuan exercise in information compression.

Unlike their AIs, human beings cannot hold much information at any one time. Hence, for example, the Roman alphabet: a marvel of compression, approximating all possible vocalisations with just 26 characters. Now that we can type and distribute any glyph at the touch of a button, is it any wonder emojis are supplementing our tidy 26-letter communications?

Science itself is simply a series of computational strategies to draw the maximum inference from the smallest number of precedents. Reduce the world to rules and there is no need for those precedents. We have done this for so long and so well some of us have forgotten that “rules” aren’t “real” rules, they are just generalisations.

AIs simply gather or model as many precedents as they wish. Left to collect data according to their own strengths, they are, Carpo says, “postscientific”. They aren’t doing science we recognise: they are just thugging.

“Carpo shows all cultural history to be a gargantuan exercise in information compression”

Carpo foresees the “separation of the minds of the thinkers from the tools of computation”. But in that alienation, I think, lies our reason to go on. Because humans cannot handle very much data at any one time, sorting is vital, which means we have to assign meaning. Sorting is therefore the process whereby we turn data into knowledge. Our inability to do what computers can do has a name already: consciousness.

Carpo’s succinctly argued future has us return to a tradition of orality and gesture, where these forms of communication need no reduction or compression since our tech will be able to record, notate, transmit, process and search them, making all cultural technologies developed to handle these tasks “equally unnecessary”. This will be neither advance nor regression. Evolution, remember, is maddeningly valueless.

Could we ever have evolved into Spock-like hyper-rationality? I doubt it. Carpo’s sincerity, wit and mischief show that Prospero is more the human style. Or Peter Pan, who observed: “You can have anything in life, if you will sacrifice everything else for it.”

 

The dreams our stuff is made of

To introduce a New Scientist speaking event at London’s Barbican centre on 29 June, I took a moment to wonder why the present looks so futuristic.

Long before we can build something for real, we know how it will work and what it will require by way of materials and design. The steampunk genre gorges on Victorian designs for steam-powered helicopters (yes, there were such things) and the like, with films such as Hugo (2011) and gaming apps such as 80 Days (2014) telescoping the hard business of materials science into the twinkling of a mad professor’s eye. Always, our imaginations run ahead of our physical abilities.

At the same time, science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why our dreams of transcendence through technology fail: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. Blade Runner (1982) didn’t so much inspire the current deluge of in-yer-face urban advertising as realise our worst nightmares about it. Short Circuit (1986) knew what was wrong with robotic warfare long before the first Predator aircraft took to the skies.

So yes, science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama: polished, chromed, complete, not infrequently camp. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam. This genre takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital – a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes,  in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. In Alphaville (1965), futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of a distant space city, yet there is no set dressing to Alphaville: it is all dialogue, all cut – nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand – tinsel and Panstick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Time Lord was tearing up the set of Doctor Who and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned.

Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick or a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said, we’re bolting this together as we go along.

What hostile critics say is true, in that science fiction sometimes is more about the machines than about the people. Metropolis (1927) director Fritz Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond (1929) and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre-tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building a rocket 11 metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily, they ran out of money.

The technocratic ideal may seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines – the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, perhaps.

Once Star Trek‘s Federation established heaven on Earth (and elsewhere), however, then we hit a sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched his show to Desilu Studios as “wagon train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: The moving picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you actually reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness.

If the teleportation device is not the point of your story, then you may as well use a rappelling rope. Why spend your set budget on an impressive-looking telescope? Why not just have your actor point out of the window? The day your show’s props become merely props is the day you’re not making science fiction any more.

Designs with the world on their shoulders

PITCHAfrica's Waterbank Campus, a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya

For New Scientist, 18 April 2015: a review of the 2015 Designs of the Year competition at London’s Design Museum.

In friendly competition with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet Horace Smith once wrote a poem entitled Ozymandias. Shelley’s version is the one we remember, but Smith’s is compelling for another reason. He imagines a hunter traipsing through the ruins of a future London. Lighting upon a fragment of a monument, he “stops to guess/What powerful but unrecorded race/Once dwelt in that annihilated place”.

This year’s Designs of the Year competition has its monumental entries, but even the most grandiloquent of the 76 nominations at least tips its hat to the idea that the world will not sustain another great ruin, or may end up our next great ruin, unless we respond more cleverly to our environment.

Jean Nouvel’s One Central Park in Sydney, Australia, towers above its architectural competitors, literally. Clad in climbing plants by Patrick Blanc, the leading designer of vertical gardens, One Central’s overriding purpose seems to be to apologise for its very existence.

There is even a motorised heliostat mounted on a cantilever near the roof, to erase the building’s shadow. The arrangement looks terrifying in photographs, suggesting the 50-metre-high moon towers of the 19th century when towns experimented with civic lighting.

In Ho Chi Minh City, a project called House for Trees eschews apology for action, albeit of a most eccentric sort. Here, high-density living units double as gigantic containers for tropical trees. Come the rains, a sufficient number of these properties could reduce the risk of urban flooding. At least, so claim architects Vo Trong Nghia, although it sounds like special pleading to me – an alibi for the strange green dream they’re weaving, of wandering lost among giant plant pots.

Where rains are few, a more down to earth aesthetic holds sway. PITCHAfrica’s Waterbank Campus is a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya, where 4 acres of irrigated conservation agriculture are fed by 7 low-cost buildings, designed to collect and store what little precipitation there is.

PITCHAfrica’s vision extends beyond unassuming architecture to provide resources like clean water, food and sanitation on-site for its students, in the hope they will spread the word about how to manage scarce resources at home.

This vision, of an artificial “ecosystem capable of empowering and transforming communities”, is shared by a great many of the show’s “technical fix” entries. Take the Blue Diversion toilet. This project, led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is an all-in-one sanitation, fertiliser, drinking-water and biogas solution. In this cheap, ugly, blue plastic toilet, nothing is wasted – not even sunlight; there’s a small solar panel on its roof.

Other ideas plug in to the smog and mess of cities, and try to make daily life a little more bearable. At the University of Engineering and Technology, Lima, Peru, researchers have invented a billboard that purifies the air in a five-block radius, scrubbing it clean of construction dust and 99 per cent of airborne bacteria – it would take 1200 trees to do the equivalent work, says the team.

Another entry, The Ocean Cleanup, designed by Erwin Zwart with Boyan Slat and Jan de Sonneville, tackles the plastic garbage circulating the world’s oceans. Why not string barriers over the waves to catch the plastic as it moves around? Having raised over U$2 million through crowdfunding, the organisation plans to construct and test large-scale pilot projects.

This is technical fixery at its purest. It doesn’t prevent the oceans being littered: it is an environmental sticking plaster, permitting us to pursue business as usual. But why should designers have to carry the whole world on their shoulders? Designs like these could be part of a broader, political solution. The Ocean Cleanup’s barriers would be a fitting monument for our descendants to puzzle over.

Better, of course, to avoid collapse entirely, but it won’t be simple. It is easier for designers to ameliorate or even disguise problems, rather than to address them head on. Two projects built around the food supply demonstrate this neatly.

Disclosed, by Marion Ferrec at the Royal College of Art, in collaboration with Kate Wakely, is a web-based consumer service that allows you to choose products according to your health needs and ethical preferences. Lacking vast wealth, leisure and self-absorption, I won’t be using it.

But neither am I entirely persuaded by Marcel’s humorous campaign for the French supermarket giant Intermarché – a series of beautifully photographed imperfect fruits and vegetables. The idea is to shift ridiculous-looking potatoes, hideous oranges and failed lemons onto the consumer, and thereby reduce food waste. But the campaign preserves and reinforces (by price offers) the very distinction between perfect and imperfect produce that caused the problem in the first place.

It is, frankly, next to impossible to imagine how we get from a wasteful here to a sustainable there – and for that reason alone, I think Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s design fiction Designing for the Sixth Extinction is the poster-child of this year’s competition. Ginsberg has anatomised the ultimate disruptive enterprise, in which “nature is totally industrialized for the benefit of society”.

Although her fictional synthetic creatures are deliciously creepy (especially the “biologically-powered mobile soil bioremediation device”) it is her business model of saving our civilisation at the expense of the natural world, while replacing it with something better, that fascinates.

If Ginsberg’s vision comes to pass, our descendants won’t be able to puzzle at our monuments. Our monuments will be everywhere, all around them, and inside them.