668 televisions (some of them broken)

Visiting the Nam June Paik exhibition at Tate Modern for New Scientist, 27 November 2019

A short drive out of Washington DC, in an anonymous industrial unit, there is an enormous storage space crammed to the brim with broken television sets, and rolling stack shelving piled with typewriters, sewing machines and crudely carved coyotes.

This is the archive of the estate of Nam June Paik, the man who predicted the internet, the Web, YouTube, MOOCs, and most other icons of the current information age; an artist who spent much of his time engineering, dismantling, reusing, swapping out components, replacing old technology with better technology, delivering what he could of his vision with the components available to him. Cathode ray tube televisions. Neon. Copper. FORTRAN punch cards. And a video synthesizer, designed with the Tokyo artist-engineer Shuya Abe in 1969. The signature psychedelic video effects of Top of the Pops and MTV began life here.

Paik was born in Seoul in 1932, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and educated in Germany, where he met the composers Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and John Cage. A fascinating retrospective show currently at London’s Tate Modern celebrates his involvement with that loose confederacy of artist-anarchists known as Fluxus. (Yoko Ono was a patron. David Bowie and Laurie Anderson were hangers-on.)

Beneath Paik’s celebrated, and celebrity-stuffed concerts, openings and “happenings” — there’s what amounts — in the absence of Paik’s controlling intelligence (he died in 2006) — to a pile of junk. 668 televisions, some of them broken. A black box the size of a double refrigerator, containing the hardware to drive one of Paik’s massive “matrices”, Megatron/Matrix, an eight-channel, 215-screen video wall, in pieces now, a nightmare to catalogue, never mind reconstruct, stored in innumerable tea chests.

The trick for Saisha Grayson, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s curator of time-based media, and Lynn Putney its associate registrar, is to distinguish the raw material of Paik’s work from the work itself. Then curators like Tate Modern’s Sook Kyung Lee must interpret that work for a new generation, using new technology. Because let’s face it: in the end, more or less everything Paik used to make his art will end up in the bin. Consumer electronics aren’t like a painter’s pigments, which can be analysed and copied, or like a sculptor’s marble, which can, at a pinch, be repaired.

“Through Paik’s estate we are getting advice and guidance about what the artist really intended to achieve,” Lee explains, “and then we are simulating those things with new technology.”

Paik’s video walls — the works by which he’s best remembered, are monstrously heavy and absurdly delicate. But the Tate has been able to recreate Paik’s Sistine Chapel for this show. Video projectors to fill a room with a blizzard of cultural and pop-cultural imagery from around the world — a visual melting pot reflective of Paik’s vision of a technological utopia, in which “telecommunication will become our springboard for new and surprising human endeavors.” The projectors are new but the feel of this recreated piece is not so very different to the 1994 original.

To stand here, bombarded by Bowie and Nixon and Mongolian throat singers and all the other flitting, flickering icons of Paik’s madcap future, is to remember all our hopes for the information age: “Video-telephones, fax machines, interactive two-way television… and many other variations of this kind of technology are going to turn the television set into an «expanded-media» telephone system with thousands of novel uses,” Paik enthused in 1974, “not only to serve our daily needs, but to enrich the quality of life itself.”

Visit a hydrogen utopia

On Tuesday 3 December at 7pm I’ll be chairing a discussion at London’s Delfina Foundation about energy utopias, and the potential of hydrogen as a locally-produced sustainable energy source. Speakers include the artist Nick Laessing, Rokiah Yaman (Project Manager, LEAP closed-loop technologies) and Dr Chiara Ambrosio (History and Philosophy of Science, UCL).There may also be food, assuming Nick’s hydrogen stove behaves itself.  More details here.

Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum

The celebrated film director Stanley Kubrick never took the future for granted. In films as diverse as Dr. Strangelove: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick’s focus was always savagely humane, unpicking the way the places we inhabit make us think and feel. At the opening of a new exhibition at the London Design Museum in Holland Park, David Stock and I spoke to co-curator Adriënne Groen about Kubrick’s most scientifically inflected film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and how Kubrick masterminded a global effort to imagine one possible future: part technological utopia, part sterile limbo, and, more than 50 years since its release, as gripping as hell.

You can see the interview here.

How Stanley Kubrick‘s collaboration with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke led to 2001 is well known. “The ‘really good’ science-fiction movie is a great many years overdue,” Clarke enthused, as the men began their work on a project with the working title Journey Beyond the Stars.

For those who want a broader understanding of how Kubrick gathered, enthused and sometimes (let’s be brutally frank, here) exploited the visionary talent available to him, The Design Museum’s current exhibition is essential viewing. There are prototypes of the pornographic furniture from the opening dolly shot of A Clockwork Orange, inspired by the work of artist Allen Jones but fashioned by assistant production designer Liz Moore when Jones decided not to hitch his cart – and reputation – to Kubrick’s controversial vision.

But it’s the names that recur again and again, from film to film, over decades of creative endeavour, that draw one in. The costume designer Milena Canonero was a Kubrick regular and, far from being swamped, immeasurably enriched Kubrick’s vision. (There’s a wonderful production photograph here of actor Malcolm McDowell trying on some of her differently styled droog hats.)

Kubrick was fascinated by the way people respond to being regimented – by the architectural brutalism of the Thamesmead estate in A Clockwork Orange, or by a savage gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, or by their own fetishism in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s fascination with how people think and behave is well served by this show, which will give anyone of a psychological bent much food for thought.

 

A world that has run out of normal

Reading The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells for the Telegraph, 16 February 2019

As global temperatures rise, and the mean sea-level with them, I have been tracing the likely flood levels of the Thames Valley, to see which of my literary rivals will disappear beneath the waves first. I live on a hill, and what I’d like to say is: you’ll be stuck with me a while longer than most. But on the day I had set aside to consume David Wallace-Wells’s terrifying account of climate change and the future of our species (there isn’t one), the water supply to my block was unaccountably cut off.

Failing to make a cup of tea reminded me, with some force, of what ought to be obvious: that my hill is a post-apocalyptic death-trap. I might escape the floods, but without clean water, food or power, I’ll be lucky to last a week.

The first half of The Uninhabitable Earth is organised in chapters that deal separately with famines, floods, fires, droughts, brackish oceans, toxic winds and war and all the other manifest effects of anthropogenic climate change (there are many more than four horsemen in this Apocalypse). At the same time, the author reveals, paragraph by paragraph, how these ever-more-frequent disasters join up in horrific cascades, all of which erode human trust to the point where civic life collapses.

The human consequences of climate disaster are going to be ugly. When a million refugees from the Syrian civil war started arriving in Europe in 2017, far-right parties entered mainstream political discourse for the first time in decades. By 2050, the United Nations predicts that Europe will host 200 million refugees. So buckle up. The disgust response with which we greet strangers on our own land is something we conscientiously suppress these days. But it’s still there: an evolved response that in less sanitary times got us through more than one plague.

That such truths go largely unspoken says something about the cognitive dissonance in which our culture is steeped. We just don’t have the mental tools to hold climate change in our heads. Amitav Ghosh made this clear enough in The Great Derangement (2016), which explains why the traditional novel is so hopeless at handling a world that has run out of normal, forgotten how to repeat itself, and will never be any sort of normal again.

Writers, seeking to capture the contemporary moment, resort to science fiction. But the secret, sick appeal of post-apocalyptic narratives, from Richard Jefferies’s After London on, is that in order to be stories at all their heroes must survive. You can only push nihilism so far. J G Ballard couldn’t escape that bind. Neither could Cormac McCarthy. Despite our most conscientious attempts at utter bloody bleakness, the human spirit persists.

Wallace-Wells admits as much. When he thinks of his own children’s future, denizens of a world plunging ever deeper into its sixth major extinction event, he admits that despair melts and his heart fills with excitement. Humans will cling to life on this ever less habitable earth for as long as they can. Quite right, too.

Wallace-Wells is deputy editor of New York magazine. In July 2017 he wrote a cover story outlining worst-case scenarios for climate change. His pessimism proved salutary: The Uninhabitable Earth has been much anticipated.

In the first half of the book the author channels former US vice-president Al Gore, delivering a blizzard of terrifying facts, and knocking socks off his predecessor’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) not thanks to his native gifts (considerable as they are) but because the climate has deteriorated since then to the point where its declines can now be observed directly, and measured over the course of a human lifetime.

More than half the extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels has been added in the past 30 years. This means that “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries – all the millennia – that came before.” (4) Oceans are carrying at least 15 per cent more heat energy than they did in 2000. 22 per cent of the earth’s landmass was altered by humans just between 1992 and 2015. In Sweden, in 2018, forests in the Arctic Circle went up in flames. On and on like this. Don’t shoot the messenger, but “we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance.”

The trouble is not that the future is bleak. It’s that there is no future. We’re running out of soil. In the United States, it’s eroding ten times faster than it is being replaced. In China and India, soil is disappearing thirty to forty times as fast. Wars over fresh water have already begun. The CO2 in the atmosphere has reduced the nutrient value of plants by about thirty per cent since the 1950s. Within the lifetimes of our children, the hajj will no longer be a feature of Islamic practice: the heat in Mecca will be such that walking seven times counterclockwise around the Kaaba will kill you.

This book may come to be regarded as last truly great climate assessment ever made. (Is there even time left to pen another?) Some of the phrasing will give persnickety climate watchers conniptions. (Words like “eventually” will be a red rag for them, because they catalyse the reader’s imagination without actually meaning anything.) But the research is extensive and solid, the vision compelling and eminently defensible.

Alas, The Uninhabitable Earth is also likely to be one of the least-often finished books of the year. I’m not criticising the prose, which is always clear and engaging and often dazzling. But It’s simply that the more we are bombarded with facts, the less we take in. Treating the reader like an empty bucket into which facts may be poured does not work very well, and even less well when people are afraid of what you are telling them. “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader,” Wallace Wells writes on page 138. Many will give up long before then. Climate scientists have learned the hard way how difficult it is to turn fact into public engagement.

The second half of The Uninhabitable Earth asks why our being made aware of climate disaster doesn’t lead to enough reasonable action being taken against it. There’s a nuanced mathematical account to be written of how populations reach carrying capacity, run out of resources, and collapse; and an even more difficult book that will explain why we ever thought human intelligence would be powerful enough to elude this stark physical reality.

The final chapters of The Uninhabitable Earth provide neither, but neither are they narrowly partisan. Wallace-Wells mostly resists the temptation to blame the mathematical inevitability of our species’ growth and decline on human greed. The worst he finds to say about the markets and market capitalism – our usual stock villains – is not that they are evil, or psychopathic (or certainly no more evil or psychopathic than the other political experiments we’ve run in the past 150 years) but that they are not nearly as clever as we had hoped they might be. There is a twisted magnificence in the way we are exploiting, rather than adapting to the End Times. (Whole Foods in the US, we are told, is now selling “GMO-free” fizzy water.)

The Paris accords of 2016 established keeping warming to just two degrees as a global goal. Only a few years ago we were hoping for a rise of just 1.5 degrees. What’s the difference? According to the IPCC, that half-degree concession spells death for about 150 million people. Without significantly improved pledges, however, the IPCC reckons that instituting the Paris accords overnight (and no-one has) will still see us topping 3.2 degrees of warming. At this point the Antarctic’s ice sheets will collapse, drowning Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai, Hong Kong and a hundred other cities around the world. (Not my hill, though.)

And to be clear: this isn’t what could happen. This is what is already guaranteed to happen. Greenhouse gases work on too long a timescale to avoid it. “You might hope to simply reverse climate change;” writes Wallace-Wells: “you can’t. It will outrun all of us.”

“How widespread alarm will shape our ethical impulses toward one another, and the politics that emerge from those impulses,” says Wallace-Wells,”is among the more profound questions being posed by the climate to the planet of people it envelopes.”

My bet is the question will never tip into public consciousness: that, on the contrary, we’ll find ways, through tribalism, craft and mischief, to engineer what Wallace-Wells dubs “new forms of indifference”, normalising climate suffering, and exploiting novel opportunities, even as we live and more often die through times that will never be normal again.

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.

Stanisław Lem: The man with the future inside him

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From the 1950s, science fiction writer Stanisław Lem began firing out prescient explorations of our present and far beyond. His vision is proving unparalleled.
For New Scientist, 16 November 2016

“POSTED everywhere on street corners, the idiot irresponsibles twitter supersonic approval, repeating slogans, giggling, dancing…” So it goes in William Burroughs’s novel The Soft Machine (1961). Did he predict social media? If so, he joins a large and mostly deplorable crowd of lucky guessers. Did you know that in Robert Heinlein’s 1948 story Space Cadet, he invented microwave food? Do you care?

There’s more to futurology than guesswork, of course, and not all predictions are facile. Writing in the 1950s, Ray Bradbury predicted earbud headphones and elevator muzak, and foresaw the creeping eeriness of today’s media-saturated shopping mall culture. But even Bradbury’s guesses – almost everyone’s guesses, in fact – tended to exaggerate the contemporary moment. More TV! More suburbia! Videophones and cars with no need of roads. The powerful, topical visions of writers like Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke are visions of what the world would be like if the 1950s (the 1960s, the 1970s…) went on forever.

And that is why Stanisław Lem, the Polish satirist, essayist, science fiction writer and futurologist, had no time for them. “Meaningful prediction,” he wrote, “does not lie in serving up the present larded with startling improvements or revelations in lieu of the future.” He wanted more: to grasp the human adventure in all its promise, tragedy and grandeur. He devised whole new chapters to the human story, not happy endings.

And, as far as I can tell, Lem got everything – everything – right. Less than a year before Russia and the US played their game of nuclear chicken over Cuba, he nailed the rational madness of cold-war policy in his book Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961). And while his contemporaries were churning out dystopias in the Orwellian mould, supposing that information would be tightly controlled in the future, Lem was conjuring with the internet (which did not then exist), and imagining futures in which important facts are carried away on a flood of falsehoods, and our civic freedoms along with them. Twenty years before the term “virtual reality” appeared, Lem was already writing about its likely educational and cultural effects. He also coined a better name for it: “phantomatics”. The books on genetic engineering passing my desk for review this year have, at best, simply reframed ethical questions Lem set out in Summa Technologiae back in 1964 (though, shockingly, the book was not translated into English until 2013). He dreamed up all the usual nanotechnological fantasies, from spider silk space-elevator cables to catastrophic “grey goo”, decades before they entered the public consciousness. He wrote about the technological singularity – the idea that artificial superintelligence would spark runaway technological growth – before Gordon Moore had even had the chance to cook up his “law” about the exponential growth of computing power. Not every prediction was serious. Lem coined the phrase “Theory of Everything”, but only so he could point at it and laugh.

He was born on 12 September 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv in Ukraine). His abiding concern was the way people use reason as a white stick as they steer blindly through a world dominated by chance and accident. This perspective was acquired early, while he was being pressed up against a wall by the muzzle of a Nazi machine gun – just one of several narrow escapes. “The difference between life and death depended upon… whether one went to visit a friend at 1 o’clock or 20 minutes later,” he recalled.

Though a keen engineer and inventor – in school he dreamed up the differential gear and was disappointed to find it already existed – Lem’s true gift lay in understanding systems. His finest childhood invention was a complete state bureaucracy, with internal passports and an impenetrable central office.

He found the world he had been born into absurd enough to power his first novel (Hospital of the Transfiguration, 1955), and might never have turned to science fiction had he not needed to leap heavily into metaphor to evade the attentions of Stalin’s literary censors. He did not become really productive until 1956, when Poland enjoyed a post-Stalinist thaw, and in the 12 years following he wrote 17 books, among them Solaris (1961), the work for which he is best known by English speakers.

Solaris is the story of a team of distraught experts in orbit around an inscrutable and apparently sentient planet, trying to come to terms with its cruel gift-giving (it insists on “resurrecting” their dead). Solaris reflects Lem’s pessimistic attitude to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s not that alien intelligences aren’t out there, Lem says, because they almost certainly are. But they won’t be our sort of intelligences. In the struggle for control over their environment they may as easily have chosen to ignore communication as respond to it; they might have decided to live in a fantastical simulation rather than take their chances any longer in the physical realm; they may have solved the problems of their existence to the point at which they can dispense with intelligence entirely; they may be stoned out of their heads. And so on ad infinitum. Because the universe is so much bigger than all of us, no matter how rigorously we test our vaunted gift of reason against it, that reason is still something we made – an artefact, a crutch. As Lem made explicit in one of his last novels, Fiasco (1986), extraterrestrial versions of reason and reasonableness may look very different to our own.

Lem understood the importance of history as no other futurologist ever has. What has been learned cannot be unlearned; certain paths, once taken, cannot be retraced. Working in the chill of the cold war, Lem feared that our violent and genocidal impulses are historically constant, while our technical capacity for destruction will only grow.

Should we find a way to survive our own urge to destruction, the challenge will be to handle our success. The more complex the social machine, the more prone it will be to malfunction. In his hard-boiled postmodern detective story The Chain of Chance (1975), Lem imagines a very near future that is crossing the brink of complexity, beyond which forms of government begin to look increasingly impotent (and yes, if we’re still counting, it’s here that he makes yet another on-the-money prediction by describing the marriage of instantly accessible media and global terrorism).

Say we make it. Say we become the masters of the universe, able to shape the material world at will: what then? Eventually, our technology will take over completely from slow-moving natural selection, allowing us to re-engineer our planet and our bodies. We will no longer need to borrow from nature, and will no longer feel any need to copy it.

At the extreme limit of his futurological vision, Lem imagines us abandoning the attempt to understand our current reality in favour of building an entirely new one. Yet even then we will live in thrall to the contingencies of history and accident. In Lem’s “review” of the fictitious Professor Dobb’s book Non Serviam, Dobb, the creator, may be forced to destroy the artificial universe he has created – one full of life, beauty and intelligence – because his university can no longer afford the electricity bills. Let’s hope we’re not living in such a simulation.

Most futurologists are secret utopians: they want history to end. They want time to come to a stop; to author a happy ending. Lem was better than that. He wanted to see what was next, and what would come after that, and after that, a thousand, ten thousand years into the future. Having felt its sharp end, he knew that history was real, that the cause of problems is solutions, and that there is no perfect world, neither in our past nor in our future, assuming that we have one.

By the time he died in 2006, this acerbic, difficult, impatient writer who gave no quarter to anyone – least of all his readers – had sold close to 40 million books in more than 40 languages, and earned praise from futurologists such as Alvin Toffler of Future Shock fame, scientists from Carl Sagan to Douglas Hofstadter, and philosophers from Daniel Dennett to Nicholas Rescher.

“Our situation, I would say,” Lem once wrote, “is analogous to that of a savage who, having discovered the catapult, thought that he was already close to space travel.” Be realistic, is what this most fantastical of writers advises us. Be patient. Be as smart as you can possibly be. It’s a big world out there, and you have barely begun.

 

The tomorrow person

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You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the future by Jonathon Keats
reviewed for New Scientist, 11 June 2016.

 

IN 1927 the suicidal manager of a building materials company, Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, stood by the shores of Lake Michigan and decided he might as well live. A stern voice inside him intimated that his life after all had a purpose, “which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world”.

And share it he did, tirelessly for over half a century, with houses hung from masts, cars with inflatable wings, a brilliant and never-bettered equal-area map of the world, and concepts for massive open-access distance learning, domed cities and a new kind of playful, collaborative politics. The tsunami that Fuller’s wing flap set in motion is even now rolling over us, improving our future through degree shows, galleries, museums and (now and again) in the real world.

Indeed, Fuller’s”comprehensive anticipatory design scientists” are ten-a-penny these days. Until last year, they were being churned out like sausages by the design interactions department at the Royal College of Art, London. Futurological events dominate the agendas of venues across New York, from the Institute for Public Knowledge to the International Center of Photography. “Science Galleries”, too, are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, from London to Bangalore.

In You Belong to the Universe, Jonathon Keats, himself a critic, artist and self-styled “experimental philosopher”, looks hard into the mirror to find what of his difficult and sometimes pantaloonish hero may still be traced in the lineaments of your oh-so-modern “design futurist”.

Be in no doubt: Fuller deserves his visionary reputation. He grasped in his bones, as few have since, the dynamism of the universe. At the age of 21, Keats writes, “Bucky determined that the universe had no objects. Geometry described forces.”

A child of the aviation era, he used materials sparingly, focusing entirely on their tensile properties and on the way they stood up to wind and weather. He called this approach “doing more with less”. His light and sturdy geodesic dome became an icon of US ingenuity. He built one wherever his country sought influence, from India to Turkey to Japan.

Chapter by chapter, Keats asks how the future has served Fuller’s ideas on city planning, transport, architecture, education. It’s a risky scheme, because it invites you to set Fuller’s visions up simply to knock them down again with the big stick of hindsight. But Keats is far too canny for that trap. He puts his subject into context, works hard to establish what would and would not be reasonable for him to know and imagine, and explains why the history of built and manufactured things turned out the way it has, sometimes fulfilling, but more often thwarting, Fuller’s vision.

This ought to be a profoundly wrong-headed book, judging one man’s ideas against the entire recent history of Spaceship Earth (another of Fuller’s provocations). But You Belong to the Universe says more about Fuller and his future in a few pages than some whole biographies, and renews one’s interest – if not faith – in all those graduate design shows.

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.

Dialling out

Bumper, Blackspot and Stateless. Three short films by the critical designer and futurist Tobias Revell, with cinematographer Joseph Popper.

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Silent, Mostly unpeopled. Still. Lighthouse, Brighton’s digital agency, commissioned these films for House 2014, the town’s annual visual arts festival, which runs until 25 May.

A woman hunts out a digital shadow from where, unmolested, she can dial up vital personal information.

A man hunkers down on Dungenness beach to access domestic French web-servers in an attempt to evade trading restrictions.

A journalist wipes his personal identity and assembles a new one in minutes, to evade the forces of state security.

This is what these films are about. What they actually do is different. What they give you. Calm, and silence, and – oddly – a sense of there being nothing to see.

Roll film again: a woman walks through an industrial estate, studying her smart phone. A man crouches inside a fisherman’s tent, his back to the camera. Another man sits down in a library, then leaves.

The events, the implications, the politics of states and borders, are clear enough, and are what gives these films their pompous portmanteau title – The Monopoly of Legitimate Use, indeed – and their utility for a festival centred around ideas of “migration, refuge and territory”.

But these events, these transactions and transgressions, aren’t really taking place in the physical world at all. They are taking place on-line; on and in and behind glass; at most, in the reflections of tears.

They are not cold films, but they do locate their human action in the digital elsewhere, leaving their actors largely inexpressive, their turmoils and triumphs implied through the plot. Told, not shown.

The result is strangely hopeful. Revell’s is world of borders and restrictions, by-laws and embargoes. But his people, through the cumulative effect of countless subtle transgressions, have already evaded it. They are not escaping, they have already escaped, to the Other Side.

Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem

I reviewed this mix of prescience, philosophy and irony for New Scientist’s Culture Lab.

Here’s a more relaxed version for Lem initiates:

Stanislaw Lem

Image shamelessly ripped from Aleksander Jalosinski http://aleksanderjalosinski.pl

 

Halfway through his epic cybernetic rewiring of the Western cultural project, at the top of his rhetorical curve, and scant pages before the neologisms begin to gum and tack, tripping the reader’s feet (the second half is a slog), Polish satirist Stanislaw Lem recasts the entire universe as a boarding house inhabited by Mr Smith, a bank clerk, his puritanical aunt, and a female lodger.
The boarding house has a glass wall, and all the greats of science are about to look through that wall and draw truths about the universe from what they observe. Ptolemy notes how, when the aunt goes down to the cellar to fetch some vegetables, Mr Smith kisses the lodger. He develops a purely descriptive theory, “thanks to which one can know in advance which position will be taken by the two upper bodies when the loqwer one finds itself in the lowest position.”
Newton enters. “He declares that the bodies’ behaviour depends on their mutual attraction.”
So it goes on. Heisenberg notices some indeterminacy in their behaviour: “For instance, in the state of kissing, Mr Smith’s arms do not always occupy the same position.”
And on. And on. Mathematics comes unstuck in the ensuing complexity, where “a neural equivalent of an act of sneezing would be a volume whose cover would have to be lifted with a crane.”
Science is steadily pushing us into a Goethian cul-de-sac in which, the more accurate our theory, the closer it comes to the phenomenon itself, in all its ambiguity, strangeness, and inexplicability. At this point, Lem says, analysis must be abandoned in favour of creative activity — “imitological practice.” as he would have it, “considering the phenomenon itself its most perfect representation.”
There are nested ironies here, and it’s the devil’s work to unpick them all. Then again, any reader of Lem will have guessed this from the off, and will relish the opportunity afforded by this English translation – incredibly, for a book written in 1964 by a literary celebrity and reasonably well translated elsewhere, the first in the English language. Summa’s translator is Joanna Zylinska, a professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths. Her work is diligent, imaginative, painstakingly precise; sometimes one wishes, in the later chapters, that she would be a little more slapdash and cut to the chase a little more, but this is Lem’s fault, not hers.
Lem was a garrulous old sod who said Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 version of his novel Solaris should have been renamed “Love in Outer Space” and put up a sign outside his house warning of “ferocious dogs” (in truth, five friendly dachshunds). Though he had some important intellectual training, Lem ploughed his own furrow, conjuring with ideas that would not become common currency for another half-century:  (virtual reality, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, technological singularity…) When he succumbs to the autodidact’s anxiety, his prose is not pretty.
But then, Lem always worked at the edge of aesthetic possibility — which is to say, he was a science fiction writer. Science fiction is notorious for biting the hand that feeds it, for deliberately running counter to all expectation, and getting lost for decades at a time in the contested, often ugly territory where the humanities leave off and the sciences begin. Science fiction prides itself on crashing and burning, again and again, against the walls of narrative expectation and good taste. It’s the Gully Foyle of literature, fearsome and deranged and perilous in its promise: a Prometheus figure shoving fire in your face. “Catch this!”
This is what the Summa throws up: a vision of intelligence as cul-de-sac. Intelligence carries conscious beings to a point where their theories are no longer useful to them, where their hard-won objectivity drowns in a glut of complexity, and the only way to forward is for them to grow into the fabric of the world.
Fermi’s paradox: “If we are alive and intelligent and making some noise, where, in all the cosmos, is everybody else?”
Lem’s answer: Look at the rocks. Intelligence is a stepping stone on a circular path back to brute is-ness.
So much for cosmic irony; there’s a local, political irony here too, which needs some more exploration.
You see, after the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland, Lem was banned from Polytechnic study owing to his “bourgeois origin”. His father pulled strings to get him accepted on a course in medicine at Lwów University in 1940, but this brought him up against the quack theories of Stalin’s intellectual poster-boy, the agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. Lem satirized Lysenko in a science magazine and soon abandoned his medical studies.
A word about Lysenko. With the blood of millions already on his hands from collectivisation – not to mention the wholesale eradication of countless varieties of domesticated plant – Josef Stalin needed to feed what was left of his nation. He wanted food and he wanted it now. Enter Trofim Denisovich, peddling an idea of evolution already two centuries out of date. Lysenko said things change their form in response to the environment, and pass any changes directly to their offspring. No element of chance. No randomness in selection. No genetic code to learn. Giraffes have long necks because their parents stretch.
And there is no brake on this process, neither, according to Lysenko. No natural conservatism. Things want to change. They just need some kindly direction. Spin your wheel and stick in your thumbs: the living world is clay. Oats will turn to wild oats, pines to firs, sunflowers to zinnias. Animal cells will turn into plant cells. Plants into animals! Cells from soup! “How can there be hereditary diseases in a socialist society?” From the nonliving will come the living.
Fast forward twenty years, and we have the Summa, and the Summa says,
“We cannot therefore catalogue Nature, our finitude being one of the reasons for this. Yet we can turn Nature’s infinity against it, so to speak by working, as Technologists…”
And what, exactly, will this work look like? (Bear in mind here that Lysenko cited the brilliant fruit-tree specialist Ivan Michurin as his intellectual forebear):
“A scientist wants an algorithm, wheras the technologist is more like a gardener who plants a tree, picks apples, and is not bothered about “how the tree did it.” A scientist considers such a narrow, utiliterian and pragmatic approach a sin against the laws of Full Knowledge. It seems that those attitudes will change in the future.”
The Summa is not just Lem’s vision of the future; it is Lysenko’s.
Of course this (irony of ironies) doesn’t mean that the vision is merely mischevious, a bitter political joke (though I think it is that). Perhaps Lem thinks Lysenko was simply ahead of his time, reaching for a plasticity in nature that it will take another century of biological research to effect.
Predictably, from a writer who seems permanently dangling off the edge of everyone else’s intellectual curve, Lem’s minatory vision is being explored and independently invented in the oddest places. Never mind the blandishments of the Kurzweilians and the extropians: Lem calls them “homunculists”, an inspired expression of contempt. What about Ridley Scott’s movie Prometheus? What about that animate yet unliving black goo that can bring life to sterile planets, in all its savagery, appetite and guile? What about that unsmiling species of near-Gods who, having mastered birth (the sexism is deliberate and important), sets life at its own neck in the service of some unnamed Next Project? Lem would have hated it. But then, Lem was an inveterate ironist who describes the Summa itself, that most cherished project, as a “slightly modernised… version of the famous Ars Magna, which clever Lullus presented quite a long time ago, that is, the the year 1300, and which was rightly mocked by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.”
It is not that the ironies get in the way. It’s that the world itself is ironical, and Lem, with his vision-of-the-future-that-is-no-future, is its John the Baptist. Even as you follow him, watch him rip out the signposts. Even as you beg for water, watch him defecate in each and every roadside well. Gawp in dismay as he assembles Potemkin villages on the barren skyline only to kick them into the dust. Then: walk on. (It’s not like you have any choice.) The path looks straight. You know it’s anything but. You know, God help you, that you will come by this place again.