The Art of Conjecturing

Reading Katy Börner’s Atlas of Forecasts: Modeling and mapping desirable futures for New Scientist, 18 August 2021

My leafy, fairly affluent corner of south London has a traffic congestion problem, and to solve it, there’s a plan to close certain roads. You can imagine the furore: the trunk of every kerbside tree sports a protest sign. How can shutting off roads improve traffic flows?

The German mathematician Dietrich Braess answered this one back in 1968, with a graph that kept track of travel times and densities for each road link, and distinguished between flows that are optimal for all cars, and flows optimised for each individual car.

On a Paradox of Traffic Planning is a fine example of how a mathematical model predicts and resolves a real-world problem.

This and over 1,300 other models, maps and forecasts feature in the references to Katy Börner’s latest atlas, which is the third to be derived from Indiana University’s traveling exhibit Places & Spaces: Mapping Science.

Atlas of Science: Visualizing What We Know (2010) revealed the power of maps in science; Atlas of Knowledge: Anyone Can Map (2015), focused on visualisation. In her third and final foray, Börner is out to show how models, maps and forecasts inform decision-making in education, science, technology, and policymaking. It’s a well-structured, heavyweight argument, supported by descriptions of over 300 model applications.

Some entries, like Bernard H. Porter’s Map of Physics of 1939, earn their place thanks purely to their beauty and for the insights they offer. Mostly, though, Börner chooses models that were applied in practice and made a positive difference.

Her historical range is impressive. We begin at equations (did you know Newton’s law of universal gravitation has been applied to human migration patterns and international trade?) and move through the centuries, tipping a wink to Jacob Bernoulli’s “The Art of Conjecturing” of 1713 (which introduced probability theory) and James Clerk Maxwell’s 1868 paper “On Governors” (an early gesture at cybernetics) until we arrive at our current era of massive computation and ever-more complex model building.

It’s here that interesting questions start to surface. To forecast the behaviour of complex systems, especially those which contain a human component, many current researchers reach for something called “agent-based modeling” (ABM) in which discrete autonomous agents interact with each other and with their common (digitally modelled) environment.

Heady stuff, no doubt. But, says Börner, “ABMs in general have very few analytical tools by which they can be studied, and often no backward sensitivity analysis can be performed because of the large number of parameters and dynamical rules involved.”

In other words, an ABM model offers the researcher an exquisitely detailed forecast, but no clear way of knowing why the model has drawn the conclusions it has — a risky state of affairs, given that all its data is ultimately provided by eccentric, foible-ridden human beings.

Börner’s sumptuous, detailed book tackles issues of error and bias head-on, but she left me tugging at a still bigger problem, represented by those irate protest signs smothering my neighbourhood.

If, over 50 years since the maths was published, reasonably wealthy, mostly well-educated people in comfortable surroundings have remained ignorant of how traffic flows work, what are the chances that the rest of us, industrious and preoccupied as we are, will ever really understand, or trust, all the many other models which increasingly dictate our civic life?

Borner argues that modelling data can counteract misinformation, tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, and magical thinking.

I can’t for the life of me see how. Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” What happens when a model reaches such complexity, only an expert can really understand it, or when even the expert can’t be entirely sure why the forecast is saying what it’s saying?

We have enough difficulty understanding climate forecasts, let alone explaining them. To apply these technologies to the civic realm begs a host of problems that are nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with whether anyone will be listening.

Eagle-eyed eagles and blind, breathless fish

Secret Worlds: The extraordinary senses of animals by Martin Stevens, reviewed for New Scientist, 21 July 2021

Echo-locating bats use ultrasound to map their lightless surroundings. The information they gather is fine-grained — they can tell the difference between the wing cases and bodies of a beetle, and the scales of a moth’s wings. The extremely high frequency of ultrasound — far beyond our own ability to hear — generates clearer, less “blurry” sonic images. And we should be jolly glad bats use it, and these creatures are seriously noisy. A single bat, out for lunch, screams at around 140 decibels. Someone shouting a metre away generates only 90.

Since 2013, when his textbook Sensory Ecology, Behaviour, and Evolution was published, Martin Stevens, a professor at Exeter University in the UK, has had it in mind to write a popular version — a book that, while paying its dues to the extraordinary sensory abilities of animals, also has something to say about the evolution and plasticity of the senses, and above all the cost of acquiring them.

“Rather than seeing countless species all around us, each with every single one of their sense being a pinnacle of what is possible,” he writes, “we instead observe that evolution and development has honed those senses that the animal needs most, and scaled back on the others.” For every eagle-eyed, erm, eagle, there is a blind fish.

Stevens presents startling data about the expense involved in sensing the world. A full tenth of the energy used by a blowfly (Calliphora vicina) at rest is used up maintaining its photoreceptors and associated nerve cells.

Stevens also highlights some remarkable cost-saving strategies. The ogre-faced spider from Australia (Deinopsis subrufa) has such large, sensitive and expensive-to-maintain eyes, it breaks down photoreceptors and membranes during the day, and regenerates them at night in order to hunt.

Senses are too expensive to stick around when they’re not needed; so they disappear and reappear over evolutionary time. Their genetic mechanisms are surprisingly parsimonious. The same genetic pathways crop up again and again, in quite unrelated species. The same, or similar mutations have occurred in the Prestin gene in both dolphins bats, unrelated species that both echolocate: “not surprising,” Stevens observes, “if evolution has limited genetic material to act on in the first place”.

Stevens boils his encyclopedic knowledge down to three animals per chapter, and each chapter focuses on a different sense. This rather mechanistic approach serves him surprisingly well; this is a field full of stories startling enough not to need much window-dressing. While Stevens’s main point is nature’s parsimony, it’s those wonderful extremes that will stick longest in the mind of the casual reader.

There are many examples of familiar senses brought to a rare peak. For example, the whiskers of a harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) help it find a buried flatfish by nothing more than the water flow created by the fish’s breathing.

More arresting still are the chapters devoted to senses wholly unfamiliar to us. Using their infra-red thermal receptors, vampire bats pick out particular blood vessels to bite into. Huge numbers of marine species detect minute amounts of electricity, allowing them to hunt, elude predators, and even to attract mates.

As for the magnetic sense, Stevens reckons “it is no exaggeration to say that understanding how [it] works has been one of the great mysteries in biology.”

There are two major competing theories to explain the magnetic senses, one relating to the presence of crystals in the body that react to magnetic fields, the other to light-dependent chemical processes occurring in the eyes in response to magnetic information. Trust the robin to complicate the picture still further; it seems to boast both systems, one for use in daylight and one for use in the dark!

And what of those satellite images of cows and deer that show herds lining themselves up along lines of magnetic force, their heads invariably pointing to magnetic north?

Some science writers are, if anything, over-keen to entertain. Stevens, by contrast, is the real deal: the unassuming keeper of a cabinet of true wonders.

Variation and brilliance

Reading Barnabas Calder’s Architecture: from prehistory to climate emergency for New Scientist, 9 June 2021

For most of us, buildings are functional. We live, work, and store things in them. They are as much part of us as the nest is a part of a community of termites.

And were this all there was to say about buildings, architectural historian Barnabas Calder might have found his book easier to write. Calder wants to ask “how humanity’s access to energy has shaped the world’s buildings through history.” And had his account remained so straightforward, we might have ended up with an eye-opening mathematical description of the increase the energy available for work — derived first from wood, charcoal and straw, then from coal, then from oil — and how it first transformed, and (because of global warming) now threatens our civilisation.

And sure enough the book is full of startling statistics. (Fun fact: the charcoal equivalent of today’s cement industry would have to cover an area larger than Australia in coppiced timber.)

But of course, buildings aren’t simply functional. They’re aspirational acts of creative expression. However debased it might seem, the most ordinary structure is a work of a species of artist, and to get built at all it must be bankrolled by people who are (at least relatively) wealthy and powerful. This was as true of the buildings of Uruk (our first known city, founded in what is now Iraq around 3200 BCE) as it is of the buildings of Shenzhen (in 1980 a Chinese fishing hamlet, today a city of nearly 13 million people).

While the economics of the build environment are crucially important, then, they don’t really make sense without the sociology, and even the psychology, especially when it comes to “the mutual stirring of hysteria between architect and client” that gave us St Peter’s Basilica in the 16th century and Chengdu’s New Century Global Center (currently the world’s biggest building) in the 21st.

Calder knows this: “What different societies chose to do with [their] energy surplus has produced endless variation and brilliance,” he says. So if sometimes his account seems to wander, this is why: architecture itself is not a wholly economic activity, and certainly not a narrowly rational one.

At the end of an insightful and often impassioned journey through the history of buildings, Calder does his level best to explain how architecture can address the climate emergency. But his advices and encouragements vanish under the enormity of the crisis. The construction and running of buildings account for 39 per cent of all human greenhouse gas emissions. Concrete is the most used material on Earth after water. And while there is plenty of “sustainability” talk in the construction sector, Calder finds precious little sign of real change. We still demolish too often, and build too often, using unsustainable cement, glass and steel.

It may be that solutions are out there, but are simply invisible. The history of architecture is curiously incomplete, as Calder himself acknowledges, pointing out that “entire traditions of impressive tent-like architecture are known mainly from pictures rather than physical remnants.”

Learning to tread more lightly on the earth means exactly that: a wholly sustainable architecture wouldn’t necessarily show up in the archaeological record. The remains of pre-fossil fuel civilisations can, then, only offer us a partial guide to what our future architecture should look like.

Perhaps we should look to existing temporary structures — to refugee camps, perhaps. The idea may be distressing, but fashions change.

Calder’s long love-poem to buildings left me, rather paradoxically, thinking about the Mongols of the 13th century, for whom a walled city was a symbol of bondage and barbarism.

They would have no more settled in a fixed house than they would have submitted to slavery. And their empire, which covered 23 million square kilometres, demolished more architecture than it raised.

Waiting for the End of the End of the World

Watching the 2021 European Media Arts Festival on-line for New Scientist, 19 May 2021

For over forty years, the European Media Art Festival in Osnabrueck has offered attendees a glimpse of the best short films coming on-line and to festivals over the coming year. It’s been a reliable cultural barometer, too, revealing, through film, some of our deepest social anxieties and preoccupations. This year saw science fiction swallowing the festival whole.

It’s as though the genre were becoming, not just a valid way to talk about the present, but the only way.

This was the quite explicit message of the audiovisual presentation Planet City and the Return of Global Wilderness  by London-trained, LA-based architect Liam Young, much of whose work is speculative — not to say downright science-fictional. Part of Young’s presentation was a retrospective of a career spent exploring global infrastructures, “an unevenly-distributed megastructure that hides in plain sight… slowly stitched together from stolen lands by planetary logistics.”

Forming a powerful contrast with his past travels — through container shipping, the garment supply chain, lithium mining and other real-world adventures — Planet City also featured a utopian future in which humanity sagely withdraws “into one hyper-dense metropolis housing the entire population of the Earth”.

It’s the impossibility of this utopia that’s Young’s point. Science fiction used to be full of such utopian possibilities. These days, however, it has become, Young says, just our favourite way of explaining to ourselves, over and over, the disasters engulfing us and our planet. The once hopeful genre of science fiction cedes ground to dystopia, leaving us “stranded in the long now… waiting for the end of the End of the World”.

We’ve confronted the End of the World before, of course. Marian Mayland’s film essay Michael Ironside and I  weaves between three imaginary rooms, assembled from still and short clips from three iconic science fiction films. The rooms are uninhabited, cluttered, uncanny, and cut together to create an imaginary habitation connected to the outside world via shafts and closet doors. War Games’s bedroom in a suburban family house (1983), Real Genius’s California campus dorm room (1985) and the bowels of Sea Quest DSV’s futuristic nuclear submarine (1993) fold into each other to create a poignant fictional 1990s childhood, capturing the effects of Cold War thinking on a generation of geeky male adolescents.

Mayland’s film, which won a German film critics’ award at the festival, is exactly the sort of work — moving between film and performance, document and experiment — that the festival has been championing for over forty years.

Other science-fictional experiments included Josh Weissbach’s A Landscape to be Invented, a collage of wobbly 16mm and Super 8 footage set to excerpts of audiobook sci-fi from the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson and Cixin Liu. It’s a kind of “how to” manual for terraforming a distant world, only this world is not verdant, but violet, not green but purple, as Weissbach passes his footage through a digital, faux-ultraviolet filter.

Zachary Epcar’s more obviously satirical The Canyon sees the calm pace of life in a sunny waterside housing estate turn increasingly strange, as the blissed-out, evesdropped lines of the inhabitants (“Sometimes I come to in the glassware aisle, and I don’t know how I got there”) give way to the meaningless electronic gabble and vibration of phones, toothbrushes and keyfobs.

If this all sounds rather grim, rather unsmiling, even rather hopeless — well, I don’t think the selection, or even the works themselves, were to blame. I think Young is right and the problem lies in science fiction itself: that it’s ceased to be a playground, and has become instead a deadly serious way of explaining increasingly interconnected and technological world. And that’s fine. That’s science fiction growing up.

But what the artist-filmmakers of EMAF have yet to find, is some other way — less technocratic, perhaps, and more political, more spiritual — for imagining a better future.

Oh, shut up

Watching Chaos Walking for New Scientist, 12 April 2021

Young Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is learning to be a man, and in Prentisstown (ostensibly the only settlement to survive humanity’s arrival on the planet New World) this means keeping your thoughts to yourself.

Something about the planet makes men’s thoughts both audible and visible to others. Men are constantly constantly having to hide their thoughts, by thinking of something else, by rehearsing daily chores, or even just by reciting their own names, again and again. Women were unaffected, apparently, but the native (and rarely glimpsed) Spackle killed them all years ago.

(If this account of things seems a little off, imagine it delivered by an especially troubled-looking Mads Mikkelsen, playing the settlement’s mysterious mayor. Watching his settlement’s secrets come to light, one by one, is one of this film’s chief delights.)

Viola, played by Daisy Ridley, has arrived from space, scouting for a second settlement wave when her landing craft all but burns up, leaving her at the mercy of the men of Prentisstown. You’d think they’d be glad of her arrival and her company — but you would be wrong.

Chaos Walking arrives under something of a cloud; to begin with, no one could fix on a script they liked. Charlie Kaufmann (of Being John Malkovich fame) got first bite of the cherry, before the project was passed from pillar to post and ended up being crafted by Christopher Ford (Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)) and Patrick Ness, author of the book on which this film is based, The Knife of Never Letting Go. Chaos Walking should, by all measures, have ended up a mess.

But if it’s not the blockbuster the studio expected or needed, Chaos Walking is nonetheless a real accomplishment: a disconcerting little masterpiece of sensitive acting and well-judged design.

In this film, men quite literally cannot shut up, and in her very first conversation with Mayor Prentiss, it dawns on Viola that this gives her huge advantages. She can lie, she can keep secrets, and she’s the only one here who can — crucial points made almost entirely in dialogue-less reaction shots. Daisy Ridley’s talents weren’t wildly well served in the last three Star Wars films, but she’s given her head here.

Tom Holland’s Todd is a naif who must save Viola and get her to a neighbouring settlement he never even realised existed — a place where women survive and (understandably) dominate.

Todd is the model of what a man must be in this New World: polite, honest, and circumspect. Holland’s bid to “be a man” in such circumstances is anything but straightforward — but Holland keeps our sympathy and our regard.

Indeed, the great strength of Chaos Walking is that it interrogates gender roles by creating genuine difficulties for its characters. Even Prentisstown’s lunatic and misogynist preacher Aaron — surely David Oyelowo’s most unrewarding role yet, all beetle brows and gnashing teeth — turns out to make a dreadful kind of sense.

No gender is well served by the strange telepathic gifts bestowed on half the human settlers of New World. Only good will and superhuman patience prevents human society going up like a powder keg.

This has happened once, in Prentisstown, and — given the weirdly stalled settlement of the planet — it has almost certainly happened elsewhere. The planet’s architecture and technology are an uneasy and creative mishmash of battered industrial machinery and Western-genre make-do-and-mend. The effect is oddly unsettling, particularly in the sequence where horse-riders pursue each other through a forest that had very obviously been planted in rows.

Chaos Walking is not a western. Neither is it, in any easy sense, a feminist fable. Chaos Walking is about people’s struggles in unreasonable circumstances, and for all the angst bound up in its premise, it becomes, by the end, a charming and uplifting film about love and reconciliation.

Perfect in a special way

Watching An Impossible Project for New Scientist, 24 March 2021

Jens Meurer is a hard figure to pin down. As a producer he’s seen major mainstream movies like Black Book (2006) and Rush (2013) to the big screen; the European Academy named him ‘documentary filmmaker of the year’ in 1995; he’s also quite prepared to spend months following in the wake of an eccentric Viennese entrepreneur who’s convinced that the future of technology is analogue, or at any rate post-digital — a strange and hard to monetize mash-up of the two, perhaps.

An Impossible Project is Meurer’s passion project about Florian Kapps (everyone calls him “Doc” on account of his working studying the eye muscles of spiders). Though he can never be too sure how to meet next month’s bills, Kapps nonetheless moves in interesting circles. We follow him around Berlin, New York and Menlo Park, and say goodbye to him as he’s hosting a dinner party for “analogue champions” including higher-ups in Moleskine, Polaroid and Facebook (yes, Facebook: it has an analog research lab) in a mothballed (hence wholly analogue) grand hotel just outside Vienna.

Kapps is a one-man cultural revolution. He bought the last surviving Polaroid factory in 2008, just before it was due to be demolished. He got it running again, only to discover that several chemicals needed to make Polaroid’s signature instant-developing film were no longer in production. That film was “the most chemically complicated man-made product ever,” claims Steve Herchen a former Polaroid product manager. Early attempts to replicate the original formula were, in Kapps’s memorable phrase, “perfect in a special way” (the colours were wildly unreliable; half the time the image would melt off the backing).

Still, Kapps persevered. He reckoned analogue technology has an irresistible mystique; that if he rebuilt the technology, new customers would appear. And he was right: Impossible, the company he founded, now bears the Polaroid name and sells a million instant films a year. Kapps, though, is a dreamer, not a manager, and Impossible’s board had long since kicked him out.

It is hard to feel too sorry for him. His subsequent ventures in analogue — including a museum-cum-bar-cum-store in Vienna called Supersense — address, in a much more direct and personally satisfying fashion, his scattergun delight in goods you can touch and smell, and machines you can hear working and can take apart and understand. Kapps curates analogue printing machinery, recording equipment, cameras and telephones. All the machines work, and those that are for sale, sell quickly. Every few weeks he traipses across Austria in search of just the right meats to serve in his cafe. After hours he uses his shop floor to stage concerts that are cut straight to vinyl, creating one-of-a-kind records of live events. David Bohnett, creator of Geocities and one of Silicon Valley’s first millionaires, reckons Kapps is inventing a whole new class of luxury item — unique records of unique experiences. Is he right?

People under 25 seem to think so. It’s this cohort, who grew up in a digital world, who are Kapps’s most eager customers. Kapps believes a monotonously digital diet has starved them of sensory pleasure, and that “after a long period of analogue companies trying hard to become digital, it’s now time for the digital companies to start thinking how to connect with people in analogue ways.”

An Impossible Project is a highly ingenious movie. Meurer has gone to extraordinary lengths to portray the man who saved Polaroid in a film that captures that casual, magical, slightly unreliable Polaroid feel. It’s informal. Practically every take looks like an outtake. People grin at the camera as if they’ve never seen a camera before. The shots don’t seem particularly well framed, and yet they add up to an extraordinarily beautiful film. And the colours are gorgeous.

Modernity in Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuanced and terrifying at the same time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A private search for extraterrestrial intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flame brightly and flame out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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