A Faustian bargain, freely made

Reading The Rare Metals War by Guillaume Pitron for New Scientist, 27 January 2021

We reap seven times as much energy from the wind, and 44 times as much energy from the sun, as we did just a decade ago. Is this is good news? Guillaume Pitron, a journalist and documentary-maker for French television, is not sure.

He’s neither a climate sceptic, nor a fan of inaction. But as the world begins to adopt a common target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Pitron worries that we’re becoming selectively blind to the costs that effort will incur. His figures are stark. Changing our energy model means doubling rare metal production approximately every fifteen years, mostly to satisfy our demand for non-ferrous magnets and lithium-ion batteries. “At this rate,” says Pitron, “over the next thirty years we will need to mine more mineral ores than humans have extracted over the last 70,000 years.”

Before the Renaissance, humans had found a use for just seven metals. Over the course of the industrial revolution, this number increased to just a dozen. Today, we’ve found uses for all 86 of them, and some of them are very rare indeed. For instance, neodymium and gallium are found in iron ore, but there’s 1,200 times less neodymium and up to 2,650 times less gallium than there is iron.

Zipping from an abandoned Mountain Pass mine in the Mojave Desert to the toxic lakes and cancer villages of Baotou in China, Pitron weights the terrible price paid for refining such materials, ably blending his investigative journalism with insights from science, politics and business.

There are two sides to Pitron’s story, woven seamlessly together. First there’s the economic story, of how the Chinese government elected to dominate the global energy and digital transition, so that it now controls 95 per cent of the rare metals market, manufacturing between 80 to 90 per cent of the batteries for electric vehicles, and over half the magnets used in wind turbines and electric motors.

Then there’s the ecological story in which, to ensure success, China took on the West’s own ecological burden. Now 10 per cent of its arable land is contaminated by heavy metals, 80 per cent of its ground water is unfit for consumption and 1.6 million people die every year due to air pollution alone (a recent paper in The Lancet reckons only 1.24 million people die each year — but let’s not quibble.

China’s was a Faustian bargain, freely entered into, but it would not have been possible had Europe and the rest of the Western world not outsourced their own industrial activities, creating a world divided, as Pitron memorably describes it, “between the dirty and those who pretend to be clean”.

The West’s economic comeuppance is now at hand, as its manufacturers, starved of the rare metals they need, are coerced into taking their technologies to China. And we in the West really should have seen this coming: how our reliance on Chinese raw materials would quickly morph into a reliance on China for the very technologies of the energy and digital transition. (Piron tells us that without magnets produced by China’s ChengDu Magnetic Material Science & Technology Company, the United States’ F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter cannot fly.)

By 2040, in our pursuit of ever-greater connectivity and a cleaner atmosphere, we will need to mine three times more rare earths, five times more tellurium, twelve times more cobalt, and sixteen times more lithium than we do today. China’s ecological ruination and its global technological dominance advance in lockstep, unstoppably — unless we start mining for rare metals ourselves — in the United States, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and in the “dormant mining giant” of Pitron’s native France.

Better, says Pitron, that we attain some small shred of supply security, and start mining our own land. At least if mining takes place in the backyards of vocal First World consumers, they can agitate for (and pay for) cleaner processes. And nothing will change “so long as we do not experience, in our own backyards, the full cost of attaining our standard of happiness.”

An inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers

Watching iHuman dircted by Tonje Hessen Schei for New Scientist, 6 January 2021

In 2010 she made Play Again, exploring digital media addiction among children. In 2014 she won awards for Drone, about the CIA’s secret role in drone warfare.

Now, with iHuman, Tonje Schei, a Norwegian documentary maker who has won numerous awards for her explorations of humans, machines and the environment, tackles — well, what, exactly? iHuman is a weird, portmanteau diatribe against computation — specifically, that branch of it that allows machines to learn about learning. Artificial general intelligence, in other words.

Incisive in parts, often overzealous, and wholly lacking in scepticism, iHuman is an apocalyptic vision of humanity already in thrall to the thinking machine, put together from intellectual celebrity soundbites, and illustrated with a lot of upside-down drone footage and digital mirror effects, so that the whole film resembles nothing so much as a particularly lengthy and drug-fuelled opening credits sequence to the crime drama Bosch.

That’s not to say that Schei is necessarily wrong, or that our Faustian tinkering hasn’t doomed us to a regimented future as a kind of especially sentient cattle. The film opens with that quotation from Stephen Hawking, about how “Success in creating AI might be the biggest success in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.” If that statement seems rather heated to you, go visit Xinjiang, China, where a population of 13 million Turkic Muslims (Uyghurs and others) are living under AI surveillance and predictive policing.

Not are the film’s speculations particularly wrong-headed. It’s hard, for example, to fault the line of reasoning that leads Robert Work, former US under-secretary of defense, to fear autonomous killing machines, since “an authoritarian regime will have less problem delegating authority to a machine to make lethal decisions.”

iHuman’s great strength is its commitment to the bleak idea that it only takes one bad actor to weaponise artificial general intelligence before everyone else has to follow suit in their own defence, killing, spying and brainwashing whole populations as they go.

The great weakness of iHuman lies in its attempt to throw everything into the argument: :social media addiction, prejudice bubbles, election manipulation, deep fakes, automation of cognitive tasks, facial recognition, social credit scores, autonomous killing machines….

Of all the threats Schei identifies, the one conspicuously missing is hype. For instance, we still await convincing evidence that Cambrdige Analytica’s social media snake oil can influence the outcome of elections. And researchers still cannot replicate psychologist Michal Kosinski’s claim that his algorithms can determine a person’s sexuality and even their political leanings from their physiology.

Much of the current furore around AI looks jolly small and silly one you remember that the major funding model for AI development is advertising. Most every millennial claim about how our feelings and opinions can be shaped by social media is a retread of claims made in the 1910s for the billboard and the radio. All new media are terrifyingly powerful. And all new media age very quickly indeed.

So there I was hiding behind the sofa and watching iHuman between slitted fingers (the score is terrifying, and artist Theodor Groeneboom’s animations of what the internet sees when it looks in the mirror is the stuff of nightmares) when it occurred to me to look up the word “fetish”. To refresh your memory, a fetish is an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

iHuman’s is a profoundly fetishistic film, worshipping at the altar of a God it has itself manufactured, and never more unctiously as when it lingers on the athletic form of AI guru Jürgen Schmidhuber (never trust a man in white Levis) as he complacently imagines a post-human future. Nowhere is there mention of the work being done to normalise, domesticate, and defang our latest creations.

How can we possibly stand up to our new robot overlords?

Try politics, would be my humble suggestion.

We, Robots

Published on 19 December 2020 by Head of Zeus, We, Robots presents 100 of the best SF short stories on artificial intelligence from around the world. From 1837 through to present day, from Charles Dickens to Cory Doctorow, these stories demonstrate humanity’s enduring fascination with artificial creation. Crafted in our image, androids mirror our greatest hopes and darkest fears: we want our children to do better and be better than us, but we also place ourselves in jeopardy by creating beings that may eventually out-think us.

A man plans to kill a simulacrum of his wife, except his shrink is sleeping with her in Robert Bloch’s ‘Comfort Me, My Robot’. In Ken Liu’s ‘The Caretaker’, an elderly man’s android careworker is much more than it first appears. We, Robots collects the finest android short stories the genre has to offer, from the biggest names in the field to exciting rising stars.

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.

Over-performing human

Talking to choreographer Alexander Whitley for the Financial Times,  28 February 2020

On a dim and empty stage, six masked black-clad dancers, half-visible, their limbs edged in light, run through attitude after attitude, emotion after emotion. Above the dancers, a long tube of white light slowly rises, falls, tips and circles, drawing the dancers’ limbs and faces towards itself like a magnet. Under its variable cold light, movements become more expressive, more laden with emotion, more violent.

Alexander Whitley, formerly of the Royal Ballet School and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is six years into a project to expand the staging of dance with new media. He has collaborated with filmmakers, designers, digital artists and composers. Most of all, he has played games with light.

The experiments began with The Measures Taken, in 2014. Whitley used motion-tracking technology to project visuals that interacted with the performers’ movements. Then, dissatisfied with the way the projections obscured the dancers, in 2018 he used haze and narrowly focused bars of light to create, for Strange Stranger, a virtual “maze” in which his dancers found themselves alternately liberated and constrained.

At 70 minutes Overflow, commissioned by Sadler’s Wells Theatre, represents a massive leap in ambition. With several long-time collaborators — in particular the Dutch artist-designers Children of the Light — Whitley has worked out how to reveal, to an audience sat just a few feet away, exactly what he wants them to see.

Whitley is busy nursing Overflow up to speed in time for its spring tour. The company begin with a night at the Lowry in Salford on 18 March, before performing at Sadler’s Wells on 17 and 18 April.

Overflow, nearly two years in the making, has consumed money as well as time. The company is performing at Stereolux in Nantes in April and will need more overseas bookings if it is to flourish. “There’s serious doubt about the status of the UK and UK touring companies now,” says Whitley (snapping at my cheaply dangled Brexit bait); “I hope there’s enough common will to build relationships in spite of the political situation.”

It is easy to talk politics with Whitley (he is very well read), but his dances are anything but mere vehicles for ideas. And while Overflow is a political piece by any measure — a survey of our spiritual condition under survellance capitalism, for heaven’s sake — its effects are strikingly classical. It’s not just the tricksy lighting that has me thinking of the figures on ancient Greek vases. It’s the dancers themselves and their clean, elegant, tragedian’s gestures.

A dancer kneels, and takes hold of his head. He tilts it up into the light as it turns and tilts, inches from his face, and, in a shocking piece of trompe l’ioel — can he really be pulling his face apart?

Overflow is about our relationship to the machines that increasingly govern our lives. But there’s not a hint of regimentation here, or mechanisation. These dancers are not trying to perform machine. They’re trying to perform human.

Whitley laughs at this observation. “I guess, as far as that goes, they’re over-performing human. They’re caught up in the excitement and hyper-stimulation of their activity. Which is exactly how we interact with social media. We’re being hyperstimulated into excessive activity. Keep scrolling, keep consuming, keep engaging!”

It was an earlier piece, 2016’s Pattern Recognition, that set Whitley on the road to Overflow. “I’d decided to have the lights moving around the stage, to give us the sense of depth we’d struggled to achieve in The Measures Taken. But very few people I talked to afterwards realised or understood that our mobile stage lights were being driven by real-time tracking. They thought you could achieve what we’d achieved just through choreography. At which point a really obvious insight arrived: that interactivity is interesting, first and foremost, for the actor involved in the interaction.”

In Overflow, that the audience feels left out is no longer a technical problem: it’s the whole point of the piece. “We’re all watching things we shouldn’t be watching, somehow, through social media and the internet,” says Whitley. “That the world has become so revealed is unpleasant. It’s over-exposed us to elements of human nature that should perhaps remain private. But we’re all bound up in it. Even if we’re not doing it, we’re watching it.”

The movements of the ensemble in Overflow are the equivalent of emoji: “I was interested in how we could think of human emotions just as bits of data,” Whitley explains. In the 1980s a psychologist called Robert Plutchik stated that there were eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. “We stuck pins at random into this wheel chart he invented, choosing an emotion at random, and from that creating an action that somehow embodied or represented it. And the incentive was to do so as quickly and concisely as possible, and as soon it’s done, choose another one. So the dancers are literally jumping at random between all these different human emotions. It’s not real communication, just an outpouring of emotional information.”

The solos are built using material drawn from each dancer’s movement diary. “The dancers made diary entries, which I then filmed, based on how they were feeling each day. They’re movement dairies: personal documents of their emotional lives, which I then chopped up and jumbled around and gave back to them as a video to learn.”

In Whitley’s vision, the digital realm isn’t George Orwell’s Big Brother, dictating our every move from above. It’s more like the fox and the cat in the Pinnochio story, egging a naive child into the worst behaviours, all in the name of independence and free expression. “Social media encourage us to act more, to feel more, to express more, because the more we do that, the more capital they can generate from our data, and the more they can understand and predict what we’re likely to do next.”

This is where the politics comes in: the way “emotion, which incidentally is the real currency of dance, is now the major currency of the digital economy”.

It’s been a job of work, packing such cerebral content into an emotional form like dance. But Whitley says it’s what keeps him working, ” that sheer impossibility of pinning down ideas that otherwise exist almost entirely in words. As soon as you scratch the surface, you realise there’s huge amount of communication always at work through the body and drawing ideas from a more cerebral world into the physical, into the emotional, is a constant fascination. There are lifetimes of enquiry here. It’s what keeps me coming back.”

Transports of delight

Exploring Driverless: Who is in control? at London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 31 August 2019

Durham Cathedral’s stained glass windows inspired artist Dominic Wilcox’s contribution to Driverless, a tiny but thought-provoking exhibition at London’s Science Museum.

It occurred to Wilcox that artificial intelligence could make traffic collisions a thing of the past, which means “we don’t need the protection systems that are built into contemporary cars”, he told design magazine Dezeen. “We can just have a shell of any design.”

His Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car of the Future is the sort of vehicle we may be driving when road safety has improved to the point where we can build cars out of whatever we want. It suggests a future in which safety is no longer a set of barriers, cages, buffers and lights, and is instead a dance of algorithms. Rather than measuring out a bike lane, say, we will have an algorithm that decides whether to leave a smaller distance to the bicycle on its left to reduce the chance of hitting a truck on its right.

What if that causes more cyclists, but fewer passengers, to die every year? Such questions aren’t new. But they are having to be asked again and in a different and disconcerting form as we move more safety systems off the roads and into vehicles.

On show is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Moral Machine”, a website using more than 40 million participants’ decisions on what to do in certain situations to inform our autonomous machinery design. The findings can be unsettling: would-be designers are more likely to sacrifice your safety if you are fat, a criminal or a dog

This is a show as much about possible futures as it is about the present. Interviews, archival footage, models and some interactive displays create a series of provocations, more than a fully fledged exhibition.

I especially liked the look of the MIT Senseable City Lab and the AMS Institute’s “Roboats”, currently on trial on Amsterdam’s canals. These autonomous floating platforms form spontaneous bridges and event platforms and can transport goods and people.

The exhibition spends much of its time off-road, investigating drone swarms and privacy, flocking behaviour and mine clearance, ocean mapping and planetary surveillance.

Don’t let its size put you off: this little show is full of big surprises.

Priority message

Exploring The Current War for New Scientist, 10 August 2019

Let’s begin by being boorish. Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. The German-born precision mechanic Heinrich Goebel demonstrated a practical prototype in 1854.

But of course you can play this game with pretty much any invention. The correct response to such nit-picking is given to Edison himself – inventor of the phonograph, inventor of motion pictures, holder of over 2000 patents – in a new movie, The Current War, which lays out, as surely as any circuit diagram, the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to bring electric light to America at the end of the 19th century.

Salt. Fat. Flour. Water. Only when you put all the ingredients together, in the right proportions, using the right method, so people will spend their hard-earned pennies on the stuff, do you get bread. Priority – being the first to file a patent – is not won by dreaming alone. Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, teaches this hard lesson to his personal secretary Samuel Insull, an entertainingly exasperated Tom Holland.

The film itself is the bloodied but unbowed victim of no end of industry trouble. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival ahead of a scheduled release of November 2017 by the Weinstein Company. But as allegations about Harvey Weinstein gathered and grew in severity, the decision was made to quietly shelve the film for a while.

It doesn’t feel like an old movie, but it does feel like an odd one. Big, bold, none-too-subtle speeches by playwright Michael Mitnick are directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon as though they were set pieces by Martin Scorcese, for whom he once worked as a personal assistant.

Inventor George Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon in a sensitive, understated performance which rather puts Cumberbatch’s familiar schtick to shame) has developed a system of electrification using alternating current. For cost and efficiency, this has Edison’s direct-current system beat. Westinghouse offers Edison a partnership, but Edison behaves like a cad, disparaging Westinghouse’s “lethal” technology and executing dogs, sheep and eleven horses with AC to prove his point. Irony piles on irony as Edison’s demonstrations lead him inevitably towards designing, much against his better ethical judgement, the first electric chair.

In the world outside the cinema, the “war of the currents” is not yet done. DC lost out to AC in the early days of electrification because efficient long-distance transmission required high voltages while the public needed safer, lower voltages. That required transformers, which existed for AC networks, but not for DC.

When it comes to transmitting large amounts of power over long distances, however, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) is way more efficient than conventional AC lines.

The length and capacity of new HVDC projects has risen fast, particularly in China, and calculations suggest that continent-wide HVDC “supergrids” could help smooth out the variable levels of power created by renewable sources.

In 2009 an influential study by Gregor Czish, of Kassel University in Germany, proposed a “super grid” to connect various European countries and bordering regions including North Africa, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, and at a total cost that virtually guarantees cheap green electricity for all.

No one’s heard of Czish, of course, though his insight may give the next generation cheap green energy and a chance to save civilisation from global warming.

It was ever thus: we only remember Nikola Tesla (The Current War’s peculiar third wheel, an AC pioneer and inventor of fluorescent light) because David Bowie played him in Christopher Nolan’s magical puzzler The Prestige.

Priority is a twisty business, and fame is twistier still. Westinghouse so despised the whole business he burned his papers, ensuring that his deeds alone would outlast him. “If you want to be remembered,” he says in the film, “it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”

 

“And it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth…”

Visiting Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, for the Spectator, 1 June 2019

Plastics — even venerable, historically eloquent plastics — hardly draw the eye. As this show’s insightful accompanying publication (a snip at £3) would have it, ‘Plastics have no intrinsic form or texture, thus they are not materials that can be true to themselves.’ They exist within inverted commas. They can be shell-like, horn-like, stony, metallic — they do not really exist on their own behalf.

Mind you, the first vitrine in Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery in east London contains an object of rare beauty: a small, mottled, crazed, discoloured sphere that looks for all the world like the planet Venus, reduced to handy scale.

It’s a billiard ball, made of the first plastic: cellulose nitrate. Its manufacture had been keenly anticipated. In the US, a $10,000 prize had been offered for anything that could replace ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls (and no wonder: a single tusk yields only three balls).

Under various brand names (Celluloid, Parkesine, Xylonite), and in spite of its tendency to catch fire (colliding snooker balls would occasionally explode), cellulose nitrate saved the elephant. And not just the elephant: plastics pioneer John Wesley Hyatt reckoned that ‘Celluloid [has] given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.’

The whole point of plastic is that it has no characteristics of its own, only properties engineered for specific uses. Cheaper than jade. Less brittle than bone. It’s the natural material of the future, always more becoming than being. Hence the names: Xylonite. Bexoid. Halex. Lactoid.

Unable to nail the material in words, one writes instead about its history, sociology, industrial archaeology or ecological impact. On remote islands in the Pacific, thousands of albatross chicks are starving because the parents mistake floating plastic debris for food. Stories like this conjure up a vision of vast islands of discarded plastic coagulating in the Pacific Ocean, but there aren’t any. Instead, plastics eventually fragment into ever smaller pieces that are ingested by marine animals and carried to the sea bottom. In the Mariana Trench, all crustaceans tested had plastics in their guts. So plastics rise and fall through the food chain, creating havoc as they go — a bitter irony for a material that saved the elephant and the turtle, made fresh food conveyable and modern medicine possible, and all for less than 15 per cent of global oil consumption.

What can be gained from looking at the stuff itself? Raw Materials: Plastics transcends the limitations of its material by means of a good story. The first plastics were made in the Lea Valley, not from crude oil, but from plant materials, in a risky, artisanal fashion that bore, for a while, the hallmarks of older crafts including baking, woodcutting and metalwork. Fast-forward 140 years or so and, under the umbrella term ‘bioplastics’, plant-based and biodegradable synthetic products promise to turn the wheel of development full circle, returning plastics to their organic roots. (Designer Peter Marigold’s FORMCard plastic, used here in an excellent school art project, is a starch-based bioplastic made from potato skins.) Then, perhaps, we can break the bind in which we currently find ourselves: the one in which we’re poisoning the planet with plastic in our efforts not to further despoil it.

This is the third and for my money the most ambitious of the gallery’s ongoing series of small, thoughtful exhibitions about the materials, processes and industries that have shaped London’s Lea Valley. (Raw Materials: Wood ran in 2017; Raw Materials: Textiles last year.) The show is more chronicle than catalogue, but the art, scant as it is, punches above its weight.

I was struck, in particular, by France Scott’s ‘PHX [X is for Xylonite]’, a 13-minute collage of photogrammetry, laser scanning and 16mm film. It ought, by all logic, to be a complete mess and I still haven’t been able to work out why it’s so compelling. Is it because digital artefacts, like their plastic forebears, are themselves prisoners of contingency, aping the forms of others while stubbornly refusing to acquire forms of their own?

Teeth and feathers

Visiting T. rex: The ultimate predator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for New Scientist, 13 March 2019

PALAEONTOLOGY was never this easy. Reach into a bin and pick up a weightless fossil bone hardly smaller than you are. Fling it into the air, in roughly the direction indicated by the glowing orange light. It fixes in place above you with a satisfying click. Add more bones. You are recreating the head of the most fearsome predator known to natural history: Tyrannosaurus rex. Once it is complete, the skull you have made makes this point nicely – by coming after you.

The American Museum of Natural History is 150 years old this year. One of its collectors, Barnum Brown, discovered the first fossil remains of the predator in Montana in 1902. So the museum has made T. rex the subject of its first exhibition celebrating the big anniversary.

The game I was playing, T. rex: Skeleton crew, is also the museum’s first foray into virtual reality. It is a short, sweet, multiplayer game that, if it doesn’t convey much scientific detail, nonetheless gives the viewer a glimpse of the first great puzzle palaeontologists confront: how to put scattered remains together. It also gives a real sense of the beast’s size: a fully grown T. rex (and they could live into their late 20s) was more than 12 metres long and weighed 15 tonnes.

An extended version of this game, for home use, will feature a full virtual gallery tour. It has been put together by the Vive arm of tech firm HTC. Early on, in its project to establish a name in the cultural sector, the company decided not to compete with the digital realm’s top dog, Google Arts & Culture. Google, at least until recently, has tended to brand its efforts quite heavily because it brings a wealth of big data to its projects.

HTC Vive, by contrast, works behind the scenes with museums, cultural organisations and artists to realise relatively modest projects. By letting the client take the lead, it is learning faster than most what the VR medium can do. It cut its teeth on an explorable 3D rendering of Modigliani’s studio in the Tate Modern in London in 2017 and created an immersive exploration of Claude Monet’s approach to painting in The Water Lily Obsession, now a permanent feature at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The trick, it seems, is to focus, to make immersion and physical sensation the point of each piece. Above all, the idea is to slow down. VR isn’t a traditional teaching aid. The Monet project in particular revealed how good VR is at conveying craft knowledge.

But if, instead, a VR installation delivers a brief, memorable, even magical experience, this, too, has value. Skeleton crew is a powerful prompt to the imagination. It isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, the star of this show. The models are the real draw here. Traditionally fashioned life-size renderings of tyrannosaurs big and small, scaled, tufted and sometimes fully feathered, their variety reflecting the explosion of palaeobiological research that has transformed our understanding of millions of years of Mesozoic fauna over the past 20 years. We can now track trace chemicals in the material surrounding a fossil so precisely that we even know the colour of some species’ eggs.

T. rex: The ultimate predator certainly delivers on its brash, child-friendly title. Terrifying facts abound. T. rex‘s jaws had a maximum bite force 10 times that of an alligator – enough not just to break bone, but to burst it into swallowable splinters.

But the really impressive thing about the show are the questions it uses to convey the sheer breadth of palaeontology. What did T. rex sound like? No one knows, but here are a mixing desk and some observations about how animals vocalise: go figure. Is this fossil a juvenile T. rex or a separate species? Here is a summary of the arguments: have a think.

Staged in a huge cavern-like hall, with shadow-puppet predators and prey battling for dear life, T. rex: The ultimate predator will wow families. Thankfully, it is also a show that credits their intelligence.

And so we wait

Thinking about Delayed Response by Jason Farman (Yale) for the Telegraph, 6 February 2019.

In producer Jon Favreau’s career-making 1996 comedy film Swingers, Favreau himself plays Mike, a young man in love with love, and at war with the answerphones of the world.

“Hi,” says one young woman’s machine, “this is Nikki. Leave a message,” prompting Mike to work, flub after flub, through an entire, entirely fictitious, relationship with the absent Nikki.

“This just isn’t working out,” he sighs, on about his twentieth attempt to leave a message that’s neither creepy nor incoherent.” I — I think you’re great, but, uh, I — I… Maybe we should just take some time off from each other. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s what I’m going through.”

There are a couple of lessons in this scene, and once they’re learned, there’ll be no pressing need for you to read Jason Farman’s Delayed Response. (I think you’d enjoy reading him, quite a bit, but, in the spirit of this project, let those reasons wait till the end.)

First lesson of two: “non-verbal communication never stops; non-verbal cues are always being produced whether we want them to be or not.” Those in the know may recognise here Farman’s salute here to Edward T. Hall’s book The Silent Language (1980), for which Delayed Response is a useful foil. But the point — that any delay between transmission and reception is part of the message — is no mere intellectual nicety. Anyone who has had a love affair degenerate into an exchange of ever more flippant WhatsApp messages; or has waited for a prospective employer to get back to them about a job application, knows that silent time carries meaning.

Second lesson: delay can be used to manifest power. In Swingers, Mike crashes into what an elusive novelist friend of mine dubs, with gleeful malevolence, “the power of absence,” which is more or less the same power my teenage daughter wields when she “ghosts” some boy. In the words of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, “Waiting is one of the privileged ways of experiencing the effect of power, and the link between time and power.” We’re none of us immune; we’re all in thrall to what Farman calls the “waiting economy”, and as our civics crumble (don’t pretend you haven’t noticed) the hucksters driving that economy get more and more brazen. (Consider, as an example, the growing discrepancy in UK delivery times between public and private postal services.)

Delays carry meanings. We cannot control them with any finesse; but we can use them as blunt weapons on each other.

What’s left for Farman to say?

Farman’s account of wait times is certainly exhaustive, running the full gamut of history, from contemporary Japanese smartphone messaging apps to Aboriginal message sticks that were being employed up to 50,000 years ago. (To give you some idea how venerable that communication system is, consider that papyrus dates from around 2900 BC.) He spans on-line wait times both so short as to be barely perceptible, and delays so long that they may be used to calculate the distance between planets. His examples are sometimes otherworldly (literally so in the case of the New Horizons mission to Pluto), sometimes unnervingly prosaic: He recounts the Battle of Fredericksburg in the American Civil War as a piling up of familiar and ordinary delays, conjuring up a picture of war-as-bureaucracy that is truly mortifying.

Farman acknowledges how much more quickly we send and receive messages these days — but his is no paean to technological progress. The dismal fact is: the instantaneous provision of information degrades our ability to interpret it. As long ago as 1966 the neurobiologist James L McGaugh reported that as the time increases between learning and testing, memory retention actually improves. And yet the purveyors of new media continue to equate speed with wisdom, promising that ever-better worlds will emerge from ever-more-efficient media. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took this to an extreme typical of him in April 2017 when he announced that “We’re building further out beyond augmented reality, and that includes work around direct brain interfaces that one day will let you communicate using only your mind, although that stuff is pretty far out.”

This kind of hucksterism is harmless in itself, but it doesn’t come out of nothing. The thing we should be really afraid of is the creeping bureaucratisation of human experience. I remember, three years before Zuckerberg slugged back his own Kool-Aid, I sat listening to UCL neuroscientist Nilli Lavie lecturing about attention. Lavie was clearly a person of good will and good sense, but what exactly did she mean by her claim that wandering attention loses the US economy around two billion dollars a year? Were our minds to be perfectly focused, all year round, would that usher in some sort of actuarial New Jerusalem? Or would it merely extinguish all dreaming? Without a space for minds to wander in, where would a new idea – any new idea – actually come from?

This, of course, is the political flim-flam implicit in crisis thinking. So long as we are occupied with urgent problems, we are unable to articulate nuanced and far-reaching political ideas. “Waiting, ultimately, is essential for imagining that which does not yet exist and innovating on the knowledge we encounter,” Farman writes, to which I’m inclined to add the obvious point: Progressives are shrill and failing because their chosen media — Twitter and the like — deprive them of any register other than crisis-triggered outrage.

We may dream up a dystopia in which the populus is narcotised into bovine contentment by the instantaneous supply of undigested information, but as Farman makes clear, this isn’t going to happen. The anxiety generated by delay doesn’t disappear with quicker response times, it simply gets redistributed and reshaped. People under 34 years of age check their phones an average of 150 times a day, a burden entirely alien to soldiers waiting for Death and the postman at Fredericksburg. Farman writes: “Though the mythologies of the digital age continue to argue that we are eliminating waiting from daily life, we are actually putting it right at the centre of how we connect with one another.”

This has a major, though rarely articulated consequence for us: that anxiety balloons to fill the vacuum left by a vanished emotion: one we once considered pleasurable and positive. I refer, of course, to anticipation. Anticipation is no longer something we relish. This is because, in our world of immediate satisfactions, we’re simply not getting enough exposure to it. Waiting has ceased to be the way we measure projected pleasure. Now it’s merely an index of our frustration.

Farman is very good on this subject, and this is why Delayed Response is worth reading. (There: I told you we’d get around to this.) The book’s longueurs, and Farman’s persnickety academical style, pale beside his main point, very well expressed, that “the meaning of life isn’t deferred until that thing we hope for arrives; instead, in the moment of waiting, meaning is located in our ability to recognise the ways that such hopes define us.”