Praying to the World Machine

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In late spring this year, the Barbican Centre in London will explore the promise and perils of artificial intelligence in a festival of films, workshops, concerts, talks and exhibitions. Even before the show opens, however, I have a bone to pick: what on earth induced the organisers to call their show AI: More than human?

More than human? What are we being sold here? What are we being asked to assume, about the technology and about ourselves?

Language is at the heart of the problem. In his 2007 book, The Emotion Machine, computer scientist Marvin Minsky deplored (although even he couldn’t altogether avoid) the use of “suitcase words”: his phrase for words conveying specialist technical detail through simple metaphors. Think what we are doing when we say metal alloys “remember” their shape, or that a search engine offers “intelligent” answers to a query.

Without metaphors and the human tendency to personify, we would never be able to converse, let alone explore technical subjects, but the price we pay for communication is a credulity when it comes to modelling how the world actually works. No wonder we are outraged when AI doesn’t behave intelligently. But it isn’t the program playing us false, rather the name we gave it.

Then there is the problem outlined by Benjamin Bratton, director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego, and author of cyber bible The Stack. Speaking at Dubai’s Belief in AI symposium last year, he said we use suitcase words from religion when we talk about AI, because we simply don’t know what AI is yet.

For how long, he asked, should we go along with the prevailing hype and indulge the idea that artificial intelligence resembles (never mind surpasses) human intelligence? Might this warp or spoil a promising technology?

The Dubai symposium, organised by Kenric McDowell and Ben Vickers, interrogated these questions well. McDowell leads the Artists and Machine Intelligence programme at Google Research, while Vickers has overseen experiments in neural-network art at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Conversations, talks and screenings explored what they called a “monumental shift in how societies construct the everyday”, as we increasingly hand over our decision-making to non-humans.

Some of this territory is familiar. Ramon Amaro, a design engineer at Goldsmith, University of London, drew the obvious moral from the story of researcher Joy Buolamwini, whose facial-recognition art project The Aspire Mirror refused to recognise her because of her black skin.

The point is not simple racism. The truth is even more disturbing: machines are nowhere near clever enough to handle the huge spread of normal distribution on which virtually all human characteristics and behaviours lie. The tendency to exclude is embedded in the mathematics of these machines, and no patching can fix it.

Yuk Hui, a philosopher who studied computer engineering and philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, broadened the lesson. Rational, disinterested thinking machines are simply impossible to build. The problem is not technical but formal, because thinking always has a purpose: without a goal, it is too expensive a process to arise spontaneously.

The more machines emulate real brains, argued Hui, the more they will evolve – from autonomic response to brute urge to emotion. The implication is clear. When we give these recursive neural networks access to the internet, we are setting wild animals loose.

Although the speakers were well-informed, Belief in AI was never intended to be a technical conference, and so ran the risk of all such speculative endeavours – drowning in hyperbole. Artists using neural networks in their practice are painfully aware of this. One artist absent from the conference, but cited by several speakers, was Turkish-born Memo Akten, based at Somerset House in London.

His neural networks make predictions on live webcam input, using previously seen images to make sense of new ones. In one experiment, a scene including a dishcloth is converted into a Turneresque animation by a recursive neural network trained on seascapes. The temptation to say this network is “interpreting” the view, and “creating” art from it, is well nigh irresistible. It drives Akten crazy. Earlier this year in a public forum he threatened to strangle a kitten whenever anyone in the audience personified AI, by talking about “the AI”, for instance.

It was left to novelist Rana Dasgupta to really put the frighteners on us as he coolly unpicked the state of automated late capitalism. Today, capital and rental income are the true indices of political participation, just as they were before the industrial revolution. Wage rises? Improved working conditions? Aspiration? All so last year. Automation has  made their obliteration possible, by reducing to virtually nothing the costs of manufacture.

Dasgupta’s vision of lives spent in subjection to a World Machine – fertile, terrifying, inhuman, unethical, and not in the least interested in us – was also a suitcase of sorts, too, containing a lot of hype, and no small amount of theology. It was also impossible to dismiss.

Cultural institutions dabbling in the AI pond should note the obvious moral. When we design something we decide to call an artificial intelligence, we commit ourselves to a linguistic path we shouldn’t pursue. To put it more simply: we must be careful what we wish for.

Design news from the sandbox

Visiting Dubai Design Week for New Scientist, 20 December 2018

For a while now, I have been barracking my betters (and with a quite spectacular lack of success) to send me to cover the science and technology of the Middle East. True, it’s a region abuzz with boosterism and drowning in vapourware, but big issues do get addressed here, in a bullish, technocratic sort of way.

Is the planet in trouble? Certainly. The scale of the problem is easier to accept if you live in a climate and an ecosystem that was barely habitable to begin with. Is this state of affairs a consequence of human action? Obviously: the Gulf used to be green, with the whole coast once threaded with irrigation channels. No one here is ignorant of the fact. Should we bail out for Mars at the earliest available opportunity? Hell, yes – and Dubai, where the air-con (if not yet the air) has to be paid for, is the closest Earth has to a civic blueprint for Mars.

At the Dubai Design Week last November, I met a new generation of graduates sharing designs for the end of the world.

They had come for the fourth edition of the city’s annual Global Grad Show. The show featured 150 works this year, representing 100 of the world’s best design schools in 45 countries – and this explains, even if it does not quite justify, the show’s claim that it is “the most diverse student gathering ever assembled”. Locating the show is not so easy, I find, traipsing cluelessly among the super-symmetrical towers of d3 (the Dubai Design District, and one of Dubai’s many enterprise zones). I elbow through crowds gathered in knots around maps, there to guide them to Downtown Design, an enormous trade fair drawing in hundreds of brands from all over the world, or queueing for any one of the 230-odd other events, workshops and product launches that make this week the largest creative festival in the Middle East.

What’s driving this ferment? You may as well ask what’s driving Dubai itself – a liberal-ish responsive-while-undemocratic metropolis less than a generation old, emerging like a toadstool after spring rains in one of the most inhospitable ends of the Earth. Dubai, built by South Koreans, bankrolled by Iranian exiles, administered by European blow-ins, is global capitalism’s last great sandbox experiment before the Red Planet. The Emiratis themselves direct the design effort, and three projects dominate: mass housing; sustainable technology (because Dubai is already living the low-carbon inhospitable-climate nightmare);  and, yes, I wasn’t joking, building for space exploration.

Set against the grandiloquence of the government’s plans, Global Grad Show is humble indeed.  There’s a guide dog harness called Guidog by Paulina Morawa from Krakow, which, because it’s made of rigid plastic, communicates the dog’s subtlest movements to its handler, allowing users to traverse even the roughest ground. There’s a box of watery jellies by Londoner Lewis Hornby, who noticed that his grandmother, who lives with Alzheimer’s, finds drinking difficult. Eating a box of Jelly Drops (above) is equivalent to drinking a litre of water. There’s even a washtub by Masoud Sistani and Mohammad Ghasemi, an Iranian design team, which clips into the hubcap of a long-distance lorry, so that drivers pulling a 24-hour haul over the Hindu Kush can change into clean underpants once in a while.

If this last design makes you pause: well, so it should. Naji, another design from Iran (this time from a team at the Art University of Isfahan) hits the same nerve: a flotation device that deploys from street lamps whenever a road gets seriously flooded – presumably because some bright spark thought to build across a flood plain. Either these designs are absurdly naive or they are very astute, forcing us to confront some of the unspoken infrastructures underlying our ways of life.

There is, for sure, a mischievous side to this show.  There’s Camilla Franchini’s plan for handing Naples, the third most populous city in Italy, entirely over to fulfilment-centre robots. Seray Ozdemir, meanwhile, has grown so fed up of London’s overcrowding that he’s designed a suite of furniture to turn narrow corridors into living spaces. Yiannis Vogdanis’s wearable devices simulate environmental problems; there’s a mask here that has users gasping for air whenever they pass bodies of oxygen-starved water.

Other exhibits argue, with some force, that the time for provocation is over, and what we need now are simple, cheap, reproducible devices to strengthen our ever-more precarious hold on a hot, spent, resource-stripped planet. There is a fog-harvesting machine, a wind-powered sea-water desalination device, a dry toilet styled for the European market and a portable urinal designed for women and girls in refugee camps. And since we can look forward to many more mass-migrations in the coming years of famine, drought and resource war, there’s a rescue vessel concept to improve rescue missions at sea.

“I’ve started seeing, year on year, a growing assumption that climate change won’t be solved,” the show’s director Brendan McGetrick says.”It’s depressing, but it’s also reassuring, in that these young designers recognise what I think most of us recognise: that the people in charge aren’t going to do anything at a big enough scale to be meaningful.”

Within their limited capacity, the designers at this year’s Global Grad Show are at least trying to get ahead of things.

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

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

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

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

Whose head is it anyway?

Reading Hubert Haddad’s novel Desirable Body for the Guardian, 22 December 2018

English speakers have only two or three translations from the French by which to judge the sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish output of Tunisian poet and novelist Hubert Haddad. He began writing long prose in the 1970s and has been turning out a novel a year, more or less, since the turn of the century.

First published as Corps désirable in 2015, this novel sews a real-life maverick neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, into a narrative that coincides with the bicentenary of the first ever neurosurgical horror story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Cédric Allyn-Weberson, scion of a big pharma plutocrat, has set sail for the coast of Paros with his war correspondent girlfriend Lorna Leer, on a yacht called Evasion. A horrible accident crushes his spine but leaves his head intact. Funded by Cédric’s estranged father Morice, Canavero sets about transplanting Cédric’s head on to a donor body. Assuming the operation succeeds, how will Cédric cope?

Nevertheless, this short, sly novel is not about Canavero’s surgery so much as about the existential questions it raises. Emotions are physiological phenomena, interpreted by the mind. It follows that Cédric’s head, trapped “in a merciless battle … abandoned to this slow, living enterprise, to the invading hysteria of muscles and organs”, can’t possibly know how to read his new body. His life has, sure enough, been reduced to “a sort of crystalline, luminous, almost abstract dream”.

Cédric doesn’t forget who he is; he simply ceases to care, and adopts a creaturely attitude in which self hardly matters, and beings are born and die nameless. In his world, “There was no one, with the exception of a few chance encounters and sometimes some embraces. Did birds or rats worry about their social identity?”

There is something dated about Haddad’s book: an effect as curious as it is, I am sure, deliberate, with piquant hints of Ian Fleming in his use of glamorous European locations. It’s in its glancing, elliptical relationship to technology that Desirable Body takes its most curious backward step. Yet this elusive approach feels like a breath of fresh air after decades spent wading through big infrastructure-saturated fictions such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Haddad focuses succinctly on formal existential questions: questions for which there are no handy apps, and which can in no way be evaded by the application of ameliorating technology.

The besetting existential problem for the book, and, indeed, for poor Cédric himself, is pleasure. He discovers this with a vengeance when he once again (and at last) goes to bed with his girlfriend: “Getting used to this new body after so much time seems like an appropriation of a sexual kind, a disturbing usurpation, a rape almost.” Lorna’s excitement only adds to his confusion: “The last straw is the jealous impulse that overtakes him when he sees her writhing on top of him.”

French critics have received Desirable Body with due solemnity. Surely this was a mistake: Haddad’s nostalgic gestures are playful, not ponderous, and I don’t think we are required to take them too seriously. Following Cédric’s dismal post-operative sexual experience, the book changes gear from tragedy to farce; indeed, becomes laugh-out-loud funny as he finds himself king-for-a-day in a buffoonish and clockwork world where “no one is really loved because we constantly go to the wrong house or the wrong person with the same extraordinary obstinacy”.

Desirable Body is about more than one decapitated man’s unusual plight; it’s about how surprisingly little our choices have to do with our feelings and passions. A farce, then, and a sharp one: it’s funny to contemplate, but if you fell into its toils for a second, you’d die screaming in horror.

Implausible science and ambiguous art

The point — that the physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva might be constructing the very quantum reality they were hired to study — is lost on none of the 10,000-odd scientists and engineers involved with the project. And this awareness — that the very idea of science is up for grabs here — may explain why CERN’s scientists have taken so warmly to the artists dropped in their midst.

Visiting Broken Symmetries at FACT, Liverpool for the Financial Times, 30 November 2018

 

 

Darkfield’s Flight: an immersive experience that leaves you half dead

Boarding Darkfield’s existentially challenged airline for New Scientist, 28 November 2018

There’s a shipping container sitting outside 14th-century Dartington Hall in south Devon, offering cheap flights to an unspecified destination. Even by the standards of today’s budget airlines, Flight, by theatrical production company Darkfield is cheap. How do they do it? Part of their winning formula, I think, must be the way they kill their passengers.

Because one thing is for sure – the plane I seemed to be on (mocked up to a high degree of realism, with seatbelts and overhead luggage bins and a safety card in the seat pocket in front of me describing what action to take in the advent of some difficult-to-parse existential disaster; then, once the lights went out, magicked from the absolute darkness of the shipping container by an immersive binaural soundtrack) that plane, as I was saying, most certainly broke up in the air. I heard the screams. Some of them may have been my own.

Afterwards, armed with a steadying pint from the nearby White Hart pub, I had to admit, however, that life had not altogether left me. Was I alive or dead? Had I flown on an orange airline, or a blue one? To steady myself, I dug out my laptop and began editing my interview with Flight‘s co-producer David Rosenberg.

Rosenberg and the Darkfield company are no strangers to Dartington Hall. Their first blacked-out and binaural entertainment, Séance, ran here in 2017. And while they’re a company known for pushing the boundaries of performance, their presence is by no stretch a novelty for the estate which, since its purchase in 1925 by social experimenters Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, has been attracting artists, educators and political philosophers in an effort to develop new ways of living.

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The work of the Dartington Hall Trust, which aims to maintain the estate as a place of radical experimentation, a model of rural regeneration, and a centre for progressive ideas and innovation, sounds hippyish – it is hippyish, in important respects – but that’s not to say it’s unserious. On the contrary. Important British institutions, including the National Health Service and the Arts Council, were conceived here.

A community devoted to self-renewal, the 1,200-acre estate is deep into ground-breaking experiments in land use, farming and housing, and artistic and social projects that involve the estate in the lives and aspirations of some of the most deprived communities in Britain.

“We want to be championing arts that are purposeful here, and have something to say about the world in which we live, whether through performance or the visual arts,” says Amy Bere, executive director of the Dartington Hall Trust’s arts programme. “We’re also looking for socially engaged and civic art, and for ways to reach those parts of our community who aren’t engaging with us yet.”

Darkfield’s offering is certainly likely to draw interest from all manner of people. Maybe not the timid, though. Scanning the transcript of our recent phone interview, I see that Rosenberg, a medical anaesthetist turned theatrical impresario, called the recent output Darkfield “a terrifying fairground of darkness”. He was joking. I think.

And of Flight – a 20-minute airline experience that leaves you inhabiting two worlds at once — one where you’re alive, and one where you very much aren’t — he said, “It’s not as scary as all that. Unless you dislike flying. Or you’re afraid of the dark. Or you have some existential terror about the way the universe is assembled.”

Simon Ings That’s a long list.

David Rosenberg But a short show. Glen Neath and I have been making performances in complete darkness using binaural sound for the last six years or so. But the commitment to sitting in a theatre for an hour in total darkness is a big one, so we’ve now begun making shorter, more intense pieces in shipping containers: pieces that would explore fear and anxiety in different ways.

Using the container means we can tour our material to places where audiences will engage with it in a different way – treating it a bit more like a fairground ride.

SI With this form of presentation, are you fated always to be exploring the uncanny?

DR I think we’ll be able to broaden our output as we develop. But for now, by putting people in an environment where they feel quite vulnerable, the uncanny plays a large part in what we do. Our first piece, Séance, dealt with our beliefs about death and the beyond. Flight began, obviously enough, with the fear of flying, but then we got interested in the work of physicist David Deutsch and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. There’s a peculiar interpretation of the many-worlds model, not very well regarded but irresistible, called the quantum suicide fallacy. Suppose all probabilities are played out in the quantum realm: then we will only have a conscious experience of iterations in which our consciousness survives. So, in this respect, it’s impossible to die in a plane crash. Of course it’s also possible to be the only survivor of a plane crash, or the horribly mutilated sole survivor of a plane crash, or the only person in the crash to be hurt, and so on: it’s maybe not that much of a comfort. But this is the game we are playing in Flight. You perish and you survive, at the same moment.

SI Why plunge your audience into darkness?

DR In most instances vision is our leading perception. We attach sounds to images, rather than the other way around. You can show this with auditory illusions in which people moving their lips in a certain way but the sound that you hear is related to the lip movements.

SI So we’re all lip-readers!

DR To some degree, yes. We wanted to make work that wasn’t led visually in any way, and to achieve that we need darkness. In the dark, we can start with the sound and create environments and characters and to allow the audience to create visuals for themselves, in their imaginations.

SI You first worked with Darkfield co-founder Glen Neath on Shunt in 1988 – the theatre company that pioneered immersive theatre in the UK. Why, with that background, did you decide to turn the lights out?

DR As we explore virtual reality and augmented reality we’ve begun to to notice that a lot of immersive techniques provide experiences that are are paradoxically less immersive than old media. “Immersive” has become an entertainment buzzword. I joked the other day about going to an immersive funeral: it was very sad, and it smelt a bit like bread.

Sure, we could reach a point where virtual reality is indistinguishable from real life; but then it would be real life. Quite a lot of popular virtual reality experiences involve doing incredibly mundane things. The human imagination, on the other hand is — or at any rate feels — limitless. I have been more immersed in a book than I’ve ever been in a 3D film. Immersion isn’t about drowning the senses. It’s about providing enough gaps for our imagination to fill.

SI Have you gone any further in exploring sensory deprivation?

DR We’ve used anechoic chambers to strip sound of all its reflections, so it literally becomes sound from nowhere. But we haven’t really thought of a way to bring that into a performance context. The problem is the body itself is incredibly noisy. As soon as you remove all the other sounds, then your body really makes a racket and you end up focusing on that.

For myself, I remember in the late 1980s I went to a sensory deprivation tank in Manchester that was set up in this guy’s flat. There was a bit of a vogue for the idea at that time. It was a very basic experience: a body temperature bath with enough salt in it that you floated, in complete darkness and quiet. Just before he closed the door on me, the last thing he said was, Don’t touch your face.

SI Good grief.

DR So of course I spent the whole time not touching my face, wanting desperately to touch my face.

SI That sounds horrific.

DR It was a bit stressful.

The world bacteria made

Visiting Bacterial World at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for New Scientist, 23 November 2018

“It’s like a cheetah going after a wildebeest,” says Judith Armitage, lead scientist for Bacterial World, an exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. She’s struggling to find a simile adequate to describe Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, a predatory bacterium found, among other places, in the human gut. Indeed, it’s monstrously fast: capable of swimming 100 times its own body length every second.

Other bacteria are built for strength, not speed. Campylobacter jejuni, which we have to thank for most of our food poisoning, has a propeller-like flagellum geared so that it can heave its way through the thick mucus in the gut.

Armitage has put considerable effort into building a tiny exhibition that gives bacteria their due as the foundational components of living systems –and all I can think about is food poisoning. “Well that’s quorum sensing, isn’t it?” says Armitage, playing along. “After 24 hours or so biding their time, they decide there’s enough of them they can make you throw up.”

Above our heads hangs artist Luke Jerram’s gigantic inflatable E. coli, seen floating over visitors at the first New Scientist Live festival in 2016. It seems an altogether more sinister presence in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History: the alien overseer of a building so exuberantly Gothic (built in 1860, just in time for the famous evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford) that it appears more grown than made.

Armed with just 55 exhibits, from the Wellcome Collection, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Natural History Museum in London, Armitage has managed to squeeze 3.8 billion years of history along a narrow balcony just under the museum’s glass roof. Our journey is two-fold: from the very big to the very small, and from the beginnings of life on Earth to its likely future.

Towering stromatolites, the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth, reveal the action of countless anaerobic bacteria whose trick of splitting water would result, a million years later, in an extremely rusty planet filling up with toxic oxygen. To survive, let alone thrive, in the ghastly conditions ushered in by the Great Oxygenation Event required bacterial adaptations on which all living things today depend. For example, Paenibacilla (pictured) promote crop growth, and symbiotic bacteria of the genus Rhizobium pack essential hard-to-get at iron into our vegetables. Cellular adaptations defend against caustic oxygen, and have, incidentally, thrown up all manner of unforeseen by-products, including the bioluminescence of certain fish.

As multicellular organisms, we owe the very structure of our cells to an act of bacterial symbiosis. Our biosphere is shaped to meet the needs of ubiquitous bacteria like Wolbachia, without which some species of environmentally essential insect cannot reproduce, or even survive.

Naturally, we humans have tried to muscle in on this story. For a while we’ve been able to harness some bacteria to fight off others, thereby ridding ourselves of disease. But Armitage fears the antibiotic era was just a blip. “New antimicrobials are too expensive to develop,” she observes. “Once they’re shown to work they’ll be kept on the shelf waiting for the microbial apocalypse.”

But look on the bright side. At least once the great Throwing Up is over and the human population shrinks to a disease-racked minimum, the bacteria released from our ballooning guts can get back to what they’re good at: creating vibrant ecosystems out of random raw material. “Bacteria will eat all the plastic.” Of this Armitage is certain. “But,” she adds, “it takes time for metabolic cascades to evolve. We’ll probably not be around to see it happen.”

On the way out, my eye is caught by another artwork:  uneasy and delicate pieces of crochet by Elin Thomas depicting colonies of bacteria. The original colonies were grown on personal objects: a key, a gold wedding ring; a wooden pencil. A worn sock.

Microbial World is a tremendous exhibition, punching way above its tiny weight. It doesn’t half put you in your place, though.

Religion is more than opium

A review for the Telegraph: A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A history of Soviet atheism by Victoria Smolkin

On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin clambered into Vostok I, blasted into space, and became the first human being to orbit the earth.

“And suddenly I hear: Man is in space! My God! I stopped heating up the oven, sat next to the radio receiver, afraid to step away even for a minute.” This is the recollection of a 73-year-old woman from the Kuibyshev region, published in the state newspaper Izvestiia a little over a month later.

“We were always told that God is in the heavens, so how can a man fly there and not bump into Elijah the Prophet or one of God’s angels? What if God punishes him for his insolence?… Now I am convinced that God is Science, is Man.”

The opposition between religion and science set up in this letter is charmingly naive — as though a space capsule might shatter the crystal walls of heaven! But the official Soviet attitude to these matters was not much different. Lenin considered religion “merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.” Religion was simply a vicious exploitation of uneducated peoples’ urge to superstition. As socialism developed, superstitions in general would disappear, and religions along with them.

The art theorist Aleksey Gan called the constructivist Moscow Planetarium, completed in the late 1920s, “a building in which religious services are held… until society grows to the level of a scientific understanding, and the instinctual need for spectacle comes up against the real phenomena of the world and technology.”

The assumption here — that religion evaporates as soon as people learn to behave rationally — was no less absurd at the time than it is now; how it survived as a political instinct over generations is going to take a lot of explanation. Victoria Smolkin, an associate professor at Wesleyan University, delivers, but with a certain flatness of style that can grate after a while.

By 1973, with 70 planetariums littering the urban landscape and an ideologically oblivious populace gearing itself for a religious revival, I found myself wishing that her gloves would come off.

For the people she is writing about, the stakes could not have been higher. What can be more important than the meaning of life? We are all going to die, after all, and everything we do in our little lives is going to be forgotten. Had we absolutely no convictions about the value of anything beyond our little lives, we would most likely stay in bed, starving and soiling ourselves. The severely depressed do exactly this, for they have grown pathologically realistic about their survival chances.

Cultures are engines of enchantment. They give us reasons to get up in the morning. They give us people, institutions, ideas, and even whole planes of magical reality to live for.

The 1917 Revolution’s great blow-hards were more than happy to accept this role for their revolutionary culture. “Let thousands of us die to resurrect millions of people all over the earth!’ exclaims Rybin in Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel Mother. “That’s what: dying’s easy for the sake of resurrection! If only the people rise!’ And in his two-volume Religion and Socialism, the Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky prophesies the coming of a culture in which the masses will wiillingly “die for the common good… sacrificing to realise a state that starts not with his ‘I’ but with our ‘we’.”

Given the necessary freedom and funding, perhaps the early Soviet Union’s self-styled “God-builders” — Alexander Bogdanov, Leon Trotsky and the rest — might have cooked up a uniquely Soviet metaphysics, with rituals for birth, marriage and death that were worth the name. In suprematism, constructivism, cosmism, and all the other millenarian “-isms” floating about at the turn of the century, Russia had no shortage of fresh ingredients.

But Lenin’s lumpen anticlericals held the day. Bogdanov was sidelined and Trotsky was (literally) axed. Lenin looted the church. Stalin coopted the Orthodox faith to bolster patriotism in a time of war. Khrushchev criminalised all religions and most folk practices in the name of state unity. And none of them had a clue why the state’s materialism — even as it matured into a coherent philosophy — failed to replace the religion to which it was contrivedly opposed.

A homegrown sociology became possible under the fourth premier Leonid Brezhnev’s supposedly ossifying rule, and with it there developed something like a mature understanding of what religion actually was. These insights were painfully and often clumsily won — like Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. trying to understand the business of gift-giving by measuring all the boxes under the tree. And the understanding, when it came, came far too late.

The price of generations of off-again, on-again religious repression was not a confident secularism, or even a convulsive religious reaction. It was poison: ennui and cynicism and ideological indifference that proved impossible for the state to oppose because it had no structure, no leaders, no flag, no clergy or dogma.

In the end there was nothing left but to throw in the towel. Mikhail Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen on 29 April 1988, and embraced the millennium as a national celebration. Konstantin Kharchev, chair of the Council for Religious Affairs, commented: “The church has survived, and has not only survived, but has rejuvenated itself. And the question arises: which is more useful to the party — someone who believes in God, someone who believes in nothing at all, or someone who believes in both God and Communism? I think we should choose the lesser evil.” (234)

Cultures do not collapse from war or drought or earthquake. They fall apart because, as the archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out, they lose the point of themselves. Now the heavy lifting of this volume is done, let us hope Smolkin takes a breath and describes the desolation wrought by the institutions she has researched in such detail. There’s a warning here that we, deep in our own contemporary disenchantment, should heed.

Ushering in the End Times at London’s Barbican Hall

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Mark Allan / Barbican

Listening to the London Contemporary Orchestra for New Scientist, 1 November 2018

On All Hallow’s Eve this year, at London’s Barbican Hall, the London Contemporary Orchestra, under the baton of their co-artistic director Robert Ames, managed with two symphonic pieces to drown the world and set it ablaze in the space of a single evening.

Giacinto Scelsi’s portentously titled Uaxuctum: The legend of the Maya City, destroyed by the Maya people themselves for religious reasons, evoked the mysterious and violent collapse of that once thriving civilisation; the second piece of the evening, composer and climate activist John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, looked to the future, the rise of the world’s oceans, and good riddance to the lot of us.

Lost Worlds was a typical piece of LCO programming: not content with presenting two very beautiful but undeniably challenging long-ish works, the orchestra had elected to play behind a translucent screen onto which were projected the digital meanderings of an artistically trained neural net. Twists of entoptic colour twisted and cavorted around the half-seen musicians while a well-place spotlight, directly over Ames’s head, sent the conductor’s gestures sprawling across the screen, as though ink were being dashed over all those pretty digitally generated splotches of colour.

Everything, on paper, pointed to an evening that was trying far too hard to be avant garde. In the execution, however, the occasion was a triumph.

The idea of matching colours to sounds is not new. The painter Wassily Kandinsky struggled for years to fuse sound and image and ended up inventing abstract painting, more or less as a by-product. The composer Alexander Scriabin was so desperate to establish his reputation as the founder of a new art of colour-music, he plagiarised other people’s synaesthetic experiences in his writings and invented a clavier à lumières (“keyboard with lights”) for use in his work Prometheus: Poem of Fire. “It is not likely that Scriabin’s experiment will be repeated by other composers,” wrote a reviewer for The Nation after its premiere in New York in 1915: “moving-picture shows offer much better opportunities.” (Walt Disney proved The Nation right: Fantasia was released in 1937.)

Now, as 2018 draws to a close, artificial intelligence is being hurled at the problem. For this occasion the London-based theatrical production company Universal Assembly Unit had got hold of a recursive neural net engineered by Artrendex, a company that uses artificial intelligence to research and predict the art market. According to the concert’s programme note, it took several months to train Artrendex’s algorithm on videos of floods and fires, teaching it the aesthetics of these phenomena so that, come the evening of the performance, it would construct organic imagery in response to the music.

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Mark Allan / Barbican

While never obscuring the orchestra, the light show was dramatic and powerful, sometimes evoking (for those who enjoy their Andrei Tarkovsky) the blurriness of the clouds swamping the ocean planet Solaris in the movie of that name; then at other moments weaving and flickering, not so much like flames, but more like the speeded-up footage from some microbial experiment. Maybe I’ve worked at New Scientist too long, but I got the distinct and discomforting impression that I was looking, not at some dreamy visual evocation of a musical mood, but at the the responses of single-celled life to desperate changes in their tiny environment.

As for the music – which was, after all, the main draw for this evening – it is fair to say that Scelsi’s Uaxuctum would not be everyone’s cup of tea. For a quick steer, recall the waily bits from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That music was by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who was born about two decades after Scelsi, and was — both musically and personally — a lot less weird. Scelsi was a Parisian dandy who spent years in a mental institution playing one piano note again and again and Uaxuctum, composed in 1966, was such an incomprehensibly weird and difficult proposition, it didn’t get any performance at all for 21 years, and no UK performance at all before this one.

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean (2013) is an easier (and more often performed) composition – The New Yorkermusic critic Alex Ross called it “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”. This evening its welling sonorities brought hearts into mouths: rarely has mounting anxiety come wrapped in so beautiful a package.

So I hope it takes nothing away from the LCO’s brave and accomplished playing to say that the visual component was the evening’s greatest triumph. The dream of “colour music” has ended in bathos and silliness for so many brilliant and ambitious musicians. Now, with the judicious application of some basic neural networking, we may at last be on the brink of fusing tone and colour into an art that’s genuinely new, and undeniably beautiful.

Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton

Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”