The Singularity (a sermon)

So here I am at Utopia, Tel Aviv’s festival of fantastic film. the other day I gave a talk and today, when I could be swimming or sunbathing, I’m sitting in the cinemateque’s green room – a perfectly white and windowless box – typing this. It started as a bloggable version of what I had to say about utopias and dystopias but it quickly got out of hand and became what I can only call a sermon.

This blog’s mostly a shop window – and a personality-free zone – but what the hell: if you’ve a moment to spare, let’s see what you think of this:

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In 1979, Dan White was brought to trial for murder of two San Francisco government officials: George Moscone and Harvey Milk.  White’s defence attorney hoped to convince the jury that his client was not responsible for his actions. White had a history of severe depression, and it had come to light that his diet – consisting almost entirely of junk food – regularly pushed him into a hypoglycaemic state. When this happened, White’s palpable misery bloomed into something else: something positively homicidal.

Medically, the argument was not without merit, but it quickly became notorious. Dubbed the “Twinkie defense”, it angered many who felt White was no longer having to answer for his own actions. “The snacks made me do it” is a pretty thin defence for a killing.

At the back of the outrage around this case was a deeper unease. Any act, sufficiently anatomised, will tend to evaporate into imponderables. Stare at the trees long enough, and you lose all sense of the wood. An act is an act is an act. Hedge it around with circumstances, however, and it becomes a story, a narrative – and stories can be spun in any number of ways, Crafty attorneys know this. Happily, so do judges. (So do scriptwriters: think of all those scenes where the judge instructs the attorney not to badger or haze the witness.)

Why should the circumstances of an act matter? Why is a killing not a murder in every instance? Our willingness to entertain *some* measure of narrative explanation is partly to do with our experience of the world, but just as much (if not more) to do with our unshakeable conviction that we are in ourselves, more or less, good people. At least, we don’t set out to do wrong. And if we did wrong, well, we were led to those wrong-doings by a concatenation of regrettable circumstances. Forget vaudeville villiany: brought to book, even serial killers do not cackle. They offer up their excuses, and seem as puzzled as the rest of us at their inadequacy. No-one in the history of the world, however deranged, embraced wrong-doing in the belief that it *was* wrongdoing. The closest we ever get is a sense of compulsion: “She drove me to it, officer.”

Were we to gather up every circumstance surrounding a crime, and explore every contingency – if , in short, we knew all – would we forgive all? If we’re so convinced of our own essential goodness (all be it that circumstances trip us into wrong-doing for this or that reason), does this mean that everyone is good; that everyone is, at their existential core, a righteous person?

For some radicals, the answer is unabashedly Yes. In the first heady days of Russia’s October Revolution, courts rewrote their deliberations so as to avoid perjorative notions of “crime” and “wrongdoing”. Punishments were things of the past: criminals were simply people in need of education and treatment.

The idea foundered since, in 1921, relatively little work had been done on the most effective correctional programmes for offenders.  Today, we know of many effective strategies. Why then do so many of us resist their use? Why do so many of us advocate prison sentences (which patently don’t work) over other schemes (which patently do work)? Why can we not bring ourselves to extend our sense of our own righteousness to everyone?

I think this has to do with time. However diminished Dan White’s responsibility, by his hand two innocent men lay dead. You can excuse and explain and mitigate Dan White at your leisure. You cannot excuse, explain, and mitigate a corpse. A corpse just lies there. It begins, quite quickly, to stink.

To understand all is to forgive all, but only if you’ve the luck, the temperament, the time, and the patience. Forgiveness is not restorative. Forgiveness is hard work, Understanding is merely the first step on an arduous personal journey.

Forgiveness is such hard work, we usually resort to a quicker, easier, more reassuring alternative: justice. The scales of justice are more than a metaphor for objectivity, a weighing of evidence. They also represent an effort to restore the balance of things. An eye for an eye, if you like; more usually, fifty quid for inconsiderate parking.

In a world in which not everything *can* be known, justice is more effective than (and not incompatible with) forgiveness. The more we know, the more just our justice becomes: that, anyway, is the hope, and it’s borne out reasonably well by the historical evidence. The more ordered and well-observed a society, the less frequent its recourse to draconian punishments.

Justice is not altogether a human invention. Social species have their rituals of correction and punishment. I’ll mention one decidedly odd example.

European cuckoos are brood parasites. A female will lay an egg in the nest of an unwitting host. Though relieved of the drudgery of child care, cuckoos still have an investment in their young. Males and females both  will sometimes observe the host’s nest to make sure their hatchling is secure. If the host gets wise to the cuckoo’s deception, it will evict the egg from its nest.

Then something very peculiar happens. The cuckoo’s egg is done for. From a purely adaptationist standpoint, it’s game over for the cuckoo; it may as well write off its losses and withdraw. Quite often, however, this isn’t what happens. Instead, the cuckoo attacks the host’s interests, evicting all the eggs in its nest. What’s the survival advantage in this behaviour? If anyone can spot it, please tell me, because the alternative is weird indeed: the cuckoo must have a sense of justice. A wildly one-sided one, it’s true: but a sense of justice all the same. Maddened by the implacable, unidirectional nature of time, the impossibility of restitution, it exacts punishment on the host: eggs for an egg.

Utopia is where we locate our dreams of a life well lived. In utopia, right prevails. So we must presuppose one of two qualities for our utopia. Either it is timeless, and all acts may be reversed, all wrongs righted by a simple, agreed return to initial conditions. (Discussions of precrime belong somewhere here.)

Or, while remaining embedded in time, everything that happens in Utopia is known, and therefore forgiven.

This is the promise of the Singularity, of course. Once we have combined in acquiring a seamlessly distributed moment-by-moment grasp of the entire world, the innate righteousness of everyone will be manifestly apparent to all. Except, of course, for the bodies. And there’s the rub: the bodies will still stink.

Afforded perfect knowledge, it is entirely plausible that punishment might become obsolescent, replaced by a culture of forgiveness, bolstered and secured by our prefered varieties of tough love and loving correction. And for all that, innocent government officials will still lie bleeding and the cuckoo’s egg will still lie smashed.  For that reason, the idea of *justice* will persist. It will lack any useful outlet, of course, since the only thing we will be unable to forgive – the thing we will *blame*, and much good may it do us – is the stubbornly unidirectional nature of time itself

Our sense of justice then will reveal itself to be, at bottom, nothing more than this: enraged regret that what has happened, *has* happened.

Time, it turns out, is the villain, brought to book by our peculiar ability to model sequences of events that have not happened and cannot happen. We tell ourselves stories of what might have been (had Milk lived, had the cuckoo grown and flown) – grammarians might want to dub this our *subjunctive* capability – and when we judge the world against this ephemeral criterion, we find it wanting. Our pursuit of the Singularity is nothing more or less than this: a royal hunt for the rewind button.

Good lives are like trees: they branch exponentially, to explore the possibilities available to them. They switch and reverse, pulse and repulse. Lives aspire to the condition of narratives. Lives want to be rewritten.

 

London’s Design Museum spins four fictional futures for the UK

The other day I went along to London’s Design Museum to catch the opening of United Micro Kingdoms (UMK): A Design Fiction. The exhibition, conceived and curated by design studio Dunne & Raby, uses elements of industrial design, architecture, politics and science to explore the future of design. Anthony Dunne talked to me about his four fictional kingdoms, his love of science fiction, and the value of dystopic thinking.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/oqGynLMPWko]

United Micro Kingdoms runs until 26 August 2013 at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD.

The future of world governance. No. Really.

Last Saturday the ReConstitutional Convention – a global experiment in political system design – brought together diverse groups of social inventors all over the world to imagine and prototype original and alternative architectures for governing.

By pure coincidence, this was also the week I started researching for the 70th anniversary of the discovery of LSD.

Here’s my bit. (There are lots of others)

Around 6’20” I start channeling Timothy Leary; watch Lydia Nicholas‘s face as it begins to dawn on her that this to-camera is going up on YouTube FOR EVER…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqNWX-QFZgw]
I’d like to thank Tobias Revell and Justin Pickard for inviting me along to this creative, playful, exasperating and very rewarding day.

The revolution begins here. (Maybe.)

“Seasoned with a sprinkling of science”

That’s what it says here. I’m never going to live this one down.

From 19 – 24 August 2013 I’ll be at Totleigh Barton, “a thatched, pre-Domesday manor house, nestled in the rolling hills of one of the most peaceful and beautiful parts of Devon,” teaching for the Arvon Foundation alongside Tania Hershman, one of the country’s more energetic champions of the short story. We’ll be guiding new, uncertain, confused and increasingly anxious writers through the interzone between fiction and science writing in a course imaginatively titled Science and Writing.

Totleigh Barton

It says here that “we will be giving you different ways to sprinkle science into your writing, encouraging you to play!”

Ha. Expect intense intellectual rigour, cut with grotesque displays of temper, as we attempt to fuse the two cultures in the magnetic bottle of us getting paid for once.

Heidi Williamson, who was was poet-in-residence at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre, is our guest reader.

The course costs between £620 and £680 and grants are available for those on low income – click here for more information.

Stand me a vodka at this year’s Scifiweekender and I will sing to you of the steppe…

I’m off to north Wales on St David’s Day to take part in this year’s Scifiweekender. It’s being held at the Hafan y Mor Holiday Park near Pwllheli and will probably look something like this

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though given the weather it could end up looking like this

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and will add a chilly authenticity to Simon’s exploration of Soviet cinema, space exploration, and all things Klushantsev.

Saturday’s RAILWAY TO THE STARS is, a celebration of Russia’s spirit of exploration through Russian film. I’ll also bring along some off-prints of Arc to give people a flavour of what we’re up to.

The 2013 Scifiweekender runs from 1 to 3 March. Call the ticket hotline on 08700 110034.

Come see Arc in Amsterdam

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On the afternoon of Sunday 24 February, Arc visits the Netherlands to explore the dark universe as guests of Sonic Acts, a long-running Dutch festival exploring the interzone between art, music and science.

The invitation a very happy coincidence for us as Arc‘s first edition of 2013, out soon, focuses on the fact that most of our universe is missing.

Come see us if you can: Alastair Reynolds will be riffing mischievously off Fermi’s paradox, science writer Frank Swain will map where the wild things are, I’ll explain why a theory of vision that ignored light completely served us well for over 800 years, and Tim Maughan will offer us a first glimpse of his experimental AR entertainment Watching Paint Die.

(I’m especially looking forward to that as I’ve just received Tim’s latest story for Arc – a cracking sequel to Paintwork called Ghost Hardware.)

Sonic Acts 2013 runs from Thursday 21 to Sunday 24 February. (Here’s the programme.) Arc’s bit of it runs from 1.30 to 3.30 on Sunday afternoon, in a former gaol called De Balie. They say it’s a chic theatre cafe-restaurant now, but I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a pattern developing here.

Last time I did something with Sonic Acts they put me up in a student house next door to Joseph Fritzl.

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Conference & Festival Passepartout 80 euro
24 Feb day and evening 25 euro
24 Feb day: Conference 20 euro

Follow the event on Twitter:

@arcfinity @sonicacts @aquilarift @sciencepunk @simonings @timmaughan

Of Martians and machines

1908: The Island (work in progress)

Thought arises, not from matter, but from the way it is organised. Alexander Bogdanov, science fiction pioneer, philosopher, physician, Lenin’s friend and rival, explored the idea of automating society. The West calls this cybernetics and it fuels consumer culture. But in the Soviet Union, Bogdanov’s philosophy was discredited and suppressed. On Tuesday 18 December at 7.30pm I’ll be asking why the Soviets abandoned their early dreams of automating Man.

The talk’s at Pushkin House, 5A Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A 2TA, and you can find more details here.

Let maths illuminate your life!

Thanks to the review I wrote of Thinking in Numbers, an excellent collection of essays about the psychology and culture of numbers, the RSA has invited me along to talk with the author Daniel Tammett on 27 Nov 2012 at 13:00. Follow this link for details of venue etc; you can also follow the event remotely through the following links

http://www.thersa.org/events/listen-live

http://www.thersa.org/events/watch-live

BioPunk comes to the Durham Literary Festival


On Saturday 27 October, 2012 I’ll be reading from and discussing “The Wrestler”, one of the stories that make up Bio-Punk: stories from the far side of research. It’s a new anthology edited by Ra Page of Comma Press, pairing up writers and scientists. (Dr Ian Vincent McGonigle was my collaborator on “The Wrestler”: he’s currently studying Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of Chicago, with research interests in bioethics, epistemology, ethno-pharmacology and medical anthropology.)
Other writers in the anthology include Toby Litt, Sara Maitland, Adam Marek, Justina Robson, Jane Rogers and Dilys Rose.
On Saturday, Dilys and her collaborator Dr Jane Haley will be with me at Durham Town Hall at 2pm to launch the book with readings and discussion. Thanks to Waterstones Newcastle for their support, and the long-suffering Rebecca Wilkie of New Writing North for finding me the correct train ticket. (I was LOST, I tell, you LOST, the Interwebs had BROKEN…)

Electric Shadows

From 12-14 October 2012, the Kontraste Festival – curated by Sonic Acts – reverberates across Krems, a pretty town on the Danube famous for its art galleries, staggeringly good white wine, and one of the world’s best preserved panopticon prisons. On Saturday I’ll be discussing how, adapted as we are to a rich visual world, we will have to learn to tolerate the limited colour palette and visual monotony of the rest of the universe. This is one of the more left-field contributions; for the most part the weekend is filled with a wild assortment of scientifically literate sound artists Playing with Our Brains. This sort of thing:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYuahvxS2KM&w=640&h=480]

There’s also a film programme, like this:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnzvjaXbLIc&w=640&h=480]

with a touch of this:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrvbHEov3L8&w=853&h=480]

If you can’t make it up the Danube, there’s always the book.