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.

Objection reviewed: Prudery isn’t justice

We want the law to be fair and objective. We also want laws that work in the real world, protecting and reassuring us, and maintaining our social and cultural values. The moral dilemma is that we can’t have both. This may be because humans are hopelessly irrational and need a rational legal system to keep them in check. But it may also be that rationality has limits, and that trying to sit in judgement over everything is as cruel and farcical as gathering cats in a sack.

Reading Objection: Disgust, morality, and the law by Debra Lieberman and Carlton Patrick for New Scientist, 15 September 2018

 A History of Silence reviewed: Unlocking the world of infinitely small noises

The present, properly attended to, alone and in silence, reveals time’s awful scale. When we think about the past or the future, what we’re actually doing is telling ourselves stories. It’s in the present moment, if we dare attend to it, that we glimpse the Void.

Reading Alain Corbin’s A History of Silence (Polity Press) for The Telegraph, 3 September 2018

Vodolazkin’s The Aviator: A time-traveller’s life

Reviewing The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin for The Guardian, 7 June 2018

Innokenty Petrovich Platonov, who lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, has awoken, a hale and hearty thirtysomething, in a present-day hospital bed. Innokenty’s struggle – a long and compelling one, delivered with apparent leisureliness by the Ukrainian-born novelist Eugene Vodolazkin in a translation by Lisa Hayden – is to overcome his confusion, and connect his tragic past life to his uncertain present one over the gulf of years.

We’ve been here before. Think Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror: a man’s life assembled out of jigsaw fragments that more or less resist narrative until the final minutes. Or think Proust. In The Aviator, an old translation of Defoe’sRobinson Crusoe replaces Marcel’s madeleine dipped in tea: “With each line,” Innokenty explains, “everything that accompanied the book in my time gone by was resurrected: my grandmother’s cough, the clank of a knife that fell in the kitchen … the scent of something fried, and the smoke of my father’s cigarette.”

So far, so orthodox. But Vodolazkin’s grip on this narrative is iron-tight, and what we take at first to be Innokenty’s pathology – or the working out of a literary method – turns out to be something much more important: a moral stand, of sorts. Innokenty knows, in a bitter and visceral fashion, that history is merely a theory abstracted from the experiences of individuals. So he chooses to care about the little things, the overlooked things, “sounds, smells, and manners of expression, gesticulation, and motion”. These are the things that actually make up a life; these are the true universals.

A journalist interviews the celebrity time-traveller: “I keep trying to draw you out on historical topics and you keep talking about sounds and about smells.” He’s right: “A historical view makes everyone into hostages of great societal events,” Innokenty observes. “I see things differently, though: exactly the opposite.”

Innokenty has skin in this game: shortly before he was transported to the future, the Bolsheviks, history’s true believers, threw him into the first and worst of the labour camps. “Those who created the Solovetsky hell had deprived people of what was human,” Innokenty says, “but Robinson [Crusoe], after all, did the opposite: he humanised all the nature surrounding him, making it a continuation of himself. They destroyed every memory of civilisation but he created civilisation from nothing. From memory.” Inspired by his favourite book from childhood, Innokenty attempts a similar feat.

He discovers his old, unconsummated love still lives, hopelessly aged and now with dementia. He visits her, looks after her. He washes her, touching her for the first time; her granddaughter Nastya assists. He falls in love with Nastya, and navigates the taboos around their relationship with admirable delicacy and self-awareness. But Nastya is as much a child of her time as he is of his. They will love each other, but can never really bond, not because Nastya is a trivial person, but because she belongs to a trivial time, “a generation of lawyers and economists”. Modern faces are “nervous in some way”, Innokenty observes, “mean, an expression of ‘don’t touch me!’”

Innokenty is the ultimate internal exile: Turgenev’s ineffectual intellectual, played at an odd, more sympathetic speed. He is no more equipped to resist the blandishments of Zheltkov (the novel’s stand-in for Vladimir Putin), or the PR department of a frozen food company, than he was to resist the Soviet secret police. Innokenty’s attitude drives Geiger – his doctor, champion and friend – to distraction: how can this former prisoner of an Arctic labour camp possibly claim that “punishment for unknown reasons does not exist”?

Innokenty’s self-sacrificial piety provides his broken-backed life with a distinctly unmodern kind of meaning, and it’s one that leaves him hideously exposed. But we’re never in any doubt that his is a richer, kinder worldview than any available to Nastya. Innokenty’s bourgeois, liberal, pre-Bolshevik anguish over what constitutes right action is a surprisingly successful fulcrum on which to balance a book. And we should expect nothing less from an author whose previous novel, Laurus, was a barnstorming thriller about medieval virtue.

All that remains, I suppose, is to explain how this bourgeois “former person” comes to be alive in our own time, puzzling over the cult of celebrity, post-industrial consumerism and the internet. But why spoil the MacGuffin? Let’s just say, for now, that Innokenty has been preserved. “I did not even begin to question Geiger about the reasons, since that was not especially interesting,” he writes in his sprawling, revelatory journal. “Knowing the peculiarities of our country, it is simpler to be surprised that anything is preserved at all.”

Gendun Chopel: Putting the Kama Sutra in the shade

Reviewing a new verse translation of Gendun Chopel’s Treatise on Passion for The Spectator, 9 June 2018.

The Tibetan artist and poet Gendun Chopel was born in 1903. He was identified as an incarnate lama, and ordained as a Buddhist monk. In 1934 he renounced his vows, quit Tibet for India, learned Sanskrit and — if his long poem, usually translated as A Treatise on Passion, is to be taken at face value — copulated with every woman who let him.

Twelve years later he returned to Tibet, and was thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. The experience broke him. He died of cirrhosis in 1951, as troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army were marching through the streets of Lhasa.

Chopel’s reputation as the most important Tibetan writer of the 20th century is secure, mostly through his travelogue, Grains of Gold. The Passion Book is very different; it is Chopel’s reply to the kamasastra, a classical genre of sanskrit erotica best known to us through one rather tame work, the Kama Sutra.

If Chopel had wanted to show off to his peers back home he could simply have translated the Kama Sutra —but where would have been the fun in that? The former monk spent four years researching and writing his own spectacularly explicit work of Tibetan kamasastra.

It is impossible not to like Chopel — ‘A monastic friend undoing his way of life,/ A narrow-minded poser losing his facade’ — if only for the sincerity of his effort. At one point he tries to get the skinny on female masturbation: ‘Other than scornful laughs and being hit with fists/ I could not find even one who would give an honest answer.’

Still, he gets it: ‘Since naked flesh and sinew are different,’ he warns his (literate, therefore male) readership, ‘How can a thorn sense what the wound feels?’

Thus, like touching an open wound,
The pleasure and pain of women is intense

Chopel insists that women’s and men’s experiences of sex differ, and that women are not mere sources of male pleasure but full partners in the play of passion. So far, so safe. But let’s not be too quick to tidy up Chopel’s long, dizzying, delirious mess of a poem, which jumps from folk wisdom about how to predict a woman’s future by studying the moles on her face, to a jeremiad against the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, to evocations of tantric states, to the sexual preferences of women in various regions of India, to sexual positions, to fullblown sexual delirium:

They copulate squatting and they copulate standing;
Intertwined, with head and foot reversed, they copulate.
Hanging the woman in the air
With a rope of silk they copulate.

Chopel’s translators, Donald S Lopez Jr. and Thupten Jinpa — Tibetan and Buddhist scholars, who a few years ago also translated Grains of Gold — have appended a long afterword which goes some way to revealing what is going on here.In the Christian faith, sexual intercourse may lead to hell. The early tradition of Buddhism took a different position: sex is fine, so far as it goes; it’s everything that follows — marriage, home, property, domestic contentment, the pram in the hall — that paves the road to perdition.

This is what inspires Buddhism’s tradition of astounding misogyny. Something has got to stop you from having sex with your own wife — and a famous Mahayana sutra has the solution. Think of her as a demon. An ogre. A hag. As sickness, old age, or death:

As a huge wolf, a huge sea monster, and a huge cat; a black snake, a crocodile, and a demon that causes epilepsy; and as swollen, shrivelled and diseased.

The rise of the tantric tradition altered sexual attitudes to the extent that one was now actually obliged to have intercourse if one ever hoped to achieve buddhahood. But the ideal tantric playmate — a girl of 16 or younger, and ideally low-caste — was still no more than a tool for the enlightenment of an elite male.

Chopel, coming late to the ordinary delights and comforts of sex, was having none of it. Lopez and Jinpa speculate entertainingly about where Chopel sits in the pantheon of such early sexologists as Ellis, Freud and Reich. For sure, he was a believer in sexual liberation: ‘When suitable deeds are prohibited in public,’ he asserts, ‘Unsuitable deeds will be done in private.’

Jeffrey Hopkins translated Chopel’s A Treatise on Passion into prose in 1992 as Tibetan Arts of Love. This is the first effort in verse, and though a clear, scholarly advance, the translators have struggled to render the carefully metered original into lines of even roughly the same number of syllables. You can understand their bind: even in the original Tibetan, there’s still no critical edition. With so much basic scholarship to be done, it would have been pointless if they had simply jazz-handed their way through a loose transliteration.

Their effort captures Chopel’s charm, and that’s the main thing. As Chopel said of the act itself: ‘It may not be a virtue, but how could it be a sin?’

The ambition of transhumanism

Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, a travelogue of strange journeys and bizarre encounters among transhumanists, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. Wearing my New Scientist hat I asked O’Connell how he managed to give transhumanism a human face – despite his own scepticism.

Has transhumanism ever made personal sense to you?

Transhumanism’s critique of the human condition, its anxiety around having to die — that’s something I have some sympathy with, for sure, and that’s where the book began. The idea was for the door to some kind of conversion to be always open. But I was never really convinced that the big ideas in transhumanism, things like mind-uploading and so on, were really plausible. The most interesting question for me was, “Why would anyone want this?”

A lot of transhumanist thought is devoted to evading death. Do the transhumanists you met get much out of life?

I wouldn’t want to be outright prescriptive about what it means to live a meaningful life. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. I think if you’re so devoted to the idea that we can outrun death, and that death makes life utterly meaningless, then you are avoiding the true animal nature of what it means to be human. But I find myself moving back and forth between that position and one that says, you know what, these people are driven by a deep, Promethean project. I don’t have the deep desire to shake the world to its core that these people have. In that sense, they’re living life to its absolute fullest.

What most sticks in your mind from your researches for the book?

The place that sticks in my mind most clearly is Alcor’s cryogenic life extension facility. In terms of just the visuals, it’s bizarre. You’re walking around what’s known as a “patient care bay”, among these gigantic stainless steel cylinders filled with corpses and severed heads that they’re going to unfreeze once a cure for death is found. The thing that really grabbed me was the juxtaposition between the sci-fi level of the thing and the fact that it was situated in a business park on the outskirts of Phoenix, next door to Big D’s Floor Covering Supplies and a tile showroom.

They do say the future arrives unevenly…

I think we’re at a very particular cultural point in terms of our relationship to “the future”. We aren’t really thinking of science as this boundless field of possibility any more, and so it seems bit of a throwback, like something from an Arthur C. Clarke story. It’s like the thing with Elon Musk. Even the global problems he identifies — rogue AI, and finding a new planet that we can live on to perpetuate the species — seem so completely removed from actual problems that people are facing right now that they’re absurd. A handful of people who seem to wield almost infinite technological resources are devoting themselves to completely speculative non-problems. They’re not serious, on some basic level.

Are you saying transhumanism is a product of an unreal Silicon Valley mentality?

The big cultural influence over transhumanism, the thing that took it to the next level, seems to have been the development of the internet in the late 1990s. That’s when it really became a distinct social movement, as opposed to a group of more-or-less isolated eccentric thinkers and obsessives.

But it’s very much a global movement. I met a lot of Europeans – Russia in particular has a long prehistory of attempts to evade death. But most transhumanists have tended to end up in the US and specifically in Silicon Valley. I suppose that’s because these kinds of ideas get most traction there. You don’t get people laughing at you when you mention want to live forever.

The one person I really found myself grappling with, in the most profound and unsettling way, was Randal Koene. It’s his idea of uploading the human mind to a computer that I find most deeply troubling and offensive, and kind of absurd. As a person and as a communicator, though, Koene was very powerful. A lot of people who are pushing forward these ideas — people like Ray Kurzweil — tend to be impresarios. Randal was the opposite. He was very quietly spoken, very humble, very much the scientist. There were moments he really pushed me out of my scepticism – and I liked him.

Is transhumanism science or religion?

It’s not a religion: there’s no God, for instance. But at the same time I think it very obviously replaces religion in terms of certain basic yearnings and anxieties. The anxiety about death is the obvious one.

There is a very serious religious subtext to all of transhumanism’s aspirations. And at the same time, transhumanists absolutely reject that thinking, because it tends to undermine their perception of themselves as hardline rationalists and deeply science-y people. Mysticism is quite toxic to their sense of themselves.

Will their future ever arrive?

On one level, it’s already happening. We’re walking round in this miasma of information and data, almost in a state of merger with technology. That’s what we’re grappling with as a culture. But if that future means an actual merger of artificial intelligence and human intelligence, I think that’s a deeply terrifying idea, and not, touch wood, something that is ever going to happen.

Should we be worried?

That is why I’m now writing about a book about apocalyptic anxieties. It’s a way to try to get to grips with our current political and cultural moment.

To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death
Mark O’Connell
Granta/Doubleday

Elements of surprise

Reading Vera Tobin’s Elements of Surprise for New Scientist, 5 May 2018

How do characters and events in fiction differ from those in real life? And what is it about our experience of life that fiction exaggerates, omits or captures to achieve its effects?

Effective fiction is Vera Tobin’s subject. And as a cognitive scientist, she knows how pervasive and seductive it can be, even in – or perhaps especially in – the controlled environment of an experimental psychology lab.

Suppose, for instance, you want to know which parts of the brain are active when forming moral judgements, or reasoning about false beliefs. These fields and others rest on fMRI brain scans. Volunteers receive short story prompts with information about outcomes or character intentions and, while their brains are scanned, have to judge what other characters ought to know or do.

“As a consequence,” writes Tobin in her new book Elements of Surprise, “much research that is putatively about how people think about other humans… tells us just as much, if not more, about how study participants think about characters in constructed narratives.”

Tobin is weary of economists banging on about the “flaws” in our cognitive apparatus. “The science on this phenomenon has tended to focus on cataloguing errors people make in solving problems or making decisions,” writes Tobin, “but… its place and status in storytelling, sense-making, and aesthetic pleasure deserve much more attention.”

Tobin shows how two major “flaws” in our thinking are in fact the necessary and desirable consequence of our capacity for social interaction. First, we wildly underestimate our differences. We model each other in our heads and have to assume this model is accurate, even while we’re revising it, moment to moment. At the same time, we have to assume no one else has any problem performing this task – which is why we’re continually mortified to discover other people have no idea who we really are.

Similarly, we find it hard to model the mental states of people, including our past selves, who know less about something than we do. This is largely because we forget how we came to that privileged knowledge.

“Tobin is weary of economists banging on about the ‘flaws’ in our cognitive apparatus”
There are implications for autism, too. It is, Tobin says, unlikely that many people with autism “lack” an understanding that others think differently – known as “theory of mind”. It is more likely they have difficulty inhibiting their knowledge when modelling others’ mental states.

And what about Emma, titular heroine of Jane Austen’s novel? She “is all too ready to presume that her intentions are unambiguous to others and has great difficulty imagining, once she has arrived at an interpretation of events, that others might believe something different”, says Tobin. Austen’s brilliance was to fashion a plot in which Emma experiences revelations that confront the consequences of her “cursed thinking” – a cognitive bias making us assume any person with whom we communicate has the background knowledge to understand what is being said.

Just as we assume others know what we’re thinking, we assume our past selves thought as we do now. Detective stories exploit this foible. Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film, begins at the end, as it were, depicting the story’s climactic murder. We are fairly certain we know who did it, but we flashback to the past and work forward to the present only to find that we have misinterpreted everything.

I confess I was underwhelmed on finishing this excellent book. But then I remembered Sherlock Holmes’s complaint (mentioned by Tobin) that once he reveals the reasoning behind his deductions, people are no longer impressed by his singular skill. Tobin reveals valuable truths about the stories we tell to entertain each other, and those we tell ourselves to get by, and how they are related. Like any good magic trick, it is obvious once it has been explained.

Pushing the boundaries

Rounding up some cosmological pop-sci for New Scientist, 24 March 2018

IN 1872, the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann developed a theory of gases that confirmed the second law of thermodynamics, more or less proved the existence of atoms and established the asymmetry of time. He went on to describe temperature, and how it governed chemical change. Yet in 1906, this extraordinary man killed himself.

Boltzmann is the kindly if gloomy spirit hovering over Peter Atkins’s new book, Conjuring the Universe: The origins of the laws of nature. It is a cheerful, often self-deprecating account of how most physical laws can be unpacked from virtually nothing, and how some constants (the peculiarly precise and finite speed of light, for example) are not nearly as arbitrary as they sound.

Atkins dreams of a final theory of everything to explain a more-or-less clockwork universe. But rather than wave his hands about, he prefers to clarify what can be clarified, clear his readers’ minds of any pre-existing muddles or misinterpretations, and leave them, 168 succinct pages later, with a rather charming image of him tearing his hair out over the fact that the universe did not, after all, pop out of nothing.

It is thanks to Atkins that the ideas Boltzmann pioneered, at least in essence, can be grasped by us poor schlubs. Popular science writing has always been vital to science’s development. We ignore it at our peril and we owe it to ourselves and to those chipping away at the coalface of research to hold popular accounts of their work to the highest standards.

Enter Brian Clegg. He is such a prolific writer of popular science, it is easy to forget how good he is. Icon Books is keeping him busy writing short, sweet accounts for its Hot Science series. The latest, by Clegg, is Gravitational Waves: How Einstein’s spacetime ripples reveal the secrets of the universe.

Clegg delivers an impressive double punch: he transforms a frustrating, century-long tale of disappointment into a gripping human drama, affording us a vivid glimpse into the uncanny, depersonalised and sometimes downright demoralising operations of big science. And readers still come away wishing they were physicists.

Less polished, and at times uncomfortably unctuous, Catching Stardust: Comets, asteroids and the birth of the solar system is nevertheless a promising debut from space scientist and commentator Natalie Starkey. Her description of how, from the most indirect evidence, a coherent history of our solar system was assembled, is astonishing, as are the details of the mind-bogglingly complex Rosetta mission to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – a mission in which she was directly involved.

It is possible to live one’s whole life within the realms of science and discovery. Plenty of us do. So it is always disconcerting to be reminded that longer-lasting civilisations than ours have done very well without science or formal logic, even. And who are we to say they afforded less happiness and fulfilment than our own?

Nor can we tut-tut at the way ignorant people today ride science’s coat-tails – not now antibiotics are failing and the sixth extinction is chewing its way through the food chain.

Physicists, especially, find such thinking well-nigh unbearable, and Alan Lightman speaks for them in his memoir Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. He wants science to rule the physical realm and spirituality to rule “everything else”. Lightman is an elegant, sensitive writer, and he has written a delightful book about one man’s attempt to hold the world in his head.

But he is wrong. Human culture is so rich, diverse, engaging and significant, it is more than possible for people who don’t give a fig for science or even rational thinking to live lives that are meaningful to themselves and valuable to the rest of us.

“Consilience” was biologist E.O. Wilson’s word for the much-longed-for marriage of human enquiry. Lightman’s inadvertent achievement is to show that the task is more than just difficult, it is absurd.

Writing about knowing

Reading John Brockman’s anthology This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, overlooked, and underappreciated scientific concepts everyone should know for New Scientist, 24 February 2018 

Literary agent and provocateur John Brockman has turned popular science into a sort of modern shamanism, packaged non-fiction into gobbets of smart thinking, made stars of unlikely writers and continues to direct, deepen and contribute to some of the most hotly contested conversations in civic life.

This Idea Is Brilliant is the latest of Brockman’s annual anthologies drawn from edge.org, his website and shop window. It is one of the stronger books in the series. It is also one of the more troubling, addressing, informing and entertaining a public that has recently become extraordinarily confused about truth and falsehood, fact and knowledge.

Edge.org’s purpose has always been to collide scientists, business people and public intellectuals in fruitful ways. This year, the mix in the anthology leans towards the cognitive sciences, philosophy and the “freakonomic” end of the non-fiction bookshelf. It is a good time to return to basics: to ask how we know what we know, what role rationality plays in knowing, what tech does to help and hinder that knowing, and, frankly, whether in our hunger to democratise knowledge we have built a primrose-lined digital path straight to post-truth perdition.

Many contributors, biting the bullet, reckon so. Measuring the decline in the art of conversation against the rise of social media, anthropologist Nina Jablonski fears that “people are opting for leaner modes of communication because they’ve been socialized inadequately in richer ones”.

Meanwhile, an applied mathematician, Coco Krumme, turning the pages of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Lottery in Babylon, conceptualises the way our relationship with local and national government is being automated to the point where fixing wayward algorithms involves the applications of yet more algorithms. In this way, civic life becomes opaque and arbitrary: a lottery. “To combat digital distraction, they’d throttle email on Sundays and build apps for meditation,” Krumme writes. “Instead of recommender systems that reveal what you most want to hear, they’d inject a set of countervailing views. The irony is that these manufactured gestures only intensify the hold of a Babylonian lottery.”

Of course, IT wasn’t created on a whim. It is a cognitive prosthesis for significant shortfalls in the way we think. Psychologist Adam Waytz cuts to the heart of this in his essay “The illusion of explanatory depth” – a phrase describing how people “feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence and depth than they really do”.

Humility is a watchword here. If our thinking has holes in it, if we forget, misconstrue, misinterpret or persist in false belief, if we care more for the social consequences of our beliefs than their accuracy, and if we suppress our appetite for innovation in times of crisis (all subjects of separate essays here), there are consequences. Why on earth would we imagine we can build machines that don’t reflect our own biases, or don’t – in a ham-fisted effort to correct for them – create ones of their own we can barely spot, let alone fix?

Neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of several here who, searching for a solution to the “truthiness” crisis, simply appeals to basic decency. We must, he argues, be willing to be seen to change our minds: “Wherever we look, we find otherwise sane men and women making extraordinary efforts to avoid changing [them].”

He has a point. Though our cognitive biases, shortfalls and the like make us less than ideal rational agents, evolution has equipped us with social capacities that, smartly handled, run rings round the “cleverest” algorithm.

Let psychologist Abigail Marsh have the last word: “We have our flaws… but we can also claim to be the species shaped by evolution to possess the most open hearts and the greatest proclivity for caring on Earth.” This may, when all’s said and done, have to be enough.

What’s the Russian for Eastbourne?

Reading Davies and Kent’s Red Atlas for the Telegraph, 13 January 2018

This is a journey through an exotic world conjured into being by the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army. Tasked by Stalin during the Second World War to accurately and secretly map the Soviet Union, its Eastern European allies, its Western adversaries, and the rest of the world, the Directorate embarked on the largest mapping effort in history, Too many maps have been lost for us to be entirely sure what coverage was attained, but it must have been massive. Considering the UK alone, if there are detailed street plans of the market town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, we can be reasonably sure there were once maps of Carlisle and Hull.

From internal evidence (serial numbers and such-like) we know there were well in excess of 1 million maps produced. Only a few survive today, and the best preserved of them, the most beautiful, the most peculiar, the most chilling, are reproduced here. The accompanying text, by cartographers John Davies and Alexander Kent, is rich in detail, and it needs to be. Soviet intelligence maps boast a level of detail that puts our own handsome Ordnance Survey to shame — a point the authors demonstrate by putting OS maps alongside their Soviet counterparts. You can not only see my road from one of these Soviet maps: you can see how tall the surrounding buildings are. You can read the height of a nearby bridge above water, its dimensions, its load capacity, and what it is made of. As for the river, I now know its width, its flow, its depth, and whether it has a viscous bed (it hasn’t).

This is not a violent tale. There is little evidence that the mapmakers had invasion on their mind. What would have been the point? By the time Russian tanks were rolling down the A14 (Cambridge, UK, 1:10,000 City Plan of 1998), nuclear exchanges would have obliterated most of these exquisite details, carefully garnered from aerial reconnaissance, archival research, Zenit satellite footage and, yes, wonderfully, non-descript men dawdling outside factory gates and police stations. Maybe the maps were for them and their successors. Placenames are rendered phonetically: HEJSTYNZ for Hastings and “ISBON” for Eastbourne on one Polish map. This would have been useful if you were asking directions, but useless if you were in a tank speeding through hostile territory, trying to read the road signs. The Directorate’s city maps came with guides. Some of the details recorded here are sinister enough: Cambridgeshire clay “becomes waterlogged and severely impedes off-road movement of mechanized transport.” Its high hedges “significantly impede observation of the countryside”. But what are we to make of the same guide’s wistful description of the city itself? “The bank of the river Cam is lined with ivy-clad buildings of the colleges of the university, with ridged roofs and turrets… The lodging-houses with their lecture-halls are reminiscent of monasteries or ancient castles.”

Though deployed on an industrial scale, the Soviet mapmakers were artisans, who tried very hard to understand a world they would never have any opportunity to see. They did a tremendous job: why else would their maps have informed the US invasion of Afghanistan, water resource management in Armenia, or oil exploration in India? Now and again their cultural assumptions led them down strange paths. Ecclesiastical buildings lost all significance in the Republic of Ireland, whose landscape became dotted with disused watermills. In England, Beeching’s cull of the railways was incomprehensible to Russian mapmakers, for whom railways were engines of revolution. A 1971 map of Leeds sheet not only shows lines closed in the 1960s; it also depicts and names the Wellington terminus station, adjacent to City station, which had closed in 1938.

The story of the Soviets’ mapping and remapping, particularly of the UK, is an eerie one, and though their effort seems impossibly Heath-Robinson now, the reader is never tempted into complacency. Cartography remains an ambiguous art. For evidence, go to Google Maps and type in “Burghfield”. It’s a village near Reading, home to a decommissioned research station of the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Interestingly, the authors claim that though the site is visible in detail through Google Earth, for some reason Google Maps has left the site blank and unlabelled.

This claim is only partly true. The label is there, though it appears at only the smallest available scale of the map. Add the word “atomic” to your search string, and you are taken to an image that, if not particularly informative, is still adequate for a visit.

Two thoughts followed hard on this non-discovery of mine. First, that I should let this go: my idea of “adequate” mapping is likely to be a lot less rigorous than the authors’; anyway it is more than possible that this corner of Google Maps has been updated since the book went to press. Second, that my idle fact-checking placed me in a new world — or at any rate, one barely out of its adolescence. (Keyhole, the company responsible for what became Google Earth, was founded in 2001.)

Today anyone with a broadband connection can drill down to information once considered the prerogative of government analysts. Visit Google Earth’s Russia, and you can find traces of the forest belts planted as part of Stalin’s Great Transformation of Nature in 1948. You can see how industrial combines worked their way up the Volga, building hydroelectric plants that drowned an area the size of France with unplanned swamps. There’s some chauvinistic glee to be had from this, but in truth, intelligence has become simply another digital commodity: stuff to be mined, filleted, mashed up, repackaged. Open-source intelligence: OSINT. There are conferences about it. Workshops. Artworks.

The Red Atlas is not about endings. It is about beginnings. The Cold War, far from being over, has simply subsumed our civic life. Everyone is in the intelligence business now.