The tomorrow person

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You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the future by Jonathon Keats
reviewed for New Scientist, 11 June 2016.

 

IN 1927 the suicidal manager of a building materials company, Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, stood by the shores of Lake Michigan and decided he might as well live. A stern voice inside him intimated that his life after all had a purpose, “which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world”.

And share it he did, tirelessly for over half a century, with houses hung from masts, cars with inflatable wings, a brilliant and never-bettered equal-area map of the world, and concepts for massive open-access distance learning, domed cities and a new kind of playful, collaborative politics. The tsunami that Fuller’s wing flap set in motion is even now rolling over us, improving our future through degree shows, galleries, museums and (now and again) in the real world.

Indeed, Fuller’s”comprehensive anticipatory design scientists” are ten-a-penny these days. Until last year, they were being churned out like sausages by the design interactions department at the Royal College of Art, London. Futurological events dominate the agendas of venues across New York, from the Institute for Public Knowledge to the International Center of Photography. “Science Galleries”, too, are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, from London to Bangalore.

In You Belong to the Universe, Jonathon Keats, himself a critic, artist and self-styled “experimental philosopher”, looks hard into the mirror to find what of his difficult and sometimes pantaloonish hero may still be traced in the lineaments of your oh-so-modern “design futurist”.

Be in no doubt: Fuller deserves his visionary reputation. He grasped in his bones, as few have since, the dynamism of the universe. At the age of 21, Keats writes, “Bucky determined that the universe had no objects. Geometry described forces.”

A child of the aviation era, he used materials sparingly, focusing entirely on their tensile properties and on the way they stood up to wind and weather. He called this approach “doing more with less”. His light and sturdy geodesic dome became an icon of US ingenuity. He built one wherever his country sought influence, from India to Turkey to Japan.

Chapter by chapter, Keats asks how the future has served Fuller’s ideas on city planning, transport, architecture, education. It’s a risky scheme, because it invites you to set Fuller’s visions up simply to knock them down again with the big stick of hindsight. But Keats is far too canny for that trap. He puts his subject into context, works hard to establish what would and would not be reasonable for him to know and imagine, and explains why the history of built and manufactured things turned out the way it has, sometimes fulfilling, but more often thwarting, Fuller’s vision.

This ought to be a profoundly wrong-headed book, judging one man’s ideas against the entire recent history of Spaceship Earth (another of Fuller’s provocations). But You Belong to the Universe says more about Fuller and his future in a few pages than some whole biographies, and renews one’s interest – if not faith – in all those graduate design shows.

Designs with the world on their shoulders

PITCHAfrica's Waterbank Campus, a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya

PITCHAfrica’s Waterbank Campus, a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya

In friendly competition with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet Horace Smith once wrote a poem entitled Ozymandias. Shelley’s version is the one we remember, but Smith’s is compelling for another reason. He imagines a hunter traipsing through the ruins of a future London. Lighting upon a fragment of a monument, he “stops to guess/What powerful but unrecorded race/Once dwelt in that annihilated place”.

For New Scientist, 18 April 2015: a review of the 2015 Designs of the Year competition.

Creative. Interactive. Wrong.

People are by far the easiest animals to train. Whenever you try to get some bit of technology to work better, you can be sure that you are also training yourself. Steadily, day by day, we are changing our behaviours to better fit with the limitations of our digital environment. Whole books have been written about this, but we keep making the same mistakes. On 6 November 2014, at Human Interactive, a day-long conference on human-machine interaction at Goldsmith’s College in London, Rodolphe Gelin, the research director of robot-makers Aldebaran, screened a video starring Nao, the company’s charming educational robot. It took a while before someone in the audience (not me) spotted the film’s obvious flaw: how come the mother is sweating away in the kitchen while the robot is enjoying quality time with her child?

We still obsess over the “labour-saving” capacities of our machines, still hanker after more always-elusive “free time”, but we never think to rethink the value of labour itself. This is the risk we run: that we will save ourselves from the very labour that makes our lives worthwhile.

Organised by William Latham and Frederic Fol Leymarie, Human Interactive was calculated (quite deliberately, I expect) to stir unease.

Beyond the jolly, anecdotal presentations about the computer games industry from Creative Assembly’s Guy Davidson and game designer Jed Ashforth, there emerged a rather unflattering vision of how humans best interact with machines. The biophysicist Michael Sternberg, for instance, is harnessing the wisdom of crowds to gamify and thereby solve difficult problems in systems biology and bioinformatics. For Sternberg’s purposes, people are effectively interchangeable components in a kind of meat parallel-processing system. Individually, we do have some merit: we are good at recognising and classifying patterns. Thisat least makes us better than pigeons, but only at the things that pigeons are good at already.

Sternberg would be mortified to see his work described in such terms – but this is the point: human projects, fed through the digital mill, emerge with their humanity stripped away. It’s up to people at the receiving end of the milling process to put the humanity back in. I wasn’t sure, listening to Nilli Lavie’s presentation on attention, to what human benefit her studies would be put. The UCL neuroscientist’s key point is well taken – that people perform best when they are neither overloaded with information, nor deprived of sufficient stimulus. But what did she mean by her claim that wandering attention loses the US economy around two billion dollars a year? Were American minds to be perfectly focused, all the year round, would that usher in some sort of actuarial New Jerusalem? Or would it merely extinguish all American dreaming? Without a space for minds to wander in, where would a new idea – any new idea – actually come from?

Not that ideas will save us. Ideas, in fact, got us into this mess in the first place, by reminding us that the world as-is is less than it could be. We are very good at dreaming up scenarios that we are not currently experiencing. We are all too capable of imagining elusive “perfect” experiences. Digital media feed these yearnings. There is something magical about a balanced spreadsheet, a glitchless virtual surface, the beauty of a symmetrical avatar under perfect, unreal light.

Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder and director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, is painfully aware of how digital media encourage our obessive and addictive behaviours. Games are hardly the new tobacco — at least, not yet — but psychologists are being hired to make them ever-more addictive; Bowden-Jones’s impressively understated presentation suggested that games may soon generate behavioral and social problems as acute as those thrown up by on-line gambling.

The day after the conference, Goldsmith’s College hosted Creative Machine, a week-long exhibition of machine creativity. In a church abutting the campus, robots sketched human skulls, balanced pendulums, and noodled around with evolutionary algorithms.I expected still more alienation, a surfeit of anxiety. In fact, Creative Machine left me feeling strangely reassured.

Those of us who play with computers, or know a little about science, harbour what amounts to a religious conviction: that that somewhere deep down, at the bottom of this messy reality, there is an order at work. Call it mathematics, or physics, or reason. Whichever way you cut it, we believe there’s a law. But this just isn’t true. Put a computer to work in the real world, and it messes up. More exciting still, it messes up in just the ways we would. Félix Luque Sánchez’s simple robots on rails shuttle backwards and forwards in a brave and ultimately futile attempt to balance a pendulum. Anyone who’s ever tried to balance a book on their head will recognise themselves in every move, every acceleration, every hesitation – every failure.

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Even a robot who knows what it’s doing will get entangled. Patrick Tresset has programmed a robot called Paul with the rules of life drawing and draughtsmanship. Paul, presented with a still-life, follows these rules unthinkingly – and yet every picture it churns out is unique, shaped by tiny, unrepeatable fluctations in its environment (a snaggy biro, a heavy-footed passer-by, a cloud crossing the sun…).

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If an emblem were needed for this show, then Cécile Babiole provides it. She has run the phrase “NE DOIS PAS COPIER” (literally: “one shouldn’t copy”) through a 3-D copier, over and over again, playing a familiar game of generational loss. And it’s the strangest thing: as they decay, her printed plastic letters take on organic form, become weeds, become coral, become limbs and organs. They lose their original meaning, only to acquire others. They do not become nothing, the way an over-photocopied picture becomes nothing. They become rich and strange.

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Maths, rationality and science are magnificent tools with which to investigate the world. But we commit a massive and dangerous category error when we assume the world is built out of maths and reason.

With a conference to beat us, and an exhibition to entice us, Latham and Fol Leymarie have led us, without us ever really noticing, to a view of new kind of digital future. A future of approximations and mistakes and acts of bricolage. It is not a human future, particularly. But it is a future that accommodates us, and we should probably be grateful.

Put out more flags

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The meetngreet staff at NESTA, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, have a lot invested in the idea that their bulgy Fetter Lane new-build is larger and more complex than it actually is.

There’s an open-plan space with a desk and two meeting pods made of safety glass and egg boxes. The cloakroom is to the left of the right-hand pod and the room where they’re launching the 2014 Longitude Prize is to the right. You go left (there isn’t a cloakroom as such, just a cupboard) and immediately you’re intercepted by a meetngreet following a clockwise orbit around the left-hand pod. “You must be lost,” she says, pointing you in a direction you don’t want to go. All this in a space about 400-foot square.

Inside the room, the brains behind the revivification of the British government’s Longitude Prize of 1714 are taking it in turns to downplay the significance of the enterprise. Iain Grey, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, worries at the value of prize before jettisoning the word entirely in favour of “challenge-led agendas”, whatever the hell they are.

Honestly, it’s as if the X-Prize had never happened. The razzmatazz, the music, the black T shirts. The working laptop presentations. Here it’s all apologies and self-deprecation and a recalcitrant Windows 7 install making everyone look like a bit of a tit.

The canapes were excellent but there should have been bunting, damn it. There should have been flags. A good, worthwhile prize is always welcome. True, there’s a world of difficulty to be got through, making a prize good and worthwhile. But so far, NESTA seem to have paid their dues, and anyone who watched the BBC’s Horizon documentary last night may reasonably conclude that they’ve come up with a winner.

Until June 25, the public can vote for one of six challenges which, if met, would go some way to changing the world for the better. Do you want ecologically sustainable air travel, nutrition sufficient to keep the world’s population going, something to replace defunct antibiotics, machines to ameliorate paralysis, clean water, or independent lives for those with dementia?

As a piece of public engagement with science, it’s a triumph – and that’s before the competition proper gets started. The winning challenge stands for a decade or so, and whoever meets it wins ten million quid. The expectation, I presume, is that consortiums representing commercial and academic interests will spend much, much more than they could possibly be recouped from the prize money. The victory’s the thing, after all. The kudos. The column inches, and venture capitalists waving their chequebooks outside the door.

“This prize, on it’s own, won’t change the world,” says the prize’s lead, health entrepreneur Tamar Ghosh, underselling all her hard work. She should read more aviation history. These sorts of prizes can, and do, precisely that.

Life signs

Image: @LydNicholas (swiped from her twitter feed)

Image: @LydNicholas (swiped from her twitter feed)

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and the editors of Synthetic Aesthetics pulled no punches when they launched their new book at a “Friday late” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. A couple of audience members interrupted to bemoan the sheer abstractness of the enterprise. Why couldn’t the panel explain what synthetic biologists actually did? A rather unfair criticism of an event that scattered living biological materials across every floor of the museum. The task of explaining where beauty sits in the world of synthetic biology fell to Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, California. Endy explained how, when synthetic biology began, its self-styled “engineers” treated living things as wayward and overcomplicated machines, in need of radical simplification. Now, researchers are learning to appreciate and harness biological complexity. “Ford’s original Model T motor car was simple, in engineering terms, but it was hell to operate. A Tesla is complicated but a pleasure to drive.” Standards of beauty are fuzzy, personal and intuitive. They inspire real conversations. So I imagine talking about beauty in design is useful for a discipline that’s constantly struggling with its own hype, never mind other people’s panic.

Dialling out

Bumper, Blackspot and Stateless. Three short films by the critical designer and futurist Tobias Revell, with cinematographer Joseph Popper.

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Silent, Mostly unpeopled. Still. Lighthouse, Brighton’s digital agency, commissioned these films for House 2014, the town’s annual visual arts festival, which runs until 25 May.

A woman hunts out a digital shadow from where, unmolested, she can dial up vital personal information.

A man hunkers down on Dungenness beach to access domestic French web-servers in an attempt to evade trading restrictions.

A journalist wipes his personal identity and assembles a new one in minutes, to evade the forces of state security.

This is what these films are about. What they actually do is different. What they give you. Calm, and silence, and – oddly – a sense of there being nothing to see.

Roll film again: a woman walks through an industrial estate, studying her smart phone. A man crouches inside a fisherman’s tent, his back to the camera. Another man sits down in a library, then leaves.

The events, the implications, the politics of states and borders, are clear enough, and are what gives these films their pompous portmanteau title – The Monopoly of Legitimate Use, indeed – and their utility for a festival centred around ideas of “migration, refuge and territory”.

But these events, these transactions and transgressions, aren’t really taking place in the physical world at all. They are taking place on-line; on and in and behind glass; at most, in the reflections of tears.

They are not cold films, but they do locate their human action in the digital elsewhere, leaving their actors largely inexpressive, their turmoils and triumphs implied through the plot. Told, not shown.

The result is strangely hopeful. Revell’s is world of borders and restrictions, by-laws and embargoes. But his people, through the cumulative effect of countless subtle transgressions, have already evaded it. They are not escaping, they have already escaped, to the Other Side.

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.)

Phantom Menaces

written for the Arcfinity blog:

Google’s swooshy new concept video for augmented reality goggles (or “spex”, if you will) has certainly put the virtual cat among the digital pigeons. An attempt, perhaps, to leapfrog the iPad – if Google can persuade us that what we really want is headwear that will let us see things that aren’t really there.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c6W4CCU9M4?rel=0]

I recently spent an entire evening doing just that. Aurasma, a start-up spun out of Autonomy (another search giant, incidentally), aims to bring AR to the masses;
that evening, its glamorous representatives pasted digital magic over a south London gallery’s functional white-and-grey surfaces.

Rice packets came to life in our hands to show us how to cook rice. Books spilled their letters into our laps; they took wing and flocked about our heads like so many starlings. Avatars swung their swords blindly about the gallery.

AR is one of a handful of technologies that are likely to transform our lives in the very near future. And I don’t use the ‘T’ word lightly.

People talk about the great things AR can show you. Every wall becomes a picture! Every picture becomes a movie! Every object becomes something other, something better than itself – or seems to.

Oddly nobody talks about AR’s ability to hide things. And since I’d been invited along in the role of Ancient Mariner (stopping one of three with tales of future horror – I am a writer after all; this is my job) it was this ability to subtract from the visual richness of the real which interested me the most.

Never mind the avatars and the rice-packets: these are distractions, no different in kind to movies, posters, fiercely rung handbells, and all the other manifold calls to our attention. Let’s get back to basics here. What does it mean to look at the world through a screen?

The granularity of the world is always going to be finer than the granularity of the medium through which we perceive it. No matter how photorealistic AR gets, it will always be taking information out of the picture plane.

So AR has the potential to render the world down to a kind of tedious photographic grammar – the kind employed by commercial image libraries, whose job it is to reduce the world to a series of unambiguous stills illustrating stock ideas like ‘busy at work’ or ‘looking after the children’.

This is nothing new. Photography has the ability to do this, obviously. But photography cannot be stuck over (or in) your eyeballs twenty-four hours a day.

AR has this potential, substituting the real with a simplified description for anyone wearing the funny glasses.

Lacanian psychoanalysts have a word for this process of simplification: they call it repression. And if AR becomes truly ubiquitous, then we will no longer be able to trust our eyes, and will probably have to develop a neurotic relationship with this technology.

Is AR a good thing, then, or a bad thing? This is the kind of question we’re trying to avoid in Arc. Not because it is a hard question, but because it is a bad question. It assumes we have no agency, no wit, no common sense. It assumes we’re at the mercy of our own technology.

The problems thrown up by AR will not be new. They will be old. They will be fairytale-like problems. (Is that woman by the bar a fairy, a queen, or a crone? Is the wizard touting for trade in the shopping centre a wizard at all, or a mere trickster? Is our Prime Minister really wearing any clothes?) It may be that, in order to navigate this fairytale visual space, AR will give birth to an entirely new set of visual behaviours.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Look at reading. There is nothing ‘natural’ – certainly nothing evolved – about it. But we welcome its effects, and we build upon them, and we celebrate them. In some ways reading makes us less -it’s been shooting human memory in the foot repeatedly since Plato’s day. In other ways it makes us more: it
allows us to share the knowledge and experiences of people we will never meet, of people who have ceased to exist, of people who never existed. AR will do the same.

Under Tomorrow’s Sky

On June 16 2013, urbanist Liam Young brought together an ensemble of thinkers, writers and artists to forge the collaborative blueprint for a future city. I went along to rub shoulders with, among others, Warren Ellis, Rachel Armstrong and Bruce Sterling, and to film this wrap-up discussion between Sterling and Young.