An interview with Lee Smolin

Can the future be predicted? In his book Time Reborn (2013), physicist Lee Smolin set out to show that the world is an unpredictable place, and that common-sense, Newtonian habits of thought prove seriously mistaken when applied to the great unbounded problems of our age, from economics to climate change.

In the first part of this interview, conducted for Arc magazine, Lee Smolin explains why Newtonian physics cannot be applied to the world as a whole, and why the work of Newton’s great rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, may hold the key to a new model of the universe.

… and in the second part Smolin explores the human implications of a world where time is real and true novelty in nature is possible.

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

Finally, I get to meet Bruce again…

… after a gap of – what? Twenty years? Last time I saw him he and William Gibson were launching their steampunk collaboration on an indifferent British public – further evidence, if any were needed, that to succeed in this game what you need most is longevity and a taste for the slow hand-clap.

Anyway, Bruce Sterling, Rachel Armstrong, Warren Ellis and I are going to be in Eindhoven, designing the city of the future this coming weekend, in a free event organised by Liam Young of Tomorrows Thoughts Today.

The exhibition Under Tomorrow’s Sky will open on August 10 at MU. (See www.undertomorrowssky.com and www.mu.nl for updates.) Our weekend-long public think tank kicks off the project by debating the social, cultural, ethical and environmental consequences of emerging technologies.

“Eavesdrop on the conversations, take part in the debates on what the future city may be and contribute to the discussions on why such speculations on tomorrow may be of critical importance for today.”

To which I would add: buttonhole me afterwards and we’ll go get a drink.

MU
Emmasingel 20
5611 AZ Eindhoven
Nederland
T +31402961663
mu@mu.nl
Saturday June 16 start at 8 pm
Sunday June 17 start at 11 am
Free entrance

Start the Week explores the digital future

Listen on Monday morning to Radio 4: you’ll find the wild and wonderful writer Nick Harkaway, design guru Anab Jain, business expert Charles Arthur and myself discussing the digital future with Andrew Marr.

Arc, New Scientist’s new digital quarterly of futures and science fiction, regularly darkens the hand towels at Anab’s outfit Superflux as we prepare a year of events, interventions, pop-up surprises and generally making things up. Nick Harkaway, on the other hand – well, you’ll have to wait till Monday to find out what we’re up to with him. Even Charles Arthur is formerly of the New Scientist (and the Independent, during Andrew Marr’s stint there in the late 1990s).

I think some of this lack-of-separation set alarm bells ringing somewhere because the show’s producer rang us all beforehand telling us not to be nice to each other. (Face to face, it’s the obvious thing to do; on air, it’s an excruciating waste of the listener’s time.)

This got me thinking about how we behave on different media. Susan Greenfield’s belief that we’re all going to hell in a handcart because of our love of new media has become the stuff of parody and legend; still, she’s on to something. We learn to behave differently as we engage through different media; we develop new responses, new forms of interaction – even new ethical codes. Not all of these have to be pretty.

It’s a stalwart reader – or an obtuse one – who takes much comfort from Charles Arthur’s new book Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Battle for the Internet. The pace at which the digital economy is deskilling the workforce is breathtaking: the very idea of “digital commerce” is being called into question as the number of serious players on the web falls toward single figures. The internet doesn’t like democracy. The internet doesn’t want to be free. The internet wants to be a vertical monopoly. It wants to be Hollywood, circa 1930. Or, just possibly, something worse.

Nick Harkaway thinks we can still harness this grinning Stalinist golem to our own humble, human needs. The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World is his attempt to resuscitate the idea of the internet as a civic space. Myself, I think the tide is against him, but he makes a hell of a splash.

Anab is a designer, entrepreneur, TED Fellow and founder of Superflux, a multidisciplinary design company. (I guess you need a CV of that sort if you want to be profiled in both Popular Science and Marie Claire.) It’s Superflux’s job to realise ideas about the future in props, videos, stories and working models. Superflux designs everything from mechanical bees to prosthetic vision systems for the blind, seeing these concepts through from drawing board to real-world trials. Anab is upfront about the fact that her work is provocative. It might not be a great idea to let the world’s bee population go hang and rely instead on synthetic pollinators. “But the technology that could allow this is waiting to happen. If we don’t create these experience prototypes and stories, it’s difficult for us to fully interrogate the technology before it’s out in the world.”

I don’t think it’s any accident that, as we try to imagine our digital future, we reach, not just for stories, not just for opinions, but also for props, for things we can handle; for toys, basically. “Futurism” is a very serious-sounding idea; yet 99 per cent of the job is – has to be – play.

 

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.

What is science fiction anyway?

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I call it The Conversation. You know the one. It has a tendency to erupt whenever more than three science fiction fans gather in one place. Science fiction is that genre whose readers tend to ask: “But what is science fiction anyway?” No other genre is as obsessed with self-definition.

I haven’t had The Conversation for a while. The nearest I’ve come to it was a couple of months back, at a public debate convened to discuss the proposition that science fiction (whatever that is) is the only form of literature that’s relevant for our times.

After all, how can we write about the real world *without* science fiction? We are all, after all, cyborgs. We’re born in intensive care, and we die there. In between we neck pharmaceuticals, conduct meaningful relationships through the screens of our TVs, computers and phones, and hurtle about in the bellies of huge, mechanical beasts. Even my spectacles are a caveman’s bionics. It will be science and technology that make us whatever we are tomorrow. And it’s science fiction that tells us what to expect.

The world is full of journals and websites and blogs telling us what the future might look like. Harder to find, and set in ever-clearer opposition, are works of science fiction that dare to set out what this future might mean for us. And sometimes it’s the least “accurate” science fiction that has the most to say. Earlier this year, William Gibson put it this way: that science fiction is a way of examining the present without having to cope with the terrifying reality of looking directly at it.

Another of my fellow panelists, the author and academic Adam Roberts, noted that science fiction often gets the technology wrong in order to get the priorities right. Even when science fiction is at its most stolid, trying its damnedest to be about things rather than people, it still ends up saying a whole lot about optimism, anxiety, shamanism and snake oil. There’s truth about people, and there’s truth about technology. The two aren’t the same.

Perhaps that’s what Margaret Atwood was driving at when she explained that she writes speculative fiction (about how we get from here to there) rather than science fiction (which starts there, among the octopuses and spaceships). It’s a perfectly workable distinction. Inevitably, it led to The Conversation, immense heat, and very little light.

In recent years, the Arthur C Clarke Awards have revealed a lot about how contemporary writers regard the genre. The word “confused” springs to mind: Kazuo Ishiguro turned up (for Never Let Me Go); Cormac McCarthy’s The Road wasn’t even submitted.

Science fiction impresario Tom Hunter saved the Clarke Award from extinction when its eponymous benefactor died. When he revamped the Award to be more diverse in its nominations, he found himself facing accusations that he was trying to out-do the The Man Booker prize.

It was quite a compliment, in its way: The Man Booker, after all, wants to stand for literary excellence (whatever *that* is). But Tom thinks the comparison is false. The Clarke isn’t the Man Booker, so much as the Turner Prize. It’s the Turner, after all, that continually throws up new definitions of what modern British art actually is.

Why do lovers of science fiction waste so much of their time on The Conversation? I think it’s out of a fear that the literature they love, let off the leash entirely, would simply run off without them with never a backward glance. Science fiction is notorious, after all, for biting the hand that feeds it, for deliberately running counter to all expectation, and getting lost for decades at a time in the contested, sometimes ugly territory where the humanities leave off and the sciences begin. Science fiction prides itself on crashing and burning, again and again, against the walls of narrative expectation and good taste. It’s the Gully Foyle of literature, fearsome and damaged and perilous in its promise: a Prometheus figure shoving fire in your face. “Catch *this!*”

That’s the proposition that we’ve set out to explore in Arc, a new digital magazine that’s about the future – the promise and the terror of it. We’ve enlisted some of the finest writers of our time to explore our growing conviction that, for good or ill, science and technology have acquired spiritual power over us – and that science fiction really has become our only truly relevant literary genre.

Is Arc a science fiction magazine? Perhaps. Until something better turns up. But these things turn on a penny, and the future – whatever *that* is – always wins.

Announcing Arc

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The first of several tantalising press releases…

 

For immediate release
 
February 2012 will see the debut of Arc, a bold new digital publication from the makers of New Scientist.
 
Arc will explore the future through cutting-edge science fiction and forward-looking essays by some of the world’s most celebrated authors – backed up with columns by thinkers and practitioners from the worlds of books, design, gaming, film and more.
 
Arc 1.1 is edited by Simon Ings, author of acclaimed genre-spanning novels The Weight of Numbers and Dead Water. Simon, who made his name with a trio of ground-breaking cyberpunk novels, is a frequent commentator on science, science fiction and all points in between.
 
“Arc is an experiment in how we talk about the future,” Simon explains. “We wanted to get past sterile ‘visions’ and dream up futures that evoke textures and flavours and passions.” The response, he says, has been amazing. “I feel like the dog that caught the car,” he says. “The appetite to be part of this project has been huge. Writers have seized the opportunity to showcase their thoughts, their dreams, their anxieties and their opinions about our future.”
 
For New Scientist editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Arc is an opportunity to explore new territory.  “We’ve known for many years that our readers are fascinated by the future and all the possibilities it raises. But as a magazine of science fact, we can’t indulge that fascination very often,” he explains. “Arc will explore the endless vistas opened up by today’s science and technology. While it’s a very different venture from New Scientist, it will share its unique combination of intelligence, wit and charm.”
 
John MacFarlane, Online Publisher of New Scientist, says “I am thrilled to be involved in the launch of this new title. The combination of superb content and an innovative digital publishing model make for a very exciting project and I am sure a broad range of readers will love Arc.”
 
Arc 1.1 will be available from mid-February 2012 on iPad, Kindle and as a limited print edition.
 
Interested readers are invited to register to find out more at www.arcfinity.org