The dreams our stuff is made of

To introduce a New Scientist speaking event at London’s Barbican centre on 29 June, I took a moment to wonder why the present looks so futuristic.

Long before we can build something for real, we know how it will work and what it will require by way of materials and design. The steampunk genre gorges on Victorian designs for steam-powered helicopters (yes, there were such things) and the like, with films such as Hugo (2011) and gaming apps such as 80 Days (2014) telescoping the hard business of materials science into the twinkling of a mad professor’s eye. Always, our imaginations run ahead of our physical abilities.

At the same time, science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why our dreams of transcendence through technology fail: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. Blade Runner (1982) didn’t so much inspire the current deluge of in-yer-face urban advertising as realise our worst nightmares about it. Short Circuit (1986) knew what was wrong with robotic warfare long before the first Predator aircraft took to the skies.

So yes, science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama: polished, chromed, complete, not infrequently camp. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam. This genre takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital – a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes,  in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. In Alphaville (1965), futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of a distant space city, yet there is no set dressing to Alphaville: it is all dialogue, all cut – nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand – tinsel and Panstick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Time Lord was tearing up the set of Doctor Who and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned.

Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick or a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said, we’re bolting this together as we go along.

What hostile critics say is true, in that science fiction sometimes is more about the machines than about the people. Metropolis (1927) director Fritz Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond (1929) and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre-tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building a rocket 11 metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily, they ran out of money.

The technocratic ideal may seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines – the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, perhaps.

Once Star Trek‘s Federation established heaven on Earth (and elsewhere), however, then we hit a sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched his show to Desilu Studios as “wagon train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: The moving picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you actually reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness.

If the teleportation device is not the point of your story, then you may as well use a rappelling rope. Why spend your set budget on an impressive-looking telescope? Why not just have your actor point out of the window? The day your show’s props become merely props is the day you’re not making science fiction any more.

Stanisław Lem: The man with the future inside him


From the 1950s, science fiction writer Stanisław Lem began firing out prescient explorations of our present and far beyond. His vision is proving unparalleled.
For New Scientist, 16 November 2016

“POSTED everywhere on street corners, the idiot irresponsibles twitter supersonic approval, repeating slogans, giggling, dancing…” So it goes in William Burroughs’s novel The Soft Machine (1961). Did he predict social media? If so, he joins a large and mostly deplorable crowd of lucky guessers. Did you know that in Robert Heinlein’s 1948 story Space Cadet, he invented microwave food? Do you care?

There’s more to futurology than guesswork, of course, and not all predictions are facile. Writing in the 1950s, Ray Bradbury predicted earbud headphones and elevator muzak, and foresaw the creeping eeriness of today’s media-saturated shopping mall culture. But even Bradbury’s guesses – almost everyone’s guesses, in fact – tended to exaggerate the contemporary moment. More TV! More suburbia! Videophones and cars with no need of roads. The powerful, topical visions of writers like Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke are visions of what the world would be like if the 1950s (the 1960s, the 1970s…) went on forever.

And that is why Stanisław Lem, the Polish satirist, essayist, science fiction writer and futurologist, had no time for them. “Meaningful prediction,” he wrote, “does not lie in serving up the present larded with startling improvements or revelations in lieu of the future.” He wanted more: to grasp the human adventure in all its promise, tragedy and grandeur. He devised whole new chapters to the human story, not happy endings.

And, as far as I can tell, Lem got everything – everything – right. Less than a year before Russia and the US played their game of nuclear chicken over Cuba, he nailed the rational madness of cold-war policy in his book Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961). And while his contemporaries were churning out dystopias in the Orwellian mould, supposing that information would be tightly controlled in the future, Lem was conjuring with the internet (which did not then exist), and imagining futures in which important facts are carried away on a flood of falsehoods, and our civic freedoms along with them. Twenty years before the term “virtual reality” appeared, Lem was already writing about its likely educational and cultural effects. He also coined a better name for it: “phantomatics”. The books on genetic engineering passing my desk for review this year have, at best, simply reframed ethical questions Lem set out in Summa Technologiae back in 1964 (though, shockingly, the book was not translated into English until 2013). He dreamed up all the usual nanotechnological fantasies, from spider silk space-elevator cables to catastrophic “grey goo”, decades before they entered the public consciousness. He wrote about the technological singularity – the idea that artificial superintelligence would spark runaway technological growth – before Gordon Moore had even had the chance to cook up his “law” about the exponential growth of computing power. Not every prediction was serious. Lem coined the phrase “Theory of Everything”, but only so he could point at it and laugh.

He was born on 12 September 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv in Ukraine). His abiding concern was the way people use reason as a white stick as they steer blindly through a world dominated by chance and accident. This perspective was acquired early, while he was being pressed up against a wall by the muzzle of a Nazi machine gun – just one of several narrow escapes. “The difference between life and death depended upon… whether one went to visit a friend at 1 o’clock or 20 minutes later,” he recalled.

Though a keen engineer and inventor – in school he dreamed up the differential gear and was disappointed to find it already existed – Lem’s true gift lay in understanding systems. His finest childhood invention was a complete state bureaucracy, with internal passports and an impenetrable central office.

He found the world he had been born into absurd enough to power his first novel (Hospital of the Transfiguration, 1955), and might never have turned to science fiction had he not needed to leap heavily into metaphor to evade the attentions of Stalin’s literary censors. He did not become really productive until 1956, when Poland enjoyed a post-Stalinist thaw, and in the 12 years following he wrote 17 books, among them Solaris (1961), the work for which he is best known by English speakers.

Solaris is the story of a team of distraught experts in orbit around an inscrutable and apparently sentient planet, trying to come to terms with its cruel gift-giving (it insists on “resurrecting” their dead). Solaris reflects Lem’s pessimistic attitude to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s not that alien intelligences aren’t out there, Lem says, because they almost certainly are. But they won’t be our sort of intelligences. In the struggle for control over their environment they may as easily have chosen to ignore communication as respond to it; they might have decided to live in a fantastical simulation rather than take their chances any longer in the physical realm; they may have solved the problems of their existence to the point at which they can dispense with intelligence entirely; they may be stoned out of their heads. And so on ad infinitum. Because the universe is so much bigger than all of us, no matter how rigorously we test our vaunted gift of reason against it, that reason is still something we made – an artefact, a crutch. As Lem made explicit in one of his last novels, Fiasco (1986), extraterrestrial versions of reason and reasonableness may look very different to our own.

Lem understood the importance of history as no other futurologist ever has. What has been learned cannot be unlearned; certain paths, once taken, cannot be retraced. Working in the chill of the cold war, Lem feared that our violent and genocidal impulses are historically constant, while our technical capacity for destruction will only grow.

Should we find a way to survive our own urge to destruction, the challenge will be to handle our success. The more complex the social machine, the more prone it will be to malfunction. In his hard-boiled postmodern detective story The Chain of Chance (1975), Lem imagines a very near future that is crossing the brink of complexity, beyond which forms of government begin to look increasingly impotent (and yes, if we’re still counting, it’s here that he makes yet another on-the-money prediction by describing the marriage of instantly accessible media and global terrorism).

Say we make it. Say we become the masters of the universe, able to shape the material world at will: what then? Eventually, our technology will take over completely from slow-moving natural selection, allowing us to re-engineer our planet and our bodies. We will no longer need to borrow from nature, and will no longer feel any need to copy it.

At the extreme limit of his futurological vision, Lem imagines us abandoning the attempt to understand our current reality in favour of building an entirely new one. Yet even then we will live in thrall to the contingencies of history and accident. In Lem’s “review” of the fictitious Professor Dobb’s book Non Serviam, Dobb, the creator, may be forced to destroy the artificial universe he has created – one full of life, beauty and intelligence – because his university can no longer afford the electricity bills. Let’s hope we’re not living in such a simulation.

Most futurologists are secret utopians: they want history to end. They want time to come to a stop; to author a happy ending. Lem was better than that. He wanted to see what was next, and what would come after that, and after that, a thousand, ten thousand years into the future. Having felt its sharp end, he knew that history was real, that the cause of problems is solutions, and that there is no perfect world, neither in our past nor in our future, assuming that we have one.

By the time he died in 2006, this acerbic, difficult, impatient writer who gave no quarter to anyone – least of all his readers – had sold close to 40 million books in more than 40 languages, and earned praise from futurologists such as Alvin Toffler of Future Shock fame, scientists from Carl Sagan to Douglas Hofstadter, and philosophers from Daniel Dennett to Nicholas Rescher.

“Our situation, I would say,” Lem once wrote, “is analogous to that of a savage who, having discovered the catapult, thought that he was already close to space travel.” Be realistic, is what this most fantastical of writers advises us. Be patient. Be as smart as you can possibly be. It’s a big world out there, and you have barely begun.


The tomorrow person


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.

Dialling out

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


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.

Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem

I reviewed this mix of prescience, philosophy and irony for New Scientist’s Culture Lab.

Here’s a more relaxed version for Lem initiates:

Stanislaw Lem

Image shamelessly ripped from Aleksander Jalosinski


Halfway through his epic cybernetic rewiring of the Western cultural project, at the top of his rhetorical curve, and scant pages before the neologisms begin to gum and tack, tripping the reader’s feet (the second half is a slog), Polish satirist Stanislaw Lem recasts the entire universe as a boarding house inhabited by Mr Smith, a bank clerk, his puritanical aunt, and a female lodger.
The boarding house has a glass wall, and all the greats of science are about to look through that wall and draw truths about the universe from what they observe. Ptolemy notes how, when the aunt goes down to the cellar to fetch some vegetables, Mr Smith kisses the lodger. He develops a purely descriptive theory, “thanks to which one can know in advance which position will be taken by the two upper bodies when the loqwer one finds itself in the lowest position.”
Newton enters. “He declares that the bodies’ behaviour depends on their mutual attraction.”
So it goes on. Heisenberg notices some indeterminacy in their behaviour: “For instance, in the state of kissing, Mr Smith’s arms do not always occupy the same position.”
And on. And on. Mathematics comes unstuck in the ensuing complexity, where “a neural equivalent of an act of sneezing would be a volume whose cover would have to be lifted with a crane.”
Science is steadily pushing us into a Goethian cul-de-sac in which, the more accurate our theory, the closer it comes to the phenomenon itself, in all its ambiguity, strangeness, and inexplicability. At this point, Lem says, analysis must be abandoned in favour of creative activity — “imitological practice.” as he would have it, “considering the phenomenon itself its most perfect representation.”
There are nested ironies here, and it’s the devil’s work to unpick them all. Then again, any reader of Lem will have guessed this from the off, and will relish the opportunity afforded by this English translation – incredibly, for a book written in 1964 by a literary celebrity and reasonably well translated elsewhere, the first in the English language. Summa’s translator is Joanna Zylinska, a professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths. Her work is diligent, imaginative, painstakingly precise; sometimes one wishes, in the later chapters, that she would be a little more slapdash and cut to the chase a little more, but this is Lem’s fault, not hers.
Lem was a garrulous old sod who said Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 version of his novel Solaris should have been renamed “Love in Outer Space” and put up a sign outside his house warning of “ferocious dogs” (in truth, five friendly dachshunds). Though he had some important intellectual training, Lem ploughed his own furrow, conjuring with ideas that would not become common currency for another half-century:  (virtual reality, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, technological singularity…) When he succumbs to the autodidact’s anxiety, his prose is not pretty.
But then, Lem always worked at the edge of aesthetic possibility — which is to say, he was a science fiction writer. Science fiction is notorious 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, often 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 deranged and perilous in its promise: a Prometheus figure shoving fire in your face. “Catch this!”
This is what the Summa throws up: a vision of intelligence as cul-de-sac. Intelligence carries conscious beings to a point where their theories are no longer useful to them, where their hard-won objectivity drowns in a glut of complexity, and the only way to forward is for them to grow into the fabric of the world.
Fermi’s paradox: “If we are alive and intelligent and making some noise, where, in all the cosmos, is everybody else?”
Lem’s answer: Look at the rocks. Intelligence is a stepping stone on a circular path back to brute is-ness.
So much for cosmic irony; there’s a local, political irony here too, which needs some more exploration.
You see, after the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland, Lem was banned from Polytechnic study owing to his “bourgeois origin”. His father pulled strings to get him accepted on a course in medicine at Lwów University in 1940, but this brought him up against the quack theories of Stalin’s intellectual poster-boy, the agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. Lem satirized Lysenko in a science magazine and soon abandoned his medical studies.
A word about Lysenko. With the blood of millions already on his hands from collectivisation – not to mention the wholesale eradication of countless varieties of domesticated plant – Josef Stalin needed to feed what was left of his nation. He wanted food and he wanted it now. Enter Trofim Denisovich, peddling an idea of evolution already two centuries out of date. Lysenko said things change their form in response to the environment, and pass any changes directly to their offspring. No element of chance. No randomness in selection. No genetic code to learn. Giraffes have long necks because their parents stretch.
And there is no brake on this process, neither, according to Lysenko. No natural conservatism. Things want to change. They just need some kindly direction. Spin your wheel and stick in your thumbs: the living world is clay. Oats will turn to wild oats, pines to firs, sunflowers to zinnias. Animal cells will turn into plant cells. Plants into animals! Cells from soup! “How can there be hereditary diseases in a socialist society?” From the nonliving will come the living.
Fast forward twenty years, and we have the Summa, and the Summa says,
“We cannot therefore catalogue Nature, our finitude being one of the reasons for this. Yet we can turn Nature’s infinity against it, so to speak by working, as Technologists…”
And what, exactly, will this work look like? (Bear in mind here that Lysenko cited the brilliant fruit-tree specialist Ivan Michurin as his intellectual forebear):
“A scientist wants an algorithm, wheras the technologist is more like a gardener who plants a tree, picks apples, and is not bothered about “how the tree did it.” A scientist considers such a narrow, utiliterian and pragmatic approach a sin against the laws of Full Knowledge. It seems that those attitudes will change in the future.”
The Summa is not just Lem’s vision of the future; it is Lysenko’s.
Of course this (irony of ironies) doesn’t mean that the vision is merely mischevious, a bitter political joke (though I think it is that). Perhaps Lem thinks Lysenko was simply ahead of his time, reaching for a plasticity in nature that it will take another century of biological research to effect.
Predictably, from a writer who seems permanently dangling off the edge of everyone else’s intellectual curve, Lem’s minatory vision is being explored and independently invented in the oddest places. Never mind the blandishments of the Kurzweilians and the extropians: Lem calls them “homunculists”, an inspired expression of contempt. What about Ridley Scott’s movie Prometheus? What about that animate yet unliving black goo that can bring life to sterile planets, in all its savagery, appetite and guile? What about that unsmiling species of near-Gods who, having mastered birth (the sexism is deliberate and important), sets life at its own neck in the service of some unnamed Next Project? Lem would have hated it. But then, Lem was an inveterate ironist who describes the Summa itself, that most cherished project, as a “slightly modernised… version of the famous Ars Magna, which clever Lullus presented quite a long time ago, that is, the the year 1300, and which was rightly mocked by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.”
It is not that the ironies get in the way. It’s that the world itself is ironical, and Lem, with his vision-of-the-future-that-is-no-future, is its John the Baptist. Even as you follow him, watch him rip out the signposts. Even as you beg for water, watch him defecate in each and every roadside well. Gawp in dismay as he assembles Potemkin villages on the barren skyline only to kick them into the dust. Then: walk on. (It’s not like you have any choice.) The path looks straight. You know it’s anything but. You know, God help you, that you will come by this place again.

Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku

Traveling back to the future? Best carry this breathless guide to the next one hundred years. The Sunday Telegraph sent me a copy: here’s the review.

Kaku then quotes approvingly from Max Frisch that “Technology [is] the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it”. Is the co-founder of string theory having us on?