Posts Tagged ‘Information Technology’

Amazon Invents Vibrating Wristband to Control Workers’ Movements

February 14, 2018

More on the steady progress of western industrial management towards Orwellian totalitarianism. In this clip from the Jimmy Dore Show, Dore and his guest, Ron Placone, discuss the invention by Amazon of a wristband, which uses information technology to monitor where workers are in a building. The wristband is intended to be worn by warehouse workers. If they don’t have their hands in quite the right place when they’re reaching for a product on the warehouse shelves in order to fulfil an order, the wristband vibrates in order to nudge them in the right direction. The company is promoting this as a way of getting its workers to get the requested goods from their shelves and off to the customer, and then move on to the next order.

Dore and Placone make the point that this is indeed deeply totalitarian, with Placone mentioning the theory of inverted totalitarianism proposed by one academic. This states that while previous totalitarianisms were all about the state ordering you what to do, the new, inverted totalitarianism is also all about absolute control, but this time it’s done for your convenience and benefit.

They also make the excellent point that Amazon is a company worth billions, but in America many of their workers are so poorly paid that they have to subsist on food stamps.

They also joke that this wristband will allow Amazon to control exactly what their workers are doing, right up to the point when they decide to replace them all with robots.

I put up a piece last week about the growing threat of totalitarianism in the workplace, noting the ways various companies from call centres to the Torygraph are using technology to try to control their workers’ movements. In the case of call centres, it’s done through motion detectors fixed to desks, so management can tell when their galley slaves are moving about. The weirdo Barclay twins, who own the Torygraph, tried to introduce it there, but the hacks revolted and their bonkers plan had to be abandoned. These schemes are increasingly getting to resemble the fictional, evil totalitarian corporations in dystopian Science Fiction, like that in Jack Womack’s cyberpunk novels Ambient, Heathern, Random Acts of Mindless Violence and Elvissey.

And it also gives Brits another reason to despise Amazon, apart from the fact that despite doing much of its business over here, it doesn’t pay any corporation tax.

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Kevin Logan on Milo Yiannopolis’ Editor’s Notes

December 29, 2017

I’ve been avoiding talking too much about politics this week as I simply haven’t had the strength to tackle the issues in as much detail as they deserve. Quite apart from the fact that the issues that have been raised in the media this week – the continuing running down of the NHS, the growth of food banks, homelessness and grinding poverty, all to make the poor poorer and inflate the already bloated incomes of the Tory elite, all make me absolutely furious. I’ve been feeling so under the weather that, quite simply, I couldn’t face blogging about them and making myself feel worse mentally as well as physically.

But this is slightly different.

Slate has published a piece about the guidance notes Alt-Right Trumpist cheerleader Milo Yiannopolis has got from his publishers at Simon and Schuster. In this short video, scourge of anti-feminists, racists and general Nazis Kevin Logan goes through the notes, and it’s hilarious.

There are pages and pages of them. And the more you read, the funnier it gets.

You remember Milo Yiannopolis? He was one of the rising stars of the Alt-Right. He’s anti-feminist, anti-immigration and in many peoples’ eyes, racist, although he’s denied that he actually has any Nazi connections. All this despite the fact that he was filmed in a bar getting Hitler salutes from a party of Alt-Right fans.

He was the IT correspondent for Breitbart, many of whose founders, managers and leading staff are racists, and have been described as such by the anti-racism, anti-religious extremism organisation and site Hope Not Hate. Yiannopolis has constantly denied that he’s racist or bigoted by playing the race and sexuality card. He’s half-Jewish, gay, and his partner is Black. And so he argues that he can’t possibly be prejudiced against people of different ethnicities and gays. Well, possibly. But he has said some extremely bigoted, racist and homophobic comments, quite apart from his anti-feminism.

He describes himself as ‘a virtuous troll’. Others just call him a troll. That’s all he is. He’s only good at writing deliberately offensive material, but is otherwise completely unremarkable. But he’s British public school elite, and so Americans, who should know much better, assume that somehow he’s more cultured, knowledgeable, better educated and insightful than he actually is. Sam Seder commented on Yiannopolis that if he wasn’t British, nobody would take any notice of him. I think it’s a fair comment. But it does show the snobbery that goes with class and accent. Incidentally, when I was a kid reading comics, my favourite characters were the Thing in the Fantastic Four, and Powerman, in Powerman and Iron Fist. And it was partly because of their accents. Stan Lee has a terrible memory, and to help him remember which character said what, he used to give them different voices, sometimes based on who was in the media at the time. He made the Thing talk like Jimmy Durante. He was a space pilot, but his speech was that of New York working class. I liked him because he was kind of a blue-collar joe, like my family.

The same with Powerman. He was a Black superhero, real name Luke Cage, who had been subjected to unethical medical experiments to create a superman by a corrupt prison governor after being wrongly convicted. I didn’t understand the racial politics around the strip, but liked the character because he was another lower class character with a working class voice. He also had the same direct approach as the Thing in dealing with supervillains. Whereas Mr. Fantastic, the leader of the Fantastic Four, and Cage’s martial artist partner in fighting crime, Iron Fist would debate philosophically how to deal with the latest threat to the world and the cosmos, according to the demands of reason and science in the case of Mr. Fantastic, and ancient Chinese mystical traditions, in Iron Fists’, the Thing and Powerman simply saw another megalomaniac, who needed to be hit hard until they cried for mercy and stopped trying to take over the world or the universe.

But I digress. Back to Milo. Milo was due to have a book published, but this fell through after he appeared on Joe Rogan’s show defending child abuse. Yiannopolis had been sexually abused himself by a paedophile Roman Catholic priest, but believed that he had been the predator in that situation. From what I understand, the victims of sexual abuse often unfairly blame themselves for their assault, so I’m quite prepared to believe that something like that happened to Yiannopolis. What was unusual – and revolting – was that Yiannopolis appeared to feel no guilt and regret at all about the incident.

Very, very many people were rightly disgust. He got sacked from Breitbart, along with a lot of other companies, his speaking tour had to be cancelled, and the book deal he had managed to finagle fell through.

Well, as Sergeant Major Shut Up used to say on It Ain’t ‘Alf Hot, Mum, ‘Oh, dear. How sad. Never mind.’ It couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke, and Yiannopolis got a taste of the kind invective and vitriol he poured on the ‘SJWs’ and the Left.

He appeared later on to ‘clarify’ his statement – not an apology – saying that he now knew he was the victim of child abuse, and stating that he didn’t promote or approve of the sexual abuse of children. But the damage was done.

Now it seems Yiannopolis’ book deal is back on, though Simon and Schuster really aren’t happy with the manuscript.

Comments include recommendations that he remove the jokes about Black men’s willies, doesn’t call people ‘cucks’, and stop sneering at ugly people. One of these is particularly hilarious, as his editor writes that you can’t claim that ugly people are attracted to the Left. ‘Have you seen the crowd at a Trump rally?’ Quite. I saw the front row of the crowd at BBC coverage of the Tory party convention one year, and they were positively horrific. It seemed to be full of old school country squire types, as drawn by Gerald Scarfe at his most splenetic.

The guidance goes on with comments like ‘No, I will not tolerate you describing a whole class of people as mentally retarded’, and then factual corrections. Like ‘This never happened’. ‘This never happened too.’ ‘No, you’re repeating fake news. There was no Satanism, no blood and no semen’. At one point the editor demands that an entire chapter be excised because it’s just off-topic and offensive.

Here’s the video.

There probably isn’t anything unusual in the amount of editing that Simon and Schuster require. Mainstream publishing houses often request changes or alteration to the manuscript. It happens to the best writers and academics. Years ago I read an interview with the editors of some of the authors of the world’s most influential books. One of them was Germaine Greer’s. Greer had sent in a manuscript about cross-dressing in Shakespeare. A fair enough subject, as there’s a lot of female characters disguising themselves as boys in the Bard’s plays. But she had the insight that Greer was far more interested in gender roles, and suggested she write about that instead. And the result was The Female Eunuch.

At a much lower level of literature, Private Eye had a good chortle about one of ‘Master Storyteller’ Jeffrey Archer’s tawdry epics. Apparently the gossip was that it went through seven rewrites. Ian Fleming’s editor for the Bond books, according to one TV documentary, was a gay man with a keen interest in dressing well. Which is why some of the sex in Bond was less explicit than Fleming intended, but also why Bond became suave, stylish dresser fighting supervillains in impeccably cut dinner suits.

No shame in any of this, then. But what makes it funny is that it’s happened to Yiannopolis, who seems to have been too much of an egotist to think that anything like it could ever really happen to him. Looking through the comments, it’s also clear that the editor really doesn’t like his bigotry, and the invective he spews against racial minorities and the disadvantaged. I got the impression that he or she really didn’t want to have anything to do with book, but has presumably been told they had to work with Yiannopolis because the publishers were going to put it out anyway, no matter what anyone else in the company felt.

And the editor’s clear dislike of his bigotry is a problem for Yiannopolis, because he’s a troll, and that’s just about all he does: pour out sneers, scorn and abuse, like a male version of Anne Coulter, another right-winger, who’s far less intelligent than she thinks she is. And I know that grammatically standards are a bit looser now than they were a few years ago, but when you have the comment ‘This is not a sentence’, it’s clear that Yiannopolis is failing at one of the basic demands of any writer from the editors of small press magazines to the biggest publishing houses and newspapers and magazines. They all insist that you should write properly in grammatically correct sentences. But Yiannopolis has shown that he can’t do that either.

As for the kind of literary snobbery that used to look down very hard on comics and graphic novels, while promoting opinionated bigots like Yiannopolis as ‘serious’ writers, my recommendation is that if you’re given a choice between going to comics convention or seeing Milo, go to the comics convention. You’ll be with nicer people, the comics creators on the panels are very good speakers, and themselves often very literate and cultured. I can remember seeing Charles Vess at the UKCAC Convention in Reading in 1990. Vess is a comics artist, but he’s also produced cover art for SF novels. He gave a fascinating talk about the great artists that have influenced him with slides. And one of the highlights was listening to the publisher of DC, Roy Kanigher, who was very broad New York. Didn’t matter. He was genuinely funny, to the point where the interviewer lost control of the proceedings and Kanigher had the crowd behind him all the way.

Which shows what a lot of people really know already: just because someone’s got a British public school accent, does not make them a genius, or that they’re capable of producing anything worth reading. Comics at their best can be brilliant. They open up children’s and adults’ imaginations, the art can be frankly amazing and quite often the deal with difficult, complex issues in imaginative ways. Think of Neil Gaiman, who started off as one of the writers at 2000 AD before writing the Sandman strip for DC. Or Alan Moore.

Yiannopolis is the opposite. All he does is preach hate, trying to get us to hate our Black, Asian and Latin brothers and sisters, despise the poor, and tell women to know their place. He has no more right to be published, regardless of his notoriety, than anyone else. And the editor’s demand for amendments show it.

Oh, and as regarding publishing fake news, he’d have had far less sympathy from Mike, if by some misfortune Mike had found himself as Yiannopolis’ editor. Proper journalists are expected to check their facts, which Mike was always very keen on. It was he was respected by the people he actually dealt when he was working as a journalist. The problem often comes higher up, at the level of the newspaper editors and publishers. In the case of Rupert Murdoch, I’ve read account of his behaviour at meetings with his legal staff that shows that Murdoch actually doesn’t care about publishing libellous material, if the amount of the fine will be lower than the number of extra copies of the paper the fake news will sale. Fortunately it appears that Simon and Schusters’ editors don’t quite have that attitude. But who knows for how long this will last under Trump. The man is determined to single-handedly destroy everything genuinely great and noble in American culture.

New SF Series Coming to Channel 4: Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

August 28, 2017

Last Sunday I caught this trailer on Channel 4 for a new science fiction series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.

The title is obviously an homage to Dick’s most famous work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became one of the great, classic SF films of all time, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The series will consist of ten, self-contained episodes, each based on a different Dick short story, starring some of film and TV’s top actors. These include Timothy Spall, Steve Buscemi, Jack Raynor, Benedict Wong, Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Greg Kinnear, Anna Paquin, Richard Madden, Holliday Grainger, Anneika Rose, Mel Rodriguez, Vera Formiga, Annalisa Basso, Maura Tierney, Juno Temple and Janelle Monae.

One of the executive producers is Ronald D. Moore, who worked on the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space 9 and Voyage, as well as Battlestar Galactica and Outlander.

More information, including plot summaries, can be found on Channel 4’s website at http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/philip-k-dicks-electric-dreams And Den of Geek, http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/tv/philip-k-dick-s-electric-dreams/50380/philip-k-dicks-electric-dreams-7-reasons-to-get-excited.

This looks really promising. Den of Geek say in their article that the anthology format already recalls Channel 4’s Black Mirror, and The Twilight Zone. I have to say I wasn’t drawn to watch Black Mirror. It was created by Charlie Brooker, and was an intelligent, dark examination of the dystopian elements of our media-saturated modern culture and its increasing reliance on information technology. However, it just wasn’t weird enough for me. Near future SF is great, but I also like spacecraft, aliens, ray guns and robots. And this promises to have some of them, at least.

Channel 4 have also produced another intelligent, critically SF series, Humans, based on the Swedish series, Real Humans. With Black Mirror, it seems Channel 4 is one of the leading broadcasters for creating intelligent, mature Science Fiction.

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

Brian Stableford and David Langford on Automation, Unemployment and Retraining in the 21st Century

January 5, 2017

Over the past year there have been a number of warnings that within the next three decades, 2/3 of all jobs could vanish due to mechanization. The science fiction writers Brian Stableford and David Langford also cover this projected crisis in their fictitious history of the thousand years from the beginning of this century to the end of the 29th, The Third Millennium (London: Paladin Grafton Books 1988). They predict that governments and society will find a solution to this in life-long learning and direction of the unemployment into the construction industry for a massive programme of public works.

They write

Massive Unemployment in the West
By the year 2000 automation was having such a significant effect on manufacturing that unskilled and semi-skilled workers were being made redundant in large numbers. Less skilled holders of ‘white-collar jobs’ were also being displaced by information technology. There seemed no immediate prospect of redeploying these workers, and their increasing numbers were a source of embarrassment to many Western governments. In the Soviet countries, where employment was guaranteed, jobs were found, but it was becoming all too obvious that many of these were unnecessary. The communist countries had other problems too. The political power to redeploy labour easily was there, and the educational system was better equipped than in the West for practical training, but there were no economic incentives to motivate the workers.

In the West the real problem was p0artly economic and partly educational. Allowing market forces to govern patterns of employment was inefficient. It was not that there was no work – there were chronic housing problems in most of the affected nations, and the need for urban renewal was desperate. Unfortunately, there was no institutional apparatus to divert unused labour to these socially desirable but essentially unprofitable tasks. To pay workers to do such jobs, instead of doling out a pittance to compensate them for not having jobs, would have required massive and politically unacceptable increases in taxation. The educational part of the problem was the absence of effective retraining to allow people to switch easily from one semi-skilled task to another, thus allowing the movement of labour into the new areas of employment.

With hindsight, it is easy to see the pattern of changes that had to occur in both systems, and it may seem ridiculous that it was not obvious what had to be done. In fact, it probably was obvious to many, and the patterns of change were directed by common sense, but there was much superstitious resistance to the evolution of the economic system away from the capitalist and communist extremes.

Lifelong education
The educational reforms were easier to implement in the West than the economic reforms (though even education tended to be dominated by tradition, and was certainly not without its superstitions). it became accepted in the course of the early twenty-first century the adaptability of labour was a priority. It was simply not sufficient for an individual to learn a skill while still at school, or during an apprenticeship, and then to expect his skill to remain in demand throughout his lifetime. By the year 2010, the idea that a man or woman ought to have a single ‘educational phase’ early in life was becoming obsolete in the developed nations, and educational institutions were being adapted to provide for people of all ages, who would visit and use them continually or periodically, by choice as well as by necessity. By 2050 there was an almost universally accepted opinion in the West that ‘an education’ was something that extended over an entire lifetime. The old familiar cliché ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ was now beginning to take on a musty air, like something in Chaucerian English, approaching its near-incomprehensibility to the average citizen of today.

Enforced growth of the public sector
Despite the robotization of many manufacturing processes, the demand for manual labour did not decline markedly during the twenty-first century. To some extent, displaced factory-workers were shifted into various kinds of building work in the private sector. But it was the expansion of public sector construction and maintenance that kept the demand high. There were, of course, special opportunities created by the building of the information networks, and much manual work as a result of flooding, but there was a more fundamental reason for the state’s increased need for manual workers. As society became more highly technological, depending on an ever-increasing range of complicated artefacts, more and more work had to be put into reconstructing and repairing the artificial environment. Because maintenance work, unlike most manufacturing processes, is occasional and idiosyncratic rather than ceaseless and repetitive, it cannot – even to this day – be whole turned over to machines. Machinery is vital to such work, but so are human agents. Governments employed more and more people to do centrally organized work, and collected the taxes they needed to do it.

There were no such redeployment prospects for the redundant white-collar workers. As their jobs disappeared, they had to undertake more radical retraining, and it was mostly these workers who moved into such new jobs as were being created by the spread of the information networks. Their skills had to be ‘upgraded’, but the same was true of the manual labourers, who had a least to become more versatile. The working population as a whole needed to be better educated, if only in the sense of being always able to learn new skills. Relative few individuals lacked the capacity for this kind of education, and the vast majority adapted readily enough. (pp. 98-100)

I’m not sure how realistic the solutions Stableford and Langford propose are. Looking back, some of the book’s predictions now seem rather dated. For example, the book takes it for granted that the Communist bloc would continue to exist, whereas it collapsed in eastern Europe very swiftly in the years following the book’s publication.

I also think the idea of lifelong learning has similarly been abandoned. It was very popular in the late 1980s and the 1990s, when higher education was expanding rapidly. But there has certainly been a reaction against the massive expansion of university education to the extent that half of the population are now expect to acquire degrees. Critics of the expansion of graduate education have pointed out that it has not brought the greater innovation and prosperity that was expected of it, and has served instead to take jobs away from those without an academic background as graduates are forced instead to take unskilled jobs.

I also think that it’s highly debatable whether the expansion of the construction industry on public works would compensate for the jobs lost through further mechanisation. Even if the government were to accept the necessity of raising taxes to finance such ‘make work’ programmes. My guess is that they’d simply carry on with the ‘workfare’ policy of forcing the unemployed to work on such projects as were strictly necessary in return for their unemployment benefit.

As for the various retraining programmes, some schemes like this have been tried already. For example, back in the 1990s some councils ran programmes, which gave free computer training to the unemployed. But I can see any further retraining schemes launched in the future being strictly limit in scope, and largely cosmetic. The point of such programmes would be to give the impression that the government was tackling the problem, whereas in fact the government would be only too eager for the situation to carry on as it is and keep labour cheap and cowed through massive unemployment.

I also don’t believe that the jobs created by the expansion of information technology will also be adequate to solve the problems. To be fair, the next paragraph from the passage above states that these solutions were only partly successful.

Of course, this situation could all change over the next three decades. But I can see no real solutions to the increasingly desperate problem of unemployment unless neoliberalism is completely discarded along with the Tories, Lib Dems and Blairite Labour, which support it.

Vox Political on Yvette Cooper Condemning Renationalisation

February 23, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political also has a piece from the Independent about Yvette Cooper. Apparently, she is set to make a speech attacking the nationalisation of industry as an old, discredited idea. It will not help modern workers, according to her, or those trying to ‘build an app’. Mike therefore asks if she’s deliberately trying to mislead people about the issue in defending ‘wasteful’ privatisation. See http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/02/23/is-yvette-cooper-deliberately-misleading-people-about-nationalisation/.

Now I agree with Mike that privatisation is wasteful. It also led, paradoxically, to a massive increase in bureaucracy. This expanded massively when the utility companies, including that for water, sewage and the environment, were sold off and separate regulatory bodies had to be set up. In order to try and keep to their promise that selling off Britain’s family silver would reduce bureaucracy, they had to cut down on the regulatory bodies so that they wouldn’t have so much power, and wouldn’t represent the interests of the consumers. And there was also the usual revolving doors between the civil service and the privatised utility companies, where the mandarins who were supposed to be watching them in the public interest did no such thing, and later got a job with them after they left Whitehall. I can remember reading report after report on this, fortnight after fortnight, in Private Eye in the ’90s. It was all part of the sleaze surrounding John Major’s administration.

I’ve also heard that, despite the impression given by privatisation that all aspects of energy generation, and its supply, and that of water and gas, the actual infrastructure remains the concern of the state. The private utility companies get to cream off the profits, but the actual maintenance of the national grid, pipes and so on remain the duty of the state, which bears the financial burden. Now I’ll have to check on this, but if it’s true, then privatisation really has been just a scam with minimal benefit to the consumers. Quite beyond the very obvious profiteering we’ve seen by the energy companies themselves.

Now let’s come to the example of the information technology industry she used. It won’t help workers developing an app, according to Cooper. Now, the free marketeers just love the computing and information technology. Look, they say, at the way a group of private individuals in the 1970s – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others, built a whole industry from sheer private enterprise, all in the garages or spare time or whatever. The Financial Times had a go at this myth, as did Adam Curtis in his documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. The Financial Times pointed out that the kids, who were able to create the modern computing industry, were able to do so not because of the free market, or because their part of California had excellent schools, or indeed any of that. They were able to get ahead and develop it because they were all already very wealthy, and could afford to develop their creations. And Adam Curtis in his documentary went and showed that the mathematical basis behind the suggestion that private enterprise gives better results through allowing people to co-operate independently and form a coherent strategy without a central planner was also baloney.

And if you want a real counter-example, then try France. The French computer industry was created in the 1970s through the efforts of the French state. And the French have been very successful in their efforts. So central planning, nationalisation and state investment can help create jobs in the high technology sector. Even in America, my guess is that much of the technology sector is supported by generous state subsidies, regardless of what Cooper believes or think she knows about the benefits of laissez faire industry.

Now I have to say, I think Cooper genuinely believes that private enterprise is superior to nationalised and state-owned industry. It’s a basic item of faith of the New Labour clique. And she also has a point about nationalisation not necessarily benefiting workers. Harry Gosling, the founder of the T&GWU with Ernest Bevin, made a speech in Bristol stating that nationalisation wouldn’t do so unless it involved a degree of worker’s control. And proper representation of the workforce in the workplace is what trade unions are for. It’s also what the Labour party was set up to do. Unfortunately, Blair, Broon and New Labour decided that they didn’t. Just before one of the two left office – I can’t remember which one – they passed a whole tranche of legislation actually weakening the unions. Moreover, on the government website telling you what rights you had under the law as a worker, there was also a secret section for employers that told them how they could circumvent all this. So there’s an element of hypocrisy there. Cooper’s against nationalisation, because it wouldn’t help the workers. But Blair wasn’t keen on organised Labour either. I can remember how he threatened to cut the ties between the unions and the Labour party.

And there’s more, much more to be said about this. I’ll blog about the foundation of the nationalised industries some other time. But for now, the opposite of what Cooper said is true: privatisation is discredited, and the privatisers of New Labour have also shown themselves unwilling to act for the poor or the working class either. It’s why UKIP took off so spectacularly. And while their leadership are privatisers on steroids, most of the grassroots members actually want the utilities nationalised. The Angry Yorkshireman wrote several pieces about this, all of which are worth reading.

Readings for the Cyber Age

October 15, 2013

Neil Spiller, ed., Cyber_Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era (London: Phaidon 2002)

Cyber Reader

Information technology is one of the most powerful scientific development of the past century. It, and the related fields of cybernetics and robotics, have profound implications for the nature of the brain, consciousness, sex, gender, humanity, life and even reality itself through the ways scientists, engineers and games designers have managed to simulate, model or recreate these aspects of our existence in the virtual worlds of cyberspace. This book is a collection of texts by scientists, engineers, philosophers and Science Fiction novelists exploring the theoretical and scientific underpinnings of information technology and cybernetics, and exploring the technologies’ philosophical implications and their impact on our lives in the future. The texts include extracts from

Babbage Engine

A Model of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine of 1871

Charles Babbage, ‘Of the Analytical Engine, 1864’, discussing his manufacture of his famous ‘Difference Engine’;

E.M. Forster’s pioneering SF story, The Machine Stops, of 1909, in which a future society that has become absolutely reliant for every aspect of its citizen’s existence on a vast machine has to come to terms with its end when that machine finally breaks down.

Vannevar Bush’s ‘As We May Think’, from 1945. Bush was the originator of the concept of hypertext in his idea of the memex machine. This was to be library reading desk that would call up microfilms and project their contents onto a screen. The user could, however, create trails between texts using various levers on the device. In this article, published in the Atlantic Monthly, Bush predicted the kind of devices he felt were just around the corner.

Turning's Man Cover

J. David Bolter’s ‘Essays of Operation’ from 1989, which provides a short description of Alan Turing’s Turing Machine and Johnny Von Neumann’s Design for Computers.

Norbert Wiener’s Organisation of the Message of 1950. Wiener was the father of cybernetics through his book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine of 1948. In the extract from the Organisation of the Message included in this collection Wiener’s expresses his opinion that there is no difference between the transmission of information and the transmission of material, and looks forward to what we would now call teleportation.

JCR Licklider’s ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ of 1960, which analyses humans’ relationship to computers as analogous to the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowering plants.

Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework’ of 1962, which laid the basis for modern interactive hypermedia. It was Engelbart’s research, which created the foundations for the computer mouse, teleconferencing, e-mail and distributed client-server networks and the internet.

Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ of 1964. McLuhan was the Canadian media guru, who coined the phrases ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. In his exploration of the myth of Narcissus, McLuhan considered that the artificial, mechanical extension of the human self through technology created a sense of numbness. He believed that the media had created a state where everybody was somehow nearby. This allowed people in a sense to leave their physical bodies. For some this could be liberating, as it left the physical realm, and gender and disability behind. On the negative side, it meant that people no longer had the terrible fear of war.

Gordon Pask’s ‘The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics’ of 1969. Pask was an architect and the inventor of ‘Conversation Theory’. This explores ideas of the ‘observer’ and ‘users’ and their influence on the complex outcomes of cybernetic systems. The extract contained in the book is his account of Cedric Price’s and Joan Littlewood’s attempts to create the Fun Palace, constructed from huge steel columns and beams, which could be radical reconfigured.

Cedric Price’s ‘Generator Project’ of 1976. This was an attempt by Price to create an ‘intelligent’ building that ‘knew itself’ and ‘dreamt’ cybernetically. The various components of the building were fitted with a logic circuit linked to a central computer, in order to assist in the building’s reconfiguration. Price’s team were afraid that the human users would not fully utilise the building’s potential for radically altering its own structure. They therefore programmed the system so that it would register its own boredom, and make suggestions for possible alterations.

Paul Virilio, ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’ of 1980. Virilio is a French architect and one of the leading Postmodern critical theorists. In his Aesthetics of Disappearance, Virilio used the figure of the aircraft engineer and obsessive recluse, Howard Hughes, to express his own views on the disappearance of technology as it becomes faster, smaller and increasingly invisible. He stated that due to technology, the world was speeding up, and time was being ‘jump-cut’. He also believed that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity had destroyed static relationships, and that things now existed only in relationship to something else.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980. Deleuze was professor of philosophy at Paris University at Vincennes, and Guattari was a psychoanalyst and political activist, who practiced at the experiment psychiatric clinic, La Borde. In A Thousand Plateaux, Deleuze and Guattari analysed the ‘spacescape’ created by computer technology. They saw reality in terms of the rhizome and Riemannian manifold, metaphors for the complex interrelationships between things that changed over time. These ideas strongly influenced the annual ‘Virtual Futures’ conferences held at Warwick University in the 1990 by scholars exploring the philosophical implications of cybernetic research.

Neuromancer Cover

It also includes a chapter from William Gibson’s pioneering 1984, SF novel, Neuromancer. Gibson is one of the founders of Cyberpunk. His outlaw heroes have been altered so that they can access the vast, virtual information world of Cyberspace. Spiller included the extract because it had been so massively influential, that it was now difficult to know whether it had predicted modern Virtual reality, or merely described what was already happening.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, of 1985. Haraway is a socialist feminist, who sees cyberculture as a way of removing the old dualisms of male/female, white/black, animal/machine and heterosexual/homosexual. She believes the modern feminists, in championing the underdog, have actually reinforced these dualism and the existing system of exploitation. She believed that the cyborg was ‘committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence’, and with no conception of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden with its gender divides and division of labour.

Drexler Cover

K. Eric Drexler’s ‘Engines of Abundance’, from his 1990 book, Engines of Creation. This laid the foundations of nanotechnology, and looked forward to the development of atomic and molecular machines that could build anything out of anything, so that rocket engines could be built in vats.

Carbon Nanotubes

Computer Visualisation of Carbon Nanotubes, developed under the direction of Deepak Srivastava at NASA’s advance Supercomputing Division

Greg Bear’s 1990 novel, Queen of Angels. A cyberpunk novel set in 2047, this follows Public Defender Mary Choy as she goes to a Caribbean island to bring back to Los Angeles an insane mass-murderer. On the island, she secretly uses nanotechnology to build a gun on her hotel dressing table.

Difference Engine Cover

William Gibson’s and Bruce Stirling’s ‘Steampunk’ SF novel, The Difference Engine, of 1991. this explores what the world would have been like, if Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had been built, and Victorian Britain and France become steam-driven computer societies.

Wearable Computer 1

A Wearable Computer System developed by MIT

Howard Rheingold’s ‘The Origins of Drama and the Future of Fun’ in his Virtual Reality of 1991. Rheingold was the editor of the Whole Earth Review, the successor to the 1960’s counterculture Whole Earth Catalog. His book, Virtual Reality, was one of the first popular books on the new, Virtual worlds now possible through computers, head-mounted displays and data gloves. Rheingold optimistically believed that this technology would allow us to recreate any experience we wished, a view that was attacked by Benjamin Woolley a year later in Woolley’s own Virtual Worlds.

Manuel De Landa’s ‘Policing the Spectrum’, from his War in the Age of Intelligent Machines of 1991. This was a history of weaponry from the machines of the Renaissance to the computerised technology used in the first Gulf War. He analysed their development in the terms of nonlinear emergent dynamics, and the apparent spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos. This results in curiously life-like behaviour in inorganic matter. De Landa has therefore developed the notion of the machine phylum, in which matter and energy in states in vastly disorganised states result in the self-assembly of machines. He sees the process by which machines are built by humans as similar to industrious insects pollinating and independent species of machine flower that does not possess its own reproductive organs.

Marcos Novak’s ‘Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace’, from the 1991 book Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by Michael Benedikt. Cyberspace: First Steps was a collection of essays by a variety of scholars and writers, including cultural commentators, artists, anthropologists, systems engineers, architects and software designers. Novak at the time was an assistant professor at the University of Texas. Novak has been credited as one of the first architects to show how his discipline could use cyberspace and its technologies to create new forms of architectural space. In ‘Liquid Architectures’ Novak argued that architecture that could and was built is only a small part of what architects actually produce. Through history there has always been architectural designs that could not be, and were never intended to be built. The ‘liquid architecture in cyberspace’ was Novak’s idea of the deliberately impossible structures architects could now design and build in Virtual reality.

Daniel C. Dennett’s ‘An Empirical theory of the Mind: The Evolution of Consciousness’ from Consciousness Explained, 1992. Dennett considered that consciousness was an emergent property of the brain, a feature that spontaneously arose from the brain’s structure and operation, but which could not be predicted. he drew an analogy between it and the way geese fly in ‘V’ formation, another emergent property that cannot be predicted from an examination of individual geese. In the chapter ‘An Empirical Theory of Consciousness’, Dennett argued that the brain and its components are analogous to parallel computer networks, all of which were capable of pretending to be other machines. It was an attempt to explain the emergence of consciousness, and humans’ ability to move from one mode of thought to another.

Neal Stephen’s 1992 SF novel, Snow Crash. This is set in the Virtual world of the Metaverse, and the Street, the Virtual space at the heart of it. Attached to the Street are various spaces where gravity and linear time do not exist. The novel is about the attempts of the central character, the appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, to combat the Snow Crash virus infecting this Virtual world. Although the book is set in Cyberspace, the book also has overtones of Augmented Reality, in which it is possible, using goggles, to see both real and Virtual space simultaneously.

Stephen Levy, ‘The Strong Claim’ in Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation, 1992. Artificial Life was a book tracing the development of the concept and the personalities and minds behind it. It combined science writing with biography. The concept of artificial life is based on the idea that as biological life is the manipulation of information, it should similarly be possible to replicate this in computers, which also manipulate information. Levy began his account of the idea’s development with the ‘finite automata’ of John Von Neumann before going on to John Horton Conway’s Game of Life. This is a version of cellular automata, and has been used to create Virtual creatures, which interact with each other and develop. These Virtual creatures are the Strong Claim, which this extract from Levy’s book explores.

Roger Lewin, ‘Life in a Computer’ in Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, 1993. Lewin’s book, Complexity, discussed the changing patterns and order that can emerge from complex systems, such as the weather or colonies of animals. Genetic algorithms, invented by the American computer scientist John Holland, are algorithms designed to achieve optimum criteria. These are constructed according to genetic principles to achieve optimum performance by negotiating ‘fitness landscapes’ in the same way living organisms have done in their evolutionary development. In the extract reproduced here, Lewin discussed the use of genetic algorithms to construct the automata, or Virtual creatures with the capacity to evolve by Tom Ray in a simulated ecology of artificial life.

Pixel Juice Cover

The chapter, ‘Stash Rider’s, from Jeff Noon’s Vurt, 1993. Noon is a former pop musician, painter, and playwright. During his career he was playwright-in-residence at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Vurt was a cyberpunk novel set in a future Manchester, in which people use an all-purpose nanotechnological smart lubricant, Vaz, to mend their bodies, physiologies and machines. The Vurt of the book’s title is a psychedelic drug taken by using a feather to tickle the back of the throat. As well as ordinary humans, Mancester also has a population of half-human dogmen, shadowcops and robocrusties, second-class citizens who are the products of a previous fecundity affecting humans, animals and objects in a bio-technological disaster. The book is based on Norbert Wiener’s idea that the brain is similar to the computer. This was developed by some cognitive psychologists into the suggestion that the brain could similarly be programmed and dissected as a series of programmes.

PK Dick Religion

A Page from Robert Crumb’s The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick, depicting the strange Gnostic experiences that occurred to Dick in March 1974, and which formed the basis of his book, Valis.

Techgnosis Cover

Erik Davis, Techgnosis: magic, memory, and the Angels of Information, 1993. Davis here argued that underlying modern information and image-rich culture was the ancient, human urge to create mythologies placing events and objects within a cosmological hierarchy, imbuing them with order and meaning. The book is therefore an exploration of the connections and similarities between the new technologies of cyberspace and ancient, arcane and scientifically discredited concepts.

Metropolis

The evil robot from Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, which mixed Science Fiction with religious imagery. The inverted pentagram behind the robot links her and her creator to world of black magic.

Scott Bukatman, ‘Terminal Resistance/ Cyborg Acceptance’, in Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, 1993. Bukatman is Assistant Professor in the Media Arts Program at the University of New Mexico, and the consulting editor for the academic journal, Science Fiction Studies.In Terminal Identity he examines the way space and technology in SF. He considers that modern society is in crisis, as the established relationships between humanity, space, machines, and gender and sexuality and the way they are represented have been broken down. He argues that in the past there was a dichotomy between the external, rational world and the internal world of the mind, which was full of ghosts, fantasies and Virtual beings. Digital technology has reversed this relationship, so that it is now the external world that is full of the strange, fantastic and unreal. Modern information technology offers a kind of transcendence, at the cost of the violation of the purity of the flesh, as the body is invaded by the products of technology.

Anne Balsamo, ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ in South Atlantic Quarterly’, 1993. Anne Balsamo is Professor of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and the author of the 1996 book, Technologies of the Gendered Body. ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ is a feminist reading of Pat Cadigan’s SF novel, Synners. The Synners of the title are people, who take images from the brains of performers and rearticulate them for mass consumption, in a shifting, Virtual world, that is also always being reconfigured, repackaged and resold. Balsamo identifies Cadigan’s recurring motif of ‘change for the machines’, as encapsulating the issues that surround digital technology and its effect on the gendered body. She believes that humans have now become used to using machines as part of their identity, and wonders what this actually means and whether we can avoid being excessively reliant on them.

Sherry Turkle, ‘Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality’, 1994. Turkle is a clinical psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Sociology of Science in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT. Turkle uses Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s concept of the ‘consensual locus’ to explore the formation of identities in Multi-User Dungeons in Role-Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons. The ‘consensual locus’ is a person’s online persona, and their real-world personal interactions. She considers the consensual locus and the different realities it creates constitute a means for therapeutic interactions in the Virtual worlds of online Role-Playing Games. In an argument that should delight many fans of the RPG, she contradicts the image of them as lonely, socially retarded, rather sad individuals. she instead shows that the Virtual scenarios encountered in the games allow them to negotiate similar social situations in reality.

Kevin Kelly, ‘An Open Universe’, from Out of Control, 1994. Kelly is the former editor and publisher of the Hippie Whole Earth Review, and is the executive editor of Wired magazine. In Out of Control Kelly speculated on the vast possibilities that would arise through the hybridization of the biological with digital technology to form what Kelly calls ‘the neo-biological’. Kelly feels that this would result in the appearance of biological machines that would use emergent behaviour to evolve in relation to each other, rather than according to the strict parameters laid down by their programmers. The chapter included in the book examined the similarities between genes and their potential to create a massive ‘gene space’ of infinite possibilities through their capacity for recombination, and parallel computing, in which programs also evolve rather than proceed linearly. Kelly discusses the definition of artificial life by one of its pioneers, Chris Langton, and the way the genetic model can therefore be used to create forms of it, which evolve according to a changing ‘fitness landscape’.

Johnny Mnemonic

Keanu Reeves enters Cyberspace in this scene from Johnny Mnemonic, scripted by William Gibson.

Greg Egan, Permutation City, 1994. Egan is a Science Fiction writer and computer programmer. In his novel, Permutation City, Egan examines the concept of Strong AI: the claim that computers may be able to develop true artificial intelligence similar to that of humans, and what it would be like to exist as a disembodied intelligence, downloaded onto a computer. One of the book’s main characters, Paul Derham, creates a computer copy of himself as part of his research into Strong AI. The book describes the differences between the relative speeds and virtual capabilities of Virtual and real space, as well as the possibility of creating copies of one’s personality to form ‘conscious’ avatars in Cyberspace, as Derham does in the book.

William Mitchell, ‘Soft Cities’, from City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, 1995. Mitchell is another architect, who has investigated the potential impact of cyberspace on their discipline. He is Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. In City of Bits Mitchell was one of the first researchers to consider the impact cyberspace and e-commerce would have on the structure and morphology of cities. The new cities formed by the impact of digital technology would be more than their visible, built environment. They would be connected to Virtual reality via the information superhighways.

Wearable Computer 2

Members of MIT’s Wearable Computing Project, modelling some of their inventions.

Karen A. Franck, ‘When I Enter Virtual Reality, What body Will I Leave Behind?, in Architectural Design, 1995. Franck is a professor in the School of Architecture and also the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Franck is interested in the body and gender, and in the essay collected in this book examined the extent to which people left them when they entered cyberspace. She considered that rather than losing them when they entered cyberspace, people split their bodies, with parts of them coming with us and allowing us to experience the Virtual realm. She believes cyberspace offers the opportunity to construct an area free of the gender stereotypes and ideas of beauty of normal space. Virtual reality offers a new kind of protection for the body, when people enter cyberspace, that allows them to experience more of, and understand, the other.

John Frazer, ‘A Natural Model for Architecture/ The Nature of the Evolutionary Model’, from An Evolutionary Architecture, 1995. Frazer was a unit master at the Architectural Association in London, Director of Computer-Aided Design at the University of Ulster, at which he received a personal Chair in 1984, as well as lecturing at Cambridge University. He was one of the founders of Autographics Software Ltd in 1983, which pioneered microprocessor graphics. Impressed by information ecologies and the spaces between objects, Frazer and his colleagues have developed computer architectural experiments using genetic algorithms, cellular automata, emergent behaviour, complexity and feedback loops to create a dynamic architecture, whose forms are beyond the total control of architect that programmes them. He models his approach to the built environment to the multi-celled structures found in nature. His own evolutionary architecture uses a ‘genetic code script’, with rules for the code’s development, the code’s mapping to a Virtual model, the characteristics of the environment for the model’s development, and the selection criteria. Spiller in his introduction to Frazer’s chapter notes that ‘he goes beyond the usual notions of architectural beauty and aesthetics’, although his work is not without them. Frazer was also pioneering in recognising the potential computers have for allowing architects design buildings, and create varied spaces in both the real, and Virtual worlds.

Nicholas Negroponte, ‘Iconographics’, from Being Digital, 1995. Negroponte is director of the Media lab at MIT, and the founder of Wired magazine, for which he also writes. Being Digital was Negroponte’s account of the revolution in digital technology. He stated he wanted to write the book, as it was aimed at parents, politicians and executives, who at that time did not have access to the digital media in which it could otherwise be published. He also wanted to revisit some of the old ideas in his Wired column, and see whether they were still true due to the very rapid changes in the technology and its application that can occur in a short space of time. Surprisingly, and heartening for the defenders of hardcopy books now under attack from their digital competitors like Kindle, Negroponte was of the opinion that the printed page still had the greater capacity to stimulate the imagination than the computer screen.

Stelarc Arm

Performance Artist and Cyborg Stelarc with his artificial third arm.

Stelarc, ‘Towards the Post-Human: From Psycho-body to Cyber-system’, Architectural Design, 1995. Stelarc is an Australian performance artist, several of whose performances involved him being suspended in public spaces on meat hooks. He believes that the body has now been rendered obsolete by technology, and that it must be hollowed, hardened, dehydrated and often anaesthetised. He has also used medical, cybernetic and Virtual reality technology and procedures to explore and enhance the body’s own capabilities. He has amplified his brainwaves, heartbeat, blood flow and muscle signals during his performances, as well as filming the interior of his lungs, stomach and colon. He has a prosthetic ‘third arm’ attached to his stomach, which operates through the movements of the muscles there. In another performance, he attached galvanic stimulators to his body and wired himself up to the internet. A search programme looked through the net for images of body parts. When it found them, those parts were stimulated electronically. viewers of the performance about the globe in three different cities could also stimulate his body remotely. He has also had a third ear grafted, with a proximity sensor that makes it make a loud screech if any comes close. He was one of the researchers into the Transhuman condition, who was interviewed, along with that master of transgressive literature, J.G. Ballard, in BBC 3’s excellent and stimulating series, Grave New Worlds.

John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, 1996. Barlow is a former rancher, and lyricist for the LSD-influenced hippy band, the Grateful Dead. He has written for a number of publications, including Communications of the ACM, Mondo 2000, the New York Times, Time, and been on the editorial board of Wired. He was one of the co-founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. He wrote the ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ in response to the passage of the Telecom Reform Act in America in 1996. This made it illegal to use any of the seven dirty words forbidden in broadcast media on-line, to discuss abortion or to talk about any bodily function except in the most clinical terms.

Lawnmower Man

The sex scene from the 1992 SF film, Lawnmower Man.

Mark Dery, ‘Robocopulation: Sex Times Technology Equals the Future’, from Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, 1996. Dery is a cultural critic, who has written on the numerous subcultures that have arisen through computer technology in a number of magazines, including Wired, Rolling Stone, Mondo 2000, The Village Voice and New York Times, and edited the book Flame Wars. Escape Velocity explored these new technological subcultures of cyberpunks, net hippies, techno-pagans and others. In the chapter ‘Robocopulation’, he explored the way artists in the past, as well as people in the present, have tried to use and explore the sensual and sexual possibilities of the machine. These have included the French painter, Francis Picabia, who tried to depict in his art a ‘mechanomorphic’ sensuality. Dery also described the new digital technology of ‘teledildonics’, where the participants are separate from and remote from each other, but experience the sensations of sex through special electronic suits fitted with sensors and stimulators. He also discussed the way the internet has been extensively used to broadcast pornographic images and the sexual conversations of Cybersex.

Terminator

Everyone’s favourite menacing cyborg: Arnie as the Terminator.

Hans Moravec, ‘The Senses Have No Future’, 1998. Moravec is the director of the Carnegie Mellon University Mobile Robot Laboratory. He is supposed to have built his first robot when he was ten years old. His work attempts to give robots three-dimensional spatial awareness through a variety of sensors. He was made famous, or infamous, for his 1988 book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. In this book, Moravec predicted that by the middle of this century, if not sooner, it would be possible to download human consciousness, either into cyberspace or into a robotic body. Moravec himself believes this will be necessary if humans are to keep pace with the rapid evolution of machine intelligence. The book points out that Moravec views have been challenged at two points. First, Moravec believes that during the downloading process the brain would be destroyed as it is gradually scanned and copied, layer by layer, until the brain case is empty. If current technological trends continue, however, Greg Egan’s view of the copying process in Permutation City may be more accurate, and the process may not involve the destruction of the original human. Furthermore, Erik Davis in Techgnosis notes that psycho-neuro-immunologists argue that consciousness arises from the entire body. Meditators and mystics across the world also consider that there are many different states of consciousness that cannot be identified with the conceptual activity examined by cognitive science and which Moravec wishes to simulate.

Michael Heim, ‘The Virtual Reality of the Tea Ceremony’, The Virtual Dimension, 1998. Heim teaches internet and new media design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he also directs at Tai Chi group. Heim views the computer as introducing a new technologized space of thought that it contemplatively ordered, erotic and poetic. He has stated that cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory for examining our sense of the real. He believes that as western science has progressed, it has become increasingly similar to eastern mysticism. He cites as examples of this the liquid metaphors used to describe the transmission of information, and fractal computer interfaces that are curiously similar to Zen gardens. He is afraid that the navigators and builders of cyberspaces are in danger of performing unsymbolic and thoughtless work work, to which a similar philosophy exists in the tea ceremony. He therefore argues that the tea ceremony may give cyberspace more of a sense of place and move it away from being blandly ubiquitous.

Anthony Dunne, ‘Hertzian Space’, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design, 1999. Anthony is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art in London. He and his design partner, Fiona Raby, create designs for products and architectural elements that respond to the electromagnetic spectrum. They deliberately reject the ‘form-porn’ aesthetic in which the skin of a product is designed to conceal a set of very ordinary components, and to become as obsolete as swiftly as possible. They are in favour of a design philosophy in which nothing is overwrought, accentuated or just there for its own sake. They note that many objects react to and respond to the electromagnetic impulses all around us, such as the ring of the telephone when it receives its signal, or a computer mouse that can quack like a duck, tweet, or laugh like a baby if so designed. In Hertzian Tales Dunne describes his aspirations, the people he admires and who have influenced him, and his concepts of the ‘post-optimal object’, ‘para-functionality’ and ‘infra-ordinary space’. The book’s introduction is by Gillian Crampton Smith, the former Professor of Computer Related Design at the RCA. She notes that objects are rarely purely functional, but also have ritual or symbolic meanings. This fact has largely been ignored in the design of computer technology. She views Dunne’s work as introducing an ‘aesthetics of use’ into electronic objects, through the interactivity made possible by computers. This in turn seeks to produce a more nuanced cooperation with the object, which may in turn enhance social contact and everyday experience. Dunne, Raby and Smith therefore hope that such computerised products will encourage the user to enter a new space of communal interaction, rather than the lonely and self-obsessed spaces they see as often produced by the technology.

Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, 1999. Wertheim is a science journalist specialising in the relationship between physics and religion. Wertheim considers that the internet and Virtual reality are portals into a new, religious space – a ‘soul space’. This is in contrast to the way the industrial revolution and the secular spaces of modernism collapsed the old, medieval dualist concept of space, divided between heaven and Earth. Wertheim goes on to show the parallels between the conceptions of space in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the renaissance ‘theatres of memory’ mnemonic devices explored by Frances Yates in her book, the Art of Memory. Dante’s Cornices acted as mnemonic device for memorising the place of things and ideas in the cosmic hierarchy, while his trilogy is also full of less elevated references to contemporary politics and gossip. Contemporary cyberspace also possesses a ‘low code’ content, which, along with its elusive phenomenological character, makes it a ‘new soul space’. Cyberspace is only partly located in real, physical space, and so lies outside the multitude of dimensions and hyperspace posited by physicists and scientists. It is a realm beyond physical law. Her conception is the complete opposite of Stelarc’s, which far from viewing Cyberspace as the modern version of an ancient concept, sees it as a completely modern innovation that has rendered the old ideas about the body obsolete.

The last extract in the anthology is Spiller’s own article, ‘Vacillating Objects’, from Architectural Design, 1999. Spiller was the guest editor of the ‘Architects in Cyberspace’ edition of Architectural Design in 1995 through his interest in invigorating architecture through Cyberspace and the blurred boundary between the real and the Virtual. His own research has included the changing status of architectural drawings, smart materials, computer-aided manufacturing, emergent systems, responsive environments, the architectural design of Cyberspace, interactivity, cybernetics, evolving systems and algorithmic design, as well as cellular automata and complexity. Spiller was interested in using algorithms as a way creating responsive, non-prescriptive architectural designs. Algorithms offered a way to describe fluctuating conditions in responsive environments. That edition of Architectural Review was the architectural publication to describe the immense potential information technology offered architects since the 1960s. It included articles by philosophers, architects, performance artists, theorists of digital art and psychologists. It was followed by Digital Dreams and ‘Architects in Cyberspace 2’. He predicts that the architecture of the future ‘will be an architecture of ecological wefts, technological distortions and digital necromancy’. He believes it will mix objects not often connected with each other for aesthetic or practical reasons, or for exploration. Objects, some of which will be invisible, will simultaneously flit across a variety of terrain and so demolish the idea of the privileged site plan as the objects become ubiquitous and doppelgangered.

Cyberspace, Architecture and Post-Modernism

Phaidon are publishers of books on art, and so, as you’d expect from such a publisher, the book contains a profuse number of beautiful illustrations. Spiller’s job as an architect, and the various other contributors to the anthology, who are also members of the profession -Gordon Pask, Cedric Price, Paul Virilio, Marcos Novak, William Mitchell, Karen A. Franck John Frazer and Anthony Dunne – explains why Phaidon, rather than a science publisher, should publish it. Several of the contributors – Deleuze, Guattari, and Virilio, for example, are also key figures in Post-Modern philosophy. They and their ideas have recently come under attack. Spiller notes that Deleuze and Guattari are extremely difficult to understand. In fact the American mathematician, Alan Sokal, and his Belgian colleague Bricmont, have demonstrated in their book, Intellectual Impostures, that much Post-Modern philosophy is actually nonsensical. They took a number of leading Post-Modern philosophers and showed that they misunderstood the scientific concepts they included in their writings. These did not add anything to their arguments, but were simply there to make their confused, often incoherent prose seem far more intellectually profound than it really was. It has been widely known for some time that Post-Modernism originally arose in architecture, where it was defined by the inclusion, or quotation, of historic architectural features in modern buildings, before it moved into philosophy. What is new, which this book demonstrates, is how the founders of Post-Modernism were influenced by the new information technology, and, in Virilio’s case, cyberspace.

The selected texts include some of the classic works on information technology, cyberspace and its effect on humanity, such as those of Babbage, Forster, Bush, Bolter, Wiener, Licklider, Engelbart, McLuhan, Moravec, Stelarc and, most famously, Gibson’s Neuromancer. Before Reading University’s professor of Cybernetics, Kevin Warwick, experimented with being a cyborg, Stelarc was very nearly the real thing, wiring himself up to the Net, and giving himself another, prosthetic arm and ear. When he announced his intention to have this last added to his anatomy on Radio 3’s Grave New Worlds, it made the poor continuity announcer feel quite ill. She was heard after the programme saying something along the lines of, ‘And if that hasn’t made you feel too bad, you can recover by listening to one of the great pieces of classical music on next’. Others have talked the talk about cyborgs, but Stelarc really did walk the walk.

Stelarc Body

Graphic from Stelarc’s performance, ‘Involuntary Body/ Third Hand’.

Philosophical Objections to Downloading

Many, perhaps most, of the pieces, are highly controversial. The possibility of downloading one’s intelligence into a computer rests on the identification of mind with brain, and this is open to strong criticism on philosophical and neurological grounds. Many philosophers, such as the former neurologist Raymond Tallis, have pointed out that the brain is not a computer. This is just the latest metaphor used to describe the most complex organised structure in the universe. Previous centuries have described it in terms of a telephone exchange, or a series of fountains. Daniel C. Dennett’s attempts to explain consciousness in terms of brain function and evolutionary history has also been criticised. Despite the book’s title, it does not actually explain how consciousness arises, only how various parts of the brain perform particular cognitive or mental functions.

Genderless Societies Unpopular, Shown in Criticism of Star Trek Episode by Gay Fans

Some of the feminist ideas about Cyberspace and cyborgisation are also probably too radical to be acceptable for most people. Feminism is about raising the status of women and promoting greater equality between the sexes, particularly with the intention of giving women greater freedom to pursue careers and occupations previously only open to men. Although this naturally involves the redefinition of the gender roles, I doubt very many would want humanity to move beyond gender altogether. The controversy surrounding one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which acted as a metaphor for homosexuality and related gender issues is an illustration of this. In the episode, ‘The Outcast’ the crew of the Enterprise encounter the J’naii, a race that has evolved out of gender. Occasionally, however, a throwback occurs, which is either male or female. These individuals are persecuted by the state. If found, they are captured and forcibly given therapy and medical intervention to make them a normal member of their sexless race. One of the J’naii, who has been on the Enterprise assisting with its latest task on the planet, is just such a throwback. It is a female, and in love with Riker. She is arrested, and taken away. Riker attempts to free her in a raid, but it is too late. The person has already been treated and so can have no romantic interest in him as a member of a race with gender.

Jnali Trek

Riker pursues a forbidden romance with a genderless alien in the Star Trek:TNG episode ‘The Outcast’.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was lampooned when it first appeared for being ‘politically correct’. It was firmly anti-racist and anti-sexist. The phrase ‘Where no man has gone before’ in the opening dedication had been altered to ‘Where no-one has gone before’. The ship’s security officer, Tasha Yar, was a woman, and the Federation stood for inter-planetary multiculturalism, rather than simply the multi-racial tolerance, mixed with 1960s American values of the Classic Trek series. There was pressure at the time for the series to promote a pro-gay stance. The gay members of the SF milieu, such as the organisation of gay SF fans, the Gaylaxians, wanted the producers to introduce gay characters and stories. They hoped, for example, for an episode in which Picard would perform a ship’s marriage for a same-sex couple. David Gerrold, one of the script editors and writers on the original series, who went on to become the script editor for the 1980s Buck Rogers show, was supportive. This was, however, too radical a step for the producers and the TV networks. The episode with Riker and his paramour from a genderless society was therefore seen as a compromise, an attempt to present a pro-gay message, albeit metaphorically.This episode angered rather than satisfied the show’s gay fans. They were particularly upset by the suggestion that somehow gays were opposed to gender, and wished to create a genderless society.

Some of the ideas about the creation of alternative bodies and identities in Cyberspace is also morally dubious. One of the examples of this cited by Truckle is of an individual, who came on-line claiming to be severely disabled woman. This person could only communicate using the keyboard through a probe mounted on their head. This person became popular and attracted many friends. One of these tried to track her down and meet her in person. When they did so, this disabled woman turned about to be a fit and well man. ‘Her’ friends, especially the women, were understandably upset and felt betrayed. Even more seriously, there is the problem of paedophiles grooming their young victims on-line, by pretending to be other youngsters.

Virtual Personas Little Different from Conventional Strategies for Real-Life Anonymity

It’s also true that the creation of different, Virtual personas on-line isn’t radically different to the strategies people have adopted throughout history in real life. Conmen are once example of this, but far more benign examples have been the way authors have adopted pseudonyms to get their work published. The great German satirist, Kurt Tucholsky, wrote under a series of pseudonyms and personas, some of which argued with each other in the Weimar press. If you do it on-line, it called using sock-puppets. Many of those, who adopted pseudonyms and fake personas were women authors, who would otherwise not have been published if their true gender and identity had been known, such as George Eliot. Another example from Science Fiction literary history is James Tiptree junior. Tiptree was the author of a number of prize winning short stories between 1967 and 1977, and was lauded as the equal of Robert Silverberg and Ursula Le Guin. He was the author of such great stories as ‘Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death’. Outside of his writing career, he had a high-power job in Washington. He was finally unmasked in 1977 by a fan, Jeffrey D. Smith, as Alice Sheldon. Sheldon had travelled widely in Africa as a child, been a professional painter, and the first woman to go through the US Air Force Intelligence School. With her husband she helped form the CIA. She had used the techniques taught to her as a spy to construct the false persona of Tiptree.

In the world of the Role-Playing Game, whether real or on computer, it’s also the case that changes of identity and gender are taken as fun, rather than anything more profound or serious. I’ve known a number of RPGers, who’ve played on board and computer games as members of the opposite sex without any deeper interest in issues of gender and identity. They were just interested in playing a particular character, that happened to be of the opposite sex, in an adventure game.

Robocop 2

The Cybernetic hero of the film, Robocop.The story of a policeman, Murphy, who is transformed into a cyborg policeman after being brutally gunned down and his attempts to bring the criminals and the corrupt businessmen behind them and his transformation to justice. Murphy as the Robocop is initially very much a machine, until he rediscovers his own humanity during a dream. It represents the terrible dehumanisation that could result from such radical mechanisation of the human body.

Danger of Dehumanisation in Cyborg Enhancement

As for cyborgisation, while this does offer immense opportunities for personal enhancement and augmentation, it also presents serious ethical dangers. I doubt many people would object to the idea of immortality or longevity offered by the prospect of nanomachines repairing the damage to their cells caused by the aging process, such as has been suggested by that great Transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil. On the other hand, there is the terrible danger of complete depersonalisation as advanced technology replaces everything we most value and cherish about humanity. The end result of this process is the emotionless, depersonalised machine creatures of Science Fiction, the Daleks and Cybermen of Doctor Who, and the Borg with their collective hive mind in Star Trek. The Cybermen were the result of a conversation between their creator and his mother. They had been talking about spare part surgery, and the monsters’ creator found himself wondering if this would result in a creature that didn’t know whether it was a man or machine. He depicted them without emotion, because he believed that they would not need them through living in a completely technological environment. Few people would want to join them in their machine hell.

Much Modern Architecture Ugly

Modern architecture is also contentious. While the chapters on computer-aided design and Cyberspace and computer design philosophies are fascinating, it’s unfortunately true that much of modern architecture actually isn’t very attractive. One only has to read the ‘Nooks and Corners’ column in Private Eye to read what their writer, ‘Piloti’, thinks of many of the great contemporary architects, such as Richard Rogers, and their attempts to deconstruct architecture. The results of this have been some truly unattractive buildings of the type Prince Charles once memorably and notoriously described as ‘monstrous carbuncles’.

Despite these criticisms, the pieces presented here are thought-provoking, stimulating and present powerful insights into way computers and digital age have revolutionised modern culture and society, and their immense potential for radically changing not just society, but humanity and its conception of self and reality, as well as the alternative world that would have resulted had Babbage’s great machine actually been built.