Articles

This is a selective archive of reviews, features, and essays I’ve published in the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, Esquire, Arena, etc. You can browse below in reverse-chronological order or read by category: general book reviews (e.g., DeLillo, Murakami, Mailer, Gibson, Saramago), heterogeneous essays, or reviews and other pieces on technology, language, music, or philosophy; and some interviews.

16 October 2013

Malcolm Gladwell is sometimes criticised on the basis that, although he has a reputation as a thinker, all he does is précis other people’s research. That’s not fair. Popularising academic ideas with style for a broad audience is hardly an ignoble pursuit. The real problem with Gladwell goes far deeper. It is the method that he has helped make ubiquitous in modern non-fiction trade publishing.

“Through these stories,” he explains in the introduction to his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, “I want to explore two ideas.” The method of “exploring” ideas through stories is now the preferred mode of, or replacement for, serious thought and argument. Unfortunately, it can lead an incautious writer into a conceptual shambles.

Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés. The reader is thus led on a pleasant quasi-intellectual tour, to be reassured at the end that a flavour of folksy wisdom was right all along. Little things really can make a big difference; trusting your gut can be better than overthinking; successful people work hard.

The art here lies in making the platitudinous conclusion seem like a revelatory place to end up, after one has enjoyed the colourful “stories” about carefully described plucky individuals with certain hairstyles and particular kinds of trousers. (Actual quote: “He is a tall young man with carefully combed dark-brown hair and neatly pressed khakis.”) Such books must thus be constructed with a certain suspenseful cunning. Gladwell likes first to tell an apparently convincing story and then declare that it’s not true, like a magician pulling an empty hat out of a rabbit.

Read the rest at the New Republic.

6 July 2013

On modern nature writing

The idealisation of the natural world is as old as the city, to the corrupting influence of which a return to pastoral life is always presented as a cure. But the increasing modern appetite of metropolitan readers for books about walking around and discovering yourself in nature is the literary equivalent of the rise of the north London “farmers’ market”. Both feed on nostalgie de la boue – the French term for a kind of rustic-fancying inverted snobbery, which literally means “nostalgia for the mud”. In the case of the urban consumer of nature writing, of course, the mud is to be hosed off one’s mental Range Rover immediately one lifts one’s eyes from the page and gives silent thanks for the civilised appurtenances of hot yoga and flat whites.

Much of the pastoral literary genre has long been a solidly bourgeois form of escapism. But nature is today also the arena for an oddly sublimated politics, and recent nature writing reflects some peculiarly modern concerns – sometimes in a way that the nice liberal audience would surely disown if applied to human affairs. In an era of immigration anxiety, for example, the ubiquitous ecological rhetoric of “native” and “invasive” species projects on to the natural world the patterns of human geopolitics. People talk of the grey squirrel as though he were the Middle Eastern asylum-seeker or eastern European plumber of tabloid hate-mongering, come over here as a benefits tourist or cunning job-thief.

Consider, too, the poor sheep, target of George Monbiot’s passionate scorn in Feral, his recent manifesto for “rewilding” (bringing back animals that were once native, such as wolves). “I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep,” Monbiot writes. “I hate them.” Why so? “Partly as a result of their assaults,” Monbiot laments, evoking a picture of serried ranks of sheep marching militaristically over the hillsides in coordinated attacks, “Wales now possesses less than one-third of the average forest cover of Europe.” Sheep have been able to wreak such devastation, he says, “because they were never part of our native ecosystem”, and so “the vegetation of this country has evolved no defences against sheep.”

So goes the green version of the English Defence League: sheep aren’t natives! They are “a feral invasive species”. They don’t belong here. “Invasive species,” Monbiot complains, “challenge attempts to defend a unique and distinctive fauna and flora” – just as anti-immigration demagogues claim that foreigners will destroy a unique and distinctive British culture. “Certain animals and plants,” Monbiot warns us, even “have characteristics that allow them to invade” – what, like Panzers and U-boats? – “and colonise many parts of the world.” Thus each ecosystem is conceived as a little Westphalian nation state, vulnerable to assault by expansionist outsiders.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Nudge units, behavioural economics, political speech, advertising, and popular psychology — they are all trying to convince us that we’re irrational, helpless victims of our badly wired brains. Why should such an anti-humanist message have become the received wisdom of our age? That is the subject of my recent talk on BBC Radio 4’s “Four Thought”, which you can listen to here.

29 May 2013

On Big Data and its discontents

Data will save us. All we need to do is measure the world. When we have quantified everything, problems both technical and social will melt away. That, at least, is the promise of “Big Data” – the buzzphrase for the practice of collecting mountains of data about a subject and then crunching away on it with shiny supercomputers. The term has lately become so ubiquitous that people make wry jokes about “small data”. But Big Data is not only something geeks do in the science lab or the start-up company; it affects us all. So we had better understand what its plans are.

Miraculous things can already be accomplished. By analysing web-searches tied to geographical location, Google Flu Trends can track the spread of an influenza epidemic in near-real time, thus helping to direct medical resources to the right places. Another of the company’s services, Google Translate, is so effective not because it understands language to any degree, but because it holds huge corpuses of written examples in various tongues and knows statistically which phrase of the sample text is most often translated by which phrase in the target language. Meanwhile, aircraft and other complex engineering projects can be made more reliable once components are able wirelessly to phone home information about how they are functioning. This mammoth store of telemetry data can be analysed to predict part failures before they happen.

But Big Data is not just an approach that improves uncontroversially useful systems. It’s also a hype machine. IBM, for instance, offers to furnish companies with its own Big Data platform, the PR material for which is a savoury mix of space-age techspeak and corporate mumbo-jumbo. “Big data represents a new era of computing,” the company promises, “an inflection point of opportunity where data in any format may be explored and utilised for breakthrough insights – whether that data is in-place, in-motion, or at-rest.” It sounds rather cruel to disturb data that is “at-rest”, presumably power-napping, but inflection points of opportunity wait for no man or megabyte.

Another platform capable of changing the game, albeit in an unhappily permanent manner, might be the Big Data skiing goggles marketed by the tech-shades manufacturer Oakley. Rather as the computerised spectacles known as Google Glass promise to do for the whole world, these $600 goggles project into your eyes all kinds of fascinating information about your skiing, including changes in speed and altitude, and can even display incoming messages from your mobile.

Of course, it might happen that while reading a titillating sext from a co-worker you ski at high speed into a tree. And so the goggles are sold with a splendidly self-defeating warning on the box: “Do not operate product while skiing.” Clearly, all the information all of the time is not always desirable. Still less so when Big Data’s tendrils move out from cool gadgets or website tools into our personal lives, the workplace and government – notwithstanding the Panglossian boosters of global datagasm.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

14 May 2013

Inferno
by Dan Brown

The tall writer Steven Poole opened the wooden door of the strong house and peered at the small figure on the stone doorstep. It was a boy. Cradled in his palms the boy nervously proffered a startling object. It was the new book by the famous novelist Dan Brown.

The tall writer took the precious artefact from the nervous boy’s hands and thanked him. The miniature human scuttled off. An idling engine revved into life. The writer glanced down the street, then retreated into the residential building. He knew he had better get to work. Looking at his Tag Heuer Swiss watch, he calculated that he had only 48 hours to decode the arcane puzzle of the bestselling author’s latest novel.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

13 May 2013

In central London this spring, eight of the world’s greatest minds performed on a dimly lit stage in a wood-panelled theatre. An audience of hundreds watched in hushed reverence. This was the closing stretch of the 14-round Candidates’ Tournament, to decide who would take on the current chess world champion, Viswanathan Anand, later this year.

Each round took a day: one game could last seven or eight hours. Sometimes both players would be hunched over their board together, elbows on table, splayed fingers propping up heads as though to support their craniums against tremendous internal pressure. At times, one player would lean forward while his rival slumped back in an executive leather chair like a bored office worker, staring into space. Then the opponent would make his move, stop his clock, and stand up, wandering around to cast an expert glance over the positions in the other games before stalking upstage to pour himself more coffee. On a raised dais, inscrutable, sat the white-haired arbiter, the tournament’s presiding official. Behind him was a giant screen showing the four current chess positions. So proceeded the fantastically complex slow-motion violence of the games, and the silently intense emotional theatre of their players.

When Garry Kasparov lost his second match against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997, people predicted that computers would eventually destroy chess, both as a contest and as a spectator sport. Chess might be very complicated but it is still mathematically finite. Computers that are fed the right rules can, in principle, calculate ideal chess variations perfectly, whereas humans make mistakes. Today, anyone with a laptop can run commercial chess software that will reliably defeat all but a few hundred humans on the planet. Isn’t the spectacle of puny humans playing error-strewn chess games just a nostalgic throwback?

Such a dismissive attitude would be in tune with the spirit of the times. Our age elevates the precision-tooled power of the algorithm over flawed human judgment. From web search to marketing and stock-trading, and even education and policing, the power of computers that crunch data according to complex sets of if-then rules is promised to make our lives better in every way. Automated retailers will tell you which book you want to read next; dating websites will compute your perfect life-partner; self-driving cars will reduce accidents; crime will be predicted and prevented algorithmically. If only we minimise the input of messy human minds, we can all have better decisions made for us. So runs the hard sell of our current algorithm fetish.

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.

13 April 2013

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr

Did he just say what I think he said? In late 2010, Britain erupted in merriment when a radio interviewer attempted to introduce his guest, “the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt,” and accidentally replaced the first letter of the man’s surname with an earlier-used consonant. Swearwords, even in our proudly informal age, have lost none of their power to offend or amuse. Last year, the Supreme Court earnestly discussed whether the Federal Communications Commission could punish broadcasters for “fleeting expletives”—words that “unexpectedly” arise during live conversation. For the moment, the court decided, the FCC can, though it was advised to reconsider its overall “indecency” policy.

One long-standing response to regulation and social censure has been to adopt an innocent expression and just change a letter or two. Norman Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, featured salty-tongued sailors saying “fug” and “fugging.” More recently, Syfy’s much-admired TV series Battlestar Galactica had swearers in space saying “frak” and “frakking.” (Today these words are more likely to evoke a method of getting at shale gas.) One can be even more direct with homophony. Generations of students have giggled in not-quite-innocent pleasure over Hamlet’s asking Ophelia: “Do you think I meant country matters?”

We can safely assume that humans have been both reveling in and claiming to be offended by language deemed “obscene” for as long as they have been talking. Or at the very least, as Melissa Mohr demonstrates in her intelligent and enjoyable new book, since Roman times, when there were already a variety of names for acts and body parts, from proper to very lewd (the guessable “cunnus” and “futuo”; the more obscure “landica” and “irrumo”). In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Ms. Mohr leads us on an often ear-boggling tour of verbal depravity, through the medieval and early-modern periods (via a fascinating analysis of scatological phrasing in early Bible translations) to the Victorian era and then our own time. She also makes a serious point, cutely captured in the book’s title. Our idea of “swearing” is irredeemably muddled—caught between the sacred, as in the taking of oaths (the title’s “Holy”), and the profane, as in the use of terms for evacuatory and erotic adventure (the title’s other word).

Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal.
Feeling at home with Facebook

The first mobile-phone call was made 40 years ago this week, by a Motorola engineer roaming the streets of New York. Phones have made amazing advances since then: I for one would be lost without Google Maps, literally and all the time. Having something called a “smartphone” makes me feel… well, smart. (Non-smartphones are known in the industry as “feature phones”.) And now the latest exciting evolution of the phone has just been announced: Facebook Home. Premiered on a new phone, the HTC First, it’s a forthcoming Android app that replaces your “home screen” with direct Facebook access. Wake up your phone and your Facebook news feed is right there. OMG, “Like”! Right?

Facebook promises that this will result in a “great, living, social phone”, which gives me alarming mental images of something alive wriggling around in my pocket, connected directly to Mark Zuckerberg’s brain. The instantly available news feed is apparently “for those in-between moments like waiting in line at the grocery store or between classes when you want to see what’s going on in your world”, which oddly implies that “your world” is not what is actually going on around you – which you could, after all, see by simply staring at it rather than fumbling for your phone. No, “your world” is Facebook’s world. Welcome to it!

Read the rest at the Guardian.

27 March 2013

Sound and its discontents through history
Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, by David Hendy (Profile)

During a classical music concert, a cough is rarely just a cough. According to a recent paper by the economist Andreas Wagener, people are twice as likely to cough during a concert as at other times. Furthermore, they are more likely to cough during modern, atonal music than during better-known repertoire and they cough more during slow or quiet passages than during fast and loud ones.

The classical cough, then, is no accident but rather a form of communication disguised as involuntary physiological tic. “Because of their ambiguity – they may always be forgiven as bodily reflexes – coughs are a noisy substitute for direct, verbal communication and participation,” Wagener writes. “They allow for social interaction up to contagious herding, propagate (possibly incorrect) assessments of the performance and reassure concert-goers in their aesthetic judgements.”

Coughers might thus be rebelling nonverbally against the hierarchy imposed on them – that of powerful, noise-making performers and submissive, silent audience. Wagener’s paper is too recent to have found its way into David Hendy’s book, but it reflects in this way one of Noise’s major themes – that social groups struggle for supremacy using sound as a proxy.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

20 March 2013

To Save Everything, Click Here, by Evgeny Morozov
Big Data, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier

Newsflash: the internet doesn’t exist. If you think there is just one thing called “the Internet” with a single logic and set of values — rather than a variety of different networked technologies, each with its own character and challenges – and that the rest of the world must be reshaped around it, then you are an “Internet-centrist”. If you think the messiness and inefficiency of political and cultural life are problems that should be fixed using technology, then you are a “solutionist”. And if you think that the age of Twitter and online videos of sneezing cats is so unlike anything that has gone before that we must tear up the rule-book of civilisation, then you are an “epochalist”. Such coinages are one of the drive-by amusements of reading Evgeny Morozov, who, since his first book, The Net Delusion, has become one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism.

He certainly has some colourful adversaries. One is Jeff Jarvis, a new-media cyberhustler and consultant who is serially wrong about the near future, and seemingly cannot bear to hear any criticism of his adored Silicon Valley corporations. Appearing on the BBC earlier this year after Facebook had been hacked, he accused his interviewer of spreading “technopanic”, insisted the whole story was “crap”, and said: “This interview shouldn’t exist.” Afterwards, he tweeted: “The BBC can kiss my ass,” and “Fuck you, BBC.”

Among Morozov’s other targets are Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, with his “populist rage against institutions” (except his own); LinkedIn supremo Reid Hoffman, who has perpetrated a book-shaped product entitled The Start-Up of You; Google’s Eric Schmidt, who believes that an algorithm could one day tell you what is the “Best music from Lady Gaga”; Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell, lifelogger extraordinaire and exemplary lunatic of the mindset that holds that Truth, in the form of perfect data recall, is the absolute social value; and the games-will-save-the-world theorist Jane McGonigal, whose work Morozov likens to “a bad parody of Mitt Romney”.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

14 March 2013

The Slow Fix, by Carl Honoré (HarperOne)

Carl Honoré is a writer and public speaker who flies around the world telling people to slow down. “My life has been transformed by deceleration,” he confides in The Slow Fix, though it has also clearly been transformed by acceleration, of the jet-engine variety. In 2004, he published In Praise of Slow, a critique of our cultural addiction to speed, advising readers to take more time over eating, exercising, sex and bedtime stories. “The Slow movement is on the march,” he announced then. If so, it was marching at a snail’s pace, since nine years later we are due another reminder of the virtues of dawdling.

This time Mr. Honoré focuses on the desirability of taking things slowly when you are trying to solve a problem. “We are hooked on the quick fix,” he says, but our pill-popping, speed-yoga, retail-therapy, drive-thru-funeral, rent-a-pal, high-frequency-trading world is still broken. The author strains somewhat to convince us that his message is a novel one. Every culture has long had a suspicion of quick fixes. Even in our hyper-accelerated age, when a problem arises you never hear people demanding half-baked solutions.

Read the rest in the Wall Street Journal.

8 March 2013

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway or Bruce Chatwin? Then you need a Moleskine notebook. Purchase one of these marvels of stationery engineering – the strokable black cover with rounded corners, the bookmark, the expandable back pocket, the sewn pages – and it surely won’t be long before you are composing muscular sentences about exotic perambulations and recently deceased animals. The Moleskine has become such a writer’s fetish object, indeed, that the company is now planning to go public on the Milan stock exchange, potentially valuing it at €600m.

This despite the fact that Hemingway and Chatwin never actually used a Moleskine. The Italian publisher Modo&Modo created the brand in 1997, so its “heritage” – the website also mentions Picasso and Van Gogh – is more myth than fact. Even so, Moleskines (based on a description by Chatwin of a type of notebook he used to buy in France) are seriously good products. And writers must be allowed their little tool obsessions – some swear by £80 mechanical pencils, others by a certain obscure brand of Japanese gel pen.

Read the rest at the Guardian.
From artisan coffee to road-worn guitars, Beyoncé to Sartre — what does authenticity really mean?

Picture the tragic scenes in Crouch End, North London, earlier this year. The patrons of Harris + Hoole, a local coffee-shop, had just learned to their horror that supermarket chain Tesco owned a 49% stake in the company. Tearful caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt “duped” and “upset”, since they thought it was an “independent” coffee-shop. A rival coffee-hawker sneered that Tesco was “trying to make money” out of “artisan values”, though presumably he was too. Most charmingly, the manager of the controversial café confided that head office “had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible”. “We try to be independent,” she said. “We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.”

She’s right: we all want to have that feel. But the appropriation by Tesco and Harris + Hoole of the consumer allure of “independence” and “artisan values” is just one symptom of our current predicament: there is no way out of the simulation. What we get in an “authentic” cultural product is still just a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminate, wood-effect veneer is the real thing. Authenticity is now just another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

11 February 2013

Does the cosmos have a purpose? Is it us?

It was an idea long consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. ‘Like a virgin consecrated to God,’ Francis Bacon declared nearly 400 years ago, it ‘produces nothing’. It was anti-rational nonsense, the last resort of unfashionable idealists and religious agitators. And then, late last year, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers published a book arguing that we should take it seriously after all. Biologists and philosophers lined up to give the malefactor a kicking. His ideas were ‘outdated’, complained some. Another wrote: ‘I regret the appearance of this book.’ Steven Pinker sneered at ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’. The Guardian called it ‘the most despised science book of 2012’. So what made everyone so angry?

The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was Mind and Cosmos, and the idea was teleology.

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.