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.

4 May 2014

Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, by Scott Weems (Basic Books)
Humour: A Very Short Introduction, by Noël Carroll (Oxford)

Trying to explain a joke has long been considered a paradigm of pedantic futility. That hasn’t stopped thinkers through the ages erecting vast and subtle theories of comedy. But none of them had brain-scanners. Perhaps cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems can explain once and for all why Louis CK is funny and David Cameron isn’t.

Very early on, the book’s ultramodern tone is set. We are invited to agree that no one could ever have properly known anything about a complex sociocultural phenomenon before lab volunteers started being rolled gently into fMRI tubes. “Humour has some very clear ingredients,” Weems says, “ones that science is just now beginning to reveal.” That sounds exciting. Let’s see what they are. When people in scanners found certain cartoons funny, Weems explains, various parts of their brains increased in activation, and those parts are associated with the “dopamine reward circuit”. What does this reveal to us about the nature of humour? Sweet FA, unless it had never occurred to you that it is pleasurable to be amused. The “dopamine reward circuit”, according to other studies, also gets a jolly workout from cocaine, chocolate and video games. So: nothing new about humour here.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

26 February 2014

Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, by Vikram Chandra (Faber)

In 1843, Britain’s minister for education announced that every schoolchild in the country would henceforth be given obligatory lessons in the design and maintenance of locomotive engines. “Railways are the future,” he said. “Trains are critical to our economic growth. If our children grow up ignorant of how to build and operate trains, they will be left behind in the global race.”

Some commentators observed mildly that division of labour and expertise was a more efficient way to run a modern society. Everyone could get around on trains, but that didn’t mean everyone needed to know how they worked. Yet the government was adamant. Children had to learn mechanical thinking, it insisted. The new world would be built on the philosophy of pistons.

Soon, unfortunately, the minister for education had to resign, after it was revealed that he had received enormous bribes from locomotive-engine manufacturers. Those companies, naturally, had been eager to get thousands of new workers trained for their own purposes at public expense. In the wake of this scandal, mandatory train-based classes rolled to a sad halt.

I just made all this up, of course, and the analogy with our modern mantra that all children must be taught how to program computers should not be interpreted too closely. In particular, I certainly do not mean to suggest that the current government is in any kind of corrupt relationship with Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple or any of the other giant corporations who will profit handsomely from future generations of workers having been educated to their own specifications out of the public purse. Clearly no such corrupt relationship exists.

But then what are we to make of the fashionable view that writing “code” is a crucial skill not just for those who will work as software engineers but for everyone?

Read the rest at the Guardian.

11 December 2013

Recently, I saw a man on the Tube wearing a Nike T-shirt with a slogan that read, in its entirety, “I’m doing work”. The idea that playing sport or doing exercise needs to be justified by calling it a species of work illustrates the colonisation of everyday life by the devotion to toil: an ideology that argues cunningly in favour of itself in the phrase “work ethic”.

We are everywhere enjoined to work harder, faster and for longer – not only in our jobs but also in our leisure time. The rationale for this frantic grind is one of the great unquestioned virtues of our age: “productivity”. The cult of productivity seems all-pervasive. Football coaches and commentators praise a player’s “work rate”, which is thought to compensate for a lack of skill. Geeks try to streamline their lives in and out of the office to get more done. People boast of being busy and exhausted and eagerly consume advice from the business-entertainment complex on how to “de-fry your burnt brain”, or engineer a more productive day by assenting to the horror of breakfast meetings.

A corporate guru will even teach you how to become a “master of extreme productivity”. (In these extreme times, extremity is always good; unless, perhaps, you are an extremist.) No one boasts of being unproductive, still less counterproductive. Into the iron gate of modernity have been wrought the words: “Productivity will set you free.”

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

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.