essays

30 October 2014

The joys of the mechanical pencil

People who write notes in ink must be very sure of their thoughts. I write notes in pencil: it seems more polite. Penciled notes are always provisional and erasable. But the apparent humility — or, perhaps, smug performance of humility — in my choice of penciling is counterbalanced by the fact that I eschew the humble wooden pencil. I must have a mechanical pencil, the kind you click to advance the lead. And when I say “a mechanical pencil,” you should know that I mean “lots of mechanical pencils.”

Read the rest at the Atlantic.

22 September 2014

Why we’re not as irrational as the nudgers want us to think

Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile. Yet the news lately from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics, and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors, and prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.

Yet the modern thesis of severely compromised rationality is more open to challenge and reinterpretation than many of its followers accept. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find undesirable. A culture that accepts on faith the idea that its citizens are not reliably competent reasoners will treat those citizens differently than a culture that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? Continued →

16 July 2014

Live for the moment. Be spontaneous. Be free and happy. Don’t worry about the future. Act as though it’s your last day on earth. Such is one modern conception of the good life. Adverts encourage us to drop everything and jet off for a city break at the last moment, or to walk at random into a bar where we are sure to meet a new gang of stock-photo besties, all ostentatiously sipping the same brand of transparent liquor. People are reluctant to make concrete social arrangements, so just say, “Text me.” Serendipity is our friend; planning is for losers. “Spontaneity” is rhetorically offered as the reason to celebrate both online social media and last-minute travel bucket shops.

It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others. You’d turn into someone like the amusing but oddly disturbing character Old Merrythought in Francis Beaumont’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (recently revived to hilarious effect at the Globe in London). Merrythought spends all his time singing and drinking ale, because he assumes there will always be meat on the table come dinnertime. Being so spontaneous would make you, in short, a fantastically annoying and irresponsible flibbertigibbet.

Why, then, is the dream of spontaneity so attractive?

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

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.

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.

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.