But it's also because keeping these artistic practices in my life gives me a vital insight into how organisations in general can foster creativity and innovation.
I'm a player-with-microphones-and-laptops - and from this, much else in my life has flowed.
For example, in a conversation earlier this week, I was exploring my own direct experiences of what a creative space feels like, in order to inform how organisations might build their own.
A “rehearsal space”, or “writing room”, in my music experience, mixes together a number of modes of experience. You should expect a certain intensity to be brewed up there - people have signed up to a creative and exploratory process, with all the consequences that implies.
But it’s so important for that intensity to be well-facilitated - good soundsystem; comfortable conditions and furnishings; on-hand expertise and assistance if extra resources are needing (or things fail); the ability to record the moment accurately if something great arises.
And it’s also vital that there is, beyond the room, a “chill-out” space - somewhere you can take respite from the intensity, wander around, look at the skies/be under the skies, ingest whatever stimulant or restorative is required.
As well as the evidence of a great song or performance, I think the deep science of play theory can really help make the case for creative spaces in organisations.
It can give an evolutionary explanation of how play-zones helps complex organisms (like we social mammals) test their reactions to a challenging world, in a non-fatal, richly educative way.
This shouldn't be an “away-day” phenomenon - leaving the flawed workplace for a refreshing idyll in some location or residence, and then returning to it again with a brimming consciouness that rapidly depletes.
A creative zone should be a "ground of play". A place to test out our strategies at the heart of the savannah, or neighbourhood...or vibrant organisation.
Now, not every organisation is like the net-era start-up, unburdened by legacy or history. The Palo Alto wizards can make the entire workplace a "magic circle" of passionate and productive creativity.
But it may be that a decent "rehearsal space" can be wrested from the strict bottom-line (or top-line) imperatives of any organisation - if they think for a moment of what startling and world-changing creations can come from that space.
I just noticed Pharrell Williams' astonishment at the power of his "Happy" song in 2014. This wasn't just the theme of a blockbusting movie, but actually an inspiration to civic activists throughout the world (the Iranian ones were even arrested for their cavorting about). "Happy" will now be the theme tune for a UN global initiative on youth education.
Pharrell notes that he had 9 rejects for the song in that movie's scene before they got one they were, well, happy with (see him at work in the picture above). Now, there's the benefits of rehearsal!
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Always happy (it's inescapable!) to hear your responses below. If you want to continue this conversation, please mail from LinkedIn, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether as individuals, communities, organisations or societies, humans need to play, in order to keep themselves adapting and responding to the challenges of life.
Regular experiences of play - if we understand play in its fullest sense - can maintain a reserve of optimism, energy and resourcefulness, even in the most demanding and pressured of circumstances.
In my various professional engagements around play - whether keynote, workshop or consultancy - I always begin the same way: by giving participants an account of play based in the latest, cross-disciplinary scholarship on its power and potential.
It’s certainly important to play in a play seminar! But I also feel it’s essential to show participants the science of how important and elemental play is for human flourishing.
From neuroscience to evolutionary biology to systems-theory, there is a general recognition that play - seen as a freely-chosen and joyful exploration of possible options - is vital to the progress and development of any organism (or organisation).
Whether in nature - or in the society and economy - we often accept solutions to problems that are in fact a surrender to convention, rather than the optimal outcome possible. Playful behaviour is a way of probing beyond the obvious endpoint, widening perspectives so that the next, higher peak can be scaled - and perhaps by circuitous means.
Most organisations are aware that they must devote time and resources to establishing a fertile relationship between creativity and innovation - the generation of ideas and insights, and then their application and roll-out in actual situations.
But our playful mammalian natures - life-long and inescapable - lurk at the base of any initiative of this kind. “Getting” play properly will help fuel and sustain programmes of creativity and innovation.
A play understanding makes managers aware of the evolved needs and urges that are raised, and met, by allowing possibility and imagination into the working environment. The challenge is not just to their colleagues - but often to the overall strategic intent and vision of the organisation.
My seminars combine a step-by-step exploration of the sciences and specialisms of play, with a range of carefully-chosen exercises - conceptual and conversational as well as sociable and physical. These are intended to make concrete each stage of our growing knowledge-base on the relations between play, playfulness, creativity and innovation.
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All comments on this blog most welcome below!
And if you'd like to engage me further in this, please contact me from menu above.
It's good to explore the ins and outs of play theory again.
I know this is a personal, even nerdish pursuit. To know a little bit about how many different disciplines and knowledges play sits at the intersection of, is to be endlessly compelled and fascinated. Literally, so many rabbit holes to disappear into!
But I also know that understanding play has direct consequences for my work as a speaker and consultant around creativity and innovation. It is the taproot of all that - a surge to invention and exploration that is about an inexhaustible as a human resource gets.
And more and more, it seems to me that play's relation to our evolved and adapted biological natures is the crucial thing to try and understand.
So many great minds as routes to that - Marc Bekoff, Melvin Konner, Vivien and Sergio Pellis, Jane Goodall, Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Piven, Stuart Brown, Patrick Bateson... And such a great journey to embark upon with them all, as an element of my next book Radical Animal.
Kestly is a play therapist. But she turned to the neurobiology of play in order to give educators and parents intellectual and scientific confidence in her interventions - which comprises of being with, and responding to, kids as they expressively played with sandboxes, clay, and lego.
Theresa's great focus is the way that neurobiology reminds us of how primal, and pre-cognitive, the operations of our brains are - particularly around those seven great emotional systems for survival that Jaak Panksepp is making claims for: Rage, Fear, Lust, Care, Panic/Grief, Play and Seeking.
It's a whole other blog to explain those... but the essential point is that, in dealing with other people, we should appreciate that these deep, evolved processes are going on within them (and us) no matter what our clear, rational brains are deciding to discourse about.
Play is just as primal as the rest of them - and as part of our essential equipment as complex mammals, it will bubble up as it needs to. Indeed, in its role as a kind of theatre in which we can handle and test the tricky relations between our higher thoughts and our lower drives, it can easily be seen as vital to our wellbeing.
For those of us interested in changing and dynamizing communities and organisations, the truth of Kestly's book fits into a bigger set of questions.
Could we sustain creativity and innovation programs better, by understanding the exact nature of the deep needs that play answers?
Rather than sweeping people up into abstracted, branded visions of a "new way of doing things", could we plan situations where playful seeking becomes as unforced and natural as the need for exercise, or teamwork, or mutual supportiveness?
The sensitivities and gentleness of the play therapy room is far distant, of course, from a world of organisations with accountabilities, bottom-lines and contractual duties. Yet not so far distant, if we think for a minute of the pathologies that often course through our offices and halls...
Great to be on this journey of ideas again. All comments, as ever, most welcome.
I made a very clear commitment on my 50th (this March) to return myself fully to the agenda I set out in The Play Ethic in 2004. Yet times have really changed, and so have I.
The book I'll be settling down to complete over the next 6 months - called Radical Animal - will take my insights into play, as a deep-rooted appetite for possibility in human nature, and relate them to the planetary boundaries we are close approaching.
How does the unlimited imagination and appetites of the playful human, so easily diverted into lifestyle consumerism, find a different answer to its yearnings - one which respects the limits of our straining, over-heating ecosystem?
I'm not sure of the answers - which is, I guess, why I'm writing the book!
But in the meantime, I am always willing to talk to collaborators, colleagues and clients throughout the world, about what a deep consideration of the power and potential of play can do for themselves, their enterprises and their communities.
I will use this platform as a weekly update on things that strike me as relevant to a "busy-ness" audience like this about play, creativity and innovation. Be great to hear from you in any shape or form - I believe there's a comment function below.
I was delighted to be invited to speak at the QuaysCulture event in Salford in 26th October, 2013, on my developing project/book Radical Animal: Play, Ecology and Human Nature (see the back-up site).
Salford is an extraordinary waterfront complex - the stunning Liebeskind Imperial War Museum across the way, the BBC's Media City on the event's side of the water, a square full of elements-powered musical installations, and Manchester United's ground shimmering in the distance... A great setting for a great discussion and exchange. The presentation is below, all comments welcome.
Another joy of the day was following Stuart Brown, the magister ludi of play studies, whose book Play is the best guide to the multidisciplinary nature of play scholarship that you could want. I spent an hour or so with him and his lovely family, trading anecdotes like crazy. Though I doubt I'll beat his about the great Irish mythologist Joseph Campbell, who - at a dinner party with Stuart, Jonas Salk and the physicist Murray Gellman - began to recite Finnegans' Wake, from memory, for 20 minutes solid. At which point, a hitherto sceptical Gellman had to murmur, "you're a genius".
Here's my slides from the day (an underline usually means it's a hotlink to a source or article, so please explore). The Twitter account for ECI is here, and the hashtag for the conference #eciglobal. Anyone who attended and wants to know more about the points make, please don't hesitate to mail me at the contact address on the menu above.
One of the most deeply enjoyable gigs I did last year was to be the opening facilitator, and conference blogger, to "Cultural Encounters" - a meeting of 22 cross-continental winners of European funding for humanities projects, organised by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), based in the University of Galway, and funded by the European Commission.
A blog accompanies the process, and I wrote three entries leading up to and reviewing the conference. As I note in the blogs, for me this was an exciting return to an engagement with humanities scholarship that I began over 25 years ago, doing English and Film/TV studies at Glasgow University (I've explored this intellectual history here).
I chaired an event on "Knowledge Exchange" in Dubrovnik: but the whole conference was at pains to show how the critical and historical understanding of culture had great relevance to the societal challenges of the future (HERA is part of the European Commission's Horizon 2020 research programme).
I explore some of these issues in the following writings:
From March 2012 to the end of September 2013, I was asked by Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta (the UK's innovation agency) to lead-curate a massive festival of the future called, appropriately enough, FutureFest.
The plan was to occupy Shoreditch Town Hall in London, over the weekend of 28th-29th September, and fill its Edwardian municipal grandeur with visions, arguments and demonstrations of the near-future (with an implicit mid-century horizon of 2050).
Well, we finally executed the plan - and it was an extraordinary event, the speakers, discussion and performances fully captured on the legacy FutureFest website (video, podcast and blogs).
Over these three blogs (one, two, and three) I explain my curatorial vision - but these paragraphs give you a flavour:
Go back to any of the great expos, or even to the earliest futurologists – like Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), with its longevity drugs and flying machines, its robots and clones – and it sometimes seems that modernity has always contained the same set of yearnings about the future: stronger, faster, more automation, more communication.
The acme of this might be Walt Disney’s mid-fifties EPCOT (Experimental Community Of Tomorrow), a theme park in which cosmic exploration leaves behind a happy planet of harmonious cultures and sociable, zip-suited citizens.
Well, it’s 2013, and of course we’re wiser and more civilization-weary than all that. Those intricate techno-sciences we devise and set running? They end up rattling our economies, fighting our wars, bombarding our attention spans and challenging our bio-ethics around birth, health and human potential.
And some of the more massive trends heading into the future – the inexorables of population growth and global warming, emergent economies and regions with their own claims to truth and justice – would seem largely resistant to the glittering technical fixes that future-types of the past have put their faith in.
But it’s 2013, and of course we can also imagine – because that’s what humans irrepressibly do – how this progress towards the mid-century might be quite different.
Radical innovation could well find us a combination of energy sources that mitigate the impact of a heating planet. Our computers and devices could as easily amplify our natural capacities for invention and community, as unravel or stymie them.
Over only a few decades of bioscience, our “new normal” could be closer to that menagerie of mutants and cyborgs that you see in the average Star Trek street-scene, than it might be to the mutton-chopped visitors to the Crystal Palace.
How to capture all of these possibilities, in a particular time and place? And in city where the weight of the past, and the chaos of a globalised future, can easily be mapped from the top of a giant glass shard? The principle of a festival – with its tolerance for enthusiasm, dissent and experiment – seemed like the only way it could be gathered together and curated.
FutureFest takes place in Shoreditch Town Hall, London – a building which itself brims with Victorian progressive self-confidence (its motto on the stained glass windows is “more light, more power”). In its cavernous rooms we will be deploying three different methods of thinking about the future. Firstly, great minds and practitioners (some writing in these pages) will give short but powerfully focussed takes on our options heading towards mid-century, and beyond – everything from the future of religion and altruism, to the future of eating and manufacturing.
Next, we’ll offer immersive spaces in which participants can literally “meet and experience” the future. Real – or at least, artistic and creative – humans will conduct a variety of performances, installations, social games and even banquets, that will leave visitors in a delightful space between “now” and “next”.
And finally, we’ll allow people to go deeper into the future, with a range of forums, seminars, makeshops and technical expos from organizations like the Oxford Martin Institute, Arup, the BBC, Berg, Dyson and many others. (Pat Kane, "Making the Future Dance", Futurefest site).
We had a sell-out on the day, saw millions of interactions around the #futurefest hashtag on Twitter, and with any luck FutureFest will become a regular event in the cities of the UK for years to come. Certainly one of the most satisfying creative endeavours I've yet directed.
Delighted to be commissioned by the Independent to review the latest book from one of my literary gods, Thomas Pynchon - but disappointed that the book was so laboured and even predictable, the late and lazy work of a great imaginative power.
''A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now." Quite the opening line, from Thomas Pynchon's 1973 masterpiece set in the Second World War, Gravity's Rainbow.
On a Glasgow morning, 11 September 2001 – after I had slowly put down James Harding's hopeful business article in the FT about the "counter-capitalist movement", then stared at the first screen images of the punctured North Tower of the World Trade Centre – Pynchon's words were the first thing that came to my mind. And they remain there still.
So for this ardent Pynchonist, the advance hype reporting that Bleeding Edge was to be his long-rumoured "9/11" novel is a little moot. The carnivalesque pursuit of rocket power that makes up the action of Gravity's Rainbow, with Nazis and Allies alike intoxicated by dreams of annihilation at an abstract distance, was always the darkest possible wit. Post 9/11, and now with killer drones remotely flown into far-off lands by youths wielding joysticks (joysticks: how Pynchon does it get?), the book feels near-oracular.
To enter fully into Thomas Pynchon's literary imagination is to be in a dangerous playground of world-systems and implicit orders – those systems and orders mostly gaming among themselves, occasionally toying with us, or (worst of all) revealing how much of our inner lives is actually their external scripting. Gilles Deleuze once called this our "dividuality", our susceptibility to wider control via our aspirations towards self-control.
For the 1968-ers it was desire that gave us escape routes from, or even just wriggle room within, this ensnaring social kudzu. For Pynchon, it's comedy. Extended moments of farce, cheesy songs and talking dogs, emblematic characters and place names (Benny Profane, San Narciso, Webb Traverse, the escapist webspace in BleedingEdge called DeepArcher): all of this anticness grants us an inch of real autonomy, amidst the choking over-determination. Much more than his immediate American peers – the analytical realism of Philip Roth, the apocalyptic fabulism of Cormac McCarthy, the chilled code-surfing of Don DeLillo – Pynchon relies on humour, in the classic Rabelaisian manner, to keep options open in an enclosing world.
And in the 40th anniversary year of the literary watershed that is Gravity's Rainbow, we can now see how Pynchon has continually tried to write his way beyond the shadow of that giant, oneiric book. One strategy has been to push pretty far back into American history, and undergird the familiar chronicle of events with a wild new logic of fantasy, radicalism and excess. Mason & Dixon (1997) subverts the American Enlightenment's metric confidence ("Who claims Truth, Truth abandons," as its narrator the Rev Cherrycoke quips), mobilising a menagerie of singular humans and even odder animals. Against The Day (2006) deliriously posits utopian anarchists, renegade boffins and underworld explorers, to countervail with railroad barons and warring imperialists at the start of the 20th century.
It's hard not to put these along with Rainbow as the best American attempts to pick up the ludic, mythic and polymathic gauntlet thrown down by James Joyce with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.This is authorial style as a cosmos, vital and entire unto itself.
But in order to get there, over the past few decades, it seems to me that Pynchon has had to get lesser (though still characteristic) works out of his system – as if Joyce had handed in a few Flann O'Brien-style farces between his monuments. For Pynchon, his "Third Policeman" is the stoner hippy – Zoyd Wheeler struggling with 1980's Reaganism in Vineland (1990), or Don Sportello as an original late-1960's furry freak in Inherent Vice (2009). And while both novels set counter-rebels against mysterious authorities in the familiar Pynchon mode, the style tumbles through cultural references in an almost dutiful, tick-box way – as if Pynchon was both reassuring himself, and us, that he was an authentic hipster of that era.
So it's sad to report that Bleeding Edge takes this tendency to an annoying and tiring extreme. The New York of the late 1990s dotcom boom-and-bust, frittering away into the violent event-horizon of 9/11, is adequately captured by the title – but only adequately. Indeed, it seems beneath Pynchon to be to so painstakingly geeky about the socio-linguistics of this thin, weightless, credit-extended period – its luxury-pad fittings, its designer shoe labels, its bloviating biz-speak.Compared to the techno-fictions of William Gibson – for years, an author happily scuffling around on Pynchon's giant shoulders – Bleeding Edge's digital shenanigans are, to be honest, a little vicar- at-the-disco-ish.
Early commentary on the book has tried to laud the prescience, in this post-Snowden and PRISM moment, of its plot mechanics. A wise-cracking fraud investigator called Maxine is slowly revealing a virtual world (DeepArcher) designed for robust privacy, in a climate of increasing state incursion into the data-flows. And it's true that Pynchon understands our pressing anxieties about communication power, life in (and under) the Cloud. "Call it freedom – it's based on control," says Maxine's father Ernie. "Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you've got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable."
So Pynchon follows his nose, and invokes some expected players of this system – variously, cornball mafiosi, value-free dot-moguls, the jetsam of post-Soviet wars; never mind vaguely time-travelling CIA agents, or half-ghostly kidnapped children. For the first time in my life as a Pynchon fan, I must reluctantly demur. The targets are clearer than that. Those in charge of Google – the most ambitiously panoptic of digital companies, aiming to "organise the world's knowledge" – are pretty explicit about their android-aspirant, robo-inflected motivations.
DARPA, the US government's military research arm, is actively building a science-fictional near-future, under the battlefield imperative of achieving "full spectrum dominance". Of all writers, I would have least expected Pynchon to be sentimental here, beginning and ending Bleeding Edge with a mom's tender meditations on the school commute. But invoking our better angels is not adequate to the real, non-human spookiness of the coming epoch of super-intelligence. Not when Google's driverless car will be coming to pick up those kids in a few years' time.
Pat Kane is the lead curator of Nesta's FutureFest at Shoreditch Town Hall, London EC1, on 28 and 29 September (futurefest.org)
Amazing what access to a free Glasgow public-library data-base can dig up... As my curator of Nesta's FutureFest comes to a shuddering conclusion (28-29 September, 2013, Shoreditch Town Hall London, be there!), I'm reprinting a piece I wrote for the Guardian Weekend section in 1993, under the editorship of Deborah Orr, exploring my (and our) perennial fascinating with robots.
Over twenty years ago, now - and I'm surprised at my pre-Net, humanistic techno-scepticism (I think, post-Net and the revolution in mind sciences, I'm a wee bit more cyborg myself now). But it's also worth noting that the robotics and AI evangelists have been saying, for decades, "in 20 years time..." And as far as I can see, it's still about 5 years to the self-driving car (though we do have joysticked drones). However, the same anxieties about automation and the status of productive humans still lingers (see MIT's Technology Review edition from earlier this year). I also note that Shadow, the robotics tinkerers I profiled in the piece, are still going strong.
Hope you enjoy - I'm enjoying finding these pieces, more to come. -- PK
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The Man Machines
By Pat Kane
Dreams of automata created in man's own image nestle deep in the human psyche. PAT KANE fantasized about androids from childhood. But a trip into robo-reality turned his fascination into contempt and paranoia
The Guardian, ‘Weekend’, 07 Aug 1993.
THERE was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a robot. I was between seven and nine years old: that period when your fantasies are as wild and intense as they were in infancy, except that you have developed the ability to marshal facts and figures to firm them up. By night, my finger would inch its way through spine-cracked copies of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. By day, after school or at weekends, I would get my two brothers - cast as mad, merciless alien scientists - to turn me into a Positronic Man. A Killer Android. A robot.
I remember lying there on the sitting room carpet, as Garry-John and Gregory hauled imaginary intestines and vital organs out of my midriff; sawed through my skull to remove the "useless brain-flesh", pulled out bones and eyes with a sucking sound, and replaced them with titanium struts and video orbs. When they'd finished their evil work, brutally clamping my ripped flesh together with rivets and screw-nuts, my brothers would retire to the settee-cum-control-room, push a few school rulers jammed between cushions to switch me on, and wait.
Even today, I can feel that tingle of absolute self-alienation: rising jerkily but precisely to gaze upon my creators, now whimpering to order on the sofa. And then the sci-fi monotone, rising like a steely taste up through my mouth: I am not a human. I am a robot . . . As I lurched malevolently towards my younger brothers, there was always a point at which the delicious fakery of their play-fear slipped into real anxiety. And I knew I was making myself truly robot-like when I could stop advancing about an inch from their tear-streaked, finger-clawed faces, and break up their trauma by cracking into a big daft smile. "It's only me."
But the power of that moment - and the power of the robot - has never left me, driving a fascination that's filled filing cabinets and bookshelves for over 20 years. I don't think it's left my brothers either. They still recoil from the sight of automata on the screen, whether it's ventriloquist's dummies advancing on their makers in mid-afternoon telly-films, or the latest manipulatory achievement in robot limbs as seen on the nightly news. "That kind of thing gives me the creeps, man . . ." It makes me feel guilty.
Doing some personal archiving, I found this piece I wrote for Deborah Orr at the Guardian's Weekend supplement, on management culture - and part of the pre-reverberations before the New Labour victory in 1997.
In retrospect, I'm struck by how it sparked my interest in the cultures of work, business, creativity - and then play - which have obsessed me ever since. And rather movingly for me, I'd forgotten my late dad - a low-level British Rail manager - made a closing appearance in it, with probably the only dialogue of his I had ever transcribed. And whatever happened to Jack Black? Hope you find it interesting. ---PK
THE COMPANY WE KEEP
The Guardian, 25 May 1996
The gurus of management culture predict that `intuition is the master skill of the next century'. As a clarion call to Britain's wealth-makers, it has a nice ring to it. But at Asda HQ in Leeds, they find a toy dustbin does the job just as well
THE psychic bullets are flying everywhere. Three hundred palms rise from grey flannel suits and cream silk blouses, all eager to receive little pellets of positive energy from the guru on the stage who's cocking his fingers like a cowboy on the draw. He bends into the radio mike.
`Many of you will have come with me on this journey of the imagination,' booms Jack Black, the UK's number one Motivational Speaker For Businesses And Organisations. `Did you feel those bullets?' From the general rustle of sighs and soft giggles that sweeps through the hall, oh yes, yes, they did.
The advert on the business pages merely promised `another way to inspire your workplace team'. By brunch-time on the first day, I'm sharing a shimmering New Age moment with Edinburgh's pen-pushing finest. What is management culture in the Nineties getting up to?
Within this £350-a-skull, Next-tailored ashram, anything it wants would seem to be the answer. Jack Black, Easterhouse social worker turned business evangelist, has a whole circus of mind tricks for his audience today.
Hulking great project managers are sapped of their strength by `negative thinking'. A bottle of Perrier is sloshed over the first four rows to illustrate how we `waste our precious daily energies'. Invisible bell-jars drop over heads (to the sound of the Thunderbirds theme tune), so that their wearers can `screen out moany-faced gits'. We salivate at imaginary lemons, we cleanse our minds in spring showers, we practise office meditation, all between morning and afternoon tea breaks.
Another gig for me at How The Light Gets In, June 2013 (see other post) was to participate in BBC Radio 3's superb Nightwaves programme - in my view, one of the last bastions of properly critical thinking about culture in UK broadcasting.
The show was about... love. Small topic! I chipped in my 10 minutes about love, play and creativity - and sang some songs to illustrate the point! My fellow speakers were appropriately eclectic - A.L.Kennedy the novelist, Esther Rantzen the presenter (and force of nature), Dylan Evans the behavioural scientist.
The whole discussion is very enjoyable, but if you want to zero in on my play/love comments via the SoundCloud player below, they are from 12.39 to 16.31, from 20.09 to 20.46, from 23.20 to 24.39, from 27.20 to 28.42, from 32.57 to 33.44, from 39.07 till end (with a performance of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now to finish!)
In 2 June 2013, I trudged delightedly round the yurts at Hay-on-Wye's philosophy festival, How The Light Gets In, and took part in a discussion called "Luddites and Fools", about the seductions and possibilities of technology.
The whole discussion is below, but for those of you with a play-ethical interest, my ludically-oriented contributions begins at 6.07:
Wendy Russell, a senior lecturer in Play and Playwork at the University of Gloucestershire, who has been a practitioner and advocate for Playwork for over 30 years. Her report to Play England, "Play For A Change", is an authoritative review of the scholarship of play and its contemporary policy implications. She also founded the Philosophy at Play conferences.
The event was opened by the Minister for Children and Young People in the Scottish Government, Aileen Campbell, as part of the run-up to the launch of their Play Strategy for Scotland (vision statement and action plan). The Scotsman ran a preview feature, where I was quoted on the event.
Another second chance at an author review - this time two authors. I had already covered Jaron Lanier's I Am Not A Gadget I'd reviewed for Scotsman, and Morozov's The Net Delusion for the Independent.
As a mild Net enthusiast - for deep reasons, see here - I enjoy reading Net sceptics, as a useful corrective against boosterism and woods-not-seeing. But what's great about both these new books is that they are essentially political economies of the net - something an Enlightenment Scot recognises...
Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
For both of these writers, manifesting their manifestos in splendid chunks of wood-pulp and ink, the days of digital enchantment are over. Critical friends like Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier - the first a political scientist, the second a hardcore digeratus - provide a service to all network idealists. Caught up in our hypnotic loops of design and interaction, they remind us that “the internet” (a total concept that Morozov rejects in any case) is a particular construct of power, money and technical decisions, rather than some state of cybernature.
In particular, Who Owns The Future is an undeniably impressive feat of rhetoric, argument and bully-pulpitry - what Lanier himself calls “speculative advocacy” - on behalf of the middle-classes of the 21st century.
Applying information to automation creates a giant, implacable flow of efficiency, of doing more for less. What’s valuable about Lanier’s book is that, in the course of trying to make the torrent manageable, he provides a tour d’horizon of what we’ll have to cope with in the near future - beyond the usual candidates of the music business and media blown away by the free web, or financial services dissolving economies in an ecstasy of computation.
White van men (and their entire industry) will be destroyed by driverless cars; whole production and distribution systems will be unravelled by 3-D printing of objects in local communities. Surgeons and nurses, lawyers and teachers - all manner of professions - will feed their tacit skills into ever more adept robots and expert systems.
As someone who founded one of the more destabilizing fields of net hi-tech, Virtual Reality, in the 90s, and who is currently grinding the software cogs at Microsoft Research, Lanier could never be cranky about future-tech. Yet he does invoke the more sophisticated cry of the original 18th-century Luddites, when they objected to machinery only when they judged not to “benefit the commonality”.
The commonality that Lanier wants to erect defenses for are what he calls, with a particular American resonance, the “middle-classes” (a term which, translated into UK terms, seems to include hard-working aspirers as well as Waitrose-bothering professionals - Miliband’s “squeezed middle” comes close).
These middle-classes have been constituted by what he calls “levees”: barriers and structures that diffuse and defuse the firestorm of capital and technology, and make it into a livable landscape - whether those barriers be unions, welfare states, academic tenure, copyright. In the face of what, taken in the round, seems like a epochal leap to a different level of productivity, Lanier wants new levees to be constructed - but ones that are “graceful and ordinary...strengthened, not weakened, as more and more people embrace them”.
His solution, simply put, is to turn the open, endless copying-machine commons of the web into a pay-per-click (and get-paid-per-someone-else’s-click) phenomenon - a marketplace with a near-neuronal density and ubiquity of financial transactions. In what Lanier regards as a perversion of the original ideals of network pioneers like Ted Nelson, he believes we currently cavort in a false free-for-all of content and interactivity.
This bounty is provided by giant companies like Facebook and Google, who make huge profits out of what he calls “spying operations” - devising ever-more seductive interfaces to encourage our garrulous, sociable and sharing natures, and selling the patterns of that behaviour to advertisers. In To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov usefully places this within a wider and broader history of what he calls “solutionism” - the engineer-driven idea that most phenomena (including the sheer quiddity of human behaviour) can be quantified and data-crunched.
Lanier has impish science-fictional fun extending the implications what he calls these “Siren Servers” into coming waves of technoculture. Would we want to be surrounded by a world of smart objects we get free or cheap access to - a Google Reality - as long as allow them to transmit data about our activities to their databanks? Morozov equally imagines all kinds of control-society horrors: how about medical-care discounts brought about by your real-time healthy-living data - or conversely, penalties for bingeing on cream-cakes?
Lanier wants us to realize that behind every abstract unit of information stands a real human being, either ultimately generating it or affected by it. As we perch on the brink of a vast new wave of info-powered automation, it’s urgent for him that we humanize the process by putting ourselves, as identifiable economic actors, back into the process.
Yet Lanier falters when specifying the exact structures and protocols that would shift us from an “internet” to what could be called an “econonet” (or maybe just a “moneynet”). At times it does seem like a contractual nightmare - in which he admits that accountants would become superstars, and lawyers (or robo-laywers) could crawl over every potential infraction of a nanopayment.
Lanier’s explicit identification of his system with a bourgeois interest is also useful - as an alternative Marxist explanation is easily to hand. The forces of production are about to take another enormous leap forward, while the relations of production are straggling far behind. Perhaps our argument with Siren Servers (and the wild new manufactures and automatons about to connect with them) should be more about whether they are like public utilities in waiting, ready for accountability and transparency as railroads and water systems once were. And if global warming demands a reduction in carbon-generating consumerist frenzy, is this best served by a new planetary network which makes every click an commercial transaction? Will expanding the cash nexus to every clickable corner of our lives help or hinder?
Morozov would recoil at any Marxism - as a Belarusian exile, for good reason - but it is striking that To Save Everything, Click Here is almost silent about the enterprise dimension of the internet. Indeed, as a brand of Luddite, Morozov is much more interested than the techie Lanier in literally sticking a sabot in the cogs. One of his suggestions for cultivated our net disenchantment is something called “adversarial design”, where we let devices into our lives that frustrate our appetite for frictionless info-fun. For example, the Natural Path, a software system that kills off real plants, if you use it too heedlessly.
Somehow, the idea of strapping on the digital equivalent of a cilice doesn’t feel like the best path to enlightenment about our true cybernetic reality. But both Morozov and Lanier are to be generally congratulated for the clarity and brio of their technorealism. It’s a better basis for moving forward with this extraordinary “extension of man”, in McLuhan’s old words, than either technophobia or technophilia.
One of joys of my reviewing career for the Independent over the years is that you can often get two chances to sample an author's work. I covered Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad Is Good For You" in 2005 (about which, I'm surprised to find myself so sniffy).
And the prospect of a Romney victory (thankfuly thwarted) hangs over this review of Johnson's latest, an attempt at political intervention (of a geeky kind), which has curious echoes of the UK's "Third Way"/"Big Society" projects. But an "elegant" (argh, I use that word twice over two reviews!) writer, of great pleasure and utility.
Future Perfect: The Case For Progress in a Networked Age by Steven Johnson
To be called the “Darwin of Technology” by Steve Jobs’s biographer, Walter Issacson, is a blurb quote to die for. Over the years, the American author Steven Johnson’s elegantly-phrased combinations of history, cultural critique and complexity theory have carved out a solid niche for him in the “big ideas” stretch of the bookshelf.
Yet with Future Perfect, Johnson is putting a pause on tracing connections between slime molds and 19th century city maps, or Joseph Priestly and Gaia theory. He’s bringing his status to the bully pulpit, as his compatriots might say, and proposing a political movement (called “the peer progressives”) in which the geeks inherit the earth. Or at least, lift their entranced faces from their OLED screens, and begin to assert their knowledge-worker clout in government and the public sphere.
For all his characteristic, science-and-humanities-spanning polymathery in this book, what Johnson is describing is the moment where (as that old bearded contemporary of Darwin’s might say) the netheads and creatives become not just a class in themselves, but a class for themselves. That is: aware that they have interests, a particular claim on power and resources, and the confidence to mobilize in that direction.
That direction is one that would have been familiar to the Big Society Tories, in the first flush of their idealism a few years ago. Johnson’s American peer progressives would enthusiastically sign up to Cameron’s axiom (now bromide) that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state”. They’re wary of top-down government control, and enthusiastic about “civic accountabilty and participation in public-sector issues”.
They want “choice and experiment” in state schools, and think teaching unions “hinder innovation”. They think markets and open networks are great at keeping new ideas flowing, but are suspicious of corporate governance and political over-regulation of the flows.
To UK ears, it has a familiar recent ring: Burke’s small platoons and Hayek’s catallaxy, as rendered by the proselytizing of the smarter Conservatives like Jesse Norman and Philip Blond. But it’s given a Silicon Valley shimmer by Johnson’s internet experience, both as observer and entrepreneur.
It’s not that Johnson is misdescribing the “network society” that Manuel Castells identified and predicted in the mid-nineties, for centre-right ends. The social transformation of the Net is undeniable, founded in Paul Baran’s idea of the “distributed network” - where power comes not from hierarchy, nor from insurgence, but from the marginal contributions of many, building up a rich commons of information and practice, usable by all.
Johnson is correct to identify that this pervasive system of communication has made new kinds of value communicable, beyond just money or bureaucracy - and that this shakes up, or at least shows up the gaps in, our old institutions. Newspapers can’t compete with how social media allows us to recommend and annotate the news of the world (and our neighbourhoods) to our friends and peers. Big corps can’t compete with smaller, stakeholder and “employee-owned” companies, inspired by the inclusiveness and transparency of the Net (Nick Clegg rather alarmingly cited here), whose peer-oriented work cultures actually deliver better returns long-term.
In the most interesting chapter, Johnson shows how our transatlantic frustrations with representative democracy - whether the malaise of US political funding, or Westminster centralism - could be answered by looking at something pioneered by the anti-copyright Pirate Party, called “liquid democracy” (or more mundanely, “proxy” or “delegate” voting).
Socialism’s problem is that it takes up too many evenings, as Oscar Wilde once put it. But a more active, plebiscitary democracy might actually work, if we could easily pledge our vote (or as easily retract it from) a “peer” who we recognized as expert or passionate in the field. Sounds complicated? Perhaps no more so than participatory budgeting so prevalent in leftist Latin American - or the elaborately coordinated voluntary labours that go into Wikipedia. Yes, Johnson admits, they’re all structures open to gaming and abuse. But we’re happy with the endemic stasis and near-corruption of our current systems?
As many of the illustrative initiatives in this book come from the Obama administration - clearly, the geeks made the White House - there’s a rather poignant tremor running through the prose. The Romneyverse, if it transpires, looks like falling a little short in stakeholder virtues. But Johnson has written a fascinating book. Let’s see if it’s an elegy for a failed intellectual consensus.
It's nice to be pulled out of the depths of scholarship and enterprise around play and be asked to do a definitive interview on the subject - it forces me to think and speak in a way that makes public sense of my private musings and specialised consultations. This is from a Dutch magazine called Viewpoint, which is a bi-annual consumer trends journal. I'll be part of a bigger article with a number of ludocrats speaking, which I'll post here in November.
Interview with Pat Kane for Viewpoint magazine, November 2012
Why do you think play is gaining currency right now?
I think play is becoming important because of a number of crises in the way we habitually do things. Certainly in the decade before the recent financial crash, many economists and thinkers were talking about how "the Protestant work ethic" was becoming irrelevant to a networked and game-oriented generation. My 2004 book The Play Ethic suggested that these "soulitarians" would become conscious of their creative power and digital skills, and start to demand changes in social, political and occupational structure. It's hard to look at our current tumult of social-media driven protest, at all kinds of levels, and not see the proof of that. But I think play is also becoming central because it's a component of even bigger arguments about what growth and prosperity mean - on one side from the period of indebtedness we're about to endure, but on the other side from the crisis of consumerism, and the carbon consequences of all that material throughput, that a moment's contemplation on the climate-change statistics would incite. We need to find new motivating narratives in our lives, beyond status anxiety and lifestyle excess. Play, as a planet-friendly, convivial way to bring thrills and pleasures into our lives with others, is a prime element of those new "wellbeing" narratives.
What’s your philosophy on play?
Always evolving and changing, like play itself. But in recent years I have drawn a lot from evolutionary accounts of human nature in my understanding of play. My great guide on play theory, Brian Sutton-Smith, calls play "adaptive potentiation". Play helps neurologically-complex, deeply-sociable mammals (like us!) refine and rehearse living with other creatures like ourselves. And given our human capacity for self-reflection and conceptualisation, play in humans - the more distant from raw need and survival we get - becomes more and more the central action of our lives, rather than a practise zone for it. Play is the prime indicator that we are (as the title of my next book has it) a "radical animal" (www.radicalanimal.net) - but that this natural inheritance is dynamic, experimental and inventive, rather than just our savannah-era limitations constantly tripping us up - which is my problem with all this "nudge"-style behavioural economics. Presuming we're Homer Simpson, rather than homo (et femina) ludens.
How is the role of play changing, both in individuals’ lives and in society?
As above, I think play is becoming the central activity (arguably, alongside care) of healthy, better-educated, more self-determining people in the developed (and eventually the emerging) world economies and societies - rather than the degraded Puritan residue that the "work ethic" defines it as. There's also a very strong argument for its social centrality in terms of basic public health. For educationalists, it's a global given now that we must extend the play-moment in early years education, in order that neurological and physiological development happens to their fullest degree (the Scandinavians with their world-beating educational scores proves that, as does the brain science). But this will move beyond the kindergarten, into later years, and eventually out of the school and into wider organisational life. The general paradigm of purposefulness and value-adding activity that comes from gamer culture will get stronger and stronger, as a logic for running companies and organisations. How does an activity satisfy our demands for meaning, mastery and autonomy - as the best games do? Might genuinely committed, actively learning and relatively-free-to-decide employees be a real competitive edge in an economy where consumption becomes less important than experience?
What do you think of the idea of play being co-opted by brands and businesses?
Play can't really be co-opted by any form of social organisation - as it is one of the elemental processes that lead to any effective social organisation itself. But I'm happy to see play being invoked as a positive term or signifier by corporate brands - as I think it is a term which has radical implications for how we think of time, space and resources in our lives. Genuine playfulness is not leisure, something you do after the daily grind - it's an open, experimental and socially joyful way of being that, if embraced, has incalculable consequences for the norms of how we produce and consume. Play will as easily co-opt big biz!
How has digital gaming influenced play?
Answered at points above, but digital gaming is to the 21st century what printed books were to the Renaissance - it's a fundamental reorienting of how human beings see reality and how its elements interrelate. It's as profound as the shift from seeing one's life as a narrative line, a story running through a book, to seeing one's life as an element in a system, in which one's actions are profoundly wrapped up in others. The question for me now is the degree to which we can teach games-making literacy, in the way that the study of literature encouraged new literary genres - the systems that we enter into with our games are too much scripted from above, it's interpassivity as much as interactivity. But that will come.
How do you see the role of play evolving?
My small moment of pride recently was the news that my work has been exhibited on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York - or to be precise, an axiom about play I've been promoting for years was part of an exhibiton called Century of the Child that showed there this autumn. The axiom runs: "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the Industrial Age - our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value". I think it's going to be as important to that in our daily lives.
Andrew Smith's writing has come my way before, in his garrulous yet also moving interviews with surviving moon astronauts, Moondust, which I reviewed. But his book reminds me of a mid-90s era when I was also involved in the early ecstasies of dot-commery (and wrote about it for the Independent too). His style, a little too reckless for the astronauts, totally matches the gonzo-digital tale of Josh Harris.
Totally Wired: On The Trail Of The Dotcom Swindle, By Andrew Smith
Reviewed by Pat Kane
The Independent, 22 September, 2012 (Unedited version below, Independent version here)
One can imagine the elevator pitch that would sell this rumbunctious account of the madness of the nineties’ dot-bust to Hollywood: “The Social Network meets Hammer of The Gods, via Warhol’s Factory”. Mark E Smith’s The Fall clattering out beneath the titles. I’d go: wouldn’t you?
Andrew Smith, whose previous book Moonshot has come to mind again in the wake of Neil Armstrong’s passing, has written a similarly humane and garrulous account of space exploration. But this space is the one that opened up between computers and networks twenty years ago. And whereas at least some men actually got to the moon and back, Totally Wired is mostly about how these early dreams of cyberspatial utopia were frustratingly thwarted.
Yet in his tale of Josh Harris, a brilliant though damaged screenager whose digital company Pseudo encompassed the best and worst of the “creative age” of the nineties, Smith wants to alert us to the roots of our current unreality - where the mediations of “confidence” and “reputation” define the fate of stock-markets, national governments and over-valued social network companies (naming no names).
In a charming style which could be described as gadget-dad gonzo, Smith captures the tulip-tinged froth of 90’s cyberculture with great accuracy. I wrote for this paper in 1997 about my time with a parallel outfit in London, Microsoft’s Blizzard, which laboured in the same Sisyphean fields as Pseudo - trying to attract punters onto an exclusive network, with over-ambitious content that could barely sputter down the available phonelines. [FYI: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/click-and-im-a-microserf-1265773.html]
Yet while both our audiences were tiny, at least Harris used his venture capital to host fantastic, gilded-era Manhattan parties. Propeller-headed Truman-Capotes orchestrated polymorphous, performance-art revels - which were filmed, live-cast and contractually captured as “property of Pseudo”. Sound familiar, reality tv fans? Smith sticks with this flakiest of uber-geeks - and the writer is dogged, trailing him from his fly-blown hideaway in Ethiopia to the bullshit lounges of the Sundance Festival in Colorado - because he believes Harris was a pioneer of the communicative omni-trance of our current smart-phoned, i-playing, big-brotherly era.
However genuinely prescient Josh Harris was, the accelerando of digitality continues apace, making the extraordinary ordinary. In terms of function, Skype and Google Hangouts can now do everything that Pseudo and its chemically-fuelled net-heads were trying to squeeze through their tiny Nineties pipes. Except now, it’s as quotidian as a tool for hobbyists and activists on your high-street clever-phone.
Even Harris’s Matrix-like paranoid fantasies - about social media softening us up for “mental harvesting” by some mysterious power - are only wrong about the mystery: we know who they are. As the current nostrum has it, if you pay nothing for your net-service, then you are the product. Google or Facebook enable you to be your own multimedia channel - but the cost is a panoptical tracking of all your input and clickery, the better to target a micro-pitch at your innermost consumer desire.
“Harvesting” isn’t too bad an agrarian metaphor: but the appropriate resistance is closer to that of the Diggers or the Chartists against enclosure, than battling the otherworldly “Ticklers” generated by Harris’s DMT’d delusions.
But Totally Wired is an account of financialization, as well as intoxication. For a self-confessed economics rube, Smith is very clear about how the liberalisations of the Fed - and all those 401K pension funds sloshing around the 90‘s US market - meshed toxically with the euphoria of the early dot-coms. Smith also believes that these net-idealists were the victims of a “heist”, shafted by market-fixing bankers in a shares scam known as “laddering”. Such financial innovation, he suggests, paved the way for the sub-prime chicanery that led to the 2008 crash.
Smith is a little too wired himself at times, occasionally taken by the ecstasies of communication in a manner that many po-mo types will rather shufflingly remember. And when things get too capitalistically vertiginous, it’s nice to recall that Harris stole the idea of “pseudo-names” from the public-sector network Minitel, launched by that lumbering democratic-socialist dinosaur France in the early 80s.
There’s a Net that’s as close to the public library, or the town square, as it is to Burroughsian experiment and quantitative easing: Wikileaks and the Arab Springs barely make a mention here. But Smith does us a service in reminding us how total wiredness can so easily lead to total weirdness. And that the off-switch is right over there, just a finger-stretch away.
The slides to my opening keynote for the Hide And Seek Weekender conference, 'Playing in Public', at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, 17.9.12. Any thoughts, responses, questions, let me know. (It's much more legible in full-screen, btw).
Been fascinated by robots - technology, culture and politics - since I was a small boy (and as a young man - see this Guardian piece).
Another bite at that problematic for The Scotsman.
Ghosting into the machine
The Scotsman, 17 March 2012
[Original pre-edit text below: Scotsman published version here]
Go into almost any high-street supermarket today in Scotland today, and you will almost certainly be faced with a friendly neighbourhood robot. The self-operating checkout tills that have broken out like a rash across the sector over the last few years may not immediately seem like cousins of the killer androids from science-fiction.
But anyone who’s used them knows the robot moment. One absent-minded act - for example, passing an item from basket to bag without scanning it properly - and the screen equably notes that there is “an unscanned item in the bagging area”. And won’t let you go any further until you remove it, and scan it again.
Sometimes you - and the robot - both get confused, requiring a real live meat-machine to come over and help you. But when you get up to speed with it, you quietly marvel at its ability to sense exactly what item has been placed in your placcy bag.
My emotions are mixed before this machine. On one level, I can often enjoy the activity itself - there’s an element of self-help and dexterity about it. But on another level, I look over anxiously at the human-staffed tills. Should I be depriving some student, part-time mother or new immigrant to the country the chance of a living wage?
Or should I be happy that the relentless tide of automation is liberating workers from meaningless labour? Wouldn’t I rather deal with a robot, than suffer the experience of someone so bored by their routine they’re half-alive anyway?
Economists and academics would say that any angst about the human-replacing effects of automation is historically faulty. Every technological innovation that’s enabled us to increase efficiency and productivity, to do more transformation of nature with less human labour, has led to an increase in the general sum of happiness - by making products cheaper, by forcing us to create new jobs and sectors that turn out to create value in new and different ways.
That’s what humans are like with technology, they say. Look at the exponential rise that innovation has brought in living standards, longevity, material comfort. We can’t, and shouldn’t, be Luddites.
But what happens when these innovations start to simulate the very mental and skills-based agility that supposed to define us as essentially human? When they can begin to understand language, and see the world, as clearly as we do? When they have infinitely better memories, and can make connections and see patterns much more powerfully?
We are already in an age where some the most unique human capacities for knowledge and decision are being gradually and casually automated. It’s no news that chess grandmasters are regularly humbled by data-crunching mega-computers. Last year, the two human winners of the US general knowledge quiz show Jeopardy were trounced in live and direct competition with Watson, IBM’s latest silicon brain.
The case-crunching and research that lawyers bill for can now be substantially carried-out by computer programs intelligently looking for patterns or precedents. We heard last year that sports journalists are even under threat: algorithms can now pull together perfectly serviceable prose from a string of facts reported from a game.
But one of the most startling mental robotisations might even be the process of scientific discovery itself. A group at Cornell University have created a computer program called Eureqa (available now, and for free, on the web). If you feed Eureqa enough data, it will eventually formulate the kind of natural law that previous took humans like Isaac Newton and William Hamilton to do.
Last year, Eureqa was given a whole load of information about the dynamics of a bacterium cell. After crunching through billions of equations, chucking away the irrelevant ones like failed species in Darwinian evolution, it came to what its makers call a "beautiful, elegant equation that described how the cell worked, and that held true over all new experiments".
The trouble was they had no idea how the machine had gotten there, or what underlying principle the equation expressed. “It was like consulting an oracle”, says Micheal Schmidt, one of its makers, quoted in the online magazine Slate. Schmidt thinks it’s possible that such computers may discover laws - derived from the unimaginably numerous interactions of genes, neurons and perhaps even markets - that we simply won’t be able to understand. Eureqa, or its successors, will be in the position of “trying to explain Shakespeare to a dog”.
“Robot-assistance” is the friendlier face of automation. Surgeons are now finding that, in certain kinds of sutures and probings, a robot’s hand or instrument - though still guided by a doctor - is much more steady and precise than a human hand. The surgeon can even be thousands of miles away, guiding it via an internet link. When looking for abnormalities in cervical smears, mammograms or coronary arteries, computers can now perform what’s known as “double reading” of scans - two doctors looking at the same results, in order to better detect problems.
Hospitals are using much more autonomous robots too. Using smartphone technology to locate and guide themselves in busy environments, barrel-like robots on wheels are beginning to appear as useful helpmates in wards and corridors. The new South Glasgow Hospitals Campus in Glasgow has just ordered 22 robots to operate in a subterranean tunnel, tasked to distribute laundry, equipment, food and medicines to the whole building.
Yet we shouldn’t forget where the cutting-edge drive to make robots usable and ubiquitous in our lives comes from - and at least in Europe and America, that’s the military-industrial complex. One company in Boston, iRobot, exemplifies the two-faces of robotics. It makes cute products like Roomba (a disc-like vacuum cleaner that navigates rooms autonomously) and Scooba (which does the same for bathroom floors). But the same tech also enables military robots like FirstLook, mobile video cameras which US soldiers can throw into windows before storming a building.
The US government’s Defense Advance Research and Projects Agency, or DARPA, is notorious for funding the most wild-eyed robotics research. Look up the LS3 - Legged Squad Support System, being developed for the US Army - and be more than a little disturbed. The LS3’s four legs can negotiate the roughest of terrain by itself, while its body can bear fuel and provisions for soldiers.
Yet in its nervy, stuttering walk, it looks like a combination of a horse and a cockroach. One of its most infamous promotional videos shows the device cast upon a frozen lake, where its engineers kick and shove at it, trying but failing to overturn the machine. A war horse, indeed - but usefully insensate to pain or abuse.
A recent TED video showed yet another DARPA-supported project of tiny helicoptered drones, all chattering to each other and flying in formation - grids, figures of eight - and even buzzing out the James Bond theme tune. The drones we know from the wars in Afghanistan are robots remotely guided by humans, thousands of miles away: the writer PW Singer quotes a young air force lieutenant who says "It's like a video game with the ability to kill. It's like ... freaking cool."
Yet what the TED video shows is a spine-tingling degree of self-organisation among these machines. One of the creepier images is where the micro-drones swarm collectively and efficiently though a window, arranging themselves ready for action on the other side. These are robots as pack animals, or an insect swarm - at the fringes of your worst science-fiction nightmare.
But in another video, we see the same drones arranging themselves to steadily build a columnar construction out of rods, moving to a virtual architectural plan programmed into their tiny brains. It doesn’t take too much projecting to see the near-future possibility of building sites requiring much less workers, and much more machines of this precision, labouring tirelessly 24 hours a day.
Undoubtedly we need to exercise a public stake in the advance of automation. Applied purely under a commercial regime, robotisation leaves us with massively efficient factories, offices and industries, but hardly anyone with any wages left to buy the products and services they produce.
The current leaps-forward might compel us to return to those old leisure society arguments again. To what extent should we begin to distribute the gains from our technological ingenuity in a more equitable and collective manner - perhaps with an expanded concept of the “social wage”, and considerably shorter working weeks?
The joke among radicals these days is that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. But I sometimes wonder if it’s even more difficult to imagine a perspective on automation which would subject it to the test of “benefitting the commonality”, as the original Luddites put it - rather than having us just tumble along in the wake of business, military and academic progress.
In short, I’d like to feel better about those wee women standing forlornly at the end of the supermarket check-out, watching their economic redundancy played out with every customer scan.