The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A better distillation

Update: A much more comprehensive account, with splendidly evocative pics,  of the symposium I wrote about below is here.
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The Evaporation of Things, distilled

Social science has a permanent problem of identifying its objects of study. The relationships, interactions, institutions, organizations and other aspects of society may have all sorts of things connected with them that we can see and touch, such as houses and police stations and pound coins and wedding rings, but the relationships themselves they aren't stuff you can spot on CCTV. Identifying new or hitherto unnoticed goings-on between people or in their minds or in how they relate to the world around them is always going to be tricky and contestable. Is such-and-such a one-off, a will-o-the-wisp, or is it, as the fashion columnists would say, a thing? (This usage of 'a thing' has definitely become a thing.)

Artists, at least the kind of artists who cause outrage and bafflement when their work is exhibited in the Tate, have a similar problem. You want your work to glom onto something significant and say something about it that makes sense to yourself if to no one else, and you're allowed to do that with any material at all within the law and health and safety regulations: bits of tin, wire, plaster of Paris, marble, bronze, paint, canvas, neon tubes, dust bunnies, pickled shark... If you're very clever and /or lucky, you might hit on exactly the right expression for some feeling or situation or condition that no one has quite put their finger on before. Fame, fortune, and an angry editorial in the Daily Mail await.

So there they are, social scientists and artists, looking about, antennae quivering, alert for the new. Might they sometimes help each other lock onto the same scent?

Last week I attended a symposium at Inspace, the arts venue of Edinburgh University's Informatics Department. The space is functionally divided between an auditorium and a gallery, and is so modern it aches -- literally enough after a while, as the audience sits on thin cushions scattered along steps. The event, initiated by the Genomics Forum, brought together social scientists, natural scientists, and artists. I was there to blog the event's first day; Pat Kane, currently a visiting fellow at the Forum, would cover the second. The question the symposium asks, I suppose, is: 'Is the question "Where is the thing?" becoming a thing?' Its hashtag is #eot13. Its rubric:
The symposium Evaporation of Things is intended to explore the increasingly digital interface to biological ‘things’. From the phylogenetic analysis of plants, to the data representation of the human genome project, studying the subject on a screen has replaced the study of the material artefact. For the general public, astronomy remains a question of looking at the stars in the night sky, whereas for astronomers the use of optical telescopes is a thing of the past – so the question emerges “where is the thing?”

The natural sciences have been prolific in practising not only this evaporation of things but also in reassembling innovative living entities, such as genetically modified organisms, and new creative possibilities are emerging with the advent of the enhancement of the human body with cybertechnologies. This fluidity of the living things is potentiated by interdisciplinary engagements, and entities which are in one minute the subjects of sciences become in the next the raw materials for arts.
Forum Director Steve Yearley welcomed us to the event. Then one of the organisers, Maria Grade Godinho, introduced the session. She explained how she'd trained and worked as a biologist. Encountering genes with patents had brought home to her that what she did in the lab was part of a wider social world, which she wanted to investigate further. Here, she wanted to explore the possibility that the relationship between objects and data wasn't one between matter and mind, but between two different states of matter -- hence the metaphor of evaporation.

Maria's co-organiser Chris Speed of the College of Art kicked off with a clip of the Challenger disaster, with its familiar voice-over of a man reading from the space shuttle's instruments and continuing to relay numbers for several seconds after the rest of America had watched the craft explode live on television. That shocked moment of delayed realisation when someone tapped the announcer's shoulder and pointed to the TV screen was, Chris said, what this symposium was about. He gave other examples: the debris of the later space shuttle crash, Columbia, tagged, connected by strips of tape, and spread across across a floor as a physical database; the flash crash of May 6 2010, as two duelling algorithms dumped stocks in a death spiral only interrupted by physically pulling the plugs; and one of his students' art projects, which consisted of a thick stack of A4, a printout of reports from her iPhone for one day.

The presentations that followed were intriguing, varied, and of high quality. Mike Phillips took us from the melting Wicked Witch to the unease-inducing ambiguities of how scientific imaging converts numbers to visuals. Synthetic biologist Vincent Danos took us ever deeper into the molecular structure of starch and the phenomenology of mathematical modelling. Laura Beloff charmed and delighted with her sci-art projects, starting with a portable 'space station for fruit flies'. Sociologist Gill Haddow walked us through how 'human' became in some contexts legally defined in terms of percentages of DNA.

After and over drinks in the early evening, the exhibiting artists displayed and discussed their work. I wouldn't presume to judge or compare -- take a look for yourself -- but for me by far the most memorable and disturbing of their artefacts was Ai Hasegawa's short film of a woman giving birth to a salmon, which she later eats. Sushi will never be the same.

So was the symposium a success? Did the artists, scientists, and sociologists combine their particular points of view to outline, somewhere in the room, an elephant we'd have otherwise missed? I think they did. The evaporation of things is a thing.  
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Monday, March 11, 2013

Only the truth is revolutionary

I'm inordinately proud to have an article with the above title in the current issue (#35) of Perspectives, the quarterly journal of Democratic Left Scotland. The article is about Thomas Kuhn's influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). I think I've given a clear and fair summary of Kuhn's argument, and a brief account of the objections to it, some of which I share. Kuhn concludes that we can't say one paradigm is closer to the truth than another. Given that (e.g.) our space probes don't crash into crystal spheres, this strikes me as mistaken.

Perspectives is an interesting and readable magazine of political and cultural discussion. In particular, it's one of the few places on the left where you can find a civilised and informed conversation about what's going on in Scotland in the run-up to the independence referendum. It has a fine pessimism of the intelligence, if perhaps a little less optimism of the will than I would like. To say that you don't agree with everything in it would be to miss and to make its point. Many of its back issues are available online. At £8 a year for a sub (£10 Europe, £12 rest of world), it's a steal.
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Wednesday, March 06, 2013


Some thoughts too inchoate to make a science fiction story from yet ...

This time next week I'll be attending and later blogging about the first afternoon of a symposium on The Evaporation of Things, which discusses the cultural and intellectual consequences of the digitisation and virtualisation of physical, and particularly of biological, objects. A couple of weeks ago, in a BBC programme on Google's attempt to digitise all written knowledge, someone was quoted as saying: 'Google isn't building a library - it's building an AI!' And today I read a much-tweeted piece on how Google Glass plus some existing/easily foreseeable applications and algorithms such as face recognition and voice recognition and speech-to-text transcription will make everything we say and do within sight of the damn things recordable and indexable and searchable forever.

The physical world is on its way to becoming as searchable as a database. As real-time surveillance from satellites and drones and sensors increases asymptotically to ubiquity, the knowledge won't even have to be recorded first. We'll be able to, as it were, google Earth.

Almost all recorded knowledge from the earliest bone-scratchings to your latest Tweet via the Library of Congress are all going to be in a single searchable virtual space.

Add to this that there is an uncountable number of deductions that could be made from what we already know, but that we haven't made -- or perhaps can't make in our heads, because they are of the type that Charles Dodgson identified long ago as 'pork chop problems', and which now look entirely soluble using modern symbolic logic and lots of computer power.

What seems to follow from this is that a large and growing part of the science of the future will be not finding new results but making new discoveries by connecting hitherto isolated drops in the ocean of facts we already know. The key skill will be formulating algorithms. Research becomes Re:Search.

Have I just discovered data mining, or is there something more here that we aren't thinking about yet?   
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Intrusion out in paperback

My 2012 novel Intrusion is now available in paperback. As you can see from my friend George Berger's photo of a display in the Uppsala English Bookshop, copies are already out in the wild and have made it as far as Sweden.

I'm delighted, and honoured, that the book is on the Best Novel shortlist for the British Science Fiction Association's BSFA Awards:  

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)
Intrusion by Ken Macleod (Orbit)
Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)  
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

In such company, it's an honour just to be nominated.

The novel is also on the Locus 2012 Recommended Reading List.

I'll finish with a quote from David Hebblethwaite's recent review:
[I]t is in MacLeod’s portrait of his future society that the novel shines most brightly. Several times, we see how the authorities cross-reference online traces and other seemingly-unremarkable points of data, and infer that someone might be a security risk – and the first they know of it is when the police come for them. This mirrors the novel’s sense that isolated bits of rhetoric have cohered invisibly to form the framework of government ideology; which can also be a net to trap the unwary, as Hope and other characters discover. The ending of Intrusion is also built on the idea of isolated details coming together unexpectedly, which is a satisfying touch.

Perhaps what’s most chilling about Intrusion is its quietness. As terrible as the society and events of MacLeod’s novel can be, its prose treats them largely as banal, which is quite fitting for the insidious way they’ve come about. Intrusion is likewise a book that creeps up on you – and stays there, just out of sight, waiting.
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