Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Weird Times

Something weird is afoot. Has anyone noticed? There’s been a growing feeling of weirdness in the air for at least the last year or two.  The feeling has been elusive; hard to pin down. But it all crystalised for me a couple of evenings ago when I went to watch the latest Ridley Scott blockbuster, The Martian. In this film Matt Damon is a botanist who gets accidentally left on Mars when the rest of the crew on his mission are forced to evacuate during a sand storm. Being a plucky and resourceful chap he figures out various ways to survive with minimal food and other resources as he awaits a rescue which – even if it does come – will take years.

I won’t go into too much detail about what happens in the film. I enjoyed it - even if I did have reservations about whether potatoes would really grow in Martian soil fertilised only by freeze-dried astronaut dung. I took my kids, and they enjoyed it too. But I came away with that curious feeling of weirdness that has been floating around in the ether for the past few years. Perhaps it was the central message of the film. And that central message was that one day we’re all going to Mars. This will be possible thanks to legions of brave planet-hopping scientists who can overcome any obstacle and save the day.

Mind you, nobody has actually asked Mars if we would be welcome there. But that doesn’t really matter: it’s just there for the taking. Elon Musk is actually proposing that the first thing we do when we get there is to nuke the place. This seems a bit rude, but all's fair in the game of colonisation. In fact, you can play colonisation bingo whilst watching The Martian: vast empty landscapes and talk of ‘the first person ever to put a foot here’ – check; a tough guy white male in a vehicle that looks a bit like a caravan heading towards a horizon – check; talk of international laws not applying – check; the line “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”; American flags – check. Right at the end of the film there’s a whole classroom full of starry-eyed new recruits who have signed up to be planet colonists. The message is clear: we will colonise Mars.

Except we won’t.

There aren’t any manned missions to Mars right now. We haven’t even sent anyone back to the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, in case anyone hadn’t noticed. Getting to Mars is, ahem, rather more challenging and expensive than going to our local moon.

That’s not to say that we won’t ever send anyone to Mars. There’s a Mickey Mouse Mars mission already being dreamed about, and so far over 100,000  people have signed up to volunteer for a cold and lonely death millions of miles away from home. But The Martian gives the causal viewer the impression that we are already doing this kind of thing and that it’s just a matter of political will and the ‘right guys’ being in charge at NASA (and – tellingly – their Chinese equivalent, who are begrudgingly acknowledged in the film (but not those pesky Russians)). 

On the same day I went to see The Martian it was splashed across the news that the UK government had banned hoverboards. Say what? Reading a few of the articles they talked about the kind of board that Marty McFly rode in Back to the Future Part II which is set in, ahem, 2015. I double checked to see if this was not some kind of early April fool’s joke but, no, it didn’t seem to be. How could the government ban something that hadn’t yet been invented? Curious to find out I looked online to see if I could buy one of these hoverboards. Yes – there they were – except they weren’t the kind of thing that Marty McFly would recognise. Instead, it turns out, they are merely a pair of wheels with a central platform that you balance on. There is computer circuitry inside them to stop you falling off them.

Hmm. What about fusion cars that run on banana skins and tin cans? A quick Google search reveals any number of articles that claim this will soon be a reality.

Speaking of cars, what about all those self-driving cars that we were promised? In theory, these might be able to work on the kind of empty and straight roads found in some countries – but would they work, say, where I live in Cornwall? Fuggedaboutit! Most of the roads round here are upgraded sheep tracks first nibbled out in the Bronze Age. They are congested with a variety of motorist fauna, ranging from little old ladies doing about 20mph in first gear, maniacal City traders doing three times the speed limit in their Audis as they drive down from London for a weekend’s surfing, and gigantic lumbering tractors driven by Romanian farmhands too busy sexting to notice they just flattened a cyclist. I’d love to see the software that can predict the random actions of these human variables – some humans simply refuse to behave like robots.

An old lady driving a car. Human variables will never be understood by robotic cars

Oh yes: robots. Where are they all? My mother-in-law said she had a robot cleaner about six years ago, but when I went to have a look at it all she showed me a small circular vacuum cleaner that moved around the floor. It didn’t have arms or legs or a face, and it couldn’t even play chess. "It's definitely a robot," she said. "It says so on the box." Mind you, we are being told repeatedly in the media that robots will take away our jobs.


Three things. First, I doubt that this will be possible for the vast majority of jobs. Artificial Intelligence is only as bright as the collective wisdom of whatever corporation is churning out the job-stealing robots. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Dmitry Orlov’s concept of Organisational Stupidity but, in a nutshell, it essentially guarantees that any large corporation has a functional intelligence slightly lower than a seaside donkey. This wouldn’t bode well for the IQ levels of those shiny metal automatons. 

Here’s something which, when I tell people, they generally don’t believe me: I have worked with robots. Yes, I did an MSc. when I was 22 at Warwick University that involved writing code for industrial robots (I never finished it - I'd have rather gnawed off my own hands than end up as an industrial robot programmer). Those robots were used for building cars – you know the ones, they look like they are made of Meccano – and they were as dumb as. If you told it to pick up Part A and place it in Location B all would be fine unless Frank Smith, daydreaming about the girl he met in the pub last night, happened to wander in between Part A and Location B at the wrong moment, whereupon he would find himself unintentionally integrated into the chassis of a Land Rover. Industrial robots are like blind, hypnotised elephants.

Secondly. Assuming they could make intelligent robots that could do everyone’s jobs (or at least a sizeable chunk of them), that would mean those ex-workers would not have an income. Not having an income in an economy based on consumer spending means there would be less consumption and therefore less of an economy. This is already in an advanced stage of happening right now. Adding robots into the mix would be an excellent way to launch a fresh Neo Luddite movement and I can imagine the internet being filled with articles such as ‘101 ways to kill the robot that stole your job’. Thus, to protect themselves from disgruntled humans, the robots would need to be heavily armed and wearing thick armour. Can you imagine Robocop with Ronald McDonald’s face serving your child her Happy Meal? I thought not.

Would you like fries with that, little girl?

Thirdly – if the functional stupidity and economic realities haven’t already killed the robot dream – there is the small matter of specialised high-tech producers and delicate supply chains. Robots need a lot of bits and bobs to make them work. Those bits and bobs tend to come from specialised production plants in other countries operating on just-in-time principles. There’s no slack in the system, it’s all too efficient, so if anything goes wrong then everything goes wrong. And we are now heading into an era when things will tend to go wrong.

But it’s not just robots, self-driving cars, missions to Mars and all the rest of it that is creating this weird feeling (and don’t get me started on 3D printers, Amazon delivery drones, jetpacks, cryogenics, full-mind downloads etc. etc.) – it’s the fact that the collective conscious seems to think that all of these things are part of our lives now, when actual lived experience tells us that they are not. Yes, some of these technological wonders are either theoretically or technically possible at a great cost, but that doesn’t mean you or I get to experience them. So, instead of people acknowledging that nothing about the futuristic version of 2015 has actually come to pass, they exist in a kind of cosy miasma that whispers things ‘out there’ are progressing for the betterment of humankind, even if they can’t see it for themselves.

What, indeed, has changed about our everyday world since, say 1985? Most people will immediately say two things: the Internet and smart phones. And that’s true to a certain extent (although, it was possible to send and receive email in 1985 - I myself had a modem hooked up to my ZX Spectrum - but generally it was only extreme geeks that used it to send one another bits of code and unfunny jokes written in ASCII characters). As a society we’ve since then piled our resources into the tech sector and created a smaller version of the bulky mobile phones of the 1980s, which now come with an integrated mini computer. We could have piled it into renewable energy, conservation and social schemes - but instead we generally piled it into little devices that play videos of kittens. But apart from that, not much has changed compared to how we thought it would change back then. Essentially, we are still living with the inventions of the 19th century, pimped beyond recognition in many cases, but Victorian technology nevertheless. Here’s a short list of some of the things we (the 99.9999%) don’t have:

-       Flying cars (that run on fusion)
-       Jet packs
-       Holidays in space
-       Hover boards that literally hover
-       Intelligent human-like robot servants
-       An affordable cure for cancer
-       Cities on the Moon

Here’s what we do have:

-        -     One billion petrol-powered cars
-     -  2,300 coal fired power stations
-  About 16,000 airliners that burn kerosene
-  An internet and tech sector that gobbles up 1,500 terawatt hours per year (which, incidentally, is the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985)
-  Smart phones which consume 388 kwh per year (see here)
-  2,271 terrestrial satellites, most of which are used for communications and TV broadcasting
-  Collapsing ecosystems and accelerating resource depletion
-     -  7.3 billion people (compared to 4.8 billion in 1985)
7     - Sky rocketing rates of cancer, diabetes, drug addiction and mental illness 

So, it appears that we’ve entered a kind of weird twilight zone where our unmet expectations of the future we envisaged are being filled by the creative imaginings of the entertainment industry and the popular media. For now these fantasies are being powered by fossil fuels with a high net energy ratio, but that is declining with each passing year. As the per capita availability of energy decreases it will become increasingly hard for people not to notice this reality gap.

Yet it’s easy to be drawn into this comforting trance. I would love to be able to go to Mars, to ride on a hoverboard and to take my family on an all-inclusive break to a resort on the dusty shores of the Sea of Tranquility. However, I recognise that staking our future on the collective hopes of scientific materialists and their promises of salvation through techno-cornucopian abundance is probably not the wisest choice. Phantoms have a habit of evaporating in daylight, and fantasies of limitless technological achievement must surely do the same thing. 

We might be heading into interesting times, but we likely still have a few more months or years of weird times before us yet.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Bantering at the Collapse Cafe

Last night I hung out online with the Doomstead Diner for a chat at the Collapse Cafe. We talked about the state of the UK, what Jeremy Corbyn means for politics here, and a few other things too. If I'm looking a bit ruffled it's because I spent all day making cider on a farm and had just got in from the stormy weather outside.