Feb 19, 2015


We live in a busy world.  A generation ago, even in our childhoods, we read books because that’s how we found out about the world around us: how people thought, what they did, how they felt.

Now, we have the internet, so we can spend all day looking at pictures of cats and arguing with people we’ve never met about things we never knew we cared about, all the while growing more entrenched in our own positions.  Television is becoming the dominant story telling medium: we’ve gone from an oral tradition, in which spoken words conjured pictures in our head, to a written tradition where black lines on a white page conjured images in our heads – to images being planted in our heads as a result of other people’s creativity.  Television can be wonderful. Peaky Blinders is a work of modern art, but there’s something essentially passive about the process of watching when we compare it to the process of reading.

You could argue that this doesn’t matter and you might be right, but think about this:  A couple of years ago, Neil Gaiman gave a speech in which he recalled talking to the makers of prisons in the US – they have private prisons, so they need to know how many to build or they won’t make the right money.  They told him that there was a direct arithmetic correlation between the proportion of young boys who read books and the proportion of young men in that cohort who would end up in prison. It wasn’t infallible, obviously. Just because you read books doesn’t mean you won’t go out and mug someone’s grandmother, but it is less likely. There’s something about the alchemy of reading, the act of taking those black marks on white paper and turning them into living, breathing people in our heads – people we feel we know, people we dream about, people we care about – that helps us to hone our integrity, and our empathy.  With these, we’re less likely to start mugging little old ladies. Or any of the other things for which we routinely imprison people.

Reading matters. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t spend my life chained to a keyboard.  There are a lot of other ways to spend a life.  Reading changes people, it touches them, it teaches them.

It’s worth taking a moment to think about what history is – or what we define it to be. Because the bottom line is that now… is the history of… now.  We live on a time line and unless we are spectacularly good at standing on the knife edge of the moment, then we live in bitterness of the past and fear of the future and try to hide in something we call the present but from which we usually shield ourselves. That’s the nature of humanity.

We can’t learn by looking forward, we can only scare ourselves rigid, which has its limitations. So we look back.  In the publishing trade, the definition of an historical novel is one that covers a period at least 35 years before the date of publication. It stops writers going to war over who’s eligible for the prizes.  But we have to remember that we make the line. And we have to remember that history is a very, very subjective idea.

There’s a book called Dead Men Risen by Toby Harnden  – well worth reading. It’s not strictly speaking a historical book – it was written in 2010 about the Welch Guards tour of Helmand province in 2009, which was when we lost the highest ranking commander since H Jones stormed the machine guns at Goose Green.  Lt Col Robert Thorneloe. Harnden had access to the MOD’s records, to survivors, to the emails, letters and videos made by everyone, the living and the dead.  He had as much data to go on as anyone could possibly get in the modern age. And he still came to the same conclusion as Rudyard Kipling when he tried to discover more about the death of his son in 1915: that perfectly decent men, with absolute honesty gave him diametrically opposing versions of any single event.

Think about that for a moment. If a trained journalist in the twenty-first century cannot find the relevant details of events that happened one year before, then there is no possibility that the accounts we have of events, battles, political deliberations, trials… that happened centuries ago are accurate.  They will be one individual’s view point and as anyone knows who has studied any kind of psychology, human beings make particularly subjective witnesses.

So our histories are subjective. All of them from any era and any place and any viewpoint.  We may have Caesar’s commentaries on everything from the Gallic war to the invasion of Britain, but, as one of my teachers once said to me, the most interesting thing about Caesar is working out why he was lying.  The same applies across the board.

Which is not to say that history is without value: quite the reverse.  We are at the tail end of five hundred thousand years of simian evolution and only in the last ten centuries have we moved out of the forests and progressively into the cities. Our instincts, our patterning, our deepest yearnings are all still fashioned on the savannah. People might change their culture.  Ideas might come and go, technologies certainly do, but we don’t fundamentally alter what makes us human and by reading of other humans, particularly those in the past, and seeing how they did what they did, and why, and where it got them, we can begin to build patterns for our own present and so shape our own future.  Which has to be the point.

The limitation of our historical literature – if it has one – is that it tends to confine itself to the relatively recent past.

I would like to suggest that we consider our history always in context and that the context can often be described by a hyperbolic curve.

This is the kind of curve that can represent the technological singularity but it could as easily be… population growth, smoothed a bit, or water use, or what happens when you drip a weak acid into a buffered solution – or pour CO2 into the air and see it dissolve in the oceans, which is much the same thing.  It’s the spike in extinction rates that’s happening around us in the sixth extinction, it’s the value of bankers bonuses expressed as a percentage of GDP.  It’s all kinds of things that are crowding together at this moment in our history.

Let’s look at our history in terms of the technological singularity.   We evolved as recognizable humans, if not yet homo sapiens, about five hundred thousand years ago – which is almost nothing in the lifespan of the planet, but significant for us, obviously, and we lived on the African savannah for most of that time. Towards the end, we developed a kind of madness that pushed us out to explore the world. How many canoes set off out into the Pacific – and never came back before someone landed on Easter Island and managed to colonise it. How long was it before they realized the rats they’d brought were destroying their ecosystem? If they realized it at all?

Anyway, we pushed out, we hunted, we foraged – and somewhere around 10,000 years ago, we began to cultivate crops and then to rear livestock.  It’s a tiny fraction of our total history.  We make stone tools all the way along.  We discover copper and tin and mix them together. We discover iron. Suddenly we’re able to wage serious wars, take serious numbers of slaves, massively increase the wealth of those at the top in greater numbers than before. We have the iron age. The Romans. The old gods are sidelined. The new god sets the tone.  And we head with remarkable speed – geologically speaking – towards what we’re calling the Anthropocene.  The era when, even if humanity vanishes from the earth, there will be a geological record for as long as there is geology, to show that we were here, and we altered everything from the CO2 in the atmosphere and the oceans to the plastic layers in the sediment.

And we began to work on intelligence outside of ourselves.  As the curve rises towards vertical, we break through the second world war, the geniuses at Bletchley – and they weren’t all Alan Turing – created computers and suddenly we’re in the age of the silicone intelligence.  And in this particular curve, that’s what defines the singularity.

The singularity of any curve is the point where the progress along the x-axis is very close to zero while progress up the ordinate is virtually infinite.  In terms of what people are calling the technological singularity, this massive spike occurs when we design and build the silicone mind that can design and build its own successor. At which point, we will be redundant in the evolution of intelligence.

I’ll say that again, because I think it’s important.  At the point when we design and build the computer that can design and build its own successor, we will be redundant in the evolution of intelligence.

When this idea was first mooted in the early part of this millennium, the date put on that likely point was 2015.  I have no idea how close we are, but we must be close. If the NSA can seriously data mine every conversation on the planet and genuinely believe they can copy everything about everybody and keep it forever, then I imagine the technology is a lot further forward than a couple of terabyte hard drives and a nice shiny new ARM processor. At any rate, Stephen Hawking thinks we’re hitting the danger zone and he’s more likely to know than just about anyone else.

That leaves us a number of interesting questions: the first of which is what would any super intelligent super-mind do when it took a look around the planet to see how the baby sibling intelligence had been handling things for the past few thousand years. If it were me, I’d be pretty appalled and I’d take pretty fast steps to stop the damage, but that’s because I think we’re on the road to ruin

SO- they might shut us down.  The really interesting question is whether we create the silicone mind before we run into the buffers of ecosystem collapse or whether it’s just a little bit too late.

Because this is where our understanding of history needs to take a longer view.  There have been five mass extinctions that we can measure in our geological history, and the greatest was the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

All of them as far as we know, were caused by massive geological trauma – an asteroid hitting the earth, things of that magnitude. In the spaces between, new species evolve and old species die off. The usual rate is about one species per 700 years.

The current rate is somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than that.  In the space of time we’ll be together, the earth will lose one or two  – or maybe more – species, forever.  We don’t know exactly how high, because we keep finding new species and if there are ones we haven’t found yet, we won’t know when they’ve left.  There are biologists in the Amazon who are finding trees that are not just like finding a new type of oak, they are like finding… oak.  And there are probably thousands still to be found.

But we are losing things we can measure.  The Panama Golden Frog is gone, except for a few in captivity – as are pretty much ALL the amphibians in central America.  All of them: frogs, toads, newts, salamanders.  All gone.  And just for once, this isn’t specifically our abundant use of fossil fuels that has done it, it’s what we do with them. There’s a particular toad which, when injected with the urine of a pregnant woman, lays eggs within 3 days. It’s a biological pregnancy detector.  We bred them and shipped them all round the world. And we shipped with them the fungus they carry which is perfectly evolved not to kill its natural host, but absolutely annihilates any other amphibian with which it comes into contact.  So they’re all going to go except for those which can evolved a way to survive it.

They’re the current poster children, but you can add any number of charismatic megafauna, or you can just add the corals, which are dying as the oceans acidify, because, as you’ll remember from school, dripping a weak acid into a buffered solution causes pretty much this curve – the acidity rises slowly at first, very slowly, until the buffer is all used up, then it peaks.  Which is what’s happening now and half the world’s biodiversity lives in coral reefs. They are the Amazon rainforests of the oceans, except they are more diverse.   And I don’t really care if people want to tell themselves stories about what might happen when we mine billions of megatonnes of old sunlight from the earth and let it go in the form of CO2, of what happens in closed systems when you add an acid – if you want to deny that the climate is changing, you’re welcome, but we are in the midst of the sixth extinction, the oceans are acidifying and we are on the brink of the technological singularity.

Every generation in history has thought it lived on the brink of cataclysm. Our ancestors around 1,000 AD thought the second coming must happen on the day the millennium rolled over. They tortured to death the last of the Icelandic shamans to make sure it did.  And it didn’t.  Our more recent ancestors lived through world wars that might have caused the collapse of civilization –but they didn’t. We could have set off a thermonuclear war and plunged ourselves into a permanent nuclear winter – and we didn’t.

But we are in the midst of a mass extinction. We are heading for 4 degrees of warming. We are acidifying the oceans and we are running flat out towards the technological singularity. The only question is which one hits us first.

Or maybe they all come at once.  And reading will not change this.  Only actions will change it.  But reading will help us to find out what our options are – reading about who we are, who we have been and so who we might be. Reading beyond the ‘business as usual’ model so that we have some clue of how we might shape our future in ways that are not simply a linear, unthinking extention of our past.

We can do this.  But we do have to think about it. And the first step to thinking is – always – reading.

So, we’re at the start of a festival of literature.  The take home message is that reading is the best way we have of expanding our sense of self beyond who we are just now.

And the only way we can know who we can be, is by seeing who we have been. And then choosing our trajectory

you may also be interested in


Write a Comment

Your email address won’t be published (it’s just to prove you’re a real person)
Your comment will show up as soon as Manda approves it.