In this installment: A report on the new type of futurism that’s being spearheaded by highly regarded scientists and scholars for the purpose of studying the reality and scope of existential threats to human survival. The triumph of fear as a central motivating reality in contemporary geopolitics. The global plague of feral pigs. Renowned author George Saunders on what the Internet is doing to his brain. How writers pursue their passions for other activities as a means of inflaming and enriching their creative authorial inspiration. Why the real-world “bestiary” of extraordinary life forms on earth rivals or exceeds the wildest imaginings of fantastists. The Gothic as a “sublime contagion” compelling us to explore boundaries and transgression.
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Omens: Humanity’s Deep Future
Ross Anderson, Aeon, February 25, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: If you read only one article about the rise of the new field of “existential risk” assessment, make it this one. Among other things, it contains a wonderfully compact, lucid, detailed, and accessible description of the various real-world dangers, sounding like science fiction, that arise from the field of artificial intelligence research.]
Teaser: When we peer into the fog of the deep future what do we see — human extinction or a future among the stars?
Nick Bostrom, a philosopher who has made a career out of contemplating distant futures, hypothetical worlds that lie thousands of years ahead in the stream of time. Bostrom is the director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, a research collective tasked with pondering the long-term fate of human civilisation. He founded the institute in 2005, at the age of 32, two years after coming to Oxford from Yale. Bostrom has a cushy gig, so far as academics go. He has no teaching requirements, and wide latitude to pursue his own research interests, a cluster of questions he considers crucial to the future of humanity.
Bostrom attracts an unusual amount of press attention for a professional philosopher, in part because he writes a great deal about human extinction. His work on the subject has earned him a reputation as a secular Daniel, a doomsday prophet for the empirical set. But Bostrom is no voice in the wilderness. He has a growing audience, both inside and outside the academy. Last year, he gave a keynote talk on extinction risks at a global conference hosted by the US State Department. More recently, he joined Stephen Hawking as an advisor to a new Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge.
. . . The risks that keep Bostrom up at night are those for which there are no geological case studies, and no human track record of survival. These risks arise from human technology, a force capable of introducing entirely new phenomena into the world.
. . . These risks are easy to imagine. We can make them out on the horizon, because they stem from foreseeable extensions of current technology. But surely other, more mysterious risks await us in the epochs to come. After all, no 18th-century prognosticator could have imagined nuclear doomsday. Bostrom’s basic intellectual project is to reach into the epistemological fog of the future, to feel around for potential threats. It’s a project that is going to be with us for a long time, until — if — we reach technological maturity, by inventing and surviving all existentially dangerous technologies.
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The Triumph of Fear
Dominique Moisi, Project Syndicate, April 26, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this piece is, to quote the official accompanying bio, “Senior Adviser at IFRI (The French Institute for International Affairs) and a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).”]
In May 1981, Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt. Thirty years later, Osama bin Laden was killed by United States Special Forces. But, looking at the world now, one could easily conclude that the inspirational leader whose credo was Franklin Roosevelt’s injunction to fear only “fear itself” has lost, and that the fanatic who wanted fear to dominate the world of the “infidels” has prevailed.
Today, fear is ubiquitous, and the bombings at the Boston Marathon must be understood in that context, for the attack both highlights and deepens our pervasive sense of insecurity.
Fear of terrorism is only one segment of what might best be described as a multi-level structure of dread. Domestically, there is fear of “spontaneous” massacres like the slaughter in December of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. Internationally, there is fear of civil wars in the Arab world; of social unrest in crisis-ridden Europe; and of war in Asia resulting from North Korea’s brinkmanship or the irresponsible escalation of territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. And then there are global fears linked to climate change, epidemics, cyber wars, and more. The list seems endless.
Revisiting my 2009 book, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are reshaping the World, it seems clear that fear has gained the upper hand. Does this mean that a fearful West has prevailed once again? And is fear in the rest of the world a response to the West’s strength, or to its new weakness?
Either way, the West has now spread its negative emotions, after having once imposed its mostly materialist values on the rest of the world. It is, of course, too early to say whether this is a sign of deep change, or merely a passing trend, and reality is, no doubt, much less simple. But, to distill the essence of today’s mood, one could say that fear is the direct result of the process of globalization: the world is not necessarily flat, but it definitely feels smaller — and “others” appear more menacing than ever.
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Who Can Stop These Adorable Pigs?
Jesse Hirsch, Modern Farmer, April 25, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has more than just an objective interest for me, since my own son is professionally employed by the State of Texas, in a position whose administrative chain combines state and federal authority, to help control the problem wildlife population, including feral pigs, which rove in epic herds down here and cause an enormous ruckus. For the past decade my home state of Missouri and semi-home state of Arkansas have likewise been living through the thick of a the very same crisis. The problem is a real and pressing one.]
Teaser: Voracious. Destructive. Radioactive. Wild boars take over.
This may seem like a ludicrous pitch for a doomsday blockbuster or a leftover gag from Babe: Pig in the City or an excuse to put even more bacon in our diet but the fact is, wild pigs have overrun the planet. To wit: Pig populations are nearing a million in the state of Florida, encroaching on urban areas and destroying an F-16 fighter plane in Jacksonville. Feral pigs are running (hog) wild in the streets of Berlin, with dedicated pig squads waging a losing battle to overtake them. They’ve become a fixture on the West Bank, after Israeli settlers, some say, released boars to destroy Palestinian croplands. There are even thousands of radioactive wild pigs wandering Europe, thanks to the tainted feeding grounds near Chernobyl.
“The biggest challenge is to get people to take this seriously,” says John Mayer of Savannah River National Laboratory, one of the world’s foremost wild pig authorities. “You start talking about this and people go ‘Come on, you’re kidding me, wild pigs?!’” But the issue is as serious as swine flu, with a global explosion of wild pigs destroying natural ecosystems, spreading disease, causing a billion dollars in agricultural damage, and proving themselves nearly impossible to combat.
For those working in the field, educating farmers, foresters and land-owners on how to stave off pigs has become a cottage industry. At a standing-room only wild-pig management conference in December, Bronson Strickland, a coordinator of the Mississippi State University’s Center for Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts, was charged with educating the masses. Bald as a baby, with a soft Southern drawl and the righteous urgency of Al Gore, Strickland offered scant reassurance.
“We have a really, really big problem here, and we don’t have the answers,” Strickland called out to the restless, murmuring crowd. “We’re in for a fight.”
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George Saunders: My Desktop
Interview by Ben Johncock, The Guardian, April 22, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For obvious reasons, Saunders’ words here can be read with a mutually illuminating influence in the context of things like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain.]
Teaser: Recently named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, the writer tells Ben Johncock about his very reluctant engagement with computers.
The one thing I am trying to do in my “real” life is simplify. There are really only a handful of things I care about, so I’m trying to minimise the distractions associated with the other things. It’s basically: family, writing, teaching.
I’m not easily distracted, as a rule. Especially where writing is concerned. But I have noticed, over the last few years, the very real (what feels like) neurological effect of the computer and the iPhone and texting and so on — it feels like I’ve re-programmed myself to become discontent with whatever I’m doing faster. So I’m trying to work against this by checking emails less often, etc etc. It’s a little scary, actually, to observe oneself getting more and more skittish, attention-wise. I really don’t know if people are “deep reading” less these days in favour of a quick fix on the internet — I think this is a thing one hears a lot, but when I travel to colleges here in the US there are always people reading Joyce and DFW and debating about literary difficulty and praising William Gaddis and so on.
I do know that I started noticing a change in my own reading habits – I’d get online and look up and 40 minutes would have gone by, and my reading time for the night would have been pissed away, and all I would have learned was that, you know, a certain celebrity had lived in her car awhile, or that a cat had dialled 911. So I had to start watching that more carefully. But it’s interesting because (1) this tendency does seem to alter brain function and (2) through some demonic cause-and-effect, our technology is exactly situated to exploit the crappier angles of our nature: gossip, self-promotion, snarky curiosity. It’s almost as if totalitarianism thought better of the jackboots and decided to go another way: smoother, more flattering — and impossible to resist.
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Writers in Love with Other Art Forms
Andrew O’Hagan, Financial Times, April 26, 2013
Teaser: From Henry James’s passion for painting to EM Forster’s love of music, novelists find inspiration in other art forms.
Writing novels is quiet work: it can reveal astonishments but it doesn’t usually proceed from them. Maybe that is why novelists are so often attached to second art forms that wear their physicality or their beauty outwardly. Ernest Hemingway considered bullfighting an art form and, indeed, he thought writers should be more like toreadors, brave and defiant in the face of death. For Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima it was the art of the samurai — he loved the poise, the nobility, the control, tradition, all things you would say of good prose — and he died in a ritual self-killing. But most novelists take their influence seriously without letting it take over. They are emboldened by a love of opera, as were Willa Cather and the French novelist George Sand, or by modernist painters, as Gertrude Stein was, each of these brilliant women finding in the spaciousness and drama of the other art form an enlarged sense of what they themselves were setting out to deal with on the little blank page.
. . . Half the job of a working writer is to seek and maintain his own affinities. You’ve got to know where to lay your empathy and why. And you’ve got to know how to recognise the kind of material that releases your imagination. You don’t always find those things in other novelists: often, indeed, it will be the artist in the next field, the craftsman, the expert, the sportsman, the hero in another line, who will pump fresh air into the recesses of your talent.
. . . I was a fan of ballet as a child and sometimes my limbs remember the old technique, the musicality, the lightness and the strength, when I’m bent over a paragraph. I wasn’t even a teenager when I went to see a production of Giselle by Scottish Ballet at the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr. It was oddly defining: the theatre was dark and the stage was very close, I could smell the resin on the dancer’s shoes, an audience of girls with their wondrous eyes, and me, beyond the pale, watching a gothic romance unfold not 10 miles away from the rough school I attended. Albrecht, the young duke, is lured by these ghostly women to dance himself to death. I later learnt that the novelist Victor Hugo had provided the inspiration for the original scenario but, even at the time, I saw myself as a library-haunting young man who wanted to write himself to death. What dancing gave me was not an idea, really, but an atmosphere: it showed me how to create within an economy of clean gestures. Giselle was not just about a doomed love affair but about the insatiable life of the imagination itself. Classical dance, in the circumstances, offered a pleasingly extreme way into the mindset of artists and creators, and I became for a while a totally willing abandonee to the Scottish Ballet. But all the while I see I was just learning. It was my shadow art and it offered — as the theatre still offers — a ridiculous schooling in the impossible.
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Imagining the World: In Search of the Fantastic
Caspar Henderson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Henderson is writing here in connection with his recently published The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st-Century Bestiary, which sounds rather wonderful.]
A good starting point for a life well lived is continual effort to enlarge, as well as to deepen, the boundaries of our imaginations and our knowledge to all the dimensions and details of the real world. Thoreau, who wrote that “in wildness is the salvation of the world,” was a visionary and a radical, but he was not a woolly thinker. It was Thoreau — not the supposedly practical folk around him — who refused to believe that Walden Pond was bottomless and actually took the trouble to measure its depth with a plumb line. As Richard Feynman later said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”
. . . . I had been rereading The Book of Imaginary Beings, in which the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges maps the extraordinary mythical creatures that have lurked in the labyrinth of human imagination across time and culture. I was struck by the thought — perhaps an obvious one — that the animals that actually exist are more extraordinary than the ones humans have dreamed up.
We know that the oceans, for example, contain forms weirder than anything you will find in myths: beings taller than men that have no internal organs and thrive in waters that would scald us to death; others that are highly intelligent but able nevertheless to squeeze their bodies through spaces the width of their own eyeballs. We know that there is a vast world of cold darkness in which almost every creature glows with its own light. The capabilities and properties of those and countless other beings — the results of billions of years of evolution — are astonishing.
It is our knowledge and understanding that are too cramped and fragmentary to accommodate such amazing creatures: Even in a time of rapid scientific advances, we have barely imagined them. In this era of momentous extinctions and transformations, surely we can expand our imagination in order to appreciate the beings with whom we share our planet, thus deepening our own humanity.
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A Sublime Contagion
Sarah Perry, Aeon, April 19, 2013
Teaser: The Gothic is more than vampires and flying buttresses, burgundy lips and black lace: it is the thrill of transgression.
The defining feature of the literary Gothic is that it exploits the reader’s own devices and desires: it cannot function unless the reader is affected by events as profoundly as any of the characters. Those first readers of [Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto] were unlikely to be suffering Count Manfred’s incestuous desires, or cowering like Isabella in crypt and cave. Nevertheless, like Walpole — and like us all — they’d have brought their own secret anxieties and longings to the text. That first encounter with Gothic fiction tested the boundaries of civilised society, hinting at dark places where vices might be explored.
Walpole published his novel at the passing of the Enlightenment age. There can be no doubt that the seductiveness of the sublime — whether encountered in nature, as Burke largely supposed, or within the pages of a Gothic novel such as Walpole’s — thrives most in the aftermath of periods of clarity and reason. The Enlightenment did not dispense with faith but illuminated it, affirming that since a rational God had ordered the universe, order must be found in its workings. The terror of sublimity was a recourse for those who still hungered after strangeness, and after numinous forces that could not be accounted for by the stern light of reason.
. . . Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’ (1919) sits alongside Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry as an essential clue to the meaning of the Gothic. It has never been an aesthetic so much as a state of mind. Freud conceived of the uncanny — an approximation of the untranslatable German unheimlich — as a state of indescribable unease and terror, drawn not from encounters with ghouls and beasts but from something horribly familiar. To be heimlich is to be homely, of the domestic sphere, but also concealed, secret, hidden. What is unheimlich is therefore simultaneously unhomely and revelatory: it spells an unwelcome encounter with our primitive desires and social taboos, an encounter all the more horrible because it is with ourselves.
It is this quality of drawing on our own secret urges that makes the Gothic so irresistible, and accounts for its limitless adaptability. It is defined not by an adherence to a series of defining features, but by our response to it — I am deliciously uneasy, repulsively thrilled, sublimely afraid. It gives licence to sensations that we feel but cannot admit, and at precisely the same time cloaks those sensations in such strangeness that it is possible to say: ‘It is only an absurd tale of vampires and shadows; it has nothing whatever to do with me.’ The Gothic provides a hiding-place and a place of consecration for those seeking what lies beyond the boundary of society and reason, a sublime contagion to which we are never quite immune.