Mieville on Teleporting

At the event on Tuesday night, I remarked that China Mieville and Cory Doctorow share an irritating trait, which is to lathe my own ideas into science fiction books, many years before I even have the thought for the first time!

One example of this is on the important science-fiction problem of teleporting, and the possibility of transferring of one’s mind between matter.  I scribbled some concerns about this earlier this year, but now I find that Mieville got there first, in Kraken (p.221):

This is why I wouldn’t travel that way,” Dane said.  “This is my point.  For a piece of rock or clothes or something dead, who cares?  But take something living and do that?  Beam it up?  What you done is ripped a man apart then stuck his bits back together and made them walk around.  He died.  Get me?  The man’s dead.  And the man at the other end only thinks he is the same man. He ain’t. He only just got born.  He’s got the other’s memories, yeah, but he’s newborn.  That Enterprise, they keep killing themselves and replacing themselves with clones of dead people.  That is some macabre shit.  That ship’s full of Xerox copies for people who died.”

I love this kind of esoteric debate.  Teleportation might never become a reality, but the questions raised by science fiction are essential when we consider the nature of the mind and artificial intelligence.

Teleport road sign. Photo by mercurialn on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
Teleport road sign. Photo by mercurialn on Flickr. Creative Commons.

Doctorow/Mieville

Neither of my Twitter followers would have been in any doubt as to what I was up to on Tuesday evening – interviewing sci-fi authors China Mieville and Cory Doctorow for Clerkenwell Tales book shop.  I had relentlessly plugged the event and solicited questions.
Here is Dougal Wallace’s Flickr photoset for the event.

Tom Baynham will put up an audio podcast soon, and I will certainly write some afterthoughts on the discussion… including Mieville’s well-reasoned worry that blogging means we now have very few unpublished thoughts.

Multi-Signature Letter on Azerbaijan

Eynulla Fatullayev is deemed a Prisoner of Conscience by PEN and Amnesty International.
Eynulla Fatullayev is deemed a Prisoner of Conscience by PEN and Amnesty International.

This lunchtime, English PEN will be demonstrating for Eynullah Fatullayev, the imprisoned Azerbaijani editor now on hunger-strike.  Its a joint action with Amnesty UK, Article 19 and Index on Censorship.  Our call for support was printed on the Guardian letters page this morning:

Today at 12 noon, free speech campaigners will protest outside the Azerbaijani embassy in London, calling for an end to the persecution of jailed journalist Eynulla Fatullayev. We urge all Guardian readers who believe in free speech to join us.

Newspaper editor Fatullayev is serving an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence based on trumped-up charges of terrorism and defamation. In April this year the European court of human rights ruled that he had been wrongfully imprisoned and called for his immediate release.

Fatullayev is now on trial on a new accusation of possessing illegal drugs – a charge widely believed to have been fabricated in order to keep him in prison.

Freedom of expression is the bedrock of human rights, without which other abuses go unheralded and unchecked. Those of us who can speak out must stand up for those to whom free speech is denied.

Kate Allen Director, Amnesty International UK, Agnès Callamard Executive director, Article 19, Lisa Appignanesi President, English PEN, Carole Seymour-Jones Chair, Writers in Prison Committee, English PEN, John Kampfner Index on Censorship, Alan Ayckbourn Playwright, William Boyd Author, Philip Pullman Author

I will be there taking photos which I will post to the English PEN Flickr stream later today.

The letter in The Guardian is an example of a multi-signatory letter, an age old tactic for all types of political campaigner.  The prominent names (of which we have many at PEN) make the letter newsworthy and ensure its publication at the most timely point.  Other recent examples include our complaint about the UK visa system in The Times, our appeal about Jaballa Matar in the same paper, and more than one complaint about the new law on criminals’ memoirs.

However, opposite our multi-signatory letter is this complaint from Mohsin Khan of Wadham College:

While there have been several timely and crucial multi-signatory letters, we must bear in mind that MPs, celebrities, and chief executives have the contacts and means to get together and compose a press release. If the issue is then deemed important by the national media, it will be picked up in the news section of papers. The joy of the Guardian letters page is that it lets individuals contribute to national discussions when they would otherwise be ignored – and we must safeguard this space.

Guilty as charged, I’m afraid.  I do not think this is a tactic that activists will abandon any time soon, so Mohsin must rely on the good judgement of the letters page editors to keep the debate eclectic, and too keep the diverse voices prominent.

Harper Lee on the Modern World

In The Times, Ben MacIntyre quotes Harper Lee, in one of her very few public utterances since 1964:

Today, aged 84, the author of one of the bestselling novels of the last century lives as she has always lived, with her older sister, in Monroeville, surrounded by books. In one of the very few quotable things she has said in the past 40 years, she remarked: “In an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”

I am tired of this lazy shortcut, which equates using technology with stupidity of having an ’empty mind’.  Clay Shirky’s essay on ‘Cognitive Surplus’ (which I believe is the topic of an entire book to be published next week) dismantles this idea.  What do Lee and the other smug detractors of the Internet think we are doing with all this technology?  We are consuming ideas.  We are thinking, collectively more deeper and with more eclecticism than ever before.  Such technology liberates us from the (admittedly) homogenizing forces of mass media, and instead allows us to seek out a greater spread of ideas, art forms and entertainment.  When people sneer at this,I think it is just a form of elitism: The “laptops, cellphones and iPods” allow anyone access to the world’s information, not just those who can afford the money and space to store tons of bound paper on shelves (aesthetically pleasing though that is…).

See also: Kafka would have had a twitter feed

Fallout

As flights resume following the Eyjafjallajokull erruption, Europe is left counting the economic cost of a genuine, real-life, bona fide Act of God.  I was at the London Book Fair this week, with English PEN, and saw first hand the effect that cancelled travel plans can have on commerce, and indeed, the free flow of ideas.  Below is my Flickr photoset ‘Fallout’, showing the forlorn empty trade stands at the fair.

Blog Burning

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post – ‘Write A Blog, Kill Your Career‘, about the possibility of bloggers going into politics and the trouble that their archives might cause them.  I linked to a marvellous cartoon by XKCD, Fuck That Shit, which summed up my attitude to the worry of self-censorship.

This week, that piece is looking prescient.  On Monday, Ellie Gellard, the activist/tweeter/blogger who launched Labour’s Election Manifesto, was ‘exposed‘ as having called for Gordon Brown’s resignation… two years ago.  Then on Wednesday, Chris Mounsey a.k.a. Devil’s Kitchen came a cropper on The Politics Show, flummoxed when some of his more colourful language was thrown back at him by Andrew Neil.  Mark Thompson has a good analysis:

I had hoped for a spirited and libertarian defence of his right to have an on-line persona that is close to the knuckle and still be involved in active politics.

Indeed.  It is actually quite disconcerting to see Mounsey, who has built a following out of his frustration with the way politicians obfuscate and blather, having to take a similar tone to many of his hate-figures.  Had he told Andrew Neil to “fuck off” the YouTube hits would have doubled by a couple of orders of magnitude, and it probably wouldn’t have done the membership figures for the fledgeling Libertarian Party any damage either.

Instead, he has done this:

It is very difficult to delete anything on the internet and I am not going to pretend that I can do so. However, gradually the caches will fade away, and those parts of The Devil’s Kitchen that are most damaging—the incredibly violent (though fantastical) demises of various politicos and their grubby little hangers-on—will fade away eventually. … And so, here we are—with The Devil starting with a clean slate.

Now, I disagree with most of Mounsey’s output.  I think his libertarian philosophy is based on some false conceptions at its very heart, and I find his climate-change skepticism very odd.  On the other hand, I feel an unlikely kinship – as part of the Edinburgh blogging ‘scene’ back in the ‘6 we had plenty of banter, and I once had a beer with him during the festival.  Crucially, his blog contatined denunciations of me and my ridiculous views, driving traffic to my site.  For all these reasons, his decision to remove his blog archive from the internet makes me uncomfortable.  As I said before, deleting a blog feels like a book-burning.  Its an unlikely form of self-censorship, and feels very wrong.

Photo by pcorreia on Flickr
Photo by pcorreia on Flickr

Judging a Book by its Cover

An event report I wrote for the English PEN website.

Rick Gekoski, Alex Clark, Joanna Prior and Cory Doctorow.
Rick Gekoski, Alex Clark, Joanna Prior and Cory Doctorow.

I’ll admit, I judged this event by its cover.

I assumed that an discussion titled ‘Judging a book by its cover’ would be about book jacket design, rich and fertile ground for ideas on culture and mass marketing.  I expected to hear bookseller Rick Gekoski wax about the beauty of a hardback first edition, and hear Joanna Prior explain how Penguin’s mass market paperbacks have become an iconic design in themselves.  I expected to hear how the large publishers are stifling creativity by homogenising the book design process.

And in fact, I did hear about all those things. However, I expected them to be within a discussion that was essentially about aesthetics. I did not expect to be faced, instead, with a more philosophical question: what is a book? Is it the paper, the cover and the binding? Or is it the words on the page? Continue reading “Judging a Book by its Cover”

Borgesian Blogging?

There is an online trend towards giving an idea away for free.  A journalist or a thinker comes up with a great idea, but rather than implement it too see if it works in practice, they just ask someone else to do it for them.  Recent examples include Jay Rosen’s ‘A Simple Fix for the Messed Up Sunday Shows‘ and Michael Skoler’s ‘Hot New Revenue For News‘.  To be clear, this attitude is something I applaud:  It is the business equivalent of giving your photos an extremely permissive Creative Commons licence.

It is also in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges.  He would to write reviews of books he wanted other people to write, of near-impossible novels he imagined.  The danger, of course, is that we all end up writing the reviews, coming up with new ideas… and no-one puts them into practice.  Rosen’s fact-checking idea for the Sunday Shows has become a popular intervention in the discussion around the future of News… but has anyone actually implemented it yet?

Back-up Your Brain

(This post contains vague spoilers, which should not damage your enjoyment of the stories in question)

Would I restore my mind from back-up?

I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel.  It is a science-fiction thought experiment on what might happen if we all had immortality, and scarcity of resources had been abolished.  Money is redundant, because one can simply utilise public replication machines to generate whatever food or tools you need.  Instead, people earn credibility points (Doctorow calls it ‘Whuffie’) for all the good things that they do – The protagonist, Julius, earns this by maintaining the rides at Disneyland.  Through these tweaks to reality, Doctorow gets to meditate on human purpose and ennui in a time of plenty.

The central, fantastical technology available to the characters, is the ability to upload and back-up to hard-drive your mind and all your memories.  Should some accident or murder befall you (as of course it does to Julius) you can get a-hold of a clone body, and overlay your complete consciousness onto the tabula rasa.  Doctorow has played with this sort of technology before, in the delightful I, Rowboat (yes, a knowing pun on Asimov’s I, Robot) and another story involving an absconded mother (the name of which escapes me just now).  Apparently, such technology a staple of science fiction:  Back-ups and clones are certainly used in the Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day and I am sure they are found in Philip K. Dick and elsewhere in the canon.

For those who wish to live forever, brain-backups and reboots are exciting idea, but the immortality on offer would be false.  In both The 6th Day and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, its clear that in taking a snap-shot of your brain, you are not preserving your consciousness (or your soul) but simply making a copy of it.  As both Adam Gibson (the Schwarzenegger character) and bad-guy Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn) discover in The 6th Day, it is possible to make a clone of yourself before you die!  When your original ‘version’ dies, the fact that there is a replica of you living on somewhere is of no comfort as your own light fades.  When you finally expire, you know your soul cannot fly away and awake in the new clone, because the clone is already wandering around making memories of his own (see also ‘Second Chances’, a Star Trek: TNG episode with two Commander Rikers).

Stepping into the Star Trek transporters or Fly-style teleporter carries the same philosophical risk.  I simply wouldn’t have the guts to step into such a machine – Not because I worry that my psychology or physiology might be altered due to a malfunction, but because even if the thing works perfectly, the guy stepping in is not the guy stepping out.

One of the few places in fiction where the idea that the soul does not persist through back-ups and cloning is in The Prestige.  Its a film I’ve previously slated for seeming to violate the rules of mystery-telling, but on reflection I think it is internally consistent (the opening shot of the film fortells the final revelation).  Both the Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale characters discover, in their own very different ways, that you cannot achieve immortality through the creation of a clone or a twin, regardless of how that might appear to the rest of the world.  In the end, both characters rightly weep at the demise of their clones, but Jackman’s character is the more tortured because he has caused the death of his ‘original’ self, merely by choosing to step into the crackpot machine in the first place.    This is a sadness that seems to be missing from the characters in Cory Doctorow’s stories.

However, realisation that backup-and-restore is not bona fide immortality would not discourage me from plugging in my brain and making a copy.  This is because we naturally value the things we have created, and we want to see them persist.  I would like to pass on bits of my DNA through children and grandchildren.  I would like people to read the thoughts I have written down, even after I become an ex-person.  A human consciousness restored from my uploaded back-up would be indisputably my creation, a more detailed product of my life and times than anything I might write or carve, or anyone I might sire.  Far better that they, in particular, get to witness the heat-death of the universe (Doctorow, with a nod to Douglas Adams) or the “more glorious dawn” of a Galaxy-rise than some other, generic homo sapien.

'The Same River Twice, part V' by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.
‘The Same River Twice, part V’ by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.