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The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive

One of our great errors in thinking — another aspect of that unfortunate idea of human exceptionalism that makes it so hard for us to be at home in this world — is that the natural and the man-made are distinct entities. Like all other parts of the branching experiment, we make and are made by the living environment, and we have done so since before we were us. Without the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, there would be no Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley will make or unmake the forests of the future. No nature story, no account of environmental struggle would be complete without bringing on-stage all the human technologies that are to us what the invention of flowers and nuts and chlorophyll and mycorrhizal networks are to the forest superorganism.

Just as the emergence of tree intelligence forever changed the planet, so the emergence of consciousness (which long predated humans) forever changed the nature of evolution. Cultural transmission is orders of magnitude faster than genetic transmission, and digital transmission has accelerated the speed of culture a hundredfold or more. We may soon seem, to our artificial intelligence offspring, as motionless and insentient as trees seem to us. And here we live, trying to make a home between our predecessors and our descendants.

Will we double down on the great migration into symbol space, our decampment into Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and World of Warcraft, the road that we have already traveled so far down? Or will Big Data and Deep Learning allow us to grasp and rejoin the staggeringly complex processes of the living world? The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re inseparable aspects of the new ecology of digital life.

It’s surprising to realize that the rise of ecological and environmental consciousness was made possible by the advent of the Information Age. Life is simply too complex and interdependent for us to wrap our heads around without the help of our machine prosthetics. And now those prosthetics allow us to assemble, generate, contemplate, and interpret the hockey-stick graphs that prophesy our future. We came into being by the grace of trees. Now the fate of trees, and of the whole world forest, is squarely in our machine-amplified hands.

The question is what those machines are doing to our hearts, because without the heart and mind, the hands will get up to all kinds of things.

From a LARB interview with the novelist Richard Powers [via the still-reliable MeFi], who I’d never heard of previously, but will henceforth be seeking out assiduously. Any novelist who refutes the social/natural dichotomy is almost certainly gonna be my jam; that he name-checks Le Guin and KSR merely confirms it. (More than a whiff of Haraway in there, too, though she doesn’t get a mention.)

Anyone out there familiar with his stuff?

Now Then’s Ten

Surfacing briefly to note with pride that Now Then is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

Now Then Magazine - Tenth Anniversary edition

I stumbled across Now Then during my first weeks in Sheffield, way back in the autumn of 2012, when I was desperate to make some connections to the local cultural scene, and to find a new venue to write music reviews for. Now Then is basically an ad-funded arts-scene free-sheet, and generally I don’t write for such publications on principle; as a rule they’re awful, full of shamelessly fawning promo passing itself off as commentary, with tawdry production values and even lower editorial standards. Now Then stood out immediately: its print edition (which doesn’t run during the summer, so as to save money) is always a gorgeous piece of printed product, fronted with original art commissioned to purpose; its reviews are written with genuine passion, and are permitted to be critical; it carries poetry, short fiction and humour, and it carries editorial and local-political content that puts both of the local “newspapers” to shame by comparison.

My PhD and other work has meant I’ve not been a very regular contributor to Now Then, but of all the free-to-air venues I’ve ever reviewed music for, it’s the one I’m proudest not only to tell people about, but to show them a physical copy. Perhaps the most solid endorsement I can offer is that I pick up a copy every month, whether my words are in there or not.

Sheffield’s a city with a fair few problems and difficulties, most of which are political in origin. But it teems with people working hard to make a difference, not just for themselves, but for everyone else. Sam and the gang at Opus are solidly in the latter category, and Now Then is product and platform all at once. I’m reyt proud to have contributed to it, in however minor a manner.

(You can read my latest review in this month’s online edition.)

Reviews of books that don’t exist

It mat not have been appreciated as such by the readership, but one of the great personal coups of my editorship of Futurismic was persuading the redoubtable Adam Roberts to provide a series of his reviews of imaginary books* for the site (which is, a little surprisingly, still online, despite its original founder reclaiming the domain name from me a little while ago.). The review-of-an-imagined-text is a genre of writing that lets Roberts do Roberts in a very concise format, and one is never quite sure whether he’s simply burning off fiction ideas that weren’t worthy of being developed at greater length, cocking a snook at the conventions and peccadilloes of genre fiction in general, or lampooning reviewing as both a genre of writing and a literary enterprise; it may well be all three at once, or perhaps none of them. You can decide for yourself, as today’s installment of the protracted Pornokitsch swansong** is a batch of said reviews, which I commend unto you.

(They’ve billed them as “imaginary reviews”, which slightly irks my taxonomic instincts: the reviews are not imaginary at all because, well, there they are; it’s the books they describe which are imagined! But that’s the sort of dancing-angel-counting that makes me an instinctive fan of Roberts’ writing, I suppose… and why I ended up writing an essay — for this book — that took the form of a review of an imaginary remix of one of Adam’s books, which ended up being nominated for an award for non-fiction writing, despite being on at least one level, if not more than one, completely fictional. Which is itself a rather Robertsean sort of irony.)

* – Not always books, actually; the final installment of The Adam Roberts Project was a rather excoriating review of an actually-existing album, namely Tarkus by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It was one of the most-commented-upon pieces the site ever ran, due to its being discovered by a succession of ageing prog-rock fans whose humourlessness and petulance served only to validate every cliche about humourless and petulant prog rock fans.

** – I’m not entirely sure why the Pornokitsch crew have decided to wind their site down, beyond the post that explains they’d always stop when it stopped being fun, and that it had stopped being sufficiently fun. I suspect that things would be clearer were I still on social media, but I further suspect that their reasons for winding down are in some part similar to my reasons for quitting social media, and that Pornokitsch is yet another redoubt surrendered to the seemingly interminable genre fiction blog-wars. Sad to see them go, but I can’t say I blame them; as the old aphorism goes, there’s little point in wrestling with a pig, because you end up covered in filth and the pig enjoys it. Re-reading the comment thread beneath Adam’s review of Tarkus (linked above), I realise that I took a while to realise that myself.

Feersum endjinn

Or “what I did on my mid-week day off”: The River Don Engine, now housed at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, UK. The largest working steam engine left in Britain, and quite possibly in the world.

I was surprised by how quiet the engine itself was, though I imagine that’s partly down to it now being powered by a gas-fueled boiler in another part of the complex, rather than a big ol’ firebox like it had back in the days when it was used for rolling steel plate as thick as your hand is wide for battleship armour, reactor shielding etc etc. The audience of kids are pretty loud, though.

A few stills included below, for those who I’m sure would have rather seen the crankshaft moving… but that would’ve meant getting in the way of the school-trip audience, and I’m not quite that much of a dick.

Posting this well-tuned engine largely because a well-tuned engine is the exact opposite of what today is turning out to be. Sympathetic industrial magic, innit.