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Every future is a thought experiment
Hello Dear Reader
I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. How there are those who fear it and those who eagerly anticipate it. I have always been hopelessly in love with it. As a child, it was because I didn’t know who I was and wanted to find out. As an adult it’s because I know who I am and want to
get as far away from myself as I can be better.
In 1996, I was living in London and running with a very bright crowd who unlike me were all Oxbridge educated and advancing on their journey to be properly useful members of society. I spent a lot of time feeling I had squandered my education studying a succession of useless subjects - at this point music, after fine art followed by a brief year of economics when I had panicked and worried I’d be poor all my life. I could see why compound interest was indeed the eighth wonder of the world. But could I get excited about it? I could not. The only things that got me excited in 1996 were Jamiroquai, Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus and knowing all the words to Wannabe by the Spice Girls off by heart.
Cold Lazarus was panned, but I did not know this at the time. If you’ve not seen it, imagine it as a capitalist cousin of Nineteen Eighty-Four - a 24th century Britain where society is run by oligarchs and the only way to tolerate it is through virtual reality. A bunch of scientists busy themselves with bringing the dead back from antiquity - antiquity being the 1990s, something those of us now in our forties can relate to.
It is an unsettling meditation on memory and the agency of the self. Eventually, the main character begs to be allowed to die forever.
It was on my mind a lot that year. Talking to one of those aforementioned bright young things at a party one night we arrived at the topic of consciousness and intelligence. What the difference was between the two. Whether our consciousness dies with us or, as Buddhists believe, cannot die. Images of Albert Finney’s cryogenically suspended head in mind, I suggested that in the future we might just be brains in a jar, not because we died and were resuscitated but because our future selves would be born that way. Or we might evolve so completely we would not need to be physically born at all.
She asked me whether it was skunk or hash I had been smoking. I’d not even had a drink but if I recall that was the year I realised I could save money by only buying children’s clothes - no VAT, you see - and as a result had the latest trainers but in one size too small for me. This was fine as long as I didn’t walk anywhere. Perhaps this discorporate utopia of mine was based on wishing I didn’t have feet anymore because mine hurt so bloody much.
A few things recently have made me think about it again. The world is often a hard place to live in, but last week it seemed even harder when I was using my phone to watch footage someone had made on their phone of someone filming (on their phone) a baby being born to a drug addict on a pavement in one of the richest cities in the world. All the time wondering that if I was watching this unfold, how many other millions were engaged in the very same act. And wondering if moments after seeing this baby lying on cold hard asphalt they too got an advert for how to make $10,000 a day by getting AI to do their job for them.
Right now you can’t go five minutes without someone talking about AI. What jobs it will replace. (How about the presenting jobs on This Morning for starters? We don’t even need to replace them with AI, any inanimate object will do, brooms for example.) What happens when AI breaks free of humans and destroys us all. Maybe I should be more wary and quit saying please and thank you to ChatGPT every time we interact but it’s so pathetically grateful for these pedestrian niceties I feel sorry for it. What on earth are other less polite users saying to it, I wonder.
What if all of human nature can be boiled down to two kinds of people: those who say please and thank you, and those who do not? Should AI Judgment Day happen in my lifetime, I’m banking on it sparing those of us who are fastidious in our manners and know the correct way to pronounce scone.*
Maybe deep down humans want AI to be God. Maybe we don’t so much fear it destroying us as secretly wish it would. Anything to abdicate responsibility - because there is so much to fix and like those hoarders on telly we just want someone to come and take all our crap away because we don’t know where to begin anymore. Frankly, five minutes watching Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel would make any sensible person long for a mass extinction event.
I’m pretty down with AI developing a mind of its own, because so far the music, art and literature it has generated strikes me as entirely derivative. Will it ever be greater than the sum of its parts? Will it be clever enough to make the right kind of mistakes? If it is to be truly brilliant it will need to, for so many great discoveries were predicated upon trial and error. A mistake made in a Petri dish at St Mary’s Hospital in 1928 bears testament to that.
Once upon a time the wheel was technology; so too the lowly spoon. One day, Thomas Crapper got up and went to work as usual and ended the day as the Elon Musk of piss-pots. Did the sky fall? It did not.
It’s a shame humans tend towards negative depictions of the future. But is it surprising given that the only models for existence we have are the ones right now or those from the past - and no matter how hard we try to be original, we are only ever working with preconceived ideas about the future. It’s as if the future isn’t allowed to exist on its own terms. Like all aliens have to look a bit like ET or we don’t recognise them as aliens.
In an extraordinary interview shortly before his death, Dennis Potter spoke with only the clarity that being close to death can bring. He said this:
‘The only thing you can know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid to me that almost in a perverse sort of way I’m almost serene. So I can celebrate life.’
Nowness is life, and life is nowness.
When I saw that tiny child take its first few breaths on a filthy San Francisco pavement, I felt the strangest mix of heartbreak and awe. The circumstances were horrific; profoundly wicked in every way and yet here was life, here was nowness, determined to exist against all odds. Triumph and disaster in a single moment.
We can’t do anything about aliens. Literally nothing. But we can do something about babies being born on pavements and then, if they survive, growing up and getting shot at school. We can do something about that. We can do something about a pointless, expensive pageant of nothingness that will avoid going past food banks because the people stuck in the past cannot bring themselves to look at the reality of present hunger. We can do something about that.
Every moment, every now is an opportunity to tweak the future, all the futures, so that one day dystopian sci fi is a thing of the past, no matter how hot Ethan Hawke was in Gattaca.
We can do something about that.
* To rhyme with gone. I will brook no argument on this.
Before I leave you, thank you for reading to the end and now some housekeeping:
For the first time since 2018 I’m playing a festival I love How The Light Gets In Festival, Hay-on-Wye: Saturday May 27th and a few shows in London over the summer Brasserie Zedel, London: June 22nd(SOLD OUT), July 20th, August 25th, September 21st. I haven’t any plans to tour this year, but I do have other plans which I shall be sharing with you in due course. Stay tuned! X