+ A world of innovation

Over the past couple of months I’ve written a series of articles for the MSN Innovation hub, which have covered everything from transport infrastructure to zero-carbon cities. I’ve really enjoyed working on these pieces: they’ve been a pleasure to research and write, and hopefully they’ll get people thinking about some of the sustainability challenges we need to address.

A few more pieces are in the pipeline, but you can find all those that have been published so far here. I’ve republished the opening section of one of them – ‘The house that powers itself’ – below to give you a better idea of the sort of thing they cover:

What would life be like without a reliable source of power? It’s a question that many Japanese people were forced to confront in March 2011, when the Tōhoku Earthquake and resulting tsunami caused widespread power outages in coastal regions of the country. An unstoppable wall of seawater rushed inland, devastating many communities and badly damaging the Fukushima nuclear power plant. A nerve-wracking few days followed, as teams of scientists and the emergency services struggled to contain the meltdown.

The disaster triggered a period of soul-searching across the country, and indeed the wider world – particularly in terms of how energy should be generated and consumed, and what role we each play in this process. Most of us take it for granted that when we flick a switch, the lights will come on, or that our electrical devices will beep and whirr into life. But as the Japanese tsunami showed, the energy infrastructure we depend upon is more fragile that we might like to think.

Energy supply and demand will be an even more pressing issue in future. We simply can’t keep burning fossil fuels to provide energy for a growing world population, yet few countries are willing or able to obtain all their energy from renewable sources. Blackouts are predicted to increase as overstretched grids reach their limit; the risk of these occurring in England and Wales over the winter is at its highest since 2008. Meanwhile, the rising cost of heating our homes is pushing more and more people into fuel poverty.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. However, increasing numbers of people see living off-grid as a step in the right direction. Generally, this means their home is not connected to the national grid, public water supply, sewer, gas or similar utilities. It’s a bold move, involving countless lifestyle changes. But the rewards can be great: more control over your energy usage, large financial savings and less damage to the environment…continue reading

+ Do we need a Digital Sabbath?

I like Wi-Fi. As a freelancer, it allows me to work pretty much anywhere I choose (although that generally comes down to either ‘desk’ or ‘sofa’). It’s considerably reduced the number of cables snaking across my flat. And it makes me feel like I’m living in the sci-fi future of my childhood dreams, rather than the harsh, world-on-the-skids reality we’ve been gifted by the New World Order / Bankers / Rupert Murdoch / the Kardashians [delete according to preference].

But do I need Wi-Fi in the back of a black cab? On the tube? Or when I’m 30,000 feet above the earth grimacing my way through an in-flight meal? Probably not. Nevertheless, many forms of transport, as well as city centres, pubs and even some beaches are now Wi-Fi enabled. Handy if you desperately need to watch a video of a cat dancing Gangnam Style or see if anyone’s retweeted your pithy remark about the outrage of the day. Not so great if you feel you already spend too much time fiddling with your phone.

Most of us have checked our email moments after waking up, or just before we’ve gone to bed. Granted, it’s often handy to be able to deal with an important issue outside of the nine-to-five. But it’s also symptomatic of modern working practices. Bosses often expect people to be available beyond official working hours, and subtly penalise those who aren’t. This kind of low-level psychological pressure to be always contactable can make people feel exhausted, stressed and anxious.

Relationships with family and friends can suffer when work – through the medium of the smartphone – monopolises our attention. The constant ping of a new email, tweet or text also tends to reduce our capacity for deep thought and reflection. Some people even get tetchy or anxious when they’re offline, worried that something important might be happening without their knowledge, a condition that has its own zeitgeisty acronym: FOMO (fear of missing out).

Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of UCLA’s Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour, said in a recent article for Pacific Standard Magazine that our lives today remind him of the symptoms of clinical mania: “excitement over acquiring new things, high productivity, fast speech – followed by sleep loss, irritability and depression.” He goes on to say: “Why is it that we’ve been railroaded down this path of continuous stimulation and can’t seem to control ourselves? Why can’t we just stop?” Before answering his own question with the following hypothesis: “The computer is electronic cocaine for many people. Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward. With technology, novelty is the reward. You essentially become addicted to novelty.”

On weekends, Whybrow checks his email just once a day. And although he sometimes works until 9pm at night in the office, he never takes his work home with him. “The idea is not that you don’t work hard,” he explains. “You do. But you have to be able to switch it off and create space. I’ve made a conscious decision to live a life that is not driven by someone else’s priority.” In effect, he adheres to a slightly more relaxed version of the ‘Digital Sabbath’ concept – a day each week when one is completely offline, leaving emails unchecked, gadgets untouched and twitter replies unanswered.

Ultimately, however, it’s not technology that’s to blame for our always-on culture, more the way we choose to use it. As Rebecca Rosen said in an article for The Atlantic, if we simply blame our gadgets for sucking up all our time “we absolve ourselves of the need to create social, political, and, sure, technological structures that allow us to have the kinds of relationships we want with the people around us. We need to realise that at the core of our desire for a Sabbath isn’t a need to escape the blinking screens of our electronic world, but the ways that work and other obligations have intruded upon our lives and our relationships.”

Amen to that.

+ Defusing planetary time bombs

In a movie, when a nuclear bomb is about to go off, everything else ceases to matter. The problems that have afflicted the hero until then – his heavy drinking or failing marriage – fade into the background as he frantically hunts for the device. That isn’t to say these problems aren’t important; they’re certainly important to the hero and us, the audience, or we’d have stopped watching long ago. But until it’s defused the bomb must take precedence over the other issues. The hero won’t be able to quit drinking if it goes off, or patch up his relationship with his wife. He’ll be dead. As will everyone else.

I mention this because it seems like a fitting analogy for where we’re at right now as a species. Only there’s not just one bomb about to go off, there are lots of them, all primed to explode in the coming decades. Three interlinked big’uns – the environmental bomb, the population bomb and the resources bomb – as well as a whole host of secondary devices, such as rising levels of inequality, political disenfranchisement and the current economic crisis. Who set them? Who’s the cackling villain in this movie? Us; humanity.

We’re dependant upon our political leaders to defuse these bombs. They’re the heroes in this blockbuster to end all blockbusters. But there’s a problem. They don’t seem to know which wire to cut (these are fiendishly complicated bombs after all). Also, these bombs are all going to go off at different times, in different places, causing different levels of devastation. So which one do they try and tackle first?

The answer, at the moment, seems to be none of them. Instead of at least attempting to deal with the environmental bomb, or the resources bomb, they’ve largely decided to ignore the lot. They seem to be focusing on the (comparatively speaking) small stuff instead, the stuff that’s better dealt with after the bombs have been defused – like whether or not Hilary Mantel was a bit mean about Kate Middleton. And all the while the clock is ticking. In movie terms our hero is pathologically insane. 

In most films with a bomb as their climax, the hero, or rather his superiors, generally avoid informing the public that their city is about to become a mushroom cloud. It’ll create public panic, or so the argument goes. People will run screaming for the hills and law and order will completely break down. Sometimes we see this played out on screen: terrified extras or CGI mobs making a desperate, and usually futile, bid to escape from the city. 

Typically these scenes are followed by one of two outcomes: the hero defuses the bomb in the nick of time, leading to rapturous tears, cheers and hugs, a stirring speech from the President; or everybody dies in a special effects extravaganza, cars flipping like coins and skyscrapers toppling like dominoes. Fade to black. The end.

So how will our own story – the ‘narrative’ of humanity – play out? Will it have a happy ending? It’s still a little early in the film to say for certain. However, the ominous musical motif is sounding more frequently; the ‘bad thing’ that we fear might happen has been extensively foreshadowed. Only an idiot (climate change deniers – I’m looking at you here) could fail to realise that trouble is in store for us. One can only hope our leaders will somehow learn to be bold, brave and cut the right wire, rather than waiting for the bombs to explode. If not, civilisation is going to get blown apart. And that’s something I’d rather confine to the movies.

+ An education

A couple of clicks was all it took to sign up for my first MOOC. Over the next seven weeks I’ll be brushing up on my rudimentary knowledge of philosophy via a series of online lectures, delivered by a University of Edinburgh lecturer. It’s one of a growing number of massively open online courses run by companies like Coursera, edX and Udacity, who’ve partnered with some of the world’s leading higher education institutions to deliver free lectures to anyone, anywhere, over the internet.

As it now costs roughly as much to attend university as it does to put a deposit down on a house, MOOCs offer people who want to learn, but don’t have deep pockets or wealthy parents, the chance to benefit from a course from a top HE institution. They might also act as a taster of a full-time, real-world course, perhaps convincing someone that a BA or MA is worth the debt after all. 

Given that the entry requirements and cost of taking a MOOC are nil, it’s fair to say they are a truly democratic form of education. It doesn’t matter if you went to Eton or a bog standard comp – everyone is welcome to participate, with no fear of failure or penalty for dropping out halfway though. Granted, you don’t walk (or click) away with a qualification. But for me that has never been the sole purpose of education.

Between MOOCs and the wealth of free e-books available online, one can learn about almost any subject imaginable without leaving the house. In the case of the Kindle, an initial outlay of £69 will purchase you the cheapest model, and access to hundreds of free books by authors ranging from Seneca and Plato to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens (Project Gutenberg also allows you to read these classics for free without purchasing an e-reader). 

Personally, I still find it astounding that when I hold my Kindle, I’m holding a good chunk of the Western Canon in my hand. And now that our libraries are under threat from coalition cuts, such devices could, in future, be the only way for many people to access humanity’s inheritance, the great works that belong to us all. 

Here’s a thought: why doesn’t the government buy a Kindle for every child in the country whose parent’s can’t afford to do so, and pre-load it with classic e-books? I appreciate this wouldn’t be cheap, and that it is unlikely to happen in the current economic climate. But what better way to give every learner access to the kind of texts that many privately educated and middle-class pupils are introduced to as a matter of course.

The other beauty of this policy is that no one would be able to tell what these kids are reading. For many state school children, whipping out a physical copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in the playground is tantamount to strolling up to a bully and announcing: ‘I’m a nerd. Please beat me.’ At home, they might receive a sneering ‘What d’you wanna read that for?’ from a parent who sees education as the preserve of hoity-toity broadsheet-reading wrong ‘uns. But with a Kindle, the knuckle-draggers are left in the dark whilst the child is enlightened.

Whether you’re young or old, education can dramatically improve your life. However, the traditional path to knowledge – a university degree – seems to have narrowed considerably since I graduated, with many students now unwilling or unable to pay tens of thousands of pounds for a degree that offers no guarantee of employment or top-quality teaching. But thanks to the web we can now pursue our passions, or learn about complex topics, for the price of a broadband connection. 

It remains to be seen whether the higher education sector can adapt to these changes, and if the desire for real-world interaction with other students and lectures will retain its appeal. If not, HE might soon be facing the same problems that have plunged the media, music and movie industries into turmoil. Because once people can access your product for free online, you’ll have a hard time charging them for it. 

+ Hi! I’m a blog post about anthropomorphic advertising

Yesterday I received a parcel in the post. A book I’d ordered online, one of those novels you read a review of and suddenly crave, that immediately leap to the front of your mental reading list. After I’d skipped back upstairs to my flat, still giddy from the dopamine hit that comes free with every home delivery, I glanced at the box. And the box said: ‘So what are we going to do now?’

Or rather, the text on the side of the box read: “So what are we going to do now?” And I thought: “Well, I’m probably going to tear you to pieces and throw you in the recycling bin. How does that sound?” I took the box’s silence as implicit approval of my idea. A minute later it lay in pieces on the floor.

That’s not the end of this story though. Oh no. I have a confession to make: I enjoyed ripping that box to pieces. The loud FRRWWRRPPP! as my hands tore the cardboard asunder felt cathartic, satisfying. Why? Because I’m sick of anthropomorphic marketing. Killing the talking box felt good.

Anthropomorphic marketing has been around for a long time. The practice of imbuing inanimate objects with human characteristics dates back to the dawn of humanity, and in advertising circles, around the time some twisted Don Draper type realised companies’ could shift more of their products if consumers perceived said products as ‘cute’ or ‘friendly’. Kind of like a pet you can clean your carpet with or drive to work in.

Hence Henry the Hoover. Hence the Ford Ka and the Volkswagen Beetle. Lately, however, the practice of anthropomorphising products seems to have gone into overdrive. Does a cardboard box, an object that, unless you’re under the age of five, is about as dull and utilitarian as it gets, really need this kind of treatment? 

Then there are the rows of smoothies and snack pots in the local supermarket. You turn them over to check the price and they start talking to you: “Hi, I’m a super healthy health drink! One of your five a day! When you’ve finished me, why not turn me into a handy shoe horn?” Which begs the response: “Umm, no. I don’t think I will actually. Please go away now.”

A recent series of British Airways adverts took things one stage further, explaining that customers on their flights will benefit from a “friendly lemon”, “happy jumper” and shoes that can take a “relaxing stroll” along the aisle. I’ll repeat that: a “friendly lemon”, a “happy jumper” and shoes that can take a “relaxing stroll”. Seriously? I mean if lemons did have personalities, they certainly wouldn’t be friendly. They’d be bitter.

Technology companies are particularly keen on anthropomorphising their products. It’s almost a fetish, this desire to position the latest smartphone or tablet as not only as a shiny new toy, but also your new best friend. As evidence, I present the toe-curlingly twee (and slightly creepy) advert for the Samsung Galaxy S3, a phone which apparently “watches your every move”. In other words it’s the Sting of smartphones.

Apple is the master of this type of advertising. Each new iMustHave is introduced as if it were a prospective partner, the emphasis on how much slimmer, smarter and sexier it is than your existing one. At this rate the iPad 5 will come with it’s own cologne and a kinky bedroom cover that leaves its home button exposed.

When anthropomorphism is used skilfully and sparingly – in movies or books, say – I don’t really have a problem with it (without it there would be no Toy Story, no Animal Farm). But when it’s used to market products it simply becomes twee and annoying – frankly, I don’t want to engage on a human level with a piece of packaging. So, cardboard boxes, let this be a warning to you: the next one of you that talks, gets it. Don’t believe me? Just take a look in my recycling bin.

+ Game over?

Can you appreciate video games without actually playing them? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’ve barely played a game in the past couple of months, you see. The last blockbuster title I shelled out for was Mass Effect 3, a game I’d been eagerly anticipating. I loved the first installment in the series; the second is one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had. But the third? Yes, it’s well-made. It’s prettier than a sunset in the Garden of Eden. There are lots of big set-piece moments. And it’s technically just as good as the preceding game in the series; better in many ways. But you know what? I just can’t be bothered to play the damn thing.

The only game I’ve found truly compelling recently is Journey. Its beautiful artwork, sweeping score and simple, explorative gameplay reminded me of classic PS2 titles like Shadow of the Colossus and Ico. It’s the sort of game that even non-gamers can appreciate. The sort of game that reminds you why you still play games, why you think they have the potential to be one of the 21st century’s great art forms. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

I played it in one sitting, completing it in a little over three hours. In Goldilocks terminology, the length felt just right: not too long, not too short. Mainstream games, on the other hand, often seem ridiculously bloated. Take Skyrim for example. I don’t know exactly how long it takes to complete (and even then the term must be used loosely – open world games never really end), but from what I’ve heard, around 30 hours is normal for the main quest. Some people have poured hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into the game. It’s very good; I enjoyed playing it for a while. But it’s not hundreds of hours of my life good.

Spending that sort of time roaming around a virtual world, hacking up dragons and lipping off various sub-Tolkien characters is fine if you’re a teenager, a student who’s happy to walk away from university with a third, an unemployed person, etc. But if you have a full-time job, a social life, partner and other interests outside of video games, grinding away at an RPG game for hours on end every night, simply so you can say you’ve finished it, just doesn’t seem all that appealing. At least not to me.

A perfectly crafted game that lasts a little longer than you average film, and costs roughly the same amount to buy – that’s the sort of thing I’m keen to play these days. But there’s a problem: there aren’t many games like that around. Yes, the indie gaming scene tosses out the odd gem; there are some better than average titles like Deadlight available on Xbox Live Arcade too. But once you’ve blitzed through these, it seems like you often have to wait weeks, if not months, for a game of similar quality to appear.

During such droughts I often give one of my half-completed blockbuster games another whirl, just to see if I can rekindle a bit of interest in playing it. Generally, I can’t. Why not? Well, aside from my aforementioned gripe about the length of these games, I also find I’m quickly reminded of the things that made me put down the controller in the first place.

Absurd plots, weak characterisation and a gleeful obsession with crude violence: ten minutes exposure to any one of these common video game tropes and I’m yawning and reaching for the off button. See while I like to think I’ve grown up a bit over the past twenty years, most games haven’t. They’re like thirty-somethings who still dress and act like teenagers. Video game dialogue is laughably poor, even in supposedly ‘grown up’ games like the Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted titles. Yet even if Assassin’s Creed II featured writing on a par with Chinatown or Wolf Hall, it would still seem silly in comparison thanks to its relentless focus on murdering people in a variety of acrobatic ways. 

There’s a place for dumb entertainment of course. I’m not saying all games should aim to be the Xbox equivalent of Ulysses. But gamers who’ve grown tired of forking out fifty quid just to shoot things in the face over and over again will eventually drift away from the medium, leaving it stuck in an adolescent rut.

Some indie games also suffer from arrested development, relying on old tropes like zombies and 8-bit visuals in order to secure a broad appeal. I can understand the reasoning – a game costs a lot of time and money to develop, and its success of failure can make or break an indie studio. But a little more originality in both indie and mainstream development wouldn’t go amiss.

At the moment my own interest in gaming is being kept alive by the drip feed of original and compelling titles like Journey. While playing them, it’s easy to believe that games which bear comparison to the best works of film and literature will appear in future. The huge interest in OUYA, a cheap Android-based games console that recently attracted over $8.5 million of funding on Kickstarter, also seems to suggest that many gamers are hungry for something other than the cheap thrills of your average shooter or racing game. Let’s hope the games industry is taking note.

Managed to catch this at the BFI recently. Beautifully acted, and filmed in glorious Technicolor. 

Managed to catch this at the BFI recently. Beautifully acted, and filmed in glorious Technicolor. 

(Source: caramelsandkerosene)

+ Androids might dream of electric sheep, but why do some young men dream of virtual women?

In the film Weird Science two nerdy high school kids attempt to create an artificial woman with the help of a voodoo barbie doll and a computer less powerful than an iPad’s fart. Miraculously it works. 

Now, almost thirty years later, fiction has become reality. Sort of. A YouTube video posted last week appears to show a man going on a ‘date’ with an augmented reality version of the animated pop star Hatsune Miku. After a walk in the park he wallops her on the head a few times, plays with her tie for a bit and attempts to lift up her skirt and fondle her virtual breasts. What a charmer.

To give life to the Miku character, this modern day Dr. Frankenstein fused a Kinect with a pair of VR goggles. The technology itself is impressive, allowing man to interact with his doe-eyed anime monster in a variety of ways. But the fact that all this effort has been expended so that someone can grope a hologram is depressing.

As Roland Kelts writes in his Guardian article on drooping libido levels among Japanese men, a small but significant minority seem to find the “demands of real-world relationships” less enticing than a virtual romance. Loneliness, an extended adolescence and the increasing socioeconomic power of Japanese women appear to be driving them into the arms of pixelated phantoms. Real girls, it seems, are just too much hassle.

The female characters in Love Plus, a series of dating games for the Nintendo DS, have, until now, been the focus of these young men’s affections. Players pick one of three school girls to date, who then flirt with them, offer to ‘hold hands’ and get cross if their beau is late for a rendezvous with their console. In other words, they’re Tamagotchis with vital statistics. 

Although Love Plus is very much a Japanese craze, the fetishisation of digital women isn’t confined the Far East. A survey carried out last year by the Portman Clinic found that a quarter of UK men aged 18-24 are worried about the amount of pornography they consume online. Four per cent of those questioned said they spent more than 10 hours a week on adult websites – a level that some doctors describe as problematic and potentially compulsive.

It’s this minority of heavy users of pornography that are most at risk of emulating Love Plus fanatics. Flesh and blood women are shunned in favour of a date with a laptop and a box of man-sized tissues. The online sexual supermarket, with its endless supply of new videos, seems precision engineered to encourage return visits. Real relationships, with all their complications and compromises, struggle to compete with the instant gratification porn provides.

The atomisation of Western society could also be driving people into the arms of digital mistresses, be they anime characters or porn stars. When people spend an excessive amount of time alone, eyeballs glued to a screen, their emotional literacy is bound to suffer. It’s therefore hardly surprising that some young men are more comfortable with the relationship equivalent of a flick book.

Google’s recently announced Project Glass will make it easier for people to date virtual partners in future. This hands-free, head-mounted display overlays the world with the kind of data you might see on your smartphone screen, including, theoretically, an augmented reality lover. It’s effectively a sleeker, more advanced version of the device cobbled together by the man who inspired this article. 

But perhaps the men in thrall to digital caricatures of real women will eventually grow out of their obsession. After all, a female simulacrum can’t hope to offer the kind of emotional support that sustains and enriches most relationships over the years. Kelly LeBrock appears to realise as much toward the end of Weird Science. When her teenage creators announce that they’ve fallen for real girls their own age, she simply replies: “That’s all I ever wanted for you.”

Currently reading

Currently reading

Left, Right and Centre (1959). Ian Carmichael, Alistair Sim and Patricia Bredin star in this British political comedy. Great fun.

Left, Right and Centre (1959). Ian Carmichael, Alistair Sim and Patricia Bredin star in this British political comedy. Great fun.