By Hand & Brain: Essays on Making & Culture

Through Russell Davies I found By Hand & Brain, a series of essays by the great and good (not always the same people) of future thinking and making, vaguely on the subject of “how does it feel to be living and making things now”? They’re all worth reading in their entirety, but here’s a list with a personal highlight of each.

Laura Potter writes about the power of the act of making, and I think this quote also tangientally applies to writing:

The ability to articulate your thoughts through and with matter, rather than just make it into a shape you have thought of, means that you are more likely to find innovative or creative ways to exploit both materials and machinery.

Alice Taylor also writes about making, and this quote really struck me, because the majority of things I’ve made are also gone:

Digital things are far more temporal, transitive; all my digital creations from pre 2000 have disappeared, gone, never to be seen again. That’s a weird feeling.

Bruce Sterling is a little more dismissive of the maker movement, or rather in its role in changing culture:

I’m unclear on how we’re supposed to get by through the almighty power of pecha-kucha hackerspaces. I see zillions of those and they’re groovy, but they don’t reap wheat or change diapers; there’s something creepy and flimsy about them — “favela chic”.

Warren Ellis underlines something I’m really interested in, the idea that modern culture is really not that unique, and that we ignore historical manifestations of our behaviour:

Sometimes I wonder if (Western) culture only works if we have this weird cultural amnesia that allows us to believe that we’re doing everything right this time. We forget all the other periods where people thought the same thing.

And William Gibson points out that we’re probably not the best people to talk about our culture:

We can’t see our culture very well, because we see with it.

No offence intended to Rod McLaren who also wrote an excellent piece, it just didn’t have an eminently quotable sentence.

The BBC and the C of E

Peter Oborne’s very good and robust, albeit slightly meandering, defence of the BBC has a quite lovely quote on the organisation’s importance from Lord Reith, its founder:

It does not matter how many thousands there may be listening. There is always enough for others. It is the reversal of the natural law, that the more one takes, the less there is for others.

Elsewhere Oborne himself provides a very succinct description of why I believe the BBC is so important – because it’s:

[A] public domain: that common space, open to all, which is independent of both the state and the marketplace.

I think that, in a slightly obtuse and not fully considered way, this is also why I like churches, despite having no belief whatsoever in a deity. A church is a building, away from your home, that you can go into without having to buy anything, or indeed without having any specific purpose at all. It’s a space of being. Should the Church of England as an entity close down tomorrow, I’d campaign as hard to keep churches as public domains as I will to keep the BBC one.


The limits of batteries, and how they will improve

I was recently asked a question about battery life in modern devices, and coincidentally I’ve been reading a few articles about interesting developments in battery technology. So here’s a post giving a very superficial introduction to batteries in modern consumer electronics.

Technology is being held back because we can’t make better batteries. Ten years ago a mobile phone handset might have lasted a week on a full charge, while your new smartphone doesn’t even last an entire day; this is because your phone is capable of doing so much more thanks to the fact that everything about it has got smaller and more powerful in recent years – except for the battery.

The general principle is that the bigger a battery is, the more charge it holds. That’s why your tablet can keep a charge for days, whereas your phone needs a daily charge. But phones have a limit imposed by their portability – carrying a heavy battery around would make it longer-lasting, but much less useful.

The Lithium-ion battery, invented in 1991 and used in the majority of portable consumer electronics, is about as good as it gets at the moment. Even Tesla’s cars (and recently announced home battery) run on Li-ion batteries, albeit thousands of them in a larger battery case.

Manufacturers are getting very good at squeezing performance increases from Li-ion, but major improvements aren’t happening. The next step is not to make Li-ion batteries better, but to make them cheaper. Tesla are building a huge new factory that will more than double worldwide production of Li-ion, and although all of those will go into their own products, the net effect should be cheaper batteries overall (they estimate a 30% reduction). New startup 24M have also announced that they’ve reinvented the manufacturing process to cut development time by 80%, and costs by 50% (they claim performance benefits too, but these have yet to be quantified).

A promising new entrant to the arena is Sakti3, who claim to have invented a new solid state battery that can store twice as much energy as the Li-ion. The battery is currently only at prototype stage, but they recently received a large investment from Dyson to bring it into production.

In any case, it will take a few years for these new developments to come to market, so don’t expect your smartphone to get cheaper, lighter, or to hold a charge longer, any time in the near future.


Time to put nostalgia in the past

I don’t believe it’s contentious to say that we live in a culture that loves to look back. In fashion, the ’80s revival – the second (at least) in living memory – has been quickly followed by a ’90s revival (ditto). In cinema we have films based on 1960s superhero comics and popular childhood games franchises like Battleships or Rampage. In music bands like Tame Impala are unselfconsciously modelled on ’70s rock while young artists such as Jamie XX make music that’s soaked in nostalgia for a time they surely can’t remember.

Recently Cennydd Bowles, after watching the band Godspeed! You Black Emperor, was driven to write this:

I’m tired of bygone-era fetishisation. What would a futurist Godspeed sound like? A band of similar scope but a palette more RGB than sepia? I’d be more interested by a Godspeed whose visuals would be drones/VR/scarcity rather than film strips/manuscripts/burned buildings. Is anyone making music that asks legitimate questions about the future, rather than the past or present?

The filmmaker Adam Curtis has a theory that our culture is static, that there is no progression in the popular arts and media, which he expounds very neatly in an interview with New Statesman:

All culture always goes back and feeds off the past, it can’t help it, but there are two ways of doing it. Either you can go back and get inspiration from the past and create something genuinely new, which is the whole history of all sorts of things – not just art and music. What bothers me at the moment is that you get a very different sense out of pop culture, which is that it is literally like a form of archaeology.

It should be noted that I’m not against referencing history – I strongly believe that we can use history to provide more context about modern society. What I’m explicitly deploring is nostalgia – because, as David Denby says in Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?:

Nostalgia is history altered through sentiment.

This idea of pop culture’s slavish devotion to the past heavily informs Laura Hudson’s review of Ernest Cline’s Armada, his ’80s-referencing follow-up to his ’80s-referencing best-selling debut:

Do we want to tell stories that make sense of the things we used to love, that help us remember the reasons we were so drawn to them, and create new works that inspire that level of devotion? Or do we simply want to hear the litany of our childhood repeated back to us like an endless lullaby for the rest of our lives?

This is the important part: “create new works”. What Cennydd and Adam and Laura all make clear is that to make an interesting future we need to actually think about the future. To further quote from the David Denby piece:

What’s necessary for survival is not nostalgia, but defiance.