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.