The World According to Will Self

Author Will Self is a man of many talents, but chief amongst them is his ability to eloquently speak on everything from sports to the Unabomber. We heard from the man himself at FutureFest earlier this year, and here’s what he had to say...

Will Self on Sports

All those poor athletes working to win gold medals, what must they feel when they look back on a life. It’s not that I’m anti-sport or anything; you may notice that I’m extremely fit.

Richard Ford wrote a book called The Sportswriter and he made the observation, it’s perhaps a little unfair but it’s so obvious, if you are a really committed sportsperson you basically do the same thing over and over again for years. Usain Bolt just goes running up and down, like a rat frankly, over and over and over again. That’s not terribly playful.

Competitive sport has become our paradigm for play and for fun, and it’s no fun and it’s not playing

There’s a certain degree of labour to playing nowadays. I think competitive sport best exemplifies this. I was very struck by all of the interviews that the athletes gave during the Olympics. They’d all worked so hard to be there. They’d worked for four years, since the last Olympics, so they could play, and when they lost they moaned and wept and kvetched and tore out their remaining hair about how hard they’d worked to play. Silly people. I think competitive sport has become our paradigm for play and for fun, and it’s no fun and it’s not playing.

When we’re not agonising over all the work we have to do to compete in the Olympics, we’re on our way to work playing Candy Crush; fitting in a little bit of anesthes, a little bit of brain deadidness before the day’s task begins. I think what computer games offer us is the kind of flow state that sportsmen describe, but we experience in all sorts of aspects of our working lives, which is having a skill that we’re super good at so we can do it without really thinking, so we’re doing something but we’re daydreaming. We seem to find this playful, but again I venture to suggest to you that it’s nothing of the sort. It’s scheduled. It isn’t fun. It’s shit.

Will Self on architecture

One of my favourite views in contemporary London is to walk down Borough High Street from Elephant and Castle, and as you come down Borough High Street you’ll see Irvine Sellar and Renzo Piano’s magnificent Shard building lifting off into the heavens. What could be a more Promethean sign of the desire of London property developers to cash-in on international flight capital than the Shard.

At a certain point on Borough High Street you will see that St Georges the Church is completely framed, its spire is framed by the façade of the Shard. St Georges, near contemporary of the Hawksmoor Church, was built in the early 1800s. I’m quite confident that it will be there after the Shard has gone.

A lot of the big buildings that have gone up in the city recently have 75 to 100-year spans; they’re like giant tents that are being erected for a festival of capitalism that will be over quite shortly, no need to worry about that. But probably the church will still be there, so what the city presents us with this is this radical series of temporal disjunctions, different timescales of buildings and beings moving about among the buildings.

Will Self on travel

I got obsessed by the idea, probably because I put my phone on airport mode so much, of walking to airports. So I stated off walking to Heathrow. London is in indeed one of the greenest cities we know, and you can walk all the way from central London to Heathrow terminal 5 only doing 2 miles on public roads. It’s a lovely bucolic walk.

If you do walk to an airport, fly and then walk from the other end you essentially reconfigure the entire world in terms of your individual awareness simply by that act alone

Then, fly to JFK in New York and walk from JFK to Manhattan. It’s about the same distance unsurprisingly. It’s two days walk, and if you time it right you’ve literally got two days walking. When I did it for the first time I arrived at my hotel in lower Manhattan and I was pretty tired, and my head said to my body ‘that was pretty tiring body, two-days walking and that plane flight in between’, my body said ‘what plane flight? You’ve been walking for two days, we must be on a continuous land mass’. It really felt – my extraception, my proprioception, my awareness told me that Long Island sound had been savagely penetrated by the Isle of Grain and that London and New York had become a continuous built-up area.

Think about it, just in terms of evolutionary psychology your body’s awareness of movement through space is far more deeply programmed than your conceptual awareness of the reality of international flight. We just don’t really know what we’re doing when we’re sitting on the plane playing Candy Crush; we cannot register the movement of the plane through the air. It’s just a jump cut. But if you do walk to an airport, fly and then walk from the other end you essentially reconfigure the entire world in terms of your individual awareness simply by that act alone.

Will Self on literature

In one of perhaps the most famous stories of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, people agonise a lot about what it means when the guy transforms into an enormous bug. But if you look at the story again it’s very important that it starts with Gregor Samsa, the poor downtrodden salesman being late for work.

His state of metamorphosis is introduced by the failure of his alarm clock to go off, and really the metamorphosis of Kafka’s story is someone resiling from industrial time. Really what he gets up to, poor old Gregor Samsa once he’s turned into a bug, is a kind of playing, a sort of awful playtime once he is removed from this zone of complete calibration of industrial time.

Will Self on dating

There’s a great fetishisation in our culture of the notion of individuality, even something like a website or an app like Tinder or Grindr that introduces you to other bodies than you can violently perform congruous with is presented as something that is to do with your individuality.

You’re matching a set of unique characteristics to another set so they fit like Lego blocks. But are you really so unique? I don’t think so; I don’t think I am either actually.

Will Self on work

When I take a contract to write a novel I’m basically saying to the publisher: ‘I’m going to invent a world in the next year’. What could be more vertiginous than that; that’s an extremely scary feeling. If I look at some of my heroes and their extreme playfulness: Philip Petit, who walked the tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974, or to my way of thinking the great prisoner of consciousness of our age in contemporary Britain, Stephen Gough, who’s been in jail for many, many years simply because he wants to walk around the place naked, that’s profound ilinx; that’s profound vertigo.

You might think of Stephen Gough’s life as a miserable and wasted life, but I bet it isn’t. I know it isn’t because he’s engaged in and he’s understood that play lies at the core of existence and particularly in the contemporary world where our opportunities and range of modalities available for play is so absent. I want you to experience vertigo. I want you to teeter on the edge and I want you to evade situations of pre-programmed play because I think they’re deathly.

Will Self on playing


Image courtesy of Ian McGowan. Featured image courtesy of Valerie Bennett

I think that people’s idea of what play is has become very, very distorted and crushed, kind-of Candy Crushed really. Play has become something to be inserted into people’s lives, to be programmed, to be fitted into a timetable, into a schedule. My idea of play is that playing should be fun. You should experience fun.

What is fun? It’s kind-of hard to define, but one thing I think we can agree with about fun is if you think about when you were a child and you played, you remember those eternal summer evenings the gloaming gilding the tips of the trees, do you remember the fact that you lost track of time?

When you have fun, fun is a quintessential atemporal experience: you lose contact with how old you are. You’re having fun with your children; you become a child with them. You’re having fun when you are a child you aren’t conscious of being childlike anymore, and yet most of the kinds of play we’re currently involved in are far from being atemporal.

Will Self on politics and religion

Some people say that, of course, all of life is a game, and actually our ideas of play and fun support the notion that all of life is a game. A very simple way of looking at the right-left declivity in politics is that those on the right think that in the game of life the winner takes all and those on the left think the game of life can be a zero-sum game, everybody will gain.

We really are the lab rats that we’ve created. We enjoy nothing more than having a definite objective to aim towards

People who have a Judeo-Christian worldview think that they have to work all their lives and then when they die they go to a special playground where they play forever, and the fact that it’s forever is very, very strong and suggestive. That forever is an atemporal period. It’s a fun space heaven in which it’s always that lovely childhood in which you’re playing in the gloaming. People on the left, Marxists, they also believe that eventually society through work will arrive at a state of complete play. That’s what the communist utopia is; it’s a kind of secular version of heaven.

Remember the famous lines from Marx’s Capitol: ‘after the revolution a man will fish in the morning and write poetry in the afternoon’. The key factor here is the abolition of work of course. Work and play are seen as antithetical. We don’t want to work we want to play, but every single survey, psychological, sociological it doesn’t matter what angle you come at it from, leads you to the conclusion that people love work and hate play. People are never more unhappy than when they’re on holiday. Every single survey shows this. We really are the lab rats that we’ve created. We enjoy nothing more than having a definite objective to aim towards.

Will Self on the Unabomber’s work

Think about the poor-old Unabomber out in his hut in Montana whittling bomb parts for 25 years so that he can destroy the technocratic world. It looks awfully like hard work to me. It looks like very hard work being a survivalist and going off the grid.

It looks like you’d have to concentrate on it a lot, and you’d have to take it profoundly seriously. It’s not a lot of fun is it? It’s certainly not atemporal. Probably all the time the Unabomber was making his bombs, whittling away at his little bit of wood, he was checking his watch. Was he going to have enough time, 20, 30 years, to get it all done?

Will Self on death

You aren’t going to live forever. I always like the headline in the US satire mag The Onion ‘World death rate holds steady at 100%’. I spoke to a group of GPs for an NHS thing about a year ago, and I came out with that line, and a horrible bumfluffy doctor at the back stuck his hand up and said: ‘Actually that’s not strictly true because you haven’t taken into account all the people who are alive at the moment who might not die’. And that was a GP.

factor-archive-30It does slightly describe the kind of derangement of our culture; we’ve taken our ability to present ourselves electronically and digitally with a permanent now and arrogated that to our idea of heaven. If we’re on the left we’ve arrogated it to our idea of the communist utopia, and we think we’re going to play there, but we’re not going to be playing there. We’re only going to be playing Candy Crush.

XPRIZE launches contest to build remote-controlled robot avatars

Prize fund XPRIZE and All Nippon Airways are offering $10 million reward to research teas who develop tech that eliminates the need to physically travel. The initial idea is that instead of plane travel, people could use goggles, ear phones and haptic tech to control a humanoid robot and experience different locations.

Source: Tech Crunch

NASA reveals plans for huge spacecraft to blow up asteroids

NASA has revealed plans for a huge nuclear spacecraft capable of shunting or blowing up an asteroid if it was on course to wipe out life on Earth. The agency published details of its Hammer deterrent, which is an eight tonne spaceship capable of deflecting a giant space rock.

Source: The Telegraph

Sierra Leone hosts the world’s first blockchain-powered elections

Sierra Leone recorded votes in its recent election to a blockchain. The tech, anonymously stored votes in an immutable ledger, thereby offering instant access to the election results. “This is the first time a government election is using blockchain technology,” said Leonardo Gammar of Agora, the company behind the technology.

Source: Quartz

AI-powered robot shoots perfect free throws

Japanese news agency Asahi Shimbun has reported on a AI-powered robot that shoots perfect free throws in a game of basketball. The robot was training by repeating shots, up to 12 feet from the hoop, 200,000 times, and its developers said it can hit these close shots with almost perfect accuracy.

Source: Motherboard

Russia accused of engineering cyberattacks by the US

Russia has been accused of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted critical infrastructure in America and Europe, which could have sabotaged or shut down power plants. US officials and private security firms claim the attacks are a signal by Russia that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities.

Google founder Larry Page unveils self-flying air taxi

A firm funded by Google founder Larry Page has unveiled an electric, self-flying air taxi that can travel at up to 180 km/h (110mph). The taxi takes off and lands vertically, and can do 100 km on a single charge. It will eventually be available to customers as a service "similar to an airline or a rideshare".

Source: BBC

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”