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

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.

Elon Musk isn't so keen on flying cars

"Obviously, I like flying things, but it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution,” Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you.”

Source: Bloomberg

Is the woolly mammoth about to come back from extinction?

Scientists from Harvard University say they are just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant. The embryo would essentially grow to be an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.

Source: The Guardian

Congress is repeatedly warned NASA’s exploration plans aren’t sustainable

An expert panel has wanred that while NASA might have some of the right tools to launch and fly to destinations in deep space, it doesn't have the resources to land on the Moon, to build a base there or to fly humans to the surface of Mars.

Source: Ars Technica

IMAX unveils first virtual reality center

The IMAX VR center, which opened this week, houses 14 different pods, each containing different VR experiences that allow users to temporarily escape real life. One of the pods takes users to the desert planet of Tatooine, which will be familiar to Star Wars fans.

Source: Variety

Could Alexa be forced to testify in an Arkansas murder trial?

A trial is about to begin over the mysterious death of a former police officer at a home in Bentonville, Arkansas. The case is significant because it could help decide whether prosecutors should be allowed to subpoena a virtual assistant.

Source: VICE

Dwarf planet Ceres emerges as a place to look for life in the solar system

Pockets of carbon-based organic compounds have been found on the surface of Ceres. The identity of the tar-like minerals have't been precisely identified, but their mineral fingerprints match the make-up of kerite or asphaltite.

Source: New Scientist

Beyond biomimicry: Scientists find better-than-nature run style for six-legged robots

Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”