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.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.