#bordertown: The Canonical City

Paul Raven @ 26-09-2011

“We all like to congregate at boundary conditions. Where land meets water. Where earth meets air. Where bodies meet mind. Where space meets time. We like to be on one side, and look at the other” – Douglas Adams


Perhaps the concept of the border goes right back to the most basic bits of biology. Imagine yourself in the primordial soup of a young Earth, and look around: barring the physical limits of the sea itself as it thrashes against rocks (which in this instance counts as the edge of the perceivable universe, beyond which is beyond imagining), the only walls you can see are the cell membranes of the crudest lifeforms, each tiny critter an independent fiefdom of security and gathered resources, a little living city-state. And even here, even this early, we see the necessity of border permeability; food must be brought into the city for it to survive, so the walls must allow for that passage, as well as for the expulsion of the toxic and unwanted.

Some evolutionary biologists hypothesise that the earliest stages of single-celled life consisted of symbiotic mergers. It might well be that mitochondria and chloroplasts were originally independent bacterial lifeforms that finagled themselves through the walls and into the security of one of those little city-states, wherein they discovered that their own unique abilities would improve the lot of their adopted home; there we have the hopeful narrative of the economic migrant, born before even the first multicellular lifeforms.

Chloroplast 12000x

And what a border the surface of the sea must have been to the first creatures to contemplate it – as challenging, unassailable and inhospitable as the border between the atmospheric envelope of Earth and outer space seems to us now, if not more so. We’re drawn to borders, challenged by them, inspired or intimidated by them. They are a function of our sense of identity, a mapping of ourselves onto the world around us. We understand their necessity, and yet we dream of transgression, of the meadow on the far side; the grass is always greener in the other guy’s stash.

The work of British science fiction author Chris Beckett is full of explorations of that contradictory tension between manning the city walls and sneaking through the postern gate, in either direction (because to leave the city is only to enter another territory). As climate change, post-growth economics and the inevitable evisceration of the nation-state make a mockery of map and territory alike, the questions he asks will only become more relevant.*


Given its harrowing history, it seems almost inconceivable that you could meet a Berliner who resented the loss of the Wall. And while no one but a last lingering few folk with a hard-on for the authoritarianism of the past (so much less subtle and velvet-gloved than that of today) would ever wish for a return to the oppression and hypocrisy that the Wall symbolised and enforced, it doesn’t take a long stay in that fine city for you to encounter the symptoms of a nostalgia for division. It’s probably clearest (and most commercially viable) at the level of aesthetics; there was a successful campaign to resist the replacement of East Berlin’s distinctive Ampelmännchen walk/don’t-walk signage characters, for instance, and – much as in any major city – the tourism industry makes money from tying ribbons around things dug up from the boneyard of the not-so-distant past. Sepia photography, the patina of age… these things have an authenticity that we find to be rare in the altermodern swirl of our mediated lives, an authenticity we seek to overlay on our experiences here at the cutting edge of time.

Conrad Schumann

(I can get an infinitely reproducible copy [reproduced from Wikipedia under Fair Use terms; please contact for takedown if required] of the iconic shot of Conrad Schumann leaping the checkpoint barricade within seconds of googling for it, but the symbolic buttons it presses get pressed much harder when one buys it as a postcard from a shop on Unter den Linden before sitting down among the glistening new constructions of Potsdamer Platz 2.0 to scribble a suitable message on it and send it to a friend back home. Geography has a residual emotional power, even when we think it doesn’t, or shouldn’t… and time is just another dimension of the map.)

But I encountered a different, deeper sense of loss among the Berliners I met – a contradictory thing that baffled (and sometimes angered) people as they tried to explain it to me across the pocked no-man’s-land between our native languages. We shouldn’t discount the possibility that I have misinterpreted what I was being told, of course, but the sense I got was that while no one misses the cruel and arbitrary physical schism of the city, they miss the sense of unity that the schism gave them. Berlin was once united in its hatred of the Wall; as such the Wall became a huge part of Berlin’s sense of identity. The euphoria that accompanied its dismantling is long gone, leaving behind the unscratchable itch of a once-hated phantom limb. Formerly united by their division, Berliners are now divided in their responses to their unity; their discussions of contemporary civic politics now include the same gripes about zoning, gentrification, class and race as any other big European city, but there’s always an underlying sense that, even if the Wall was a horror, it at least made things simple: you always knew where you stood, even if you didn’t necessarily want to be stood there.

Graffiti on the Berlin "death strip"


China Miéville’s novel The City & The City reminded readers of Berlin, the Gaza Strip, and many other brutally divided territories, past and present; indeed, the ease with which the book could map onto the politics of postmodernity is a testament to Mieville’s powerful command of metaphor. But there is a crucial difference: Miéville’s twin cities share the same physical space, and for the most part there is no physical or material obstacle between one city and the other. Indeed, the mapping of the two cities – and the necessity of unseeing the city that you do not belong to, and all the people in it, despite them sharing the street or building or park with you – is entirely the work of the citizens themselves. Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, at least in the crudest architectural sense, but their mutual invisibility is rigorously policed and enforced.

Miéville strongly yet politely resists attempts to canonise any single reading or interpretation of his books, but given the inescapable facts of his staunchly Marxist politics and life-long love for England’s ancient capital city, we can make an interesting case for TC&TC as a model of a schismatic London – the same class-riven metropolis that erupted in riots earlier this year. (I can’t take credit for that interpretation, though it was astonishingly obvious in hindsight after I saw it made by Owen Hatherley, who himself saw it made by a commenter elsewhere.)

Anti-cuts Riot in London

As Hatherley and others have noted, Paris has long had “no-go” underclass neighbourhoods prone to violent car-burning unrest, but they are geographical outliers, their inmates unable to easily attack anything other than the squalor that surrounds them. For more reasons than one could ever list – historical, political, economic – London is marbled with strata of class, the privileged living cheek-by-jowl with the poor. Physical borders would be impractical, expensive… and so Londoners soon learn to unsee those places and citizens who do not belong to their own city. (The same doubtless applies to many British cities, including my own hometown of Portsmouth, which has been so often described as a Northern industrial city that somehow ended up in the South that no one knows who said it first; I dare say it applies in many other countries, too. We’ll notice which ones, soon enough; keep an eye on the headlines.)

There are streets you don’t walk, shops you don’t use, pubs you don’t drink in, people you don’t acknowledge; the borders are powerful, and they cascade down to the scale of individual citizens in fractal complexity, but they only exist only in the collective, by an unspoken consensus. When enough decide to abandon or defy that consensus, a liberating permeability offers itself, and the underlying fragility of the city-as-system is laid bare, its viscera exposed, twitching in the dirt of the street like the victim of a Ballardian mugging. Within the city are many cities, interwoven or entangled, sometimes at detente, sometimes at war; an organism so complex and poorly understood that, as medicines for the body civic, contemporary politics and economics look little more rational than leeching and the balancing of bodily humours. If we have a long-term future as a species, the city will be an ever-larger part thereof; its diseases must be studied, lest we treat only the symptoms while we watch the patient die.



Cats are territorial animals, but their conception of territory is four-dimensional. Where a dog works on the theory that its back yard is always its back yard, accessible only to pack-mates (of whatever species, honorary or otherwise), cats make allowances for their greater ability to get past physical obstacles by timesharing their favourite locations. That spot on the corner of the garage roof might be a young tom’s turf until the midday sun makes it more desirable, at which point it becomes the fiefdom of the local bruiser; as the sun moves on, so does the boss, and the residual warmth gets soaked up by someone else; then, at 3am, the whole breadth of the roof might become a hybrid of nightclub, knocking shop and backyard fight venue.

It’s a lot like the way we share cities, isn’t it?


Donning our speculative techno-urbanist hats for a moment, we can assume that once augmented reality navigates its way rightwards across the Gartner hype cycle and gains widespread adoption, the post-geographic schisming of physical space will become even more normal, with Miéville’s metaphorical act of unseeing becoming one component of a multitude of possible layered maps of the city. Offended by rotting Brutalism, or the glistening thrust of postmodern monstrosities in the heart of the city? Then choose a layer where they do not exist, and never see them again. Do the same with the homeless, or the rich; choose to swap the iconic London buses for steam-driven robot elephants, or to swap brown skins for a lighter (or a darker) shade; see the city of the Reformation as Sam Pepys would have seen it, bumbling down a side-street to some secret assignation; see the Londons of Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s Freakangels, or Ballard’s Drowned World, or Moore’s From Hell; see a city, see any city, see every city. Geography is just the screen, the Canonical City, the hardware on which we run the software of urban life: we project the city on to it, drawing our borders in the gaps as instinctively as we draw the line between me and you, between Us and Other.

A metaphor too far? I disagree; I’ve seen and participated in layerings of exactly that sort in my own home town over the years, and I expect the same happens wherever people may be found – but the complexity of manifestation is a function of population. The layers are cultural, and they’re spooled out in realtime on the wetware between our ears. My city is not the same as your city.

Albert Road

When I walk down Albert Road, nominal main drag of Portsmouth’s unevenly distributed bohemian quarter (as in London, geographical constraints to expansion have led to a patchwork demography), my cultural affiliations and long period of residence determine the things I notice most: the second-hand bookstores; that flat-above-a-shop where I once DJ’d to a full room at 5am on a summer morning in 1996 before the police turned up and impounded the sound system; that guy sat eating lunch by the window of Little Johnny Russell’s, who was in a band that a friend once played bass for; the plastic nick-nacks and Spongebob lunchboxes in the window of Passionfish, one of the few indie stores that’s been a going concern since before I moved here, and which has employed at least a dozen of my friends; and of course the Wedgewood Rooms, the music venue that has employed and entertained a hefty tranche of P-town bohemians over two and a half decades.

Each journey I take has different highlights of attention, of course, but to a tourist passing through on their way to the historic dockyards or the Gunwharf “shopping experience”, it’s just a narrow and somewhat grubby strip of pubs and takeaways, devoid of places to park. Perception is reality. My Albert Road – our Albert Road! – is not your Albert Road, but all the Albert Roads – actual, virtual, fictional, possible – are anchored to that same physical space. You can’t touch the borders, can’t spray your name on them, but you can see them if you sidle up to them just right: try dressing a tad too metrosexual on beer’n’curry Wednesdays at The King’s Arms, maybe, or elbowing your way to the bar of the One Eyed Dog at 10pm on a Friday night while wearing a Square Mile suit.


That sharp hard glint of who-the-fuck-are-you in the eyes of the other customers?

That’s your border, right there.


For every wall we build in the world, we build one that matches in our hearts.


* In the interests of full disclosure, Chris Beckett is a client of mine, but I was a fan of his writing before that was the case.

With the exception of the Conrad Schumann image (which I ganked unashamedly from Wikipedia) the above images are linked to their originals as found on Flickr. The London riot cops were found using the indispensable Compfight search engine; some are my own, and the rest are by my good friend and erstwhile bandmate Rusty Sheriff.

Singularity beef, day 2

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2011

Well, we’re off to a good start. Alex “Robot Overlords” Knapp also picked up on Stross’ skeptical post and Anissimov’s rebuttal thereof, and posted his own response. An excerpt:

Anissmov’s first point here is just magical thinking. At the present time, a lot of the ways that human beings think is simply unknown. To argue that we can simply “workaround” the issue misses the underlying point that we can’t yet quantify the difference between human intelligence and machine intelligence. Indeed, it’s become pretty clear that even  human thinking and animal thinking is quite different. For example, it’s clear that apes, octopii, dolphins and even parrots are, to certain degrees quite intelligent and capable of using logical reasoning to solve problems. But their intelligence is sharply different than that of humans.  And I don’t mean on a different level — I mean actually different.  On this point, I’d highly recommend reading Temple Grandin, who’s done some brilliant work on how animals and neurotypical humans are starkly different in their perceptions of the same environment.

Knapp’s argument here is familiar from other iterations of this debate, and basically hinges on what, for want of a better phrase, we might call neurological exceptionalism – the theory that human consciousness is an emergent function of human embodiment, and too complex to be replicated with pure hardware. (I’m maintaining my agnosticism, here, by the way; I know way too little about any or all of these fields of research to start coming to conclusions of my own. I have marks on my arse from being sat on the fence, and I’m just fine with that.)

But my biggest take-away from Knapp’s post, plus Ben Goertzel’s responses to such in the comments, and Mike Anissimov’s response at his own site? That the phrase “magical thinking” is the F-bomb of AI speculation, and gets taken very personally. Anissimov counters Knapp with some discussion of Bayesian models of brain function, which is interesting stuff. This paragraph is a bit odd, though:

Even if we aren’t there yet, Knapp and Stross should be cheering on the incremental effort, not standing on the sidelines and frowning, making toasts to the eternal superiority of Homo sapiens sapiens. Wherever AI is today, can’t we agree that we should make responsible effort towards beneficial AI? Isn’t that important? Even if we think true AI is a million years away because if it were closer then that would mean that human intelligence isn’t as complicated and mystical as we had wished? [Emphasis as found in original.]

This appeal to an emotional or ethical response to the debate seems somewhat out of character, and the line about “toasting the superiority” feels a bit off; I don’t get any sense that Stross or Knapp want AI to be impossible or even difficult, and the rather crowing tone rolled out as Anissimov cheerleads for Goertzel’s ‘scolding’ of Knapp (delivered from the comfort of his own site) smacks more than a little of “yeah, well, tell that to my big brother, then”. There are two comments on that latter post from one Alexander Kruel that appear to point out some inconsistencies in Goertzel’s responses, also… though I’d note that I’m more worried by experts whose opinions never change than those who adapt their ideas to the latest findings. This is an instance where the language used in the defence of an argument is at least as interesting as the argument itself… or at least it is to me, anyway. YMMV, and all that.

The last word in today’s round-up goes to molecular biologist and regular Futurismic commenter Athena Andreadis, who has repubbed an essay she placed with H+ Magazine in late 2009. It’s an argument from biological principles against the possibility of reproducing consciousness on non-biological substrates:

To place a brain into another biological body, à la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, could arise as the endpoint extension of appropriating blood, sperm, ova, wombs or other organs in a heavily stratified society. Besides being de facto murder of the original occupant, it would also require that the incoming brain be completely intact, as well as able to rewire for all physical and mental functions. After electrochemical activity ceases in the brain, neuronal integrity deteriorates in a matter of seconds. The slightest delay in preserving the tissue seriously skews in vitro research results, which tells you how well this method would work in maintaining details of the original’s personality.

To recreate a brain/mind in silico, whether a cyborg body or a computer frame, is equally problematic. Large portions of the brain process and interpret signals from the body and the environment. Without a body, these functions will flail around and can result in the brain, well, losing its mind. Without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia.

Additionally, without context we may lose the ability for empathy, as is shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers. Of course, someone can argue that the entire universe can be recreated in VR. At that point, we’re in god territory … except that even if some of us manage to live the perfect Second Life, there’s still the danger of someone unplugging the computer or deleting the noomorphs. So there go the Star Trek transporters, there go the Battlestar Galactica Cylon resurrection tanks.

No signs of anyone backing down from their corner yet, with the exception of Alex Knapp apologising for the “magical thinking” diss. Stay tuned for further developments… and do pipe up in the comments if there’s more stuff that I’m missing, or if you’ve your own take on the topic.

Our cancerous common ancestor?

Paul Raven @ 18-03-2011

Peter Watts, still recovering from a close brush with mortality in the form of a flesh-eating virus (pictures NSFL – Not Safe For Lunch), blogs an interesting new scientific paper that suggests that we are all cancer. Take it away, Mister Watts:

I don’t mean this proximally. I mean it in the sense that all birds are dinosaurs — because according to Davies & Lineweaver, cancer (more precisely, “tumor-like neoplasms”) is the common ancestor of all animal life. Every malignant lump on your breast, every metastatic colony proliferating through your marrow, is just a rebooted revisitation of your grandmother a million times removed.

The basic idea’s petty straightforward. Natural selection reaches into every corner of the biosphere, you see; and a billion years ago that meant every cell for itself because unicellular life was the only game in town. A mere six hundred million years back, though, all that had changed. Metazoans were everywhere — cells grouped into colonies with specialized subsystems called tissues and organs —and somehow, within those colonies, the whole beat-the-competition thing had fallen out of favor. Cells worked together, now; hell, red blood cells even gave up their nuclei for the good of the organism, which really puts the kibosh on any future solo career. I think it had something to do with inclusive fitness.

In between, presumably, there was something halfway between Cuba and the US, some intermediate form between everyone for themselves and everyone for the state. Some kind of loose affiliation of cells which valued their individual freedom, but were not above at least some level of cooperation. Modern-day sponges might be a pretty good example: some cellular specialization, a bit of the ol’ helping hand between cells, but nothing so altruistic as an actual tissue. Call it “Metazoa 1.0″. Davies and Lineweaver do.

According to D&L, that old 1.0 operating system is still sleeping down there in our genetic code; it’s just been turned off by the more recent regulatory genes of Metazoa 2.0. It hasn’t been eradicated outright, because a lot of those ancient genes are still useful (“…the genes responsible for the cellular cooperation necessary for multicellularity are also the genes that malfunction in cancer cells.”) It’s just been — tamed, is as good a word as any. Tamed, and deactivated.

Except when something happens to one of those bits of regulatory code that keep it comatose. When some base pair flips this way instead of that, Metazoa 1.0 wakes up, its ancestral toolkit intact, ready to party like it’s One Billion Years B.P.

Watts, trained scientists that he is, is at pains to point out that Davies & Lineweaver are merely looking at old data with a new interpretation, and that they’ve put forward a theory rather than a statement of fact… and yeah, I know most of you who read here already know the difference, but this is the internet, after all. But…

… the great thing about being a science fiction writer is that I don’t really have to wait if I don’t want to. Here is an idea, peer-reviewed and legitimately published, thrown into discourse: We are all descended from Cancer. We are borne of the Holy Tumor. Isn’t that a thought. Doesn’t that get your mind going: to the imagination of ancient habitats, somewhere on this planet or within it. To isolated refugia, cut off from the rest of the world when stromatolites were still young, where 2.0 never happened and the cancerous Metazoan prototype was free to chart its own evolutionary course through a billion years.

I find these sorts of insights into the genesis of story ideas fascinating (as I do the science at the root of them). Though I’m kinda surprised that a guy who was nearly killed off by some incredibly virulent and weird disease a few weeks back (on the tail of having narrowly avoided becoming an anomalous Canadian blip in the 2010 immigration law incarceration statistics of the United States) needs to read biology papers to find potentially horrifying things to write about…

Schismatic transhuman sects

Paul Raven @ 08-03-2011

Ah, more fuel for my puny brain-engine as it flails desperately to put together a coherent position for the H+ UK panel in April. Having already set myself up as a fellow-traveller/fence-sitter, the landscape surrounding the “transhumanist movement” is slowly revealing itself, as if the “fog of war” were lifting in some intellectual real-time-strategy game. What is increasingly plain is that there is no coherent “transhumanist movement”, and that this incoherence will increase – as entropy always does – under the grow-lamps of international media attention, controversies (manufactured and actual), radically perpendicular or oppositional philosophies and bandwaggoning Jenny-come-latelys. In short, interesting times.

For instance: the Transhuman Separatist Manifesto, which prompted a swift counterargument against transhuman militance. A co-author of the former attempts to clarify the manifesto’s position:

We Transhuman Separatists define ourselves as Transhuman. Other Transhumanist schools of thought view H+ as a field of study. While I am fascinated by the field of Transhumanism, I would argue that H+ is most fundamentally a lifestyle — not a trend or a subculture, but a mode of existence. We are biologically human, but we share a common understanding and know that we are beyond human. We Transhuman Separatists are interested in making this distinction through separation.

Do we wish to form a Transhumanist army, and kill the humans who aren’t on our level? My answer here is an obvious no. Do we advocate Second Amendment rights? Absolutely. If anyone attempted to kill me for being weird, I would need to be able to defend myself. There may not currently be people out there who are killing anyone who is H+, but stranger things have happened in our society. If nobody was to attack us, we would not commit violence against anyone. We have no desire to attack the innocent.

I think there is a class distinction in the H+ community. Those of us in the lower/working classes have been through a lot of horrible experiences that those of us in the middle/upper classes might be unable to understand. We have our own form of elitism, which is related to survival, and many of us feel the need for militance. We feel like we have become stronger through our trials and tribulations. Think of us as Nietzschean Futurists. Our goal is to separate from the human herd and use modern technology to do it.

When Haywire claims that transhuman separatism is merely a desire to escape the tyranny of biology, I believe hir. I also know very well – as I expect zhe does, even if only at a subconscious level – that not everyone will see it that way. The most important word in those three paragraphs is the opening “we”; it’s the self-identification of a group that are already aware their goals will set them aside from (and quite possibly at ideological opposition to) a significant chunk of the human species. They may not desire militancy, but it will be thrust upon them.

More interesting still is the way the transhumanist meme can cross social barriers you’d not expect it to. Did you know there was a Mormon Transhumanist Association? Well, there is [via TechnOcculT and Justin Pickard]; here’s some bits from their manifesto:

  1. We seek the spiritual and physical exaltation of individuals and their anatomies, as well as communities and their environments, according to their wills, desires and laws, to the extent they are not oppressive.
  2. We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.
  3. We feel a duty to use science and technology according to wisdom and inspiration, to identify and prepare for risks and responsibilities associated with future advances, and to persuade others to do likewise.

So much for the notion of transhumanism as an inherently rationalist/atheist position, hmm? (Though I’d rather have the Mormons dabbling in transhumanism than the evangelicals; the thought of a hegemonising swarm of cyborg warriors-in-Jeebus is not a particularly cheery one for anyone outside said swarm.)

And let’s not forget the oppositional philosophies. For example, think of Primitivism as Hair-shirt Green taken to its ultimate ideological conclusion: planet screwed, resources finite and dwindling, civilisation ineluctably doomed, resistance is futile, go-go hunter-gatherer.

The aforementioned Justin Pickard suggested to me a while back that new political axes may be emerging to challenge or counterbalance (or possibly just augment) the tired Left-Right dichotomy, and that one of those axes might be best labelled as [Bioconservative<–>Progressive]; Primitivism and Militant Transhumanist Separatism have just provided the data points between which we might draw the first rough plot of that axis, but there’ll be more to come, and soon.


Paul Raven @ 14-12-2010

Organic computing, anyone? Ars Technica reports on a paper published in Nature, wherein the authors describe the creation of bacterial colonies that can act as logic gates:

The key to the new work is stretches of DNA that act as logical OR and NOR functions. Both of them rely on small stretches of DNA called promoters that control the activity of nearby genes. In this case, the authors used promoters that activate nearby genes in response to simple chemicals (arabinose and tetracycline for these two promoters). By putting both promoters next to a reporter gene, the system acted as an OR gate: when either of the chemicals was present, the reporter was on.


the authors set up small clusters of bacterial colonies (small lumps of genetically identical cells). Each colony had a single logic gate (the authors used NOR, OR, and NOT gates). Depending on the arrangement of the colonies, each one could signal to only one or two neighbors, and each could only take input from one or two. The authors demonstrated a functional XOR gate built from four colonies, showing that all logical functions can be built from similar combinations.

The nice thing about using populations of cells is that this averages out some of the chaotic behavior typical of systems based on single cells. At a minimum, the systems they tested showed a five-fold difference between their on and off states. The downside is that, relative to a single cell, these systems are huge. The authors suggest that it might be possible to adapt their system to single cells, but it’s not clear that the same sort of performance could be maintained.

Boole meets biology. Maybe one day we’ll grow computers instead of building them from silicon slices…

Next Page »