A Fabulous Planet To Die On: Justin Robertson Interviews Chris Bateman
The esteemed philosopher Mary Midgley once famously equated Philosophy with plumbing. She suggested you only get on the phone to your philosophical plumber when you smell something funny coming from your conceptual pipes. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to give them a call. The challenges we all face are numerous and pressing. Rapidly developing Artificial Intelligence, human obsolescence at work, the nature of work in general, ecological meltdown, mass extinctions, ‘Post Truth’ politics, rising authoritarianism, a growing aging population, genetic manipulation of food and possibly people, conflict, always conflict, and its attendant horrors. And that’s before we get on to the fun stuff, like ‘are we living in a computer simulation?’ or ‘does a tree make a noise if falls in the forest if no one is around to hear it?’ Busy times at Acme Philosophical Maintenance Inc. But it’s is vital work, because we all need to stop, pause, and collectively consider what path to take at this time of dynamic and profound change for us and the planet, because if we don’t, Lord knows what will bubble up out of the cosmic sink.
I see philosophy as a very practical discipline, a set of tools with which to try and understand the world which we find ourselves in, computer simulation not withstanding. The problem is, it’s a discipline that delights in confounding those who seek its council. Clarity of prose is rarely a feature in philosophical tomes. I spent one Christmas holiday reading Alfred North Whiteheads Process and Reality, a bottle of my Father-in-laws whisky was all that got me through it, I remain, quite understandably, a little fuzzy on the details of that undoubtedly important work. Often it’s the complexity of the subject, or the need to create, new, more accurate terms that gives philosophical works their density, other times it’s just because they aren’t very well written – philosophers aren’t generally trying to write a great holiday read after all. However, there are many exceptions to this; philosophers who can communicate their ideas with punchy clarity, Mary Midgley is one, and Chris Bateman is another.
It was while doing some research into Mary Midgley, that I came across Dr Bateman. Mary Midgley had contributed some words to the jacket of his book The Mythology of Evolution, so that was my starting point. Dr Bateman’s style is concise and well illustrated with every day examples, making it accessible, but in no way less profound, a talent he shares with Midgley. I was also pleased to see him name checking the science fiction writer Michael Moorcock, and furthermore quoting Moorcock’s ideas on ‘the Multiverse’ as a cornerstone to some of his philosophy. So my teenage space rock self was obviously delighted to see that his childhood reading was more profound than perhaps he had given it credit for at the time.
I came across Dr Bateman through his philosophy books, but many of you will know him for his videogame work, for which he is rightly feted. The designer and writer of Discworld Noir and Ghost Master and almost fifty others, Dr Bateman has a Master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence, as well as finding time to lecture on game design at University of Bolton and games narrative at Laguna College of Art and Design in California, where he is a Visiting Professor. Dr Bateman has also written a number of philosophy books, including Imaginary Games, The Mythology of Evolution, Chaos Ethics and most recently Wikipedia knows Nothing and maintains a lifelong interest in mythology and religion; describing himself as a true Discordian, with no fewer than five religions which he adheres to (at least in part).
I invited Chris to participate in my Explorer’s Chronicle art show last summer, where he gave a wonderful talk on “Cyberfetish and the world of tomorrow”, I’ve since read most of his philosophical books, and regularly click on his Only a Game blog, where debate is lively and enlightening, so I was delighted when he agreed to do this interview.
Let’s start with your latest book Wikipedia Knows Nothing, it’s certainly a head turning title, can you unpack that a little? It may be quite a controversial idea for many of us who commonly use it as a quick and easy resource, are we wrong to trust it?
“It’s no more wrong to trust the Wikipedia as a resource as to ask someone at your local pub for help on the Trivia machine, and on simple, indisputably facts like “who won the 1966 world cup?” or “what’s the capital of Venezuela” you wouldn’t go far wrong trusting an online database of trivia. The reason I say that ‘Wikipedia knows nothing’ is because I want to dispute that knowing is just a matter of repeating. What Wikipedia does, mostly quite well, is repeat things, which is certainly useful. But to really know something, you have to be doing something – knowledge is a practice, or a set of practices, not a book of facts, and the facts recorded by something like Wikipedia (or the know-it-all in the corner of your pub) are only the side effect of having the relevant practice.
What gets Wikipedia into trouble as a community, rather than as the world’s biggest book of corporate trivia (you want to know something about a Disney franchise, that’s the place to go – whether it’s Frozen, Star Wars, or Marvel superheroes!), is that it treats its task as sorting facts from non-facts, and acts as if this is as easy to do as looking up a number in that endangered species of book, the telephone directory. And as philosophers and cultural critiques have known for quite some time now, and as everyone is starting to realise more widely, finding the truth isn’t at all like sifting flour for the lumps. You can sift some areas and have it all go straight through the sieve, at which point it’s hard to know what you should be basing any claims of truth or facts upon!”
The Question of ‘Post Truth’ is one of the most pressing issues we face in this internet age. The problem of what constitutes ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ is a perennial problem in philosophy, but we do seem to desperately need some kind of anchor to separate sensible assertions from nonsense. How can we rescue Truth?
“There’s no shortage of suggestions in philosophy on this front, but it has somewhat developed into a wrestling match between two extremes. For me, the very focus on the truth – and for this I blame Plato, albeit slightly unfairly! – is what gets us into trouble. Because knowledge is what counts… if you can repair a 1966 Triumph Thunderbird, or bake a soufflé, or calibrate the Large Hadron Collider for a fourteen teraelectronvolt controlled explosion, you have knowledge. If you cannot do these things, or you cannot do them reliably, you do not have knowledge. Truth, in so much as it comes into this at all, is just a judgement to be made about various statements that might crop up in connection with the relevant skill – for instance, it is true that if you open the oven before the soufflé has risen it will collapse, or its true that 14 teraelectronvolts isn’t going to shatter the planet.
When we make truth the focus, we think knowing what’s-what is all about filling up a big book (or Wiki) of facts, and that’s all that matters. But if we focus on knowledge, we can see why facts make sense, and why no-one has access to the Big Book of Facts on their own, because every collection of facts depends upon a variety of practices that entail the knowledge that makes those facts meaningfully true.”
How does this leave the idea of ‘Expertise’ can we really rely on ‘Experts’?
“I trust my mechanic to fix my car when it’s broken – except when the manufacturer has made the car into a black box that people can’t actually acquire practical knowledge of. And I trust that my physicist friends can calculate how to adjust satellite data for distortions. All in all, I think there’s plenty of expertise around today. But you don’t ask a mechanic to decide on the base rate of the Bank of England or a physicist to bake a soufflé. Most of the problems with expertise happen because we’re failing to recognise who has knowledge of what.”
I think folk these days, want their experts to be aloof, quasi religious figures with some divine access to ‘Truth’, that Platonic idea, when that’s not really how scientist’s actually work. You yourself come from a science background, so can’t be accused of not fully understanding its workings but you recently wrote that ‘scientific method is neither scientific nor a method’… can you explain how you see scientific knowledge slotting into our knowledge practises?
“I speak from experience when I say that training as a scientist doesn’t really make you into a prophet about anything. And while we’re at it, Brian Cox isn’t a better physicist because he used to be in D:Ream, although he certainly makes for a more photogenic spokesperson for the sciences than Martin Rees (who predicted the cosmic background radiation – what you might call the new ‘music of the spheres’!). But scientists do have a variety of knowledge practices, which are incredibly specialised – to the extent that you shouldn’t really trust a physicist on biology, or a chemist on anthropology (or a biologist on theology while we’re at it).
When I said that ‘the scientific method is neither scientific nor a method’, the point was that we have this wonderful dogma that we call ‘THE Scientific Method’, with at least three capital letters to emphasise how very important it is. And this method is not a method that scientists actually use for research at all, but rather a rhetoric that is sometimes used to justify why research that was done – often very impressive research – was scientific and something else wasn’t. But a rhetoric isn’t a method, certainly not a research method, and nobody who achieved anything in any of the scientific fields did their research using THE method, and couldn’t, because it’s not actually a practical method of any kind.”
You are working in one of the frontier disciplines in the videogame world, I must confess I’ve never played videogames, partly due to my age, having missed out on the ubiquitous games console era by being in acid houses, and partly because of the incredible ineptitude I displayed on the few times I have attempted them.
“You’re only four years older than me, Justin! I swear, if you missed out on videogames it’s most likely because you were getting laid while I was hanging out in the arcade trying to set high scores. But early games were bastard hard, and I think I got into them because I was ridiculously stubborn more than anything else. You shouldn’t have been playing that kind of game; you should have been playing Jeff Minter’s ground-breaking 1984 light synth Psychedelia – but I digress…”
How does your work in the videogames world feed into your philosophical work?
“Largely because I take quite a lot of money from medium to large sized media corporations for helping them make videogames, and that pays for my philosophy habit, which makes me hardly any money at all! Seriously, I do write some philosophy that intersects with videogames, but I’m not one of these game designer-philosophers like Ian Bogost, who I met back in the early 2000s, who makes it all fit together neatly, and one practice informs the other. Rather, I get caught up in the chewy problems in whatever space I happen to be engrossed in and then I have to figure it out obsessively… sometimes it’s in games, sometimes it’s in ethics, sometimes it’s how to make home-made yoghurt without it turning into goo. I’m just a nerd who has found a way to combine his love of words and his obsessive nature into something resembling a career!”
The games world takes place to a large extent online doesn’t it? How do you find this parallel world? This virtual segment of the multiverse?
“When I talk about ‘the multiverse’, of course, I’m not talking about what physicists call the multiverse. Although we both get it from Mike Moorcock. We live in a multiverse because there’s more than one world that we’re living in… even though we’re all on the same planet. The world of a Tuareg is not the world of Shoreditch, which is not the world of Stoke-on-Trent for that matter. We forget sometimes that we imagine ourselves in that world too, the one we sometimes call ‘real’ because it’s so very close to us wherever we are, so in that respect there’s not much difference between imagining we’re in the real world (or ‘a real world’, I might say…) and imagining we’re in a virtual world. But there is still a difference, a rather big difference. I enjoy playing with my friends online… but not as much as I enjoy being with them in the flesh. It’s a substitute. Isn’t everything these days?”
Does the internet qualify as something that Ivan Illich calls a ‘Radical Monopoly’ in that it distorts our relationship with ‘nature’?
“The internet we have certainly is a radical monopoly because – like cars and medicine – it imposes compulsory consumption. But the one we have is not the only one we can have. The internet of fifteen years ago, and especially of twenty five years ago when I was first getting online as a spoddy computer scientist undergrad, was radical in a very different way, one that could have ended up being what Illich calls ‘convivial’, empowering our collective autonomy. But that’s not the internet we got. We got the internet born of venture capital and corporate gatekeepers. It was the internet everyone seemed to want… but it could have been so very, very different, and perhaps it still can.”
The increased use of technology and most profoundly, the increase in the power and scope of Artificial Intelligence is of enormous concern. How do we prevent the rise of our Robot overlords? Or are we already cyborgs? Should we even be worried?
“We are already cyborgs, but so are the beavers and ants, so there’s not really a problem here. But we should always be worried, because complacency breeds disaster – like drone assassinations. Yet we also shouldn’t be so worried that we freak out about it and become powerless. There’s this big move among some of the moral philosophers today to panic about what they call ‘existential risks’ i.e. things that haven’t happened but might happen and if they do happen it will be really, really bad – like, extinction of the human species bad. Robot overlords is a great example of an existential risk, or there’s an asteroid impact, which at least has the advantage of being something that definitely will happen at some point in the (possibly rather remote) future. But if you make existential risks your moral concern you’re hiding in mathematical fantasy problems when there are very real, extremely palpable risks right here, right now. Drone assassinations, as I spoke about at your fantastic exhibition The Explorer’s Chronicle, should be a much bigger concern than Terminator fantasies.”
Do you propose a code of ethics for our cybernetic tools and robot companions? A kind of Asimov laws of Robotics for the iPad generation?
“Ha, what would be the point – nobody would follow them! No, what we’re missing is not a Highway Code for Smartphones because those rule-based approaches to ethics are hopelessly compromised now that the very nations that created human rights are now the greatest abusers of their own promises. I have a lot of respect for that kind of ethics, but that’s moving to the substitute bench now and it’s time for something else to step up. What we desperately need here is a concept for what the good life looks like in light of the vastly-enmeshed cybernetic worlds we’re now living in. Right now I’m exploring what it would mean to talk about ‘cybervirtue’ – the virtuous properties of human-robot pairings, like you and your Smartphone. It’s part software design and part ethics – which I guess makes me the perfect person to look into it! At least, that’s what Siri tells me when she’s not looking up incorrect data from the internet. She thinks Tom Cruise is five feet tall (about seven inches too short, Siri) and that The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was released in 1926 (about seventy years too early, Siri). These are the robots we’re living with… I’d like to know how to live a good life with them.”
We seem to be living through a time of quite profound political change, whether it be Brexit or the election of Donald Trump in the USA. Perhaps not unconnected to these shifts, is a growing intolerance and a rise in xenophobia, how widespread these views are being held is hard to gauge, and I’m hopeful people will reject hate, but it is certainly being reported more widely, and the voices of the hard right certainly seem to have been emboldened. This has led to an understandable reaction from those on the left and those horrified by what they see as the creeping return of fascism. However, this often leads to an impasse, I saw a quote from Leszek Kolakowski that sums up some difficulties:
“The sense of being under siege has two tactical consequences, both catastrophic. It requires the besieged to perceive the whole visible world outside the fortress as the enemy, preventing them from swelling their ranks and so strengthening their forces, and cutting them off from all values and possibilities that lie outside. And within the fortress itself it creates a military hierarchy based on blind obedience and intolerant to criticism.”
– Leszek Kolakowski, The Death of Gods.
In Chaos Ethics you seem to be expounding the importance of diplomacy in solving ethical problems, a pragmatist position, how do you see this relating to our current political situation?
“Well call me a fool if you wish, and there are plenty who would, but I remain focussed on diplomacy, while remaining in cautious support of activism. And part of this is because I understand why people voted Brexit, and why people voted for Donald Trump, and the liberal overreaction to both only makes it worse by reducing the possibility for dialogue, and so, as your Kolokowski quote emphasises, the crisis deepens. I know people who voted for these options, and I understand the reasons they did so, even if I disagree with some aspects of their options. And the thing is, it’s just as true for Remain and Hilary Clinton. If Obama didn’t end drone assassinations (they got much, much worse on his watch), neither would Ms Clinton.
Part of the problem as I see it is that we keep trying to defer talking about how we’re going to live in favour of just having a good ol’ fight about them on the battlefield of politics, which is more sports-like than ever – as is, for that matter, ‘documentary’ on the BBC. How many shows does Auntie Beeb need to mount on the structure of competition between tense folks, from baking, to sewing to who knows what. But voting is a small and final step in a democratic process that start with talking about what needs to be done, and whether we should do it or not. And that doesn’t happen. Nobody talked about whether everyone should have a permanent attachment to their Smartphones before the iPhone happened. Nobody talked about drone assassinations before they happened. They just happened. That’s politics when you focus just on which team is winning. We have to do better than this. We might well be in different worlds, but we’re all travelling in the same multiverse.”
You suggest that many of the problems we face as a society come from how we structure our work and bureaucracies, I think you characterise it as ‘the tragedy of bureaucracy’, it certainly seems that ‘top down’ fiefdom way of working would be familiar to Donald Trump. How do you see that undermining our hopes for a more egalitarian society?
“Like so much today, ‘the tragedy of bureaucracy’ is a problem of scale. The problem with the White House and the politics of the United States is that it’s a gigantic bureaucracy – or rather, a cluster of interrelated giant bureaucracies – and as Illich was quick to point out, there comes a point when an institution is too big to achieve its goal, and can only frustrate it. That seems to me to be true of government today, both in the UK and in the US. Our beloved David Cameron, who authorised Britain’s first drone assassination, and thus the total collapse of our commitment to human rights, liked to talk about ‘big society’. And this was a nice mythos, one that could have been more than the sound bite it was. But any ‘big society’ is a badly functioning society just like ‘big government’ is inefficient government and ‘big business’ is wasteful business. Bigger isn’t better at anything other than accumulating and disposing of capital. If we want a more egalitarian society (I do, but sometimes I wonder whether anyone else does…) we perhaps ought to start by downsizing our focus. You and I aren’t going to change the White House. But we can change ourselves.”
I’ve enjoyed the way your philosophy connects with hard, experienced problems. I studied Philosophy at Manchester University at a time when it was heavily analytic, it felt detached from experience and was very dry.
“It’s still heavily analytic… that never stopped. (And it’s funny that I was arriving at University of Manchester as you and Brian Cox were leaving – we only narrowly missed each other at the Haçienda – I was just up the road at the Ritz and the Banshee!). But you were talking about the dryness of contemporary analytic philosophy?”
I suppose I reacted to that, and became interested in philosophy that was about where minds intersect with the world (or are in fact indivisible from it,) what Heidegger might call ‘Being in the world’. How do see philosophy working? I think many famous philosophical mind games like the ‘Trolley Problem’ or the current debate about us Living in a computer simulation, while they throw up some fascinating puzzles, are to some extent a distraction from the real situations we find ourselves in from day to day. These are the questions that it should be the job of philosophy to try and grapple with. Do you feel now philosophy is still a vital discipline for unblocking the conceptual blockages in the proverbial pipes?
“I have a rant about the Trolley Problem in Chaos Ethics of course, and it’s worth mentioning that ‘are we living in a computer simulation?’ is far older than computers. For Descartes, it was the machinations of an evil demon, and before that Plato had his cave – and the Upanishads had maya, reality as illusion. There’s a place for all this stuff… but it’s not what we need from philosophy right now. What we urgently, desperately need is more people to pick up the torch of philosophers like Mary Midgley, who has been so very supportive of my work, or indeed Bertie Russell, of putting philosophers into contact with people, rather than just locking them up together to have fights in the ivory tower 2.0. Philosophers have knowledge that can help… if they want to, and if we’d let them. But we don’t know how. And everyone would rather ask for prophets (now called ‘scientists’ for some reason…).”
Are you optimistic about the Human races direction of travel, or should I start stocking the bunker and build my moon rocket?
“Why would you want to die on the moon rather than here on Earth? This is a fabulous planet to die on! We sometimes forget that. And anyway, you’d die much faster on the moon than here, unless you’re unfortunate enough to be a poor farmer in a country getting the sharp end of the stick from both dogmatic terrorists and murderous bureaucracies. But I suppose I am optimistic about the direction we’re heading in – even though there’s absolutely no evidence to make that optimism anything other than insane. But I’ve never been afraid of madness. In an insane world, the sanest choice is to keep trying to make it better, even if it’s near-impossible to do so. I’d rather kid myself that I could make a difference than give up and blame all the problems on everyone else, or upon dark forces beyond our control. We still have one inalienable power, and that’s to change ourselves. On my best days, I think that this might even be enough.”