Magic, Machines & Money – John Higgs Talks

Art & Culture

Next Thursday, Ransom Note are involved in The Explorers Chronicle, both an exhibition of new paintings from Justin Robertson, and a series of talks on the shifting nature of humanity in a digital age. We're particularly excited to have a panel featuring American writer and musician Gary Lachman (one of the founding members of Blondie), game designer Dr Chris Bateman, esoteric author Nina Lyon (read our interview with Nina over here), and the writer John Higgs. Over the last couple of years Higgs has been responsible for a couple of Ransom Note favourites – first, one of the greatest music biographies in recent years in The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds, followed by his innovative history of the 20th Century, Stranger Than We Can Imagine. In both books, Higgs charts a journey between esoteric thinkers, pop culture, magic, music and bullshit with an adventurous glee and precise analysis. 

So, in advance of next Thursdays panel discussion we thought we'd call Higgs to chat about our robot future. We ended up covering his attempts to create an AI version of himself, how a universal basic income is a neccessity, and whether computers will ever be able to use magic…  If you're interested and want to hear more, tickets for the talk on Thursday 16th are free, but limited- register over here.

Next week you’re speaking about the changing nature of humanity in a technology heavy world- and on that topic, I noticed that you recently got a computer algorithm to condense your last book into a surprisingly readable 400 words…

That was done with Shardcore. He’s been trying to train a neural network to be me, so he’s been feeding it every single thing I’ve written, all my fiction all my non-fiction, and getting it to learn to write and to learn English. It sits there chugging away. At first it just produced gibberish syllables, but at one point it started to produce sentences very much like something I might right. God, it was very strange. The notion I was thinking was, have I got one of the few jobs that’s future books – writing books like I do, is that something that AI will never do? I mean you read the paper and some of the sports reports and news reports in there are written by AI

Wait- there are sports reports are written by AI?

Yeah, there’s a program Associated Press use a lot. There’s AI writing news reports now. I mean you think robots taking our jobs sounds like the future, but if you go into Tesco’s and look at the self-service tills, it’s already happening. So the idea was to see if we could get a machine to do what I do – you just push a button and it churns out a book. And I was thinking this would be great as I wouldn’t have to do work again, and he, Shardcore, said, ‘no you don’t understand; I’ve got the machine. I can sit there and push a button and churn out books’. It’s who owns the technology that matters. I’d be doubly fucked hehehe.

So how far has this got? You say it’s producing sentences that sound like you?

Oh, it’s churning out endless sentences that sound like me, but it has no overall sense of what things means, and this is what I have to view as my- I mean selling point is a horrible term – but having a sense of things is what I do, I look at these massive data sets and go, there’s an interesting pattern here, I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, and guide people through. And AI hasn’t got there yet.

So the AI hasn’t got the imagination to notice patterns?

Exactly. Whether you can train it to is another matter. But I’m hoping I’ll be OK for a few decades yet…

The guys at NonClassical have been doing a similar thing examining the idea of mechanical composition, where music is created from scratch by computer programs.

There’s certainly a lot of algorithms that learn about music, and learn about what music is popular. Myself, Shardcore and another artist called Zen Bullet were talking about making a completely algorithmic band called Gay Skynet.

Gay Skynet? Haaa, you don’t know how obsessed I am with Skynet

Well the assumption here was that in ‘our’ universe, the internet wouldn’t become sentient and decide to kill everybody, it would become sentient and decide to make some really avant garde dance music. Shardcore was going, you can’t use the name ‘gay’ to mean dance music, that’s very misleading, but my argument was that’s just the sort of mistake AI would make, it gets things wrong like that.  

Talking of AI, have you considered the idea of basic income? It seems the only way humanity can deal with handing over so much work to machines.

There’s a film that someone made that’s got me in it talking about basic income – it seems to me to be the only option on the table that, if we’re realistic about the problems that we’re facing, I’m thinking climate change, inequality and population demographics – those are the three big horrors we’ve got to look forward to – if there is a better solution I’d love to hear it – but as far as I can see, basic income is the only solution. We can’t continue as we’re going, with inequality continuing to raise to inhumane levels.

Means to an End from Envisuals – Video Production on Vimeo.


The cynic in me can’t help but think that inequality raising to inhumane levels might be the option we go with.

I’m sure a lot of people agree with you. We’ve got the added problem that our property values are so insane. It’s a big problem for basic income in this country. But the thing is I think most people know full well what they’d do if they had a basic income, they’d dedicate themselves to hobbies, to care work, to artistic projects, there’d be a huge boost of entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t, deep down, know what they’d really like to be doing with their lives if they weren’t facing the crushing reality of our economic system. I can’t imagine that people would just be sitting around twiddling their thumbs bored.

In many ways I think that’s what people are doing now, but they’re doing it in offices throughout the land so it’s seen as acceptable.

It’s this concept of bullshit jobs. We’ve all done bullshit jobs where we’ve given our time and made no valuable contribution to society.

There’s this strange punitive approach to work in this country. I don’t know if it comes from some sort of Christian puritanical mentality that life should be hard.

Absolutely, I think it comes from the puritan and protestant thought. But we’ve finally reached the point where we no longer pretend to be a Christian country.

Well, you say that but Cameron has often described England as a Christian country- and so much of the pomp surrounding parliament and the royalty is tied up with Christian iconography.

Well, there is a historical overhang, but there was a series of censuses – I think in 2001 something like 72% of British people said they were Christian. In the 2011 census it was still 56% Christian and 25% said they had no religion. In a recent report commissioned by a Catholic university in 2014, it had swapped over – 47% said there had no religion and 43% say they’re Christian. Self-declared Christian’s are dwindling. It’s a niche interest, and we’re no longer pretending to be Christian. You can see it in the bill to let 3000 Syrian children who were orphaned and unaccompanied into the country, If you look at that bill, which was defeated, and you look at the newspaper coverage of it, there is no way you can look at the actions of press and parliament and pretend that we’re a Christian country. These 3000 orphaned kids and we wouldn’t help them. There’s no way we can claim to be Christian. There’s a strivers vs shirkers narrative in this country which is a big problem for basic income, but I can’t see it continuing, we must have peaked.

I don’t know. You can always keep on digging. If Brexit happened we’d really see how far down we could get..

I try to be optimistic. As Robert Anton Wilson said, an optimist will look for hundreds of potential plans or schemes, whilst a pessimist will just go ‘oh it’s all hopeless’ and just give up. Logically it’s wise to be an optimist. Although at the same time I can’t argue with what you’ve said about how bad things can get…!

I’d like to think I’m optimistic, but then I watch the Brexit debate and my options are Cameron or Farage, and I can’t help but feel disconnected.

Yes I can relate to that. I think the problem is that at some point in the 1980s we gave up on the future. Before then there were all these positive futures imagined in things like Star Trek. It seems to me that the last ditch attempt to say something positive about the future was in 1989 in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when they say ‘The future will be great – it’s a bit like now, but with really great waterslides’. That was the best they could do. Ever since then the future has been shown as environmental apocalypse, zombie films, all of these things. And to create the future, first you have to imagine it, so this is a very worrying thing.

So I’m quite curious as to where you think magic fits into this – you’ve written about it quite a lot.

Well it’s a big topic of conversation. Alan Moore, along with the late Steve Moore, defines it as the original way of purposefully engaging in consciousness. He talks about areas of it being hived off over time, since as medicine, such as science, art, politics, all these things that started out as a magical thing and got separated out. He sees all these things have to be recombined so that we have politics influenced by science, medicine by art, and so on. He thinks all these things have to be reconnected. Magic is all our ideas, our stories, all our myths, our religions, our sciences, our atheism, all our knowledge, all this immaterial stuff; it’s really our environment.

The human story is very much us crawling out of the physical world into the immaterial world. If you look around you now, everything surrounding you was an idea, the idea of a chair, a telephone, these clothes, the building you’re in. We’re entering our immaterial world, our imaginations, our ideas more and more – especially now with the internet, now we’re connected with phones, the way I’m able to speak to you over the phone from where I am to where you are, the physical space disappears. So Alan Moore uses magic to talk about all of that – very, very specifically not Harry Potter, it’s not ‘I want something, so here’s a spell.’

So, assuming that when Alan Moore talks about magic he’s talking in many ways about imagination, do you think that a computer could access magic?

I would love to know! That’s the big question. Is this the thing that’s missing? Is this the thing that computers cannot do that makes us intrinsically human? I do not know. It’s the big question. 

John Higgs is talking at The Explorer's Chronicle on Thursday June 16th. Tickets and more info over here

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