Saturday, September 24, 2011


Do you remember your first musical love? The other day I had my iPhone plugged into the stereo, set to play random songs out of my collection (always an interesting exercise - I honestly have no idea where half this stuff comes from), and the first warmly melancholic bars of The Church's "Disappear?"  rang out, sending me back twenty-odd years to the confused, unhappy, intensely lived summers of my youth. Steve Kilbey's lyrics seemed to summon up the exact mood:

Like a womb the night was all around
Someone somewhere must have talked some sense
I could feel it moving underground
So many things I still don't understand...

There are a few albums that epitomize those days: Suzanne Vega's first album; the last, self-destructing works of the Roger Waters-driven Pink Floyd; and The Church - anything and everything by The Church.  Those were records I must have spun literally thousands of times (my parents were remarkably stoic - I remember my father working at the dining table in industrial ear muffs, but he never said a word). I'd sit in the living room absorbed in every note, studying the lyrics like some sacred Vedic mantra.

"Disappear?" is from the The Church's strange failure of an album, Seance, which came out in 1983. The album cover shows an androgynous figure in lipstick and a white hood, holding some kind of metal flower. It's an image both stark and surreal, a perfect fit for the mood of the album. "Dark and cryptic" is the way Wikipedia describes the consensus opinion of the record. And yet if I was only allowed to hang onto ten albums to listen to for the rest of my life, I'd have to give serious consideration to including Seance among them.

Of course it's hard to separate the nostalgia of association from the merits of the music itself. The second track 'One Day', an anthem of hope clothed in a heavy downbeat, always makes me want to sing along at the top of my voice, and yet when I do, I realise that it has almost no melody - most of the song is sung on a single note. And yet it aches. Could  it just be the memory of my own ache, that bittersweet experience of being young and not knowing who you are yet, full of confusion and longing and the mystery of your future? Somehow I think not entirely, for most of the other music from that time has become unlistenable to me. Another record I thrashed to death - Pink Floyd's The Final Cut - now seems so full of anguish and self-pity that listening to it is like having my teeth drilled.

Sadly, Steve Kilbey himself came to disavow Seance as a flop. A friend of mine drunkenly questioned him about that one day after a gig, and Kilbey cut him dead with the arrogance he's well known for. You're a fan, you don't question Steve Kilbey. For all Kilbey's gifts, he's always given the impression of being one of those troubled people who is unable to escape the involuted torments of narcissism. The Church were often accused of pretentiousness, and there was always an edge of affectation that threatened to creep into their songs. To my mind the worst offender was guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper, who always seemed compelled to sing with an annoying Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Alice-Cooper accent. David Bowie did something similar and pulled it off as an act of theatre, but Wilson-Piper is no Bowie.

Affectation is of course the refuge of insecure creatives who seek to cover over their lack of real inspiration with a stylistic gimmick that is always guaranteed to fool a certain number of punters. It can also be an unfortunate habit of gifted artists like Kilbey who seek to compensate for a fundamental self-rejection by constructing for themselves a narcissistic image of their own genius. Affectation is an expression of the way they stand apart from themselves, fascinated by a performance in which they desperately hope to glimpse the image of someone other than themselves. Think Michael Jackson's creepy voice and reconstructed face, affectation as psychopathology.

There was nevertheless always a seed of real creativity underlying The Church's pretentions. Listen to the early single "Too Fast for You". It's a strange, psychedelic song with a truly different edge, even while one can discern distinct echoes of bands like The Cure. You can hear in it the original, exciting voice that would give birth to amazing songs like "Almost With You" - and that would sometimes devolve into a sort of tic, a style expressed in foppish mannerisms, lyrical obscurity and a precious and superior attitude.

It's when Kilbey drops the put-on self and just sings from an honest place that he shines, like in the lovely "Into My Hands" from the Remote Luxury EP, in which he sings joyfully, sadly and without artifice about love: "Some seek sleek and slithering charms/ Out of reach their grasping arms/ Our skin like milk, our breath of words/ Like happy, awful and absurd." And the last verse: "You know it's always out here in my head/ And stupid bloody things get said/ Then drifting on a summer pond/ I notice that my love has gone."

In my story 'Suburban Mystery' published in Meanjin a couple of years ago, I have the main character discovering The Church the way I did:

That summer I bought my first record, The Blurred Crusade by The Church. As I slipped it out of its sleeve onto the turntable for the first time, the light caught a line of handwriting—some impenetrable in-joke—inscribed in the smooth black vinyl inside the last song. That opaque, mystic scribble fascinated me: Steve Kilbey’s last elliptical utterance before the stylus spiralled into the black hole at the centre of the record. ‘Almost with You’ was my anthem. Its lush, anguished paisley-poetry made my soul bleed. When Steve Kilbey asked Can you taste their lonely arrogance? I wanted to shout: ‘Yes! Yes! I can!’ I understood nothing he said, but I could almost not bear the sorrow and longing when he sang, I’m almost with you, I can sense it wait for me. I’m almost with you. Is this the taste of victory?

I know I'll never experience that kind of enchantment by a record again, however much I may fall in love with a new artist I've discovered. Like first love, it's an experience that can't be repeated. For all his flaws, his "lonely arrogance", I owe Kilbey a huge debt of gratitude for that gift.

The future of the book, and all that

This is an edited cross-posting of my response to a forum question posed on the literary website Verity La. Alec Patric asks:

A New Archaeology?
When the novel first emerged it was considered trivial entertainment. The literary productions most honoured were to be found in verses and sometimes on stages. As those mediums waned in their traditional states, the art of song writing matured and attracted many of the talents driven by poetry. Cinema rose into a global phenomenon—becoming the major cultural agent for all Western cultures.
We are presently watching the book dwindle into the doddering ineffectuality of old age as print media prepares for retirement. A new medium is already emerging. It is often considered trivial entertainment, just as the novel was in its youth. Will an e-form emerge in the coming generation as the new literary standard? Is the blog already the key artefact for a new archaeology?

There is one really fundamental difference between writing on the net and writing for the pages of a book which relates to the relationship between reader and text. In a sense internet writing always exists as part of a much larger text with which it is constantly forced to compete. This turns readers into skimmers and writers into copywriters. Writing on the net is a constant exercise in attention-seeking, with the text forces to double as its own advertisement.

The novel, on the other hand, is a world-to-itself. It guarantees the author not only the reader’s undivided attention, but a particular kind of rapt attention (or at least guarantees the preparedness to commit such attention). The type of novel – ‘high’ or ‘low’, Ulysses or The Twilight Saga – is irrelevant. Once the reader settles down and opens that first page, making him or herself available to the narrative, a certain intimacy and suspension is established that is simply not present online.The novel reader is implicitly committed, whereas the online reader is implicitly inattentive, restive, a single dull sentence or too-long paragraph away from disappearing altogether. If a novel is a marriage, a blog is a date with a 20-year-old with ADHD who doesn’t like the word ‘boyfriend’.

We tend to impute to literature an intrinsic value, forgetting that it is a kind of conversation between writer and reader. It depends on the quality of the attention that the reader brings to bear on the work. A great novel in a world where people are no longer capable of committing their attention is like the proverbial tree that falls unseen in the forest. Does it make a sound? Where does the artistic value reside? If the novel does truly fade into quaint obsolescence, if all our reading becomes ‘browsing’, I fear we will lose even the capacity to read the hundred-thousand-odd words in a row that a novel requires. And the imaginative, aesthetic and intellectual capacities that the novel exercises in us may atrophy too.

I don’t decry the blog and its value (obviously). But if the blog is ‘the key artefact of a new archaeology’, I pity the archaeologists who will be tasked with its excavation. It will be a job of monumental breadth and infinite shallowness, sifting an endless expanse of digital topsoil to reconstruct a picture of our society mind-numbing in both its detail and its inconsequentiality. The artist’s job has always been to dig deeper, revealing something true and important about being human in a certain time and place. The blog, for all its wonderful attributes, is not a capable instrument for such a task.

Having said that I remain personally optimistic that the paper book and the novel both will continue to have an (admittedly reduced) place in our culture, and I don’t believe that the intimate relation between reader and (paper) book is quite as easy to virtualize as the e-pundits imagine.I do think we are becoming an attention-deficit society, and this spells bad news for literary writers (who, let’s face it, weren’t exactly swimming in milk and honey as it was). But there will always be those determined to put into words important and hard-to-say truths, and others ready and indeed hungry to read those words. If the printed book does die, I don’t doubt human creativity will find ways to bend the available media to its own ends.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Doomsday Argument - and why climate change will probably kill us

More philosophy today! Though this time something a little less out there than the Cryogenic Paradox. I discovered this idea in the intellectual meanderings that have followed my Paradox post. It's one of the marvels of the Internet age that one can find hidden corners of the universe where the most strange and exotic flowers of thought blossom and thrive. Today, however, I wanted to talk about an idea that is deceptively simple. Simple, but with conclusions that are quite profound and, to me at least, somehow spine-chilling, awesome and sad.

First let me ask you the question: how long do you think the human race will last? With nuclear weapons, climate change, environmental degradation and our various other self-made threats, there is reason enough for pessimism. On the other hand, it seems with our resourcefulness that we could survive, if not forever, then millions of years. We might populate the stars and all that. It seems odd that simple probabilistic induction could shed light on what seems a complex matter involving innumerable incalculable factors, but it seems that it can. And the answer is not good. In fact the odds are fifty-fifty that half of all the people who will ever be born (the final sum of the human race) have already been born. It's as likely as not that the human race is already half run. Let me explain why.

Imagine that you are walking in a foreign country where you are completely unfamiliar with the animal life, and out of a bush comes a small furry critter the likes of which you've never seen before. Now you have to guess whether or not the creature you are seeing is a rare or a common sight in this country. Logic dictates that your best guess is that it is a common animal, for the simple reason that common events occur more often than rare ones, by definition. In the same way, in the absence of better information, we should always assume that any given  phenomenon we observe is more likely to be unexceptional than exceptional. If, for example, we had no information about where our solar system is in the Milky Way, our best guess would be that it lies in the region where the most stars are. If evidence appeared to suggest that it lay somewhere unusual, like right on the very edge or right in the very centre, that would even be reason for us to doubt that evidence or look for reasons why our position might be other than random - because otherwise our  placement would simply be an unbelievable fluke.

This is known as the Principle of Indifference - the selection of phenomena we observe is "indifferent", i.e., random.  Now let us consider that the human race almost certainly cannot last forever. In that case there is a certain number of people N that represents the total number of humans who will ever exist. This number N does not have to be determined yet. All we need to assume is that the number one day will  be determined. Now let us number each human according to his or her birth position from 1 to N. Let's call this "serial number" s. If we select from that list some random person we can calculate quite simply the odds of this number s being in a certain position, and it obvious enough that the person is equally likely to be in the first half as in the second.

You see where this is going? You are that random person - because your birth order in the human chain follows the Indifference Principle. Therefore it is as likely as not that the human race is already half done! And by the same simple logic, it is 90% likely that we are more than 10% of the way through the total number of humans who will ever be.

One objection that at first glance might appears to contradict the Doomsday Argument is that cavemen could have made the same argument as us today, and of course they would have been completely wrong. Of course it is possible to be wrong, because the argument is probabilistic. But on average, if every person who lives makes the Doomsday Argument based on his or her own birth position, they will tend to be right exactly as often as the argument predicts. By selecting a caveman, we are no longer choosing a random person, and thus violating the Indifference Principle.

Some further, very rough calculations sketch out what this suggests. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the total number of people who have ever lived can be guesstimated at around 106 billion. So (assuming this figure) we can be 90% sure that the number of people remaining to be born is less than around a trillion. The maths does start get to get complicated because of birth rates relative to population size, so I'm going to stick with the simplest, ugliest calculation. If the current worldwide birthrate  of 163,000,000 a year remained stable (certainly a false assumption), we could be 90% sure of the human race ending in less than about 6000 years. If we went with the 'best guess' (in which we could admittedly have only a very low level of confidence) and assumed that the human race is half finished already, then that would be cut to about 600 years.

But of course, the population and birth rate will not remain steady. The US census projects world population growing to around nine billion by 2050. Most likely it will continue to grow in this exponential fashion until the earth's capacity constraints cause it to plateau and/or collapse. This large and ever increasing population brings our projected doomsday a lot closer. Even if 90% of humans remain to be born, we can't expect to last anywhere near another 500,000 years - the length of time we could expect if history continued for ten times as long as it has so far. Only if we manage to achieve a far smaller overall population and maintain that level (or if some small tribe of survivors continues after the apocalypse, but fails to repopulate the globe) can we expect a future longer than, say, 100,000 years.

One perhaps startling result is if we look at the other possibility - that we are right at the end of the line. Given the large living population - about 6% of the total of all humans - there would seem to be a roughly 6% chance that doomsday could occur within our lifetimes! However, we should recall that this argument is based on a situation where we lack any better information. Such a catastrophically sudden end seems a lot less likely than 6% (around 1 in 18) given what we see of the world.

Indeed what is hard to see is how our complete extinction comes about. Given our resourcefulness, it would appear likely that we would be able to recover from most catastrophes. A collapse in human population would create the possibility of environmental recovery, which in turn would support the regeneration of the human race. A drastic scenario such as an asteroid collision might explain extinction. However an asteroid collision would be an exceptional  event, and our argument is founded on the idea that such exceptions shouldn't be expected.

There is however one scenario that could lead to extinction, and that is climate change. If scientific projections are correct, and any of the worse scenarios eventuate, environmental damage may be so severe that the survival of any stragglers left after the great collapse might be living in an environment so hostile that recovery is impossible. And these effects are projected to occur and worsen over the next several centuries - right in the timeframe that would place me and you at a plausibly 'average' point in the human trajectory.

And people are worrying about their electricity bills going up under a carbon tax!

Whatever occurs, one thing is for sure, and that is that we - not only as individuals but as a race - are mortal. We must pass from this earth, and sooner than we have dreamed. There is something about seeing this inevitability that for me inspires a strange chill - of sadness but of beauty too. I think of our great story as a passing moment, and I think of the silence, the wind, the trees that come after, and I feel a kind of peace.

Perhaps there is a chance for us however. That chance is transformation. Humans may well be halfway to over, but by this same logic animals probably still have a long and rosy future. If we can change, evolve by selection or engineering into some new kind of beast or animal angel, perhaps we can yet find a way to escape the cruel logic of the Doomsday Argument.