6. Smart Drugs

2019; Unified Korea

Can we change who we are? For millennia, we’ve eagerly bought potions and medicines that promised to make us smarter and wiser, and for just as long, we’ve been bitterly disappointed. Yet we kept coming back; there was just something irresistible about improving ourselves without any effort.

And then the promises came true.

Today, we might pity those who never had access to personality reconstruction and metacognitive mapping, but it’s easy to forget that mind-altering substances have always given a cruder kind of relief and variety to our lives.From alcohol and caffeine to cannabis and amphetamines, we’ve never lacked ways to stimulate and relax our minds.

It was much trickier, however, to create drugs that increase elements of our intelligence, like improved attention or wakefulness, without harmful side-effects. It wasn’t until the teens and 20s that we had the tools to produce the first true cognitive enhancers, or ‘smart drugs’. Completely unprecedented in history, they caused quite a stir.

I have a range of samples lined up here, provided generously by Prof. Arienne Niyonshuti at the Kigali Museum of Medicine. All of them are from the first wave of readily available consumer-grade smart drugs in 2019. On the left here, we’ve got an orange pill called Tricity, which improves memory formation and recall; next to it, there’s a square chocolate that helps with language; a green pill, Numony, that reduces tiredness and stress; and finally on the right I have a pill of the most well-known smart drug: Ceretin, a wide-spectrum cognitive enhancer.

So, let’s try one out! Here’s a glass of water… and I think I’ll take the Ceretin. Now, I’m told that we’re not supposed to take these drugs any more since they get automatically expunged by our neural laces, but I’ve had Prof. Niyonshuti’s team temporarily disable my lace’s usual functions aside from recording. Prof. Niyonshuti will now explain exactly what’s going on in my brain right now:

“We can see quite clearly that the active components of Ceretin are entering your bloodstream, crossing the blood-brain barrier, and altering the behaviour of your synaptic neurotransmitter receptors in the frontal cortex and cerebellum. It takes a few minutes for the drugs to take effect, though, so we’ll wait a little while before giving you the cognitive tests I’ve prepared.”

What’s extraordinary about these drugs is that their creators actually had very little idea about how they operated. Scientists could observe their effects and check for any harmful side-effects, and they had hypotheses about their method of action, but they would lack anything even approaching a complete model of the brain for at least another decade.

It looks like the Ceretin has now taken effect, so I’m going to take a few old-fashioned tests to assess my memory skills, along with reasoning and attention. I won’t bore you with the details, but they basically involve things like predicting the next symbol in a series, and distractor tests.

…And here are the results! Across the board, my cognitive performance has increased anywhere from fourteen to twenty percent compared to the tests I took beforehand. These results don’t prove anything in themselves, of course — I’m just one person, and this wasn’t a double-blinded experiment — but I definitely feel a fair bit sharper. I can only imagine how appealing it must have felt back then.

These weren’t the first smart drugs on the market — modafinil, an ‘alertness’ drug, was released in the 2000s — but they were the first to gain widespread popularity. The biggest markets for drugs like Ceretin tended to be countries such as China, Japan, Singapore, and Unified Korea, where they were heavily advertised on Starcraft and ZRG casts; North America and the EU lagged behind due to safety concerns.

Smart drugs helped students gain an edge when it came to the exams that controlled entry to meritocracies; they also eked out another percentage point of inaccurately-measured ‘productivity’ in large corporations. However, their high cost prompted violent protests by those who argued that they should either be made freely available or banned — with mandatory drug testing before exams. One Unified Korean chaebol, NSK, provided Mnemosyne for all of its thirty thousand employees.

Of course, it was impossible to stop smart drugs from being illegally imported and sold in other countries at inflated prices. This caused further tensions in highly unequal countries like the US, where they became another symbol of the power the rich had to simply ‘buy’ success. In 2024, President Martinez addressed the issue head-on by legalising not just smart drugs but also recreational drugs, and allowing for the production of cheap ‘generic’ smart drugs just five years after their initial release to market.

Smart drugs had their downsides. Though it was difficult to tell at the time, we now know that the benefits conferred by any given first or second-generation smart drug usually came at the expense of other cognitive functions like creativity, long-term memory formation, or empathy. The drugs also contributed to the damaging ‘speed-up’ culture of the time, increasing the pressure on already-frantic workers.

It’s time to turn my lace back on now, and that means the Ceretin will be flushed out within a few seconds. While it’s doing that, it’s fascinating to look back on how smart drugs, however crude they were, paved the way for our laces. Not long after the first wave, researchers were testing ways of combining them with portable transcranial magnetic stimulation, which offered superior temporal and spatial resolution to drugs, truly changing people’s mental capacities and even personalities. But it all started here, with these four pills…

Follow me at @adrianhon and @futureobjects

A History of the Future in 100 Objects will be available on Kindle, iPhone and iPad this summer as an eBook and iOS Newsstand app. A lovely coffee-table book will be out this autumn.

3. The Guide

2015; Seattle, US

What is the good life? Philosophers, wise men, preachers, televangelists, self-help gurus — all have tried to answer the question of how we should live and thrive as humans. Some have been driven by a sense of moral duty and religious zeal, others by a quest for power and money, but over the millennia, they have never lacked a wide and willing audience, eager to better themselves and the world around them.

Unlike those who came before her, the guru who created one of the early 21st century’s most novel moral instructions wasn’t an eloquent writer or a charismatic performer. She was a programmer, and she made an application called The Guide to Greatness. Most knew it more simply as The Guide.

Sophia Moreno was the only child of Ernesto and Claudia Morena; Ernesto was a union representative at a chemical engineering plant in their home town of Santo Andre, while Claudia taught physics at UFABC. Sophia had a quiet childhood spent playing games and studying hard, and it wasn’t until she studied computer science in Rio de Janeiro that she stepped onto a path that would change the world.

On arriving in Rio, Sophia struggled with depression as she tried to fit in with her new surroundings and peers. She flirted with religion, falling in with an evangelical Christian student society for a few months; then just as quickly she left, burying herself in work. Over the next two years, she excelled at her studies, regularly scoring in the top 5% of her class and earning a placement at Amazon in Seattle.

But according to her friends, Sophia felt unfulfilled at her development job “shaving milliseconds off the shopping experience” and soon left to pursue her own projects. Her first independently made app was a comparison shopping utility and sold 5,000 copies. Her second app, an exam revision helper, sold a mere 700 copies.

Sophia’s third app was The Guide, launched in 2015 after a year of development. Within twelve days, it had sold 10,000 copies. In twelve weeks, it reached a million; in twelve months, 8 million; and after two years, 100 million copies.

“The Guide is about connections. Look around you. At the clothes on your body, the chair you’re sitting on, the walls beside you, and the phone in front of you. Everything we touch, eat, watch, and play is created by other people in this world.”

That’s the message that greets users when they first launch The Guide. It continues:

“Every one of us wants to become happy and successful and strong, but we can’t do that if we just focus on ourselves and ignore those whose lives touch us. Everything and everyone is connected, every second of every day. The Guide will show you how to see those connections, how to harness them, and how to help yourself and everyone around you to gain strength.”

Let’s face it — it’s not very original. But as a smartphone app that users kept right by their sides day and night, The Guide was in a unique position to directly interact and intervene in its followers’ lives. It helped them set and achieve goals, and it guided their behaviour in more subtle ways, from special greetings when they woke up, to inspirational messages before important meetings marked in their calendars. Naturally, being integrated with the burgeoning online social networks of the day, The Guide had a wide network of supporters from its very first day, so users could find like-minded souls instantly.

The Guide launched with 20,000 words of text divided up into 100 lessons, along with 25 interactive and replayable exercises, ranging from games to help users identify things in their surroundings that gave them joy, to emotion and thought journals. Naturally, The Guide took full advantage of the foolish ‘gamification’ craze of the teens, hooking unwitting users with the lure of experience points and levelling up. Sociologist and app historian Professor Colin Leigh explains its sensational success:

“The Guide directly addressed the lack of community and purpose felt by many in rich countries experiencing the ‘speed-up’. Traditional religious groups were too conservative to take full advantage of new technology, and the corporations and organisations that did have the expertise simply weren’t interested in more spiritual matters. Moreno’s background as a ‘generalist’ creator marked a genuine turning point.”

Not all of the millions who bought The Guide were active participants. Some bought it out of curiosity, others used it more as a positive-psychology productivity app. Even so, over a third used the app every day and took part in the Community Rituals that became so crucial to the app’s lasting success.

These rituals included everything from dinners and parties to exercise clubs, celebrations, and protests, and helped cement the bonds between followers in the real world. The fact that they were expected to actually turn up somewhere and meet with strangers in order to progress in The Guide set a surprisingly high bar, but it was later understood to be a real insight on Moreno’s part: she had correctly understood that the retreat of organised religion and comparable social structures had left a vacuum that people desperately wanted to fill.

For a while, it seemed as if The Guide itself was becoming a kind of religion. However, despite Moreno continuing to provide updates to the app over a span of three years, it became increasingly clear that she was deeply ambivalent about the success of The Guide. She made no public statements beyond what was in the Guide itself and left no records of her thoughts that we can find today, assiduously encrypting and then deleting them before her death. Most scholars speculate that the weight of responsibility she felt towards her followers was more than she wanted to bear.

Four years after its launch, Sophia Moreno sent out one final update. In it, she explained that she was delighted and proud of what her followers had accomplished, but now it was time for them to pursue their own ‘paths to strength’ independently.

The Guide’s user base fractured overnight. Some larger groups began developing their own open-source versions of the app, while competing apps made a landgrab for users, offering to transfer the achievements and experience points they had earned in The Guide to their own apps. As quickly as The Guide rose, it vanished.

Sophia Moreno retreated from public life, living off her revenues from The Guide and occasionally releasing artistic experiments. Yet her app, as short-lived as it was, proved there was a desire for a philosophy of life that complemented a market-based mindset with one rooted in communities and gifts. As for established religions, it was a startling reminder that their strength was not to be taken for granted.

Follow me at @adrianhon and @futureobjects

A History of the Future in 100 Objects will be available on Kindle, iPhone and iPad this summer as an eBook and iOS Newsstand app. A lovely coffee-table book will be out this autumn.

1. Ankle Surveillance Monitor

2014, San Jose, US

“Six months doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, compared to the guys I’ve met who were in for five years or fifteen years, I had it good. But it’s still plenty long enough to lose your job. Lose your family. Even lose your friends, people you thought you could rely on. Seemed like more than enough punishment for carrying some weed.”

In 2014, Ralph Turner, a 25-year-old truck driver and father of two, was arrested in San Jose on suspicion of possessing marijuana. Turner had been carrying over 30 grams, and after a short trial he was convicted and given a mandatory sentence of six months in prison.

California’s prisons were full to bursting, and with the state in the midst of a severe and extended budget crisis, it couldn’t afford to build any more. Faced with no alternatives, the court enrolled Ralph Turner into a pilot probation programme aimed at low risk offenders.

Turner was taken to an induction centre and shown a short video, and then his cell number was entered into a computer. A technician looped a measuring tape around Turner’s ankle and after a short wait, snapped a light plastic ring into place. He was free to go, and inadvertently became one of the first people to benefit from America’s slow turn away from its ruinously expensive and ineffective penal system.

The object I’m holding right now, an ‘ankle monitor’, is a thin ring of plastic, maybe half a centimeter thick if you count the inner padding. Inside the plastic is a simple computer, a radio, and a microphone array.

Like earlier monitors, it can locate the wearer by satellite positioning and send a warning if they’re leaving or approaching restricted areas. But Turner’s monitor is a little different: its microphone array constantly records and streams every nearby sound to a remote server, so if the wearer is suspected of violating their probation, the relevant audio section can be decrypted by court order. More controversially, in a concession to public fears, the monitor doesn’t just relay its position to the police and judicial system, it also informs a whole range of ‘concerned parties’ including schools, hospitals, and airports.

The theory was that this new generation of ankle monitors could be used for non-violent low risk offenders, such as those convicted of drugs possession or petty theft or vandalism. Not only would they save tens of thousands of dollars per person, they’d also allow the wearers to continue their jobs and live with their families. Coupled with mandatory community service, the monitors seemed to be the best — and only — alternative to a penal system that was too expensive and that barely appeared to reduce crime at all. Expert Amira Goss elaborates:

“Over ten million people worldwide were imprisoned in 2014, and a full quarter of them lived in America, a country with only 5% of the world’s population. Incredibly, most Americans gave little thought to their system of incarceration and if anything, many felt it was too lenient. The fact that prisons only became commonplace as a means of punishment in the 19th century was completely overlooked.

“From a historical perspective, America’s penal system was little different from the old ‘debtors’ prisons’, with many inmates made to work at below minimum wage to pay their way. Not only was it incredibly wasteful, but worse still, it didn’t really work. Recidivism rates were stubbornly high, and even long sentences didn’t seem to deter criminals who had few other options in life. My view is that they became more about retribution, and the very literal removal of criminals from sight — an understandable impulse for severe crimes like murder, but not for petty theft.”

In the years between 1970 and 2014, US incarceration rates increased five-fold thanks to mandatory sentencing laws, privatisation of the prison system, and much stricter attitudes to crime and punishment compared to other rich countries. The human cost of putting close to one in a hundred adults in jail was horrific, and certainly not worth the relatively modest decrease in crime rates, assuming that there was even any causal link.

Prison had become a place that destroyed families and jobs and bred a virulent criminal culture. As befitting the time, though, it wasn’t the human cost that eventually caused the change in direction which led to our ankle monitor; it was the economic cost. By the early 21st century, keeping someone in jail cost almost as much as the average US income.

The new ankle monitors were met with fierce resistance in California from all points along the political spectrum. The ACLU argued that the ankle tags violated human rights on a massive scale, while state Republicans claimed that ‘freeing’ tens of thousands of prisoners would cause a violent crime wave. As revealed by data miners taking advantage of transparency laws enacted in the 50s, much of the opposition was funded by donations from corporations profiting from private prisons, but at the time their warnings were met by a frightened and receptive public.

The government had little choice, though; it simply couldn’t afford the expense of housing so many prisoners. Thanks to a powerful speech from Reverend James Malone, a charismatic religious leader, the public was eventually convinced that it was better to try and reintegrate prisoners with society rather than lose a fortune on them.

The problems began almost immediately. Ankle monitors or not, many wearers weren’t dissuaded from committing crimes, even though they were swiftly apprehended. Hundreds more wearers simply vanished, and troublingly, several wearers were unfairly punished for simple malfunctions of their monitors.

As predicted by security experts, monitors were reverse-engineered in order to spoof and intercept the tracking signals. A firmware update eventually addressed these issues, but for a while, it was possible for anyone with the right equipment to track the wearers. Most damningly, the audio recordings were usually too poor in quality to be useful as evidence, at least until new hardware was released in 2018 and integrated with the wearers’ other sensors.

Yet the government forged on. Too much had been invested to give up now, and the promise of massive savings dazzled their judgement. Three years on, the pilot programme was expanded to all low-risk offenders and taken up by several other cash-strapped states convinced that it was an easy way to save money; in New York and Pennsylvania, the monitors were linked into a flexible community service system that allowed a much wider set of institutions — churches, charities, businesses — to work with offenders through automatic reporting and wireless tracking.

In the vanguard states, sentences became shorter, swifter, and surer. By 2036, the prison population in the US had been cut by a third, saving tens of billions a year — and more importantly, helping millions of offenders stay in work and keep their families intact.

What fascinates us today about ankle monitors is how they represent the dilemmas and compromises that were typical of the early 21st century. It would be a mistake to attribute the sweeping change in the US penal system to a mere piece of technology rather than its human backers and designers, but they still remain a powerful symbol. Social historian Julie Yao observes:

“The monitors were important because they helped to break a spiral of alienation and failure among prisoners. It’s easy for us to think that the Americans of 2014 were somehow heartless, but the truth is that most genuinely believed that prison was the only thing that stopped people from committing crimes, thanks to the sensationalist media.

“Monitors brought punishment and rehabilitation back into the open — but at the massive cost of normalising ubiquitous surveillance, a decision that we all know had serious consequences later in the century.”

We can’t know what Turner was thinking during his six months of monitored probation with his ankle monitor, but inspection of his nascent casters including Facebook, IMs, and text messages shows that he seemed to fare well enough. In an interview years later, Turner remarked, “I didn’t enjoy being a guinea pig one bit, and I sure as hell didn’t appreciate someone being able to listen in on everything that I did. But if you gave me the choice between prison and the monitor, you’re damn right I’d have strapped that thing on my ankle with my own two hands.”

Follow me at @adrianhon and @futureobjects

A History of the Future in 100 Objects will be available on Kindle, iPhone and iPad this summer as an eBook and iOS Newsstand app. A lovely coffee-table book will be out this autumn.

The Many Meanings of The Islanders

After reading Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, I was immediately compelled to figure out exactly what was going on in the story (similar to what I tried with Iain Banks’ Transition). Of course, The Islanders is even more deliberately ambiguous and dreamlike than Transition, and so I’m acutely aware that trying to unknot the plot is perhaps not the most sensible exercise; especially when I haven’t yet read Priest’s other stories set in the same world, i.e. The Dream Archipelago and The Affirmation.

That said, I really enjoy doing it, so: please look away, SPOILERS AHEAD!

Click to enlarge

In no particular order, here are some of the questions I had, with accompanying speculations:

So, what exactly happened with Commis?

The most straightforward answer is that Kerith Sington, after having been beaten up by Commis (in non-mime garb), really did drop the pane of glass on him; and that this was made possible by Chas Kammeston loosening its bindings and leaving the door open (not to mention putting it up there in the first place, although that wasn’t entirely his fault). Continue reading “The Many Meanings of The Islanders”

Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps

A few months ago, I finally had what I’d been dreaming of for years – digital delivery of every single magazine and newspaper I read. No more stacks of New Yorkers and Economists lingering on tables waiting to be given away (or more likely, recycled); no more hunting for all the bits of subscription forms hiding in The Atlantic. I was free and the iPad did it all. Even better, I discovered that the New Yorker made far more sense as an actual reporting magazine when you received in on time rather than one week ‘late’ in the UK.

Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. Each magazine has a completely different method of operation and user interface that conspires to frustrate me in big ways and small. Before a recent trip abroad I dutifully opened up every single content app and synced everything, but The Atlantic proved too wily and when I tried to read the magazine while offline, it sniffily informed me that another update was required. Thanks for nothing. It turns out that because the app delivers both web content and magazine content, it’s often confusing whether you’ve actually downloaded the whole magazine or not.

I shall refrain from going too much into The Atlantic app’s failings (powered by Rarewire) as a reading experience; the fact that it delivers magazine pages as images that are just-about-but-not-quite readable without zooming in; the practically non-existent navigation; the weird text-only mode that is missing images (at least when offline). The short story is that it has very little in common with other iPad reading experiences – apart from, presumably, other Rarewire apps – which is more than enough to cause irritation.

The Atlantic 2

The Economist has been cited as one of the best magazine apps out there. I can’t disagree – it’s simple and it works well. I don’t understand why it isn’t on Newsstand yet, since auto-downloading would be nice, but otherwise I can’t complain. It’s worth noting that you have to swipe left to read the next page though, which sort-of makes sense given its two column layout but is nonetheless at odds with many other apps (other The Atlantic, which doesn’t count).


The New Yorker is an interesting one. It has the usual Conde Nast engine so the download takes forever and frequently hangs (although last week it downloaded itself automatically, which was great). Despite this, I personally think that the New Yorker has one of the best reading experiences out there. The font size and layout is very agreeable and I like the way in which you flick up and down to read through articles. There are plenty of adverts, but it’s easy to skip them and the multiple navigation options allow me to get to where I want to go quickly (i.e. skip the entire first half of the magazine). If only it were faster.

New Yorker 2

The problem with The New Yorker app, though, is that it has all sorts of weird UI quirks. Articles rarely have genuinely interactive elements, and when they do, they behave in all sorts of strange ways. I gather that red links to supplementary material require you to be online, but I wish they were downloaded at the start. I also only realised last month that you could actually tap the ‘buttons’ on the Cartoon Caption competition page to see the nominees and winners; the buttons just don’t look like buttons. I imagine that a lot of other readers have the same problem of just not knowing what the hell is going on. Continue reading “Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps”

Unbound: The Crowdfunding Cargo Cult

(This piece may be appearing in The Telegraph, but I felt it would be useful to have it up soon given the recent interest in Unbound from places like The Economist).

The Southwest Pacific islands of Melanesia are some of the most remote places on the planet. Until the Second World War, its inhabitants had few encounters with technology or war, let alone planes and tanks. When Japanese and American soldiers arrived to set up bases, the Melanesians would have been astonished to see planes setting down on their newly-cleared runways disgorging massive amounts of materiel, medicine, food, weapons and clothing.

It would have been difficult for the Melanesians to grasp the reasons why the soldiers were there, or the vast and complex logistics chains that produced the planes and the weapons that moved the supplies around. And so when the soldiers left, taking their supplies with them, the Melanesians did what made perfect sense to them – they imitated the US soldiers by clearing the forest, building wooden control towers, carving headphones, and they fruitlessly waited for planes to arrive with cargo.

Today, we call the Melanesians’ behaviour a ‘cargo cult’ and use the term to describe anyone else who imitates superficial features of a system (in this case, military logistics) and hopes to replicate the original’s success, without any thought or understanding of the intrinsic workings of the system.

Though the cargo cult story is fairly well known, it’s hard to believe that anyone could be short-sighted enough to repeat their mistakes – yet there are countless examples of cargo cult thinking from the small to the massive, all showing how tempting it is to believe that the success of others can be copied as easily as an MP3.

One website that’s succumbed to cargo cult thinking is Unbound. Unbound is a new kind of book publisher that invites readers to help authors write books by buying them in advance. Each book has a target amount it needs to raise, and if that target is met, the author will finish the book and supporters will receive a copy. The venture has been described as a new and innovative way of harnessing the crowd to fund books that traditional publishers might otherwise shy away from.

But there’s another way of looking at Unbound, and that’s as a cargo cult version Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding site that helps creators to fund projects via pledges, for everything from documentary films to book, games, toys, and exhibitions. Most of the pledges aren’t donations but advance purchases of products or tickets, and over the past two years its has raised over $40 million for 8000 projects (including hundreds of books,
one by me), and so when Unbound launched, it was immediately labelled as a ‘Kickstarter for books‘.

On first glance, it’s easy to see why: Unbound has a very similar layout and format to Kickstarter. So far, so good. But the closer you look, the more differences you spot.

Instead of having a clear fundraising goal (e.g. £20,000), Unbound only has a target number of supporters (e.g. 2000). Since 2,000 people pledging £10 each raises much less than 2000 people pledging £250 each, this has caused some confusion. It later emerged that only a quarter of people would be allowed to pledge at the lowest £10 level and that fundraising targets could be ‘adjusted’ at any time.

Where Kickstarter is transparent, Unbound is bafflingly opaque – although this coyness may stem from publishers’ reluctance to talk about hard numbers even when they’re raising all their money from the public. Transparency also applies to creators; on Kickstarter, they write their own project descriptions and film their own videos, allowing their personality, experience, and trustworthiness (or lack thereof) to shine through, and from the earnest amateurishness of some efforts actually helps convey how much they could use the money.

Unbound writes project descriptions for their authors. They’re slick, but they’re also soulless (which is odd, since if anyone ought to be able to write well, it’s authors) and distancing. This leads to another issue – do successful authors like Terry Jones even need the money? After all, they’re asking for a lot – £10,000 at a minimum, and much, much higher in most cases – so you want to be sure it’s being used wisely.

In fact, Terry Jones has already written a big chunk of his book and Tibor Fischer’s Possibly Forty Ships (on Amazon) is already published. I wonder whether these books would be published one way or another even if they don’t meet their targets.

These questions would be less important if pledges weren’t so expensive at £10 for eBooks and £20 for hardbacks. Higher level rewards are also frustratingly vague, talking about ‘goodie bags’ for pledging over £150; again, in contrast to the often more specific and highly-imaginative rewards that many Kickstarter creators offer. There’s a reason why Kickstarter’s average pledge is £44 – it’s because people look forward to getting something really special.

I could go on – Unbound doesn’t have a wide enough selection, it’s too UK-centric, Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s Clouds iPad app vanished without a trace (although with only 2 per cent raised after a few weeks, it’s easy to speculate why).

But the biggest difference is its success rate. Of the six projects Unbound started with, it seems that one has been funded so far: Evil Machines by Terry Jones, and only by a gnat’s whisker at that, even though it’s by a Monty Python member with over 30,000 Twitter followers. Four other books on the brink of failure have had their deadlines unexpectedly extended, hopefully long enough for the public to come to their senses and cough up more cash. Unbound isn’t some fly-by-night operation; it was heavily promoted at the Hay Festival, it’s received gushing praise across the media – yet it may end up with a one in six success rate.

So, why was Unbound set up in the first place? It’s because they constructed a cargo cult, believing that if they mimicked the superficial elements of successful crowdfunding, they could enjoy the same success as others – but perhaps even more, thanks to their relationships with publishers, agents, authors, and the media.

Unbound are learning. Unlike Kickstarter, they’ll refund supporters’ money if the books aren’t delivered, and their newest author, Rupert Isaacson, has more specific rewards and a more realistic (i.e. lower) fundraising goal. Yet with a such a low target, you wonder whether a small publisher or Kickstarter might be a better choice.

I genuinely admire the sentiment behind Unbound, but there’s been a real lack of understanding of what makes for successful crowdfunding. I hope they can fix it soon.

Kickstarter isn’t the only success to attract cargo cults. Mere months after the iPhone was announced in 2007, a parade of competitors built their own cargo cults around it, hoping that by mimicking the iPhone’s design and its characteristic ‘apps’ they’d attract customers who don’t know any better, even if their phones didn’t have the same range of apps as Apple, or weren’t as fast.

Cargo cult thinking in technology products might have worked in the past, when customers really didn’t know any better and you could overwhelm them with slick marketing campaigns, but things are different now, thanks to online reviews and word-of-mouth. Yet they still try, wasting millions and millions on modern-day equivalents of wooden radar towers, or rather, yet more iPhone and iPad imitators.

Cargo cults abound in governance as well. The institutions that underpin western liberal democracy – universal suffrage and free and fair elections – are so strong and have produced such comparative stability and growth that you see other organisations and countries erect their own cargo cults, hoping that the illusion of elections will quell the people and produce similarly positive results. The sham of the FIFA voting scandal and recent ‘elections’ in countries such as Egypt and Iran have put paid to such craven hopes.

In our own country, the events of the last few weeks have shown that the Press Complaints Commission has been another cargo cult. With its Code of Practice, power to impose sanctions, rules on conflicts of interest, we thought it could deliver the goods, but we didn’t understand what really made for effective commissions, like functional and financial independence and an actual desire to challenge power.

Someone once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” A cargo cult is copying the most superficial parts of a success and expecting the same results. It comes from our desperate desire for quick success and power. It’s magical, childish thinking made more seductive now that it’s so easy to copy things, both online and in the real world. We forget that the beautiful and apt verse by Ecclesiastes:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Success is rarely as simple or straightforward as we hope it to be. Just ask the Melanesians.

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.

After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”

Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.


Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.

If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.

(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).

I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).

So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.

It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…

On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)

Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:

  1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
  2. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  3. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
  4. The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
  5. The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
  6. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
  7. The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
  8. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:

Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.

(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)

Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.

For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:

People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.

One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.

… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].

“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.

“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.

“To get a good grade.”

“But why care about grades?”

“To get a job in investment banking.”

“But why get a job in investment banking?”

“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”

“But why be a hedge fund manager?”

“To make a lot of money.”

“But why make a lot of money?”

“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”

This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.

What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself). Continue reading “On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)”

More on the Death of Publishers

If book publishers want to see the next decade in any reasonable health, then it’s absolutely imperative that they rethink their pricing strategies and business models right now. Hopefully this example will illustrate why:

I’m a big fan of Iain Banks’ novels; I always buy them in hardback as soon as they come out. It doesn’t matter what reviewers say, I need to have his books immediately. His latest novel, Surface Detail, came out a few days ago and promptly arrived at my office – all 627 pages of it. I lugged the thing home and began reading it this morning.


Being a Culture novel, it’s a real page-turner and I found it difficult to pull myself away from it. I didn’t want to lug it back to the office again, not least because I didn’t have any space left in my bag, so I did the unthinkable – I googled surface detail ePub so I could download and read it on my iPad (and iPhone).

I try doing this every six months or so, and I usually end up mired in a swamp of fake torrent links and horrible PDF versions; for what it’s worth, this was mostly out of curiosity, since six months ago I didn’t own an iPad.

This time, it took me 60 seconds to download a pristine ePub file, and another five minutes to move it to my iPad and iPhone. While this was going on, I took the opportunity to poke around the torrent sites and forums that my search had yielded, and discovered a wonderful selection of books, including:

  • Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
  • Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre
  • Jump! by Jilly Cooper
  • The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry
  • Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Solar, by Ian McEwan
  • Zero History, by William Gibson
  • Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward

Now, that’s not all of the current bestsellers, but it’s not a bad start. “Oh, but we’ve still got the backlist!” I hear some publisher cry. No such luck, because some helpful pirate has bundled entire collections of popular backlist novels into single torrents, including:

  • Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels
  • Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Narnia
  • Harry Potter
  • Artemis Fowl
  • Twilight
  • The Hunger Games
  • Every Ken Follett book
  • Every Stieg Larsson book
  • Every Stephen King book
  • Every Douglas Adams book
  • etc.

Pretty much all of these books are available in ePub, mobi, PDF and every other popular format (the non-fiction and literary selection is much worse though, which probably reflects the tastes of the people uploading the torrents – that’ll change soon enough).

I am not a torrent-finding genius – I just know how to add ‘ePub’ to the name of a book or author. I don’t need a fast internet connection, because most books are below 1MB in size, even in a bundle of multiple formats. I don’t need to learn how to use Bittorrent, because I already use that for TV shows. And Apple has made it very easy for me to add ePub files to my iPad and iPhone. So really, there is nothing stopping me from downloading several hundred books other than the fact that I already have too much to read and I think authors should be paid.

But why would the average person not pirate eBooks? Like Cory Doctorow says, it’s not going to become any harder to type in ‘Toy Story 3 bittorrent’ in the future – and ‘Twilight ePub’ is even easier to type, and much faster to download to boot.

After Christmas, tens of millions of people will have the motive, the means, and the opportunity to perform book piracy on a massive scale. It won’t happen immediately, but it will happen. It’ll begin with people downloading electronic copies of books they already own, just for convenience’s sake (and hey, the New York Times says it’s ethical!). This will of course handily introduce them to the world of ebook torrents.

Next, you’ll have people downloading classics – they’ll say to themselves, “Tolkein and C. S. Lewis are both dead, so why should I feel bad about pirating their books?” Then you’ll have people downloading ebooks not available in their country yet. Then it’ll be people downloading entire collections, just because it’s quicker. Then they’ll start wondering why they should buy any ebooks at all, when they cost so much. And then you go bust.

(In case you think this is just a scary story, think again – a conservative estimate this month suggests there are 1.5-3 million people looking for pirated eBooks every day (PDF). A suggestion: If you gave away a free eBook copy with physical books, that might help things. A bit.)

But of course I’m exaggerating. Most publishers won’t go bust. eBook prices will be forced down, margins will be cut, consolidation will occur. New publishers will spring up, with lower overheads and offering authors a bigger cut. A few publishers will thrive; most publishers will suffer. Some new entrants will make a ton of cash; maybe there’ll be a Spotify or Netflix for books. Life will go on. Authors will continue writing – it’s not as if they ever did it for the money – and books will continue being published.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post called The Death of Publishers. Back then, most commenters didn’t believe that eBook readers would ever rival physical books for convenience and comfort. They didn’t think that it would ever be that easy to pirate books. The post caused a splash at the time, but it didn’t change anything.

Here’s an excerpt:

Book publishers have had a longer grace period than the other entertainment industries. Computers and iPods had an easy time besting DVDs and CDs, but it’s been difficult to make something that can compete with a book. It may be strange to hear, but a book is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s portable, it doesn’t need batteries, it’s cheap to print and easy to read. This has led many publishers to complacency, thinking there’s something special about books that will spare them from the digital revolution. They’ve seen so many poor or substandard eBook readers that they think it’ll never be done properly.

They’re wrong. eBook readers are about to get very good, very quickly. A full colour wireless eBook reader with a battery life of over a week, a storage capacity of a thousand books, and a flexible display will be yours for $150 in ten years time. If this sounds unbelievable, consider this – the first iPod was released only six years ago and cost $400. Imagine what an iPod will look like in four years time.

How wrong I was! It’s only taken us three years to get the Kindle 3 at a mere $189, with a battery life of a month and a storage capacity of 3500 books. Sure, it doesn’t have colour or a flexible display, but it does have global wifi and 3G, and it’s a lot lighter than I thought it might be. Give it another year or two and we’ll have that colour as well.

(I was also wrong about scanning and OCRing being the main way of pirating books – turns out it was people cracking the DRM of eBooks that publishers had helpfully formatted and distributed themselves!)

But I was right about the complacency of publishers. They’ve spent three years bickering about eBook prices and Amazon and Apple and Andrew Wylie, and they’ve ignored that massive growling wolf at the door, the wolf that has transformed the music and TV so much that they’re forced to give their content away for practically nothing.

Time’s up. The wolf is here.

The Binding of a Book

Like a gamer to Starcraft 2, I can’t help but be attracted to articles about the death of books, and even better, the death of long-form reading. There’s something about the desperate handwringing that pushes almost every intellectual button I have, from impassioned but futile appeals to the past, to lurid depictions of how new technology will destroy civilisation.

The art of slow reading from the Guardian is a particularly fine and well-written example – and notwithstanding the odd assumption that everyone used to read long texts all the time, and that all of that reading was worthwhile (rather than being on, say, potboilers and pulp) it actually has some very good points about how the internet can distract us from long-form reading. In fact, towards the end I was worried that the article might be missing an essential component, but thankfully…

…Though John Miedema thinks iPads and Kindles are “a good halfway house, particularly if you’re on the road”, the author reveals that, for the true slow reader, there’s simply no substitute for particular aspects of the paper book: “The binding of a book captures an experience or idea at a particular space and time.” And even the act of storing a book is a pleasure for Miedema. “When the reading is complete, you place it with satisfaction on your bookshelf,” he says.

Yes, apparently the binding of a physical book is something that can capture an experience or idea in a way that a weightless, ephemeral eBook never can hope to. And once you’ve finished an eBook, all you can do is touch the ‘Library’ button on your iPad, a nagging sensation of dissatisfaction pulling at your mind as the virtual book flies back into your virtual bookshelf; if only it was physical, the experience would be so much better!

What’s ridiculous about these kinds of arguments – Miedema’s one being a classic – is that they emasculate the very thing they’re trying to defend. Are we supposed to believe that books are so fragile that transferring their text into digital form is going to totally ruin the experience? That having the convenience of buying and reading any book, anywhere, is outweighed by the fact that we can’t slot it into our bookshelves? Books are made of sterner stuff than that, and they’ll survive digitisation just fine.

That’s not to say that I’ll be rushing to get rid of all my physical books, and I still buy physical books; sometimes because they’re cheaper than eBooks, and more rarely, because I like them as beautiful objects. I recently spent $65 on a limited edition of Ted Chiang’s novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. There are only 400 copies of this edition; they’re signed, numbered, cloth-bound, with two-colour foil stamping withan exquisite attention to detail from the publisher and the author; and of course, the story is supposed to be really good as well.

So I’m certainly willing to spend way above the odds for a physical book – not because reading it is more satisfying than an eBook, but because it’s written by an author whom I admire very much, and it comes in a package that is as well-crafted and unique as a handsome vase or a sculpture. Yet if I read it on my iPad, I’m sure the story would be just as good as if I read it on paper.