Foundation & Empire

In Isaac Asimov‘s seminal ‘Foundation’ series of sci-fi novels, he postulates the fictional science of ‘psychohistory‘ by which the close observation of mass groups of people – and how they respond to circumstances – can allow you to predict and even manipulate major societal events. The galactic empire is nearing collapse, so a group of visionary scientists set up a Foundation, aiming to manipulate people using their pioneering science, to ultimately reduce the length of the ‘period of chaos’ between the empire collapsing and the rise of the next civilisation.

For a couple of months, it’s kept popping into my head that Google reminds me of the Foundation. Yep, it’s sci-fi, sorry, but think about the overwhelming complexities and depths of data-mining being done at Google right now, as we’re simultaneously on the cusp of monumental shifts in civilisation worldwide. They can track how a disease spreads for example way faster than government medical strategists. You can be damn sure Google are tracking societal trends and responses to major events faster and in more nuanced ways than we can imagine as outsiders. I wonder if they’re getting close to psychohistory.

Also, we’re going to need something to help the survivors rebuild some form of global network, however formal or anarchic.

Anyway, I’d been thinking about this stuff then unnervingly last week I read in a Wired piece that Hal Varian, one of the Google top boffs, is a huge fan of Asimov’s Foundation series, so there’s even consciousness to the connection. Cripes.

Then on Friday I went to the launch in Oxford of the Dark Mountain project. I’ll write about it in detail for the Morning Star column this week [updated – link] but basically it’s a new post-eco manifesto and ongoing arts project called ‘Uncivilisation’. It seems to be aiming to connect the culture we make to a post-civilisation reality, instead of tying it to the current structures and heirachies we seem to be obsessed with protecting, despite their desperate lack of worth. So far, so comfortably chiming with my views.

It’s curated by environmental writer, activist and former deputy editor of the Ecologist Paul Kingsnorth and blogger and former BBC journalist Dougald Hine, who I mistakenly called ‘Dougal’ in all my tweets. The launch was an understated affair involving me and Sam Get Cape in the garden round the back of the Isis Tavern. They’d made a limited initial pamphlet run of their Uncivilisation manifesto, which is beautifully presented. The garden was lush in the dusk and the people were bookish and folksy. Oxford folkscene doyenne Tim Healey read poetry, which was all well chosen and thought-provoking.

Oh my fucking god, even as I type this, I’ve smacked into a massive conspiracy theory wall that neatly ties in: Tim Healey is Denis Healey’s son and Denis is a founder member of the Bilderberg Group, the secretive annual global gathering of super-powerful investors and government financial types who are, they say, aiming to improve the world by pooling their expertise. Conspiracy theorists the world over tie them to the Skull & Bones and Illuminati conspiracies. How extraordinarily lame that I didn’t make the connection at the time. And fuck me for not thinking to ask Tim A) what he thought about the Bilderberg Group and B) whether he saw a connection of intention between their efforts and Dark Mountain. Christ on a bike! I’m laughing but I’ve really scared myself. Gotta get on that…

Anyway, (I’d already written this bit, feels a bit passé now…) as Paul and Dougald explained their ideas for the proposed movement, it jolted me back to the Google / Foundation thing and then another image from sci-fi: the artilleryman in War Of The Worlds. The Martians have almost defeated humankind and an artilleryman claims to be building a new civilisation underground. Of course, really he’s just dug a 12 foot hole to hide in. So you’ve got a hopeful and a sceptical response, both from sci-fi. I described these onstage, trying to encourage people to actually do something with the Dark Mountain ideas – but I’m not sure a single person in the room took it in. They seemed to enjoy my songs but nobody particularly connected with anything I said. It felt like literary book-launch schmooze rather than a gathering storm, though that’s no bad thing because people can’t begin to wrap themselves in a manifesto til they’ve actually read it.

Halfway through Get Cape’s excellent set, I clocked I had almost no chance of getting home. It was 11.15pm and I was miles from the centre of Oxford. I walked back alone along the banks of the Isis, past the barges, where there are no lights and bats flew all around me. I couldn’t hurry, despite having no hotel room booked, because I felt spaced out by the event. I love that shit, especially fantasising about the collapse to come – easy when one can’t actually imagine the human suffering involved.

And somehow the first cab that drove by stopped; took me to the Oxford Tube; the bus got diverted along the Bayswater Road in a way that actually made it quicker; I got to Victoria with 2 minutes to spare and made it breathless onto the Brighton train. There’s even another story from that train journey home but that’ll have to wait.



6 responses to “Foundation & Empire

  1. nice meanderings.

    pedantry point – it was the artillery man in wotw, not the preacher, who’s digging the pathetic hole in the ground. the preacher believes the martians are devils.

    see you on tuesday…

  2. duly corrected. 🙂

  3. Great post. I shall no doubt have to re-read it a couple of times, as I’ve grown up reading Asimov, but for fiction to come to close to reality takes a bit of percolating into my aging grey cells.

    Thanks for a great set on Friday as well. Got really quite emotional at the tree song.

  4. Hi Chris –

    That’s a very interesting set of strands – I look forward to seeing what you write in the column.

    As far as being more book launch schmooze than gathering storm, I think you’re right. For “uncivilisation”, it all felt rather civilised. But I’m hopeful that we’ll go further, darker and wilder as the project rolls on.

    I take the warning about the artillery man, too. For me, the question isn’t whether we can build an underground civilisation, but whether there’s one already there, beneath our noses. I was talking to Sam and Marmaduke Dando about this at the launch – the sense I have that there’s a kind of distributed research project going on, by which people are (re)discovering the techniques and habits that will make the difference as the structures and institutions we’re told to rely on continue to break down. Some of it is very practical – ways of growing food or providing good shelter with far less resources than we currently use – and some of it is cultural, such as Marmaduke’s Power Down nights, which feel like the kind of thing that would continue unchanged and just as fun after the end of the world as we know it…

    So Dark Mountain is less about mobilising people from scratch, more about raising a banner that can give people confidence to say what they’re already saying louder, or trust their instincts more.

    I’m sorry we didn’t get chance to talk at the launch – I hope we will do soon. In the mean time, thanks again for playing for us – several people have said that your set made a deep impression on them. And I’m glad to hear you made it home OK!

  5. Right, my Morning Star column (in the print edition Tuesday 21st July) is online now here:

  6. Pingback: Next « The Manchester Hermit

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