In the Critics this week

Dylan Jones on David Bowie, Ed Smith on Wagner and new fiction from Deborah Levy.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, visits “David Bowie Is …” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibition, Jones writes, “is a proper multimedia extravaganza, and for Bowie obsessives like myself is probably the final word on the man (in a good way)”.

Our Critic at large this week is Ed Smith, who examines the enduring power of the music of Richard Wagner, whose bicentenary falls this year. Smith recalls going to a performance of Wagner’s Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “The experience of Act III of Die Walkure that evening was as far removed from Hollywood shallowness as I am capable of imagining … The experience was qualitatively different from anything I’d known from watching a stage play or reading a novel.”

Deborah Levy, whose novel Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, contributes a new short story to this issue, “Migrations to elsewhere and other aches and pains”.

In Books, Aditya Chakrabortty, economics leader writer of the Guardian, reviews Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier and To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov. Both writers, Chakrabortty argues, are in thrall to what he calls “the engineering mindset”. “If this age belongs to any profession, it surely belongs to the engineer – not in the term’s historical sense of builders of dams and railways but in its new sense of makers of technology and software.”

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (“In 2013, feminism is at a crucial moment”); Suzy Klein reviews Dinner with Lenny: the Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein by Jonathan Cott (“The genius of Cott’s book is not only to remember but to recall with pinpoint accuracy and sympathy the flame of Leonard Bernstein that burned so brightly and so true”); Andrew Biswell uncovers the story of Anthony Burgess’s lost script for the film of the James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me (“[The producers] probably suspected (quite rightly) that Burgess was not taking the assignment entirely seriously”); Robert Hanks reviews the reissue of Louis MacNiece’s 1938 book about London Zoo (“To read Zoo is to share with [MacNiece] a glimmer of understanding of the distance and nearness of civilisation to the state of nature”); Hannah Rosefield reviews Mohsin Hamid’s novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia turns out to be as much moral fable as it is satire”); Jonathan Derbyshire reviews Eric Hobsbawm’s final book, Fractured Times (“Hobsbawm’s indifference the main problems of Marxist historiography … ensured that his work reached a much larger audience than that of many of his contemporaries”).

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Lucy Wadham about her book Heads and Straights, part of the Penguin Lines series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (“There were a number of key events in the life of my family … that had happened near Circle Line stops”).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Alexandra Coghlan talks to Sir John Eliot Gardiner about Bach (“Bach fills whatever space you allow him to enter,” Gardiner tells Coghlan); Andrew Billen reviews The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London (“It is clear … that someone has lost their nerve”); Rachel Cooke is beguiled by Michael Cockerell’s documentary about Boris Johnson (“Whatever else he is, Boris isn’t dull”); Ryan Gilbey reviews Francois Ozon’s latest film, In the House (“In the House never sacrifices its thriller credentials”); Antonia Quirke celebrates Simon Russell Beale’s radio presenting (“Not just whole programmes but whole stations happily adjust around him”).

PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals and “Riddle”, a poem by Bernard O’Donoghue.

The 'Starman' costume from David Bowie's appearance on 'Top of the Pops' in 1972. Photo: Getty Images
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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt