Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Levy

The planetary chauvinists

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In a profile in the latest issue of Wired, the journalist Steven Levy speaks at length with Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, about his dream of sending humans permanently into space. Levy was offered a rare glimpse into the operations of the Amazon founder’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, but it came with one condition: “I had to promise that, before I interviewed [Bezos] about his long-term plans, I would watch a newly unearthed 1975 PBS program.” He continues:

So one afternoon, I opened my laptop and clicked on the link Bezos had sent me. Suddenly I was thrust back into the predigital world, where viewers had more fingers than channels and remote shopping hadn’t advanced past the Sears catalog. In lo-res monochrome, a host in suit and tie interviews the writer Isaac Asimov and physicist Gerard O’Neill, wearing a cool, wide-lapeled blazer and white turtleneck. To the amusement of the host, O’Neill describes a future where some ninety percent of humans live in space stations in distant orbits of the blue planet. For most of us, Earth would be our homeland but not our home. We’d use it for R&R, visiting it as we would a national park. Then we’d return to the cosmos, where humanity would be thriving like never before. Asimov, agreeing entirely, called resistance to the concept “planetary chauvinism.”

The discussion, which was conducted by Harold Hayes, was evidently lost for years before being dug up in a storage locker by the Space Studies Institute, the organization that O’Neill founded in the late seventies. You can view the entire program here, and it’s well worth watching. At one point, Asimov, whom Hayes describes as “our favorite jack of all sciences,” alludes briefly to my favorite science fiction concept, the gravity gauge: “Well once you land on the moon, you know the moon is a lot easier to get away from than the earth is. The earth has a gravity six times as strong as that of the moon at the surface.” (Asimov must have known all of this without having to think twice, but I’d like to believe that he was also reminded of it by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.) And in response to the question of whether he had ever written about space colonies in his own fiction, Asimov gives his “legendary” response:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon—so have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the asteroid belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them [in the novelette “The Martian Way”]. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Of course, it isn’t entirely accurate that science fiction writers had “all” been planet chauvinists—Heinlein had explored similar concepts in such stories as “Waldo” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger,” and I’m sure there are other examples. (Asimov had even discussed the idea ten years earlier in the essay “There’s No Place Like Spome,” which he later described as “an anticipation, in a fumbling sort of way, of Gerard O’Neill’s concept of space settlements.”) And while there’s no doubt that O’Neill’s notion of a permanent settlement in space was genuinely revolutionary, there’s also a sense in which Asimov was the last writer you’d expect to come up with it. Asimov was a notorious acrophobe and claustrophile who hated flying and suffered a panic attack on the roller coaster at Coney Island. When he was younger, he loved enclosed spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he daydreamed about running a newsstand on the subway, where he could put up the shutters and just read magazines. Years later, he refused to go out onto the balcony of his apartment, which overlooked Central Park, because of his fear of heights, and he was always happiest while typing away in his office. And his personal preferences were visible in the stories that he wrote. The theme of an enclosed or underground city appears in such stories as The Caves of Steel, while The Naked Sun is basically a novel about agoraphobia. In his interview with Hayes, Asimov speculates that space colonies will attract people looking for an escape from earth: “Once you do realize that you have a kind of life there which represents a security and a pleasantness that you no longer have on earth, the difficulty will be not in getting people to go but in making them line up in orderly fashion.” But he never would have gone there voluntarily.

Yet this is a revealing point in itself. Unlike Heinlein, who dreamed of buying a commercial ticket to the moon, Asimov never wanted to go into space. He just wanted to write about it, and he was better—or at least more successful—at this than just about anybody else. (In his memoirs, Asimov recalls taping the show with O’Neill on January 7, 1975, adding that he was “a little restless” because he was worried about being late for dinner with Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. After he was done, he hailed a cab. On the road, as they were making the usual small talk, the driver revealed that he had once wanted to be a writer. Asimov, who hadn’t mentioned his name, told him consolingly that no one could make a living as writer anyway. The driver responded: “Isaac Asimov does.”) And the comparison with Bezos is an enlightening one. Bezos obviously built his career on books, and he was a voracious reader of science fiction in his youth, as Levy notes: “[Bezos’s] grandfather—a former top Defense Department official—introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.” With his unimaginable wealth, Bezos is in a position remarkably close to that of the protagonist in such stories, with the ability to “painlessly siphon off a billion dollars every year to fund his boyhood dream.” But the ideas that he has the money to put into practice were originated by writers and other thinkers whose minds went in unusual directions precisely because they didn’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to do it personally. Vast wealth can generate a chauvinism of its own, and the really innovative ideas tend to come from unexpected places. This was true of Asimov, as well as O’Neill, whose work was affiliated in fascinating ways with the world of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. I’ll have more to say about O’Neill—and Bezos—tomorrow.

The closed circle

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In his wonderful book The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander lists fifteen properties that characterize places and buildings that feel alive. (“Life” itself is a difficult concept to define, but we can come close to understanding it by comparing any two objects and asking the one question that Alexander identifies as essential: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?”) These properties include such fundamentals of design as “Levels of Scale,” “Local Symmetries,” and “Positive Space,” and elements that are a bit trickier to pin down, including “Echoes,” “The Void,” and “Simplicity and Inner Calm.” But the final property, and the one that Alexander suggests is the most important, bears the slightly clunky name of “Not-Separateness.” He points to the Tower of the Wild Goose in China as an example of this quality at its best, and he says of its absence:

When a thing lacks life, is not whole, we experience it as being separate from the world and from itself…In my experiments with shapes and buildings, I have discovered that the other fourteen ways in which centers come to life will make a center which is compact, beautiful, determined, subtle—but which, without this fifteenth property, can still often somehow be strangely separate, cut off from what lies around it, lonely, awkward in its loneliness, too brittle, too sharp, perhaps too well delineated—above all, too egocentric, because it shouts, “Look at me, look at me, look how beautiful I am.”

The fact that he refers to this property as “Non-Separateness,” rather than the more obvious “Connectedness,” indicates that he sees it as a reaction against the marked tendency of architects and planners to strive for distinctiveness and separation. “Those unusual things which have the power to heal…are never like this,” Alexander explains. “With them, usually, you cannot really tell where one thing breaks off and the next begins, because the thing is smokily drawn into the world around it, and softly draws this world into itself.” It’s a characteristic that has little to do with the outsized personalities who tend to be drawn to huge architectural projects, and Alexander firmly skewers the motivations behind it:

This property comes about, above all, from an attitude. If you believe that the thing you are making is self-sufficient, if you are trying to show how clever you are, to make something that asserts its beauty, you will fall into the error of losing, failing, not-separateness. The correct connection to the world will only be made if you are conscious, willing, that the thing you make be indistinguishable from its surroundings; that, truly, you cannot tell where one ends and the next begins, and you do not even want to be able to do so.

This doesn’t happen by accident, particularly when millions of dollars and correspondingly inflated egos are involved. (The most blatant way of separating a building from its surroundings is to put your name on it.) And because it explicitly asks the designer to leave his or her cleverness behind, it amounts to the ultimate test of the subordination of the self to the whole. You can do great work and still falter at the end, precisely because of the strengths that allowed you to get that far in the first place.

It’s hard for me to read these words without thinking of Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, variously known as the Ring and the Mothership, which is scheduled to open later this year. A cover story in Wired by Steven Levy describes it in enraptured terms, in which you can practically hear Also Sprach Zarathustra:

As we emerge into the light, the Ring comes into view. As the Jeep orbits it, the sun glistens off the building’s curved glass surface. The “canopies”—white fins that protrude from the glass at every floor—give it an exotic, retro-­future feel, evoking illustrations from science fiction pulp magazines of the 1950s. Along the inner border of the Ring, there is a walkway where one can stroll the three-quarter-mile perimeter of the building unimpeded. It’s a statement of openness, of free movement, that one might not have associated with Apple. And that’s part of the point.

There’s a lot to unpack here, from the reference to pulp science fiction to the notion of “orbiting” the building to the claim that the result is “a statement of openness.” As for the contrary view, here’s what another article in Wired, this one by Adam Rogers, had to say about it a month later:

You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new [headquarters] is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to twenty-first-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood.

Without delving into the economic and social context, which a recent article in the New York Times explores from another perspective, I think it’s fair to say that Apple Park is an utter failure from the point of view of “Not-Separateness.” But this isn’t surprising. Employees may just be moving in now, but its public debut dates back to June 7, 2011, when Steve Jobs himself pitched it to the Cupertino City Council. Jobs was obsessed by edges and boundaries, both physical and virtual, insisting that the NeXT computer be a perfect cube and introducing millions of consumers to the word “bezel.” Compare this to what Alexander writes of boundaries in architecture:

In things which have not-separateness, there is often a fragmented boundary, an incomplete edge, which destroys the hard line…Often, too, there is a gradient of the boundary, a soft edge caused by a gradient in which scale decreases…so that at the edge it seems to melt indiscernibly into the next thing…Finally, the actual boundary is sometimes rather careless, deliberately placed to avoid any simple complete sharp cutting off of the thing from its surroundings—a randomness in the actual boundary line which allows the thing to be connected to the world.

The italics are mine, because it’s hard to imagine anything less like Jobs or the company he created. Apple Park is being positioned as Jobs’s posthumous masterpiece, which reminds me of the alternate wording to Alexander’s one question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?” (If the building is a monument to Jobs, it’s also a memorial to the ways in which he shaded imperceptibly into Trump, who also has a fixation with borders.) It’s the architectural equivalent of the design philosophy that led Apple to glue in its batteries and made it impossible to upgrade the perfectly cylindrical Mac Pro. Apple has always loved the idea of a closed system, and now its employees get to work in one.

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2017 at 8:59 am

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