Boldly going where hundreds have gone before: Brave New Planet podcast reviewed

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

Brave New Planet

Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other platforms

Sunday Feature: Curves and Concrete

BBC Radio 3

Since technology is developing at such light-speed pace, why does it feel so strangely slow? There is a sense that driverless cars, green energy and of course certain vaccines are, for all their breakneck pace, still taking for ever to arrive. Watching the future emerge is like watching slow-motion footage of a high-speed train. We know it’s going quickly — but can we not just fast-forward?

Perhaps it’s merely our heightened expectations, our diminished boredom thresholds. Some of our most distinguished thinkers and entrepreneurs have warned that an all-powerful artificial intelligence, badly calibrated, might represent the greatest threat to the long-term survival of humanity. That they’ve been warning this for ten years makes no difference to the actual threat, but it does increase the likelihood of some attention-deficient, dopamine-chasing idiot — me, for instance — turning round and snapping: ‘Listen, Elon, you’ve been saying this for ever. Show me the paperclips or shut it.’

Coming round the corner this month and making vague, spooky gestures about the future is Brave New Planet, which explores not just the problems that technology will create, but also how we might use technology to solve those problems.

Unfortunately, we’ve heard it all before. We learn that deepfakes — ostensibly real videos that are in fact synthesised from pre-existing footage — are primarily used for revenge pornography, political sabotage and recasting long-dead actors in desiccated film franchises. These were supposed to be a major threat to the US election — I wonder if we’ll hear as much about their destructive power during the Biden presidency. The episode on climate change was appalling, in the way that everything you learn about climate change is appalling. It’s a problem with no quick fixes.

The episode on ‘killer robots’ was dominated by official-sounding military types, who talk admiringly about the efficiency of their futuristic weapons. The idea that drones and automated missiles are more accurate, kill fewer civilians, and can be deployed — within the limited definition that aerial warfare allows — in a more humane way than conventional bombing is an idea worth taking seriously (the philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued for this position). But our host somewhat sidesteps the equally serious question: what would happen if these weapons were to come under the control of a malicious or indifferently bellicose government? There are people in the Middle East who might argue that these things are not unthinkable.

With its attention-grabbing anecdotes, zippy one-liners and array of talking heads, Brave New Planet boldly goes where hundreds have gone before, with ankle-deep explanations of things you know about but don’t really understand. I left each episode knowing more or less what I did before. Which is to say, nothing, plus anecdotes and one-liners.

We all live with a sense that the new world is being engineered, prototyped and focus-tested somewhere secret and out of view. It’s easy to forget that almost everything in our lives is designed. Someone carved that font, laid that brickwork; someone chose the lettering on that road sign. If you learn to skateboard, you become deeply attuned to the textures of cities: the roughness or smoothness of stone, the gradient of tiny slopes, the style and height and material of kerbs.

Curves and Concrete, on Radio 3, was about skating, and design, and the inch-specific love with which the best design is done. It focused on the skate park in Livingston new town, in West Lothian, and it filled my heart with joy. The park was built in the 1980s, when modern skateboarding was being born and a certain strand of mid-century urban planning was fading away. At the time, most British skate parks were blobby fantasias, designed by people who didn’t know — or ask — what skaters actually wanted. Iain Urquhart was an architect working for the Livingston Development Corporation and, along with his wife Dee, a pioneer of skateboarding in Scotland. Together, they travelled to America to study how the world’s most advanced parks were being built.

On his return, Urquhart began seeking planning permission for a new park, and laid out his vision in an article published in Skateline magazine. In his writing, you can hear both the patrician meliorism of the urban planner and the enthusiasm of the diehard skater. ‘The pride of the park must be the large double bowl, designed to meet the needs of the most radical skate freaks.’ He got down on his knees in the wet concrete to personally perform the trowelling on the bowl, laying out the supple, efficient curve he wanted.

It should have been a white elephant. Instead, it became a world-famous site and a social hub for the town — a place where generations of children have gone to play. ‘It’s the best money ever spent, this place,’ said one man. The documentary is on iPlayer for another few weeks. Don’t miss it.

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