Thursday, 12 November 2015

"We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture..."

This place is not a place of honour.

No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.

Nothing valued is here.

This place is a message and part of a system of messages.

Pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us.

We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

The danger here is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

Picture above – Spikes bursting through grid, view 2 (concept by Michael Brill and art by Safdar Abidi)

The philosopher Timothy Morton adopted the term "hyperobject" from computer science to describe objects or processes that "stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or [are] massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience." Examples include nuclear weapons and global warming. Now you don't have to worry, I'm not a big fan of philosophy and academic theory, so this article won't be drowning in jargon, but I did think this was a really interesting concept. As Morton points out in a blog post (, the temporal reach of hyperobjects into the far future poses fascinating questions - this is the first time we have really had to consider the impact our actions will have in a hundred or a thousand generations. Certain types of nuclear waste could easily be hazardous for "twice as long as the whole of recorded human history thus far [approximately 10,000 years]." - Will the people they affect in the future "even be human in the currently defined sense?" Will they have the cultural or intellectual framework needed to understand our actions?

Nuclear weapons and nuclear waste cannot be "destroyed" in the conventional sense. Once they're created, they will exist far into the future in some form, perhaps only just as an idea - even if we achieved total global nuclear disarmament, and intentionally destroyed all information on the manufacture of nuclear weapons, their re-invention could occur at any time. Whichever way you spin it though, in the few decades that nuclear energy has been exploited, we've already generated huge amounts of waste that aren't going to stop being dangerous for a LONG time. Nuclear waste doesn't just consist of the used fuel itself - that's referred to as "high level" waste. In fact, there's a lot more "low level" waste, meaning any protective clothing or machinery that has come into contact with nuclear fuel, which can remain radioactive for 24,000 years.

How to safely store this waste is a huge problem, which the USA attempted to solve with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). This facility in the New Mexico desert buried waste 2150 feet underground in salt formations that had been tectonically stable for 250 million years. The technicalities of the facility aren’t the concern of the article, but instead the question it gave rise to – how to warn people of the future that its contents were dangerous. A task force of linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists, materials scientists, science fiction writers, and futurists was commissioned by the US government to pool knowledge and create a system of warnings. They faced a formidable set of challenges –

“The culture of earlier centuries becomes incomprehensible when it is not translated into new languages every few generations. National institutions do not exist longer than a few hundred years. Even religions are not older than a few millennia and do not typically hand down scientific knowledge.

The written historical tradition of humanity, in contrast, is only about 5000 years. Warnings in cuneiform script could be interpreted by some specialists, but others, such as the writing of the Indus Valley civilization, are already illegible after a few thousand years.” (From the Wikipedia page on the WIPP - I know Wikipedia is a crappy source, but whatcha gonna do)

This might all seem a bit dramatic – after all, industrialised civilisation has spread across the world. How could people forget how to read English? To put it the other way – how well can you read Latin? The Roman Empire was just as sure of its infallibility. It existed for about a thousand years, considerably longer than the industrial age, and still it crumbled to dust. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are at the apex of history with very little justification.

Seldom do we have to think across such time scales. As Peter Van Wyck points out in Atomic Culture -“The ability to engineer materials for this unprecedented duration is and remains hypothetical at best”. So self-assured is our civilisation, so certain of its own greatness, so focused on short term gain, that it is easy to forget how new and fragile it is. In terms of the history of the human race, it has arisen in the blink of an eye.

Accordingly, as they had no way of knowing if the discoverers would come from a civilization more or less advanced than our own, the team designing the WIPP decided to adopt a four tier approach to warning future interlopers of the danger at the site.


The first of these was to make the surface area above the WIPP feel unwelcoming. On the assumption that things that we find emotionally unsettling are based on primal responses (fear of bodily attack, fear of illness, fear of pain etc.) that are deeply engrained in the human experience, this was achieved through incorporating “shapes that hurt the body… and communicate danger” into the surface structures themselves. This is where it really starts getting weird. Proposals included:

• Acres of stone spikes, several times taller than a person, emerging from the ground at peculiar angles

• Giant concrete thorn trees

• Earth berms in the shape of lightning bolts emanating from the centre of the site

The fascinating element of the whole undertaking is that I can’t think of any other structure in human history that has intentionally been designed to be terrifying. Certainly castles and bunkers are intended to be imposing and discourage approach, and places such as concentration camps can be become retrospectively imbued with terror. However, it seems that when we build a structure intended to last a long time, the concordant outlay of skill, time and resources needs can usually only be motivated by some kind of religious or political ideal (to build cathedrals or monuments like Mount Rushmore). Ours is not a civilisation that readily acknowledges negative emotions, least of all shame. For it is shame that created the warnings at WIPP – shame at the legacy we were leaving for the future.


The second level of warning consists of images and simple text, written on freestanding stone walls, consisting of the easiest way to visually convey revulsion and horror to a potentially illiterate audience – human faces.


The third level features more detailed written messages, like the one at the start of the article. The messages would be recorded in the six official languages of the UN (English, Spanish, Russian, French, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic) as well as the Native American language of the region, Navajo, in the hope that at least one of them would remain intelligible for some period of time. Space was also left for the discoverer to translate the message into their own language, if they spoke one as yet to emerge.


The fourth level of warning would assume the discoverer was part of a civilisation at least as advanced, or more so, than our own. It would feature detailed, scientific explanations of why the waste was dangerous, along with diagrams such as a periodic table with the dangerous elements present at the site circled. This data would be presented in a roofless room, so it was not mistaken for a place of shelter.


Something that occurred to me, and that the design teams also acknowledged, is that innate human curiosity might override any sense of foreboding generated by the unsettling atmosphere of the site. There’s no way to know how people will think in 5000 years time – consider how different we were just 200 years ago, a pre-industrial society without telecommunications or motorised transport. Perhaps the most definite method of communication would come from a rather unlikely source – French authors Fran├žoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri proposed the creation of a breed of “radiation cats”. They noted the long historical record of cats cohabiting with humans, for reasons that would still apply in many possible futures – in a more primitive civilisation, they would be useful for pest control, whereas in a more advanced one they would likely still be valued for companionship. The cats would be genetically altered so that they changed colour in the presence of radiation, and the importance of this warning would be re-enforced through fairy tales and myths.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

A peculiar nightmare.

There's not many situations where you could conceivably find yourself relieved that a nuclear bomb HAD gone off. But that is exactly how Kenneth Bainbridge found himself feeling shortly after 05:29:21 on July the 16th 1945. He had just witnessed the first ever test detonation of a nuclear bomb. In the preceding few days, he had been entertaining a peculiar "personal nightmare" - if there had been a misfire, as the director of the test, it would have been his job to drive several miles over to the device and attempt to identify what had gone wrong with the potentially still armed weapon.

Obviously the importance of this exact instant in history cannot be overstated. It can be painted as so many things. I see it as the first time that our intellects allowed us to truly exceed the bounds of nature. In all other arenas of life we were still bound to nature in some way. We had learned to fly, but always had to land after a matter of hours. We had developed industrialised society, but it was fuelled by coal - essentially a more complex way of obtaining energy from the burning of wood, and ultimately from the energy of the sunlight that had grown those trees.

Now however, in the blink of an eye we had demonstrated mastery of power on a scale that previously the preserve of gods - to destroy entire cities at will. 6 KG of plutonium in the core of the bomb had unleashed an explosive force equivalent to 18600 tons of TNT, representing 3.1 million times the power on a kilo for kilo basis.

Considering that this was an event of such unparalleled importance in the history of our species, safety and secrecy were curiously lax. Some people had been worried that the bomb could set fire to the whole atmosphere, but the team were almost certain they had proved this was impossible. Even so, going ahead with the test still sounds like an outrageous risk to take, but on reflection isn't too different from the contemporary example of people being almost certain the Large Hadron Collider wouldn't create a black hole and destroy the planet. However, there were some more prosaic concerns to contend with, amongst them fears that a lightning strike could prematurely set off the bomb, or that the air force could accidentally conduct bombing practice on it (they had already overflown a target range and bombed the site of the scientist's dormitory).

Whilst the test was in about as isolated a place as it was possible to find in the continental United States, it was inevitable that people nearby would see evidence of the test, even if they didn't understand what they were seeing. The unearthly nature of the whole event is conveyed by a navy pilot flying nearby who thought he was seeing "the sun coming up in the south". A man and his son waiting at a train station 50 miles away thought a locomotive had exploded. A young woman took shelter under her bed with her grandmother, who was convinced they were witnessing the end of the world.

Whilst the bomb's power would later be viscerally demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the detonation over the desert of New Mexico created an interesting side effect. It left behind a crater filled with bottle-green glass, made from sand that had been fused by the unimaginable heat. This material relic of the birth of the nuclear age was christened "trinitite".

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Living in an idea

Whilst the internet has its problems (it is slowly drowning the intellectual capacity of the human race in a deluge of cat videos for instance), it can occasionally present you with a moment of epiphany. Perhaps you can find it in a music streaming service, in the feeling you get when you hear that perfect song for the first time and it slots into your brain like you've always known it. Sometimes you can come across the visual equivalent of this sensation, as I did with the artwork of Geebird and Bamby.

Their prints create a dream-like, idealised mid century architectural space, uncluttered by anything as messy as humans. This gives you time to fully appreciate the purity of the designs, architecture that is not afraid to stand on its own and to mean something.

For the purposes of this analysis, I'm pursuing my conviction that mid century architecture is all about living IN an idea, whereas the architecture of today, postmodernism, is about the idea living on top of you, the space forcing you to conform to its version of reality. Perhaps the best example of this is the shopping mall. I'm sure many people have written much more articulate studies than I could of how the shopping mall represents capitalism's attempt to completely dehumanise and homogenise every town in the western world, so I'll try and avoid generalisations and offer an example from personal experience, the mall in my local town of Watford.

This is a fantastic illustration of post modern architecture planting itself on top of the "real world". It was literally built over the town centre, whole streets being demolished to make way for 727,000 square feet of retail space. Its antiseptic white floors and acres of glass roofs attempt to create an entirely neutral space, not threatening or stimulating in any way, the international semiotic vocabulary that says "this is a shopping mall".

By way of contrast, it's undeniable that the buildings in Geebird and Bamby's prints are functional, but they also engender aesthetic pleasure whilst employing the absolute minimum of meaningful elements. For instance, in the airport terminal above, the textured brick frontispiece sits as a piece of pure decoration, dynamically extending out from the main building in two dimensions, having the courage to bear no direct relevance to the environment or to semiotically "advertise" it. Can you imagine something like this at a modern airport, which so often conspire to disguise themselves as warehouses? On a side note, the tail fin of a plane protruding over the top of the building is a nice touch - it doesn't give away the identity of the airline or the destination of the flight, echoing the mystery and glamour of travel in the jet age.

I suppose what it really boils down to for me is that, whilst these are structures that all serve a purpose, they have a bit of fun with it. For instance, while it's a very simple feature, the slanted roof of the diner below makes it stand out against the flat desert background. You're not just eating eggs and bacon here - you're eating eggs and bacon inside an embodiment of the dynamism of an era that was literally and metaphorically reaching for the stars. This was a time when it was perfectly reasonable for a roadside diner to imply "you're going to be the spacemen of tomorrow, and your architecture must reflect that!"

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Destroying the world before it was cool

(Illustration by James Wragg,

THERE will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

There will come soft rains, Sara Teasdale, 1920

When Teasdale wrote this extraordinarily prescient poem in 1920, the memory of the First World War was still an open wound. People had seen for the first time what the unstoppable progress of technology was leading to - the ability to undo whole landscapes, for civilisations to grind each other to dust. Interestingly though, while most artistic responses to the war reflected on horror, loss and anguish, Teasdale drew a form of positivity from the experience. Inverting the masculine narratives of pride and bombast that had led to the war, she imagined a world that was glad that we had destroyed ourselves, that was breathing a sigh of relief at our absence.

In a slightly incongruous link (its my blog and I'll mash what I want into a post thank you very much), M.P Shiel imagined the post-human future from a very different perspective in his 1901 novel "The purple cloud". Presaging much of what popular audiences would find appealing about nuclear war fiction, Shiel revelled in detailing the aftermath of the apocalypse in brutal detail, deliriously smashing down the edifice of civilisation. His fantastically peculiar novel, infused with a palpable sense of menace, sees the protagonist awaken an ancient, evil force on an expedition to the North pole. Unbeknownst to him, the force he encountered spreads a poisonous cloud across the globe. The cloud moves at walking pace, slow enough to allow people to flee and create a wave of refugees that spread terror before themselves. As he sails back to the inhabited world, he comes across drifting boats full of corpses, and seaside villages inhabited only by the dead. He cannot accept that he is the only man left alive, and begins a desperate search for other survivors.

In the same way that nuclear war awakens irrational fears, the very stuff of nightmares (an unstoppable force that is coming to kill you, the ultimate sanctuary of the home becoming a tomb) so Shiel too taps into primal fears of inescapable death. It's the same thing that makes a theme park ride enjoyable, fear by proxy. Just as you're strapped into the ride, able to experience the adrenaline of fear in the knowledge that you're actually safe, so the reader can experience the thrilling fear of the apocalypse through the lens of the novel.

The narrator deduces that Mineshafts must be the most likely place to find survivors. However, in a reflection of the later common fears about fallout shelters, he soon discovers that "the notion of hiding himself in a mine must have occurred to every man alive", creating horrendous crushes of suffocated crowds. In the same way, fallout shelters became a metaphor for the pointlessness of attempting to plan for a nuclear war - anyone who had built one would surely find themselves quickly under siege from their less prepared neighbours, desperately trying to force entry to their only hope of survival.

The narrator comes across the aftermath of one such attempt at forced entry in a tunnel where the occupiers fought back, finding "three hermetical holes in a plaster wall... [from which projected] the muzzles of three rifles, which must have glutted themselves with slaughter". Faced with such scenes, he gradually loses grip on reality, to the point where he embarks on an epic orgy of destruction, devoting himself to burning the world's great cities to the ground. Here again tropes of nuclear fiction are foreshadowed - nuclear war destroys the present, poisons the future with fallout and erases the past. If London were to be struck by multiple hydrogen bombs, it would not be just the physical city itself that was destroyed, but all the evidence of its history, the monuments, art works, museums and cathedrals. Thousands of years would be undone in seconds.

This is what makes nuclear war a unique form of anti-narrative - only in its most basic sense is it a war between states. It is, amongst many other things, a war against the narratives we tell ourselves of our own importance. Given enough time, rain will erode anything, and there'll be plenty of time...