I’ve known Julian a few years now. He works in television as a writer and director: you’ve probably seen his work on DOCTOR WHO, if not on NEW TRICKS, SPOOKS or HUSTLE. He has a play coming up on Radio 4 next week, and I asked him to write a thing about it:
The Information Apocalypse: Creativity vs The Infernal Machines
Nearly 11.00am. A few months back. I get a call from Karen Rose of Sweet Talk Productions. She’s the radio producer I work with whenever I do anything for BBC Radio Four. Karen is pretty much a one-woman-band who seems to work twenty-four hours a day on a gazillion radio projects simultaneously and is never anything other than relaxed, happy and encouraging. She is, in other words, the anti-me. This morning she has an announcement:
"The deadline for Afternoon Play pitches is midday today."
"It’s nearly eleven o’clock now."
"Yes. Do you have anything?"
"Apart from the three ideas they already turned down for this slot?"
"Apart from those."
"Because after the Radio Drama award and the Sony nomination, you’d think Radio Four would be MORE open to my ideas, not less."
"You would think…"
"And yet they’ve turned down three ideas in a row. They say they really want me to do something for them and then they turn down three ideas in a row."
"That’s what happened."
"Do you want to pitch something or not?"
“Because fuck them, you know?”
"You don’t have another idea, do you?"
"Well if you come up with anything in the next hour…"
"Well if you do…"
"I won’t. I don’t have anything. And I’m busy on other stuff."
"Is the other stuff as self-regarding and petulant as this conversation?"
She didn’t actually say that last line because she’s far too nice, but she’s also far too smart not to have been thinking it.
I put the phone down and paced around my study, annoyed because, when you make up stories for a living, having to tell someone you don’t have an idea is a horrible defeat. I looked at the bookshelves; at a pile of books on information, memetics and computer viruses that I’d bought on a whim when I had a vague idea for a TV series about cybercrime. I sat down at my desk and opened Twitter, probably with the intention of writing something pithy (petulant and conceited) about how Radio Four were oppressing a creative impulse I actually didn’t have. The Twitter mob were out in force, attacking each other for using the wrong words to express support for an idea they all agreed with. I read a few vitriolic exchanges and something sparked. I opened up my email and bashed out a précis of the story that was now forming. I sent it to Karen twenty minutes later. Radio Four commissioned it the next day. Fourth time lucky.
What I wrote in that email was essentially this: It’s the day after tomorrow (over-morrow, in fact, because who ever gets to use that word in real life?) and a computer virus has been unleashed that has encrypted all the information held electronically in the world. Banks, medical data, debt records, criminal records; it’s all under threat. No one can get money out of the banks, no one can buy anything in the shops. Looting and rioting has already started and the governments of the world are panicking. The people responsible for taking all the information hostage want to parlay, so a negotiator is sent to meet with them in a hotel room to hear their demands and to try to resolve the situation.
That’s the basic premise but the meat of the thing is the idea, the "why?" Why would anyone want to take information hostage? This is where the books on my shelves and my experiences on Twitter had led me. Thanks to computers, there is now more information floating around the world than ever before; more, in fact, than we can actually cope with. Partly because there is so much (and partly because of the Laws of Thermodynamics, which you don’t need to trouble yourself overly with) we tend to reduce the information down to bite-size chunks so we can spread it around more easily. This is the basic notion of memes – ideas that are copied with variation and selection. We see this all the time "You are either with us or against us" was the rallying cry at the start of the War on Terror (the War on Terror is also a piece of reduced information; reduced, like the War on Drugs, to a nonsense phrase). The British government has successfully reduced the complexities of being unemployed to the word "scroungers" and the complexities of a right-wing capitalist economic system to "common sense". As we have seen even more recently, the complexities of two men murdering a soldier in Woolwich were reduced to "terrorism", an act of reduction so destructive that it resulted in mosques being attacked and idiots in balaclavas hurling abuse at anyone with brown skin. In this case, key phrases from a murderer’s address to camera (phrases which were themselves reduced from an existing reduction of a complex system of belief) were reduced to memetic soundbites with an almost irresistible synaptic connection to "terrorism". And the minute the media said "terrorist", that is what those two psychopaths became, just as the woman who bravely confronted them became a "heroine".
So we cope with all the information that bombards us by simplifying it down to bite-size chunks, the better to transmit it to others in a form in which it’s most likely to be retained and repeated.
There is an argument that posits that all human beings are is vessels made of information (DNA) and naturally selected for the storage and replication of information. Everything we say, do, wear or make is a form of information, a meme, to be copied by others with variation and selection. Information is king and we are but subjects. That being the case then the handing over of the replication and transmission role to computers could, in a dystopian fantasy such as the one I was dreaming up for a radio play, result in the rapid obsolescence of human beings. Computers process, copy, select and transmit more information than we can and they do it faster. Increasingly, we help them along by buying into the reduction of information; by retweeting and reposting pieces about "scroungers" and "fundamentalists" and "corrupt politicians" and by accepting the boundaries defined by these reductions as the ones within which we’ll frame our arguments ("Are the unemployed scroungers or not?" rather than "Is it useful to make a judgement on any human being purely on the basis of his or her employment status?").
We also assist in our own reduction through our use of social media; a 160 character biography becomes the sum total of who we are to thousands of strangers. A 140 character tweet or short Facebook update becomes our definitive opinion on a complex subject. Tone of voice, body language, grammar, even vocabulary itself; all the things we used to employ to illuminate and elaborate on the information we transmit, to give it nuance and texture and, for the love of God, to indicate irony, are falling away in favour of reducing information to binary components of love/hate, good/bad; the better to pass more information faster.
Are we playing into the hands of the information itself? Have we created information technology (or been party to its creation – surely all we did was help transmit the memes that led to this) to perform the task for which we came into existence, thus negating the necessity of our own survival?
This seemed like a decent premise for a radio play. It would be a play about an idea. I liked the notion of being someone who wrote plays about ideas. Then I remembered that I think those people are wankers, so I came up with a story to go with the idea. Then I threw in the Commedia Dell’Arte (because I am a BIT of a wanker) and a couple of twists that turned it, I hope, from a straight drama into something a bit more disquieting; a bit more, dare I say it, "Twilight Zone".
Time was really running out and I still hadn’t written the thing. I’m lucky in having developed good relationships with actors through previous work on TV and radio, so Karen was able to pick up the phone and secure the services of Nicola Walker, Tim McInnerny, Hermione Norris, Louise Brealey, Rufus Wright and Robert Glenister, all without having seen a script. We had an amazing, if hopelessly naive and trusting, cast and we had a crew. But we didn’t have a script and, more importantly for me, we didn’t have a title…
It seemed appropriate to the inspiration for the thing that I get my title online. I logged into Twitter and asked for titles for a play that would be a "locked-room" drama, like Huston’s movie of "Key Largo". The information causes us to make weird connections and the winning suggestion, by @eclecticmuses, was a good example. The phrase "Key Largo" had caused @eclecticmuses to make a connection to a lyric in the Beach Boys’ song "Kokomo", so she suggested "Kokomo" as a title. I liked the word but couldn’t immediately see the relevance. And so to Wikipedia, where we discover that Kokomo is a town in Indiana. They call it the City of Firsts because they built the first internal combustion engine there. And the Howitzer shell. And the first aerial bomb with fins. And the first canned tomato juice was made there. That’s all great and interesting, but not immediately relevant.
And then I read about Ryan White, the fourteen-year-old boy from Kokomo who contracted the HIV virus from a contaminated blood treatment in 1984 and was given six months to live. Despite doctors assuring the town that Ryan was safe to be around, he was expelled from school and harassed by many in the local community; someone even fired a gun through the window of his bedroom. This awful story was a perfect example of information reduction; in 1984 we knew exactly how AIDS spread but this complex information had been reduced to "don’t go near anyone who is HIV positive".
So a play about information is born of random information: books on shelves; Twitter outrage; a random title; the story of a persecuted boy. This is how creation happens because the very act of creation involves the replication of information with variation and selection. Nothing is original, everything is a combination of other things. For me it wasn’t just the books or the Twitter experience, if I listen to the play now, I can hear influences that I wasn’t even directly aware of in the writing; Global Frequency, The Invisibles, The Gone Away World, Sapphire and Steel… The list goes on because every act of creation is a mashing up of influences and experiences gained over a whole life to date.
And so maybe the way human beings combine these random snippets of information to create something new, maybe the connections we make and the way we remix the things we know and transmit them to others are what gives us the edge over the machines. Maybe our creativity is the real key to our survival. We can take that information and not just reduce it, we can make something new out of it. And the machines can’t do that. Yet.
"Kokomo" is the Afternoon Play on BBC Radio 4 on 5th June, 2013. (BBC link)
I can be found on Twitter, all day every day, committing every crime against information detailed above: @juliansimpson1