Steven Poole

The balance of power between humans and machines

The twin poles of the modern imaginarium about technology and society can be represented by two masterpieces of popular culture. In James Cameron’s film The Terminator (1984) and its sequels, a global computer system called Skynet becomes sentient and proceeds to try to exterminate the human race by means of time-travelling Austrian bodybuilders. In Iain

Why Anaximander deserves to be called ‘the first scientist’

It’s a daring thing to write a whole book about a man while confessing early on that ‘we know almost nothing of his readings, life, character, appearance or voyages’, and of whose writings only a three-line fragment survives. Luckily, as with many ancient authors, the works of the 6th-century BC philosopher Anaximander are described in

Slavoj Zizek: the philosopher who annoys all the right people

Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian graphomaniac who infuriates some of the world’s most annoying people, and might for this reason alone be cherished. He once enjoyed a high degree of pop-philosophical notoriety, being blamed by pundits who had clearly never read his books for the scourge of pomo relativism that threatened to undermine the ‘moral

The best and coolest decade: nostalgia for the 1990s

The long 1990s began with the Pixies album Surfer Rosa in 1989 and ended with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Or perhaps the short 1990s began with Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 and ended with The Matrix in 1999. Or perhaps the 1990s never really ended for those of us who have lived blissfully ever

The AI future looks positively rosy

In the future, men enjoying illicit private pleasures with their intelligent sexbots might be surprised to find that even women made from latex and circuitry can learn to talk back and say no. Or, alternatively, that their ‘love dolls’ — in the current marketing-speak — have been hacked by anarchist feminist programmers. Please enjoy the

Four German-speaking philosophers in search of a theme

How do you write a group biography of people who never actually formed a group? Such is the challenge Wolfram Eilenberger sets himself in a book about the philosophers Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin and — the surprisingly unstarry fourth subject — Ernst Cassirer, an urbane and now nearly forgotten neo-Kantian who might have

Who will take on the behemoths of Big Tech?

With Britain having gone through its third general election in four years, the halcyon days of Cleggmania in the 2010 campaign seem like an impossibly innocent time. Particularly since Sir Nick Clegg, once the shining, soft-haired hope of sensible centrists, now works as a PR man for Facebook. His job is to explain to the

Could AI enslave humanity before it destroys it entirely?

Depending on how you count, we are in the midst of the second or third AI hype-bubble since the 1960s, but the absolute current state of the art in machine cognition is still just about being better than humans at playing chess or being about as good as human beings at analysing some medical scans.

Distress signals

It’s an increasingly common lament that computers have ruined everything, and a longing for the days before Google and Twitter, when everything was somehow more organic and authentic, is on the rise. As someone who can remember writing early reviews on an electric typewriter and then going to the library to fax them to a

Muzak, not Mozart

What is creativity? Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician and Oxford professor for the public understanding of science, offers this pert definition in his introduction: ‘Creativity is the drive to come up with something that is new and surprising and that has value.’ This, he argues, is possible in mathematics (he himself invented a new kind

From Access to Youth

The mid-term elections in the US, when Democrats took over Congress, were hailed as a victory for ‘progressives’, while David Cameron once claimed to be a ‘progressive conservative’. Well, progress towards what exactly? ‘It is certainly significant that nearly all political tendencies now wish to be described as progressive,’ wrote the cultural critic Raymond Williams,

The power of the poppy

America has for years been struggling with a shortage of the drugs it uses to execute people, yet it was only in August, in Nebraska, that the first judicial killing using opioids was performed. Aside from moral questions about the death penalty itself, the resistance for so long to this obvious solution denotes a particularly

There will be blood | 13 September 2018

For the past few decades, admirers of video-games have every couple of years mounted a new attempt to persuade the wider arts-loving public of the form’s merits. Look, they say, games are not all about shooting people in the face! They are a dynamic fusion of animation, architecture, intellectual challenge, music and drama! They can

Every man in his humour

Since the 17th century, a ‘humourist’ has been a witty person, and especially someone skilled in literary comedy. In 1871, the Athenaeum said that Swift had been ‘an inimitable humourist’. But in modern usage the term seems to describe a specifically American job title: someone who specialises in writing short prose pieces whose only purpose

The soldier savant

Descartes is most generally known these days for being the guy who was sure he existed because he was thinking. But before he devoted himself to metaphysical meditations, he had spent a decade as a soldier-scholar travelling the hotspots of Europe. How might a greater understanding of this period affect our view of the great

Wonders will never cease

Different people find different things impressive. Some claim, for instance, to experience a sense of wonder at the fact of being alive. But one has nothing to compare it to, so why find it surprising? Another sensibility will find joy in the observation of E.M. Cioran, the sardonic Romanian philosopher who wrote: ‘It is not

Princess Uppity

Princess Margaret was everywhere on the bohemian scene of the 1960s and 1970s. She hung out with all the famous rock stars, actors and other arty types of the day. Marlon Brando was struck dumb; Picasso wanted to marry her. As Craig Brown puts it artfully: ‘Everyone seems to have met her at least once

Size matters | 29 June 2017

Trust scientists to ruin all our fun. The spectacularly beautiful 2014 film reboot of Godzilla, it turns out, is anatomically misleading. At 350ft tall, such a beast would simply collapse under its own weight, because an animal’s mass cubes with a doubling of its size, while the strength of its supporting limbs only squares. The

No end in sight

Are you a deathist? A deathist is someone who accepts the fact of death, who thinks the ongoing massacre of us all by ageing is not a scandal. A deathist even insists that death is valuable: that the only thing that gives life meaning is the fact that it ends — an idea not necessarily