Designing the Future – From Lyons to Cupertino



The Design Museum which reopens in November celebrates a process which is inextricably linked with the modern world. The period from 1770 to 1914 saw European society change profoundly. Industrialisation meant that craftsmen could no longer make spontaneous decisions about what they made. The actual creation of a product was increasingly mechanised, and a product’s form had to be worked out carefully beforehand, by someone who became known as a designer. This process began late in the eighteenth century, and is well illustrated by developments in textile production. In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, a machine with sixteen spindles that greatly speeded up the spinning process. By 1769 this machine was being sold widely. Before any item was made using the spinning jenny it had to be planned, and then put into production.

But it wasn’t only technical planning that designers were responsible for. As they were designing the process to create a product, it occurred to many that planned changes to a product would help sales. From the 1760s the Lyons silk industry introduced twice yearly collections to enhance differentiation between products, to stimulate trade, and to combat copying. By 1800 patterns in printed cotton for dresses changed routinely with each season. For furniture fabrics new patterns were produced every two to three years.


Apple Headquarters on Infinite Loop, Cupertino (Photo by Joe Ravi CC.BY.SA.3.0)

So designers created the technical ability of modern industry to produce products efficiently. They also created the idea of fashion that would keep people buying those products.  This process is exactly the same as the one applying now with something like the Apple iPhone.  The iPhone is upgraded annually, with a smaller upgrade within this cycle every six months.  These upgrades include both technical and aesthetic changes.  This design philosophy first emerged in the Lyons silk industry of the 1760s and has been travelling around an infinite loop ever since.


Yevgny Zamyatin -the Difference Between Literature and Propaganda




We by Yevgney Zamyatin is famous as founding the genre of dystopian science fiction.  Written in Russia between 1919 and 1921, the novel imagines a future society based on surveillance and control.  Glass-walled apartments allow the state to keep an eye on everyone at all times.

I thought parts of the novel were wonderful.  The best bits for me were the descriptions of an obsessive love affair, between the book’s protagonist – a highly-strung space ship engineer known as D503- and a rebellious young woman, known as I-330, who drinks, smokes and talks revolution.  D503’s love affair causes him to challenge assumptions that the state is all knowing and all good.  He starts to feel like an individual.  At the same time, he wants to lose his newfound identity in the beguiling eyes of his feisty girlfriend.

“Like a crystal I was dissolving in her, in I-330.”

The book is not simply a portrayal of an oppressive controlling state.  This is a nuanced study of relationships, both personal and social.  It has no clear messages to suit propagandists of any kind.  D-503 likes maths, and realises that just as there is no final number in mathematics, so in life there is no final revolution.  Life keeps going, with doubt and uncertainty keeping the wheels turning:

“Man is like a novel: up to the last page one does not know what the end will be.  It would not be worth reading otherwise.”

I also liked the Zamyatin’s quirky humour, not what you might expect from the father of dystopian novels. The manuscript of We is part of the story.  As D-503 writes it, he describes various misadventures that affect his growing pile of paper.  At one point, I-330 leaves her stockings lying on page 124 of the open manuscript.  As well as making me chuckle, this also made the point that books really are just a pile of paper.  No book, no philosophy, is the final word in wisdom.  We is about discovering that such wisdom does not exist.

Unlike Ursula le Guin, I wouldn’t say this is the perfect science fiction novel.  The plot is creaky in places, with sudden jumps that sometimes left me bewildered – particularly towards the end.  Considering all that D-503 gets up to, the secret police seem rather absent, which was part of an occasional mismatch between actions and consequences.

Overall, however, this is a historic book, up there with the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as one of the foundations of science fiction.

Ursula Le Guin and Brexit


An envoy arrives on a rather backward planet called Winter.  His mission is to try to persuade Winter’s leaders to join a wider confederation of planets.  Blinkered nationalism, however, refuses to see the benefits of cooperation.  The envoy remarks sadly on his conversation with a stubborn king: “All I’ve told him means to him simply that his power is threatened, his kingdom is a dust mote in space, his kingship is a joke to men who rule a hundred worlds.”

Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is best known for its feminist theme, the inhabitants of Winter containing both female and male potential within one body.  But the book’s fascinating meditations are not confined to the relationships of men and women. Gender politics are part of wider duality informing religion and politics generally.  So wide ranging is the story’s scope that within a few paragraphs, this book published in 1969 was making me think of news I had read that day about Brexit and American elections. In an age of resurgent nationalism, The Left Hand of Darkness has much to tell us.

The minister Estraven could be giving advice to nationalists everywhere when he says: “No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism.  I mean fear.  The fear of the other.”


Goodwood as the Modern Country House Weekend

Goodwood Motor Circuit


Did you know that the experience of staying at a hotel today is actually the re-imagining of an Edwardian country house weekend?  I had my own modern country house weekend at Goodwood recently.  Here’s how history conspired to give me my great few days:

If you were wealthy and well connected in the early twentieth century you might have received an invite to join Edward VII and his family at Sandringham.  Here a guest would enjoy luxurious accommodation, and begin their day with a strange meal, which we know now as the typical hotel breakfast…

“At Sandringham guests were expected to come down for breakfast between nine and ten o’clock. This was served at small tables, an innovative departure from the ‘long board’… Breakfast was a substantial meal; on the sideboard spirit lamps kept hot huge silver dishes of porridge, eggs, bacon, deviled kidneys, finian haddock, kedgeree. Another sideboard held a variety of cold meats, pressed beef, ham, tongue and game. China and Indian tea, coffee and chocolate, bread rolls, toast, scones and muffins, jams and preserves and fresh fruit were all laid ready.” (Bentley-Cranch Edward VII Image of an Era P 78).

After your breakfast, a program of various outdoor activities would start, usually hunting, riding and shooting in summer, and ice skating in winter.

With the aristocracy taking its lead from the king, other powerful families organised their own special weekends.  Then in a trickle-down effect, the fledgling hotel industry adopted and developed the format for a wider audience.  There have been some welcome changes to meet  modern tastes. Golf, for example, is a gentle evolution of hunting and shooting, with golfers walking through an idealised hunting park, taking their “shots”, hoping to bag a birdie, or even an eagle.  Today the loader offering a loaded gun to his master on a shoot at Sandringham has been replaced by a caddie offering golf clubs.

Echoes of Sandringham can be heard by any hotel guest, but they were particularly clear during my stay at Goodwood. There was the breakfast of course, which, if you stay at the Goodwood Hotel, you eat looking out at the golf course.  Then you might go off and and visit the famous horse race course.  Alternatively there’s the classic circuit for racing cars, the modern replacement of horses, the horse racing heritage seen in terms such as “paddock”.

I had a great few days enjoying an experience once confined to the few.




Dreaming of Electric Sheep


When you read a book, if the author is any good, you feel for the characters living in its pages. A reader empathises with them, worries about them, and follows their story. Words on a page can create this real emotional attachment.

So if bits of the alphabet carefully strung into sentences can create living people, it’s not a big step to imagine androids who have a sense of life to them. This is the theme of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It describes a post-apocalyptic world where usually subservient androids occasionally go rogue and try to make an independent life for themselves. Bounty hunters have the job of hunting down renegades and putting them out of action. Their task is complicated by the fact that artificial life forms are growing in sophistication, looking and acting very much like real people. So a test is required to differentiate one from the other, a test based on the idea that humans demonstrate a capacity for empathy, which is missing in an android.

One of the great achievements of the book is to create believable artificial characters, robots with their own charm and personality. I loved the way one of the lady androids says “pardon” when confused, while her “husband” is a gauche fellow who always puts too much force into closing doors. They also have a kind of childish cruelty, giving a jagged edge to their charm. That was how the androids struck me, as children trying to work out how to live in the world. They lack empathy in the same way that young children sometimes lack empathy. But I got the feeling that given the chance, they might develop this quality, as most, if not all, humans do.

The overall irony is, human or android, all of Philip K. Dick’s characters are built out of words, and in that sense are equally fake and equally real. This is a book which encourages a reader to take a more open minded view of what is real and what is pretend, of what matters and what can be dismissed as unimportant.

Joining the Dots – History and Memory



Alison Winter’s book Memory, Fragments of a Modern History.

I read this book for two reasons.  First, I am writing a character who has memory problems.  In his futuristic story, he has treatment with implants of data.  I wanted some background for that. Second, I am interested in history, which always seems in a process of constant rewriting to suit the needs of the present.  I wondered if there were any similarities with personal memory.

Well, for my character, I gained an understanding of how malleable memory is.  Clearly, there is already a science of memory manipulation, whether memories are implanted, boosted, or dampened down with drugs like propranolol. As for my question about history, influential writers such as Frederick Bartlett would say, yes, personal memory is like the broader memory of history.  There is a constant rewriting going on, changing our perspective on the past in light of later events.  A few days ago I happened to watch a video of Apple’s Steve Jobs giving a speech at a Stanford graduation ceremony.  He described various episodes in his life, which were painful or chaotic at the time, which he felt made sense later on.  He “joined the dots going backwards”. Personal memory and history both do this.  It is quite something to see the great shared memory of humanity working in the same way as you or me thinking about our pasts and trying to join our own dots.


Labour’s Long Search For Someone Like Jeremy Corbyn



The history of the Labour Party could be seen as a continual search for someone like Jeremy Corbyn. The search began in the earliest days of the party, as a hunt for the first genuine Labour member of Parliament. For many years, two miners were pushed into this role – Alexander Macdonald, leader of the Lanarkshire miners, and John Burt, secretary of the Northumberland miners. These two men entered Parliament in the 1870s. Up until 1920, Alexander Macdonald – a remarkable man who even with the demands of a mining job gained a degree at Glasgow University – was named by Labour Party historians as “Britain’s first Labour member” (see The Book Of The Labour Party, ed H. Tracey Vol 32 P16). The problem, as time went on, was the willingness of Macdonald and Burt to enter into alliances with the Liberals to support their position, which eventually had historians ousting them as Labour Party founders.

With Macdonald and Burt no longer fitting the bill, Labour chroniclers looked for a different founding father. For a while they tended to settle on a miners’ union representative and journalist named Keir Hardie who entered Parliament in 1892. Hardie won his time as Labour’s apparent founder because, like Jeremy Corbyn, he was not a political animal at all. He refused to enter into the alliances his colleagues felt necessary. He stood alone as a party of one. If you can call one man the Labour Party, then Keir Hardie may have been its beginning. Inevitably, however, even the most enthusiastic historians realised that Hardie could not realistically be the creator of any party, because he simply was not a party man. Historians were then forced back into the world of fudge and compromise. Keir Hardie was quietly put to one side, and the 1906 election became the defining moment for Labour, when 29 Labour Representation Committee MPs were returned. The difficulty with this apparent breakthrough, was the fact that Labour still struggled to maintain distinctive independence from the Liberals. All Labour MPs were only elected because of local Liberal associations deciding not to put a candidate up against the Labour candidate and thereby splitting the non-Conservative vote. Labour, for all intents and purposes was still a wing of the Liberal Party.

So the search for a defining figure went on, continuing through the 1920s and early 1930s, when Labour actually had its first prime minister in James Ramsey MacDonald. Poor Ramsey MacDonald found himself in his first term in 1924 leading a minority government kept in power for ten turbulent months by an alliance with the Liberals. Things became even worse in 1931 when a short lived Labour government fell and MacDonald was forced into the leadership of a coalition which included the Conservatives! This accommodation of course did not fit with the vision of Labour purity, which left the first Labour prime minister – another remarkable man – a maligned figure for many in the party. So once more the endless quest continued, as it does to this day. In the end, however, it seems that the Labour party’s almost religiously inspired search for a divinely unsullied leader, does not have much to do with the reality of politics.