The work of John Higgs

There are some writers whose treatment of a particular subject you can almost predict. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. John Higgs, though, is not one of those writers. This warm, witty and endlessly interesting writer is described (accurately, for my money) on his website as someone who

“specialises in finding previously unsuspected narratives, hidden in obscure corners of our history and culture, which can change the way we see the world”

Now, if “previously unsuspected narratives” has triggered your inbuilt conspiracy theory bullshit detector, do not fret. Higgs’s writing is the antidote to conspiracy theories: whereas they make the world a smaller place by imagining a paranoiac web of connections, Higgs, by contrast, aims to show that the world is a far weirder and more wonderful place than we generally realise.

Higgs’s books provide us with fascinating prisms through which to view the world. His most recent work, the so-short-you-could-read-it-on-the-train William Blake Now is a taster for a forthcoming book on that great Romantic visionary. Peter Ackroyd wrote a superb biog of Blake back in the 90s, but I suspect Higgs’s take will be very different.

For proof, just read his 2012 book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. For me, this is one of the greatest music biographies ever, partly because it refuses to follow the conventional format. It dances, jolts and skips like the music it covers.

To recap, The KLF were founded in 1987 by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. They were UK sampling pioneers who, after expensive lawsuits and a freak novelty Number 1 as The Timelords, tuned into the 1988 acid house boom. By 1991 they were the world’s biggest-selling singles act. Among their back catalogue are several epic “stadium house” singles and one timeless classic album (Chill Out), but their most infamous act was the 1994 burning, in a farmhouse on Jura, of one million pounds.

Higgs eschews a conventional response to this event:

“The fact that their actions are so incomprehensible suggests that we must be missing something. Somehow our view of our world or our culture is incomplete.”

He realises that retrospective justifications are always going to be flawed, because as humans we drift away from “the raw chaos of what actually happen[s]” and memory creates “a neater, simpler narrative”. This is part of the “Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting” which describes how we absorb events into our own narratives, “losing the loose ends and unexplained incidents”.

klf

Higgs then proceeds to build a possible narrative to explain Drummond & Cauty’s actions. One of the most interesting ideas he introduces in order to do this, and one that’s become a useful tool for interpreting the world in the last few years, is Timothy Leary’s concept of the “self-referencing reality tunnel”.

This is a model which “fully explained all the details of the world, assuming that you did not question it’s central tenet.” Essentially, “what you think reality is” is based entirely on your own upbringing, assumptions, psychology, senses and memories. The reality tunnel can have as that central tenet, “an idea…often appealing…for which there was a distinct lack of evidence.” It’s bolstered in the mind by a surrounding ideology which acts as

“an elaborate commentary to support the central concept….once inside…you had a model that made sense of the rest of the world…you could happily stay in for the rest of your life.”

Not what you expect to find in your average book about pop music.

Higgs also argues that the period of the early 1990s was a “liminal period”. Between the end of the Cold War and the first web browser, this era (which coincided with my own late teens, and looms large in my memory) is a “cultural blind spot”. Googling any of the years between 1991 and 1994 brings back fewer results than the years to either side, which bucks the upward trend whereby every passing year generates more search results.

(SPOILER ALERT)

The period since 1994, the age in which we now live – the Modern Age, Higgs argues – was kindled by an act of magic performed by Drummond and Cauty in that ruined building on a Scottish island.

Wait – what?

Money is a form of magic. Higgs uses the example of a mortgage, in which your signature  “loans into existence” many thousand of pounds that did not hitherto exist. Burning it – negating it – must also therefore be a form of magic.

“Money wants to circulate physically destroying it is the only way to stop it…money could be defeated”

Higgs builds a persuasive narrative to support this thesis and then gives you the option of whether or not to believe it. In doing so he offers you the chance to undermine his own narrative, and that’s a stroke of genius.

***

In Stranger Than We Can Imagine he uses topics from the twentieth century as a means to orient us for living in the twenty-first. Conventional history, according to Higgs, tends to “converge along well-trodden highways” and

“fails to lead us into the world we’re in now, adrift in a network of constant surveillance, unsustainable competition, tsunamis of trivia and extraordinary opportunity.”

Yet the world we’re now in didn’t spring fully-formed. How did we get here? Well, it needs a shift in our perception in order to spot the curious pathways that have led to Now. “The twenty-first century is not going to make any sense at all seen through nineteenth century eyes”. Bearing in mind that the twentieth century brought us

“cubism, the Somme, quantum mechanics, the id, existentialism, Stalin, psychedelics, chaos mathematics and climate change”

a standard approach to history – focusing on (say) politicians or royalty is not going to suffice. He leads us – this is a communal effort, it’s always “we” and “us”, never “I” or “me” which ultimately is significant – on an unlikely but fascinating voyage.

He doesn’t piss about either, going straight for Relativity as a gentle means to immerse us in the 1900s. Einstein proved early in the century that “no single viewpoint can be considered correct or true” and this is the thread running through the book.

Cubism, for example, in opening the twentieth century, was an attempt to see things simultaneously from different perspectives. As Higgs notes, although the subject – still life, nude – may not have changed, the way of seeing had.

higgs 20

The early years of the century also brought the most terrible War humanity had ever known, one consequence of which was that by sweeping away (or at least undermining) the last European empires, the political landscape left behind was fertile for the “multiple perspectives of democracy”. This was a model which was “safer than the single vision of an emperor” in which power was redistributed aming individuals.

Multiple perspectives achieved prominence – perhaps surprisingly – in science, via Uncertainty and quantum mechanics, in which a cat in a box can be both alive and dead, and the most elementary particles of existence can behave in different ways depending on who’s looking (I paraphrase: Higgs is much more eloquent, and funnier).

“we have, as should be apparent, a theme emerging…the idea that a single viewpoint was insufficient to fully express or describe anything”

It’s self-evident that this can give birth to a rise in individulism, and this is indeed what happened. Higgs likens this to a phase that a teenager goes through as it grows up. Consequently, he is biting about those who most explicitly embody this individualist spirit: The Rolling Stones, Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand are all satisfyingly savaged.

The “Thatcher Delusion” says Higgs, was that individualism was an end goal, rather than a developmental stage. “Teenagers do not remain teenagers forever”.

What will equip us for the future, he argues, is what has emerged in the last few decades: a mindset geared toward networks and connectivity. And that’s where he segues smoothly into The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the Twenty-First Century.

In this, he explores – and characteristically demonstrates links between – topics such as AI & robots, VR, the future of space travel, environmentalism, the post-millenial “metamodern” generation, and “psychic pollution” (i.e. effects of social media). Given how our visions of what’s to come have in recent times resembled the bastard child of Orwell and Blade Runner, Higgs’s approach is refreshingly optimistic. “Dystopian futures assume that we keep on doing all the things that are bad for us”.

He dismantles many of our fears of future technology by demonstrating that while we make assumptions based on “arrow flight projections” – smooth extrapolations from today’s situation – these completely ignore, well, reality, and how difficult it is to do complicated stuff. Growth and evolution are “more idiosyncratic and unpredictable than the assumed direct straight line”.

For instance, AI is not going to become sentient and go SkyNet on us anytime soon because – Hi, Alexa! – it has no concept of the world, no “internal mental model”. All it knows is data and patterns and performing tasks better and better. It’s fascinating to learn that, in the expectation that AI will develop itself to the extent that it essentially becomes as mystifying and omnipotent to us as a diety, that there’s a non-profit AI-singularity-worshipping religion called “The Way of the Future”. But Higgs doubts they’re going to experience the Rapture anytime soon, if ever. Which brings a certain comfort.

“If a machine knew that it had to spend 24 hours a day for the rest of its existence tweaking the order of news stories in a Facebook feed, it might consider this an act of cruelty to a sentient individual. If we did ever succeed in one day building a conscious super-intelligence, I would not be surprised if the machine’s first act was to turn itself off”

Will machines take us to the stars? The answer, Higgs discovers, is No. Space is not the place. As a species he finds that we’re not going anywhere further than Mars, and we can’t even live there. Aside from the poisonous atmosphere, living long-term in low gravity will kill us (and having to live with other people in artifical circumstances won’t help). Underground or underwater seem more likely destinations than deep space “bubbles” (à la Silent Running) because “humanity is part of planet Earth’s ecosystem, and we will die if taken outside of it”. Once again, we see that individualism is a flawed approach: we are all connected to each other and to our environment.

Much of Higgs’s cause for optimism comes from those most-maligned of creatures, the teenagers of today dismissed as “snowflakes”. How? Well, Higgs uses as an example someone born in Edwardian times who lived to see Apollo XI: there had never been a greater rate of change in every sphere, in all of history. And, noting that the period of childhood has extended over time, to the point where fascination with “childish” things carries on indefinitelty into adulthood, Higgs argues that childhood, and play, are what the human brain use in order to adapt and learn. Therefore, “a brain designed to understand the world as it was during childhood, rather than the world adults find themselves living in, is going to encounter problems later.” By extension, the longer this process goes on the better-equipped younger generations will be to live in the world they inherit.

This generation, though, lives in a way defined by it’s childhood interactions with technlogy. They may be more empathetic, and concerned about emotional injury – but are also much more likely, statistically, to opt for an automated checkout than one staffed by a human. Higgs wants to test the logical outcomes of such a mindset, and uses the writing of the book as an experiment:

“if the anxious, empathetic young were keeping a protective distance from established media, does it follow that they…remain ignorant of the wider world? Alternatively, could they be on to something? Could our immediate networks be sufficient to provide all you need for a good, meaningful life?”

He therefore limits himself to small social bubble “only talking to people I could meet within a short walk from my house”. He admits this is an “idiosyncratic” method, and the result – which becomes evident upon reading – is that the book’s views of the future come from well-informed enthusiasts, rather than [paid] experts. There are drawbacks to this approach: one friend says he “knows that for a fact” that Apple have a means of producing immersive VR, but this is not backed up.

Nonetheless, it’s a refreshing read, and largely upbeat: something he admits may cause scepticism:

“we tend to treat negativity as serious and worthy of respect, and view positivity as suspicious and probably [viz. advertising] an attempt to sell us something.”

I’ve not mentioned his excellent piece of psychogeograpy Watling Street, but that’s well worth a read too. You can sign up to his “Octannual Manual”, a newsletter he sends every six weeks which is always fun, enlightening, or both, here.

 

Sources:

Higgs, John – William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019)

Higgs, John – The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)

Higgs, John – Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016)

Higgs, John – The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the Twenty-First Century (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019)

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