How can we improve our creativity and release our self-censorship to write more freely? Dan Holloway talks about aspects of creativity as well as physical challenges, neurodiversity, and how technology might augment us in this interview.
In the intro, thoughts on Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter [Kris Rusch]; Guide to Multiple Streams of Income [Self Publishing Advice]; Thoughts on President Biden’s Executive Order on crypto and blockchain [The Verge]; My first NFT — Rain Soaked The Ashes of the Dead; Crypto Business Podcast; The AI-Assisted Author and generative art (50% off with coupon MARCH22)
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Dan Holloway is the author of 9 books across dark fiction, poetry and non-fiction, a performance poet, professional speaker, podcaster, and creativity consultant.
He’s won the Creative Thinking World Championships three times as well as the World Intelligence Championship. He’s also the founder of Rogue Interrobang, dedicated to helping individuals and companies expand their creativity.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- From performance poetry to using storytelling and communication as a way to engage audiences with non-fiction
- What is creativity and how can we develop more of it?
- How Dan’s creativity game, Mycelium, can help
- How physical health underpins creativity
- Dan’s physical transformation and how he stays consistent over time
- Neurodiversity and how writing ‘rules’ don’t apply
- How we are augmented already — and thoughts on VR, AR, and AI
You can find Dan Holloway at Rogueinterrobang.com and on Twitter @agnieszkasshoes
Dan has chapters in The Healthy Writer on writing with depression, and also in Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts on performing your work.
Transcript of Interview with Dan Holloway
Joanna: Welcome back to the show, Dan.
Dan: Hi, it’s fabulous to be back after many, many years.
Joanna: Many years. We were just saying before I hit record, it was 2013 since you last came on the show, and I’m going to assume that most people possibly haven’t heard that episode. So let’s start with the basics.
Tell us a bit more about you and your author journey and how it’s progressed.
Dan: Right. I was one of the very early self-publishers back in the days. On Smashwords, in the olden days, you used to get a forward slash and then the number of the book according to which in order you were, and my books were all in three figures. I was amongst the first few 100 books published on Smashwords. So that’s how I judge myself as a sort of an early indie author.
Back in those days, in 2006, 2007, 2008, I was writing all sorts, thrillers, literary fiction, and after that, I got into poetry, performance poetry. I spent quite a long time on the slam scene. And obviously, that has been harder of late, the last two years.
There hasn’t been much in-person slam poetry. Most recently, I’ve gone back to my absolute roots in writing nonfiction. When I say my absolute roots, when I was a kid I grew up as most people – I don’t want to say our age, but my age – my hero was Carl Sagan. So that was what I always wanted to do.
I was given a copy of Cosmos, I think it was my eighth birthday when the hardback came out, and I read that and I decided that was the kind of thing I wanted to do. I wanted to be the Carl Sagan figure, this public intellectual, for want of a better word. So it feels like writing nonfiction now has gone back to those roots.
Joanna: That’s really interesting. Obviously, the performance poetry scene, as you say, because of the pandemic has dropped off in person. Obviously, we’ve known each other through various incarnations of ourselves.
In my mind, you’re always a performance poet. That’s how I think of you in my mind. I see you performing. But it’s funny because you say the public intellectual, and you’ve won these creative thinking championships, and you do have a sort of almost polymath ability to explore things.
The poetry side and the performance side; is that going to come back into your life or do you think that was part of it?
Dan: Absolutely. And performance is very much still there with nonfiction, and that goes with the public intellectual thing, I think. I love the engagement speakers.
I don’t know if you know the sci-com community, for example, science communications. People who speak passionately and present incredibly well their nonfiction work, I think that there’s a real performative element to that that I love to bring those sides of what I do in.
I’m very lucky being still in Oxford. We have quite a lot of people who are exploring this space and quite a lot of funding for projects that explore this space where you get experts who work with creatives to create fabulously multimedia performative ways of communicating information. And that really excites me, bringing those two sides, the performance side and the nonfiction side together.
I spend a lot of time analyzing really, really good performances and the structure of it. Things like The Hero’s Journey and how that relates to really well put together YouTube videos.
Communication, storytelling, performance, narrative, nonfiction. All these things tie together in a way of getting an idea across and getting people excited about something.
Joanna: I think that’s so important because in the indie space, there’s progressively become more of a focus on you can only be successful if you write in a genre type of thing. And yet, where I see your career, and mine as well, is that we can’t and we don’t want to do that. ‘Don’t put me in a box‘ kind of thing.
Dan: I know.
Joanna: What I love there is you’re talking about nonfiction and speaking, which many people see as like one side over here, and then creativity and poetry and fiction. They all come together, don’t they? They don’t have to be so siloed.
Dan: No, absolutely, they do. I think this is one of the exciting things, as I said, about the rise of high-value YouTube, streaming services. I think we’ll probably spend some time talking about VR later.
There are all these ways in which these things are starting to come together in a single space. And there is an opportunity for people who want to explore lots of different things together.
I would say we’re very lucky here in Oxford. I’m co-convener of the Futures Thinking Network, and we do a lot of this here. We get people who are academic experts in the field and then we combine them with creatives and we do multimedia performances, we give talks, we get public engagement, and you’re never exploring any one thing at a time, you’re always exploring more than one thing in any project you do.
I think there’s immense value to doing that. The idea that you’re never looking at a single point, you’re never looking at a single focus, but you’re always trying to balance things, and that I find creatively as incredibly sort of empowering and liberating.
Joanna: Yes, and underlying it all is creativity. And of course, you have one of your books, which is called, Our Dreams Make Different Shapes. It is about creativity.
How do you define creativity? Because sometimes it’s a bit nebulous.
Dan: I use a really simple but really effective definition which is just that it’s new stuff. To be slightly more expansive, bringing something new into the world. And that can either be a thing or it can be a work or it can be simply an idea.
Almost always, you’re not creating something out of nothing. It’s a new way of joining things up that haven’t been joined up in that way together. So that’s, I think, probably the slightly more traditional way of looking at creativity, is new connections.
Joanna: You said an idea. In my mind, in terms of we’re talking to authors, and you said, creating new stuff, but to me, it’s the execution, not the idea.
People have loads of ideas all the time, but until you execute that and create something new that actually exists in the world, that idea is meaningless.
Dan: It is, yeah. I’m not sure how much putting an idea into the world in a new way I think is creative. A lot of what we think of as creativity I think is an extremely skillful I’m going to say art, because I don’t think art and creativity are the same thing, art and technique. I think creativity is often the first step in a process. But you’re absolutely right.
One of the things I talk about in the book and when I give talks is what I call the Cassandra Curse, which is that it’s not enough simply to come up with a good idea, you have to get that idea somehow implemented in the world.
Creative people are very, very good at having the best ideas that never then get made and nothing gets done with them. And in particular, the more original your idea, the less likely people are to listen to it. That’s one of the problems that we face with creativity in general and authors in particular face because we have to convince people to buy it.
The next thing they read has to be ours. Why should it be ours rather than someone else’s? And the more different it is from everything else on the shelves, the harder to sell it is in that way.
Joanna: Yes, the perennial issue. I do actually like that you’ve separated the idea of creativity and then skillful art. So the creativity is the ideas, all the ideas that we have and the reason almost that we want to write a book is because we have all these ideas and they’re running around in our heads, and they make things a bit crazy. And then we try it.
They’re amazing ideas. And then you try and write them down and that’s really, really hard.
Dan: And that’s really, really hard, yes.
Joanna: That’s the hard bit.
Dan: I think creativity in that sense would be writing something in a new way whereas most of what we do after we’ve had the idea is art. It’s following something that we’ve spent years or decades learning how to do and chiseling it into that thing that is then out in the world. I’m not sure that’s creative, but it’s incredibly valuable and it’s the hardest part of the process.
Let’s just wind it back to the idea section because I still remember when I had my day job, back in the day, and I still remember feeling that ‘I don’t have any ideas. I could never write fiction. I don’t have ideas like that. Those writers, they’re amazing. I could never be that.’
People still email me saying they feel that way.
If anyone listening feels like they don’t have creative ideas, how do they improve that intellectual muscle?
Dan: That’s really interesting. One of the most enjoyable things I do when I teach creativity is I work with some writers’ groups here in Oxford. The principle I teach is that to think of creativity as a second-order rather than a first-order skill. So it’s a proper soft skill.
I think part of the problem with creativity is that people talk about it as a soft skill but treat it as a hard skill. So it’s not about technique. It’s about rewiring your brain. The drills I do with people using…I’m not sure if I’m allowed to plug my game, my creative thinking game, ‘Mycelium.‘
Joanna: Yes, please do.
Dan: I think of it like, imagine you’re a sprinter. A key part of your training is to get stronger. So you would do squats, you would do bench presses, you don’t go out on the track, stand on the starting blocks, the gun goes off, and you start doing squats and bench presses. Without doing squats and bench presses, you can’t do the running.
I think of the creative thinking drills I do in that way.
It’s behind the scenes training to get your brain so that your brain is in a more receptive state and a more fluid state for forming ideas.
It works with two ideas that come out of neuroscience. One is based on the really famous study of cab drivers that I’m sure you’ve come across, I’m sure your listeners have come across, which showed that when cab drivers study the knowledge to become a London black cab driver, you have to learn to navigate your way around the streets of London in your head and finding the shortest route between any two places, knowing where all the diversions are and knowing where all the landmarks are.
The training involved in that actually changes the shape of the hippocampus area of these cabbies’ brains, which is really interesting. The study that found that has been backed up by studies into memory training that basically this kind of highly sensory, highly visual way of almost training your brain to perform this navigation task will increase the matter in the part of your brain that we associate with creativity. So that’s the first thing.
And the second thing is some fascinating studies on jazz musicians and battle rappers which showed that when they started improvising, literally, the whole of the front of their brain, the thinking-slow part of your brain, the new part of your brain in Daniel Kahneman’s thinking fast-thinking slow model, the self-censor or the executive functioning bit of the brain, it switched off.
Everything reverted to the motor part of the brain, what people call the lizard brain, the old-fashioned part of the brain. And that was the key to improvising, was that they were able to switch off the bit of the brain that self-censored.
So what I do with writers is I give them exercises to literally work on those two parts of the brain.
Highly sensory, navigating knowledge-seeking exercises to increase the gray matter in the brain, and then using the dopamine system by playing a game that rewards original thinking to make it easier for us to switch off our self-censor and therefore that bit of us that stops us going places.
When you have an interesting idea and you think, ‘Oh no, I mustn’t go there.’ It enables us to switch that off and be more exploratory. The way I help writers to cut it short would be to say, ‘I’m the equivalent of a personal trainer that gets the sprinter in the gym during the basic weight training to prepare the body for what happens off the track. And in that way I do the basic things that prepare the mind for what happens when people want to generate ideas.’
So it’s not about process, and a lot of creative thinking training is about the process of writing, how you go about getting more ideas for a book. It’s much more what I do about getting people’s brains in a state of readiness so that when they have an idea they can explore it more fully.
Joanna: That sounds really cool. One more time, tell us the name of the game and also if people can buy that, because I think I need a copy. (I got one!)
Dan: It’s called ‘Mycelium’ which I thought was a perfect metaphor for the way the brain works. The mycelium, of course, the root network of the mushroom and the stuff of nightmares. I know you like stuff of nightmares and we probably talked about this before.
The oldest and largest living organism in the world is a mycelium in Oregon that is three and a half square miles in area. It’s one and a half miles across and two and a half miles long. And it’s somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 years old. And you never see it except through small mushrooms that grow up through trees. So it’s the stuff of nightmares but also the stuff that shows collective potential. Yes, and you can get you can buy Mycelium on my website.
Joanna: Fantastic. I’ll link to that in the show notes.
You do so much but there’s a few things I wanted to also ask about. You were there talking about the squats and the lifting before you go run a race, and you run races and you do lifting.
You actually have another book called Lift which is based around strength training which I also do and love. But the book is also about attitude. You’ve changed your focus in your career but you’ve also changed your physical shape quite dramatically. And you do have some before and after photos on your website.
Joanna: I find it interesting because I feel like so often we are brain people. We’re all focused on our brain and we love the mind and we love all that. And then sometimes we neglect our bodies or we do things that don’t make things optimum.
Talk about what triggered your physical transformation.
Dan: It was really simply last spring it was realizing that being the size I was would put me at higher risk of complications if I got COVID.
Joanna: That’s a good one.
Dan: It was as simple as that. It was pragmatic. I was 19 stone at the time. It was really strange because I was quite fit. I had started my transformation, I guess, in my mid-40s. I took up ultrarunning but I’d never really lost weight.
I thought of myself as really quite fit. I could run 100 kilometers which probably a lot of people in their mid-40s couldn’t. But I was still really out of shape. And then I say I made the conscious decision in April last year. No, not last year anymore, is it? It’s now April two years ago, gosh.
Joanna: April 2020.
Dan: Over the course of the next 18 months, I lost six stone very, very slowly by introducing several sustainable changes in my life. But of course, because I never do anything quite normally, I wanted to set myself some physical challenges as well. So I made lifting and running at the heart of that transformation.
Joanna: I think you link these things quite well in your writing.
How does physical health and lifestyle practices underpin creativity?
Dan: The way I think of it is what I call the Jacquard, if you know the Jacquard loom, which is one of the ways that people weave carpets.
The way a Jacquard loom works is that you have lots of different colors representing the different colors in the carpet. At any one time, say five of the six colors will form the backing, but one of them will be pulled to the fore and form the main color of the pattern of the carpet or fabric.
This is how I view training my mind, training my body as this process of keeping… It goes back to what we were saying earlier about not having any one focus, keeping lots of things in balance together. So at any one time, I would be training myself for endurance, speed, and strength.
I’ll also be training my mind for things like speed reading and speed cubing but also for memory and creativity. So all of those I will be training at any one time, but it’s sort of ticking along in the background.
At any one time I will be training one thing really seriously with a view to try and get better. And it feeds on another principle in creativity which is that the power of our knowledge, it’s not what we think of as the sum of everything we know. So it’s not everything we know added up together, it’s more of the product of what we know.
That working knowledge, useful knowledge is more about everything multiplied together rather than everything added up.
I’m a big fan of the idea of compounding, exponential improvement, and focusing on lots of things having a multiplicative effect rather than additive effect.
I’m very much not a fan of the marginal gains idea. I’m much more of a fan of the idea that if you focus on lots of things at the same time, the whole can be more than the sum of its parts.
Joanna: I love that. I love this multiplier idea. I’m totally with you. And I’ve been lifting more seriously. I have a trainer and twice a week we are lifting and we’re focusing on becoming stronger. I love it. It feels really good.
It almost feels like it is a multiplier in terms of energy. But are there also sort of neurochemical things that help us, coming on to mental health.
Exercise and mental health are quite tightly wound together in many ways.
Dan: It’s very individual and I don’t like universalizing, because I think a lot of people, the memes about give up your medicines, go out into nature, which I think is sort of…
Dan: Irresponsible. But I think for me, yes, it has definitely been the case. My fitness and my strength are what I would call core or baseline changes that have enabled many more changes.
Part of it is the energy as you mentioned, part of it is confidence. There are also physiological benefits, benefits to bone density and resting heart rate and things like that and getting blood flow to the brain, helping your oxygenation of the blood. It helps the heart work more efficiently.
So there are all sorts of things like that that mean that if you’re fitter and stronger, it helps you then to have more time and do other things more efficiently. And then that starts to feed into it.
You can then automate more, your processes can be more effective, and that creates even more time which you can use to create more benefits and so on and it becomes a virtuous loop.
Obviously, you need to be careful, especially at my age, and not push things too hard and not get injured because consistency is the absolute key.
Joanna: That in itself, consistency is the key, and also taking a longer time. For Americans listening, you were around 265 pounds?
Joanna: And now you’re around 180 pounds?
Joanna: I think it’s around that.
Dan: That sounds pretty much spot on, yes.
Joanna: But it took you 18 months, which for many people is actually a long time, but for other people it’s no time at all. It’s like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy that you managed that.’
I always feel like the idea of doing things slowly, consistency, longevity in the market, like we were talking about. We met each other online in the early days of when we were on Twitter, probably 2009, 2010, and that’s probably when we met online. You and I have both been doing creative stuff for many, many years now.
It feels like health, physical health, is the same as a writing career in that you don’t just wake up one morning and go, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to run 100 kilometers today.’
Dan: But you might wake up and decide that you’re going to do that, but you don’t actually go and do it.
Joanna: Yeah. You don’t do it that day.
But how do we commit? Because, physical health, again, it’s like writing. You have to commit to it and be consistent, and there’s no real shortcuts, is there?
How have you stuck to your commitment? What keeps you going?
Dan: The key for me is it’s one of those interesting things, and you’re right, and there’s some really interesting facts that I’ve come across in a lot of places is that people who get into shape and lose weight, of those, only 5% will still be in shape five years later. That’s a quite alarming figure.
So you have to do something quite drastic to be in that fight. The key for me has been not to do anything that requires willpower. I think that’s quite hard for people to get their heads around.
There is, I think as you know, because I’ve worked with you on a chapter of one of your books on this, there is a lot of bad information out there in the wellness space. And if there’s bad information out there in the wellness space on mental health and so on, it’s even worse with fitness.
There is an awful lot of promoting quick fixes and things that require willpower. And the short answer is that if something requires willpower, you’re not going to be able to do it for the rest of your life because life gets in the way and at some point something else needs your willpower.
I have quite a lot of natural advantages. I love exercise. A lot of people don’t. I also have a body that’s, despite everything I’ve thrown at it in myriad truckfuls of pasties and so on over the years, it still lets me do stuff. And most people who are my age, that might not be the case.
I’m in my 50s, yes. I turned 50 a couple of months ago. And I’m also quite lucky that I like lots of food. But I followed the principle of losing weight by eating more rather than eating less because that’s a very good way of avoiding having the willpower to say no, just say more to other things.
It’s the principle of eating low calorie-dense foods and eating an awful lot of them. So I will eat…literally, for some meals I’ll have…as my side dish, I’ll have a kilo of salad. It probably sounds disgusting, but like half a kilo of sprouts.
Joanna: I love sprouts.
Dan: I love sprouts as well. So yes, that sort of thing. And then I don’t deny myself anything.
Someone said to me on Twitter when I said this, they said, ‘What happens if you want carbs?’ And I say, ‘I eat carbs if I want them.’ I eat as much as I want, but because I’m eating a high volume of low calorie-dense foods, I’m always full. So I don’t get hungry.
That is really, really key I think. There’s no willpower, there’s no pushing through these places where you feel really hungry. And it’s really tasty food.
Joanna: This is individual differences again, I feel, because I personally find that eating a more keto low-carb, then I’m not hungry. Whereas if I eat a kilo of sprouts, I’m really, really hungry. So again, there’s so many variations.
And like you said, there’s so many rules and a lot of bad rules. But like you said, the key is you can’t use willpower for long term change. What you have to do is almost trick yourself and hack your behavior so that you do it because you want to do it. So you have to find whatever it is that works to motivate yourself and you can’t white knuckle the change that you’ve done.
You can’t white knuckle a writing career either, can you?
Dan: No. I think people think that this happened to people they see as overnight successes. So people have this view that writing you come out of nowhere and it’s the same in all creative arts, I think.
People don’t see that it’s just actually years and years of consistent slog, and you can’t do the consistent slog unless you actually just really love it. You don’t necessarily have to love it to start with but you can come to love it.
It was an interesting thing that I read reading I think it was a biography of Judit Polgár, who was a famous chess prodigy. It sounds really awful. She was subject to an experiment by her father to try and what does it take to create a chess prodigy and/or to create a prodigy.
The thing that emerged that they all said at the end is that if you want to be really, really good at something you just have to love it. You can’t do it by force or by simple coercion or willpower alone. It has to be something you love. And I think that’s the key for writing as well.
Joanna: Talking of individual differences, you talk about being neurodiverse and you work with a lot of organizations on mental health and disability issues.
What is neurodiversity, in particular as it relates to the writing community and how can we improve our writing ecosystem for people who are neurodivergent?
Dan: I’d say neurodivergent rather than neurodiverse, because neurodiverse implies a group. A group could be neurodiverse but a person would be neurodivergent, I think.
I’m ADHD. You’d never guess but I struggled to stick with a genre, and dyspraxic, which has a lot of overlap with ADHD and is also really interesting because I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve got so into lifting. Because I’ve had to work on my awareness of myself in space. And it’s something you don’t necessarily associate with physical activity.
The first person I ever met who was openly dyspraxic was a bodybuilder when I was teaching with one of my students, and also bipolar. So I think the way it affects me is a lot of…and this comes down to what we’ve been saying. A lot of general advice doesn’t work.
I think the writing community loves its rules. It loves to say things like, “You have to stick with one genre. You have to write every day. You have to not only write every day but write in the morning rather than in the afternoon for some reason.”
There are all sorts of things that we’re told we have to do. And if your brain is wired slightly differently, you can’t necessarily do that. And also, going back to what I was saying to your last question, it will take the joy out of writing.
So part of my journey has been to find ways of working consistently that work for me with rules that work for my brain rather than things that I’m told to do. And I think my approach to skipping around amongst genres and skipping around amongst mediums, and also trying lots of new things has been key to that.
I guess the way it works for me is that people would probably recognize my voice as it were through my writing, even if I write in different genres, it’s all going to be me, because I write slightly quite oddly.
I see quite a lot of writers doing really well is almost the Iain Banks/ Iain M Banks model, isn’t it? Of not just working in one area but being distinctive across the areas you work in. I think that works for my kind of brain much better than trying to funnel myself into just one focus.
Joanna: And there’s a lot of call, obviously, very importantly for the writing and publishing to be far more diverse. And of course, race and gender and sexuality are important parts of that.
I think your discussion of neurodiversity, and I guess more of an acceptance, again, of individual differences and the fact that people are different, and different doesn’t have to mean bad. It doesn’t have to mean wrong.
And in fact, perhaps in a more creative world that we would like to live in, it’s better. We need diversity in every sense of the word.
We’re just asking people to be more accepting of individual differences.
Dan: Yes. Publishing has a huge amount of problems. I’ve been on several podcasts actually talking about this. I don’t know if you know, Cat Mitchell’s study on disability in publishing.
Dan: I would recommend it to everyone. It’s really quite damning. A lot of the issues are the same as the general diversity issues across the pieces. Forcing people into practices that we think of as being just the way it’s done.
When a scene is dominated by people who are, shall we say, homogenous, by a group that’s rather homogenous, things become the standard way of doing things. And if something becomes the standard way of doing things, it takes on this quality of almost. It becomes like a natural law.
So the idea that you have to write 1000 words a day, for example, becomes a given. And the idea you have to write in a certain genre all the time is a given. This sort of write, publish, repeat model is “Yup, that’s the way it has to be done.”
I think that’s one of the main barriers to diversity is we’ve taken conventions and given them the status of laws rather than seeing them as conventions and seeing that there’s a different way of getting to the same result which is a compelling story. Because that’s what we all want to do is we all want to tell compelling stories.
At the end of the day, we are all about transporting our readers to somewhere, whether it’s for the rest of their life or for a few minutes, that takes them out of themselves and makes their lives better.
And there are so many different ways of doing that that it just seems plain odd that we would assume there’s only one or two different ways of doing it.
Joanna: Absolutely. But there’s also this desire for the hack or the rule or one way we can make it, and, unfortunately, that is also not true.
You and I could definitely talk forever, but I do want to circle back on the VR and AR side of things, the virtual reality, augmented reality, which you talked about near the beginning. We’re both fans of technology as independent authors in different ways.
We definitely don’t agree on everything. But when we think about neurodiversity and also physical diversity and how you could portray yourself in a future way when we don’t look at each other physically.
You and I, we know each other, but we’re not looking at each other right now, and this is an audio-only interview. And if we were doing this in a space where either one of us could change our voices and use a different avatar, in a virtual reality world, how are people going to portray themselves?
What do you see with the potential of VR and AR? Why are you interested in it?
Dan: This is something I find absolutely fascinating. The use of virtual reality.
There are two aspects to it. One is the storytelling aspect. That as a storyteller, I find virtual reality absolutely fascinating because it gives me more world-building possibilities.
And for creativity, in particular, which is about connections, one of the things that excite me is that technology has finally got to the space where if you say, for example, the standard question, come up with as many uses as you can for paper clip. Virtual reality means that finally, you can actually physically try these things out using virtual reality.
You can take the creative problem-solving into the virtual space and treat it as though it was a real space and do things that you would otherwise have to have either a lab or changes to the rules of physics to enable you to do. So there’s massive creative potential in that.
Also, yes, this question of how we represent ourselves. I don’t know how much you or your listeners are aware of the sort of the Cyborg movement.
Joanna: Tell us about it.
Dan: It’s part of the transhuman, post-human movement. It’s part of the disability community. It comes out of the idea that a lot of us already rely on augmentation, and augmentation as part of our identity.
Whether that’s a prosthesis, whether it’s a wheelchair, whether it’s medication, or whether it’s simply the fact that a lot of us have to mask in society because a lot of the behaviors that we would otherwise have aren’t socially acceptable.
So we are already augmented. We’re already not simply just the atoms that make up our physical bodies and the neurons or whatever that make up our minds.
Virtual reality takes that a little bit further and enables us to have more autonomy over the way that we are, that we portray ourselves, that we are subjective. I find almost that it will become more so more universal that people do this is an exciting idea. That people are finally coming around to this idea that actually no one is what they see.
We both studied theology and we’ve done a bit of philosophy that comes with this. We assume that what you see is what you get when you meet someone and talk to them, and that’s quite clearly not true if you think about it philosophically, but it seems true. Because we seem as though we’re having these interactions that are direct and not mediated.
What technology does is makes the mediation clear. I think there is a real value to that because it makes us think much more about who we are separately from the person we portray, and who the person we’re speaking to is separately from the person they portray. Therefore, it makes us think about things in a more complex way and I think that that has to be a good thing.
Joanna: I do too and I’m looking forward to this as well. I think quite a lot about how I will portray myself when this happens when we meet as avatars in a space. I always talk about being a bit of a vanilla goth.
I would love to be covered in tattoos. I really would. But part of me does not want to do that in my real life. But it may be that my avatar in the virtual space has tattoos and maybe those tattoos change every time I change my mind about what I want those to mean and the symbolism and all of that. I think about that.
Dan: They don’t have four hours of needles, right?
Joanna: Yes, exactly. Also I could change them a lot more easily in a VR space. But I know a lot of authors and there’s so much misinformation, there’s so much negativity about all of this stuff. We are talking about this in not a Meta/Facebook way in a bigger concept.
One of the things we were just mentioning before the call was the idea of brain implants, which to many people are very scary. But we are seeing Elon Musk and the Neuralink program, which are helping people trapped in a physical body move into a different realm. I know there’s some sort of mind-reading technology that they’re looking at. What do you think about this frontier?
Dan: I’m ambivalent but in a completely positive…I’m a positive ambivalent.
We were talking about this earlier, but there are lots of fantastic things that inevitably get hijacked. I think this is probably one of them. I love the potential. I think, as someone who has spent a lot of my life on medication, the idea that “Oh, no, you mustn’t mess with that,” it just goes out of the window straight away because I’m used to my mind and my body being messed with by medication, so having something in my brain doesn’t feel…I’ve had something in my brain ever since I’ve started taking antidepressants as it were so it doesn’t feel necessarily something scary.
As much as I don’t necessarily want to quote Elon Musk in a way that’s so deep and so profound, but he’s right when he says we are already cyborgs. He says we already have mobile phones, or whatever. We already use technology to improve our brains. And we have been doing ever since we started writing things down, for example.
Writing something down is using an external technology because you can’t hold it in your brain.
I don’t see the qualitative problem that a lot of people see with this. I do think that it’s quite scary that it’s an expensive technology that will inevitably widen inequalities because that tends to be what happens with expensive technologies. But I think I wish it didn’t.
I find the whole idea of biohacking in general really quite exciting. I know it’s quite problematic and a lot of people are very worried about it, but I think the part of me that gets excited by technology overrides that and wants to know what happens and wants to be part of exploring what happens. It sort of comes back to I think…if we last had a podcast scheduled in 2013, we may have talked about ‘American Mary.’
Joanna: I can’t remember.
Dan: Because that I’m sure it must be one of your favorite films because it’s so you.
Joanna: I don’t watch horror films. I only read horror books.
Dan: Oh. So ‘American Mary’ is about a med student who earns money by performing body modification. The whole body modification moving into biohacking sphere really excites me in terms of what the possibilities are.
I guess it goes with the fact that I do competitive mind sports, for example, that it simply feels like part of training out. I want to see what the limits of the human brain are. I feel as though trying to have this idea of you’ve got to keep it real, you’ve got to keep it natural or you’ve got to keep it the way nature intended is…we’re already so far beyond that point I wish we could just get over it and find out what the limits are and what the possibilities are.
Joanna: I think also you and I are both very curious people. Curiosity will always win over. Yes, there are always doubts, but curiosity comes first.
I do want to circle back. I know we’re out of time but I just can’t stop asking this question. You talked about a qualitative problem of using some kind of augmentation. So I get this. Using AI tools, like GPT-3 as a writer, which to me is like a collaborative, creative, interesting, curious tool that I can use. I’m the person directing it. But people say, “That’s not fair, that’s wrong, that’s unethical. We shouldn’t do this kind of thing.”
Do you think that’s a fear of technology or is it this qualitative problem, like we’re human, therefore, we’re best?
Dan: I think there is a qualitative problem that people think that…human exceptionalism, I think, is an issue. It’s an issue that is going to come more and more to the fore both through the development of AI but also through issues around climate. The whole question of what place does humanity have in the world, and is it a place that’s set apart from everything else?
I think for a lot of writers, they feel issues around copyright probably still. They’re nervous about the fact that AI is trained on datasets that includes their words and they’re not getting any benefit from that or perceived benefit from that. I think this catches up with something that we’ve probably talked about many times which I think is that copyright law still hasn’t even begun to think about the digital age let alone caught up with it.
I think this is going to get more and more the cases as AI develops, not just in terms of, does AI have copyright? Does the person who program the AI have copyright? But in terms of the datasets that feed the AI to do things.
I think also people are just worried about automation and they’re worried about being automated. I think some of the narratives from when I was a student around chess, for example, haven’t helped. The idea that once you reach the singularity, this idea when AI overtakes us then that will be it and we’ll be redundant.
People think that that’s what happened with chess when Garry Kasparov lost. And that just isn’t the case. And Go more recently. So everyone who hasn’t watched AlphaGo, the story of Google DeepMind’s development of the AI that finally mastered the game of Go. These are really good examples of how humans and machines work together.
We can learn more about things that feel deeply human by having machines that can also do them in ways that we find both technically accomplished but also surprising. In the fields of chess and Go, we have already seen people who are really quite heavily on the ‘this is an art’ side of the debate, say, ‘Well, actually, I think we’ve got these games that have been with us for thousands of years and we have already learned something about the essence of these games that we wouldn’t have learned if machines hadn’t started playing.’
I think that will happen with writing too. So I think people are frightened that they will be automated but I think they needn’t be.
Joanna: Me too. Absolutely. At the end of the day, it circles back to creativity which is, what do you want to achieve?
Certainly, at the moment, the machines don’t have their own desires. We’re the ones with the desires and then we’re interested in the technologies and different ways of making that happen, of putting these things in the world.
Oh my goodness, we’re going to have to have another conversation about that, I think. So we’ll be back in part two at some point and it won’t be another what, eight years, we’ll do it before then.
Joanna: Where can people find you and everything you do online?
Dan: They can find me mainly through the website, Rogueinterrobang, which is my creative thinking company website. And everything is linked out from there. They can also find my fiction books should they ever wish to, all available on online stores.
Dan: And poetry, they can find on YouTube. If they put me into YouTube, they will come up with a skateboarder and a guitar player and some strange person doing poetry which is me.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Dan. That was great.
Dan: Thank you.
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