“The interior of the human head is infinite”: A Conversation with Alan Moore

January 18, 2017
Google Deep Dream illustration of Donald Trump.
Google Deep Dream illustration by David Futrelle.

Due to space constraints, the following excerpts from our Alan Moore interview in the January issue had to be cut. That interview was so popular—and so compelling—that we decided to gather these pieces from the cutting-room floor. At the time of our conversation, the Brexit vote had just concluded, and the US presidential election was just beginning to descend into post-convention madness. 

Moore: Back in the 1960s (and yes, this worldview may have been caused by drugs or listening to ridiculous psychedelic lyrics or what have you), there was the feeling among young people that—particularly after the Beatles—a lot of things changed in British culture because here was a bunch of working-class youngsters from Liverpool who were nonetheless regarded as high culture. That changed everything. It made it seem as if there were potentially no limits, regardless of the heights, to which you might ascend. It seemed like there weren’t these things holding you back anymore. If the Beatles could do it, then I’m sure a lot of other working-class creators thought, “Maybe I could do it?” There was that sense of there being no ceiling to the world back then. You could climb as high as you wanted on your own efforts. 

These days I get more of the impression that the ceiling is very evident and, instead, the impression I get is that there is no floor. There are no depths to which you might not descend that creates a kind of anxiety, a state of fear. How bad is this going to get? Is Donald Trump going to get elected? Oh my God, surely we haven’t just exited Europe? All of these things. We have no idea how bad these things can get. 

Vollmar: How austere can your austerity get? 

Moore: How bad can the environmental crisis actually be? There is this sense that we are completely disempowered by our history, by our circumstances. I don’t think that is true. This is something that has been drip-fed to us. It’s a formula that runs along the lines of, “These are frightening times and, therefore, you need a frightening person to look after you.” Who is telling you that? It is the would-be strong leaders who have actually orchestrated these terrifying times. This is not a conspiracy theory. You would have to do that to handle billions of people. I would think that must be quite nerve-wracking. I would imagine it would be fraught with terrors. Terrors that might include the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution. I would imagine that you would be trying everything to psychologically condition these masses of people who are under your jurisdiction. 

My friend Adam Curtis, who is an excellent documentary filmmaker, did a wonderful film called The Power of Nightmares, which suggested that previously our political leaders sold us dreams. They would promise us, if we were to elect them, that they would give us this, this, and this. We believed them and we elected them. Then they would say, “Yeah, actually, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to follow our own agendas but thanks for electing us.” They kept doing that until, even as stupid and often subservient as we are, we eventually saw through that. We started saying, “No, you’re not actually going to do the things you said you were going to do, are you? These were just dreams you were selling us. So we are going to stay away from the polling booth in our thousands, in our millions, because we feel disenfranchised from this political system.” Of course, that’s a problem. What kind of mandate have you got if 90 percent of your population are not turning up at the polling booth? 

We’ve got to have a villain in our narrative, or our narrative of us being the heroes doesn’t work. At the moment we are living in this imposed state of terror.

So, if dreams aren’t working anymore, let’s sell them nightmares. This is particularly applicable to the world post-2001 with the spectre of the jihadist, which is our new cultural bogeyman. It was the slack-jawed Russian back when I was a boy and presumably the square-headed German shortly before that. 

We’ve got to have a villain in our narrative, or our narrative of us being the heroes doesn’t work. At the moment we are living in this imposed state of terror. Constant orange, I believe it was referred to as. If you are frightened, that’s going to take up a lot of your bandwidth. If you’re anxious, you are not going to be able to think about more empowering things. It’s going to paralyze your mind and your will, which I imagine would be the condition most beneficial to our leaders.

One of the things that I wanted to say with Jerusalem was that the imagination is still massively important. Use it or lose it. We should be able to create art and writing that is sufficient to these times. We should not have our culture frozen upon the spot in the way that it appears to be. It seems to me that we frisked hurriedly through the 1950s with all of the car tail fins like Buck Rogers rocket ships. We skipped through the space-age sixties with the moon landings and all of our science fiction. We were hastening through these decades in a hurry to get to our promised Jetsons’ future. Sometime around the mid-nineties, we suddenly realized that we were there. That this was the future and it was looking a lot more complicated and a lot different than the future we’d been imagining. And we froze. We didn’t know what to do. We decided that we would culturally march on the spot for the next twenty or thirty years. We would simply recycle the musical tastes of the previous few decades. Our films would largely be franchises based on characters that were created last century. We wanted that familiar twentieth-century stuff that we understood. 

The world has not contracted as much as you may believe. The interior of the human head is infinite.

There are obviously people doing great creative work. I’m talking about the mass of popular culture that seems to be rooted to the spot. It doesn’t seem to be capable of responding to this extraordinary future that is springing up around us in any way that is relevant or says anything. So, just as much as I intended Jerusalem for everybody, for ordinary people, for anybody who happens to be living a life in the world at this moment, I meant it for artists and writers as well. I wanted to do something that was stupidly ambitious to show that there is still room for these things. The world has not contracted as much as you may believe. The interior of the human head is infinite. There has to be a way around all of these problems that we have created for ourselves. If there is a way, it is probably somewhere within the human imagination, and perhaps we should start using our imaginations a little more seriously. Put a little bit more muscle into that. 

Vollmar: I am reminded of the Japanese manga creator Osamu Tezuka, who was fascinated with robots. With his work Astro Boy, he created a vision of Japan that is almost like ancient Greece where all the labor is done by robots and people are free to be and do whatever they want. Today when people look at Japan and all the things that they are accomplishing with robots, few people know that what they are seeing is one artist’s vision of what Japan should be, which Japan thought was a great idea for their future. That’s what they’ve been moving toward ever since. 

Moore: Moving toward it a lot more productively because of that vision. Let’s let the robots do all the work, and that will make it a kind of utopia. That impulse wasn’t specific just to Japan. I remember my dad, when I was about ten or eleven years old, talking about what the future was going to be like. He said, “By the time you’ve grown up, they’ll have all these machines that will be doing all the work so we’ll have all this spare time, all this leisure time.” Looking back, that is probably one of the more painful things I ever heard him say because he really hadn’t got it. I hadn’t got it at the time. When they bring in the automation, that won’t be so you can spend all of your time sunning yourself on the beach of Great Yarmouth. You’ll be out of work. It means you will be on benefits and then they’ll try and take the benefits away by castigating you as a benefits scrounger. That’s the version of that technological utopia that we seem to have gone for in the Western world. I agree that the Astro Boy alternative is much more attractive. 

Vollmar: That’s the one I’m embracing. It feels like this is going to be one of the big issues we’re going to be dealing with in the 2020s and beyond, this idea of the guaranteed individual income as a huge swath of the jobs being performed right now are going to be automated by the end of the decade. The problem is that some kind of guaranteed income is the obvious and rational solution to that problem, but the moment we move toward that, it becomes someone’s political football. 

Moore: And the moment that we do that, the world changes irrevocably for the people who are now in privileged positions. For example, it would be quite within the bounds of possibility to introduce a living wage for everybody in the country, whether or not they are in work. You just give this to everybody once they are adults. Everybody gets a living wage, by which I mean, a wage that you could actually live on. You give that to everyone and, if they are out of work, they’ve got that to sustain them. If they get jobs, they don’t have to give that money back. They can trade it up against taxes, or something like that. If you don’t allow people to retain the wage, it creates a poverty trap. If you are giving people benefits and they lose those benefits the moment they get a job, often for less than the benefits, there is absolutely no incentive to get a job and impoverish yourself still further. If we actually gave people a living wage, it would obviously have an impact upon the crime figures. It wouldn’t get rid of all of them, but a lot of crime is economically based. We’d still have to figure out what to do with the psychopaths and the brutes, but I imagine that the crime figures could very easily be brought down as a result, which would be to the benefit of society. Also, the fact that people would be healthier would have massive benefits in terms of looking after them when they get ill. 

This would all cost a lot. It wouldn’t cost more than renewing our Trident warheads, which can only ever be used if we are all as good as dead. It’s a suicide weapon and yet we are spending billions upon these things even in the knowledge that most military analysts say that, in the future, international wars are just going to be too expensive and problematic. And, of course, historically no war has ever achieved its objectives. In the future, we’re more likely to be looking at internal wars. Terrorists, things like that, which makes a nonsense of nuclear weapons. 

If we had the will, there is the money there. These changes in society would, themselves, allow us access to more money and we would be able to use that money more efficiently. These changes would disempower the people, in whose interests it seems to be, to keep us in a state of subjugation and fear and misery. If people had enough money to dispel their immediate anxieties and to feed themselves while keeping a roof over their head, perhaps they wouldn’t be so easy to intimidate. Perhaps if they had more of a sense of self and self-confidence, that would not be in the interests of the people running our society. However, I think that times are getting serious enough at the moment and are picking up a kind of momentum. We are moving, like it or not, into a very new and different world. It is going to happen, no matter what we want, as surely as agriculture followed hunter-gathering. As surely as industry followed agriculture. We haven’t got a word yet for this thing that appears to be following industry, but I suspect, over the next five or ten years, we’re probably going to find out what that word is.

It feels like we’re at the point almost identical to the point we were at almost a hundred years ago. In those years, from 1910 to 1920, that was when the world changed.

It feels like we’re at the point almost identical to the point we were at almost a hundred years ago. In those years, from 1910 to 1920, that was when the world changed. That was when the modern world was suddenly upon us. We had the first modern war where we had prototypical tanks alongside soldiers who were still riding horses. Horses in gas masks. At the same time, you had Einstein completely pulling the rug out from under physics and our previous understanding of the cosmos, giving us a whole new form of science to explore. You’ve got Stravinsky delivering The Rite of Spring and changing the way we perceive music (and undergoing a riot in the process). You’ve got the cubists. You’ve got the surrealists. People who were trying to come up with a way of painting something that was more real than reality. A different way of looking at reality. The cubists were informed by fashionable ideas, at the time, about the fourth dimension. Thinking, “If you are looking at something from a fourth-dimensional perspective, you’d be able to see their face if they were looking at you and their profile if they suddenly turned to look away.” They were trying to express this in their art. Of course in literature, you’ve got Joyce. You’ve got Eliot. You’ve got Gertrude Stein. You’ve got all these people who were coming up with new literary voices. New techniques that were sufficient to their times. That were sufficient to capture and express this unfathomable modern world that was exploding all around them. 

I hope that is the point that we are heading for in our current times. We are on the brink of a new world. We have no idea how we are going to contain, explain, or express it. History is going to take care of that for us, but I think that it is happening right about now. It seems to fit with the way things happened in the twentieth century. You need ten or fifteen years to really get your bearings to start to respond to the new world around you in a rational and coherent way. 

Vollmar: I recall that you had, in previous writing, pegged the year 2018 as the year that information would turn to steam. 

Moore: I don’t think I would have been far off. It’s always dangerous to fix a date on anything because you can be spectacularly wrong. In the Mindscape of Alan Moore film, it seemed to me that we were probably approaching what is called in mathematics a phase transition period, best exemplified by the boiling of a kettle. You start out with cold water and then that gets hotter. At the boiling point, which is a phase transition period, you’ve got something really mathematically complicated going on. What goes in one side is water and what comes out the other side is steam. I was suggesting that through our accumulation of not heat but information, we were approaching something that was comparable to a boiling point, to a phase transition period. Our condition going in the one side of this could said to be water—very hot water as compared to the cold water of a Stone Age hunter gatherer—but you could not predict steam from water if you were an alien who came from a world without these substances. You could not predict the properties of steam from water. I suspect that our state after this point is going to be similarly unpredictable from where we are now, the equivalent of our culture becoming steam, becoming a different thing entirely that obeys different rules.

The year 2017 was the date that I heard from the French economist, whose name I always forget, who actually came up with the idea of period information doubling. You take the first period of human information from the invention of the hand axe up to the year 1 AD. You look at all the information accumulated in those hundreds of thousands of years, and then you wait to see how long it takes for that to double. It takes about 1500 years, so around the time of the Renaissance, human knowledge had doubled. The periods of the doubling get shorter and shorter so that between 1960 and 1970, I believe, human information doubled. Today, it takes less than a year, which means that every year, we are achieving the same sum of information as has existed in all of previous history. There’s no way to know if that graph holds up but, if it does, it suggests a point at which we are doubling the sum of our information every fraction of a second. 

I should be clear: I’m not talking about the Singularity here. I’m not talking about artificial intelligence. I have no idea whether we will ever achieve what most people mean when they say artificial intelligence. I was reading recently about the fact that in all probability, what most AI researchers are fearing at the moment is the phenomenon of AI Winter, which is when people say, “Yes, we have got some incredibly powerful information-processing machines these days, but Watson has never heard of Jeopardy! Nor has he even heard of Watson. Deep Mind does not know that it has beaten a human Go master.

Vollmar: It doesn’t know that it has a deep mind.

Moore: There is no mind there! There is an incredibly powerful processing machine. Really impressive. There are more possible positions on the Go board than there are particles in the known universe. It’s an enormously complex game. I’m not putting down those achievements. I’m just saying that there is no artificial awareness. We are no nearer to artificial awareness than we’ve ever been. So when I talk about this shift in culture, I’m not subscribing to some idea about the Singularity or Skynet or a pocket calculator suddenly having an epiphany. I’m talking about the processes of history, which is driven by technology. It is something completely separate from human ambition and only visible in retrospect. 

We are no nearer to artificial awareness than we’ve ever been. So when I talk about this shift in culture, I’m not subscribing to some idea about the Singularity or Skynet or a pocket calculator suddenly having an epiphany.

Alvin Toffler, in his book The Third Wave, pointed out that the first wave was agriculture and this transformed the world. There are still some places today, like Papua, New Guinea, where they don’t have agriculture, but, by and large, agriculture has transformed the world. Then industry starts and that’s the second wave. It sweeps across the planet, changing everything. The third wave is what is happening now. That suggests that historical forces are independent of human actions or philosophies. Our leaders are like surfers who are on top of an enormous wave. They are hanging on with their toes as tightly as they can. They are in a state of complete terror and yet, to the people down on the beach, they might even look like they are controlling the wave. That they were guiding or leading the wave.

No, I think that the state of our modern leaders is that, like all of us, they are caught in this current of history. They are trying to make it seem as if they are leading the way, but they are being borne along it like all of us are.

August 2016

Rob Vollmar is World Literature Today’s book review editor and writes a column on global music for each issue entitled “Global Frequency.” He owns an oud but can’t play it very well.

Alan Moore is the most celebrated comics writer living but doesn’t write comics anymore. For the past decade, he’s been working instead on his second novel, Jerusalem, a sprawling epic covering a span of time stretching to the heat death of the universe but contained geographically within half a square mile in Moore’s hometown of Northampton, UK, in an area known as the Boroughs. For more, read “Northampton Calling: A Conversation with Alan Moore.”