Silicon Secessionists

Moore's Utopia

Lately, there have be weird mumblings about secession coming from an unexpected corner. We’ve come to expect that there are hangers on to the fallen Confederate States of America, or Texans hankering after their lost independent Republic, but Silicon Valley? Really? The idea, at least at first blush, seems absurd.

We have the tycoon founder of PayPal and early FaceBook investor, Peter Thiel, whose hands seem to be in every arch-conservative movement under the sun, and who is a vocal supporter of utopian seasteading. The idea of creating a libertarian oasis of artificial islands beyond the reach of law, regulation and taxes.

Likewise, Zoltan Istvan’s novel The Transhumanist Wager uses the idolatry of Silicon Valley’s Randian individualism and technophilia as lego blocks with which to build an imagined “Transhumania”.  A moveable artificial island that is, again, free from the legal and regulatory control of the state.

A second venture capitalist, Tim Draper, recently proposed shattering mammoth California into six pieces, with Silicon Valley to become its own separate state. There are plans to build a techno-libertarian Galt’s Gulch type city-state in Chile, a geographical choice which given Chile’s brutal experience with right-wing economics via Pinochet and the Chicago-school is loaded with historical irony.

Yet another Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, Elon Musk, hopes to do better than all of these and move his imagined utopian experiment off of the earth, to Mars. Perhaps, he could get some volunteer’s from Winnipeg whose temperature earlier this month under a “polar vortex” was colder than that around the Curiosity Rover tooling around in the dead red dust of the planet of war.

What in the world is going on?

By far the best articulation of Silicon Valley’s new secessionists urges I have seen comes from  Balaji Srinivasan, who doesn’t consider himself a secessionist along the lines of John C Calhoun at all. In an article for Wired back in November  Srinivasan laid out what I found to be a quite intriguing argument for a kind of Cambrian explosion of new polities. The Internet now allows much easier sorting of individuals based on values and its only a step or two ahead to imagine virtual associations becoming physical ones.

I have to say that I find much to like in the idea of forming small, new political societies as a means of obtaining forms of innovation we sorely lack- namely political and economic innovation. I also think Srinivasan and others  are onto something in that that small societies, which get things right, seem best positioned to navigate the complex landscape of our globalized world. I myself would much prefer a successful democratic-socialist small society, such as a Nordic one like Finland, to a successful capitalist-authoritarian on like Singapore, but the idea of a plurality of political systems operating at a small scale doesn’t bother me in the least as long as belonging to such polities is ultimately voluntary.

The existence of such societies might even help heal one of the main problems of the larger pluralist societies, such as our own, to which these new communities might remain attached. Pluralist societies are great on diversity, but often bad on something older, and invariably more intolerant types of society had in droves; namely the capacity of culture to form a unified physical and intellectual world- a kind of home- at least for those lucky enough to believe in that world and be granted a good place within it.

Even though I am certain that, like most past efforts  have, the majority of these newly formed polities would fail, as have the utopian experiments in the past, we would no doubt learn something from them. And some might even succeed and become the legacy of those bold enough to dream of the new.

One might wonder, however, why this recent interest in utopian communities has been so strongly represented both by libertarians and Silicon Valley technolphiles? Nothing against libertarian experiments per se, but there are, after all a whole host of other ideological groups that could be expected to be attracted to the idea of forming new political communities where their principles could be brought to fruition. Srinivasan, again, provides us with the most articulate answer to this question.

In a speech I had formerly misattributed to one of the so-called neo-reactionaries (apologies), Srinivasan lays out the case for what he calls “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit”.

He begins by asking in all seriousness “Is the USA the Microsoft of Nations?”and then goes on to draw the distinction between two different types of responses to institutional failure- Voice versus Exit. Voice essentially means aiming to change an institution from within whereas Exit is flight or in software terms “forking” to form a new institution whether that be anything from a corporation to a state. Srinivasan thinks Exit is an important form of political leverage pressuring a system to adopt reform or face flight.

The problem I see is the logic behind the choice of Exit over Voice which threatens a kind of social disintegration. Indeed, the rationale for Exit behind libertarian flight which Srinivasan draws seems not only to assume an already existent social disintegration, but proposes to act as an accelerant for more.

Srinivasan’s argument is that Silicon Valley is on the verge of becoming the target of the old elites which he calls “The Paper Belt: based in:Boston with higher ed; New York City with Madison Avenue, books, Wall Street, and newspapers; Los Angeles with movies, music, Hollywood; and, of course, DC with laws and regulations, formally running it.” That Silicon Valley with it’s telecommunications revolution was “putting a horse head in all of their beds. We are becoming stronger than all of them combined.” That the elites of the Paper Belt  “are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings…” And that  “What they’re basically saying is: rule by DC means people are going back to work and the emerging meme is that rule by us is rule by Terminators. We’re going to take all the jobs.”

Given what has actually happened so far Srinivasan’s tone seems almost paranoid. Yes, the shine is off the apple (pun intended) of Silicon Valley, but the most that seems to be happening are discussions about how to get global tech companies to start paying their fair share of taxes. And the Valley has itself woken up to the concerns of civil libertarians that tech companies were being us by the US as a giant listening device.

Srinivasan himself admits that unemployment due to advances in AI and automation is a looming crisis, but rather than help support society, something that even a libertarian like Peter Diamandis has admitted may lead to the requirement for a universal basic income, Srinivasan instead seems to want to run away from the society he helped create.

And therein lies the dark side of what all this Silicon Valley talk of flight is about. As much as it’s about experimentation,or Exit, it’s also about economic blackmail and arbitrage. It’s like a marriage where one partner, rather than engage even in discussions where they contemplate sacrificing some of their needs threatens at the smallest pretense to leave.

Arbitrage has been the tool by which the global, (to bring back the good old Marxist term) bourgeoisie, has been able to garner such favorable conditions for itself over the past generation. “Just try to tax us, and we will move to a place with lower or no taxation”, “Just try to regulate us and we will move to a place with lower or no regulation”, it says.

Yet, both non-excessive taxation, and prudent regulation are the way societies keep themselves intact in the face of the short-sightedness and greed at the base of any pure market. Without them, shared social structures and common infrastructure decays and all costs- pollution etc- are externalized onto the society as a whole. Maybe what we need is not so much more and better tools for people to opt out, which Srinivasan proposes, than a greater number and variety of ways for people to opt in. Better ways of providing the information and tools of Voice that are relevant, accessible, and actionable.

Perhaps what’s happened is that we’ve come almost full round from our start in feudalism. We started with a transnational church and lords locked in the place of their local fiefdoms and moved to nation-states where ruling elites exercised control over a national territory where concern for the broad society underneath along with its natural environment was only fully extended with the expansion of the right to vote almost universally across society.

With the decline of the national state as the fundamental focus of our loyalty we are now torn in multiple directions, between our country, our class, by our religious and philosophical orientations, by our concern for the local or its invisibility, or our concern for the global or its apparent irrelevance.  Yet, despite our virtuality we still belong to physical communities, our neighborhood, country and our shared earth.

Closer to our own time, this hope to escape the problems of society by flight and foundation of new uncorrupted enclaves is an idea buried deep in the founding myth of Silicon Valley. The counter-culture from which many of the innovators of Silicon Valley emerged wanted nothing to do with America’s deep racial and Cold War era problems. They wanted to “drop out” and instead ended up sparking a revolution that not only challenged the whitewashed elites of the “Paper Belt”, but ended up creating a new set of problems, which the responsibility of adulthood should compel them to address.

The elite that has emerged from Silicon Valley is perhaps the first in history dis-attached from any notion of physical space, even the physical space of our shared earth. But “ultimate exit” is an illusion, at least for the vast majority of us, for even if we could settle the stars or retreat into an electron cloud, the distances are far too great and both are too damned cold.

Taxing Multinational Corporations Against Global Catastrophic Risks

Human beings have a very limited attention span, a fact amplified a thousand fold by modern media. It seems the “news” can consist of a only handful of widely followed stories at a time, and only one truly complex narrative. This is a shame because the recent breaking of one substantial news story was followed by the breaking of another one which knocked it out of the field of our electronic tunnel vision. Without some narrative connecting the two only one can really hold our attention at a time. Neither of these stories have to do with Kate Middleton and the birth of Prince George.

Back in late May revelations of Apple dodging tens of billions in taxes from the US broke unto the news. Revelations which were quickly followed up by congressional hearings. But then, right on its heels, came the revelations of Edward Snowden about very questionable surveillance techniques of the NSA. The Snowden leaks did not so much spark as spread a desperately needed debate over the growing capacity of the American security state to tap the open design and marketing of the Internet as the medium for a new “transparent society” as a means to its own ends. Snowden turbocharged a debate we need to be having, and we need to keep alive however short our attention spans.

It is unfortunate, though, that the Snowden revelations managed to push the story of Apple’s and other corporations tax dodging- and especially that of other tech giants such as Google and Amazon off of the front page. For, in many ways that story is just as important a story as the Snowden leaks, and despite appearances, is in some ways connected to them.

As a reminder of what happened at Apple, here is a description from one of those “anti-capitalist” over at Forbes Magazine . Lee Shepard reports that after Apple had set up what were in effect a series of shell companies in Ireland where:

“….60% of Apple’s profits, are routed through these Irish subsidiaries and taxed nowhere. “

“….the holding company pays no tax to any government, and has not paid tax for five years. It claims tax residence nowhere.”

When the story first broke I thought Apple’s efforts at tax evasion were out of the ordinary. I was wrong. What Apple was doing is not just widespread- it was representative of the way global capitalism in the 21st century worked. Since at least the 1990’s corporations had in fact become organizations no longer anchored to territorial states. What this meant was that multi-nationals of all sorts were able to escape effective taxation anywhere. The Tax Justice Network ,  calculates that tax evasion through the establishment of havens and fancy financial accounting costs the world’s states roughly 3 trillion dollars per year or around 5% of global GDP in lost revenue.

Some of the most egregious tax avoiders are tech companies we all know and love. Google’s motto might be “Don’t be evil”, but one wonders how much food or medicine its 2 billion of avoided taxes a year might have bought.  What is particularly rankling here is that we have come to associate a certain social consciousness to Silicon Valley companies we no doubt do not link to other types of multinationals such as Oil Companies. The very same people who lecture us at TED about new projects to save the world, along with the people who applaud them in the audience, are often the very individuals people starving government services for cash as part or at the head of globe straddling multinationals.

Yet the nation-states bereft of the funding they need to function seem to be turning against this massive tax avoidance with a vengeance.  The G20 charged the OECD with writing and issuing a report that calls for coordinated efforts by states to recapture a good deal of this missing revenue. President Obama’s recent proposal of a “grand bargain” with the GOP on taxes called for the lowering of corporate rates to be offset by the closure of loopholes that allow corporations to avoid taxes nearly all together.

Whatever their seriousness in dealing with tax evasion the development of coordinated rules between the leading economies is likely to take years and be beset by wrangling, distortion through corporate lobbying and attempts at arbitrage. Trying to tie the revenues of what truly are global corporations to some particular state or divide such taxable revenues proportionally between different sets of states is bound to be messy, complicated, and to take a long time.

Such re-nationalization of taxation would constitute a step backwards for globalization. Yet the digerati of TED and the global elite of Davos are right about this- many of our problems are global in scope and require global solutions. As I have suggested elsewhere what we need is a truly global tax a means of investing not in the nation-state, as important as it remains, but in the well being of the world as a whole.

Some Christian denominations promote the idea of a tithe where 10% of one’s income should be given to charity. A similar 10% tithe on the missing revenues of global corporations would give us 300 billion in revenue we could invest in the state of our shared world. What follows then are some suggestions on where we could spend this windfall.

Prevention and Response to Pandemic Disease:

Much about early 21st century life might suggest that humanity has finally “conquered nature” and that the largest threats to civilization stem from we ourselves. We should not, however, count the threat from nature out. The largest potential killer in the near future is probably pandemic disease. How big of a threat? The World Bank states it this way:

Because a novel flu virus could infect 30-40% of all people, in a worst-case scenario, business and consumer confidence would plummet, worker absenteeism would rise sharply, and public services would falter, says Olga Jonas, economic adviser for the World Bank health team. “Disruptions would propagate across economies and could include breakdowns of food distribution and public order in megacities,” she says.

A severe flu pandemic could cost 4.8% of global GDP, or more than $3 trillion—and it would hit the poor the hardest. The risk is rising because livestock and human densities increase alongside weak veterinary and public health systems in developing countries.

Globalization and an explosion of urbanization make ideal vectors for killer flus or other forms of devastating communicable diseases. Most of these diseases are zoonotic, that is they emerge out of animals especially those human beings have close contact with due to their being raised for food. Preventing the emergence and spread of these diseases will therefore require the introduction of higher standards of sanitation. It will also require the improvement of public health systems in the developing world. The cost? Again, according to the World Bank:

To this end, veterinary and human health systems in developing countries will require $3.4 billion annually, compared with less than $450 million currently.  A Bank report  argues that this sustained level of investment is justified in view of at least $37 billion in annual expected benefits from prevented pandemics and other major outbreaks.

Let’s just round it to 3 billion 1% of our 300 billion dollar global tithe.

 Avoiding Impacts from the Sky:

We all know about the “big-one” that slammed into earth 65 million years ago killing the dinosaurs along with 70% of the life on earth. In terms of probability, however, we should be just as worried about impacts such as the Tunguska Event an asteroid impact which flattened around 2,000 square kilometers of forest in Siberia in 1908. According to a 2008 report by the Association of Space Explorers, Tunguska scale impacts occur roughly 3 times every thousand years.

A future asteroid collision could have disastrous effects on our interconnected human society. The blast, fires, and atmospheric dust produced could cause the collapse of regional agriculture,leading to widespread famine. Ocean impacts like the Eltanin event (2.5 million years ago) produce tsunamis which devastate continental coastlines.

The impact of a Tunguska size asteroid on a major world urban area or in the oceans near it would be akin to the explosion of 500 Hiroshima sized atomic bombs and/or could set off devastating tsunamis of which we have become in recent years all too familiar.

The main problem when dealing with asteroid impacts isn’t so much dispatching with them once found (really deflecting) as it is finding them in the first place. To this end, former NASA astronaut Ed Lu established the B612 Foundation, a private company that hopes to launch a satellite called Sentinel in 2018 which will look for near earth asteroids.

Lu is to be highly commended for this initiative, yet the question needs to be asked why isn’t NASA or the ESA or some other combination of national space agencies doing this on a scale commensurate with the threat?  B612’s answer is that:

NASA lacks the funding for a mission to find and track the million asteroids that threaten our planet. Because of the ongoing federal budget situation, there is no realistic prospect for those funds to materialize.

B612 estimates the cost over the 12 year planned life of Sentinel to run on the order of 450 million dollars. NASA itself does have an asteroid detection program that costs 20 million per year and the Obama administration awakened to the threat posed by near earth asteroids by the spectacular explosion of one such asteroid over Russia earlier this year proposes to double amount for FY 2014. In other words, the budget of B612, an organization funded through charitable donations is equivalent to the allocation for the same vitally important endeavor as that of the richest country on earth with the most sophisticated and well funded space organization of all time.

NASA’s well known budget woes are merely symptomatic of an American government crushed between rising entitlement costs, a massively bloated security architecture, and the sheer inability to raise revenues to meet these expenses. What suffers as a consequence are all the other vital things a government is supposed to do which in the US context is labeled with the misnomer “discretionary spending”. Related to the prior issue of climate change the essential tools and abilities of earth sciences, not just at NASA but at related agencies such as NOAA, are being steadily eroded by budgetary constraints.

This is no stain whatsoever on Lu, who is filling a vital gap left by our problems funding government, but the lost annual tax revenue of the company where he worked after leaving NASA from 2007-2010, Google, the aforementioned 2 billion dollars, could fund launching and supporting 4 of B612’S Sentinels.

Let’s imagine that we use the equivalent of Google’s avoided taxes out of our global tithe to quadruple the size of the Sentinel project giving us 2 billion to avoid asteroid induced armageddon or the destruction of a major city with all of the death and destruction that would cost. It’s a bargain.

Preparing for Climate Change including Geo-engineering research

There is growing realization that we have passed the point at which we can stop our production of atmospheric carbon dioxide raising the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees fahrenheit) before the end of the century. How destructive this rise in temperature will ultimately be we can’t be sure, but it would be smart of us to put aside funds to hedge against worse case scenarios, and start doing major research into geoengineering should we confront Venus style runaway warming.

One thing we need to fund is more research on geoengineering. Many environmentalist do not want us to go there, all of us should not want us to go there, but in the case the effects of rising temperature threaten the lives of billions of people or even civilization itself, we need to have a better grasp of the possibilities. China has declared geoengineering to be a major research focus. During the 2009-2010 FY the Obama administration received requests for 2 billion dollars towards geoengineering research of which it awarded 100 million. The most dangerous scenario would be for a country suffering desperately under the impact of climate change to unilaterally decide to geoengineer the climate to a lower temperature without any international scientific consensus on if and how this should be done.

With our global tithe the world could easily quadruple the amount requested for geoengineering research in the US. Part of that 8 billion could be used to fund international entities charged with coming up with clear red lines where geoengineering should be used and what kind.

Something else we need to be prepared for is widespread displacement whether from sea level rise swallowing low lying areas or desertification. Estimates of just how many refugees will emerge from the impact of climate change are wide indeed- anywhere from 250 million to 1 billion people. Both numbers are incredibly scary.

Systems need to be put in place to help nation- states deal with population flows on a scale never seen before, especially scenarios where sea level rise consumes low lying heavily populated countries such as Bangladesh. The UN agency charged to deal with both refugee flows and disaster response is the UNHCR. It is the first line of defence  poor countries responding to increasingly frequent and more devastating natural disasters. As of 2013 its budget was $87 million.  In 2013 there are roughly 44 million refugees. Even if we stick to the low estimate of 250 million eventual refugees from climate change that would mean 5 times more internally and externally displaced persons than there are today. We should therefore bulk up the UNHCR to five times its current size to prepare meaning that its portion of our global tithe should be around $450 million dollars.

A Second Green Revolution:

The overall rate of population growth may have slowed but projections that we will hit 9 billion before the end of the century still hold. The problem we are facing is that we have no idea how we will feed so many people. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that food production between the early 2000’s and 2050 will have to grow by 70% and developing country production to double by 2050 to keep pace with population growth.

The last time we had Malthusian warnings of mass hunger, back in the late 1960’s we were saved by a revolution in agricultural production that goes by the name The Green Revolution. This revolution in agricultural production is credited with saving a billion human beings from starvation and worked by applying mass production methods to food production, using synthetic fertilizers, the development of higher yielding varieties of staple crops and the application of intensive irrigation.

The problem is the Green Revolution appears to have petered out. Growth in yields near 3% in the 1970’s have declined to almost half of that now. It seems we’ve rung all we can from this industrialized model of agriculture. As the World Resource institute puts it:

…most high-quality agricultural land is already in production, and the environmental costs of converting remaining forest, grassland, and wetland habitats to cropland are well recognized. Even if such lands were converted to agricultural uses, much of the remaining soil is less productive and more fragile; thus, its contribution to future world food production would likely be limited. The marginal benefit of converting new land increases the importance of continuing to improve crop yields so the existing agricultural lands can produce additional food.

Some things we could do about this looming crisis of food scarcity according to Alex Evans from the Center for International Cooperation at New York University they would include among others:

Devote more money to agriculture:

“The last twenty years have seen a disastrous decline in the proportion of foreign aid that goes to agriculture, from 17 per cent in 1980 to 3 per cent in 2006.  Total aid spending on agriculture fell 58 percent in real terms over the same period.  Today, developed country donors urgently need to reverse this trend, and to start plugging the gap left by years of under-investment.”

 Devote more public research money to agriculture:

… the budget of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research has fallen by 50 per cent over the last 15 years, for example.

Such monies could be used to rapidly deploy potentially game changing technologies such genetically engineering major food to take nitrogen from the air which might end our destructive reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

Create an IEA for food:

A global system of food reserves need not entail the creation of a new agency, but to be credible the system would need to be overseen by a disinterested party, such as the World Food Programme.  It would also be essential to be clear that the role of any system of reserves would be limited to emergency assistance: not to act as a price support for producers, or a permanent system for managing food aid.

How much would those things cost? I have no idea. Let’s take as our ball park figure the combined amount the US and the EU now spend on highly distorting agricultural subsidies. For the US that’s about 20 billion for the EU it’s around 50 billion. Taking away a 70 billion dollar slice of our initial 300 billion tithe.

Nuclear Disarmament

The idea of ridding the world of nuclear weapons may seem utopian, but many of those who think the goal both attainable and necessary are some of the hardest of  realists around. The contemporary movement to ban nuclear weapons got its start with an article in the Wall Street Journal back in 2007. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” was written by former Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, George Schultz, and signed by none other than Henry Kissinger. Since then we’ve had Global Zero an international movement whose aim is to rid these apocalyptic weapons from the earth. Global Zero has a four phased plan that gets us to zero nuclear weapons by the 2030s. This would be an incredible way to mark the centenary of the Second World War which gave us these weapons in the first place.

How much would it cost? Probably around 2 billion per year. As always, let’s just double that cost and say that the program runs from now until the centenary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki- 2045.

At 4 billion per year for 32 years that’s about 128 billion from our tithe.

Universal Primary and Secondary Education

If we are ever to achieve the world set forth in the Universal Declarations of Rights we will need to ensure that education is available for all. This is Article 26 of the Declaration, but is also the keystone upon which all other parts of the Declaration rest- the means for the full development of every human personality. While the spread of primary and secondary education has been great over the last few decades, many, especially girls, remain locked out of its benefits.

How much would it cost to ensure that primary and secondary education were available to all? Right now the developing world spends about 82 billion on education at this level.

A high end estimate for how much making free primary and secondary education universal is 35 billion additional dollars. Let’s just double the 82 billion now spent and throw in a few extra billion for could measure- 88.5 billion the remainder of our global tithe.

To review the numbers:

3.0 billion Pandemic diseases

2.0 billion Asteroid Impacts

8 billion Geoengineering Research

500 million UNHCR

70 billion Next Green Revolution

128 billion Nuclear Disarmament

88.5 billion primary and secondary education for all

300 billion

With a mere 10% of the lost taxes from global corporations we have protected ourselves against pandemic diseases and asteroid impacts, created an insurance policy against climate change, done something to address the risk of global famine, eliminated nuclear weapons and provided free primary and secondary education to everyone in the developing world. In the process we have achieved or come far closer to achieving  at least 3 of the 8 Millenium Development Goals. Not bad at all.

Of course, this is not meant to be an absolutely serious proposal but an exercise to show that we do indeed have the resources to address many of the most pressing of our global problems- we just need to get our priorities straight. And this brings me back to where I began- the Snowden leaks whose gorey details just keep on coming.

What the Snowden leaks revealed is that however much the members of global corporations talk the talk of world citizenship they remain subjects of the nation-states from which they stem. The recognition of this fact threatens the most positive elements the globalization of the economy has brought us, namely an increased awareness of our global interconnection and interdependence and hence our global responsibility. The combined facts that techno-elites are simultaneously acting as a tool of the US security state, avoided paying taxes anywhere in the world, and touting “techno- philanthropy” as the main route to solving the world’s problems leaves one in a state of ethical vertigo from which it is difficult to get one’s bearings.

What seems clear to me, however, is that if the positive elements of globalization are to survive, then the elites whose capital is increasingly likely to be sucked up by the nation-states better find a way to make sure a good slice of this capital is used to address the kinds of global problems which the elites tried to make us aware. Even if, or perhaps especially because, they had robbed us of the wherewithal to actually solve them in the first place.

Science Fiction and the occulted canvass of time

Leonardo Davinci's Inventions

In a recent interview the ever insightful and expansive Vernor Vinge laid out his thoughts on possibility and the future. Vinge, of course, is the man who helped invent the idea of the Singularity, the concept that we are in an era of ever accelerating change, whose future, beyond a certain point,- we cannot see. For me, the interesting thing in the Vinge interview is just how important a role he thinks imagination plays in pulling us forward into new technological and social possibilities. For Vinge, our very ability to imagine some new technological or social reality signals our ability to create it in the near future. Imagination and capability are tied at the hip.

One of his own examples should be sufficient to explain. It was a lack of imagination, not so much technological as social, which prevented the ancients from seeing Hero’s steam engine as something better than an amusing toy.  “For what,” an ancient anchored to the past of what had seemingly always been “ could be a more productive and efficient a system than slavery?”

The ancients were tied to the short chain of the past, we have a very different orientation to time- our gaze is forward not backward. In part, the accelerating rate of technological change today emerges out of this change in our imaginative orientation away from the past and towards the future. Many of us are both thinking about the future seriously, and have a broadened perspective on what is possible because we have learned how to dream. We are, in Vinge’s words “grabbing the fabric of reality and pulling it towards us” a great change in the attitude towards the future than could be found a mere 500 years ago.

Vinge is right about this, the idea of imagining the future as something fundamentally different from the past is a relatively recent human habit of mind. If the future was a painting one might say that for most of human history the painting remained monotonously the same with the new only added very slowly to it. To continue with this analogy, what one started to see beginning around the late 1200s was the appearance of blank space on an expanded canvas to which the new could be added, something that would eventually happen at an accelerating pace.

And it has been the kinds of imagination we associate with Vinge’s craft -science-fiction- that has played a large role in producing despite Ecclesiastes “new things under the sun”.  Science-fiction, its progenitors and its derivatives were one of the main vectors by which the new could be imagined. We merely had to await the improvement in our technical skill, our ability to “paint” them- to bring them into being. Here is one of the first and maybe the most powerful example. Way back in the late 1200s Roger Bacon in his Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae Magiae predicted the future with an accuracy that would make Nostradamus blush. Predicting:

Machines for navigation can be made without rowers so that the largest ships on rivers or seas will be moved by a single man in charge with greater velocity than if it were full of men. Also cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity… Also flying machines can be constructed so that a man sits in the midst of a machine revolving some engine by which artificial wings are made to flap like a bird… Also a machine can easily be made for walking in the seas and rivers, even to the bottom without danger.” (Aladdin’s Lamp  417-418)

Now, Roger Bacon seems to disprove part of Vinge’s ideas regarding imagination and the future, namely; the idea that if we can dream of something we are likely to make it happen right away, for it would take another seven centuries for us to be driving in cars or flying in airplanes. Yet this gap would disappear, in fact it would be measured in decades rather than centuries, for almost all of the history of science-fiction, up until recently that is. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Leonardo Da Vinci also still belongs to the age when the ability to imagine ran far out in front of our capacity to create in the real world. Da Vinci in  imagining flying machines or submarines or tanks- such as the speculative inventions pictured above- might be said to be practicing an early type of science- fiction, expanding the realm of what was imaginable and therefore potentially possible, but like the possibilities sketched out in Bacon they would take a long time in coming.

Related to this expansion in imaginative possibilities that began in early modern Europe that same region also experienced an expansion of the world itself.  During the Age of Exploration Europeans came face-to-face with the true size of the world, but it would be sometime before they knew the details about the human societies that inhabited it. This was a recipe for the imagination to run wild and provided an arena of fantasy in which European anxieties and hopes could be played out. One got all sorts of frightening stories about “cannibals”, but one also had Utopian lands presented as ideal cities rediscovered. These stories allowed Europeans to imagine alternatives to their own societies. After the discovery in the same period that the moon and planets were also “earth-like” worlds you get the birth of that staple of science-fiction- intelligent life on other planets- with works such as Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds that allowed brave writers to explore alternative versions of their societies in yet another landscape.

By the 1800s the gap between what we dreamed and what we could do was closing incredibly fast. Not only was the world being transformed by industrialization it was also clear that technology was steadily improving and thus revolutionizing and expanding the prospects for human societies in the future – we now call this progress. Our canvas was being filled in, but was also being even further stretched out to allow for yet more possibilities. Science-fiction writers were to play a large role in driving  this expansion both of what we could do and what, because it was imaginable was deemed possible.

To name just a few of these visionaries: even if predicting the future of technology wasn’t his intention, Jules Verne expanded our technological horizon by dreaming up trips to the moon and undersea voyages. Then there was the cultural sensation of Edward Bellamy and the incomparable H.G. Wells.

Bellamy, in his futuristic Looking Backward 2000-1887 was just one of many who thought the new landscape of human flourishing would be found through the proper organization of the enormous powers of industrialization. Bellamy got a number of things right about the future, from department stores and credits cards to a version of the radio and the telephone that lay less than a century into the future.

H.G. Wells was even better, his trope of a time machine in lieu of a Rip-Van Winkle type sleep to get one of his protagonists into the future notwithstanding, he got some pretty important, though sadly dark, things from atomic bombs to aerial warfare essentially correct. Less than half a century after Wells had imagined his nightmare technologies they were actually killing people.

For a time the solar system itself, not because it contained living worlds resembling the earth as Fontenelle had imagined, but because it was at last reachable seemed to hold the hope of yet another canvas upon which different versions of the future could be drawn. The absolute master in presenting the sheer enormity of this canvas was Olaf Stapledon who in works like Last and First Men and Star Maker placed humanity’s emigration into space within the context of the history of life on earth and even the universe itself giving such a quest what can only be called a religious dimension.

Stapledon was thinking in terms of billions of years, but the technologies to take us into space spurred forward by the Second World War- Nazi V rockets, and then the Cold War “space race” seemed to be bringing his dreams into reality almost overnight.

This was the perfect atmosphere not only for pulp science-fiction and comics based around the exploration and settlement of space, but for much deeper fare such as that of Stapledon’s great heir, Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote his own religious versions of the meaning of the space race.

Yet,  it was our future in space where the narrowing gap between what we can dream and what we could do began to not only stop narrowing but actually to widen.  Clarke was eerily on the money when it came to the development of telecommunications and the personal computer, but wide off the mark when it came to our immediate future in space. His 1968 novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has us taking manned missions to Jupiter in that millennial year which, sadly, has come and gone without even having men return to the moon.  Despite his hopes, his beautiful fiction did not inspire the creation of actual space ships twirling space stations and missions, but a whole series of big budget films and television series based in outer space. More on that in a minute.

Right around the time American astronauts were setting foot on the moon science-fiction  was taking some other and ultimately introspective turns more aligned with the spirit of the times. In the words of the man Fredric Jameson in his Archaeologies of the Future called the “Shakespeare of science-fiction”, Philip K. Dick:

Our flight must be not only to the stars but into the nature of our own beings. Because it is not merely where we go, to Alpha Centaurus or Betelgeuse, but what we are as we make our pilgrimages there. Our natures will be going there, too. “Ad astra” — but “per hominem.” And we must never lose sight of that. (The Android and The Human)

It would be a while until we’d make it to Alpha Centaurus or Betelgeuse, for humanity’s rabbit leap movement into the solar system sputtered to a turtle-like crawl with the end of the Apollo missions in 1972. Like the picture of our big blue marble from space seemed to tell us, we, serious science-fiction writers included, were going to have to concentrate on the earth and ourselves for a while, and no question here was as important perhaps than that implied by Dick of what exactly was our relationship with the technological world we had built and how to react in light of this world changing into something new with both promise and danger?

Even if the 70s and 80s were a period of retreat from the actual human settlement and exploration of space they were a heyday of dreaming about it. I was a kid then, and I loved it! There was Star Wars and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and a new Buck Rogers.  Special effects, even if they seem primitive by today’s standards had gotten so good that one felt, at least if you were 10, like you were really there. And yet, we were nowhere near the things that could be dreamed stuck instead in low-earth orbit like David Bowie’s Major Tom.

This very ability to produce such vivid dreams of what could be was itself driven by technological changes that actually were happening a fact that became even more the case with the development of computers that were fast enough and cheap enough to make realistic computer animation possible- CGI- possible. Our waking dreams will become even more lifelike given the resurrection and inevitable improvement of 3D.

This new gap between our dreams and reality has resulted in a weird sort of anxiety in the generation, and no doubt mostly men of that generation, who grew up with the idea “the year 2000” would be some magical technological era of cites in space and the next stage of our interstellar adventure. No one, perhaps, has been more vocal in expressing this mindset than the technologists and billionaire, Peter Thiel who in a 2011 interview in the New Yorker stated the case this way:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction,” Thiel said. “Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

Doubtless, Theil downplays the importance of the revolution in computers and telecommunications that occurred in this period- a revolution he himself helped push forward. While states provide incapable or unwilling or both of pursuing Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of our future in space, a generation of bohemians and tech geeks succeeded in making his dreams about personal computers and a global communications network which had rendered location irrelevant come true. Here is Bill Gates in his Spock- like hyper-rational yet refreshingly commonsensical way on Peter Thiel’s slogan for technological pessimism:

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

I feel sorry for Peter Thiel. Did he really want flying cars? Flying cars are not a very efficient way to move things from one point to another. On the other hand, 20 years ago we had the idea that information could become available at your fingertips. We got that done. Now everyone takes it for granted that you can look up movie reviews, track locations, and order stuff online. I wish there was a way we could take it away from people for a day so they could remember what it was like without it.

Yet, Thiel and the cohort around him are not ones for technological resignation or perhaps even realism. Instead, they are out to make something like the sci-fi space fantasies they were raised on as kids in the 70s and 80s come true. Such is the logic behind what, so far at least, has been the first successful foray of a private company into space exploration- Elon Musk’s Space X. Believe it or not, two companies plan to send missions to Mars in the very near future: Inspiration Mars which hopes to launch a manned orbital probe and the even more ambitious Mars One which hopes to send a human crew to Mars that will not return- permanent settlers- in 2023 with an unmanned mission sending supplies to be sent only three years from now.

In a twist that I am not sure is a dystopian space version of The Truman Show or a real world version of Kim Stanley Robinson’s thought provoking Mars Trilogy the whole experience of the deliberately marooned Mars colonists of Mars One is to be broadcast to us earthlings safe on our couches. If this ends up like the Truman Show what we’ll have is the reduction of Stapledon’s or Clarke’s vision of space as a canvas upon which human destiny is to be written to a banal and way too expensive version of interstellar product placement that would be farcical if it wasn’t ultimately also a suicide mission. Though, instead of virgins in heaven the Martian marooned will see their families made rich by advertising royalties with the only price that they will never see them in person and given the distance will never be able to speak with them in real time again. Yet there are reasons to be optimistic as well.

Perhaps the Mars One mission, if it is successful, will result in something  Robinson’s Mars Trilogy as described in Archeologies of the Future. According to Jameson, Robinson has provided us with a tableau in the form of human colonies on Mars upon which different definitions of what it means to be human and what the ideal society and what we should most value are played off against one another in a way that can never be finally and satisfactorily resolved. Mars One and missions of its type might give us a version of real-world science-fiction, where, as Philip K. Dick suggested it should be, the question is not where we are and what we can do but what we should be? Such adventures might help restore the canvass of the future, both by luring us away from our enticing versions of it which are too far from our grasp, and by allowing us to find some fate other than falling into the black pit of Vinge’s Singularity where our own still human future has been rendered irrelevant.

Then there is the future of science-fiction itself. As David Brin recently pointed out, his fellow science-fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, has launched a fascinating endeavor, Project Hieroglyph that encourages collaboration between science-fiction authors, artists and engineers in creating positive visions of the near human future.

Yet, there is another, even more important role I believe science-fiction can play.

Part of the reality of science and technology today is that it can be used to build radically different forms of society. As Douglas Rushkoff pointed out in this brilliant impromptu speech many of us thought the spread of the Internet was going to rise to one form of society- a society of free time and digital democracy, but instead the Internet has been used as a tool for the disappearance of the distinction between life and work, the application of ubiquitous surveillance by corporations and the government. In a time such as ours when the same technology can be used to pursue very different ends and used to support very different sorts of societies perhaps the primary role of science-fiction is to give us the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to negotiate our technological world- both as individuals and as a society. In this sense science-fiction, which seems to many just “kids’ stuff” is the most serious form of fiction we have, a tried and true road to the future.

Capitalism, Evolution and the Attack of the Giant Fungus

Armillaria ostoyae

One of the stranger features of our era is its imaginative exhaustion in terms of the future, which I realize is a strange thing to say her. This exhaustion is not so much of an issue when it comes to imagining tomorrow’s gadgets, or scientific breakthroughs, but becomes apparent once the question of the future political and economic order is at stake. In fact, the very idea that something different will almost inevitably follow the institutions and systems we live in seems to have retreated from our consciousness at the very time when the endemic failures of our political and economic order has shown that the current world can not last.

Whatever the failures of government in Washington no serious person is discussing an alternative to the continued existence of the United States or its constitutional form of government now over two centuries old. The situation is even more pronounced when it comes to our capitalist economic system which has taken root almost everywhere and managed to outlive all of its challengers. Discussions about the future economy are rarely ones about what might succeed capitalism but merely the ironing out of its contradictions so that the system itself can continue to function.

It’s not just me saying this, here is the anthropologists and anarchist philosopher David Graeber in his wonderful Debt the first 5,000 Years on our contemporary collective brain freeze when it comes to thinking about what a future economy might be like:

It’s only now, at the very moment when it’s becoming increasingly clear that current arrangements are not viable, that we suddenly have hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination.

There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist-most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet, and the current form of capitalism doesn’t seem to be capable of generating the kind of vast technological breakthroughs and mobilizations that would be required for us to start finding and colonizing any other planets. Yet faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction-even from those who call themselves “progressives”-is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse. (381-382)

There are all sorts of reasons why our imagination has become stuck. To begin with the only seemingly viable alternative to capitalism- state communism- proved itself a failure in the 1980s when the Soviet Union began to kick the bucket. Even the socialist alternatives to capitalism were showing their age by then and began pulling themselves back from any sort of direct management of the economy. Then there is one word- China- which embraced a form of state capitalism in the late 1970s and never looked back. To many of the new middle class in the developing world the globalization of capitalism appears a great success and can be credited with moving millions out of poverty.

Yet capitalism has its problems. There is not only the question of its incompatibility with survival on a finite earth, as Graber mentions, there are its recurrent financial crises, its run away inequality, its endemic unemployment in the developed and its inhuman exploitation in the developing world. One would have thought that the financial crisis would have brought some soul searching to the elites and a creative upsurge in thinking about alternative systems, but, alas, it has not happened except among anarchists like Graeber and the short-lived Occupy movement he helped inspire and old school unrepentant communists such as Slavoj Zizek.

At least part of our imaginative atrophy can be explained by the fact that capitalism, like all political-economic systems before has managed to enmesh itself so deeply into our view of the natural world that it’s difficult to think of it as something we ourselves made and hence can abandon or reconfigure if we wanted to. Egyptian pharaohs, Aztec chieftains, or Chinese emperors, all made claims to rule that justified themselves as reflections of the way the cosmos worked. The European feudal order that preceded the birth of capitalism was based on an imagined chain of being that stretched from the peasant in his field to the king on his throne through the “angelic” planets to God himself- out there somewhere in the Oort Cloud.

The natural order that capitalism is thought to reflect is an evolutionary one which amounts to a bias against design and control. Like evolution, the “market” is thought to be wiser than any intentional attempts to design steer or control in could ever be. This is the argument one can find in 19th century social Darwinist like Thomas Huxley, a 20th century iconoclast like Friedrich Hayek, or a 21st century neo-liberal like Robert Wright, all of whom see in capitalism a reflection of biological evolution in that sense. In the simplest form of this argument evolution pits individuals against one another in a competition to reproduce with the fittest individuals able to get their genes into the next generation. Capitalism pits producers and sellers against others dealing in similar products with only the most efficient able to survive.  History seemed to provide the ultimate proof of this argument as the command economy of the Soviet Union imploded in the 1980s and country after country adopted some sort of pro-market system. The crash, however,  should have sparked some doubts.

The idea that the market is a social version of biological evolution has some strong historical roots. The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay “Of bamboos, cicadas and the economy of Adam Smith” drew our attention to the fact that this similarity between evolution and capitalism might hold not because the capitalist theory of economics emerged under the influence of the theory of evolution but the reverse. That the theory of evolution was discovered when it was because Darwin was busy reading the first theorist of capitalism- Adam Smith. I am unable to find a link to the essay, but here is Gould explaining himself.

The top down mercantilist economy Smith attacked in his Wealth of Nations, according to Gould, must have seemed to Darwin like the engineering God of William Paley in his Natural Philosophy. Paley was the man who gave us the analogy of God as “watchmaker”. If you found a watch on the beach and had never seen such a thing before you could reasonably assume it was designed by a creature with intelligence. We should then reason from the intricate engineering of nature that it was designed by a being of great intelligence.

Adam Smith was dealing with a whole other sort of question- how do you best design and manage an economy? Smith argued that the best way to do this wasn’t to design it from the top down, but  to let the profit motive loose from which an “invisible hand” would bring the best possible economic order into being. In the free market theory of Smith, Darwin could find a compelling argument against Paley. The the way you arrived at the complex order of living things was not to design it from on high but to let the struggle for reproduction loose and from an uncountable number of failures and successes would emerge the rich tapestry of life which surrounds us in words of a much later book on the topic by Richard Dawkins, the “designer” of nature was a Blind Watchmaker.

The problem with thinking our current economic system reflects the deep truth of evolution is not that the comparison lacks a grain of truth, and it certainly isn’t the case that the theory of evolution is untrue or is likely to be shown to be untrue as something like the Great Chain of Being that justified the feudal order was eventually shown to be untrue. Rather, the problem lies with the particularly narrow version of evolution with which capitalism is compared and the papering over of the way evolution often lacks the wisdom of something like Smith’s “invisible hand”.

Perhaps we should borrow another idea from Gould if we are to broaden our evolutionary analogy between evolution and capitalism. Gould pioneered a way to understand evolution known as punctuated equilibrium. In this view evolution does not precede gradually but in fits and starts with periods of equilibrium in which evolutionary change grinds to a halt are ended by periods of rapid evolutionary change driven by some disequilibrating event- say a rapid change in climate or the mass appearance of new species such as in the Columbian Exchange. This is then followed by a new period of equilibrium after species have evolved to best meet the new conditions, or gone extinct because they could not adapt and so on and so on.

The defining feature of late capitalism, or whatever you chose to call it, is that it is unable to function under conditions of equilibrium, or better, that its goal of ever increasing profits is incompatible with the kinds of equilibrium found in mature economies. This is part of the case the financial journalist Chrystia Freeland makes in her engaging book Plutocrats. The fact that so much Western money is now flowing into the developing world stems from the reality that the rapid transformation in such places makes stupendous profits possible. Part of this plethora of potential profits arises from the fact that areas such as the former Soviet Union China and countries that have undergone neo-liberal reforms- like India- are virgin territories for capitalist entrepreneurs. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out during the last great age of globalization at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century capitalism was the first system “that was calculated for the whole earth”.

To return to the analogy with evolution, it is like the meeting of two formerly separated ecosystems only one of which has undergone intense selective pressures. Capitalist corporations whether Western or imitated are the ultimate invasive species in areas that formerly lived in the zoo- like conditions of state socialism.   In the mature economies such as those of the United States, Europe, and Japan the kinds of disequilibrium which leads to the ever increasing profits at the root of capitalism have come in two very different forms- technological change and deregulation. The revolution in computers and telecommunications has been a source of disequilibrium upending everything from entertainment to publishing to education. In the process it has given rise to the sorts of economic titans, and sadly inequality,seen in a similar periods of upheaval. We no longer have Andrew Carnegie, but we do have Bill Gates. Standard Oil is a thing of the past, but we have Google and Facebook and Amazon.

The transformation of society that has come with such technological disequilibrium is probably, on net, a positive thing for all of us. But, we have also engendered self-inflicted disequilibrium without clear benefit to the larger society. The enormous growth in the profits and profile of the financial industry came on the back of the dismantling of Depression era controls making financiers and financial institutions into the wealthiest segment of our society. We know where that got us. It is as if a stable, if staid, island ecosystem suddenly invited upon itself all sorts of natural disasters in the hope of jump starting evolution and got instead little but mutants that threaten to eat everything in sight until the island became a wasteland. Late capitalism is like evolution only if we redact the punctuated equilibrium. It is we ourselves who have taken to imposing the kinds of stresses that upend the economy into a state of permanent disequilibrium.

The capitalism/evolution analogy also only works under conditions of a near perfect market where the state or some other entity not only preserves free competition at its heart but intervenes to dismantle corporations once they get too large. Such interference is akin to the balancing effect of predation against plants or animals that exhibit such rapid reproduction that if the majority of them were not quickly eaten they would consume entire ecosystems.  Such is the case with the common aphid which if left to its devices would have one individual producing 1,560,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 heptillion, 560 hexillion) offspring!

The balance of nature is a constraint that every species is desperate to break out of just as at the root of every corporation lies the less than secret wish to have eliminated all of its competition. Most of the time predation manages to prevent the reproductive drive of any one species from threatening the entire ecosystem, but sometimes it fails. This is the case with the giant fungus Armillaria ostoyae whose relentless growth kills the trees above it and smothers the diverse forest ecosystem from which it had emerged.

We can complain that the failure of the government to break up giant corporations has let loose the like of Armillaria ostoyae. Calls to dismantle the big banks after the financial crisis fell on deaf ears. Big banks and mega-corporations can now point to their global presence and competition against other behemoths to justify their survival. We couldn’t dismantle Google if we wanted too because everything left would be swallowed by Baidu.

And it’s not only that the government is failing to preserve market competition by letting companies get too big, it’s also distorting the economic ecosystem to favor the companies that are already there. The corruption of democracy through corporate lobbying has meant that the government, to the extent that it acts at all, is not preserving free competition but distorting it. To quote from Plutocrats:

“Most lobbying seeks to tilt the playing field, in one direction or another, not level it.” (262)

Another, and for my part much more galling oversight of the capitalism/evolution analogy is that it tends to treat any attempt at design, guidance or intention on the part of the society at large as somehow “unnatural” interference in what would otherwise be a perfectly balanced system. What this position seems to conveniently forget is that the discovery of Natural Selection didn’t somehow lead to the end of Artificial Selection- instead quite the opposite. We don’t just throw a bunch of animals in a room and cross our fingers that some miracle of milk or egg production will result. What we do is meticulously shape the course of evolution using some constraint based on our hoped for result.

It we who have established the selective criteria of maximizing and increasing profits and growth to be the be all and end all of a corporation’s existence when we could have chosen a much different set of selection criteria that would give rise to completely different sorts of economic entities. Governments already do this when they force industries to comply with constraints such as health and safety or environmental requirements. Without these constraints we get the evolution of economic entities that are focused on maximizing profits and growth alone, man made creatures which giant fungus like care little for the people and societies underneath them.

Related to this is another evolutionary assumption shared by proponents of the unfettered free market, this one with somewhat dubious scientific validity. Those who believe capitalism can run itself seem to subscribe to an economic version of James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis”.  Recall, that Lovelock proposed that the earth itself was a kind of living organism that had evolved in such a way as to be self-regulating towards an environment that was optimal for life. Human beings, if they were crazy enough to challenge this Gaian equilibrium were asking for extinction, but life itself would go on until it faced a challenger it would be unable to best- the earth’s beloved sun.

Belief that the technological world is a kind of superorganism can be found thought like these of the journalist Robert Wright that I have quoted elsewhere:

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?”

In this quote can be found both of the great forces of disequilibrium unleashed by late capitalism, both the computer and communications revolution and globalization. But it seem that this planetary brain lack the part of our neural architecture that makes us the most human- the neocortex, by which we are able to act intentionally and plan.

The kinds of hair-trigger threads we are weaving around society are good in many respects, but are not an answer to the problem of our long term direction and can even, if they are not tempered by foresight, themselves lead to the diminution of long term horizons in the name of whatever is right in front of our nose, and spark crises of uninformed panic lacking any sense of perspective. Twitter was a helpful tool in helping to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators, but proved useless in actually establishing anything like democracy.

Supercomputers using sophisticated algorithms now perform a great deal of the world’s financial transactions in milliseconds,  and sometimes lead to frightening glitches like the May 2010 “flash crash” that may portend deeper risks lying underneath a world where wealth is largely detached from reality and become a sea of electrons. Even if there are no further such crashes our ever shortening time scale needs to be somehow tempered and offset with an idea of the future where the long term horizon extends beyond the next financial quarter.

 Late 21st century capitalism with its focus on profit maximization and growth where corporations have managed to free themselves from social constraints and where old equilibriums are overturned in the name of creating new opportunities is just one version of a “natural” economic system.  We are free to imagine others. As Graeber hoped we would start to wonder what different kinds of economic systems might be possible besides the one we live in. The people we would do best turn to when it comes to imagining such alternatives are unlikely to come from the ranks of economists who are as orthodox as any medieval priesthood, or our modern fortune-tellers- the futurists- who are little better than “consultants” for the very system we might hope to think our way beyond.

No, the people who might best imagine a future alternative to capitalism are those who are the most free of the need to intellectually conform so as to secure respectability, tenure, promotion or a possible consulting gig, and who have devoted their lives to thinking about the future. The people who best meet this description today are the authors of science and speculative fiction. It will be to their success and failure in this task that I will turn next time…

Reflections on Abundance

Great Chain of Being and the Feudal Orders

 

It is hard to avoid getting swept up in the utopian optimism of Peter Diamandis.  The world he presents in his Abundance: The Future is Better Than you Think is certainly the kind of future I would hope for all of us: the earth’s environment saved and its energy costless, public health diseases, global hunger and thirst eradicated, quality education and health care ubiquitous (not to mention cheap) and, above, all extreme poverty at long last conquered.

 The way Diamandis gets us from here to there is almost all a matter of increasing efficiency through technological innovation. The efficiency of solar cells is rising exponentially along with a whole suite of clean energy options from fuel producing organisms created through synthetic biology to Fourth Generation nuclear power plants that not only manage to not produce any radioactive byproduct, they are safe from Three Mile Island style disasters, consume old nuclear waste and are so small they actually don’t need anyone to run them.

 Then there is the future of toilets. Hypothetical sewage systems that in addition to not using any of our precious water, can use human waste as a home brewed power source, and produce a natural form of agricultural fertilizer to boot. Access to a clean toilet is actually a very big deal. 2.5 billion people on earth do not have access to a clean toilet with the effect that 1,800 children die needlessly from waste borne illness each day.

Amazingly enough more people have access to cellphones than clean toilets as the use of the former has exploded over the preceding decade, and with this factoid appeared my first doubts regarding Diamandis’ assumptions, but for now let’s stick to the optimism of solutions.

 Far too many people go hungry in the world today, 925 million or one out of every 7 of us, according to Diamandis (102), but that might be about to get a whole lot worse. That’s because the world’s population is rapidly headed towards 9 billion while our ability to increase agricultural yields in the way we did with the Green Revolution has stalled. Thankfully, Diamandis sees technological solutions on the horizon- genetically modified crops, including one of the best ideas I have heard in years that of “golden rice”, that is rice fortified with the essential and often missing vitamin in the diet of the poor- Vitamin A.  There are also vertical farms where crops are grown using aeroponics, giving a whole new meaning to “locally grown” along with bringing agriculture into the “internet of things” equipping plants and animals with sensors that give constant feedback and allow the meticulous allocation of water, nutrients, light, temperature and pesticides. There is also the long promised “meat in a vat” promising a final rapprochement between carnivores and herbivores everywhere. World running out of fresh water? No problem, technologies are in the works that can cheaply realize the perennial human dream of turning the salted oceans into a drinkable Niagara.

 Then there is the education of tomorrow: if much of essential learning in the world today is either absent, as in large parts of the developing world, or composed of factory age style education that lumps children into groups and stamps them out like Model T’s, technology promises to solve that too. Salman Khan, whose Academy I love, has brought learning to anyone with an internet connection. Massive Open Online Courses -MOOCS- have done Khan one better and are now bringing the classrooms of elite universities to the masses. Advances in artificial intelligence promise a future where every child (and perhaps adult) has their own customized tutor and moves through the world of knowledge not based on some cookie cutter idea of what an educated person looks like, but based on their own interests, abilities and learning styles.

 The doctorless masses, especially those in the developing world, are about to get their own personal assistants as well- automated nurses and doctors brought to them through the miracle of their cell phone and other wireless technology.

 All these developments Diamandis hopes will raise the world’s bottom billion up through Maslow’s Pyramid to the point where the bear struggle to survive no longer prevents individuals from pursuing self-actualization. A billion new entrants to the global economy will make a damned good consumer market to boot.

 Every bone in my body hopes Diamadis’ predictions bear fruit and believes we should push forward at every level, both public and private, technological innovations to address many of the world’s problems. There are, however, a number of big- questions Diamandis does not address- issues like inequality and technological unemployment, and the tensions between globalization and democracy- that should give us pause when it comes to the essentials of Diamadis’ argument which in a nutshell boils down to this: that most of the world’s deepest problems are to be solved by the application of technology to increase efficiency, and that a good deal of these solutions will be spurred on by a class that combines aspects of business, science and technology. and philanthropy, the so called techno-philanthropists of which Diamandis counts himself.

 Inequality gets barely a mention in Abundance and when it does it is brought up in the carbon cutout form of “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer” only to be dispatched with with a wave of Diamandis’ hand. Sometimes the things unmentioned in a good book on closer inspection turn out to be somehow deeply interwoven with the author’s underlying assumptions. The primary target of Abundance is not how to get the sputtering US economy back into motion it is how technology might be used to get the horribly poor 2.5 billion people who struggle on a little more than a dollar a day out of such extreme poverty without as a consequence wrecking the planet. Behind these billions of the poor lies a sad statistic that reveals a great deal about the nature of our new global economy that, as David Rothkopf puts it in his Superclass, The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making:

 

The reality is that the combined net worth of the world’s richest thousand or so people- the planet’s billionaires- is almost twice that of the poorest 2.5 billion. (xv)

 I do not know what it is like going to sleep knowing that you own more than hundreds of millions of people many of whom live in conditions you would not think fit for your pets, but somewhere it has to pull on the conscience. When you hold Diamandis’ argument in your hand and spin it so that you can see it from the view of the bottom up what you get, I think, is a kind of shaving off of these sharp edges of egregious human inequality in order to justify what amounts to a still pretty extreme view of what “normal” inequality looks like. It’s a hell of alot easier to justify your G550 when millions of children aren’t living in garbage.

 The fact that Diamandis’ argument is at bottom a justification for an only somewhat less extreme form of today’s unprecedented levels of inequality can be seen in one of the primary vectors through which he thinks the “bottom billion” will be raised out of the most dehumanizing poverty not nation states, international institutions, or world government, but those Diamandis calls “techno-philanthropists” that is people with both the technological prowess and the capital to solve the major energy, food, water, education and communication problems that he holds responsible for extreme poverty. His models for this are not only Bill Gates and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an institution that I do believe when the history books are written will be remembered as one of the most positive and impactful initiatives of the early 21st century, but also the old “robber barons” of the late 19th century of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. For Diamandis the robber barons were economically transformative figures that in addition left a lasting cultural and educational legacy that has benefited us all. Doubtless, but then no mention is made of how the likes of Carnegie achieved this enormous wealth he could use for our benefit by earning ten thousand times the salary of his lowest paid workers. (Superclass 102)

 Diamandis is speaking from the perspective of a global elite, the people who hobnob at Davos, and whip up sleek versions of saving the world at TED, people that quite rightly, and much unlike the provincial bumpkins of American national politics, are conscious of the enormous problems found in the world. Diamandis thinks the solution to these problems is an increase in technological efficiency which only raises questions when one remembers that is this very efficiency which is the source of the global elites enormous wealth in the first place, and is an area where their global interests collides head on with the economic and social reality of the developed world’s democracies from which most of this elite still hails.

 Like Carnegie and Rockefeller and unlike many of the elites of old today’s superclass have their money and the power that comes with it because they have been transformative figures and have largely affected this transformation through quantum leaps in  efficiency- for those old enough- think of how difficult it was to find information before Larry Page and Sergey Brin invented Google, or how easy Jeff Bezos’s Amazon made shopping for books or anything else or how expensive necessities were before Sam Walton built Walmart. Diamandis promises more of these revolutions in efficiency this time targeted directly at the world’s poorest. Yet already there is an elephant in the room.

 The largely unacknowledged problem is that globalization and the revolutions brought about by the continued progress of Moore’s Law have been of enormous benefit to the developing world and a decidedly mixed bag for the developed countries. To quote John Cassidy from the New Yorker from back in 2011: 

To me, what is really, really alarming is this: a typical American male who works full time and still has a job is earning almost exactly the same now as his counterpart was back in 1972, when Richard Nixon was in the White House, O. J. Simpson rushed a thousand yards for the Buffalo Bills, and Don McLean topped the charts with “American Pie”

 Both globalization and Moore’s Law enabled revolutions have, however,  been a miracle for the world’s poor- especially those of the world’s two most populous countries China and India- something the ever entertaining Hans Rosling brings home with gusto here.  The uplifting effects of globalization are now, at long last, even being felt in Africa, and Diamandis is right to point out the profound changes cell phones have brought to that continent.

 How is such a discrepancy between the rich/developed and poor/developing world to be explained? I think at least part of it can be explained this way:  if technological innovation is all about creative destruction then perhaps the developed and developing world do not get the two in equal measure. This is because in the developed world there is an awful lot to destroy. Cell phones in North America, Europe and Japan replaced well established landlines, whereas cell phones in the developing world had very little to replace at all. Automation has been in a generation long race with the poorly paid factory workers of the developing world as to which could produce goods more cheaply, but both left developed world manufacturing workers in the dust. Diamandis’ prescriptions fails to acknowledge this disconnect of globalization and technological innovation in terms of their varied impact on developed and developing economies to merely embrace the trend.

 It is one thing to replace nurses with cell phone apps where few nurses are to be found-the situation in the developing world- and quite another in an economy such as that of the US where not only do millions make their living doing such tasks but where we have spent a decade or more pushing people towards this career on account of a looming shortage of health care workers. Replacing non-existent teachers with AI tutors is all well and good where there are very few teachers to begin with, but what do you do when you have millions of people who have committed themselves to this noble profession who have been replaced by self-directed videos or a teaching bot?

 We have seen the idea that globalization and technology has the effect of pushing down wages for the majority while creating at the same time a spiked world of the super-wealthy before. This was essentially the future as written by Karl Marx- a still relevant  thinker who gets no mention from Diamandis. Marx might have been widely off in terms of his historical timeline, but correctly identified the deep trend of capitalism to push in this direction. If we are at the beginning stages of developing something like Marx’s bi-polar class system we might ask what took these predictions so long in coming about? Marx missed a lot of things- from the strength of unions to the willingness of the state to act against the interest of economic actors, which were important in delaying his predictions but tangential here.

 Someone might have been able to prove to Marx, writing in the 1800s, that his ideas were going to take a long time to be anywhere close to reality with the simple exercise of asking him how long he thought it would take until the majority of available occupations would be replaced by mechanized labor or labor so simplified that it could be done by a human being with even the most rudimentary education. How long would it take before there was an automated doctor, automated lawyer, automated journalist like Marx himself. How long would it be until shopkeepers and bureaucrats could be replaced by machines? For it was fields such as these that exploded in growth after the decline of the craft guilds and the mechanization of agriculture, both brought about by machines and the new ideas regarding the division of labor in which workers were turned into cogs of production. Marx might have then seen that the near future in front of him would be less likely to be the age of revolution than a golden age of the middle class as societies were able to tap millions of workers who had been let loose by the end of the craft guilds and above all the mechanization of the farms and put then to work at non-automated tasks. Today’s situation might prove different because the kinds of innovations we are pushing towards, for the developed economies, might end up leaving far too many people without a job. Unless that is we can come up with a whole host of occupations that will remain off limits to AI for quite some time.

 I have no real solution to this dilemma other than to caution skepticism towards the all too common view that technology is somehow a panacea to all, rather than just some, of our problems and that innovation is merely a matter of gain without real and profound costs. Above all, I would warn against attempts to read our present condition as somehow indicative of the “destiny” of life, our world, or the universe itself or at least not in ways where such views can be used as justifications for what in the end remain political decisions.

 Towards the beginning of Abundance Diamandis presents a picture of the evolution of life moving through stages of specialization and cooperation from the singular prokaryotes to the cooperative eukaryotes with their internal specialization to multicellular organisms. Diamandis leaning on Robert Wright takes this story of specialization and cooperation up another level to us and our global civilization built on yet greater specialization and complexity. In a separate article that in some sense is merely an extension of the argument proposed by Diamandis Wright discusses the rise of the internet and the way it has allowed human beings to weave themselves together, asking:

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?”

 On the one hand this view rings true to me, but then I start to think about the life and nature of our 21st century elites who have thrown off their ties to the local and the national to live their lives enmeshed in global networks of the rich and powerful. Innovators who have built, own, and control the very networks through which a world that is for the first time in history truly one has come about. People who whatever their virtues reap enormous benefits from the wealth they possess and the power they exercise, who  already act in some sense like Wright’s “planetary brain”. It’s then that I remember how invisibly political such ideas are and wonder- was there ever an age where the elites of the day did not see their own reign written into the very fabric of the universe itself?

The Lost Art of Architectonic

Palmanova

One of the things that most strikes me when thinking on the subject of our contemporary discourse regarding the future is just how seldom those engaged in the discussion aim at giving us a vision of society as a whole. There are books that dig deep but remain narrow  such as Eric Topol’s: The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care, and George Church’s recent Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Many of these books are excellent, but one walks away from reading them with a good idea of where a particular field or part of our lives might be headed rather than society as a whole.

Even when authors try to extend the reach of speculation out more broadly they tend to approach things from certain lens that ends up constraining them. Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect tries to apply the idea of peer-networks to areas as diverse as politics, education, economics and the arts while Peter Diamandis, and Steven Kotler in Abundance appear to project the mindset and passions of Silicon Valley: exponential growth in computers, the D.I.Y movement, billionaire philanthropy, and the spread of the benefits of technology to the world’s poorest, into a future where human potential can finally be met.  However good these broader approaches are they seldom leave you with an idea of how all the necessary parts of the future societies they hint at and depict fit together let alone what it might be like to actually live within them.

What seems to be missing in many works on the future is the sense of a traveler’s perspective on worlds they depict. The interesting thing about being a traveler is that you both experience the society you are traveling in as an individual and are at the same time outside of it, able to take a bird’s eye view that allows you to see connections and get a sense for how the whole things fits together like an artful building designed by an architect.

We used to have a whole genre devoted to this architectonic way of looking at the future, the literature of utopia. Writing utopias may seem very different from envisioning positive versions of the future, but perhaps not as much as we might think. Like futurists, many utopian writers tried to extrapolate from technological trends. Way back in 1833, John Adolphus Etzler, wrote a utopia  The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, that bears remarkable similarity to the arguments of Diamandis and Kotler though the technology that was thought would finally end human want was nascent industrial era machines, and Etzler embedded his argument in a narrative that gave the reader an idea of what living in such a society should look like. More famous example of such extrapolations are Edward Bellamy’ s Looking Backward, 1887 or the incomparable H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, 1905.

One might object that futurism is a predictive endeavor whereas utopianism tries to prescribe what would be best and therefore what we should do. Again, I am not quite sure this distinction holds, for much of futurists writing is as much arguments about potential and are meant to coax us into some possible future, or as Diamandis and Kotler put it in Abundance: “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” (239). Utopianism is at least transparent in the fact that it is being prescriptive as opposed to futurism which often tries to come across as tomorrow’s news.

I am not quite sure who we could blame for this state of affairs, but surely Friedrich Engels of  the duo Marx and Engels would bear part of the responsibility. Back in 1880 Engels in his essay Socialism: Utopian and Scientific made the case that Marxism as opposed to the utopianism such found in figures such as Robert Owen was “scientific” in that it was based upon an understanding of the future as determined. Marxists in this view weren’t trying to influence the course of history they were just responding to and playing a role in underlying forces that would unfold to an inevitable conclusion anyway.  Whether he wanted to or not, Engels had removed human agency when it came to the issue of deciding what the human future would look like, or rather he drove such agency into the shadows, unacknowledged and occult.

One might ask, what about futurism that is focused not on good scenarios at least from the author’s point of view, but bad outcomes- predictions of disaster and explorations of risk? Even here, I think, futurists are trying to shape the future as much as predict it like a fortune teller. It’s a sadistic prophet indeed who merely tells you your society will be destroyed without giving you someway to avoid that fate. Futurism that focuses on negative futures are largely warnings that we need to take steps to prevent something terrible from happening or at the very least prepare.

We can find utopian literature in this world of negative futures too or at least the doppelganger of utopia- the realm of dystopia. Indeed, dystopian literature has provided us with some of the best early warning systems we have ever had such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We which warned us about Soviet totalitarianism, Jack London’s The Iron Heel which provided us with a premonition of fascism or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which has proved a better reflection of the future with its depiction of the dystopia of consumer society than George Orwell’s 1984.

The one place where compelling architectonic versions of the future continue to be found is in science-fiction. Writers of science-fiction continue to play this social role, and often do so with brilliance as this praise for Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel 2312 attests. This teasing out and wrestling with both the positive and negative possible worlds we might arrive at given our current course or with some changes in our trajectory lend evidence to the observation that science-fiction whose surface often seems so silly is in fact the most socially and philosophically serious form of fiction we have.

Yet there are differences between science-fiction and utopian literature not the least of which is utopia’s demand to convey an architectonic vision of possible worlds. The desire in utopias to get every detail right down to how people dress and what they eat make utopian literature some of the worst we have because it takes away from the development of characters. In a utopia the normal way fiction is organized is inverted: the world portrayed is the real character whereas the protagonists and others are the mere backdrops  for this world.

Unlike much of science-fiction, the focus of utopia is more on social organization than science and technology  although even in one of the earliest and the most famous utopia- Plato’s Republic- science and technology play a role, just not in a form we would readily recognize. Plato based his work on some of the most advanced applied-sciences of his day: pedagogy, dialectical philosophy, geometry, musicology, medicine/athletics, and animal husbandry. Yet these sciences and technologies were not the driver of his utopia. They were the building blocks he used to create a certain form of social organization.

In the sense that they were often seen as proposing a blueprint for the human world utopian literature was often serious in a way science-fiction need not be. Etzler did not merely write a utopia he tried to build one in Venezuela based upon his ideas. Edward Bellamy is a mere footnote in American literature compared to the geniuses who shared the stage with him during his era: Herman Melville, Henry James or Mark Twain. Yet, Bellamy’s work was considered serious enough that it inspired clubs to debate his ideas regarding the future of industrialism all throughout the United States and  influenced real revolutionaries such as V.I. Lenin. Would any serious social thinker today dare to write a version of the future in the form of a utopia?

Perhaps what we need today is less a revival of utopia as a literary form- something it was never very good at- than a new way to imagine architectonic possible futures. Given the fact that we are a long way off from the day when a person like H.G. Wells could conjure up a vision of utopia sure in the belief that he had some working knowledge of everything under the sun this new form of utopia would need to be collaborative rather than springing from the mind of just one individual.

I can imagine gathering together a constellation of individuals from across different disciplines in a room: scientists, engineers, artists, fiction writers, philosophers, economists, social scientists etc and asking them to design together the “perfect” city. They would ask and answer questions such how their imagined city provides for its basic needs, how it is layed out, how it fits into the surrounding ecosystem, how its economy works,  how its educational system functions, its penal system. Above all it would attempt to create a society whose pieces fit together in an architectonic whole. Unlike past utopian literature, such exercises wouldn’t present themselves as somehow final and perfected, but merely provide us with glimpse of destinations to which we might go.

Response to James Cross

A fellow blogger, James Cross, who writes at Broad Speculations left some comments that I thought raised enough interesting questions to qualify for a response
in the form of a full blog entry.

Here is part of James’ response to my recent post:  The Shirky-Morozov Debate Or How Facebook Beat Linux.

I am interested in Shirky’s ideas but I am a little at a loss to understand how it would actually work. The Internet and social media have potential for making major changes in collaboration and political activity, but those things are mainly the theater aspect of politics whereas actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has power.

Shirky’s position, or at least my understanding of it that I laid out in  The Shirky-Morozov Debate, was that Shirky: “sees the potential of governance to follow the open source model of software development found in collectively developed software such as Linux and Github that allow users to collaborate without being coordinated by anyone from above- as opposed to the top-down model followed by traditional software companies i.e. MicroSoft.”

James sees  potential for collaboration and political activity offered by the Internet as  “theater aspects of politics whereas actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has power”. If I understand James correctly, Shirky et al are pushing on a string; the Internet and related technologies may offer real opportunities for collaboration and political activity, but at the end of the day these aren’t the things that actually count; real politics is about power and dividing up resources.

James’ position as stated in the quote above is a powerful and succinct summation of a realist’s conception of power. It put me in mind of the definition offered by Hans Morgenthau:

Power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships, which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.  (Politics Among Nations)


With all due respect to both James and the late Morgenthau, while this understanding of power appears to gel with our commonsense notions, I do not think it is correct. For my part, I hold to the definition of power offered by Morgenthau’s friend, Hannah Arendt:


Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together (The Crisis of the Republic)

Under this understanding political activity and collaboration aren’t something separate from, less real, in James’ word “actual” than power, instead, political activity, collaboration, and power are all effectively synonymous.

This collaboration or political activity does not need to be understood in a purely positive way: a secret police may collaborate in a country to exercise political control, a conqueror needs the help of local “collaborators” to effectively rule over a conquered  territory. In a positive sense a minority group can join together and with others- collaborate- to secure political rights, a resistance can engage in political activity to overthrow a dictator.  In either sense, collaboration and political activity are the essence of politics not its surface.

Even if we substituted the word “authority” for “power” in James’ formulation so that he would read:   “actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has authority” I do not think the view of political activity, collaboration, and power being synonymous would change.  Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow some major scandal breaks upon the Obama Administration that is so deep that it alienates not just the people who already oppose him, but the majority of Americans (such as myself) who voted for the man. In such a scenario, the authority of his position as president would be almost useless, and he would be essentially politically paralyzed, not because he had lost his actual position of power, but because he would have lost the base of political support- the political activity and collaboration- that makes such a position meaningful and effective.

Once you start to look at power in this way I think a whole new set of questions start to open up. The questions are no longer necessarily “who holds power?” or “what resources does some group control?”, but, “How open is the system?” “Can any group participate or is political activity- the exercise of power- limited to some select group(s)?” “What are the barriers to participation?”

But, for me, perhaps the most important question  is “what is meant by political participation?” That is, what kinds of political activity/collaboration are encouraged/permitted by the political system.

As mentioned, Clay Shirky, among others, has thought that the Internet in particular, and the communications revolution more generally, would have lowered the barriers to political participation in a way that would make something like truly citizen-directed government possible. An example he cites in one of his talks is the open source crafting of legislation in Utah where the people collectively wrote one of the state’s laws online.  In this view, the answer to the question of “what is meant by participation?” would be decentralized collaboration between citizens who work together to achieve self-chosen ends. It is a model of politics analogous to open-source software creation such as that found with Linx.

The problem with this view is that it is detached from reality.  Nothing like citizen-directed government has really emerged from the Internet, which is far from a “new” technology.  Indeed, if the Obama campaign in 2012 is any indication , in political terms, the Internet is best thought of as a tool of mobilization not direct participation in the form of discussion and debate. Participation is defined here almost purely in terms of mobilization.

In a really interesting way, these developments seems to have brought us back to the era before television when party machines and unions would get out the vote- only now mobilization is done using social media and GOTV efforts targeted at specific individuals.  My lament here is that this politics of mass mobilization has left all the characteristics of political participation Shirky had hoped the Internet would make possible in the dust. Rather than citizen-to-citizen debate and discussion issues are already decided upon in the higher echelons of the political party. Instead of groups being organized horizontally, we are back to the world of the pyramid, with the new technologies being used to foster mobilization receiving centralized direction from the party’s data rich “war-rooms”.

To be honest, I am not even sure you could have something like truly collaborative politics as in Shirky’s Utah legislation example on the mass level of a nation even if all of the technological-political trends would have played out the way he had hoped. If you think the process is ugly now- imagine the Federal budget being crafted as an open source project by the entire country!

Still, I continue to believe that the kinds of possibilities for citizen-directed government cyber-utopians have been preaching about for years still have some potential to be realized, only at a smaller scale. I think the first step in doing this is to remember that the kind of representational democracy we have isn’t the only form of democracy to have ever existed, or perhaps even the best for all purposes.

Lately, for a book I’m working on, I’ve been looking at the most famous democracy of them all, Athenian democracy, which at the very least, offers us an example of a system that tried to maximize the opportunity for individual citizens to engage in political activity.  In what follows immediately below I will not address the glaring flaws of Athenian democracy- imperialism, the condition of women, slavery. Rather, I just want to lay out the mechanics of how their participatory system worked.

Athenian democracy differed from modern democracy in many ways, but most especially in this: that the citizens themselves, rather than their representatives, gathered together in their assembly, called the Ekklêsia, to make political decisions.
The Athenian Ekklêsia included all male, Athenian citizens, of whatever class who were over 18 years of age. It met on a hillside, the Pnyx, south-west of the Agora or marketplace. The assembly began with the words of the herald that seemed to sum up
the whole world-view that underlie Athenian democracy: “Who wishes to speak?” Here, any Athenian citizen, of whatever station, was free to bring to discussion, debate, and a vote anything which they wished.  On the Pnyx, Athenians made decisions such as whether to start or end a war, when to ostracize a citizen ( most famously Socrates),  who to name as a general, whether to found a colony, inaugurate a religious festival, or literally any other question or issue that a member of the Ekklêsia wanted to discuss and decide upon.

Citizens of Athens bore direct responsibility for their decisions in a way citizens today might find hard to grasp.  Especially in decisions of war, Athenians were asked to make complex choices which were likely to have an immediate impact on either themselves or their children.

The Athenian courts or, Dikasteria, represents another of the sharp differences between Athenian democracy and our own.   Whereas our societies are guided by the input of persons deemed to be experts in some distinct domain of human knowledge: lawyers and judges on issues of law, economists in matters of economic policy, foreign policy professionals in areas of international affairs etc. Athenian democracy had a deep distrust of experts, or more clearly, a very narrow range of fields deemed by the Athenians to be capable of true expertise- generalship and water management topped their list, and they possessed a much more widespread faith in the ability of average citizens to come to reasoned decisions on public questions.

A Dikasteria was effectively judge and jury in one. It decided whether to take a case, what evidence was permissible, came down on the question of guilt or innocence, and decided upon the final sentence.

The only qualification for serving as a dikast was being over the age of 30, which suggests that the “expertise” being selected for was life-experience more than anything else.  Dikasteria for a particular trial were huge when compared to modern juries. They  could number anywhere from a low of 500 to a high of 6,000 members. Unlike in modern legal systems, there was no public prosecutor- Athenians brought other Athenians to trial.  Nor were there lawyers, Athenians prosecuted fellow citizens or defended themselves before the dikasts.

In still another sharp contrast to modern democracies, ancient Athens possessed no executive or permanent bureaucracy. What it had was The Council of 500, or Boule.  Members of this body, which was chosen by lot from members of the Ekklêsia served
for a period of one year.  The Boule acted in a coordinating and supervisory relative to the Ekklêsia engaging in such detail oriented tasks as the supervision of public finances, or the assessment of tribute from allies.

The way in which members of the Boule were chosen by lot was indicative of the way in which Athenians viewed the idea of elections.  The idea of electing someone to political office is based on the underlying assumption that someone is, in a sense, more qualified for some position than another person. Given the narrow definition of expertise held by Athenians, the idea that most public offices demanded anything more than requirements in the form of the personal characteristics of morality and judgement, that were possessed by almost everyone, was untenable. All citizens were deemed equally qualified for most public offices.  Election as a consequence was limited to the aforementioned experts such as generals and engineers.

The whole point of the Athenian system was to maximize the possibilities for citizens to engage in substantial political participation. Our system does not have this as a primary goal. Hell, we don’t even have off of work on election day!

Athens then, is at least one model of how politics in a society that put a premium on substantial participation could be organized. Today, I can imagine all sorts of ways that technology could be used today to increase the possibilities for citizens to engage in politics above and beyond voting in elections or working for campaigns while electoral contests are being fought. Technology could help make participation easier, and more compatible with the non-political aspects of modern human life.

For example, cities and towns could adopt something like the Athenian assembly rather than the mayoral and city-council systems now commonly used. Not everyone would have to physically attend an “assembly” if those who wished to participate in some sort of political debate and decision were able to do so virtually.  The key is to make participation as easy, integrated, and seamless with the rest of our lives as possible.  If I can receive updates via Twitter on fantasy football picks, why shouldn’t I be able to get an update on the town council meeting such as “ Proposition X will be held to a vote in so many days. Log-in and vote before such and such a date if you have a position on this issue”.  If I can spend hours of time in a virtual world such as World of WarCraft, can’t I spend a fraction of that in a virtual assembly whose decisions at least have some real world impact.

Would the majority of citizens participate in this sort of decision making?  Probably not, but I have no issue with such participation being self-selecting. If all debates concern you, participate all the time, if some, then just those, or if none, devote yourself to your private concerns, but remember that you now have no justification to complain. The point is to make it as easy as possible for those who want to to have their say- let the numbers shake out whatever way they do. Participation will likely vary over the course of life of the individual and with the general social mood of the society at large.

The limits to the political influence of experts found in Athens are no doubt impossible in our complex technological society, but I can imagine software systems, and expert services that provide information to citizens so they can test assumptions about the potential impact of their decisions from tax policy to water and resource management to zoning rules.  I can imagine the application of a blended model (real world/online) of the Athenian Dikasteria to non-criminal trials, and much of litigation supplanted by community based mediation.

And there I think is a very long background in response to James’ second comment:

I find myself in a rather odd political position of being a small government progressive. I want to find ways to organize society to accomplish progressive goals without an intrusive government.Do you or anyone else have ideas on that?”

A problem, I think, is that if the goal is meaningful participation where the individual can have a substantial impact on the society in which he or she lives, then the level at which many important decisions made by the government emerge will have to move downward. Right now, the level of government where an individual can most easily have an impact, municipal government, falls off the radar of most people. Part of the reason for this is certainly the role of national media which can only cover government at the Federal, and on rare occasions the state level. But, a large part of this inattention to municipal government probably also stems from the fact that almost all important political decisions are made at the higher levels of government.

In order to place real and substantial power at the level where individuals are actually able to shape it, one would have to shift many of the responsibilities and capacities now the prerogative of the Federal and state government, to a level closer to the individual. Oddly enough, this is a change in the direction of more democracy many conservatives would get behind. My guess is that the bottom level for such a unit would be a mid-sized city and its surroundings. If you go much smaller you cannot support the cultural institutions and ways of living that form the bones and sinews of a truly distinct community, go much larger to the level of a nation and the scale no longer supports a true sense of distinct community which is a matter of shared institutions and ways of living, not shared ancestry or ideology.

Perhaps oddly enough, libertarians are at the forefront of attempting to experiment with local level governance. There is Peter Thiel’s idea of utopian seasteading  and the grandson of Milton Friedman who is hoping to create cities based on libertarian principles from scratch in the Third World, at least partially inspired the similar idea
for charter cities of the economist, Paul Romer.

My guess, however, is that, at the end of the day, such experiments won’t work and any shift of responsibility to the municipal level will actually trend in the the direction of progressive government. Even the incredibly successful city-states whose economic performance these movements hope to emulate, such as Singapore, have governments that minimize social divisions and hold the well-being of the poor to be the responsibility of the community.

What the architect of Singaporean society, Lee Kuan Yew, understands is that no true community- as opposed to some gated enclave where wealthy people live- can be composed of only the rich. (It is a disaster for a community when it is composed of only the poor).  The wealthy seem more likely to pony-up if their money goes into the community where they and their children live.  To support progressive politics a community cannot be so small that the rich will simply put up and move, or so large that the wealthy cannot see that from their largess comes a community they and their children want to live in because of the quality of its cultural institutions, its schools, and general social and physical health.

This all may seem utopian, and perhaps, especially in terms of participatory politics it is.  Much of this, however, is echoed by someone like Jane Jacobs who saw a large part of the reason for the decline of the city in the 20th century in the shift of taxing authority away from the city to the Federal government. Though, I have yet to read the book, I believe they are also echoed by in Benjamin Barber’s recent If Mayors Ruled the World where he lays out just how much more effective the mayors of large cities have been at addressing endemic social problems than the ideologically driven national political parties. The danger here is paternalism as both Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, and the aforementioned Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew, seem to attest.

Relocating much of Federal authority to the level of cities might spur major innovations: in energy systems and climate policy, educational systems, food systems, criminal justice, tax policy, promoting economic equality, care for the elderly, health care, and the way we relate to and integrate technological and scientific innovation, which could prove scaleable and serve as solutions to the wider and more important national and international aspects of these issues. It might balance out the mind-numbing homogenization of modern industrial society: ”And each town looks the same to me the movies and the factories” (Simon & Garfunkel, Homeward Bound) from Shanghai, to Moscow, to London to New York.  As mentioned,  it might also put a brake on the tendency of the rich to avoid taxation because the effect of their taxes will be immediately manifest in the communities it which they live.

This century will be the first in which the majority of the human population will live in cities, if they can be allowed to get it right, things will work out for all of us- even for country dwellers like myself. One way to do that would be to relocate some of the powers of national governments regarding taxation, economic, and social policy back to the cities. Here also, I think a different, more participatory, and even more progressive form of democracy could find its 21st century home.

Thanks for inspiring this post James! As always, critical comments from everyone are desired.