Accelerando II

Were it merely the case that all Charles Stross was offering in his novel Accelerando was a kind of critique of contemporary economic trends veiled in an exquisitely Swiftian story the book would be interesting enough, but what he gives us transcends that. What it offers up is a model for how technological civilizations might evolve which manages to combine the views of several of his predecessors in a fascinating and unique way.

Underlying Stross’s novel is an idea of how technological civilizations develop known as the Kardashev scale.  It is an idea put forward by the Russian physicists Nikolai Kardashev in the early 1960s. Kardashev postulated that civilizations go through different technological phases based on their capacity to tap energy resources. A Type I civilization is able to tap the equivalent of the solar radiation present its home planet, and he thought that civilization as of 1964 had reached that level. A Type II civilization in his scheme is able to tap an amount of energy equivalent to the amount put out by its parent star, and a Type III civilization able to tap the energy equivalent to its entire galaxy. Type IV and Type V civilizations able to tap the energy of the entire universe or even multiverse have been speculated upon that would transcend even the scope of Kardashev’s broad vision.  Civilizations of this scale and power would indeed be little different from gods, and in fact would be more powerful than any god human beings have ever imagined.

Kardashev lays most of his argument out in an article On the Inevitability and Possible Structures of Supercivilizations.   It is a fascinating piece, and I encourage you to follow the link and check it out. The article was published in 1984, a poignant year given Orwell’s dystopia, and at the apex of the Second Cold War, with tensions running high between the superpowers. Kardashev, of course, has no idea that within a few short years the Soviet Empire will be no more. Beneath his essay one can find lurking certain Marxist assumptions about technological capacity and the cult of bigness. He seems to think that the dynamic of civilization will require bigger and bigger solutions to problems, and that there is no natural limit to how big such solutions could become. Technological civilizations could expand indefinitely and would re-engineer the solar system, galaxy, or even the universe to their purposes.

Yet, this “bigger is better” ideology is just that, an ideology, not a truth. It is the ideology that led the Soviets to pump out more and more steel without asking themselves “steel for what?” The idea of throwing more and more resources at a problem might have saved Russia during the Second World War, but in its aftermath it resulted in an extremely complex and inefficient machine that was beyond the capacity of intelligent direction, which ultimately proved itself incapable of providing a standard of living on par with the West. We are, thankfully, no longer enthralled to such gigantism.

Stross, for his part, does not challenge these assumptions, but rather build’s his story upon them.  Three other ideas serve as the prominent backdrop of the story: Dyson Sphere’s, Matrioshka Brains, and the Singularity. Let me take each in turn.

In Accelerando, as human civilization rapidly advances towards the Singularity it deconstructs the inner planets and constructs a series of spheres around the sun in order to capture all of the sun’s energy. These, so called, Dyson Sphere’s are an idea Stross borrows from the physicist Freeman Dyson, an idea that Kardashev directly cites in his On the Inevitability and Possible Structures of Supercivilizations.  Dyson developed his idea back in 1960 in his article Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation, which proposed 24 years before Kardashev, that one of the best ways to find extraterrestrial intelligence would be to look for signs that solar systems had undergone similar sorts of engineering.  Dyson himself found the inspiration for his sphere’s in Olaf Stapledon’s brilliant 1937 novel Star Maker, which was one of the first novels to tackle the question of the evolution of technological society and the universe.

A second major idea that serves as a backdrop of Stross’s novel is that of a Matrioshka Brain. This was an idea proposed by the computer scientist and longevity proponent, Robert Bradbury, who in sad irony, died in 2011 at the early age of 54. It is also rather telling and tragic that in light of his dream of eventually uploading his mind into the eternal electronic cloud, all of the links I could find to his former longevity focused entity Aeiveos appear to be dead links, seeming evidence that our personhood really does remain embodied and disappears with the end of the body.

Matrioshka Brains builds off of the idea of Dyson Spheres, but while the point of the latter is to extract energy the point of the former is to act as vast spheres of computation nestled one inside the other like the Russian dolls after which the Matrioshka Brain is named. In Accelerando, human-machine civilization has deconstructed the inner planets not just to capture energy, but to serve as computers of massive scale.

Both of these ideas, Dyson Sphere’s and Matrioshka Brain put me in mind of the idea of the crystal spheres which the ancients imagined surrounded and circled the earth and held the planets and stars. It would be the greatest of ironies if the very science which had been born when men such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo overthrew this conception of the cosmos gave rise to an engineered solar system that resembled it.

The major backdrop of Accelerando is, of course, the movement of human begun technological civilization towards the Singularity. In essence the idea of the Singularity is that at some point the intelligence of machines that originated with human technological civilization will eventually exceed human intelligence. Just as human beings were able to design machines that were smarter than themselves, machines will be able to design machines smarter than themselves, and this process will accelerate to an increasing degree with the time between the creation of one level of intelligence and the next falling to shorter and shorter intervals.  At some point the reality that emerges from this growth of intelligence becomes unimaginable to current human intelligence- like a slug trying to understand humanity and its civilization. This is the point of the singularity- an idea Vernor Vinge in his 1993 article The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, borrowed from the physics of black holes. It is the point over the event horizon over which no information can pass.

If you follow any link in this article I would highly recommend that you read Vinge’s piece, for unlike the optimist Ray Kurzweil, Vinge is fully conscious of the existential risks that the Singularity poses and the philosophical questions it raises.

Stross’s novel, in its own wonderful way, also raises, but does not grapple, with these risks and questions. They remain for us to think our way through before our thinking is done for us.

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Accelerando I

The New Earth Archive has a list of 70 books that help us think our way through the future that every educated person concerned with our fate is encouraged to read. Though his book is a novel, Charles Stoss’s Accelerando should be at the top of that list. Perhaps even, at the very top.

I picked up a copy of Accelerando after I heard an interview with Venor Vinge, one of the founders of the Singularity Movement, who praised the work as one of the few examples of fiction that tried to peer behind the dark veil of the singularity. I had originally intended to do a review of Accelernado all in one post, but then realized how much it made my head hurt, but in a good way. I figured that I might make my readers’ heads hurt in the same way if I tried to explain the book all in one go.  Accelerando is so bizarre, profound, and complex that it needs to be described in digestible doses, the same way I found myself wrestling with the novel. To take it all on in one post is a fool’s errand.

What follows below then is a general sketch of the plot of Accelerando. I then dive into what I think are some very important things Stross has to say about our current economic model through the medium of his novel. In a future post I’ll try to tackle something even more important he takes on in the book- the nature and evolution of technological civilization, and the fate of the human species.

The plot of the novel centers- around the story of four generations of the Macx clan: Manfred, Amber, Sirhan, and Manni.  All of the Macx’s are befriended/manipulated by the robotic cat, Aienko, who plays a central role in the story.  The book begins with Manfred Macx, a kind of Julian Assange/George Soros who is hated by almost everybody- especially tax hungry IRS agents and his ex-wife, Pamela, (who happen to be one of the same) for giving his brilliant ideas away for free.

Manfred is an example of a type of human being Stross sees just over the horizon, constantly plugged-in, with so much of his self offloaded into the cloud, that he loses his identity the minute his” glasses”, which are his interface with net, are stolen.

He is also a new type of political figure managing to revive a form of communism by creating a centralized-planning algorithm that can interface with market based systems.  At the same time he is a pioneer in granting rights to increasingly sentient emergent AIs of whom a group of uploaded lobsters originally created by the KGB  can be counted.

If Manfred represents the first stage of the singularity, the stage we can now be said to be in, and are therefore somewhat familiar, his daughter Amber represents the stage that follows. Purposefully enslaving herself on a slave ship on a mission to mine a moon of Jupiter, Amber eventually sets up a “kingdom” on a small asteroid.  At this point the story becomes fantastical. The line between the real and the virtual essentially disappears, persons at this stage are able to split themselves into virtual “ghosts”, and Amber and her crew eventually set off in a star-ship the size of a Coke can, the crew able to embed themselves in its virtual world. Their destination is the source of alien messages some three light years away from Jupiter. What they discover are a particularly intelligent and ravenous group of space lobsters, who Manfred had liberated from the KGB years before, who exist as scavengers upon a civilization that has collapsed under the weight of their own singularity- more on the latter in a moment.

When the “virtual” Amber returns from her space mission she finds that the “real” Amber has married and had a child, named Sirhan, with Sadeq- the fundamentalist Muslim theologian who had come to the Jupiter system to bring the word of Muhammad to the aliens beyond the solar system, and found himself, instead, caught up in the legal struggles between Amber and her mother, Pamela.  The site of their empire now centers around Saturn.

What Amber and her crew discovered on their trip to the alien router outside the solar system was a dark fact about the singularity.  Many, indeed most, civilizations that reach the stage of singularity collapse, having consumed itself along with the original wet-ware species that had given it birth. What is left, or passersby, huddling closely to their parent star- a closed network.

Knowing this is their likely fate Amber, and her family, launch a political party the Accelerationista that is pushing a referendum to flee into the Milky Way from the “Vile Offspring” that have been created in the singularity, have consumed the inner planets in their quest for energy and processor space, and will soon consume what is left of the earth.  The Accelerationista lose the election to the conservative party who prefer to stay put, but Amber and her family still manage to get a large number of people to make a break for it with the help of the space lobsters. In exchange the lobsters want to send a cohort of humans, including a version of Manfred off to explore a strange cloud that appears to be another version of the singularity out in the further depths of the universe

It’s a wild plot, but not as mind blowing as the deep philosophical questions Stross is raising with the world he has envisioned.

Right off the bat there’s the issue of economics, and here Stross attempted to bring to our attention problems that were largely off the public radar in 2005, but hold us in their grip today.

The protagonist of the story, Manfred Macx, doesn’t believe in the profit economy anymore. He gives his ideas away for free, and indeed Stross himself seemed to be following this philosophy, releasing the novel under a Creative Commons license.  In the novel copyright comes under the “protection” of mafias that will break your legs if you infringe on their copyright as they threaten to do to Manfred for giving away the musical legacy of the 20th century, again, for free. This battle between traditional copyright holders and the “sharing” economy has only become more acute since Stross published his novel, think SISPA and beyond.

Manfred’s attitude to money drives both the US government (and his ex-wife) crazy.  America is creaking under the weight of its debt as the baby boom generation retires en mass, but stubbornly refuses to die.  Since Accelerando was published debt politics and the consequences of demographic decline have come to the forefront of political debate in the US, but especially in Europe. One thing Stoss got definitively wrong, or better probably will have gotten wrong, is that he imagines a strong European supra-state in our near-future.  From our current angle it seems hard to imagine how even the relatively weak union Europe has now will survive the current crisis.

Stross also seems to be criticizing, or at least bringing to our attention, the hyper-innovative nature of financial instruments and legal contracts and doing this several years before the financial crisis of 2008 made financial exotica like Credit Default Swaps household terms. For, it is precisely in this world of virtual finance and “creative” law where Manfred excels at being innovative.  Manfred may be like Julian Asange in his nomadic lifestyle, and revolutionary ideology, which manages to piss-off just above everyone, but in other ways he resembles George Soros in that many of his best innovations are the result of Soros-like arbitrage, exploiting the gaps between reality and expectation and especially the differences between states.  Manfred displays this skill when he frees his daughter Amber from her mother by having Amber sell herself into slavery to a company based in Yemen, where her slave owner will trump the custody rights of her mother.

Stross also plays with the idea of how crazy the world of virtual trading, and image management on platforms such as FaceBook  have become, imagining bubbles and busts of bizarre bits of ether such as those traded in his “reputation market”.

Stross’s critique of capitalism may even run somewhat deeper for he has Manfred align himself with the old school communist Gianni to bring the command economy back from the dead using artificial intelligence able to link up with market mechanism- what exactly that means and would look like is really not all that clear, but that order is quickly superseded by another period of hyper-competition known as Economics 2.0

Indeed, this updated version of capitalism Stross portrays as the biggest threat to civilization as it approaches the singularity. Such hyper-capitalism built around  “corporations” that are in reality artificial intelligences might not be a phenomenon of human begun civilization alone,  Stross seems to be providing us with one possible explanation to Fermi’s Paradox – the silence of the universe seemingly so ripe for life.  Civilizations that reach the singularity are often so ravenous for resources, including the intelligence of the very beings that sparked the singularity in the first place, that they cannibalize themselves, and end up huddled around their parent star with little desire to explore or communicate after collapse.

The fate Stross paints for Economy 2.0 societies reminded me of a quote by Hannah Arendt who interpreted the spirit of Western capitalism and imperialism in the desire of the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes to “annex the planets”, and Thomas Hobbes conception of human kind’s limitless lust for more and more power that became the core assumption of the modern age:

But when the last war has come and every man has been provided for, no ultimate peace is established on earth: the power accumulating machine, without which the continual expansion would not have been achieved needs more material to devour in its never ending process. If the last victorious Commonwealth cannot proceed to” annex the planets” it can only proceed to destroy itself in order to begin anew the never-ending process of power generation*

I will leave off here until next time…

*Origins of Totalitarianism, Imperialism, 147