The Philosophy Behind Elysium

The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium Stanhope 1880

I finally had the chance to see Elysium this week. As films go, the picture is certainly visually gripping and the fight scenes awesome, if you are into that sort of thing. But, in terms of a film about ideas the picture left me scratching my head, and I could only get a clue as to the film’s meaning as intended by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium’s screenwriter and director, by looking elsewhere.

Embedded within stunning special effects Elysium is certainly meant as a moral critique of  inequality- a futuristic tale of the haves vs the have-nots. The rich, in Blomkamp’s earth of 2154 live on the space station of Elysium- a trans-humanist paradise where diseases are miraculously scanned away while the entire earth below has become a vast slum. Elysium is the mother of all gated communities the people inside it rich and beautiful while those outside suffer, and not to blow the ending, but Blomkamp is out to open the gates.

Blomkamp has made it clear that his film is less of a warning about the future than an allegory for the present.

People have asked me if I think this is what will happen in 140 years, but this isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now!

The Elysium of today is the First World and the earth of the film the Third World with the latter’s immigrants desperate to break into “paradise” for the sake of themselves and their families. The explosion of mega-cities like the 180 million Yangtze Delta in China (which plays no role in Elysium) serves as a kind of sociological backdrop for the film. It is especially the squalor of megacities that draws Blomkamp’s cinematic eye. Part of the movie was filmed in one of the world’s largest dumps in Mexico.

And yet, Elysium certainly seems to articulate some sort of philosophical position not just on the present, but on the future, and adds its own voice to the debate surrounding its possibilities. The question is, what? I left the movie thinking it was mostly a less than veiled critique on transhumanism,  especially the in-egalitarian, utopian seasteading variety of transhumanism as propounded by the like of Peter Theil. And again, not to blow it, but the major epiphany of the protagonist is realizing that his own survival is not the ultimate value.

Blomkamp’s true perspective, however, is somewhat different as evidenced when I looked beyond the film itself. Blomkamp is actually a singularitarian, though a very pessimistic one. He subscribes to the idea of civilizational development put forward by the Russian scientist Nikolai Kardashev. I’ll quote myself  here, “… in the 1960 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 its entire planet’s energy. A Type II civilization 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 the multiverse have been speculated upon that would transcend even the scope of Kardashev’s broad vision.

Blomkamp speculates that the reason for the so-called Fermi Paradox – if the conditions for life in the universe are so abundant, then where are the aliens?- is that the movement to Type I civilization- the emergence of a truly global civilization- is so difficult that none of the many civilizations that have emerged over the history of the universe have made it through this bottleneck, and for Blomkamp we show every sign of sharing this sad fate.

As Blomkamp sees it human nature is the greatest barrier preventing us from reaching Type I. Echoing Julian Savulescu, he has stated:

We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilization 10,000 years ago. We are literally genetically coded to preserve life, procreate and get food – and that’s not gonna change. The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.

Again, along transhumanist and singularitarian lines of thinking Blomkamp believes that if we do not solve our problem the world will bifurcate into pockets of the technologically empowered rich isolated within a global mega-city of the miserably poor:

…it’ll either be a singularity discussion or this Mad Max fuckin’ group of savages roaming on the horizon, a Malthusian catastrophe.

Alright, so like many others Blomkamp believes we are at a crossroads whose path will shape the whole fate of humanity, indeed the fate of intelligence in the universe, one more sad example of not being able to breakthrough emerge as a Type I civilization or the glorious birth of a new cosmic era.

Yet, perhaps we need to step back for a moment from this sort of apocalyptic thinking. It’s an at least questionable assumption whether or not intelligence and technology have any such cosmic role to play in the future of the universe, let alone whether the current generation will be the one that ultimately decides our fate. We’ve been in a situation where we are in danger of destroying ourselves since at least the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb in 1954, and there is no foreseeable future where we definitively escape these types of dangers now that we have such powers and now that our reach is global and beyond.

Indeed, if it is the case that civilizations are at risk of catastrophic failure whatever their position on the Kardashev Scale, this would go even further in explaining the Fermi Paradox. Even those that make it through Type I continue to be at risk of botching the whole thing. The obvious rejoinder to this is that once a civilization has”gone galactic” it is safe, but I am not so sure. Perhaps Type II and III super-intelligences come up with galactic scale methods of destruction, or collapse into a singularity induced turtle shell, as imagined so cleverly by Charles Stross. We simply don’t know enough to actually decide one way or another, although in addition to the hunt for planets in the “habitable zone” done by the beloved Kepler and its hopeful successor, scientists at FermiLab are on the hunt for any signs of Type I and II Dyson Spheres whose discovery would actually put meat on the bones of what is otherwise merely a plausible model of technological development not to mention blow our minds.

However, as I have mentioned elsewhere, a much less metaphysically laden explanation for the Fermi Paradox can be found in the simple life cycle of stars. It is only quite recently that the types of stars that create the sorts of heavy elements necessary for life (at least life as we understand it) have emerged, and the number of such heavy element creating stars in increasing. Earth might be one of the first planets to establish life and civilization, but it will in all probability not be the last. There will probably be many many more chances to get it right, if by getting it right we mean getting beyond our current technological stage. There are also likely to be many more type of paths through evolution and historical development than we could ever imagine without any ultimate destiny or convergence point, which some modern scientists and singularitarians have borrowed straight from religious longings.

There is no need to posit a potentially lost cosmic destiny to come to the conclusion that our’s or future generations’ failure to meet our global responsibilities today would constitute a colossal tragedy, and this is what we can confidently take away from Elysium. That one of the greatest challenges in front of us is making sure that all of humanity is able to benefit from scientific, technological and economic progress, and as Blomkamp’s action-packed analogy reminds us, we don’t have to go out to the 22nd century to see that we are failing to live up to this challenge quite miserably.

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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