Utopia of the Wastelands

Part of the problem with utopia is the question of where do you put it. After all, what any imaginary ideal society ultimately ends up being is its “own world turned upside down”, which means that the world, as it is, must not have a place for anything like a paradise on earth, otherwise an author would have had no reason to dream up a utopia in the first place.

Authors have gotten around this problem by locating utopia on an unknown island, on the frontier, in the deep past, in the future, in outer space, or on some alternate historical timeline where everything has worked out for the good. Cory Doctorow is the first fiction author I’m aware of to have located his utopia in our own society’s garbage dumps.

His novel Walkawy depicts a world where individuals have abandoned a hyper-capitalist world not all that different from our own and relocated to the zones of destruction and decay familiar to anyone who has lived in the post-industrial wastelands of the US, Europe, or beyond. Anyone who has lived within walking distance of a man made disaster or regions deemed lost by the forces of capital rushing around the globe has first hand experience of the kind of environment walkaways hope to build their utopia in.    

Walkaways can find the space to build a new kind of society in these zones because capitalists- whom Doctorow delightfully calls “zottas” find little value in the material and human trash heap they have created. The utopia of the wastelands the walkaways build is indeed a blissfully bizarro world version of our own. Money counts for nothing there, nor do possessions. Merit is a matter of service to the collective good rather than a way to mark one off as deserving of special rewards.

A utopia that builds itself on the basis of capitalism’s trash would seem to have scarcity built into its very design. But it’s just not so. Perhaps no one but Doctorow could have made collective dumpster diving sound so sexy, high-tech, and well…cool.

The codebase originated with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, had been field tested a lot. You told it the kind of building you wanted, gave it a scavenging range, and it directed its drones to inventory anything nearby, scanning multi-band, doing deep database scapes against urban planning and building-code sources to identify usable blocks for whatever you were making. This turned into a scavenger hunt inventory, and the refugees or aid workers (or in shameful incidents, the trafficked juvenile slaves) fanned out to retrieve the pieces the building needed to conjure itself into existence. p.45

And almost anything that can’t be ripped and re-fabricated from a pre-existing source can be created via 3D printing or crafted via the love and labor of willing walkaways.

The only rival for the leftist ethos in the wastelands are the “reputation economy freaks” whose own version of utopia isn’t so much and upside down version of the world of the zottas as one where the zottas’ false meritocracy- where the “best” come out on top- is supposed to be made real. Reputation freaks hope to make it real via the intricate measurement of every individual’s contribution, through the gamification of human action. Doctorow is having some fun here by showing the absurdity of the current Silicon Valley fad for neo-Taylorism and the “quantified self”.

We’ve known since Jesus that doing good for the recognition of being seen to be doing good doesn’t result in goodness but “in game-playing and stats-fiddling”. Virtue signaling didn’t need Twitter to come about- it’s as old as the Pharisees.

A major problem for contemporary utopianism on the left is what position to take on abundance, above all, how to square the older dream of truly universal material prosperity with the now equally strong utopian desire to be free of the dehumanizing machine– the global network of corporations and bureaucratic processes, laborers and devices which Marx himself pointed out had made our unprecedented era of abundance possible. Such a desire to be free from the machine, on the left, can be found in the desire to return to the craft economy and the organic. At its most pessimistic this newer branch of the left urges an exit from the machine on the basis that whatever prosperity is experienced today is being bought at the price of the destruction of the rest of nature, and ultimately, perhaps, the human species itself.              

Doctorow has mentioned a number of influences for the utopia of walkaways which are really positions on the abundance/scarcity question. He wants to preserve and universalize prosperity but on reconfigured, and more human foundations- a prospect perhaps only now possible given current technologies. Influences such as Leigh Philips, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A guide to our future, and Ronald Coase’s 1937 article The Nature of the Firm are all part of Walkaway’s source.  

Walkaway, in one sense, is an attempt to bridge this new gulf among the left between those, such as Philips, arguing that after asserting public control and ownership of the productive instruments of society, we need to go deeper into the machine so as to unleash what some have called “fully automated luxury communism” and figures such as Douglas Rushkoff urging a return to more organic forms of living and an economy based on craft.

In Walkaway ad hoc networks enabled by digital technology combined with advanced and ubiquitous 3D printing serve as an alternative to the huge centrally controlled industrial systems that provide the bulk of our food and products. In the novel Doctorow has given us a plausible version of a makers’ economy where technologically empowered craftsmen are once again the equals of the factory system that had swept them away starting in the 1700’s.

I’ll return to the question of whether I think such a path is plausible in a moment. Right now, I want to discuss one author and her work whose philosophy I think also lies at the root of the utopia Doctorow has imagined in Walkaway, namely; Rebecca Solnit and her amazing book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

In its essence, the argument Solnit makes in A Paradise in Hell is that human beings are essentially good. What undermines this goodness is that powerful minorities are often able to exploit for their own gain the fact that so few of us believe this very fact. Most of us know that if all the state’s police powers disappeared tomorrow we wouldn’t straight away set upon our neighbors to seize their goods and wives. Yet somehow we assume that in a crisis those around us would do just that, as if we personally were somehow the exception to Hobbes’ picture of humankind as being in a state a war of “all against all” absent the threat of violence by the state.

At least that’s what we learn in Hollywood disaster flicks. Get rid of the state and you unleash an even more violent mob.  In A Paradise built in Hell Solnit makes a strong empirical case that this is nothing like what human beings do in the face of actual disaster. Instead, time after time, and in varying circumstances and locations, crises give rise to responses of altruism and mutual aid. As a general rule when faced with the demand that we feed, clothe, heal, and protect our neighbors we do so not merely willingly, but joyfully. The surprising thing is that in doing so people in the midst of horrible privation have often reported experiencing a type of freedom unavailable in the world they inhabited before disaster struck. As Sonit put it:    

The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding. The very structure of our economy and society prevents these goals from being achieved.

Disaster demonstrates this, since among the factors determining whether you live or die are the health of your immediate community and the justness of your society. We need ties, but they along with purposefulness, immediacy, and agency also give us joy- the startling, sharp joy I found in the accounts of disaster survivors. These accounts demonstrate that the citizens any paradise would need- the people who are brave enough, and generous enough- already exist. The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being,so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live in another way. (p.15)

Solnit helped answer for me questions I had stumbled into eons ago while reading the political theorist Hannah Arendt. Her argument was that we moderns only experienced genuine freedom under two conditions, and while I understood Arendt’s assertion that one of these conditions was revolution, I never grasped why it was she also claimed that the other condition in which freedom could be found was war.

In an introduction to the soldier Jesse Glenn Gray’s philosophical meditation on war The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle Arendt grapples with a story from the book where Gray encounters an isolated French hermit who has no real idea of the Second World War that is raging around him:

Who am I? What is my function in life?” This was fraternity, and it was possible because one of them, the old man and hermit, was blessed with “the gift of simplicity” and the other, soldier and philosopher, had been stripped of his normal sophistications, of all that is subtly false in what we teach and learn.

Both were outside civilization, outside tradition and culture, the soldier because war had thrown him into one of those lonely foxholes with nothing to keep him company but “watching the stars at night,” the hermit because it was “as though he had sprung from nature herself… her authentic child… (xii)

This “fraternity” between two human beings was made possible by the unraveling, or self-imposed exile from the world that by its nature embeds the individual in a particular history, culture, and set of power relations and their supporting modes of thought. On this reading the freedom experienced in war has little to do with the adrenaline rush of battle, or the fact that in war the individual is permitted to break the taboo of “thou shalt not kill”, rather, as in revolution and disaster, war can temporarily release the individual from the weight of history, set them free from the complicated structures that define life in modern society, structures which from their nature of being based on machines, demand that individuals become machine-like.

We’ve built these structures largely because they provide for our needs, keep us comfortable and safe in the face of a hostile nature. Yet such safety comes at the cost of each of us becoming a cog in a larger system, easily replaced if lost. Disaster, revolution, and war temporarily restore not merely our ability to act creatively, but to have our actions actually have consequences that change the shape of the world.

Walkaway depicts an escape route into a very similar realm of freedom, though if it emerges out of any of my triumvirate of disaster, revolution, and war it is in the form of a slow moving disaster in which the powers that be have allowed great zones of the world they find superfluous to their profit seeking objective, along with the people who inhabit them, to fall into decay. Science-fiction is always as much about the present as it is the future and the policy of Doctorow’s zottas towards the wastelands is but a ramped up version of the new imperialism practiced by capitalists today. The sociologist Saskia Sassen in a recent essay for e-flux said it best:

These are not old imperial modes where conquerors wanted it all. Today’s financial conquerors want specialized, and selective geographies: they need specific sites within national geographies. They do not want to deal with a whole country. They want instruments that allow them to cut across international borders and occupy only the sites of that territory that they need or desire for their own projects—differing radically from the older imperial land grabs.

As in Walkaway, Sassen seems to imagine a utopia based on the occupation of abandoned or yet to be colonized spaces. It’s a hopeful vision, yet I can’t help wondering if recent events might be warning us that this particular path to paradise might have shortcomings of its own. And I say all this as a person who has consistently argued that we need to renew our utopian imagination and create opportunities for alternatives to our society to be experimented with. Thus if I appear critical of Doctorow, Solnit or Sassen it’s not so much in order to challenge their perspective or goals as it is a means to be critically engage with myself.

Let’s imagine that the largely self-sufficient makers’ economy Doctorow depicts in Walkaway is a plausible alternative to the world of continent and globe straddling bureaucratic systems we currently depend upon for our wants and needs. Though I may completely agree with Limpopo, one of the main characters of the novel when she argues against the reputation freaks that:

“If you do things because you want someone else to pat you on the head, you won’t get as good as someone who does it for internal satisfaction”  (75)

I know that many others won’t. Indeed, the rivalry between the walkaways and the reputation freaks Doctorow depicts show just two of the possible and radically different forms of society constructed using the same technology. Many, many others are equally possible, and while from my perspective the society built by the walkaways is ideal, I know that many others would choose to build something else. And I know this even though I am in complete agreement with Solnit- that in a crisis human beings are more prone to feed their neighbors rather than prey upon them. The problem arises the moment these issues of basic survival, without which no society can exist, have been solved. For at that moment we run into the intractable question- what is the best way to live? The answer to which, far too often in human history, has been a rationalization of our own interest, even when that means the oppression of others for what is deemed to be the “greater good”. I know this because we’re already in a world where the same technology empowers both the very best and worst of people. Encryption protects dissidents against cruel states and creeps at the same time it shields hard core criminals and terrorists groups such as ISIS. Perhaps it has always been so.

A makers’- economy world where anything we wanted could be scavenged from civilization’s refuse or summoned out of the ether with 3D printers would just as likely lead to profound moral and political splintering as a “leap to freedom.”

One doesn’t have to adopt Marxism whole hog to agree that political and social systems are ultimately based on the “system of production” that underlies them. We’ve created for ourselves a globalized, liberal, world order because our own system of production- industrial capitalism- requires precisely this to function. A truly effective suite of maker-technologies might return us to something that more resembles feudalism than anything we’ve seen since the beginning of the modern world.

Splintering would not, of necessity, be a bad thing. Such a world would be littered with utopias and dystopias depending on one’s point of view. Whether or not such a pluralistic system would be better than our current global mono-culture, which has its benefits as well as its all too obvious risks and downsides would depend upon the mix of societies at any one time, along with the relationship between the different societies that inhabit the world.

A splintered world would be more diverse and free, but, unless coupled with a species shattering disaster, it wouldn’t release us from the problems and moral dilemmas we face from living in one world. Policies and technologies pursued by one society might still impact and threaten those living half a world away, we would still be aware of, and feel morally compelled to act, in the interest of sufferers (including animal sufferers) far removed from us. In other words, it’s impossible to see how we should, or even could, walk away from politics- the conflict between human groups- for no such conflict free zone can exist in a universe where individuals and groups must choose between mutually opposing options, and this is the case even when all of those options are good.

The only universe where we could escape these Sophie’s Choice type problems would be one that was wholly simulated and virtual. There’s no need to choose between options when one can fork and have both, no need to fret about the individual and collective impact and consumption on the environment when our desires are just built out of code.

Doctorow has called the central role played by uploading in Walkaway a McGuffin, yet the walkaways pursuit of defeating death by scanning their brains, along with the zottas efforts to prevent these outcasts from democratizing immortality, seems baked into the political logic of the novel. Human abundance, whether of the capitalist or socialist sort ultimately comes into conflict with the rest of nature. It’s a conflict that the virtualization of the human would seemingly solve. As the character Sita explains to Limpopo:

For hundreds of years, people have been trying to get everyone to live gently on the land, but their whole pitch was, “hold still and try not to breathe.” It was all hair-shirt, no glory in nature’s beauty. The environmental prescription has been to act as much as possible like you were already dead. Don’t reproduce. Don’t consume. Don’t trample the earth or you’ll compress the dirt and kill the plants. Every exhalation poisons the atmosphere with CO2. Is it any wonder we haven’t gotten there?

Now we’ve got a deal for humanity that’s better than anything before: lose the body. Walk away from it. Become an immortal being of pure thought and feeling, able to travel the universe at light speed, unkillable, consciously deciding how you want to live your life and making it stick, by fine-tuning your parameters so you’re the version of yourself that does the right thing, that knows and honors itself.  (195)

A virtualized humanity wouldn’t only solve the conflict between humanity and the rest of nature, it would seemingly solve the problem of humanity’s conflict with itself.

Virtualization would solve the issue of human contention because everyone could live in whatever imaginary social order one chose, including, disturbingly, one where you played the role of a tyrant or a sinister god. Perhaps solved is the wrong word.

Yet there are problems with believing virtualization truly would solve our perennial problem of scarcity, let alone the conflict between humanity and nature or the conflict between humans themselves. Even if what Doctorow has previously satirized as a “rapture of the nerds” was available for everyone any belief in a paradise made of electrons suffers from the fact that the material world is not something we can actually walk away from.

After all, running uploads requires all kinds of physical systems and above all the energy to run them. A lot of energy. As the physicist Caleb Scharf recently pointed out:

…our brains use energy at a rate of about 20 watts. If you wanted to upload yourself intact into a machine using current computing technology, you’d need a power supply roughly the same as that generated by the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric plant in China, the biggest in the world. To take our species, all 7.3 billion living minds, to machine form would require an energy flow of at least 140,000 petawatts. That’s about 800 times the total solar power hitting the top of Earth’s atmosphere. Clearly human transcendence might be a way off.

Of course, even if improvements in computations-per-joule have been leveling off, we should expect at some point, in the far future, to have drastically shrunk the gap between the human brain and a copy of it run on a computer, unless, as the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has argued the mind is something to complex and stochastic to be digitally simulated.

I suppose, after a long concerted effort, one could eventually put such energy harvesting systems in outer space, yet the quest might prove less one of the creation of new and better simulated worlds than the human retreat into a kind of cartoon. That’s because as Rudy Rucker long ago pointed out in his essay The Great Awakening:

We know that our present-day videogames and digital movies don’t fully match the richness of the real world. What’s not so well known is that no feasible VR can ever match nature because there are no shortcuts for nature’s computations. Due to a property of the natural world that I call the “principle of natural unpredictability,” fully simulating a bunch of particles for a certain period of time requires a system using about the same number of particles for about the same length of time. Naturally occurring systems don’t allow for drastic shortcuts.

Matter, just as it is, carries out outlandishly complex chaotic quantum computations by dint of sitting around. Matter isn’t dumb. Every particle everywhere and everywhen computes at the max possible flop. I think we tend to very seriously undervalue quotidian reality.

Virtualization would be more like Bitcoin than an escape from either scarcity or human caused environmental destruction- it would based on the unequal access to energy and materials necessary for the creation and maintenance of uploaded individuals and their worlds, and it wouldn’t do nature much good until much of this infrastructure was moved off of the earth. Until that time it would be perhaps even more destructive to the environment- because of its hunger for energy- than the world of biological humans we currently have.

Regardless of its effect on scarcity and environmental destruction, retreat into the great uploaded beyond wouldn’t solve the issue of human moral conflict unless we surrendered our moral responsibilities and adopted a laissez faire approach regardless of the consequences. (I find it weird how grappling with a world of uploaded humans results in a reality that is merely an intensified version of our own where we spend much of our time digitally engaged already.) Would we allow an individual to live in any digital world they chose? Would simulated persons have rights? Would we allow the sale of copies of oneself even if knew that copy would be mistreated or abused? If the answer to any of these question is no, then we’re back in the world of moral contention, a world we can seemingly escape only at the cost of our own soul.

If there is one fundamental flaw to the utopian imagination it is the belief that we can permanently escape this zone of dispute. The price of escaping has often come at the cost of withdrawing from the responsibilities of caring for the larger world and leaving those left behind to fend for themselves. Yet there is an even worse option whereby utopians attempt to enforce their particular version of the ideal society by force. The latter is the means by which the hope for a better world has given way to its opposite- to dystopia.

Ultimately, there is no possibility of walking away from the world we inhabit. Rather than leaving we must fight now and forever to build and preserve the kind of societies we want to live in. In his novel, Cory Doctorow has given us a compelling vision of what kind of society we should be fighting for whether or not we can ever enter the promised land.

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