[Cross-posted from P2P Foundation Blog]
The Caryatids. Bruce Sterling. Del Rey, 2009
By way of caveat, let me get out front with the admission that this review involves mainly aspects of the “future history” scenario I find most intriguing, rather than with the story line or characters. While I can get into a good story, I generally read near-future sci fi with a view primarily to the usable ideas for organizing society or for explaining the direction things are going in.
The Caryatids is set in the world of 2065, a world wrecked by global warming, in which most states have been pushed to overload and collapse by the ecological catastrophes of the early 21st century.
The world is dominated by two networked global civil societies, the Dispensation and the Acquis. Both are engaged in the reclamation of devastated areas and oversee networks of refugee camps housing millions of displaced persons.
The Acquis is largely green and open-source in ideological orientation, and the Dispensation is commercial and proprietary.
The story opens at a communist party in an unspecified post-industrial town in Ontario sometime in the late middle of this century, from the first-person perspective of Hubert, Etc. A communist party, you should understand, is not an institution but a social event: something like a rave at an abandoned factory where, along with dancing, drinking, drugs, and hookups, illegal acts of post-scarcity are committed. In this case, which is presumably typical, the temporarily recuperated facility is a furniture factory with machinery that’s apparently user-friendly enough a random assortment of intoxicated teens and twenty-somethings can get it up and running and turn out fairly large runs of shelving, beds, or whatever. Using the abandoned machinery and large amounts of abandoned feedstock, one communist party can “do enough furnishings for a couple thousand families” in one evening. The next party is scheduled for a feedstock plant in a neighboring town to keep the supply chain going. And so on.
As Natalie — an attendee at the communist party who becomes a main character — describes it, the whole point of it all is post-scarcity.
Look… at all this. On paper, this place is useless; the stuff coming off that line has to be destroyed. It’s a trademark violation: even though it came off an official Muji line, using Muji’s feedstock, it doesn’t have Muji’s official license, so that configuration of cellulose and glue is a crime. That’s so manifestly fucked up and shit that anyone who pays attention to it is playing the wrong game and doesn’t deserve consideration.
Neal Stephenson. The Diamond Age: or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995). Cross-posted from C4SS.
In Four Futures Peter Frase poses, as a thought experiment, an “anti-Star Trek”: a world that shares the same technologies as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s post-scarcity communist society, but in which those technologies of abundance are enclosed with “intellectual property” barriers so that capitalists can continue to live off the rents of artificial scarcity.
“…[I]magine that unlike Star Trek, we don’t all have access to our own replicators. And that in order to get access to a replicator, you would have to buy one from a company that licenses the right to use it. You can’t get someone to give you a replicator or make one with their replicator, because that would violate their license and get them in legal trouble.
What’s more, every time you make something with the replicator, you also need to pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing. Captain Jean-Luc Picard customarily walks to the replicator and requests “tea, Earl Grey, hot.” But his anti-Star Trek counterpart would have to pay the company that has copyrighted the replicator pattern for hot Earl Grey tea.”
In such a world, earning the money to pay for the things will be a problem, since there is no need for labor to actually make anything. What remaining work there is will be a small pool of intensely competed-for jobs designing stuff, some amount of guard labor enforcing “intellectual property” against piracy and protecting the accumulated property of the rich, and an odd assortment of work in household service or hand-crafting luxury goods for those in the propertied classes who value the status symbolism entailed in such things.
This is the world of The Diamond Age.
[Cross-posted from C4SS]
Frase’s book builds on Rosa Luxemburg’s prediction a hundred years ago in the Junius Pamphlets that “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” Specifically, he sketches — in very broad strokes — two versions of socialism and two versions of barbarism as possible alterative futures all resulting from large-scale automation. As Frase himself admits, “my approach is deliberately hyperbolic, sketching out simplified ideal types,” or “simplified, pure models…, designed to illuminate a few key issues that confront us today and will confront us in the future.”
Popular press treatments of automation, Frase notes, range from pessimistic predictions of technological unemployment to “liberal bromides” about “entrepreneurship and education.” But all of them are missing one thing: “politics, and specifically class struggle.”
This outlook ignores the central defining features of the society we live in: capitalist class and property relations. Who benefits from automation, and who loses, is ultimately not a consequence of the robots themselves but of who owns them.
Ami Angelwings noted that Q chose Picard to test, as a representative specimen of humanity, because as a personality he illustrates the biggest change from what he’d have been in the past (reformatted into paragraph form from @Ami_Angelwings Twitter, May 7, 2015):
I realized that the reason Q tests Picard, is that he represents the part of “humanity” that they need to see has evolved from the past. While we know him as an intelligent mature guy, he was a brash womanizer as a kid, who got into fights & loved em & left em. He left home, only freshman to win the marathon, he became the youngest captain, he has all these gary stu heroic stories. He’s a white straight cis male who shot to the top, he’s not the smartest guy, even as an explorer he’s still a military commander. Geordi could’ve solved the paradox, Crusher could’ve solved Farpoint. Point is that in other times, Picard would be the privileged oppressor. The test isn’t can ANY human expand their mind to figure out a paradox, or can ANY human have the compassion to solve Farpoint? The test is “can your white cis straight dude captain with the gary stu past who commands the strongest ship, figure that stuff out?”