In honor of Manfred Mancx, Charles Stross’ venture altruist/seagull/submissive/catspaw/posthuman protagonist in Accelerando – who tries to patent six impossible things before breakfast, or something like that – here are a couple of possibilities to start things out.
First, someone should rewrite Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a Wodehouse novel, with the title Absolutely Jeeves! (Alternate, Kierkegaardian version: Beer and Trembling.)
Second, a Bildungsroman told from the perspective of Gray Goo. (Really putting the ‘build’ into Bildung.)
Third, someone should write an SF novel, set in the not-so-distant future, in which the E.E.P.A (the Economic Environmental Protection Agency) is the nexus of the pharmacomonetary-industrial complex. When you need to rev up the economy, put a bit more ‘exuberenz’ in the water supply (none of that old fashioned mucking about with interest rates, which no longer worked after the Great Slump.)
Fourth, in this same not-so-distant future, the U.S. has clawed its way out of the economic malaise that began in the late-aughties by means of a constitutional amendment: every citizen enjoys a minimal set of ‘entitlements’ (healthcare, housing, education, internet). But, to fund all this, every citizen is legally redefined as the asset bit of an asset-backed security. That is, every citizen is required by law to issue bonds (Bowie Bonds of a sort), backed by their own persons. The economy is then floated on the ensuing frenzy of derivative trading in individual reputational assets. There are elaborate Kantian-Gilderian financial philosophies to justify this, reconstruing the Categorical Imperative as an expression of collateralized debt obligation to all of humanity. The Kingdom of Ends as maximally efficient market mechanism.
Conservative politicians defend the ethical virtues of universal CDO communism against rising Schopenhauerian pessmism – existential nihilism is the new terrorism. The power of the idea that life is worthless, that man is better off not having been born, could seriously crash the market.
Also: because everyone has effectively ‘sold themselves’ at birth, everyone has a fiduciary duty to be ruthlessly selfish, for the sake of their bond-holders. (You could have a Javert-like lawyer who ruthlessly pursues someone for having given a loaf of bread he owned to a starving child, when he could have kept it for himself, i.e. the bold-holders)
The bubble is kept inflated by fluid infusions of ‘exuberenz’, on one end, and by suppression of certain lines of medical research, on the other. Ultimately, your bond is backed by your physical person. So if your reputation falls too far – if your parts are worth more than your corporate whole – well, we’ve all seen Soylent Green. So the organ market needs to be propped up. Kidneys are the new gold. So no one is allowed to invent artificial kidneys. Subplot: vicious attempts to spread organ failure-inducing pandemics, in an attempt to inflate parts of the market. As all other sources of disease have been eliminated, the Center For Disease Control is essentially transformed into a fraud-investigation unit: equity technical analysis meets medical etiology.
Anyway, 80% of the population is unemployed, so everyone spends all their time attempting to game the reputation market in their personal CDO’s. The Rating Agencies collapse, then merge with each other, and are finally acquired by Hollywood (Dreamworks), on the theory that the only way to keep them viable is to run them as a Reality TV show: ‘Non-Standard, Very Moody & Poor’). Philosophers hypothesize that the universe actually is just such a Reality TV show, intended to prop up the universe’s reputation. (Shades of Will and Representation again!)
The music industry has been reduced to the industrial manufacture of earworms. Complicated algorithms for determining which 4-bar snatches of music are most likely to get stuck in people’s heads. (No one writes whole tunes any more. Who has the attention span?) Then, when people get your song stuck in their heads, they either pay to buy the track, or you sue them for copyright infringement. The music industry has the right to scan the brains of the entire population. As a result, it has enormous supercomputers that have achieved self-consciousness and are sensitively, appreciatively investigating the nature of Thought Itself, on their own time.
Right. I get all this out of the way because that first idea – the Wodehouse one – was totally inspired by Stross’s “Trunk and Disorderly”, a hilarious Bertie Wooster-as-Jerry-Cornelius posthumanity spoof. You can download the full audio for free here. A sample:
“Drink is good,” agreed Edgestar Wolfblack, injecting some kind of hideously fulminating fluorocarbon lubricant into one of his six knees. Most of us in the club are squishies, but Toadsworth and Edgestar are both clankies. However, while the Toadster’s knobbly conical exterior conceals what’s left of his old squisher body, tucked decently away inside his eye-turret, Edgestar has gone the whole hog and uploaded himself into a ceramic exoskeleton with eight or nine highly specialized limbs. He looks like the bastard offspring of a multi-tool and a mangabot. “Carbon is the new—” his massively armored eyebrows furrowed—“black?” He’s a nice enough chappie and he went to the right school, but he was definitely at the back of the queue the day they were handing the cortical upgrades out.
That about gives you the flavor.
The economic stuff I came up with a couple months ago – the newspapers are full of inspiration these days, have you noticed? But then it dawned on me I’d been half-scooped by the likes of Stross’ Accelerando. (Mysterious, irrational spikes and falls in the reputation economy. the general tone of certain bits of it.) His most hilarious idea is Economics 2.0, a post-human evolutionary stage which “eats the original conscious instigators,” or “uses them as currency or something.” It’s like Michael Lewis rewrote Liar’s Poker as Larry Niven’s The Mote In God’s Eye:
Economics 2.0 apparently replaces the single-indirection layer of conventional money, and the multiple-indirection mappings of options trades, with some kind of insanely baroque object-relational framework based on the parameterized desires and subjective experiential values of the players, and as far as the cat is concerned, this makes all such transactions intrinsically untrustworthy.
I won’t explain about the cat, but it’s important.
OK, let me explain the Hegel joke. Hegel is, of course, the original theorist of singularity. (He’s Kurzweil, minus the technology.) True, Prussian bureaucracy is a very weak, weak AI, but close enough for government work.
(And, of course, Parmenides was really the first to advocate singularity, but who’s counting?)
The main point of Hegel, so far as I can tell, is that without Hegel – to make Kierkegaard’s Hegel jokes funny – Kierkegaard’s jokes wouldn’t be funny. Indeed, they wouldn’t be jokes at all. So you should read Hegel for the jokes, and only for the jokes. Of course, Hegel couldn’t see this, but that’s how the worm of Absolute Spirit, Coming To Know Itself As Itself (a.k.a. technological singularity) turns.
Stross is Hegelian plus he sees his own jokes: from the hapless lobsters of immediacy (to say nothing of uploaded cats), up through the rigors of master-slave relationships (Manfred and Pam, Amber as corporate slave), through to all of the matter in the solar system becoming conscious of itself, as itself: rationality so pure it is, at once, identical with its object and incomprehensible to mere humans.
Charles Stross is also the Kierkegaard of singularity fiction. There’s a point, late in Accelerando, at which Manfred is mourning “Not everything has changed – only the important stuff.” He’s trying to figure out how the remnants of humanity can get out before the Vile Offspring (why not call them Vile Disembodied, get the Waugh joke tighter?) turn the whole solar system into one big computer. But it’s not really true. On the facing page we read: “If the presence of transhumans has upset a whole raft of prior assumptions, at least it hasn’t done more than superficial damage to the Golden Rule.” And The Golden Rule is what matters most to Stross’ sympathetic protagonists. Manfred starts the novel by helping lobsters to escape, and now he’s threatened by that status himself. But really that was already true at the start of the book. Nothing really important has changed.
Take this description of the human lily-pad habitat, at the edge of the expanding Singularity.
The crowds are variegated and wildly mixed, immigrants from every continent shopping and haggling and in a few cases getting out of their skulls on strange substances on the pavements in front of giant snail-shelled shebeens and squat bunkers made of thin layers of concrete sprayed over soap-bubble aerogel. There are no automobiles, but a bewildering range of personal transport gadgets, from gyro-stabilized pogo-sticks and segways to kettenkrads and spider-palanquins, jostle for space with pedestrians and animals.
Two women stop outside what in a previous century might ahve been the store window of a fashion boutique: The younger one (blond, with her hair bound up in elaborate cornrows, wearing black leggings and a long black leather jacket of a camouflage T-shirt) points to an elaborately retro dress: “Wouldn’t my bum look big in that?” she asks, doubtfully.
‘Ma cherie, you have but to try it-” the other woman (tall, wearing a pin-striped man’s business suit from a previous century) flicks a thought at the window, and the mannequin morphs, sprouting the younger woman’s head, aping her posture and expression.”
Stross’ characters then muse about the strange primitiveness of this fringe, refugee life they are leading, but it is absolutely necessary for Stross to preserve some solid platform of basic humanity at every stage of his Singularity’s development – not just so that he can make jokes about whether his protagonist’s bum looks fat. It’s a deeper ethical mandate than that. To quote Browning:
Greet the unseen with a cheer!
Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
“Strive and thrive!” cry, “Speed – fight on, fare ever
There as here!”
You need the Unseen, looming up, but also a basically human breast-and-bum set. Oh, and speed. Lots of speed.
Stross is only ever interested in writing about humans whose breasts and bums are squeezed by lobsters on one side, A.I’s on the other, hence half crashing. (half squishy, half clanky, half ape, half angel.) An old theme, then.
Stross manages to maintain a delicate, Kierkegaardian balance: genuine speculative enthusiasm for The System, combined with comic-ironic skepticism and individualistic-spiritual refusal, which suspects its own final stance of refusenik authenticity may in fact be a delusive dance over the abyss. You’re either anti-body or a mere antibody within a larger anti-body body. (If you don’t get the joke, read “Antibodies”.) So where does the humanism fit in? (An elephant on the back of a turtle, on the back of an expert system, on the back of a lobster running on Windows NT, and after that it’s zombies all the way down.)
“If someone hitched a team of horses to a wagon … one of them a Pegasus and the other a worn-out jade, and told him to drive – I think one might succeed. And it is just this that it means to exist, if one is to become conscious of it. Eternity is the winged horse, infinitely fast, and time is a worn-out jade; the existing individual is the driver.” – Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments
Stross’ Pegasus is usually something like a Coke-can sized diamond, containing numerous uploaded personalities, sailing out of the solar system at laserpoint, to figure out whether aliens are conducting a timing channel attack on the Planck constant. But that’s basically just a Kierkegaardian Pegasus wearing a funny hat, so who’s counting?
Last but not least: in case it isn’t obvious, Stross is the last person to try to predict the future. The point is to investigate post-humanism so as to understand humanism. What look like apocalyptic predictions are merely playful reductiones ad absurdum, frictionless slippery slopes on which the little toy carts of humanity are pushed back and forth, to see what features of their values systems allows them to slide so helplessly. Singularity can only be written as a comedy. (This was Dante’s problem, after all. He didn’t get it that comedy is supposed to be funny, so part three of his space opera is frackin boring.)