Just meat following rules

by Maria on May 2, 2017

Seminar on Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

Recently, someone who works in an adjacent field was described by a friend as having been radicalised. It’s an odd verb, that, radicalised; to be made radical. It sounds almost as if it happens without agency. To have all the depth, complexity and contradiction in your understanding of human life boiled away, leaving the saltiest essence, crystallised on the bottom of a burnt saucepan. That would take some extreme heat, you would think.

Here’s what apparently happened to this guy. He published a book about competition. Part of it looked at search engines. Talking about the book soon after it was published, his tone was, by my friend’s account, pretty even-handed; full of ‘on the one hand, we need new ways of thinking about monopolies that aren’t just based on immediate consumer harm’, and ‘on the other hand, we get lots of nice shiny things from this free – to consumers – service’. But things started happening. Pieces got spiked. When he wrote about the issues, the company would complain, or insist on a right of reply, either directly or via proxies. And when he spoke in public, there was usually a paid stooge in the audience.

All pretty low-level stuff, this; a mere shadow of the concerted and insidious establishment checks on Eric Hobsbawm’s career, say. Nothing that would daunt an anti-nuclear campaigner or someone pursuing a miscarriage of justice by the police, or pretty much anyone historically involved in a range of left-ish campaigns in the UK. But the distinctly North Korean whiff to this company’s intolerance of disinterested, well-researched analysis was not something a mainstream economist would ever have expected. Over the months, his message hardened. Now it’s a jeremiad on the peril of a global monopoly reaching inexorably into every aspect of human life, and also how competition authorities have either a) no idea what is going on because their models of how markets work are irrelevant, or b) are intellectually and culturally captured.

Radicalisation is what we call it when someone adopts a belief-system that grossly over-simplifies how stuff works, and discards both complexity and inconvenient facts. Just as one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, depending on where you sit in relation to the current disposition of political goodies, ‘radicalisation’ is a term whose selective application is highly revealing of both the prejudice and complacency of power. So Jo Cox‘s assassin was not ‘radicalised’ by the extreme right wing circles he ran in, the public narrative went, he was just mentally ill. But Khalid Masood, a “lone wolf” wholly unknown to any terrorist organisations before he hit the news, was radicalised by the Internet, which must be stopped. (The UK’s Muslim-targeted and deeply troubled PREVENT programme is only lately scrambling to really tackle with far-right beliefs.) Similarly, in Walkaway’s default world, the ultra-Randian values of the super-wealthy are mainstream thinking, and the people who choose to avoid lifelong indebtedness to a system that thinks of them simply as a problem to be solved are believed to have been radicalised.

Radicalisation can indeed be done to people with the intent of having them cause others terrible harm, in the classic IS-driven ‘enemy within’ model. But perhaps just as often it is something that happens to people who start paying attention to how stuff works but don’t know what to usefully do with what they learn. I imagine the subjective experience of radicalisation is revelatory, with the world appearing for the first time in bright, vivid detail as scales fall from your eyes. It must be intoxicating. It certainly inclines those who experience it to vigorous preaching, as Walkaway’s Limpopo proves.

John Berger says mystification is “the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident”. Radicalisation, at least in the sense my economist may have experienced it, is perhaps the perfect opposite of this. It’s what happens when the cant and the branding disappear, and you experience the exercise of raw power. I’m purely speculating, now, but I wonder if, as long as the search engine’s market power stayed in its theoretical box, it was merely an interesting phenomenon. But once that power manifest negatively in his real life, through advertising budgets, privileged access and sheer manpower, it forced him into an oppositional stance he would never have otherwise chosen. Now, just talking about his work in public made him a rebel. History repeatedly tells us that just pointing out the bleeding obvious can be a radical act. So, while at first I wondered if my friend’s use of the term radicalisation was too broad, and risked blanching the word of its meaning, I now think it describes quite well what happens to when the mystification process decompiles.

There’s a moment near the beginning of Walkaway that demystifies its world to one of the characters, Seth. A small group is in a self-driving car owned by a bazillionaire (Jacob, one of the most interesting characters, as Andrew Brown points out). Seth observes that the car is cutting through traffic unusually quickly. It turns out that default-world has super-expensive and secret custom firmware for the cars of the uber-rich. And better brakes and steering, too. The illegal software uses realtime game theory to go twice as close to other cars as is permitted, relying on their legally more restricted parameters to make them call chicken, first. It’s against the law, but only a civil offence, with fines payable by direct debit. It encapsulates perfectly the intersection of bought influence and system-gaming the uber-rich manipulate reality with. Walkaway’s zottas, with their bullshit philosophy of merit finding its natural level, are shown to quite literally free-ride on everyone else’s compliance with a structurally rotten system.

Three things about this passage are greatly to Walkaway’s credit. First, that though it indulges a little Seth’s wonder at what’s behind the curtain – how many of Silicon Valley’s so-called gifts to the world are encapsulated by and never go further than an appeal to ‘awesomeness’? – the scene ends on the frightened face of a veiled woman whose bog-standard taxi has just been buzzed. Second, that this throwaway bit of self-dealing nastiness is all too believable to us in the here and now. Thirdly, that with minimal explanation of the technology itself and the economic structures and process that have given rise to its appearance in just this form at just this moment – something indulged in a bit too much elsewhere in the novel – this short scene perfectly reveals the real workings of plutocracy-by-design.

Walkaway shows how bonkers it is to knowingly live inside a theory of private property, particularly intellectual property, that permits ever fewer people to benefit, but demands affect-less compliance from all. (I particularly loved hearing a variant on the classic IPR lobbyist line, ‘intellectual property rights are human rights’, come out of the awful Jacob’s mouth.) It extrapolates an end point – and ultimately a new beginning, after capitalism handily eats itself – of current trends and of the Randian philosophies that whip individuals’ fear of failure into mass hatred and blame.

(By coincidence, I re-read Walkaway alongside Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin, about two young women attracted to and repelled by both each other and a fictional Ayn Rand’s objectivism. The novel is unpleasantly revealing about how those at the bottom of the privilege pile (white, somewhat educated, under-employed) hoover up a perverse individualism that distinguishes them from the seething mass of humanity while consuming them with unanswerable lust for it. Perhaps it’s no accident that while Walkaway’s protagonists have frequent, explosive, consensual, thoroughly satisfying and largely un-binaried sex, the brogrammers of the People’s Republic of Meritopia never quite manage to get their ends away.)

The important thing about radicalisation is not how it happens, but what people choose to do when the scales fall away. Do you mow down innocents, start a revolution or retire, muttering, to your allotment? In Walkaway, the main characters take it as given that democracy is kabuki, and the only real power struggles are those between different levels and siblings of the zotta-wealthy. Walkaway is an unashamedly proselytising novel, packed with discussions of why an economy based on fear and false competition is unnecessary and inefficient, and how government that sees people in purely functional (or dysfunctional) terms is awful and wrong. . The only real option for the radicalised is exit. They build an alternative society to the default one, helped by the slightly magical ability of 3D printing to overcome resource constraints.

It is truly a sign of how fucked up we currently are that as we move toward a world where labour scarcity begins to look like a historic anomaly, politics isn’t about how to look after globalisation’s losers but rather how to go on lying about it and blaming someone else. We are in a period of ever more obscene concentration of wealth and power, and the increasing likelihood of existential peril for many of us. Just pointing this out is becoming career-limiting behaviour.

Towards the end of Walkaway, Jacob’s economists are described as “intellectual cover, to prove his dynastic fortunes and political influence are the outcome of a complex, self-correcting mechanism with the mystical power to pluck the deserving out of the teeming mass of humanity and elevate them so they can wisely guide us.” Nowadays, a competition economist doesn’t have to step far away from Chicago orthodoxy to attract the thin-skinned pique of a company with more clout than most countries. Nowadays, to be radicalised, you don’t even have to be all that radical.

Near-future science fiction tries to figure out how we get from scarcity to post-scarcity, the worryingly blank stretch between Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M. Banks. The likelihood is that the process will be as complex, painful and resistant to simplification as its victims will be susceptible to radicalisation. I’m especially glad that Cory has written neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but a world where each exists and feeds off each other. The future itself is about as unequally distributed as the Gini coefficient might suggest. Personally, I’m not in a hurry to get there.

An aside:
I loved the hints about how the Internet works in Walkaway. It actually sounds more like a version of the Internet as designed and intended by its creators, rather than the current hobbled, parsed, platformised and increasingly IPR-weaponised version we have. A couple of questions, though: The Walkaway network, especially when it starts digitising and running whole human consciousnesses, seems to have a lot more processing power – thus energy – than is foreseeable in a non-quantum computing environment. Where is all the energy coming from? And memory? Both seem orders of magnitude away from what we currently have, and the hand-waving about clever engineers driven by the love of it isn’t quite getting me there! And the network is also seemingly hardened in a realistically post-Snowden kind of way, but how is this actually achieved without, in addition to a lot of the current IETF work streams, DNSSEC, which centralises authenticity and reliability in a way Walkaway sysadmins would find politically uncongenial and also susceptible to attack or black/brown-outs? Is the Walkaway network running its own root? Probably, but isn’t this kind of a monopoly-ish and un-Walkaway thing to build? Basically, how does Walkaway networking avoid both the crushing energy consumption and seemingly inexorable centralising forces of our current network structures? Yes, much of the force pushing the centralising tendency is economic, but some of it is technological – the distributed network is constantly gathering itself around nodes, creating all sorts of vulnerabilities and political problems. Anyway, I loved this aspect of Walkaway and am curious about how Cory imagined the engine under the hood.

{ 34 comments }

1

Peter K. 05.02.17 at 3:52 pm

It was interesting to me how the popular culture started talking about “getting woke’ in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sounds analogous to “being radicalized.” The valence seems to vary like with “ideology.” One’s ideology can be good, bad, or neutral.

2

JRLRC 05.02.17 at 4:01 pm

“Their bullshit philosophy of merit”. Yes. Always there… And what an incredible, ridiculous and dangerous social farce and force.

3

Brian 05.02.17 at 4:17 pm

To have all the depth, complexity and contradiction in your understanding of human life boiled away, leaving the saltiest essence, crystallised on the bottom of a burnt saucepan.

Nothing to add (sorry) – I just wanted to express my love and admiration for that sentence.

4

bruce wilder 05.02.17 at 5:08 pm

. . . not something a mainstream economist would ever have expected

politics isn’t about how to look after globalisation’s losers but rather how to go on lying about it and blaming someone else

. . . Jacob’s economists are described as “intellectual cover, to prove his dynastic fortunes and political influence are the outcome of a complex, self-correcting mechanism with the mystical power to pluck the deserving out of the teeming mass of humanity and elevate them so they can wisely guide us.”

Maybe you should have asked Mark Blyth to review Walkaway [or Cory Doctorow to review Blyth — of course, Walkaway kind of does that, no?].

5

Ted Lemon 05.02.17 at 6:00 pm

DNSSEC works just fine with an alternate root. You just have to trust whoever is running it. You can also run it with a collection of trust anchors established using peer-to-peer protocols. And you can use secure distributed logs (blockchain) to track changes to keys in a way that reveals shenanigans.

All of the stuff about zero-days in the book is dead on. Sigh.

6

Dunsel 05.02.17 at 6:54 pm

Pieces got spiked. When he wrote about the issues, the company would complain, or insist on a right of reply, either directly or via proxies. And when he spoke in public, there was usually a paid stooge in the audience.

It’s somewhat to the side of the larger point made, but I find this a curious list of events that radicalized anybody. Perhaps it makes more sense with more detail that can’t be shared, but:

1) “Pieces got spiked” is passive voice and it’s not clear what’s being said here. Did the company somehow use its insidious influence to get them spiked, or is it just the case like every other author he couldn’t find somebody to publish everything he wanted to publish?

2) I’m not sure exactly what it means for the company to “insist” on a right to reply. Did they ask nicely? Threaten to derank the publisher in the search results? Send legal letters? This leaves a lot for the reader to infer and it’s not clear whether this is bad behavior or just further participation in the marketplace of ideas.

3) I am vague on what exactly a paid stooge in the audience is supposed to be. If they send someone to the event who wears a name badge, is very upfront he works for the company, and talks to people at the post-event mixer in a consensual and non-disruptive way then I don’t really see a problem– it’s adding to the dialogue in a transparent way. If they’re planting somebody in the audience who is pretending to be neutral and asking leading or distracting questions, then that’s obviously bad behavior, although I wonder how the economist determines who is and is not a stooge.

So, I don’t know. Again, maybe with the fuller story this is perfectly cogent, but this anecdote reads very strangely.

7

William Timberman 05.02.17 at 8:15 pm

Brecht had it about right: the unjust distribution of material goods; the just distribution of transcendental goods. (Although, come to think of it, given how eager the twin mystifications of god and state have been to lend a hand in extending in our torments, maybe supernatural is the better translation for überirdischen.)

The genius of capitalism is that it’s managed to maintain that principle for the past 150 or so years despite the stress of being in a more or less constant state of transformation. Maybe we’re witnessing the beginning of its last stand, and maybe we’re not. One thing I do wonder, though, is how the advocates of technological salvation, either the Musks or the Doctorows, think the cloud and the gazillion iPhones, intelligent autos and 3-D printers it serves, will survive a future of failing agriculture, dried up rivers, sunken cities, mass extinctions, etc. Do they really think they can fix all that and still be able to walk around outside fortress technology without a bodyguard?

8

William Timberman 05.02.17 at 8:19 pm

Apologies for the closing tag failure — here’s what that first paragraph was supposed to look like:

Brecht had it about right: the unjust distribution of material goods; the just distribution of transcendental goods. (Although, come to think of it, given how eager the twin mystifications of god and state have been to lend a hand in extending in our torments, maybe supernatural is the better translation for überirdischen.)

9

PatinIowa 05.02.17 at 8:40 pm

“Radicalisation is what we call it when someone adopts a belief-system that grossly over-simplifies how stuff works, and discards both complexity and inconvenient facts.”

This isn’t my definition of “radicalization,” and I’m wondering if there’s any reason to suppose it’s true or even useful.

After all, radicals (in the US, anyway) are the ones that understand that there are people to the left of liberals, and that the continua of political positions (along any axis) are severely truncated.

It seems to me that “radical” denotes what its etymology implies: the person or politics or ideology believe that the current system must be qualitatively changed, rebuilt from the ground up.

There are some simplistic radicals, some sophisticated ones. I think. And since I work in the academy, I tend to run into the sophisticated version.

What am I missing? (This is a serious question. I feel that I’m missing something.)

10

Keith 05.02.17 at 9:04 pm

radicalisation is a terrible word in its contemporary meaning, as this is entirely opposite to the original meaning. To be radical is merely to go back to the roots and start from first principles. It is the start of all reformist or revolutionary thinkers. To be radical in the correct sense is a good thing as it means you support enlightened ideas. It has been given a different and contradictory connotation.

As for competition theory the classic liberal theorists as Bertrand Russell observed are inconsistent. They suppose capitalism is natural as people are selfish, but then argue that actual capitalism produces moral results as it occurs in the framework of certain moral and legal rules that cause it to promote human welfare. They never properly explain where these moral and legal rules come from and how they are enforced in a world of amoral wealth making. It is just assumed that a business man will not murder his competitors as he is good or will be punished by the state. Which assumes the state both can and will apply rules based on some foundation other than self interest. As russell says the history of capitalism does not give confidence that capitalists will refrain from eliminating their competitors by any method they can use.

11

bruce wilder 05.02.17 at 11:07 pm

PatinIowa @ 9

I’ll second Pat on his question,

. . . but add a bit about my own confusion. Like Brian @ 3, I admire the sentence, but it does seem disparaging in a way that I am not sure what to do with. Admittedly, I read Dunsel @ 6 as a species of denialism; is the disparagement “all the depth, complexity and contradiction in your understanding of human life boiled away” also denialism: his experience is not his experience, or if it is, his reading of his own experience forms a distorting bias.

[On the tail end of another recent thread, several were reading a Daniel Davies piece from the FT(?), which described how “bankers invest in an overall ecosystem that they think benefits them. . . . there is certainly a legitimate question of whether it benefits society as a whole.” I would this is standard operating procedure for big corporations vis a vis the parts of academia that might have some purchase on the politics of business regulation. Dunsel reads to me as if he missed the memo on this development, but I may be misreading him, in which case, my apologies.]

12

JakeB 05.03.17 at 3:30 am

As an amusing (at least, to me) mirror image of your description of the traffic scene, Maria, I just read Adam Alter’s Irresistible, in which he talks about how the Lords of Tech generally do not allow themselves or their families to be overly exposed to devices like ipads, cell phones, certain games and so forth. Good enough to make money from the plebs, but too dangerous to play with (and possibly become addicted to) themselves.

13

Raven 05.03.17 at 6:07 am

Seconding Keith’s #10. I’m reminded of this delightful passage from R.A. Lafferty’s The Flame is Green (1971):

“Do not be deceived by the way men of bad faith misuse words and names. … Things are set up as contraries that are not even in the same category. Listen to me: the opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive. Thus I will describe myself as a radical conservative liberal; but certain of the tainted red fish will swear that there can be no such fish as that.”

14

mclaren 05.03.17 at 6:37 am

Does `radicalized’ really mean what you claim it means, though?
I was under the impression that radicalization could mean either getting brainwashed into some crazy groupthink as by a cult or some violent sect or what-have-you…or radicalization could mean gettting broken out of a lockstep groupthink epistemic bubble by enough hard observable real-world facts on the ground that self-delusion is no longer possible.
For example, some people described being radicalized by Watergate to the point where they stopped voting Republican reflexively. Others describe being radicalized by the My Lai Massacre or the Iraq invasion WMD lies to the point where they no longer performed kneejerk rote activities like retorting “We have to support the troops” every time someone questioned the need for yet another endless unwinnable foreign war. Yet other people describe getting radicalized by the Dubya maladministration such that they abandoned the cliches “Republicans presidents are great at handling wars and the economy.” Others got radicalized by the Reagan presidency and stopped reciting mantras like the Laffer Curve to critics of Republican economic schemes.

15

Neville Morley 05.03.17 at 6:42 am

Slightly tangential point on a wonderful post. I was likewise struck by the “how the super-rich avoid traffic jams” scene, but reading your discussion highlighted a contrast with the usual narratives of revelation and radicalisation. Generally, whether we’re thinking of C19 socialists or the Roter Armee Fraktion or Black Lives Matter, there’s a moment or process where the person concerned experiences the system turned against them and realises that it’s actually unjust/corrupt/exploitative/etc. – or at least a moment or process where they develop true sympathy with its victims – and so concludes that the only practical response is a radical one. With Seth, however, it’s the view from the perspective of the top rather than the bottom that strips away his illusions about the system.

Does this matter? The former may be driven by and certainly tends to promote solidarity with other victims of the system; this feels much more narcissistic – more akin to the Red Pill moments of the male rights pillocks – and so the fact that the responses is an individual opt-out, evading rather than confronting the system, seems appropriate. Elements of the hacker culture discussed in other posts, emphasising loose and temporary networks rather than rigid organisations and hierarchies – but by implication also questioning the usefulness of any traditional forms of social groups and solidarity.

16

MFB 05.03.17 at 7:16 am

This is the first post in this series which actually makes me feel that the book might be worth buying (not that it is likely to come to any South African bookshop, and I’m unlikely to get on the Internet any time soon and try to get it there.

However, I think the interesting question is why this kind of behaviour, which is totally in our faces all the time — the basic idea that there is a “Platinum class” citizenship which benefits the few and disparages and immiserates the rest, which is clear in the houses and the clothes and the behaviour-patterns of the very, very rich — is largely ignored by most people. Unlike the situation in the book, it’s just accepted that the rich will be more privileged than the rest of us, and at the expense of us. Maybe as a South African I’m just more conscious of this — I live in the sticks but visit Cape Town regularly, and you can’t view the contrast between Khayelitsha and Bishopscourt without acknowledging it.

But it seems to me that Dunsel’s position, in which he basically says that there’s nothing unusual about rich people having the right to harass and silence their critics, is a kind of default position, and perhaps should be taken more seriously.

17

Paul Davis 05.03.17 at 8:40 am

JakeB @ 12:

let’s suppose that you were a “Lord of Tech”. More accurately, let’s suppose that you were part of, or led a team of people who had come up with something like the iPhone or iPad or whatever technological gidget we want to use as an example.

let’s suppose that your career and personal predilictions had exposed you to enough of technology’s issues that you had deep reservations about its impact on the economy, on society in general, and on individuals in particular. at the same time, you had also become very aware of the things that the very same technology made possible in your own life, those of your colleagues, friends and family, and were grateful for those things.

what would you, JakeB, do regarding the question of whether or not the “plebs” should get access to the technological marvels you’ve been working on?

would it by any chance include sufficient time and exposure that you became known as someone who despite their efforts to create and distribute it, still limited their own and their family’s use of the technology, someone with deep reservations about it all, someone worthy of at the very least gentle mockery on a CT comment thread?

18

casmilus 05.03.17 at 9:11 am

“So Jo Cox‘s assassin was not ‘radicalised’ by the extreme right wing circles he ran in, the public narrative went, he was just mentally ill. But Khalid Masood, a “lone wolf” wholly unknown to any terrorist organisations before he hit the news, was radicalised by the Internet, which must be stopped.”

Not a criticism of this writer, but note that the name of the white guy is already forgotten. Is “Timothy McVeigh” still a recognised reference in American discourse?

19

harry b 05.03.17 at 1:38 pm

I think Timothy McVeigh is still part of our discourse. But I also don’t think he is thought of as ‘radicalized’.

Lovely post Maria, I wish you’d write more on CT (not a criticism, just I always enjoy them a lot).

20

Neel Krishnaswami 05.03.17 at 4:11 pm

One thing I do wonder, though, is how the advocates of technological salvation […] will survive a future of failing agriculture, dried up rivers, sunken cities, mass extinctions, etc. Do they really think they can fix all that and still be able to walk around outside fortress technology without a bodyguard?

We really are on the knife’s edge, but there is a good chance the answer is yes.

CO2 emissions are mostly from power and transportation, and (a) renewables are the cheapest source of power generation, full stop, with the price of storage (flow batteries, compressed-air energy storage, and molten salt, etc) in free fall, and (b) battery costs are now low enough that transition to primarily electric transport looks likely. So decarbonization is not only technically possible, but looks like cost pressures are pushing us towards it. If this happens quickly enough that average temperature increase is in the 3-4 degree range, then it is likely that a combination of desalinization (made feasible by cheap renewables), genetically engineered crops, and enclosed farming will be able to mitigate the impact for the first world. Note that all of these things increase centralization, capital intensity and the reach of the IP regulation, so they are all very compatible with the worldview of Sand Hill Road. The outcome would be dystopian, but for political reasons rather than technological ones.

(Of course, if CO2 emissions trigger the clathrate gun, then we’re all just dead.)

21

JRLRC 05.03.17 at 4:51 pm

I agree with Harry. You should write more, Maria. Harry should too…

22

Aardvark Cheeselog 05.03.17 at 8:19 pm

I imagine the subjective experience of radicalisation is revelatory, with the world appearing for the first time in bright, vivid detail as scales fall from your eyes. It must be intoxicating.

I’ve taken to describing myself as “radicalized” in the last few years. I wouldn’t describe the experience as “intoxicating.” “Nauseating” would be closer to the mark.

I now think it describes quite well what happens to when the mystification process decompiles.

That whole paragraph is an excellent summary.

This was a great post, prompting me to reply here for maybe the first time ever. And also prompting me to reconsider whether I want to read the book, which I’d been planning to give a miss. Thank you.

23

Moz of Yarramulla 05.03.17 at 9:47 pm

I think it’s useful to remember that “radical” is normally contrasted with “liberal”, in classical terms at least. Viz, a liberal favours gradual change from within the system, while a radical regards the system as broken and in need of replacement. I’ve phrased it that way to make it clear why it’s almost necessary that people within the system will accept liberal critics and reformers but strongly reject radical ones.

To me “radical” is used as a pejorative in much the same way as “protester”, “anarchist” and in the US “atheist” (it amuses me that “apostate” in Islamic usage seems to parallel “atheist” in US usage, in terms of how those described are regarded and treated). They’re terms used by those in power (or who want to think of themselves as in power) to denigrate those without power or outside the system. In that sense it’s very hard for, say, a Native American to be a liberal in the US simply because they’re deemed to be outside the system so any critique they make will probably be received as radical.

Then, of course, we have common political discourse and the use of common terms for party names. In the US we have the anti-democratic Republican Party and the republic-opposing Democratic party (presumably monarchists?). In Australia we have the illiberal Labour party and the anti-labour Liberal Party, as well as the anti-environment National party and the internationalist Green Party. Similarly nonsensical political labelling is widespread to the point where an actual clown like Tiririca can be elected.

24

William Timberman 05.04.17 at 12:34 am

Neel Krishnaswami @ 20

This clathrate gun?

Peter Frase’s Four Futures seems to me to be the best, or at least the most readable, synopsis of the possibilities as we understand them at present, at least for the lay reader. If we want to know which path we’re likely to take, or what it might feel like if we did, we have to rely on fiction, and Walkaway, as the latest of the what-if scenarios drawing on essentially the same sources as Frase does, is worthy of the attention it’s getting here.

I respect the seriousness of attempts by sci-fi writers like Doctorow to flesh out the probabilities and place them in the context of what life might be like for ordinary mortals if and when, but so far, at least, I haven’t encountered any that I find all that convincing. Mind you, my skepticism doesn’t arise from any lack of faith in human inventiveness, nor do I discount the possibility that human psychology contains more admirable impulses than those reflected in Trumpism, or Zuckerbergism, or that those impulses might be galvanized under the pressure of what we’re facing. What gives me pause is that these histories of the future just don’t seem dark enough. The authors, no matter their take on things to come, appear to be far more in control of their material, and their characters, than they have any right to be.

Orwell had his demons, reflections of the age of isms he lived in, his own experiences with betrayal and cruelty, and the banality of the evils he witnessed, but in my opinion, 1984 has a gravitas that most of today’s speculative fictions lack. As I read Gibson, Stephenson, or Doctorow, I keep having flashbacks to the agonies of the inhabitants of Gaza or Greece, or the East German woman in her fifties I saw on TV in 1989, standing for the first time on this side of the wall, tears streaming down her face, repeating over and over again into the reporter’s microphone, they’ve stolen my youth from me….

I probably don’t have a balanced enough psychology myself to help midwife the New Jerusalem, even supposing I had the skills or the time, but I don’t think writers truly understand the price, win or lose, that we’re going to have to pay for any credible future. Maybe the rule is that the narrator doesn’t have to pay, although the author, once his narrative task is complete, may well be forced to. If so, fair enough.

25

Chet Murthy 05.04.17 at 1:17 am

Neel Krishnaswami @ 20 writes

We really are on the knife’s edge, but there is a good chance the answer is yes.

Is this a realistic assessment? I ask in order to learn. B/c the world you posit is one where the “well-off” population is markedly smaller than it is today, right? And between here and there, will be a massive die-off of humans, and including (let’s say) in the American homeland. Let’s set aside what happens in Europe (assume that the teeming hordes will be unstoppable) — at least in North America, between coastal batteries and a blockade at (say) Panama, they’ll be able to wall off their lifeboat, yes? But even -inside- North America, I doubt the diminished carrying capacity of Nature will be enough to sustain even a tenth of the population (after all, you posit desalination and enclosed farming). Not to mention that there won’t be any more importation of raw materials from overseas (too dangerous).

I guess I don’t see how any such die-off doesn’t end up completely destabilizing advanced human civilization.

26

Moz of Yarramulla 05.04.17 at 5:08 am

I don’t see how any such die-off doesn’t end up completely destabilizing advanced human civilization.

Through the magic “3D printer” device that can take readily available raw materials (sand) and print the silicon chips etc needed to duplicate itself. That magic scales up virtually arbitrarily, you just need to print more solar panels as your energy needs expand (and so on for every other thing). It’s basically a Von Neumann machine with all the attendant coolness and problems.

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Neel Krishnaswami 05.04.17 at 11:27 am

Is this a realistic assessment? I ask in order to learn. B/c the world you posit is one where the “well-off” population is markedly smaller than it is today, right?

No, the well-off population could potentially be much larger than it is today. I think that serious ecological disaster is inevitable (eg, the loss of the Great Barrier Reef and mass extinctions in the Arctic as the ice cover melts), but that does not imply any mass die-off for modern industrial nations. The present system has the resources, organization and flexibility to persevere through global warming outcomes of four degrees or less, even in the periphery (China, South America, India, and Africa in descending order of ability to cope). Six degrees and up, and I think catastrophe is likely in the periphery, and eleven degrees and up, and I think human extinction starts looking likely. However, I think that the four degrees or less outcome is the most likely one, barring the triggering of one of the mechanisms for runaway warming (like the clathrate gun). Basically, coal power is already obsolete (no US power company plans to build any more, ever, and China announced this year that it is scrapping two-thirds of its planned and under-construction coal power plants) and internal combustion vehicles look like they will be obsolete in the near future, and the half-life of vehicles is not very long (seven or eight years, roughly).

William Timberman’s mention of Peter Frase’s essay Four Futures is very relevant. The future I fear is the one Frase dubs exterminism: automation makes many workers redundant, and the ruling class takes steps to shrink it. The horse population peaked in 1915 and has fallen by two-thirds because machines replaced the need for them — will deep learning and robots do something similar to humans? But this kind of extinction is not for ecological reasons, but for political ones. (Automation could just as well liberate humans from the need to work.)

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Pavel A 05.04.17 at 1:07 pm

William Timberman@24, Neel Krishnaswami@20

We may have a brief reprieve from the Clathtrate Gun apocalypse (tl;dr the emissions are too small to matter in comparison to the CO2 emissions from industry).

By posting this I don’t want to imply that there is an absence of other major positive feedback loops (like deforestation) that aren’t likely to cause us to have serious temperature increases in the near future, I just wanted to point out that clathrates are probably not as bad as say deforestation (forest fires for example release up to a 3 Gigatons of CO2 and will increase in frequency as droughts intensify).

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Pavel A 05.04.17 at 1:08 pm

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Pavel A 05.04.17 at 1:32 pm

Neel Krishnaswami@27

Coal isn’t dead in the developing world and “not building new coal plants” isn’t the same thing as shutting down existing coal plants and replacing them with cleaner energy sources.

India opens one new coal mine per month: http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/analysis/india-opening-coal-mines-will-surpass-u-s-in-coal-production/

China reopens coal mines:
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/29/business/energy-environment/china-coal-climate-change.html?_r=0

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Neel Krishnaswami 05.04.17 at 3:43 pm

Coal isn’t dead in the developing world, but that’s only because the body hasn’t stopped twitching. The current Indian government’s energy plan is to finish the construction of in-progress coal plants, to replace older and more polluting ones (to the tune of 50GW worth, alas) and then not build any more. In the same period, targets for solar and wind are 100 GW, double that of coal. Renewables plus natural gas for peaking (CO2 emitting, but half that of coal) is cheaper than coal, and can be added in smaller increments. This is why India is on this path, despite having a hard-right (and hence anti-environment) party in power.

If we had been at this point on the decarbonization curve ten years ago, I’d be an optimist. As it stands, I’m a catastrophe-isn’t-inevitable-ist.

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F. Foundling 05.06.17 at 12:05 am

@OP

>Walkaway’s zottas, with their bullshit philosophy of merit finding its natural level…

>Perhaps it’s no accident that while Walkaway’s protagonists have frequent, explosive, consensual, thoroughly satisfying and largely un-binaried sex, the brogrammers of the People’s Republic of Meritopia never quite manage to get their ends away.

I have just had a revelation. It is not really true, as I previously thought, that a person’s success in accumulating money and power is directly proportional to, resulting from and indicative of their merit as a human being. Instead, I now realise that a person’s success *in sex* and the quality of their *sex life* is directly proportional to, resulting from and indicative of their merit as a human being. The way God marks his elect is not by granting them money and power, but by giving them great orgasms. Or, perhaps, happiness in general. Good people are happy, and happy people are good.

It’s interesting to observe the amusing forms in which some aspects of Calvinism seem to survive and dominate on both sides of the culture wars in America and its cultural colonies.

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Raven 05.06.17 at 7:45 am

Answering #18 and #19, with a nod to #23: I do think of Timothy McVeigh as “radicalized” in a sense — except not as a “radical” in the sense that “radical” is an extreme leftward of “liberal”, rather as its counterpart “reactionary” which is the extreme rightward of “conservative”… the confusion is, alas, I think there is no corresponding verb “reactionarized”, so the term “radicalized” must serve for both.
___________

@32 : “Good people are happy, and happy people are good.” — D👶🏼n💩ld J. T🐛👾🐍p, due to his success in accumulating money and power, and no doubt access to Viagra, has boasted of having a great sex life, to the extent that avoiding STDs was “his personal Vietnam”, and his ‘pussy-grabbing’ boast (less than a year after he’d married his third wife and while she was carrying his fifth acknowledged child) was caught on tape at age 59. Happy happy, joy joy. And all the people he stiffed of the money he owed them, financially ruined thereby, will you conversely tell me that just shows “Bad people are unhappy, and unhappy people are bad”?

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Matt 05.07.17 at 4:17 am

Walkaway’s radicals seem implausibly passive. That’s probably my second biggest problem with the novel.

The walkaways’ enemies are playing by gritty cyberpunk villain rules. The walkaways themselves appear to be playing by cartoons-for-children rules, where the heroes can blow up as much stuff as they like but never kill another human being. Even if that other human being is an omnicidal maniac with a graduate degree in Doomsday Deviceology.

It’s explicitly established in-text that the walkaways can produce mechas, guided missiles, combat lasers, and weaponized software. By inference from what’s observed, they can probably produce any 20th century weapon save perhaps nuclear arms. It’s also established that their zotta enemies are ruthless but not particularly diligent; zottas will murder, torture, kidnap, and bombard, but not sustain a campaign that would actually eliminate the walkaways or their technology. It’s nice and not too credulity-straining to believe that walkaways would keep walking away when someone shows up just looking to claim replaceable material stuff, like the original Belt and Braces. It’s not so believable that the walkaways maintain a unified front of Quakers-on-quaaludes willing martyrdom while the zottas are killing their friends, lovers, and children. (There are a lot of people who die without being backed up, even if you consider backups “real” immortality.)

It appears that the walkaways have the industrial base and technology to win a head-to-head fight with the Wehrmacht of 1943, if they’d actually try. (And the industrial base and technology to ensure, at least, mutual assured destruction if the zottas really want open civil war.) Letting the Wehrmacht or the zottas’ henchmen keep shooting you until shaming prompts them to switch sides is neither plausible nor narratively satisfying. It only reads as absurd humor. I’m again reminded of Futurama.

Zapp Brannigan: “You see, killbots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them until they reached their limit and shut down. Kif, show them the medal I won.”

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