Nudge Science Fiction I: Ken MacLeod’s “Intrusion”

by Henry on March 6, 2012

This is less a review of Ken MacLeod’s new novel, _Intrusion_ than a response to it. Ken is famous for having said that history is the trade secret of science fiction (also: for describing the Singularity as the “Rapture for nerds”) – but I can’t help wondering whether history is being overtaken by the cognitive and social sciences. Since Cosma Shalizi and I are both thinking and starting to write about some of the arguments that Ken takes on in his book, I’ll focus on drawing out the ideas. This is obviously dangerous if you do it naively – good novels of ideas play with their subject matter rather than expound it, and take care to leave a lot of space for ambiguity, counter-perspectives, the awkwardness of real human beings with human motivations and so on. And _Intrusion_ is a good novel of ideas. Even so, there may be value in drawing out the ideas that Ken is engaging with – I don’t think that the book mentions the names of Thaler and Sunstein once, but one significant skein of the book argues against them. NB that while I don’t _think_ that there are any major spoilers below the fold, some possible readers may reasonably want to preserve their reading experience from my conceptions and misconceptions of what the book is about. Certainly, people who have already read the book will get a lot more from this essay than people who haven’t. NB also that while I don’t know whether the book will have a US edition anytime soon, it can be ordered from the usual UK sources by US readers, who will also soon be treated to his robots-meet-Calvinism-and-contractarianism-and-the-illusion-of-free-will near future thriller, _The Night Sessions._

I’m not sure whether _Intrusion_ should be classified as standard science fiction, as dystopia (which is really a genre in itself) or as social satire. It has elements of all of these, but perhaps more of the second and the third (the most obviously ‘science-fictional’ element, which involves some handwaving about tachyons, seems to me to be less about internally consistent worldbuilding than about providing a convenient plot device). Certainly, it makes explicit reference to _1984_, and there are likely other references that I didn’t see. But what’s most interesting are not the similarities to _1984_, or _Brave New World_, but the contrasts. Both of these present worlds which are seamlessly oppressive, either because the oppressors are just _too fucking good_ at their jobs (1984) or because everybody, except for a few oddballs who can easily be separated from the main population, is content with the way things are (Brave New World). In _Intrusion_, the oppressive forces aren’t (despite the Foucauldian arguments of one academic character) particularly seamless. The system actually doesn’t work particularly well – hence the satire. In contrast to MacLeod’s deeply unfunny earlier novel, _The Execution Channel_, which depicts an even nastier War on Terror put in place by the Democrats after they won the 2000 election in an alternative world (people who think this impossible should really read the horrible speech that Eric Holder made yesterday), there’s a sly humor in the book’s depiction of a security state gone out of control.

The Britain that MacLeod depicts mixes Thaler/Sunstein’s libertarian paternalism with the Blairite Third Wayism of ASBOs and adds a dash of predictive algorithms. The main storyline concerns a woman who doesn’t want to have to take a pill that will correct any possible genetic defects in her foetus, but who also doesn’t want to have to justify her decision not to according to the standard social metrics (religious fanatics can opt out, on the rationale that it is too much trouble to force them to comply). She lives in a Britain in which women are monitored to ensure that they don’t go into risky environments (with smokers or asbestos; most women work at home because of liability issues). The line between law and expectation is a narrow one indeed – while her decision to refuse the pill isn’t precisely illegal, it’s discouraged in ways which generate immense social pressures to conform.

Libertarian paternalism hence reinforces, and is reinforced by, traditional state paternalism. Actual libertarian paternalists might object that this is unfair – after all they are not themselves arguing that people ought to be positively compelled to do this or that. But I think that MacLeod has the right of it here. Libertarian paternalism, if it is implemented, is likely both sometimes to foreshadow or underpin direct compulsion, and also to support various private forms of social pressure. When behaviors become established as the norm, they make other behaviors that seem deviant, or risky, more likely to be singled out e.g. by insurance companies as reflecting unsafe lifestyles. And the combination of habit and intolerant neighbors can be extraordinarily powerful forces for social compliance. It’s clear by the end of the book that people could get away with a lot more, if they only broke the habits of conformity. While the book has an obvious libertarian reading, it’s not an uncomplicated one. The state makes things substantially worse, but non-state forms of private coercion are nearly equally important.

The bit which made me happiest – because it is in near-entire harmony with Cosma’s and my own criticisms of libertarian paternalism – is the novel’s repeated suggestion that the problems of nudge politics have as much to do with information as coercion. In a key passage, libertarian paternalism is justified by a Labour MP as a half-arsed solution to the information problem.

bq. “the basic problem is very simple, really. The neoclassical … uh, the standard model of a truly free market assumes that everyone in the market has perfect information. They must know what choices they’re making, otherwise it isn’t a free and rational choice, right? … Now, _obviously_ … this doesn’t _actually_ obtain in the real world. Nobody has perfect information. In fact, even if we make it a bit more realistic, they don’t have all or even most of the _relevant_ information. So for the market to be really free, it has to work _as if_ everyone involved had perfect information, or at least as if they had all the relevant information. This is where the social side comes from – the state, of course along with civil society, the unions and campaigns and so on, steps in too allow people to make the choices _they would have made_ if they’d had that information’ Because these are the really free choices.

bq. “Not the ones they actually chose, then?”

bq. “Exactly” said Crow. “Because they’re not the choices they would have made if they’d known all the facts, which would have been the rational choices, so society helps them to make _those_ choices. And that’s your free and social market, right?”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work particularly well in practice. A combination of good intentions, not-at-all-good intentions, and emergent unplanned dynamics, creates a social order that is systematically unaccountable. Nobody is properly in charge – even the figure who is closest in the book to a Hidden Master, is obliged to apologize (whether sincerely or insincerely is left somewhat ambiguous) for the ways in which the system screws up. It also sows the seeds of the system’s own downfall. Some possibilities are unthinkable within the system, because they deviate too far from the social consensus that it relies on for legitimation. I strongly suspect MacLeod of taking the piss when he implicitly suggests that a particularly lunatic quack-science belief today will turn out to be true, and will shaft his would-be technocrats (and nearly everyone else along with them). And not only that – but the information that might stop this catastrophe or at least alleviate it, is there within the system – but the people who have it, at the end of the book, are disinclined to divulge it (not that they would be taken seriously even if they did).

As noted already, this is not a proper review. I’m not saying much about the book’s actual story or characters. You’ll need to buy the book, or read someone else’s synopsis, to get that. Instead, it’s a response to the book’s satirical take on political and social scientific arguments. If the book were a thesis rather than a novel, I’d be looking for some different things (more detail on the differences between the libertarian paternalist societies and the out-and-out libertarian societies that are their enemies; attention to the cognitive and epistemic benefits of democracy, or, at least, a counter-argument as to why democracy isn’t all that). But it is a _novel_ and a good one. Please read it, if only so that you can argue back at me, and tell me why my interpretation is flawed or wrong.

{ 13 comments }

1

Sandwichman 03.06.12 at 11:47 pm

singularity = rapture for nerds. Thank you for that!

2

Peter B. Reiner 03.07.12 at 4:00 am

It seems to me that when you characterize “a Britain in which women are monitored to ensure that they don’t go into risky environments” and a world in which the “main storyline concerns a woman who doesn’t want to have to take a pill that will correct any possible genetic defects in her foetus, but who also doesn’t want to have to justify her decision not to according to the standard social metrics (religious fanatics can opt out, on the rationale that it is too much trouble to force them to comply)”, you are nudging the libertarian paternalist agenda quite briskly into shove territory?

3

Henry 03.07.12 at 4:16 am

No – it isn’t _quite_ illegal – but she finds all sorts of forces (social workers, doctors who fear their insurance rates will go up for delivering an uncorrected child, parents at her school etc) pushing her in the same direction. But see more generally the bit in the post:

bq. Libertarian paternalism hence reinforces, and is reinforced by, traditional state paternalism. Actual libertarian paternalists might object that this is unfair – after all they are not themselves arguing that people ought to be positively compelled to do this or that. But I think that MacLeod has the right of it here. Libertarian paternalism, if it is implemented, is likely both sometimes to foreshadow or underpin direct compulsion, and also to support various private forms of social pressure. When behaviors become established as the norm, they make other behaviors that seem deviant, or risky, more likely to be singled out e.g. by insurance companies as reflecting unsafe lifestyles.

4

Peter B. Reiner 03.07.12 at 4:53 am

@ Henry 3. I do agree, and saw that point in the original post; I could have and should have acknowledged it. But tarring libertarian paternalism with societal norms’ baggage is just not fair. Societal norms are well-established ways of enforcing behaviour to follow a particular trajectory; in many ways, they are the glue that holds society together. Sometimes, norms represent behaviour that we don’t object to – I don’t mind wearing blue jeans, but surely the fact that so many people wear them establishes this fashion as one of the most widely established norms on the planet. Other norms might be onerous, and that is where societal norms become problematic – Hester Prynne paid a high price for violating a social norm that, thankfully, is no longer dominant in modern society (dittoheads notwithstanding).

There is an interesting place where libertarian paternalism and societal norms do intersect, and here I will argue your side for you. It turns out that a tent card placed in a hotel bathroom that says please place the towel on the rack to reuse it and help the environment is only modestly effective, while one that says “75 percent of the guests who stayed in this room had reused their towels” was much more effective.

But it is still nudging not shoving.

5

Chris Williams 03.07.12 at 8:21 am

Henry, are you going to consider Stross’s _Rule 34_ as another exploration of the ‘nudge’?

6

Henry 03.07.12 at 12:08 pm

Chris – yes – post coming up later today.

7

shah8 03.07.12 at 5:23 pm

Without being critical of the antipathy, I do want to be critical of specifically holding Sunstein and “Nudge” in contempt without more nuance.

I think it’s more important to think of things this way. Sunstein is more or less writing about things advertisers and conmen already know. You see it cheesy books about power and romance, like Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, or his similar book on courtship (and all the zillion variants of The Rules or How To Neg A Hot Girl). Sunstein thinks that the government, and the social sphere, should get in on the action in a more formal and broad sense.

I see people attacking this stuff in a very narrow sense that Sunstein’s wrong and Nudge is wrong, and I don’t see anything productive about that whatsoever. We need to be having the same discussion that Heartless Bitches are having, but about societal acceptance of the tactics, rather than specifically societal acceptance of manipulative dating tactics.

I do get the sense Macleod is having that broader perspective, but I’ve not read the book, and don’t intend to, given that as a general rule, I avoid dystopic novels. Too realistic. Which is true in this case as well.

8

Farah 03.08.12 at 6:19 am

Shah8: Intrusion isn’t a dystopia. It really isn’t. It’s a day to day story of ordinary folks living their lives in Islington.

9

Alex 03.08.12 at 9:38 am

The main storyline concerns a woman who doesn’t want to have to take a pill that will correct any possible genetic defects in her foetus, but who also doesn’t want to have to justify her decision not to according to the standard social metrics (religious fanatics can opt out, on the rationale that it is too much trouble to force them to comply).

This sounds interestingly 40s/50s existentialist. The point isn’t just to opt out, but to avoid having to justify yourself in an internally inauthentic manner…

10

Pelle G. Hansen 03.08.12 at 6:16 pm

I completely agree with comment #8 – contempt is the easy road, and given the complexity of the nudge doctrine (which few people notice) a much more nuanced view is needed (why I, of course, suggest taking a look at http://www.inudgeyou.com).

11

eddie 03.09.12 at 2:24 am

From a European Commission report linked to in Pelle’s post above:

“Discussed and defined in this paper is the malignant spread of environmentally induced human underperformance and the emerging data intensive and crowd sourced science of reachability management, which holds the promise of robust prediction and prevention.”

And that’s the least pomo paragraph in the Executive Summary I’ve read so-far. Makes me want to eat more chips, really.

12

soru 03.10.12 at 3:04 am

Obviously I stand at risk of contradiction by the author, but not sure I would agree that the book can be easily read as any kind of critique of libertarian paternalism.

War of Torture aside, most of the noticeable features of its future UK are the kind of thing libertarians call ‘authoritarianism’, I’d call something like ‘liberal technocratic legalism’, and most everyone else calls ‘politics’. Fishing, live music, public smoking. etc. are all flat-out banned, with laws passed against them proving a vote winner, and fines, prison sentences (or, in the book, worse) pretty efficiently applied to those who break them. All of those things are, not by coincidence, exaggerations of real or proposed laws (e.g. http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/scotland/april-fool-comes-early-the-day-the-licensing-law-debate-tipped-over-into-absurdity-1-2156094).

The starting gun of the plot is not the decision to develop a single, comprehensive and apparently safe ‘Fix’, as opposed to a range of competing branded and marketed fixes with varying impact and risks. It’s the decision to explicitly make rejecting the Fix illegal, absent the kind of excuse that would be accepted for refusing conscription or blood transfusion.

That’s the equivalent not of setting up the NHS or even NICE, but of outlawing BUPA and Harley Street. And that in a society that structurally leans on torture to a greater degree than, say, Assad’s Syria.

13

Ken MacLeod 03.10.12 at 8:33 am

soru #12 – you’re at no risk of contradiction from me on these points.

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