The One-Body Problem

by John Holbo on May 3, 2017

From a Laurie Penny piece last month for The Baffler, “The Slow Confiscation of Everything: How To Think About Climate Apocalypse”: “As David Graeber notes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the ideal psychological culture for the current form of calamity capitalism is an apprehension of coming collapse mated bluntly with the possibility of individual escape.”

That’s a Cory Doctorow thought. More specifically, how can humanity defeat the distinctive sorts of bullshit moral self-delusion that are the bastard progeny of that blunt mating? Evil snowcrash of snowflakes, melting, each trying to be The One. Cory credits Graeber (among others) right there on his acknowledgement page. And I might add: Penny immediately mentions Annalee Newitz’ new book, Scatter, Adapt, And Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction – which bears an effusive Doctorow blurb: “… balanced on the knife-edge of disaster and delirious hope.”

Call it the one-body problem. I’ve only got the one, you see …

Meanwhile, what matters is: you know, humanity.

Walkaway balances on that knife-edge. In a sense, everyone we see in the novel is doing it. The walkaways are doing it. Some well, some less happily. The zottos are doing it, too—seceding from humanity, as some character puts it at some point. They are defecting from humanity, rationally, from within the prisoners’ dilemma calculus their prisonhouse of capital implies. Lifeboat rules! Disaster makes bastards of nearly all when even one—but not nearly all—can get away.

The only people not practicing ‘walkaway’, one way or another? The overwhelming majority of humans in the background, trying to stagger along in ‘default’. We hear a few stories. Poor old worn-out husk of the world. ‘Default’ is what everyone calls it. Is ‘default’ pronounced de-FAULT? (Like the world is walking away from its impossible debts whether it wants or not?) Or DE-fault. (Like the world is afraid to look at the possibility of walking away from its debts?)

OK, backing up: in the novel, the zottos are the rich Masters of the Universe—one percent of one percent of one percent—doing just what Marx would have predicted in late-late-late-stage capitalism; extracting ever more ruthlessly; hoping their bolt holes hold when the system inevitably slips another notch, becoming the next-lower new new thing, fresh hell-wise.

The walkaways are those who … let it go, striding forth in courageous semi-nakedness through a desert-zone of paradoxical plenty. Depopulated regions, poisoned towns, containing fallow cornucopias of makery. Factories with the lights turned out. Buried fabs; usable scrap; seed to make more; drones to seek and find. Walkaways pick through these pieces of might-have-been-better; eke out lives in which there is more companionship, honestly and satisfaction. There is enough out here, it seems, that turn-the-other-check—just walk away—is a viable life strategy. If some bastard jacks your stuff, you just wander out over the next hill …

The world-logic gets a bit hazy: exactly what stage of post-scarcity has humanity technically achieved, then perversely, legally, left to rot? (Doctorow is an author who likes to see his characters down and out in magic kingdoms. Is there really enough discarded fab magic out here in the desert for everyone?) Well, this much is clear: capitalist economic logic has caused real prospects for vastly improved prosperity for very many to be legally sidelined, since it’s unprofitable for the few. So, weirdly, it’s possible to sit illegally on the sidelines — in a nice, hot bath! — while capitalists circle each other round the draining profits. So long as you are willing to accept that the cops could bust you for terrorism for that bath at any moment.

Of course, then the action of the novel heats up. I’m not going to spoil the plot. I’m going to ask Cory a question.

Let’s consider a popular, fairly recent novel, Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. It’s going to be a Spielberg film soon and, let me say, it’s perfect Spielberg, feel-good material. So here’s my question: will Doctorow (and Wil Wheaton) play themselves in the film? Will they get bit parts? Because they are bit characters in the novel?

But that isn’t my actual question for Cory. OK, a bit more about Ready Player One, to build up to my actual question.

Ready Player One is great … but there’s kind of bullshit moral to the story, I’m very sorry to have to report. It’s the same world as Walkaway—to a first approximation. The one percent of one percent of one percent run it all, pretty much. And the rest of the wretched make do with Oasis, which is actually a pretty great online environment. There’s buried treasure out there, if you dig for it. And you can have friends and fun. So life isn’t so bad. Maybe. But it sucks that humanity has come to this, kind of walked away from reality to have just a bit of fun before the bitter end, whatever that turns out to be. The best real stuff seems past.

In the end, our hero, Wade—wins! Grabs the brass ring, tops the leaderboard, gets the girl, sees the villain dragged off for his crimes, and learns the value of reality. Namely: it’s real! (I’m sorry to spoiler it, but I did tell you it’s going to be a Spielberg film. Also, you probably knew reality was real already. (Or IS IT?))

The reason this is fun but bullshit is that it’s a lot easier to face reality when you are, as our hero suddenly is, a beloved multi-billionaire—who now literally, legally rules the internet: almost forgot to mention that—with a pretty girlfriend on his arm. When you are a nerd whose life is literally a nerd dream come true, it’s a little easier to walk away from your nerd dreams. Putting it another way, Ready Player One kind of succumbs to, by ultimately fulfilling in the most guiltless fashion, the guilty ‘get rich and bug out’ fantasy that is typical of our age of inequality and anxiety. (You just tack on ‘but I’ll be one of the good ones’. Or ‘my special skills make me deserving’. You plan to do a lot of charity work.)

This is too harsh. Ready Player One is one great novel! So cleverly constructed; so loving and appreciative of its pop culture source material; such fun; such good humor. My daughter loved it. (Ernest, you out there? love your work, man.) I harsh on Ready only by way of making vivid what I perceive must have been Cory’s compositional dilemma—a dilemma, anyway—when it came to writing Walkway. Namely, he didn’t want to write Ready Player One. (Which was written already, fine fine. But he didn’t want to write anything like that.) Nothing that ends on a self-deceptive moral bullshit note, even if it’s all just escapist fun. Nothing that blows sunshine and smoke up its own nerd ass, pardon my futurespeak.

If everyone wasn’t so damn ready to be Player One, maybe we could all play together happily.

But it’s hard to write a good sf adventure — you know, the kind of story nerds like to read — that refuses to be, you know, the kind of story nerds like to read.

And let’s face it, Cory: you end up giving the reader a sufficiency of zeps and mechs, other cool swag along the way. Friendly native tribespeople for our ragtag band or rebels to meet. A railgun, if I recall. Hot-nerd-on-hot-nerd sex. I’m not suggesting you should have ruthlessly not let the walkaways have fun, or bleeding-edge hi-tech gear. Just made them all diseased and hapless, eating dogfood from ancient convenience stores buried in the desert. I like zeppelins and railguns. I’m not saying that, instead of wise daughters telling their evil dads what’s-what, in satisfying speeches, you should have written some unrelentingly bleak sf adaptation of Nathanael West’s black comic masterpiece, A Cool Million, in which the hapless, clueless hero, instead of gradually falling to pieces (as in the original) gets finally, finely scattered into the datasphere, becoming … a cool multitude! Many immortal copies of himself! (Just a thought.)

No, you wanted to provide an at least semi-utopian vision of how we might get there, not a pure dystopian nightmare. And you wanted to tell it in a way that doesn’t feed into, fall into, certain unhealthy patterns of self-serving fantasy that seem especially hazardous in our political present. And that’s the point where I feel the genre zeppelin becomes a bit hard to steer; starts to creak and strain under an aesthetic tension—ascetic tension. You want to refuse bullshit for the sake of being clear-eyed. But in the end, it’s an sf adventure-thriller. That old romance of competence. Scrappy young rebels leveraging superior know-how to deliver the masses from the villains. Wise hackers, noble makers. The whole package. And that’s fine. That’s fun. But it’s, by nature, conventional wish-fulfillment, perilously close to the sorts of snowflakery you wanted to steer clear of.

Like the novel was trying to walk away from — itself — but, in the end, that wasn’t really a possible way to be without … ceasing to be? It is what it is?

Which I liked, by the by. The novel, I mean. Walkaway is a fun read. And it’s a bit rude for me to ask, but what the hell: the author is here and we’re having a chat. Cory, did you feel you were kind of struggling to shed the skin of the genre, as you wrote? Like you were trying to upload the consciousness of the sf thriller, while losing the body? If so, did you feel you kind of wrote yourself into corners sometimes? Maybe you found yourself kind of pumping the gas and hitting the brake at the same time? (We’re all friends here. Just curious. I’m interested in the difficulties with writing successful utopian fiction, against the grain of genre conventions. And if I’m totally wrong and writing it was a breeze, you can just say so!)

I’ll finish on a philosophical note, which will give me an occasion to praise one of the more successful elements of the novel. One of the most interesting political books I’ve read in the last year is Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels. Reading it gave me one of those ‘oh crap, you got me’ moments, when you realize a familiar argument or attitude—which you rightly regard with complete contempt—has yet wormed itself into your own thinking. In this case it was the notorious doctrine of ‘The Kings Two Bodies’—silliest argument ever. (Seriously, what a bad argument!)

The doctrine of “The King’s Two Bodies” (Kantorowicz 1957) provided useful leeway for understanding and accommodating the fact that mortal rulers were often manifestly less than divine in bearing and behavior. On this view, the king always intended to rule well and justly, but he was sometimes misled. As Edmund Morgan (1988, 30) described the situation in 17th-century England, “A host of ambitious schemers, according to the Commons’ view, continually caught the king’s natural ear and misinformed him in order to procure benefits to themselves. But the king in his body politic always wanted what was best for his subjects, all his subjects, and surely no subject could know better what that was than the combined representatives of all his subjects. ‘If anything fall out unhappily,’ said Sir Robert Phelips, ‘it is not King Charles that advised himself, but King Charles misadvised by others and misled by misordered counsel.’” In their time, these ideas were widely credited among thoughtful people and important scholars. But of course, genuine political progress depended on abandoning this entire way of thinking.

In our view, the ideal of popular sovereignty plays much the same role in contemporary democratic ideology that the divine right of kings played in the monarchical era. It is “a quasi-religious commitment,” in Stimson’s terms, a fiction providing legitimacy and stability to political systems whose actual workings are manifestly—and inevitably—rather less than divine. The fiction feels natural within the Enlightenment mind-set of rationality and human perfectibility. Thoughtful people and important scholars believe it. And its credibility is bolstered by the undeniable practical successes of many of the political systems that invoke it.

The fiction of popular sovereignty is so much the sturdier—and more useful to our own ambitious schemers and powerful interests who profit from its fallacies—for being notoriously hard to pin down. As Henry Maine (1885, 185) wrote long ago, “the devotee of Democracy is much in the same position as the Greeks with their oracles. All agreed that the voice of an oracle was the voice of a god; but everybody allowed that when he spoke he was not as intelligible as might be desired.” Thus, policies and practices that are unjust or simply unsuccessful can always be attributed to some mistranslation or temporary deflection of the people’s will, with “special interests” trotted out to play the role played by “ambitious schemers” in 17th-century England. We even have our own “two bodies” doctrine: when majorities go seriously astray, it is not the people that “advised themselves,” but rather the people misadvised by others and misled by misordered counsel. “The people are never corrupted,” said Rousseau, “but sometimes deceived.”

Now obviously there is a good ‘king’s two-body problem’ sf story to be written: some alt-history attempt to upload King Charles’ divine mind into perfect clockwork, the better to express the ethical truth of the Divine Right of Kings. (Can’t see how that could go wrong!) But, more to the present point, Walkaway has a Rousseau-ist strain, and I don’t think it’s exactly coincidental that the novel revolves around the moral aspiration to free people from bodies—all the people!—the better to allow them to think in a clear and correct way, which is presumed to be the way they actually think, if only capitalism hadn’t addled the expression of it. I’m not saying the novel is all naïve happy-crappy about this: rapture of the nerds! Now it will be fine, we’ve uploaded all our minds! Quite the contrary, some of the most interesting bits of the novel concern the hazards and imponderables of the obviously dicey upload operation. What if your self needs to be customized, reduced or redesigned to stay stable? What would that imply about your identity? What are the kids going to be like, if they are alright with being uploads? But I feel interesting exploration of these issues could have been even more interesting if some of the formal struggles mentioned above had somehow been independently resolved. I feel like we’re sort of pumping the Rousseau-ist gas, to achieve escape velocity from a lot of cynical bullshit, while simultaneously tapping brakes, regarding Rousseau-ist naivete. Maybe that’s just: life. No easy answers that are not intolerably naïve answers. Again, I’ll just ask Cory: did you struggle with this? Did you have the feeling: am I pushing down the gas and the brake at the same time, and is that the right way to write it? The way to do it?



arnold 05.04.17 at 12:35 am

Philosophizing-complaining can wastes one’s life …instead can we learn to see it (complaint) as energy for further cognition, further objective knowledge of oneself…
…Does our body provide for everything we need in life…


F. Foundling 05.05.17 at 4:36 am

In the end of the day, the argument for democracy and popular sovereignty is not that the people never makes mistakes or always chooses morally. First of all, democracy is a logical consequence of the principle that nobody has the right to make mistakes and to choose immorally on behalf of others *anymore than anyone else*. Nobody is anybody’s guardian. The default is thus to spread the right to make collective decisions evenly. Secondly, assuming that every citizen has the right to have their interests defended, democracy allows you to count on each voter’s at least *trying* to vote in their own self-interest, so that every citizen’s interests are reflected at least tentatively without any need to assume any particular morality or altruism on behalf of the voter. In contrast, in a ‘guardian’ system, you have to count on the guardian’s quite exemplary morality and altruism for the majority’s interests to be paid any heed at all. Democracy is thus a natural outcome of a sober and even cynical view of humanity, and *non-democracy* relies on a naively, nay absurdly idealistic view of *some* humans (the rulers).

To put part of this in another way – a king or some other kind of guardian can ruin the majority’s life out of stupidity or because he has been misadvised or misled, and the majority can also ruin its own life out of stupidity or because it has been misadvised or misled. However, in addition, a king or some other kind of guardian can also ruin the majority’s life more or less *on purpose*, or because he is mostly OK with that, since *it’s not his life*. It is highly unlikely that the majority will ruin its own life *on purpose*. Therefore, the ‘people’s being misled’ argument makes a lot more sense with respect to popular sovereignty than with respect to monarchy.

So, unless one is trying to prepare the ground for the establishment of a system of non-consensual tutelage, one has no other choice than to try to convince the majority of one’s fellow-citizens, and expressing doubt in their intellect, morality and ‘perfectibility’ is useless. But of course, whenever things don’t go one’s way in politics, one is tempted to demand to be made the majority’s guardian, look for ways to treat it as a mass of non-humans, or otherwise say ‘f**k those people’ (a quote that could serve as the summary of quite a few posts and comments here).


Matt 05.06.17 at 6:49 pm

As I commented on “The Rapture of The Pretty Hip People, Actually”, I have serious objections to the way mind uploading works with the rest of this novel. But after a night to sleep on it I think the mind uploading problems might resemble the problems with the rest of the novel.

One of the problems was visible before I even read the book, as commented on “No Exit?”: if there’s a movement to walk away from the artificial scarcity imposed by zottas and the intellectual property laws they bought from various legislatures, I’d expect it take off first at the economic periphery, in places like Brazil or Pakistan. Places whose local oligarchs don’t even have fortunes built on patents or copyrights like Canadian or American oligarchs. Places that have enough local military that even the richest zotta can’t get his hired goons to successfully invade, occupy, and re-impose his preferred IP regime. (If you’re thinking “the zottas will just get governments to do it with real armies,” please take a look at how fruitless and endless the attempted American control of Afghanistan has been, then try to imagine occupying Pakistan, with 6 times the population and nuclear weapons.) It doesn’t seem very plausible that a band of mostly-North Americans living in Canada are going to be near the cutting edge of a global walkway movement.

Another problem shows up near the end of the novel, just before the big showdown at the occupied prison. At that point it’s clearly established that whole brain emulations can run on hardware that’s portable by one human. Houses can have a friendly “house spirit” emulation overseeing everything. But construction mechas are controlled directly by humans and there’s some worry about letting children pilot them. Why aren’t the mechas inhabited by their own friendly spirits? Why is meat-body human labor a constraint on production any more, when whole brain emulations are easy to run and easy to duplicate? (No, I’m not talking about enslaving emulations; I’m talking about a chronic overachiever’s upload forking 1000 copies of herself and allowing each of them to do a few hours of work per day, just enough to scratch that must-work itch.)

The book favors “light adventure, no pre-requisite courses required” over “a what-if of Big Ideas” whenever the two modes come into conflict. Unfortunately, it also introduces a lot of Big Ideas that aren’t allowed to flower. The characters spend a lot of time infodumping about basic stuff (“meritocracy,” human competition and cooperation, IP laws, the madness of late capitalism). There’s much less visible consideration of the ongoing wonders that are going to make arguments over the nature of market competition look, in the fullness of time, as dusty and immaterial for a general audience as early modern period power struggles within the Catholic Church.

Kent Brockman: Though it was unusual to spend 28 minutes reporting on a doll, this reporter found it impossible to stop talking. It’s just really fascinating news, folks. Good night!

[Music starts playing and credits roll]
Oh, and the President was arrested for murder. More on that tomorrow night, or you can turn to another channel.

[Looks off to the side]
Oh. Do not turn to another channel.

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