I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

On science fiction and political economy

2015-07-28 by Nick S., tagged as artificial intelligence, prediction

Continuing the science fiction theme from my previous entry, I recalled an interview in which Iain Banks described "the Culture", the society in which most of his science fiction novels are set, as his utopia. One of the distinguishing features of the Culture is its population of artificial "Minds" that perform tasks from waiting on the biological citizens of the Culture, to commanding mammoth spaceships, to governing the whole society.

At first I wasn't convinced — I have no desire to add any extra arms, as does the protagonist of The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), for one — but, having considered some of the alternatives over my past few entries, I'm coming around to the idea. Banks' Minds are a pretty friendly, helpful and cooperative bunch, far from the totalitarian overlords featured in the Terminator movies and the incomprehensible tools of an in-the-know aristocracy imagined by Tyler Cowen and Frank Pasquale. The human(-like) characters don't need to work, but give purpose to their lives through elaborate hobbies like games of strategy (The Player of Games, 1988), absurd musical instruments (requiring those extra arms in The Hydrogen Sonata), and carrying out the alien missions that drive most of the novels' plots. (They also take plenty of time out from their hobbies for parties, sex and drugs.)

Of course Banks doesn't describe the economic or political mechanisms by which all this comes about. The same could be said of Star Trek, in which future humans are imagined to spend their time "improving themselves" rather than working for more material wealth.

Come to think of it, I can't recall science-fiction-inspired technology pundits like Project Hieroglyph or Brian David Johnson's "Science Fiction Prototyping" column in IEEE Computer saying much about economic or political mechanisms, either. Like most people, perhaps, they're primarily interested in how particular imagined technologies might impact society. This might be a fine thing to do, but the thoughts above lead me to wonder if the world could also use some "political economy fiction" exploring something broader than adventures with a particular technology or scientific theory.

Perhaps any such fiction is destined to sound like an old-fashioned utopia, and the term "utopia" has become something of an insult to describe a narrow idealistic vision that suits the interests of its proposers while ignoring the interests of everyone else and being generally impractical. My differences with those I describe as "techno-utopians" in particular were a large part of my motivation in beginning this blog. Still, in the essay that inspired Project Hieroglyph, Neal Stephenson laments what he perceives as a failure to pursue big technological ideas like space travel and robots. But if pursuing space travel and robots is interesting and important, why not our political and economic institutions as well?