The centenary of an idiocy

One hundred years ago today the New York Times published an editorial mocking American rocket pioneer, John Goddard. With a cheap ad hominem attack, they feigned incredulity that the Smithsonian would support Goddard’s research:

If they had called Einstein, he could have explained to them that F=ma.

The mockery continued and stretched to include Jules Verne:

All this strikes me as worth remembering because last year, on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the Times produced similarly dismal coverage of that sublime mission. They took one of our greatest accomplishments and portrayed it as a vast moral failing. It was like something out of Nietzsche’s Genealogy; in its way, it was a masterful inversion of values. Competency became bigotry, purpose became bias, accomplishment became failure. It is hopeful and healthy to remind ourselves that some day it will be obvious that this perspective was all oikophobia, or at best, ressentiment.

Captain Fantastic, Captain Improbable


Captain Fantastic is the finest Hollywood film I have seen in a very long time.  One can dream of an alternative to neoliberalism, but we all know how very hard it would be to create and sustain a personal alternative.  The protagonist of the film, Ben, tries to foster a better form of life for his family, and he finds this is crushingly difficult.  But, more importantly, the film often turns the camera from Ben’s family and points it straight at us, and we recognize ourselves and loathe what we see there.

Anthropology is the study of the death of expression of the human logos:  generations of people like Boaz and Benedict and Kroeber watched and recorded as languages perished and ways of life withered into a sameness — the victory of a single, omnipotent Das Man.

Art — and perhaps most of all, science fiction — is a kind of inverted anthropology.  Works like The Dispossessed or Ecotopia or Green Mars try to imagine a future that is not the total victory of the One Advertised Existence.  There is little left but art to tell us that another world is possible.

Why do we like The Lord of the Rings?

I am leading, with an old friend, a reading group of political science students.  The first book is The Fellowship of the Ring.  (Hearing this, a neighbor asked me, what can you possibly say?  But I spied he had two different copies of The Lord of the Rings on his bookshelves.)  There is much to say, of course, but one thing struck me first.  Many people love The Lord of the Rings.  The students know far more about it than I do.  But why?  What is the appeal here?  I believe that some part of the appeal lies in the fact that Tolkien vividly portrays a world without four kinds of alienation that plague us.


Economic.  There is no disconnection between those who produce and those who decide what to do with what they produce.  If you make beer in the Shires’ pub, you decide how it is distributed.  Industry where things are made but another decides how they are distributed is presented as something undertaken by the wicked.  But who would not prefer to be directly making and determining and distributing the products of their own labor?

Political.  The Shire has a Sheriff, who mostly rounds up lost sheep.  This is a world, as David Graeber has observed, without bureaucracy.  It is a world where no one is going to ask you to fill out twenty five forms in April to do you taxes.  There is no they, to tell you what to do.  Tolkien himself described this personal politics in a letter to his son, worth quoting at some length:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediævals were only too right in taking nolo efiscopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that – after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world – is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way. The quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes; but the abominable chemists and engineers have put such a power into Xerxes’ hands, and all ant-communities, that decent folk don’t seem to have a chance. We are all trying to do the Alexander-touch – and, as history teaches, that orientalized Alexander and all his generals. The poor boob fancied (or liked people to fancy) he was the son of Dionysus, and died of drink. The Greece that was worth saving from Persia perished anyway; and became a kind of Vichy-Hellas, or Fighting-Hellas (which did not fight), talking about Hellenic honour and culture and thriving on the sale of the early equivalent of dirty postcards. But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin’s bed-time stories about Democracy and the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’, may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.  (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkein, Humphrey Carpenter (ed.); 29 November 1943)

Historical.  History is for us a random collection of facts, of enormous complexity.  History in this world is personal.  It’s not enough that Sauron and Isildur existed–they also are personally involved now with Frodo.  The past is personal.  And this is reflected in the knowledge of the wise:  they know their history in song and poetry, not in lists of unbeautiful and disconnected facts.

Ecological.  Nature literally talks to us.  Those who destroy nature — who have, like Saruman, “gears in their head,” are the wicked.  To live in harmony with other living things is possible.

All this reminds me:  literature is dangerous.  It demands that we ask:  If we like this world so much, then why aren’t we trying to make our world more like it?


Anarchy versus apolicy

As I periodically do, I reread Ursala LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.  It’s the kind of book that is essential, that keeps one alive.

51oB3LJckjL._SX300_BO1,204,203,200_It is a mystery to me, however, that this book is not at this moment more widely read and discussed.  We live in a new Age of Anarchy–that is, in a time when very many people consider anarchism a viable and important political philosophy.  And, there is an anti-theoretical turn that many activists have so deep in their character that a disgust towards, say, Marxism is nearly spinal.  In such a time, one might expect the greatest science fiction novel of anarchism to have a renaissance.  Instead, our age remains the age of Katniss.

The disturbing thing about The Hunger Games, the thing which should most troubles us about this fantasy of children killing each other, is its deep and irrevocable anti-politicism.  Ethics asks, How should one live?  Or so Plato phrases the question (with that very ambiguity between one’s self and one’s group), and he rightly observes that no question could be more important.  But politics is just a version of that question.  Politics is that discipline that asks, How shall we live together?  And if there is no more important discipline than ethics, then there is no more important part of ethics than political philosophy.  Its answers are essential to human being and human flourishing.  We are social animals, without society we are nothing, and thus we cannot escape the responsibility to answer social questions, to solve social problems.  But Katniss is a child of Margaret Thatcher:  for her, society is a fiction.  There are only individuals–individuals who compete in an arena instead of in a market.

(Is it pedantic to state the hidden obvious?  Or is it a sign of despair that I might think it necessary?  In either case:  Such a view is explicitly contradictory, of course.  It is like saying, “There is no language” or “I don’t exist.”  It is contradictory for a person to sit in an interview, as Thatcher did, talking in a shared language, while obeying the implicit rules of the press, with the aim of influencing the reading audience, and say, “There is no such thing as society.”  Yes, yes, Thatcher went on to talk about the “living tapestry,” but of course that is what everyone means by “society.”  So at best it was a cheap trick:  to try to define “society” as meaning nothing more than the dole.  Such is neoliberalism:  it has so colonized our minds that we do not see its violent contradictions, or its cheap tricks of semantics.)


Look at these Hunger Games books.  Find me a single place where Katniss asks, what kind of society should we strive for?  It never happens.  She has only personal goals.  She wants to be left alone and to get the boy and protect her sister and so on.  (Of course, her readers want her to get more fame, though she pretends she doesn’t.  Fame is the only currency in this book.  Purpose and public discourse are replaced with anomistic fame.  Bizarrely, the whole civilization hangs on fame–whoever gets Katniss to endorse them wins the war, because here only fame sways the world.)  Katniss never asks,  What about everyone else?  How can we best live together?  What kind of society should we strive for?  Instead, the sole moment of political reflection is a statement of nihilistic complacency, coming near the end of the sprawling trilogy:

“If we win, who would be in charge of the government?” Gale asks.

“Everyone,” Plutarch tells him. “We’re going to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government. Don’t look so suspicious; it’s worked before.”

“In books,” Haymitch mutters.

“In history books,” says Plutarch. “And if our ancestors could do it, then we can, too.”

Frankly, our ancestors don’t seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the sate they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them. But this republic idea sounds like an improvement over our current government.

She and her peers are just more disillusioned and bitter American voters, using “politics” as a synonym for dishonesty and not realizing that they dis-empower themselves with this very act of semantic spite.

Shevek, the anarchist physicists who is the protagonist of The Dispossessed, would be disgusted.  He knows that society is as real as stars and planets.  He knows his responsibilities are as genuine a demand as the pull of gravity or magnetism.  He knows he must listen to and learn about those around him.  And he knows he must have well-considered values, before he can act responsibly.  For him, physics and political philosophy are inseparable:  they are both deep searches for genuine truths.

A few Sheveks would make the world of the Hunger Games impossible.  The Arena would be shut down.  The wealth would be shared among all.  Isn’t that far, far more impressive than being good at killing other children?

The Cixin Liu Game

It was an honor to vote for Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem for the Hugo.  I was pleased when it won.  Barring some fantastic additional book this year, I will nominate the sequel, The Dark Forest, for the first Hugo slot this year.  For his vision and his creativity, Cixin Liu can only be compared to Asimov.

51502L5+3mL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The book is exploding with interesting ideas, but one of the most interesting is a new answer to the Fermi Paradox.  Liu assumes that life and technological advancement are common in the universe, and that technologically advanced life tends to expand and use resources at an exponential rate, creating a scarcity of resources and the conditions for conflict.  From this, and some conditions that arise from interstellar distances, he derives a game where the equilibrium is to remain hidden, and attack those who are not hidden.  The reasoning appears valid.  Here I’ll reconstruct the game, in extensive form, as I understand it.

The first move is whether to announce yourself and your location to the universe.  The first player is an arbitrary technological civilization that has radio communication and other technologies.  If it doesn’t announce, no interaction occurs.  For utility values, I’ll use some arbitrary numbers that are meant to represent some divergence from the current situation, listed as (FIRST PLAYER, SECOND PLAYER), as is the norm.  So, if the first player doesn’t announce, nothing changes for that civilization, and nothing changes for our arbitrary second civilization.  Utility change is thus (0, 0):

Slide1But if civilization 1 does make a move to announce itself, an extreme game begins if any other civilization hears the message.  First, this civilization 2 must decide, should it announce itself to the civilization 1 or not?

Slide2Now consider the reply fork.  The civilizations are now in communication and are aware of each other.  If they cooperate with each other benevolently, then they might both be better off to some degree.  We don’t know how much this expected benefit is; call it +C.  However, if one or the other is malevolent, then that civilization can destroy the other civilization.  Here lies an important set of assumptions in Liu’s model:  technology grows quickly, and stars and planets and ships are fragile.  For these reason, he assumes, it is always possible to annihilate another civilization.  Being destroyed is the worst possible situation.  We represent it as -Max.  So civilization 1 must decide whether to cooperate or attack.

Slide3Civilization 2 must make a similar decision.

Slide4The results of one final set of pathways are complete.  If civilization 1 cooperates, it could earn some benefit.  But it also might just be vulnerable to total destruction.  Given interstellar distances, it will be hard to learn enough about the other civilization in order to determine, in the immediate period after first contact, whether they are malevolent.  And, no matter how small the odds that civilization 2 will attack, this would seem to be too terrible a possible cost.  The result would seem to be that the best move for civilization 1 is really to attack:

Slide5This ensures them that the status quo is maintained for civilization 1, although it earns the worst possible outcome for civilization 2.

Of course, civilization 2 can see all this.  So they will not, at the second move in the game, reply.  They will, instead, remain silent.  That would seem to be the end of the game, but Cixin Liu argues that it is not.  Instead, he assumes, civilizations tend to grow exponentially, spreading out.  That means that, from the perspective of civilization 2, the situation is one where they now know that after some delay of time (represented below with “…..“), they may be encountered by civilization 1, which will then have to play the same game again.  (I remove the moves in the game described above, to simplify the diagram.)

Slide6So civilization 2 reasons that eventually civilization 1 will find them, and will attack. This means that civilization 2 won’t wait.  Instead, the game is the following.

Slide7And thus civilization 2, unable to determine with certainty that civilization 1 is benevolent, and wanting to avoid even the possibility of the worst possible outcome, will attack.  In sum:  taking all this into account, as every civilization should, each civilization both remains silent and attacks those who identify themselves.

There are a lot of assumptions here that we can question.  For example, whether it really is so easy to destroy other worlds and civilizations.  And, Liu holds that interstellar distances eliminate chances for safe interaction.  A civilization is either at a valuable world or cannot communicate.  But perhaps one could get around this, by using some location as a neutral place to start communication.  And, there is a meta-game:  the universe is so dangerous as he describes it, that it might be safer to form large alliances than to wait to be found alone and thrust into the game as described above.  (Also, I’ve left out some important details–Liu is fascinated by the complexities of self-referential reasoning, of a kind that requires strange logics to study.)  But, even simplified, his argument is very provocative.  It suggests that the universe is a dark forest, full of hiding civilizations that will destroy any other civilization that makes itself known.  It’s an important achievement:  a new hypothesis in answer to Fermi’s paradox.

I hope his argument is unsound.  But, given the stakes, we should consider whether he might be on to something.




An update:  some scientists have proposed a method to hide Earth from detection via transition.  Shared fears?


Prometheus did not write apps. A reflection on Venkatesh Rao’s “Breaking Smart.”

“Breaking Smart” offers now the first “season” by Venkatesh Rao, former “philosopher in residence” at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz (How does someone get such a job?  Can I find a position like that on LinkedIn and do it part time?).  This “season” is self-described as philosophy.  It cites a lot of SF.  But what I find most interesting is where it fails.

It sets up a dichotomy between the Pastoralists and the Prometheans, as a framework for an optimistic futurism based on the claim by patron Marc Andreessen that “software is eating the world.” (Why would they think this claim is attractive?  Even to say, for example, “Justice is eating the world” makes justice sound sinister.  Is the goal to be a little scary?  To seem a tough realist?)

A hand up for humankind, before software eats the world….

We learn in this “season” that programmers and the businesses that work with them (e.g., VCs) are the Prometheans who bring us a bold new future in which everything is better.  The Pastoralists are the foot-draggers who are holding us back.  Prometheans love Uber.  Pastoralists want to protect taxis.

All this is rather strange from Rao, whose other bloggings are Nietzschean paens to “sociopaths” (his name for CEOs and others in pinnacle management) who create fictitious values in a meaningless world, to which the rest of us cling (we 99% are divided into either the “clueless” or “losers” — here even Nietzsche would cringe).  Is the Promethean a sociopath?  Is this whole first season of “Breaking Smart” all noble lies, meant to inspire us?  We’ll have to tune in next season to get the answer.

What strikes me as most interesting in this “season” is the gaping hole in the center of this panegyric to our Silicon Valley Titans.  The future of technology is unlimited.  All shall get better.  Uber shall turn out to be wonderful, software will feed everyone, creative destruction will prove creative.  Only, what about our social technologies — that is, what about our economy, our collective mores, our politics?  And what about the problems we face now:  inequality, surveillance, other abuses of technology?  Here the Promethean stuns us:

Broken though they might seem, the mechanisms we need for working through “inequality, surveillance and everything” are the generative, pluralist ones we have been refining over the last century: liberal democracy, innovation, entrepreneurship, functional markets and the most thoughtful and limited new institutions we can design.

This answer will strike many as deeply unsatisfactory and perhaps even callous. Yet, time and again, when the world has been faced with seemingly impossible problems, these mechanisms have delivered.

Beyond doing the utmost possible to shield those most exposed to, and least capable of enduring, the material pain of change, it is crucial to limit ourselves and avoid the temptation of reactionary paths suggested by utopian or dystopian visions, especially those that appear in futurist guises.

That last bit is just ad hominem. If “reactionary” means someone who opposes change and may even want to return to some (imagined) earlier state of affairs, then those with utopian dreams are not reactionaries.  To call them such is without content.  And as for “these mechanisms have delivered” — that’s true of the lowly taxis that the Promethean disparages.  That’s true of the horse and buggy, of the ox-drawn plow.  So this too is without content.

We have a blatant contradiction.  Machine and software technologies must be ever innovated.  Pastoralists are reactionaries to say that these machine and software technologies should be controlled or directed or regulated because of their danger.  But the Promethean tells us that social technologies are done, complete, as good as it gets; only dangerous utopians think that social technologies can be innovated.

The moment Rao turns his attention from promoting more code, to considering moral codes, his imagination not only fails — he becomes a reactionary (and here, by the definition with content:  he wants to protect the status quo, and even praises the glories of liberalism’s earlier accomplishments).  Fukuyama was right!  History has ended!  Neoliberalism is the (not perfect, but best and so final) solution to all social problems.

It is terrible, that we find it so easy to imagine more machine and software technologies but we find it nearly impossible to imagine a better social system.  This kind of lack of imagination can only be created by force.  That is, it must be continually reinforced.  Imagining a different social arrangement is as difficult for the contemporary citizen as, say, it was for a medieval European peasant to imagine a life without God.  The Church made civilized atheism inconceivable for the medieval peasant; our ideological engines make a better alternative to our current political economy inconceivable to us.

When Ursula LeGuin said we need SF writers to imagine new futures for us, I think she meant it as a plea.  She knows that SF is one of the few places where someone might imagine some alternative way of living.  Most SF is comfortably neoliberal or reactionary, of course.  But the goal is to imagine possible futures.  And so maybe someone dedicated to this goal will see a little over the walls of our mental prison.

But then again, what do I know?  I’m either a loser, or, at best, clueless.