Art and Literature

Gamer’s Revanche

September 3rd, 2014  |  Published in Art and Literature, Feminism, Games, Political Economy, Politics

There was a time when I might have called myself a “gamer.” That is, I’m someone who plays and thinks about video games, and views them as a rich cultural form full of potential, both as art and as sport.

Now, however, even people who usually ignore games have been introduced to the figure of the “gamer,” and he is something entirely different. The gamer is threatened by women who share his tastes, and calls them “fake geek girls”. The gamer reacts to Anita Sarkeesian’s criticism of sexist tropes in video games with a bombardment of violent threats against her and her family. The gamer attacks feminist game creator Zoe Quinn with misogynist abuse and baseless allegations of corruption in reaction to a nasty blog post by a bitter ex-boyfriend.

It is not news that video games are often hostile to women, both as an industry and as a fan culture. Nor is it new that there are excellent feminist critics pointing this out within the games press, like Leigh Alexander and Samantha Allen. But the latest debates over misogyny and games have boiled over with new intensity in discussions among game consumers and creators, and have also reached beyond these circles. The New Inquiry has rounded up a collection of links for those who need to get up to date.

Evidently not everyone with a deep interest in games is a bitter, reactionary young man who reacts with violent misogyny to even the hint of social justice. But that faction of “gamers” has demonstrated its outsize ability to police the boundaries of debate and to drive out consumers, creators, and critics who challenge them, with the consent of a silent majority. What, politically, does this specific right-wing demographic represent?

The culture of video games has long been a fairly insular one—as has, to a greater or lesser extent, the wider “geek culture” in which it has been embedded, encompassing phenomena like Dungeons and Dragons, science fiction and fantasy novels and movies, and comic books. All of these forms have long histories of politically subversive, socialist, and feminist experimentation. But in their best-funded and most widely consumed commercial forms, they have especially catered to certain kinds of socially awkward boys and men, providing them with alternatives to dominant standards of masculinity.

At the same time, however, they cultivated an alternative misogyny, based on resentment of other men and a desire to usurp their patriarchal dominance, rather than overturn patriarchy entirely. Hence the geek culture is a breeding ground for Nice Guys who see themselves as persecuted outcasts but are unable to get over their desire to control women.

It’s impossible to dispute anymore that gaming is a completely mainstream mass-culture phenomenon in purely economic terms: consumer spending on games now rivals or exceeds spending on music and movies. And yet these gamers cling to an identity as marginalized underdogs, even as they defend the game industry’s existing practices of sexism, racism, and class exploitation.

Part of this has to do with the lag between economic and cultural acceptance. Games may be mainstream as an industry, but they have not yet achieved cultural parity with other media and other art forms. So we still get great film critics writing bumbling rants about why video games can’t be art, and the New York Times expressing wonderment at the notion that competitive sports can be mediated by computers.

This is not unusual for any young medium; cinema and television faced similar lags. Eventually, people who grew up with games will be in positions of cultural authority, and the idea of games as an inferior or ephemeral medium will disappear.

The assimilation of games into the larger culture poses a problem for a reactionary segment of gamers, however. It means engaging with a society that, while it is still capitalist and patriarchal, still suffused with racism, has also been challenged for decades by those it has traditionally marginalized. Wider engagement inevitably changes the parameters of geek culture, as new voices and new ideas are incorporated. Some gamers would like it both ways: they want everyone to take their medium seriously, but they don’t want anyone to challenge their political assumptions or call into question the way games treat people who don’t look and think like them. They hate and fear a world where games are truly made by and for everyone; where women make up a majority of the gaming audience; where a trans woman dominates one of the world’s great eSports.

It’s important to call these people what they are: not just anti-social jerks and not only misogynists, but as Liz Ryerson says, overall the right wing of people involved in games. No surprise, then, that they resemble conservatives who resentfully bemoan the liberal bias of Hollywood or the condescension of elite college professors. This isn’t a problem with gamer culture. It’s a problem with our entire culture, and specifically with the attitudes and behavior of a rightist, predominantly white and male section of that culture.

Right wing gamers project an overweening sense of superiority and entitlement, while at the same time constructing an identity based on marginality and victimization. In this, though, they aren’t really that different from many revanchist movements in capitalist societies. They’re much like the Tea Party right, which laments the disappearance of the America it recognizes—that is, the America where straight white men are systematically advantaged. This is a basic element of the reactionary mind: a fundamental opposition to equality as such. So it is with gamers for whom, as Tim Colwill puts it, “the worst possible thing that can happen here is equality.” This group of angry gamers no longer “recognizes their country,” as it were, what with all these women and queers and leftists running around.

This is why it’s wrong to suggest, as Ian Williams does, that gamer culture’s fatal flaw is to be “tainted, root and branch, by its embrace of consumption as a way of life.” The idea that communities organized around shared cultural consumption are inherently reactionary is so broad as to be vacuous, and it could apply equally to movie buffs, sports fans, or Marxist theory aficionados. It’s possible for any politics, left or right, to devolve into mere consumption choices. But that is not the problem currently on display among gamers. Indeed, the danger arises from their choice not to just passively consume, and to lash out in defense of what they believe “true” gamer culture should be.

The attacks on people like Anita Sarkeesian should be understood as collective political acts, and the reactionaries who carry them out should be understood as ideological representatives of a specific political tendency among those who create and play games, rather than waved off with moralizing Adbusters-ish rhetoric as a bunch of consumer dupes. What threatens these gamers is the notion that gaming does not exist only to reassure their misogynist preconceptions, and that they may have those premises challenged. For not only is the culture of games broadening, but even the big-budget commercial segment that most caters to the backward fantasies of these young men is contracting relative to other parts of the industry, like indie, mobile, and web games.

As Leigh Alexander points out in her more sophisticated deconstruction of the “gamer” identity, “It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share.” Change the words “consumer demographic” to “beneficiaries of the welfare state,” and you could be talking about Tea Partiers defending their Medicare while denouncing welfare queens.

So this is not just a story about gamers. And within the boundaries of the games world, it is also not merely a story about a “toxic culture” among game fans, but rather about an industry that is structurally and systematically reactionary, and cultivates the same values among a segment of its consumers. It’s not just 4chan mobs terrorizing writers and game designers, it’s a games business that pushes out workers who don’t fit its political assumptions and demographic stereotypes, by way of the same sexist practices that pervade the tech industry generally.

Famous game designers and studio owners won’t openly endorse the threats and terror of anonymous trolls, but those trolls are the shock troops that help keep the existing elite in power. The respectable men in suits will continue to hire the same boy’s club while making excuses for why women just don’t fit in as programmers or game designers or journalists. But the fascistic street-fighting tactics of the troll brigade work in the service of keeping everything in the industry the way it is.

Not only is it a useful tool for shutting down dissenting voices, the existence of these angry-nerd movements among fans and consumers does what fascistic movements always do: divide the working class by getting some of them to identity with the boss, which in this case serves to shore up the hyper-exploitative industry that Ian Williams has elsewhere described. The existence of a vociferously hostile vigilante squad shutting down dissenting speech makes it easier for studio heads to hire nothing but the same white men and then work them to death, for forum administrators to claim free speech and shrug at the hatred spewed on their pages, and for the industry to claim that they’re only satisfying “the audience” when they reproduce the same narrow and bigoted tropes year after year. Meanwhile the “good” geeks get distracted from the main event as they tussle with the trolls, like SHARPs and Nazi skinheads brawling at a basement show.

Which isn’t to say that death threats are a great look for the suits at the top of the game industry hierarchy. The trolls may sometimes get out of control, just as the Republican establishment sometimes loses control of the Tea Party, or the industrial capitalists sometimes lose control of the Nazi brownshirts. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of one dialectically inter-related political project. The Cossacks work for the Czar. The street fighters are there to police the boundaries of discourse, to forcibly drive out anyone who challenges the existing hierarchy—women, people of color, LGBT people, even the odd white man deemed to be too sympathetic to the women and the commies.

Gaming doesn’t have a problem; capitalism has a problem. Rather than seeing them simply as immoral assholes or deluded consumerists, we should take gaming’s advanced wing of hateful trolls seriously as representatives of the reactionary shock troops that will have to be defeated in order to build a more egalitarian society in the games industry or anywhere else.

Smash the Engine

July 3rd, 2014  |  Published in Art and Literature, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer has been praised for its action-movie spectacle and its message of class struggle. It exceeds expectations on both counts. Amid tightly-paced sequences that eschew standard-issue Hollywood pyrotechnics, it evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.

This is a science-fiction adventure set entirely on a train. Or rather, the train, which forever zooms around the planet carrying the last remnants of humanity because the outside world has been rendered uninhabitable. The class hierarchy within the train is expressed physically: the closer you are to the front of the train, the more opulent and leisurely your existence.

The script, written by Bong and Kelly Masterson, takes the central conceit of the train from a decades-old French graphic novel of the same name, though the plots of the two stories are quite different.

Most of the movie’s story focuses on the figures of Curtis and his mentor Gilliam (wonderfully portrayed by John Hurt). They lead a proletarian revolution, touched off by a police raid that seizes several working-class children and takes them away for reasons unknown. They are fighting to make it to the front car and confront the mysterious Wilford, who controls the train and whose corporate emblems appear throughout it.

Curtis makes the stakes plain in an early conversation with Gilliam. “If we control the engine, we control the world,” he says. “Without that, we have nothing. All past revolutions have failed because they couldn’t take the engine.” Not exactly subtle.

As they struggle forward, the revolutionaries confront various representatives of the existing order. Tilda Swinton gives a gleefully wicked portrayal of the sorts of imperious and yet timid figures who serve the ruling class without quite being a part of it. Alison Pill, best known as the sullen indie-rock drummer in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, appears as a prim schoolteacher cheerfully indoctrinating the young ruling class in the ways of self-assured domination and patrician condescension.

Along the way, the band of rebels also breaks out a prisoner named Namgoong Minsu, who once designed the locks dividing the train cars. He and his daughter grudgingly agree to join the revolutionary forces as they continue inexorably toward the front.

It adds up to an exciting and well-constructed action movie, with more interesting characters and more legible cinematography than the chaotic visual gibberish of CGI and explosions that comprise most contemporary American blockbusters. Bong does great things with the cramped and linear environment of the train, from the grim fight scenes in the back to the surreal opulence of the front cars.

And while the excessive length of big Hollywood movies is another of their consistently irritating qualities, I only occasionally found this movie’s two hours overlong. I certainly trust Bong to make editing choices over Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to cut twenty minutes out of the film and add superfluous voiceovers. As it is, Snowpiercer is an enjoyable spectacle whether you care about its political message or not.

But this is also a story with genuinely subversive and radical themes. If Snowpiercer had merely told the tale of an oppressed working class rising up to seize power from an evil overlord, it would already have been an improvement over most of the political messages in mainstream cinema. There are all sorts of nice touches in its portrayal of a declining capitalism that can maintain its ideological legitimacy even when it literally has no more bullets in its guns.

But the story Bong tells goes beyond that. It’s about the limitations of a revolution which merely takes over the existing social machinery rather than attempting to transcend it. And it’s all the more effective because the heart of that critique comes as a late surprise, from a character we might not expect.

The allegory is perhaps too general to root in any specific theory. But it evokes a tradition of critiques that grappled with the limitations of both reformist social democracy and Soviet Communism, which attempted to seize power and to ameliorate exploitation without really challenging capitalist labor as a system of alienation and domination.

This has taken forms ranging from Moishe Postone’s Frankfurt School-derived critique Time, Labor and Social Domination, to Jacque Camatte’s journey from left communism to primitivism, to Kathi Weeks’ post-work leftism, to Paolo Virno’s adoption of the biblical language of Exodus in his call for a collective “defection from the state bond, from certain forms of waged work, from consumerism.”

It’s impossible to say how fully this is intended, and whether Bong is familiar with any of the work in this tradition. But while the theoretical wellsprings may be ambiguous, Bong’s leftist commitments are not. He has talked about his past as a student activist and affirmed his membership in South Korea’s socialist New Progressive Party, albeit with the petit-bourgeois reservation that “whatever the party or organization, it isn’t possible to exceed the power of one passionate individual.”

The science fiction website io9 conducted a revealing interview with Bong in which he clarifies his political intentions with Snowpiercer. He says that “the science fiction genre lends itself perfectly to questions about class struggle, and different types of revolution.” And what his latest production has to say about class struggle and revolution is complex and powerful, far more so than you’ll get from most ostensibly left-wing filmmakers — or many Marxist theoreticians, for that matter.

The film will inevitably be read as a fable of ecological catastrophe as well, with the inhospitable cold of the world outside the train arising as an unintended consequence of attempts to reverse global warming. But this is something of a red herring (or a green herring, as it were). The cold, brought about by a mysterious substance perhaps inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s “ice-nine,” has no real narrative purpose other than to restrict the remains of humanity, and the film’s story, to the interior of the train.

In his io9 interview, Bong makes explicit that “it’s not humans per se, but capitalism that’s destroying the environment.” And clearly it’s capitalism that’s at the heart of his allegory. Or, to be a bit more precise, an industrial logic that has defined the history of capitalism, but that was taken up by many of the anti-capitalist state-building projects of the twentieth century.

The train symbolizes that system, which subordinates everyone to logics of domination through labor while convincing them that no other world is possible — that only death awaits them outside the machine.

If Curtis’ journey represents a revolutionary class struggle, his final encounter with train-leader Wilford expresses the limitations of the main twentieth-century revolutionary projects. For it turns out that he is only capable of perpetuating the train’s oppressive logic, albeit perhaps with a new figurehead in charge. Wilford even suggests that the whole “revolution” was a charade he concocted — if not in collusion with Gilliam, than at least with his service as a useful idiot.

Were that the endpoint, we’d be left with a nihilistic trope familiar from anti-revolutionary liberalism: Meet the new boss, same as the old. For something more radical, we have to look elsewhere: to Nam, the former system insider turned renegade.

The narrative hides Nam’s significance for most of its length. It seems not coincidental, in his first movie for English-speaking audiences, that Bong makes this character one of the only prominent non-Westerners in the movie. He is played by Song Kang Ho, a regular in Bong’s Korean work, and speaks no English lines.

The Curtis character, meanwhile, misdirects the audience into seeing him as the film’s protagonist, right until he meets his pathetic dead end. He is played by Chris Evans, who is not just a handsome young slice of white beefcake, but literally Captain America.

Yet it’s the surly Korean who turns out to be the real hero. At a climactic moment, he tries to warn Curtis away from a confrontation with Wilford that will prove disastrous. Instead, he suggests that the whole premise of the train is a lie — that the conditions have ripened to make life outside the train finally possible. He offers, to put it in Marx’s words, the possibility of a realm of freedom beyond the train’s implacable world of necessity.

Once again, Bong’s sympathies seem unmistakable. In the io9 interview, he asks whether it is “more revolutionary to want to take control of the society that’s oppressed you, or to try and escape from that system altogether?” Of Nam, he says only that his ideas of class struggle are “above” anything Curtis can conceive.

Making a break for freedom brings with it great risks, of course, and Snowpiercer doesn’t shy from this, either. The political scientist Adam Przeworski once proposed that the transition out of capitalism might inevitably entail an intermediate period of great hardship: “To reach higher peaks one must traverse a valley.”

And one can’t know for sure that the higher peaks will ever be attained; catastrophe is also a possibility, the common ruin of the contending classes. The conclusion of Snowpiercer resembles such an apocalypse, albeit with some hope for the future. But even then, it’s not clear whether this was the only possibility, or whether the catastrophe was only a result of Curtis and his comrades’ inability to see where the real revolutionary road lay.

All too often, explicitly political art fails as both art and politics. Socialists shouldn’t put up with half-assed imitations of popular genres, nor with political messages denuded of anything but the lowest common denominator.

What makes Snowpiercer satisfying is that it commits neither error. It’s an engrossing and stylish movie, and its underlying themes go beyond merely pointing out class exploitation to challenge the logic of capital. It’s a movie that should be seen as widely as possible, if only so that Bong Joon-ho gets more chances to make movies for English-speaking audiences that badly need them.

If you’re not dying, you’re not learning

August 18th, 2011  |  Published in Games

I’ve been making an effort to read and engage more with blogs written by women, because the recent online conversations I’ve been involved with have been oppressively dude-heavy. I’ve also been meaning to write about gaming, because I think people who love games and take them seriously should be out of the closet about it, and not give in to the stigma that still tends to relegate games to a status below that of other art forms. Fortuitously, I spotted an opportunity to hit both targets at once.

Alyssa Rosenberg is writing about her experience playing Portal. It’s a wonderful game, which I may have more to say about later, but what caught my eye was something more general about games. Rosenberg says that one thing holding her back in that game, and in games in general, is a discomfort with dying:

I’ve figured out one of the things that kept me from playing games regularly for a long time: I find dying in-game incredibly stressful.

And,

I’m surprised that there isn’t more conversation about what dying in game makes us feel about our own deaths.

I completely agree that constant player death is both a central feature of video games, and one that gets insufficient discussion. But either Rosenberg just reacts to games differently than I do, or else she has yet to get past something that I eventually dealt with when I was getting back into video games. Because while I understand the first sentiment I quoted, I think that the second is really pointing in the wrong direction in terms of helping us (or at least me) understand the meaning of video game death.

I got back into games a couple of years ago, after hardly playing them at all since the 16-bit era. And I initially struggled with in-game death as well, but I would characterize the issue a bit differently. As strange as this seems, I don’t view video game death as a signifier for real world death at all; rather, death in games is a metaphor for failure in life. After all, death in games is unlike real world death in the only way that really matters: after you die, you get to go back and try again.

This argument sort of relates to a long-running debate in games criticism between so-called “narratologists”, who treat games as vehicles for story and character and hence tend to take the story elements of the game more literally, and “ludologists” who view games chiefly as formal systems and ludic experiences (see for instance this this debate between Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari). But I think it cuts across it in some ways.

I really came to terms with the nature of in-game death when I was playing through the Mass Effect games, which are some of my favorites of recent years. Being bad at games and out of practice, I wasn’t very good at the action portions of the games. And yet I didn’t want to turn down the difficulty to “easy” just to get through the story–that felt wrong, unsatisfying, and cheap. I wanted to beat the game on one of the higher difficulties, in order to feel like I had really mastered it, and really overcome a challenge.

But doing that meant dying. A lot. And I eventually realized that what I disliked about that wasn’t that dying somehow reminded me of my own mortality, but that it dredged up my fear of failure. It was as though the game was constantly reminding me how inept I was, how far my abilities fell short of my ambitions. And so the only way to get myself through the experience, and to accept repeatedly dying, was to recontextualize what failure meant. Dying no longer meant that I was bad at the game (although, proximately, it did mean that). Instead, dying meant that I had the game on a high enough difficulty level. Dying was proof that I was challenging myself, putting myself in situations where I would be forced to get better, forced to learn new ways of getting through each level.

In that way, I came to see dying as a positive sign over the course of those Mass Effect play-throughs. In fact, if I went too long without dying, I would take this as a sign that I needed to turn the difficulty slider up to the next level. I even coined a motto that I’d repeat to myself, in order to ward off complacency: If you’re not dying, you’re not learning. And if playing games has any positive value for the rest of my life, it’s summed up in that slogan. One thing that I think has tended to hold me back in a lot of areas–and I think this is true for a lot of people who are used to being successful and precocious–is a fear of trying something and failing, and thereby being exposed somehow as an incompetent or a fraud. Games helped me get a little bit better at accepting failure as a natural part of the learning process, a way of figuring out what you need to do to be successful in the future.

That’s an important thing to internalize, whether you apply it to submitting papers to journals, applying for jobs, asking people out on dates, or suggesting guitar parts to your band. Which isn’t to say that games have to be “moral vitamins” in order to be artistically legitimate, just that in this particular case they did sort of work that way for me.

Now I just need Horning to tell me how I’m actually brainwashing myself into neoliberal subjectivity…

The London Riots: A Musical Debate

August 8th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Politics

Image via Jodi Dean:

Point: Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys

“Riot-playing into their hands \ Tomorrow you’re homeless \ Tonight it’s a blast.”

Lyrics.

Counterpoint: Boots Riley, The Coup

“That’s not chaos, that’s progress.”

Lyrics.

Eight Hours For What They Will

May 30th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Time, Work

The other day I re-watched John Carpenter’s They Live–which, for the record, is a pretty good satire of Reagan-era America, and deserves to be remembered for more than just that stupid Shepard Fairey sticker campaign. While watching, I noticed something pretty great that I missed the first time through. It shows up after the main character puts on magic sunglasses, which allow him to see that the billboards around him actually contain secret brainwashing messages. Most of these just say things like “consume” and “obey”. But check out the sign in the upper left corner of this picture:

That command, of course, is a riff on an old slogan of the 19th century labor movement, which demanded the eight-hour day using signs like this one:

As David Roediger and Philip Foner remark in their great history of American labor and the working day:

[T]he cry “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation,” acted as more than a common denominator. It embodied . . . the highest aspirations of the working population. It expressed cherised values. . . . In making the eight-hour system the key to equal education for children, to the continued mental development of adults, to the defense of republican virtue and class interest by an enlightened and politically active citizenry, to health, to vigor, and to social life, supporters viewed their demand as an initial step to major changes, not as a niggling reform. (pp. 98-99)

As is well known, the demand for shorter hours mostly disappeared from organized labor’s agenda after World War II, for complex and disputed reasons. The sign I saw in They Live is one consequence of abdicating the postive class argument for shorter hours. By the time the movie was made in 1988, the eight-hour movement’s greatest slogan could come to seem not like a cherished victory of the working class, but rather as a piece of dystopian propaganda. “Eight hours recreation” becomes the command to “play eight hours”, and this “play” is refigured as obligatory participation in consumerist culture rather than the opportunity for political, intellectual and moral development that it signified for the eight-hour campaigners. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that these days long hours are often portrayed as an issue of individual preferences or “workaholic” psychology, rather than the outcome of organized labor’s long political defeat.

I have a feeling this little vignette will end up in my dissertation somehow, although I don’t think I mentioned doing any cultural studies in my fellowship proposal.

Idiocracy’s Theory of the Future

January 12th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Political Economy

Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is a pretty smart and funny movie, which touches on some themes I’ve recently written about. But it’s also a widely underappreciated and misunderstood film. Perhaps that’s because one of the people who seems to misunderstand it the most is its own writer and director, Mike Judge.

The basic premise of the film, as per IMDB:

Private Joe Bauers, the definition of “average American”, is selected by the Pentagon to be the guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years in the future. He discovers a society so incredibly dumbed-down that he’s easily the most intelligent person alive.

The rest of the film is an extended satirical riff on this idiotic future society. Its residents are both unbelievably crude and endlessly capable of falling for consumerist marketing bullshit. With regard to the former: Starbucks now offers hand jobs, everyone regards reading and thinking as activities for “fags”, and one of the film’s set pieces involves a #1 hit film called “Ass”, consisting of nothing but the image described in the title. In a climactic scene Joe Bauers (played by Luke Wilson) addresses Congress, wistfully declaring that:

there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn’t just for fags and neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!

Meanwhile, everyone in the future mindlessly repeats advertising slogans as though they were a scientific consensus. The threat of famine looms because everyone insists on watering crops with a noxious energy drink called Brawndo, while insisting that “it’s got electrolytes . . . they’re what plants crave!” It’s left to Joe Bauers to convince his moronic fellow humans of the virtues of old fashioned water.

This sounds like the sort of thing your average anti-corporate liberal might enjoy, although I’d note that liberal yuppies are hardly immune to this sort of irrational marketing hype. But the movie made a lot of people uncomfortable, and it has been mostly forgotten since its 2006 release. In part, that’s because of the generally elitist “most people are idiots” vibe that Judge evokes. But more specifically, I think it’s because of the film’s overtly misanthropic, eugenics-minded opening:

This reaction from Manohla Dargis is typical:

“Idiocracy” expresses the kind of fear lampooned, consciously or not, in the old joke about revolting masses. (Messenger: “The masses are revolting!” King: “You’re telling me!”) It opens with a comparison between trailer-trash types, with low I.Q.’s, who freely propagate, and smarty-pants types who fret about conceiving, using every excuse to find the perfect time to have children. In the end the low I.Q.-ers overrun the intelligent, who die off, which is funny if you think that only certain kinds of people should reproduce. An equal-opportunity offender, Mr. Judge can wield satire like a sledgehammer, so it’s no surprise that he doesn’t bother with the complexities of class and representation in a bit about the dire consequences of a birth dearth.

This bit of the movie is every bit as offensive and reactionary as Dargis suggests at is, and its stupidity is pretty much summed up in this xkcd cartoon. But the tragedy of the whole movie is that this premise is totally unnecessary. It’s completely possible to explain the emergence of the Idiocracy future based on sociological and political-economic themes that have nothing to do with genetic determinism, while leaving the rest of the movie mostly unchanged.

To me, one of the most interesting and suggestive bits of the movie is the following exchange toward the end of the story:

 Joe and the Cabinet Members are gathered around a VIDEO PHONE 
 talking to the CEO OF RAUNCBO, who's in his office, panicking.  
 We hear people rioting outside his building and occasionally 
 bottles and debris hit his window.

                       RAUNCHO CEO
           What happened?!

                       JOE
           Ah... Well, we switched the crops to 
           water.

                       RAUNCHO CEO
           I'm not talking about that.
                (points to a computer 
                screen, freaked out)
           Our sales are all like, down. Way 
           down! The stock went to zero and the 
           computer did auto-layoff on 
           everybody!

                       ATTORNEY GENERAL
           Shit! Almost everyone in the country 
           works for Rauncho!

                       RAUNCHO CEO
           Not anymore!  And the computer said 
           everyone owes Rauncho money! 
           Everyone's bank account is zero now!

What does this exchange tell us about the film’s implicit theory of posterity?

  1. The future economy is highly automated, to the point that even the management of companies is done automatically by a computer.
  2. People nonetheless need money to pay for things, which they get by working for Brawndo (which is called “Rauncho” in this earlier version of the screenplay). It’s not clear what they do for their money, but it can’t be very important in light of their obvious stupidity and the above-noted automation.
  3. The continued stability of this society is therefore dependent on the existence of a business which does not actually improve anyone’s material standard of living–indeed, it is decreasing it by killing all the crops.

The theory of posterity the grounds Idiocracy, it seems to me, is a close cousin of Anti-Star Trek: an economy that needs humans as consumers, but makes them mostly superfluous as producers.

So how does this explain the fact that everyone is such a moron? Well, consider what would happen to education in a society like this. If the productive economy is all run by computers, then there’s no need to teach people how to make things, or how anything actually works. On the contrary, it would be economically beneficial to encourage delusions about the magical properties of consumer products, the better to ensure that people will continue to drink Brawndo rather than water. In other words, there is no economic incentive to produce intelligence. We can imagine that at some point in the past, legitimate institutions of higher education were dismantled (perhaps by the people Diane Ravitch discusses here), and replaced by things like Costco Law School.

I really wish someone would make a movie that’s as funny as Idiocracy without falling back on such lazy right-wing premises. On the other hand, it’s intriguing that Judge could end up making a film that mostly functions as a radical critique even though it’s based on a reactionary assumption. Idiocracy does illuminate a dangerous trend in contemporary capitalism–one that has nothing to do with the wrong people having babies, and everything to do with a system that increasingly reproduces itself by producing stupidity in the population. The movie’s only mistake is to think that our genes can save us from stupidity, when it seems far more defensible to say that “intelligence” is some combination of socially nurtured ability and statistical myth.

Translating English into English

January 4th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Sociology

So it seems there’s going to be a censored version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word “nigger” with “slave”. My initial reaction was to agree with Doug Mataconis that this is both offensive and stupid. It struck me as being of a piece with the general tendency of white Americans to deal with the existence of racism by ignoring it rather than talking about it.

And I guess I still feel that way, but after reading Kevin Drum’s take I’m more sympathetic to Alan Gribben, the Twain scholar responsible for the new censored version. Gribben says that because of the extreme visceral reactions people have to the word “nigger”, most teachers today feel they can’t get away with assigning Huck Finn to their students, even if they’d really like to. So the choice was to either consent to this bowdlerization or else let the book gradually disappear from our culture altogether. I’m still a bit torn about it–and I think that the predicament of the teachers Gribben talked to is indicative of precisely the cowardly attitudes toward race that I described above. But I’m willing to accept that censoring the book was the least-bad response to this unfortunate state of affairs.

However, what most caught my attention about Kevin Drum’s post on the controversy was this:

In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it’s entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don’t think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader’s emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that’s exactly what it does.

That got me thinking a more general thought I’ve often had about our relationship to old writings: it’s a shame that we neglect to re-translate older works into English merely because they were originally written in English. Languages change, and our reactions to words and formulations change. This is obvious when you read something like Chaucer, but it’s true to a more subtle degree of more recent writings. There is a pretty good chance that something written in the 19th century won’t mean the same thing to us that it meant to its contemporary readers. Thus it would make sense to re-translate Huckleberry Finn into modern language, in the same way we periodically get new translations of Homer or Dante or Thomas Mann. This is a point that applies equally well to non-fiction and social theory: in some ways, English-speaking sociologists are lucky that our canonical trio of classical theorists–Marx, Weber, and Durkheim–all wrote in another language. The most recent translation of Capital is eminently more readable than the older ones–and I know I could have used a modern English translation of Talcott Parsons when I was studying contemporary theory.

Now, one might respond to this by saying that writing loses much in translation, and that some things just aren’t the same unless you read them in the original un-translated form. And that’s probably true. But it would still be good to establish the “English-to-English translation” as a legitimate category, since it would give us a better way of understanding things like the new altered version of Huck Finn. You would have the original Huck and the “new English translation” of Huck existing side by side; students would read the translation in high school, but perhaps they would be introduced to the original in college. We could debate whether a new translation was good or bad without getting into fruitless arguments over whether one should ever alter a classic book. And maybe it would help us all develop a more historical and contextual understanding of language and be less susceptible to the arbitrary domination of prescriptive grammarians.

Anti-Star Trek: A Theory of Posterity

December 14th, 2010  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Art and Literature, Political Economy

In the process of trying to pull together some thoughts on intellectual property, zero marginal-cost goods, immaterial labor, and the incipient transition to a rentier form of capitalism, I’ve been working out a thought experiment: a possible future society I call anti-Star Trek. Consider this a stab at a theory of posterity.

One of the intriguing things about the world of Star Trek, as Gene Roddenberry presented it in The Next Generation and subsequent series, is that it appears to be, in essence, a communist society. There is no money, everyone has access to whatever resources they need, and no-one is required to work. Liberated from the need to engage in wage labor for survival, people are free to get in spaceships and go flying around the galaxy for edification and adventure. Aliens who still believe in hoarding money and material acquisitions, like the Ferengi, are viewed as barbaric anachronisms.

The technical condition of possibility for this society is comprised of of two basic components. The first is the replicator, a technology that can make instant copies of any object with no input of human labor. The second is an apparently unlimited supply of free energy, due to anti-matter reactions or dilithium crystals or whatever. It is, in sum, a society that has overcome scarcity.

Anti-Star Trek takes these same technological premises: replicators, free energy, and a post-scarcity economy. But it casts them in a different set of social relations. Anti-Star Trek is an attempt to answer the following question:

  • Given the material abundance made possible by the replicator, how would it be possible to maintain a system based on money, profit, and class power?

Economists like to say that capitalist market economies work optimally when they are used to allocate scarce goods. So how to maintain capitalism in a world where scarcity can be largely overcome? What follows is some steps toward an answer to this question.

Like industrial capitalism, the economy of anti-Star Trek rests on a specific state-enforced regime of property relations. However, the kind of property that is central to anti-Star Trek is not physical but intellectual property, as codified legally in the patent and copyright system. While contemporary defenders of intellectual property like to speak of it as though it is broadly analogous to other kinds of property, it is actually based on a quite different principle. As the (libertarian) economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine point out:

Intellectual property law is not about your right to control your copy of your idea – this is a right that . . . does not need a great deal of protection. What intellectual property law is really about is about your right to control my copy of your idea. This is not a right ordinarily or automatically granted to the owners of other types of property. If I produce a cup of coffee, I have the right to choose whether or not to sell it to you or drink it myself. But my property right is not an automatic right both to sell you the cup of coffee and to tell you how to drink it.

This is the quality of intellectual property law that provides an economic foundation for anti-Star Trek: the ability to tell others how to use copies of an idea that you “own”. In order to get access to a replicator, you have to buy one from a company that licenses you the right to use a replicator. (Someone can’t give you a replicator or make one with their replicator, because that would violate their license). What’s more, every time you make something with the replicator, you also need to pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing. So if the Captain Jean-Luc Picard of anti-Star Trek wanted “tea, Earl Grey, hot”, he would have to pay the company that has copyrighted the replicator pattern for hot Earl Grey tea. (Presumably some other company owns the rights to cold tea.)

This solves the problem of how to maintain for-profit capitalist enterprise, at least on the surface. Anyone who tries to supply their needs from their replicator without paying the copyright cartels would become an outlaw, like today’s online file-sharers. But if everyone is constantly being forced to pay out money in licensing fees, then they need some way of earning money, and this brings up a new problem. With replicators around, there’s no need for human labor in any kind of physical production. So what kind of jobs would exist in this economy? Here are a few possibilities.

  1. The creative class. There will be a need for people to come up with new things to replicate, or new variations on old things, which can then be copyrighted and used as the basis for future licensing revenue. But this is never going to be a very large source of jobs, because the labor required to create a pattern that can be infinitely replicated is orders of magnitude less than the labor required in a physical production process in which the same object is made over and over again. What’s more, we can see in today’s world that lots of people will create and innovate on their own, without being paid for it. The capitalists of anti-Star Trek would probably find it more economical to simply pick through the ranks of unpaid creators, find new ideas that seem promising, and then buy out the creators and turn the idea into the firm’s intellectual property.

  2. Lawyers. In a world where the economy is based on intellectual property, companies will constantly be suing each other for alleged infringements of each others’ copyrights and patents. This will provide employment for some significant fraction of the population, but again it’s hard to see this being enough to sustain an entire economy. Particularly because of a theme that will arise again in the next couple of points: just about anything can, in principle, be automated. It’s easy to imagine big intellectual property firms coming up with procedures for mass-filing lawsuits that rely on fewer and fewer human lawyers. On the other hand, perhaps an equilibrium will arise where every individual needs to keep a lawyer on retainer, because they can’t afford the cost of auto-lawyer software but they must still fight off lawsuits from firms attempting to win big damages for alleged infringment.

  3. Marketers. As time goes on, the list of possible things you can replicate will only continue to grow, but people’s money to buy licenses–and their time to enjoy the things they replicate–will not grow fast enough to keep up. The biggest threat to any given company’s profits will not be the cost of labor or raw materials–since they don’t need much or any of those–but rather the prospect that the licenses they own will lose out in popularity to those of competitors. So there will be an unending and cut-throat competition to market one company’s intellectual properties as superior to the competition’s: Coke over Pepsi, Ford over Toyota, and so on. This should keep a small army employed in advertizing and marketing. But once again, beware the spectre of automation: advances in data mining, machine learning and artificial intelligence may lessen the amount of human labor required even in these fields.

  4. Guard labor. The term “Guard Labor” is used by the economists Bowles and Jayadev to refer to:

    The efforts of the monitors, guards, and military personnel . . . directed not toward production, but toward the enforcement of claims arising from exchanges and the pursuit or prevention of unilateral transfers of property ownership.

    In other words, guard labor is the labor required in any society with great inequalities of wealth and power, in order to keep the poor and powerless from taking a share back from the rich and powerful. Since the whole point of anti-Star Trek is to maintain such inequalities even when they appear economically superfluous, there will obviously still be a great need for guard labor. And the additional burden of enforcing intellectual property restrictions will increase demand for such labor, since it requires careful monitoring of what was once considered private behavior. Once again, however, automation looms: robot police, anyone?

These, it seems to me, would be the main source of employment in the world of anti-Star Trek. It seems implausible, however, that this would be sufficient–the society would probably be subject to a persistent trend toward under-employment. This is particularly true given that all the sectors except (arguably) the first would be subject to pressures toward labor-saving technological innovation. What’s more, there is also another way for private companies to avoid employing workers for some of these tasks: turn them into activities that people will find pleasurable, and will thus do for free on their own time. Firms like Google are already experimenting with such strategies. The computer scientist Luis von Ahn has specialized in developing “games with a purpose”: applications that present themselves to end users as enjoyable diversions, but which also perform a useful computational task. One of von Ahn’s games asked users to identify objects in photos, and the data was then fed back into a database that was used for searching images. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this line of research could lead toward the world of Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, in which children remotely fight an interstellar war through what they think are video games.

Thus it seems that the main problem confronting the society of anti-Star Trek is the problem of effective demand: that is, how to ensure that people are able to earn enough money to be able to pay the licensing fees on which private profit depends. Of course, this isn’t so different from the problem that confronted industrial capitalism, but it becomes more severe as human labor is increasingly squeezed out of the system, and human beings become superfluous as elements of production, even as they remain necessary as consumers.

Ultimately, even capitalist self-interest will require some redistribution of wealth downward in order to support demand. Society reaches a state in which, as the late André Gorz put it, “the distribution of means of payment must correspond to the volume of wealth socially produced and not to the volume of work performed”. This is particularly true–indeed, it is necessarily true–of a world based on intellectual property rents rather than on value based on labor-time.

But here the class of rentier-capitalists will confront a collective action problem. In principle, it would be possible to sustain the system by taxing the profits of profitable firms and redistributing the money back to consumers–possibly as a no-strings attached guaranteed income, and possibly in return for performing some kind of meaningless make-work. But even if redistribution is desirable from the standpoint of the class as a whole, any individual company or rich person will be tempted to free-ride on the payments of others, and will therefore resist efforts to impose a redistributive tax. Of course, the government could also simply print money to give to the working class, but the resulting inflation would just be an indirect form of redistribution and would also be resisted. Finally, there is the option of funding consumption through consumer indebtedness–but this merely delays the demand crisis rather than resolving it, as residents of the present know all too well.

This all sets the stage for ongoing stagnation and crisis in the world of anti-Star Trek. And then, of course, there are the masses. Would the power of ideology be strong enough to induce people to accept the state of affairs I’ve described? Or would people start to ask why the wealth of knowledge and culture was being enclosed within restrictive laws, when “another world is possible” beyond the regime of artificial scarcity?

Marx’s Theory of Alien Nation

December 10th, 2010  |  Published in Art and Literature, Social Science, Socialism

Charles Stross hits another one out of the park today. The post attempts to explain the widespread sentiment that the masses are politically powerless: “Voting doesn’t change anything — the politicians always win.” Stross advances the thesis that we have been disempowered by the rise of the corporation: first legally, when corporations were recognized as persons, and then politically, when said corporations captured the democratic process through overt and subtle forms of corruption and bribery.

Playing off the notion of corporations as “persons”, Stross portrays the corporation as a “hive organism” which does not share human priorities; corporations are “non-human entities with non-human goals”, which can “co-opt” CEOs or politicians by rewarding them financially. The punchline to the argument is that:

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

I like this argument a lot, but it seems to me that it’s less an argument about the corporation as such than an argument about capitalism. Indeed, Marx spoke about capitalism in remarkably similar terms. He notes that the underlying dynamic of capitalism is M-C-M': the use of money to produce and circulate commodities solely for the purpose of accumulating more capital. Money itself is the agent here, not any person. This abstract relationship is more fundamental than the the relations between actual people–capitalists and workers–whose actions are dictated by the exigencies of capital accumulation. From Capital, chapter four:

The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.

As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or main-spring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.

According to Marx, the alien invasion hasn’t just co-opted its human agents but actually corrupted and colonized their minds, so that they come to see the needs of capital as their own needs. Thus the workers find themselvs exploited and alienated, not fundamentally by capitalists but by the alien force, capital, which uses the workers only to reproduce itself. From chapter 23:

The labourer therefore constantly produces material, objective wealth, but in the form of capital, of an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist as constantly produces labour-power, but in the form of a subjective source of wealth, separated from the objects in and by which it can alone be realised; in short he produces the labourer, but as a wage labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the labourer, is the sine quâ non of capitalist production.

This, incidentally, is why Maoists like The Matrix.

Moishe Postone makes much of this line of argument in his brilliant Time, Labor, and Social Domination. He emphasizes (p. 30) the point that:

In Marx’s analysis, social domination in capitalism does not, on its most fundamental level, consist in the domination of people by other people, but in the domination of people by abstract social structures that people themselves constitute.

Therefore,

the form of social domination that characterizes capitalism is not ultimately a function of private property, of the ownership by the capitalists of the surplus product and the means of production; rather, it is grounded in the value form of wealth itself, a form of social wealth that confronts living labor (the workers) as a structurally alien and dominant power.

Since the “aliens” are of our own making, the proper science fiction allegory isn’t an extraterrestrial invasion but a robot takeover, like the Matrix or Terminator movies. But close enough.

So in light of my last post, does this make Capital an early work of science fiction? Or does it make contemporary science fiction the leading edge of Marxism? Both, I’d like to think.

Social Science Fiction

December 8th, 2010  |  Published in Art and Literature, Social Science

Henry Farrell has a nice discussion of some recent debates about steampunk novels. He refers to Charles Stross’s complaint that much steampunk is so infatuated with gadgets and elites that it willfully turns away from the misery and exploitation that characterized real Victorian capitalism. He also approvingly notes Cosma Shalizi’s argument that “The Singularity has happened; we call it ‘the industrial revolution'”. Farrell builds on this point by noting that “one of the skeins one can trace back through modern [science fiction] is a vein of sociological rather than scientific speculation, in which events happening to individual characters serve as a means to capture arguments about what is happening to society as a whole”. The interesting thing about the 19th century, then, is that it is a period of rapid social transformation, and SF is an attempt to understand the implications of such rapid change. In a similar vein, Patrick Neilsen Hayden quotes Nietzsche: “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.”

This relates to some of my own long-gestating speculations about the relationship between science fiction and social science. My argument is that both fields can be understood as projects that attempt to understand empirical facts and lived experience as something which is shaped by abstract–and not directly perceptible–structural forces. But whereas social science attempts to derive generalities about society from concrete observations, SF derives possible concrete events from the premise of certain sociological generalities. Note that this definition makes no reference to the future or the past: science fiction can be about the past, like steampunk, but it is the working out of an alternative past, which branches off from our own timeline according to clearly differences in social structure and technology. If social science is concerned with constructing a model (whether quantitative or qualitative) on the basis of data, then we can think of a science-fictional world by analogy to a prediction from an existing model, such as a fitted statistical model: any particular point prediction reflects both the invariant properties of the model’s parameters and the uncertainty and random variation that makes individual cases idiosyncratic.

The following are a few semi-related musings on this theme.

I. The Philosophy of Posterity

One kind of sociologically-driven science fiction is the working out of what I will call a theory of posterity. Posterity, here, is meant to imply the reverse of history. And a theory of posterity, in turn, is an inversion of the logic of a theory of history, or of the logic of social science more generally.

History is a speculative enterprise in which the goal is to construct an abstract conception of society, derived from its concrete manifestations. That is, given recorded history, the historian attempts to discern the large, invisible social forces that generated these events. It is a process of constructing a story about the past, or as Benjamin puts it:

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory….

Or consider Benjamin’s famous image of the “angel of history”:

His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.

One way to read this is that the pile of rubble is the concrete accumulation  of historical events, while the storm represents the social forces–especially capitalism, in Benjamin’s reading–which drive the logic of events.

But consider what lies behind the angel of history: the future. We cannot know what, concretely, will happen in the future. But we know about the social forces–the storm–which are pushing us inexorably into that future. Herein lies the distinction between the study of history and the study of posterity: a theory of posterity is an attempt to turn the angel of history around, and to tell us what it sees.

Where the historian takes empirical data and historical events and uses them to build up a theory of social structure, a theory of posterity begins with existing social forces and structures, and derives possible concrete futures from them. The social scientist must pick through the collection of empirical details–whether in the form of archives, ethnographic narratives, or census datasets–and decide which are relevant to constructing a general theory, and which are merely accidental and contingent features of the record. Likewise, constructing an understanding of the future requires sorting through all the ideas and broad trends and institutions that exist today, in order to determine which will have important implications for later events, and which will be transient and inconsequential.

Because it must construct the particular out of the general, the study of posterity is most effectively manifested in fiction, which excels in the portrayal of concrete detail, whereas the study of the past takes the form of social science, which is built to represent abstractions. Fictional futures are always preferable to those works of “futurism” which attempt to directly predict the future, obscuring the inherent uncertainty and contingency of that future, and thereby stultifying the reader. Science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise. Or to put it another way, it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism).

Science fiction can be understood as a way of writing that adopts a certain general theory of posterity, one which gives a prominent role to science and technology, and then describes specific events that would be consistent with that theory. But that generalization conceals a great diversity of different understandings. And so to understand a work of speculative fiction, therefore, it helps to understand the author’s theory of posterity.

II. Charles Stross: the Sigmoid Curve and Punctuated Equilibrium

The work of Charles Stross provides an illuminating case study. Much of his work deals with the near-future, and thus is centrally concerned with extrapolating current social trends in various directions. His most acclaimed novel, Accelerando, is an account of “the singularity”: the moment when rapidly accelerating technological progress gives rise to incomprehensibly post-human intelligences.

Like most science fiction, Stross’s theory of posterity begins from the interaction of social structure and technology. This is rather too simple a formulation, however, as it tends to imply a sort of technological determinism, where technical developments are considered to be a process that goes on outside of society, and affects it as an external force. Closer to the spirit of Stross–and most good SF–is the following from Marx:

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.

This formulation, to which David Harvey is quite partial, reveals that technology is not an independent “thing” but rather an intersection of multiple human relationships–the interchange with nature, the process of production (and, we might add, reproduction), and culture.

Stross’s theory of posterity places technology at the nexus of capital accumulation, consumer culture, and the state, in its function as the guarantor of contract and property rights. Thus in Accelerando, and also in books like Halting State, financial engineering, video games, hackers, intellectual property, and surveillance interact, and all of them push technology forward in particular directions. This is the mechanism by which Stross arrives at his ironic dystopia in which post-human intelligence takes the form of “sentient financial instruments” and “alien business models”.

In surveying this vision, a question arises about the way technological development is portrayed in any theory of posterity. It has been a common trope in science fiction to simply take present-day trends and extrapolate them indefinitely into the future, without regard for any major change in the direction of development. Stross himself has observed this tendency: in the first half of the 20th century, the most rapid technological advances came in the area of transportation. People projected this into the future, and consequently science fiction of that era tended to produce things like flying cars, interstellar space travel, etc.

The implicit model of progress that gave rise to these visions was one in which technology develops according to an exponential curve:

expcurve

The exponential model of development also underpins many popular conceptions of the technological singularity, such as that of Ray Kurzweil. As we reach the rapidly upward-sloping part of the curve, the thinking goes, technological and social change becomes so rapid as to be unpredictable and unimaginable.

But Stross observes that the exponential model probably misconstrues what technical change really looks like. In the case of transportation, he notes that the historical pattern fits a different kind of function:

We can plot this increase in travel speed on a graph — better still, plot the increase in maximum possible speed — and it looks quite pretty; it’s a classic sigmoid curve, initially rising slowly, then with the rate of change peaking between 1920 and 1950, before tapering off again after 1970. Today, the fastest vehicle ever built, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, en route to Pluto, is moving at approximately 21 kilometres per second — only twice as fast as an Apollo spacecraft from the late-1960s. Forty-five years to double the maximum velocity; back in the 1930s it was happening in less than a decade.

Below is the sigmoid curve:

sigcurve

It might seem as though Accelerando, at least, isn’t consistent with this model, since it looks more like a Kurzweil-style exponential singularity. But another way of looking at it is that the sigmoid curve simply plays out over a very long time scale: the middle parts of the book portray incredibly rapid changes, but by the end of the book the characters once again seem to be living in a world of fairly sedate development. This environment is investigated further in the followup Glasshouse, which pushes the singularity story perhaps as far as it will  go–to the point where it begins to lose all contact with the present, rendering further extrapolation impossible.

What’s most interesting about the sigmoid-curve interpretation of technology, however, is what it implies about the interaction between different technological sectors over the course of history. Rather than ever-accelerating progress, the history of technology now looks to be characterized by something like what paleontologists call Punctuated Equilibrium: long periods of relative stasis, interspersed with brief spasms of rapid evolution. If history works this way, then projecting the future becomes far more difficult. The most important elements of the present mix of technologies are not necessarily the most prominent ones; it may be that some currently insignificant area will, in the near future, blow up to become the successor to the revolution in Information Technology.

In a recent speech, Stross futher elaborates on this framework as it relates to present trends in technology. He goes farther than in previous work in rejecting a key premise of the singularity, which is that the exponential growth in raw computing power will continue indefinitely:

I don’t want to predict what we end up with in 2020 in terms of raw processing power; I’m chicken, and besides, I’m not a semiconductor designer. But while I’d be surprised if we didn’t get an order of magnitude more performance out of our CPUs between now and then — maybe two — and an order of magnitude lower power consumption — I don’t expect to see the performance improvements of the 1990s or early 2000s ever again. The steep part of the sigmoid growth curve is already behind us.

However, Stross notes that even as the acceleration in processor powers drops, we are seeing a distinct kind of development based on ubiqitous fast wireless Internet connections and portable computing devices like the iPhone. The consequence of this is to erode the distinction between the network and “real” world:

Welcome to a world where the internet has turned inside-out; instead of being something you visit inside a box with a coloured screen, it’s draped all over the landscape around you, invisible until you put on a pair of glasses or pick up your always-on mobile phone. A phone which is to today’s iPhone as a modern laptop is to an original Apple II; a device which always knows where you are, where your possessions are, and without which you are — literally — lost and forgetful.

This is, essentially, the world of Manfred Macx in the opening chapters of Accelerando.  It is incipient in the world of Halting State, and its further development will presumably be interrogated in that book’s sequel, Rule 34.

III. William Gibson and the Technicians of Culture

William Gibson is another writer who has considered the near future, and his picture in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country maps out a consensus future rather similar to Stross’s. In particular, the effacing of the boundary between the Internet and everyday life is ever-present in these books, right down to a particular device–the special glasses which project images onto the wearer’s environment–that plays a central role for both writers.

Yet technology for Gibson is embedded in a different social matrix. The state and its bureaucracy are less present than in Stross; indeed, Gibson’s work is redolent of 1990’s style imaginings of the globalized world, after the withering of the nation-state. Capital, meanwhile, is ever-present, but its leading edge is quite different. Rather than IP cartels or financiers or game designers, the leading force in Gibson’s world is the culture industry, and in particular advertizing and marketing.

This is in keeping with Gibson’s general affinity for, and deep intuitive understanding of, the world of consumer commodities. Indeed, his books are less about technology than they are meditations on consumer culture and its objects; the loving way in which brands and products are described reveals Gibson’s own infatuation with these commodities. Indeed, his instincts are so well tuned that an object at the center of Pattern Recognition turned out to be a premonition of an actual commodity.

This all leads logically to a theory of the future in which changes in society and technology are driven by elements of the culture industry: maverick ad executives, cool-hunters, former indie-rock stars and avant-garde artists all figure in the two recent works. Gibson maintains a conception of the high culture-low culture divide, and the complex interrelation between the two poles, which is lacking in Stross. The creation and re-creation of symbols and meaning is the central form of innovation in his stories.

Insofar as Gibson’s recent writing is the working out of a social theory, its point of departure is Fredric Jameson’s theorization of postmodern capitalist culture. Jameson observed back in the 1970’s that one of the definitive characteristics of late capitalism was that “aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally”. Gibson, like Stross and other science fiction writers, portrays the effects of rapid change in the technologies of production, but in this case it is the technologies of aesthetic production rather than the assembly line, transportation, or communication.

And it does indeed seems that cultural innovation and recombination has accelerated rapidly in the past few decades. But in light of Stross, the question becomes: are we reaching the top of the sigmoid curve? It sometimes seems that we are moving into a world where Capital is more an more concerned with extracting rents from the control of “intellectual property” rather than pushing toward any kind of historically progressive technological or even cultural innovation. But I will save the working out of that particular theory of posterity for another post.