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Sustaining the Present

Silent RunningWhat approach to technological development gives humanity a chance of reaching the Tenth Millennium? This is a serious and significant question, and no greater challenge faces the imagined ascenturians than the problem of technology. The ascenturian is bound to hold ideals that make possible the continuation of present diversity into the one hundredth century after civilisation's founding. That requires a far more critical relationship with our tools (and the networks that embed them) than almost any that can be found today.

I have said that the ascenturians have opponents but not enemies, and one of their most prominent opponents are the accelerationists. This term, coined by science fiction writer Roger Zelazny, describes anyone who thinks it is in humanity's best interests to accelerate technological development, whether they believe that high tech offers us salvation or, as in some Marxist variants, a catalyst for social collapse and thus revolution. Either way, this is an absurdly reckless philosophy. To assume that accelerating technological expansion is the means for humanity to survive (much less thrive) for another 48 centuries is to adopt an existential version of the Martingale gambling strategy - a foolhardy succession of 'double or nothing' bets pursued in desperation until (by chance) you win and cover your losses. That anyone would think this a sensible way to approach our shared world is really quite astonishing, and entails every farcical implication that this metaphor alludes to: gambling the future of both our species and our planet.

In The Virtuous Cyborg I suggested that we will misunderstand who and what we are today if we don't acknowledge that we are cyborgs embedded in the networks of technology required for us to live as these hybrid beings. It is the networks, rather than the technology, that makes the difference here. A hammer, once made, requires nothing further to be an effective tool. A computer, conversely, is worthless without the networks of electricity, programming, and communication, that are required to make such a device appear useful - and that conceal, with effortless denial, the tremendous collective labour required to maintain these networks. There is no such thing as an individual cyborg: there are only the networks, and the cyborgs ensnared within those networks.

I do not think it possible, plausible, or desirable to expect us to simply give up this state of being to which we are simultaneously addicted and in denial of, although we can certainly admire the Amazonian tribe who has not yet been incorporated into our industrial world, or the Amish communities that manage to exist alongside it. Yet we still need ways to think differently about our relationships with technology, since the ones we have are colossally destructive in almost every dimension. It is both fascinating and disturbing that we are so swept up in this passion for the technological that we fail to see the ongoing catastrophe attached to it. Writing in 1993, Raimon Pannikar named this disaster 'technocracy', and saw clearly that acceleration was right at the heart of the crisis, boldly comparing it to cancer, the uncontrolled growth that destroys an organism.

The 'energy crisis' is a helpful way of exposing the problem. Supposedly there is a 'crisis' because we are not able to make enough 'energy'. Thus, some who lean towards accelerationism, like British physicist Brian Cox (who was in the year ahead of me when I studied Astrophysics at Manchester University) suggest that 'the energy crisis is over if you want it to be' - meaning, if we invested sufficiently in nuclear fusion research, we could 'solve' the energy crisis. Firstly, this is another bet: we do not know how fusion pans out as a power source on the scale of fifty years, let alone on the scale of fifty centuries. Secondly, and more importantly, having greater access to 'cheap' energy is not likely to solve any crisis we are currently facing. It is far more likely to facilitate even greater environmental damage once the limits on power supply that currently constrain industrial growth are removed. If there is an 'energy crisis' it is that we want too much energy, not that we cannot make enough.

Technocracy transforms our tools from craftsmanship to dominion, and this analysis is not specific to this one problem, 'energy', it is the essential problem of technology. We cannot know the consequences of developing new tools until the problems have already manifested (and in some cases, not until it is too late to prevent them). Furthermore, we assume every crisis can be solved by throwing more technology at it, ignoring how the creation of ever more varieties of technical solutions reproduces the problematic circumstances we are attempting to resolve. Plastic-eating fungus sounds like a wonderful application of technology to an environmental problem we created - I wonder what we will end up creating to eat the fungus...?

I keep returning to Martin Heidegger's reflections on the problem of technology, because the German philosopher's thinking successfully exposes this issue at its conceptual root. Once we adopt 'technology' as our understanding of how we relate to the world around us, once we surrender to technocracy, everything is reduced to standing reserves, resources to be exploited. The 'energy crisis' came about because we developed new tools to burn fossil fuels, which were limited resources. Yet what made this 'limit' was the technological mindset - I might even say the accelerationist mindset. It is all very well saying we have plenty of deuterium for nuclear fusion, but it is still a limited resource no matter how plentiful it may seem now. In twenty centuries time, who knows what degree of energy supply might be needed to power the projects an accelerated technology wishes then to pursue...?

The term 'sustainable development' is bandied around so much today that we don't seem to recognise that it is a contradiction in terms. 'Development', meaning industrial development, is by definition unsustainable, for it is wed to the idea of standing reserves to be co-opted to our purposes. It is no good reversing the concept either - 'sustainable regression' is hardly plausible either! Yet our fictional ascenturians require a principle of the sustainable in some form or another, because clearly we cannot expect to reach the Tenth Millennium without attaining some kind of relationship with our world that can be maintained over the long term.

Accelerationists sometimes fool themselves with the mythology of fleeing the planet - 'we can't make it work here, so we must escape into space!'. What a bizarre proposition that is... since we cannot manage to devise any form of sustainable living arrangement for the planet we have, abandoning it is self-evidently a doomed strategy. Lyn Margulis is far from the only scientist to have recognised that if we cannot solve the problems of continued human existence here on Earth, there is no possibility at all of surviving in space, let alone reaching other worlds. This delusion is merely the brutal colonial arrogance of the Age of Sail wed to the devastating industrial ignorance of today. How dreadful to imagine that all we have to do is blast off into space and find other pristine life worlds to barbarise, even assuming that these planets are out there to be found by creatures like us, with the resources we might be able to squander on such a project. I love science fiction stories, but I will not pretend that they are realistic when it comes to colonising the universe.

Accepting that most of us cannot live like the Amish, and accepting also that a latter day 'technology freeze' is just as unthinkable (there will be no Neo-Amish movement for more reasons than one), we are left with the question of what ideal we can offer to cyborgs such as ourselves. We are now so dependent upon our electrically-powered network of devices that a former colleague of mine could suggest in all sincerity that losing internet service was akin to being 'sent back to the Stone Age'. To escape the trap of technocratic dependency, I suggest for our fictional ascenturians something like this principle of sustainability is required:

Reject accelerating technology for perfectible techniques

'Perfectible' is the vaguest of ideas here, the blank canvas onto which new visions can be projected. I will not claim to know all this means or implies, I merely suggest that some kind of ideal of 'perfectible techniques' is within reach for us cyborgs. With it, we might stand some small chance of avoiding the risks of accelerating technological development, and the colonial ransacking of our world that comes with it.

Why bring up colonialism in the context of technology? There is a continuity here we tend to overlook. For instance, when we think of Africa we tend to forget that a great many of the problems of that continent were caused by enforcing European-style economies onto places that had previously lived in a sustainable fashion. Once the possibility of selling natural resources abroad had been established through colonisation, these nations could no more kick the habit of exploiting their standing reserves than Europe, and the United States is only the most successful European colony, and in no way an exception to this pattern. Technocracy - the ideology of technology - is the science fiction heir to colonial expansion.

Yet even if the imaginary ascenturians are somehow able to escape the finger trap of technological acceleration, even if they are able to reimagine their tools as perfectible rather than infinitely expanding, they still have to face the problem of population. On this front, the environmental movements have run aground, for once again the 'left' has the insight to identify problems but is utterly incompetent at negotiating solutions. Meanwhile, the 'right' are baffled and amused by the way that prophets of environmental disaster make strange statements around the idea of 'not bringing a child into this world', meaning both 'I will sacrifice my reproductive rights for my environmental ideals' and also 'the degraded environment of the science fiction dystopia in my mind is not a fit place to bring a child'. What madness this seems from the perspective of the 'right', who alone seem to understand that the family is not going anywhere! In refusing to acknowledge this, all attempts at environmentalism grind to a nearly hopeless halt.

As already pointed out, it will not do to imagine that a population crisis can be solved by fleeing the planet so that we can enthusiastically overpopulate other worlds, or become refugees in space as in the gloriously gloomy 1972 movie Silent Running (pictured above), or as a kind of Battlestar Galactica in reverse. My best estimate of the number of humans that can live on Mars without support from Earth is zero, so the availability of millions of other planets 'out there' doesn't have a hope of resolving this issue. Even if this is an underestimate, a strategy that depends upon overcoming all the disadvantages entailed in living in environments hostile to our kind of life cannot possibly be saner than defending all the advantages our home planet already provides us.

Colonising other planets appeals because it provides a fantastical scope for future growth, yet this expansion is precisely the problem. “If there aren’t enough people for Earth, then there definitely won’t be enough for Mars,” laments Elon Musk (father of six), using 'enough' in just about the opposite sense usually applied to our vast population. All but unseen behind all these population issues is the centrality of the family to the human experience. The 'left' has traditionally opposed the concept of 'family' because of ideological commitments that, as usual, are well-intentioned but hopelessly impractical. The Communist attempt to neutralise the family as a political entity (which has unfortunate roots in Plato's political philosophy) failed utterly, and if we can just be honest about our temperament as a species for a moment it is not hard to appreciate why.

It follows that in addition to a principle to guide sustainable tools, we need a principle to guide sustainable families, which I might call a principle of normalisation, in the sense of 'stabilising' and also in the sense of 'making normal', i.e. making acceptable. Once again, since our ascenturians are purely imaginary beings, science fiction people for a future we can imagine but not truly envisage, this normalisation principle does not have to actually answer the problems, it only has to sketch the ideal that is somehow to be achieved by an ascenturian-influenced collection of societies. Something like the following, vague though it may be, might suffice:

Achieve neutral population growth without abandoning families

While a great many objections could be raised to this principle, it is important to remember that the founding concept of the ascenturians is not just that we imagine a people capable of reaching a century of centuries of civilisation, but also that these people would seek to ensure that the diversity of human experience today might survive and thrive into the Tenth Millennium in some form. The family is undeniably part of that diverse experience, and the rage of those who fell out with their parents and joined culture bubbles out of spite for their upbringing has no bearing on how this problem is to be resolved. Any number of non-familial cultures can co-exist with the human family as classically understood, provided that across all of the societies and bubble cultures being collected together, neutral population growth can be attained.

I am often accused of idealism, and I am indeed absurdly proud to be still able to muster any idealism at all in this bleak and ignorant world we have made together. But I do not think the ideal of neutral population growth is fanciful, and neither do I think the traditional concept of a family cannot be squared with it. If we consider Europe as just a single example, it attained a neutral population growth almost effortlessly, without any extreme eugenic interventions or governmental interference. Neither is it necessary to evoke draconian legal restraints such as 'maximum two children per family' or the like... not every person wants to have any children, and it is this factor more than anything else that has allowed Europe to reach neutral population growth. Not a limit on 'children per person', but a balance point between those making families, and those choosing a different path.

If we talk about 'sustaining the present', it can sound as if we are asking for stasis, or the misleading 'right' ideal of preserving tradition, which as I have already pointed out really means remaking those traditions in a sequence of new forms. But sustaining the present is one of the most imaginative science fiction thought experiments we can take up, as Dune already exposed. To imagine that humanity in all its current diversity is still thriving after another 48 centuries is nothing short of incredible - and such a fictional world need not and should not be closed to new ways of being, new bubble cultures and societies we cannot imagine now, and that we do not need to think about in order to undertake this challenge. We don't need to understand the worlds to come to prepare for them, which is fortunate, because the future lies forever beyond any hope of accurate predictions.

What 'sustaining the present' means is solving the problem that the accelerationists bungled with their reckless Martingale strategy of hoping that the next technology is the one that pays for all the social, economic, and environmental harms of the previous set of tools. It means coming at these problems from a new angle, one that need not mean giving up our ingenuity or our familial affiliations. It just requires us to stop seeing the future as a place we are racing to get to as fast as we possibly can... We will get there at one second per second as we always have. Yet to get there at all, we cannot continue treating our world as a standing reserve to be exploited, nor keep pretending that new techniques are morally or environmentally neutral options in an toolbox we are expanding 'for the benefit of all humanity'. Surely we know now that industrial technology was anything but beneficial for 'all humanity', let alone for all life on our world? Singling out the technological 'wins' while wilfully ignoring all the accompanying technocratic 'losses' is simply dishonest.

Our imaginary ascenturians know how to sustain the present, and thus know how they can reach the future. All we might have to do to help them come into being is abandon our utterly naïve dependence upon 'the next big thing' to save us. You cannot save cyborgs by further imprisoning them in their networks of dependency. And the first free cyborg, if such a thing can ever come to pass, has every hope of becoming the first ascenturian.

Next week: Restoring the Commons

Assembling the Future

Galactic Senate.Ep IIWhat kind of societies have any hope of reaching the Tenth Millennium? This is perhaps the first question facing any future ascenturian, an adherent to a wholly fictitious philosophy that seeks to ensure that humanity, in all its contemporary diversity, survives to the one hundredth century after civilisation began. More than a thought experiment, ascenturian philosophy is a collective science fiction story that we can discover how to write only by sharing our fragmentary ideas and fantasies about what might be entailed in the next 4,800 years of human history.

From the very premise of this imaginary movement, one thing should be clear: an ascenturian has to be able to think differently about time. Since the return of the ancient ideal of democracy during the Enlightenment, we have been divided into two prevailing political relationships towards time: on the one hand, those rooted in tradition (the political right) act in the memory of times past; while on the other side, those seeking to build a better world (the political left) act in the hope of a time to come where the social problems of today have been transcended. The last couple of centuries have been characterised by this apparent conflict between two political stances that are, in principle at least, wholly compatible.

Indeed, if we take this left-right divide as originating in 1789, when the French national assembly seated delegates in favour of change on the left, and those in favour of traditional order on the right, we will find that for the first century following this new arrangement, it was broadly recognised as beneficial. Writing in 1859, John Stuart Mill remarked:

In politics... it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life... Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.

Why did this arrangement break down? To a fair approximation, we can say that it could not survive the collapse of dialogue between these opposing political stances. As long as debate between these diametrically opposed positions was possible, their tension provided a workable engine for balancing change with stability. But once partisan politics gave up the process of debate, it crumbled into a new system whereby rather than a balancing co-operation, the party divide became ever more adversarial, with each faction seeking nothing from their opponents but defeat in the next election. We have seen this most clearly in the United States, where bipartisan discussions have become rarer and rarer, and the country lurches between vastly incompatible political visions that alternate between enacting and dismantling, as each administration bulldozes whatever the previous one tried to build.

What our fictional ascenturians need from us isn't necessarily a path back to the balance of power maintained by debate between opposing political sensibilities. Nonetheless, they perhaps will need a principle whereby recovering that equilibrium is possible - and ideally, a principle that leaves open the possibility that there are other ways of maintaining both a link to the past and a path to the future. All that might be needed is a temporal principle, something that captures what was once taken for granted in the left-right political divide without shackling these imaginary people to a state of affairs bereft of opportunities to innovate or adapt. This principle need offer nothing more than a synthesis of the temporal relationships of the old left and right:

Act in the memory of time past and the knowledge of time to come

This feels too simplistic to do any work at all! And yet it also rules out organising the entirety of society in such a way that either the past or the future can be ignored or forgotten. If accepted, this is a principle that negates the most unhinged aspects of contemporary political life by revealing them to be either destructive to the continuity of knowledge by angrily razing the past to ashes, or unable to think about the future as anything but a continuation of the past.

The traditional right always suffered a certain preposterousness in its way of insisting upon the timelessness of traditions that had, upon any reasonable historical examination, constantly renewed and renovated themselves. If we look at the twenty centuries of Christianity, the twenty six centuries of Buddhism, or the forty centuries of the Hindu traditions, we will not find anything like a consistent set of practices running across that entire span of time. But what these religions (and indeed, all other traditional religions) achieved was a capacity to reimagine their practices in a way that preserved key aspects of their community of practice over time.

The traditional left, however, is perpetually at risk of a revisionism that sees all traditions as either obsolete or outright evil. As a result, it drifts into viewing religion as something that must be eliminated. True, certain 'outsider' religions have been nominally supported as a matter of diversity, but the left has remained resolute in its opposition to traditional Christianity, viewed under inescapable suspicion as the 'majority religion' and thus a principal political foe. Yet contrary to the ubiquitous knee-jerk critiques of religions, it is precisely the adaptability of established religions that has preserved their practices over time. This is not something we should seek to downplay.

Our imagined ascenturians need commit to no religion as such, yet neither do they require any prohibition against religion. Indeed, given the adaptability and longevity of religious practice, we should expect religion to be some part of what the fictional ascenturians live with. We do not need to resolve any of the details of how this might work (it could work in countless different ways!) as long as we accept that this openness to different practices for living would need to be part of any ascenturian society. Furthermore, we should be able to see that it is not enough for there to be an acceptance of 'a religion', the door needs to be kept open for any and all religions capable of being sustained in an ascenturian world.

It is not clear that any religious community need be excluded on this basis. The Amish Mennonites form what might be called a 'bubble culture', separated from the conditions of life experienced by almost everyone else living around them. But their chosen isolation and maintenance of seemingly 'older' forms of religious practice does not exclude them from being part of the wider social collectives of the United States, the national framework they live within. To our imaginary ascenturians, the Amish are yet another source of adaptability and diversity - their apparent displacement in time from a contemporary perspective is neither here nor there. Neither is their apparent rejection of 'the future' problematic. On the contrary: reflect upon the situation of the Amish carefully and it becomes clear that they do not reject their future at all. They have chosen to preserve it. It is we 'English' who have chosen a way of living that is anathematic to having a future.

This example hopefully illuminates an important point about the suggested temporal principle: it is not a problem for people to form their own bubble cultures inside collective society, but it would be disastrous to impose such a bubble culture as the entirety of social existence. The recent tendency of young protestors to seek to tear down certain statues, to reject and eliminate certain books, and to generally attempt to sanitise the past is exceptionally problematic from the point of view of creating an adaptable 'future-proof' culture. It is one thing to form a bubble culture for your own purposes, as the Amish do. It is quite another to attempt to enforce this bubble culture on everyone, especially if the attempt entails severing our links to the past. This expressly violates the temporal principle proposed above, and thus cannot be part of any imagined ascenturian philosophy as I am laying it out.

Numerous objections might be anticipated at this point, justifications for why the sins of the past must be washed away in the purge of the present. But it is simply unnecessary to deal with the past in this manner. The circumstances of other cultures (past or present) are frequently disturbing or horrific to those who dwell within different sensibilities. But a knowledge of the future must draw against the memory of times past or else risk making the same mistakes over and over again. We can allow anyone who wishes to reject encounters with the past to form a 'bubble culture' that isolates them from engaging in unpleasant confrontation with what once was, perhaps. But we must not make the error of attempting to deny our histories to whoever wants or needs them.

The present is more than just a way station to the future, where we can tear up the tracks we have already travelled upon as extraneous... the present is the only vantage point we have to view the landscape of human time, and the relative visibility of the past when compared to the inherent unknowability of the future makes it a valuable source of adaptability and diversity that defends the future through the very act of remembering. This remembrance cannot be sanitised without the risk of forgetting the lessons of history... yet that history is never fixed, never static. Like religion, history is always capable of being adapted to the present, and this does not require us to cast out what was previously said or thought. On the contrary, each successive version of history within any given culture contributes to the greater whole of our collective understandings of the past.

The proposed temporal principle is not enough to complete the science fiction story of the ascenturians. They need to be empowered to accept diversity, for it is in that diversity that adaptability thrives. But this cannot be achieved by creating a catalogue of identities that are henceforth approved and permitted, and then demonising dissent from this (the 'intolerant tolerance' I criticised in Chaos Ethics). On the contrary, even our understandings of diversity must be diverse. To hold together any fictional society, something more than a coalition of bubble cultures is required. There must be some capacity for a social framework between those cultures or, equivalently, there must be broader, more inclusive bubble cultures that can span between them.

This suggests the basis for a social principle that supports the temporal principle, and the most necessary aspect of this principle must be that it is ambiguous as to what kind of cultural bubbles can be collected together. What we require is a plurality of collectives, founded on the reciprocal relationships between their members. The members of any such collective belong to one another, rather than being merely a bag of individuals unrelated by anything except identity characteristics. This reciprocity is implied in the whole concept of a 'collective' anyway, but it does not hurt to make it clear that a collective of unrelated individuals is inherently contradictory.

These collectives need also to be collected, and as a result we can surmise that at least some proportion of them must either behave in an inclusive manner to other collectives, or else be able to stand in solidarity with them despite their disagreements. Just as the temporal principle can be seen as descending from the historical 'left-right' split, this social principle can also draw against a political legacy: the rightful condition (Recht in German philosophy), the foundation of contemporary democracy, where citizens share in legal rights that secure their mutual freedom. Our promises to uphold 'human rights' and defend 'civil rights' began as a rethinking of the rule of monarchy by the Enlightenment thinkers, and was perhaps their greatest success. Sadly, after less than a century, these rights have ended up being trashed by the 'right' (who do not wish to extend rights to those declared their military enemies) and are now also dismissed by the 'left' (who do not wish to extend rights to those declared their medical enemies).

Although the least popular of the Star Wars movies, the prequels do an excellent job of exploring the fragility of our commitments to democracy and the rightful condition, and the dangers of falling into imperial dogmatism. Who can have missed the biting satire entailed in the future Emperor making his 'emergency powers' speech to the Galactic Senate in Episode II: Attack of the Clones (pictured above)? Palpatine declares with mock-modesty:

It is with great reluctance that I have agreed to this calling. I love democracy... I love the Republic. But I am mild by nature, and I do not desire to see the destruction of democracy. The power you give me I will lay down when this crisis has abated, I promise you.

Lucas was lampooning the military imperialism of the 'right', but this critique applies just as well to the medical imperialism of the 'left' - and to much more besides. Whenever our democracy fails, we are all eligible to share in the guilt. Yet rather than seeking to hide from our chosen side's failure to uphold civil rights, rather than resorting to excuses about what was militarily or medically 'necessary', perhaps we can take this opportunity to recognise that when it comes to defending rights, we all failed together. It is all too easy to let the invocation of a crisis weaken the foundations of civil society when fear distracts us from our ideals. As Lucas recognised, and before him Asimov and Herbert too, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire still holds important lessons for us today.

In the challenge of upholding our promises of human rights, we failed. But that doesn't mean we cannot try again. We do not necessarily need to restore the rights agreements of the mid-twentieth century - more inclusive promises could be made instead - but the ascenturians need some framework for promising solidarity. What is required is some principle that permits us to assemble different cultures, different values, different histories, different medicines, different sciences into a collective, or a set of collectives. This may look shockingly like giving up on truth, but this free expression of difference entails no such thing: it is merely an invitation to recognise that our access to truth is conditioned by where we stand - and clearly we do not all stand in the same place.

We should reject 'alternative facts' - a weak excuse for inventing fables of convenience - and abandon 'post-truth' fatalism, which implies no access to the truth whatsoever. We simply need to acknowledge that since you can only stand in one place, you can only see the truth from one angle. We thus require discourse with others stood elsewhere in order to assemble the truth with any degree of accuracy. The sciences are not some magical exception to this crucible of viewpoints: every successful scientific investigation has depended upon the participation of community perspectives for its validation. It is only by engaging with different interpretations of the evidence that the truth can be investigated, and we dogmatically enforce any scientific claim at our peril.

As an imaginary principle of assembly for ascenturians I suggest this modest proposition:

Assemble a plurality of reciprocal collectives of any viable kind.

Perhaps this principle also needs to entail a requirement of inclusiveness, but such inclusiveness is hard to codify without it risking collapsing the plurality required to ensure diversity and adaptability. Rather, it seems as if the purpose of 'assembling a plurality' already expects that some element of inclusion will be required, without having to set out the conditions under which it must occur. Precisely the problem with the movements that have followed in the wake of 'the left' is that the conditions of inclusion have been set as mandatory. We do not need and should not want this kind of narrow-minded 'inclusion', which is always an invitation to hate those excluded because they do not include as we do. Rather, the forms of inclusion our fictional ascenturians require can be of 'any viable kind'. It is not for us to dictate to them the conditions by which their society of societies and culture of cultures can be assembled.

These two principles - the temporal principle, and the principle of assembly - provide a starting point for the fictional world of the ascenturians, a fictitious people capable of undertaking the imaginary second leg of the journey of human civilisation towards the Tenth Millennium. But to give them any hope of completing that adventure, they need more than this. To have some hope of success, they must be capable of defending themselves from those threats they make for themselves, and that requires something that is utterly unthinkable for us humans today: sustainable technology.

Next week: Sustaining the Present

The Tenth Millennium

Dune - SandwormWith Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Dune having once again revived interest in the world's highest-selling science fiction novel, it is a worthy time to ponder the question of whether and how humanity might survive long enough to enjoy any kind of 'far future'. What kind of future life do we want? How might we prepare a path towards such a future? Which principles might we need to reach a worthwhile future together? All these questions can benefit from reflection upon the themes and significance of Frank Herbert's extraordinary science-fiction saga.

The story debuted in Analog magazine's December 1963 issue as the three-part serial "Dune World", and concluded the following year with the three-part "The Prophet of Dune" in the same publication. The collected edition - then entitled Dune - would go on to win the inaugural Nebula, and share the 1966 Hugo award with Roger Zelazny's "...And Call Me Conrad" (also later republished as a novel, This Immortal). Dune is a remarkable novel on many fronts, but considered from the perspective of world building it is especially notable for the creative manner in which Herbert ensures that human politics can provide the core to his saga by performing the opposite operation to most sci-fi writers: he imagines new technology in order to limit technology.

Dune is set in the year 10,191 AG, the tenth millennium after the founding of the Spacing Guild, which is generally taken to be roughly 20,000 years into our future. Herbert's interests in these stories are political, humanitarian, and ecological - but to tell the kind of tale he wishes to tell, he needed to ensure that a tale set this far into our imaginary future could still be grounded on humanity as we understand it today. This is a common theme in far future science fiction, but it is no means a given: H.G. Wells' 1895 novella The Time Machine is probably the most famous of the early flights of fancy to imagine a future for humanity that is not grounded in contemporary human experience. Wells projected the social circumstances of his time through the lens of evolutionary theory, and presents a future world where the child-like Eloi, descended from the Victorian upper classes, are preyed upon by the savagely bestial Morlocks, descended from the working classes. Political themes from Wells' day are transformed via scientific models into a new fictional setting.

Herbert takes the opposite tack to Wells, creating in his imagination a mechanism to preserve humanity as it is, so that his story can be about today's humanity for all that it is set in the far future. Pivotal to this process is the backstory of the Butlerian Jihad (not, unless Dune was even more prophetic than anyone previously thought, anything to do with Judith Butler). The Butlerian Jihad is a thousand year war against "thinking machines" leading to the zealously protected maxim that 'humanity must not be replaced'. This effectively removes computers, robots, and artificial intelligence from the world of Dune and ensures humans occupy all the key roles in the resultant society. The Mentat, or 'human computer', replaces the strategic role of computers. The Guild Navigators take over the complexity of space travel from computers. The Bene Gesserit take over social control from computers. In all cases, humanity is given centre stage, which means in all cases the political landscape is manipulated by the power-hungry.

Along parallel lines, the inclusion of the Holtzman Shield is a technological riposte intended to foil futuristic weaponry. High velocity projectiles cannot penetrate the shimmering blur of these shield generators (rendering conventional firearms obsolete) while futuristic weapons (lasguns in Herbert's world) cause a devastating nuclear reaction when fired upon shields - something that indeed happens during the escape from Arrakeen in the book, but that is elided in Villeneuve's adaptation. The result is that this imagined technology allows Herbert to set up a Feudal future universe where the vast armies of interstellar powers can still be required to engage with swords and knives, simply because a technological invention that the author has imagined serves the world building role of limiting the significance of future technology.

Dune should not be seen as an unprecedented change in the flow of science fiction, but rather a pre-meditated response to the previous generation of science fiction authors, often called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Herbert's saga in this sense can be understood as a calculated reaction against Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, with both inspired by and underpinned by Edward Gibbon's 18th century history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Foundation stories had also been first published in the very same magazine as "Dune World", but under its earlier title of Astounding - originally and revealingly titled Astounding Stories of Super-Science. Asimov's tales are the first to focus upon 'Galactic Empire' as a sci-fi setting, and the author consistently revelled in the unlimited power of scientific technique, especially by imagining a future social psychology so accurate that it can predict the future - at least until a mutant 'Mule' disrupts its presuppositions.

This imagined capacity of the sciences as future-tracking, as I have frequently pointed out, is not something plausibly possessed by any authentic scientific methodology - so much so that I might impishly dub such faith 'sci-dolatry'. This unwarranted fantastical power attributed to scientists has been stoked by science fiction for much of its two centuries of practice, and the trend is even more widespread today. The last few years have added a tragic irony to this unfortunate tendency, since nothing disrupts the ability of scientific work to inform decisions quite as much as premature certainty that the answers have already been revealed. It would be wrong to assume that scientific research didn't or shouldn't possess a pivotal role in informing political decisions - but it remains exceptionally dangerous to presume that politics can take scientific topics into its partisan realm without utterly corrupting them. Every attempt to do so destroys a scientific field's unique and collective capacity to assemble an objective description, which is to say, to uncover the truth of objects.

In its own way, this corrupting influence of politics on truth is at the heart of the parables central to Dune, and it is against Asimov's sci-dolatry that Herbert seeks to wage metaphysical jihad. Tim O'Reilly's 1981 book on Herbert's work quotes the author himself as he directly marks out his criticism of Asimov's Foundation:

History… is manipulated for larger ends and for the greater good as determined by a scientific aristocracy. It is assumed, then, that the scientist-shamans know best which course humankind should take… While surprises may appear in these stories (e.g., the Mule mutant), it is assumed that no surprise will be too great or too unexpected to overcome the firm grasp of science upon human destiny. This is essentially the assumption that science can produce a surprise-free future for humankind.

Throwing his gauntlet into the face of the Golden Age science fiction authors and their heirs, Herbert invites us to into an entirely different kind of science fiction, one that is much better suited to the needs of the present than its earlier rival. Far from Astounding Stories of Super-Science, Herbert's invitation is to ponder both humanity and non-humanity through clear scientific understandings without falling into the kind of decadent self-aggrandisement that marks the fall of both the historical Roman Empire and the future-historical Padishah Empire of Dune.

Nowhere is this invitation to think beyond the narrowed vision of sci-dolatry clearer throughout the Dune saga than in the role of ecology in the wider sweep of the books. The new field of ecology was gaining prominence at the time that Herbert was writing, and he had been commissioned to write articles about the subject that were instrumental in forming his thinking about Arrakis. On the one hand, Herbert realised that ecology entails the understanding of the interconnectivity of everything in any given environment. On the other, he recognised that the human attempt to steer processes for their own benefit comes with inevitable unseen costs. Thus, in the later Dune novels, the sandworms become endangered and even skirt the brink of extinction because the terraforming of Arrakis (the attempt to make it more Earth-like) destroys the desert and therefore disrupts the ecological balance.

Facing the challenge that Herbert's novels open up to us means thinking about the future differently. Whereas the world of Dune is conditioned by the narrative requirements of the story Herbert wanted to tell (as with any exercise in world building), our imaginary visions of our own far future are conditioned solely by the requirements we hold for those unrealised possible worlds. We can therefore confront ourselves with a question that flows inexorably from the story logic of Dune: what would we need to imagine in order for humanity to reach the Tenth Millennium?

If we say that civilisation (whether understood as cities, or as writing, or as both) dates back to roughly 3,200 BC, that would place our current time into the Fifth Millennium, some 52 centuries since civilisation begins. We are thus a little over halfway towards the one hundred centuries - a century century - that would bring us to the Tenth Millennium. What might we need to ensure that happens...?

This is a science fiction premise that bears some semblance of hope for a significant impact on the way we confront our political problems today. We face not only a rising factional distrust that threatens to overwhelm the narratives of human solidarity that inspired us just half a century earlier, but parallel threats to the very conditions of knowledge brought about on the one hand by the undermining of the open practices of scientific investigation, and on the other by a technocratic imperium that is laughably under-diagnosed whether we emblazon its banner with the name 'Big Tech', 'Capitalism', 'the West', 'the Global North', or indeed 'Sci-dolatry'. Arguing over the fault lines in contemporary thought is only making matters worse: we need to try to imagine a different way of coming at our collective problems.

To take on this sci-fi storytelling summons at its fullest extent is to ask more than just 'what if humanity's descendants survive the other half of this arbitrary temporal journey?' Such a vision is only to wonder whether our biological kin have another 48 centuries left in them, and in this regard even The Time Machine has already been there. But what if we up the ante. What if we are asked to imagine not only the survival of descendants of our own species, but the actual survival of this specific species, homo sapiens. What if we further ask how we might help ensure that this happens while keeping all the diversity of human existence we know today?

In other words, what if we were to try to philosophically unravel the world building exercise of Dune with an eye towards turning our imagination towards that least exercised muscle of the science fiction anatomy: utopianism. There is a danger in this word, 'utopia', in so much as it attempts to mark a rarely imagined 'good future'. What we need right now is not so much the fine details of any projected perfection, but rather a set of ideals that might guide us towards any possibility of future perfection. It does not even have to be perfect (it surely never will be). It would be enough to find some way of securing what is good now, such that we might still find that good in our imagined Tenth Millennium.

To begin with, our philosophical world building might benefit from establishing an opponent to spar against, just as Foundation sets the reactionary position of Dune. We have at least two options. Firstly, there are what we might call the extinctionists, who express the modest view that human extinction is inevitable. I'm sure that proposition is correct, but I join with the late Mary Midgley in suggesting that this inevitability is not some deep revelation but rather the most trivial of tautologies that has nothing to offer in respect of the important questions about how we should live. The extinctionists are not the enemies of whatever we might build in our imagination, though, they are merely realism's doom-appeasing offspring. They are people like German film-maker Werner Herzog who sees extinction as nearly unavoidable and somewhat imminent, without letting those beliefs undercut a desire to live for today.

Alternatively, we have the accelerationists. This term is often accused of crawling out of the dark corners Marxist thought, and there certainly is a history to tell there. However, I prefer to anchor this tangentially back to Dune via Zelazny's 1967 Lord of Light, where the term 'Accelerationist' first appears. There are so many fragmentary movements bearing this name, and nobody seems to agree what they are asking for, so I will simply take Zelazny's revolutionaries as the template: an accelerationist seeks to raise the pace of development for new technologies. They may do this because they seek a bizarrely mystical future salvation (such as the Singularity), or because they have fallen into some other kind of sci-dolatry, or they could be that subset of Marxists who schizophrenically believe that capitalism will certainly fail if we keep going like this, and therefore we should accelerate the collapse of civilisation in order to foster revolution. I don't find any of these positions convincing or appealing, but again, even the most reckless fools under this banner are not the enemies of what we might try to imagine, so much as they are Foundation to our Dune. Their mistakes might yet inspire us.

I propose to try to conceive of a third movement, a movement that does not exist and that need never exist, but that might through our imaginings give us another way to think about these problems. Following on from the Dune-inspired image of a Tenth Millennium, a century of centuries, I propose to call this phantasmal movement ascenturians, combining the theme of a hundred from 'centurion' and the fantasy of 'ascent' in the satisfyingly ludicrous sense appropriated by Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man. The is pure teleology, that is, the ascription of purposes rather than causes, which is forbidden today. But our fictional ascenturians are invited to embrace this mythology for the same reasons that Mary Midley was forced to remark that the idea of purpose is not as dispensable as many have tried to insist. Arguing against Richard Dawkins' anti-teleological view of life, she wrote:

Dawkins’s claim that the universe contains “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good” cannot be right. For it is obvious that our own planet - which is certainly part of the universe - is riddled with purpose. It is full of organisms, beings which all steadily pursue their own characteristic ways of life, beings that can only be understood by grasping the distinctive thing that each of them is trying to be and do.

The fictional credo of the ascenturians, these purely imaginary future people, is to seek to ensure that humanity - in all its diversity - will experience the Tenth Millennium together. What philosophical principles would such people want to consider? What attitudes to society and technology would they seek to foster? What images of equality or disparity might they evoke? These are the themes of ascenturian philosophy, utopian only in the sense that - quite unlike the extinctionists - they envision a future for humanity, and also - quite unlike the accelerationists - they do not place their bets upon provoking disaster in order to seek salvation.

This vision is dedicated to Frank Herbert's Dune, and is beautifully expressed in Tim O'Reilly's encapsulation of the science fiction author's guiding philosophy:

In the kind of universe Herbert sees, where there are no final answers, and no absolute security, adaptability in all its forms - from engineering improvisation to social mobility to genetic variability- is essential. Improvisation is the only security. It is not an absolute security, but relative. Life is always changing and demanding new adaptations.

Welcome to the limitless fantasy of the ascenturians, a joyous, optimistic, utterly unrealistic fiction of humanity arriving at the Tenth Millennium together.

Next week: Assembling the Future

Towards Peace

Lone TreeDear friends,

It's been rather a long social media break this time... partly, I have simply been too busy to attend to this side of my affairs, and partly I have not desired this kind of contact since it has not entailed much if any productive discourse recently, and so is merely aggravation and abuse, which I can understandably do without. But I cannot hide forever. There are matters at hand that need attending to.

What is coming up, you might reasonably ask...? Well, starting next Tuesday (11th January), a new five-part serial begins. Nicknamed "The Ascenturian Saga", it is not officially part of the Magical Science Campaign, but that campaign is not officially over either; rather, I see what is about to happen this year as a coda to Magical Science that is also its own mini-campaign on cultural disarmament. This will be followed in mid-February with my video debut as Doctor Multiverse: Renegade Philosopher on Diet Soap Media, about which there will be more anon.

All my philosophical projects this year are aiming at peace through cultural disarmament, and I have two specific fault lines I am targeting: the pro-vaxxer/anti-vaxxer fault line that fuels the nonsense, and the trans activist/lesbian feminist fault line that fuels the culture war. As ever, there are severe problems with aiming for peace in these particular battlegrounds...

For the nonsense, peace might potentially be obtained by putting the pro-vaxxers and the evidence-based medical research community back into discourse (the genuine anti-vaxxers are largely tangential to peace here, and were never truly the root problem). Alas, this is a path made excruciatingly difficult by now-ubiquitous censorship on these issues in both traditional media and social media. But because pro-vaxxers are emotionally committed to the sciences, being merely temporarily divorced from the research community and its essential disagreements as a consequence of the ongoing censorship, there is perhaps some hope for reconciliation here once the fear begins to subside.

However, since the nonsense has been turbo-charged by the blue-red fault line in the United States, the Senate Midterms are both an opportunity and an enormous risk. De-escalation without reconciliation will mean worse to come in the future... I hope to contribute in some small way to restoring medical discourse and thus the old ideals of clinical medicine and informed consent, and if that's not possible I will fall back to defending 'underground science' as long as is necessary. But I dread the harms on this path, which have already been horrific, particularly in Africa and southern Asia, although not for the reasons that are usually assumed by 'Westerners'.

For the culture wars, peace is hampered by the absence of recognisable spokespeople for the trans activists. This makes the hunt for gender armistice exceptionally tricky. On the plus side, the red-blue fault line is tangential here - this is a war fought internally to the 'left', although oft exacerbated by the tactless remarks made by denizens of 'red' States. I desperately wish for peace and a restoration of the Rainbow Alliance, but the attitudes of non-compromise that have grown up around this fault line make it exceptionally challenging to attain any kind of armistice now. But I could not live with myself if I did not at least try to broker peace here, although it will be walking upon a path of thorns to be sure.

Not everyone wants peace, alas, but such is always my goal. To that end, I leave you with a quote from Immanuel Kant's optimistic treatise of 1795, Towards Perpetual Peace:

One cannot expect that kings philosophize or that philosophers become kings. Nor is this desirable, for holding power unavoidably corrupts the free judgment of reason. Yet both kings and king-like peoples (those which rule over themselves in accordance with laws of equality), should not allow the class of philosophers to diminish or fall silent, but rather should have them speak publicly, for this enlightens the business of government, and, because by its very nature it is incapable of forming mobs and clubs, this class is beyond suspicion of being mere propagandists.

With unlimited love to you all,