The Appropriate Appropriation of Doctor Who

Russell T DaviesIn 2021, former and future Doctor Who showrunner, Russell T. Davies stated that only gay actors and actresses should play gay roles in TV and films. His justification? "You wouldn't cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn't black someone up."

Now I don't want to make this entirely about Davies, whose commitment to reviving Doctor Who I greatly admire, because this issue isn't about any one person and goes to the heart of the zeitgeist. Critics on the right side of our increasingly outdated political divide now call these kinds of attitudes 'woke', and are flatly resistant to them - often for bad, kneejerk reasons, sometimes (although the left refuse to admit it) for well-considered, principled reasons. The question of principle is, at heart, the important one here. What principle is Davies and the many others who object to 'cultural appropriation' and its kin trying to act upon here?

I must confess I do not find it clear.

If we were to construct a maxim from Davies' formulation, the obvious choice might be 'do not cast someone in a role that does not match the performer's identity characteristics'. But this formula is nonsense. When casting Nazi characters, must we cast Nazis? Are schizophrenics required to play schizophrenics? Can only a genius painter play Van Gogh? Likewise, if gay performers must play gay characters, does that mean straight performers must play straight characters...? The entire principle of the acting profession is to take on roles that are different from who you are in life. So isn't the key question of casting 'can this person deliver a engaging performance in this role?' not 'do the background circumstances of this character match the circumstances of this performer'? Have we forgotten than acting is entirely a game about consensual deception...?

In terms of Davies analogy with blackface, while it certainly is the case that this practice is now judged utterly scandalous (although Justin Trudeau seems to have weathered this faux pas surprisingly well), it's not always clear which point of offense is supposed to be in play here. Is it meant to be a kind of 'inappropriate appropriation' - i.e. non-black people should not pretend to be black people nor borrow their cultural heritage - or is it that black characters require black performers? Because if so, does this also mean that white roles must only be played by white performers...?

To my knowledge there was no major political firestorm about casting the excellent Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes, who in the original book of Dune has "long sandy hair", is tall and thin, possesses "a sparse beard" and has "fathomless blue eyes under heavy brows". It's absolutely certain that this character is male in the book, and most plausible to assume he is light-skinned. So was this an example of, shall we say, 'appropriate appropriation'? Or is this just a creative casting of a talented actress in a role that the latitude of adaptation leaves open the possibility of a different gender and ethnicity? But if this was not an instance of 'inappropriate appropriation', we ought to ask: why not?

The answer seems to be that the inappropriate forms of cultural appropriation are not underwritten by a positive moral value at all, as clearly indicated by the fact that 'appropriation' is an accusation. What we are dealing with here is a kind of cultural reparations by the backdoor, which is to say, white guilt and its myriad middle class cousins. Because straight, white, males are taken to have had the most power in the past, you can never be considered to have appropriated 'straight', 'white', or 'male' culture. Recasting these identity traits is always fair game. But 'gay' roles must go to gay acting talent, 'black' characters to black performers... in other words, minorities are to be granted privileges that majorities are excluded from. This is what is now sometimes called 'equity', but a more honest name for it might be 'partisan inequality'.

This entire situation is a complete mess. White ethnicities only make up 10% of the humans on this planet - they're not a majority at all. Rather, white people are seen as privileged because European colonial empires (which the United States is now very sadly perpetuating) gathered so much global power. Nowadays, the identity characteristics associated with the most powerful citizens of these historical empires (straight, white, male, and let's not forget Christian) are to be excluded in the name of what amounts to ad hoc reparations. And on this line, I must point out that since it is the former colonial nations where gay people have finally and thankfully won acceptance, those representing gay identities are guaranteed to be beneficiaries of significant degrees of structural privilege as well. It's just not something we notice because we only really pay attention to our shared culture (the colonial culture whose centre of gravity now lies with the United States). We perpetually and wilfully ignore what's going on in Africa, Oceania, the majority of Asia, South America and so on and so forth.

I don't want to harp on Davies too much here... I actually think it was fabulous that his show, It's a Sin, used gay performers for its key roles. But I don't for one second think that a straight actor or actress can't play a gay role, nor that a character written as one ethnicity can't be played as another - the Royal Shakespeare Company has repeatedly demonstrated the tremendous breadth of artistry that can be drawn out by experimenting with casting choices. Yet whenever I try to sympathise with Davies' view that the casting policy he adopted ought to be everyone's moral principle, I have to ask myself the same awkward question: why is a white man being brought in to follow on from the two previous white men, who followed on from the same white man who is being brought back? If we are trying to adopt cultural values that embed some bizarre concept of reparations, why are the relevant positions of power still tending to end up in the hands of white men (even allowing that we might have managed some movement on the 'straight'). Whatever might be happening with the casting of the Doctor, the actual power over this franchise is undeniably still being passed around between white men.

Here's the truth of the situation. Davies is being brought back because the role of showrunner on Doctor Who has become a near impossible job, and there's literally nobody else in a plausible position to take it on. This is a desperation move on the part of the BBC, a kind of metaphorical parachute. I'm sure the BBC would put an ethnic minority in charge if they could, but there's no non-white, non-male showrunner willing and able to do so. Frankly, it wasn't until Chris Chibnall took over the reins that there were non-white writers working on the show. Chibnall opened up the writing pool, but still ended up writing most of the episodes himself, and as a result nobody has gained enough experience to have a hope of mastering the requirements of the top role. It is also relevant here that Doctor Who fandom borders on being a cult, and the membership of this particular congregation is vastly white, male, and English-speaking, myself included.

The absence of anyone who wasn't white and male that could be trusted to take over the most difficult franchise job in global television reflects the structural privileges that allowed Davies to get the job in the first place (and in the political landscape of the BBC of 2005, I can assure you that Davis' being gay was most definitely a selling point, not a liability). The truth is, sadly, Davies might pragmatically be the only person in a position to take over this perilous job right now - and that reflects the very same ethical issue that Davies is attempting to address with his 'gay jobs for gay performers' maxim. We feel a powerful moral pull towards being open to cultural diversity, but we absolutely stink at it because no individual is culturally diverse. Diversity, by its very definition, is a quality of collectives, not of individuals, and no matter how many boxes an individual ticks, they still possess a singular cultural background - their own.

Now take care when we stray into this topic, because nonsense lies just a short distance from the path we want to walk upon. We don't want certain identity characteristics to afford economic and cultural advantages, even though they do. But neither do we apparently want to give up the economic and cultural advantages we in fact all possess to enormous and unprecedented degrees. Gay people, finally accepted after a rather rough millennia or two, are recipients of very similar degrees of structural privilege as straight people because our nations' histories as colonial powers has given us all vast degrees of inherited privilege, an issue to which we are largely blind. It is easy to look up and complain at what the 'haves' have got, but very difficult to look down and recognise that globally you are one of the haves.

When we, the privileged minority of our planet, let either guilt or bias govern our ethical principles concerning culture, gender, sexuality and so forth, we disrespect everyone. Any hiring policy that favours minorities invites the criticism that they were hired for something other than their talent, which fosters greater resentment between our cultural factions. I have no doubt the new performer taking on the role of the Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, will excel in the role - I can't wait to have a chance to discover his Doctor! But let's not pretend that the decision to cast a black actor wasn't political. This just happened to be a situation that middle class guilt will permit as appropriate appropriation.

Likewise, Jodie Whittaker has been a joy as the Doctor, despite all the grumblings this evoked in the corners of the fandom. Moving to a black male actor undoubtedly seemed like the logical succession from the previous appropriate appropriation of casting a woman. But I can't avoid looking at the Dalek in the room: does anyone seriously think that the franchise could have cast another white male as the next lead given the state of the culture wars...? We could quite reasonably ask when or if it will ever be considered permissible to put another white male in this role without it being considering some kind of inappropriate appropriation, despite the fact this is who the character was for half a century. As long as partisan inequality masquerading as equity governs our ethical thinking about society, we are not really addressing our social problems at all, we're simply moving air bubbles around under a sheet of plastic.

Here's a novel thought that's only a few hundred years old: how about we try to approach these issues from the idea that we are all, as humans, equally deserving of respect. This means we should endeavour to respect the differences and similarities of people who are black, brown, gay, trans, Muslim, Zoroastrian and every other quote-unquote minority you might care to mention. But we also have to respect white, straight, Christian, and yes, even unambiguously male people too. Then we don't need to wring our hands at Davies going back to running Doctor Who because, after all, who else at this point is both qualified and willing to take the poison chalice...? But at the same time, we might, if we can just get this right, ensure that the conditions for working on that venerable and wonderful show might come to allow writers, directors and producers from any and all cultural backgrounds a decent shot at getting enough experience working on high-budget television shows that we might, within our lifetimes, have a Doctor Who showrunner who can manage fewer than two out of three of straight, white, male.

Doctor Multiverse, Episode 3: Sci-fi and Censorship

What does it mean to 'stop harmful disinformation myths in their tracks', as the BBC, Google, and Facebook have vouched to do...? Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse in an adventure through the last century of media censorship. At stake is scientific truth itself, for when it comes to the sciences the only way to find out what's true is by having a frank discussion about the evidence. If we prevent that debate, all we're left with is science fiction.


Doctor Multiverse, Episode 2: Daleks and Diversity

If we want diverse societies, we have to be willing to put up with what diversity asks of us. But how far are we willing to go to support diversity? Would we be willing to tolerate Daleks...? Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse as he explores the mysterious and disturbing world of 'intolerant tolerance'.


Doctor Multiverse, Episode 1: Bats and Balrogs

What do we see when we look at a photograph? Much more than the picture itself. We are so skilled at 'filling in the blanks' that we don't always realise how much of ourselves goes into our seeing. Join renegade philosopher Doctor Multiverse in a strange and wondrous exploration of photographs, protests, and bats that might lead you to ask the unlikely question: do Balrog Lives Matter...?

The Ascenturian Saga

The Ascenturian Saga was a serial in five parts that ran here at Only a Game from January 18th to February 8th 2022. Blending science fiction with philosophy, it set off from an examination of the roots of Frank Herbert's novel Dune to explore a purely imaginary people - the ascenturians - who have committed to ensuring that all human diversity reaches the Tenth Millennium after the founding of civilisation, 48 centuries hence. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the five parts:

  1. The Tenth Millennium
  2. Assembling the Future
  3. Sustaining the Present
  4. Restoring the Commons
  5. The Ascenturian Collectives

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!

The Ascenturian Collectives

Borg Cube with Enterprise D.wideWhat are the ascenturians? A movement? A revolution? A collective? Although I began by calling them 'a movement', I would suggest that of all these terms, only 'collective' could possibly apply to the science fictional people capable of taking human civilisation a further 48 centuries to the Tenth Millennium. Yet 'collective' is a risky phrase to take on in the context of sci-fi. After all, the most famous deployment of this phrase comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg Collective. Why would you even want to suggest a comparison with something that has this as its monstrous chat up line:

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

I think it's clear that the Borg's use of the term 'collective' is euphemistic. A better descriptor for the Borg's modus operandi would be 'empire', and they represent the science fiction exemplar of technocratic empire. In fact, it is easy to rewrite the Borg's opening gambit for use by the ancient Roman Empire, once we knock out contemporary terms like 'biological', 'technological', and indeed 'culture':

We are the Roman Empire. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your people and tools to our own. Your tribes will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

Whatever the imaginary ascenturians might be, they are certainly not an empire. But it would be equally wrong to call what is being proposed 'the ascenturian movement' or 'the ascenturian revolution'. All of these terms - movement, revolution, collective - are metaphors of motion, and the images they conjure align with how these terms are used in our language.

Movements have a direction; they start by mobilising people sympathetic to their cause into aligning with their chosen direction, and end by incorporating that direction into everyone in society by reconciling with those that at first had to be opposed. I admire political movements, although it has been half a century since the last successful one, and the 'left' has seemingly entirely lost the necessary virtues, skills, and communities required to even attempt a successful movement. That's because in the contemporary political landscape we are forbidden to ever contemplate reconciliation with 'the enemy' - and that makes all movements impossible. All that are left are attempts at revolutions.

Revolutions, as the name suggests, tend towards being merely rotations. They seek to replace one set of people or values with another set of people or values - spin the wheel, take your chances! Revolutions have a dubious track record... the American Revolution arguably succeeded, while the French Revolution that followed soon after ended in bloody disaster. The question of whether the Iranian Revolution of 1979 succeeded depends upon what criteria for success you are inclined to count, while the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising was brutally crushed. Generally speaking, revolution rotates the people in power, but it does not by itself bring about social change. In so much as the American Revolution succeeded, it did so because it was both a movement and a revolution... the ideals that were instituted in the Declaration of Independence would come, by slow but inexorable roads, to become the ideals of the British as well. This reconciliation and thus eventual alignment of ideals is the mark of a successful movement.

The progressive and conservative factions that blight political discourse today are not even remotely attempting to work as movements, but are merely posturing for either imagined revolutions ('left') or their prevention ('right'). You might even call them 'unrevolutions', but perhaps their failure to bring about meaningful social change is already embedded in the term, especially if you accept my supposition that the few revolutions that do manage to effect a lasting change might be distinguished as 'revolutionary movements'. Even dignifying contemporary progressive and conservative politics with the name 'revolution' might be too generous. What is a good metaphor for a forceful swirling into ever decreasing circles...? A whirlpool? A vortex? A maelstrom?

Collectives imply motion of a different kind. The imagery here is not of movements in a specific direction, but rather metaphors of gravity and orbits. Saturn can be understood as a collective comprised of the planet, its moons and satellites, along with the disparate particles that are seen to our eyes as rings. Many different things held together by a gravitational system that they all participate in. Ascenturians too can only be a collective in this sense... disparate societies and culture bubbles orbiting around the same truth: the intent of ensuring another 4,800 years of human culture, the hope of human diversity lasting to the Tenth Millennium in some form - and we need not imagine what or how that happens for the thought experiment to render aid to our thinking today.

I suggested in the principle of assembly that the ascenturians might 'assemble a plurality of reciprocal collectives of any viable kind.' The metaphor of Saturn and its satellites provides an image of what 'reciprocal collective' means, but there is a danger here. Our mythos is still dominated by Feudal tendencies: it is not by chance that we talk about Saturn as the entity of merit, and everything else as secondary to it, nor indeed that astronomers felt the need to exile the dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris from consideration as planets. I maintain that 'dwarf planets are planets' on purely pragmatic grounds, and this might even serve as an ascenturian rallying cry if it is understood, because accepting dwarf planets as planets necessarily means admitting we do not know everything about planets yet. Likewise, recognising reciprocal collectives entails admitting we do not know everything about humans yet.

To found reciprocal collectives, or to recognise which societies and culture bubbles are already reciprocal collectives, requires us to appreciate what reciprocity entails, namely co-operation for mutual benefit, exchanges both actual and conceptual within collectives where everyone shares an equal status. Yet 'equal status' is far more flexible than we think. Consider just a few examples from the religious traditions. I have always admired the Jewish community for its lack of overt power structure: Rabbis are as much a part of that community as anyone else. But if we try and contrast this negatively against Catholic Christianity's role for a figurehead for their community, the Pope, we may mislead ourselves - for the Pope is as much a participant in Catholic tradition as any other practitioner, and contrary to the way it is usually understood, Catholics these days follow their own conscience far more than they are blindly obedient to edicts from their symbolic leader. Both examples, the Jewish community and the Catholic magisterium, are examples of reciprocal collectives, as is every major religion that successfully holds together a community, just as Saturn holds together its community of celestial objects.

Neither are religions the only source of reciprocal collectives. What impressed me about the LGBT community of the 1990s was precisely this: it was a collective, one of mutual aid, solidarity and love that endured despite its differences. That it later came to fail in this regard does not undermine its earlier successes, but rather an invitation to renew what has been lost. Similarly, I admire the way those who play games around a table together form reciprocal collectives - both in the sense of the wider community of board gamers and role-players, and also in the sense that playing games together strengthens the unity of a family. So too musicians and their fans, who reciprocate asymmetrically (like Catholics and their hierarchy of clergy) but with the same sense of solidarity and community that every religious community engenders - everyone engaging in the musical collective is brought together by a common love, every gig is its own ceremony of solidarity.

All that is required for a reciprocal collective are people united by a common mythos, common practices, or indeed, actual commons. But they must reciprocate, which is to say, share, hold, or exchange certain things collectively, and they must be a collective, which is to say a community of human interaction. This is not simply a matter of holding certain shared identity characteristics: having ginger hair does not magically create a reciprocal collective, not until those with that mere biological feature begin to relate to one another as a community. Likewise, it is no good declaring that we belong to a reciprocal collective because we have chosen to identify as such-and-such. Whether black, woman, lesbian, Asian, Latino, or whatever, these terms do not mark our reciprocal collectives automatically, and so assertion of identity is not sufficient to claim membership (although neither can it preclude membership). There are indeed black communities, communities of women, lesbian communities, Asian communities, Latino communities (although never Latinx communities) and so forth - but what binds them together is not these identity characteristics, which are incidental rather than essential. It is reciprocity, not identity, which binds any community together, and thus those 'on the outside' who want in must begin by respectfully knocking on the door, or else expect rejection.

Collectives do not preclude movements - they can indeed commence them, as the black Christian community began the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s. Likewise, we could imagine ascenturian movements in terms of steps to bring reciprocal collectives together, but as a whole there could not be an overarching capital 'a' Ascenturian movement in the singular, nor should there be any talk of ascenturianism... The suffixes 'ism' and 'ist' imply a certainty not available to an ascenturian, at least not in the context of thinking about ascenturian ideals. Rather, some ideas, concepts, movements, and collectives can be ascenturianish in their approach to the past, present, and future. More than this would be against the ideals of any imagined ascenturian. This implies that even 'collective' is too restrictive a term. There could not be something we could call 'the ascenturian collective', only many things that we could call 'the ascenturian collectives'. This is something the Borg, by stark contrast, could never permit!  

The progressive maelstrom is too focussed on the future and too divorced from the past, such that it casts out as demons and devils its 'enemies', which starts with its conservative opponents but always risks ending with the condemnation of anyone and everyone. You cannot make a successful movement or collective on the principles of the witch hunt. Progressive politics, as currently practiced, is not only alienated from ascenturian thinking, it is a danger to everyone who cannot keep track of the shifting future it happens to be imagining from one moment to the next. Having enthusiastically severed the rope tying it to the anchor of the past, progressive politics has acquired the schizoid paranoia of the French Revolution, where the heroes of one day are to be executed the day after.

Likewise, the conservative whirlpool, while more predictable in its gyrations than the maelstrom that opposes it, is far too focussed upon the past and insufficiently open to imagining the future. It is not even that great at connecting with the past most of the time, although in the last half century it has surpassed the progressives in this regard, since the most recent progressive attitude towards history is to burn it down entirely as offensive to our present sensibilities. In this regard, and quite paradoxically, the unimaginative, future-blind conservative whirlpool is somewhat easier to imagine leaning into ascenturianish thinking than its progressive opponents.

Crucial to the ascenturian concept is that it is not just about trying to ensure human civilisation celebrates its Tenth Millennium, but that it does so by preserving today's human diversity. This might raise objections. Am I saying racism has to be preserved? That warfare will be part of the future? That superstition will last forever? Well, I think pragmatically that all these things and more, depressing though they might be, will last in one form or another for as long as there are humans. We can try to minimise ignorance, prejudice, and fighting, of course, but we will certainly not achieve this through either empire or revolution, and it is telling that the most vehement attacks on bigotry today have in no way reduced hatred but have merely produced new forms of utterly unrepentant bigots espousing radically new forms of hate.

Neither am I saying that the ascenturians fail if the composition of the collectives of the Tenth Millennium do not contain all the diversity of today. I do not doubt this was never on the cards. Some societies and culture bubbles will fall along the way, some ways of thinking and being will become untenable to future situations we cannot imagine, and new ways of being and thinking will doubtless arise to supplement those we are familiar with now. It is not because ascenturians are obligated to build a human zoo that I claim that their imaginary task is to sustain the present - it is that they must be agnostic to the idea that 'the future is on our side' or that 'only the worthy survive'. For this ugly rhetoric, advanced in one form or another by both progressives and conservatives, is just another way of making enemies, of sustaining hatred, warfare, and ignorance.

Ascenturians do not have enemies, only opponents. While technocracy demands that we all follow one path, ascenturians merely hope that our many paths might yet converge upon the Tenth Millennium. Thus the first and most difficult step towards an ascenturian future is to deny our seductive technocratic desire to enforce a singular understanding upon everyone else, even against their will. The truth can only emerge when our own collective is able to talk to all the others and reveal what is true in all worlds, for the truth is the centre of gravity about which we orbit. It is a mistake to say all those moons and fragments orbit Saturn: the centre of gravity of the Saturn collective just happens to be inside the heaviest object, and its true position cannot be found without counting the contributions from every one of them. Likewise, the truth is forever hidden while the most powerful collective asserts its dominance. Rather, truth emerges from the practice of assembling. Everyone is welcome in the collectives, and nobody can ever declare what might or might not belong to these future collectives. All we can do is try to discover these possibilities together.

Throughout this 'Ascenturian Saga', I have proposed principles that might serve to guide our science fictional ascenturians in their thinking about how to sustain human diversity over a further forty eight centuries... but it could never fall to me or to anyone else to specify such principles in perpetuity. What makes a collective ascenturianish is its commitment to thinking about the future in the constant and reaffirming presence of the past - that is, the ascenturianish tendency is that of imagining a future worth having and sustaining a present worth cherishing, because both are informed by the past that made this particular present come to pass. This positive relationship between past, present, and future is the quintessential aspect of all imaginary ascenturians, for it is only by undertaking such a temporal connection that we can welcome all of human diversity - what has been, what is, what is becoming, and what is yet to come.

I proposed six specific principles for my imaginary vision of ascenturian philosophy, but I only ever meant these as a draft, an unwritten constitution for the collectives that is "merely possible", as Immanuel Kant said of his similarly imagined 'realm of ends'. Kant's moral and political philosophy is one of the many things from our collective past that inspires me in this science fiction adventure... Indeed, my ascenturian philosophy is little more than a specific way of imagining Kant's 'realm of ends', although what I am gesturing at is only bound to Kant's philosophy in the way that any present is bound to its past. These future ascenturians probably won't be Kantian in their thought... but they will still owe a debt to Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and all the other thinkers of the Enlightenment, for it is they who sought to unite as 'humans' what had previously been divided by differences presumed to be irreconcilable. Ascenturians are the inheritors of the ideal of the human that has been passed on to us.

Let me end with a confession. If I have tried to present my six principles as viable ways of thinking about the ascenturian problem, I have done so as much through the artifice of the science fiction author as by the conceptual artistry of the philosopher. So as a final rhetorical flourish let me now present these principles in the order that was always intended:

  • The Principle of Assembly: Assemble a plurality of reciprocal collectives of any viable kind.

  • The Principle of Sustainability: Reject accelerating technology for perfectible techniques.

  • The Principle of Commonisation: Create commons that are open to aid in the subsistence of all.

  • The Principle of Elevation: Secure solidarity by eliminating poverty.

  • The Principle of Normalisation: Achieve neutral population growth without abandoning families.

  • The Temporal Principle: Act in the memory of time past and the knowledge of time to come.

For where philosophy cannot persuade, sometimes a good acronym can still manage to take hold. Thus, if you do not wish to think of ascenturians as a future people, you might instead talk about the principles of ASCENT that I have outlined here - not as a gospel to remain unchanged, but as an offering to the present collectives, that we might yet become future collectives capable of healing the break between past (conservative) and future (progressive).

We live in time. Perhaps we should try to discover everything that means to us.

Restoring the Commons

Frakes and Roddenberry.wideWhen actor Jonathan Frakes auditioned for the part of Commander Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he knew nothing about the Star Trek franchise. In one of his last screen tests for the role, he asked how he should understand the future that Gene Roddenberry, the franchise's founder, had in his head. Roddenberry replied: "In the 24th century there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read." Rather like our relationship to the imaginary ascenturians capable of sustaining human diversity into the Tenth Millennium, Roddenberry did not have any idea how such a future would come about. His purpose was to envision a future worth having, not to unpick the philosophical and political problems of how to get there. For our ascenturians, however, we might need to establish some kind of principle that could lead to a future without hunger or greed - a future, in other words, without poverty.

The ascenturians are a science fictional people capable of taking all the diversity of human life today and sustaining it for another 48 centuries. Both co-existence and subsistence over such a long time span require some basis by which the different societies comprising this imagined future can interrelate with one another without exploitation or oppression. I take it as quite essential to the ascenturian dream that poverty is eliminated, or at least defanged in some way, but I leave open the manner in which that might happen. This is important, as we are frequently confused whenever we try to think about wealth.

We tend to look at the ultra-wealthy either with admiration and pride, or else with envy or disgust. Those who sway towards the positive (including the billionaires themselves) tend to underestimate the enormous advantages that helped them build (or more commonly, further build) their fortunes. But equally, those whose bile is raised by the 1% fail to recognise how our own comparative wealth (in global terms) contributes directly and indirectly to the poverty of others elsewhere. As aggravating as it may be to see wealth unnecessarily concentrated in a few essentially random individuals, the political problems of wealth inequality need not be addressed to eliminate poverty, and the issues certainly run deeper than the disdain of the well-off for those with even greater wealth.

To assemble the collectives that might provide a basis for the imaginary ascenturian world of the future, we need some principle under which solidarity can prosper, as I sketched in the principle of assembly. But to secure that condition, we will also need to tackle the problem of poverty. I therefore suggest a principle that can lift those who struggle to subsist out of the horrendous conditions of poverty, where there is not enough water, food, or adequate shelter. The following principle of elevation, while vague, might still be sufficient to establish our intentions:

Secure solidarity by eliminating poverty

It is important not to be mislead about what 'eliminating poverty' actually implies. It need not mean bringing those in the poorer nations up to the wasteful standards of living we have become accustomed to ourselves. I would remind everyone reading that despite the conveniences of contemporary technology, we are still a rather unhappy people, and my experiences in Africa taught me not to misunderstand the relationship between convenience and happiness. The Africans I met in Burkina Faso were far happier people than the Europeans I know, despite having incomprehensibly less of what we presume matters. We may also have to confront the possibility that eliminating poverty means bringing us down to a less wasteful form of life than we currently take for granted. The imaginary ascenturians will have to solve these problems, but we (like Roddenberry) can settle for establishing our ends, while leaving open the question of our means.

This brings us back to the question of the ultra-wealthy. The situations that create extreme concentrations of wealth always entail some essentially random circumstances beyond anyone's control. They rest on starting with access to capital-scale money, like Warren Buffet; on being within the circle of contacts that can supply capital, as with Jeff Bezos who gained such connections by working on Wall Street; upon having access to enough wealth to establish a company can be acquired by a far larger company, like Elon Musk; upon creating a technology that happened by chance to be capable of deployment into a previously unforeseen context for massive profit, like Mark Zuckerberg; or upon a fortunate oversight from a wealthy client corporation, like Bill Gates sleight-of-hand with IBM. Being white and male seems (unsurprisingly) to provide significant assistance too. This is not to say that ultra-wealth is purely a lottery: billionaires do contribute significant decisions towards their own success, and many potential billionaires fail to capitalise on their advantages. Yet it is unavoidable that the circumstances behind all billionaires depend to a great degree upon mere chance, just as the majority of people who live in poverty suffer the random misfortune of having been born into it.

What this implies is that while the ultra-wealthy have the means to change the world in whatever way they desire, they have no special qualifications to understand how or why the world ought to be changed. This is an enormous liability. Tech magnates have a nasty tendency, for instance, to view as 'philanthropy' their desire to spread their technology around the world... this is an understandable impulse - like calls to like - but it is overly generous to consider this merely as beneficent charity. Rather, this ought to be seen as a kind of colonial philanthropy... the empires of the Age of Sail, after all, also viewed their occupation of other nations as a beneficent 'civilising mission'. We are at great risk of continuing to repeat this mistake through our dogmatic propagation of accelerating technology.

The only truly altruistic form of philanthropy would be blind to its own agenda; this is not something that can be claimed of organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has fostered a form of corporate globalisation that is unquestionably made in the image of its founder. From the perspective of wealthy nations, the charitable activities Bill Gates conducts seem worthy enough... but this is all too frequently an illusion caused by our own cultural biases. Eradicating polio, for instance, seems like a worthy enough end. Yet every campaign to eradicate a disease entails co-opting the health systems of numerous countries where that disease wealthy white people fret about is a rather insignificant health risk, thus turning a blind eye towards (or even exacerbating) more immediate health concerns. Colonial philanthropy enforces its own ideology onto the world.

What I propose as an alternative is something radical: the use of the surplus capital that has accumulated (in part by pure chance) around the ultra-wealthy to create access to funding for anyone who needs it. Rather like the micro-finance non-profit organisation Kiva, which provides small loans to small businesses in places where money is hard to come by, access to charitable finance could be arranged by request, rather than by imperial magnanimity. Imagine the creation of a common pool of money that provides access to the small scale funding that communities need to solve their problems. This can operate rather like a bank, but a bank with the unprecedented remit to be allowed to lose money to overcome poverty. This is far from unthinkable. And the creation of such a fund - what might be called 'a capital commons' - would only require the ultra-wealthy to demonstrate the charitable impulse they are so fond of telling us they possess by giving money to a common fund over which they themselves no longer possess authoritative control.

I call this 'a commons', but we are quite far from remembering what this term means. In its original sense, this referred to land - village commons, common pasture, or wastelands on manor estates that any 'commoner' was free to use to gather wood or hunt game. These concepts date back to before the the rise of industrial economics, and Ivan Illich is surely correct to suggest that the arrival and acceleration of industry in the 19th century saw not only the enclosure of the commons, but the corresponding transformation of all forms of common lands into resources. Although ecologists managed to keep 'the commons' as a term in circulation through environmental concerns via what Garret Hardin dubbed in 1968 'the tragedy of the commons', almost immediately these terms were degraded back into industrial economic terms. Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom, for instance, preferred the term 'common-pool resource', and although her work was important and worthy of the praise it received, this framing of the commons as resources falls prey of everything Illich warns is entailed in the war on subsistence that industrial politics unleashed.

Most discussions of the commons focus upon the term as it was used in England, which is understandable given that most international law descends from English jurisprudence to at least some degree. But this is also highly problematic, as it will tend to draw us into thinking about these issues in terms of property, and a compelling case can be made that the commons are diametrically opposed to property claims. If we stick to thinking in terms of the history of English law, the commons were always owned by the manor and hence by the nobility, for all that free use of the spaces unfit for farming were granted to the commoners. The danger in looking at it this way now is that we might place 'law' above 'custom' in a situation that blurs the fact that the law is in itself only custom. As a result, there is much to be gained from looking at these problems in terms of the situations facing many different nations.

India, as just one example, inherited English law from colonial occupation, but has recognised a concept of village commons under a variety of different names for millennia. These lands were used as grazing pasture, or to maintain pools of water for cattle to drink or bathe in, for storing harvested grain, as a threshing floor, as playing fields for children, carnivals, and circuses, even as cremation grounds or graveyards. As legal systems grew up, they incorporated these communal lands as inalienable property of the villages that used them. Since Indian independence, however, these village commons have been gradually and unscrupulously acquired or occupied by property developers, either by illegal encroachment or through nefarious political machinations. Yet in January 2011, the Supreme Court of India took a heroic stand in defence of the village commons in the case of a village pond in the State of Punjab, which had been filled in by property developers. The courts forced the developers to restore the lands to the community.

This idea of the commons as land also provides an alternative or supplement to the capital commons I previously suggested. Another way that the ultra-wealthy could act in an authentically philanthropic manner would be to buy up land in order to restore it to the state of commons. Land purchased in this way would be secured for the use of everyone but only for the purposes of subsistence or everyday life, never as a commercial resource. This differs from the notion of a national park or similar reserve, and I do not want to downplay the merit in these kinds of land protection as well. But if our interest is in eliminating poverty, one previously unconsidered way to do so would be to turn land back into commons that are no longer eligible for the extraction of commercial resources, nor for the construction of buildings or factories. These new common lands would be free for anyone to roam, to gather wood, to grow or forage for food, to take water, to graze cattle, to bury or cremate the dead, or just to amuse themselves. It is heresy to propose such a regression of the state of property. Yet it is a heresy with the power to end poverty.

Why even suggest recreating common land? Why not focus on spreading wealth in the form of money? The answer is that just like a casino, the game of money is inherently stacked towards the house. What we call 'the developed world' has all the advantages, while what we call 'the developing world' are merely punters invited onto our gaming tables. It's far from clear that it is in their best interests for the poorer nations to play this game, since the essence of all industrial development is that whoever got there first has the insurmountable advantage (and this is especially true for banks). Extending these conditions to those places that have not yet succumbed to industrialisation is far less likely to end poverty than has been assumed, especially while we continue to raise the bar via ever more luxuriant technologies. Conversely, a patchwork of land commons (that are free for everyone) and reserves (wild lands) offer a potential path back to subsistence - a wholly unthinkable yet nonetheless utterly viable alternative solution to poverty that also happens to be more sustainable than any industrial solution yet proposed.

These two ideas - that of a capital commons, and that of restoring land to the commons - are compatible, and are doubtless not the only ways that we could fulfil the purpose of the principle of elevation that aims at eliminating poverty. Nonetheless, I would suggest as another guideline for our fictional ascenturians a principle of commonisation that could be stated as follows:

Create commons that are open to aid in the subsistence of all

I leave out the mention of 'capital' explicitly here (I don't want to rule out those fanciful futures where 'capital' loses its meaning) but the principle works for both capital commons and land commons, and indeed for many other kinds of commons that offer mutual benefits through cooperation. We have only just begun to explore creative commons, for instance, although perhaps it would be truer to say we have only just rediscovered them, since folklore was a magnificent cultural commons right up until the point we invented 'cultural appropriation' in order to both monetise and puritanise it.

It might be doubted whether the ultra-wealthy would consider supporting anything like these proposals for a philanthropy of the commons. Yet if this were to become what our future ascenturians saw as the only legitimate form of philanthropy - because all commons possess a certain immunity to colonial impulses - billionaires would have little choice but to accept these ideals as the conditions for charity going forward. What's more, they could still salve their vanity by choosing which of the many possible commons to donate funds towards. Perhaps it would be necessary for a few nations to contribute a tiny proportion of their tax revenue to get the ball rolling, but given how much money is squandered on things unnecessary or even harmful, it is far from unthinkable that this could be achieved. As with every aspect of this science fiction story we are writing, it does not have to be likely for it to be capable of being imagined. And I can imagine no better way for Jeff Bezos to atone for using the name 'Amazon' than to be personally responsible for buying all the land encroaching upon that rainforest and restoring it to the commons.

Creating a capital commons provides a route out of poverty by assuring that access to money is available to everyone, which would be a novel path to consider in itself. But creating a network of global land commons would be even more revolutionary - especially if, like the English bridleways, these lands could be connected. On such a path to the future, it becomes possible once again for people to choose to live through subsistence instead of being dependent upon the products of industrial production for their continued existence. It does not matter, from the perspective of our imaginary ascenturians, how many would choose subsistence and how many would prefer the seductive conveniences of industrial life. Either way, the principle of commonisation opens doors to previously unthinkable future forms of life where poverty can be rendered impossible. We cannot all become Kings and Queens, no matter how we organise society, but anyone can be a commoner - and the more we hold in common, the richer we all become. 

Gene Roddenberry's dream was that in the future there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read. The dream I want to put into the minds of our science fictional ascenturians is that the restoration of the commons might protect against hunger, that greed might be blunted by the transfer of surplus wealth into community assets that are then no longer available as industrial resources, and that by learning how to share these newly restored commons we might discover how to live together. As for every child knowing how to read... that would be nice. But it is more than enough for me that we can imagine a future where children might still have a world worth living in.

Next week: The Ascenturian Collectives

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