Search

Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing

Category

Politics

Coconut or P*ki – neither one thing nor another

I’ve deliberated about this post for a while. Partly because it’s about my identity as a person but also because there’s a lot I want to say which is nuanced and hard to articulate in the current landscape without inevitably coming up against gatekeepers and people who think they have the right to adjudicate the idea of belonging.

I write (a lot) about identity. I tend to focus on those places where I intersect with attitudes and opinions which would diminish me or seek to flat out ignore me. Often I’ve tried to talk about a lack of understanding which can lead to marginalisation for no other reason than a lack of language with which to engage. In my work for various literary prizes, through involvement with inclusion discussions at work and elsewhere I’ve become aware of something I think is worth talking about; the idea of majority vs. minority voices.

Much of the debate about race and identity at the moment appears centred around Whiteness. When I talk about that I mean it is about Whiteness vs, everyone else. As a necessary corrective here in the West (and wherever Whiteness is seen as some kind of innate virtue) it is also the gateway through which other identities are forged.

The problem is that in an effort to represent those other identities a lens of nationhood is used and the same kind of purity language is deployed by people on all sides as to what it means to be ‘X’.

I’m not Indian, nor White British/Irish/French, nor Ukrainian or Egyptian (the main identifiable nationalities of my grandparents) The rather provocative title above is meant to reflect how I feel so often among my peers. Among my South Asian friends I’m not really Indian – I don’t speak urdu, hindi and I don’t identify as Hindu or Muslim. I don’t have immediate family on the continent either, so my roots there are effectively non-existent.

Nor are we in contact with my father’s family for a host of reasons but it also means I have effectively nothing deeper than my parents. Yet I can’t easily look to my Britishness because I’m not White. I say Britishness as so many BIPOC do when referring to the UK because we long for the unity and togetherness the idea of the Union brings rather than the terrifying tribalism of English/Welsh/Scottish – a form of identification which seems a torn flag away from excluding us forever. White people ask me to talk about race, they ask me about Indian food (and hey, I’m a foodie so I can at least oblige) and they expect me to understand their awkwardness when it comes to talking about the colour of my skin – because it’s an ever present subject for them. On the one hand I’m not authentically brown enough for my Indian friends (and the word coconut is pretty pejorative, let’s be clear) but at school and in the street I’m just another Paki.

I write about this because I see a blindness occurring among allies which I want us to be aware of because it goes to the heart of who I am and how I engage with the world. As someone of mixed heritage I’m a liminal person. I don’t fit in with nationalistic or stereotypical ideas of identity. And people who do think of mixed heritage too often fall into the openly hostile or gatekeeping variety, demanding I align myself to one or other. ‘Why don’t you speak Urdu, man?’, or ‘I don’t think of you as coloured,’ being two of my least favourite.

Yet this is only half the story. As a friend of mine once astutely remarked – with my background there’s not a place in the world I could go where someone won’t hate me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not all sad and depressed about this and I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m 45 – I’ve had plenty of time to get to grips with this state of affairs.

What I am concerned about is the conflating of majority non-White populations with anyone who’s not White. You see it in discussions about representation all over and about who is allowed to write what. Am I allowed to write about Indian characters because I’m a second generation immigrant who was brought up centred in White cultural norms? It’s a serious question I’ve asked myself.

People like me, people with mixed heritage OR who are second/third/Xth generation immigrants should not be mixed up with majority populations elsewhere. The fact that bestsellers in their own contexts like Cixin Liu’s books are being translated in English is fantastic. The fact I can read Nigerian SFF and watch Egyptian TV series about the paranormal are both amazing. Yet they are NOT representation in the ways allies tend to think. They are the voices of other majority populations, embodying their cultural values and their ideas about the world – and you’ll find no judgement from me in the arrival of those voices. I love it even if I think we consumers are too uncritical of those voices right now.

The problem I have is we let them stand in for proper representation, use them to substitute for doing the proper work of creating an inclusive society. It’s easy to commission the translation of an already best selling TV show or novel and we can pat ourselves on the back for bringing alternative voices to market. Except what we’re doing is again privileging majority voices. Because in each case there are more people with Chinese (c.1.4bn) and Indian (c.1.4bn) and Pakistani (c.230m) and Nigerian (c.200m) ID papers than British (c.70m) and the majority populations in each of those nations are engaged in their own battles about representation and what it means to be them with minority voices battling to be heard.

Giving voice to other majority populations is not the same as representation. It’s still a VERY GOOD thing for an open society but it is also too easy to use that to erase the need for voices from people who live among us, who live in our culture and are a part of our daily lives.

This last year I’ve become increasingly concerned that the focus on White supremacy is, while incredibly and persistently necessary, also creating a situation in which we simply lump everyone who’s not a White Supremacist into the same smoothed out bucket. It’s also making it that bit harder for criticism to be levelled against other majority populations in the business of suppressing and erasing their own minority voices.

Like I say, this is a difficult subject to write about because there are so many groups who can read what I’ve written and take offence (or even take comfort that they’re not the bad actors when they really are). The real world of representation is working with and serving those minority voices in our midst, not importing majority voices which are distinct from our own. The former is doing the labour, the latter is simply being an open society. I realise both are being challenged right now but honestly, the former is the more important because without it, and the cultural inoculation it provides, the latter will be used to power the machines of stereotype and to pedal soft power.

Back to front

There’s a lot of discussion about algorithms at the moment. Algorithms are nothing more than recipes. If people say ‘algorithm’ they normally mean the recipe for whatever they’re talking about. A mathematical algorithm for finding a solution? Think the recipe for finding the solution.

Why do I care about algorithms and whether we should really call them recipes (the analogy isn’t perfect, don’t @me, I’m quite aware)? Mainly because the discussion about algorithms in the public sphere relates almost exclusively to social media and how these processing recipes lead users to ever more extreme and unpleasant content.

I’ve been quite concerned with this book over the last few days. Reminded as I was by a lecture by the author in which they said something I had entirely missed in my general thinking about the kind of content we’re shown online. I am almost embarrassed to admit it as well – because I like to think I ruminate on economics quite a lot.

As a reminder, the book is called: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power and is written by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff has written a lot about this subject but this book is (despite the cover being uninspiring) a very good piece of work.

I don’t want to talk too much about the book except I want to draw out one key idea because it should turn your world upside down a bit.

First though. We have been told all over the place by tech-bros, concerned citizens (I’m in this category), opinion piece writers and others that the algorithms which we look at blaming for the slow radicalisation of people as bland and formerly innocent as our grandmothers, our friends and our children are i) in need of fixing and ii) often beyond understandding.

We’re told that these algorithms are often the product of unconscious bias (such as when facial recognition software didn’t recognise PoC as human or when Google associated PoC with gorillas in image search software). We’re told it’s a side effect but one which makes them money and so they’re loathe to change their ways. We’re told it’s the tail wagging the dog – unfortunate but fixable.

Zuboff dismisses this idea and reminds us these companies have made their fortunes by learning about us. So far so not surprising. Yet Zuboff then reminds the economically literate among us what that learning is good for. It’s not good for knowing what we did in the past because we can’t make money from that. Nor is it good for knowing what we’re doing now – again, I can make money on what you’re interested in NOW but it’s not the prize. The real prize from this learning is to know what you’re trending towards tomorrow – because then I can make real money from knowing your future tastes and preferences.

Zuboff then reminds us about the point of advertising – not simply to let us know a product is available, but to create a felt need we didn’t know we had and then sell us the solution for that sudden new found desire.

In short, these algorithms are designed to do two things.

  1. They’re designed to predict what we’ll want to buy tomorrow
  2. They’re designed to push us into buying products we don’t know we needed today.

Algorithmic drift into showing you more extremist material such as racist content, anti-vax nonsense, anti-elite conspiracies serve the two goals above. Why? Because these drifts don’t exist in a vacuum – social media companies (and let’s be honest, we’re only really talking Google and FB in liberal societies) are selling these predictions to companies – telling them they can guarantee purchases and eyeballs on adverts. Deliberate drift to extreme material is proven to guarantee both of those things.

Furthermore, there is an argument which goes like this: SM companies could see extremist material was both attractive to many people and a direction society was moving in, in part because of their exposure via SM companies’ activities, and they had a choice:

i) do they change their business model to avoid these excesses, or

ii) do they lean into extremism knowing their activity will appreciably shift society that way and thereby increase their revenue

Zuboff, among others, suggest only the second of those two options can be true without regulation.

So in the discussion around free speech this week (and possibly next?) you’ll see lots of back and forth over whether private companies have the right yadda yadda yadda. What you won’t see (yet) is much on whether these companies deliberately created these environments exactly with the intent of fostering extreme content to increase revenues.

My proposition is this: the tail never wagged the dog. The algorithms we’ve seen were designed explicitly to monetise user data by predicting their behaviour and nudging them towards it in order to create opportunities for companies they were pitching their services to. This has always been the dog wagging its tail.

Over the next few months as regulation becomes a more central concern of liberal governments (with the possible exception of the current far right UK conservative government) one key plank of companies’ defence will be it wasn’t their fault – they were, at worst, as surprised as us by the outcomes. Do not believe them. This isn’t about free speech – that is a distraction – and a different argument. This is about whether companies with our personal lives stored on their servers should be required to treat that data not as if it’s their never ending gold mine but as if it’s something to which privacy and political standards around propaganda and manipulation should be applied.

Memetic Defences (part 2)

Or how to tell a different story to build the world you want

Important point – if you’re interested in the strategies for making the world a better place, skip down to Article one and read from there.

Part one of this pair of essays was essentially the groundwork – laying out my thinking on memetic defences (and I swear that’s the last time I’ll use that phrase). I wanted to explore some of what we think we mean when we talk about open societies vs. closed and whether open societies are really as weak to malign influences as we can sometimes assume. The short answer is that we’re not and the virulent policing done by closed societies is really just a sign of how weak they are compared to open societies. It’s the difference between consent driven policing and marshal law.

This second part is concerned with taking our thinking forward and asking (and partially answering) one big question – how do we actively defend the features of open societies we are generally fond of? Not least, the openness, the honesty and the reflection I discussed in part 1?

I would like to say it’s all story – and if you know me in meatspace you’ve probably heard me say this a few times. Except I want to step away from that because I no longer believe it’s entirely true.

There are two enemies of the open society – the internal and the external. For example, we can easily identify Russia as an external existential threat to the European/Anglo-Saxon project of open societies. They have been busy poisoning and murdering their enemies in our territories and funding misinformation, lies and political operators driven only by their own benefit. And it works because the internal enemies of the open society are those who i) wish to make themselves invulnerable to the accountability built into open societies while ii) reaping their benefits. We can and should also identify other specific external national voices as opponents (rather than enemies) of the open society and they are inter alia China and certain theocracies in the Middle East. China is not an opponent in the same sense as Russia because their opposition comes from their own view of how the world should be constituted – which is deeply nationalistic and centred on the benefits of a close society – which is, by definition, against the promotion of open societies. Could they become antagonistic rather than expansionary? Of course, but we’re little different and hence I don’t see that as the same problem right now as I do the internal enemies of open societies we have here in the UK and the USA.

Our real enemies here are internal. I’d love it to be otherwise but I can’t see anyone really being as threatening to the idea of equality, openness, honesty and reflection as those who oppose from within the remit of the societies we live within.

What is my reasoning for this? We start with a government who is aping the populist, truth independent and deeply corrupt practices of self enrichment at the cost of all else we have seen promoted by the republican administration in the US. The Goodlaw Project’s identification of the misuse of public funds during COVID has been exhaustive and thorough and has revealed with startling clarity that a certain class of already very rich white publicly educated upper class English people has simply used a national crisis as an opportunity to make out like bandits and rob their constituents without even bothering to deny their actions. Furthermore we have literally seen (with the Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings fiascos) bald statements from senior government officials that the law only applies to others and exceptions should be made for them. This isn’t just an attack on truth, openness and reflection by stymieing its operation, it is a stab to its heart by simply ignoring it as something important.

Now, the point of this post was to talk about ways forward, not to lay out the crimes of dipshits who care nothing for their constituents but only for the people they serve.

So what do we do about this?

Well, it does start with story but it doesn’t end there. Everything is about the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell one another. A fantastic example is from Mark Carney’s Reith lectures this year where he reiterates research done by Michael Sandel and others around the effectiveness of penalties on bad behaviour. What they showed was what penalties act for some, particularly those with resources, not as a social stigma but as a form of permission to act badly. The most famous of these studies was one where a nursery found parents were coming late to pick up their children. They instituted a fine system but found MORE parents were coming late rather than fewer. It turned out the fines let parents feel ok about coming late because it acted not as a penalty but as a fee. Poor parents were penalised, rich parents felt they were getting an additional service.

It was better when people were told off and asked not to do it, when people were encouraged when they did the right thing and, most importantly, when other parents told latecomers they were in the wrong. I have seen this first hand and it guides certain small activities I always engage in. For instance, I always says thank you to people who are serving me in a shop. I always ask how they are and I have taken every opportunity to intervene when I see them being mistreated.

I always say thank you to people who stop for me as a pedestrian at a pelican crossing because I have seen enough instances of people not stopping to mean I want those who do stop to know it’s a good thing they’ve done (even if they’re just obeying the law).

I try, in my normal life, to normalise praise and encouragement for people who do what they should do (even if doing it is mandatory). Why? Because I want them to have the story that doing the right thing is praiseworthy.

Article one: we do not praise people enough. And we certainly don’t praise people enough for doing what they should be doing anyway. I have little evidence to say it works except, for instance, this: I run a lot. I say hello to everyone I meet. And now, people I pass on my regular runs say hello to me first. It’s a change of atmosphere. It is the same with walking the dog – my wife always says hello and we have discovered some lonely people who now stop to talk to us every time. This is simple community building but it’s much deeper than that. So. Normalise praising one another and praise one another for doing the right thing. If they say ‘I’m only doing what I should,’ then amazing, social norm achieved!

Article two: give air time to those who tell stories of the world the way you want it to be. Tell those stories yourself. Retell them to others. We give too much airtime to people who upset us – be they politicians, racists, TERFs or others. STOP IT. We should be aware of them but we should NOT be giving them airtime. We should, instead, be telling the stories of the good we see in the world, of the wonderful things we’ve seen happen and how we came across them. The more we nurture these good things the more they will grow and fill the airwaves. Sometimes, sure, we have to directly oppose those who would do us harm and I’m all for that, but that’s an endgame. For as much as possible we should be telling stories of blessing and encouragement to those around us. Ok, so here’s two examples. I’m a MASSIVE fan of both the new series of She Ra and of Star Trek Discovery. I’m a fan both because they’re brilliant pieces of fiction but also because they tell stories about a world which exemplifies the kind of values I want to see normalised where I live. It’s also an important strategy for ensuring the Overton window moves in the direction we want it to. Every time we highlight something bad rather than tell the story of something good we are actually doing the work of those who hate for them because exposure normalises.

Article three: there is no ‘winning’, there is only constant recreation of the culture we want to live in. Too often I grow tired of seeing ‘nothing change’ but the truth of the matter is, if I stop talking about the world I want to see, stop talking about the way I want it to be and stop acting to make it so, then it will change and not for the better because others are every bit as invested as I am in remaking the world in a way that suits them. The problem is they’re White supremacists, Indian Nationalists, German Fascists, TERFS, whatever. And this really comes to a deeper point – we need to normalise being politically active. I don’t just mean being a member of a political party – I mean being active in your community, being active in making your voice heard – whether that’s writing to your MP, joining committees at work, creating silly things like running clubs of movie nights or whatever it might be. We have seen in the post war dividend and the rise of corporate globalisation the downside that we’ve been alienated from our political lives. We have them but it works best for certain powerful vested interested if you and I don’t actually act as political beings – because it then leaves others unopposed. These days we tend to regard being political as a thing which we add on to who we are. Instead we should normalise the fact that all humans, all stories, all activity, is political in nature and act accordingly. It might seem tiring but it’s really only tiring when we try to add it on rather than letting it be part of who we are. If you have children and want them to have the best world possible? Then you need to be political and you need to help them understand that homo sapiens is a political animal, not a happiness seeking one.

Finally – Article four: Protect the stories you want to see triumph. Too often in my life I’ve seen ‘allies’ expect me to do the work, to fight the fight and allow them the space to say they’re on my side. That’s not enough. Not for me and certainly not to build a society which is open. Allies need to see themselves as more than people who are alongside those under fire. The apostle Paul writes something along the lines of ‘if you succeed I celebrate with you but if you fall I suffer with you.’ Excuse my paraphrasing for my own benefit. The point is this: we are all potentially allies to someone in need of our support and we need to normalise acting as if it was us being attacked directly. I’ve often seen the counter attack ‘I don’t see any X people saying this is a problem’ by racists, sexists, whatever. This is because they’re probably too tired, depressed or frightened to speak up. The fact Allies are fighting for them is exactly what these scum bags are afraid of. We need to normalise stepping in. We need to normalise making it a social problem when racists and sexists et al express their horrendous opinions. We should have zero tolerance. We are the good samaritan. I sometimes think people get tired of it but I’ve found a way to bypass that issue. When I see these events occur? I have nurtured a sense of ‘this is my space you’ve come to shit all over and I won’t have it.’ Righteous anger is a good thing where it’s put in the service of other people’s dignity.

I hope these ideas are of some use to you. I hope you see there is always hope even when our own governments are trying to strategise against us. Thank you for reading this and see you all soon.

Following this I think there’ll be a final essay on how we engage with those who differ from us – not on social media because there’s absolutely not point with the way it’s structured and with the incentives it provides – but in the flesh. Additionally, there’s no getting away from the fact that social inequality breeds social division and unravels social cohesion. There’s definitely more to say on this too because no matter how good a story is, if it’s moving in the opposite direction to people’s experience it runs the danger of losing its power to change the world.

Memetic Defences (part 1)

I owe this post directly to ideas raised in Rian Hughes’ amazing novel XX. Basically you need to gird your loins, find a comfortable reading chair and dive in – because it’s worth your time in ideas alone.

Gushing praise aside. Are you a believer in memes? I don’t mean this in the sense of this kind of thing. I mean in the Dawkins sense of the phrase. Indeed, as much as I think Dawkins is a loathsome man, the idea of memes as cultural genes looking to reproduce and drive meaning through a substrate which can support them (i.e. brains) is one which is very popular among a certain section of popular thinking.

I’m not a meme true believer. I think the very idea is pretty easily rebutted unless you broaden out the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to such huge landscapes it effectively becomes a meaningless self-congratulatory platitude.

However. Ideas are interesting things. Philosophically, if we can avoid the onanism which tends to accompany debates around subject such as ideas by people who get paid to think about ideas for a living then there’s some rich and insightful ideas there for us to luxuriate in.

The question for me today is pretty narrow though – can an open society develop protective measures against ideas and trends which would harm it (even potentially leading to its downfall)?

To answer this question we have to make a number of assumptions – the first of which, and easily the most important, is that ideas can exist independently of people. You might say this is obviously true – books being the most easily raised example. I would suggest that’s kind of like asking if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound? If there are not people to define what a sound is then the answer is no – there is no sound, because no creature who does experience the waveforms we might call sound would articulate they heard anything. If a book exists and no one’s reading it, do the ideas in that book cease to exist?

Let’s assume they continue to exist.

The second assumption here is ideas compete with one another for supremacy. I think this one is even more tenuous. Is there such a thing as a stand alone idea? Gravity you might say, or being alive, or the taste of chocolate or wanting to avoid pain or looking after our children. Each of the preceding statements is easy to express but they are hardly self contained concepts. Gravity requires an entire education in maths and physics to grasp. Wanting to avoid pain – a common enough motivation (is it an idea?) is one which needs to be learned, needs to be communicated and then factored into a much larger social construct which says some people like some kinds of pain, some people are prepared to experience pain for others’ good and on and on. Basically, no idea arrives in the world all alone and ready to ‘compete’, it is always part of a larger structure of cultural ideas into which it fits, its edges exceptionally blurry. (I shall avoid quoting Wittgenstein here because this isn’t a postgraduate thesis).

But again, let’s assume that at some level ideas can compete, or at least overwhelm others and push them out, for instance the idea that there’s an Aether or that the British Empire existed to ‘civilise’ its inhabitants.

Why? Because when I look at censorship, particularly in places like China you could, if you were so minded, called their strategy one of memetic defence – an active strategy of promoting memes which agree with the CCP’s view of the world and actively suppressing those which don’t. Some of this is done via explicit censorship but the rest is done via the fruits of the first. The more successful you are building a wall around which ideas are acceptable and which aren’t the more the culture engaged in those ‘acceptable’ ideas will, of its own accord, defend that space. That defence will be internal, rooting out bad actors within but also outward looking by attacking those who express contrary ideas or who, gasp, attack the memetic defence itself. You could read the brigading of media companies who create content critical of China as exactly this strategy in execution. They successfully have those outside their memetic space change their behaviour, both increasing the influence of their cadre of successful ideas but also pushing back on ideas which might challenge their view of the world. It is political warfare, plain and simple and a fantastic example of ‘soft power’.

I’m not saying anything here about the exceptionally complex relationship of different political and cultural ideologies colliding – I’m make no judgements in this piece, just stating an idea using specific examples which from my (obviously politically charged position) seem like clearly demonstrating what I’m trying to say.

The question is, do liberal societies have similar defence mechanisms?

And, of course, the answer is yes. However, they might not be ones we’re all to impressed by when we start to understand what they are and how they function. So the secondary question is, are there mechanisms which we think we can deploy/develop to protect that we cherish in liberal/open societies?

The most obvious answers to the initial question is yes. History and the story of our cultural legacies act as a huge break/inertial dampener on new ideas, especially ones which don’t necessarily fit with our ideas of where we come from and what makes our culture distinct. These are also expressed in education, through the press, content generation in the media and via Government policy.

The key difference for an open society is how its openness operates. I would probably use a scale/grid where open societies value two things – honesty and reflection. The first (as we see in the current British government which lies first and denies second) is critical to continued openness because it allows the cultivation of an intellectual space where all voices matter because it’s what they have to say which is important, not who’s saying it and how closely they cleave to the way the powerful dream of the world being.

The second is also critical because open societies are characterised by their ability to integrate new ways of thinking and allow failure of policy to be addressed and learned from. High honesty and high habits of reflection are the watermarks of truly open societies.

Now. Openness and reflexiveness are two human traits which it is horribly easy to suppress. Honesty can see the messenger shot or can be actively discouraged because it shows others in bad ways. Effectively, these two habits/ideas are ones which require constant reinforcement in the sinews of the culture in which they’re being cultivated and as such, even the act of doing nothing, of staying silent around them, can lead to their weakening as desired virtues. Indeed, they’re also hard and can often be found to threaten vested interests, so political pressures can also lead to them being suppressed.

Finally, honesty and reflection do not provide easy fixes or people onto whom we can shift the blame (because they deny us the right to delude ourselves for a start) and so we see a third pressure to suppress them.

This isn’t to say they’re doomed to being crushed, it’s to say that those of us who encounter these ideas and like open societies have to always be armed to defend these traits.

I would posit that in the last twenty years we have seen a concerted attempt in Western Open societies to shift what people call the Overton Window towards a less open, less critical more deferential culture. It’s been painted as one of individualism but it’s really just a way of deconstructing social cohesion rather than proper libertarianism (even if libertarianism has grown as a result). If the Overton Window is the box which at any particular moment defines acceptable ideas, the growth of anti-intellectualism and the resurgence of fascist strands of thinking within that window are deeply worrying not just existentially but for the kinds of open society I grew up in and have been promoting throughout my life.

In some ways all I’m saying is we now have a society in which brexit and Trump’s brand of narcissistic white supremacism are not simply acceptable regardless of the clear and factual damage they do even to their adherents but are considered fundamentally centrist enough for millions of people to vote for them.

We have defence mechanisms but they appear to have failed. I’m going to stop here in this post but will come back for a second post shortly in which i discuss why they’ve failed and what we *might* be able to do about it if we’re interested in actively defending the idea of open societies, firstly internally and secondly externally.

The financial impact of Covid 19

I’ve just read and watched the unprecedented statement from the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shortly after him, within a matter of hours or days the US Congress will come to a similar place – with their own twist on it of course.

Someone asked me just what this money is. Where does it come from and what is it really – a loan, a repo or something else, maybe money printing.
The answer is, qualitatively the same for all people putting in place fiscal stimulus right now.

It’s based on several things but probably the best analogue are the warbonds which had no maturity but would be called at the appropriate time (the last of which weren’t called until last decade). It is unprecedented. It’s also impossible to foresee the long term consequences of this. I’m sure people are thinking about them. Ironically perhaps – this is how you get inflation because supply side is going to become more and more strained the longer borders are closed and people can’t work. Prices can and will go up because of that – not because we’ve got more money. However, this will clearly be offset by people not actually having money. It’s a hugely risky strategy – but clearly the risks of doing nothing will be worse. Rishi Sunak has just promised to cover 80% of salary up to 2500 per month indefinitely. This is astonishing and tremendously welcome but tells you just how scared everyone is by the economic impact of this. If you’re not taking this seriously right now then you are, simply, a fool. A government composed of right wing nationalists and fiscal conservatives for whom Hayek and the Chicago school remain idols have just announced Universal Basic Income and an effective socialisation of salary and all of society’s risks. This is the tiger making dinner for the rabbit, it’s the coyote apologising to Roadrunner. (and for those in the know…don’t be Peck.) The term unprecedented here is both correct and far too small to underscore what’s going on.

Back to the question of ‘how do we pay for this?’

Well I mentioned warbonds earlier. Specifically those from WWI and II. They didn’t think about how they would repay – the nation was supposed to be facing an existential crisis. So they borrowed from a future they hoped was there to be borrowed from. The sense of desperation here is the same. We fail and it’s a generational depression to make the financial crisis look like losing your lunch money vs. losing your house and being forced to live on the street.

If we successfully meet this challenge? Well then we’ll worry about the implications then. What’s clear is no western country, especially the UK, will be the same after this. The US still has a journey to go on but they too will be no less different after this is over and, perhaps a silver lining, but this will be a real insulation against partisan politics and especially popularists because the virus respects nobody. It’s not an innoculation but like a large volcanic eruption can stall climate change, this can stall the growth of populism if only for a time.

I’m not sure there’s anything further to say – beyond this point everything is speculation. There are precious few voices I’m interested in listening to on this right now – I’m kind of absorbing lots and filtering 95% of it as the noise people make when they’re scared – it’s all shouting and fear and fastening onto any details which people see that appear new.

Yet the above is relevant. The government is doing something beyond the wildest fantasies of any serious economist I know – including me. You may criticise them all you like but I’ll have less respect for you if you do (see my reference to Peck). I guarantee you, you don’t know better and you wouldn’t do better. The choices made today by Sunak and by other European countries ahead of him this week and by the US over the weekend are literally undreamt of – not simply because the world economy was never structured to allow it (and there’ll be a lot of previously important influencers in the system who will now either fall into line or disappear into irrelevance) but because fundamentally literally no one could imagine this situation and moreover, no one can foresee the consequences of this in a month, a year or a decade.

Stories and Uncertainty

Humans are story telling creatures. We are adapted to look for patterns and this can play out in our stories about ourselves and how we see the world. There’s no evidence to suggest our propensity to see patterns in randomness is the grounding for our being creatures who search for meaning but what is meaning except a pattern which we can articulate and whose framework we can place ourselves within.

The last few weeks at work have seen many, many high level discussions about the future. Or THE FUTURE if you prefer. Which isn’t that different to normal. When we do deals, when we’re planning strategy across the UK, Europe, APAC and the US we spend a lot of time on these questions.

However, right now there is no narrative we can construct which makes sense. Everything is fraught with problems. Every strategy governments and (more relevant for me, companies) come up with can be picked apart.

We invest on the basis of stories which make sense when picked apart. There will be maths, rigour etc. But in the end they serve to tell a coherent narrative upon which we will make decisions.

Where our stories fail we experience crisis. At least in my experience. Where our stories won’t explain we flail. Sometimes we look for new stories but what I observe most often is fragmentation. We look for elements and fractions which confirm the interpretation of the world we want to be true. It is not a moral failing even if it is a failing of mindful discipline. We all struggle with this. Here’s my own case – when CV-19 first hit in Jan, I didn’t believe it would strike us as it has done. H1N1, the last global pandemic hit 100m infections and about 1m dead. It hadn’t seen anything like the kind of response we’re talking about now. We’re at 200,000 infections globally right now…compared to 100,000,000 for H1N1. So I just couldn’t see how the two had any kind of equivalence. And I said so quite loudly – partly, especially into Feb, there was a decent amount of hysteria already festering around the edges of the markets.

However, my story was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong a second time – which is I couldn’t conceive of us shutting ourselves away for what is (people are saying) likely to be months not weeks. Certainly we have been given no end date.

Yet all of this hasn’t stopped people from all walks complaining bitterly and loudly that those trying to grapple with these decisions have got it wrong every step of the way. There may well be some element of that criticism that’s correct. Yet correct in what sense? Do we want to minimise deaths? Of course! Do we want to make sure we don’t cripple the economy? Of course! Do we want to ensure we come through this outbreak more resilient should it resurge? Of course! Can we do all three? Nobody knows. And no one has a mandate to say which combination of those three priorities is the preferred one and the one we’re going to aim for. There is no story here which is nuanced enough to allow for the deeply complex uncertainties to be expressed in a simple linear narrative. Hence we struggle to articulate both the issues and our fears. You could even argue that our inability to articulate the issues exacerbates our sense of anxiety. It’s certainly led to me reading more about the subject (even if much of that material turns out to be complete guff).

Then there are those who deliberately peddle nonsense like the fake cases of people taking ibuprofen on Cork who died from complications with CV-19. Or whatever version you came across. A set of falsehoods so egregious even the BBC was moved to write an article discussing the case.

Some smart arse will reply ‘but the chief medical officer said…’. Yes they said ‘don’t use it if it’s dangerous for you. Which is freaking common sense and, perhaps surprisingly, applied before CV-19. So don’t @ me with your counterfactuals.

(ed: he’s taken his pills, rant over)

What’s the point of this post? A couple of things drove me to write it.

First – we are in a time when stories about the way the world works are not going to serve us. Venal corporations vs. valiant individuals will not help. Corrupt government vs. the populace won’t help. Callous youth against vulnerable boomers won’t help. We have to do better.

We have to tell a different story – one where we don’t know the end, where we don’t know the rules of the story and are actual participants rather than the writers of it, rather than observers who’ve divined how it’s going to end and are on the ‘right side’.

I believe this can make us kinder – because to exist in this kind of story is to admit we don’t know and if we don’t know, the kind of empathy we’d like to have expressed towards us should also allow us to express empathy to others. Because we’re all in the same boat.

Second. We have to accept (if not embrace) the uncertainty inherent in our situation. We have to be wary of any stories right now which purport to tell us how the world is, how it’s working and how it’s going to turn out. I’m not proposing ignoring well researched evidence and science. What I’m saying is we have to simply gather than information and refuse to draw conclusions because the period of time in which the dataset’s being written is weeks and months, not the 24 hour news cycle. I recognise how stressful this is.

There’s an old maxim for people floating on the stock exchange – don’t look at the prices. Buffet said the same to investors – don’t second guess, don’t even check. Just invest and go away until such time as you need the money.

It applies here – constant reviewing of the information won’t yield insight. Especially when we’re dealing with radical uncertainty. Imagine one of those old war games on consoles/PCs such as Command & Conquer. Right now we’re effectively still in the home base and the fog of war covers the whole map – looking again and again at the map won’t help us because we can’t see the critical information needed to arrive at meaningful conclusions. We have no choice but to accept we are living with uncertainty. We still have to make decisions. Which is a right pain – but you know what? It’s highly unlikely we’ll make them any less badly than normal – because most of us are bad at making decisions anyway – factoring in the wrong considerations, biases and emotions as a matter of course.

All of this is a long way of saying – there are a lot of pressures out there right now which can be interpreted as telling us to act selfishly, to see others as ripe for ridicule and disdain and constant criticism. However, this is the perfect time to remind ourselves we live in stories of the everyday where none of us can be certain and hence all of us can be kind.

The problem with winning power

There’s a saying – ‘No one ever changed the world by being nice’. I don’t know how true it is, but I believe it about 60%. Certainly peaceful protest has succeeded in moving the chairs around but I’m not sure whether it’s only when peaceful protest and violent resistance meet that societies really change. You could say I’m really, truly hoping Greta Thunberg manages to inspire us Gen Xers and Millennials fulfil out duty to future generations and change the world before it gets overwhelmingly violent.

However, the above is really only by way of starting this short essay.

I’ve been pondering why it is so many of us here in the UK (and also our friends across the pond) find it hard to occupy the middle ground now.

One obvious argument from my side of the debate is that it’s fine to not discuss my future with nazis and fascists. It’s a pretty strong argument. And I also think, when faced with such extremism it’s valid to argue the call to moderation is one I should set on fire because it too is my enemy for giving space to those who won’t be satisfied until I’m no longer part of the world we currently share.

However. This doesn’t satisfy me. It might be right and it is definitely a simple argument to grasp.

yet it can’t be the whole story. Why not? Because I think we can only unravel the mess we appear to be in (or the period of enhanced and lively political engagement depending on your point of view) by understanding a little of what really constitutes it.

I know it’s trite and probably cliched to say this, but really we’re talking about power. But I don’t think what I’m about to say isn’t your normal discussion about power.

Those of you who are friends of mine on facebook will have seen me mention the work of Mary Douglas this past week. In particular books such as Natural Symbols and Purity and Danger. Much of what I want to think through here will be (inelegantly) crabbed from her thinking, so really, do yourself a favour and go read them instead of me!

Assuming you’re still here I want to think about power not in its exercise, but in what it means for communities. Power is, in most meaningful senses, about agency. It is about being able to act as one wishes. This is additionally so for communities. The big difference is that communities are made up of many people and so have sets of rules by which those people know they are a part and know they are outside. Rules of taboo, punishment, transgression etc. are all about saying who belongs and who is outside. To use the technical term, they are what defines the sectarian nature of any community.

Part of a community exercising its agency is to say ‘you are not a part of us’ or indeed to say ‘you belong here’. The interplay of the individuals own agency and that of their community is important and communities can crush those within (and without) through the means of enforcing their shared understanding of belonging. In a very real sense, to break the law (whether it’s to each coffee cremes when everyone agrees they’re an abomination or to engage in cannibalism) is to set oneself against the community.

So far so dry.

I want to briefly tie this into the superhero narrative we have and which modern western culture appears to find so appealing in the mainstream now. (and I’m a massive geek, so @ me here because I’m a big consumer/lover of this content) There’s a very common narrative that superheroes are really crypto-fascists. It’s a strong reading and one I basically support but it’s not deep enough. The problem with superheroes is that they’re basically representative in a large way of how we wish the world worked. Simplistically we wish we could, as individuals, go off and, with magical powers, fix all that’s wrong. Additionally, we tend to wish those problems could be personified and dealt with in a single struggle where it was clear what was right and what was wrong.

Apologies – I’m being overly simplistic. Yet I believe the above cod-psychology holds if we think about how communities address their concerns – and that’s through stories. We tell one another stories of how bad our enemies are, of how they’re lying, evil and happy to commit unforgivable sins. Not because we wish them ill as a primary motive but because it helps us defend our own values and helps mark them out as being separate to us, as being outside us.

For highly sectarian communities (and this is definitely a feature of the extremist politics we experience now) the barriers between being in and out are very sharp. For more moderate communities you see fuzziness, tolerance, a gradient which provides a lot of wiggle room. I think we’ll all recognise that right now, we experience both on our side and that of the other a very sharp divide. You’re either with us or against us. I’m being descriptive here rather than explicative so a little bit of the latter.

Sectarian communities are effectively defensive in nature. Their world view is one filled with insecurity and fear – fear of being corrupted, of the community failing. It can fail because of only one thing – that the outsider somehow corrupts us, that we weren’t pure enough. You’ll see this played out wherever you see ideological drives for purity – such as Momentum trying to oust the deputy leader of the Labour party or the withdrawing of the whip from 21 Tory MPs for daring to dissent. Game theory tells us those are disastrous moves BUT that’s not the rationality in play. The rationality in play behind these kinds of actions are ones designed to maintain purity, to identify and keep the corrupted outside of the community lest they corrupt us to. This drive to stave off the end of the community is built from three elements. One is agency – the community has values it wishes to actualise. The second is it feels threatened, it feels like if it loses it might disappear and this drives the third element – it believes in the story which makes it a community. These elements combine to create a set of motivations that are not those of trading power and achieving progress but of defence and survival.

People who are looking to survive will act as they deem necessary – if you believe losing the argument represents an existential threat, it becomes possible to justify any action as reasonable because to fail to take it could lead to having no life to regret sticking to ones values over. See this article in Time Magazine for a great example of a value driven community (US Evangelicalism) which has fallen into the sectarian trap of believing it’s under siege and acting defensively as a result.

This brings me to the main point of this post. Why votes and ‘opinions’ appear to have become the pivot points around which we’re building our mutual sectarianism. Led by the hard right, which is a community under deep existential threat in the West (at least), they’re acting as defensive communities – a vote like the referendum becomes not about facts but about the power it will give them to establish borders around their values. These values are shifting because they’re not that important – it’s the exercise of power in the name of survival which is important here. The actual values can be fleshed out later – do we mean full on fascism – well maybe, if that’s what served to protect ‘our way of life’. It’s also why a second referendum on Europe for the UK is irrelevant (even if legally vital) because those who won the first time around see that as the boundary which protects them. Anything to the contrary is simply another attack on them. You cannot overstate the insecurity this community feels across a whole range of social issues which crystallise around the idea of those who are outside and the pollution they bring when they are invited inside. As an aside – we can then see that many of these people aren’t ‘racist’ in the old fashioned NF/BNP/KKK sense. But they are racist because they see their identity centrally as white english speakers and the ‘other’ as outside of that. They’re just as prejudiced towards Polish people as they are Indians and Chinese.

When people get on the news and say ‘there’ll be riots if you betray 17.2 million people’ they’re not talking rationally as we understand it. They are, however, talking rationally from their point of view. THey’re expressing that their boundaries are being crossed and they will act to protect their definition of who is inside and who belongs outside. They will purify those inside who are ‘not true believers’ and they will guard the gates to stop anyone from coming inside. They’re not saying there will be riots (although there may be) – they’re saying ‘this is THIS important to me’.

I don’t know if this is particularly enlightening. I hope it is. I’m trying to say why the facts as people in my community find so important are so irrelevant to these types of community. I’m trying to say why they can’t see the legal frameworks, the four estates and our cherished checks and balances are vital to restricting magical untamed power from wrecking havoc. Why? Because, right now, they want power (their power) to wreck untamed damage on those outside their community who they perceive to be at their borders massing for invasion. To be clear I don’t mean actual invasion, I mean psychological invasion, an invasion where their myths are cast down, their narratives about how the world is and should be are shattered and replaced with new ones.

How can we talk to these people? Should we? We have to remember they have set a specific set of values as matters of purity and taboo. For many of us those items are too extreme or basic for us to often know how to tackle.

I would say this – these values bring them comfort. Othering those not like them (Remainers, poc, women with agency, foreigners, experts etc.) provide them comfort when they can actively exclude them. They already feel defensive and this act helps them feel as if their walls are impregnable. It gives them agency. Helping people exit from cults is very difficult and there’s a good JSTOR paper on how the exit process can cause more damage than healing.

If we are to tackle this, we must continue to propose our own myths, to dismantle their taboos. We don’t dismantle taboos with facts alone. It can’t be done. We can only dismantle taboos and ideas about purity by establishing our own forms of these values. This runs the risk of direct conflict as different mythic ideas clash. I think if we’re interested in establishing that racism is NOT ok then we have to accept that potential outcome.

So…to conclude. Like properly.

  • we should give up the notion that facts will convince people who are defending values
  • We MUST develop our own positive myths around why the society we want to live in is a good one and we must be prepared to defend it. i.e. we have to fight them a little on their own ground
  • We must remember that constitutional, legal and social niceties, conventions and norms are seen as contemptuous if they serve the ‘other’ for communities under siege
  • We must continue to defend the above for all the obvious reasons as well as the fact they protect us from ourselves
  • We cannot be neutral but we can also call people in these communities to their positive values – to their better natures. Almost no member of those communities sees themselves as bad people and we can use our own myths and narratives to call out those positives.
  • Attacking them, belittling them and humiliating people who feel defensive will only make them more defensive. However, when their ideas clash with mine, I must call them out but as one peer to another. We should always treat them, not necessarily with respect of their ideas but with the knowledge that their values are significant for them and we should therefore take them seriously. Seriously enough to oppose them.
  • Finally – narratives among the community of outrage are explicitly designed to build those values and to ensure emotional engagement remains high. As I’ve said elsewhere, we must develop our own myths and stories if we are going to counter these kinds of arguments. But how we build positive myths is for another day.

Why can’t we get there from here?

I was fortunate enough to speak at the LSFRC’s Productive Future’s conference yesterday at UCL’s School of Art. I managed to see a couple of other sessions too and they were universally well presented and provoked plenty of discussion afterwards in each case. I particularly liked Dan Hassler-Forest’s paper on the economics of the mega-franchise.

Below are my, edited, notes on the paper/speech I gave. Long story short – I have been concerned for a while now that much science fiction is lagging on the issues that really face us today – one of which is our relationship to energy. In the notes below I posit a couple of reasons why I think we struggle to develop that relationship as writers and I add one additional argument based in our relationship to neo-liberal capitalism which arose out of a question I was asked at the end of the talk.

Introduction

Thank you for having me. I’m coming at this as an economist, scientist and author. These three elements of my background will inform the construction of my argument and I’ll present my own thoughts based through these lenses. Before we get going though, a little bit about what we’re going to cover.

  • what we’re going to cover
    • Definitions – energy
    • Physical considerations – that is, the what, the who and the where of our relationship to energy
    • Theory – what would a physicist say about energy? How does that divert from socially constructed meanings ascribed to energy
    • Science Fiction and how what we write reveals about us
    • The future – what kinds of subjects would I love to see us thinking about more carefully
    • Conclusion – what can we hope for through literature
    • Time for questions
  • But first a little about me – physicist, economist, banker, author blah, blah, blah.

Overview of Energy – a question of definitions

  • Energy is a word used in all sorts of contexts – from hard science where energy is a fundamental building block of everything to new age philosophy through to synonyms for our gas and electricity supplies.
  • In science fiction we have energy weapons (just about any space opera), light sabres, psychic energy (c.f babylon 5, Star Trek, Transcendence etc. etc.). The list goes on. For me, the concept of energy is multi-variate in nature with definitions as poorly defined as they are widely spread.
  • For the purposes of this presentation I’m interested in three uses of the word
    • Energy as a physical resource – such as solar, oil and fission
    • Energy as in physics – a raw measure of joules, electron volts etc.
    • Energy as in useful sources of power for cars, ships, people and spacecraft – agnostic about the physical resources. i.e. how we use and consider energy as a motive force.

Physical Considerations – where, how, who – The Politics and Economics

  • The energy we use is not invisible or intangible. It takes up space, needs to be moved and managed and, in most cases, comes from a primary resource such as wood, water and oil.
  • The implications of this are perhaps well understood by companies and politicians but not by the average lay person – modern supply chains are complex, multi-national and hidden by design even from the individuals working within them. Getting oil from the gulf of Mexico to a car in China is a chain that crosses dozens of countries, navigates months of time and passes through companies employed hundreds of thousands of people. See here for instance for a fantastic infographic on the subject. Rutherford’s maxim that complicated ideas should be explainable to a barmaid does not stand.
  • This is partly a capitalist imperative – to reduce the agency of consumers who are forced into dependency because they cannot source their own supplies and cannot tinker. All innovation must be created by an economically motived agent, not a community agent because this is how you maximise profit for your shareholders.
  • Most ordinary people do not think about how their electricity is generated. They couldn’t tell you what green electricity really is – if you asked them how does green electricity get to your house they’d not be able to tell you it was a stupid question.
  • Furthermore the scale of the energy market – whose financial instruments, derivatives, futures and contracts with multiple benchmarks, currencies and timescales is too overwhelming for even experts to really understand. You only have to look at Goldman’s predictions of oil going to $200 a barrel in May 2008 about thirty days before it collapsed to less than $37 in Feb 2009 demonstrates the point well.[1]
  • So where does that leave us? There are a couple of strong narratives both in factual reporting and in fiction.
  • The first of these is that we don’t need to think about energy. We live, in advanced late stage capitalist economies, post scarcity. Energy is infinite (or at least abundant in the fact that it is ALWAYS there when we turn on the lights). The infrastructure we’ve built guarantees it fades into the background as a certainty we don’t need to consider – unlike for most of history where we’ve had to concern ourselves each day with whether we’ll have enough calories to make it through.
  • The second is well demonstrated in M L Ross’ book summarising the Curse of Resource Wealth first posited by Auty et al.[2]. Resource rich countries do not benefit from their resources. Or at least, the majority of the people in those countries. Consider Nigeria[3] where political violence between the state, local politicians, the companies and locals appear to be the only booming business despite the vast reserves of oil.
  • As always the truth is more complicated. Britain, Norway and the US, to name just three, have or have had deep resource benefits and did end up as ‘failed states’. In my mind it’s really more a sense of post colonial classification as post colonial powers look on at the eviscerated cultures they’ve then abandoned and scratch their heads to an answer. Any answer will do that doesn’t implicate their decade or centuries long pillaging as being largely responsible for environments in which these kinds of outcomes find fertile soil[4]. Better yet a narrative that blames those left behind for their own woes.
  • Contemporary thrillers understand that energy is politically volatile – there are many movies and novels about oil for instance (the very best of them being Oil! which was remade as the Oscar winning There Will Be Blood) but they often draw a straight line between governments and corporations as bad and people on the ground as good. They do not explore how those governments are often simply reflecting the actual exigencies of what their populations are demanding in terms of services and standards of living.
  • This comes back to the first idea – that we don’t need to think about energy and its intersection with the wider population.
  • Popular explorations of geopolitics and how societies survive have also entirely overlooked these links – Tim Marshal’s Prisoners of Geography and Jared Diamond’s Collapse or his Gun, Germs and Steel have strong central theses about why politics turn into guns being fired and they are not driven by the need for energy. Jared’s theories about scarcity and even his ideas about the impact of the horse skirt the edges of this but don’t take the heart of it seriously – that a need for energy security – be it fuel to cook, fuel to heat our homes and mine our bitcoin drives much of the conflict we’ve witnessed over the last 50 years.
  • The problem is, energy security is effectively at the heart of US projections of power. It also informs Russia’s tilt to supplying energy to China after Western sanctions hit, activity in the Yemen. I met a number of oil industry executives in 2003-2005 and they were exceptionally clear we went to war in Iraq because of energy security concerns over and above anything else. I remember one conversation on this matter with a CEO stood on their construction floor where they were building new drill bits which were ordered before the resolution was passed at the UN authorising the invasion.
  • Energy has huge social, economic and political meaning.

Theoretical Considerations – Domain, Range and Extensibility

  • Having explored the physical I want to step back a bit and think more abstractly before bringing these two threads back together and addressing speculative fiction’s coverage of energy more directly.
  • Energy is, in its purest sense – not dependent on people. The largest delivery mechanism of energy to the planet earth is the Sun, the second is our molten iron core. Neither of these need our input or can even be influenced by us.  
  • How does that come into culture and is it helpful where it does?
  • Most discussions about energy are filtered into common language designed to make them graspable. It’s that mechanism that more often than not leaves us unable to really grasp the neutrality of the science of energy. By which I mean we’re at its mercy not that it doesn’t matter.
  • For instance, Electron mass is ½ MeV. And the mass of that very famous particle because of which most people have heard  of CERN, the Higgs Particle is 125 GeV. Does this mean anything to anyone except physicists? If you tried to write a sci fi thriller about this where would you even begin?
  • How many calories have you eaten today? Most of us can’t parse that statement realistically without help from apps and information on the back of food containers. Why not? Because it’s hard, not because we’re dumb (although that’s often the underlying message of press coverage).
  • So forget asking what we mean by the horse power of your car? Or how much energy is there in the universe.
  • When thinking about how we can parse this into Sci Fiction, and perhaps into normal everyday language we should borrow an idea from mathematics about Domain, Range and Extensibility.
  • Energy is everywhere. This is its Domain
  • However, energy cannot be extracted from all things. Even if all work requires energy – this is its Range
  • Another way of saying this is as follows: not all types of energy are equally available to us (i.e. high energy photon which had 10Kcals of energy, enough to heat a cup of tea but no real way of harnessing it. Or when we burn petrol we don’t recoognise that the heat and noise oof the conversion are forms of lost energy which we’ve failed to capture).
  • We know energy is tough to harness and that laws of entropy mean there are ever diminishing returns for us. Carnot’s engine is learnt by undergrads but is not well known elsewhere. Yet it impacts what we can reasonably expect humanity to achieve. What energy can we expect to be able to harness? How can we do it and how do we cope with the possibility we will always be on the losing side of the equation?
  • These are questions not well addressed by a Science Fiction grounded in post scarcity economics. We tend to see worlds which have everything they need regardless of their energy system or we have apocalypse where there’s nothing (although they still somehow have enough to eat with some notable exceptions such as McCarthy’s superb The Road)
  • There is a religious impulse in this thinking – a strong desire to see one of the basics of a society which works as one where we have abundant energy so we can then focus on the surface elements rather than the infrastructure. You can see in many sci-fi texts (cf. Alita: Battle Angel) that the poor live among the infrastructure and the rich do not see it. In real life we are the rich in the West and we do not see the infrastructure of our energy consumption and so do not question either our position nor its impact on others except by waving our hands in their direction as if it’s their fault.
  • Further still, we are too often left with magical thinking in our forecasts about human energy consumption. Consider climate change, bitcoin and AI. I’m avoiding references here because I, too, am a writer and it’s just not done to highlight other people’s creative choices.
  • Mini-conclusion – energy is vitally important. Most people can articulate that but they can’t articulate why. They also have no grasp of what we mean by energy – be it theoretically or physically considered. People have no better idea what a barrel of oil can power, where it comes from or how many are produced a day than they do about HE photons or the impact of a gamma ray burst and its implications for a goldilocks zone within most galaxies.

Science Fiction – common flaws, notable successes

So now I want to discuss how all this scene setting influences the landscape of what we discuss in science fiction. We can all name the most common tropes:

  • Faster than light and other forms of space travel – Star Trek, Star Wars and any number of other texts such as Interstellar and Children of Time.
    • The flaws to this are beyond the lack of science supporting it.
    • The flaws are about the energy requirements and about how they could drive wars and conflict, cooperation and entirely new branches of science. c.f the energy requirements of the current writer’s favourite, the Alcubierre drive.
  • Cryptocurrencies – a new breed of thrillers and discussions from people like
    • Neal Stephenson, myself, Kim Stanley Robinson, Doctorow and Friedman
    • Bitcoin mining is energetically expensive and remains a poorly scaling store of value with no real economic application at this point despite its obvious libertarian political rationale – see the FT Alphaville blog for reams of articles on this point. Izabella Kaminska in particular.
  • Fusion – free energy. The Abyss! Space Opera.
    • It’s ok to completely ignore this stuff and just write soap. Personally, I’m not advocating we only see hard SF.
    • But sci fi can do so much more. It can present to us the challenge of energy and scarcity. Think about the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which is the stand out example of addressing these issues.
  • The AI – from 2001 to Diamond Age to Ancillary Justice
  • Construction and maintenance of Cityscapes – Lavie Tidhar in Central Station, Rendevous with Rama and SevenEves and Red Mars.
  • Production of Metamaterials – relatively poor examples of how new materials can change everything. Again, we end up looking at people like Stephenson but too often they’re macguffins rather than realistic looks at how new tech changes everything. By Light Alone by Adam Roberts is interesting.
  • The support of transhumanism – any Kurzweilian approach to humanity. Zero K by Delilo is a really strong mainstream example which crosses boundaries.

The thing is they rarely talk through the key technological and economic problems of these technologies because, most of the time the technology is magic – not necessarily even internally consistent.

  • After all, AGI is terribly expensive to run.
  • Who provides the power to maintain a brain in a computer?
  • Why mine for materials in space when the energy required to get there would out weight the benefits from what could be brought back to earth by orders of magnitude?
  • As we’re all aware, in the real world, pursuit of energy security drives politics. Science Fiction is all too often the preserve of a homogeneous (and by this we mean white) cultural artefact and so entirely misses the political and racial streams of energy security.

The Future – plausible, implausible, impossible

My thesis then is this: energy is hyperreal. It is too large and too broadly defined an idea to be grasped well, even by subject matter experts. Hence we see speculative fictions struggling with how we get from where we are today to other futures – we struggle with developing the idea of Asimov’s Future History when it comes to energy. Part of this is by the cultural/political design of neoliberal capitalism, part of it is simply the scale of the political energy economy is too large for people to grasp.

Our abiding energy myth in western democracy is about abundance. It’s so ubiquitous we don’t even have memes about it being added to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

We have no new myths about energy scarcity yet. No stories we tell of how we arrived as a post scarcity environment for some and not for others, how we fought wars to create this world and how those wars are going to be fought and fought again as long as there isn’t truly abundant energy for all.

Here’s a trio of ideas I’d love to see in the literature – stories presenting possible futures to us where these kinds of technology are present but are also central to the worlds we’re creating.

  • There’s already a burgeoning field of Energy Economics[5], [6], [7] with its own journals and conferences. This is an exciting real world development and its subjects of study are ready made for political science fiction. I really hope that given we’re developing a language and pattern of thought which actually addresses these issues today we will start to see stories picking up on this and bringing these ideas into the mainstream
  • Zero carbon footprints – the challenge of lifestyles which could accommodate this and the importance of deflationary economics – the conflict in the heart of capitalism against deflation. My own employer is working toward being carbon neutral – if large companies can do this then there is language and conflict to explore.
  • Deflationary economic systems – Nouriel Roubini interview on FT Alphachat

What can we do through literature?

As we see new language discussing how we get from here to there I truly hope speculative fiction develops stories about the journey and not just the aftermath.

Explore the challenges of developing new technologies which are fantastically energy hungry

What are the challenges for authors though? Economics of course – stories have to sell. But also audience tastes. Info dumping, political appetite and making a point all turn readers off.

But speculative fiction can change the dimensions of the Overton window to allow us to see discussions about the hidden infrastructure as normal, about peeling it back being what we do.

Additional references

https://www.frontier-economics.com/uk/en/sectors/energy/

https://www.nber.org/programs/eee/eee.html

http://www.biee.org/

https://www.nature.com/subjects/energy-economics

https://www.journals.elsevier.com/energy-economics


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/business/21oil.html

[2] https://press.princeton.edu/titles/9686.html

[3] https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/system/files/publications/wp120_maehler.pdf

[4] Political Research Quarterly, volume: 67 issue: 4, page(s): 769-782

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_economics

[6] https://www.iaee.org/

[7] https://www.oxfordenergy.org/publication-category/energy-economics/?v=7516fd43adaa

Let the past die

I’m here to talk about The Last Jedi. Again. Like twelve months after everyone else stopped. Why? Because of this podcast from the Financial Times’ Alphachat series (which I totally recommend by the way). In Andrea Nagle draws an insight which hadn’t occurred to me: that conservatism in the States is under attack but not from the left. It is under attack from the Alt-Right.

She outlines how the Alt-Right’s (we can call them neofascists if you like) mantra has developed over the last decade and how one of its defining features is a break from traditional conservatism. This break occurs because a new generation of right leaning people look at conservatism and see it capitulating each and every time it’s been challenged over the last thirty years. They see the only way to shore up and overturn the losses is to discard that form of conservatism and create something new.

Not only that, but this becomes a call to ideological radicalism rather than an incremental movement towards old ideas. No longer hold to compromise positions but simply develop new principles (communicated as old principles because the strength of the MYTHs of conservatism remain as seductive as ever). These principles become hills to die on and, if the chance occurs, to skewer others on as well. Gone are fiscal probity – in comes racism, anti-immigration. Discussions about PURITY (and for that see Mary Douglas’s excellent Purity and Danger for a clear explanation of why this is such a powerful myth).

A great place for these kinds of myths to reform and take new shape is among populations that have created ideas about being under siege. In technical terms they’ve become sectarian. Evangelical Christianity is a superb example of this in the US (and increasingly in the UK). See this superb long piece on the relationship between the two in the US. I don’t agree with it all, but the central insight that Evangelicals have entirely lost touch with the core tenets of Jesus and swapped them out for a fin de siecle long defeat narrative is spot on.

The above is all quite academic. I want to tie this into a central theme – why we shouldn’t laugh at Kylo Ren. Nor should we dismiss him. And by that I mean we shouldn’t laugh at Brexiters, nor Trumpists, nor dismiss them.

The second point should be obvious by now. Kylo Ren runs the First Order. Trump is President, Brexiters are possibly going to get the very worst of their wet dreams come true. Dismissing them is like dismissing the massive great hole in the side of the Titanic. SO for the rest of this, read Trump or Alt-Right, or Fascist or even Boris Johnson into every mention of Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is a terrifying opponent because he was born to power. He was given every chance to have empathy for others, to do good in the world. At each step he’s mixed with those who HAVE done good in the world yet somehow has decided the world works differently to every model he’s been shown.

As well as having had every privilege, he’s also very wealthy. He’s had mentoring along the lines of conservatism. Snoke, Hux and others have helped him see a coherent view of the world in opposition to those who he never clicked with. His own internal struggles somehow make more sense to him when he sees it from Snoke’s point of view. Yet they still lose Starkiller base. They still can’t defeat the common people and their republic – even after totally dismantling all the protections, systems and ways of expressing themselves. The eradication of the new republic still doesn’t let them win!

So he thinks and realises the old ways, the conservatives, can never win. They need to go. When Kylo Ren says ‘destroy the past’ he doesn’t mean destroy the republic, although he certainly thinks they need to go. He’s actually talking about the First Order. Not only does he kill Snoke but when Hux disagrees with him (quite sensibly), he publicly assaults and humiliates him.

Kylo Ren is not a child throwing temper tantrum. He is not ineffectual or mad or stupid. He is only absurd because he’s destroying conventions we’ve accepted as right and normal. It is surreal but it’s not stupid.

Those around Kylo Ren don’t last long. But Ren doesn’t need them to. He’s building something new and part of the vision of that is chaotic and constructive destruction. He’s bought into the idea of blood shed makes everyone stronger and if it’s those around him in service of his vision that’s probably about as strong a message as he can send – we are ALL to be sacrificed to build a new world.

Further still – he knows he’s the only one to really understand what’s he’s trying to do, so he must endure, he must be in control lest the less pure, the less insightful water down his vision. When Trump Christians say they prefer Trump to Pence (an Arch- evangelical) they back it up with ‘because Pence is too nice to do what needs to be done’.

After a while his people are suspicious over everyone but him.

His failures don’t matter except to his enemies. His successes matter to everyone.

Kylo Ren is a perfect embodiment of the enemies liberal and social democracies face right now. He is an uncaring populist, a demagogue and a man with a vision most of us can’t begin to comprehend because of the horror true implementation implies.

The Last Jedi also contains some strong arguments for how to defeat people like this both in popular opinion but also practically.

Lesson 1 – Luke’s fight with Ren. Luke doesn’t fight Ren. He simply distracts him while everyone else organises. He stands up to Ren but does not engage him on his own terms. He let Ren wash himself out while his own people look on in horror at his foolishness.

Lesson 2 – the survival of the rebels creates a MYTH of overcoming an enemy who wants to destroy the world the rest of us have built.

Lesson 3 – sacrifice – Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice to stop the enemy fleet is something NONE of Ren’s team would ever consider doing. They would sacrifice others for themselves and their ends but never themselves for others. If we want the world we have now to continue and to improve Holdo is a massive lesson for us about how we build it.

Lesson 4 – The detour to Canto. It’s absolutely vital to the story because it shows how others prosper on our suffering. It shows life under fascism it shows that the rich don’t care if you suffer and they SHOULD NOT be idolised. Celebrities are an opiate we should put in a bin and burn far from home.

Lesson 5 – Mavericks get you killed. Don’t rely on those who think they know best when they have no plan or that plan relies on defying everything we’ve learned. Everything Poe Dameron does gets people killed. Everything he does fails and from it he takes that he’s succeeded. Until he learns he HAS to work with others everything he touches turns to shit. It’s vital we learn this lesson because we, as a culture, have swallowed the idea of ‘big men’ being the arbiters of history and being our heroes who make everything right again. It’s the biggest piece of bullshit going and if we fall for it, like Poe, we’re really just weakened shadows of Kylo Ren.

I maintain The Last Jedi remains the best Star Wars film. If only because it’s got everything in it I want about the politics of now and is, ultimately, a message of hope about how nobodies like Finn, Rose and Rey can make a difference.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

Knights of IOT

Design | Integrate | Connect

ScienceSwitch

Your Source For The Coolest Science Stories

SwordNoob

Adventures in HEMA, LARP, Archery and other activities

ebookwyrm's Blog

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Damyanti Biswas

For lovers of reading, writing, travel, humanity

countingducks

reflections on a passing life

Self-Centric Design

The art of designing your life

Adrian Faulkner

Hope, Anger and Writing

Fantasy-Faction

Hope, Anger and Writing

Alternative Realities

Why have virtual reality when you can have alternative reality?

1001Up

1001 video games and beyond

Fringeworks - Blogs

Hope, Anger and Writing

Shadows of the Apt

Hope, Anger and Writing