Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Imagining a Revolution: sci-fi and a story of social change

Let’s talk about possible worlds. Behold the world we live in now, but keep in mind the limitless possibilities for the future. How could the world become a better, more hospitable place? Imagine.

Stories are important tools for building the would-be worlds of tomorrow. A good story can focus our collective vision on goals worth striving for—and catastrophes worth avoiding. It’s been this way for centuries, especially in the science fiction genre.

One of the first interracial kisses on US broadcast television came about on an episode of Star Trek in 1968. With a mere seconds-long gesture, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura showed a bitterly divided nation a possible, advanced world unencumbered by the racial prejudices of the day. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself urged Nichols to stay on the cast of Star Trek—against her own instincts—because he felt it was critically important for the country to see the dream of racial equality made manifest.

Uhura

Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura in all her merchandise majesty. (Photo credit to JeromeG111 licensed under Creative Commons)

Science fiction stories do more than foment cultural change, of course. Obviously, they can inspire and catalyze technological innovation. Martin Cooper also pointed to Star Trek as a source of inspiration for his invention of the cellular phone. Isaac Asimov coined the term “robotics” and his Three Laws (robots must have these priorities: 1) don’t harm humans, 2) obey orders, 3) protect yourself) are the foundation for new developments at Google.

On a darker note, it’s hard to read about Aldous Huxley’s pharmaceutical mood boosters (Brave New World, 1932) or Ray Bradbury’s enveloping entertainment systems (Fahrenheit 451, 1953) and not wonder about our own society. Have we nearly perfected our own consciousness-molding pills and passive entertainment systems?—and at what cost? Even the first sci-fi novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), points to the monstrous implications of our scientific triumphs.

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This past month I read a two-novel sci-fi story about the revolutionary potential of today’s high tech:

  • low-grade artificial intelligence
  • virtually augmented reality
  • 3D printing
  • solar energy
  • massively multiplayer online role-playing games

In Daniel Suarez’s books Daemon and Freedom™, these technologies and others take on a global power structure of law enforcement and multinational corporations. What’s more, they challenge the very essence of highly efficient systems of extraction and exploitation in global finance and trade. Without revealing much about the plot, today I want to explore the underpinnings of Suarez’s possible world and see what this reveals about us.

[Note: If his vision of the future sounds new and exciting to you, and if you’re attracted to (or not repulsed by) heart-pounding action sequences and cheesy thriller tropes and dialog, I really encourage you to read these books for yourself and pass them on.]

Suarez’s vision of revolution is full of blood and gore, so it’s worth wondering: What would it take to topple the power structure that exploits our own society? Would it even be worth it?

Howard Zinn, author of The People’s History of the United States, once wrote:

There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often in this century we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellions against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.*

For Zinn, the powers that be require obedience to survive: “and when those others begin withholding that obedience, begin defying authority, that power at the top turns out to be very fragile.” Suarez’s tale is one of both civil and decidedly uncivil disobedience, and what’s at stake is nothing less than human freedom and dignity.

Before we tackle the double-edged sword of Suarez’s revolution, he gives us plenty of food for thought about the nature of power and civilization (inspired, I’m sure, by the books he lists under “Further Reading”). The backbone of these ideas rests on a novel evolutionary theory about parasites.

daemon

I barely recall the mnemonic device I learned in grade school to memorize the branches of classification in biology: Kingdom, Phylum … Genus, Species. Thankfully, the prime mover at the heart of Daemon suggests I can throw out that model of evolutionary order; there are really only two types of organisms, and they are independent or parasitic.

Simply put, parasites rely on hosts to impart them with all the necessary materials of survival, and independent organisms do not. You might also remember from biology class that some species enjoy mutually beneficial relationships with other species, and some organisms find a way to extract what they need from other species without harming them. Not so with parasites.

A parasite is a hijacker. It attacks its host and in some cases it will manipulate the host to harm itself for the benefit of the parasite. For example, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis makes mice develop a suicidal attraction to cats (the parasite likes to reproduce in felines). Some scientists think that humans with toxoplasmosis might also exhibit an affinity for risk-taking.

Other parasites are even less subtle; they destroy their hosts’ neural hardware nearly completely, turning them into undead zombies that exist only to manufacture more parasites until a total system collapse.

Parasites destroy their targets, so for an independent host species to survive it must change and evolve. This is a matter of reproduction. In a world without interspecies pressure, says Suarez’s agent provocateur, organisms default to the most simple and efficient form of reproduction: self-cloning, basically. But if you’re trying to evade an attacker, a genetic hijacker, you need a less efficient operation that gives rise to more genetic variation. Thus, we have parasites to thank for sexual reproduction.

Thank you, parasites.

How is this relevant to a story about high-tech social revolution? Because the ongoing struggle between independent organisms and parasites is an apt metaphor for the struggle between essential workers, shall we say, and the forces that extract their wealth, resources, and power while endangering the planetary life support we all need to survive.

I admit, it’s a big leap to go from evolutionary pressures between species to power struggles within the human race, so let’s fill the gap. In the 1,000+ page mammoth of a book The New Penguin History of the World, British author J.M. Roberts begins in ancient prehistory and tells the story of the rise of civilizations around the world. This did not happen simultaneously, and there was no steady, linear progress from the plains of hunter gatherers to the printing presses of their descendants. Civilizations happen in fits and starts, around the world. Sometimes the civilizations that came later to a geographic region would fail to attain as high a level of culture or technology as previous civilizations.

At any rate, Roberts suggests that civilization happens when a group of people enjoy or create a food surplus and sustain the population boom that follows. With more people to support and more hands and minds to put to work, a new mode of social organization emerges. This new mode encourages people to specialize in fewer skills and to pool the fruits of their labors.

Mass social organization creates a pool of low-skilled laborers and gives rise to massive public works projects. Career religious mouthpieces and scribes arrive on the scene. And of course, before too long we witness the ascent of the extreme elite: the class of people charged with embodying and maintaining the structure of power that justifies divisions and inequities in the population.

“Wealth aggregates and becomes political power,” says a member of Suarez’s underground revolutionary society. And it could really be that simple; as a key marker of civilization itself, concentrated wealth and power have long been factors in society. This is particularly true in places organized and limited by scarcity. But it’s the essence of concentrated wealth and scarcity that has shifted so totally in modern times.

Another Suarez character, this one a proponent for the existing world order, says:

… [We] must defend the core of our civilization: which is commerce. And commerce requires capital. [That’s] no longer gold bars in a vault. It means ones and zeros in a database.

This comment highlights the efficiency and stark simplicity undergirding the wealth and power that has its beating heart in high finance portfolios. It also calls back to those core biological principles, a warning siren bubbling up through eons of defensive evolution: Efficiency is as much a source of dependable orderliness and regularity as it is a source of fatal vulnerability.

“Civilizations rise and fall on technological innovation,” Suarez writes. While this is debatable, it makes you wonder: just how secure are those ones and zeros in a database?

The digital uprising in Suarez’s novels presents a vision of how fragile our existing power structure might be. More than that, the story describes a possible world in which efficient exploitation by highly specialized nodes in a global economy gives way to a complex network of resilient communities, leveraging the latest technology to provide for themselves.

Let’s talk about holons.

freedom

After an AI program designed by a dead video game programmer launches a full-frontal assault on law enforcement and the economy in Daemon, the sequel Freedom™ shows a new form of social organization that struggles to rise from the ashes: the holon.

A holon is a community centered on a 100-mile-or-so economic radius. Within this perimeter is the source and point of use for the community’s food, its energy, healthcare and its building materials. But the holon isn’t cut off from communities beyond it; everyone is connected through the Internet, and as far as I can tell there’s no rigid expectation that individuals stay in one place.

This holon system is described as a durable or distributed democracy and a distributed technocracy. Indeed, high tech is the very crux of this model, and before you scoff at the idea of holons fulfilling their own food and energy needs, remember that at this very moment a solar array and a greenhouse is orbiting our planet aboard the International Space Station.

Suarez’s vision depicts micro-manufacturing plants that create products and parts from metal powders and 3D printers. He shows us 50 megawatt power stations that can provide renewable electricity to 100,000 homes. He mentions reverse hydrolysis fuel cell stations and engineering marvels that can synthesize liquid hydrocarbon fuels from solar power and air. In addition to methods of season extension, hydroponics and other small-scale innovations in agriculture, our current technological inheritance destabilizes the very notion of scarcity.

Suarez’s grassroots revolution raises a number of questions:

  • In a world in which, strictly speaking, we no longer need to subject ourselves to distant, morbidly efficient systems of power and wealth aggregation, why do we?
  • If the answer is convenience, then: Do we have values that might outweigh the lure of convenience? What about resilience?
  • How are smaller, more nimble economies more resilient than economies of scale? In other words, how can we design complex communities without single points of failure that cause system collapse? (As in, when we detect contamination in the industrial food or medical supply and it sparks global recalls with echoes throughout the supply chain.)
  • What would we sacrifice, other than convenience, if we localized our economies and operated parallel to (or in place of) global economies of scale?
  • Could resilient, distributed democracies be an ideal model to promote human freedom and dignity? Are other values even more important?
  • And, of course: Are fully independent holons really possible?

I read Daemon and Freedom™ because I know a guy that asked that question and took some initial steps to figure it out. Peter Scheyer christened the Holon Foundation in a short series of articles you can read here. His partner Jordan Deffenbaugh took the idea in an educational direction, and the world awaits his interdisciplinary program, the BAM Institute of Civic Biodesign, currently headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There’s also some nascent energy to build a holon prototype there.

Maybe other people who read these books were inspired to take some concrete action. If you find them, leave a comment.

Seedlings

The first tray of seedlings for my warm season garden: squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and watermelon.

I know that since reading the novels, I have a greater appreciation for the seedlings I’ve got under grow lights in my bedroom, and the 3D printer that’s whining its way through another project nearby. I’m rejuvenated in my mission to build skills of resilience, and to keep abreast of technological developments that distribute certain powers and abilities to the grassroots. There’s limitless potential here, for those who seek it.

Still, it’s shocking to realize just how vulnerable we become when we base our very survival on huge, parasitical systems—global food distributors, regional power grids, bloated manufacturing and distribution networks—that harm the earth’s resources and come equipped with points of failure that, if triggered, could imperil the whole system and the people relying on it. It’s humbling to see the extent of our obedience to power structures that disenfranchise, extract and exploit our communities. Odds are it will take many motivated people to build a more just and resilient future that can still coordinate a response to global issues like climate change and viral pandemics.

Here in the present we can never really know the future—that one true world that will rise up from an ocean of possibilities—but we can be pretty confident about one thing: a science fiction writer probably thought of it first.

 

 

 

*All Howard Zinn quotes are from the essay “The Optimism of Uncertainty” in the book The Impossible Will Take a Little Time (edited by Paul Loeb, 2014 edition).

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