Category Archives: futurism

Well Burrowed, Old Mole! Reflections on MacLeod’s The Star Fraction

When I first read it at the age of 16, The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod was a revelation to me. I was already a voracious reader of Iain (M) Banks, especially of his novels that deal most directly with political concepts such as The State of the Art and The Player of Games. But reading Ken MacLeod was a discovery of a different order of magnitude.  Science-fiction takes ideas more seriously than any other genre. It refuses the conformity of presentism, daring to provoke the human imagination into considering different alternatives about the way that things might be.  But whilst much science-fiction focuses on the technological aspects of alternative futures, The Star Fraction is about the future of History in the ‘capital H’ sense: struggles between ideologies, movements, classes and states.  Ken MacLeod is aware of the fact that politics is not going to disappear, the future will present us with tough choices about our collective destiny. We may not always live long enough to understand the full consequences of those choices – although with the right innovations in biomedical science some of us just might…

'Well burrowed, old mole!'

‘Well burrowed, old mole!’

MacLeod’s introduction to the US version of The Star Fraction has been up for a while over on the blog for the Centre for a Stateless Society. The book is a reflection on a social-scientific, not technological, possibility: that comprehensive central planning is very likely unworkable for micro-economic reasons but capitalism may well be unsustainable for macro-socio-economic reasons. Like a lot of science-fiction, The Star Fraction presents a what-if: ‘What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?’. It’s still a pertinent question to ask.

As MacLeod himself reveals ‘History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine’. The Star Fraction is a work of social-science-fiction written by someone with a subtle understanding of the materialist theory of history, an insider’s knowledge of computing, and first hand experience of the travails of the socialist project. The cyberpunk stylings are mainly there to give the book it’s flechette-gun-volley velocity and impact – as well as to give concrete substance to some humanist worries about whether technology actually needs us in the long-term.

One of the cleverest things about the original The Star Fraction novel is the fragmented system of micro-states imposed on the UK by America’s invasion of Europe. I didn’t realise it when I first read the novel, but the UK’s political system is supposed to be a degenerate and oppressive version of the minimal-state market-anarchist system outlined in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. In the book ‘actually existing libertarianism’ is imposed externally by a occupying superpower – just as ‘actually existing socialism’ was in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

Global financial crises generated by out of control algorithms, flying death-robots killing Islamist terrorists at the behest of the world’s last superpower, fascists in the shadow of the acropolis, grass-roots hackers’ movements releasing gigabytes of diplomatic cables – the world seems more like a MacLeod novel every day. This all reminds me that I really need to get a chance to read Farah Mendelsohn’s edited collection of essays, The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod. I’m still kicking myself that I wasn’t able to go the Science-fiction and International Orders seminar, which featured both MacLeod and Chris Brown, at the LSE back in 2011 too.

Why Aren’t we all Singularitarians?

That’s the question being asked over at hnet. Why does belief in the singularity, the imminent exponential acceleration of the development of technology resulting in a post-scarcity age of limitless possibility, remain confined to dedicated enthusiasts?

The answer provided is that the public remain uninterested, unaware and/or sceptical of such notions because 1) the benefits promised by new waves of technology (such as the technology for space travel) proved to be a mirage 2) political, regulatory and cultural factors are inhibiting the development of many promising avenues towards Singularity City.

Call me a know-nothing sceptic, but the fact that space travel, robotics, genetics and – yes – even computers failed to live up to their promise should make us all a bit wary of the idea of an accelerating upward curve of technological development. As brilliantly expressed in Gibson’s short story The Gernsback Continuum, we already live in a world filled with echoes of the shiny utopian visions of yesterday. It’s somewhat ironic that the article expresses a hope that a film of Neuromancer might help shift cultural attitudes, as cyberpunk was an expression of total incredulity towards the optimism invested in the Jetsons-esque imagined futures of the ‘golden age’ of welfare capitalism.

2011 did not look much like this

One reason why many of those who have engaged with singularitarian ideas remain sceptical might be that over the past few decades there have been few technologically induced improvements in the quality of life for the majority of people in the advanced industrialised world. Much heralded discoveries, such as the human genome project, represent major scientific milestones but have produced fewer tangible benefits than expected (in the case of the HGP partially due to the unanticipated complexity of the epigenetic systems that control the expression of genes). 2011 was once envisaged as a time in which the promise of the early developments in cybernetics and biotech would be realised (just as the early C21st was envisaged as an era of space colonisation in the imaginary of the previous era), yet it still looks very much like the past.

This fact is made clear by the lacklustre rate of economic growth experienced in the industrialised world over the last thirty years. Computers and communications technology represent a partial exception. But this wave of technologies have not resulted in the generalised productivity growth associated with electrification or steam-power. They haven’t made transport easier or more rapid, they haven’t yet solved the problem of Baumol’s cost disease (teachers can still only teach effectively approximately the same number of students as they could in the C19th). Of course, robotics, space travel (through communications satellites) and computers are all now essential parts of the way the world economy operates. But all were oversold and none have had the dramatic, positive effects that previous technological shifts had. Indeed, through processes such as outsourcing, many of these technologies have been implicated in shifts which have left those in the industrialised world more insecure and precariously located than they once were.

I’m not actually a complete sceptic when it comes to specific singularitarian ideas. Cybernetics, narrow AI, advanced materials, gene-therapy and gerontological medicine (life extension) are probably going to arrive eventually . These technologies will likely reshape human societies, although in periods measured by ‘historical time’ rather than ‘event time’. But at present, there is as much evidence to suggest that we live in an era of technological stagnation (even whilst we witness dramatic leaps in scientific knowledge) as we do the pre-takeoff phase of a singularity.