Thursday, 13 September 2012

What if? Thoughts on a world of plenty

In his recent lecture, "Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll", (which you really must listen to, seriously, it'll blow your mind), James Burke encourages us to think about the perhaps unexpected consequences of potential technological innovations - we need to think about unforeseen results that spiral out of technological progress. The most arresting example that forms the centerpiece for Burke's lecture is the possibilities of nanotechnology in the future. It will not be too long, he points out, before someone invents what are today called Personal NanoFactories - desktop machines capable of creating literally anything out of the atoms contained in just dirt and water. They could even create more of themselves - thus even if they are initially expensive and copyrighted, they would swiftly become accessible to everyone on the planet.

And not just this - in our nano future, there would be, according to Burke, "virtually free energy, delivery of medication to specific individual cells in the body, clean drinking water planet-wide, a pollution-free global environment, non-wasteful bottom-up manufacture, food for everybody delivered in intelligent packaging, silent, clean transportation systems, ubiquitous zeta-bite computers on a chip, virtually free ultra-high bandwith, the end of the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer problem, and semi-intelligent machines of all kinds and all scales."

It sounds great, but Burke stresses we must think of the side effects. The unpredictable spiraling concequences of such a vast transformation could be almost beyond imagination. Here is the list Burke comes up with, almost arbitrarily, of questions that the nanopocalypse might raise:

"So what happens to the organisations satisfying [our] needs when people with personal nano factories don't need?  What happens to all the jobs in those organisations, and to all the taxes they provide the economy with so governments can create and manage the national infrastructure? But, if you no longer need power coming off the grid, or goods going up and down the road, do you need an infrastructure? Or anything else the government does? Will politics survive at all, with virtually no need to tax and spend? If people don't work to live anymore, how do they define themselves? Does abundance remove the trigger of scarcity that used to stimulate our creativity? How would we organise a global community composed not of 196 countries but of nine billion autonomous individuals? If there is no scarcity, does anything have any value? What does worth mean? Will DIY nanoweapons trigger guerrilla terrorism the like of which we've never seen before, and if so, how do we prevent that when in one sense there is no longer any "we"? With no need to grab or protect raw material resources, is that the end of war? Will the cities empty when we can live, and live comfortably, anywhere on the planet? And when each of us does live a geographically separate, truly independent life, what happens to the culture we once shared? Or will we achieve that through the use of real time 3D holograms? And what will that do to the way we socialise, especially if we hide behind avatars? Will any institution or organisation of any kind survive in its present form? Will the last act of nation states before they turn off the lights and leave the building be to provide emergency free downloads for nanomanufactured essentials like food, water, shelter, clothing, transportation and medication? And then, will nine billion people, each with their personal nanofactories ready to download software and spit out dreams, represent the greatest individually customised consumer goods software market that history has ever seen? The amount of innovation that such a marketplace could sustain might be limited only by the global imagination. But, what will we use to pay for it? There are a million more questions which abundance throws up to be answered, and we may have no more than 40 years to predict what those answers will need to be."

As my friend Carl points out, other questions raised might include disputes over privacy, sociable behaviour, drug use, land ownership/rights, protected nature and wildlife, and a wildly unpredictable reaction from humans as regards notions like entitlement and mental health. There'd be potential for never-ending hedonistic parties, with no limits of work or other obligations, other than your own health. 

For myself, my immediate instinct is to think of superpowers and tech, with everyone wearing customised versions of Iron Man's suit, and popping out to other continents for lunch on super-high speed flying cars or jet packs. Instant manufacture would speed up scientific research in all areas immeasurably, since it would remove barriers of equipment and funding. Things like music and filmmaking would be even more opened up to everyone than they are in this internet era. You could make your house and furniture out of pure diamond, so that they never wear out. Or maybe you'd prefer to make them out of cardboard, so that you can easily feed them back into the machine when you get bored and want new furniture. 

Health care would be so improved that you could push your body to much greater limits safe in the knowledge of more or less assured recovery. Disease would vanish. We would almost certainly reach Aubrey de Grey's beloved medical singularity, where life expectancy rises exponentially to immortality. It may even be possible to resurrect the dead with samples of their DNA.

Could you command your nanofactory to create a space elevator, massively boosting space exploration potential? Could we fire a couple of nanofactories off to Mars and leave them to terraform the environment for a few years, creating colonies that we will need to solve the overpopulation problems caused by immortality? Or will overpopulation even be a problem when there's no more resource scarcity?

To be serious, I just want to give my two pennies' worth on the subject of social consequences, which is the same two pennies I always give whenever people get hyperbolic about the impact of new tech on culture and society. Here they are:

1. Culture and society always change and evolve. Change and evolution are nothing abnormal - it always feels like things are different to how they were before, at every stage in history. Neither are they unhealthy, contrary to the beliefs of those labouring under the Golden Age fallacy (see Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris). 

2. Society always takes new configurations, but they're normally based on certain core elements that are much more resistant to change than people think. Ever since Hobbes, there's been a theoretical assumption that people only stay in each others' company for mutual benefit in terms of resources and material prosperity. I'm afraid that our friend Burke seems to have fallen for this one too. But it's a manifestly ridiculous idea. Humans enjoy socialising for its own sake. If cities do evaporate, it will only be because transport is so much better that frequent social contact no longer requires proximal living. Sure, maybe there will be increased use of digital or holographic avatars. But people aren't suddenly going to atomise and abandon community ties. There is a fundamental social logic that pulls people into groups. In the nanofuture, these groups may well transcend the narrowly-conceived boundaries we impose on ourselves now, and this is an exciting prospect. But there will always be a billion sub-groups; we will continue to invent new ways to identify with one another.

3. Cultural habits will undoubtedly change to precipitously radical extents. Lovers of tradition and the Old Ways will find constant cause for alarm. But they will be surrounded by like minded individuals and will be able to realistically reconstruct their Ways in little enclaves. (I'm also sure that many groups will shun the new tech for a long time, choosing to stay with the scarcity they know instead of embracing the plenty they fear.) But the main point is that there will still be culture - i.e. forms of behaviour, creation and communication that are shared among groups. 

Given this, in the spirit of Burke's call for an examination of possible consequences, let's take a very preliminary and sweeping look at some potential effects of the nanorevolution. It might help in some areas (or might not) to take the online game "Second Life" as a model - this is a game where players use an avatar to interact with others in a virtual online reality. Like the nanoworld, the Second Life world is entirely adaptable to one's will, so that you can create practically any object you like. You can also teleport and fly, choose your appearance and abilites, your pastimes and forms of socialisation. 


I would be very surprised if the ability to acquire any material item you desire leads to a decrease in materialism. There's no reason why people wouldn't still judge each other by appearances and possessions. Even in today's world, taste has become less about what's expensive (although there's still a way to go), and more about what's considered culturally "good taste". Hence the social category we call "chavs": people with excessive materialistic tastes, who display cultural poverty, not economic.

In Second Life, you can also have whatever you want for your avatar. Everybody is slim and good looking, conforming to mainstream ideas of beauty; their clothes are universally trendy or otherwise impressive. But it's not like fashion disappears, or everyone just starts wearing the same identical outfit which is recognised as the most cool. Your appearance is still used to convey social facts about oneself - the kinds of groups you belong to, the things you like, the way you want others to think of you etc. There's no reason this would vanish in circumstances of plenty in the actual world as opposed to the virtual.


Ever since the Enlightenment, we've predicted the end of religion due to modernisation and/or science. The fact is, religion is not the result of backwardness, lack of education or ignorance of scientific knowledge. It is merely a fairly typical form of social behaviour that is appealing across many demographics. Religion would continue to evolve and appeal to the new age in new ways.

Fanaticism of both religious and non-religious sorts would continue to appeal to certain individuals to roughly the same extent it does now. Why wouldn't it? There's no reason to suppose that we would become better educated. People may stop going to school because they will never need a job. Or, more likely, they will go to school in greater numbers because they have more time on their hands. Education might start at sixteen rather than six, and would never really end. But education doesn't make you less fanatic, if you're already an obsessive/crazy kind of person. 

There are plenty of fanatics on Second Life, a certain amount of educational opportunities, and lots of religious institutions and activities. I can't see how we could predict these ratios for the nanofuture.


Continuing from this, I would say that by far the biggest danger presented by the personal nanofactory is that it could make WMDs easy and accessible to all. It only takes one Chapman or Oswald to decimate an entire continent in a fit of delusional psychosis. This presents two alternatives for the political realm.

In the first, politics basically becomes about security and regulation of the use of nanotechnology. They would try to install unhackable systems that prevent the use of nanofactories for making anything with, say, depleted uranium or chemical agents capable of mass destruction. The internet would be highly policed to prevent downloads for the necessary software becoming available. People would probably be happy to put up with such regulation out of fear of what would happen without it.

But then how far would the regulation go? What would count as reasonable precautions whilst not overly limiting our freedom to create whatever we want? These would be the guiding questions of the new politics.

In the other version, the tech is so open and the firewalls are so easy to bypass that it becomes impossible to regulate. In this case, we would just have to hope that no one was crazy enough to do anything rash. But if the fear got high enough, people might start wearing radiation-proof suits and living in indestructible bunkers. Politics would then be less about security and more about helping everyone live in harmony. It might go super-local, with all political authority ignored outside the confines of one's own little community. There might be hardly any government action, with infrastructure maintained by altruists in their own free time. Wikipedia would become ludicrously active and informative, used as a model for all kinds of new projects, and many other volunteer-based activities would see a massive uptick in participation. That is, until someone decides in a moment of inspired lucidity to suddenly generate an army of lethal robots bent on the destruction of humanity.

In both versions, the political boundaries would likely shift away from countries and become more global/locally structured.


One thing Burke mentions is that not just our politics but our morality and moral values are based on the assumption of scarcity. Hence the injunction to share with others, to treat them as you would have them treat you, and so forth. But again, I think the idea that this might collapse when we have everything we want is a tad facile and implies that we only stick together to keep ourselves fed and sheltered (damn you, Hobbes). On Second Life, there are definitely notions of good and bad behaviour, and anything that's disruptive or unpleasant towards others is strongly frowned on. Communal spirit and altruism is just a part of the way we like to be around others and feel like we fit in. I would imagine that if anything, such instincts would flourish in circumstances where notions like private property seem petty and pathetic. We would basically become communists, but not in a big deal kind of way, but just because there's not really any reason not to be.

Irreplaceable objects, or ones with sentimental value, would become even more important to us. And as these become ever more scarce, the real irreplaceable things of worth would be relationships. Quality social time would become much more highly valued. Making time for others would be the focal point of altruistic morals.

Things like stereotypes would presumably be at least slightly eroded or changed, helping things like feminist and minority struggles and maybe causing decreased intolerance. The gaps between rich and poor and man and woman would not vanish overnight, but would slowly get filled in and replaced by gaps between other kinds of groupings that are less based on unchangeable things like gender/sexuality/wealth/ethnicity. Although, there's no guarantee that there wouldn't be similar amounts of institutional unfairness and inequality - at least in terms of prestige, "coolness" and so on if not actual material lifestyle. Women would become more independent, but may remained shackled to raising children. With unlimited life expectancy and probably also fertility, there may not be the same pressure to have children, however, and it may be that men become just as likely to raise kids as women, seeing as neither will need to work or stay at home. Family structures would be likely to continue their evolution in non-traditional directions. Child-rearing may become more of a communal enterprise, as it is in many so-called "primitive" cultures.


Wildlife and natural habitats may become more valued as they get filled with people escaping city crowding, or they may become less valued as they are easily replaced by nanofactories. People may like to spend time in them as something "real" and unmanufactured, even if they can't tell the difference between what is and isn't man made. Extinct species may be resurrected in nanoLazarus Pits, including dinosaurs if we can find any DNA.

Climate change will be greatly reduced by lack of fossil fuel consumption, but by the time this future is realised it may already have taken a huge toll. Nanotech will help to mitigate the effects and patch up some of the ravishings that have already been experienced.

Any other ideas, comments, thoughts? What do you think would happen in a nanofuture? What have I missed and got wrong?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Lay off Frank, he's a "free" man

Frank Turner, the so-called legendary folk-punk musician, was outed in the press recently as a person of right-wing political persuasion. This upset a lot of people, who seemingly thought he was a good, decent, morally upstanding lefty like themselves. It's unclear why they might have thought this, given that at least one of his songs is a hymn to libertarianism. Turner himself wrote a very reasonable response to the apparent scandal, saying he's never tried to hide his anti-government inclinations. It's obviously a bit cruel of the Guardian and the twittersphere to be so unkind to the guy over the whole thing so suddenly, but there you go.

Why do we find Turner's politics so upsetting? It's because we assumed he was one of us, of course. We assumed he was one of us, even to the point of ignoring his actual politics that came from his mouth, because he projected a punk-inspired, anti-corporate, culturally alternative persona. As he himself points out, Turner is far from a conservative or a Tory. What we failed to account for is that you don't have to be conservative to be a right-wing nutjob.

Turner's particular brand of nutjobbery is libertarianism. I suspect it's the whole concept of libertarianism that is getting people so hot and bothered, rather than any specific betrayal they unfairly perceive on Turner's part. We on the left find libertarianism extremely unsettling, because some of its core elements, almost embarrassingly, appeal to us. Yet at the same time, it's anti-government and anti-tax, which is anathema to leftist dogma.

Many on the left need to think things through a bit more before we can whole-heartedly believe in our own views without feeling guilty. What it comes down to is the liberal inability to deal with the concept of freedom. Freedom is a trigger-word; like "hope" or "justice" or "community" - it is automatically something to aspire to, something that must be sought at all costs. Any belief system can be imbued with positive affect by filling it with these words. When libertarians talk about the need to preserve freedom, it takes the wind out of the sails of our counter-argument. Something in our brain goes click, and we suddenly think to ourselves: "hold on, freedom is good, they're right about that. So why am I arguing against it? Especially since this guy seems so nice and punk." Normally, the response is to deny that left-wing principles or policies really reduce freedom, which is actually a fairly strong argument (they're no real evidence it's curtailed by government action), but we don't even need to go there. We just have to get over our cultural obsession with the word.

It doesn't take much musing on the subject to see that freedom, much like the other buzzwords I mentioned, is an entirely empty concept. It's so ill-defined as to be meaningless. We talk about it in quantities, as if you are always somewhere on a scale between pure power over all creation to shackled in a prison. (It's worth noting that even at this abstract stage, freedom is greatly limited by physics. I can't choose to fly or to kill people with my mind). We assume that limitations on freedom imply a smaller number of choices, when in fact you could argue the opposite is the case. And we see it in terms of individuals all trying to do their own thing, as if we weren't constantly impacting hundreds of other people with every choice we take.

What people mean by political freedom, perhaps, is restricted to certain specific actions or choices that are in some way deemed important. If the government blocks one of these, then we can fairly say we have been wronged. In this case, freedom is arbitrary - we want to be able to do whatever it is we happen to want to be able to do. Fair enough. It's nice to be able to do stuff we like. But what if we like to start wars or have sex with small children?

Freedom is a ridiculous ideal on which to base a social system, because it can't possibly exist in any social context. Even without a government, any interaction that involves two or more humans automatically implies a loss of freedom. Each individual set of desires and choices is likely to conflict with others. That's before you even come to things like culture, which is a set of behavioural codes and moral values that automatically massively limits the conceivable choices of individuals. I can't walk around naked, be overtly homophobic or talk to strangers on the tube without incurring social disapproval - is this restraint on my freedom the government's fault? All the biggest restraints on freedom take this form - we're not even aware of them as restraints because we've internalised them as second nature. So if we're not aware of them, are they still a restraint? What if I'm so used to paying tax that I no longer see it as a restraint. Is it still a limit on my freedom?

But even where the government is concerned, i.e. in the maintenance of a functional political system, no one expects full freedom. If you're going to lock up murderers, then you're going to limit the freedom of the entire population to kill each other. If you're going to prosecute libel laws, then you're going to infringe our freedom of speech. Not only that, but for either of these cases, you're going to have to have an effective police force and legal system, which you'll need to fund by limiting people's freedom to use their money as they want.

Everyone agrees that freedom must be limited to an extent, and even if we didn't, it still would be. The debate between libertarians and socialists concerns the size of this extent. Socialists may be willing to lose more freedom if it helps more people and makes everyone happier. We might be happy to fund the UK film council with tax money allotted by an elected government rather than let it slide into private hands with their own agenda. The libertarians might complain that the Council would then be funded through "the threat of violence towards citizens" (Frank's own words), which is obviously moronic on every level. One man's threat of violence is another's rule of law, and in either phrasing, you have to have it in some form if you want to lock up murderers.

But the debate about freedom is itself silly. We have so little of it anyway - or so much, depending on how you look at it - and government policy makes no real difference. If you deregulate the economy, our freedom merely becomes limited by corporate profiteering rather than government policy. This phenomenon has been documented extensively by social scientists; how the introduction of neoliberalism in the 80s largely led to an increase in regulation - only it was the market rather than the government doing the regulating. Meanwhile, societies we traditionally think of as lacking freedom, such as Soviet Asia, have been seen to produce communities that devise all kinds of new forms of action through which they can express their choices and create their own cultural limitations under the radar of official structures. (I can give references for studies documenting both these phenomena if anyone's interested). This doesn't mean that totalitarianism is OK, it just means that freedom tends to be the roughly the same in every kind of system. Or at least it's different in kind, not in degree.

The point is, freedom is so poorly understood, so amorphous and meaningless, that we need to abandon it as a valid political ideal. When arguing against libertarians, who are often obsessed with freedom to the point of insanity, we should have no inner doubts. This doesn't mean it's OK to stop people from doing stuff just for the sake of it, or that we can disregard things like privacy, but rather that when considering such issues, we should evaluate them in terms of benefits like happiness rather than moral absolutes like freedom. Such absolutes rarely exist in the real world the way we think they do, and they rarely bring any tangible gain when sought.