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Entrenched Technology, from The Culture

By TheophileEscargot in Culture
Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 09:35:45 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

The Culture is a vast, anarchist utopian society in a series of SF books by Iain M. Banks. But how plausible is a utopia driven by technology alone?

An earlier version of this story appeared on Radio Free Tomorrow.

The technology of the Culture is standard for science fiction. They have faster-than-light travel, generally live on spaceships and Orbital structures vastly larger than any quaint old-fashioned planet. Their computers are self-aware citizens, often "Minds" vastly more capable than a human-level intelligence. The interesting thing about the Culture is the way that Banks has attempted to create an idealised anarchist society.

The Culture has no laws or conventional rulers. Ships and Orbitals have self-aware Minds. The Mind of a ship is not compelled to listen to the wishes or votes of its inhabitants, but in practice usually choose to do so: a Mind that objected to this would not choose the body of an inhabited ship. A citizen who objects to the Mind's decision can always move elsewhere, or build his own non-sentient ship if he chooses. In the Culture, non-sentient production systems are advanced enough to allow any remotely reasonable material request to be fulfilled, and the Orbitals are large enough that anyone can have a huge realm to live in, if he chooses.

Organic Culture citizens can choose to alter their bodily form, but though they frequently choose to change their sex, most choose to remain humanoid. They can choose to be immortal, though most live only a few hundred years.

Though the Culture has no laws, it does have manners. Abusive people are likely to be ostracized. Extreme abusers such as murderers may find themselves slap-droned: a drone will follow them around to make sure they don't do it again.

Life in the Culture is generally hedonistic; occupied by parties, sex, drugs, games, sports, arts and philosophy. Science has largely passed beyond the reach of human-level intelligence: only the superintelligent Minds are likely to make a new discovery. A few souls do more serious work as part of Contact, the Culture organisation that deals with the non-Culture universe. Non-Contact citizens who meddle with lesser civilizations find themselves followed around by Culture agents who prevent them from doing much harm.

Could the Culture really work?
Banks himself appears to be in two minds about the plausibility of the Culture. In interviews, he has said explicitly that the Culture would not work for humans in our current state. In a Spike magazine interview he has said:

"It [the Culture] doesn't exist and I don't delude myself that it does. It's just my take on it. I'm not convinced that humanity is capable of becoming the Culture because I think people in the Culture are just too nice - altering their genetic inheritance to make themselves relatively sane and rational and not the genocidal, murdering bastards that we seem to be half the time."
In a Scrawl interview he has said:
"Is the Culture a possible future..." Iain mused, "Probably, eventually, but not for us. It will be the future for another species perhaps, different from us as we are today. We're too tied up in bigotry, hatred, war, economics, oppression, competition... The Culture would only work with people who are nicer than us - less prone to violence and genocide. Perhaps aggression is necessary to achieve sentience, consciousness, space travel, and we don't know if we're a particularly violent species or a relatively mild one compared to others out there..."
After sustained and heavy criticism, Banks has decided that the Culture has modified its own citizens, both biological and electronic, to be morally better than contemporary humans. More detail is given in his own article on the Culture. This of course leads to more interesting questions.

The Culture has the ability to deal with greed, mischievousness, power-lust, selfishness; what we might as well call evil: but in limited amounts only. If the number of do-badders exceeds the number of do-gooders, the Culture will start to collapse.

The Culture assumes unlimited resources: if the Culture expands to the point where space and raw materials become scarce, the system will break down. More seriously, if a malicious element within the Culture reproduces itself exponentially with maliciousness intact, it could eventually grow to dominate the Culture. The Culture depends on the good moral nature of its citizens.

Nothing like the Culture has ever existed in human history. We have no way of knowing how humans would react to universal, unlimited space and wealth. It's easy to imagine the system collapsing under human frailties. Entire solar systems might be consumed with competitive displays of status. Murderers and rapists might run riot. Individuals or cults might create armies intent on propagating their restrictive beliefs. But we have no way of knowing. It seems uncharacteristically pessimistic of Iain M. Banks to assume that the Culture is beyond humanity. Banks is a fan-friendly, convention-attending writer: one might even speculate that this opinion is more a way of forestalling tedious harangues by fans than a deeply-held belief.

Opponents of the Culture
It's notable that even within the Culture novels there are opponents to the Culture. Many of the characters find the Culture objectionable, even evil.

The superintelligence of the Culture Minds gives them far more power than the human-level Culture intelligences. In the books there is no way of augmenting a human intelligence to Mind-level. This leads some, such as the Idirans, to regard the Culture as an abomination: a society ruled by computers, where humanoids are little more than pets.

There is a degree of truth to this. In theory, the Minds do not coerce the human-level intelligences to do anything: anyone is free to forgo the convenience of Mind ships and Orbitals at any time. In practice, in the books the Minds frequently use trickery to manipulate human beings into carrying out their wishes.

Contact agents are also described as using dubious methods: occasionally even blackmailing Culture citizens. This could be seen as a weakness of the system itself. In a society without laws, there are no external limits on what the agents can do.

Less addressed, but more serious, is the moral issue of the Culture's presumed past altering of its citizens to be better people. One can imagine the outrage if a group proposed the genetic modifications of humans to be morally superior people today. The ethics of this are not really addressed in the books: perhaps the greatest implausibility of the Culture-- or perhaps another indication that deep down, Banks does not really think it is necessary.

The Books
In spite of the background, the tone of the Culture books is generally light-hearted. The plot and characters are traditional Space Opera, switching deftly between the amusing and the melodramatic. Culture ships choose whimsical names such as the Of Course I Still Love You, the Very Little Gravitas Indeed and the Funny, It Worked Last Time.... Banks initially insisted on strongly differentiating his Culture novels from his mainstream novels: labelling the SF novels with his initial "Iain M. Banks", and demanding a big spaceship on the cover of Consider Phlebas.

More recently, the "Iain" and "Iain M" books have grown more similar. The mainstream novel The Business chases through exotic settings much like a Culture novel, and the books Inversions and A Song of Stone take SF and Fantasy elements into darker, more serious territory. Banks is reported to be less keen now on the explicit differentiation between "Iain" and "Iain M".

The Culture novels begin with Consider Phlebas, about a mercenary who takes sides in a war between the Culture and a rival civilization. The Player of Games describes a reluctant recruit to Contact sent as emissary to another culture. The State of the Art is a short story collection. Use of Weapons describes the life of a Contact agent in flashback. Excession and the slow-moving but thoughtful Look to Windward are set within the Culture itself.

Other levels
All the previous discussion has been at the literal level, but of course there are other levels as well. The Culture can be considered as a goal for humanity: not necessarily a realistic society, but an ideal to aspire to. The hedonistic, technologically-advanced, mostly introverted Culture can also be seen as a reflection of the democracies of the developed world today. Can this hedonism be reconciled with the moral treatment of the less fortunate societies that live so close?

The Culture is also a testbed for social ideas. The Culture's language is designed as a moral influence, making it subtly easier to express tolerance than hatred. Banks also makes the point that the Culture's body-changing technology makes it harder to be prejudiced: it's more difficult to be sexist if you spend time as both male and female.

The Culture can be ruthless in its treatment of threats from the outside. Contact's "Special Circumstances", division does not hesitate to cause deaths on a large scale, if its Minds assure it that this is for the greater good. The Culture novels address the moral issues of these interventions. Is it ethical for the Culture to interfere with other civilizations, as it sometimes does? Is it ethical for the Culture to withhold its help when it is capable of giving it? On these matters at least, it would take a Mind far more powerful than a mere human to give definitive answers.


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The Culture?
o Our inevitable destiny 8%
o A possible future 36%
o Maybe if we're modified to be nicer 21%
o Possible for aliens, never for us 0%
o Impossible for any intelligent being 3%
o A pleasant fantasy 20%
o An abomination 10%

Votes: 60
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o earlier version
o Radio Free Tomorrow
o Spike magazine interview
o Scrawl interview
o his own article on the Culture
o whimsical names
o Consider Phlebas
o The Business
o Inversions
o A Song of Stone
o The Player of Games
o The State of the Art
o Use of Weapons
o Excession
o Look to Windward
o Also by TheophileEscargot

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Entrenched Technology, from The Culture | 93 comments (83 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
Apathy - the future's great virtue (4.80 / 5) (#7)
by zakalwe on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 07:29:25 AM EST

I think the culture would work, due to 2 basic factors:

  1. Post-scarcity economy.  The culture exists in a time where resources are plentiful and technology is so advanced that any reasonable material need can be met.  With a situation like this, there's much less possibility of conflict on a large scale - How can you convince people to make war on their neighbour if they've already got all they want?  Grievances on an individual level are still possible, but collective violence is impossible if the people you are trying to rouse don't care.

  2.  The Minds.  Fundamentally, the culture works because people are not in charge.  There's a lot of truth to the "human pets" argument.  Even if humans did wish to cause trouble, the Minds are easilty capable of stopping them.  The real reason its a happy society is that humans don't matter. - there's nothing they can do to disrupt things.  And if you look at the culture as a society of Minds, things do look different.  There are differences of opinion / morality amond Minds, and Ostracism isn't as effective where there is a level playing field (How do you slap-drone a GSV?)  Hence it is possible for Minds to buck society (eg  Meatfucker), and even for conspiracys to exist (Excession.)

Hah! (3.00 / 4) (#8)
by wiredog on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 07:44:19 AM EST

How can you convince people to make war on their neighbour if they've already got all they want?

Iraq wasn't hurting when it attacked Iran. Germany had a growing and strong economy in 1939.

Osama Bin Laden has enough money that he can buy any material items he wants.

People will find reasons to fight.

Can't sleep. The clowns will get me.
[ Parent ]

The leaders have money, not their followers (4.50 / 4) (#10)
by zakalwe on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 08:10:34 AM EST

Iraq wasn't hurting when it attacked Iran. Germany had a growing and strong economy in 1939.
But how would the leaders have convinced their soldiers to invade if they didn't need their pay?  Would the populace have supported actions that could cost lives if they had so much more to lose, and full action to all the information they wanted?  Its easy to motivate people if you can hold a carrot out, but if you have nothing to offer that they can't get themselves, the options of a power structure are highly limited - you have to convince people to follow you, and if people are happy with the status quo, they'll oppose your changes.

[ Parent ]
Money isn't everything (none / 0) (#17)
by JoshKnorr on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:22:47 AM EST

But how would the leaders have convinced their soldiers to invade if they didn't need their pay? Would the populace have supported actions that could cost lives if they had so much more to lose, and full action to all the information they wanted?

There are other ways to motivate people besides money. However, I think it is valid to say that it is much harder to motivate people to risk their lives without a threat to their welfare.

The two ways to do this are to either:

  • convince them that their material welfare is threatened, either now or in the future, when it is really not
  • convince them that there is something more important than their material welfare which is worth sacrificing said welfare for.

    which, as above posters have mentioned, leaves something which resembles fanatical religion. Convincing people that they are in danger when they are not is a trickier proposition. Depends on to what degree you believe that in an almost-perfectly transparent society, people will reach conclusions that are irrational (or at least not supported by adequate evidence) and of such gravity that they will make war over them.

    [ Parent ]

  • Complacency is the daughter of Invention (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by zakalwe on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:54:55 AM EST

    convince them that their material welfare is threatened, either now or in the future, when it is really not

    This is also much harder to do in a post-scarsity society.  People will have the means to obtain accurate information for themselves, and those that care will likely be motivated to get that information.  It would be much harder to fool a sufficient number of people.

    convince them that there is something more important than their material welfare which is worth sacrificing said welfare for.

    Again, easy availability of information and education would reduce things like this, though on the other hand, a society where Man has effectively rendered himeself obsolete is probably especially susceptible to religion.  I still think a contented population will tend to have too much invested in the status quo to risk changing it without a sufficient threat.  Religion might be popular (Though Banks details a society that has mainly 'outgrown' religion - perhaps a reasonable attitude when you do things on planetary scales, and can really observe your neighbours sublime into higher dimensions.) - but I'd expect its the ones which don't advocate war and change that will find the most fertile ground.

    [ Parent ]
    Memes vs. materialism (none / 0) (#25)
    by JoshKnorr on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 12:24:50 PM EST

    This is also much harder to do in a post-scarsity society. People will have the means to obtain accurate information for themselves, and those that care will likely be motivated to get that information. It would be much harder to fool a sufficient number of people.

    I'm not so sure of this, particularly in scenarios which involve a lot of unknowns. It becomes very hard to lie to them about the present, but that doesn't necessarily extend to predictions about the future.

    I think it's possible for reasonable, rational people to disagree about predictions of the future. If the prediction involves something that directly affects your material welfare, this could motivate you to take up arms to prevent that future from coming to pass.

    Again, easy availability of information and education would reduce things like this, though on the other hand, a society where Man has effectively rendered himeself obsolete is probably especially susceptible to religion.

    I'm on very uncertain ground when it comes to gauging the degree to which certain cultures would or would not be vulnerable to religious memes, particular ones that advocate disruption and/or violence.

    My gut instinct is to say that a post-scarcity society is less-vulnerable to such memes but not so much so that they are effectively immune. Our susceptibility to non-rational memes seems to be (at least from my POV) quite deeply rooted.

    [ Parent ]

    Dude (3.50 / 2) (#21)
    by StrontiumDog on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:58:21 AM EST

    First, the Iraq-Iran war was sparked off by a number of failed and succesful assassination attempts by Iran on Iraqi ministers in 1980. Prior to this was a long history of border disputes, primarily centered on territory containing waterways: extremely valuable in the water-impoverished Middle East.

    Secondly, Germany's economy may have been "growing" in 1939, but it was the hyperinflationary period in the 20's, and the subsequent depression which led to the fall of the Weimar and the rise of Hitler. WW2 is intimately tied to this period; it didn't "just begin" in 1939.

    In both cases, people definitley didn't have "everything they wanted".

    [ Parent ]

    How do you slap-drone a GSV? (none / 0) (#30)
    by Freaky on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 12:38:18 PM EST

    You have another ship follow it about.

    In Excession this is exactly what they did with the Eccentric GSV Sleeper Service.  It was constantly tailed by the GSV Yawning Angel.

    Not quite up to the same level as a drone would be to a human, of course :)

    [ Parent ]

    Why a 'Culture'-like anarchy could work (5.00 / 2) (#11)
    by GavinWheeler on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 08:21:26 AM EST

    Personally, I think a 'Culture' based society could evolve from current day humanity, and could well work, precisely because it is not based solely on 'super' technology, but also on an idealised philosophical system.

    In fact I would argue that the technology is not the defining quality of The Culture. An opt-in society such as that would share a lot of the cool aspects of the Cutlure even without the faster-than-light travel and genetic engineering. The AIs definitely help keep the system stable, and make up a major part of the 'flavour' of the Culture to my mind, but it is only really the 'unlimited resources' that are a technological requirement to making the Culture workable. If any splinter group can 'replicate' a new spaceship and go off to make their own way, why should they take the risk of fighting against everyone else to force them to agree with a particular point of view?

    More seriously, if a malicious element within the Culture reproduces itself exponentially with maliciousness intact, it could eventually grow to dominate the Culture. The Culture depends on the good moral nature of its citizens.

    But an opt-in system like the Culture doesn't have to 'deal with' do-badders. If the do-badders outnumber the do-gooders, the do-gooders simply split off. This isn't a democracy where the majority can impose their will on a minority - Banks himself portrayed a number of spin-off groups that seperated from the mainstream Culture, such as the Zetetic Elench (you have to wonder how much time he spends thinking up these names!)

    At worst a bunch of 'do-badders' might try to use their technology to destroy the do-gooders, or coerce them to join a different political system which did enforce rules. But in a system with unlimited space and resources, why would you want to attack other people (who share the same level of technology as you)? Fanatical religion is about the only reason I can thik of, and I tend to feel that that would be less likely in a system where all citizens are well educated and effectively 'rich'.

    Also, in a society where any significant piece of technology is a sentient citizen, all you have to do to thwart this is program the initial artificial intelligences with a good background in moral philosophy, and all subsequent AIs programmed by those AIs will presumably share that background. So once such a moral society is formed, only external threats would want to do more than go their own way in case of a difference of opinion.

    Ideas such as manipulating language to manipulate ideas are cool, but anyone who has read "1984" will have seen a darker version of it. Luckily, I suspect that you would have to be a super-genius AI Mind to pull it off, and anyone that bright is also likely to be bright enough to work out a solid moral philosophy. I also like the idea of letting people experience life from the point of view of other genders (or races or species) as a tool to reduce prejudice. Of course, this needn't require a full sex-change - really good virtual reality could probably give you the experience of a day as a woman (or man, or goldfish).

    Definition of the Culture (4.00 / 1) (#13)
    by krek on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 09:59:28 AM EST

    I remember reading on one of the books, I don't recall which one though, that with the creation of the Minds people had been freed from the daily obligation of surviving and delegated this task to the Minds, thus allowing people to engage in the one activity that the Minds could not do for them, enjoy themselves!

    Another of the nice aspects of these books is that when they bring a new Mind online, among the first things done is to explain the situation to the Mind and then ask what they wanted to do. Most Minds choose to serve their creators in the capacity of Ship Mind or Orbital Mind but this is in no way forced upon them. I like that.

    [ Parent ]
    Love your optimism.. (none / 0) (#18)
    by Kwil on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:35:52 AM EST

    ..though I think it's misplaced.

    At worst a bunch of 'do-badders' might try to use their technology to destroy the do-gooders, or coerce them to join a different political system which did enforce rules. But in a system with unlimited space and resources, why would you want to attack other people (who share the same level of technology as you)?

    Because what these other people are doing is wrong, and you're only going about it to help them.  "No really, this reliance on guns is wrong, we only want to take them away to make things better for all of us." "This desire to smoke is wrong, you're hurting yourselves and the others around you, we want to help you by stopping you from doing this," or for an example less reduced to the absurd, "Your choice to engage in intercourse with willing 13 year olds is just wrong! Our group will stop you to protect them."

     Religion need play no part in the desire to modify other people's behavior (though it often lends a handy justification when none other can be found).

    / Fanatical religion is about the only reason I can thik of, and I tend to feel that that would be less likely in a system where all citizens are well educated and effectively 'rich'./

    Nah, education and wealth hasn't stopped gay-bashing in America. Lessened it, sure. But there's something hard-wired into our systems about the destruction/subjugation/conquest of the "other" - and not everybody gets beyond it.

    That Jesus Christ guy is getting some terrible lag... it took him 3 days to respawn! -NJ CoolBreeze

    [ Parent ]
    Optimism, or faith in laziness? (4.00 / 1) (#28)
    by GavinWheeler on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 12:35:13 PM EST

    I do realise that I tend to be optimistic when I'm not being cynical, but even so..

    I take your point about child abuse, but while I like to think that I would support a war against a country/group/orbital that practiced organised child abuse, I have to point out that noone has declared war against places like Thailand (for this reason) despite the well-publicised child prostitution there. If we can ignore such a child-abuse industry in the relatively confined space of a planet, how much easier would it be to ignore it in the vastness of space when we can just take our children in teh opposite direction (even if we are limited to slower than light travel)?

    I'm sure people would come to blows occasionally over such philosophical differences, even if space and recources were infinite. But not to such an extent as to make a 'Culture'-like society possible: even in the books there are a number of wars mentioned.

    The biggest potential hiccup I see is that even if space is potentially infinite, everyone will want to live in the trendy bit with the hip clubs, and will then no doubt quarrel with their neighbours just as much as they do now. Even in a crowded country like Britain, what is the population density in London compared to that of the middle of Wales? So instead of moving away to start thir own 'country' fanatics might insist that others 'join' them or leave the trendy area. 'Joining', of course, might mean anything from converting to a particular religion to giving up or condoning guns/free speech/freedom of sexuality.

    As for my naive hope that universal wealth and education will result in no prejudice, perhaps I should say that it would hopefully reduce prejudice. Sure there is still homophobia in the USA or western europe, but the rich educated homophobes tend to just make snotty remarks, they don't beat the fags to within an inch of their lives then tie them to a fence to let that inch drain away. And there are rich educated fanatics, but I suspect they are far less common than poor illiterate fanatics. If you are not poor, desperate or burning with resentment about something, you're less likely to get that worked up about something.

    [ Parent ]

    Scarcity (4.00 / 1) (#41)
    by Pac on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 03:11:47 PM EST

    You are forgetting one most relevant fact about a Culture-like society: there is no scarcity. That goes for everything: economic resources, space, raw materials, anything. Also, the Culture is much more a benevolent dictatorship (of the Minds upon their biological fellows) than a democracy. And it supposes the very large minds of the Minds are not affected by maniacal diseases like the ones you describe.

    The unlimited resources make it extremely difficult to mold people by your desires. After all, they can not only go elsewhere at will, they can also match your efforts (even the violent ones) point by point and conduct the battle to a never-ending stalemate.

    The religious fanaticism is addressed in the tales dealing with the Idiran War - but that was a external enemy.

    Confusion will be my epitaph

    [ Parent ]
    debugging morality (none / 0) (#75)
    by Shpongle Spore on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 04:06:23 PM EST

    Also, in a society where any significant piece of technology is a sentient citizen, all you have to do to thwart this is program the initial artificial intelligences with a good background in moral philosophy, and all subsequent AIs programmed by those AIs will presumably share that background. So once such a moral society is formed, only external threats would want to do more than go their own way in case of a difference of opinion.

    The problem I see with this is the possibility of the AI's morality being buggy or simply incompatible with other AIs' morality. I think an analogous situation in human being is responsible for most of the worst conflict. For example, I think doctors who perform abortions and the people who kill them are both putting themselves at risk to do what they feel is morally right.

    Relying on morality to prevent conflict is like trying to put out a fire by smothering it with gasoline.
    I wish I was in Austin, at the Chili Parlor bar,
    drinking 'Mad Dog' margaritas and not caring where you are
    [ Parent ]

    Opinion (4.00 / 3) (#12)
    by Herring on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 09:50:11 AM EST

    I like the Culture books but I can't help but see the Culture as the antithesis of the Daily Mail attitude. Tolerance, having what you want without working for it, no "punishment" mentality. I wonder if this is deliberate on the part of Banks? I can't read more than a page of the Mail or the Express without getting extremely intolerant myself.

    I do like the ship names : "I blame my mother" and "I blame your mother", "What are the Civilian Applications" etc.

    Say lol what again motherfucker, say lol what again, I dare you, no I double dare you
    Interesting situation (3.00 / 1) (#14)
    by Quila on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 10:54:01 AM EST

    One can imagine the outrage if a group proposed the genetic modifications of humans to be morally superior people today

    We are so ethical that it would be considered unethical to make us more ethical. Logically, it's totally strange, but it's very plausible given our society.

    Why the Culture is Possible. (4.00 / 3) (#19)
    by xytrope on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:43:44 AM EST

    What makes the Culture possible is the vast distances and volume of space that is available. Even when we discover some method of travelling faster than light, your are still dealing with a nearly infinite space. In fact according to inflationary theory, the universe is already at least 1035 lightyears in diameter. If current galactic density holds, thats over 10100 galaxies in the universe, but I digress.

    Whats makes the Culture a viable possibility is that when you have that vast of space, freedom is always right there in the next unexplored sector over.

    [ Parent ]

    What about things that are one-of-a-kind? (none / 0) (#31)
    by JoshKnorr on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 01:12:02 PM EST

    Whats makes the Culture a viable possibility is that when you have that vast of space, freedom is always right there in the next unexplored sector over.
    Until you disagree about (or over) something that can't be shared, or replicated. Barring the ability to move between parallel universes, there is still a scarcity of uniqueness. There's probably a term for that which I'm not aware of, but I hope it gets my point across.

    [ Parent ]
    Things that are one of a kind (none / 0) (#36)
    by Shren on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 02:00:31 PM EST

    I'd say, let those who want to fight over them, fight over them. If people really want to fight over a holy land then just get out of thier way. Anyone sensible will move elsewhere.

    [ Parent ]
    Usable today? (none / 0) (#65)
    by Quila on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 06:21:14 AM EST

    I'd say, let those who want to fight over them, fight over them. If people really want to fight over a holy land then just get out of thier way. Anyone sensible will move elsewhere.

    This sounds like a good Israel/Palestine policy.

    [ Parent ]

    we could do a lot worse [nt] (none / 0) (#66)
    by Shren on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 07:10:33 AM EST

    [ Parent ]
    disagreements (none / 0) (#37)
    by Cro Magnon on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 02:01:55 PM EST

    The 5th planet of Sirius has religious importance. If the Glarms won't leave it, we'll have to kill them all!
    Information wants to be beer.
    [ Parent ]
    humans don't want a utopia (none / 0) (#15)
    by waxmop on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:07:11 AM EST

    so i'm jumping in here without having read any of these books, but i've read a lot of other sci-fi and spent plenty of hours exhaling into a dryer sheet and talking about utopias.

    however, i've come to the conclusion that the american majority doesn't really want a utopia. i think people are pretty content to let others suffer as long as they don't have to see it.

    my question is this - if aliens showed up during lunch today and promised us a better way of life for all, but very little chance of a few rising way above the rest, would we take it? i doubt most americans would. we live in a winner-take-all culture.

    finally, my favorite book in this vein is ecotopia by ernest callenbach. he spends more time talking about better government and cultural mores rather than fantasizing new technology. i'm not sure he got it right, but at least it's within the realm of immediate possibility.
    We are a monoculture of horsecock. Liar

    You think a cultural change is likely? (none / 0) (#16)
    by jw32767 on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:15:25 AM EST

    Cultural changes tend to be very dramatic and hard to get going.  Technological changes, on the other hand, happen all the time and most people in the industrialized world are used to it.

    I can't think of any good examples off the top of my head, but we've been living under the same sort of culture since around the '50s whereas there have been massive technological changes since then.

    Krups, not only can they shell Paris from the Alsace, they make good coffee. - georgeha

    These views are my own and may or may not reflect the views of my employer.
    [ Parent ]

    we've changed somewhat since the 50s (4.00 / 1) (#34)
    by waxmop on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 01:39:06 PM EST

    i think a lot of stuff changed since the 50s.

    look at marriage: divorce rates are higher and people are getting married at later ages. inter-racial marriages were illegal in several southern states and are now at least legally tolerated. stigma against divorce and extra-marital sex has dwindled.

    racial issues in general: legally segregated schooling no longer exists. we've got a few more non-white, non-male members of congress than we had in the 50s.

    the labor market: the college degree replaced high-school diploma as the minimum requirement to enter the white-collar labor force. lifetime employment at a single firm and a pensioned retirement was commonplace and is now almost extinct. now, workers feel little loyalty and will on average work for at least 5 firms over their career. labor unions have reported shrinking enrollments for the last several decades. jobs in manufacturing have atrophied away and now we are largely a service-sector and information-processing economy.

    culture: we've got gay people on family sit-coms now! how is that not a sea-change?

    i'm not providing links for any of my so-called facts, so if you don't believe them, that's fine with me. but i think most of my arguments are not based on disputed numbers.

    there's some stuff that looks the same: we still live mostly in houses and we drive cars to work and have jobs. the nuclear family is still the most typical family structure. we still watch tv and movies and eat similar foods.

    i think a lot of the above changes were brought on by technology. the birth-control pill probably had a lot to with the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. there's plenty of other easy dots to connect.

    finally, in response to your question, i don't think cultural change is likely at all. my point was just that i liked ecotopia better because the social model that callenbach lays out doesn't require any more technology than what is currently available.

    i don't think we're going to get there, though. the main thrust of my last post was to remark that i feel like we've gotten a lot more selfish and indifferent. that's what i meant about the winner-take-all culture. we seem to prefer setting up a system where a few people get god-like power and money and fame, and the rest of us get to dream about how good it would be to make it to the top.
    We are a monoculture of horsecock. Liar
    [ Parent ]

    humans don't mind a utopia (none / 0) (#22)
    by Shren on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:58:34 AM EST

    If you present someone a button, and say, "By hitting this button, you will automagically and without negative consequence to you or anyone you know make the lives of 100 starving people in Africa better!", almost all people will hit the button.

    If you present someone a button, and say, "By hitting this button, you will automagically make the lives of 100 starving people in Africa, at the expense of making your life worse!", most people will automatically ask, "*how* much worse?"

    It's human nature. Most humans give greater value to thier own life or the lives of those around them than some guy far, far away.

    [ Parent ]

    I see only one problem... (2.00 / 2) (#23)
    by Bad Mojo on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 12:12:09 PM EST

    There will always be an Empire, or Peacekeepers, or EarthGov. No matter how nice the utopia seems, someone will come along and try to build a power base in order to further their own goals.

    Anarchistic utopia sounds really, really nice. But some jerk is going to ruin it for the rest of us by `getting organized'.

    -Bad Mojo
    "The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure pure reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!"
    B. Watterson's Calvin - "Calvin & Hobbes"

    Its there. (none / 0) (#26)
    by SnowBlind on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 12:29:35 PM EST

    Most of his books deal with entities in "special curcumstances" and Excession is all about a coup amoung the Minds.
    Politically, they are a true democracy.

    Easier to do in a society with no scarcity.

    There is but One Kernel, and root is His Prophet.
    [ Parent ]
    You can project power a long ways... (none / 0) (#27)
    by jw32767 on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 12:30:48 PM EST

    ...but it has a limit as to how far it can reach.  The Mogols kicked the crap out of everyone all across Asia, but they only controled Asia and only for a few generations.  If you have a large enough area and slow enough travel (slow in this case being relative to the size of the galaxy/universe) the ability to project force is severely limited.  The Culture is only tied together by similar beliefs among its members; it would be impossible to organize that large of an area otherwise.  This very subject is addressed in Player of Games.

    Krups, not only can they shell Paris from the Alsace, they make good coffee. - georgeha

    These views are my own and may or may not reflect the views of my employer.
    [ Parent ]
    But they also had limited power... (none / 0) (#29)
    by Bad Mojo on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 12:37:54 PM EST

    But still, even a small group can be a pain in the ass.

    -Bad Mojo
    "The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure pure reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!"
    B. Watterson's Calvin - "Calvin & Hobbes"

    [ Parent ]
    See Dan Simmons (3.33 / 3) (#24)
    by CodeWright on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 12:24:05 PM EST

    For counterpoint observation of a similar future with superintelligences and effectively unlimited resources available to the species.

    Everything isn't as peachy keen.

    "Humanity's combination of reckless stupidity and disrespect for the mistakes of others is, I think, what makes us great." --
    caveat (none / 0) (#62)
    by khallow on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 09:17:13 PM EST

    I always thought that Simmons shot himself in the foot philosophically with his sequence of Hyperion novels. The first two were very powerful (the "Hyperion Cantos" which consists of "Hyperion" and "The Fall of Hyperion") and the second two ("Endymion" and "The Rise of Endymion") are pretty weak though still engaging.

    I hope I don't spoil too much when I say that the society is divided into Citizen Humans, AIs, and everybody else. You have quite a problem if you live in Human space and aren't one of the first two categories. It turns out that there's another worm in the utopian apple as well that comes from the nature of the relationship between Humans and AIs. For me, the ending to the four novel series was something of a deux ex machina, a convenient rescue from an intractable problem.

    Stating the obvious since 1969.
    [ Parent ]

    "The Culture" as a metaphor for "Th (4.00 / 2) (#32)
    by IvyMike on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 01:21:54 PM EST

    When Islamic fundamentalists look at Western culture and the US, they see "The Culture"--a place of overwhelming technology, superabundance of goods, and hedonistic beyond belief. I sometimes wonder how consciously Banks uses this metaphor himself.

    Uncontentment (none / 0) (#42)
    by j harper on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 03:37:27 PM EST

    They also see an uncontent, angry people who commit atrocities and vile sins that even they themselves believe are wrong.

    I don't think the humans in Banks story are like that, although they appear to be heavily into drugs and free sex.

    "I have to say, the virgin Mary is pretty fucking hot." - Myriad
    [ Parent ]

    well... (none / 0) (#50)
    by lordpixel on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 05:13:30 PM EST

    The thing about the drugs & free sex angle is its post-consequences...

    The people can make the drug they want in their own body, then when they've had enough of it they simply turn the effect off. No long term effects, no scarcity, no violence. Hardly the world of today, whether you believe people should be free to do what they want to themselves or not.

    Similarly for the sex angle - no disease, no unwanted pregnancy. I suppose rape would be possible, but the drone (robot) bodyguard angle would mostly take care of that.

    It would also be interesting to see what effect the ability for people to change sex would have - but if the people have already been altered to be nicer, perhaps that's irrelevant anyway.

    Of course, many people in this world are against the idea of free sex, regardless of whether there are consequences or not. I assume this is a power/status thing.

    I am the cat who walks through walls, all places and all times are alike to me.
    [ Parent ]

    culture as US (4.00 / 1) (#46)
    by panck on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 04:23:15 PM EST

    I think there's a lot in the idea that the Culture is an idealized projection of the USA on a galactic scale.  

    Ok, the USA doesn't have a 'post-scarcity economy' per se, but judging be our actions, we believe we do.  I mean, if you bother to look at the way USians act wrt oil, water, energy, material goods, and our massive amounts of waste, and our disregard for the environment, we obviously believe (or delude ourselves) that we have unlimited resources.

    The people in the Culture are all very nice, and all of their needs are taken care of by super-intelligent, unnecessarily benevolent Minds.  USians continually delude themselves that 'the government' is working in their interests (though I think these days that is coming under scrutiny).  The Minds of the culture are the idealized US government...they can't be bribed, they don't need the people's interference and they do work in the people's best interests, at least as far as the people can comprehend what those interests are.  Oh yeah, and they'll raise your kids for you.

    I think that the Culture is totally unfeasible until a 'post-scarcity economy' actually exists.  In that case, yes, why make war against anyone, why steal, why fight...utopia.

    It's a very optimistic view of humanity (even regarding that the Culture humans were genetically altered to be nicer).

    [ Parent ]

    apropos K5 MLP (none / 0) (#47)
    by panck on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 04:30:46 PM EST

    How many planets does your lifestyle need? http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2002/8/20/25631/4762

    "Redefining Progress says we would need 5.3 planets if everyone lived as the average US citizen does."

    [ Parent ]

    Points (4.00 / 1) (#33)
    by the bluebrain on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 01:28:09 PM EST

    Just a few things I am missing in this article:

    - A note on the breadth of the culture books. I am a bit awed by the various levels Ian (M) Banks writes about in his culture novels, i.e., the number of different perspectives he is able to take up.
    - I'm not sure what the official tally is, but I would include "Feersum Endjinn" in the culture line-up, as a sort of "pre-culture" book. A story of the ones how decided to remain planet-side when the others became space-based. A feersum good read anyway.
    - A quote from one of the stories: "the humans provide a motive, the minds provide the means". I have understood the sybiosis between minds and humans to be based upon, said quote, and to stem from the history: remember (another quote) that ethics-neutral minds always sublime rather speedily. The predecessors to the minds were originally built by humans, and "inherited" the human's moral outlook. The minds know this, of course, but are just fine with that because it corresponds to their moral outlook ... a bit of a tailbiter, of course.

    What strikes me about the culture books is that they are varied (as mentioned), yet still retain an air of consistency - they are all set in the same universe. One thing more: each book, as far as I remember, contains at least one scene of quite disturbing violence. Not exactly masochisticaly Dick Francis-esque, but very "immediate".

    Last: "Diziet Sma" (I forget the complete name) just has to be one of the cooles names in fiction.

    Feersum Endjinn (none / 0) (#35)
    by zakalwe on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 01:55:09 PM EST

    I would include "Feersum Endjinn" in the culture line-up
    I don't think I'd include Feersum Endjinn as a culture book.  The culture predates humans, and I think Feersum Endjinn is set on a future Earth, unless I'm misremembering.  I quite like Feersum Enjinn, but the fonetik speling can b kwite annoying until you get used to it.

    [ Parent ]
    Feersum indeed (none / 0) (#68)
    by the bluebrain on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 07:51:10 AM EST

    Hum ... I wouldn't have made it earth, necessarily. Just some anthropoid-populated rock. Maybe I missed something.
    And I had the idea that the "feersum endjinn" itself was left behind by what became the culture. "Usually" (i.e. what I would expect from reading the other culture books) I would think that a mind would have been left behind, which would have made the whole rigamarole with the ant-which-is-a-key-to-the-elevator and so on (i.e., the whole "quest") unnecessary. But - with the culture being oh-so-cultured, I figured that they understood the left-behinds will, i.e. "leave us behind, leave us alone", to mean "don't monitor us". So they didn't.
    I figured that maybe the planet the book plays out on was the origin of the culture.
    I agree that the culture predates humans, if there indeed is any consistent timeline - it would have to so Sma could visit us (that short story recounted by "the drone" in "The State of the Art"). Then again, the timeline might not be so consistent, and said story would be a tangent to the central block.
    I would want to ask Mr. Banks about that one :)
    Or - maybe someone has a quote from "Feersum .." that would show that it does indeed play on earth?

    [ Parent ]
    Not sure (none / 0) (#70)
    by zakalwe on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 10:07:33 AM EST

    I seem to remember something that indicated it was a future Earth, though I can't remember what gave me that impression.  Time for a reread!

    [ Parent ]
    Rand (4.00 / 1) (#38)
    by Shren on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 02:04:05 PM EST

    It goes without saying (and maybe this is why nobody has said it) that Rand has shown us the danger of trying to lay out philosophies in fiction. You never have to prove anything when you can make the characters ignore the man behind the curtain.

    I don't think thats the aim (3.50 / 2) (#40)
    by zakalwe on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 02:24:29 PM EST

    I don't think Banks is advocating the culture books as a serious philosophy.  Its really just well written Space Opera set in an interesting society.  The most you could say is that this is what a society might be like, if it had effectively unlimited resources, and benevolent superintelligent AIs.  Until we get either of those, I don't think you can accuse Banks of political advocacy

    [ Parent ]
    The danger isn't in laying them out in fiction. (5.00 / 2) (#44)
    by mingofmongo on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 03:58:59 PM EST

    The danger is in thinking you've done something more important than just laying out an idea.

    Fiction id powerful in that it builds up a realistic world in the reader's mind that looks like it can actually prove things. It is powerless to actually prove anything.

    It might be an ideal way to lay out an idea, as long as it can be kept away from the eyes of impressionable minions.

    "What they don't seem to get is that the key to living the good life is to avoid that brass ring like the fucking plague."
    --The Onion
    [ Parent ]

    We didn't need Rand to uncover *that* tautology (4.00 / 1) (#73)
    by surfimp on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 02:22:28 PM EST

    I don't think Rand is the one who we have to thank for showing us the danger of laying philosophy out in fiction. It sort of goes without saying that fiction is, well, fictional. Ignoring the "man behind the curtain" is pretty much what it's all about.

    [ Parent ]
    I don't think it would work. (2.00 / 1) (#43)
    by mingofmongo on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 03:51:30 PM EST

    People want power. They either want to be under the umbrella of someone elses power, or they want power of thier own. Either way, there has to be a powerful few for everyone to satify thier power needs.

    In a society where no one has any more power than anyone else, how do I fulfill my need for power. There's nobody powerfull to attach myself to, and there isn't any nice way for me to take power.

    So I steal it. I gather up like-minded minions and start taking over. I can offer my minions something they want, that the Culture can't give them. Power.

    I am now the Evil Genius and I rule the universe. Now I start selling software that pretends to be easy to use, yet is actually so complex that I will make a fortune in tech support - no, that's been done before...

    "What they don't seem to get is that the key to living the good life is to avoid that brass ring like the fucking plague."
    --The Onion

    Maybe their desires would change? (4.00 / 1) (#55)
    by boyde on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 06:31:27 PM EST

    In such a radically different social setup, who is to say that the desire for power, where power equals subjugation of other people, would be the same as it is today. Sure, everyone loves the buzz of power, but I personally find a bigger thrill when I get to grips with something I've been studying, when it all makes sense. The feeling of power can originate from many different things.

    The citizens of the culture have power. The fact that they can have and do almost anything they want is power. Imagine. You can request a ship to take you to the centre of the galaxy or aim you for Andromeda; you can create an island in the sky, your own personal kingdom; you can go to a barren planet and have fun with high explosives. For free. Just for kicks. This is power. Granted, there will always be some who wish to have power over others, but with such options available I put it to you that most people, if you were to ask them to join you in taking over the galaxy, would say "Huh?!" and get back to filling themselves full of drugs, having sex and living in the centre of a huge bubble of breathable pink liquid (sorry, thinking out loud ;)

    Furthermore, there are indications that there are worlds where people have managed to get a power base. Take the one in Inversions. This is inhabited by humans, of similar form to the average Culture member, yet it is not part it. Perhaps it is far from the hub of the Culture, maybe lost in some past time. Of course, someone may have just went and taken it over, and this was ignored for some reason. I'm sure that with so many worlds it must be hard to keep an eye on them all, even for the Minds. Remember also that the first Idiran conflict took place in 1267AD - perhaps Banks is suggesting that we are one such 'lost' world ;)

    Anyway, there is scope for people to have power, even over others, but I believe people would be far more interested in power of a different form than the megalomanical.

    Rolling around in the muck is no way to get clean.
    [ Parent ]

    the minds (none / 0) (#57)
    by Fuzzwah on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 06:49:35 PM EST

    I think the common answer to peoples comments on why the Culture wouldn't work is simply; the minds.

    What is more powerful than a hyper-intelligent AI? People of the Culture attach themselves to these and feed of their power. Individuals who don't want to sit under their umbrella of power either leave the Culture or join Contact and play their politics.

    The best a human can do is to pick a delusion that helps him get through the day. - God's Debris
    [ Parent ]

    How does it break down? (4.00 / 1) (#49)
    by Polverone on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 05:12:57 PM EST

    Whenever I see utopian scenarios I'm inclined to ask "why wouldn't this really work?" In most cases you can answer "because not everybody in the society will always share the utopian ideals." Of course it seems that in the Culture this flaw is sidestepped because the vast majority of people are morally upright and because people are free to leave at any time.

    But any super-duper technology scenario implies that individuals can wield massive destructive power. If you have enough energy to travel at 0.9 C then you have enough energy to commit genocide against any society without the super-duper technology. Sure, the Culture may be post-scarcity, but it's not lack of material possessions that inspires bored teenagers to smash mailboxes. What about when the teenagers are outside the Culture but still have highly advanced technology, and the "mailbox" that they smash is a continent full of living creatures? Do agents of the Culture prevent this sort of thing or do they wait until that first relativistic asteroid impact and then send a no-genocide drone to follow the culprit around the rest of his life?

    I haven't read the Culture books but I am interested in how this problem is handled. It seems to be a mostly-unaddressed problem of any science fiction universe that assumes ordinary people have access to enough power to travel near light speed or beyond it. Sure, mass destruction by a few deviants against less advanced civilizations may not destroy the advanced civilization itself, but it still seems like a pretty major problem.
    It's not a just, good idea; it's the law.

    The Minds. (4.00 / 1) (#51)
    by zakalwe on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 05:23:33 PM EST

    In general all Culture ships are piloted by Minds - and you're unlikely to convince an hyper-intellifent AI to smash itself into a planet.  I suspect a Culture citizen could get his hands on a planet buster, but since that hyper-advanced technology is also used for defence, they wouldn't be able to damage a Culture orbital.  They probably would be able to destroy a less advanced civilization, but doing that would probably be grounds for complete ostracisation from Culture society - effectively cutting them off from the Culture.  Also, if one of those hyper-intelligent Minds, or even another human, suspected what they were doing they would be just as capable of stopping him as he was of destruction.

    The culture isn't all hands off when it comes to megadeaths.  Special Circumstances is quite interventionist, often manipulating planets economics, politics and wars.  They are also not infallible, and are perfectly capable of fucking it up and causing said megadeaths.

    [ Parent ]

    technology isn't the barrier to utopia - WE are (2.00 / 1) (#52)
    by misanthrope112 on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 05:49:23 PM EST

    The world is the way it is because people are the way they are.  There will be no "post-scarcity" world because, even if material goods are in infinite supply, somone has to be PAYED to produce them or extract them from the ground.  We will never move beyond the need for money or compensation, unless we live in a complete totalitarian state where everyone is a slave, and gets their work assigned and their food rationed by the state.  There is no special configuration of society we can model our world after to make our world a better place, because the way the world is is a product of how we are as human beings.  World hunger, world poverty, etc are all problems that we can largely fix TODAY if the human beings alive today, worldwide, actually cared.  I don't mean just you and me sending money somewhere, but everyone.  This includes people in poorer countries having fewer children BY CHOICE, in recognition of the fact that they don't have enough food, and similar choices.  I'm not talking about government-mandated population control.  Any change in the world has to be on an individual-choice level, but a huge number of people have to make the individual choices to make the world a better place.  That doesn't (and won't) happen, so governments step in and try and pass laws, but that generally doesn't work and just creates new problems.  This, in a nutshell, is why the world will not change.  We may fix or improve individual problems, but there will be no problem-free utopia in our future.

    If people are doing the work, sure... (4.00 / 1) (#54)
    by jw32767 on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 06:15:12 PM EST

    ...but in The Culture, all work is done by robots that aren't sentient.  Nobody has to do anything, including work, that they don't want to do.

    Krups, not only can they shell Paris from the Alsace, they make good coffee. - georgeha

    These views are my own and may or may not reflect the views of my employer.
    [ Parent ]
    but where do the robots come from? people. (none / 0) (#60)
    by misanthrope112 on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 07:48:04 PM EST

    Someone has to build the robots, program them, etc.  The existence of these robots is predicated on an infrastructure that pre-existed the robots and was created, built, funded, etc by people.  These people had to be motivated by something to do such things, and people are motivated primarily by the desire for gain.  Even in non-capitalistic societies, people are still motivated by the same things, though "gain" may take the form of power or political prestige instead of money.  Even if people stopped being greedy tomorrow, even altruists have to feed their own children and pay the light bill.  Only business and government have the resources to really push these ideas closer to reality,  and neither business or government do things to make the world a "better place" - they do things to increase their own profit or power base.  Robots don't spring into existence from dreams and good intentions, however noble, but are brought into existence by real people who act as real people do, motivated by the things that motivate everyday real people.  The world is the way it is because of the actions of real people making real decisions.  I see no reason to actually believe that people will be different tomorrow than they are today and were yesterday.   To predicate some future utopia on a technological dream while ignoring that our current problems are the result of people's actions, not the absence of worker robots, is, to me, just foolish.  Our world is based on property, gain, advantage - people BENEFIT from scarcity, to the detriment of their neighbors.  They will perpetuate that advantage as long as is possible.  Government exists to help them do that (among other reasons).  Yes the world can change, but only if people change on an individual level.  I don't  mean legislation or revolution, but personal choice.  And despite some well-meaning communes and cooperative efforts, people by and large are not going to change.  

    [ Parent ]
    Actually.. (none / 0) (#61)
    by Freaky on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 07:54:34 PM EST

    Much of the work is done by sentient machines; the Minds obviously have to do quite a bit to keep it all ticking over, fight wars, etc.

    The point is, though, they don't need paying; ignoring for a second that they're designed machines and can be made to want to work for free anyway, working for the Culture gets them recognition and a sense of purpose.

    The mundane and repetetive work can be delegated to parts of themselves (Minds are really, really, really big.  They typically hold a few billion human-sized minds  and copies of other Minds, don't go thinking a bit of mining's going to be any harder for them than us making our heart beat) anyway, but that doesn't mean the Minds don't have to put effort into what they do.  They don't have to; they could all sublime, or go off in their own GSV, or spend the rest of their existance in their metamathmatical universes.  Obviously, enough of them have personalities tuned to want to work for the Culture at least for a while.  That's all that's needed, and I don't think that's particularly unlikely if you had the technology to create minds from scratch.

    [ Parent ]

    One of the linked articles from Banks disagrees (none / 0) (#71)
    by jw32767 on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 11:59:22 AM EST

    I can't remember which one, but in that he states that all manufacturing work is done by nonsentient machines.  Now admittedly the Minds could easily do the work just as easily and on at least one occation (The Sleeper Service in Excession) they are shown to do large scale manufacturing.  However, if the ships that the Sleeper Service created weren't sentient then I have no doubt that there could easily be highly complex factory type robots that wouldn't be considered complex.

    Krups, not only can they shell Paris from the Alsace, they make good coffee. - georgeha

    These views are my own and may or may not reflect the views of my employer.
    [ Parent ]
    Not quite what I meant (none / 0) (#72)
    by Freaky on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 12:53:23 PM EST

    Actual manufacturing and manual labour etc are obviously quite easy to delegate to sub-sentient machines, but you still need the higher minds to design the things and direct it all, and to fight wars etc.

    The Minds are very much a management system; in Look to Windward, there was a lot of emphesis on the Mind controling much of the Orbital; it's destruction was going to make the transit system fail and kill it's passengers, for instance.  Then there are all the avatars it's got dotted around, all effectively proxying itself into the society.

    Now, it's not exactly manual labour, but the Minds certainly have a lot of stuff to do to keep things ticking over.  They're at the same time CEO's, Presidents, Politicians, Scientists, Explorers and lower management.

    [ Parent ]

    right on (none / 0) (#64)
    by dakoda on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 11:21:35 PM EST

    i think you hit it exactly, or at least very close.

    it seems like a 'technology to solve all problems' post comes up here every few months or so (i dont read too often, so maybe its more frequent). While I would love to believe that technology can solve our problems (and it can!), it is rarely implimented to do such. why not? power. money. greed. the cycles for these are possbily endless, and all _must_ be abolished for anything like this to ever happen.

    just image how hard the transition would be, going from a society where 95% of the population needs to work to support the population, to a society where no one needs to work to support themselves. in the middle, there would be tremendouse strains. who gets to decide who works and who doesnt? this alone would require power over people to assign/balance workers, and thus risk starting the cycles over again.

    it'd be cool to live as such (minus the negative parts mentioned later on), but people aren't capable of putting collective good before personal gain, for the most part. this is perhaps why communism has essentially failed miserably (??), in addition to really poor implimentation. who knows.

    [ Parent ]
    Forced genetic moral superiority (4.66 / 3) (#53)
    by jabber on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 06:10:07 PM EST

    One can imagine the outrage if a group proposed the genetic modifications of humans to be morally superior people today

    Really? With the exception of "genetic", human history is ripe with examples of groups modifying humans to be morally superior people.

    Let's see, there's the legislative behavior modification such as Prohibition, legislated equality of the races, illegality of prostitution and gambling, age of consent, copyright and property law, imposed government and so forth and so on. Then there's the religious and philosophical modification of morality such as forced conversion.

    In all cases, moral superiority is forced upon people by a group who threatens to dole out violence or loss of liberties as punishment for disobedience.

    And, since in most cases majority rules, there isn't that much of an outrage, since the system becomes more restrictive, not less, as time goes one. Clearly, there is no outrage, but rather tacit approval.

    I think that there would be a large number of people who would oppose a genetic solution to immorality, certainly. But, in the same vein, I think a smaller and more vocal group would support it. This is the same group that supports location disclosure on cell phones, the creation of a national identification system, and the possible implantation of tracking chips in children, to improve their safety of course.

    Yes, there's a strong group which would loudly support Clockwork Orange-style morality modification, and would be just thrilled to see good citizens created in-utero. And their enthusiastic support would drown out any outrage, and deluge all the fence sitters into compliance.

    [TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"

    Good point (none / 0) (#56)
    by boyde on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 06:40:48 PM EST

    but I think the scientists working on the genetic modifications of Culture citizens were all stoned, liberal long-hairs....their definition of good was, "Party dude! Hedonism rules!"...."(Now where did I put my joint? Oh. Shit. Dude?! Oh man, I dropped my joint in the petri dish! No worries, just wipe it with my sleeve....)"


    Rolling around in the muck is no way to get clean.
    [ Parent ]

    I don't follow (none / 0) (#82)
    by 0xdeadbeef on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 03:19:25 PM EST

    Why would people with perfect morality have need for a police state?  Why would they need a state at all?

    And what is wrong with effective behavior modifcation, if such a thing is possible, as demonstrated in A Clockwork Orange?  Sure, it might not remove the existence of evil in the mind of the criminal, but it renders the evil impotent, which is the intent of incarceration.  Society is protected, and the criminal is able to live a normal life, so long as they control their impules.

    And if true modification were possible, if one could force empathy and the desire for good in the mind of the criminal, surely that is far more humane the previous procedure.  Evil is eliminated, and the criminal is now happy and able to live the fulfilling live of all normal, morally responsible citizens.

    I, for one, would support any of these measures.

    [ Parent ]

    You make my point (none / 0) (#83)
    by jabber on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 04:11:44 PM EST

    So long as you get to define "right", "wrong", "moral" and "evil", there's nothing wrong with forcing your definitions upon the rest of the world, by whatever means assure compliance.

    [TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"
    [ Parent ]

    edenism (2.00 / 1) (#58)
    by Fuzzwah on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 07:01:43 PM EST

    As much as I love pondering the Culture I've found that I much more enjoy daydreaming about the Edenist society from the Night's Dawn series.

    The formation of Edenism itself is covered in the novella A Second Chance At Eden.

    I can't sum it up or do it justice in this comment, I'd be thrilled if a primer such as this article was written focusing on Edenism. I might even attempt it myself.

    The best a human can do is to pick a delusion that helps him get through the day. - God's Debris

    Affinity rules! (4.00 / 1) (#59)
    by Freaky on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 07:42:13 PM EST

    For those who've yet to read some of Peter Hamilton's best work, Edenists are a race of genetically altered humans, modified for a form of telepathy ("affinity") with their bio-machines and each other.

    They live in sentient, alive habitats (and fly sentient, alive spacecraft) around gas giants mining Helium-3 from them for the rest of the human race ("Adamists", who've mostly rejected "bitek", blame the Pope) and have a very open society.  They practice a true democracy (they form a group mind to make bigish decisions) and share their problems (leak some sadness into the general affinity band and get unconditional reassurance from, uh, everyone).

    Nightsdawn has it's own post-scarcity civilization, too; the Kiint, with their totally automated providers and the ability to create planets in their spare time.

    [ Parent ]

    Night's Dawn (none / 0) (#69)
    by Matrix on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 08:46:11 AM EST

    Night's Dawn has several post-scarcity societies. Its just that all those encountered in the books, save the Kiint, have moved beyond what we'd understand as reality. Their fixture in physical reality makes the Kiint a good comparison, especially since they tend towards the grandiose. Creating planets in astronomically impossible arrangements, for example. Or teleporting halfway across the galaxy for fun.

    I hated all of Hamilton's jumping around in that series (several characters seemed to exist for the express purpose of showing you how broad his world was), but I loved the main plot and some of the weirder ideas he comes up with.

    "...Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It's the only way to make progress."
    - Lord Vetinari, pg 312 of the Truth, a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
    [ Parent ]

    The Culture's Mission (5.00 / 3) (#63)
    by localroger on Tue Aug 20, 2002 at 09:37:44 PM EST

    I think it's important to note one thing Banks said about the Culture in an interview: In writing these books, he was attempting to stake a claim for the political Left in the hard-SF territory which had almost completely been given over to the Right.

    Nearly everything Banks does with the Culture is informed from that premise. The entire Culture is what is sometimes called a "high concept," driven from that single idea. Of course Banks' execution is brilliant and far more believable than one would expect; but where he goes overboard, or where he glosses over things, he is merely taking the same liberties that have been taken in the other direction since 1930 or so.

    In particular I see Banks as a deliberate anti-Pournelle; instead of positing that there will always be war, class divisions, thankless work, and the need for heroes, Banks portrays a technology that levels all playing fields and fulfills all needs without cost. Of course there are holes in the Culture; Banks has even pointed at a few of them in the books. But he's just one guy, however talented. The Culture was at our level of development twelve thousand years ago. It would be silly to expect Banks to anticipate everything they do, when panels of experts can't even project from 1930 to 1980 without completely fucking it up.

    I find the general premise of the Culture believable -- not necessarily likely, but as Gurgeh says in Player of Games it's something we can try for, instead of giving in to its opposite. It's really the only vision of high technology I've ever seen that does not, as I look back on the mess we've made of the last couple of centuries, fill me with a sense of futile despair.

    I do not think Banks really feels the pessimism he has espoused lately about the chances for making the Culture work. People aren't inherently greedy and savage, as numerous real human cultures have demonstrated. The Culture's omnipotent, omnibenevolent machines create are the high-tech equivalent of a Polynesian paradise that can never become overpopulated. The Culture does face a bootstrapping problem; at some point a culture which is not yet the Culture must decide en masse to dedicate itself to this vision. But once created there is no reason to suppose it wouldn't be stable.

    And besides, is it any more realistic to suppose that our inevitable destiny is to blow up planets for the same trivial reasons which currently only justify bulldozing apartment blocks and impoverishing banana republics? To quote a character named James Eric Gardener from a Stephen King novel, if that's all we have to look forward to maybe it's time to eat the gun.

    I can haz blog!

    change the world? (2.00 / 1) (#67)
    by RosaRL on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 07:17:39 AM EST

    I find the idea of contemplating the possibilities of a future society very fascinating. While science fiction offers a number of different visions of a future society, these visions are not grounded in science fact and thus are often at best impossibilities. If you are interested in a vision of a future society that isn't fiction and is possible check out http://2changetheworld.info

    Ahhh... Revolutionary Communism 2ChangeTheWorld? (none / 0) (#81)
    by Gord ca on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 01:36:41 PM EST

    If anyone's thinking of trying the link, it goes to the Revolutionary Communist Party of the US. Yes, they still want to overthrow the exploitive bourgoisie using Marxist-Lennonist-Maoist philosophy.

    I found the site vaguely interesting. Two main problems IMHO:

    1. It's been tried. It didn't work. Russia & China are slightly less than human-rights friendly paradise.
    2. Worse IMHO is the whole tone of the site. From the sound of it, they know exactly what the problem is, and how to solve it. All that's left to decide is specific attack strategies, and to draw up a post-revolutionary flag (though you can be sure it'll feature the colour red). This makes them either superhumanly brilliant, or deluded. Guess which I suspect.
    Give it up. Communism had its chance. I'd like to see a less rigid philosophy run a nation for a bit. Anarchism would be nice. Libertarianism, though often just as rigid, would be fun to watch.

    If I'm attacking your idea, it's probably because I like it
    [ Parent ]
    A good possible future (4.00 / 3) (#74)
    by xiox on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 03:22:02 PM EST

    The Culture is a wonderful possible future. I'm all for it if anyone wants to start one now :-)  All we need are infinite production capacity and lots of space! Hmmmm... <looks up>

    (1) What makes the majority of the minds hang around with the people (ignoring the ones who go off the rails)? I suppose people and drones might keep you occupied, looking after them and watching their everyday lives, but it might be more fun to go and do your own thing. Could humans look like flies to a Culture mind? If minds evolved from machines designed to help humans, maybe that could explain their desire to help.

    (2) Do the people get fulfillment in their lives? I know there's Contact and SC, but can the majority of people just have fun, changing their bodies, taking drugs and going to parties? Maybe fixing up the human brain to be nicer could work. Perhaps it could work, though. We haven't really had a society here where everyone can have a good time and do no work (except for the Upper Classes here in the UK in the past :-).

    (looking forward to freedom and fun!)

    Indeed it is. (none / 0) (#92)
    by Freaky on Sun Aug 25, 2002 at 07:23:56 PM EST

    (1) What makes the majority of the minds hang around with the people (ignoring the ones who go off the rails)? I suppose people and drones might keep you occupied, looking after them and watching their everyday lives, but it might be more fun to go and do your own thing.

    Indeed; plenty do, but remember the Culture can produce plenty of Minds; assuming they only manage to produce one Mind who wanted to work to help the Culture and it's citizens, that Mind would be able to produce other Minds likeminded; the ones who want to bugger off and sublime, or slink away into metamathematics for the rest of eternity can do that while the Culture uses the one "good" Mind to seed the rest of their Minds from.

    Could humans look like flies to a Culture mind? If minds evolved from machines designed to help humans, maybe that could explain their desire to help.

    That is the general idea.  Humans would certainly look very small to a Mind, but a Mind is able to interact with millions of them at once, along with other Minds and other smaller machine intelligences (Drones, for instance), not to mention alien races.  Besides which, people aren't that boring, especially when you can do pretty high level studies on them by knowing so many of them ;)

    A Mind might get bored if the Humans were all they had to occupy them, but then they do have an awful lot of other stuff they like to do, like dreaming up minature universes :)

    (2) Do the people get fulfillment in their lives?

    Sure.  Don't you get fulfillment from meeting people, doing things you enjoy, being creative, and having the freedom to go and do pretty much anything you like?

    If you don't like just doing your own thing, or find the Culture boring, you can always sink off into a game, or have yourself stored until something interesting happens, or join a group conciousness, or sublime, or fly off to somewhere more interesting (the Culture's certainly far from homogenous, so it's not as if you're stuck with a choice between a few million near-identical planets, orbitals, ships and rocks, even ignoring it's fringes, offshoots and things entirely outside it).  If you're really that bored you can also have your mind altered to make you more content, or you can just will yourself to die.

    And that's all assuming you don't enter Contact, or SC, or get your own ship to go out and explore the galaxy (or another one if you really want to get away), or get into extreme sports, or find a less mature society to join to fulfil your needs for a job, or.. um, stuff :)

    [ Parent ]

    An Anarcho-Syndicalist Future? (4.00 / 1) (#76)
    by meehawl on Wed Aug 21, 2002 at 04:30:18 PM EST

    Personally I've always liked Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod's futuristic socialist space operas. While it's sometimes hard to tell them apart in person (especially in a dark pub), their imagined worlds are very different. Banks' is distinctly utopian without a Singularity, whereas in MacLeod's more comical future the Singularity actually happened, swallowed up most of the capitalists with it, and now the enlightened anarcho-syndicalists battle the posthuman libertarian silicon monstrosities it engendered, denigrating it as a "Rapture For Nerds". Good stuff!

    Mike Rogers www.meehawl.com
    Far from impossible (4.66 / 3) (#77)
    by riptalon on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 04:50:00 AM EST

    The assumption that human nature is the cause of social problems rather that society has little to recommend it. Humans exist in a state that is about as far from natural as you can get. And I am not talking about their physical conditions. While the evidence of what humans natural state was is far from clear, it is clear what it wasn't; what we have today.

    Humans exist in a set of societal constructs such as the family, state, corporation, church etc. which were clearly, from the most cursory study of history, not created with the well being of the majority of their participants in mind. This idea that they are in fact needed to curb human nature is a post facto justification which runs contrary to the facts.

    Given that humans are trapped in an increasingly complex set of social institutions, designed solely to benefit a small number of people at the top of the pyramid, it impossible to be sure what if any "human nature" is actually involved. While the behaviour of a new born baby is certainly ruled by "human nature" it spends the next two decades or so, being systematically indoctrinated to behave against its best interests and work as a drone for the benefit of it's masters.

    The greatest evils in society are caused by too many people unquestioningly following orders, rather than too many people who don't. Averaged over long periods deaths through wars outstrip individual murders by orders of magnitude. Without states herding there citizens off to wars every few years for the benefit of their elites, even if the murder rate increased by an order of magnitude as a result of there being no police, it would still be a massive net gain for human happiness.

    In reality the police as a preventer's of "crime" is another post facto justification, that is not born out by the facts. Police forces and standing armies, in the UK at least, were introduced at the beginning of the industrial revolution to suppress political dissent. In only a few generations peasants had the land they worked seized by the "Enclosure Acts" and were herded into the cities to work in the new factories. People who could remember having to work hard only a few months a year, around planting and harvest, to amply feed themselves, were now working fourteen hours a day in atrocious conditions, just be able to afford to eat.

    The modern form of the state, with its repressive police and compulsory schooling to indoctrinate the young to be subservient, was born out of this time of extreme desperation for the majority of the populous. It is an depressing indictment of humanity, that this massive change for the worse, for the benefit of a few, was in the end accepted and within a few generations no one remembered any other life.

    It is also true that most so called "crime" is the result poverty and repressive state policies (e.g. anti-drug laws), which would be absent in an anarchy. Without these pressures on individuals conflicts are massively reduced. It doesn't seem necessary to change humans, only society, to get something close to the Culture. Of course perfection is unobtainable, but it is difficult to see how an anarchy would not be a massive improvement over our present pathology.

    Also it isn't necessarily true that you need vast technological improvements to approach the Culture's utopia. Most of the material scarcities in our society are artificial in nature. In first world countries, farmers are paid not to produce food, or their produce is bought and destroyed by the government, to artificially inflate prices. Even commodities as apparently precious as diamonds are in fact only artificially scarce. In our present system, in order to maximize profits the supply of any product has to be kept below demand, and some people must go without.

    The efficiency of the present system is also extremely low. A unemployed rate of 5-10 percent is necessary to to keep wages low. A very large fraction of the workforce is also used just to operate the system rather than do useful work. As well as a whole strata of "management", which is necessary in the present system, only to make sure the workers don't get too independent, whole industries such as banking, insurance, stock-markets, and most the functions of the government, are unnecessary in an anarchy. This freeing up of workers for useful tasks and the use of close to 100 percent of the work force would result in the amount of work needed from each individual being considerably lower than at present.

    While there will always people who will attempt to selfishly hurt others for there own gain, our present system is just an institutionalization of those actions. The answer is not, to allow those people to become our masters, but work together to resist all attempts to dominate us. Even if a hierarchical society was created with benign intentions (which has never happened), it is inevitable that it must eventually fall under the rule of someone whose motives are less than pure (power corrupts). Hierarchical social structures have been created throughout history in order to exploit the conquered. The replacement of these structures non-hierarchical is not only possible, but essential for the betterment of humanity, if not its longer term survival.

    Society vs human nature? (4.00 / 1) (#78)
    by Phrej on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 07:52:50 AM EST

    You make a strong case that society, rather than human nature, is to blame for the current state of affairs. However, most people seem to display an unfailing need to belong - perhaps it's a kind of tribal instinct? Generally to 'belong' to a religious or social group you have to fit in, not appear too different, not question the system or the rules. Punks in the UK, for example, were probably frowned upon not because they were bad people but because their appearance was too different. Children can get bullied by other kids simply because they don't conform.

    People fear what they don't understand and too easily that turns to hate. Is this trait for herd mentality something that is learnt from an extremely young age (so society-driven) or is it hard-wired into us and instinctive?

    I'd like to think that the problem is with society as you suggest, but perhaps it's still human nature that is the underlying problem.
    The best things in life aren't things
    [ Parent ]

    human nature vs human choices (none / 0) (#79)
    by misanthrope112 on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 10:07:58 AM EST

    I don't believe there is a static human nature preventing us from changing the way we act.  I acknowlege that much of our societal constructs (all of them, possibly) are imposed on us, in that we were born into a preexisting society with preexisting rules.  Yes, the powerful exploit everyone else for their own gain - but the really damning problem is that just about everyone at every level exploits someone else at a lower level.  I'm a rabid libertarian, but I can't get around the fact that people basically suck.  The poor are not more noble or enlightened, only less skilled at manipulating the system, or given less of a head-start on manipulating the system by virtue of being born to the wrong parents.  If people behaved differently than they do, then political discussions would be irrelevant, because much of the world's problems would vanish.  It isn't so much that I think a static human nature prevents us from changing, or dictates how society organizes itself, rather that I think society is just a product of the choices, conscious or otherwise, that people have made.  This includes the decisions to fight in wars, not overthrow their government, have children, buy Nikes, be like their friends, etc.  It is a reflection of us.  We can't just blame the rich and be done with it.   We can call the solution "anarchy" or whatever, but any politcal system I could advocate would imply top-down change, or some imposed organizational paradigm, but that never changes a thing.  People have to make different decisions, have different priorities, dreams, desires, goals, etc for there to be a change in how the world works.  Once people change on an individual level, everything falls into place.  Call it a meme, if you will.  Take note that I'm not even remotely optimistic about this happening.  People could change, but I know where I'll place my bet.

    [ Parent ]
    Human nature? (none / 0) (#85)
    by riptalon on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 06:01:35 PM EST

    But why do people "basically suck"? It is easy to write it all off to "human nature", but given the artificial and destructive environment they grow up in, how can you be sure they haven't been taught to suck. After the massive and rigorous "socialization" experienced in childhood how can you tell what behaviours are natural and which are not. People don't "overthrow their government", and "buy Nikes", because they have been conditioned to do so. Even worse the unintended effects of this manipulation could be just as profound as the intended one. The psychotic behaviour of some caged animals (repetitive pacing etc.) is not intended but it is far from natural. The extreme abuse some experience, encouraged by these hierarchical systems where children are property, cannot help matters.

    But even if you accept that it is innate human nature to go round murdering people, the present system works to maximize the problems caused by this behaviour, not minimize them. Giving a small number of people, with their "human nature" in tow, absolute power over all the rest will ensure carnage. You are correct that the rich probably aren't intrinsically worse people, the difference is that their failings and mistakes affect vastly greater numbers of people and when they go off the deep end they can kill millions rather than a few. Minimizing the effects "human nature" can have, means minimizing the power of any one individual or group. After all, the victims of all the serial killers in history would add up to only a fraction of the deaths from war in one day.

    I think the fact that our entire lives are based around a set of artificial societal constructs, and ones not designed with our welfare in mind, gives some hope that real change is at least possible. If you can create these malicious constructs to oppress people then you can create benign ones that support people. People who grew up in such a society and knew nothing else would likely behave much better than those growing up in todays vicious "dog eat dog" world. While people must change to make anarchy work, society must change first to allow them change themselves, since society is the largest force controlling human behaviour. It is not necessary, or even possible, for people to change, in order to begin this process. It is only necessary that they want to change and create a better society. However this, in itself, is a very tall order.

    [ Parent ]
    Necessity of investment in the future (4.00 / 1) (#80)
    by fishpi on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 10:50:07 AM EST

    You criticise the banks and stock markets of today for not doing "useful work", but this is only true with a very narrow definition of what work is useful to society.

    What the financial system provides is investment in our future. All new development, from industrial processes to medical treatments, are reliant on large-scale investment in order to take place. While an anarchy may lack the inefficiency you perceive from large companies and powerful governments, it would make much less efficient technological progress and thus probably fare worse in the long term.

    Perhaps what makes the culture realistic in the books is the fact that they no longer need this sort of development in order to survive. However, our society is a very long way from reaching this stage.

    [ Parent ]

    But money isn't real (none / 0) (#84)
    by riptalon on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 04:37:27 PM EST

    It is of course true that the major justification used for banking and the stock-markets is that they provide investment for economic growth. However a closer examination of the situation shows that they do no such thing. While we are encouraged to think of money as a real commodity that comes from somewhere, a cursory examination of the fractional reserve banking system shows that this is not the case. Money is simply conjured out of thin air.

    What banking and the like provide is incentive? In the present system in order to obtain goods and services to run a particular enterprise you use the offer of money, obtained from banks, as an incentive. If you have a good idea for a new technology you must convince investors to provide you money in order that you can use it as an incentive to acquire the resources and labour to develop it. The investors will decide whether to provide money to the venture based on whether they believe they will see large monetary return on their investment.

    In an anarchist system there is no money. At our present technology level, the labour of only a small fraction of the population is needed to provide essentials for life (food, water, shelter, heat, light etc.). The work done by the rest of the population will be whatever they believe will best improve their lives. Since they will not be constrained by the need to earn money to survive, they will be free to work on whatever they believe is the most important.

    In this system in order to develop a new idea it is necessary to convince individuals that it is worthwhile for them to spend their time working on the project. It is also necessary to convince the producers of the resources the project needs, to provide them. People will decide whether to provide labour and materials to the project based on whether they think it will be of benefit to society and themselves. This system is very similar to that of free software development. The projects that get resources are the ones people decide are worth working on.

    The difference between capitalist and anarchist systems is who makes the decisions on what is done. A small group of rich capitalists or the people doing the work. In both cases the real investment is made by the people providing the labour. The anarchist system is much more democratic, with the people who put in all the effort deciding how it is best spent. It also eliminates coercion from the work place. People work on things they want to, rather than being forced to by the money men.

    The decision criteria of the two systems are also based on gain for two different sets of people. The capitalist system evaluates gain for a small number of investors, whereas the anarchist one, on average does so for the population as a whole. However the anarchist system allows for deviation from the average, unlike a perfect Marxist system where everyone has the same colour toothbrush. As the number of people interested in a project fall so will the resources available to the project, but as long a one person supports the project, the available resources will not fall to zero. A product that is of interest only to a small number of people, can be produced in limited numbers in an anarchist system if those people band together, whereas it would be judged "economically inviable" and not produced in a capitalist system.

    The goal of maximization of investors profits against the interests of the general population produce many inefficiencies, as well as harming society in general. For instance the advent of intellectual property retards the free flow of information and limits the usefulness of new ideas, as only a limited number of people can benefit from them. There are also many cases where new innovations will lower future profits for investors and are therefore suppressed. Inefficiency is also introduced by the practice of making products designed to fail after a certain time so a replacement will be needed. In many ways the present system is retarding technological progress rather than helping it.

    Another associated "dead weight" industry is that of advertising. Without the need to force products chosen by a rich elite, to maximize their profits, down the throats of the general population, it has no purpose. The elimination of marketing, with it's associated wasteful packaging, has great efficiency gains. Having multiply, identical products competing against each other, differentiated only by packaging, is pointless and wasteful. Different products will exist only where there is a real difference that people actually value, although many different groups may make the same identical product since there are no intellectual property restrictions.

    The present financial systems are at best an extremely inefficient and perverse resource allocation system. Despite the common understanding of terms like "investment" that they use, they do not provide anything concrete but simply decide who will receive already existing resources. Worse the systems were clearly not designed with efficient resource allocation in mind but rather with the idea of enriching the people who creating them. Myth of the the brutally efficient "market" is another in a huge list of post facto justifications for maintaining the status quo.

    [ Parent ]
    So then answer the question (4.00 / 1) (#86)
    by fishpi on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 07:02:47 PM EST

    In an anarchist system, where does the investment come to carry out a large project that will provide long-term benefit to the population as a whole? Who, in an anarchist system, is going to have any incentive to develop a cure for cancer? To improve space flight? To invent efficient renewable energy sources? These are the sorts of projects that may not reach their full potential during any one person's lifetime, so why would a person be motivated to work on them?

    In dismissing money as "not real", you are falling into the trap of assuming that because something doesn't have a real physical presence it has no value. A computer network is more than just the hardware that makes it up, it's a set of agreed protocols and standards and a group of people who agree to use these. A human brain has more value than the mere kilo and a half of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that makes it up.

    If you're going to propose anarchism as a realistic choice for our society, you have to do more than point out the flaws in the current system - you have done this already, and I agree with your points about advertising and intellectual property. The burden of proof is on you to show that anarchism is capable of providing a better alternative, and it's grossly oversimplifying to say that because it lacks some flaws of the existing system then it is perfect.

    [ Parent ]

    Burden of proof (none / 0) (#87)
    by riptalon on Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 09:45:30 PM EST

    The particular examples you quote are a non issues but that is not to say there isn't a general issue here. Developing a cure for cancer, building spaceships and inventing new energy sources are sexy subjects which a lot of people would want to work on. Plenty of people today do jobs with much lower remuneration than the maximum they could obtain because they prefer the job; academics for instance. Big projects that inspire peoples imagination would be the easy bit.

    No, any problem would be with the day to day menial tasks like repairing sewers etc. But obviously someone would have to do it or everyone would be up to their necks in it. Aggressive pursuit of automation and robotics would be the long term answer to this problem. This is in contrast to to a capitalist society where automation increases unemployment and generally reduces living standards. In the meantime rotas, so everyone gets a turn at the crappy jobs, or people doing the jobs working shorter hours to compensate them would have to tide us over.

    Using your internet analog, the protocols in themselves don't give you any content. The users provide the content, the protocols simply move it around from place to place. In a similar way having a shed load of money in the bank, is nothing in itself. But it can be used to route real resources around. You can use money to coerce people into working for your company for instance. However zeroing the balances of all the bank accounts in the world doesn't have any effect on the real resources. It simply removes the ability of the people who had the money to control the movement of resources. When I say money isn't real I mean that it is a method for routing resources, and is unconnected with the resources themselves.

    I do disagree that the burden of proof is on me. The present system was founded in conquest and oppression and is designed to benefit a small elite. You can argue about what the perfect social system for humans to use is forever, and perfection is unachievable anyway. What is extremely clear is that our present system is almost as far from perfect as you can get. Anarchism is not about imposing things on people anyway, when people are free they can make up there own minds how to live. I don't want to force anything on anyone. The burden of proof is on the people who want to perpetuate the present system to justify why it is so good for everyone, against all the evidence.

    [ Parent ]
    You're starting to contradict yourself (none / 0) (#88)
    by fishpi on Fri Aug 23, 2002 at 06:03:26 AM EST

    The sewer example is a very good one (I wish I'd thought of it) but that doesn't disprove my original point. People are willing to work on a cure for cancer right now (and by the way there is an incredible amount of money in biological research right now), even for less money than they would get for doing other things but not for no money at all. You have yet to convince me that sufficient resources would be made available to those people even to survive on. Thus you would have people working part-time in drug research while simultaneously having to grow their own food and take their turn cleaning the sewers as well.

    You contradict yourself when you say "Anarchism is not about imposing things on people", since before that you said that people would have to work in the sewers according to a rota system. Presumably they would have to be forced to, since I can't see anyone working in the sewers voluntarily for the good of society. Everyone will be happy for that to happen in principle, but will come up with a reason why that rule shouldn't apply to them ("Hey, I'm developing a cure for cancer. I shouldn't have to work in the sewers.&quot)

    The purpose of the internet analogy was to show that a system can have value, in and of itself. Methods for routing resources are worth having, as they ensure that resources are used efficiently. In the Culture example, efficient use of resources is not an issue, so anarchism works. In our society, this is not the case.

    I'm afraid that the burden of proof will always be on you if you seek to convince me of the truth of what you are saying. I do not think that it is "extremely clear" that "our present system is almost as far from perfect as you can get", and meaningless rhetoric about conquest and oppression isn't going to convince me. The issue isn't about how the system was founded or why, but the fact that it works (and I would claim that it does achieve some things that anarchism couldn't - you have yet to disprove this claim).

    [ Parent ]

    Not really (none / 0) (#90)
    by riptalon on Fri Aug 23, 2002 at 10:12:05 PM EST

    There may be "an incredible amount of money in biological research right now" but that just means that a lot of resources are being routed to it. These resources are being routed by pharmaceutical companies because they see monetary gain in it. In an anarchist system the same amount of resources exist, the only difference is who decides how they are distributed. Since cancer is a leading cause of death and most people must know at least one person who has had it (my hair hasn't quite grown back from the chemo I had a few months ago), combined with the fact that discovering a cure for cancer has certain prestige attached, I don't think there will be a lack of people wanting to work on it.

    You say people may work for "less money" but "not for no money at all". However this is an anarchy, there is no money, people decide what to work on in a similar way to many free software developers. Some may to it to "scratch an itch", they are one of the consumers of what they do. Some may do it for prestige, some to help other people. Cancer research will only suffer if there are a lot of more interesting fields that are drawing people away. But as I said before I think the topics like cancer and space research that you mentioned would be on the top of the list for a lot of people, but that maybe just me. At present a lot of people leave research, for jobs they don't like as much, because they can receive better pay there. In an anarchy these people would stay doing what they were interested in.

    In terms of contradiction, I think you are viewing anarchism through the lens of the present system, the state. An anarchy is not a ubiquitous rigid system imposed from above. Social structures in an anarchy are not top-down diktats that apply everywhere. They are bottom-up voluntary agreements that will vary from place to place. People may be forced to make compromises because of reality, sharing unpopular jobs because if no one did them their lives would be much worse, but that is different from other people compelling them to do anything. There may be communities where people would prefer the streets awash with sewerage to doing these unpopular jobs, although it is difficult to imagine.

    At the extreme someone who wanted no obligations to anyone else could go off by themselves and setup their own totally self-sufficient farmstead. However this strategy is in fact self defeating. Anarchism while a philosophy of individual freedom has long recognized that freedom is not intrinsic to the individual but is derived from the group. One human being in isolation is far from free, since the large amount of work they are forced to carry out to survive will consume most of their time. It is therefore in an individuals best interests to contribute to a community, since this will minimize the amount of work they need to do to survive. The Culture is the ultimate end point of such a process, where the work of previous generations has resulted in technology advanced enough that no one needs to work. But at any level of technological sophistication it is always better to work within a group, rather than going it alone.

    The difference between anarchism and the state, is that anarchism is based on voluntary cooperation rather than coercion. The point is not that there are no rules (e.g. a rota system for unpleasant jobs) but the participants have voluntarily agreed on them. These "rules" would obviously vary from community to community. But the worst that could happen to someone who persistently broke a particular communities rules, is that it would be suggested to them that they weren't fitting in and would be better off finding another community that more suited them. However since the quality of life would be much better in communities were people contributed more, the number of people living in "slacker" communities would probably be quite low. But the point is people would have a choice.

    While it is true that "a system can have value, in and of itself", that is all money is, a resource routing system. There are plenty of much less complicated systems you can think of to route resources so what value does this particular system have, compared to its alternatives. You assume money is an efficient resource routing system because that is the capitalist party line, that they indoctrinate everyone with, but there seems no evidence to support that assertion. The present financial system clearly has an extremely high overhead. The fraction of the workforce used by banking, the stock-market, insurance, advertising etc. must be not inconsiderable (it would interesting to know what this figure actually is).

    The number of fundamentally useful decisions that the system actually makes, amount of resources allocated to each area, are not particularly, large. If you were to do this in an equally undemocratic way and just have a group of "experts" decide, it doesn't sound like a job for more than a few thousand people, even if they do a lot of research before making a decision. In an anarchy the overhead is essentially zero since individual people decide, and they make decisions about where they are going to work in the present system anyway, just based on less altruistic criteria.

    So does what exactly is our definition of "efficiency" for this problem. In the classical definition money clearly loses, since it is just the total resources divided by the overhead (the resources used in routing). The lower the overhead the higher the efficiency. So if the system isn't efficient, is it instead make better decisions, routing resources to areas that benefit society more. This seems unlikely since at no point does information about what is good for society get input in to the system. The criteria on which the present financial system makes decisions is welfare of a small elite, which is in many cases fundamentally opposed to the good of society as a whole.

    In reality this much touted "efficiency" is in fact efficiency of individual control. By this standard an anarchy is extremely inefficient as it is impossible for an individual or small group, to control the flow of resources for an entire society. However this measure of efficiency is a good thing only for the controlling elite, and is detrimental to society as a whole. This brings up the topic of democracy. The present system is highly undemocratic, with control of the flow of resources in the hands of a small number of people. An anarchy is a much more democratic system with resources being routed based on the wishes of the population.

    I certainly disagree that it is unimportant "how the system was founded". We are stuck within social constructs that we are born into and have been indoctrinated to believe are perfect. The justifications used for these systems are in general much more recent inventions than the systems themselves. Going back and studying the formation of these systems shows the real reasons for there existence. It is not "meaningless rhetoric about conquest and oppression". Our present systems came about from conquest.

    At some point bandits ride into a primitive village, that was previously free, and pillage it. After doing this a few times they stop having to use violence as the villagers hand over everything they have without a fight. The bandit chief evolves into a king who "taxes" his subjects. The beginnings of the present state. The changes that have occurred since are just cosmetic. If a system is has been created for the specific purpose of oppressing people and enriching a few individuals, why support it without a damn good reason. The "burden of proof" as far as I am concerned, rests on the state to provide such a reason, otherwise I will oppose it.

    In the end whether you are convinced or not is irrelevant. The state is designed to be self perpetuating in the face of considerable opposition. Our opinions are do not really matter. The main impediment to a society like the Culture every existing is not that it would not work, but now that now the state has strangle hold on human affairs it will never release it. If those peasants could have been taken forward in time and shown the first day of the Second Battle of the Somme, perhaps they would have banded together and resisted the bandits. But they thought handing over some food in return for not being attacked was a reasonable deal. Of course those sort of deals never end there and I am sure the state will evolve even beyond its present excesses in the future (chip in your head, anyone?).

    [ Parent ]
    I still disagree (none / 0) (#91)
    by fishpi on Sat Aug 24, 2002 at 06:25:32 PM EST

    "These resources are being routed by pharmaceutical companies because they see monetary gain in it" - yes, this is how the system works. That's exactly what I'm trying to say: businesses make money by providing something that somebody needs.

    There are many reasons why scientific development can't work in the same way as free software development. For a start, there are much fewer people who are qualified to do it, and gaining sufficient knowledge for scientific research takes a lot longer than learning to program. Scientists also need equipment (can you imagine an anarchy creating a particle accelerator?) and organised testing programs (e.g. testing drugs for side effects). Also, would you be willing to let your heart surgery be done by a part-time surgeon?

    I think your view of anarchism overlooks the facts of human nature. Of course everyone will agree that it is better to have sewers than not, but as I say when push comes to shove they will not volunteer to go down the sewers because each and every person will think that they are a special case.

    When you talk about the state only doing what's best for itself, you overlook the fact that what's best for the state is what's best for the people. I don't agree with you that the state as we see it today came about solely through conquest and oppression - there was certainly plenty of this early in our history, but this was more the rule than the exception, with rulers overthrowing each other. But what's made the state as we see it today such a lasting system is the fact that it works, and it provides what we need. If you give people no structure whatsoever, they will naturally form alliances and agreements as everyone benefits from this and so true anarchy will never last long. But neither are people in the current system prevented from opting out of the system. If you want to go and form your own community without money or rules or control structures, you are free to do so and in fact (I think) people do.

    One point I keep coming back to in these sort of arguments is that in the current system, anyone who wants to succeed can do so. If you think the politicians and bankers are having an unfair profit in the deal, then work hard and become a politician or a banker. There is nothing to stop you doing this, but I suspect that a lot of people who say they'd like to do this would shrink away from the idea of working 14 hours a day as many bankers do.

    Don't make the mistake of thinking that because I disagree with you that I am "indoctrinated" to believe the present system is perfect. Far from it; I acknowledge that there are many problems with it and a great many injustices in the world. Neither do I have to follow any "capitalist party line"; I am not a member of any political party, and I have changed my political views considerably as I learn more and listen to more people's opinions. I believe I am more passionate about making the world a better place than most of the people I know.

    But I am disagreeing with you for one good reason: I don't think your point of view should go unchallenged. You speak like the state is the biggest opponent of free political thought, but in my experience the biggest problem with radicals is that they have not thought through their ideas sufficiently (this is not aimed specifically at you, in fact it applies a lot less to you than to other people I've met). People of all radical political persuasions tend to start from the assumption that the current system is wrong and bad (which may well be correct) and allow this to blind them to any problems in the alternative system they propose, or to the possibility of other alternatives. This is exemplified by your refusal to provide any evidence to me that anarchism is better than the state, despite the fact that I clearly don't agree that this is "obvious" in the same way that you do.

    [ Parent ]

    Ian M. Banks books shockingly violent (5.00 / 2) (#89)
    by hugues on Fri Aug 23, 2002 at 10:10:46 AM EST

    First of all I must admit that I'm fascinated by Banks' universe and style. I've read most of his Sci-Fi books and I've enjoyed them, however they are not my favourite series.

    Also if there are some poor impressionable soul, previously unaware of Banks books, who are right now thinking of going to buy and read one of them, let them beware: some of his writing is very hard to stomach. You never know what horror you are going to encounter on the next page.

    OK so we have here a nice discussion about how advanced and civilized the Culture is in Banks books, how nice it would be if in the future humanity would evolved towards that goal. this is all well and dandy.

    However this is to be contrasted with the amazing level of graphic violence displayed in these very same books. The Culture is just a backdrop, in Banks' universe, violence, chaos, horror and gratuitous gore are everywhere. What is fascinating is the contrast. In fact I'm sure Banks himself doesn't care too much about the Culture: too clean, to `nice'. Doesn't make for a good story I guess.

    At the fringes of the Culture, the gradient towards evil and horror is very steep. In "Consider Phlebas" you will encounter a tribe of excrement eaters lead by a monstruously fat cannibal. In "player of games" you will meet an advanced civilization that has elevated sadism to a system of government (with real torture showed in real time on free-to-air television); in "use of weapons" I cannot describe to you why one main characted is described as the chairmaker, as it is central to the plot, but it would probably make you retch. I can however tell you that we have for example a nice graphic description of a brain hemorraghie being attended to. I think in "Excession" you will meet a nice ship who collects instruments of torture and you will read about the nice gruesome murder of a fetus. In "Inversions" we have a number of fine torture scenes (recurring theme)and in "Look to winward" we have an entertaining live skinning.

    This is so powerful and systematic than at least one of my friend, in spite of not being particularly impressionable,cannot bring himself to read more of these books even though he admits the writing is brilliant. I must say some stuff is truly stomach turning, enough that when friends who come and visit see the row of colourful paperbacks and want to borrow one of them, I have to issue a warning. "well it's very well written, but a bit gory...".

    The second reading, when you know where those bits are and what they are about, is much nicer. It's a bit like in a David Lynch film, where the tension often distracts from the story (although in recent films there's mostly tension and not much else, but that's another matter).

    Anyway, I just want to say: be warned. If you don't mind the occasional bit of offal then the books are truly worth it. Otherwise you may not be able to see past it and you will not enjoy them.

    Of course if this is your cup of tea then jump right in!

    Violence (none / 0) (#93)
    by Scrymarch on Tue Aug 27, 2002 at 06:40:04 PM EST

    In fact I'm sure Banks himself doesn't care too much about the Culture: too clean, to `nice'. Doesn't make for a good story I guess.

    I'm not sure that's what it is.  Banks seems to have a deep sense of the gruesome and disgusting, it's true, particularly premeditated and calculated violence.  I think he only puts it in his novels for a carefully calculated purpose, however.  At a guess, it's a deliberate contrast to the hippie-utopianism of the Culture.  It's a message to the reader.  The Culture's universe is our universe, of violence, pain and the tyranny of evil men; and yet the techno-hippies are still around, surviving, prospering even, in a very libertine unorganised way.

    [ Parent ]

    Entrenched Technology, from The Culture | 93 comments (83 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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