Monday, October 10, 2011

Star Trek: A Diamond Age Social Contract

Debating the future: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (1969); Occupy Wall Street (2011)

In his new book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama writes that, "In tribal societies justice between individuals is a bit like contemporary international relations, based on the self-help of rival groups in a world where there is no third party enforce or rules." This is the bread and butter of libertarian thinkers in the mold of Friedrich Hayek, who believe that the formation of the rule of law was an organic and incremental process. But "Hayek was simply wrong about certain of his historical facts" Fukuyama observes that; and that "although law did precede legislation in many societies, political authorities frequently stepped in to alter it, even in early societies." He also points out that Hayek makes "not a single reference to, yet religion is clearly a critical source of legal rules in Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim societies." Fukuyama's point is not only that religious text form the bedrock of legal systems, but that the kinds of things people believe, the stories they tell to one another as a society, for better or worse, shape the directions societies take. Star Trek is exactly that sort of story (for better); Hayek's libertarianism another (for worse).

"Even when they were initially imposed through violence or conquest," argues Fukuyama, because religious codes date back to a time when "There was no separation between religious and secular realms, and therefore no way to articulate social consensus other than in religious terms," they represent a (one-time) consensus. "For how can a mere institution constrain the rich and powerful if they don't on some level believe in the need for self-constraint, or at least the need to constrain others like themselves?" The story Hayek told, of small-government freedom, has allowed elites to leave behind all constraint. Star Trek told a very different story. It represented a remarkable moment of consensus between Rockefeller Cold Warriors, scientists, engineers, designers, and artists - including science fiction authors. It was a moment when the rich and powerful saw clearly the possibility of a cornucopia of wealth, and non-the-less, believed in the need for constraint. 
The Last Battlefield: deciding the future.

Religions were the stories we told ourselves about our origins when we nothing of those origins. We now have a much clearer sense of where we come from, but we still need myths to tell us about where we are going and, most importantly, why. Neal Stephenson believes the job of science fiction is to provide "fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place." But just as the least compelling element of religious myths are the nuts and bolts of their origin stories (...and the there was light), the most compelling elements of myths is when they offer us something to believe in (do unto others...), the most compelling element of Star Trek has never been its technology, it has always been its moral code.

Stephenson takes issue with his literary peers for allowing dystopian skepticism to displace imagining more positive possibilities. "Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon." Stephenson's point, that scifi should be "supplying big visions that make sense," is laudable. But those big visions need to be more than just the sorts of nuts and bolts engineering projects he mentions in his essay, scifi needs to offer positive visions of how we can live together in the future. 
Constraint on the Battlefield

We are living through a moment when there is a great deal of confusion about the parts of our economy that most resemble the cornucopian economy of Star Trek (digitized content). In his book, The Diamond Age, Stephenson imagined an economy built around Star Trek-like nano-tech matter compilers, but a society built around supranational tribes called "phyles" that are loosely organized around ethnic lines. The three great phyles - the Han, the Nippon, and the Neo-Victorians - work together, in a League of Nations kind of way, to maintain and enforce property rights. Unlike Star Trek, which tried to imagine a future for consumer culture that was beyond capitalism, Stephenson retreated to the moral codes and hierarchies of early capitalism. But while even Slavoj Žižek admits that looking forward to imagine what might come after capitalism is almost impossible, the past does offer some hints as what we might expect.

It's understandable why Ray Kurzweil and Bill Gates, who profit from those leading edge information economies, might hope for a future where file sharing is a mortal sin. But Peter Frase's thought experiment, anti-Star Trek - a far less transcendent concept of an "all-encompassing intellectual property regime" - is, like the Kurzweil/Gates Godhead and Stephenson's dystopic phyles, a scheme for maintaining profit in a cornucopian economy. All Fraze does is extend today's laws and enforcement mechanisms forward, imagining how they would maintain intellectual property rights in a world with 'replicators.' In Frase's opinion, his far from radical anti-Star Trek is "a terrifying dystopia, a reductio ad absurdum of the worst trends in contemporary capitalism.'"
Imagining the future on the Last Battle Field

It is doubly revealing that Star Trek, a consensus struck during some of the hottest years of the Cold War, was to imagine consumerism eventuating a cashless cornucopian economy. Stephenson reports: "A grizzled NASA veteran" once told him "that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement." But his informant was wrong; consumerism was the greatest achievement of the Cold War. A measure of how different it is from capitalism is that any honest attempt to imagine schemes for extracting profit within consumerism's founding myth, instantly transform Star Trek utopias into wretched dystopias. 

For the past 30 years, the assumption has been that because capitalism was the mechanism that produced consumer culture, that consumerism was ancillary; a subordinate part of a greater free-market whole. But what real-world schemes to extract greater and greater amounts of profit from consumers have revealed, is not only that capitalism-run-amuck threatens to kill the golden goose, but that the golden goose is consumerism not capitalism. According to Paul Krugman, since 1979, middle-class incomes have barely grown while the incomes of the wealthiest 15 have risen by a factor of six. American CEOs were earning 20 times what a middle-managers earned in 1950, the difference is 475 to 1 today. The pay off: a global consumer economy in shambles, and still those who believe Hayek's stories howl against what little constraint is left.
Cruelty on the Battlefield

Judged by our current moment, it would appear Stephenson's neo-Victorian dystopia is closer to being realized than Roddenberry's utopia. The push for ever-greater profits that has taken place under the flag of Libertarianism has driven us backwards towards the Victorian moral universe that spawned the immiseration of labor that Marx believed was an 'inevitability' of capitalism. As capitalist economic development reaches the farthest corners of the global south, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor - both within and between nations - threatens to unmake the consumer culture that has spurred the innovation and economic development that has characterized the Postwar years. 

Like the Apollo space program, consumer culture was born in response to the challenge posed by communism. Not the military or industrial threat, the threat communism posed was to the imagination: to occupy the hearts and minds with the image of a better world. There was for a time a very real danger communism would entirely displace capitalism's place in the world of tomorrow. As that threat faded and then disappeared capitalism has reasserted it's claim on the future and, as Stephenson points out, "the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone." But as Kevin Kelly observes: "You can't spend all day in an open-sourced, all-sharing, peer-to-peer network and not begin to think that the rest of your world should also operate in the same way." (Continued reading.)
Consumer Heats and Minds

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