Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Star Trek and Gluttony

Deseases of excess; Captain Kirk, Ayn Rand

My friend Guan asked where "rugged individualism" fits into my understanding of the American Dream and pointed me to a post by J. Bradford DeLong. "What has survived throughout is the American myth of rugged individualism," DeLong writes. "The power of this myth has meant that the United States is not, and never will be, a European-style social democracy. People may come together for barn raisings, but America is still the land of upward mobility and opportunity, where the most common questions are, I've done it, so why haven't you?" But the truth is almost no Americans have "done it". Jeb Bush, who is the grandson of a US Senator, son of one US President and brother of another, once claimed to be a "self-made man". Most of those who claim to have "done it" usually mean: "Fuck you, I got mine." Any Rand, "famously a believer in rugged individualism," but after a lifetime of heavy smoking and venomous opposition to government social welfare programs, Rand became ill with lung cancer and accepted Social Security and Medicare payments.

What ails the America Dream is not rugged individualism. After all the Founding Fathers were rugged individualists. The scifi author and self-described Libertarian, David Brin, points out that "they also knew the frontier virtue satiability -- the notion that getting rich is great... [but that] there comes a point where enough is enough; and sometimes even too much." Consumerism started out as an American Dream, and while all the diseases of consumerism - global warming, environmental degradation, obesity, alcoholism, pornification - are all diseases of excess, consumerism is not, and was never, a dream of excess. In his new book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama describes human institutions as "sticky," that they "persist over time and are changed only with great difficulty." Excess is a deeply sticky institution - one that dates back to our deepest evolutionary past in which we lived as boom and bust hunter-gatherers.
Mr. Spock is immune, but Mr. Nimoy is not.

Fukuyama points out us that, "There is considerable speculation on the part of evolutionary psychologists that the almost universal contemporary practice of meal sharing (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Passover) is derived from millennia long practice of sharing the proceeds of hunts." Small bands of hunter gathers, with no technologies for storing food living under perpetual (or perhaps punctuated) scarcity, have moral rules that "are not directed at individuals who steal other's property but rather against those who refuse to share food and other necessities."

Fukuyama explains that, the first agrarian economies produced private property "held not by individuals but by lineages or other kin groups, and much of their motivation was not simply economic but religious and social as well." That ancestor worship tied a family to the land they owned, "making it impossible for individuals to sell or other wise alienate it." Fukuyama's conservative credentials are above reproach, but he admits that "The way customary property rights yielded to modern ones was much more violent, and power and deceit played a large roll."
Hording: Tribbles; Xanadu

On his blog Peter Frase challenged himself to imagine an anti-Star Trek, a postscarcity economy of replicators and free energy, but unlike the cashless socialist utopia of Kirk and his crew, Frase sets himself to imagine a universe in which copyright regimes maintain intellectual property rights. Frase asks, "Given the material abundance made possible by the replicator, how would it be possible to maintain a system based on money, profit, and class power?" The key to Frase's anti-Star Trek is the peculiar character of intellectual property rights, where the nominal right to control what own becomes the right to control what I own.

"In order to get access to a replicator" Frase explains, "you have to buy one from a company that licenses you the right to use a replicator. (Someone can’t give you a replicator or make one with their replicator, because that would violate their license). What’s more, every time you make something with the replicator, you also need to pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing." The point is not to encourage economic activity (because economic activity is a means to satisfy human needs, not a human need in and of it self), but to "maintain a system based on money, profit, and class power". Frase imagines a postscarcity future overlaid by a hierarchy for-profit capitalist enterprise. In his scheme four Estates ("Creative class", Lawyers, Marketers, and "Guard-labor") all riding herd on a commons of the permanently under-employed.
The entrepreneur class: Ray Kurzwiel, some dude, Bill Gates, Arne Darvin, and Cyrano Jones

Frase is not alone in trying to imagine a postscarcity capitalism. In his book, The Singularity is Near, the futurist Ray Kurzweil includes an interview with the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates. In it the two singlitarians imagine a religion for a time in the (near) future when technology would have conquered death. Together, the multi-millionaire inventor and multi-billionaire businessman imagine a religion based on "The Golden Rule"; one in which the first commandment is intellectual property:
Ray: Right, our morality and legal system are based on respect for the consciousness of others. If I hurt another person, that's considered immoral, and probably illegal, because I have caused suffering to another conscious person. If I destroy property, its generally okay if it's my property, and the primary reason it's immoral and illegal if it's someone else's property is because I have caused suffering not to the property but to the person owning it.
Bill: And the secular principle?
Ray: From the arts and sciences, it is the importance of knowledge. Knowledge goes beyond information. It's information that has meaning for conscious entities: music, art literature, science, technology. These are the qualities that will expand from the trends I'm talking about.
Bill: We need to get away from the ornate and strange stories in contemporary religions and concentrate on some simple messages. We need a charismatic leader for this new religion.
Ray: A charismatic leader is part of the old model. That's something we want to get away from.
Bill: Okay, a charismatic computer, then.
Ray: How about a charismatic operating system?
Bill: Ha, we've already got that. So is there a God in this religion?
Ray: Not yet, but there will be. Once we saturate the matter and energy in the universe with intelligence, it will "wake up," be conscious, and sublimely intelligent.
A study in gluttony: Mr. Spock, Dr McCoy, Dragline and Cool Hand Luke

To be as rich as Bill Gates, or even Ray Kurzweil is to already inhabit a postscarcity economy. They are imagining a future in which they will be Gods "saturating" the universe. They are cooking up a religion not for themselves - after all they already believe in the sanctity of intellectual property - they are imagining a code for the rest of us to learn, and follow. To break the law Frase's secular Anti-Star Trek future would be criminality: "Anyone who tries to supply their needs from their replicator without paying the copyright cartels would become an outlaw," writes Frase, "like today’s online file-sharers." To break the law under the Godhead of Kurzweil/Gates is to sin.

What Frase recognizes, and Kurzweil/Gates do not, is that these schemes have an obvious failure mode. "And then, of course, there are the masses." Frase writes. "Would the power of ideology be strong enough to induce people to accept the state of affairs I’ve described? Or would people start to ask why the wealth of knowledge and culture was being enclosed within restrictive laws, when 'another world is possible' beyond the regime of artificial scarcity?"
Tribbles and Teetotalers; Kirk and his Science officer, Bill W. and his sponsor

Laws, religious or secular, depend on the perception of justice and fairness. "The vast majority of people in any peaceful society obey the law not so much because they are making a rational calculation based on costs and benefits, and fear of punishment." writes Fukuyama. "They obey because they believe the law is fundamentally fair, and they are morally obligated to follow it. They are much less inclined to obey the law if they believe it is unjust." What possible perception of fairness or justice could be attached to a regime of property owners lording control over a self-replicating means of production?

It is impossible to imagine that both Frase's anti-Star Trek and the Gates/Kurzweil Godhead wouldn't collapse under their the weight of their obvious unfairness and injustice. But Fukuyama's book suggests a very different possibility for the future of property: satiability. (Continue reading.)
The Enemy Within: James T Kirk; JP Morgan

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