Friday, 25 October 2013

Going Galt in techno-Narnia

It's not just Texas rednecks who dream of seceding from the Union. Some of Silicon Valley's tech entrepreneurs also think this might be a thing:
Ultimately, the Stanford lecturer and co-founder of Counsyl, a genetics startup, thinks Silicon Valley could lead the charge in exiting en masse because, eventually, "they are going to try and blame the economy on Silicon Valley."
"We didn't securitize mortgages, order bailouts, start wars, or refuse to write movies or articles on this until too late," read one of Srinivasan's slides on where the blame lies and what the real problems are that are holding technology back.

True, Silicon Valley didn't securitize mortgages, or need bailing out, but it was a Randian bonfire of the regulations that were allegedly holding another industry back that got us to the point where some other smart people on Wall Street were empowered to do complex but stupid things with impunity. That experiment ended catastrophically, and I'm not convinced that creating more spaces where clever people can get on with making lots of money without government 'meddling' (AKA oversight) is anything but insanely risky, having seen what folk get up to when nobody's watching.

Ramji Srinivasan, who 'began his career with Morgan Stanley in New York City, where he helped raise $2.7B in equity capital for Google and authored over 100 investment reports for Internet companies with a collective market capitalization of $200B' has no excuse for not knowing where insufficient oversight can lead.

It's a shame that all this self-serving jargon about 'disruption' and 'floating tech incubators' makes Silicon Valley sound like Wall Street, because there are important differences. Most importantly, the innovation that comes out of Silicon Valley is real. Ask yourself  the question 'What is it that these hedge fund managers "do"?' and the answer seems to involve shuffling (virtual) small pieces of green paper:
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
If I ask myself what Silicon Valley does, the answer is right at the end of my nose fingertips, as I'm typing these words on one of its products (and connecting to you, dear reader, via a type of network developed by Big Government, using hypertext, as developed by a contractor working for a multi-national inter-governmental state-funded collaborative science project, which sums up why I think the binary opposition between the state and entrepreneurialism is a piece of village-idiot-grade oversimplification). Silicon Valley produces actual innovation, whereas many of the financial services industry's cleverest innovators (enabled, ironically, by Silicon Valley tech), have merely incubated complex, obscure methods of gaming the system, creaming off rents and screwing the customer.

Silicon Valley (with the life support provided by those bits of society Ramji Srinivasan imagines might be painlessly left behind in his techno-Narnia of free-floating incubators) may produce even more awesome and world-changing things in future. According to some, nothing less than a new Industrial Revolution, leading (eventually) to a post-scarcity world in which automated replicating machines make all the stuff people need from readily-available raw materials. Here's the BBC's James Burke on "life in 2100" (the vid's also on YouTube, but you have to put up with an ad). There's a moment in the video when a map appears, with demarcation lines for national borders. After a moment, the border lines fade away to symbolise the disappearance of states, presumably because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single person in possession of a Star Trek Replicator must no longer be in want of a meddlesome government.

In Srinivasan's near-future dream, all the clever, creative people shrug off the burden of the state and the bondage of red tape in order to forge a brave new world where men are real men, women are real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri are real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. In Burke's further-off techno-utopia, people don't so much shrug off the state as let it wither away, Marx-style, as new means of production render it obsolete.

Srinivasan's dream sounds like a bit of a nightmare, both for the people who get left behind and screwed as rich corporations shrug off their tax liabilities and the regulations that protect the little people and for the corporations themselves (remember the cautionary tale of little Morgan Stanley who thought he was a big boy who could do whatever he liked, but when he started to get a bit silly and play in the traffic, it was Mommy State who saved him from getting squashed under the wheels of a bus).

Burke's world sounds like a far more pleasant destination, where there's no need for a government and its attendant bureaucracy to oversee the allocation of scarce resources, because ... d'oh! ... resources aren't scarce any more. And everybody lived happily ever after.

Which is kind of plausible, up to a point. If automation got close to the point where machines were able to supply all of a person's material wants then Replicators might do away with many functions of central and local government, who no longer need to tax 'n spend on your behalf, because you're now pretty much self-sufficient (bosses and the market in goods as we know it, have presumably also withered for the same reason).

Arthur C. Clarke, who predicted the Replicator as a far-future possibility back in the '60s, also thought it would 'disrupt' society in the true sense of the word  'A society based on the Replicator would be so completely different from ours that the present debate between Capitalism and Communism would become quite meaningless' (that 'debate between Capitalism and Communism' sounds pretty dated now. although I wouldn't bet against it coming back some time between now and the arrival of Replicator-world).

But I'm sceptical about the ultimate withering of the state, on two levels. Firstly, the 'state' that mainstream rightists/libertarians want to shrug off , is the big state, the one that kicked off when sovereign states started incrementally conceding rights and protections to ordinary citizens, the one that reached its apogee with the post-New Deal/post-war welfare states that fell out of political fashion as the 1970s turned into the ' 80s.

But there were states before that. Those states didn't do a lot for the ordinary citizen, but they had enough power to provide some protection from external attack and to dispense a sort of justice, funded by taxes from common folk. Of course, a lot of the taxes and tithes went to fund the lavish lifestyles and power struggles of the elite, but that was the price you paid for some degree of protection. I don't see many mainstream right libertarians wanting to dismantle this sort of state. Most mainstream welfare-haters are a bit more statist when it comes to maintaining a system of law that protects things like property rights, securing the borders and defending the state against terrorists and the rogue state du jour (see the Tea Party Nation's 2011 plan to stimulate the American economy by building more aircraft carriers, which The Economist wonderfully summed up as an adventure in cognitive dissonance).
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me,
Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms. In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.
You don't have to be Steven Pinker to concede that a post-scarcity world would probably be a lot less violent and insecure than one where people are engaged in a struggle over scarce resources. But if there are still humans there will still be humans doing bad stuff. Even without the present drivers of injustice, exploitation and violence, there will probably always be people who, without some systems  to defend the weak and enforce some generally-agreed notion of justice, will do bad things, from psychological torture to murder. Although there would be far fewer motives to commit terrible acts, a Replicator society, the technology - if unregulated - would give even the tiniest minority of malicious individuals an enormous power to do harm.

From a jilted lover replicating a deadly weapon to take revenge on a runaway ex and his/her new squeeze to some fanatic or nihilist on a mission to destroy as many other humans as possible, with the help of a Replicator that can fabricate almost any type of infernal device a sick mind might imagine, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that the state or something very like it, might need to control what comes out of the Replicators.

These problems arise long before you arrive at Burke's 22nd Century Utopia. If the trend towards distributed manufacture of increasingly complex artifacts continues, some group of non-state fanatics could make the pulp thriller cliché of terrorists with nukes or bio-weapons a reality well before we get to Replicator world. It's not an original idea - weapons control is a big issue in Neal Stephenson's sci-fi novel The Diamond Age.

Stephenson's Replicator society deals with the weapons problem in a way that seems to owe a lot to the right-libertarian ethos that runs through a certain strand of sci-fi (think Heinlein, or Niven and Pournelle) and the to the "good guys with guns versus an out-of-control criminal underclass" narrative popular with the National Rifle Association and its fans. In Stephenson's world you have a gated-community solution, where the stupid, violent proles only have access to public Replicators, loaded with crippleware to ensure they can only produce the harmless necessities of life, such as plates and mattresses.

Instead of the state having a monopoly on violence, justice (and the muscle needed to enforce justice) comes from the nice, clever, rich people who have gone Galt and organised themselves into 'tribes' or 'phyles' - self-governing anarcho-libertarian collectives. Tribe members, being nice, clever, rich people,* trust themselves to have access to Replicators that aren't feature-limited, so they can fabricate the firepower they need to suppress the occasional outrage perpetrated by any low-life criminal punk who manages to get hold of a piece of black-market weaponry from an illicit Replicator.

Which is all very well, provided you're born into the right caste, but if you've got any liking for a democracy, a society at ease with itself, equality of opportunity, or equality under the law, Stephenson's society sounds like even more of a nightmare than Srinivasan's near-term techno-Narnia. If you've got to control this stuff, I reckon it would be better done by something like a state, enforcing a set of necessary norms and rules that apply equally to everybody.

So, humans would probably be best off with at least a minimal state to disinterestedly enforce basic norms of civilised behaviour and prevent malicious use of technology. But we can leave all those nanny-state-ish rules and regulations, red tape and health and safety nonsense behind, right?

The trouble is, what looks like bureaucratic red tape from the entrepreneur's office looks a bit more sensible when your kid's just choked to death after playing with a toy that should have been better designed or at least had ' WARNING: CHOKING HAZARD. Unsuitable for children under 3 years' written in large, friendly letters on the box. Never mind weapons, if you are your own factory and can produce almost any device you fancy, the opportunities to accidentally kill or maim are legion. A lot of expertise, testing, thought, time and effort currently goes into making sure that the consumer goods you use don't maim or kill you, your loved ones, or innocent bystanders.

Some sort of standards and control would be needed - it might even come down to publicly-available replicators being feature-limited so they're unable to fabricate safety-critical parts or devices, as in Stephenson's world, although I reckon that the control of anything that has to conform to a particular standard is best left to a boring old bureaucracy, rather than to a self-appointed aristocracy of superior beings in the gated seclusion of Galt Towers.

Of course, there might be another way for those national borders to disappear - something like a World State, which might arise if people were more or less autonomous in terms of subsistence, but needed to be subject to laws enforcing basic norms of civilised behaviour and making sure that insanely dangerous and destructive things didn't come out somebody's Pandora's Box of a Replicator. If those basic concerns were the same across all societies, maybe one law and one state to rule them all?  Or supra-national agreements governing the city states or whatever polities people are living in in 2100 - I've no idea (except that I'm pretty sure they'll still be living under something more or less like a state).

Unless, that is, humans have wiped themselves out by then. If we assume distributed manufacture and the fact that (short of societal collapse), societies don't un-invent things, the airport thriller terrorists-with-nukes scenario gets more likely over the long term, then why would the trend stop there? Why imagine humans have already invented the most destructive things that can be invented? When nearly everybody can theoretically reproduce nearly anything that's ever been invented, there may come a day when vigilance really has to be eternal because it only takes one maniac and a doomsday device (or even a risky experiment that goes wrong) circumventing Replicator security to wipe the human race out.

Maybe that's the answer to the Fermi Paradox - intelligent life doesn't last, because any sufficiently advanced technology will become powerful enough to annihilate itself, by accident or design. And accidents always happen, eventually. Maybe we should all hope that even Burke's wonderful-looking techno-Utopia is just another unrealistic techno-Narnia, because such power would leave the human race just a whisker away from annihilation.


* I hope you can already see what's wrong with this picture, but in case you're a cup of coffee behind me, I've got two things to add:
a) What are the chances of a self-selecting group of 'superior' people really being your actual Übermenschen, as opposed to a bunch of people who just think they're superior to everybody else? Given the statistically impossible percentage of drivers whose self-assessed driving abilities are above average, I don't trust people to be objective when ranking themselves against others.
b) The Richard Cromwell effect. Even when somebody's flattering self-assessment is correct, well, some day they're going to retire or die and leave it to the next generation to carry on. Love him or loathe him, Oliver Cromwell made an impact. His son, and successor to the Lord Protectorship, didn't, and became a footnote in history. In theory, only the best rise to the top in a meritocracy. In reality, the best and the brightest love their kids, like almost everybody else, and try to ensure that they inherit the family firm, or get whatever other help they need to rise to the top, regardless of their ability, or the lack of it, shutting brighter kids from less privileged backgrounds out. Where 'there is no such thing as society ... There are individual men and women, and there are families,' it's not what you know but who you're born to that matters, which has always seemed more than a tad unfair to me.