We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Singularising a plural

The premise of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels sounds good. The Culture is a society with advanced AI and no scarcity and an inclination to liberate less advanced societies from their scarcity. So I am starting from the beginning with Consider Phlebas. I am reading the novel on my Kindle, which means that I get to see other users’ highlights. The following passage was highlighted by six users, unusual enough to make me wonder why. This might mean that six people thought “wow, man, that’s like, so profound”, or it might mean something else.

experience as well as common sense indicated that the most reliable method of avoiding self-extinction was not to equip oneself with the means to accomplish it in the first place.

It is a thought that occurs to a human member of the Culture, who is thought of as particularly insightful, when considering another society that went exctinct in a war involving fusion bombs, “delivered by transplanetary guided rocket”. Perhaps the people who highlighted it though it was clever commentary on nuclear proliferation or something like that.

The trouble is that the word “oneself” refers to billions of individuals. Where does that leave “common sense”?

What is interesting to me is the way that people fall for these sorts of rhetorical tricks. Perhaps we can turn it to our favour. After all, experience and common sense indicate that enslaving and stealing from oneself is not the way to get rich.

46 comments to Singularising a plural

  • Hmm

    That idea is a play on “the human condition” (The whole Adam and Eve thing)… where as humans we get to stand outside ourselves and view (have knowledge of) a situation from a third party stance. In other words – we get to play God, and therefore necessarily must play god – even though we are not Gods. All knowledge is inherently dangerous – largely because we can’t know everything. We cannot imagine let alone know all the unknown unknowns.

    The ability to extinguish ourselves in the singular or plural is there even if we aren’t aware of it. Becoming aware of it begs the thought game of: How do we make it happen? -versus- How do we avoid it happening to us?

    Then comes the games of: Who should know this and who shouldn’t… and how do we prevent anyone else knowing the “forbidden knowledge”?

    It’s a philosophical maze that can lead down many strange roads – especially where ethics run up against forseen and unforseen consequences.

    It makes great political theatre as a good writer can twist his readers into rationalize and accepting many really downright nasty ideas as being good and even brilliant!

    What springs to mind is the old Frank Herbert book “The Dosadai Experiment” where a lethally ambitious/ambitiously lethal human culture is created.

  • Sigivald

    I’ve been meaning to read those myself.

    What occurs to me, though, is that The Culture (as I understand it, having been told quite a bit about the books) couldn’t have gotten to where it is without having been capable of self-extermination.

    After all, once you can colonize space, on the way you can drop rocks on your home planet until everyone on it is dead – you can’t avoid that, realistically.

  • Sigivald: I’m not finding it particularly strong compared to say, Alasdair Reynolds Revelation Space books (lots of film-noir anarcho-capitalism going on there). Partly it is the FTL travel and anti-gravity that takes away some believability; partly it is the writing and cookie cutter names. And I’m slightly worried it will all depend on some great leftist truth or other. But I’m hopeful that later novels will get better and the whole universe will have plenty of good ideas in it.

  • Humberto Woy

    Rob Fisher: It depends on on everything being run by virtually omnipotent, benevolent, quasi-paternalistic computers. Nearly all the protagonists are written as various kinds of outcasts from Culture society.

  • JohnB

    Always been suspicious of people who singularise plurals.
    “Save the whale” was one of the first that ignited my sense of being conned.

  • Brian, follower of Deornoth

    the most reliable method of avoiding self-extinction was not to equip oneself with the means to accomplish it in the first place

    So I’d better chuck away my Swiss Army knife, then?

  • Dave Walker

    I’m a big Banks fan :-).

    While “Phlebas” is the first Culture novel and not, I think, the best of the set so far (IMHO that accolade goes to “Player of Games”), it’s written in a sufficiently smart and subversive manner to play with the reader’s perceptions and assumptions. I’d hope that the multiple highlights reflect a readership collectively going “Ooo, that’s a good one”.

  • Laird

    Well, I’m not familiar with the series (perhaps Rob will give us a review when he has finished the book), but my impression of the quoted sentence it is that it is the sort of vapid pseudo-intellectual twaddle which so enthralls leftists. He might equally have said “experience as well as common sense indicated that the most reliable method of avoiding injury when falling was to have repealed the law of gravity in the first place.” That bears every bit as much relationship to reality, and conveys as much useful information, as does the actual quote.

  • Rob

    “Excession” is outstanding. Some of the others are a bit weak, in my opinion. Purl as is pretty good, probably me second favourite.

    Banks himself is an uber progressive, classic metropolitan Leftie luvvie. I read an interview with him which included a lot of ‘politics’, every bullshit 6th form Leftie cliche in the book.

  • Rob

    Er, “Purl” is Phelbas, iPhone correction of course.

  • Wolfie

    Banks is an imaginative and entertaining writer. While his ideas about future technology are absorbing I would place him as a LM style Marxist on the political spectrum. The Culture is an imagined post-capitalist society. Banks seems to accept the need for a capitalist order in societies which have not created hyper-intelligent computers capable of solving the scarcity problem. Personally I am happy to wait until we have such computers before returning to consider socialism. Until then let’s all accept it is a futile waste of time.

  • Agammamon

    I’m going to start by saying that I love the Culture novels, but . . .

    They are full of a lot of bullshit tropes like the one you pointed out and other like “the existense of money implies poverty”.

    Banks and Stross are two authors who’s work I really like but seriously diagree with their IRL politics.

  • Dishman

    experience as well as common sense indicated that the most reliable method of avoiding self-extinction was not to equip oneself with the means to accomplish it in the first place.

    That presupposes self-extinction is only accomplishable through deliberate means, and is the only source of sapient species extinction. “Earth Abides” addressed that years ago. Geological records provide solid evidence of very real risks.

    It also supposes that the means of self-extinction are separable from the means of survival. “The White Plague” gave a preview of that. Recent research with the Flu virus seems to have validated the science fiction.

  • Dale Amon

    And as you read deeper into the series, you will find that the culture is quite capable of exterminating its enemies as well. The novels are, as a whole, rather dark. They are well written but please don’t slit your wrists before you finish them 😉

    Oh, and ‘Use of Weapons’ is awesome. And dark. Very dark. Did I say it was dark?

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Regarding plurals- which of these is true, or are they both true?
    A) The United States is strong.
    b) The United States are strong.
    It is sometimes hard to know which is right.

  • flatdarkmars

    I haven’t read the books, but this discussion reminded of something Eric S. Raymond wrote almost ten years ago, in which he called Banks’ novels “Marxist eschatology”, “with the withering-away of the state sustained by deus ex machina.”

    “Socialists to the Stars”

  • Andrew Weitzman

    Never read the series, but I’m familiar with some details gleaned from SF forum discussions. Suffice it to say that the Culture has more than a few toys secreted away for the purposes of extermination. See “gridfire”.

    The Culture is one of those nice, progressive, peaceful civilizations that will–with great reluctance and sadness–rip off your face like a maddened wolverine if they consider you an existential threat.

  • Regional

    The United States is strong.
    The united states are strong.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Peaches Geldof is a girl.
    Peaches Geldof are a girl.
    Banks are plural. Ian Banks is single.

  • xj

    One interesting thing about the Culture novels is that Banks realizes the whole thing is dependent on the notion of a “post-scarcity” society, and he keeps “hanging a lampshade” on that by showing how the Culture behaves when it happens to encounter a scarce resource.

    My personal favorite would be “Look to Windward,” where the description of how the people who really, desperately want to attend the premiere of a new symphony “reinvent money” by trading with the people who were randomly assigned the tickets is the sort of thing that Nozick or Hazlitt (Link)might have written. Banks the writer understands economics a great deal better than Banks the socialist.

  • Man Mountain Molehill

    If you read some of the other Culture series; They are humanoid, but nor human. They know about Earth, but think we are just too primitive to bother with. Iaiaiaian Wanks is just another socialist euroweenie. The only place socialism works is in fiction.

    He has some superficial writing skill, but his premises just don’t make sense when examined.

    And, why would immensely powerful AIs even bother with humanoids? Why not exterminate the vermin and get on with their own goals?

  • Man Mountain Molehill: we hope we can design benevolent AIs.

    From the comments here I can tell there are enough interesting ideas in the Culture novels to overcome the author’s politics. The same as with Charlie Stross.

    Perhaps this happens because politics becomes less relevant as technology becomes more advanced.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Singular vs. Plural:

    Every day I am alarmed by a message that says “Windows is loading files”.

    I mean, really, it so obviously should say “Windows are loading files”.

    But then, you can’t expect Americans to get English grammar right, I suppose.

  • Chip

    I’ve read each of the Culture novels at least three times and particularly like the Algebraist, Excession and Feersum Enjin.

    But his views on politics and economics are trite and and hypocritical. A successful seller of widgets in his books is to often condemned for greed, but a successful author like himself is free to revel in a taste for fine cars and whiskey.

  • Russ

    Yes, Chip, but to be fair, MOST socialists are rather “socialists of convenience.” Very few actually give away all their surplus and live lives of monastic simplicity so that others will avoid need.

    That said, the man fancies himself a writer of high literature, and this is his sideline for cash. They’re pretty decent romps and worth running through (though I also tend to favor some of the “harder” scifi). I favor The Algebraist and Use of Weapons.

  • Rob

    The Algebraist too. Fantastic. Not a Culture Novel though, to be pedantic.

  • Alisa

    Andrew, British and Americans may diverge on issues of grammar, but as far as I can tell, they still subscribe to the same rules of logic.

  • ern

    I’ll agree with others here and say that yes, there are enough good ideas in the books to set aside the silly politics of the writers (I’m speaking of Stross as well as Banks). I, too, favor Player of Games, but have found all of Banks’s SF to be worthy of reading (not so much his non-SF work).

    Banks has contrived a universe in which socialism seems to work. And that itself tells us something: a universe must be built from scratch in order to do so. I mean, this seems to confirm everything we suspect about such utopian ideologies. When reality proves you wrong, simply pretend otherwise. It strikes me as unlikely that Banks doesn’t recognize the contradictions that often crop up in his own universe, though. Even in his universe so carefully constructed to showcase his ideology, it often falls flat on its face.

    Even when the universe is perfectly tailored for socialism, it doesn’t work.

  • Greg

    Regarding plurals- which of these is true, or are they both true?
    A) The United States is strong.
    b) The United States are strong.
    It is sometimes hard to know which is right.

    They’re both valid. Which a person uses will tell you a great deal about them. A) Refers to a single federated entity called “United States”, B) refers to a group of States that happen to be United. (Yes, w.r.t. A) referring to a singular entity with “the” is irregular but not unknown- go see a ballgame in the Bronx.)

  • the other rob

    Others have covered the great novels / lousy politics thing in sufficient depth, so I’ll limit myself to mentioning what is possibly my favourite Banks’ one-liner.

    It’s when he introduces a character, in the form of a heavily armed warship, named “The Full and Frank Exchange of Views.”

  • Laird

    Andrew, “Windows” is a name, not a description. Would you say “Alexis are going shopping”? Just because there’s an “s” at the end of a word doesn’t automatically make it a plural. Even outside the US.

  • phwest

    As my American Civil War prof was fond of noting – before the ACW, the general usage was the United States are, afterwards, is.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Windows is a plural name, surely? Wasn’t it supposed to mean that it was offering you more than one window into the universe, or something like that?

  • Laird

    There’s no such thing as a “plural name”. The concept makes no sense. Sure, the word might have been selected to make you think about “more than one window to the universe” or something, but so what? It’s still just a name, and like any other name which happens to end with “s” it’s still singular.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Laird, family names are plural names. The Windsors are a royal family, and the Chruchills are a noble one. The concept makes perfect sense.

  • JohnB

    How can one enjoy books that are based on an untrue premise?
    As bad as watching Eastenders.

    I realise one has to take what one can find, but . . ?

    Do all collective nouns contain the seeds of their own logical destruction ?
    As soon as one thinks “a group” has one crossed the line into that which s not actually real?

  • Alisa

    Sorry, but too much annoyingly fuzzy thinking here. The word ‘windows’ is a plural noun, used to describe a collection of single objects, each one of which is known as ‘window’. Each of these windows has a separate existence. If one blocks or breaks one window in one’s home, the other windows’ existence is not affected.

    The word ‘Windows’ is a proper noun (it being such having been denoted by the use of the capital ‘W’*), used to describe an operating system on computers. Said operating system is not a collection of separate and independent objects, it is one single object.

    *The words ‘Windsors’ and ‘Churchills’ (and ‘Smiths’ and ‘Wilsons’) are proper nouns, put in a plural form to denote a collection of separate and independent individuals, all of whom happen to belong to the same families and use the same family names. These people are nothing like the Windows OS, which cannot be broken into single entities.

    As hinted above, the rules of grammar are/should conform to the rules of logic, not the other way around.

  • Steve T

    “Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints” my favorite culture warship 🙂

  • Laird

    Thank you, Alisa. You said it much better than I ever could.

  • Alisa

    are/should conform

    …or rather do/should conform.

  • I was about to join this conversation, specifically on the matter of collective, plural, singular and individual. However, that is no longer necessary. I will instead confine myself to an old standby and cop out –

    Wot Alisa said.

  • Rich Rostrom

    phwest at April 12, 2012 08:44 PM: As my American Civil War prof was fond of noting – before the ACW, the general usage was the United States are, afterwards, is.

    That phrase was popularized by the late Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ TV miniseries on the War.

    However it is not strictly accurate.

    I did a survey of representative texts from 1788 to about 1930: Presidential addresses and official treaties between the US and other countries.

    “United States” as a singular appeared as early as 1832, and was fairly common by 1853. The plural usage persisted long after the ACW in treaty boilerplate (till 1896).

  • Alisa

    Interesting, Rich. It looks like just another case where turning singular into plural – and if only “merely” through language – also turns individual objects into collective subjects.

  • perlhaqr

    JohnB: What untrue principles are the Culture books based on? The idea that for socialism to be workable requires nearly unlimited magic and the direct intervention of godlike entities?

    I rather appreciated the Culture novels pointing that out. I just wish more people would actually understand the point.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Why didn’t the program start with ‘The Windows system is…..’? With the singular ‘system’, we avoid brain-strain.

  • JohnB

    I must confess, pelhaqr, I have not read any Culture novels.

    But the untrue principle would be the idea that the statement: “the most reliable method of avoiding self-extinction was not to equip oneself with the means to accomplish it in the first place” could have any validity.

    Obviously once you have got a technology you have got it and no amount of denial will ever make it go away, nor discourage those who wish to, from using it.

    Further, that any system which is driven by dictates rather than aspirations can ever work. Sure, it can get along as long as it is just squandering assets.
    But once those assets are gone those involved must face the reality that it cannot work.

    My view is that human beings are not primarily logical in their actions so much as geared towards fulfilling emotional requirements, and that this has to be taken into account if one is to achieve that which is realistic and beneficial and that a problem will arise where it is not.