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]

From reading science fiction to libertarianism – and to reading history

Not long ago, Rob Fisher asked, back at his blog, before he started writing here, whether there is a correlation between an early enthusiasm for science fiction and later being a libertarian, and if so what might be the cause of such a correlation. And I seem to recall the notion finding its way here also, although I can’t recall or find where. It may have been in a comment thread. My take is that SF embodies the idea that things could be very different. Maybe a more general version of the same idea is that SF leads to political radicalism of all kinds. There was certainly a huge enthusiasm for SF on the left before World War 2. Think only of H. G. Wells.

I recently mentioned to Michael Jennings that I too went through a big SF phase in my teens and twenties, while in the process of becoming a libertarian, and that although I subsequently stopped reading much SF, I did later become very keen on reading history. I still am. The connection between reading SF and reading history, at any rate in my mind, is that just as SF says that the world can be very different, history is all about the fact that, in the past, the world actually was very different. Things change, from era to era, from epoch to epoch. History and SF both say that very loudly. Libertarianism, and all the other isms, say that also.

As far as history is concerned, I’m thinking of things like how the sea, in the European Middle Ages, far from being any sort of defensive wall (as Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt famously describes it – and as it later became) was actually more like a motorway system, for those able to command the vehicles to make use it of. I’m thinking of how very different life was if most of the people in the place you lived in were illiterate, perhaps including you. I’m thinking of how very hard it was even to preserve the great ideas of the past, let alone accumulate new ones with any success, before the printing press was contrived. I’m thinking of what a difference swords and bows-and-arrows and gunpowder and machine guns successively made, and what a difference atom bombs and hydrogen bombs have made to our own time. I’m thinking of what a different world it was when it was very hard to send messages of any complexity (or for that matter human beings) any faster than a succession of very expensive horses could gallop.

Michael’s response was that reading lots of SF, then becoming something like a libertarian, then reading lots of history, is a fairly common intellectual biography. So rather than ramble on, let me ask commenters. Does that sequence of interests ring any bells with any of you good people?

“I am your father?”

Disappointingly, it seems that some of these scenes of the happy family life of a Star Wars stormtrooper may have been faked. In the comments to this Daily Mail article, “John, Bristol’ claims that “the small one is a Lego toy.” I shall leave readers to make up their own minds.

Samizdata quote of the day


My problem is that I find everything increasingly interesting.

- William Gibson

Professor Lindemann will take your call now, Mr Churchill

You can’t blame them. It would go to anybody’s head.

You can, in a way, blame Frederick Lindemann, the first (and last) Viscount Cherwell.

Apart from the facts that he more or less founded Oxford physics and so got a laboratory named after him and was some sort of scientific adviser to Churchill, most of what I know about Lindemann I learned today, from this site, aimed at children in secondary schools, and Wikipedia.

Lindemann ought to be more famous. He developed the first theory of how to recover when an aeroplane goes into a spin, and learned to fly so that he could repeatedly and dangerously put it to the test on his own aircraft. Umpteen pilots owe him their lives. Umpteen Germans owe him their deaths: his hatred of Nazism was “almost pathological” and – well, let Wikipedia give you the flavour:

When Churchill became Prime Minister, he appointed Lindemann as the British government’s leading scientific adviser … Lindemann established a special statistical branch, known as ‘S-Branch’, within the government, constituted from subject specialists, and reporting directly to Churchill. This branch distilled thousands of sources of data into succinct charts and figures, so that the status of the nation’s food supplies (for example) could be instantly evaluated. Lindemann’s statistical branch often caused tensions between government departments, but because it allowed Churchill to make quick decisions based on accurate data which directly affected the war effort, its importance should not be underestimated … In 1940, Lindemann supported the experimental department MD1. He worked on hollow charge weapons, the sticky bomb and other new weapons … “In his appointment as Personal Assistant to the Prime Minister no field of activity was closed to him. He was as obstinate as a mule, and unwilling to admit that there was any problem under the sun which he was not qualified to solve. He would write a memorandum on high strategy one day, and a thesis on egg production on the next” … Following the Air Ministry Area bombing directive on 12 February 1942, Lindemann presented the dehousing paper to Churchill on 30 March 1942, which advocated area bombardment of German cities to break the spirit of the people … Lindemann also played a key part in the battle of the beams, championing countermeasures to the Germans use of radio navigation to increase the precision of their bombing campaigns.

Lindemann’s achievements in science, though distinguished, have been surpassed by those of other scientists. But never before or since has a single scientist, in his role as a scientist, been so close to the seat of power. He was like a Grand Vizier of old. His name may not be that famous, even among scientists, but his role in the Great Drama has become a folk memory; a fantasy.

In the 1950s Isaac Asimov, writing under the pseudonym Paul French, produced an enjoyable series of science fiction novels for teenagers featuring David “Lucky” Starr, Space Ranger. (In which occurs the first known appearance of the lightsaber trope. I didn’t know that.) Like the Lone Ranger, Lucky has a faithful sidekick. Like James Bond – whose career began at about the same time – Lucky has gadgets. And backup. On Lucky’s wrist there is a tattoo which is invisible until Lucky exerts his will, triggering some chemicals or hormones or something, which makes the tattoo become visible. Then they sit up, take notice, and hasten to do what he says, because the tattoo reveals that he is a member – indeed, the youngest ever member – of the Council of Science.

The Council of Science!

Quoting Wikipedia again:

In a later novel in the series, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, the Council of Science is described this way: “In these days, when science really permeated all human society and culture, scientists could no longer restrict themselves to their laboratories. It was for that reason that the Council of Science had been born. Originally it was intended only as an advisory body to help the government on matters of galactic importance, where only trained scientists could have sufficient information to make intelligent decisions. More and more it had become a crime-fighting agency, a counterespionage system. Into its own hands it was drawing more and more of the threads of government.”

And just for a while a year or two back it all looked like coming true. Lindemann’s heirs back in the saddle again. Maybe not the tattoos, but the Scientist taking the President’s calls, speaking with grave wisdom to the frightened assemblies and governments of mankind.

You can’t really blame them, can you? For remembering their time of glory and feeling just a smidgeon of pleasure that those days were here again?

From the story quoted by Brian in the post below this one:

Scientists have called for Second World War-style rationing in rich countries to bring down carbon emissions, as world leaders meet in Cancun for the latest round of talks on climate change.

Pondering moral dilemmas the sci-fi way

Watching the re-make of Battlestar Galactica I came across a thought-experiment in practical ethics that seems to me far more interesting than the rather trite runaway-train examples I knew from university ethics classes.

The situation for the thought-experiment is this:

The last remnants of the human race are fleeing their robotic exterminators. Owing to what the (human) military commander perceives as a poor tactical decision, the lawfully-elected civilian President has been incarcerated and martial law has been declared. With the support of civilian and enlisted sympathisers, the President has escaped immediate custody and is on the point of disappearing into hiding amongst the populace, supposedly accompanied by her immediate staff and a few abettors amongst the military.

Up until this point, by the nature of television drama, the focus has been on the President herself and senior military officers, both sympathetic and antagonistic. At the last moment, however, it is made clear that even flunkies and acting extras have an independent moral choice, when the President’s principal aide unexpectedly reveals his personal moral dilemma.

“Madam President. I understand what you’re trying to do…but, it’s going to divide the fleet. At the very best it’s going to create an insurgency against [the military commander]; at the worst, civil war. Taking part in that is a line that I will not cross.”

This strikes me as troubling, but far from unrealistic. I am genuinely unsure what is the morally correct action here.

For the sake of this thought experiment, let us accept without question the idea that our protagonist fully believes the President is the rightful and best leader for the human race. Let us assume he is convinced that the best outcome, both morally and practically, would be for the military dictator to quietly step aside and reinstate the President. Let us also assume he genuinely believes that that will not happen, and that internal opposition will materially reduce the prospects of survival for the remainder of the human race.

If we left it at that, most people would agree that he had no choice but to submit to the military in the interests of the survival of our species.

However, this character is clearly thoughtful and reasonable, so let us add in another opportunity for dilemma. Let us suppose, as is strongly hinted at, albeit not explicitly stated in this drama, that although he genuinely believes all the above, he recognises the possibility that he might be wrong.

This creates a genuinely realistic and sophisticated moral dilemma. His best outcome would be for the President’s insurrection to be swiftly and painlessly successful. The worst outcome would be a protracted civil war.

Should he give precedence to his admittedly fallible assessment of the President’s chances, betray her, side with the military dictator he considers illegitimate, in order to swiftly put down the President’s opposition, in the hope of avoiding the total destruction of humanity at the cost of casting humanity into autarky for the foreseeable future?

Or in the alternative, would it be better to be true to his convictions and back the President, in the hope of preserving a free society, even though he believed that in doing so he was placing the survival of our species at greater risk, but recognised that he might be in error in this assessment? In short, the question is not the commonly poses but simplistic one of “should the moral or the pragmatic choice prevail?” but its more sophisticated child: “Given uncertainty about the future, should we cleave to moral certainty despite grave fears of the likely outcome, or betray our preferences for fear of utter calamity?”

To me, these ten seconds in Battlestar Galactica seem far more interesting than almost anything in my undergraduate ethics course. But if this seems too obscure, or too adolescent, treat this posting instead simply as a comment that there is more serious ethical debate in ten seconds of a popular commercial sci-fi drama than in a month of ‘Newsnight’ interviews.

A thought-provoking essay

Following on from Brian’s recent essay in which he wonders about the point of spacefaring, here is a sort of related essay by the science fiction author, John Scalzi. Strongly recommended. (H/T, Boing Boing).

I have read a number of Scalzi’s novels and I enjoyed them a lot. I recommend that people who are interested start with Old Man’s War.

Witness for the future

Shannon Vyff of the Immortality Institute gave a talk yesterday in London on the advocacy work that she undertakes, promoting unlimited lifespans. At a basement room in Birkbeck, to an assorted crowd of extropians, greens and interested parties belonging to Extrobritannia, we heard from a person who actually leads the CR life.

Calorific restriction is controversial but the contrast for Shannon lay between her and, perhaps, her audience. As Brits, we are not particularly active in giving time or money to deserving or undeserving causes, and it was quite breathtaking to see an upstanding example of American voluntarism. From my perspective, it was gratifying that Ms. Vyff decided to devote her energy to causes closer to my heart: life extension and anti-aging.

Her other focus is on the introduction of these ideas to a wider audience of primary school children, proving an inkling of the wonders that technology can provide. This is coupled with the joy of thinking positively about the future and working for it and, to my mind, counts as an important antidote to the killjoyous scaremongering of the luddite greens whose tool of social control is to make children ashamed of life itself. Perhaps there are better written books, but not in this field. Vyff wishes to harness the motivational power of science fiction for a new generation.

Like the Libertarian Alliance, the Immortality Institute remains an outlier. Despite debates over entering the mainstream, the group decided to retain its name, a wise decision. As these concepts become more accepted, other groups will spring up to advocate more moderate agendas, but the promotion of pure life extension remains a valuable project in and of itself.

Overhumanism

I suppose I should not be surprised that transhumanist ideas, mutilated in a fascist form, would start to reach breakthrough point. Slightly late in the day as this was noted in September, but drinking wine and trawling Stross is one way of dealing with Saturday’s ennui..

So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I [Charlie Stross] hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism:

The new tech is going to foster discrimination and differentiation. This will be enthusiastically taken up by those in power to maintain control. It will probably have a short shelf life as all such attempts to limit the (trans)human spirit do; measured in decades rather than centuries now. No doubt the kleptocratic elites of many countries will jump on this bandwagon to paint their already black rule a darker shade. Tempted enough by shiny power to create closed systems, too stupid to realise that they just shortened the life of their political schemes, by curbing their ability to adapt and change. In the long run, they will either die out or be bought out.

My only prediction: by the end of this century, we are going to be sick and tired of the suffix, -humanism.

Samizdata quote of the day

There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers…and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined

- George Orwell on his discovery of the writing of H.G. Wells, as quoted by Cynthia Crossen of the Wall Street Journal, in a context that is quite worth reading, as is the follow up discussion at io9. Come to think of it, these sorts of “respectable people” (along with those who believe that housing is not a high risk investment and therefore expect to be bailed out with my savings when this turns out not to be so, those who are in favour of the television licence fee, and…) may be what I have in mind when I proclaim how much I despise the middle class, as I am prone to do.

Sci Fi corridors!

Via the David Thompson blog – which has a weird and wonderful collection of oddball stuff every Friday, I came across this aspect of science fiction movies.

Some nifty photos and links on this website as well.

Windmills

Dominic Lawson tears into the moral cant and dubious economics of those who want to festoon the UK with windmills as a solution to so-called man-made global warming. As he says, other countries, such as Germany, have spent large sums on such alternative technologies but have not, yet, been able to retire conventional power stations at all.

I am quite a fan of tidal power, as alternatives go (although I think that no serious energy policy that sidelines nuclear power is worth considering as a practical one). Unlike the wind, which is dependent on weather, tides are as regular as the orbit of the Moon. Reversible turbines could be powered by the regular, big currents that sweep to and fro in the coastal waters of countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Spain. And unlike windmills, they would not, hopefully, create a bloody great eyesore or hazard, either.

Where are they?

“Where are they?” is a question I would rather had remained unanswered, Mbotu mused. The stone-like bench, lost in the giant and austere entry hall, was cold and uncomfortable. It grew more so as time passed. He had been punctual. One does not keep ones God King waiting. The reverse, however, is a given. Mbotu had once done so himself. Was it only a year? Just one year since he had held the highest office there was: Secretary General of the United Nations of Earth. It might as well have been a millennium ago. The now redundant world government had succeeded beyond the wildest imaginings of its 20th century founders. After three centuries, war and everything associated with it had been abolished. No one was hungry; there were no rich, no poor; the environment had been saved and the excesses of unfettered capitalism had been reined in by the gentle power of the institution to which he had given over his life. Mbotu’s thoughts were interrupted by the echoing footfalls of an approaching functionary.

“You will be seen now.”

By the time the elderly Mbotu rose aching from the bench, the figure was already in motion. Instant and unquestioning obedience was simply assumed. No further words were exchanged and he followed as quickly as he could.

A lift took them to the top of the five kilometre ‘palace’, if that was the right term for the new seat of government. When the door opened it was as if he had crossed light-years to another world and in effect he had. This was the private residence of the alien warlord who now claimed the once peaceful and unarmed Earth for his own.

“Sit”, said an imposing alien figure. “Be comfortable”. As if realizing Mbotu’s thoughts, he added “There is no need for formality here. You are fully aware of your place and it is time to integrate you into the Imperial Government. You will be assigned quarters here. You will be restored to your former position and will retain it for so long as you are obedient and successful in carrying out our wishes. Earth must begin to pay its own way in the Empire and repay our investment in it. Our requirements are simple enough. You have advanced technology and global infrastructure. You will convert it to production to support our fleet and invasion forces. If all goes well, in a century or so you will supply troops as well.”

“But… we have no knowledge of arms and war”, interjected an appalled Mbotu, “We have expunged even the basics of dangerous technologies from our libraries and archives. They have been outlawed for generations!”

“We know. That is in fact why I am here and you are there.” After a pause he continued. “Perhaps I should explain the realities of the wider universe. Most civilizations travel a path similar to yours. They go from warlike tribes to larger and larger conglomerates hacking and beating at each other with primitive weapons. Then comes the first technological transition and wars which become more and more terrible. Those who survive become a single global state by one path or another. Since there is no longer a threat to be met, defences atrophy. There is no need for advanced arms, nuclear weapons or standing armies. Most societies degenerate to the point where they have only small special units for solving problems for the supreme ruler of the planet.”

He continued. “A few, like you, are more extreme. You have eliminated your military entirely. You have destroyed traditions which reached far into your past and once allowed the training of effective soldiers. Even if we had allowed you ten years warning you could not have fielded a fighting force worthy of respect. You blocked the development of nanotechnology, advanced spaceships, nuclear power, directed energy weapons, force fields and a hundred other things you deemed too dangerous. Your population became coddled and addicted to a safe and easy, if somewhat impoverished, life. The concept of self-defence, even if you still allowed so much as a sharp blade to be manufactured or kept, have become as alien to your population as invaders from another planet.”

“You believe you had a golden age, but soon enough your population will be taught the lie and will support our rule. By our standards you accomplished a global and equal poverty for all but the ruling class like yourself. We will return adventure to your decadent and risk averse populace. We will give you the option of thousand year lifespans and travel to the stars. Your children will be will be our willing adventurers and soldiers.”

Mbotu, steeled by life as a bureaucrat, diplomat and politician, stayed calm. “You say most. Obviously you are an exception.”

“Yes. A very small number of civilizations follow the path to Empire. From time to time we fight each other at the edges of our vast catchments, but for the most part we take the easier path. There are so many like you that it would be a waste of resources to spend our time locked in bloody combat and destroy the very planets and populations we seek.”

Mbotu changed the subject. “How long have you known of us?”

“Space is vast and the stars are like dust. Occasionally we stumble upon a pre-technological species, but for the most part we just listen. By the time we hear the first radio broadcast your sort are already into the endgame of the nation state. When we first arrived your Europeans were nearly ready for harvesting but there were still many capable of causing us annoyance. Your United States had the technology and fight to give us big problems. A deadly challenge to their supremacy might well have pushed them into developing some of the now proscribed technologies and made invasion too costly for us. Others like China and India had populations whom we would have had to mostly wipe out to stop them from fighting.”

“Over the millennia we have learned the virtue of patience. A few centuries is usually enough. Once you are decadent, disarmed and centralized…” the alien did what could pass for a shrug, “We arrive with a show of overwhelming force and you surrender without a shot. There are usually a few hold outs, but they are easily dealt with and turned into object lessons without wrecking what we want: a developed planetary civilization that will supply us the tools for the next conquest. You were not able or willing to fight for your freedom.” He paused for effect. “And now you are ours.”

[Copyright 20090712 Dale Amon, all rights reserved]