Friday, February 23, 2018

Change Or Die

Change, or die: that’s the stark choice most protagonists face in literature, whether they recognize it or not.  Change is constant, and stasis is only an illusion.  What is true of people is also true of civilizations.  Cultures evolve, or they follow the lead of Ozymandias.

Neal Stephenson’s epic and characteristically brilliant 2015 novel Seveneves dramatizes that imperative in stark terms.  The moon has been destroyed, and the resulting rain of meteors purges Earth of life.  Humans manage to escape into orbit, but through mishap and sabotage ultimately only seven people, the titular seven Eves, survive of today’s billions.  They are forced to decide on the trajectory of their new future, until thousands of years later their three billion descendants are able to return to Earth.

This is destruction as reinvention.  It calls to mind Cory Doctorow’s insight that what distinguishes a dystopia isn’t a disaster, but the inability of a society to work together to recover.  In Seveneves, the disaster first enables and then forces changes that leaders would have resisted otherwise.

In Star Trek’s optimistic vision of the future, the Eugenics Wars lead to a world in which advances to society and technology are mutually reinforcing, from the interplanetary peace maintained by the Federation to the material abundance provided by replicators, which reduces the likelihood of scarcity-driven conflict.  Yet the Eugenics Wars, although consigned to backstory, are a reminder that even positive change is rarely adopted casually and often comes at a price.  Fiction that is set during times of transition often ends up exploring the dynamics of change itself.  Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos showcases a civilization caught between the past and future, with an ancient theological tradition grappling with a newfound ability to extend life, and the “Ousters” modifying their genetic heritage to adapt to the extreme frontiers of space.

Humans adapt both physically and socially when forced to do so by their environments, and Seveneves presents one of the most difficult environmental challenges imaginable.  The hard choices confronting the book’s protagonists are more urgent variations of the dilemmas all communities face.  Jared Diamond’s nonfiction book Guns, Germs, and Steel explores how geographic conditions shape societies, many of which would have been forced to make similar choices and follow similar trajectories had their roles been reversed: “the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments.”

For example, Diamond writes, large and stratified societies developed in places like the Fertile Crescent where people had access to a variety of plant and animal species, including large mammals that could be domesticated, which in turn enabled food surpluses and food storage.  These societies subsequently were able to invest in new technologies, like ocean faring ships.  Small bands of Spaniards were able to conquer the Aztec and Inca empires after arriving in America on such ships due in small part to their guns and in large part to the Eurasian horses they rode, which the native Americans had never seen.

Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, reverses the question (and challenges Diamond) by asking why societies with shared geographies and cultures can end up with such different results—e.g., the town of Nogales on the U.S. side of the border versus Nogales on the Mexican side, or North versus South Korea, or East versus West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The book concludes that small choices, specifically those to support or reject inclusive political and economic institutions, can have multiplying effects which trump geography and lead to prosperity or ruin.  “The ability of economic institutions to harness the potential of inclusive markets, encourage technological innovation, invest in people, and mobilize the talents and skills of a large number of individuals is critical for economic growth,” Acemoglu and Robinson assert.  They go on to explain, however, that powerful groups often resist making their institutions more inclusive, such as by distributing and constraining the arbitrary use of political power, because they’re afraid to lose their privileges.

Diamond himself put more emphasis on political choice in Collapse, the book that followed Guns, Germs, and Steel, which examines the factors that cause civilizations to fall, and traces them to poor group decision-making.  From this perspective, one of the striking things about Seveneves is how little politics matters in its imagined future.  Once set in motion by the Eves’ personalities and genetic choices, their descendants’ political affiliations remain relatively static over centuries.

Politicians in Seveneves are explicitly excluded from humanity’s escape plan, and are at their best when they’re focused on keeping their Earthbound populations from disturbing the technocrats’ solutions.  One constitutional law scholar is brought in to advise the scientists responsible for keeping civilization running, and he’d be unqualified even by the standards of a small law firm—when reviewing his résumé, the book seems to treat his tenure at a startup as equivalent in importance to his stint at The Hague.  In other words, this is an engineer’s fantasy of how the world works.  Once all the billions of people mucking things up are left behind, engineers can finally fix everything.

Much of the fun of Seveneves comes from watching Stephenson’s characters solve engineering problems with technologies that are already being prototyped today, all while Stephenson himself misleads a new generation of writers into imagining that it must be easy to write pages of intellectually exhilarating exposition without turning off readers.  We all want to be able to fix things.  As the Union of Concerned Scientists is forced to remind us on probably a daily basis, almost every policy question we face would benefit from unbiased scientific expertise, not the political posturing that continues to undermine it, deny it, or threaten to cut its funding if it reaches the wrong conclusions.

As it turns out, though, political problems don’t always have technical or engineering solutions.  Some people have tested that proposition to horrifying extremes: researchers have repeatedly found that engineers, perhaps due to a misplaced desire for unambiguous solutions, are over-represented in terrorist groups.

Horses led to the rise of feudalism

Just as importantly, technology isn’t destiny.  Technologies drive social change, but not always in ways that their promoters intend or have any way of controlling.  One example is the history of the horses the aforementioned Spanish brought to the New World.  When heavy cavalry spread from Persia through the former Roman Empire, the knights both required and became capable of appropriating the resources for the upkeep of their horses before they could reach traditional, central authorities, leading the way to feudalism.  Or, consider the conquistadors’ firearms.  Europeans spread guns around the world, even though gunpowder had been developed in China.  Before advances can take off, they often need to be picked up by other social or political groups or even transferred to other cultures.  One reason might be that in their countries of origin, innovations are often constrained by the existing infrastructure or become tied to particular traditions and mental models which define and limit their uses.  When they are exported to other cultures which lack those traditions and models, they can be applied in new ways.

Another science fiction author, Paolo Bacigalupi, uses his stories to explore what happens when the misuse of technology and its repercussions defeat the ability of social structures to keep up, and the results usually fit Doctorow’s definition of dystopia.  They illustrate how hard it is to change societies in a rational and organized way even in the face of catastrophe, and the potential consequences if we don’t.

In the end, though, “politics is the art of the possible,” and technological progress continually redefines what “the possible” is.  A big part of the thrill of reading Seveneves is watching the characters respond to extreme catastrophe by building on technology that already exists, and then witnessing the repercussions of their original choices expand over thousands of years.  The focus is more on replicators than Federations, but grounded in real engineering challenges and just as certain of humanity’s ability to jury-rig a future of progress.

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