Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Now Let Us Praise Some SF Prediction: Privacy and Philosophy (9 June 2013)

      In her introduction to the 1976 reissue of her book, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin denies that she, or most SF authors, are into prediction: "Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist's business is lying." Le Guin, though, thinks novels particularly and fiction generally can earn their keep because, paradoxically, fictions are not just complex and convoluted lies but also thought experiments that can tell us important truths about current society and may be useful, on occasion, in thinking about truths for the future.

      Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., approached the issue with the metaphor and image of artists as canaries: "I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coalmine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever."

     Science fiction isn't very good at prediction because, as Le Guin notes, it's into extrapolating current trends — and history indeed consists of the continuation of most current trends, but also the occasional weirdo change, frequently (and ironically here), a scientific and/or technological change that changes a lot.

     So every now and then I praise some SF that has been kind of good at predicting and very good at the canary-in-the-coal-mine job and warning of increasing dangers. The occasion for beginning to write this essay was my listening to Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain (2004), which kills off a flock of canaries warning about global climate change. Still, this time around I want to return to four classic dystopias — and I'll allude to a couple more works — and an anti-utopia; two of these stories you've probably heard of, the rest maybe not.

     Okay, for the more pedantically inclined, a brief justification of differentiating "dystopia" and "anti-utopia": If a eutopia is a story about a Good Place (eu-topia), a dystopia is a story about a Bad Place (dys-topia). Some dystopias may have started out as eutopian projects, but if so that point isn't stressed, and dystopias are mostly agnostic about the possibility of eutopia. An anti-utopia is an attack on trying to set up at least one kind of eutopia and, at an extreme, an attack on utopianism root and branch (and leaves and stems and seeds). George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is a dystopia, with no patience with the idea that Nazi and (more to Orwell's point in the late 1940s) Stalinist thugs are spoiled eutopians: when the novel's severely-limited protagonist, Winston Smith suggests that the totalitarian Party of Oceania works for the common good, the Party official O'Brien cruelly corrects him: "The Party," O'Brien says, after blasting Smith with excruciating pain, "seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others […]. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end" (Part Three, section 3).

     In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), however, the Powers that Be emphatically intend remaining in power, but they know enough to do that by creating a society where people are thoroughly unfree and controlled and set in a class and individual place in a rigid hierarchy — and therefore are happy: innocents, of a sort, in paradise, this Brave New World ("that hath such people in it"). Huxley was to go on to write the eutopia Island (1962), and Island and Brave New World should probably be read together as a complementary pair, but Brave New World is an anti-utopia.
     Anyway, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are two of the works I want to talk about, and I assume you know them. (If you do not, stop wasting your time reading my schlock and read them now; they're in most libraries and on the web.) The others you may not have heard of: Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1920), E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," and Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl's Space Merchants (1952/53).

     What We, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and Space Merchants all get right and what interests me in this part of my essay — who stole what from whom does not interest me — is privacy in two senses.

     First, all these worlds except the Brave New one are worlds of total (We and Nineteen Eighty-Four) or large-scale surveillance. In We, people live in apartment buildings, and the buildings are made of transparent glass; spies are common, and, of course, one's friends and colleagues will be honored if they betray you to the One State. Even more of course, in Oceania in 1984, "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU." In Space Merchants, there are just microphones and taps on rooms and such.

     I have dealt with surveillance fairly frequently, and at the moment of writing this piece (June of 2013), I needn't add my voice; people have been talking a lot about surveillance. And, frankly, right about now what I'd have to say is mostly (pause here for dramatic effect): You know, the three most beautiful words to hear may be "I Love You"; but among the most enjoyable to say are "Told You So." All sorts of people have told you so. Orwell's London of 1984 explicitly prefigures in terms of surveillance London of the early 21st century, one of the most "surveilled" places on Earth outside of a penitentiary or Las Vegas casino. Certainly, Americans who are shocked — Shocked! — at government surveillance in 2012-13 just haven't been paying attention: the National Security Agency has been gearing up for widespread, computerized-assisted surveillance since at least 1978. And cheek swabs for DNA testing have been an issue for nearly a decade, and were central — in decorous satiric exaggeration — to the 1997 film GATTACA.

     But surveillance is just one way to invade privacy, and the great 20th-century dystopias showed The Powers That Be invading personal space not just to get information out but also to get indoctrination in.

     Big Brother is not only watching you, he is also drumming in slogans and boring you to unconsciousness: "Orthodoxy," after all, "means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness"(1984 1.5), and there ain't nuthin' BB loves more than that orthodoxy! And, of course, in the Brave New World conditioning starts in the womb-bottle and continues life-long, though growing more subtle in bodily adulthood. (The goals of the State include keeping people emotionally juvenilized.)

     We missed the bullet of fanatical totalitarian indoctrination, but Pohl and Kornbluth extrapolated from the capitalism and crazes for psychology, marketing, and advertising in the mid-20th-century and presented a future world where personal-space is constantly violated by long TV commercials, intrusive advertising, and, well, other people. The near-future society of The Space Merchants is ruled by ad agencies and others — but especially ad agencies — who worship The God of Sales. And Sales wants worshippers: the more the better, the dumber the better, the more passionately consumed by their role of consumers … the better.

     Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., started out his writing/canary-bird career with Player Piano (1952), warning against structural unemployment due to automation of industry and reminding us that private-enterprise, industrial bureaucracies are, by God, bureaucracies; Pohl and Kornbluth help teach that pervasive advertising and marketing is a form of propaganda: «Capitalism is good; consumption is good; my general identity is consumer; my more specific identity is a consumer of __________ products [fill in name of Agency]. Buy! Buy! Buy! __________ [fill in names of some specific products, but the controlling idea — and I do mean controlling — is Buy].»

     In the near-future world of Space Merchants, the Agencies, Chamber of Commerce, and big firms generally pretty directly control the government of the United States, and most of the rest of the world. In our present, power is more diffuse, which is good — but a bunch of Little Brothers and Medium-Size Brothers are also a threat; and minimally regulated markets impinge on us in ways undreamed of in Orwell's Oceania or even Pohl and Kornbluth's hucksters' utopia in Space Merchants.

     E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909) is set in a far-future that seems extremely implausible. The opening sentence of instructs us to "Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee." The room is underground, inside a world-machine; and at the center of the room "there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus." In a very short space in this sentence, Forster brings together some of the major motifs of 20th-century SF. He gives us a degenerate future humanity, but more important he places our species underground, inside a machine, and in an environment explicitly likened to a hive.

      Mechanizing the underworld had been done before, by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895), and Wells has a sublunar world of rather degenerate Selenites (Moon people) in The First Men in the Moon (1901); still, to put a whole human civilization underground was something new and important. Back to the time of myth-making, the underworld was the realm of "Chaos and Old Night," the womb of the Earth Mother. It's no less than the complete reversal of an archetype to mechanize Mamma, and the motif will be familiar to anyone who knows such SF films as Metropolis, THX-1138, or A Boy and His Dog.

     We don't live in a literal machine underground, and we are not bloody likely to. Forster, though, is known for the brief epigraph, "Only connect…," and what Foster gets very right is showing us a world of connection and radical lack of connection.

     The world of the Machine is highly connected: air and food and data and ideas are conveyed in to each of the cells and excrement and data and ideas and scholarship go out. And every now and then one can get new clothes and stuff, and I'm sure there are entertainment channels we don't learn about (the point-of-view character consumes and produces lectures and Ideas). The Machine connects people, but only mentally, so to speak — and connects them within the limitations of high-volume machine-mediated connection. The visuals are a little degraded, and other communication subtleties are lost.

     Nowadays, this may sound like a cliché of a nerd's life in his parent's basement working the Internet, using his iPhone, and waiting for new shorts and sandals from Amazon.com. Foster was writing at the beginning of the 20th century, and he seems prescient.

     Well … maybe.

     Le Guin and most SF critics would say what he was doing was telling lies in the form of an insightful fable, a fable for his time that turns out highly relevant to ours. The Machine can stand for advanced human culture, for technology and techniques of social organization: all useful things but which, taken too far, no longer connect people but alienate us. The world of the Machine is a world of humans tenuously connected to one another and radically disconnected from the physical world and direct experience, disconnected from nature, history, and, ultimately, disconnected from each other.

     Out of touch.

     This much is very clear in the story: subtlety is not totally a virtue in the popular arts. Nuance is, though, and there is one nuanced bit relevant for Nineteen Eighty-Four, the late 20th century, and maybe nowadays, as products of US and Western European higher ed. in the late 20th century move into positions of authority.

     The bit of nuance I'm talking about comes in a paragraph many readers may skip through quickly because it appears between two major plot developments. The second is "the reestablishment of religion" as many people come to worship the Machine (beginning of part III, "The Homeless"). The first change in the culture is "the abolition of respirators" so that the people of the Machine, who can no longer breathe easily the air on the Earth's surface, are now prevented from leaving the Machine. This was a problem for students of surface things — the sea, for example — but such scholar/scientists were few and their activity mildly vulgar. More important, advanced intellectuals of the time theorize the rightness of restriction to the Machine.

     A lecturer on what we'd call the web, "one of the most advanced of them" in his thinking, enjoined his audience — we're told he "exclaimed" the line, "Beware of first-hand ideas! […] First hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by love and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element — direct observation." The lecturer uses for an example his own field. "Do not learn anything about this subject of mine — the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought" — significant name there, Urizen, unimaginative reason and law in William Blake's mythology — learn instead what "Gutch thought Hu-Yung thought […] Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these eight great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives," although he never says how this idea might be employed. What is important is to this advanced intellectual and to the story is abstraction away from the physical, the material. "'And in time' — his voice rose — 'there will come a generation absolutely colourless, a generation "seraphically free / From taint of personality," which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.'" His conclusion is greeted with "Tremendous applause," less because of the genius of the speaker and more that that lecture "did but voice a feeling already latent in the minds of men — a feeling that terrestrial facts must be ignored," so abolition of the respirators and confinement to the Machine "was a positive gain."

     Making fun of cranks is one of the oldest shticks in satire, but what is mocked here is significant. Parallel to people's physical alienation from the world and the human body is the psychological and philosophical alienation of literal Idealism, capital "I" Idealism of the Platonic/neoPlatonic, religious-fanatic extreme sort.

     Idealism is a perennial philosophy and always out there, going in and out of fashion. Forster earned his keep as canary in the coal mine if for nothing else attacking this trend in a popular and understandable medium — as opposed to, say, most academic philosophy — in 1908.

     Re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in an English department in 1984 and following, what struck me most forcefully was the part of "The Grand Inquisitor Scene" — Winston Smith's interviews with the Party official O'Brien — where O'Brien corrects Smith's naïve, old-fashioned, empiricist view of the world. Today we might say that O'Brien makes Smith sane again by getting him again in love with Big Brother, gradually talking and torturing Smith away from membership in "the reality-based community."

     Totally cut off from the world, in a torture room in the Ministry of Love — for all practical purposes, as much a man-made total environment as Foster's Machine — Smith is taught "that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else." And if this is the case — if reality is what came to be called socially constructed, literally, ontologically socially constructed, what then?

     I've put it, If reality is created between our ears, it will be determined by the guy with a gun in our ear. O'Brien more elegantly clarifies that reality exists "Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party" (1984 3.2).

     Well, maybe Foster's warning and Orwell's did some good, not predicting the future but, in Ray Bradbury's formulation trying "to prevent it," or prevent things from being worse. Hitler and Stalin are dead; the Third Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — "four lies in one phrase" — are gone; and I can hope that those in power sympathize strongly with "The Social Construction of Reality" in terms of world-views, of epistemology, but otherwise are dues-paying members of the reality-based community.

     Whatever: if we acted only if certain of the results of our actions, we wouldn't do much of importance. Speaking out against vice and stupidity was much of the job of Foster, Zamyatin, Huxley, Orwell, Vonnegut, and their generations. As I write, Fred Pohl is still alive — and we'd now better start working on the warnings of Pohl, and of the team of Pohl and Kornbluth. 

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