Since the genre was born in the depths of the late-Industrial Age we have always looked to Science Fiction for guidance. We seek to understand our current world by imagining new versions of it, speculating challenges and opportunities that allow us to better understand what we are facing today and prepare for tomorrow.
Born from the Scientific Romance age of Jules Verne, Samuel Butler and H.G Wells that dealt with social governance, population growth and the limits of exploration and empire. The genre soon evolved into the Radium Age, a period which saw many established authors, known for work in other fields, exploring this new format: H. Rider Haggard, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as the early inclinations towards pulp SciFi that have yielded our current Comic book/superhero obsessed world- most dramatically captured in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series. Science Fiction writers have always built on the work of their predecessors, often exploring the ideas of post-apocalyptic civilisation, and frequently using this as an opportunity to speculate on themes of colonialism and communist theory. It was nervy and energetic work, as prone to outrageous mistakes as it was to genuine scientific exploration, but nevertheless, it continued the tradition of speculation and enquiry.
These experiments lead us to the Golden Age and New Wave of Science Fiction; wherein, the rules of the genre having been set out over the previous 50 years, authors were able to turn them on their head. It is this period of writing that is so fertile for exploration and discovery, and these writers who have arguably set the course for scientific development and discovery since then. It is undeniable that generations of scientists have been drawn to science fiction as a canvas for an inquisitive mind.
But where does that leave us now, when it comes to understanding the world we inhabit, and discovering more about possible futures?
One thing that is most pertinent to understand and explore are the economic systems that underpin these speculative worlds. Throughout the developmental history of the genre there is often an understanding that even freed from the constraints of reality by fictional and fantastical worlds it is nearly impossible to escape the economics of capitalism. Rightly celebrated cyberpunk works like William Gibson’s Neuromancer are Exhibit A: ruthless, hyperwealthy companies that commodify people, stop at nothing in the name of profit, and run rings around future-shocked governments? We just need to look out the window to see that.
Whilst some writers do explore socialist systems of governance, or embrace the ideas of utopian, pastoral primitivism, these are often used as a foil to better understand the capitalist system, or to act as a barbaric counterpoint to the ‘civilising’ effects of capitalist colonialism. It is very rare that the underlying system that sits behind these imagined worlds is explored in depth, and rarer still that writers do the hard work of exploring the economic models of these worlds and unpack what lies within.
We have been drawn to this idea, partly because many of us are avid consumers (readers, watchers, listeners) of SciFi and speculative fiction, but also because we find it strange that economists haven’t been as excited by the possibilities hidden between the pages of fiction as scientists have been. Economists seem to have given up on blue-sky thinking: during the 19th century, scholars like Proudhon or Marx tried to imagine completely different economic systems, and visionary entrepreneurs like Charles Fourier or Robert Owens often attempted to encode their visions into profitable companies. This is no longer happening. All economic theory seems to be variations on the neoclassical theme.
We wanted to know why, and we want to see what we can do about this.
We see a growing sense that societies feel locked in their current systems of governance and economics, but as groups and individuals are searching for avenues to change that. The mechanisms of contemporary governance were built for problems of the 20th century, perhaps even of the 19th century, and are certainly inept to deal with those of 21st.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then we have noticed that writers and economists are also stuck writing within these systems themselves, unable to imagine outside the confines, and stuck with speculative variations of Capitalism that only explore along thin line, running from libertarian free market to state correction. Assuming they aren’t drawn into writing the type of dystopic post-calamity fiction that has grown in popularity over the past decade, and now seems to make up the large proportion of science fiction output on television and film. Where then are the utopians, or even the positive realists? Where is the innovation? Where is the philosophical exploration of ideas? Where is the sense that anything can, or even should, change?
Looking for answers we set up our stall and asked members of the Edgeryders community, and other online communities to pitch in their suggestions for writers who they thought were dealing explicitly with economic systems in their science fiction writing. The list grew and grew: Econ-SF: a selection of works and authors
From this we built a reading group, and invited anyone who was interested to join us in reading and discussing the work. We meet in person and online to talk about the content and context.
We started our discussion with Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, which depicts an economy entirely based on DIY production, in the book this technology is made cheap at an arbitrarily small scale through advanced 3D printing and biotech. Production is organized like a Wikipedia-style project. The book makes the argument that reputation bookkeeping (kudos, karma etc.) invites gaming of the system, and is an inferior way to organize production to a pure gift economy (given some key abundances). It also makes the case for defection from mainstream society (exit in Hirschman’s terms) as a viable strategy when cheap, open tech is available.
In this section I will draw out some of the ideas highlighted in the the following post: Macro, meso and micro- economics of the book; a post by Alberto Cottica, Edgeryders Co-Founder and Head of Research
I recommend you read through it in its entirety, but the following sections are of particular interest to me: ‘a way to get there’:
The dynamics of the Walkaway economy
I have noticed that most utopians (and dystopians) tend to present their future societies in fully developed form, and pay little attention to how the society we know transformed into the one they depict. This is understandable: coming up with a vision is hard enough without having to figure out the path to get there. However, it can trigger in the reader a sense of “nah, that’s not going to happen”. This is true especially for positive utopias: probably if we lived in one we would not be incentivized to break it, but we cannot see how to get from here to there. The utopia is a Nash equilibrium, but so is the world we live in. The utopia is a superior equilibrium, but we are stuck in this one.
Walkaway is an exception. A near future SF novel, it starts in a society we can completely recognize, give or take the robustness and commodification of some existing technologies (renewable energy production, self driving vehicles, 3D printing). We see the walkaway economy emerging in the course of the novel. Another exception is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy;
Because our starting point for this enquiry is thinking about our current real world system, we are especially interested in stories that ‘show their working’. We’re looking not just for end states, but clues and suggestions as to how we can get there.
There are two steps to morphing a mainly default economy into a mainly walkaway economy: achieving critical mass and what happens at the tipping point.
- Achieving critical mass in the walkaway economy
The walkaway economy would be a privately optimal choice (at least for some of us) if it were already there and we could just join it. When Iceweasel, Etcetera and Seth walk away, they find the Belt & Braces up and running and ready to take them in. Their necessities are met, and they can afford the luxury of figuring out where to go next. This is great, but how did it happen? The clearest explanation, I propose, is Jimmy’s story in Chapter 4. I recommend reading it all, it is also moving from a literary point of view (you’ll find it in section XVII, location 6055 on Kindle).
Debt has been the main mechanism pushing people out of society for five thousand years. In Debt: The First 5,000 Years David Graeber describes the macrocycle that underpinned the societies of Babylonian city-states: people would get in debt in years of bad crop. So they would borrow money, putting up as collateral their fields, then their houses, then their children, then their wives, then themselves. And then many would flee before the creditor could claim them as property, joining gangs of armed nomadic pastoralists that threatened society. At this point, the king would declare all private debt null and void (“blank slates”), debtors would be reunited with their families and return to their homes, and a new cycle would start.
This first step is quite easy to see happening within our current ‘lived experience’. Certainly there are communities that have already withdrawn themselves from the wider system, looking instead to sustainable technology and living as ways to minimise their impact on the planet. It requires no major leap of imagination to consider what groups like Wir Bauen Zukunft or Earthship Global could achieve within their buildings and communities if they developments in 3D printing technology and resource recycling suggested by Walkaway were to happen.
2.Going mainstream: the tipping point in the walkaway economy
The process of growth of the walkaway society is nonlinear. Like most diffusion processes, it follows a S-shape curve: a long period of slow growth, then a dramatic acceleration when almost everyone adopts it, then a slow process of decay of the last remaining default strongholds. The period of dramatic acceleration seems to be pushed by three factors.
The walkaway society (with its underpinning economy) has reached an attractive scale. This is shown in Chapter 6. Walkaways are reclaiming cities drowned by climate change or extreme pollution, turning them into viable habitats for people “for whom society has no use”. They are very well organized: they have solarpunk transport systems like slow trains, zeppelins, and ultra-ultralight bicycles. They have house AIs and consciousness upload.
Default society is becoming ever more harsh, with more extreme inequality and fewer opportunities for the rest of us.
Nadie: “There isn’t going to be default world and walkaway world trading people forever. When you have big rich people, and everyone else poor as poor, the result is … unstable.”
Slow growth has reached the point where almost everyone has close friends or relatives in walkaway. At this point, network effects kick in, making it much easier for people to walk away than it had been for Jimmy. We see this happening in real time at the confrontation between default security and the freed inmates at Kingston prison, in Chapter 6:
“It turned on graph theory: once you hit a critical mass of walkaways, the six-degrees thing meant every single rent-a-cop on the line was no more than two handshakes—or family Christmas dinners—away from a walkaway who would shame and sweet-talk them into putting down their weapons.”
“The six-degrees thing” refers to Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment, a landmark result in network science. Political scientist Michael Chwe has a more formal treatment of how social network structure influences the possibility of successful collective action in this paper (recommended).
After Walkaway followed Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, another book released in the past 18 months.
Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. It’s a far future, earth-bound scenario with advanced biotech, under a corporate rulership primarily powered by extreme intellectual property rights. She goes deep in the debate between master-servant relationships, as the world features both classic human indebted servitude and autonomous artificially intelligent robots as well as into piracy, open knowledge, addiction and freedom.
Autonomous is mostly a meditation on freedom. The economy of its world, while more developed than you would find in most SF, is not a central consideration for Newitz. Additionally, what economics we can glimpse in the book is not fundamentally different from the advanced capitalist system we live in. In this sense, Autonomous is very different from Doctorow’s Walkaway.
Again i would recommend reading the post on the relevant economic sections in full, but I have drawn the central ideas out here:
There are two original, well developed differences between our economy and that of Autonomous: an overdeveloped, encroaching patent system, and indentured labor.
- Intellectual property rights
Autonomous runs on a capitalist knowledge economy. Pharmaceutical companies make money like they do in our world: they invent and market drugs. A lot of their business seems to be not so much in curing illnesses as in upgrading humans: life extension drugs, intelligence enhancing drugs, productivity drugs etc. The business model is based on patenting molecules and licensing out the right to manufacture them, like in our world. However, the system has degenerated. Copyright law is extremely severe; its enforcement is the responsibility of the International Property Coalition (IPC), which appears to be a treaty organization. IPC is allowed to maim and kill to repress patent violation, and it overrides national regulation:
Economically, patents are legal monopolies. Economists normally dislike monopolies, because they can be proven to be inefficient. The argument for granting temporary monopolies over knowledge is that they put in place incentives to innovation and creation. However, there is a tendency for the regulation on copyright to be extended so that it allows rent extraction, i.e. economic activities that appropriate value rather than creating it. Three ways that this happens are: the extension of the duration of copyright protection (from 14 years to 70 years after the death of the original inventor or creator); “upstream” patenting (patenting building blocks of technology and creation, like the alphabet, or the wheel); patenting inventions resulting from publicly funded research. A recent critique of “excess copyright” in economics is found in Mariana Mazzucato’s The value of everything1. Clay Shirky argues that copyright holders aim to
raise the cost of copyright compliance to the point where people simply get out of the business of offering it as a capability to amateurs.
In the world of Autonomous excessive copyright protection affects access to advanced medical care. Since “advanced medical care” is mostly about upgrading humans, copyright laws end up driving large and persistent inequalities.
Almost all the “good guys” in Autonomous are copyright opposers; free culture/open knowledge activists like Krish, or downright pirates like Jack and Frankie. And yet, Newitz does not offer a reflection on free culture as an economic model, and is rather fascinated by their cultural expression (parties, body mods etc.)
- Indentured and non-indentured labor
Indentured labor starts with the emergence of machine self-awareness and “human-level intelligence”. When this happens, society decides that intelligent machines should be indentured to their creators, who can then sell their right over them. Paladin finds this out while visiting a museum dedicated to bot history.
Indenture of intelligent robots is justified with an economic argument: it gives manufacturers the incentive to make them.
In Autonomous, bots are created as valuable resources. They are law enforcers (Paladin, Fang), researchers (Med, Actin), culture workers (Bug), and of course sex workers. There is not much talk of automation taking working class jobs. Working class jobs, it seems, are worked by indentured humans.
We agreed that Autonomous was more interested in exploring political economics than the pure economics that drive the day-to-day economy of her world. But that within this still lies an interesting proposition. Anique argues that > “one of the opportunities that comes with the challenge of our current failing economic system is to reclaim economics all together. With a tighter and tighter hold by capital, comes more creative innovations to release ourselves from it. For example, I’m interested in future economic scenarios that reframe value, that are not only based on quantitative ledgers but also qualitative accounts - think from I-owe-you to this-was-created-here.” She draws on the work of Brian Massumi (99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value) “it is time to reclaim value from the capitalist market and the neoliberal reduction of life to “human capital”—time to occupy surplus-value for a postcapitalist future.” (For a longer taste, see this blog post).
So what is our process for the next few weeks, and how does our EconSciFi research continue to develop?
We are very happy that we have secured both of our participants to take part in UNDP Next Gen Gov event in Istanbul. We’ve been working with our hosts to create an
“experimentation space that will … bring together professional economists, entrepreneurs experimenting with enterprise-scale economic models, civic and cultural leaders working with new socio-economic systems and sci-fi writers to discuss and to start teasing out possible new economic operating models beyond current governance constraints. Currently hiding within the pages of popular culture and less visible cultural spaces, they will be exposing them to the harsh light of modern economic theory, as well as to a broader enquiry that looks at melding ecological impacts with new forms of energy and other production, and embodying principles of just governance and integrity in decision making. What works? What’s really new? How do we make the fiction into reality? Participatory experiments in collective sensemaking, speculation and co-creation will open spaces for the 2018 IID to consider how these economic science fictions might unfold in the real-world contexts of interest.”
Malka Older, author of the Centennial Cycle (Infomocracy, Null States, State Tectonics) is a writer, aid worker, and PhD candidate. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more a decade of experience in humanitarian aid and development, ranging from field level experience as a Head of Office in Darfur to supporting global programs and agency-wide strategy as a disaster risk reduction technical specialist.
Malka will be our ‘avatar of the genre’, speaking both about her own work and the work of other SF authors in this field.
Joining the discussion will be Raffaele Miniaci, a full professor of Economics at University of Brescia, in Italy. His research has been mostly on labor economics issues. He comes to economics from statistics, so his work has always been strongly quantitative and data-oriented. He has a unique ability to map abstract ideas and concepts (like “inequality” or “abundance”) onto the messiness of actual economies, populated by brilliant, imperfect actual humans and their creations. How do you measure things? How does choosing to measure something shift what you are trying to do? How will you know you are doing it right?
As we move into blue-sky speculation, we think Econ-SF needs just that: someone with at least some idea of where to begin answering the question “how would it work in practice”?
Alongside the discussion and learning that will come from both of these participants Anique and I are working on some participatory elements. We’re particularly drawn to how we can lead people engaging with the central topic towards real life application, scoping out possible tools, techniques and speculations that we can use on the day. Alongside this we are considering how we can bring in local partners from around the area to provide some ‘on the ground’ lived experience of how these next steps may already exist.
If you want to join in the discussion and help frame the direction of travel then please visit the discussion here.
From a personal level the next step for me will be to write another piece about what it is that specifically draws me to this subject. Part provocation, part exploration i will be setting out some of the things i hope we can achieve by looking more deeply into this area. This will follow in the next few days and will also be published here on the platform.