Coupling economic issues with SF literature: building blocks for Econ-SF seminar in Istanbul

We will be prototyping the Economic Science Fiction (Econ-SF) seminar at the Istanbul Innovation Days. As we start building it up, author Malka Older and economist Raffaele Miniaci have agreed that they want to build up their respective talks by identifying economic issue-science fiction work pairs. That is, we want to identify (a) relevant economic issues that (b) have been treated in a believable and novel way in some work of SF. The interaction will work like this: Malka will introduce the issues and describe how they are treated in the relevant SF pieces of work; Raffaele will bring an academic economist’s take on the SF authors’ take. Things like “the Deneb IV economic policy program seems to draw on Herbert Simon’s idea of bounded rationality…” or “the quasi-autonomous space habitats in the Kuiper Belt address the problem of breathable air production with a variation on Elinor Ostrom’s theory of the commons”.

Here are a few proposals for such pairs.

Innovation and intellectual property rights. Why do people innovate? Standard economic theory suggests that intellectual property rights need to be in place to induce people to innovate. Schumpeter famously suggested that innovation increases long-run productivity by “creative destruction” of existing businesses. In SF, we have several interesting takes on this:

  • In Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, a large company pays scientists not to do research, as their results are sure to disrupt their business.
  • In Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, IPR enforcement is so tough as to have spawned its own (unaccountable, super-violent) global police. At the same time, there is a counter-cultural biohacking scene that innovates for intellectual pleasure, prestige, and pure idealism. Big bad pharma companies tolerate that scene, and recruit from it. More about this
  • Cory Doctorow has written an entire book about this, Makers, complete with a viable (but highly unstable) business model for innovation under weak IPR protection/enforcement (and vicious lawsuits by incumbent corporations). More about this

Econ references: too many to count, but a good starting point is Stiglitz 2007, Economic foundations of intellectual property rights (PDF). Includes many examples and policy implications.

Reputation economies and gift economies. In market economies, people coordinate through a price system. Prices emerge from a large number of market transactions.

  • Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway runs on a kind of gift economy. It explicitly criticizes the idea of reputation economies on efficiency grounds. More on this

  • Bruce Sterling’s Distraction features a population (nomadic “proles”) who built an economy running on “reputation servers”. Kudos are accrued, and can be spent calling in favors. i.e. mobilizing community resources.

  • Daniel Suarez’s Daemon imagines an economy built on “darknet credits”, underwritten by a weak AI, the Daemon, that successfully infiltrated the world’s economy and is taking a small cut from it. While execution is decentralized, the Daemon has its own agenda: a sustainable, fair economy. Initiatives that further the Daemon’s agenda are rewarded. Now that I think of it, this is what a “mission oriented economy” could look like (borrowing on Mazzucato’s work on mission oriented innovation)!

  • Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed imagines a semi-planned economy where some central authority makes a decision on what needs doing, and breaks down these initiatives into tasks. People then take on tasks (they are more like jobs). Everyone is taken care of. A kind of light-handed socialism.

Notice also that Doctorow, Sterling and Suarez all imagine dual economies: their systems live alongside ours. This is often portrayed as unstable. This is interesting in itself: does the economic system need to be one? Can we have several ones that coexist? Can people move from one to another?

Econ refs: there’s a ton of papers, some very well cited, but I don’t know. enough to recommend anyone in particular. Can @Raffaele help?

Automation of labor. Technical progress will replace human labor with machines. What are the economic consequences of this?

  • Many SF authors have been inspired by this idea!
  • One of the most radical rendering is that by Charlie Stross in Accelerando: machines trade with machines (they do so already, with algorithmic trading in any modern stock market). Since no human can be as effective at trading as machines, the economy evolves towards a system called “Economics 2.0”, where the search for gain drives the economic system to gradually turn the whole mass in the solar system into a giant computational stratum (“computronium”). Humans and their habitats are not necessary to this economy. In fact, if their mass could be cannibalized towards more computing power, some extra profit might be squeezed out of the system…
  • A similar, less radical “competition between algorithms” is at work in William Gibson’s The peripheral.

Econ refs: my personal project is to read Polanyi’s The great transformation, but that might be a bit much to throw into Econ-Scifi’s reading list. I am going to go out on a limb here, and instead point to this post on Mariana Mazzucato’s blog. It contains references to resources (including fun ones like TED talks) arguing opposite sides of the debate (“robots will take your job” vs. “no they won’t”). I also found parts of this report from Eurofound to be quite instructive.

Any more ideas?


Hi @Malka, welcome to the platform. Nice to have you here
I know that @alberto will be keen for us to have as much conversation ‘out loud’ here. Even as we are baking the ideas and the content for the event.
I suggest we save email for ‘mission sensitive’ (very little) and for sharing personal data in the logistics, and otherwise we discuss through threads here or directly in working documents if we need to.

1 Like

Alberto, these are great - the choices and the presentation (particularly having multiple examples for each principle). I’ll have to do some reading, particularly Distraction.

What I found most interesting about IPR in Autonomous was the way it draws stealthy parallels between property, intellectual property, AI as property, and people as property - thus pointing out the ways we blur some of those lines in the present.

I wonder about considering settings of scarcity vs post-scarcity in the second set.

Are there other issues that you think would be particularly important to include, to focus our thinking about other pairings? Raffaele?


@Malka Considering our conversation around development economics and the contexts of the UNDP teams in the room, another area that I see as relevant is that of the labour market gap/ access and a reimagining of labour and social reproduction. It seems there are more and more of us finding the link between social justice movements, post-feminism, decolonialism and SciFi - eg. Octavia’s Brood, AfroFuturism and Feminist Dystopias. I’m wondering if considering your comprehensive knowledge and ideas you see a possible pairing in this arena. I’m particularly drawn to the speculative resistance you speak of and wonder if there are any seeds in your work there… Is that clear, or shall I unpack what I’m smelling more?

1 Like

Also ping @Raffaele!

Quick feedbacks on list posted by Alberto:

Automation of labor & Innovation and IP rights: these are clearly hot topics for mainstream economists. A good starting point is the Productivity, Employment and Inequality working group at IDE-MIT. A nice piece of work that combines the two items of the list is Robots Are Us: Some Economics of Human Replacement, by Benzell, Kotlikoff, LaGarda and Sachs. You do not need to read the math to get the main message: without “carefully crafted
redistribution policies” a large fraction of the labour force will be unable to buy what smart machines produce. I like the topics, but I think that cannot be disjoint from the inequality issue.

Reputation and gift economies: @Alberto, it is not clear to me what you mean with “reputation” and “gift”. Reputation is crucial for the credit system, trade and in the labour market, your references to Distraction and Daemon seem to point at something similar. Gifts are different, and, as you point out in your post about the economics of Walkaway, the crucial point is if they are originated by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. For The Dispossessed, I do not see neither reputation nor gifts at work. There is plenty of research on reputation and gifts, but I’m not sure to pick up the relevant one, give me more information and I might be more helpful.

Finally, @Malka, quoting [quote=“anique.yael, post:4, topic:9140”]
Considering our conversation around development economics and the contexts of the UNDP teams in the room, another area that I see as relevant is that of

… the access to energy and natural resources, and the more general issue of sustainable development. Any possible link?

1 Like

Sorry, I should have been more explicit.

“Reputation” in Distraction is not simply an information device that has an effect on transaction costs, like in much economic literature. It is an actual currency, expressed by a scalar and tradeable. The situation in Daemon is less clear-cut: darknet credits could be tradeable tokens of the Daemon’s debt towards the holder, or something more similar to reputation in Distraction.

The gift economy in Walkaway is non-transactional.

1 Like

I wonder if this also extends to alternative ways of viewing personhood within a credit or token system staked on reputation or actions. Examples would be the people as stocks system of ‘The Unincorporated Man’ by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin; or the economic ownership of life extension from ‘The Repossession Mambo’ by Eric Garcia or even the world of ‘In Time’ by Andrew Niccol.


Welcome @Jorge! You just out-geeked me; I have read none of these works, though we discussed The unincorporated man in this forum. I did see the In time film,

Can you say a few words about how you would frame the issue?

Thanks! I’ve been lurking for a while but I’m deeply fascinated in both this topic and participating in Turkey. Bear with me as I was up late watching the US elections!

So I started from one of the last prompts in your original post “Does the economic system need to be one? Can we have several ones that coexist? Can people move from one to another?”

I immediately thought of the economic shift away from feudalism - and the Medieval conception of person-hood which didn’t see the individual entirely as himself but through the group he belonged to; his(her) worth was only manifested within his social group, in particular the lord/authority over him(her)self. In that time, most people were serfs: if you occupied a space - land - your body essentially was indistinguishable from other property. It was a non-market reputation economy so to speak where serfs didn’t have the honor/privilege of nobility and thus weren’t considered persons as we consider them today (define along a particular amount of agency or rights); on top of that, in this economy they were indentured by default since their very existence depended on being able to work land that wasn’t theirs.

All of these more dystopian economies I mentioned embody (pun intended?) a return to a feudalism of sorts, where there’s severe inequality and oppression because most people forced into indenture (or very easily fall into it) to those that ‘control’ (or have the means to control) the very things keeping them alive: organs, (alive) time, agency (in the case of the Unincorporated Man).

So, I guess, I was bringing a question about reputation-based economies: what happens if there’s no liquidity or easy attainment of reputation? If the market is distorted by a cartel or monopoly, does this automatically lead to oppression or inequality? And more importantly, if reputation is intrinsically tied to a particular ‘worth’ of your body, what is the interplay between body integrity/personhood and your reputation worth?

We already see insurance companies assessing people based on their personal risk, with clear economic and social penalties. Would we want that transposed over the whole economy?

A below passage from the ‘The Repossession Mambo’ that might be interesting to illustrate the social conundrum.

During the repo training seminars, they threw a basketful of statistics our way; out of the thousands that fell out of my brain as soon as they entered, one managed to stick in there: At any given time during the days before the Credit Union made widespread artiforg implantation possible, there were 120,000 people in the United States alone waiting for someone or another to die off and give up the goods. And despite the impressive methods with which many folks knocked themselves off during those years, there were never enough donors to meet the requirements, so a staggering number of citizens—some good, some bad, all dying—got sent on their way for want of a few organized cells.

But my point is that this is an anachronism; today, only the very poor or those who have abused their credit to the point of criminal activity are unable to secure loans for their artiforgs. Some cut-rate houses even cater to those with less-than-stellar credit histories, attaching their material goods as collateral. Heard about one place overseas which lends out Jarviks by the boatload, and all you have to do to get one is sign a note of indentured servitude of ten years. Decade of work for a new lease on life—that’s not a bad trade.

So when the Credit Union people approach with a ream of paper and a pen, the instinct is to clam up and sign, sign away. That’s what I did.


Very interesting! So you will be in Istanbul? Me too! Looking forward to meeting you in person.

Many large online spaces are reputation-based (Slashdot is the most famous case, but also StackOverflow and, in part, Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap…). And many of those seem dominated by early adopters: it is relatively easy to rise to the top in the early days, when the community is small. But once they become established, a sort of lock-in might happen. What do we know about this phenomenon? Is it similar to the rich-get-richer dynamics of financial markets?

Great question for @Malka and @Raffaele. I will think about it, too.

I think you’re both using “reputation” as information device, a mechanism which helps reveailing (or hiding) your type (see what insurance companies do). And

I am afraid these screening devices are already transposed over the whole economy, with the emblematic case of the Chinese social credit system.

Hmm. I see this more as a sort of tax than as value creation: the endgame of Sunstein-Thaler’s nudging. But of course as I write this I hear David Graeber’s voice in my head, insisting that value is what the man with the gun (the legal monopoly of force, in the Chinese case) says it is.

This potentially creates value because reduces the risk to insure a sick or risky individual, to hire a lazy worker, to admit a heavy drinker in the bar … Look at how job-matching is run today in many European countries (also) by public employment services, is that different?

1 Like

Well, the point here is that the criteria of risk reduction are determined from the top. Consider:

  • This creates value because deeply religious people are less at risk of antisocial behavior.
  • This creates value because it reduces the risks associated to migrants having a higher crime rate than locals.
  • This creates value because it reduces the risks associated to people taking issue in the presence of open display of homosexuality.

In other words, someone with the power to enforce their point of view decides that something is a risk, or a negative externality imposed on others. At that point, it is a risk/externality (“because I say so”), and then nudging is put in place to mitigate it.

I skimmed the document you shared… I suppose you refer to “value matching”:

Additionally, ELISE supports value based matching. With value based matching, market and government policy factors can be included to influence the matching and ranking results. It could for example favor a certain group defined in the profiling module or based on government policy.

Interesting. :slight_frown:

That’s a great point @anique. Thinking about labor, colonialism, and extractive industries a few things come to mind. One recent example is Hunger Makes the Wolf, by Alex Wells, which involves motorcycle gangs and unions on a planet colonized for mining purposes. Other books that have approached questions of labor and humanity via AI, like Autonomous, include Martha Wells’ Murderbot series All Systems Red and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. (Murderbot also includes some nods at extractive industry issues, while as I mentioned on the call Leckie’s work has a lot of colonialist elements.

Another book with a very interesting economic system based around authoritarian control is Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night (unfortunately not yet released, but I could ask about e-ARCs if you’re interested.


Another “feminist dystopia” (I guess) that is quite interesting is An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King. There are not so many changes to overall economics, but the examination of how the economics of marriage change with an imbalance of sexes in the population is fascinating and relevant.

1 Like

@alex_levene and I are in a session developing the immersive experiments right now and propose a fourth pair in social, cultural and ecological reproduction.

We see the importance of addressing the way in “which entire societies and their cultural, structural, and ecological characteristics are reproduced through a process that invariably involves a certain amount of social change.” (Stanford for Centre for Poverty and Inequality) The link between the world building of science fiction and modes of reproduction cannot be underestimated. What’s more the role of cultural and social norms in relaying the necessary tools to live through political and economic paradigms is significant.

Further, as Raffalle states:

Considering the omnipresence of the anthroprocene today, and the way in which a large portion of science fiction is set in an ecologically afflicted planet Earth or otherwise elsewhere in the universe; there is also a place for environmental economics. (@alberto considering your extensive background in this perhaps you can share more specific context here). Further still, as we participate in the rise of post-feminist and decolonial responses to social reproduction, there is a responsibility to extend any consideration of collective life to include our fellow species sharing this world. An example of this is the work of well known scientist, feminist and speculative theorist Professor Donna Harraway (most renowned for A Cyborg Manifesto) in one of her latest books, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

This is a ripe place to include the feminist dystopias @malka and I are converging around, and in particular lean towards the importance of paying attention to the spaces that offer a reimagining and reclaiming of our social and cultural reproduction. Spaces that allow for an embodiment (@jorge) of the collective worldbuilding we are being called to co-create.

1 Like

Hi all, i’m following up on this section because whilst looking into the experimental side i came to the point where i realised that Automation of labour wasn’t really a pair, more a stand alone section. I wanted to put in that we should consider this alongside Labor Rights: (Automation of Labor and Labor Rights)
This allows us to also look more deeply at the very important ideas around citizenship, AI and the relationship between worker and citizen.
We already see real world examples where people are saying we need to consider the rights of technological workers (robot rights ), and make allowances for that. The future is here already this one, are we prepared for it?
What about Sophia? When robots become citizens what effect does that have on the concept of citizenship among humans?
I’m not the economist here, but if a core idea of citizenship is based around one’s position as an economic driver within the state economy what does that mean in a future where that work is diminished and fully outsourced to mechanised, smart labour machines?

I disagree. This point is brought up in the economic literature, at least since 1821, with David Ricardo’s “On Machinery” section of the Principles.

Still debated, by the way. I saw this today: