Second reading group meeting: info and cheatsheet on "Autonomous", by Annalee Newitz

Next Tuesday the Economic Science Fiction reading group will meet for the second time, and everyone is welcome. Here is how to enjoy it to its fullest.


Tuesday, September 25th at 18.00 CEST sharp

Where and how (physical)

The Reef, Rue Pierre Decoster 75, Brussels. Ring both bells. If you come in person, please arrive at 17.45. Let us know you are coming, so we can make arrangements.

Where (online)

If you are not in Brussels but you still want to participate, we will be welcoming you online at Launch Meeting - Zoom

Zoom requires download of the the Zoom client. Please allow a couple of minutes to download the app before joining.

To save bandwidth, we will be streaming the meeting in audio only. Remote participants will have two ways to participate: via the chat in the Zoom app, and by speaking to the room. An MC in Brussels will be watching the chat. When you want to speak, say so in the chat and the MC will give you the floor. We appreciate it if you speak from a reasonably quiet room, wearing headphones and, ideally, a headset.

What we will talk about

We will discuss the economy in Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous (review and synopsis) and the kind of society it supports. We are especially interested in answering questions such as:

  • Why is intellectual property so central in the world of Autonomous?
  • What is the relationship between indenture and IPRs?
  • Labor markets are never discussed explicitly, but Newitz has made them part of her world building, and probably spent some time thinking about them. What can we say about labor markets, with a dual labor force (indentured and autonomous)? How do we imagine they work?
  • In the world of Autonomous, the Intellectual Property Coalition represses copyright piracy in blood. Yet, open culture seems to be tolerated. Is this realistic? Is it stable? Why?


  • Ideally, read Autonomous! Over and above the economy of its world, it is an enjoyable, celebrated work of SF.
  • If you do not have the time for that, you can just skim the book and only read the flashback parts. They explain how and why Jack’s biopirate operations were established. The why is particularly important, because a big part of it is the system of pharmaceutical patents and their economic and social consequences, as perceived by Jack, Krish and the rest of the Bilious Pills. You recognize the flashback parts because the sections of Autonomous have dates: flashbacks start in 2115 and go over to the early 2120s. The novel’s “now” is 2144.
  • If you do not have time even for that, read just the rest of this post. I try to supply some basic elements and quotations below.

Cheatsheet: discussing Autonomous before reading it

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.

There are two original, well developed differences between our economy and that of Autonomous: an overdeveloped, encroaching patent system, and indentured labor.

1. 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:

Eliasz wasn’t bound by the rules of this jurisdiction anymore. He answered to a higher authority: the IPC.

Another way in which the copyright system has degenerated is that companies want to increase the cost of compliance.

One of the CogSci guys asked why you couldn’t just visit the patent office and get the drug’s recipe directly from the publicly filed patents. She quoted from a recent article by a Freeculture legal scholar at Harvard, who had analyzed how much time and money it would take for an ordinary person to retain lawyers and experts who could actually navigate the expensive patent databases and figure out how a drug had been put together. Most drugs that made it out of trials were a confusing hodgepodge of licensed parts and processes, and it took corp money to figure out how it had been made.

With high costs on figuring out whether you are violating copyright and a risk of being killed of you do, most people take the path of least resistance and just pay extortionate prices to the pharma companies.

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 everything. 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.

Krish compared the patent system to the indenture system, which Jack thought was kind of a stretch. But she had to admit that the patent system did seem to be at the root of a lot of social problems. Only people with money could benefit from new medicine. Therefore, only the haves could remain physically healthy, while the have-nots couldn’t keep their minds sharp enough to work the good jobs, and didn’t generally live beyond a hundred. Plus, the cycle was passed down unfairly through families. The people who couldn’t afford patented meds were likely to have sickly, short-lived children who became indentured and never got out. Jack could see Krish’s point about how a lot of basic problems could be fixed if only patent licensing were reformed.

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.). I have the impression that the cultural tropes of cyberpunk fiction demand that the hero is jaded, which prevents a reflection on motivational engines powering the economy. We have seen that this is, instead, very present in Walkaway, where “human nature” is intensely debated.

For a moment, Jack allowed herself to be charmed. These students loved their work at Free Lab so much that they came here when they weren’t in class, first thing in the morning, just to find something “intriguing” to research. It had been a long time since she’d worked on a drug project with people doing it for the thrill of discovery. Usually her lab teams were motivated by death or money, half-crazed with a desire to cure the former and bathe in giant tanks of the latter. She wasn’t sure which motivation made better fuel for innovation: naïve but ethical beliefs, or the need to survive.

2. 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.

Under IPC law, companies could offset the cost of building robots by retaining ownership for up to ten years. She scanned a legal summary that outlined how a series of court cases established human rights for artificial beings with human-level or greater intelligence. Once bots gained human rights, a wave of legislation swept through many governments and economic coalitions that later became known as the Human Rights Indenture Laws. They established the rights of indentured robots, and, after a decade of court battles, established the rights of humans to become indentured, too. After all, if human-equivalent beings could be indentured, why not humans themselves? In the Zone, however, there were no laws that allowed humans to be born indentured like bots.

Indenture of intelligent robots is justified with an economic argument: it gives manufacturers the incentive to make them.

There were entire text repositories that focused on eliminating the indenture of humans. Their pundits argued that humans should not be owned like bots because nobody paid to make them. Bots, who cost money, required a period of indenture to make their manufacture worthwhile. No such incentive was required for humans to make other humans.

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. This shows in the experience of Threezed:

“I got slaved when I was five. My mom sold me to one of those indenture schools. They taught me to read and make an engine.” His attention wandered back to Metropolis, whose evil bot was frozen in the middle of a passionate speech about worker uprisings.
Outside, pale blue lakes flashed between dark pines. There were no cars on the road and it was almost evening.
“So how did you end up with that fusehead?”
Threezed was clearly feigning disinterest now, idly advancing the movie frame by frame. The bot clutched her breasts with agonizing slowness, eyes wide.
“The school went broke and auctioned off our contracts.”
Jack had read about tough cases where indentured had their contracts bought out from under them, their terms changed overnight. But she was still surprised to hear that one of the AU indenture schools, even a bankrupt one, had sold its wards without any background checks.
“They sold your contract to that guy?”
Threezed shrugged and poked the bot’s action forward on the monitor. “No, they sold me to this machining lab, and then the lab decided to cut corners, so they auctioned me out in Vegas.”


Thanks for this great synthesis and provocation @alberto. I’m aware that you’ve found Autonomous light on the economics and you’ve done a stellar job at harvesting what’s there.

As someone that aligns more with political economics than pure economics, it’s not surprising that I was following the value dynamics that weave throughout the book. I was particularly drawn to the value differential Newitz opens across existing social and cultural norms.

For example, the remixing of social flows - from human-bot-love to gender fluidity to slave-come-franchised -
is strong, and speaks to me, of the qualitative nature of autonomy beyond the bounds of law. What I mean by this is that I think Newitz foregrounds the kind of (biopolitical) economics that are emerging outside of the current economic paradigm, through the social register. For example, the book ends with Paladin:

“Using software she had installed in her own mind, the bot generated a new key to encrypt her memories. For the first time in her life, the process worked. Her memories were locked down, and the key that the Federation held in escrow would be useless. It would take centuries for even the most state-of-the-art machine to decrypt what she had seen and known for the months she’d been alive. At last, she knew what it felt like to own the totality of her experiences.”

(emphasis added)

Paladin moves from being an assumed male, programmed, indentured military bot to a female, autonomous, lover who owns her own experiences.

Yes the book is called Autonomous after all. My point is simply that I think 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 quantitive ledgers but also qualitative accounts - think from I-owe-you to this-was-created-here.

My former supervisor Brian Massumi has just released a book called 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value that says it all much better. It’s ultimately about how “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).

And so it seems Mazzucato and Massumi among others are calling us to rethink what value can be! Looking forward to this evening’s conversation and then some.

I guess I’ll need to narrow down my take.

AFAIK, law and econ operate in concert. Law states principles that are supposedly good according to some criterion, for example “every human being has a right to life”. Econ is then tasked to “foot the bill”: organizing production, distribution and consumption of resources so that those principles can be honored.

The great appeal of SF is imagining societies that operate on principles different from those we see in real life, sometimes wildly so. Econ-SF is about looking for a tight coupling between those imagined societies and the imagined economies that sustain them. In this sense, for me Autonomous falls partly short. Patent economics is solid, but we don’t need to get that from SF as it is already here, and pretty evenly distributed, too. Labor economics is interesting, but a bit cloudy. All these bots that seem to be very expensive, ultra-specialized workers… and humans being indentured to do cheap labor… this makes me think there must be a cadre of high value human workers (“botadmins” like Lee, for example). I also struggle to imagine how production works. And consumption: who buys all these expensive meds? Is there a large, prosperous, middle class? You never see it in Autonomous, unless it’s researchers (and they are mostly grad students anyway).

So, reclaiming value etc. is a great idea, but what kind of actual organization of our economy would support that?

1 Like

Hi everyone. Sorry to have missed the meeting, but I did read Autonomous and enjoyed it immensely. One reason I was slow: clawing my way to the end of Crime and Punishment most of late summer.

There are at least two kinds of books I have been unable to put down. One, like C&P, while no fun, nonetheless has a merciless grip. Yes, the result is inevitable, but how will it inevitably unroll? I couldn’t stop reading, but sometimes I had to pause. Fortunately, the stopping points are obvious, almost like D expected them to be used.

The other kind, like Autonomous, is propulsive. Maybe it’s in the difference between a fine-grained portrayal of an existing world versus an invented one where progressing the story is more flexible. A world of robots and fabbers and domed Arctic cities is a place of wonder and hard to resist.

Anyway, that’s not really an economic view. I will read through the other comments more closely and try to contribute something interesting.

I do have one question: At one point there’s a mention of the major disaster that has changed the world, and that Africa for example is down to a fraction of its previous population. A quarter maybe, and the implication is that’s global. The question is whether that kind of a calamity is a necessary prerequisite for the amount of change portrayed over 120 years.

Clearly political lines were generally obliterated. Many social taboos would have been erased. Only the most robust or flexible institutions would have survived. Thinking machines required a fundamental breakthrough, but all the other tech was not unreasonably extrapolated, I thought. Could we get to that world from here in that time frame under incremental change?

Cheers, and will make an effort to engage here more. It’s very interesting!


Hello @Kaibeezy, have you read William Gibson’s The peripheral? Some thought has been given to your question. The answer is the Jackpot: a combination of huge disasters, none of which is huge enough to qualify as the Doomsday event, and technological breakthroughs, which came early enough to avoid wholesale extinction or regression to the stone age, but too late to save The World As We Know It. One of the implications is that “almost everybody died” (more like 90%), and what comes out is a mix of eco-utopia and “a frank kleptocracy”. To my knowledge, the Jackpot is the most plausible depiction of violent change and upheaval in science fiction.

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So thanks again for the recommendation!
I had lots of fun listening to this ingeniously written book. This seems to be the kind of science fiction that truly lives up to the genre’s possibilities, and also seems to take loads of free-culture and feminist literature into account that I haven’t yet read but now want to read even more. Sounds like there’s a lot of Donna Harroway in there.

Now, from the econ-perspective, this was not as obviously to my non - economically trained eyes as it was in Walkaway. It seems to rather focus on the beginning and the core values of a possible other system - something that Doctorow takes three steps further. I still like how it turns human - bot - value relations upside down by stating that bots are expensive to produce and therefore worth more.

And now, on to the third book! :tada:

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Way to go! :slight_smile: