What is ownership? We tend to think about ownership in relation to money. You buy something, you own it. But ownership is much older than that. There are plenty of animals that claim territory, and retain control over tools, or mates, or sources of food. With respect to others of their species, their sensations of ownership are just as real as ours. So what does it mean to own something?

I believe that ownership is like a file-lock in an operating system. A program locks a file while it’s in use, because otherwise, other programs would be able to tinker with that data and consequently screw the program up. File locks prevent costly errors.

As social organisms, we express ownership if we want to be able to rely on a resource being available to us in the future. Being able to rely on a resource being there enables us to plan. And for the intelligent, tool-using creatures that we are, being able to plan is everything. Planning is the program we’re trying to not mess up. The rest of our social group, by and large, respects that right to access. When everyone’s access rights are taken seriously, friction within the social group is minimized, and thus collective effectiveness increases.

Note that this model doesn’t say anything about why a given resource-lock is established. It might be to advertise mating potential, secure sources of food or shelter, or a dozen other reasons. At some level, it doesn’t matter.

Note also that I’m not making a moral argument about whether ownership is right or wrong. I’m just saying why it’s there. Similarly, I’m not saying that it’s impossible for societies to arise in which property isn’t shared. Under unusual social pressures, other access patterns can surely be established. I’m sure there are anthropologists who could point you at half a dozen examples. But the fact that such systems can occur says nothing about the evolutionary reason why the pattern is there in the majority of cases, or why something like it arises in everything from ants to octopi to us.

So there we have it. That’s why anyone owns anything. However, something interesting can happen in human societies that this model doesn’t quite take account for. In our modern, complex civilization, it’s possible for people to claim ownership over commodities that they never even see, let alone use. How does that work? I have an answer, of course. Can you guess what it is?

In the next few posts, I intend to riff on this topic, and others related to it. I welcome any and all thoughts that occur to readers along the way.

Note: For any and all who’re interested, I’ve decided to split of my more writer-ish posts and host them on my main website, as of today. If you’re interested, you can find them here


On Being Launched

Before my first novel, Roboteer, came out, I sought out the excellent Mr. Ed Cox for advice on how to function as a new author. He was a little down the authorial road from me, my Gollancz peer one year removed, and clearly doing a terrific job at it. He gave me great input and enabled me to stop worrying. But he also made one remark that really stuck. Getting your first book published, he said, was the best feeling in the world, and I shouldn’t let anything get in the way of that.

At the time, I interpreted this as meaning that it would simply feel exciting, and that the moment would come with the sensation of a life milestone passed. In the wake of my own launch, I now know better.

The launch of my first book was far different an experience than I’d imagined. It took me completely by surprise. And the thing that made it so remarkable wasn’t the thrill of seeing my title on a shelf, or getting to sign something, or feeling like I’d made it. It was to do with the people.

I should explain.

I am no stranger to public appearances. I’ve taught improv for many years. I’ve run applied improv workshops at international training conferences for audiences of hundreds. I’ve spent more time on stage than is safe or normal. By comparison, the crowd at my launch event was tiny. Yet it stripped me of the ability to think straight or write coherent sentences. Which is a problem when you’re trying to sign books.

Why was this small crowd so affecting? Because it was full of people who’d come to support me—some whom I hadn’t seen for over twenty years. I was faced with an unexpected gathering of old friends who’d seen that my book was coming out and had taken the time and the effort to come and participate in that moment. This despite the fact that I’d buggered off to California many years before and had barely exchanged words with some of them. And their kind contribution left me speechless.

You see, over the last decade or so, my relationship with the UK has been thinning out. My mother’s health has been slowly waning. My wife and I have been under increasing pressure from work. And now we have a son, which makes travel complicated. This all means that a visit to the UK has increasingly been a visit to the tiny village where my parents live, where you can buy eggs, but not a lot else. Even a trip to the pub requires a yomp across a field to the next hamlet over. Old friends and old haunts have slid ever further down our priority stack as it has become clearer that the remaining time with my mum and dad is very finite. Britain, for me, has become an old stone house on a quiet corner under heavy West Country skies—a microscopic nation steeped in goodbyes.

Add to that the strangeness of launching a book in the UK from the US. For the large part, the experience has felt utterly unreal. Most of my interaction with the publishing world has happened through email. Meanwhile, my day to day existence has remained essentially unchanged. It has sometimes been hard to shake the suspicion that the whole thing is an internet scam.

To go from that to a room full of long lost friends knocked me completely sideways. As I sat at the signing table, I was presented with a continuum stream of faces from different episodes of my life, all out of order, all wanting to see me succeed. The only reason I managed to not tear up on the spot was that I was so persistently startled. Fortunately, I had phenomenal support from my Gollancz team. They offered gentle guidance where necessary, and ensured that I didn’t lose the plot completely.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what I wrote in those books was hopelessly bland. I was concentrating on being able to sign my name correctly. Which, as it turns out, was tricky. So, to everyone who I signed for, my apologies. I’ll do better next time. And for all of you aspiring authors anticipating your first launch, I say this: get ready for brain-fry.

There is nothing that can prepare you for that moment. I’m sure different for everyone, of course, but I also suspect that it’s always profound in some way. For me, it was a little like getting married. There were so many people I wanted to talk to and catch up with, and so little time to do it in. When you get married, at least, you get to pick the guest list, and you have a spouse to back you up. When you’re launched, there’s none of that. You are adrift and there is no raft.

Now, several days later, I am left with a warm glow of gratitude and a renewed sense of connection to the country I grew up in. So, to everyone out there who came, or wanted to come, or even just looked at the pictures of me online, grinning like a dork—I salute you. Thank you all for giving me a day that will be burned into my memory—pleasantly—forever.

Greece, Germany, Banks

Poor old Greece wants the EU to stop predating on its economy with unsustainable loan arrangements. Poor old Germany doesn’t want to be out of pocket due to the Greeks. The Greeks want to believe that the Germans and the EU are cheating them out of their future. The Germans want to believe that the Greeks are cheating them out of money they made through hard work. The internet knows this already, so why am I talking about it?

Because there’s something else important here that I haven’t seen clearly articulated yet, though many bloggers have come close. Those loans were originally made to Greece not by governments, but by private banks. Those banks are considered too big to fail by their host countries. When it became clear that the loans were unsustainable, the host countries bought that debt to prevent the banks from toppling. The banks knew this would happen, so they had extended themselves as far as they could.

By the time the European governments were left holding the bomb, the banks had already made out like bandits. All that phony risk had turned into reward. Now Greece and Germany are both left with empty pockets pointing at each other while the people who actually destabilized Europe walk away scot-free.

Now Greece is on the hook, and will be so indefinitely until it abandons the Euro. Germany is next in the firing line. And as soon as the Euro looks fragile the banks of the world will bet against it, make it harder for Germany to borrow or manage the foreign debt they’ll be left holding. The banks will drain its economy so long as an excuse persists. Either way, somebody will take it in the neck, and it won’t be the banks.

So far as I’m aware, this is common knowledge in finance-land. Many of the rest of us have figured it out too. Some of us have talked to people working in banks and have heard clear accounts of how the Greek scam was perpetrated. Yet the governments concerned will never admit that they have been impoverished in this way, or reveal the risks they still face. Why?

Because, I’d propose, we are involved in what you might call a bank war. With the rise of China, control of the world economy is up for grabs. Everyone is letting their banks duke it out, because they believe that whichever governments host the winning banks will be the ones holding onto a viable tax base and the reins of power. Those governments that have invested heavily in the power of their banks, like the US, Britain, and Germany, can never admit to have handed economic control to those organizations, because that would put the brakes on their own banks’ progress.

Many of you may read this interpretation and consider it too charitable. Plainly there are a lot of people in politics and finance who are simply out to get rich. Others might take issue with the term bank war, and doubt whether anyone articulates it to themselves as such. But the fact remains that politicians in these countries consider their finance sectors so important that they cannot permit them to fail. They see the prosperity of their entire country as bound up in the health of their banks. Not their factories, or their farms, or their people, but their banks. Healthy banks, they reason, make everything else possible. Except of course, this is backwards. Banks contribute nothing to the world economy but a set of leaky pipes for moving funds from place to place. Luxembourg, for instance, is not a healthy country. Luxembourg is a healthy parasite. And when everyone is a parasite, everyone is dead.

This reversal of priorities, I’d propose, is what defines a bank war. You can’t be in a bank war and call it one. Because at that point it becomes a war. You can only be in a bank war while you’re terrified for your economic well-being enough to turn your tax-paying citizens into collateral damage while refusing to acknowledge that this implicitly constitutes a form of conflict. Which is what is happening in Europe.

Whether you buy this definition or not, there is a problem here. The power that has been handed to the banks is not coming back. And the banks have little or no interest in supporting the governments that host them. What western governments are getting instead of a grip on global power is having their economic might stripped by the depletion of the middle classes that fuel them and keep them prosperous. As is becoming clear to everyone at this point, austerity policies achieve nothing except concentrating wealth in the hands of those who already have it.

Western governments don’t think they can stop, though. Because to stop is to lose the war. And the banks, meanwhile, will suck up as much money as they can see, because that’s what they do. Which is unfortunate, because there is no way to win a bank war. Money that gets locked in the hands of the wealthy stops functioning as money. It becomes a lifeless peacock’s tail on the backside of the global economy. That means that plutocrats and oligarchs have to struggle harder against their opponents for less gain. They have to watch the shadows ever more closely because the knives come out everywhere. Everyone loses, including the banks, because the power they’re left with can’t be used for anything except gripping tightly. Welcome to the Malthusian trap where the only thing more dangerous than being a peasant is to be royalty.

The current crisis in Europe is a farce. Everyone knows where the money went. Governments in Europe need to come clean, rein in their bankers, and step out of the bank war, despite the frightening costs entailed. Not because of compassion, or justice, or fairness—nice aims though they may be. They need to do it because the alternative cost to everyone, including themselves, is far higher. In the choice between recession and ruin, recession is the better bet.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz on the 16th July.)

Let’s Play God

Let’s start today by answering a few nice chewy questions that some people have spent far too long worrying about.

  • Q: Did God create life? A: No.
  • Q: Is life a miracle? A: No.
  • Q: Is the creation of life on Earth a mystery? A: No.
  • Q: Was the creation of life an unlikely event? A: No.
  • Q: Can I have a go, preferably on my tea-break? A: Yes.

We can be utterly confident of these answers. Why? Because life is trivially easy to make and I’m going to show you how to do it. Then, if you want to play God and initiate Genesis on your laptop, all you’ll need to do is cut some code and hit run. As many times as you like, with as many variations as you like. You can spend your afternoon having Yahweh-happy-fun-times and see how far you get at reproducing Eden.

During my brief time at Princeton, there were a few simulation results that I built which really got me excited and this was one of them. It demonstrates that far from being mysterious or difficult to model, life can show up anywhere. All you need is a system that supports a suitably dense set of copying operations.

Before I explain what that means, I should first explain what I mean by creating life. It’s a pretty charged phrase with a lot of connotations. And what I’m not going to do is show you how to build Frankenstein’s monster in your living room. So for those who want to quibble over the implications of this result, this is where we get quibbly.

What I mean by life is a self-organizing, self-reproducing system that’s capable of adaptation. And what I mean by create is that this life will assemble itself from raw ingredients in its environment. And that those raw ingredients are in isolation not alive. I’m not talking about biochemistry here, and I’m not going to demonstrate any metabolic processes. This Genesis event will be entirely digital in nature, and very, very simple.

Some of you may wonder why, in that case, I imagine there’s anything new or special in this post. People have been messing around with artificial life since about 1993. The Tierra system has been used as the basis for numerous papers on artificial abiogenesis.

The answer is that I’ve never seen an artificial life system that boils down the requirements for life quite so much, or organizes so fast. The simulation I’m going to show you allows you to watch evolution, of a sort, in real time. What it proves is that, under the right conditions, life is an unavoidable consequence of thermodynamics. You can’t stop it from showing up. It’s more a matter of falling down stairs than inspired creation.

So how do you do create life-lite? Here’s how:

  1. Build a big grid of cells.
  2. Fill each cell with a randomly generated copying instruction. Each instruction should take the form: copy the instruction at position X relative to me to the cell at position Y. For instance, a cell might say, “Copy from 3 north and 2 left to 1 south and 4 right”.
  3. Pick a cell at random. Execute the instruction there, so long as it does not result in an instruction copying a copy of itself. If you pick a cell at the edge, copy from the opposite side of the grid, just as you might to wrap a computer game screen.
  4. Repeat step 3 until a single species has devoured all others.

Start running it and you get something like this. (I’ve colored the cells based on the instruction they contain to make the whole thing easy to see.)

It’s that simple. You can watch it evolving. Voila Genesis. But why does it work? After all, we’ve explicitly forbidden any instruction from copying itself.

It works because once patterns of instructions appear that mutually self-copy, they spread. And that means they take over from instructions that don’t spread. Another way of saying this is that in a system that’s dense in copying operations, self-replicating patterns are the entropic outcome. Furthermore, the simplest, fastest, most robust self-replicating patterns are likely to be the ones that dominate.

Clearly this simulation approach has limitations. The only kind of adaptation that can happen is when copying patterns start interfering with each other. There’s no true mutation. Furthermore, the descriptive limits on the instructions mean that life can only ever get so far. This simulation, sadly, never tries to take over the world.

But I find this digital petri-dish wonderful to watch in any case. It’s exciting to see the little digital critters duke it out for dominance. The result is different every time you watch. And, as a science fiction writer, I find this model powerfully suggestive. If it’s this easy to kick off self-replicating systems under the right conditions, have we underestimated the range of possible conditions where alien life might arise? And given that this kind of life is so easy to make, why isn’t it filling up our computers already? What is it about our existing digital environment that’s not adequately copy-rich?

To my mind, this simulation makes it clear that the real mystery on Earth isn’t the creation of life itself. Life starts the moment you create the right conditions. The real question is how those conditions arise in the first place. Understand that, and we might be able to reproduce them, both digitally and physically. Once we can do that, playing God won’t just be easy or fun to watch, it’ll be world-changing.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz on July 16th.)

Cheating Light

There’s a lovely article that came out recently by Alasdair Reynolds about how humanity might reach the stars. In it, he talks about how unlikely it is that we’ll ever travel faster than light, but how we might reach other worlds anyway.

His assessment is, to my mind, broadly correct, and his message is ultimately optimistic. But on reading that post, I feel motivated to write one of my own proposing a somewhat different vision. I want to convince you by the end of this article that humanity has a hope of cheating light speed, and that you, dear reader, can help us do it. How? By having fun.

Does that seem unlikely? Yes? Good. Now let’s get down to business.

My reasoning starts with a story about Star Trek. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, apparently wanted a premise with an at least vaguely plausible scientific basis. So, to justify the speed of the Starship Enterprise and avoid the difficulties of relativity, he and his writers speculated nebulously about ‘warp drive’. They proposed that space was distorted somehow to allow the light barrier to be broken and from it created one of the more enduring tropes in science fiction.

Years later, a physicist named Miguel Alcubierre, purely out of fun, as I understand it, decided to look for special case scenarios in general relativity that would allow a Star Trek-style space-warping drive to work. To his surprise, he found one.

While Alcubierre, to my knowledge, never meant for his paper to be anything other than interesting speculation, the world gleefully seized on his idea and ran with it. Despite the huge technical difficulties inherent in his model, there is now a NASA-funded research group trying to make progress with it. Their chances of success are slim, but interestingly, little pieces of research keep popping up that keep hope alive. Once the door of theoretical possibility was opened, human ingenuity started pouring in.

The lesson of this story, for me, is that when we bother to suspend disbelief, and to use our imagination to stretch science, we begin to see exciting possibilities that we otherwise miss. Most of those possibilities don’t pan out, but unless we stretch, we never look, and consequently, never learn. But this lesson is only part of the greater picture I’d like to paint for you. The next part has to do with how science proceeds.

As I have alluded to in previous posts, science has a problem. The funding and career conditions under which scientists have to exist have become ridiculous, and this isn’t just bad for scientists, it’s bad for science itself. Nobody wants to risk an already fragile career on an unpopular or speculative idea. That’s a recipe for a doomed postdoc trajectory and years of underpaid misery.

Unfortunately, though, that’s exactly what scientists should be doing. It’s not just a scientist’s job to exercise robust skepticism. It’s also their job to extend bold, falsifiable ideas that can push human understanding of the universe forward. The current institutional paradigm lets precious little of that happen.

Take string theory, for instance. Because it’s been the dominant paradigm in particle physics for years now, universities have produced thousands of string theorists, despite there being no testable evidence for the theory’s validity, and no success in even completely writing it down. Now there’s mounting evidence from the LHC that while the math may be useful, the theory isn’t actually correct. By contrast, I suspect you could count the number of people professionally studying warp drive on the fingers of your hands despite the fact that there’s no experimental evidence that actually rules it out.

So of course warp drive looks impossible right now. We’ve barely looked at the options. Which brings me to my next point, which is this: we hardly understand spacetime at all.

The truth is that we currently have little or no idea about what spacetime is or how it works. Measuring particles, we can do. Testing the properties of the context they inhabit is much harder. But what we do know about it is weird and suggestive and points to a gap in our knowledge big enough to drive a starship through.

First off, we know that general relativity has problems, even though everyone agrees that the math is lovely. Kurt Godel pointed this out within a few years of Einstein pushing out his general relativity paper.

Secondly, we know that empty space should contain some amount of energy, called ‘zero point energy’. The problem is that if you try modeling this using the theoretical tools we have right now, that energy either comes out as being minuscule or infinite.

Thirdly, we have to account for the fact that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Not only does this completely mess up our notions of conservation of energy, but it also demonstrates that there must be some anti-gravitational effect at work in the universe that is not addressed in the Standard Model. Most likely it only operates at very large scales, but right now, we don’t actually know.

Fourthly, there’s the fact that the Standard Model itself, on which our understanding of the universe rests, has no room in it to model ordinary gravity either. And a solution to that problem has evaded discovery for getting on for a hundred years. Why? At root because relativity and quantum mechanics require different notions of what spacetime is like that don’t actually agree.

I could go on. I could talk about dodgy equivalence principles, research on negative mass, dark matter, issues with Lorentz invariance, and all manner of other things, but I think you get the point. While we have a great handle on the stuff in the universe we can see, our handle on what we can’t see is weak.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but showing that our understanding is limited is different from showing that something is actually possible. After all, there’s still no evidence that FTL could ever work. And you’d be right. Furthermore, in his post, Al Reynolds points at several disappointing results in recent years where potentially superluminal effects have turned out to be nothing of the kind.

Here’s the question, though: are we looking for evidence in the right places? Because, let’s be honest. if building a warp drive is possible, it’s likely to require some pretty serious nature-hacking. We’re probably going to have to figure out a lot more about how space works before we get a reliable demonstration.

If I were looking for suggestive results, I’d look at the output from Fermilab’s awesome holometer experiment and other gravity wave studies, which may be on the brink of demonstrating that spacetime comes in tiny chunks. I’d be looking for more evidence of the so-called penguin anomaly which hints at physics beyond the Standard Model. I’d even be looking at condensed matter experiments like the weird and tantalizing bosenova. It’s out of effects like these that we’ll tease out a deeper understanding of the universe and maybe find ways to bend its rules.

But there’s still obviously a gap here. All these results I’ve mentioned are a long way off from showing anything even remotely useful for FTL research. There are hints that spacetime can be manipulated and little else. But that’s where you and I come in, dear reader. Our job, as I see it, is to speculate, and to have fun doing it.

Science belongs to everyone, not a small elite corps of professionals, and it is helped when public engagement remains high. The more we care to read, to play with ideas like warp drive, and to tell the world we care, the better the chances that projects like the one at NASA get funded. And therefore, the better our chances of finding something awesome. Because, at the moment, we’re hardly looking. We’re too proud of our own skepticism to try.

Am I doing my part? You bet. In my first novel, Roboteer, which comes out this summer, I tried to pick up where Alcubierre left off. I speculate that there are particles called curvons that are essentially knots of spatial potential. They’re radiated by black holes, because black holes can’t pay their information debt to the universe any other way.

The ships in Roboteer fly faster than light by triggering the collapse of curvons around the ship to force space to expand or contract, thus creating the necessary warp field.

There’s a catch, though. Unless you can match the curvon density ahead of your ship with the density behind it, you’re stuck at sublight speeds. And that means that the only stars mankind can visit lie in a thin shell all the same distance from the galactic core.

But how would such particles climb out of a black hole’s gravity well when nothing else can, I hear you ask? Great question, reader! Well depending on how you model spacetime, such things can be done. Remember we’re talking about space exiting a black hole, not matter. For instance, if you model the fabric of reality as a dense, directed network as I did for this very speculative simulation, such things are not too hard to arrange.

Would this method work in reality? It’s highly unlikely, but not yet known to be impossible. And that’s the point. From willful speculation, great futures are made. Because speculation is hope. And hope is worth holding onto. If we let the healthy habit of skepticism overtake the equally healthy habit of scientific play, progress dies.

But we don’t need just one speculative warp drive. We need thousands. Because almost all of them are going to faceplant at the first hurdle.

Currently, that group in NASA has about $50K in funding, which is nothing, and they’re trying to give us the stars. The failed ‘Star Wars’ defense projects started under Reagan that are still running have wasted countless billions of public money without delivering anything useful. Imagine what we might achieve if just one percent of that budget went towards researching crazy ideas like warp drive. Certainly it wouldn’t be less. And maybe it’d be everything. Isn’t it worth buying a lottery ticket now and then if the prize is THE ENTIRE GALAXY? If you agree, the world needs to hear you roar.

So there we have it. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is simple: read avidly, extrapolate from what you know, and dream. Share wild ideas. Insist on science in your science fiction even if you can’t follow it. Be a proud crackpot whenever opportunity arises. Because if we don’t work together to kindle the public imagination, who will?

(Roboteer comes out from Gollancz in July, and frankly, I can’t wait.)

Are we hitting peak social justice?

I have a prediction, and it’s this: outraged social norming on the political left is close to a tipping point beyond which the left will begin to collapse under the constraints of its own narrative. 

Do I like this prediction? No, I do not. Do I want it to be true? No. Do I have opinions about it? Yes, of course. But in this post I want to try to talk about what I think I see, rather than what I believe is right. I’m deliberately going to try to resist expressing direct sentiment here about the norming itself, or its moral value, or its targets. And that’s because I believe in a lot of the things that are being pushed for in the public dialog on the internet, but don’t want this post to automatically be about the value of my opinions or anyone else’s. Because that kind of exchange is part of what I see as the problem.

My goal here, instead, is to lay out the observations and reasons that led me to this prediction. If you disagree about the prediction and have evidence of a trend that balances it, I’d like to hear about it and know your reasoning. If you agree, then please feel free to help me figure out what the hell we can do about. And in any case, we’ll be able to watch what happens over the next five years to see if my fears play out.

I first became seriously worried about how the left-leaning dialog on the internet was functioning during the reaction to Patricia Arquette’s Oscars debacle. She made an impassioned speech about gender equality and subsequently made a less than stellar remark in the pressroom which social media seemed to pay far more attention to than her initial remarks. I didn’t understand at the time why commenters on the left would seemingly push so hard to take down a highly visible public figure promoting a progressive agenda, albeit in a flawed way.

I later learned about the internet debate around an essay written by Jonathan Chait, in which he criticized what he saw as a growing culture of political correctness. (I was apparently the last person on the internet to hear about this.) Jon’s concern was that the culture of the left was alienating its own liberal allies.

The number of loud, critical responses that were made to his piece are too numerous to link to here. If you’re interested, just google ‘jon chait pc’ and read what comes back. A lot of it is very interesting.

One particular line of reasoning that I encountered several times while reading through the responses to his piece was this: where is your actual evidence that the current form of social critiquing is doing more harm than good? 

It’s natural to see where this question comes from. A lot of the loudest, and most proactive commentary on the left comes from people who are urgently trying to advance a social good. Nobody wants to hear that their best attempts to improve the world may be counterproductive, even though the scale of their response kind of made Jon’s point for him. However, the consensus seemed to be that Jon Chait had no real data. He had anecdotes, some of which were questionable.

However, this year, we were presented with some very powerful and informative data: the surprise success of the conservative party in the British election. Against expectations, Labor were trounced. I say this as someone hoping they would win.

When British analysts attempted to understand why the polls had provided such wrong predictions of the election outcome, one phrase was extensively employed: ‘shy Tories’. In other words, people who’d decided to vote Conservative, but didn’t want to admit it.

In the wake of the Conservative victory, it wasn’t hard to find articles like this one, decrying the left as founded on a philosophy of exclusion and hate. There were other, more subdued articles such as this in the Guardian, that attempted to understand what had happened. Broadly speaking, it seemed that Britain had become increasingly populated with people whose views had not skewed left even though the dialog around them had.

I am not proposing here that the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon was exclusively responsible for the Conservative win. It wasn’t. There was far more to the election than that. What I am doing, though, is pointing out that this is a national-level example of a particular social mechanism at work.

People’s opinions can fall out of step with the public narrative that surrounds them. When this happens, they will not necessarily admit it, but they may polarize against the narrative, and then subsequently act to obstruct or destroy it.  

Note that this phenomenon has nothing to do with the social value of the narrative being engaged in or who has the moral high-ground. All that needs to happen for the narrative to fail is that enough people feel that they cannot participate in it.

What is happening in Britain, though, is just one part of a dialog happening throughout the western world. Changes in one country will not necessarily repeat elsewhere. So, in order to make a guess about the future, it’d be useful to have some small, yet relatively globalized microcosm of politics where we could watch the polarization of social dialog play out.

Fortunately we science fiction enthusiasts have one. The tiny, hyperbolic world of fandom may give us a glimpse of the future. And yes, I’m talking about the dreaded Hugos debate again.

What amazes me most at this point about the Hugos fight is that posts are still appearing. The battle continues. The best post I saw recently was this one by Eric Flint, which I think shows both his wisdom and his exhaustion. I found myself wondering how people in the community had the energy to sustain their anger.

I now think I understand what is going on. People are validating on the conflict on both sides. By which I mean that in taking up an entrenched position and defending it, they are experiencing a neurological reward, regardless of how coherent or self-consistent that position is. Consequently, they will probably keep at it until something more distracting comes along.

If this pattern starts repeating itself in mainstream society, I suspect that the current progressive narrative on the internet will split. In the worst case, the consensus may go into reverse. We should not kid ourselves that social progress has enjoyed a smooth linear development.

Specifically, I would propose, a progressive agenda tends to have greater traction during times of collective prosperity, when the constraints on individuals are reduced. When inequality begins to dominate, social constraints tighten. Ironically, people usually become more right-wing as their freedoms shrink, sometimes dramatically so. They look around for someone to blame who they can actually reach and affect, rather than the financial barons that they cannot. Witness the rise of the radical right in Europe happening right now.

There is a lag, though—a period in which freedoms are reducing while the juggernaut of social commentary continues undeterred. I fear that we are in that gap right now. That scares me because only a unified, inclusive, non-judgmental left has any chance against the accelerating might of the world’s oligarchical class.

In reality, almost all of us are on the same side, because we will rise or fall together. Everyone who can remember how many houses they own on a given day is on our side. Everyone who struggles with the payments on their second yacht is on our side. Everyone who owns a plane but not their own jet is on our side. I say this because all of these people will suffer in the power-lockout that is evolving, even if they cannot see it yet.

And everyone who makes copious mistakes in their vision of social inclusion, but is nevertheless ready to stand up and act to defend inclusion, is on our side. To argue otherwise, I’d propose, is to participate in the death of progressivism, rather than to lead it.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July of this year.)

On Ostracism

In my last post, I talked about the current woes over the Hugo awards, but all the while I was writing it, I felt like there was a major point that I was missing out. That point was larger than SF fandom, and instead said something about the difference between the country I was born in (UK) and the one I live in now (US), so I left it aside.

Then, after I made the post, a commenter (AG) made the following remark:

I would also add that nobody doubts the benefits of diversity (at least nobody seems to in the sad puppies’ camp). We only differ in thinking that ideological diversity is good too.

I find AG’s comment, while apparently heartfelt, something of a stretch. (BTW, thank you for your input, AG.) While I trust that AG speaks fairly of his own opinion, some members of the Sad Puppy camp have been extremely vocal in their criticism of ways of life different from their own. That criticism does not always appear to have been designed to encourage dialog.

But my point here is not to indulge my own opinions (which lean left), or to add to the already impressive mass of Hugo-related rhetoric. Rather I was inspired by AG’s comment to address that missing critical point.

I wanted to ask the following question: what has happened to American public discourse, and can we fix it?

Science fiction fandom in the US has become tribal, as have many elements of American life. People have grown angry. One side feels impatient for change that it sees as long overdue. The other side perceives a wave of political militancy, and thinks it sees overtures of thought control because its opinions are not garnering equal respect.

This much is obvious, but why we are all so angry now? Why did this shift not happen thirty years ago?

My proposed explanation stems from the following observation: the US is a large country which, for most of its history, has been relatively empty. Furthermore, it has a lot of different kinds of people in it, and always has. For this, and a host of other reasons, the dominant mechanism for implementing politeness in the US has been what an evolutionary biologist might call ostracism. In other words, if someone says something that you can’t get along with or that strikes you as crazy, you give them room and try to ignore them. If necessary, you actively shun them. 

In Britain, by contrast, if someone you know says something crazy, society permits you, within reason, to tease them or call them out on it. Choosing to remark on someone else’s crazy is often perceived as a point of strength. Or, at least, this was still true when I moved.

Brits, and other Europeans, look at the US and struggle to understand a society that is seemingly first world, and yet supports populations of Amish on one end and holistic pet bathing enthusiasts on the other. They make television shows about it and wonder how come Americans appear to be insane.

But US culture is structured the way that it is, I’d propose, because leaving people room was always the more efficient solution given the conditions. With different ethnic groups arriving from all over the planet for the last two hundred years, simple, robust solutions to a variety of social problems have been a part of life. The US is not a European-style, self-norming, cohesive culture. It is a hyper-inclusive monoculture underpinned by a huge number of microcultures, some of which are extremely exclusive in nature.

Thus far, the US has succeeded with this model. However, the country is now presented with a problem. That mechanism of shunning or rejecting those who we cannot get along with has broken. Even without a rising population, increased urban density, and rapid transport, the internet makes it impossible. In effect, everyone is suddenly trapped in the same room. Shunning people doesn’t increase the social distance any more. It just makes people upset and more prone to aggression. And so a long stable nation has now polarized wildly, like oil and water desperately trying to escape each other while trapped in the same cup.

I find this worrying because the ostracism-first approach to social moderation is deeply baked into American thinking. The assumption that if you encounter someone who you consider intolerable, that you should exclude them, and ensure that your peers do likewise, is for many an almost instinctive response. It feels morally right. It feels just. When others fail to participate in the process, it can feel like a betrayal. It is not perceived as a cultural choice. It is just the thing that you need to do.

But there are two ironies here. The first is that what right-leaning SF fans parse as socialist thought control is, in truth, a profoundly American social behavior. The second is that left-leaning fans, in seeking to advance a social good, unwittingly resort to a traditional behavior historically more associated with conservatives. Funny, perhaps, but nobody is laughing yet.

Is there a solution? I am biassed, of course, but I would propose that the US borrow one from Britain: derision. By which I mean satire, mockery, teasing and all other forms of social reconciliation through mirth. It is not a surprise that social institutions like the Daily Show have become so valued in American society of late. They are badly needed and in short supply.

I believe that both sides in the Hugos debate, and in American society at large, need to set down their sense of outraged affront as rapidly as possible and start mocking each other instead. Mocking and accepting mockery in return. And if we find ourselves able to laugh at our own side from time to time, then we know that the healing has started. And after healing comes the potential for real, cohesive social change.

To my mind, the sooner we can achieve this, the better off we will all be, regardless of which social agenda dominates in the current debacle. Because, inevitably there will be another debacle that follows. Next time, it may be left versus left, or right versus right, and self-righteous shunning will be just as counterproductive as ever.

Similarly, in Britain, I think I see a growing trend toward the American cultural solution, perhaps because the distance between the US and UK is shrinking too. And this can’t work either. A Britain that abandons wry observation in favor of self-righteousness is likely to be a dangerous, unhappy place to live. It is too small to be otherwise, and righteous exclusion does not make anyone friends.

In short: the internet is not going away any time soon. We had better get used to it and adjust our social expectations accordingly.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July of this year.)

(My link in the above post is to a letter written by John C. Wright. For those seeking to understand whether, and in what specific sense, the letter may constitute resistance to ideological diversity, I strongly encourage reading the attached comments on this post. The discussion with John Wright included there makes his reasons for writing it clear.)

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