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Saturday, May 22, 2010

A tale of a tale of a shareable future, part 1: Introduction

[Crossposted from shareable.net]

So about a month ago one Jeremy Adam Smith(1), editor of shareable.net, sent me a solicitation:

"I'm inviting science fiction authors to write stories of shareable futures, where technology has changed the rules of ownership and access, and people share transportation, living spaces, lives, dreams, everything and anything....As I told Cory and Bruce, I'm not looking for utopian propaganda--and indeed, I'd describe the stories they sent as counter-utopian. I'm looking for character and place, troubles and ambiguities, strong stories and intelligent speculation. Sharing solves problems--but what new problems could it create? What conflicts might it provoke?"

Now, here's something about living in a monetary exchange economy:

When I get such "would you write us a story?" emails, one of the first thing I scan for is pay rates. This is not because the money itself matters much. Given my sluggish productivity, my lucrative day job, and rates for short fiction nowadays(2), the check is not likely to have much impact on my finances. But for venues I haven't yet heard of, cents-per-word is usually a reasonable rough proxy for how interesting they're likely to be -- in terms of professionalism, prestige, audience, and presentation.

So what are money and exchange for? Well: by brutally simplifying and quantifying the complex and polyvalent, by imposing costs and forcing decisions, they make a large world with poor information transparency easier to navigate. Indeed you could almost say the entire world we live in, and all our human relations, are distorted by a system principally evolved to allow distant strangers to deal with each other.

As a science fiction writer I naturally think: could another system for allowing distant strangers to deal with each other displace it?

Jeremy was paying Clarkesworld rates, close to the top of the short speculative fiction market, which (along with name-dropping other authors I admire) enticed me to click through. And Shareable is interesting: sort of like what a glossy lifestyle magazine would look like if it were designed to encourage people to discard and scavenge things rather than buy them, to share rather than consume. (It is so slick-looking I thought it was a commercial operation, which I thought was a piquant irony; acutally it's a nonprofit, so that the irony is located in my misapprehension).

The solicitation also came at a time when I have been thinking a lot about speculative economics, about the degree of arbitrariness and contingency of economic systems(3), and the way our lives are molded by them:

  • The novel I'm currently supposed to be writing(4) is mostly set in a moneyless, panoptic global monoculture, a "pride economy" in which everyone's emotional state is subject to observation, bookkeeping, debate, and sometimes betting, in which sibling rivalry provides the conceptual template for all transactions, and in which there's only one monolithic medium for everything from how you obtain food and clothing, how you're getting along with your friend, and how much you trust a piece of information you read... and it's all falling apart.
  • I've been reading nonfiction about historical economy -- Before European Hegemony offers a fascinating survey of the 13th century's globalization boom, in which power was distributed roughly evenly among many competing economic regions -- until it fell apart under the stresses of the bubonic plague and the collapse of the Pax Mongolica, setting the stage for China's dramatic withdrawl and upstart Europe's domination from the 16th century on. In telling this story Abu-Lughod makes a compelling case for the contingency of economic history -- it didn't have to be the way it turned out, with one unlikely corner of Eurasia exterting hegemonic power over the rest of the world.
  • I'll be on a panel on Economics of the Future at Wiscon next weekend.
  • I've been talking to the kids a lot about money, work, and so on, and their insightful questions make me realize how odd and sort of suspicious the system in which we are embedded in. It is interesting how excited they are about people who intentionally live without money, scavenging the excess of our overstuffed drive to accumulate surplus; surely there's a clue there, about what money means to us, and does to us, psychologically.

So... as I think you may have guessed by now. I said yes. Specifically, said he could reprint "Falling" (a short about an adhocratic Frankfurt of the 2050s which appeared in Nature, and which Nature kindly and experimentally-for-them allowed me to put under Creative Commons By-NC-SA) and that I'd try to write a sequel to "Falling" for him on his rather tight deadline.

This may be tempting fate. I almost never write sequels -- or even set-in-the-same-universes. The only real follow-on that comes to mind that I've attempted is that very same languishing novel (it's a companion piece to my story "Droplet").

To make the time-crunch involved more dramatic (as if I weren't already away this weekend, travelling transatlantically to Wiscon right after that, wrapping up a product release at the day job, and then flying to the USA where I will be single-parenting kids on vacation, and as if I didn't already owe Tim and Ethan stories and Sharyn a picture book script), we decided that I'd do an experiment in public composition by blogging (more or less extensively) about my attempt to write the short story in question.

And that, dear unsuspecting readers, is what you are in for now. In part 2, hopefully soon, a little more about my muddled ambivalence about capitalism, and how I got nagged (not by Jeremy!) into cramming this blogging-series experiment into the already ambitious short story timeframe.

  1. It wasn't until composing this blog entry that I realized the irony implicit in writing a postcapitalist heterotopia for someone with that name; if he were a fictional character, my critiquers would make me take out the cute in-joke.
  2. You can live from short fiction in 2010, if you are also on the state roadkill registry and fish really well
  3. Such systems are not wholly arbitrary, of course; it's like with biological evolution. Given a certain technological and environmental framework and set of initial conditions, systems may be strongly driven to certain states. But on the other hand, like with biology, the full range of what's in principle possible is immense -- and small changes can develop into large ones.
  4. What's going on with my novel? Why thank you for asking! I was trucking ahead at 200 words a day until last October, when I passed 100,000 words total, and hit a wall; I had no idea what was supposed to happen next, I had created all this clever plotty foreshadowing and conundrums for the characters to resolve and building tensions, but I had no idea what I was leading to. I was just trusting myself to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the right time. Reached in: no rabbit. And I think it's not entirely unrelated to the topic of this post: I had unleashed a revolution (or uprising?) in an ambiguous heterotopia, and I had no idea how to follow it up. Since then I've been trying to overhaul it in synopsis form, and also working on a few other things. It's such a relief to have short stories at various stages in the pipeline again, I can't tell you.
Posted by benrosen at May 22, 2010 09:39 AM | Up to blog

Well, it sounds like a logical progression might be to end up in a homogenous culture, possibly with a charasmatic religous figure leading the way. Some kind of crisis point would probably be necessary for the culture to shift in that direction. Shades of _The Handmaid's Tale_? But perhaps not as bleakly dark a vision of that religious future, especially given your own religious passions...

I think it'd be interesting to see what you did with that, anyway. :-)

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at May 22, 2010 05:30 PM

I'm looking forward to reading the sequelae.

So a question: Do you believe that the basic idea of a money-based economy (for suitable values of "money," but perhaps still having the basic properties of fungibility, durability, and unforgeability) is a necessary result of the need for economic intercourse between groups of people too large to all know one another, or do you think that some other system -- perhaps one based on some kind of sharing? -- could represent a stable equilibrium as well?

And a second question: How is "Before European Hegemony?" Worth reading?

Posted by: Yonatan Zunger at May 23, 2010 04:20 AM

From way back, the Chinese were far ahead of "the West" technologically, economically (they invented paper money) and militarily. By the 14th Century they had ships that were larger than any built until World War I. Since they had also invented gun powder and cannons, that gave them an overwhelming advantage, They extracted tribute all the way to the East Coast of Africa and planted colonies along the way.

But they decided to scrap all their military might, and turn their entire infrastructure to peaceful means to make a better life for their people. Among other things, they built a series of canals which are still used.

Smart and Noble, right? Not really. Actually really stupid. By 80 years later, when European warships appeared off their coast, they not only couldn't defend themselves, they had lost the know-how to do so. These are warships they they would have eaten for a snack, 80 years before. All three of Columbus's ships work have fit easily on the deck of one of china's big war ships with lots of room to spare.

The result was the colonization and degradation of China and its people for more than 500 years.

The West may have forgotten this history, but the Chinese haven't.

Posted by: dmrose at May 24, 2010 05:56 AM

Your spreadsheet on novel-writing is quite amazing. Did you see the recent NYT Magazine story about "self-trackers"? I just realized that's what you are!

Posted by: Shoshana Rosenbaum at May 24, 2010 02:54 PM

Mary Anne, are you talking about my novel? I am intrigued by that as a logical progression. My religious passions, which are considerable, include a deep revulsion towards charismatic religious figures -- especially as single individuals! -- attaining political power (indeed I think my strand of Judaism can be read as precisely a series of polemics against this political arrangement, from the Prophetic era if not earlier), so I think I would be hard put to keep such a scenario from seeming very bleak indeed.

Yonatan -- in answer to the first question -- well, my question "could another systemÂ… displace it?" is intended to be leading. Yes, I think another system could. Why does money need those attributes -- fungibility, etc.? (Put another way, why has a system with those attributes sidelined its memetic competitors?) I think part of the reason is because it decreases information processing cost. That is, what I really want is some complex basket of goods, including enough to eat, spiffy toys, people liking me, a just world, a secure future for my children, and so on, and what you want is some other complex basket of goods, and there are empty-zillion competitive and collaborative ways for us to enter into relation to achieve them, but the combinatoric problem once you get beyond a small number of people is so difficult, that we throw up our hands and say "well, for most of these things, we'll just say each person owns some set of items disjointly, and try to reduce all of their values to a single number, and exchange them." It's very crude. I think if you look at it this way, it's very interesting what happens when the exponential curve of Moore's law gets going. What happens as information processing gets vastly cheaper? It's already the case that within a small group, say 100 people, you don't really need money -- or a state for that matter -- solidarity, favors, gossip, social pressure, and so on, do the trick. What if technology allowed those social mechanisms to scale better?

"Before European Hegemony" was definitely worth reading. Fascinating. Dry in places -- there's a wealth of specific, concrete detail about actual 13th century economic practices. But that is what made it fascinating, too, and she writes well, and is able to tie all the detail into a coherent big-picture argument.

Daddy: yep. That. Although "really stupid" is probably making unfair use of the benefits of hindsight. Had things gone somewhat differently, focusing on peaceful infrastructure might have turned out to be a good bet. The Europeans who suddenly showed up in the 16th century with their dinky ships weren't just some new group of warlike barbarians -- the Chinese had seen plenty of those, and I expect there was enough slack in their strategy that under most circumstances they could have rearmed to meet the threat. The problem was that these particular warlike barbarians had just lucked into a vast pool of slaves, land, and natural resources that they could basically pillage without limit or competition, and it was fueling a crazy technological, social and population boom. Had there been no New World, and therefore no booming development of early modern capitalism and colonialism, I think the Chinese would have had plenty of time to re-arm and repel the barbarians.

Shana, I didn't, but yes, that's what I am!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 27, 2010 12:10 AM

I'll take the risk of exposing my ignorance to share my thoughts on the matter of a "shareable future."

So, maybe I'm confused. Is the idea of a "shareable future" one of communal vs. individual wealth in societies or one of fiat cash vs. other mediums of exchange as a means to wealth in societies? Both? More open-ended?

If we're talking about potential replacements for a fiat monetary system, the most essential quality seems to me to be liquidity. If I'm a cobbler and I want a loaf of bread, but the baker doesn't need his shoes mended, I need something I can give him that he can in turn exchange for whatever he needs, and so on. If some medium like solidarity does the trick, it seems to me to be the same basic system. So the issue is, is something like solidarity, or even some combination of intangibles, inherently better than say, government backed currency in terms of its liquidity and general acceptance? I feel societies of sufficient complexity may actually devolve into some kind of tangible liquidity as a means of economic lubrication because it's in fact easier to deal with and imagine than say something like solidarity points or more desirable than Facebook wall posts. Additionally, can I invest my solidarity to grow more solidarity and the size of the entire economy, or would that simply become unnecessary once we have some better system x?

The other way to solve the issue seems to be one of people working communally toward a collective good. But the problem with that approach seems to me to be a sufficient means of motivation for Person A to perform more difficult work than Person B which tends to devolve again into the need for liquidity. (Person A got favors for his hard work, but he wants to trade them for a loaf a bread and that damn baker doesn't want those favors! Although maybe soma, or somec from OSC's The Worthing Saga would work here.)

My thoughts on future economies tends to lead me to a kind of far-flung-future escape hatch where technology permits cheap-as-free energy (ala Star Trek), everyone's needs are met and their wealth approaches infinity, what have you. I'm skeptical of something like Moore's Law facilitating interaction enough to achieve an alternate, stable economy (last I heard, Moore's Law was about broken). I feel like the best approach is some combination of monetary systems, because I agree that the current valuation of a person's assets is crude since it doesn't take into account any of a person's personal qualities (don't we invest in our own personal wealth when we attempt to learn something new, trading time and effort for personal value as opposed to money?). But at the same time, the idea of a liquid currency that one can also borrow and invest seems to me to be too useful to abandon before energy is cheap-as-free.

Of course, if we're talking about something other than human beings, the doors are wide open. :)

Posted by: Gabriel Liwerant at May 30, 2010 09:40 AM

Gabriel, excellent thoughts. I think liquidity and fungibility are critical issues. Hope to get to this in the next post!

Posted by: benjamin Rosenbaum at June 3, 2010 11:47 AM
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