The Future

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Will

Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki
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    I don’t have much time to discuss this at the moment, but I will certainly come back to it soon. Iain M. Banks here commits the fallacy first identified by Hayek — that because planning the actions of one’s individual life is good, planning for all of society must be even better. (“Planning lases.”)

    This is by no means true, because such planning would require more knowledge than is ever given to any one mind. We may postulate technologies that get around this problem, but these remain daydreams, nothing more.

    Indeed, it is only through social institutions like language, the family, and the market that we are even able to “plan” in our own lives — and these institutions are themselves the unplanned products of spontaneous order. They exist in large part to break up the vast, undifferentiated mass of information that we find in society. They permit us to think about and operate within small knowable pieces of it. They make the ability to plan on a small scale possible.

    But the fact that we can operate within these small, knowable domains does not imply that we should dismantle spontaneous institutions in favor of universal social planning. On the contrary, it should be taken as evidence of just the opposite. We need to preserve such institutions so that we may plan even on the small, individual scales we see today.Report

  2. Avatar Ryan Davidson
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    says:

    Three words: “Socialist calculation controversy.”

    The early twentieth century economic academy was divided pretty cleanly into those who believed that human society is capable of calculating optimal allocations of resources with reasonable accuracy and completeness and those who believed that such calculations were necessarily, not accidentally, impossible.

    The latter turned out to be entirely correct, but that hasn’t stopped people who like the idea of a planned economy from keeping on about it. They just tend to gloss over the actual planning part. So instead of centralized planning, we have centralized hand-waving, i.e. utopian pipe-dreams elevated to firmly-held ideology.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Ryan Davidson
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      says:

      @Ryan Davidson,

      Exactly. In the books I’ve read (Consider Phlebas and Matter) Banks implicitly proposes that the socialist calculation debate will be solved by the advent of hyperintelligent autonomous computers that make plans for all of society (“Minds”) in consultation with one another.

      To my mind this doesn’t even work as a plot device, because once you have hyperintelligent autonomous computers, they each become data points that the planning agents have to account for. The whole can’t plan for itself, but only for something simpler.Report

      • Avatar Simon K in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, Although really, it seems as each Mind is solely responsible for its ship, orbital, or whatever and each of those is more-or-less completely autonomous in resources. There doesn’t actually seem to be any trade as such. The humans and drones live in a planned economy planned by their local Mind, but there doesn’t really seem to be any economic cooperation between the Minds themselves – just military cooperation.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Simon K
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          says:

          At least in Matter, it’s pretty clear that they are working in concert about foreign policy. Also, saying that an Orbital is an isolated economy doesn’t really solve the problem — it’s still tens of billions of people, many of whom are cybernetically enhanced, as well as their computers, various drones, aliens, visiting Minds, and what have you. Even without trade, it’s ridiculously complex.Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to Simon K
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          says:

          @Jason, Yes, I agree its not realistic. In the actual novels he really avoids the topic of planning and how it would actually work. I’m thinking more about how he manages to get away with it in the novels without making it jarring – I’ve really enjoyed most of them.Report

      • Avatar Ryan Davidson in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, yeah, and in addition, he’s basically dealing with a post-scarcity economy. I think the socialists probably win the calculation debate if there’s more than enough stuff to go around.Report

  3. Avatar gregiank
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    says:

    In Jean-Luc Picard voice: “Will, make it so”Report

  4. Avatar North
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    says:

    All of this papers over what is to me the bigger questions; those of humanism itself.
    Space is really really big (gigantinormous) and faster than light travel remains a pipe dream in the realm of science fiction.
    The human body, by contrast, is small and while it is immensely intricate the mysteries and challenges of our own biology are finite while the expanses and challenges of space are not. I personally suspect that the people who finally are able to colonize the distant stars will be very fundamentally (and intentionally) different from people today. I’m mainly thinking of things like Linda Nagata’s books “Vast” or “Deception Well” (if anyone here has read any of them).Report

  5. Avatar Simon K
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    says:

    The economics of the Culture are completely unconvincing, apart from anything else because the novels don’t contain any trade or any other kind of economic dependence between groups in the Culture or between the Culture and anyone else – each group seems to be in a state of permanent, self-contained, super-abundance. The only novel that gives any insight into how the Minds themselves coordinate things is “Excession”, and the cooperation there seems to be entirely military in nature. And of course the ships don’t need any fuel or ammunition, so the tricky business of figuring out where these would come from is skipped completely.

    Ken McLeod is much more convincing in portraying the economic and political consequences of various forms of politics and of anarchism in the presence of machine hyper-intelligences. Ken is in fact a friend of Iain’s (and I have in fact drunk beer with them, although they probably don’t know that) and there are common themes in their novels. In fact I think it was Ken who originally posted that essay to Usenet on Iain’s behalf many, many years ago.Report

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