Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The “utopian anarchy” that unites most science fictional wish-fantasies

We're heading out the door to San Diego's extravaganza -- even bigger than our famous Zoo -- Comicon International, with overseas guests in tow. And so, in keeping with the elevated theme of adventure and unlimited possibilities, let's set aside the political shenanigans America's civil war and briefly assume that our Great Experiment in a better kind of society continues -- a civilization that grows better as it grows more diverse and interesting and fair.

Ah, but how to get there? Does science fiction show a way?

== A future of freedom ==

Some of you have been following the debate between Elon Musk and Cory Doctorow et. al., over the meaning and ethos that underly the “Culture” series of novels by Iain M. Banks. Musk has called himself a “utopian anarchist” in a way best described by those novels.  (Elon named several of his SpaceX vessels after ships in Iain’s science fictional cosmos.) Doctorow counters with an assertion that Banks was a vigorous proponent of labor unions.

Having known all three of these brilliant gentlemen, let me avow that each has been beneficial to humanity, helping open our eyes to - variously - dangerous problems, daring opportunities and/or visionary goals. I hope all of them continue to influence us to rise into a thoughtful and bold and broadminded civilization. (And I will draw in other SF'nal utopians below, like Ursula LeGuin.)

This essay in the Guardian takes sides and is, I believe, myopically petty, especially about Elon Musk’s utopian anarchism. In fact, Elon is right that science fiction offers us the unique perspective of deep time, helping us squint far ahead to see a strangely common theme.

Three paths to very similar utopias

Libertarians often speak of a future when there will be very few limits on individual autonomy, when sovereign adults are free to form coalitions and make deals to advance both shared and personal goals, without being unduly hampered either by cloying restrictions or by cheaters.

Most folks aren’t aware that this is also — exactly, in every particular — the long range goal of Marxism! Karl Marx did not dwell on it, or supply much detail; he assumed a final withering-away of the socialist, transition state — into coercion-free individualism — would proceed out of elevated proletarian self-interest. 

Flipping that order of events, libertarians assume that individual liberation in market-driven paradise will require first dismantling the nation state.  Equality and freedom will follow.

A fascinating hybrid is the culture of Planet Annares, in The Dispossessed, by my former teacher, the late Ursula K. LeGuin. Although she was definitely a person of the left, she rejected the domineering 'socialist-transition' states she saw behaving so badly, in Leninist and Maoist realms. Her prescription seems akin -- in many ways -- more to the libertarian path: dismantle authority first. Standing on her shoulders (so to speak) is Kim Stanley Robinson, whose novels dissect many of the tradeoffs along the way to utopian freedom.

But let's get back to that simple comparison of libertarian and marxist end goals.

In sharing a perfectly overlapping, ultimate utopia of empowered individualism, these two movements differ from almost every other belief system of our long past, nearly all of which assumed that hierarchy will prevail. A perfect pyramid of Confucian noblesse oblige, for example. Or the post-apocalypse reign of Jesus. Priests for 6000 years were well paid to spread such mythologies, and Joseph Campbell extolled the pattern as fundamental to human psyches. Even today, Hollywood obsesses on wizards, kings, Jedi and demigod superheroes. (Ah, Comicon, here we go.)

Set against that most-common context, aren’t the utopian marxists and libertarians more rambunctiously similar than they are different? Elsewhere I go into detail about this strange overlap of ultimate goals… 

…and how the two movements differ profoundly over the path to get there! How to achieve that apotheosis of individual liberty from all want or coercion.  Indeed, I show that neither methodology can possibly work!  

But there is a third approach that demonstrably can take us close to that aim of utopian anarchy. 

== The Great Attractor Trap ==

For starters, it is vital to consider the human past. Across all of those long, dark eras, which failure modes generally thwarted progress?

Let’s all blame Charles Darwin. In every society that developed metals and agriculture, human males were relentlessly rewarded - reproductively - for cheating. We’re all descended from the harems of strong, ruthless guys who used metal implements to coerce others into serving them. And we carry seeds of similar behavior; a fraction of us will seek dark corners of any type of society, using any rationalization and exploit any opportunity to gain advantage and repress competitors. 

Oh, the surface incantations vary. The old USSR was run by a cabal of coercive harem-keepers no less brutal than the czars, only with different surface theology. The current occupants of the Kremlin simply tossed aside their hammer-sickle pins and returned to czarist  catechisms. (See Vladimir Sorokin’s terrifying novel “The Day of the Oprichnik.”)

No, this is less about left-vs-right than finding a sweet-spot optimization that eluded most of our ancestors. We who finally listened to John Locke and Pericles and Adam Smith have benefited from one trick -- never allowing power and authority to concentrate into toxic pools, but spreading it widely enough dispersed to keep cheating below a dull roar.

It’s nuts to shout “cheating” when fellows like Elon form clever alliances that deliver better goods and services. Only one society ever found the trick to truly unleash human inventiveness through competitive enterprise, and it’s the same one that got rich enough to finally tackle old injustices of poverty, prejudice and environmental neglect. Those who disparage the word “competition” would kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

But we also need context on the other side. Again, look back at 6000 years of dubious “civilization” in which those with power used it to crush any competitor who might rise from below. In 99% of human cultures, vast reservoirs of talent were repressed — vigorously and actively — under fabulated excuses based on race, gender, or what caste you were born into. Markets and institutions were warped to benefit the mighty, and priests taught that it was good for the lords’ sons to inherit your sons and daughters.

Any society that doesn’t confront this age-old attractor condition — the great human failure mode — will not take us to that glimmering goal of genuine utopian anarchy.  Even Ayn Rand declared cheating to be a basic problem! She maintained that some state structure would remain needed, to counter it. (Alas, her prescription then plunges into incantatory silliness that I dissect here.)

In the long debate between Hobbes and Rousseau, it remains Locke — followed by Hume and Smith — who comes out as wise. Human societies must find a balance between curbing our cheater-devils and liberating our better angels. Unleashing the greatest creative force in the universe - competition - but regulated (as in sports) to prevent the cheating that would ruin it all. This is ruining it all.

And what works best is to keep erring, progressively, toward freedom.

== Utopian Anarchism ==

Which brings us full circle back to the Musk-Doctorow argument over the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks.

In Iain’s projected future, organic and enhanced bio-humans experience lives of near total freedom, including the ability (projected earlier, in John Varley’s cosmos) to change sexes at-whim. Personal choice and the right to “pursue happiness” are maximized and just about the only thing that’s forbidden is to interfere with others’ right to do the same.  It sure looks like “utopian anarchy”…

…till you realize that there remains a regulatory framework, a guiding hand that is lighter in daily practice, but ultimately far more powerful than Ayn Rand’s “few courthouses.” That hand is wielded by the all-powerful AI entities who actually rule the Culture. Mostly-benevolently, but sometimes with plot-propelling weirdness or agendas of their own.

Ironies abound, here, and I am not leading you to a particular conclusion. 

Sure, Banks wove tales of a future that has inspired brilliant innovators — like Elon — to help propel us starward. Whatever the terminology, I share a dream of humanity achieving levels where state authority (or any kind) can safely “wither away”… to use a phrase coined by Karl Marx. And yes, I have spoken of this at many libertarian events and conferences.

But we are not yet the kind of beings who can reliably put reason ahead of tribal emotions, or act always in enlightened self-interest. Even among our brilliant, fact-centered professions, I’d say we do that at-best on a 30% level.  And half of Americans have been talked into waging open war upon all fact-centered professions! 

Under such conditions, you can see why those who want to re-impose hierarchy — like the Chinese Communist Party — rationalize that it’s the only solution.

They are wrong. Their approach -- under all the high-tech gloss -- is exactly the one that froze and lobotomized most human societies. If it prevails, we will never have the stars.

== A difficult, achievable path ==

Oh, if we look around today it's clear that Hobbes still has a several point advantage over Rousseau. And those of us who still believe in the passionately-moderate, militantly reasonable revolution of Locke — and Adam Smith and the American Founders — have an upward path to slog. A Great Experiment to save. 

And — alas for those eagerly propounding quick-fixes — this will entail using many of the tools we already have. 

Despite setbacks, like phase 8 of the American Civil War, we are on that upward path!  Ironically, Elon and Iain and Corey and Ursula and KS Robinson were all lights along the way.

But to go much farther, we truly will need to include externalities in our market prices. And elevate all children to a level of opportunity where talent stops being wasted and all competition is joyfully flat-open-fair. And ensure that disparities of power no longer entice many to prefer cheating over innovation.

Until we’ve done all that, and taught wiser generations how to apply their sovereign individuality with truly enlightened self-interest, then we’ll still need some Lockean structure. We’ll still need to fight for a civilization that — despite a myriad flows — has been more generously helpful of our long range goals than any other.


duncan cairncross said...

Dr Brin quite rightly supports Musk in the world of ideas
As an engineer I am more biased towards the Physical and I support Musk for the actual Physical changes he has "made"

Not the man himself but his money and direction of a horde of other people
Electric cars
Access to space

I do have one major grumble with Tesla Cars
When I first put my roadster on the road with about 100hp everybody was amazed that an electric car was that fast
I now have close to 500hp - and thanks to Tesla "raising the bar" people are no longer amazed!
They now expect electric cars to be fast

David Brin said...

Yeah, one of many genius Musk insights was catching the moment when rare-earth based motors hit a sudden climb in performance, and no one else (it seems) grasped the meaning. His choice to build a sports can first (!) smashed the old put-put image of electric cars to bits.

dsmccoy said...

This is so important:
"never allowing power and authority to concentrate into toxic pools"
People often take that as a moral judgement, but there is a lot of objective data behind this.
I've watched good people be corrupted by too much power and found this Atlantic article
to be one of the best explanations of the mechanism of that corruption:

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Dr Brin

Musk used induction motors in the Roadster and Model S - X - not a rare earth in sight!

(they were hiding in the battery)

The Model 3 does have a Permanent Magnet motor - presumably with it's rare earths

But yes his choice to build a sports car AND to run with the idea that Electric Cars can be SEXY was the big decider

The other manufacturers STILL have not got that idea - they are all making "sensible shoes" cars
The closest to a "Sexy" car is the IPace - which looks OK until you remember that it's a Jaguar - the company that usually makes super sexy cars - the IPace is a "sensible shoes" car for Jaguar

David Brin said...

Speaking of "genius" ... of the "stable" kind... this is funny and fun... though I won't tout it beyond these walls:

David Brin said...

Ah, thanks Duncan. Though he still was the one who saw that a power/torque takeoff had arrived.

Alfred Differ said...

He has some bright people working for him and he enables them to act. No doubt he lets them convince him of some things too. It's much easier to appear the genius when one gets ones ideas from several talented minds. 8)

How to achieve that apotheosis of individual liberty from all want or coercion.

1. Give them what the want and we will solve the coercion problem later.
2. Free them from coercion and we will solve the wants later.

Both extremes. Both over simplifications.
No doubt their are better paths between them.
One path optimal? Meh. Who knows?
Humans are ensemble testers, so who cares?
We all do if we all DO. 8)

David Brin said...

Alfred I wish you were typical of libertarians.

Most are ingrates who never stop to consider that this is exactly the transitional society they want. The only one that freed enough minds from fear and starvation and dependence and suckled them on Suspicion of Authority... and hence the only one that made millions of.... libertarians.

donzelion said...

To me, the distinction between a libertarian and an anarchist comes down to this:

The new EPA administrator pushed back a rule banning power plants from dumping coal ash in unlined ponds near groundwater. How would various libertarians and anarchists respond?

See the EPA's explanation or Washington Post's coverage.

- To a right-libertarian: well, why should the government interfere? The local people can just contract for clean water. If they have to pay a bit more, it's there fault for opting to live where they do.

- For the rare 'left-libertarian' (a tradition that traces back to John Locke, but is...uncommon), the government ought to nationalize the ponds and hold them as 'commons' - then charge the power companies for their use. Or perhaps even nationalize certain power companies, if power itself is regarded as a 'public good.'

- For most strands of anarchists, by contrast, would more direct responses: if a power company dumps ash in ponds that can reach groundwater, stop them however you can. Moral suasion, direct action, even violence - all are frequent tactics. Over time, anarchists tend to have trouble maintaining cohesive, unified action, absent some overriding, unifying force (a shared religion, say). IIRC, Annareans from Le Guin's world tended to solve this problem by doing away with the coal plant itself (causing quite an obstacle for the protagonist).

Tony Fisk said...

We will refrain from discussing the sad affair of how Musk and his submarine almost sank his company. However, speaking of Tesla, I am most intrigued by reports of a graphene based battery that may extend the range of an eCar to ~800km, with 30 times the recharge rate of a Li-ion battery, and no charge memory or volatility issues.

It sounds too good to be true (and I note the report is two years old). Still worth keeping an eye on.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Tony Fisk

The limiting factor with charging a modern EV is NOT the battery - we can charge most batteries in under 10 minutes

The problem is the power supply and the cable

To charge a 100 kwh battery in 10 minutes would require a 600 Kw power supply - or 1000 amps at 600v

Currently the Teslas have over 500 km range and "refuel" in 30 minutes IMHO after driving for 500 km you SHOULD take a 30 minute break anyway!

jim said...

“We who finally listened to John Locke and Pericles and Adam Smith have benefited from one trick -- never allowing power and authority to concentrate into toxic pools, but spreading it widely enough dispersed to keep cheating below a dull roar”
That “trick” can be seen cropping up in fairly small societies (city states) that have a large component of maritime based trade (Greek city states, Italian city states, the Baltic city states, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the Netherlands and England play such a large role in the modern promotion of this “trick”).

That “trick” gets tried fairly often under the right circumstances what is different this time is that we have been figuring out how to use fossil fuels. Especially important was figuring out how to use that unearned bounty of hydrocarbons to reduce the cost of transportation and communication. And that allows for the vast increase in trade and in the division of labor that we have seen sense the 1700’s. In essence it is figuring out how to use fossil fuels, that has allowed for the spread of the maritime city state type politics to much of the world.

locumranch said...

Human societies must find a balance between curbing our cheater-devils and liberating our better angels. Unleashing the greatest creative force in the universe - competition - but regulated (as in sports) to prevent the cheating that would ruin it all.

As balance between anarchic liberty & oppressive order is the best that any human society can hope for, David's words (above) have never been truer or wiser.

Yet, like Marx & Hitler & the dedicated progressive who assumes the eventual 'withering away' of an oppressive central authority, David fails to realise that we cannot get to this goal of 'Utopian Anarchy' via increased order.

For idealised balance is not to be achieved only by "curbing our cheater-devils and liberating our better angels", but by also UNLEASHING our "cheater-devils" and curbing our "better angels".

This is where all our great ideologue Intentionalists -- whether they be libertarian, collectivist, fascist, communist or progressive -- tend to fail so miserably:

They are all magical thinkers who assume that they can achieve liberty (aka 'LESS order') through increasingly MORE order which is absurd, resulting in the Orwellian conflation of Freedom (anarchy) for Order (slavery).

Individuals, societies & central authorities are quite reluctant to voluntarily relinquish their accumulated vitality, power & authority because (1) we call this 'suicide' and (2) those who relinquish their accumulated vitality, power & authority CEASE TO EXIST, insomuch as those who pursue an ever more angelic individual & society WISH FOR DEATH.

One must DIE to become an angel, you silly twit.


Russell Osterlund said...

There has been in the news a lot of negative press stories concerning Elon Musk that has me wondering about "gods with feet of clay", e.g.:

In this era of 24x7 news coverage, is this a massive smear campaign orchestrated by those with an axe to grind over his success? I would like to still believe there are heroes and exemplars we can all to look to for inspiration and hope for our future.

Larry Hart said...

Blue State Progressives:1, locumranch 0 :

California Will Remain a Single State

There was very little chance that the planned November ballot proposal was going to result in the division of California into three states. First, because the voters were unlikely to go for it. Second, because even if the voters said "yes," the courts were likely to say "no." Third, because even if the courts said "yes," Congress was likely to say "no."

On Wednesday, the courts jumped the line. Before Golden State voters even had a chance to weigh in, the California Supreme Court removed the proposition from the ballot, declaring that, "significant questions have been raised regarding the proposition's validity." And so, pro-break up activists are now batting 0-for-221 since 1850.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

Even today, Hollywood obsesses on wizards, kings, Jedi and demigod superheroes. (Ah, Comicon, here we go.)

Fiction feeds off of the zeitgeist of the times, and it's true that today's superhero comics (and films) reflect the superhero as demigod.

It was not always the case, especially in 1960s and 70s Marvel books. They built their house on the foundation of the superhero as regular people with concerns and problems just like us. No character exemplifies that more than Spider-Man, who tried to use his powers for good, despite not only not being acclaimed or rewarded for such efforts, but actually being vilified by much of the public. The Fantastic Four were explorers first and foremost, and superheroes only because their powers proved useful in the situations they ran into. Even "The Invincible Iron Man" was always one drained battery pack away from death if he wasn't careful. And 1970s Captain America went through the same existential crisis many readers did when the Nixon administration went down the toilet.

Even the most demigod-like hero of them all--Superman--was less about a guy who is superior to human beings as about how that guy chose to use his powers for the good of human beings.

Not to mention tv Batman and Robin as "duly deputized agents of the law".

And even Star Wars (back in 1977) was a very different animal from what the series has become. The demigods were relegated to myth which may or may not be believed, whereas the problem at hand was dealt with by a motley band of irregular everymen.

Larry Hart said...


One must DIE to become an angel, you silly twit.

That's a common misconception about how angels "work". I'm an agnostic, but even I know that.

jim said...

For those who get their theological understanding of angles from the Bible or the Catholic Church, angles are beings distinct from humans or God. Typically thought of as between humans and God in the great chain of being and acting as his messengers.

Locum must be getting his theological understanding from Hollywood movies like Heaven can Wait.

the silly little twit

Zepp Jamieson said...

"Dr Brin quite rightly supports Musk in the world of ideas"

Musk has Great Man Syndrome: his accomplishments are unparalleled, but his flaws are magnified, as well: just was is seen with other Great Men in history; Jefferson, Henry Ford, Churchill.

It doesn't help that some WS traders have been attacking Musk and his endeavours, hoping to get rich by shorting them (25 obvious puns about electric cars ignored here); Musk sometimes shows appalling judgement, most recently when, in a snit over his submersible not being used in the Thailand cave rescue, he called the head of the operation a "paedo".

On balance, though, we're much better off WITH Elon Musk than without him.

locumranch said...

For those who get their theological understanding of angles from the Bible or the Catholic Church, angles are beings distinct from humans or God. Typically thought of as between humans and God in the great chain of being and acting as his messengers.

Playing twit-for-twat with Literal _Larry & Dyslexic_Jim who now claim that human beings cannot become 'better angels' under any circumstances: We agree.

Still confused as to how those who despise the demigod & superhero trope intend to reconcile this with their hero worship of Elon Musk & other frauds.


locumranch said...

I think of this Time article (below) every time some hero-worshiping fool quips how "we're much better off WITH Elon Musk than without him".,28804,1894410_1893837_1894189,00.html

Elie Wiesel called him a "God." His investors called him a "genius." But, proving correct that old adage from the country and western song, you never really know what goes on behind closed doors.

Bernie Madoff, for at least 20 years, ran a Ponzi scheme on thousands of clients, among them the people you and I would consider the best and brightest. Business leaders, celebrities, charities, even some of his own relatives

Enter Elon Musk, the Rainmaker, Super-Genius & Will E.Coyote of the 21st Century.

Exit, Elizabeth Holmes, not so 'super' was she.


Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch | You might be jumping the gun with some of us in concluding we think of Musk as a demigod or superhero. There is a level of respect a bit below that is still above the level of indifference. Granting dignity to those who risk their fortunes and do so according to the rules of fairness should not be mistaken as hero worship. It's simply the secret sauce that gets people to take big risks.

Dignity and Freedom. Grant someone dignity whether they succeed or fail at a venture IF they stick to the common law rules regarding voluntary market participation and avoidance of twisting the rules against their competitors. Give them the freedom to do with their resources what is required by the venture within the common law rules regarding negative externalities. Do both of these and you have the foundation for a 'liberal order' as Hayek described it, though this particular phrasing is McCloskey's.

Old school liberals (some modern libertarians fit this description) have to add one active process to the foundation to have it begin to work. We must occasionally break up power blocs. It is possible to follow common law market rules and still skew them against competitors and future entry. It is in the nature of 'common' law. The rules are discovered/emergent things, so when enough people decide to collude, they make rules the rest of us might not like. The broader group of libertarians might argue we shouldn't have the power to coerce them into breaking up (and I'll partially agree by holding to a preference of not using the State to do it), but they miss the point that negative externalities can hinder others by imposing costs (cost shifting as donzelion likes to point out) and undermine the dignity of others.

jim said...

Oh Jesus Jones,
the phrase is LISTEN to your better angels, not BECOME a better angel.

But weirdly enough, I guess we agree, people are people and they will never be angels.

And I think that it is impossible for human to build a civilization that "achieves the apotheosis of individual liberty from all want or coercion." (maybe angels in heaven or angles in flat land could do it, but not real people)
I think that the best that can be done is to limit what kinds of coercion are allowed and when they are applied. And there is no way to be free of want and even if there was it would likely be horrible for everybody to always get what they want. But it might be possible to provide for everyone's basic needs and provide for the opportunity for self improvement.

Alfred Differ said...

Exit, Elizabeth Holmes, not so 'super' was she

Agreed. You are right that some people are going too far in their hero worship. They want their magical unicorn to solve all their problems.

Not all of us are doing that or so blind as to fail to notice that others are.

Alfred Differ said...

@David | wish you were typical of libertarians

Heh. Hopefully they’ll use their word processors more reliably than I did. That post was so full of mistakes my mother should come back from the dead to smack me for failing to use English as she taught me. 8)

After reading up on the various Libertarian party caucus descriptions, I think I fit in among the pragmatists and would agree with the bottom-unity folks. That means if I dared show up at a convention and get involved, the Audacious caucus would hit me with a pie in the face. (They are the folks who think the Radical caucus sold out.) I’d have to bring an apron and be ready. 8)

I’ve argued for a few years now that your residually sane Republicans ought to leave and join our pragmatists. They’d be welcomed. The libertarians who run around practically naked at conventions would likely keep the social conservatives from following their former allies into our ranks. I understand, though, when they are reluctant. It’s amazing how many people would prefer to be right in the totality of what they want than to win and get part of what they want.

Darrell E said...

Russell Osterlund,

I find myself rather surprised and somewhat disgusted by how polarizing Elon Musk is. Many people hate him and many people love him. I can certainly understand some skepticism towards him, but I really don't get the haters.

And Musk haters are a strange mix. At a technology site I skim regularly, despite the really unattractive comments, Musk is almost uniformly derogated by the regular commenters, mostly engineers who range somewhere along the spectrums of conservative and libertarian. Seems to me Musk is the living embodiment of their ideological dreams and yet nearly all of them ridicule him. Perhaps they are jealous.

At another site I frequent at which the commenters are nearly all on the liberal spectrum and with a large fraction of non-USians a surprising number of people also seem to hate him. "Charlatan" is a common epithet directed at him.

Something that the Musk haters from both of these groups seem to have in common is that they seem to believe all the negative press about Musk and to disbelieve all of the positive press. And there is a lot of bullshit negative press about Musk and has been for a long time because he is disruptive, and people don't like that.

My opinion is that even if Musk drops dead right now that he has already done more to help the human race than most people could ever dream of. Haters poo poo his achievements with SpaceX by arguing that he didn't do anything original, its just rockets and rocket technology is a hundred years old. Same kind of argument for Tesla. And those arguments are pure crap. Willful intellectual dishonesty. But, yeah, Musk should probably get off twitter, for his own sanity if nothing more.

If jealous market players, or those with a vested interest in his failure, don't bring him down Tesla will continue to become more successful. People who actually own Teslas almost uniformly love them. German car companies that have dissected the Model 3 have high praise for it. Shit, Model S owners that have bought Model 3s say in many ways it is considerably better than the S. A US company that specializes in taking things apart to see how they are made and what they cost to make talked shit about the Model 3 when they first got it. But after they got done with their analysis they changed their mind and said they'd have to eat a large plate of crow. Tesla has been one of the most shorted stock on the market and the shorters keep losing their money. A transportation company that uses Model Ss has one with 400,000 miles on it for $15,000 in maintenance costs. It is recently on its 3rd battery pack, all replaced under warranty and they estimate they could get as much as 600,000 more miles before the warranty is expired. So far that's well over $150,000 miles per battery and the batteries have been charged to 100% on superchargers many times a day for their entire life.

SpaceX's big test should play out over the next 10 years. What SpaceX has already accomplished is a market changer. If BFR achieves anything within spitting distance of the design intent it will be a whole new ballgame. The main challenge then will be if SpaceX can survive long enough after that for the rest of the industry to gear up and take advantage of its capabilities. Musk tries to do things that most experts would say is too risky, financially, to attempt. For some reason the more success he has doing those kinds of things the more hate he gets. I don't get it.

Berial said...

@Darrell E

There is a quote from Lincoln that I think applies to a lot of the 'hate' towards Musk.

"People who defend the status quo rarely believe their own words; such is the nature of greed."
- Abraham Lincoln

People that are making a good living off the status quo do NOT like that boat to be rocked.

Alfred Differ said...

To me it looks like this...

Everyone who is visibly successful reminds those of us who do not try what kind of failure we are. They don't even have to open their mouth to remind us.

donzelion said...

Larry Hart: "Even the most demigod-like hero of them all--Superman--was less about a guy who is superior to human beings as about how that guy chose to use his powers for the good of human beings."

Superman is an illegal immigrant and therefore a dangerous criminal, if not a rapist/murderer. DC will never be able to acknowledge that.

"And even Star Wars (back in 1977) was a very different animal from what the series has become. The demigods were relegated to myth which may or may not be believed, whereas the problem at hand was dealt with by a motley band of irregular everymen."
In the '70s and '80s, a statement like "The Force will be with you, always" would have carried a religious intonation in a mostly secularizing crowd (compare Jesus's benediction, "I will be with you always").

Our host properly critiques that sort of demigodery as it can go far afield from its original intent (just as many Christians deviate far from Jesus). But in an era of superstitious attachments and new age spiritualism, a 'secular' transformation of an ancient Christian catechism was disruptive, innovative. Today, it's nostalgic and anti-innovation, as is the case with most fashions.

donzelion said...

Zepp: re Musk

I put all billionaires through a fairly simple assessment: any self-made billionaire made that money through some mix of skill, luck, and cheating (much less so for scions of family fortunes - for them, if the fortune isn't distributed equally, it's much more likely to be 'cheating' that accounts for how it was parceled out). Find out how that mix operates, and one can make plausible guesses as to how investors will be rewarded should they entrust their money to that person. Except we will never find out how that mix operates: opacity abounds, and alongside it, exceptionally skilled craftsmen selling images and narratives to prevent cameras from seeing clearly.

So...Dr. Brin trusts Musk, at least to some extent. SOME Teslas exist, albeit not anywhere close to the numbers that were promised originally. SOME rockets exist, albeit not necessarily at the performance targets NASA requires for human launches. These are evidence of skill.

Then there's the 'pedo' remark: evidence of 'pique.' Lashing out that way at someone who is working to rescue trapped children served no purpose whatsoever - it's the offhand fury of someone who wanted to do something neat, cool, useful, helpful - and was rebuffed as a self-promoting braggart. I'm sure Musk's team was hurt by the comments, and I'm sure he was hurt - on his own behalf, and on behalf of the engineers who built his sub - and then regretted lashing back.

That is an exceptionally curious claim...we will have to compare it with other claims to see whether it's best interpreted as "he was angry and retaliated cruelly" or "he swats aside detractors to block closer scrutiny." If it's the former, then he's merely another guy leading a team of engineers, who gets defensive over their work. If it's the latter, then he's merely another showman selling himself as his greatest product.
Time will tell.

But based on the balance of possibilities, I'm hoping that he's for real (and not placing any bets on the stock). That other 'Brin' who is not our host together with Page - Musk - Zuckerberg - even Gates and Buffett - each built something that just may be a key too a better future, even if along the way, each unlocks all sorts of problems in our present.

Unknown said...

Dr.Brin, it seems your reference to Musk, has dominated the comments, rather than the discussion of the future of humanity. For me, it's always been the example by James P Hogan, in Voyage from Yesteryear. That's my idea of utopia.

Phaedrusnailfile said...

Just to throw in my two cents regarding an excellent novel that I guess portrays a utopia. Adiamante by L.E. Modessitt portrays a society on earth living in harmony with nature that squared off against a group of humans that have gone off to the stars and enhanced themselves with various technologies. I won't go into much detail as I don't want to give the whole thing away it is a relatively short book. I also seem to recall a pretty good series involving dolphins and creatures that are like a bunch of giant gummy life savers stacked to gather but the authors name escapes me. Oh well maybe I will remember later.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

Speaking of "genius" ... of the "stable" kind...

Heh. That one has some rhymes and wordplay worthy of "Hamilton"

Tony Fisk said...

Musk's sub-stunt was a case of towering ego being toppled. He has since (somewhat sulkily) apologised for his remarks.

He is a 'stunt' man, I suppose. Many don't work so well. A few fail spectacularly (see above). More than enough (reusable rockets, SA battery storage) come through for him to stay in the game as far I'm concerned.

Alfred Differ said...

He doesn't see himself as a stunt man. He's honestly motivated to make the world better.

As for the sub... well... other people are capable of making the world better too.
Suck it up and get back to work. 8)

David Brin said...

Pre-Musk... electric cars are jokes. Now, every car company on the planet is rushing their transition.

Pre-Musk, rockets to space were expendable. Now it is blatant any company that is still throwing away one-time rockets in five years will be extinct in six.

Pre-Musk, Battery storage of large scale electricity was an absurd proposition. Now load levelling via battery packs has joined our list of viable options.

And now we are re-examining our transportation networks for hyperloops and new modes of using the downward dimension to go under gridlock.

I could go on, but that's enough. We can argue whether there are faults. The guy's net-positive effects are iarguable by orders of magnitude. Criticize power! But rflexive hating is just SoA that's lazy and metastacized.

duncan cairncross said...

Musk wasn't the only one with the ideas

But ideas are like arseholes - everybody has one!

He WAS the one who had the resources and the drive and the sheer chutzpah to make those thing happen

THAT is what very very rich people are SUPPOSED to do - drive the changes that the beancounters won't support

Like the Harriman in "The Man who sold the Moon"

The horrible thing is Musk is the ONLY one I can think of

locumranch said...

Musk has 'good intentions': He 'doesn't see himself' as a stunt man; He's 'honestly motivated' to make the world better; He 'means well'; and 'Dr Brin quite rightly' supports one person or position.

Add these comments to the never ending reports about what Trump & others REALLY 'mean', 'intend', 'think', 'believe' and 'feel', and one can almost become convinced that Lensman-like telepathy is really & truly a thing.

Never in the history of the world has 'mind-reading' been so prevalent & have so many been so 'certain' about the unconfirmed intentions of the other.

Never before has so much 'fact-using' existed in a fact-free environment.


David Brin said...

Numb skull. It's not mind-reading to see that every single strength that won us the cold war is being systematically dismantled. Nor is it to notice that every skill is under attack.

Or that every day is a festival of pyrotechnic and blatantly refutable lies.

Or that you loonies run away from wagers.

My list of Musk accomplishments wasn't 'mind-reading" and had nothing to do with what he 'meant' - only what he accomplsied. What have YOU accomplished?

Larry Hart said...

...or that Trump doesn't exactly hide who and what he is and has always been. His most deplorable actions are perfectly in line with his established character.

If any mind reading is being purported, it is by those who try to offer alternate explanations of how Trump isn't really saying or doing what everyone can clearly see before their eyes and ears.

Russell Osterlund said...

@Darrell E:

Thank you for your observations concerning Elon Musk. They have reminded me to "keep the faith" (though with some of the comments flying around here, that might be a poor choice of phrasing). Gates, Buffett, Musk -- there are so few giving back today.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. The 'faith' point is worth looking at. It is very easy to place faith with other people and then be disappointed when they prove to be 'merely' human. Faith in this sense is 'loyalty to' the object in which we place our faith. When we choose something less than transcendent we can be disappointed when we expected transcendence.

People are people. Sure enough. Yet there are times when people exemplify a transcendent idea and we are drawn to them for that fact. Placing faith in the transcendent makes sense as it creates within us part of our personal identity. I am for X and will support people who exemplify X, thus expressing my loyalty to X.

Making the mistake of placing faith in people who exemplify an ideal instead of the ideal itself is a Commandment #1 error. It is a very easy error to make because we can delude ourselves by maintaining a very fuzzy distinction between "X" and "Person who exemplifies X" and "Symbol that exemplifies X."

There is no doubt that Musk exemplifies an ideal (at the moment) that many of us hold dear. Those of us who are supportive of him need to keep in mind this distinction and occasionally check our possible delusions against what the detractors are saying. Musk is merely human, but our support might help him and those employed by him to continue down paths that bring about the ideals we want. Attention to their failings are just as important, though, because we can help provide guidance when they stray a bit.

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch | My 'degree of separation' from Musk is 1 I believe, but the connection leads through about two dozen people. When I make statements about what he believes, they are based on what a number of people closer to him (direct connections) say including some who aren't enamored by him.

The worst I've seen from people closer to him is concerns that he is trying to take on far more than he can succeed at, thus a failure in one venture will impact others. That he believes in himself is universally accepted among my connectors closer to him. That he intends to make the future better and will put up with all the trash talk to do it is also universally accepted. He exemplifies 'bourgeois courage' extremely well. Some of the elements of his faiths are also pretty obvious when one talks directly to people who know him.

It's entirely possible he can fall. He wouldn't be the first I've known to do that. When I was first involved in work to open the space frontier, my separation was 0 from a man who was wealthy enough to pitch several million dollars at multiple projects. There was no doubt in the minds of many of us near to him that he intended to make the world a better place. That wasn't enough, though, and a few years later he was arrested as the biggest tax cheat in US history. The IRS obviously had a very different view of him. I know for a fact that he felt he was following the law and making use of legal loopholes. Unfortunately, he was acting as his own tax adviser. Self-delusion is VERY easy to do, so when his legal interpretations didn't hold up in court, off he went in an orange jumpsuit. My faith in the ideal he advocated is unharmed. My faith in him vanished and I learned a useful lesson. Objects of faith must be larger than people or communities of people.

Larry Hart said...

Alfred Differ:

and a few years later he was arrested as the biggest tax cheat in US history.

Whoever you're talking about, I suspect he will soon drop to #2 on the charts.

The biggest tax cheat in US history hasn't been proven so yet in a court of law, but time will tell.

locumranch said...

All the good intentions in the world & $3 USD will (just barely) buy you a cup of Starbucks Coffee, insomuch as 'good intentions' are worth nada, zip & zero, as evidenced by a certain excitable little German who once sported an even littler mustache while trying to (unsuccessfully) perfect both humanity & human society.

I therefore piss on your good intentions until the outcome of said intentions is a done-deal & a fait accompli, just as the rest of you tend to piss on the good-hearted but malpracticing physician who 'meant well' but slaughters his patients.

Likewise, all the malevolent intentions in the world mean little or nothing if & when they result in a beneficently marvelous outcome, as exemplified by the Trumpster's recent attempt to normalise relations with the West's historically totalitarian Russian enemy, irregardless of the baseness of the relevant intentions and/or motivations.

Whereas you are all 'ingrates' of the intentionalist variety, I have learnt that the best & most competent surgeons tend to be absolutely evil bastards (rather than 'angels') personality-wise.


Cererean said...

"Let’s all blame Charles Darwin. In every society that developed metals and agriculture, human males were relentlessly rewarded - reproductively - for cheating. We’re all descended from the harems of strong, ruthless guys who used metal implements to coerce others into serving them. And we carry seeds of similar behavior; a fraction of us will seek dark corners of any type of society, using any rationalization and exploit any opportunity to gain advantage and repress competitors."

I didn't take you for a neoreactionary, Brin. But you seem to be saying here that human inclinations are heritable - and it's not far from that to asking how recent selection could have shaped different populations. For example, how groups west of the Hajnal line might have been shaped differently to those east of it...

duncan cairncross said...

There is a "Heritable" part to almost everything - but humans are incredibly "plastic" so the heritable part does not cause behaviour but it does cause inclination and ignoring that is just silly

sociotard said...

But talking about inclination at all is a minefield of racism and nationalism.

Alfred Differ said...

piss on your good intentions

A man without hope. Explains a lot.

malpracticing physician who 'meant well' but slaughters his patients

A lot of us don't piss on them until we can see that 'meant well' really should have been better informed by education. Advocate homeopathy for my earlier colon cancer, convince me of your truth, and after my death my relatives might come after you. Advocate something that is more evidence based and fail to save my sorry behind and they likely won't. [This will be tested first with one of my sisters unless she gets lucky.]

If you've been burned by one of these lawsuits, I'm partially sympathetic... depending on what you supposedly did. I think too many of us are inclined to blame doctors for being less than omniscient. We watch way too much competence porn on TV I think. Life doesn't work that way.

Alfred Differ said...

@Larry Hart | he will soon drop to #2 on the charts

I SURE hope so.

The current record holder really DID mean well.
I don't believe that for a moment for the possible record holder.

Libertarian views regarding taxation have a piss-poor record in court. It would be nice if actual, intentional criminals held the records, though. 8)

David Brin said...

See where it is now explicit and no longer a metaphor. The ones who shouted "MAGA!" loudest are exposed as the deepest traitors. But we already knew that here.

They are proudly know-nothing, in service to blatantly and openly-avowed evil, and laugh hysterically when confronted. Fresh from Comicon, I can tell you that any comic book writer would be embarrassed to pen such openly-unembarrassed villains. This only parallel is 12 year old playground bullies named "Butch."

Larry Hart said...

@Dr Brin,

That's what MAGA-wearing Trump supporters like about him--he gives them permission to let their inner 12-year-old bully be out and proud.

That's why I want to have a hat made with the letters moved around: AWGA. "America Was Great Already!"

Zepp Jamieson said...

@donzelion " SOME Teslas exist, albeit not anywhere close to the numbers that were promised originally. SOME rockets exist, albeit not necessarily at the performance targets NASA requires for human launches."

The model 3 has reached the 5,000/week goal set by the company, and is expected to be over 8,000/week by the end of August. Over half the electric vehicles on the road are Teslas. I'll posit that his rockets have achieved a higher level of performance than any other startup space project. (I'm old enough to remember when they spoke with straight faces about shuttle launches every week, and the joke about the American rocket countdown: "Three, Two, One, Oh, Shit") Perfect? No. Extraordinary? Yes.

About half of America's billionaires did nothing to earn their first million, and as the GINI index worsens, that trend will strengthen. We have what the Founders most dreaded: an entrenched moneyed class that uses government, religion and corporate power to maintain control. Brin's "Gnomes of Zurich", only on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.

Zepp Jamieson said...

@Dr. Brin "See where it is now explicit and no longer a metaphor. The ones who shouted "MAGA!" loudest are exposed as the deepest traitors. But we already knew that here."

The most amazing creatures in the party of Know-Nothings are the ones who remain utterly convinced that Trump is a patriot. On of them emailed me an utterly demented screed yesterday about how Rachel Maddow was going to stage a coup on Saturday and have Trump beheaded on the East Lawn. He knew I considered Maddow a good news source and just wanted to warn me of her perfidy.

Should images emerge tomorrow of Maddow in a Kathy Griffin pose with a defunct president, I'll be sure to apologise to him.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Zepp
"About half of America's billionaires did nothing to earn their first million"

Disagree - it's actually over 95% that did nothing

The ones that said they didn't "inherit" it were given it by their still living millionaire families

Ahcuah said...

@Zepp: " On of them emailed me an utterly demented screed yesterday about how Rachel Maddow was going to stage a coup on Saturday and have Trump beheaded on the East Lawn."

You should have made a Brin Bet with him.

Larry Hart said...

Bob Neinast:

@Zepp: " On of them emailed me an utterly demented screed yesterday about how Rachel Maddow was going to stage a coup on Saturday and have Trump beheaded on the East Lawn."

You should have made a Brin Bet with him.

That would be a win either way!

Larry Hart said...

Zepp Jamieson:

The most amazing creatures in the party of Know-Nothings are the ones who remain utterly convinced that Trump is a patriot.

They detest NFL players for disrespecting the flag and the national anthem, but they proudly display confederate symbols of an armed rebellion against the United States.

During the cold war, they used to screech at liberals that we should "go back to Russia" since we (supposedly) hated America. Who knew that they were projecting even then?

Zepp Jamieson said...

Re: Brin bet. I've tried getting him to back his notions with a wager before. He always backs off.
One right wing acquaintance posted a meme the other day, an image of some student cold-cocking another student for not standing for the pledge. I commented, "So much for HIS civil rights!". To my amazement, my acquaintance responded, agreeing with me. He likes to annoy liberals, but if one of us challenges him in an intelligent manner, he'll reciprocate. We have a good back and forth about the role of state laws in upholding constitutional mandates now.
He's what I consider a "small mouth libertarian"--not a Randroid, and recognizes that in any society, of necessity at least 30% of the population cannot or should not work, and that a society that doesn't protect them isn't worth having.

dera said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Brin said...

Zepp, your friend sounds exactly like the sort of "ostrich" who could become a true patriot, if drawn out of his head hole.

Ask him to consider what will happen to conservatism and market economics if oligarchy goes wild. SHouldn't he be angry at the oligarchs for hijacking American conservatism, and eager to rescue it by preserving something of its soul? A phoenix will only rise from the ashes if the Trump-Murdoch-Putin-Koch-Mercer putsch is fully burnt out.

The key is to get away from Fox. But while I hate the man, George F. Will is saying things that ostriches might actually hear.

locumranch said...

In essence, what Blue Urban progressives like David are attempting to do is to entice the Red Rural identity group into joining the "Let's despise the Red Rural identity group" club.

As conceits go, it's supremely absurd, being analogous to asking an Israeli to support the destruction of Israel or a black teenager to join the KKK.

The Civil War (Part Deux) will therefore proceed as scheduled, unless or until the Blue Urban progressive contingent offers up some sort of genuine concession or compromise to the venerable Red Rural opposition.

This the Blue Urban progressive simply cannot do, as the very idea of compromise or concession is 'inconceivable' to this & any other identity group which considers itself not only merely right, but really most sincerely right.

Like Alfred's insane demand for complete Russian 'capitulation' prior to the normalisation of US & Russia relations.


Larry Hart said...

I just realized what the Republican Party and their enthusiastic abandonment of principle reminds me of...

The Sneetches.

In the Dr. Seuss book, the star-bellied Sneetches considered themselves the betters of the plain-bellied Sneetches. But after a slick salesguy gave the plain-bellies their own stars, the star-bellies promptly removed their own stars, and their slogan became, "The best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without!"

The principles that Republicans used to espouse--fiscal responsibility, character mattering, loving the country--are analogous to the stars. Republicans used to promote themselves as superior by dint of having those principles, but now, "The best kind of Republicans are Republicans without!"

Deuxglass said...

Ah France! Never a dull moment!

Deuxglass said...

My hats are off to them. Who but the French could come up with a political situation that even novelists could not have invented. Winston Churchill said that the French are the most talented people in Europe and this is a beautiful example. American scandals pale by comparison. The funny thing is that th French have been having the most inventive scandals for 1500 years or so and yet they prosper throughout it all nd even end up on top (so to speak). They are inventive, imaginative, tolerant given to wonderful flights of fantasy in just about every domain yet I have rarely meet a people so hard-nosed at the same time.

David Brin said...



Duncan Ocel said...


You regularly express that our "great experiment" is a special case, where a diamond-shaped society has formed, and where culture and scientific development can flourish. Because of my familiarity with your novels and your blog entries, I was not surprised to see your assertion in this post that "only one society ever found the trick to truly unleash human inventiveness through competitive enterprise." I know you usually favor modern society, to the point that I sometimes question whether you suffer from the "newer is better" fallacy. Because I frequently suffer from the "older is better" fallacy, I would like you to consider the possibility that your statement is incorrect.

A big reason that our society appears to be such a success is because it rides, for a large part, on the shoulders of our ancestors. I cannot cite any specific examples without doing some research, but I believe it is possible that some past societies have had competition active at some nonbiological level, whether between individuals vying for work or acceptance or between schools of thought, and that these societies developed new science and thriving economies as a result. It is easy to say that a group of people who did not have transistors or plastics did not have scientific and economic development to the same extent as us denizens of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but they may have, and we cannot evaluate this question by looking solely at level of technological development; we must look at rates of change, or perhaps even rates of change per population. If we restrict ourselves to this metric, it becomes much harder to prove that modern society really is the only instance in which competition has been well-harnessed.

Anecdotally, it is certainly possible that a classical power like Greece developed crafts, sciences, agriculture, and/or medicine at as fast a rate per capita as we are now doing, all because of competition between Greek city-states. I just want to make sure your future-facing, optimistic view of the present is well contrived.