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Posts Tagged ‘1984

“We’re long on high principles and short on simple human understanding”*…

Really, most science fiction is about economics. What makes most future visions interesting is not just the technical particulars of the cool new Stuff, but the social ramifications. Here are some of the sci-fi books that I thought dealt with important economic issues in the most insightful and interesting ways. I also chose only books that I think are well-written, with well-conceived characters, engaging plots, and skillful writing.

1. A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

In addition to being quite possibly the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read, Deepness is also a great meditation on public economics. When Vernor Vinge became famous in the 80s, he was a hard-core libertarian – his novel The Peace War, and its sequel short story “The Ungoverned”, are like a Real Business Cycle model come to life, with lone-wolf genius engineers teaming up with private police forces to bring down a fascist technocratic government made up of…university administrators. Ha. But by the 90s, Vinge’s views on government and markets had become markedly more nuanced – in the swashbuckling space opera A Fire Upon the Deep, we see private security forces failing miserably when faced with a powerful external threat (in fact, that book made me think of the “Tamerlane Principle“). Security, Vinge realizes, is a public good.

In Deepness, Vinge adds another public good: Research. The narrative of Deepness is split between a race of spider-people with roughly 20th-century technology, and a spacefaring guild of human merchants called the Qeng Ho. On the spider world, the protagonist is a brilliant scientist named Sherkaner Underhill, who is basically a Von Neumann or Feynman type. Sherkaner is the ultimate lone genius, but he ends up needing the government to fund his research. In space, meanwhile, the heroic merchant entrepreneur Pham Nuwen (who is a recurring protagonist in Vinge novels) struggles to decide whether he should turn his merchant fleet into an interstellar government. Governments, he finds, are good at producing really new scientific breakthroughs, but eventually they become unwieldy and stifle the economy and society, then collapse under their own institutional weight. The very very end of the book is – or at least, seemed to me to be – a metaphor for the Great Stagnation and the death (and future rebirth) of Big Science…

Seventeen other wonderful recommendations from the always-insightful economist and social/political analyst Noah Smith (@Noahpinion): “Science fiction novels for economists.” (Your correspondent has read many/most of them and enthusiastically seconds the suggestions.)

* Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky

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As we celebrate informative speculation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that George Orwell published his masterpiece of dystopian speculative fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and introduced terms like “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “Newspeak,” and “Memory hole” into the vernacular.

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“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”*…

A bonfire burned on Berlin’s most important thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, just opposite the Friedrich Wilhelm University on May 10, 1933. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost 40,000, a group of students marched toward the flames, carrying the bust of the Jewish intellectual Magnus Hirschfeld, and threw it atop thousands of seized books by other “un-German” writers. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms gave the Heil Hitler salute, while similar scenes took place in 90 other locations across Germany. The bonfires were a warning sign of the attack on knowledge about to be unleashed by the Nazi regime; more than 100 million books may have been destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is no political power without power over the archive,” the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote in his classic work Archive Fever. Authoritarian rulers have long understood the truth of this statement. But what does it mean in the Digital Age?

To many, libraries seem less important than ever—everything’s online, isn’t it? Yet control of knowledge remains a key battleground in the fight for democracy. At the outset of the Trump presidency in January 2017, his adviser Kellyanne Conway was claiming “alternate facts.” By the end of his presidency, after years of dishonesty, Trump sought to reverse his electoral loss with a “firehose of falsehood” strategy, persisting with the obfuscation even after a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol.

Protecting democracies against “alternate facts” means capturing the truth as well as statements that deny it, so that open societies have reference points to trust and rely on. For over three millennia, librarians and archivists have developed systems, methodologies, techniques and an ethos for preservation to ensure that knowledge persists. Their focus on facts underpins integrity in public decision-making; enables a sense of place in our communities; and ensures diversity of ideas, opinions and memory.

By contrast, recent cases of “book-burning” remind us of how ominous the destruction of information is. During the Bosnian War, the mass murder of humans went alongside the destruction of libraries and archives. Serb forces targeted the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina with incendiary shells in August 1992, while forces raided provincial archives across the country to destroy records of land ownership as a means of eradicating the official memory of where Muslims had lived. Millions of books and documents in libraries and archives all over Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed in the ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia—attacks that became part of the charge sheets at the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia.

Officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroyed documents on a massive scale too. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hampered by this; in its final report, it devoted an entire section to the destruction of records. “The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory,” it said. “The tragedy is that the former government deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitize the history of oppressive rule.”

In Iraq, after the American-led coalition invaded in 2003, U.S. forces moved many of the key state records to the United States, where some, such as the archives of the Ba’ath Party, remained until recently. Just as the eradication of records can presage violence, the recent return of these documents can, I hope, form part of a process of national “truth and reconciliation” in Iraq.

Librarians today are not the stereotype of tweed-wearing introverts obsessed with enforcing silence. They are skilled professionals, often with subject-domain specialisms, adept at navigating physical and digital forms of knowledge–trained in project management and budgetary controls, and well-versed in deploying new technologies to support the public in identifying bogus online information, while using digitization to preserve fragile documents.

Digital technology lends itself to extraordinary archival projects, as in the work of the organization Mnemonic, whose Syrian Archive contains millions of online records about the civil war, alongside a Yemeni Archive and a Sudanese Archive, providing historians, journalists and international criminal lawyers the information to understand these conflicts. Other archival projects online include the Xinjiang Victims Database, which aims to document the Chinese campaign against the Uyghurs and other indigenous groups in northwest China.

As for institutional libraries and archives, they are highly trusted by the public—yet are experiencing declining levels of funding. This is happening when knowledge is increasingly held in digital form, controlled not by public institutions but by tech companies. How can we protect society from the “power over the archive” exercised by private corporations? Greater regulation should sit alongside a new role for libraries as citizens’ data sanctuaries, accountable to the public, and funded by a tax on tech-industry profits.

Looking back at the Nazi book-burnings in 1933, this low moment for human truth had lesser-known responses that should not be forgotten. Exactly a year later, on May 10, 1934, the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library, also known as the German Library of Burnt Books) opened in Paris, founded by German-Jewish writer Alfred Kantorowicz, with support from writers and intellectuals such as André Gide, Bertrand Russell and Heinrich Mann. Rapidly, it collected more than 20,000 volumes—not just the books that had been targeted for burning in Germany but also copies of key Nazi texts, in order to help understand the emerging regime.

The Brooklyn Jewish Center in New York established an American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in December 1934, with noted intellectuals on its advisory board, including Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair. The library proclaimed itself a means of preserving and promoting Jewish culture at a time of renewed oppression.

If we are to heed George Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four—“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”—then we must ensure that libraries and archives have the resources and public support to serve as our guardians of knowledge.

Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden (@richove), author of the essential (and gripping) Burning the Books- A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, explains why rampant dishonesty reminds us that we must preserve documents. Even– indeed, especially– in the Digital Age, archivists are crucial: “Facts in Flames.

Your correspondent supports institutional archives like Richard’s (Oxford’s Bodleian Library), the Harvard Libraries, and The New York Public Library; and the digital archive that’s the mother of them all, the remarkable Internet Archive. You might consider contributing to them or to the archives of your choice.

And, of course, we should all support our public libraries, which democratize access to information and knowledge and build community in ways that are critical to a healthy society and to constructive civil discourse.

* George Orwell, 1984

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As we prioritize preservation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that fiery hot molasses poured into the streets of Boston, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others– the Great Boston Molasses Flood:

The United States Industrial Alcohol building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and Boston was experiencing some unseasonably warm weather as workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. An eight-foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them.

The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally knocked over the local firehouse and then pushed over the support beams for the elevated train line. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-year-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. Nearly $1 million [over $15.5 million in today’s dollars] was paid in settlement of the claims…

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“The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become”*…

 

Octavia Butler

 

Tim Maughan, an accomplished science fiction writer himself, considers sci-fi works from the 1980s and 90s, and their predictive power.  Covering Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Steven King, P.D. James, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Bladerunner, he reserves special attention for a most deserving subject…

When you imagine the future, what’s the first date that comes into your mind? 2050? 2070? The year that pops into your head is almost certainly related to how old you are — some point within our lifetimes yet distant enough to be mysterious, still just outside our grasp. For those of us growing up in the 1980s and ’90s — and for a large number of science fiction writers working in those decades — the 2020s felt like that future. A decade we would presumably live to see but also seemed sufficiently far away that it could be a world full of new technologies, social movements, or political changes. A dystopia or a utopia; a world both alien and familiar.

That future is, of course, now…

Two science fiction books set in the 2020s tower over everything else from that era in their terrifying prescience: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). These books by the late master kick off in 2024 Los Angeles and are set against a backdrop of a California that’s been ravaged by floods, storms, and droughts brought on by climate change. Middle- and working-class families huddle together in gated communities, attempting to escape the outside world through addictive pharmaceuticals and virtual reality headsets. New religions and conspiracy theory–chasing cults begin to emerge. A caravan of refugees head north to escape the ecological and social collapse, while a far-right extremist president backed by evangelical Christians comes to power using the chillingly familiar election slogan Make America Great Again.

Although it now feels like much of Butler’s Parable books might have been pulled straight from this afternoon’s Twitter or tonight’s evening news, some elements are more far-fetched. The second book ends with followers of the new religion founded by the central character leaving Earth in a spaceship to colonize Alpha Centauri. Butler originally planned to write a third book following the fates of these interstellar explorers but, sadly, passed away in 2005 before she had a chance. She left us with a duology that remains more grounded and scarily familiar to those of us struggling to come to terms with the everyday dystopias that the real 2020s seem to be already presenting us.

Not that this remarkable accuracy was ever her objective.

“This was not a book about prophecy; this was an if-this-goes-on story,” Butler said about the books during a talk at MIT in 1998. “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is I certainly hope not.”

In the same talk, Butler describes in detail the fears that drove her to write this warning: the debate over climate change, the eroding of workers’ rights, the rise of the private prison industry, and the media’s increasing refusal to talk about all of these in favor of focusing on soundbite propaganda and celebrity news. Again, these are fears that feel instantly familiar today…

What Blade Runner, cyberpunk– and Octavia Butler– had to say about the age we’re entering now: “How Science Fiction Imagined the 2020s.”

* William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

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As we honor prophets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1984 that Apple aired an epoch-making commercial, “1984” (directed by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott),  during Superbowl XVIII– for the first and only time.  Two days later, the first Apple Macintosh went on sale.

 

Written by LW

January 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity”*…

 

Some essays are letters into the future. “The Prevention of Literature” is one such essay, and today I’d like to respond to it from 2018.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism makes literature impossible. By literature, he means all kinds of writing in prose, from imaginative fiction to political journalism; he suggests that verse might slip through the cracks. He writes, too, that there is such a thing as “groups of people who have adopted a totalitarian outlook”—single-truth communities of sorts, not just totalitarian regimes or entire countries. These are deadly to literature as well.

Orwell was writing in 1946, five or seven years before scholarly works by Hannah Arendt, on the one hand, and Karl Friedrich, on the other, provided the definitions of totalitarianism that are still in use today. Orwell’s own “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which provides the visceral understanding of totalitarianism that we still conjure up today, was a couple of years away. Orwell was in the process of imagining totalitarianism—he had, of course, never lived in a totalitarian society.

He imagined two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he called schizophrenia. He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” The lying entailed constantly rewriting the past to accommodate the present. “This kind of thing happens everywhere,” he wrote, “but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”

Orwell was right. The totalitarian regime rests on lies because they are lies. The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth—must not, in fact, believe them—but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality. She must believe nothing. Just as Orwell predicted, over time the totalitarian regime destroys the very concept, the very possibility of truth. Hannah Arendt identified this as one of the effects of totalitarian propaganda: it makes everything conceivable because “nothing is true.”

As for what he called “schizophrenia,” this, too, has been borne out. In 1989, as the longest-running totalitarian experiment in the world, the U.S.S.R., neared what then appeared to have been its demise, a great sociologist named Yuri Levada and his team undertook a large study of Soviet society. He concluded that the Soviet person’s very self-concept depended on a constant negotiation of mutually exclusive perceptions: the Soviet person identified strongly with the great Soviet state and its grand experiment, and yet felt himself to be insignificant; he worshipped at the altar of modernity and progress, and yet lived in conditions of enforced poverty, often deprived of modern conveniences that even the poor in the West had come to take for granted; he believed in egalitarianism and resented evident inequality, yet accepted the extreme hierarchical order and rigid class structure of Soviet society. To live in his world—simply to function day to day, balancing between contradictory perceptions—the Soviet person had to engage in constant negotiations. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Orwell predicted this negotiation, and named it doublethink. You will recall that “even to understand the word doublethink involved the use of doublethink.” Doublethink destroyed the mind and crushed the soul, and yet it was essential for survival. It killed as it saved, and that, too, is doublethink.

But perhaps Orwell’s most valuable observation in this essay concerns instability. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he wrote, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on the pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.” Orwell had observed the disfavor and disappearance of prominent Bolsheviks and the resulting adjustments to the official narratives of the Revolution—the endlessly changing and vanishing commissars. Arendt argued that the instability was, in fact, the point and purpose of the purges: the power of the regime depended not so much on eliminating particular men at particular moments but on the ability to eliminate any man at any moment. Survival depended on one’s sensitivity to the ever-changing stories and one’s ability to mold oneself to them.

But why, exactly, did Orwell think all this was so destructive to literature?…

The marvelous Masha Gessen explains in her important essay (adapted from a lecture delivered in Barcelona at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona on June 6, 2018, in honor of Orwell Day), “George Orwell predicted the challenge of writing today.

C.f. also Cass Sunstein’s piece in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, “It Can Happen Here.”

* George Orwell

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As we say no to non-sense, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that “Liberty Enlightening the World”– a symbol of anti-totalitarian democracy and a token of friendship from the French to the U.S. that is better known these day as the “Statue of Liberty”– entered New York Harbor.  Encased in more than 200 crates, the statue was reassembled, placed on its pedestal on (what was then known as) Bedloe’s Island, then dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in October, 1886.

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Written by LW

June 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience”*…

 

In 1949, George Orwell received a curious letter from his former high school French teacher.

Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. His French teacher, as it happens, was none other than Aldous Huxley who taught at Eton for a spell before writing Brave New World (1931), the other great 20th century dystopian novel.

Huxley starts off the letter praising the book, describing it as “profoundly important.” He continues, “The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.”

Then Huxley switches gears and criticizes the book, writing, “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.”…

Read the letter in full at “Huxley to Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours.”

See also Neil Postman’s and Alan Moore’s agreement.

* Aldous Huxley, in his letter to George Orwell

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As we question authority, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966, the date that LSD was declared illegal, that The Love Pageant Rally was held in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  The first big free concert of it’s sort in the park, it was organized by Allen Cohen and artist Michael Bowen, the creators of the San Francisco Oracle, which first hit the streets in September 1966, to mark the banning of the drug– which effectively created a neighborhood of outlaws in the Haight, where acid was a staple of community culture.  Music was provided by the Grateful Dead and by Big Brother and the Holding Company; Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were on hand.

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Written by LW

October 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

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