Tag Archives: Fiction

The Uploaded

In this post I again contrast my analysis of future ems in Age of Em with a fictional depictions of ems, and find that science fiction isn’t very realistic, having other priorities. Today’s example: The Uploaded, by Ferrett Steinmetz:

The world is run from the afterlife, by the minds of those uploaded at the point of death. Living is just waiting to die… and maintaining the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life of servitude. Turns out he’s not the only one who wants to change the world.

The story is set 500 years and 14 human generations after a single genius invented ems. While others quickly found ways to copy this tech, his version was overwhelming preferred. (In part due to revelations of “draconian” competitor plans.) So much so that he basically was able to set the rules of this new world, and to set them globally. He became an immortal em, and so still rules the world. His rules, and the basic tech and econ arrangement, have remained stable for those 500 years, during which there seems to have been vastly less tech change and economic growth than we’ve seen in the last 500 years.

His rules are the these: typically when a biological humans dies, one emulation of them is created who is entitled to eternal leisure in luxurious virtual realities. That one em runs at ordinary human speed, no other copies of it are allowed, ems never inhabit android physical bodies, and ems are never created of still living biological humans. By now there are 15 times as many ems as humans, and major decisions are made by vote, which ems always win. Ems vote to divert most resources to their servers, and so biological humans are poor, their world is run down, and diseases are killing them off.

Virtual realities are so engaging that em parents can’t even be bothered to check in on their young children now in orphanages. But a few ems get bored and want to do useful jobs, and they take all the nice desk jobs. Old ems are stuck in their ways and uncreative, preventing change. Biological humans are only needed to do physical jobs, which are boring and soul-crushing. It is illegal for them to do programming. Some ems also spend lots of time watching via surveillance cameras, so biological humans are watched all the time.

Every day every biological human’s brain is scanned and evaluated by a team of ems, and put into one of five status levels. Higher levels are given nicer positions and privileges, while the lowest levels are not allowed to become ems. Biological humans are repeatedly told they need to focus on pleasing their em bosses so they can get into em heaven someday. To say more, I must give spoilers; you are warned. Continue reading "The Uploaded" »

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Beware Covert War Morality Tales

For years I’ve been saying that fiction is mainly about norm affirmation:

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice. In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on. (more)

People fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying. Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. (more)

Our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence. (more) Continue reading "Beware Covert War Morality Tales" »

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The Ems of Altered Carbon

People keep suggesting that I can’t possibly present myself as an expert on the future if I’m not familiar with their favorite science fiction (sf). I say that sf mostly pursues other purposes and rarely tries much to present realistic futures. But I figure should illustrate my claim with concrete examples from time to time. Which brings us to Altered Carbon, a ten episode sf series just out on Netflix, based on a 2002 novel. I’ve watched the series, and read the novel and its two sequels.

Altered Carbon’s key tech premise is a small “stack” which can sit next to a human brain collecting and continually updating a digital representation of that brain’s full mental state. This state can also be transferred into the rest of that brain, copied to other stacks, or placed and run in an android body or a virtual reality. Thus stacks allow something much like ems who can move between bodies.

But the universe of Altered Carbon looks very different from my description of the Age of Em. Set many centuries in future, our descendants have colonized many star systems. Technological change then is very slow; someone revived after sleeping for centuries is familiar with almost all the tech they see, and they remain state-of-the-art at their job. While everyone is given a stack as a baby, almost all jobs are done by ordinary humans, most of whom are rather poor and still in their original body, the only body they’ll ever have. Few have any interest in living in virtual reality, which is shown as cheap, comfortable, and realistic; they’d rather die. There’s also little interest in noticeably-non-human android bodies, which could plausibly be pretty cheap.

Regarding getting new very-human-like physical bodies, some have religious objections, many are disinterested, but most are just too poor. So most stacks are actually never used. Stacks can insure against accidents that kill a body but don’t hurt the stack. Yet while it should be cheap and easy to backup stack data periodically, inexplicibly only rich folks do that.

It is very illegal for one person to have more than one stack running at a time. Crime is often punished by taking away the criminal’s body, which creates a limited supply of bodies for others to rent. Very human-like clone and android bodies are also available, but are very expensive. Over the centuries some have become very rich and long-lived “meths”, paying for new bodies as needed. Meths run everything, and are shown as inhumanly immoral, often entertaining themselves by killing poor people, often via sex acts. Our hero was once part of a failed revolution to stop meths via a virus that kills anyone with a century of subjective experience.

Oh, and there have long been fully human level AIs who are mainly side characters that hardly matter to this world. I’ll ignore them, as criticizing the scenario on these grounds is way too easy.

Now my analysis says that there’d be an enormous economic demand for copies of ems, who can do most all jobs via virtual reality or android bodies. If very human-like physical bodies are too expensive, the economy would just skip them. If allowed, ems would quickly take over all work, most activity would be crammed in a few dense cities, and the economy could double monthly. Yet while war is common in the universe of Altered Carbon, and spread across many star systems, no place ever adopts the huge winning strategy of unleashing such an em economy and its associated military power. While we see characters who seek minor local advantages get away for long times with violating the rule against copying, no one ever tries to do this to get vastly rich, or to win a war. No one even seems aware of the possibility.

Even ignoring the AI bit, I see no minor modification to make this into a realistic future scenario. It is made more to be a morality play, to help you feel righteous indignation at those damn rich folks who think they can just live forever by working hard and saving their money over centuries. If there are ever poor humans who can’t afford to live forever in very human-like bodies, even if they could easily afford android or virtual immortality, well then both the rich and the long-lived should all burn! So you can feel morally virtuous watching hour after hour of graphic sex and violence toward that end. As it so happens that hand-to-hand combat, typically producing big spurts of blood, and often among nudes, is how most conflicts get handled in this universe. Enjoy!

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Ems in Walkaway

Some science fiction (sf) fans have taken offense at my claim that non-fiction analysis of future tech scenarios can be more accurate than sf scenarios, whose authors have other priorities. So I may periodically critique recent sf stories with ems for accuracy. Note that I’m not implying that such stories should have been more accurate; sf writing is damn hard work and its authors juggle a many difficult tradeoffs. But many seem unaware of just how often accuracy is sacrificed.

The most recent sf I’ve read that includes ems is Walkaway, by “New York Times bestselling author” Cory Doctorow, published back in April:

Now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—from a computer, there seems to be little reason to toil within the system. It’s still a dangerous world out there, the empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human alike. Still, when the initial pioneer walkaways flourish, more people join them.

The emotional center of Walkaway is elaborating this vision of a decentralized post-scarcity society trying to do without property or hierarchy. Though I’m skeptical, I greatly respect attempts to describe such visions in more detail. Doctorow, however, apparently thinks we economists make up bogus math for the sole purpose of justifying billionaire wealth inequality. Continue reading "Ems in Walkaway" »

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Compelling ≠ Accurate

Bryan Caplan:

As a rule, I don’t care for “hard sci-fi.”  In fact, artistically speaking, I normally dislike true stories of any kind.  And I barely care about continuity errors.  When I read novels or watch movies, I crave what I call “emotional truth.” ..  “it’s the idea of becoming someone else for a little while. Being inside another skin. Moving differently, thinking differently, feeling differently.” .. When creators spend a lot of mental energy on the accuracy of their physics or the historical sequence of events, they tend to lose sight of their characters’ inner lives.  A well-told story is designed to maximize the audiences’ identification with the characters .. you know a creator has succeeded when you temporarily lose yourself in the story.

Many have said similar things. For example, Jerome Bruner:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. .. Each .. has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude. ..

“Great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination.

Yes, readers (or viewers) value stories where readers lose themselves, feel like they are inside character inner lives, and identify with those characters. To readers, such stories feel “lifelike” — in some important way “like” real and true events. And yes, surely this is because these best stories do in fact match some template in reader minds, a template knitted in part from the many details of the world that readers have witnessed during their lives.

But, such stories are much better described as “compelling” than “true.” As a large literature has shown, the stories that we like differ in many big and systematic ways from real life events. Stories differ not only in external physical and social environments, but also in the personalities and preferences of individuals. Furthermore, even conditional on those things, stories also differ in the feelings that individuals have and the choices that they make.

We understand some but not all things about why people are built to prefer unrealistic stories. But there seems little doubt that the stories we like are in fact unrealistic. Compelling but not “true.”

I’m not denying that some stories are more realistic, I’m doubting that the stories that we get more lost in are in fact mainly those more realistic stories.

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Talks Not About Info

You can often learn about your own world by first understanding some other world, and then asking if your world is more like that other world than you had realized. For example, I just attended WorldCon, the top annual science fiction convention, and patterns that I saw there more clearly also seem echoed in wider worlds.

At WorldCon, most of the speakers are science fiction authors, and the modal emotional tone of the audience is one of reverence. Attendees love science fiction, revere its authors, and seek excuses to rub elbows with them. But instead of just having social mixers, authors give speeches and sit on panels where they opine on many topics. When they opine on how to write science fiction, they are of course experts, but in fact they mostly prefer to opine on other topics. By presenting themselves as experts on a great many future, technical, cultural, and social topics, they help preserve the illusion that readers aren’t just reading science fiction for fun; they are also part of important larger conversations.

When science fiction books overlap with topics in space, physics, medicine, biology, or computer science, their authors often read up on those topics, and so can be substantially more informed than typical audience members. And on such topics actual experts will often be included on the agenda. Audiences may even be asked if any of them happen to have expertise on a such a topic.

But the more that a topic leans social, and has moral or political associations, the less inclined authors are to read expert literatures on that topic, and the more they tend to just wing it and think for themselves, often on their feet. They less often add experts to the panel or seek experts in the audience. And relatively neutral analysis tends to be displaced by position taking – they find excuses to signal their social and political affiliations.

The general pattern here is: an audience has big reasons to affiliate with speakers, but prefers to pretend those speakers are experts on something, and they are just listening to learn about that thing. This is especially true on social topics. The illusion is exposed by facts like speakers not being chosen for knowing the most about a subject discussed, and those speakers not doing much homework. But enough audience members are ignorant of these facts to provide a sufficient fig leaf of cover to the others.

This same general pattern repeats all through the world of conferences and speeches. We tend to listen to talks and panels full of not just authors, but also generals, judges, politicians, CEOs, rich folks, athletes, and actors. Even when those are not the best informed, or even the most entertaining, speakers on a topic. And academic outlets tend to publish articles and books more for being impressive than for being informative. However, enough people are ignorant of these facts to let audiences pretend that they mainly listen to learn and get information, rather than to affiliate with the statusful.

Added 22Aug: We feel more strongly connected to people when we together visibly affirm our shared norms/values/morals. Which explains why speakers look for excuses to take positions.

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Alas, Unequal Love

We each feel a deep strong need to love others, and to be loved by others. (Self-love doesn’t satisfy these needs.) You might think we could pair up and all be very satisfied. But this doesn’t happen for two main reasons:

  1. We each prefer to love the popular, whom more others also love. So a few get lots of love, while the rest get less.
  2. We can more easily love imaginary fictional people than real people. Especially ones that more others love.

So even if you are my best source for getting love, the love I get from you may be far less than the love you are giving out, or than I’m giving out. And a few exceptional people (many of them imaginary) get far more love than most people need or can enjoy.

This seems an essential tragedy of the human condition. You might claim that love isn’t a limited resource, that the more people each of us love, the more love we each have to give out. So there is no conflict between loving popular and imaginary people and loving the rest of us. But while this might be true at some low scales of how many people we love, at the actual scales of love this just doesn’t seem right to me. Love instead seems scarce at the margin.

Can we do anything about this problem? Well one obvious fact is that we don’t love people we’ve never heard of. And we can control many things about who we hear of. So we could in principle arrange who we hear about, in order to get love spread out more evenly. But we don’t do this, nor do we seem much inclined to do anything like this. We instead all devote a great deal of time and effort to hearing about as many popular and fictional people as possible. And to trying to be as popular as we can.

I don’t have great ideas for how to solve this. But I am convinced it is one of our essential problems, and it is far from obvious that we’ve given it all the careful thought we might. Please, someone thoughtful and clever, figure out how we might all be much loved.

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Science Fiction Is Fantasy

Why do people like fantasy novels? One obvious explanation is that “magic” relaxes the usual constraints on the stories one can tell. Story-tellers can either use this freedom to explore a wider range of possible worlds, and so feed reader hungers for variety and strangeness, or they can focus repeatedly on particular story settings that seem ideal places for telling engaging stories, settings that are just not feasible without magic.

It is widely acknowledged that science fiction is by far the closest literary genre to fantasy. One plausible explanation for this is that future technology serves the same function in science fiction that magic serves in fantasy: it can be an “anything goes” sauce to escape the usual story constraints. So future tech can either let story tellers explore a wider space of strangeness, or return repeatedly to settings that feel particularly attractive, and are infeasible without future tech.

Of course it might be that some readers actually care about the real future, and want to hear stories set in that real future. But the overwhelming levels of implausible unrealism I find in almost all science fiction (and fantasy) suggest that this is a negligible fraction of readers, a faction writers rarely specialize in targeting. Oh writers will try to add a gloss of realism to the extent that it doesn’t cost them much in terms of other key story criteria. But when there are conflicts, other criteria win.

My forthcoming book The Age of Em, tries to describe a realistic future setting in great detail. I expect some of those who use science fiction in order to consume strange variety will enjoy the strangeness of my scenario, at least if they can get over the fact that it doesn’t come packaged with plot and characters. But they are unlikely to want to return to that setting repeatedly, as it just can’t compete with places designed to be especially compelling for stories. My setting is designed to be realistic, and I’ll just have to see how many readers I can attract to that unusual feature.

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Industry-Era Action Stories

This semester I teach graduate industrial organization. And while preparing, it occurred to me that if our stories adapted fast to our changing world, many and perhaps most action stories today would be about industrial organization, i.e., about firms competing over industries. The fact that most action stories today are not about this is a sad commentary on how slowly our stories adapt to our world. Let me explain.

Action stories are about conflict; people fight over big things at stake. Stories about one-on-one physical fights or chases come come from deep in our animal background. Related stories have conflicts within a couple who might mate. Similar stories about physical fights, chases, or love polygons among small groups come from nearly as far back. An animal fight story can have one animal notice and then run from another, with a climactic battle where one animal wins and the other goes away.

While such stories can happen for most any animal, it takes humans to have stories where tools are used to fight, hide, or chase. And it takes humans to have language to coordinates acts, to share info, and to deceive. And also to have social norms drive the coalition politics fights. Stories about humans can have villains deceiving others about their social norms violations, while good people use language and tools to coordinate to uncover and oppose villain crimes. Most crime and superhero stories fit well here.

Farmers told stories with all these same forager elements. But farmers also added new elements, such as overt inequality and classes, and stable locations, property and trade. Farmers also had larger social groups like clans, towns, and empires, and powerful moralizing gods. Farmer action stories often have wars, wherein large groups identified by their towns or clans, and led by elites, violently attack the known property, places, or elites of other large groups, with the just side often supported by moralizing gods.

The world of industry has also added new elements to our world, such as ideology, schools, firms, cities, fast travel and communication, and complex machine tools. And the stories we tell during the industry era certain do often include many of these new elements. But the core conflicts in our stories haven’t changed that much; we still love chases, fights, villains, and wars. Yet the core conflicts in our world have changed.

The world of animals was greatly shaped by chases and fights. But even though most of us are rarely involved in such things, we still love chase and fight stories. The world of foragers was greatly shaped by efforts to identify and oppose villains. But even though most of us rarely do that, we love crime and superhero stories. The world of farmers was greatly shaped by wars, and we still love war stories, even though wars happen and matter a lot less now.

Today the big fights that most shape our world are not the fights that dominate our action stories: fist fights, catching criminals, and wars between nations. While those mattered greatly in past eras, the fights that matter most today are arguably fights between firms over industries. The products and services we see, the cities where we congregate, and the people who are rich, are determined much more by which firms tried what in their battles to win customer allegiance.

Thus fights between firms are the great fight stories of today, in the sense of the being the large scale fights that most shape our world. And while during past eras the main stories told during those eras adapted to be about the main fights that shaped those eras, during out industry era we have not yet adapted industry-era stories to be about industry-era fights.

Few novels or movies tell the story of firms struggling to win customers. Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.

If colleges taught courses detailing the methods of war, many young men would eagerly take them, and be quite engaged. But when we instead teach courses on industrial organization, i.e., on the many ways in which firms compete for customers, far fewer students take them, and their interest is more muted. Industry-era tastes for stories have not caught up with the industry-era reality that today these are the great conflicts that shape our world.

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Forged By Status

To encourage people to associate with us, we want to seem principled, with a stable permanent nature. We want this nature to seem attractive and to fit with our community’s social norms, we want it to be associated with high status, and we want it to fit our personal situation and preferences. However, community norms and status rankings often change, and we often participate in overlapping communities with different norms. So we need to be able to change our nature and norms, to adapt to changing conditions. Yet we also want such changes to feel authentic, and not consciously or overtly done just to accommodate neighbors. How can we accomplish all these goals at once?

One simple strategy is to have a stable personality, but to sometimes let impressive high status people move us to change that personality. When we hear someone express an opinion, directly or indirectly, we evaluate that person and their expression for impressiveness and status. The higher our evaluation, the more receptive we let ourselves be to the emotions they express, and the more plastic we become at that moment to changing our “permanent” nature in response.

In this way we can limit our changes, yet still track changing norms and status. We become like metal that is forged by heat; we usually have a solid reliable shape, but we let ourselves be reshaped by the rare heat of great impressiveness. Some recent evidence suggests that we in fact do this:

In one experiment, … psychologists … randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: one whose members read .. [a] short story centered on marital infidelity, and another whose members read a “nonfictionalized” version of the story, written in the form of a report from a divorce court. The nonfiction text was the same length and offered the same ease of reading. … It contained the same information, including some of the same dialogue. (Notably, though readers of this text deemed it less artistic … they found it just as interesting.)

Before they started reading, each participant took a standard test of the so-called big five personality traits. …. Then, after … were again given the personality test. … The personality scores of those who read the nonfiction text remained much the same. But the personality scores of those who read the … story fluctuated. The changes were not large but they were statistically significant, and they were correlated with the intensity of emotions people experienced as they read the story. …

Another experiment … asked participants to read one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. Essays … average length, ease of reading and interest to readers were the same as those of the stories. … We had expected that people who read a piece of fiction would experience the greatest fluctuation in their personality scores, but we didn’t find this. The genre of the text — fiction or nonfiction — didn’t matter much; what mattered was the degree of perceived artistry. Those who read a story or essay that they judged to be artistic changed their personality scores significantly more than did those who judged what they read to be less artistic. (more)

Fluctuations in personality comparable to those that occurred in reading artistic literature have been found when people listened to music (Djikic, 2011) and looked at pieces of visual art (Djikic, Oatley, & Peterson, 2012). These results support the hypothesis that literature shares with other arts an effect of introducing a perturbation to personality, which can sometimes be a precursor to a more permanent personality change. (more)

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