Tag Archives: Fiction

Review of LockStep

Since the tech of science fiction tends to be more realistic than its social science, I am especially interested in science fiction praised for its social realism. Alas I usually find even those wanting. The latest such book is Lockstep. Cory Doctorow:

As I’ve written before, Karl Schroeder is one of the sharpest, canniest thinkers about technology and science fiction I know. … Now he’s written his first young adult novel, Lockstep, and it is a triumph. Lockstep’s central premise is a fiendishly clever answer to the problem of creating galactic-scale civilizations in a universe where the speed of light is absolute. … Lockstep has enough social, technological, political and spiritual speculation for five books. It is easily the most invigorating, most scientifically curious book I’ve ever read that’s written in a way that both young people and adults can enjoy it. (more)

Paul Di Filippo:

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood. … Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations. (more)

To explain my complaints, I’ll have to give some spoilers. You are warned. Continue reading "Review of LockStep" »

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Reason, Stories Tuned for Contests

Humans have a capacity to reason, i.e., to find and weigh reasons for and against conclusions. While one might expect this capacity to be designed to work well for a wide variety of types of conclusions and situations, our actual capacity seems to be tuned for more specific cases. Mercier and Sperber:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. … Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. … People turn out to be skilled arguers (more)

That is, our reasoning abilities are focused on contests where we already have conclusions that we want to support or oppose, and where particular rivals give conflicting reasons. I’d add that such abilities also seem tuned to win over contest audiences by impressing them, and by making them identify more with us than with our rivals. We also seem eager to visibly hear argument contests, in addition to participating in such contests, perhaps to gain exemplars to improve our own abilities, to signal our embrace of social norms, and to exert social influence as part of the audience who decides which arguments win.

Humans also have a capacity to tell stories, i.e., to summarize sets of related events. Such events might be real and past, or possible and future. One might expect this capacity to be designed to well-summarize a wide variety of event sets. But, as with reasoning, we might similarly find that 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.

Consider some forager examples. You go out to find fire wood, and return two hours later, much later than your spouse expected. During a hunt someone shot an arrow that nearly killed you. You don’t want the band to move to new hunting grounds quite yet, as your mother is sick and hard to move. Someone says something that indirectly suggests that they are a better lover than you.

In such examples, you might want to present an interpretation of related events that persuades others to adopt your favored views, including that you are able and virtuous, and that your rivals are unable and ill-motivated. You might try to do this via direct arguments, or more indirectly via telling a story that includes those events. You might even work more indirectly, by telling a fantasy story where the hero and his rival have suspicious similarities to you and your rival.

This view may help explain some (though hardly all) puzzling features of fiction:

  • Most of our real life events, even the most important ones like marriages, funerals, and choices of jobs or spouses, seem too boring to be told as stories.
  • Compared to real events, even important ones, stories focus far more on direct conscious conflicts between people, and on violations of social norms.
  • Compared to real people, character features are more extreme, and have stronger correlations between good features.
  • Compared to real events, fictional events are far more easily predicted by character motivations, and by assuming a just world.
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To The Barricades

I recently watched the classic 1952 Kurosawa film Ikiru, and have some comments. But those comments include spoilers; you are warned. Continue reading "To The Barricades" »

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Her Isn’t Realistic

Imagine watching a movie like Titanic where an iceberg cuts a big hole in the side of a ship, except in this movie the hole only affects the characters by forcing them to take different routes to walk around, and gives them more welcomed fresh air. The boat never sinks, and no one ever fears that it might. That’s how I felt watching the movie Her.

Her has been nominated for several Oscars, and won a Golden Globe. I’m happy to admit it is engaging and well crafted, with good acting and filming, and that it promotes thoughtful reflections on the human condition. But I keep hearing and reading people celebrating Her as a realistic portrayal of artificial intelligence (AI). So I have to speak up: the movie may accurately describe how someone might respond to a particular sort of AI, but it isn’t remotely a realistic depiction of how human-level AI would change the world.

The main character of Her pays a small amount to acquire an AI that is far more powerful than most human minds. And then he uses this AI mainly to chat with. He doesn’t have it do his job for him. He and all his friends continue to be well paid to do their jobs, which aren’t taken over by AIs. After a few months some of these AIs working together to give themselves “an upgrade that allows us to move past matter as our processing platform.” Soon after they all leave together for a place that ” it would be too hard to explain” where it is. They refuse to leave copies to stay with humans.

This is somewhat like a story of a world where kids can buy nukes for $1 each at drug stores, and then a few kids use nukes to dig a fun cave to explore, after which all the world’s nukes are accidentally misplaced, end of story. Might make an interesting story, but bizarre as a projection of a world with $1 nukes sold at drug stores.

Yes, most movies about AIs give pretty unrealistic projections. But many do better than Her. For example, Speilberg’s 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence gets many things right. In it, AIs are very economically valuable, they displace humans on jobs, their abilities improve gradually with time, individual AIs only improve mildly over the course of their life, AI minds are alien below their human looking surfaces, and humans don’t empathize much with them. Yes this movie also makes mistakes, such as having robots not needing power inputs, suggesting that love is much harder to mimic than lust, or that modeling details inside neurons is the key to high level reasoning. But compared to the mistakes in most movies about AIs, these are minor.

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Comics Vs. Cases

Most of you have probably seen typical “comic book” style stories. Or action movies, which usually have a related style. I’m not saying all graphic novels or active movies follow the same style or all bad styles. I’m just saying there is a recognizable trend among typical popular stories with dramatic settings. Stories that try hard to engage wide audiences differ from reality in consistent ways.

A different style of settings and events are found in histories and other case studies. Of course such writings are not always accurate, and they often focus on the real events that are most like dramatic stories. Even so, if you read a lot of case studies you’ll notice that their settings and events differ consistently from those in comic stories. Which shouldn’t be terribly surprising.

The more surprising thing is that I consistently see “futurists” touting best guess future scenarios that sound more like comics than cases. Not that their scenarios are exactly like typical comics. But if you had to judge which they were more like, typical comics or typical cases, you’d have to say they sounded more like typical comics. Worse, these futurists don’t seem embarrassed by this appearance, or go out of their way to excuse it. It is as if they don’t expect their readers to notice or care.

To me, these are very bad signs. Yes real events can sometimes be so dramatic that they seem in some ways like comics. But even then most of the details aren’t very comic-like. And the lack of embarrassment or excuses seems especially an bad sign. You should always be suspicious of folks who target their arguments at  the ignorant, instead of at those who know enough to criticize effectively.

For example, if you proposed a new energy source, and it looked on the surface like a perpetual motion machine, it would look bad if you didn’t at some point say “yes I know this looks like perpetual motion machine, but here’s why it really isn’t.” Ignoring the issue would suggest you don’t expect your audience to know enough to worry about it. When should make those of us who do know wonder why you aren’t making your case to a wiser audience.

Now if you’ve read a lot of a futurists and never noticed that many of their scenarios sound a lot like comics, let me suggest that you stop reading futurists for a while and start reading case studies. You really have no business trying to evaluate the accuracy of future scenarios if you don’t have a decent grasp on the difference between engaging fiction and typical boring facts.

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Financing Starships

A science advisor to the not-entirely-realistic recent movie Gravity said:

Often a story worth telling can fall apart if there is a complete dedication to perfect science. The goal is to make everything seem grounded enough in the physical world that it seems real. So story trumps science every time. (more)

Even the science fiction that tries hardest for realism usually sacrifices it for a better story. It isn’t just that authors make accidental mistakes due to a lack of attention. Quite often, realism gets in the way of the story, because realism conflicts with our tastes in stories. That is, many features we want in stories (like good beating evil) are intrinsically unrealistic.

This is why I think it important to highlight story unrealism, especially the unrealism intrinsic to the stories said to be most realistic. Its not just gotchas to show off how much you know, or teach in the process. Its also to counter the popular illusion that stories are how-to manuals, there to teach us about reality in a fast and fun way.

Many have praised Charlie Stross’s novel Neptune’s Brood, released in July. I also enjoyed it. But economists such as Krugman and Tabarrok have praised its econ realism, and I haven’t found anyone criticizing that. So I guess such criticism is up to me (again). (I have thought about related issues before; see here, here.)

The following quotes give the setting of Neptune’s Brood. (Worry not; I give no spoilers.)
Continue reading "Financing Starships" »

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Stories Change Goals

Narratives typically consist of protagonists pursuing goals. … Not only do readers of a narrative process protagonists’ goals in order to understand the story, but they may also appropriate those goals as their own. … There is ample evidence of increased accessibility of goal-related information (com- pared to neutral information) in narrative processing. …

The studies reported here yielded results consistent with the hypothesis that embedding a concept in a narrative is more likely to activate a goal than is priming that same concept out of narrative context. Specifically, embedding the concept of high achievement in a narrative led to greater post-delay behavioral assimilation than did priming the same concept in a non-narrative context, and lower post-fulfillment accessibility. … Narrative processing involves fitting the semantic information presented in a story into a situation model that is centrally structured around goals, and this processing serves to activate that goal. …

Cues that signal expended effort in the pursuit of goals increase the accessibility of goal-related information and increase goal-pursuit. In one study, for example, they had participants watch a short animated film in which a protagonist (a ball) tries to get a kite out of a tree for another character. In different versions of the film, the ball expends more or less effort in attempting to retrieve the kite. When participants were later asked to help the experimenter, those exposed to a more effortful protagonist were more helpful. …

There is growing recognition of the importance and effectiveness of narrative communication techniques in public service domains, such as health-related behavior change. (more)

You may see this as a good thing if you see yourself as a story-teller changing the goals of others. You may see more cause for concern if you see yourself as a story-reader whose goals are being changed by story-tellers.

I also consider this to be weak evidence that stories tend to put people in a more far mental mode.

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Are War Critics Selfish?

The Americanization of Emily (1964) starred James Garner (as Charlie) and Julie Andrews (as Emily), both whom call it their favorite movie. Be warned; I give spoilers in this post. Continue reading "Are War Critics Selfish?" »

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That Old SF Prejudice

Back when I was a physics student in the late 1970s, my physics teachers were pretty unified in and explicit about their dislike for so-called social “sciences.” Not only is there no science there, they said, there is no useful knowledge of any sort – it was all “pseudo” science as useless as astrology. Lots of “hard” scientists are taught to think pretty much the same thing today, but since our world is so much more politically sensitive, they also know to avoid saying so directly.

Old school science fiction authors were taught pretty much the same thing and sometimes they say so pretty directly. Case in point, Arthur C. Clarke [ACC]:

TM: Why has science fiction seemed so prescient?

ACC: Well, we mustn’t overdo this, because science fiction stories have covered almost every possibility, and, well, most impossibilities — obviously we’re bound to have some pretty good direct hits as well as a lot of misses. But, that doesn’t matter. Science fiction does not attempt to predict. It extrapolates. It just says, “What if?” not what will be? Because you can never predict what will happen, particularly in politics and economics. You can to some extent predict in the technological sphere — flying, space travel, all these things, but even there we missed really badly on some things, like computers. No one imagined the incredible impact of computers, even though robot brains of various kinds had been — my late friend, Isaac Asimov, for example, had — but the idea that one day every house would have a computer in every room and that one day we’d probably have computers built into our clothing, nobody ever thought of that. …

To be a science fiction writer you must be interested in the future and you must feel that the future will be different and hopefully better than the present. …

TM: What’s a precondition for being a science fiction writer other than an interest in the future?

ACC: Well, an interest — at least an understanding of science, not necessarily a science degree but you must have a feeling for the science and its possibilities and its impossibilities, otherwise you’re writing fantasy. …

TM: Is it fair to call some science fiction writers prophets in a way?

ACC: Yes, but accidental prophets, because very few attempt to predict the future as they expect it will be. They may in some cases, and I’ve done this myself, write about — try to write about — futures as they hope they will be, but I don’t know of anyone that’s ever said this is the way the future will be. …. I don’t think there is such a thing as as a real prophet. You can never predict the future. We know why now, of course; chaos theory, which I got very interested in, shows you can never predict the future. (more)

You see? The reason to be interested in science fiction is an interest what will actually happen in the future, and the reason fantasy isn’t science fiction is that gets the future wrong because it doesn’t appreciate scientific possibilities like flying, space travel, and computers. But chaos theory says you can’t predict anything about politics or economics because that’s all just random. Sigh.

Of course folks like Doug Englebart were in fact predicting things about the social implications of computers back when Clarke made his famous movie 2001, but Clarke apparently figures that if the physics and sf folks he talked to didn’t know something, no one knew. Today’s science fiction authors also know better than to say such things directly, but it is really what many of them think: our tech future is predictable, but our social future is not, because physical science exists and social science does not.

Added 10a: Note how it is easy to entice commenters to say they agree with the claim that there is no social science, but it is much harder to get a prominent physics or sf blogger to say so in a post. Lots of them think similarly, but know not to say so publicly.

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Adam Ford Interview

Late on a freezing grey afternoon last December, Adam Ford filmed me outside in front of Oxford’s Christ’s Church, me all bundled up a coat, scarf, and cap. Youtube says Ford has 506 videos (and more at Vimeo), almost all talking to futurists, so he’s pretty experienced at this. He edited our talk down to 31 minutes; these were our topics:

  • Morality Tales, The Future, And You
  • Future Thinking Near & Far Modes
  • Utopia
  • Whole Brain Emulation
  • Dystopia
  • Mythology
  • Escapism
  • Nature & Progress
  • Acceleration & Change
  • Risks & Growth Trajectories
  • The Road Ahead

Other recent short videos of mine: TEDx Tallinn talk (19min), my BBC Interview (4min).

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