Dystopians In High Castles

by Thomas O’Dwyer

A fallen statue of Nazi American leader John Smith.
A fallen statue of the American Nazi leader, John Smith.

It could have been that simple — the Nazis nuke Washington D.C. and it’s all over. Capitulation follows, resistance is futile. There are plenty of right-wingers in high places — political, military, even cultural, who see this not as a conquest but an opportunity. French Marshal Philippe Pétain and Norway’s Vidkun Quisling had been such people. So too is Obergruppenführer John Smith, their fictional American counterpart in Philip K. Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle. The conquering Nazis offer formerly patriotic American officers light temptations and they casually fall, and then rise. The war is lost, collaboration is inevitable. It’s better to be at the front of the queue, showing some willingness to proclaim (by some small actions) that you accept the times as they are a-changing.

Dick’s novel differs in many aspects from the recently completed Amazon TV series based on it. But in both, the Nazis secure the east side of the country, setting up their capital in New York. The West Coast is messier, but wasn’t it always? On that side of the continent, the Japanese have won. Unlike the stiff-necked and murderously pure Nazis, the Japanese are unabashedly nationalist. They are ruthless occupiers too, but ration their resources to inflict their cruelties on identifiable enemies and resisters. Read more »

Love in the time of robots

by Thomas Wells

Here-is-a-robotThe robots are coming. Even if they don't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economy if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But here I want to explore some more intimate consequences of robots moving into the household. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores, but care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. I foresee two distinct tendencies. First, the attenuation of inter-human intimacy as we have less need of each other. Second, the attractiveness of robots as intimate companions.

Robots will allow us to economise on love

Robots are smartish machines that will soon be able to perform complicated but mundane tasks. They will be, relative to humans, low maintenance, reliable, and tireless. If they cost the same as cars, which doesn't seem implausible, most people will be able to afford at least one. That would effectively provide everyone with command over a full-time personal servant (actually more than full-time since they presumably won't need to sleep). Imagine how much easier life will be with someone else to do all the household chores (an incremental improvement on dishwashers and vacuum cleaners) and also the household care work like potty-training children (a revolutionary improvement). But also, imagine how this may disrupt the political-economy of the 'traditional' household and our dependency on love.

As feminist economists have long pointed out, households are factories in function and corporations in identity. They are factories because they apply human labour and tools to convert inputs like groceries, nappies, houses, etc. into things worth having, like meals, children, homes, etc. They are corporations because they are unified economic units, separated from the individualistic competitive market that operates outside its walls. The individuals who make up a household, like the employees of any firm, are supposed to work together as colleagues to advance the success and prosperity of the corporate 'family' as a whole, rather than to advance their own individual material interests as actors in a market would. Organising production outside of the market in this way makes economic sense in many circumstances, and for the same reasons we have business firms. Using the market comes with transaction costs associated with establishing trust and quality assurance between self-regarding strangers.

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Free-Market Moloch? Paying to Make Red Lights Turn Green

Traffic timespace diagramI saw this on Twitter a while back, posted by someone who was attending the Wolfram Data Summit: “Data future vision: you're at a red light and can pay for it to go green.” Like a fragment from some lost Sumerian tablet, this cryptic comment is all we have. But it's enough.

Paying for a red light to go green is the sort of thing economist Tyler Cowen and blogging partner Alex Tabarrok (their blog is Marginal Revolution) like to file under a category called “markets in everything.” This seems to have been just a passing thought, but it lodged in my head and wouldn't leave. At first it seemed like the perfect example of the future as a technolibertarian nightmare – the future I fear and dread the most. Then I gave it a second thought, and a third.

And then, after much thought, I made up my mind. Yeah, it's a technolibertarian nightmare – although it's not nearly as big a change from today's reality as it first seemed. But then again, isn't that the problem?

How would something like this actually work? Would drivers buy something like an EZ-Pass that automatically provided preferential treatment at every traffic light? Would a prepaid device be sold with the car itself, perhaps included as a standard feature on larger, more conspicuously-consuming vehicles like Cadillac Escalades? Those ideas don't seem very imaginative – and they're not true to the original, shamanic vision: “you're at a red light and can pay for it to go green.” That seems to describe what economists and marketing types call a “point of sale” decision, not a premeditated bulk purchase.

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