Culture of the Culture

I have spent a lot of time traveling the past week and a half (SF -> Boston -> Philly -> Columbus -> Chicago -> New York -> Philly -> SF) and in the course of doing so have just totally destroyed two sci-fi novels by Iain M. Banks, who I had never read before.  I had heard good things, and vaguely knew that it dealt with a true post-scarcity future, where technology is truly arbitrarily advanced and the major social problems have been, more or less, settled.  It is “run” (not really) by Minds, super-advanced artificial intelligences that run space habitats and the massive starships that roam between them.  Since I’ve been thinking about robots a lot recently, they seemed worth a look.  In the books, with such a “utopian” culture most of the narrative tension and excitement comes from interacting with the less civilized or differently civilized. And as sci-fi they are just great.   As a political-technological parable they stretch plausibility in some ways.

The foreign policy of the Culture is conducted in a semi-anarchic environment, which is interesting and internally consistent – the divisions in technology and thus power across a galaxy dwarf the divisions on Earth, and so basically the only really relevant powers are a small set of the most advanced, the Culture amongst them.  Since a single Culture-equivalent warship could more or less obliterate any lesser civilization, the top dogs oligarch-ily set the rules for the greater galactic meta-civilization.  There is no overarching government, but a generally-agreed-upon set of guiding principles that tend to be enforced by the major players.  And since amongst them there’s no real areas of conflict other than ideological, they can usually count on each other to keep the peace.   But, as you might imagine, there’s generally lots of territory to cover, a lot of different types of motivations, and widely varying ideological beliefs and so some real room for conflict and exciting stories.

However, the domestic side of the Culture has barely existed in these books.  I can think of basically one real scene amongst the two novels set in Culture society proper, and it’s a Culture immigrant/refugee going out to a danceclub.  The relevant actors are the Minds, who roar across the galaxy going about their business and taking their merry crews of humans along for the ride.  Humans and the associated species are basically just along for the ride in the larger societal sense as well – it’s an AI-based civilization that happens to have many biological residents.  It should be noted that the Minds are generally portrayed as somewhat eccentric but mostly good-natured and personable**, and their society is depicted in detail.  But the human Culture culture (har har) is absent.  The ineluctable conclusion that an alert reader must draw is that Culture society is really fucking boring.

A society without problems lacks drama – an original conclusion, I know.  But I will suggest that it suggests a certain lack of imagination.*  If there’s anything I’ve learned in spending some time around the highly-skilled and –motivated, it’s that people will find challenges to overcome.  The rich of Silicon Valley are the opposite of idle.  Nobody retires at 35 when they cash their IPO check – they go start something new.  Entrepreneurship as we know it won’t survive the transition to the post-scarcity economy, but something will.  People will create opportunities to do cool stuff.  Even if 99.9% of society loses itself in drugs, sex, and general chillaxitude there will be plenty of people that will be looking to create some drama and make a name for themselves.

Zuckerberg famously said the motto of Facebook is to “move fast and break things.”  There’s no one quite like him, but he’s far from the only person who looks at the world that way.  I’d like to see a collection of all-powerful but good-natured AIs put a stop to that.


*: “Certain” does a lot of work here.  Banks is a ferociously creative writer that I heartily recommend to sci-fi fans.

**: English doesn’t accommodate non-human intelligence well.  I suppose comp-lit students in the 2070s will say our speech is inherently “bioist”.

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