Technology is not inherently good

I’ve never meet a self-proclaimed geek who understands this. Technology is not something that’s inherently good, where more of it solves more problems and improving it improves our lot. If we implement servile AIs and pervasive automation, that won’t be used to create a society of abundance and leisure but to make the rich richer while the unemployed starve. Technology is something that needs to be applied and generally reflect the economy and culture it was developed in.

This means that a society geared towards inequality and inequity will use technology to amplify them. This means that a police state will use it to decrease the freedom and privacy of the citizens. Theocracies will use technology to hunt unbelievers.

Technology does not make the unfair fair and it does not right wrongs. It is a tool and the only way to change the world is to first change the people who wield it.

ETA: Athena Andreadis made this here excellent point over on twitter:


I have moved from Iceland to the UK three times in my life. The third, which not so coincidentally took place in 2008, is likely to be the last.

(The two attributed quotes in this post are thanks to Íris Erlingsdóttir’s awesome blog post where she collected them all in Icelandic.)

The first time I moved back to Iceland was in 1984 when my parents returned after finishing their studies abroad. Of course, knowing our luck, we returned at the start of what ended up being one of Iceland’s longest general strikes, lasting from the 4th of October to the 30th.

Iceland was in an economic crisis, what we call ‘kreppa’. What most foreigners don’t realise is that Iceland has been in a bipolar boom-bust cycle ever since we declared independence from the Danish. And before that we were in a poverty spiral of misery, hunger, and sky-high childhood mortality rates.

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Iceland’s ‘crowd-sourced’ constitution is dead

The true history of Iceland’s ‘innovative’ constitutional reform.

One of the recurring issues in news coverage on Iceland is how absolutely rubbish foreign news media is at reporting about Iceland.

We’ve seen how detached from reality economic news on Iceland is, ignoring our burgeoning mortgage crisis and the consequences of the government’s harsh austerity measures.

Their frothy and exuberant reports about Iceland’s proposed new constitution also tend to gloss over the details and ignore domestic discourse in favour of completely fabricated spin.

If you read what foreign language blogs and newspapers wrote about the constitution you’d believe that it was a daring experiment going from success to success and that we were now enjoying a completely new crowd-sourced constitution that had been passed into law with a referendum last autumn. Which is not true.

A complete and total clusterfuck is much closer to the truth.

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Fantasy, Collapse, and a sense of history

A few incoherent random thoughts on fantasy and progress.

One of the things that fascinated me as an adolescent reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was its sense of history.

The writing’s crap. It reads as if it were written by a pastoral poet who, on a particularly invigorating walk, decides that the rustic drizzle is gloomy enough to inspire him to write about war. The characters are simplistic and one-dimensional cyphers who serve mostly as structural building blocks and arbitrary plot engines. The story’s as insufferable to the adult Baldur as it was fascinating to the adolescent Baldur.

(I like the movies. The characters are more human and richer and by virtue of the medium we are blessedly free of Tolkien’s crap prose. The movies make for light-hearted blockbuster entertainment.)

But the story’s sense of history is fascinating to an adolescent: a long lost golden age, a second war repeating along similar lines to an earlier war. That’s not enough to make it rise above the tedious writing, but it’s enough to make a teenager’s mind spin.

As long as you don’t figure out that the entire thing is little more than reactionary and racist tory tripe lamenting the fall of the English upper class in world war one.

Even though most of Tolkien’s imitators don’t have his regressive political views (I know, I’m being charitable here and assume that they are aping him without thinking), they do manage to echo some of the basic themes, making them recurring tropes in the fantasy genre.

Even Moorcock plays with the idea, presenting a multiverse where chaos and law are locked in eternal combat, repeating their fight for dominance in an endless cycle of repeating history across the worlds. Of course, Moorcock is as progressive as Tolkien is regressive, but the trope is there.

The flip side of always having a non-mythological golden age somewhere in the histories of your world is the fact that you inevitably have societal collapse stitched to its hip. Grand, great, empires don’t go down silently. Even a great kingdom’s slow decline will inevitably be marked by bloodshed and chaos. History’s slate is wiped clean with blood.

Somewhere in the backstory of most fantasy worlds is a post-apocalyptic novel where magic plays the role of nukes and tech and Mad Max roams the countryside with a sword and a dog.

Fantasy’s view of history: What has happened before will happen again. Kingdoms rise and fall. You know there’ll be a promised one that’ll do bling to the blah because there was once a promised one that blinged the blah and lived happily ever after. If you live in a fantasy world, you live on a planet where prophesies come true with alarming regularity.

There’s something interesting about a genre that doesn’t buy into the myth of endless progress, that the arc of technology will continue ever upwards.

The myth of endless progress is the arch-villain of modern history, post Cold War. Scratch the surface of almost any environmental crisis or economic disaster and you’ll find the progress myth at it’s heart. Things will always get better. The real estate market always goes up. The stock market can’t fall again because we’ve finally figured things out. Global warming will be solved by technology. Peak oil will be solved by technology. Resource depletion will be solved by technology. Ocean acidification will be solved by technology. Onwards and eternally upwards. Immortality and godhood is humanity’s manifest destiny.

If you subtract the tory slant endemic to most fantasy fiction (corrupted bloodlines, aristocracy’s divine right to rule, unrepentant nostalgia, fear of change, impure races challenging the pure, etc.) you have a genre that believes things fall after they rise; that humanity can’t surpass the inherent limitations of the world around it.

Of course, ignoring the regressive politics that dominate the genre is almost impossible. Sure, you have Moorcock and his lot, who are unrepentant progressives and have a knack for fantasy, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

The belief that humanity can’t surpass the limitations of the world it inhabits is often saddled with the accompanying belief that humanity can’t surpass its own limitations, that qualities are innate and not learned, that you can’t change your lot through education, that all improvement is an illusion.

It doesn’t have to be like that. History is littered with examples of societies that rise to glory but then collapse because they ran out of resources or energy. In a world where we face exactly that risk, fantasy fiction has the potential to be one of the more progressive genres around, representing a playground of ideas on how progress loses momentum and arcs downwards into collapse.

Science fiction is always about progress, it’s locked in a constant dialogue on the concept, either progress triumphant or progress denied. Fantasy is a chance to play with the issues the world is facing without having to address the inevitability of eternal technological progress.

That is, provided it can rise above the execrable politics it grew out of, like a flower growing out of a turd.