The Utopian sickness
Techno-critical and futurist movements are deeply sick with a sickness of utopianism. Utopianism is a set of classic patterns of thought and mythologies, which were used by such geniuses as [Fourier, Owen, Saint-Simon], etc. These (or rather, the need to criticise them) ideas were the basis for materialist analysis of Marx and Engels, /partially/ Nietzsche's scepticism, and many other, better, ideas.
To put the issue as shortly as possible, and hereby, providing a perfect tl;dr, the problem relates to the refusal of the most basic laws of Heglian logic, and that is the quantity-quality relation, both in material and ideological spheres. This mistake is common in Utopian, anarchist, and general 'idealist' movements which are built upon in a way where they must be compatible with 'the way we live', which must then be constructed for contemporaneity.
Thus, after giving an obscure reply which can be understood by people who are already convinced of these points, I can go forward into particular critiques.
Solarpunk for the perfect planet
I'll begin with the most extreme representant of current Utopianism. The pseudo-creative movement defined by blogmanifestos - Solarpunk. It's biggest strength is that it will never have its victims. Nor any idea related to it. No harm happens to the willing.
The spectre of Solarpunk lies over everything and everyone, same as the situationists. Solarpunk, in its [definition], with a quiet pride, skips the concept of material reality. It does not feel comfortable with any sort of discussion, any sort of materialism, barring dystopias or negative view of this universe.
It is a set of vignettes, as in from a dream, to create references. Then, despite being a movement for over a decade, it has been productive only creating shallow sentimental 'art' (if one can call sentimentality art).
One of many criticisms I heard about Solarpunk and its lack of ability to create valuable stories is this avoidance of dealing with material problems. Each social, cultural, economic problem and challenge have been resolved, by some tool of magic. The usage of technology as magic can only lead to sentimental stories, which as much as they can help us understand certain things about ourselves, are hardly a tool to develop a political standpoint, or an economic understanding.
The usage of technology as magic is a common trope across many contemporary currents (even if all state having a different approach to environment, economy etc.). It is easy to find similitudes in shallow works. One would then like to reiterate the famous [Clarke's third law]. The issue is that this trope became a marketing term for technologies which are not able to remedy any economical challenges of our time, as it does not address, once again - the material relations between people, environment and things. As long as these things (and ideas surrounding them) remain ignored, no set of images will resolve the challenges.
That is because material relations encompass the entire environment, and require one to answer many more questions than selected. So to return to Solarpunk, how does in a Solarpunk future one gain rare earth metals to solar panels. Do they appear magically, or how is energy transformed so efficiently for foundries, what are the global trade relations. These are simple questions, which our dystopian capitalism may try to silence, but does provide clear and direct answers to each of them.
Now, a common reaction I hear is that I have to step out of current way of thinking. But if stepping out of the current way of thinking requires a strong belief in magic, and taking any half-baked scientific idea, so bad that a [thunderf00t] can make a full criticism of it, I cannot really believe in that it could bring us anything valuable.
Utopianism or 'communities as a solution'
A common theme in all Utopian idea is community as the response to problems. I think there is no clearer example, than [Fourier's Phalansteries]. Phalansteries are what can be called a perfect Utopian community. A space with a correct number of people doing all the right things in complete understanding with the nature, with feeling of building something together and nothing to allow for power structures or economic differentiation or any sort of exploitation to occur. If you have thought of a community lack this, congratulations, you have reinvented Phalanstereies.
As Utopianism does not deal with the challenges of ideology, or to repeat myself, material relations, the way the utopia is acheived is through the sheer truthfulness and rightness of its statements. And here lies the crux of this micro-essay - sheer convincement and sheer truth are not means of social change. Unbearable social relations can be, low living quality can be, but not sheer truthfulness.
Another problem, are communities as a solution. A social contract between people is always a compromise. Psychopaths will be left unsatisfied in orderly communities which limit possible gain of power. How do you deal with any sort of human evil, how do you deal with the very much unequal redistribution of talent, and interest in required skills to run a civilisation, or matter of fact, a small society. Do you hope that there will be somebody that you agree with to run these things? And be sure that they will not use it to gain power? I understand that Utopianism is based on the values of human spirit, but Utopian movements had the weakest record of building societies at the end of the day, and keeping their full ideas short lives. I believe, to build a successful civilisation, given minimum elements, you very quickly have to answer Hobbesian and Marxist questions of defence, power, and access to resources. If you don't, you are awaiting somebody else who has answered these questions in a more concrete manner.
To give a quick example, the relationship of [Makhno's anarchism] and Marxist-Leninism, where it is very difficult to state what problems did Makhno's anarcho-communism did resolve (besides convincing peasants), and how would it behave in as an industrial society.
The most successful of all Utopians, is without any guess - Owen. And funnily enough, because Owen was the most conservative in his ideas. We live in some elements of Owen's utopia - we have 8 hour workday, as he proposed, we have (at least some of us) religious freedoms. And yet, as his ideas were not fully dealing within a full economic framework, his co-operative idea turned out to be just one of the ways to run a business, with the same risks and inabilities as any other way to run a business in capitalist society.
Technologies and the refusal of economies
Utopians, with regards to technology, (no matter whether sceptic or optimist) really want to eat their cake and have it too. The technology always appears as some force which either comes from other time, or just is. The problem in the material reality is that nothing just is, everything is a transformation bound to the laws of thermodynamics and of conservation of mass. For a chip to appear, you require all the system to produce it. And that is way I also think, the entire embodied emission idea is meaningless, as trying to calculate a per-unit cost of a thing which entire system is dependent on will only lead to lies and marketing as it is purely arbitrary where do you put a line and what do you define as carbon usage. Is the food production for a cobalt miner in Congo part of the embodied emissions or not?
Previous paragraph also is a criticism of permacomputing, as trying to create a closed system to reproach computing without being aware that all advanced technology (which we can consider anything 'technological' developed past 1850s) is dependent upon standardisation and possible production of quantities beyond any individual or single communities abilities. What permacomputing, and related projects do in their hopefulness, is to instead of give ideas how to go past inefficiencies of our age, is to just amplify them. I believe a partial result of this is the idea of personalised computing, which is the same level of sensibility as personalised furniture, railways, cars! These at the end of the day are machines, which are only possible, and only understandable, thanks to economies of scale. And, the needs of economies of scale are difficult to predict, as we can see with growing requirement of producing software for more and more possible entrepreneurial solutions, the quality of software has gone down and the lack of standardisation is just an amplifier of this.
I think programmers resistance to true standardisation, is the certain reification of the auteur concept, which is personified in these early gods of computing - Jobs, Ritchie, Larry Wall, etc. But, these are debates of syntax, of mathematical/algorithmic notations and not of providing true solutions of issues. I am not going to link any projects directly, or communities, which are sinful of this craftsmen mindset (although I'll admit I've found inspiration from a recent Scott Locklin's post).
If we want to step back our level of complexity, and accept that to resolve environmental or cultural issues without adding complexity, we will need to change the quality of our living. And the change of quality, is a removal of computing in a way we understand, and most probably return to the way it existed before. And the way it existed before, was as a method of algebraic thinking and building highly complex craftsmanly machines, like [Pascal's calculator].
On the other hand, if we want to pursue to path we are on, we need to make couple adjustments to the way we do computers. In my opinion, this is about to happen sooner or later, as any producer which will manage to lower the cost of developing software, power usage, is on a route to become a leader. Lowering cost of software development from the path of least resistance until there is another path of least resistance has been a tradition of computing for the past years. I feel like slowly a reaction to the [30 million line problem] will develop.
No matter which way we pick, the end result will be always collapse at some point and return to more primitive/less complex level of civilizational advancement for a certain period. C'est la vie. Or maybe magic will resolve all our problems? Perhaps?
- Fourier, Owen, Saint-Simon
- Solarpunk definition
- Clarke's third law
- thunderf00t (although there are other videos, and he seems to be a character of Clarke's first law, but it seems we are observing Asimov's corollary becoming a perfect refusal of it)
- Fourier's Phalansteries
- Makhno's anarchism
- 30 million line problem
- Pascal's calculator