Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sci-Fi & Inconceivably Advanced Societies

Originally posted to Facebook on: October 27th, 2007 - slightly updated for 2013 - Enjoy!

The so-called "advanced" societies presented in most Science Fiction as futuristic are ridiculously implausible - but not for the reasons most people likely believe. I have no intention of dealing with "impossible" technology or even debate the possibility of magical powers of any kind - for the sake of this argument, I implicitly accept all technology, all magic, all implausible abilities. For my purposes, as ridiculous as it is, Superman can fly and it's because he's absorbed solar radiation from a yellow sun and if he were in contact with a Red Giant he would lose his powers. I am only going to be dealing in philosophical issues here...

This is my attempt to show how evolutionary principles and economic incentives allowed to act out naturally will necessarily produce a completely different future for humanity in the real world than are presented in the annals of Science Fiction.

In almost every case an advanced society is depicted in science-fiction or fantasy stories, there are often a few interesting similarities:

1. The society is at its core socialist and totalitarian in some way.

In nearly every major science fiction and fantasy story, in both the "dystopian" and 'utopian" conceptions, the societies depicted are incredibly consistent. We see giant monarchies, big-government 'utopias', magical fairy tale lands ruled by an often evil grand sorcerer who has deposed the good grand sorcerer - thus exchanging one malicious dictatorship for a more benevolent one in the best case.

In any event, the vast majority of societies created by writers of Sci-Fi/Fantasy are such that humans have idealized socialist dictators or "evolved beyond the need for" individualism.

Some specific examples include:

  1. Kryptonian society in the Superman mythology
  2. Apocalypse (as ruled by Darkseid in the DC comic book universe)
  3. United Federation of Planets & a socialist Earth in Star Trek
  4. Klingon Society in Star Trek
  5. Vulcan Society in Star Trek
  6. Romulan Society in Star Trek... you get the point...
  7. THX 1138
  8. A Brave New World
  9. 1984
  10. Brazil
  11. The Hunger Games
  12. I Robot (the movie)
  13. Blade Runner
  14. Judge Dredd
  15. Road Warrior
  16. Waterworld
  17. The Postman
This list is virtually endless. It's actually probably easier to pick out science fiction & fantasty universes not set in totalitarian regimes where lone individuals are battling widespread institutional and cultural violence.

2. People are at their core ruled by fear and violence. 

Klingons: Killing everyone.
For prosperity!
In most tales depicting "advanced" societies, we come to learn that the nature of the people in those societies
is essentially destructive.

Looking back at the above examples, most operate that way - Kryptonians have regularly been shown in Superman mythos to be extremely violent, short-term thinkers and bent on destruction of themselves and others (I will focus more of my attention on Krypton as an archetype of the thesis a little later on), Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, Andorians, Cardassians - virtually ALL non-human species in the Star Trek universe are self-destructive and are either murderous, rapacious or generally deceitful, the entire planet of Apocalypse is populated by violent, selfish creatures with no interests beyond the destruction of everything or everyone else.

and finally...

3. The societies are most often presented as the result of thousands of years of advancement and social evolution.

This is to say that they are "our" future in the minds of the creators.

Sometimes presented ironically, or as a cautionary tale, this would be fine of course - but the same writers so regularly misunderstand that the "perfect society" they would adopt in the short term results in the cataclysmic and disastrous futures they present simultaneously, and I believe it's because of just a few misapplied philosophical ideas juxtaposed unnecessarily and wrongly.

Now, before I get directly to why these futures are implausible (if not downright impossible) I must first explain the juxtaposition of bad ideas that leads writers into this conundrum.

The problem, I believe, lies in the tendency for two fundamental philosophical premises to be popular in a large segment of writers & creative individuals.

Humanity is fundamentally evil.

Because humanity is evil, a free population is necessarily more evil, thus limiting freedom through laws, monarchs, dictators (no matter how benevolent) can stop people from being evil - and indeed can promote goodness through wealth and resource redistribution, etc.

Both premises are wrong.

As far as I'm concerned, premise one is wrong on all possible fronts - Evil is in and of itself an intrinsically poorly defined term, so it's hard to even quantify that to begin with, but lets say we use the following as an indicator of cross-culturally defined evil actions: Rape, murder, theft and torture. Statistically, most people are not criminals or murderers, thieves, rapists or torturers of any kind. The overwhelming majority of people are nothing remotely like that anywhere in the world.

Anecdotally, I encourage any reader to merely ask oneself, "Do I know a person convicted of murder?" "Of rape?" or perhaps "Am I friends with someone who has molested a child?" - chances are, you don't, but even more importantly, if you do what is your reaction to that person? Is it, "Oh well, you know - that's Bob, he likes to kill people, we all have our quirks right?" - again, probably not. My guess is your reaction is more outraged, perhaps, "Holy hell, Bob KILLED SOMEONE!?"

Now, since point one is demonstrably false, premise two (being based around premise one) is also necessarily false.

Beyond the "humanity is evil" part of the equation, I might also note that wealth redistribution, totalitarianism of any kind and other socialist principles never ever result in less crime, happier or safer people and equality of resources or justice.

Socialism, as I (and countless philosophers, historians and economists) have pointed out numerous times in the past, is based on faulty logic which breeds corruption due to being necessarily fast and loose with guaranteed liberties and inherently consolidating power in one place.

So this may feel like a tangent, but it's actually not. The point of all this is that in nearly all variations of an alien or human future depicted in science fiction & fantasy genre art, some variety of socialism is alternatively responsible for the utopian or distopian nature of the society and in either the depiction of human (or alien) nature as being intrinsically "evil" makes the socialism both necessary and insane. Since both of these concepts leads to the destruction and degradation of a population over time, these depictions of an alien (or human!) future are impossibly bleak on two fronts... And the confusion and misapplication of logic by the writers is to blame.

The truth is, neither Klingons, Kryptonians, nor humans can exist beyond their earliest stages of development if their nature is that of murderous, rapacious thieves. It is a pretty basic premise of evolutionary biology that the most fit species survive, unfortunately, because many artists are incapable of properly understanding the full scope of what that statement means, they assume only barbaric brutality wins the day.

Fortunately that is not the case!

Humanity has proven to be quite resourceful at developing cooperative skills and technology - and eventually
developing intellectualism as a means of survival.

A species that routinely murders and harms other members of the same species isn't likely to be very fecund. Kryptonians - if on the whole were petty, vindictive, murdering power-mongers - would be such an anti-intellectual society that they couldn't possibly, under any circumstances, develop the technology to be considered "the most advanced species in the galaxy" according to the Superman mythos.


Socialism is entropy in action as Dr. Science used to say!

It is a system that inherently has vastly more economic cost than it can maintain or produce. It's a system which rewards failure and mediocrity and places the entire burden of success on a select (and quite small) group of highly self-motivated people forced to consistently produce and work, knowing that due to the "equal" distribution of wealth and resources their efforts will never be rewarded to any significant degree.

And that's ignoring the whole issue of economic calculation and central planning

Thus the future of humanity in Star Trek as a socialist utopia in which the government has "eradicated" hunger and poverty is mind-boggling. Just as totalitarianism (often a corollary of socialism - since everyone must be complicit in the system in order for it to work even slightly) has the crippling result of destroying liberty, and the ability of a people to be happy or productive - which often results in elevated rates of crime and a breakdown in the rule of law. So a society governed by a monarch, or even by a supreme "council of elders" like Krypton, will eventually fail of its own accord as the power is more strictly concentrated in the governing person(s).

More on Krypton

For the uninitiated, Krypton is the home-world of comic book archetype, Superman or Kal-el. Krypton was a highly implausible society which was ruled by a totalitarian council of elders representing the intergalactic equivalent of a house of lords. The council by all appearances is not elected or in any way responsible to the majority of the planet's inhabitants, yet they make decisions for all.

The Politburo of the Sciences says "Nay."
This is ostensibly a planet-wide dictatorship by small committee.

In most incarnations, the council attempts to be just and fair, but regardless there don't seem to be too many checks or balances present. For what is considered the most technologically advanced culture in existence before its destruction, one has to wonder how they came to be that way. Dictatorships provide ridiculously poor incentives for innovation (please note: not being murdered is not a "reward").

Furthermore, the council (and by extension the houses/families) seem to regularly have what are tantamount to tribal feuds and there seems to be constant in-fighting for dominant control.

Once the planet was destroyed and baby Kal-el sent to Earth, we have met numerous Kryptonian survivors who are inexplicably violent, murderous, and indulge in petty selfishness. Nearly all of the survivors seem to be solely interested in destroying themselves or enslaving others (which will - and always does - lead to their destruction). They also all seem to pick fights with Superman...

So my question becomes - how could this society possibly have advanced out of the dark ages?

It sounds like the modern-day Middle East! Tribalism? Warlords? Totalitarian control of society by a minority of quasi-religious elders? Self-destructive mentality? Yep... sounds strangely like religious fanaticism.

So ask yourself: How exactly did these people manage to survive and advance as a civilization?

This guy doesn't build
a culture. He just breaks
It's clear how they would be able to destroy themselves, but not at all how they developed any advanced technology... anti-intellectual barbarians are woefully incapable of that. This society is representative of the sci-fi depiction of the future... and it just doesn't work!

It doesn't work for the same reason human societies don't work under totalitarian, socialist rule... and from an evolutionary stand point, an intrinsically "evil" people fail the test of time almost immediately by their lack of cooperation, trust and tendency to eradicate themselves.

Nature is a brutal mistress, and it's hard enough to survive out there as it is with plenty of creatures that aren't your species willing to kill and eat you... any additional help would be license for extinction in most cases. I strongly believe that we evolved our morality out of necessity and successful reproduction, it's the most plausible explanation for moral consistency throughout cultures.

It also means that Hobbes is way wrong... no one is all good or all evil and humanity on the whole demonstrates amazing tendencies towards good across the board, and it's in our best interest to do so. Krypton is an example of how many people view humanity's future - and I'm here to tell you, if human-nature and political/economic systems were truly what's in those writers' heads - we would already be extinct.

All in all, looking at all this on the other side of the essay, I find myself rather optimistic. The way I see it, we have only two futures ahead of us:

1. Our future will be one in which people are as free as possible, and one where people, being naturally interested in their own well-being and that of humanity at large, will continue to create and invent new ways of improving technology that affects our daily lives. We will become more socially & culturally intertwined on a global scale as we learn to trust in individual liberties for all people, free markets that reward innovation and intellectualism and the passionate yet peaceful free-flow of ideas while increasingly reducing reliance on governmental force and dismissing totalitarian and socialist principles!


2. We will wind up dying under crippling oppression and truly evil, anti-human, anti-freedom dictatorships set about to regulate what is "in the best interest" of all - and they will come about because people who believe that everyone else but themselves is intrinsically evil and cannot be trusted, and that other people (again, not themselves) are not intelligent enough to make good choices without a government there to regulate them...

Truthfully - I can see that happening in the short term... we've already made a number of steps in the socialist/freedom crippling direction over the last 60 years even in America: Land of the free, home of the brave. But (and this may just be unfounded optimism here) I honestly think that we Americans will take back our civil liberties fairly soon - and if not, history shows us that with every revolution the world becomes a more tolerant, more free place to be so maybe I'll have to start a revolution in 30 years... who knows?!

I would certainly prefer it if we can just do it peacefully though... especially since we should, by this point, have enough of a grasp on philosophy, economics, and history; not to mention technology and mass communication to simply learn and act without violence being necessary.

You see though... That's why I'm writing all this!

Art is representational of who we are as a people and what we think - especially of course, what our artists think. There is a strong belief being presented to the general public that humanity needs to be managed, limited and controlled for our own good, because we are sinners at our core. And this idea is being presented in an environment that discourages critical thinking by asking us to suspend disbelief - not ask questions - which means it's much more likely to affect the way people view the world and the premises by which we operate.

Science Fiction or not, the ideas are what translate to real life - and some (Isaac Asimov) are amazing, and some (Orwell, Huxley, Rand, Bradbury, Vonnegut) remind us of what not to be and what we could become if we're not careful... but some... and it tends to be what finds its way most into movies and tv, teaches us that humanity is evil and we should embrace socialism. Yet the societies it presents as models of these ideas would fail in their infancy and are thus completely implausible as examples of our future. Barbarians who have a proclivity towards murdering their own species do not survive the evolutionary test of time. No matter how strong or physically powerful - those animals are NOT the "fittest".


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