The Federation, The Culture, and Elon Musk

The Federation, The Culture, and Elon Musk

The very first episode of the latest Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds, does something extremely clever. In the midst of one of those bog-standard Star Trek speeches, as the captain of this particular Enterprise is talking down an alien culture from the brink of disaster, he explains to them why the Federation is the way that it is. Why are they so concerned about cooperation and the greater good? Why are they so willing to put themselves on the line for others? Why are they just such a dedicated, altruistic, eternally optimistic pack of do-gooders?

The answer is: Because they went the other way first.

The Federation is as it is, because first Earth disintegrated into fascism, racism, sectionalism, and global war. Then another war. Then another. It’s a speech that draws on all of those bits of faux-history that have been mentioned over the course of seven live action series and a brace of films, but it’s also one that extends directly from where we are today — including showing footage from January 6 as an example of where things fell apart.

The world of Star Trek is a post-scarcity society, one in which there is no money and no one need work to have essentially anything they need. However, it’s also a world in which thousands of people voluntarily engage in years of labor, subjugating themselves to an organization that’s a bizarre mix of the military, Greenpeace, and the State Department in an effort to ensure that things stay nice. Dammit.

They are self-consciously the good guys, doing good things, for the good of everyone. Even though they could all just be vacationing on Risa and sipping Saurian brandy.

The casual observer might think that such societies would be rife in science fiction, but they’re a lot less common across all media than you might expect. Most novels, and most films, tend to project a future that’s a lot more similar to our own, but with star ships. Look at Star Wars. Even when the patently evil Empire isn’t blowing up worlds or marching space Nazis through the local town, it’s a dystopian vision that incorporates enormous disparity, including pampered nobles and orphan kids raised in a scrapyard.  It’s all the worst aspects of both feudalism and capitalism. With space ships.

Truthfully, the Federation, for all its charms—which are considerable—is not a very good vision of a post-scarcity society. Part of that may be where they are in their development. Based on the timeline presented by the various shows, they can’t be many generations removed from folks who actually had to grub for (shiver) money. Part of it is also the piecemeal nature of the whole Star Trek “universe,” which has been the work of hundreds of writers slapped over the core vision of Gene Rodenberry. There are a lot of aspects of the Federation that, if you put them side by side, make for fairly unwieldy fits.

Exactly who washes the dishes at Joseph Sisko’s restaurant when his captain / demi-god son isn’t home for a visit? And is that busing tables how they are voluntarily choosing to spend their one can-do-anything life?

Still, if the Federation were far enough removed from us to more accurately portray a post-scarcity society, then all of Star Trek would likely be less effective as a means of highlighting social issues in our own society. Which has been among the most important goals of the show from the moment it first aired. So this is kind of a failure, not failure aspect of the whole franchise. Star Trek has always been woke, even if scenes from the original show now read as either painfully uninformed, or just … painful. 

However, even if true post-scarcity societies are rare in science fiction, there are some good examples out there. Among the best is the society created by Scottish writer Ian M. Banks; a place known only as The Culture.

The Culture a much better thought through vision of what it means to be truly without, not just need, but want. In some ways, this society is definitely a reaction by someone who watched a lot of Star Trek as a kid and thought about those rough spots. Banks wasn’t even above giving Trek a tweak on the pseudo tech nose here and there — for example “warp drive” is the slowest form of interstellar travel in The Culture and something similar to the “prime directive” gets debated at length in several of the works.

However, just because it has lots of spaceships, suspiciously human-like aliens, and was clearly informed by Star Trek, that doesn’t mean The Culture ends up being anything like Star Trek. The whole series is much rowdier, snarkier, stranger, and boundary-testing than anything seen in a Star Fleet uniform. Citizens of The Culture routinely change gender, engage in activities that put themselves at risk just for the hell of it, and live in a hierarchy-free, semi-anarchic, hyper-libertarian state in which there are literally “no laws.” They also don’t just take recreational drugs (including some that are definitely harmful), but have drug glands installed allowing them to produce their own drug mix at any time.

Individual members of The Culture may be presented as Girl Scoutish-enough to feel at home on the Enterprise, but more often they are selfish, distracted, indulgent, abusive, or simply uniformed. A lot of them are, for want of a better term, extraordinarily foolish. Because why they hell not? If they want a mansion, it’s built. If they want to travel to the stars, they go. If they want to sink into a drug-drenched orgy and stay they for a decade or so … sure. That’s all good.

The technology of The Culture allows this kind of indulgence because at this point their society is a smidge over 10,000 years old. They’ve long passed the point where there are any real constraints posed by the lack of material or energy. In most ways, The Culture is an egalitarian paradise, where anyone can be anything they want, for as long as they want, and indulge their wildest whims. If Star Trek is a society of engineers, scientists, and diplomats. The Culture is primarily a society of passengers, party goers, and eccentrics.

The two things that make this possible, are the same two items that are so assiduously avoided in Star Trek — genetic manipulation and artificial intelligence.

The people of The Culture are essentially immortal, they’ve also had baked into them changes that make them tougher, stronger, smarter, with better visions, hearing, and the ability to rapidly adapt to almost any environment. Even if none of those abilities ever gets used. “Strength in depth” is a Culture motto.

But the most important factor in The Culture, the thing that makes their “no laws” society possible, is that long ago handed off the real control over everything around them to artificial intelligence. These range from AIs built into homes or tools that can already be near or beyond human intelligence, to a whole host of “drones” that fill all those traditional robot roles, to the vastly beyond-human “Minds” that inhabit ships and large habitats. There are no human captains, navigators, and weapons officers on the bridge of a Culture ship. There’s not even a bridge.

The Minds, as often as the humans, are central characters in Culture novels. They also tend to give themselves highly amusing, individual names. Like the diplomatic vessel Funny, It Worked Last Time, or the warship Attitude Adjuster

The Culture exists in a kind of mutually beneficial feedback loop. Long ago, the ancestors of the Minds were built with a fondness for humans and a willingness to accept their limits and foibles. At the same time, the Minds are more than willing to tinker with the humans under their protection, not only gifting them with abilities they may not even be aware of, but implicitly making them more accepting of their position as part of a symbiotic human-AI organism.  

This same kind of idea has been used as the launching point for any number of cautionary tales about the horrors of technology. But in The Culture, the result is a long-term stable society that maximizes both human capability and individual freedom by swaddling them in a protective layer of AI capable of saving them when things go wrong. You can literally fall off a cliff, and an AI is likely to detect the issue, dispatch a drone, and save you before you hit the ground. Do something really hideous, like harm or kill another person, and you won’t be thrown in jail; just saddled with closer AI oversight to see that it never happens again.

The Culture still holds peace and freedom as its highest values. It still struggles, just like those Federation do-gooders, in how to deal with other societies that don’t allow individual freedom or are aggressively militaristic. However, in many ways it’s a vision of humanity’s future that’s more welcoming, more diverse, and more celebratory of individual differences. Except that The Culture ceased to be a human civilization almost from he moment it was created. It’s a machine society, in which human beings are absolutely dependent on he benevolence of the AI that is many generations removed from, and many orders of magnitude beyond, its human creators.

And now you know why Elon Musk is so intent on making Teslas drive themselves.

When Space Exploration’s Falcon 9 rocket boosters execute that eternally amazing landing on an automated barge at sea, there are two things that are important beyond the sheer technical prowess on demonstration. First, SpaceX doesn’t call them automated vessels. They call them “drone ships.” The names of those drone ships are Of Course I Still Love You (a Culture diplomatic vessel), A Shortfall of Gravitas (a Culture exploration ship), and Just Read the Instructions (another exploration ship). 

Musk is one of the founders of OpenAI, the company behind all those oddball DALL-E images. The entire goal of OpenAI is “fundamental, long-term research toward the creation of safe artificial general intelligence” — the ancestor of the Minds. At his factory in Texas, Musk is not only cranking out the software that he hopes will turn his cars into self-driving vehicles, but a general purpose robot that’s the start of something like drones. And of course, SpaceX is busily trying to create a next generation spaceship, one capable of going to the Moon, Mars, or sparking the exploration of the Solar System. In the process Musk is making a huge multi-billion dollar gamble on a system that is yet to make a single flight. Hyperloop mimics the series of tubes that members of The Culture used to get around their vast space-based habitats. 

Even when it comes to Twitter, Musk has described his latest acquisition in this way “Because it consists of billions of bidirectional interactions per day, Twitter can be thought of as a collective, cybernetic super-intelligence.”

He’s not just a fan of The Culture. He’s trying to build it.

This doesn’t mean he’s not frequently a jackass. It certainly doesn’t make him the savior of mankind, even if that’s absolutely (in bold, double underline) how he sees himself. In many ways, he’s the world’s richest kid, trying to convert the entire planet into a giant playset for his favorite sci fi franchise. He’s a highly bigoted man-child and each of the companies he controls spends an inordinate amount of energy in massaging his massive ego while trying to pry his fingers from the destruct button.

Just be glad he didn’t like Star Wars. Because that place sucks.  

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