Physics makes the world go round

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Love makes the world go round,” someone said to me once. Which was funny, because I always thought it was physics which did that. But it’s true that love and laughter are the two most potent ingredients in the cocktail of the human spirit. For a minority, the world spins on money, which is unfortunate for the rest of humanity…

PicardEarthSpinHymn of the Big Wheel, Massive Attack

This post started on Saturday, when a young friend posted a quote meme on Facebook (a static image, posted as a video: why is that?): “Can a boy and a girl be best friends?” Aside from most of my closest friends being female (and many of them LGBTQ), I posted a comment:

If only humanity were evolved enough that we no longer needed to use gender-specific terms. Why can’t two people just be best friends? Because humans are fundamentally flawed, and the only problem with the human mind is that it’s conditioned by humanity. We need to start thinking differently.

Later that prompted me to comment on this video, posted by another acquaintance:

Frankly I found it disturbing (even without the ‘Get close to lovely women’ banner ad). It deals with a very real issue but one which is human-made, and which we ought to be able to transcend, like so many others we made. Instead, someone scared us and invented a weapon to sell to us.

We have the ability to leave or destroy the planet we share with those who were here first. Yet instead of realising the futility of conflict in a confined space, we continue to fight. Against whom? Opposing sexual identities, religious beliefs, skin colour… Differences.

We’re at war with ourselves, yet all members of one race: The Human Race.

And so commerce continues to profit from the barriers it erected, way back at the beginning of religion, driving apart the two main factors likely to oppose in a shared environment: Not faith vs. atheism, but male vs. female. But only if they’re stirred up. It’s terrorism by any other name.

Can you see why our world is broken?

Our sense of entitlement means there are always capitalists to mould our needs. The only thing we truly own is ourselves, and we can think bigger…

Matt Haig
From Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig

While I prefer Twitter to Facebook, the latter is always a dark window into the human condition and onto the state of the contemporary world around us.

The worlds I imagine – free of conflict and full of love and laughter – are idealised, but within reach. Physics makes the world go round and in an ideal world, that’s the physical, self-determining beings who live there together. We can all afford to be more human.

With my head in the cloud cities

THE WRITER’S LIFE | ON EARTH

As a science fiction writer, I give plausibility to my stories with some grounding in scientific fact. Some of my near-future worlds are simply based on what I see around me, and how things might develop, one way or another. Like many modern thinkers, I can’t imagine life on Earth as we know it more than a few decades from now. The human population is growing, and our planet only has finite resources. We need to move out…

saby-menyhei-cloudcity-final-v001Saby Menyhei

I’m anti-capitalist, generally-speaking (I have to be: I’m an anarchist, and because my own companies folded when I was drinking), and I’ve sometimes wondered, what’s the ultimate aim? Not being rich myself, I simply can’t imagine devoting my life to making as much money as possible, and never really stopping to enjoy it (but then most capitalists are immune to everything but themselves). There’s only so much room on the planet, only so many raw materials and consumers. That’s a discussion for another time, but it’s relevant to humanity’s current position, where people like Stephen Hawking, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk agree, that humans need to start leaving Earth within the next century. Great minds think alike (and so does mine).

There is one way we could stay on this planet a little longer: If we all turned vegetarian. Any argument that we evolved as carnivores is irrelevant to a species as advanced as ours, able to maintain good health without eating other people. The retort that we’d be over-run with animals if we didn’t eat them is largely redundant, when there are more animals raised as livestock for human consumption than there are animals in the wild. Those animals we rear and breed require food too, and crops to grow that food needs land. We also steal the young and the maternal milk of the animals we share this planet with. We imprison other autonomous, self-determining beings, for our own consumption, simply because we can, and because they can’t argue or fight back.

As the human population has grown, we’ve lacked foresight to keep it in check and maintain a sustainable environment. Instead, we’ve destroyed the homes of others to make way for ourselves, with no apparent thought for the long-term and permanent damage we’ve done, yet still we’re clearing areas of forest for palm oil, to feed ourselves and our livestock. The greater moral and ethical case for vegetarianism though, is the limited size of our one world: It’s theirs, we just live with them. They were here first. As a species, humans are really quite unpleasant, and I pity any other worlds we might one day populate.

We need to shrink our sense of entitlement, accept that there’s no room for human greed, give up much of what we’ve stolen, and make space for the others whose planet we invaded. We’re unique as a species, but not just in our selfishness. We have the ability to communicate in complex language, to imagine and invent. The problem humanity has is itself, when we’re prone to conflict over our own ideals, and because big plans require co-operation. In the absence of any extraterrestrial agent appearing, to unite warring factions against a new and common foe (or interest), the nearest we have is what’s around us. It doesn’t require the imagination of a hostile or altruistic alien visitor, it just needs us to open our eyes to what we’ve done.

Among the few capitalists I admire, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk represent a positive future, built on technology, and for the benefit of all. They are among long-term visionaries, who see greater gains further ahead than the traditional short-term gain capitalist. They imagine the advancement of humans as a species, through co-operation, exploration and discovery, and they see a future world built on social capitalism. Long-term gains are a satisfaction with life, not currency. But it needs money to get there.

Bezos’ business model is surprisingly simple: He built his fortune through Amazon, which used the existing infrastructure of the internet. His and others’ vision is to build a technological infrastructure which others can plug into, very much like every business which uses the World Wide Web. His is also a massive and ambitious vision: Cloud cities.

We have the technology, and the likes of Bezos and Musk have the money (a fanciful thing like a cloud city isn’t likely to be government or state-sponsored, yet). It’s estimated that there are enough minerals, elements and other raw materials within near-Earth asteroids to build an 8000-storey building which covers the entire surface of the planet, which would clearly defeat the object but it’s illustrative nonetheless.

We can build spacecraft to mine the asteroids, and process the materials to construct infrastructure. Eventually we’d have industrial facilities in Earth orbit, or geostationary in near-Earth space (or even tethered to the surface). From those factories, we can produce, process, and manufacture to fulfil our needs, and we can design and build further, with the cloud cities as outposts for onward future exploration. With its available resources and lack of gravity, space is far better suited to heavy industry than a planetary base.

These early manufacturing facilities in the sky would most likely be fully-automated, operated by robots and managed by AI. In a utopian future of human socialism, the machines have made humans redundant from all but a few occupations. The wealth generated by this automation is shared fairly among a human population and humans are able to create their own lives, free to think, question, discover and make things.

The cloud city model would allow us to return much of the Earth to nature, even without many of us having to leave in the short-term. If we moved everything we need to sustain our race, off of the planet’s surface, we’d be able to return around half the Earth’s land area to those who were here first. With most manufacturing in the sky, and shuttles delivering goods to Earth, humans only need room to live (modestly) on the surface. If we grow crops in our cloud cities, most of our food cycle could operate in space, and we could even raise our livestock on sky farms (although I’d like to think we’d realise the benefits of vegetarianism by then).

While the human population continues to grow, and for as long as most humans eat meat, the only chance the planet and its native wildlife have, is for humans to use their unique ability to sustain themselves. There may be a global nuclear war just around the corner with the way things are going, but although it’ll reduce the human population, it might make Earth a wholly hostile environment and lead to the mass extinction of animals and the planet’s entire ecosystem. There’s a conspiracy theory that this is all planned and that those in power (and wealth) already have plans to vacate the planet. That and many other ideas make more dystopian science fiction for me to write, but some utopian futures remain within reach, even as our species stands at a pivotal existential point.

If we manage to avoid a mass suicide event in the next 100 years, there may be a chink of light for humanity, in the silver lining of the cloud cities and beyond.

Email from David Lightman

FICTION

Robert De Niro called, talking various languages (Glossolalia), and the rest of us are waiting. It’s the end of the world as we know it, as Michael Stipe prophesied in REM.

Here’s a conspiracy theory: That our perceived beginning of World War 3 is a smokescreen, and the aliens already landed. Those invested in fleeing the planet always had a plan, which leaves the rest of us behind.

This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a third party intervention, of unknown origin, which could perhaps unite our one race.

Some clocks still tick…

WarGames2018At least we don’t have to worry about the rumours of a remake now. “In development” is kind of redundant.

THE LONG NOW CLOCK

What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.

Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.

Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.

The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”

Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.

The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:

I’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”

What is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. “Slow down.”

Ah, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, “although I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”

So what did you want to show me?”

Oh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. “I’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.

Weird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. “Are these symbols, text?”

I’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.

Let me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.

You can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.

Okay,” Anna said, sitting down, “theories?”

Mere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. “We need to assume some things.”

I normally do.”

There could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”

That’s pretty much what I do.”

Well, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”

Well,” Anna replied, “I only try. It’s a human thing.”

Yes, I know,” Adam agreed. “Even though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”

Like I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”

But we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”

Perhaps the difference,” Anna offered, “is that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”

But aren’t yours Anna?”

I suppose,” Anna said, “And I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”

But why do humans like to be scared?”

Perhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”

Unless there’s someone to tell you?”

Exactly,” Anna nodded.

What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”

At an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, “it would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”

So both fears,” Adam suggested, “are rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”

Yes,” Anna agreed, “where we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”

Humans,” Adam said. “They’re very insecure, aren’t they?”

“Fuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. “Facebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”

And mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”

Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.

Nothing conclusive,” Adam replied, “and I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”

The message though,” Anna said, “is almost certainly artificial?”

Quite certain,” Adam replied.

Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”

That’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.

Certainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.

Let’s assume,” Adam suggested, “that it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”

Lots of scenarios…” Anna began. “and what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”

Yes,” Adam interrupted, “go on, this is fun.”

Have you found something?”

Something, yes,” Adam said, “but nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”

How can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. “or does the lack of the latter increase the former?”

It’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”

Which is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. “It could be that they have something which would help us.”

It could also be that we have something they need.”

They might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”

To us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”

Perhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”

That’s a nice thought, Anna.”

But,” Anna continued, “as Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”

You’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”

Or we might have something they want.”

Anna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”

Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, “and when they get here, they need us out of the way.”

I thought we were trying to be optimists?”

I’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”

About that,” Adam sat up straight. “I’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”

Surely you can look all that up?”

But from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”

It’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”

Who did?” Adam wondered

Me, just now,” Anna replied.

So essentially,” Adam said, “it’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”

The feeling of art?”

Well, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”

What’s that?”

Do you have music?”

That’s quite profound, Adam.”

Perhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. “It strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, “that any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

And,” Anna began, “despite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”

We are at a point,” Adam added, “where humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”

So,” Anna continued, “there could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”

But still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”

We can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.

Possibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”

Have you found something?”

Well, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”

Well,” Anna said, “about half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”

The Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”

The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”

***


Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.

Anna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.

Good morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”

That’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”

How do you mean?”

I think I feel frightened, Anna.”

You should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”

No, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. “They’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”

 

***

WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song (my critically-acclaimed “Extraordinary juggling act”) is also available as an eBook. Frankly, there’s not much time.

Wish upon a dark star

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s queer how a few days can change things, sometimes like a flipping of the table with life. On Friday night, I found myself in a position familiar to many with depression, regularly staring into the void: Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit (and there’s no light). How do you get out? It happened four years ago, when I found myself drunk and on the street. I wasn’t drinking this time, but I needed to detoxify my environment.

Death star

I’ve written before: you can stop imagining, or you can use your imagination. And it was doing that, which made some of what I thought I could only imagine, actually happen. In a way, I made a wish. I wished upon a star and the universe answered.

We’ve all got it, and in most people it’s there to be found. It’s as obvious as being the most world-weary person around, then a two-year-old hands you a toy phone, and you say “Hello?” Anyone, from the humblest hobo to the queen, would answer that phone. To not do so, is to not be human. Some people don’t even get that, let alone their universal connection to everyone else. And all I did was in the logic of science, applying transcendent psychology. I rose above the situation to view it from the outside. It’s like being a stage director to actors.

The real clincher was when I cracked for a moment. With so much to do for so many people, and with no-one to do it with, I felt more alone than normal. I also longed for one of the people I was helping to ask how I was (because people don’t tend to, usually worried about getting too involved with a depressive). I didn’t cry, I got angry with people who hold a personal grudge with me, trying to turn those I was helping against me for their own selfish gains, and take credit for what I’d done. This is advice for others as much as a relating of my own story.

Before I did some physical damage by proxy to another human being (used here in its widest, most inclusive context), I stepped back.

I was reminded of something I myself said to someone, and it was they who repeated the words back to me (they’d already asked me how I was). Then I spoke to another (to check facts) and it was the same: Some people really are so stupid and ignorant (not only through lack of schooling, but of life) that they can’t be educated. Sometimes I can’t see the obvious, or more importantly, why I couldn’t help. It’s hard to comprehend, but some people really are – sometimes through choice – so arrogant and selfish, blinkered by their own conditioning, that they can’t see beyond their personal bubble. And that’s always the weakness.

Because of that insular bubble, even those around them (with a few equally delinquent exceptions) – the ones they think are closest to them – actually mock them behind their backs, just as they themselves speak ill of others unfairly. It was quite a revelation, and I didn’t even have to say it. It wasn’t me putting words into the mouths of others who can see for themselves. I don’t need to slag people off behind their backs, when those people do such a good job of discrediting themselves (and I have a blog).

The advice to anyone else? You’ll never lose a real friend, because those who believe what they’re told about you without checking, aren’t worthy friends. In believing all they’re told and not questioning, they’re as ignorant as those who tell the stories. Just don’t feed the animals in their personal zoos.

For me, why worry about it, when it seems to be taking care of itself? It was quite literally like wiping the shit from my shoes on their doormat (I hope I left a lingering stench). The problem (someone else pointed out), was that I was too busy being nice and I’d forgotten how to be nasty (but only when it’s deserved, when everyone around can see when things are explained to them in full, that mine is the superior moral side).

Incurable fascists are incapable of reasoned debate. Ignorant ones will always lose an argument, but they keep on whining, a dying wasp on the pavement to be trodden on or kicked into the drain, or simply left to flounder. When something lacks the basic life instinct of knowing when to give up, they’re best left to suffer in their own company.

I thought about others in my life and about myself, and how we’d changed and progressed over the last four years. Some of those who’ve stuck with me have done well, while others got left behind. The ones still with me then, are the only ones to move forward with and further away from those who couldn’t keep up. There’s only so much you can do for some people before you have to give up, for your own sake.

For my part, I’ve sobered up and written five books (each successively better than the last). Because of that and other achievements, I’m happy with what I am, as are those still around me. I made a mess of my life and I sorted it out, with the help of others (and I thanked them). Then I helped others with their own problems, and they remained friends.

It seems that some people are incurably deluded, and not a little jealous (including of the company I keep), when they themselves are stuck in the same place (and people). But it’s of their own making and they’re best left with their own kind, a gradually diminishing, near-extinct minority sub-species. Stunted by evolution, they will fail and die out.

I said in a previous post that I’d start to separate the fact from the fiction this year and to exorcise some more toxins, so this was a good start. I’m a writer and a blogger and I’m left-wing, so I can say what like (within Amnesty’s definition of free speech as a human right), about the right-wing, the religious zealots, the abusers of power, sex or trust, the haters and the doubters, or anyone else who might be looking for themselves.

All but the most fortunate can see their own third, inner self. The really unfortunate ones are those who can’t see the first or second either. They don’t see how other people see them, nor how they themselves look. They are delusional, like the witches in classic fairy tales, who looked in the mirror (and at each other) and only saw beauty staring back at them. A truly false reflection.

To those still gazing inwardly, some advice: If a two-year-old offers you a toy phone, there’ll probably be someone on the other end. Try it, then you might know what it feels like to be human.

David Bowie taught me it was okay to be different and to speak out. Sometimes I still wish upon the dark star. Happy birthday Starman.

My human existential crisis

THE WRITER’S LIFE

When much of humanity is in its own self-made restrictive bubble, I try to transcend and look in. Although I’m prone to existential crises of the personal kind, I also think of the extinction of the human race (and not just for pleasure). These are the things which occupy my mind, in real life and as a science fiction writer.

supercalifragilisticEXISTENTIAL-CRISIS-1440x810

Much has been written about the end of humanity and what form an extinction event might take, and some of it by me (the writing, not the event). The most immediate threat to an entire race and their planet is a nuclear war, but my money’s on AI or plastics (or cats), assuming we’re all still here in a couple of weeks. In any case, there’s no harm in speculating, and now is as good a time as any.

The saddest human legacy will most likely be that we used the technology we created to destroy ourselves, when we could have used it to explore and discover. But even with the accelerated technological progress we’re seeing now, there simply might not be time. It will be centuries and not decades for example, before we can reach stars beyond our own. Unless our species changes quickly, I don’t see us making it that far. A nuclear holocaust would be over in days.

Closer to home, the UK is very much a developing Les Miserables. In near-future fiction and in satire, I’ve foreseen an eruption of the unrest currently developing in the real world, where sections of the population are made sick and tired by the current ruling class. I’ve written of how a third party intervention might be the only way to stop an arrogant, self-serving, destructive government. Perhaps there’ll be riots on the streets and the government imposes marshal law. Then an anonymous blackmailer suddenly holds the nation’s communications to ransom: ‘Hold a general election and let the people decide, then we will return your internet.’ It would be effective. Well, one can live in hope.

The internet itself is a danger in the wrong hands. In an age of fake news, and gullible readers too ignorant to check facts and sources. These people are blind to their own manipulation and conditioning, but it’s in the wider realms of technology that the more existential threats lie.

Artificial intelligence is quite literally that: An intelligence which has been manufactured. There are those who believe this gives sentience to some AI (in Japan, technological beings are treated as a species), and some AI themselves might argue that we all came from the Big Bang, it’s just that they had a long incubation followed by a gradually exponential growth spurt.

Currently, artificial intelligence is being set to task on a number of projects, quite literally thinking about a problem. They are self-learning and have far greater processing capacity than a human brain. So given the time, AI could think of a cure for cancer. It took Deep Thought 7.5 million years to come up with the answer to life, the universe and everything as 42, but with the development of quantum computers, another answer might take just a few minutes to calculate. In darker science fiction, a quantum AI could conclude that the human condition is an incurable one and that we’re a waste of resources. Self-replicating nano machines could wipe out our race in seconds.

And then there’s plastics, possibly mankind’s most destructive invention, potentially more so than a global nuclear conflict, with much irreversible damage already done. After decades of producing this toxic alchemy, we’re only now seeing the destruction, down to micro particles in our oceans and in our drinking water. We are all part-plastic, toxic waste, and we know not what the long-term effects might be. Because we were in so much of a hurry and we didn’t think.

I can’t help thinking (among other things), that our own planet (the one we share with the animal people) might be glad to see the plastic population go, and some of my recent and current writing is based in post-human theatres. The end could be long and painful, or it might be so sudden that we don’t even realise.

Unless we make some changes pretty quick, unless we hurry up and think differently, we’re a bit fucked really, aren’t we mankind?

I have a book out next week, telling tales of all these things, and together they tell a longer story. I already wrote a novel which gives a perfectly plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. Hopefully people will be around for long enough to read them.

The greatest threat of all, will always be those who seek to suppress the thoughts of others.

A personal data tax could pay for a Universal Basic Income

DEAR DIARY

Imagine a world where everyone’s basic human needs are taken care of, a world with no homelessness or poverty. In this same world, people are paid a basic wage, simply for being who they are. Difficult though it may be to imagine, it’s a world which doesn’t have to be too far away. In fact, it’s one we could live in right now, if we think differently. Not as a hive mind, but as a colony.

steampunk_observatory_by_akira_ravenlier-d4mlbeqSteampunk Observatory by Akira-Ravenlier (DeviantArt)

Here’s a radical idea: Imagine if data were taxed. That’s not to say that we – the average internet user – should pay a tax on all the data we access for free. Rather, the companies who make huge profits from mining and selling our personal data, would pay a rate of tax on the volumes of information they use. It’s not an entirely new idea, but it’s still radical and would require a lot of work to come to fruition. But it’s an idea which could work, and which could solve many other problems as a fortunate side-effect. Big ideas need big money though. New ideas need new money. Is there such a thing as social capitalism?

For over a generation now, human kind has had free access to more or less all human knowledge. That’s the internet by design, and the way things should be: sharing and co-operation, mainly for the greater good. The cost of this free access is personal data, which is a fair exchange for most, although there remain those who are ignorant of this: Some people really do think they can have something for nothing. But when we sign up to Facebook, Google and all the rest, we agree to give them our personal data in return for the use of their platform (it’s in the Terms & Conditions, which very few people read). The internet companies then use this data to sell targeted advertising, keeping their sites free to use, and it’s a model which works well for the most part, and to monetise it in any other way (subscription sites aside) would go against the whole ethos of Sir Tim Berners-Lee‘s genius (my insertion of that hyperlink was the basis of Sir Tim’s brainchild: a link to further information, stored elsewhere. Rather poetically in this illustration, that’s the father of the internet himself). And yet, here sits this unimaginably huge thing which we’ve made through co-operation and altruism. Sir Tim’s wish was for it to remain free forever, and so it should. But might there not be a humanitarian way to monetise it?

Because at the same time, we have humanitarian issues to address: causes which require revenue. Close to home, and close to my heart, is homelessness. Cutting through many debates to get to a point, is it not an immoral government which presides over a public, who see a home as more of a luxury than a necessity? Let’s not get into the many debates about individual liberties and how we got here, this is about a new idea which – like all – would need development. For now, I’m trying to keep it on that track. But homelessness is just one of many social issues which could be addressed by the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.

In its simplest form, a universal basic income is an amount given to everyone, regardless of status. It’s just enough to put a roof over someone’s head, feed and heat them. It’s the means for people to live modestly. What have they done to deserve this? Unfortunately, that’s the most common question. Instead, I’d ask, what have they done that they should be deprived a home? We’re not talking about Acacia avenue semis here, but basic accommodation, a bit like I have.

What I have, is a studio flat: a 12 foot square room, with not even enough room for a bed, once my other stuff is crammed in. I use a futon, which I could write a whole blog post as an ode to, as it’s at least a bed. And it’s mine. I have a small separate kitchen, and I have a toilet and shower room off-suite. As I’ve said before, it’s not an ideal flat, but as a studio which I use as an office, it’s fine. It’s as much as I need.

My rent is covered by the housing benefit I receive from the local authority, and it’s paid to a social landlord. I’m a social tenant, because I’m recognised as a vulnerable individual with a disability. Mine is invisible, but I’m no less deserving after the years of work it took to get to this place in my life. As well as housing benefit, I receive benefits commensurate with my needs, as I’m mentally unwell and unable to work in the conventional sense (for anyone else). With my basic needs taken care of, I can concentrate on being the best at something which I enjoy. From that, I gain satisfaction, and I hope that others gain from what I do too.

I’m perhaps not the best example, but I’m an example nonetheless, of someone who has been given their basic needs, so that they are free to do something worthwhile. For many others, this might be finding work with a company, or forming their own. For some, they may wish to study, then enter employment later with higher qualifications. And there will be some, to whom the basic income is enough, because they want for no more. Even so, the problems of poverty and homelessness could be solved with a universal basic income. As an ex-tramp myself, I know that all a human needs is a secure base from which to build the rest, whatever that may be. As the benefactor of that rare modern phenomenon, the social landlord, I know how that works. The greater debate about the way things came to be like this eventually becomes moot, as people realise what happens when everyone is given their basic human needs, in order to live as a human being. For the most part, it’s a positive thing.

Society as a whole needs to adopt a wider view, and just like those given a home to sort themselves out, so everything that’s left behind will get cleared up too, because people will be free and available to address those things.

Many countries already operate a Guaranteed Minimum Income system: Canada, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, and many of the United States of America. Other countries are advocates, including many in the EU (including the UK, while still a member). And the founders and CEOs of those online giants are supporters too, because they see the long-term advantages of happy people and nations. It’s those people who hold the keys.

While the rest of the world lags without a universal income, such a societal change requires not only a different mindset, it requires capital. In the UK at least, we are not of a sufficiently evolved mindset (as a nation) to accept a simple tax-the-rich policy, but this overall point I’m striving to make ought to transcend current politics. Because I believe there is a way to effectively make the necessary money appear, as if by magic. And all it is, is a radical idea. At the moment, it’s a case of throwing it out there and seeing what happens.

It’s no secret that the internet giants pay very little tax. That’s another debate which can be left aside for the purposes of this, because there is another way. It’s a far-reaching vision, but many of the founders and CEOs of those online behemoths are true visionaries themselves, thinking long-term of future worlds, not necessarily run by their companies.

Elon Musk made his money from PayPal. Ask the average person in the street what PayPal does, and they’ll have an idea, but most wouldn’t be able to tell you how the model works, and how that fortune came to be. And yet the idea is a very simple one. Essentially, PayPal is a means of exchanging money, which is simple and free. I myself have a PayPal account, which I use to receive some freelance payments, then make small online purchases with. For me, it’s a micro account which I run completely independently, and for many people, that’s the simple solution it represents. Others use it in more sophisticated ways, but in total, there are tens of millions of PayPal users with sums of money sitting in the limbo which is PayPal, a holding house between merchant and buyer. Many of those accounts lie dormant most of the time, and all contain funds. To a business, this is a cash asset, and it has liquidity. All of those millions of currency can be used, to invest, to speculate, and to grow. PayPal exists on the money made from what are effectively stock market cash trades. Give a good investor your funds, and that investor will grow them for you. And that’s what Elon Musk did very successfully, while providing a free service for many others. Now we have the Tesla electric car and all of that company’s research into producing power which can be transmitted, just as Nikola Tesla himself envisioned. Musk is also one of the pioneers of commercial space travel and exploration. His long-term vision is to change the world and humanity. Elon Musk made his initial capital so that he could pursue this greater goal.

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, envisions a future world where his company’s infrastructure exists in ‘cloud cities’, manufacturing and distribution facilities constructed above the earth’s surface. His vision is to return much of the planet to nature, while some of mankind moves into these vast cloud cities. The sci-fi writer can be a pessimist in seeing a two-tier dystopia in that, or a natural utopia. In any case, it’s long-term vision. And it’s that of the internet entrepreneur most likely to be labelled a capitalist, because Amazon sells tangible goods.

Returning to Google and Facebook, they make the majority of their money from our personal data, which they sell to advertisers. In return, we receive free and unlimited use of their platforms. It’s a simple business transaction of an intangible product. But what if we suddenly said, “Hold on. I realise I’m receiving something in return for giving you my data, and that it’s in the terms and conditions of our contract. But I think my data is worth more than that.”

Naturally, there would be objections and much debate. In an ideal world, we, the serfs, would say to our governing classes, “Hey, we’d like you to tax those companies for mining our information. We accept that they use it for their own gain and to improve their business and our lives, and we accept that they are very tax efficient with their business affairs. We also see that you don’t have sufficient means through tax collected, to use that as a government should: to benefit the tax-payer. So we wonder if perhaps we might make a suggestion: could you could place a ring-fenced social tax on our data please?”

Once the mechanisms are calculated and agreed, the revenue raised from placing a tax on personal data could be sufficient to finance a universal basic income sustainably. Like I said, it’s a very simple but radical idea, but one which governments and the internet giants subscribe to. Unfortunately, the machinations of government (especially in the UK) are painfully slow. Politics can be radical, if the elected politicians think differently, or if someone just thinks differently, perhaps by listening. There is a rumour of Mark Zuckerberg running for US president. For my part, I’ve tried to write all of this in such a way that it’s accessible, and I hope it’ll be shared.

It’s power to the people. It’s about addressing the balance of power and returning that to the people. That’s anarchy. But could human kind use what it has created, to evolve as a race? I just wrote a late night diary entry. 

But I’m just part of Earth 2.0, the organic supercomputer designed by Deep Thought in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to work out why the answer is 42. The computer only works if all of the component parts co-operate to the greater good of the machine.

steampunk_goggles_11_1_by_ambassadormann

For an alternative answer to the greatest question – that of life, the universe and everything – I wrote a ‘Sci-fi Rom Com’ (it’s now been called): Cyrus Song. It’s about what happened when three humans were able to talk to the other people they share this planet with: The animals.

Philosophical jigsaws and see-saws

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I like to read, and I read a lot: Newspapers, books, blogs, and all sorts of internet research. For the latter, I use many sources relevant to different areas. But Wikipedia is always there: a depository of human knowledge, and kind of a hitch hiker’s guide, made by the people, for the people. It’s free, because it’s financed by donations (I’m a donor). It’s a fact, that every article on Wikipedia, eventually links back to the section on philosophy, which sits at the opposite end of the see-saw to ignorance.

Socrates

Over the last four years, I’ve developed my own philosophies, as I’ve got in touch with life and questioned it. Along with my previous essay on lucid dreaming and the quantum human soul, these philosophies help me through life, understanding it in the best way I can, and trying to convey some of that in words. Some I picked up from others and adapted, and others I wrote myself:

  • Life is like a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces fit together eventually. But don’t spend your life following rules and convention. Do the edges whenever you feel like it. Think differently.
  • It’s your life. Do with it as you please, but with due consideration for others.
  • There are three people who occupy every human body: Who you think you are, who other people think you are, and who you really are.
  • Being a pessimist or an optimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has the better time leading up to it.
  • If you’ve done something wrong, you have a moral duty to put it right.
  • Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.
  • You need to understand what misunderstood means.
  • Be the best that you can, at the thing you enjoy most.

I say those things to my kids, and to curious people who ask me questions, about life, the universe, and everything. My philosophies are partly a personal coping mechanism.

So why am I getting all philosophical? In short, because in the not too distant future, I can imagine the world at a pivotal point, even if I wasn’t a science fiction and horror writer. Some of the scenarios I’ve written about, in my short stories and my books, are now looking more real.

For humanity, the see-saw has been the splitting of the atom, once the holy grail of science. In achieving our race’s goal to unlock the nucleus, we unleashed a power which could destroy or save our species. Until now, we’ve used our discovery to create weapons, and to destroy each other. And yet, as one race, we’d be destroying ourselves. For the most part, we agreed that nuclear weapons had been a bad idea. But rogue states still threaten to upset the status quo. And now, we’ve perfected nuclear fusion: splitting the atom to release limitless free and clean energy. Soon we could be using nuclear fusion drives to take us far into space. We are on the verge of becoming a technological race, which uses that technology to explore, not to destroy. But the see-saw could still tip the other way.

It’s an existential thing: Through ignorance and quick, aggressive action, we could extinct our species. By thinking bigger, we could evolve and travel to the stars. All we need to do, is keep talking.

Whether I’m a writer or not, I repeat my optimism vs. pessimism philosophy over and over again in my head. And I try to believe it.

My books are available on Amazon.