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.

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.