Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Transhumanist Wager

The Transhumanist Wager
© 2013 Zoltan Istvan
300 pages

Imagine a protagonist who made Howard Roark seem like a warm and cuddly pushover. That's Jethro Knights, a red-bearded, icy-blue eyed Ubermensch who is determined to live forever -- and if anyone gets in the way, he won't hesitate to terminate them.  Dedicated to transcending biological limits, Knights' five-year plan -- funded by a Russian gangster/oil  mogul -- involves building a floating city and taking over the world.  Those who are useful will be invited to join the quest; those who are not useful will die. "That's evil!", you say?  Only if you subscribe to  'baggage culture' --   Knights' ideal 'omnipotender' recognizes no limits to his will, and those who do are mere sheep who deserve to be slaughtered.  Did I mention he's the good guy?

I stumbled upon this novel while trying to find a story about transhumanist themes. While I'm not a transhumanist myself -- that is, someone who believes in integrating technology into the human body to make ourselves super-machines,  with the possibility of immortality --  I have an academic interest in what other people will be doing to themselves as the 21st century continues to metastasize.  Unfortunately, this novel does not provide much in that vein besides robots and magic pills that cure cancer. The bulk of the novel is instead arguments in favor of Knights' philosophy, integrating the technological aspirations of technohumanism with egoism.    Those who have read The Fountainhead will instantly spot the transparent borrowing of structure: we have a red-headed superman who argues  for the worship of Self, and advocates for its conquest of anything inferior;  he is opposed by a sniffing weasel who does whatever he is told by the third bad guy,  an insincere humanitarian whose public passion for helping the poor is really a platform to make him powerful.  Knights' also has an ally in an exotically beautiful woman who shares his philosophy in part, but not in full, and thereby challenges him as an intellectual sparing partner. If that weren't enough, Knights is put on trial and defends himself in lieu of a lawyer, spends much of the book speechifying, and will eventually create a Galt's Gulch-like sanctuary for his fellow Ubermenschen to devote themselves to science and global conquest. (That's more Atlas Shrugged than Fountainhead, however.)

To be fair, this borrowing of structure, characters, and plot developments could be seen as an homage to Ayn Rand, just as his Three Laws of Transhumanism are a patent borrowing of Asimov's laws of robotics.  I think, however, if Rand were to read it she might be inclined to shove the author off of a Roark skyscraper. Her characters could be cold, but they were consistent;  Knights alternates between demanding the government leave him alone and declaring that Transhumanism should be supported by the government -- between writing philosophical treatises about the supremacy of the Self, declaring each person to be a sovereign god, and then raging because our 'dear world' is being held back back by naughty governments . Look,  Jethro, you can't throw off the shackles of morality in one sentence, and then  condemn governments on moral grounds in another -- and  you can't claim to care about people when you openly champion killing those off who are not "useful".   This inconsistency is rife in the book. Towards the end, in a speech that goes on for scores of pages,   Jethro promises to to each person of the world a college education. If you haven't read classical literature, can't recognize great pieces of music, and can't do physics in your head, you will go back to school, says he.  While this is wildly impractical on its own, it's hilarious considering Jethro has spent the entire book raging against culture, history, religion, etc -- against anything that is not related to the technological conquest of sickness, death, and the world.   Jethro hates ideas like honor, hates familial bonds, hates religion, hates political debate:  why would he want to read something like The Illiad?   I'm not exaggerating his contempt: if ranting about them throughout the book wasn't enough, as the plot reaches its climax he systematically destroys every religious and political building on the planet -- and as the artistic legacy of thousands of years goes up in flames, he shrugs. "I told you. I'm a futurist, not a historian."

The Transhumanist Wager is easily one of the least humane books I've ever read. Frankly, I'd have to read Mein Kampf to give it competition.  The two books have one great similarity: they're badly written.  Throughout the book, as I encountered weird errors, I tried to forgive them on the basis of the author being  a non-native English speaker. But they pile up -- the odd use of "ethnic" for "ethical",  the spelling of Aryan as Arian ("Arian looks"), the confusion of Mobile, Al and New Orleans;  weird dialogue that has a Chinese diplomat referring to the Ubermensch as "wizard of spells", and so on.  I began the book to see what ideas for cybernetics might be in it, but continued out of morbid fascination.  Suffice it to say, if this book's philosophy is the attitude that prevails in the 21st century, our best hope is a coronal mass ejection.

And now, as an antidote, a verse from Walter Scott:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
    From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rossum's Universal Robots

© 1920 Karel Capek
120 pages

ALQUIST: . Has Nana got a prayer book?
HELENA Yes, a big thick one.
ALQUIST And has it got prayers for various occasions? Against thunderstorms? Against illness?
HELENA Against temptations, against floods!––
ALQUIST But not against progress?
HELENA I don't think so.
ALQUIST That's a pity.

Introducing....the robots! Literally.  This 1920 play  by Karel Capek  introduced the term into English, in a story about manufactured people who revolt against their masters. The play opens with the arrival of the President's daughter to a remote island, the manufacturing base and headquarters of Rossum's Universal Robots. These robots are not mechanical mock-ups of human beings, but rather living creatures  whose tissue is chemically manufactured. The creatures themselves are 'simplified', their insides rearranged or reduced for maximum efficiency, and all of the messy human stuff -- pleasure,  ambition, et -- taken out. All that remains is a super-strong body with an obsessive interest in work -- at least, at first.   What began as an experiment from a pair of mad scientists is completely taking over the global workforce, reducing the price of goods to pennies. The dream of the RUR industrialist, "Domin", is to liberate mankind from slavery to itself.   He dreams of a future where humans spend their days painting and playing the lyre or lolling about in the sun, while all of their needs are taken care of by robots.  Of course, there will be some unpleasantness first. What he doesn't reckon with is that his own engineers' own curiosity will mean not just unpleasantness, but the extinction of both humans and robots.

"R.U.R". may seem like a period piece given its steamboats, steam locomotives, and telegraphs, but those are mere props.  The story irself -- the slow death of humanity via dependence on robots --  is one we are perfectly capable of seeing come to fruition.  We won't be executed by brigades of rifle-toting androids, no, but RUR demonstrates another kind of death.  The play takes place over a decade, in which robots take over so much labor and service that humans stop living. They exist, but they're no longer working, no longer struggling for the future; most people do not even have children. Even war has become a robotic domain, as armies of drones are used to invade countries and butcher people (once it's destroyed the opposing army of drones, of course).   Consider our own lives; every passing year brings more automation, and those who live beyond just the moment may wonder what will be the result. How  will governments cope with rising unemployment -- and will we reach a point where the majority of people have nothing to do? And even if people's material needs are met (in a Player Piano scenario, with sustaining welfare for the unemployed masses), how  will society absorb their energy, their itching will to be doing SOMETHING? Regardless of the hopes of optimists, not everyone wants to spend their time reading and painting and playing the lyre. Some people want to build, to compete, to do something mighty....but what will be left?

Though a short read, RUR remains thought provoking close to a century after its publication.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Reads to Reels: The Circle


Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.

Imagine that the movie version of 1984 had ended with Winston Smith being promised by the Party that the reign of Big Brother was through, that they would immediately hold elections to replace him, and - well done, Winston, for your patriotic rebellion! Huzzah!  Now, if you'd read the novel, you'd be confused. For one thing, the mood of this proposed ending is completely different from that of the novel's, with its promise that the future was a boot stamping on a human face forever. Secondly...Big Brother never existed except as an all-seeing eye to frighten people into obedience and subservience. There was no dictator at the core of the party;  the tyranny emanated from the party itself, from the culture it created and its system of control. The movie  would have missed the entire point of the book!

When the ending credits rolled for The Circle last night, its ending left me with that same conviction: the screenwriter missed the point.  Dave Eggers' novel mixed dystopia with satirical dark comedy to produce a thriller that was as mocking as it was foreboding. The movie isn't satirical in the least, although it follows the same basic plot:  enter Mae Holland, played by Emma Watson, who gets a job at the world's biggest and most innovative tech company.  Embracing its culture completely,  Mae rises in the ranks while being increasingly estranged from her real-life family and friends. Repeated encounters with a mysterious man who seems to know more than anyone should bring Mae to a crisis point however, and she has to make a decision.  The decision she makes seems to vary from book to movie, but the movie's ultimate ending renders the difference moot.

Up until that point, I'd been enjoying The Circle as an illustration of the novel.  When Mae is "transparent", streaming her every waking moment, comments from her audience appear as little floating boxes off to the side. They wink in and out fairly quickly,  but a quick eye or a pause button, can get some measure of the variety of the comments.  In keeping with the nature of youtube comments and such, few are substantive: many, in fact, are completely self-absorbed, using Mae's feed only to moan about their lives.  The shallowness of the Circle culture is also pointed out when some outside presenters ask a group to name a historic personality; after a moment of mental paralysis, one volunteers..."Mae Holland!"   That said, I don't think the movie would be nearly as enjoyable without having read the book,  because its plot is rushed, and the creeping dread of The Circle is...well, not so creeping. The mysterious figure from the book takes almost four hundred pages to reveal his identity; here, he offers it to Mae on their second meeting. His aura of mystery, Mae's bookish anxiety to see him again to figure him out, are done away with completely: in the film he's the guy from Star Wars, staring at his phone and  condemning the Circle every time they get past the  pleasantries.  Similarly absent is Mae's constant tension with her ex-boyfriend, Mercer;  in the book he is a foil and a  burr under the saddle, and when Mae uses him to demonstrate a program in the book,   it demonstrates how corroded her own soul has become. In the movie, she and Mercer are merely disagreeable friends, and she doesn't want to use him to test her program (basically, a crowd-sourced way to find a single person on the planet).   While it's nice to see her and Mercer getting along, it does little for the plot of the movie.

The screenplay of The Circle  thus takes Eggers' ominous view of the future of  the socially networked web and turns it into a light thriller with the kind of  head-in-the-clouds naivete one only ever sees on election day. Instead of prompting people to think critically about the way social networks alter their lives, it tacitly promotes life inside the glass cage -- so long as meanies aren't in charge.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Korea Reborn

Korea Reborn: A Grateful Nation Honors Veterans for 60 Years of Growth
© 2015 Republic of Korea's Ministry of Patriots
161 pages

Like most Americans, I have very little knowledge of the Korean War, outside of knowing Douglas MacArthur's role there.  When this book appeared at the library, published by the Republic of South Korea to honor US veterans of the conflict,  it seemed like a good place to start.  The book is half-history, half-celebration. Its opening chapters chronicle the invasion of Korea by Japan, and the subsequent split of the country after the Soviets  moved in following Japan's defeat in World War 2.  Kim Il Sung, appointed by the communists to be their client boss in the north, attempted (with permission from his masters) to expand into South Korea. and nearly captured the entire peninsula before UN forces arrived.  The arrival of the US military and other UN allies reversed Kim's charge,   and were it not for the sudden intervention of the Chinese communists, Kim might have been put out of work altogether before his strange spawn could create a family cult around themselves.  The second half of the book is more celebration than history, but shares how the South Korea economy has become a powerhouse, its democracy better rated than even the UN, and its culture an increasing influence in the west -- from K-Pop to Samsung electronics.  A nation which was nearly completely destroyed in war has, through foreign aid and a free economy, become a full participant in the global community -- giving aide and sending soldiers to relieve those in distress.

Although the book isn't a formal or serious history,  I found it helpful in establishing  the basic outline of the war. The latter half is...dare I say, heartwarming, what with all the pictures of bright skyscrapers, happy children, and expressions of friendship between Korea and the United States. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

German Resistance to Hitler

German Resistance to Hitler
© 1988 Peter Hoffman
188 pages

Peter Hoffman’s research into the German resistance culminated in a 900-page History of the German Resistance 1933-1945, but this work – simply titled German Resistance to Hitler --  is a much smaller overview.    In it, Hoffman briefly reviews the major sources of resistance (the Wehrmacht, the Church, and citizen-protesters in the form of students and communists) and addresses why their work never saw fruit.   In short:  protesters like the social-democrats and communists were disorganized, more interested in fighting among themselves;  the Church’s resistance  amounted to condemnatory speeches and safeguarding lives;  and those in the Army seemed to be cursed with bad luck in their operations.

Hoffman writes that virtually all of these factions shared two great weaknesses: first,   they had to resolve within themselves the moral dilemma that came from resisting or undermining their own people, in a state of war surrounded by hostile powers.  This was especially difficult for members of the military, whose mission was the defense of the country, who were bound by  not only oaths but loyalty to their fellow soldiers.   Two,  Allied support for the German resistance was nonexistent, and once the war reached a point of no return in the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway,  the terms of unconditional surrender were discouraging to patriotic  if dissident Germans who had no wish to see Germany dismembered further at a peace conference.  It was only after the disaster of Stalingrad – which some in the army viewed as criminal negligence --  that desperation overrode caution.

Those who have no knowledge of the resistance whatsoever will find Hoffman an attractive author,  as he  combines a basic overview of the Nazi seizure  of power and the war along with resistance to the same.  I am definitely interested in reading Hoffman’s more expansive History of the resistance, as even in these few pages he offers some new insights.  I thought Valkyrie mostly failed because someone kicked the explosive briefcase further under the table,  muffling some of its force, but Hoffman recounts how von Stauffenburg was summoned into the board room before he and a cohort were finished priming the explosives. Only half of the charges were ready,  and between that, the  misposition under the table,  and the architecture of the room itself  (not as confined as Stauffenburg had planned for)   a strike that would have killed everyone in the room  was reduced to one which only gave Hitler ringing ears and a few scratches.

They Thought They Were Free:  The Germans, 1933-1945
An Honorable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler
Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Ein Feste Burg

A Mighty Fortress:  A New History of the German People
© 2004 Steven Ozment
314 pages

Like many Americans, I first knew the Germans only as the villains of our world wars. It wasn't until college, when over-full Spanish classes thrust me into a German language course,  that I began to discover  the real nation in the heart of Europe. A Mighty Fortress recounts German history from their first encounters with Rome until Germany was re-united in the 1990s. Its object is to render an account which  is free from the tiresome preoccupation with looking for Nazi forebears.   We begin with the partial Romanization of the German tribes, the rise of the Carolingian kingdom,  the post-Charlemagne breakup, and the creation of that strange creature, the Holy Roman Empire.  The Empire was not a unified state in the model of Rome, but a complex  network of kingdoms, fiefdoms, and independent cities, in which a common aristocracy voted for an emperor whose authority varied over the years. (As with the other princes of Europe, the king constantly vied for power against the nobility and the Church.)  Throughout the late middle and early industrial eras,  central Europe was a common warzone between the powers, and Germans suffered the most --- especially during the Thirty Years war.  This bloody  primed Germans for social caution,  so that attempts at imposing French-style revolutionary upsets were largely stymied. Napoleon's victories over the Empire still imposed a large measure of revolutionary reform, however,  and a popular spirit would continue to strengthen from that point on --  resisted or managed by the authorities. The master at management -- of the mob, of the princes of Europe -- was Otto von Bismarck. He perfected the consolidation of German states begun by Napoleon by unifying  Germany into an empire in 1871. Although this review of German history covers chiefly political affairs,  occasionally an artistic or intellectual personality enjoys the spotlight.  They include Martin Luther,  Bach, Beethoven,  Faust,  Kant, Hegel, and Marx.  There is also an obligatory "Why Hitler" chapter, in which the author attributes the  "barbarian's" triumph more to the plight of Weimar Germany (crises and an ineffectual government) than to some chronic itch to take over Europe.

Because A Mighty Fortress is such a general survey, it didn't build much on what I've retained from a German history course taken years ago, except in its coverage of the late 20th century.  Those who know nothing of German history beyond Hitler may find it informative, but I'm certain there are more readable books out there for that purpose. (Even Nazi-focused books like The Complete Idiot's Guide to Nazi Germany might be  respect for Bismarck's political skills began with that book, over fifteen years ago!)

Since it may be playing in your head right now, here's a recording of "A Mighty Fortress"/"Ein Feste Burg",  as recorded by an audience of three thousand men.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume II

Archipeleg GULag / The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
Volume II (of III)
© 1973, 1974 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
679 pages

In the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn used his own experience being arrested, interrogated, and sentenced to a work camp to review the origins of the Soviet police state, delving into its underpinnings of detention centers,  secret police, and transportation networks.  In volume two,  after a brief history of the Gulag system, he focuses on camp life – or rather, the slow death of Gulag existence, the death of both spirit and soul.  Particular sets of the damned have their own sections within the book – women, children, Communist diehards,  even the guards themselves. 

Like books written on the Nazi concentration camps,  Gulag Archipelago is a catalogue of misery, one that lasted for decade after decade.  The monstrous architecture of oppression and humanity began not with the butcher Stalin, but with Lenin himself, as the first instances of forced labor occurred in the early 1920s. The seeds were sown by Marx, who urged that labor was the best response to criminality – ensuring that laggards and reactionaries earned their keep.   That keep was very little; Solzhenitsyn reports meager meals of gruel, largely, with an occasional feast in a roll of black bread.             Official Soviet ideology, which the prisoners were expected to express their conviction in, was that forced labor was also a corrective measure, making the condemned into good soviet citizens.  (The Soviets’ near coreligionists, the National Socialists, expressed that conviction in three words:  Arbeit Macht Frei.)

The easiest summation of Gulag life was that it was miserable in every way. Rations were meager and dismal;  physical shelter was poor, and the authorities denied their wards warm clothing. Those being punished for infractions inside the prison (for voicing dissent, making jokes about the authorities,  making neutral or positive remarks about capitalism or German equipment ) were even worse off. They might be stripped of clothing entirely and made to ‘rest’ in a damp earthen cell, even in the Siberian winter)   The guards were not the only enemies, as the authorities used prisoners against one another. Echoing his remark in volume I that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart,  Solzhenitsyn notes that “informers” were not a separate, malicious category of men, craven weasels who would do anything for a leg up.   Most were ordinary prisoners being manipulated by the guards,  either by the stick (families threatened) or by the carrot. Prisoners could be coaxed into complicity by being asked for more excusable tips, and then later, once their self-respect had been compromised already  they would be grilled for information on what prisoners were saying about Stalin, the guards, the Communist state, etc.  Solzhenitsyn wryly notes midway that while the Soviets had condemned imperial coercion by force, and capitalist coercion by hunger, in their Gulag system they used and perfected both. (One section early in the book compares 19th century serfdom favorably to the plight of the 'new' serfs of communist Russia.)

Although the  Gulag camps were officially designed for labor, not death – there were no Zyklon-B showers --  they were no less efficient at destroying life. In the winter,  the mortal remains of prisoners would be stacked up along buildings, the ground too hard for them to be buried in.  Not only were most of the prisoners on a near-starvation diet, but they were tasked with brutal work – digging canals and logging.  Solzhenitsyn estimated that the death toll in building the White Sea-Baltic canal to have been a quarter of a million people – and for no purpose at all, for the ‘canal’ was too shallow for most ships to transit. It had been done almost for the show of it, a charade of productivity to fulfill the claims of the Five Year Plan.   It is for this reason that we might borrow from the Bible: Hitler has killed his millions, but Stalin has killed his tens of millions.

Solzhenitsyn notes throughout the book that the best way to survive the camps was simply to vanish: don’t talk and don’t work when they’re not looking - -both because working hard for extra rations was counterproductive, and because if a prisoner finished their work they were rewarded with…more work.  Many people did seize what little pleasures they could: Solzhenitsyn records love affairs blooming in the camps before men and women were segregated, as people grasped at whatever affection they could find.  And there were a few guards, he admits, who would look the other way—even if for the most part they acted like dogs, watchful and servile.  Perhaps the most interesting set of characters to consider are the Communist prisoners – diehards and loyalists who were arrested because their zeal stepped on the authorities’ toes.  The system was a kleptocracy, Solzhenitsyn writes, corrupt from toe to head:  anyone placed in a position where they could clip off rations or resources from the unsuspecting (prisoners inside or Soviet subjects outside) would.  Those who believed in something earnestly, be they Orthodox Christians or orthodox communists,  kept disrupting the cozy pool of corruption.   Even in prison, however, the communist ‘loyalists’ insisted that the Party was still good: they had simply made an error, or perhaps local authorities had been compromised by the Germans.  One memorable section includes a mock conversation with a die-hard, who has a pat response to every probing question Solzhenitsyn puts to him about the State and its ideology.

As with the first volume, this book is more daunting for its size and contents than its writing. Solzhenitsyn's mood as a writer mocks the authorities and looks for the best he can find in his fellow prisoners, and the translation is perfectly simple. The third volume promises chronicles of escapes, and the death of Stalin.