Two visions of utopia

Quadranting loves sharp, intelligent comedy. Therefore it loves Bridget Christie’s Utopia on Radio 4.

She gets plenty of mileage from the idea that our current civilisational trajectory is “not good; rapidly getting shittier” (my phrase not hers). There are too many humans now for us to reverse course – as per Quadranting First Law1 – so, as individuals, our best recourse is to find a way of coping with the knowledge that billions of our fellow beings, with the best of intentions, are striving with all their might and main to bury humanity’s future under piles of vanity projects like self-driving cars and colonising Mars.

You can see how fucked up we are by doing a Google search for pictures of Utopia. You get this as the top result:

The Prologue and the Promise. McCall Studios

Painted for Disney World (where else?), it reads from the pyramids and Acropolis on the left – the prologue – to a glorious near-futuristic metropolis around now and lastly to the lifeless, radioactive void of space interstellar civilisation – the promise.

What does this tell us – apart from suggesting that Disney was already plotting to get its hands on the Star Wars franchise back in the 1980s?

It tells us a lot about hubris. Essentially it’s the myth of progress writ large. Who is promising the viewer a passport to the City on a Hill and then the whole Universe? Is it God? The Almighty Inevitability that our dirty, temporary, fossil-fuelled living arrangement (notably absent from the mural) will shortly pupate into CGI-ed heaven because that is What Is Ordained.

Human scale is absent from the picture. People scurry along roads that lead away from, or at a safe distance from, the symbols of civilisation in the background. Perhaps that’s because all the empires represented, from Egypt to Washington, rested to a greater or lesser extent on human slavery because that’s all there was before industrialised carbon came along.

The future is a monstrous, towering, machine-made environment stripped of vegetation and animal life, lit by a Hiroshima-like sun. It takes for granted that the essential millions of fossil, fission or fusion-supplied energy slaves will continue to multiply endlessly, although the mural paints all energy conversions out of history.

You can say ‘Oh well, it’s just a feel-good painting from an amusement park’ but it’s more than that. The Prologue and the Promise still fits the official narrative, peddled in everything from smartphone adverts to the never-ending Star Wars series. Which is that this type of techno-grandiose utopia is what we should be heading for. And if your own life feels like an unfulfilling, exhausting farrago of debt slavery and pointless consumerism apparently designed expressly to exacerbate pollution, congestion and inequality, it’s because you are not trying hard enough to keep up.

Oddly enough, although our ancestors lacked almost every advantage of modern life from property rights and freedom of speech to pain-free dentistry, vaccination, clean water, ample food and insecticides, they seem to have had a far more achievable and sustainable vision of an idealised living arrangement.


Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Golden Age, 1530

Surely there has to be a middle way between Disneyfied hubris and a level of existence so precarious that the idea of going for a swim in a wildlife park seems like paradise?

The infuriating thing is that we could be working towards a balanced approach now, if humans en masse weren’t so utterly fuckwitted. Instead of being prepared to nuke each other for the right to live on the right end of the Prologue and the Promise, we could be making an honest appraisal of planetary limits, not lying to ourselves about the potential to run industrial civilisation at current scale on future energy flows, and generally building a worthwhile future for our grandchildren, not indenturing their lives in service of an impossible fantasy.

  1. Humans are wonderful in smallish groups but batshit crazy in large numbers  

Match of the cephalopods: the elites’ house mag vs. Vlad the Impeller

For all its family resemblance to the the witch sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Russiagate is turning dangerous.

Very predictably, we now have the Economist weighing in on behalf of the one per cent it exists to serve with a cover story representing Putin as an octopus threatening Western democracy with his sinister tentacles.


The Economist: Cover 22 February 2018

Russiagate started out as a comforting story that the permanent government in Washington made up for itself, to wish away the uncomfortable fact that its anointed successor to Obama had been bested by a louche chancer with unfeasible hair and a bad Twitter habit. Then it went ballistic.

This frankly ridiculous meme, whereby a handful of trolls with no proven connection to the Kremlin supposedly stole the US election by spending a minute amount of money, which most American candidates wouldn’t even answer the phone for, is now the thinnest of wafery excuses for a stance of Imperial aggressiveness that the deep state warmonger faction had hoped to reach “democratically” if their apparatchiks in the Dem party hadn’t so badly misread the electoral runes.

The chief characteristics of the alleged meddling are that it was indistinguishable from the vastly larger volume of ongoing American-on-American political trolling, and it had no measurable effect.

However, the Economist has a response to this:

”It is futile to speculate how much Russia’s efforts succeeded in altering the outcomes of votes and poisoning politics. The answer is unknowable. But the conspiracies are wrong in themselves and their extent raises worries about the vulnerabilities of Western democracies. If the West is going to protect itself against Russia and other attackers, it needs to treat Mr Mueller’s indictments as a rallying cry.”

Or to paraphrase the Economist’s position: “Don’t matter that there’s no evidence – burn the witch!”

And don’t overlook the pernicious elision of a troll factory – that could easily be just another group of cyber criminals sifting flyover America for easily-led suckers to scam for cash – with Russia the nation.

The subtext of the Economist story is that meddling is supposed to be very much a one-way street to be indulged-in solely by the Imperium.


“The Secret Story of how American Advisers helped Yeltsin win” 1996

Try to find a country where the US hasn’t meddled to some extent over the last 50 years. America’s interest in your freedom or mine comes a long way behind its own freedom to do whatever it wants wherever it wants. Its problem with Putin is not that they think he’s a bastard; it’s that he’s his own bastard, not theirs.

While we’re here, let’s not forget that Russiagate is also about controlling America’s domestic ‘enemies’, who include every citizen who has the temerity to believe that US democracy ought to offer them genuine freedom of choice.

Social media and all other forms of handy peer-to-peer opinion-sharing are anathema to a system used to controlling thought via centrally-controlled media – what Joe Bageant memorably called ‘The Hologram’. When the Economist speaks of vulnerabilities and rallying cries, it means finding ways to hamstring social media sharing and independent websites to restore the influence of officially-sanctioned pravda (‘truth’) peddled by a handful of billionaire-owned media groups.

Lastly in this brief peer into the murky depths of early-stage Imperial decline, what’s with the cephalopod meme? Surely the Economist can’t still be influenced by Matt Tiabbi’s accurate but doubtless hurtful characterisation of Goldman Sachs?

What Bitcoin tells you about the likelihood of self-driving cars succeeding

As the Bitcoin bubble neared its zenith in 2017, the internet filled up with dire predictions that “crypto-mining” would melt the world’s power grids.

Whole countries’ energy consumption levels became yardsticks for Bitcoin’s thirst for power. Ireland, Hungary, New Zealand – take your pick. Call it the Ohms Race: so-called miners frantically pumped electricity into processors in the hope of flushing out that elusive $100,000 cryptic coin. Or $10 cryptic coin, depending on which side of the peak they were on when it turned up.

And although Bitcoin brownout alarmism quickly died down, the episode should ring alarm bells in the autonomous vehicle community. Because the amount of power needed to mine virtual coins doesn’t even represent an amuse-bouche in relation to the stonking torrents of amps required to make self-driving cars work.

This was explained in the FT yesterday, with all the insouciance that the house journal of neo-liberal techno-grandiosity could manage. (FT – Driverless cars: mapping the trouble ahead)

You see, for AVs the map is the territory. For the tens of thousands of dollars-worth of on-board sensing gubbins to work, it has to be fed a massively-detailed 3D map of the vehicle’s surroundings. Everything that doesn’t move, from trees to signs to sandwich boards to rubbish bins, needs to be there for the vehicle to compare with what it ‘sees’ at any given microsecond.

Data-wise, these maps are colossal. Gigabytes to describe a modest stretch of uninterrupted blacktop in the middle of nowhere. God-knows-what-abytes for urban streetscapes. There’s no way of streaming so much information to the vehicle fast enough when it’s travelling so it must be loaded aboard on hard drives and carried around everywhere the vehicle goes.

There’s brave talk of perfecting AVs’ artificial intelligence so they can interpret their way along streets using simpler data. But for the foreseeable future they’ll need these 3D mega-maps. And presumably they’ll be restricted to operating within the area of mega-map they can practically carry around.

3D electronic maps may be new but the territory we’re moving into with them isn’t. Joseph Tainter covers it in The Collapse of Complex Societies: he shows that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

Theoretically, AVs are the answer to several problems Namely, ordinary cars’ huge redundancy (idle 95% of their lives),  congestion, and the cost of accidents caused by human mistakes that machine-driven cars supposedly wouldn’t make. The most happy-clappy proponents of AVs enthuse over their potential to completely eliminate jams and accidents while slicing 60% off the cost of motoring by replacing inefficient car ownership with 24/7 ‘ridership’.

If AVs were simply ordinary cars but with added sensors and a clever brain to do the driving, these pipe-dreams might be valid. But they’re not. It turns out that for AVs to work as intended we’re going to have to build nothing less than a 3D virtual copy of most of the surface of the planet within five or 10 yards of a road.

Creating, storing, updating and transmitting that data will require a huge network of servers – plus fall-backs up the wazoo to ensure 100% uptime. Between the servers and the vehicles will be a layer of energy-gobbling supercomputers performing the gazillions of calculations per second required to coordinate traffic and feed individual vehicles the data they need to make their own decisions.

AV developers and their would-be customers simply assume the necessary power will be there. And this at a time when the cost and complexity of building a single power station is proving a stretch even for an advanced economy like the UK.

There’s every reason to think that Level 5 vehicle automation will be as near-impossible to achieve as commercial nuclear fusion. The torrents of capital and talent going into AV development are pouring into, if not a dead end, a neither-here-nor-there scenario of partial automation and fiendishly complex lash-ups aimed at allowing semi-AVs and  conventional cars to coexist.

It’s a question of whether the game is worth the candle. That originally referred to a game of cards where the stakes were less than the price of the candle burned to light the play.

Will the outcome of the billions poured into self-driving cars be worth it? No. Not when you find out you’ll have to build and maintain a massively expensive 3D facsimile of the world before any AV can even think of operating in the real world like an ordinary car.

Should we stop and do something more useful, or at least redefine our goals for AVs? Of course.

But we won’t. Humans simply aren’t smart enough.