Blog Name Change

I changed the name of this blog (and the theme, incidentally). The old one has been irrelevant for a few years now, and as I am hoping to keep this up for the foreseeable future, I thought it was time for a change. Then again, I didn’t really think much about what to change it to, so we’ll see if this sticks.

Furthermore, that seems like a really silly reason to write a blog post on its own. So I thought that I would add that I have an article on wine in the ancient Mediterranean in the current Ancient History. For more about the issue, look here. Here’s a picture of the heading of my article:

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Robot Uprising

In the aftermath of 2016 the world is coming to resemble a dystopia. Parallels with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are easy to come by, hence the book’s surge in sales over the past week. But aside from the more obvious rise of authoritarian governments there is a creeping apocalypse that has long been on the horizon: the rise of the robots. It first came to my attention in the morning email by New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush, who mentioned the ascent of Benoit Hamon as a presidential hopeful for the Socialist Party in France. Hamon’s campaign promise (as reported by Bush) is that the rise of robots will fundamentally change the world of work, necessitating a tax on robots and universal basic income.

The rise of robots is far from a new story. I first encountered it in the mid-1990s in the pages of Sonic the Comic. In an early storyline based heavily, I later realised, on the Terminator franchise, the Sonic-like robot Metallix travelled through time, changing history so that they ruled the planet Mobius without contest. But this storyline, those from which it was derived, and subsequent robot conquests such as The Matrix Trilogy are not quite the story that is playing out in the modern world. These stories posit that artificial intelligence will turn on its creators and overthrow humanity, either trying to wipe us out or using us as batteries. The robot uprising against which Hamon is fighting is the mechanization of the workforce. It is much more similar to the original robot story, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots.

The 1920 play is not subtle. It begins with universal robots in use all over the globe as they dramatically reduce the cost of production. The robots were created by the elder Rossum in defiance of God; they were commercialised by his nephew to make money, though some allies dreamed to “shatter the servitude of labour”. But the robots, guided by the newly designed Radius, rise up against their creators. With the robot uprising underway, their creators lament the fact that they did not create “National Robots”, in different colours and speaking different languages, who would not have been able to unionize. The robots, having defeated the human race, continue to work without orders – it is, after all, their purpose.

Many of R.U.R.’s themes remain prescient. International solidarity has always been the stumbling block of labour movements, exploited by capitalists stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. It lies behind the U.S. and Canada’s celebration of Labor Day in September instead of International Workers’ Day in May with the rest of the world. More immediately, the ‘freedom from servitude’ offered by robots necessitates the universal basic income proposed by Hamon. But workers in the modern world are not only forced to compete with robots that can produce things at half the cost. The increased surveillance made possible by other advancements in technology mean that human workers must operate like robots and limit their human interactions – eating, resting, talking – as outlined in this article by John Harris. Again, only solidarity between workers and unionization can challenge these demands.

In R.U.R., the robots are workers, unionized, international, and thus threatening to their overlords. In the modern world, workers are forced to become robots or to be replaced by them, with their every action controlled by their employers. Like many other stark and horrifying visions of the future science fiction has to offer, this one is coming true. To challenge it, we must be universal, not national, robots.

A One-Body Problem

After the release of Ken Liu’s translation Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem it ended up on the reading lists of a lot of powerful people. A recent interview with US President Barack Obama in the New York Times includes his reflections on the trilogy, which he read over the last couple of years of his presidency. He commented,

“The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty – not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade.”

I found it interesting to see such a powerful figure comment on a book about the big picture, but it also reminded me of something I’d thought about the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series while reading The Dark Forest and Death’s End that hasn’t yet make it into any of my writing about those books. In these novels [SPOILERS AHEAD!], there are a number of reactions to the Trisolaran invasion, from the ETO collaborators to the Wallfacer project, but no one in the trilogy, as far as I can recall, simply denies that the invasion is happening.

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Seashells

But it is important what we make of these stories. What meaning we find in them, as wanderers by the seashore find first one shell, then another, and then form them into a chain of their own making.

Vandana Singh – “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

At the start of this year Goodreads and publishers on Twitter did their usual thing of asking people what their ‘reading goals’ for the year are. I used to set myself reading goals, which I didn’t meet, until 2015 when I far exceeded my Goodreads challenge. Goodreads then proceeded to use my ‘achievement’ to shame my friends who had read far fewer books, failing to acknowledge (a) that some of those friends could not reach their targets for medical reasons and (b) that reading a ridiculous number of books – including some very good books – hadn’t stopped 2015 from being a pretty miserable year. For 2016, I resolved to read fewer books and it was a better year for me personally (despite the utter horror of events more broadly). In 2017 I repeated that resolution and added that I wanted to reflect more on the books I read, in part by trying to maintain this blog more regularly and in part, as Singh puts it in one of the short stories I have been reading this year, stringing more shells together as I read both fiction and non-fiction.

[Content Warning for violence against women]

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A Postscript to We Were Rebels Once

I’m not certain that I got across what I was trying to say in my last blog, written as it was over several days when I had a lot going on. But I decided to listen to the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time podcast on Animal Farm and it made a few of the points I wanted to make clear to me. I listened to the audiobook of Animal Farm last September, and I think I also got it more then, too. The basis of this thought is that Orwell was a committed socialist – he fought on the side of socialism in the Spanish Civil War, he worked with the Labour Party and was friends with Nye Bevan; but his writing was generally critical of the Left – be it Stalin or socialism – and less obviously so of the Right. Therefore he was adopted, after his death, by the Right and you are as likely to find someone on the Right quoting Animal Farm (or Nineteen Eighty-Four) about the dangers of socialism or communism as you are someone who would have actually agreed with Orwell politically.

When I listened to Animal Farm last September one of the things that struck me the most was the way in which history was re-written, and how the animals of the farm (particularly Boxer) were taken in through their devotion to Napoleon so much so that he could re-write history that they themselves lived through. Yesterday, Meryl Streep’s comments about the PEOTUS at The Golden Globes were criticised by some on the basis that Hollywood celebrities were not to be listened to – by fans of Ronald Reagan who had just elected a reality television host as president. But the most interesting comment that I saw was journalist Glenn Greenwald’s observation that talk radio hosts are considered legitimate political commentators when they are just as wealthy and privileged (often more so) than Meryl Streep, just as distanced from the everyday lives of ordinary people. I can’t help thinking that between Nancy Isenberg’s history of class in the USA and Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men I should be able to put together an answer to this, but in many ways being aware of the problem is enough.

Animal Farm is very specific to Orwell’s contemporary Russia in many ways but there are also elements to Napoleon’s take-over that are general and relevant right now. One of the messages of Animal Farm and, now, Rogue One is that one of the most important aspects of progress is longevity, is continuing to make the future better than the present – donkeys live a long time. In Rogue One, the Rebels sacrifice their lives but are successful (for about a quarter of a century, at least); in Animal Farm, what initially looks like a utopia is ultimately destroyed by those in power.

But this is still not quite getting across what I was thinking. Animal Farm can be read in a number of very specific ways – against communism, against socialism, and against totalitarianism. Because I have read Homage to Catalonia and Down And Out in Paris and London and I studied Shooting an Elephant and I know a little about Orwell’s life beyond his fiction, I know (or believe) that he intended the latter reading; but history allowed those aspects to be downplayed in favour of a screed against the USSR during the Cold War. This is why I worry that, despite what the writers of Rogue One say, selling Death Star pyjama pants sends a very different message about how this film should be understood, one that could do lasting damage.

And finally, the way I believe that this damage can be countered is by progressive readings of these texts, by those of us on the Left (however broadly we define that) communicating our readings of these texts and the very important messages that they carry, by claiming these narratives for our cause. But reading these texts needs individual media literacy, literacy that governments like Napoleon’s and those in contemporary, real, human world want to discourage by telling us it’s just a story about animals, just a space fantasy, just entertainment. We can work to make things more than that.

When stories are in the public realm, their meanings change over time – in a way, this is precisely what Rogue One is doing to the original Star Wars trilogy. But how these changes happen is variable and difficult to control and not necessarily in the hands of the writers.