PANOLOGY OF SCIENCE FICTION: E

Economics

The field of economics probably bores the average lit reader, and probably most sci-fi readers as well. Yet the best sci-fi reads are the ones that construct plausible alternative economic environments. Whether we like it or not, our lives are immersed and enslaved to whatever the current economic paradigm is in place. So much so that most people don’t even know that alternatives exist. They don’t comprehend that the economic system that they are bound to be only an invention, and that other (maybe better, possibly worse) systems can exist.

The whole point of science fiction is to question our own current political, economic, social and scientific situation. Economics can influence how power is distributed, how society becomes structured, and how technology develops. Science fiction seeks to introduce readers to new ideas, and the subject of economics is by far the most effective in terms of changing society for the better, or worse. It can be the root of all evil, and the driver of all that can be good.


Objectivism Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.


Anti-property anarcho-syndicalism, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin


Ration stamps, enforced consumption, Midas World, Frederik Pohl


Wooden coins, The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey


Sentient High-Frequency Trading algorithms, Accelerando by Charles Stross


Criminal economyWhen Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger


OverpopulationStand on Zanzibar by John Brunner


Psychohistory, Asimov’s Foundation series.

The Fantasy Federation of Europe

It is sad to watch a great nation bludgeon another weaker nation, a supposed ally and friend, into submission and humiliation, especially when both sides are at fault over a debt situation that has spiralled out of control. Yes, Greek voters did take the easy path since the 1970’s. I myself remember arguing against further integration back in the summer of 1991, when I visited the place. Older folk and younger kids, die-hard communists and fascists alike were all for it. I nearly got stabbed when I stated,

“One day German tanks will be rolling down the streets of Athens once more…”

German Army in Athens

I guess it was clearer for an outsider to see the logic in my statement. My argument back then, and remains to this day, was based on circumstances surrounding the American Civil War. The early United States was a federation of colonies with vastly different types of economies. When the incompatibilities between the industrialised northern states and the agricultural slave-based southern states emerged, the south dissented and formed its own economic federation. The North saw this as a catalyst of further disintegration, so for motives none other than self preservation they endeavoured to quash the Confederacy at all cost, and they did, paying an enormous price. This is how I saw Greece’s membership in this European Economic Community panning out. Once in, there would be a devastating cost to ever getting out.

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Mars! One Way

Mars

It’s really hard not to facepalm when confronted by headlines stating that 100,000 have signed up for a one-way trip to Mars. A Dutch, non-profit (yes, that’s right, non-profit) company called Mars One is collecting human specimens, and raising six billion dollars, to send these people some 225 million kilometres, one way, to the planet Mars.

They call it colonization. They market it as a “stepping stone in human galactic expansion.”

Yes, that’s right, Galactic.

Even reading interviews with some of the applicants really drives home what insanity dwells in modern people’s minds. Some even suggesting that this is how the discovery of America come about, others considering birthing and raising children on the surface of this new frontier.

Unbelievable.

I understand completely the allure of the red planet. When the time of year is right I see Mars in the night sky and think, wow, this is a planet just like ours. When I recently came across the Mars Panorama at 360 Cities I admit I was taken aback by what I saw. I can almost touch and feel the terrain. But who are we kidding?

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Supernations, Mega City-States and Virtual Countries

Writing science fiction gives an author the opportunity to have a go at predicting the future. For me, the best tool I always find useful is this; in order to build a world in which to set the novel, you start by going back into history. ‘To see the future, one must look into the past’ and follow the trends. In the case of ‘A Hostile Takeover’ I began by asking ‘What is a nation? A state? A country?’ and then went on to research different types of sovereign nations throughout history. I followed the trends and discovered the future of the world’s political landscape is obvious and surprising. The one prediction that seems most definite among all the others is that the nation states we live in today are not static, rigid institutions, but evolving, changing political creatures.

Supernations

One obvious development is the trend towards nation progressing into supernationhood. Historically, growing and successful communities constantly expanded to accommodate the increasing power of the citizens of these states. A town grows into a city-state; a city-state turns to empire. Up until last century ’empire’ was a natural progression for any nation blessed with the position of economic power. However, empires that refused to evolve by the time the twentieth century came along struggled to survive. The spread of democracy made sure of this. Ever since the city-state of Athens experimented with mixing democracy and empire, large dominions struggled or faltered once injected with representative government.Successful empires were the ones that dealt with democracy by absorbing the ideal into its political composition, alas the advent of constitutional monarchy and republicanism. As these forms of sovereignties become irrelevant into the twenty-first century, new forms are beginning to arise.

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Cryptonium

Halfway through 2011 I came across the phenomenon of Bitcoin, and my head went into a tail spin. This was a revolution. I felt it in my bones. But I was reluctant to buy in and profit from it. At the time, it had the aura of an elaborate, hi-tech scam.  The ultimate in electronic pyramid schemes. And the amount of hacking going on against the bitcoin exchanges (run from servers in peoples garages) didn’t help things either. I felt it was never intended as a alternative currency. Who in their right mind would trade commodities online or shop with it.

Sure, it (kind of) bypassed third parties and fees,  and it seemed easy to use. But once you send off a bitcoin to some address that is it. It’s irreversible. There is no redress. Online fraud using bitcoins leaves no paper trail to physically follow. Although there is an electronic trail, how does one place trust in such a new system?

Hector the Toad:“You want to give me the bitcoins, or do I kill your brother first, before I kill you?”
Tony Montana: “This focking blockchain is 1.5 focking gigabytes. So why don’t you try sticking your head up your ass? See if it fits.”
Hector the Toad: “Okay, Caracicatriz. You can die too. It makes no difference to me.”

Even drug dealers would be hesitant to use this nascent technology. Imagine Tony Montana rocking up to a meeting with the Colombians with a laptop?

Then imagine him having to wait for the transactions to be confirmed. Chain saws. Fun and games. Even gangsters rely on strong banking institutions to keep their wealth safe. And even then these same institutions are prone to nationalisation, or bankruptcy.

This technology has yet to find a proper use, yet punters poured millions of dollars into the “early adopters” pockets. Go to their forums and you’ll find rampant spruiking and fever pitch excitement each time some Gordon Gecko forks out money to buys these things. Try being negative on these forums and they ignore you, or you get labelled a troll.

This is the mindset I used not to go diving in.

  • If it feels like a scam, or ponzi racket. It probably is. Why? Because the market is a mechanism for people to store value and generate income. In theory anyway. Speculators using the market as the ultimate roulette table may in fact be a healthy thing for a market, guiding investors to where to park their capital. Bitcoins don’t have intrinsic value. They don’t earn anything, and by the time they become useful in mainstream economy as a currency the game will have changed. Traded solely for profiteering on peoples greed and fear, nothing influences the value of bitcoin except speculation (and hackers). At best, this is a form of gambling. Add early adopters to the mix, and you get the perfect pyramid scheme. So if it’s toooo good to be true, it is.
  • Bitcoin is also a technology that can be easily duplicated. It can be modified and developed, rendering the original blockchain, redundant.
  • Power rests with those who control the client software protocol. So your in fact swapping Bankers for Programmers.
  • Hackers. The digital wallets where the value is store are so easy to lose, destroy or stolen. One lapse of personal electronic security and your wallet is gone. One hard drive failure, one catastrophic digital error (i.e.  cause by an index finger on the return key) and the bitcoins are gone.

On the plus side.

  • Bitcoins are are good way for kids to learn about trading on the market.
  • The potential for investment new technology. Potential, since, apart from the exchanges popping up everywhere, there has not been significant investment in anything else. I’d rather invest in a start up that is actually building a way to make cryptonium useful, than speculate on the gambling habits of other speculators.

That was then. The case remains the same today. I see nothing has changed.

The current problems we have with fiat money is hoarding. Existing in a dual state, as a medium of exchange as well as a store of value, fiat currencies are vulnerable to hoarding, which starves the life blood out of economies. (which is another story.) Yet fiats are trusted by citizens (or forced upon them, since governments don’t give anyone much of a choice) and are at least designed to “stabilise” economies, Keynesian style. What are bitcoins designed to do? They are perfect for hoarding! They are easier to hoard than fiat cash or gold. At best, P2P crypto-currencies are designed rob governments of their ability collect taxes, so no hospitals, roads, and God forbid, no social security. Perhaps governments will find a way to get the early adopters will pay for such things? Fiat currencies are also backed by governments, by law or by force. What will back bitcoins when early adopters decide to cash in, flood the bitcoin casinos and send those Gecko’s screaming for the door. As long as Bitcoins remain deflationary they will be hoarded more zealously than gold or government bonds.

The Future of Cryptocurrency

Right now it’s all about fooling enough punters to part with their fiat cash so it can be redistributed to some other punter. In the future, the technology behind these crypto-currencies will eventually find a way to complement society. Key factor. The technology can be duplicated. e.g Litecoin, Namecoin, Ixcoin. ppcoin. All corporations have to do is start their own blockchains. e.g Google Money. Facecoin. Retailers could convert their own rewards and loyalty programs into tailor-made cryptocurrencies. Music and movie corporations could use the same peer to peer technology that nearly wiped them out, to create a system of distribution using cryptocurrencies. Sonycoin. Applecash, AmazonDollars. Hell, even governments could start their own bond market and social security blockchain. UScoin, Auscoin. Eurocoin.

In fact, their is no doubt in my mind this will happen. It may be too late to profit from Bitcoin right now, (since I missed out at buying then at 5 cents), but expecting bitcoin’s value to hit a million dollars per unit is tuliptistic. Once cryptonium currencies enter the mainstream economy in numerous manifestations this whole argument will become trivial. And even then, once quantum computing hits the scene, everything we understand today will become anecdotal. Unless cryptographic hash functions become so large and complex, they start grinding down machines running at light speed, since the speed of light is indeed finite and numbers are.. well, infinite.

But that’s also another story.