Not long after the release of the Second Edition of my 2003-2004 science-fiction mystery novel Eden against the Colossus, I was asked whether any of the views I expressed in the novel had changed since then, and, if so, to what extent.
I still strongly adhere to most of the fundamental philosophical principles expressed in Eden against the Colossus: the existence of an objective reality, the necessity for reason and rigorous inquiry in discovering it, the supreme value of the individual, the virtue of enlightened self-interest, and the immense benefits of technological progress for improving, elevating, and extending the human condition.
In the introduction to the Second Edition I discussed how, in retrospect, the future society described in Eden against the Colossus seems like a pessimistic scenario of how far humanity would progress technologically during the 750 years since the writing of the novel (for instance, in the lack of autonomous artificial intelligence or indefinite life extension – through there are many advanced robots and the average lifespan has increased by perhaps a factor of three in the world initially presented in the novel). This is a world very much characterized by a stark good-versus-evil conflict – that of the individualists/technoprogressives versus the Malthusians/Neo-Luddites. In the novel I occasionally use the term “environmentalists” to describe the Malthusians/Neo-Luddites; today, I would make a subtler distinction between those environmentalists who favor free-market and/or technological solutions to the problems they perceive, and those who see the only solutions as a “return to Nature” and a curtailment of human population. My quarrel is, and has fundamentally always been, only with those environmentalists who seek to reject or limit technological progress – particularly those who would use force to impose their preferences on others. Today I would be more careful to describe my views as anti-Luddite, rather than anti-environmentalist, in order to recognize as possible allies those environmentalists who would embrace technology with incidental benefits such as the reduction of pollution or the more efficient use of resources.
Were I writing the novel today, the society which results as the outcome of the individualist/technoprogressive vision would look quite different as well. The Intergalactic Protectorate is a libertarian system, but a highly centralized one nonetheless. Through its storyline though not through its explicit philosophical ideas, Eden against the Colossus illustrates the vulnerabilities of such a system and the ease of turning the machinery of the Protectorate against the very ideals it is supposed to protect. This is true, I now realize, of any large, centralized institution – public or private, controlled by virtuous people, or by mediocrities or crooks. As an example of this, one needs only to consider how the vast, largely voluntary centralization of information on the Internet – during the age of dominant providers of social-networking, search, and content-hosting services – has enabled sweeping surveillance of virtually all Americans by the National Security Agency through “backdoors” into the systems of the dominant Internet companies. No one person – and no one institution – can be the sole effective guardian of liberty. On the other hand, a society filled with political experiments, as well as experiments in decentralized technologies applied to every area of life, would be much more robust against usurpations of power and incursions against individual rights. Undertakings such as seasteading, a decentralized Meshnet, and Bitcoin have intrigued me in recent years as ways to empower individuals by reducing their dependence on large institutions and decreasing the number of ways by which power asymmetry enables those with ill intentions to get away with inconveniencing or outright oppressing innocent people.
A truly libertarian future will not resemble today’s corporate America on an intergalactic scale, only with considerably less regulation and a more stringently written Constitution enforced by a fourth branch of government possessing negative power only – essentially, the society portrayed in Eden against the Colossus. If humanity is to achieve an intergalactic presence, it will likely be in the form of hundreds of thousands of diverse and autonomous networks of people, largely possessing fluid social and political structures. The balance of power in such a world would greatly favor individuals who are hyperempowered by technology. Furthermore, if technology is to have the ability to radically enhance human intelligence and reasoning, then many of the philosophical disputes that have recurred throughout history may, in future eras, be settled by a more rigorous and nuanced framing of the ideas under consideration. The intellectual conflicts of the future are not likely to be of the hitherto-encountered “capitalist versus socialist” or “technoprogressive versus environmentalist” variety – since the evolution of technology and culture, as well as the shifting dynamics of human societies, will raise new issues of focus which will lead to interesting and unanticipated alignments of persons of various perspectives. It would be entirely possible for some issues to unite erstwhile opponents – as principled libertarians and principled socialists today both detest crony corporatism, or as technoprogressives and some technology-friendly environmentalists today support nuclear power and organisms bioengineered to clean up pollution.
With regard to the personal lives of the characters of Eden against the Colossus, my view today no longer necessitates a glorification of ceaseless work, though productivity remains important to me without a doubt. The enjoyment of the fruits of productive work – and the ability to increase the proportion of one’s time spent in that enjoyment without diminishing one’s productivity – are among the outcomes made possible by technological progress. Such outcomes are insufficiently illustrated in Eden against the Colossus. Moreover, were I to write the novel today, I would have more greatly focused on the ability of a technological society to provide individuals with the opportunity to balance work, leisure, relationships, and a broad awareness of numerous areas of existence.
Along with all of these qualifying statements, however, I nonetheless emphasize my view that the fundamental essence of the conflict depicted in Eden against the Colossus is still a valid and vital subject for contemplation and for consideration of its relevance to our lives. As long as humankind continues to exist in anything resembling its present form, two fundamental motivations – the desire for improvement of the human condition and the desire for restrictive control that would suppress efforts to alter the status quo – will continue to be at odds, in whatever unforeseeable future embodiments they might come to possess. Perhaps sufficient technological progress will shift the balance of human biology, environment, and incentives further away from the command-and-control motive and closer toward the pure motives of amelioration and progress. One can certainly hope.