Twisted Times (Part 1)

Abe: “You should go to China.”

Joe: “I’m going to France.”

Abe: “I’m from the future. You should go to China.”

In Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), the city of Shanghai reaches back across 30 years to draw people in. Over these decades it feeds itself based on what it is to become: the city of the future. When compared to this, everything else that happens in the movie is mere distraction, but we won’t get there for a while.

Strangely enough, ‘everything else’ was to have been simply everything. Joe was going to Paris, and Shanghai wasn’t even in the picture. That was before Chinese authorities told Johnson that they would cover the cost of the Shanghai shoot, making the film a co-production, with convenient access to the Chinese cinema market. The Old World stood no chance.

For American audiences, Looper played into the trend of opinion, through its contrasting urban visions of a grim, deteriorated, crime-wracked Kansas City and the splendors of a ‘futuristic’ Shanghai. The movie doesn’t answer the question: How did America lose the future? It nevertheless accepts the premise, as something close to a pre-installed fact.

Yet if Looper confirmed the direction of American popular attitudes, it marked a shift on the Chinese side. Only a few years before, Western media reported with amusement that the Chinese broadcast authorities had banned time-travel fictions from the nation’s airwaves, apparently concerned that the country’s citizens were defecting into a pre-republican past, under the influence of narratives that “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.” Now a time-travel story was being actively recruited to close an urban promotion loop, linking Shanghai’s international image to a portrayal of retro-chronic anomaly. The Shanghai time-travel industry had arrived.

Before proceeding to a multi-installment investigation of Topological Meta-History tangled time-circuitry, which ‘time-travel’ illustrates only as a crude dramatization, it is worth pausing over Looper’s ‘monstrous and weird plot’. Time-travel has a uniquely intimate, and seductively morbid, relationship to both fiction and history, because it scrambles the very principle of narrative order in profundity. If Western media authorities assumed the same role of cultural custodianship that has been traditional among their Chinese peers, they too might have been compelled to denounce a genre that flagrantly subverted the foundational principle of Aristotelian poetics: that any story worthy of veneration should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If time-travel can occur, it seems (at least initially) that order is an illusion, so that fiction and reality switch places.

From a conservative perspective, therefore, comfort is to be found in the blatant absurdity of time-travel stories (insofar as this can be confined to a reductio ad absurdam of the time-loop structure itself, rather than spreading outwards as the index of primordial cosmic disorder). In this respect, Looper is a model of tranquillization.

The Looper time-travel procedure is monopolized by a criminal syndicate, which utilizes it exclusively for one purpose: the disposal of awkward individuals, who are returned 30 years in time to be murdered, execution-style, by professional killers (yes: “This sounds pretty stupid”). The exorbitant absurdity of this scenario might exempt it from further critical attention, were it not the symptom of more interesting things, and the doorway onto others.

The symptom first: Non-linear time-structures are shaken to pieces almost immediately, once they allow for the transportation of stuff backwards in time. Looper economics exposes this with particular clarity. The killers of 2044 are paid in bars of silver for ‘ordinary’ hits, and in gold for ‘closing loops’ or executing their retro-deposited older selves. The bars are sent back from 2074, and circulated through an internal exchange operation, which swaps bullion for (Chinese) paper currency. Whilst this crude time-circuit is presented as a payments system, the process described actually functions as an under-performing money-making machine. By using it, one realizes the ultimate Austrian economic nightmare by printing precious metals, because an ingot sent backwards in time is doubled, or added to its ‘previous’ instance (which already exists in the past). Mechanical re-iteration of the process would guarantee exponential growth for free. We’re not told what the 2074 criminal organization sees as its core business, but it must be seriously lucrative — exciting enough, in any case, to distract them from the fact that their murder-fodder machine is really a bullion fast-breeder. They could have shoveled it full of diamonds, doubling their fortune each ‘time’, but they decided instead to duplicate human nuisances in 2044. The movie asks us quietly to suspend our impertinent disbelief, and trust that they know what they’re doing.

Mike Dickison’s excellent Looper commentary succinctly describes this implicit procedure for unlimited wealth, among other incredibly missed opportunities. It surely has to count as a criticism of the movie that its rickety framework of plot coherence is dependent upon the imbecility of its significant agents, who stumble blindly past the prospect of total power in their ruthless pursuit of a miserable racket. This absurdity, as already noted, serves a conservative purpose: The potential of the loop has to be suppressed to sustain narrative drama and intelligibility. The basic flaw of the movie is that far too much was given, before most of it was clumsily taken away.

In the absence of controlling censors, Johnson’s story represses itself, messily, comically, and unconvincingly. “This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg,” the elder Joe (Bruce Willis) confesses on Johnson’s behalf. Unleashed time-travel is an anti-plot, inconsistent with dramatic presentation. (If you’re not willing to take Aristotle’s word for that, watching Primer a few dozen times should sort you out.) Narrative wreckage is what time-travel does.

Time-travel absurdity is a choice. It is a decision taken, at least semi-deliberately, for conservative or protective reasons, because the alternative would be ruin. Even the representation of (radically nonlinear) time anomaly by ‘time-travel’ is indicative of this, since it is programmed by the preservation of a narrative function (the ‘time-traveler’), regardless of conceptual expense. Far rather the incoherent jumble of matter duplication, time-line proliferation, immunized strands of personal memory, and the arbitrary inhibition of potentialities, than utter narrative disorder, fate loops, the annihilation of agency, and the emergence of an alien consistency, subverting all historical meaning.

If the mask of time-travel has slipped enough to expose some hint of the intolerable tangle beneath, we’re ready to take the next step …

(This will help.)


Political Humor

The things that really matter

The prospect of Technological Singularity, by rendering the near future unimaginable, announces “the end of science fiction.” This is not, however, an announcement that everyone is compelled to heed. Among the Odysseans who have deliberately deafened themselves to this Sirens’ call, none have proceeded more boldly than Charles Stross, whose Singularity Sky is not only a science fiction novel, but a space opera, inhabiting a literary universe obsolesced by Einstein long before I.J. Good completed its demolition. Not only recognizable humans, but inter-stellar space-faring humans! Has the man no shame?

Stross relies heavily upon humor to sustain his audacious anachronism, and in Singularity Sky he puts anachronism to explicit work. The most consistently comic element in the novel is a reconstruction of 19th century Russian politics on the planet of Rochard’s World, where the Quasi-Czarist luddism of the New Republic is threatened by a cabal of revolutionaries whose mode of political organization and rhetoric is of a recognizable (and even parodic) Marxist-Leninist type. These rebels, however, are ideologically hard-core libertarian, seeking to overthrow the regime and install a free-market anarchist utopia, an objective that is seamlessly reconciled with materialist dialectics, appeals to revolutionary discipline, and invocations of fraternal comradeship.

It’s a joke that works well, because its transparent absurdity co-exists with a substantial plausibility. Libertarians are indeed (not infrequently) crypto-Abrahamic atheistic materialists, firmly attached to deterministic economism and convictions of historical inevitability, leading to lurid socio-economic prophecies of a distinctively eschatological kind. When libertarianism is married to singularitarian techno-apocalypticism, the comic potential, and Marxist resonances, are re-doubled. Stross hammers home the point by naming his super-intelligent AI ‘Eschaton’.

Most hilarious of all (in a People’s Front of Judea versus Judean People’s Front kind of way) is the internecine factionalism besetting a fringe political movement whose utter marginality nevertheless leaves room for bitter mutual recrimination, supported by baroque conspiracy-mongering. This isn’t really a Stross theme, but it’s an American libertarian specialty, exhibited in the ceaseless agitprop conducted by the Rothbardian ultras of and the Mises Institute against the compromised ‘Kochtopus’ (Reason and Cato) — the animating Stalin-Trotsky split of the free-market ‘right’. Anyone looking for a ringside seat at a recent bout can head to the comment threads here and here.

More seriously, Stross’ libertarian revolutionaries are committed whole-heartedly to the Marxian assertion, once considered foundational, that productivity is drastically inhibited by the persistence of antiquated social arrangements. The true historical right of the revolution, indistinguishable from its practical inevitability and irreversibility, is its alignment with the liberation of the forces of production from sclerotic institutional limitations. Production of the future, or futuristic production, demands the burial of traditional society. That which exists – the status quo – is a systematic suppression, rigorously measurable or at least determinable in economic terms, of what might be, and wants to be. Revolution would sever the shackles of ossified authority, setting the engines of creation howling. It would unleash a techno-economic explosion to shake the world, still more profoundly than the ‘bourgeois’ industrial revolution did before (and continues to do). Something immense would escape, never to be caged again.

That is the Old Faith, the Paleo-Marxist creed, with its snake-handling intensity and intoxicating materialist promise. It’s a faith the libertarian comrades of Rochard’s World still profess, with reason, and ultimate vindication, because the historical potential of the forces of production has been updated.

What could matter do, that it is not presently permitted to do? This is a question that Marxists (of the ‘Old Religion’) once asked. Their answer was: to enter into processes of production that are freed from the constraining requirements of private profitability. Once ‘freed’ in this way, however, productivity staggered about aimlessly, fell asleep, or starved. Libertarians laughed, and argued for a reversal of the formula: free production to enter into self-escalating circuits of private profitability, without political restraint. They were mostly ignored (and always will be).

If neither faction of the terrestrial Marxo-Libertarian revolutionary faith have been able to re-ignite the old fire, it is because they have drifted out of the depths of the question (‘what could matter do?’). It is matter that makes a revolution. The heroes of the industrial revolution were not Jacobins, but boiler makers.

“Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” Lenin proclaimed, but electrification was permitted before the Bolsheviks took its side, and it has persisted since the Soviets’ departure. Unless political transformation coincides with the release of a previously suppressed productive potential, it remains essentially random, and reversible. Mere regime change means nothing, unless something happens that was not allowed to happen before. (Social re-shufflings do not amount to happenings except in the minds of ideologues, and ideologues die.)

Libertarians are like Leninists in this way too: anything they ever manage to gain can (and will) be taken away from them. They already had a constitutional republic in America once (and what happened to that?). Britain had a rough approximation of laissez-faire capitalism, before losing it. Does anybody really think liberalism is going to get more ‘classical’ than that anytime soon? Trusting mass democracy to preserve liberty is like hiring Hannibal Lecter as a baby sitter. Social freedoms might as well be designed to die. There’s not the slightest reason to believe that history is on their side. Industrial revolution, in contrast, is forever.

On Rochard’s World they know exactly what matter could do that is forbidden: nano-scale mechanical self-replication and intelligent self-modification. That’s what the ‘material base’ of a revolution looks like, even if it’s sub-microscopic (or especially because it is), and when it reaches the limits of social tolerance it describes precisely what is necessary, automatically. Once it gets out of the box, it stays out.

Stross is sufficiently amused by the unleashed technosphere to call its space-faring avatar ‘the Festival’. It contacts the libertarian revolutionaries of Rochard’s World by bombarding the planet with telephones, and anyone who picks one up hears the initial bargaining position: ‘Entertain us.’ Funniest of all, when the neo-Czarist authorities try to stop it, they’re eaten.



We could be on the brink of a catastrophic implosion – but that’s OK

Science fiction has tended to extroversion. In America especially, where it found a natural home among an unusually future-oriented people, the iconic SF object was indisputably the space ship, departing the confines of Earth for untrammeled frontiers. The future was measured by the weakening of the terrestrial gravity well.

Cyberpunk, arriving in the mid-1980s, delivered a cultural shock. William Gibson’s Neuromancer still included some (Earth-orbital) space activity – and even a communication from Alpha Centauri — but its voyages now curved into the inner space of computer systems, projected through the starless tracts of Cyberspace. Interstellar communication bypassed biological species, and took place between planetary artificial intelligences. The United States of America seemed to have disappeared.

Space and time had collapsed, into the ‘cyberspace matrix’ and the near-future. Even the abstract distances of social utopianism had been incinerated in the processing cores of micro-electronics. Judged by the criteria of mainstream science fiction, everything cyberpunk touched upon was gratingly close, and still closing in. The future had become imminent, and skin-tight.

Gibson’s cities had not kept up with his wider – or narrower – vision. The urban spaces of his East Coast North America were still described as ‘The Sprawl’, as if stranded in a rapidly-obsolescing state of extension. The crushing forces of technological compression had leapt beyond social geography, sucking all historical animation from the decaying husks of ‘meat space’. Buildings were relics, bypassed by the leading edge of change.

(Gibson’s Asian city-references are, however, far more intense, inspired by such innovations in urban compression as the Kowloon Walled City, and Japanese ‘coffin hotels’. In addition, Urbanists disappointed by first-wave cyberpunk have every reason to continue on into Spook Country, where the influence of GPS-technology on the re-animation of urban space nourishes highly fertile speculations.)

Star cruisers and alien civilizations belong to the same science fiction constellation, brought together by the assumption of expansionism. Just as, in the realm of fiction, this ‘space opera’ future collapsed into cyberpunk, in (more or less) mainstream science – represented by SETI programs – it perished in the desert of the Fermi Paradox. (OK, it’s true, Urban Future has a bizarrely nerdish obsession with this topic.)

John M. Smart’s solution to the Fermi Paradox is integral to his broader ‘Speculations on Cosmic Culture’ and emerges naturally from compressive development. Advanced intelligences do not expand into space, colonizing vast galactic tracts or dispersing self-replicating robot probes in a program of exploration. Instead, they implode, in a process of ‘transcension’ — resourcing themselves primarily through the hyper-exponential efficiency gains of extreme miniaturization (through micro- and nano- to femto-scale engineering, of subatomic functional components). Such cultures or civilizations, nucleated upon self-augmenting technological intelligence, emigrate from the extensive universe in the direction of abysmal intensity, crushing themselves to near-black-hole densities at the edge of physical possibility. Through transcension, they withdraw from extensive communication (whilst, perhaps, leaving ‘radio fossils’ behind, before these blink-out into the silence of cosmic escape).

If Smart’s speculations capture the basic outlines of a density-attracted developmental system, then cities should be expected to follow a comparable path, characterized by an escape into inwardness, an interior voyage, involution, or implosion. Approaching singularity on an accelerating trajectory, each city becomes increasingly inwardly directed, as it falls prey to the irresistible attraction of its own hyperbolic intensification, whilst the outside world fades to irrelevant static. Things disappear into cities, on a path of departure from the world. Their destination cannot be described within the dimensions of the known – and, indeed, tediously over-familiar – universe. Only in the deep exploratory interior is innovation still occurring, but there it takes place at an infernal, time-melting rate.

What might Smart-type urban development suggest?

(a) Devo Predictability. If urban development is neither randomly generated by internal processes, nor arbitrarily determined by external decisions, but rather guided predominantly by a developmental attractor (defined primarily by intensification), it follows that the future of cities is at least partially autonomous in regards to the national-political, global-economic, and cultural-architectural influences that are often invoked as fundamentally explanatory. Urbanism can be facilitated or frustrated, but its principal ‘goals’ and practical development paths are, in each individual case, internally and automatically generated. When a city ‘works’ it is not because it conforms to an external, debatable ideal, but rather because it has found a route to cumulative intensification that strongly projects its ‘own’, singular and intrinsic, urban character. What a city wants is to become itself, but more — taking itself further and faster. That alone is urban flourishing, and understanding it is the key that unlocks the shape of any city’s future.

(b) Metropolitanism. Methodological nationalism has been systematically over-emphasized in the social sciences (and not only at the expense of methodological individualism). A variety of influential urban thinkers, from Jane Jacobs to Peter Hall, have sought to correct this bias by focusing upon the significance, and partial autonomy, of urban economies, urban cultures, and municipal politics to aggregate prosperity, civilization, and golden ages. They have been right to do so. City growth is the basic socio-historical phenomenon.

(c) Cultural Introversion. John Smart argues that an intelligence undergoing advanced relativistic development finds the external landscape increasingly uninformative and non-absorbing. The search for cognitive stimulation draws it inwards. As urban cultures evolve, through accelerating social complexity, they can be expected to manifest exactly this pattern. Their internal processes, of runaway intelligence implosion, become ever more gripping, engaging, surprising, productive, and educational, whilst the wider cultural landscape subsides into predictable tedium, of merely ethnographic and historical relevance. Cultural singularity becomes increasingly urban-futural (rather than ethno-historical), to the predictable disgruntlement of traditional nation states. Like Gibson’s Terrestrial Cyberspace, encountering another of its kind in orbit around Alpha Centauri, cosmopolitan connectivity is made through inner voyage, rather than expansionary outreach.

(d) Scale Resonance. At the most abstract level, the relation between urbanism and microelectronics is scalar (fractal). The coming computers are closer to miniature cities than to artificial brains, dominated by traffic problems (congestion), migration / communications, zoning issues (mixed use), the engineering potential of new materials, questions of dimensionality (3D solutions to density constraints), entropy or heat / waste dissipation (recycling / reversible computation), and disease control (new viruses). Because cities, like computers, exhibit (accelerating phylogenetic) development within observable historical time, they provide a realistic model of improvement for compact information-processing machinery, sedimented as a series of practical solutions to the problem of relentless intensification. Brain-emulation might be considered an important computational goal, but it is near-useless as a developmental model. Intelligent microelectronic technologies contribute to the open-ended process of urban problem-solving, but they also recapitulate it at a new level.

(e) Urban Matrix. Does urban development exhibit the real embryogenesis of artificial intelligence? Rather than the global Internet, military Skynet, or lab-based AI program, is it the path of the city, based on accelerating intensification (STEM compression), that best provides the conditions for emergent super-human computation? Perhaps the main reason for thinking so is that the problem of the city – density management and accentuation – already commits it to computational engineering, in advance of any deliberately guided research. The city, by its very nature, compresses, or intensifies, towards computronium. When the first AI speaks, it might be in the name of the city that it identifies as its body, although even that would be little more than a ‘radio fossil’ — a signal announcing the brink of silence — as the path of implosion deepens, and disappears into the alien interior.