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Friday 26 June 2015

The Time Machine again (II)

Part Two : Social Fiction

Last time, we left the Time Traveller eight hundred thousand years in the future, on an alien Earth that resembles nothing so much as Risa. In that distant future the Earth had been transformed by man's insatiable quest to conquer nature, and the ecosystem remade into nothing more than a life support system for humanity. Or so it seemed. Actually, as the Time Traveller learns more about the world, he realises he's made some pretty wrong-headed conclusions. Like any good scientist he revises his theories as more data becomes available.

In the novel, the different conclusions the Time Traveller reaches provide the reader with different possible visions of the way the future might unfold. All of which are pretty startling and, given the way technology is making more and more jobs redundant, more relevant than ever. You might pick up The Time Machine for its sci-fi element, but you'll keep reading it for its social commentary. This isn't a book about temporal paradoxes or even time travel, really - it's a book about human behaviour and society. It really is a masterpiece of science fiction, exploring not just interesting technologies, but the ultimate effect those technologies have on us.

To keep things at a readable length, this post will examine only the first conclusion the Time Traveller reaches. The two others are essentially modifications (albeit very important modifications) of this first scenario, and we'll look at them in part three.

This Other Eden

Let's begin with the first scenario the Time Traveller concludes from his initial inspection. The Earth is an artifical paradise. The climate is warm, the soil fertile, and "nature" provides such an abundance of fruits that there is no need to farm any more. The Eloi - the short, happy simpletons of the far future - exist entirely as gathers (not hunter-gatherers because most large animals are extinct, and they're vegetarians). Work has gone the way of the dinosaur.

There's no need to build anything because the grand structures of the previous generations provide shelter from the wind and rain. Heating isn't needed because the climate is much warmer. Farming isn't needed because of the abundance of natural food. All harmful bacteria have been eliminated, so the water is clean and drinkable - no need for advanced sewage and water processing systems, or medical care*. Even fire is unnecessary because it's always warm and there are no dangerous animals to hunt and/or eat. All of the basic needs of man are now provided by this artificial nature, the final, ultimate result of nearly a million years of human technological advancement. In that everyone's material desires are now effortlessly fulfilled, it's strikingly similar to the world's of Star Trek's United Federation of Planets. It deserves a detailed comparison.

* Occasional injuries and deaths result, and the most shocking thing about the Eloi is that they just don't care very much. They don't value things any more, but they don't value people either.

Why Star Trek is a Utopia and The Time Machine is a Dystopia

In Star Trek, we see a utopian society provided for by a combination of advanced technology and human social development. Both work in harmony. Technology has given mankind almost unlimited resources - more than enough for everyone to live in luxury - and the impulses of aggression, greed, and most especially hatred, have all been drastically reduced (though not eliminated completely). That is partially a direct result of the technological development, and partially from other social factors (WWW III and alien contact being the most significant). The utopian society of Star Trek functions and remains functional for several reasons :
  1. Access to free, unlimited clean energy (anti-matter).
  2. Humans no longer value things above people. They still value things, but, "the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives". Greed is dead, unless you're a Ferengi.
  3. Humans have a fundamental drive for self-improvement : "We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity"; "The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself... to enrich yourself. Enjoy it". The determination to do things is now the primary driving force, not the determination to get things.
  4. Machines are not sentient. Only humans are capable of understanding, and they possess a strong desire to do so. Machines are never (with rare exceptions) more than useful tools to help with this, and those few that are truly sentient are still essentially defective in some way compared to humans. Most importantly of all, being able to understand how technology works is vital.
  5. Everyone is basically on the same page. Although there is exceptionally high tolerance toward alien cultures, in humans there are almost no fundamentally clashing ideologies. When there are, people are free to leave the system and set out on their own.
  6. Menial labour is basically non-existent. No-one has to do demeaning jobs or is disrespected because of their chosen career (at least, any stigma attached to certain jobs is nowhere near as dramatic as in today's world).
  7. Competition is still high. It's possible to "win" by, say, getting a job on the Enterprise, but if you end up on the USS Tedious, no-one thinks much less of you - hey, you still made it into Starfleet ! You can be rewarded for success, but not punished for failure.
In short, Star Trek features a potent combination of technology (free energy), social equality (a direct consequence of the lack of greed), whilst maintaining human ambition and the need for humans to do things machines can't - especially the need to think. It's the combination of the social and technological factors that make the Federation a utopia, not one or the other.

Now in this first scenario of the Time Traveller's imagination, points 1,2,5, and 6 are all realised. But it's much more than that. Points 3 and 7 are utterly gone : humans have no determination to do anything very much, and they certainly don't compete (as for point 4, there aren't machines of any kind because they're not necessary). Quite unlike Star Trek, and hence the resulting dystopian future, the total lack of any real need to do anything has led directly to a total lack of desire to do anything :
I thought of the physical slightness of the people, their lack of intelligence, and those big abundant ruins, and it strengthened my belief in a perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity had been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered conditions. 
Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are no great help--may even be hindrances--to a civilized man. And in a state of physical balance and security, power, intellectual as well as physical, would be out of place. 
For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence, no danger from wild beasts, no wasting disease to require strength of constitution, no need of toil. For such a life, what we should call the weak are as well equipped as the strong, are indeed no longer weak. Better equipped indeed they are, for the strong would be fretted by an energy for which there was no outlet. No doubt the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived--the flourish of that triumph which began the last great peace. This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.
Perhaps the most important difference between Wells' vision and Trek's utopia is that Trek still requires human intelligence. Although there are plenty of machines in Star Trek, they are seldom truly intelligent. There is always a need for humans to be able to think and understand. In this first scenario of the year 802,701, there isn't even a need for machines. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to think any more - they don't even need machines to think for them. They have regressed, stagnated, become happier, stupider - and dull.

Would this really happen ? In Trek, the excess energy of man is used to good purpose. Now that he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to do, he gets on with things he enjoys - growing vines, riding horses, running caf├ęs, and negotiating peace treaties with the Klingons (as one does). Not because he needs to, but because he wants to. In Well's dystopian future, doing things unnecessarily is a waste of energy, a hindrance rather than a help.

On second thoughts the back-breaking manual labour is starting to sound more appealing.

Idiocracy ?

There are arguments for both sides. Intelligence is biologically expensive to maintain, and if not needed, the body could devote its resources to becoming stronger, faster, better... except even that's not an advantage in this alter-Eden. There's no advantage to competition even at the biological level here - there's always more than enough to go around for everyone. Fighting off your rivals simply wastes energy, because you haven't diminished their access to resources one jot. Ultimately, it won't mean you have any more children (human sexual desire evidently no longer favouring the biggest or the strongest, especially given the genetic uniformity of the species).
Then, in a flash, I perceived that all had the same form of costume, the same soft hairless visage, and the same girlish rotundity of limb. It may seem strange, perhaps, that I had not noticed this before. But everything was so strange. Now, I saw the fact plainly enough. In costume, and in all the differences of texture and bearing that now mark off the sexes from each other, these people of the future were alike. And the children seemed to my eyes to be but the miniatures of their parents. 
Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt that this close resemblance of the sexes was after all what one would expect; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force; where population is balanced and abundant, much childbearing becomes an evil rather than a blessing to the State; where violence comes but rarely and off-spring are secure, there is less necessity--indeed there is no necessity--for an efficient family, and the specialization of the sexes with reference to their children's needs disappears. We see some beginnings of this even in our own time, and in this future age it was complete. This, I must remind you, was my speculation at the time. Later, I was to appreciate how far it fell short of the reality.
On the other hand, with all our base needs catered for, we might simply raise our game and become more concerned with higher matters. That's the philosophy behind the utopia of Star Trek. Like upgrading a computer - you don't simply run the same old programs but faster : you develop new, more capable programs that weren't even possible on the old machine. The problem, however, is sex.

Already people with conditions that were untreatable a hundred years ago are living long, productive lives and having children of their own, thanks to modern medicine. In Star Trek many more such problems can be alleviated through technology, as our own society does. That is a fundamentally good thing. But, at the same time, it might seem that there's almost no selection pressure any more. Having children is essentially a choice - virtually everyone, no matter how differently-abled, tall, short, skinny fat, intelligent, moronic, or just plain ugly - can have children if they want to. You don't really need any special attributes to raise offspring that will survive to have children of their own.

Err, on the other hand...
In Trek, the solutions to many social problems are technological. At the most basic level that forces a selection pressure to exist once again since if intelligent people started decreasing in number, there would be fewer people to maintain the medical equipment (for example) and so more people would start dying of untreatable diseases. Thus the remaining intelligent people would start outbreeding the stupid people again*, and the system settles into a natural equilibrium : enough clever people to provide for everybody.

* This is rather crude and insulting language. What I really mean by intelligent here is, "people able to understand and operate complex equipment". Of course, it's perfectly possible to be very intelligent and be completely unable to set the timer on a video recorder. Whether intelligence is entirely genetic I know not, but I'm assuming that to be he case here for the sake of simplicity. Genetics are surely a factor, at the very least.

Alternatively, it's also possible that all learning disorders can be medically treated. Stupid people might be born, but maybe they're "cured" (the Federation is quite rightly dead against any eugenics programs to "improve" the species, but that's no reason to avoid treating disorders - assuming stupidity really is a disorder). Then again the education program is highly advanced, with children learning calculus at around age 10. So maybe it's good enough to overcome most natural low intelligence levels - perhaps they've found a way to unlock everyone's proverbial hidden potential. Again people might be born stupid, but educated into thinking rationally. That's certainly the nicest, least offensive option.

In The Time Machine medical problems have been solved mostly through eugenics* (everyone is genetically very similar with an extremely low chance of producing significantly different offspring) - whether through natural selection or genetic engineering doesn't really matter. Technology played its part initially, but since the system is set up to be in perfect, stable equilibrium, it is no longer needed. It doesn't matter if the intelligent people all die - the system keeps going. There's no selection pressure to maintain intelligence.

* Wells was outspoken against racism. In his day, eugenics and racism weren't linked - improving the species didn't mean eliminating different races. It meant getting rid of undesirable traits, but Wells didn't think those traits were any more or less common in different races.

The end result is profoundly different to the purely technological scenario of Star Trek. No selection pressure, no evolution, no change, no reason to favour the intelligent over the stupid. It is perhaps the ultimate expression of a universal basic income. Not only has everyone got everything they need, but they've also got everything they want. Admittedly, what they want has become very simple : food, shelter, and sex. Though not necessarily in that order or all at the same time.

Star Trek also explored the planet-of-happy-stupid-beautiful people trope, of course.
And yet all that doesn't mean the intelligent won't exist (especially while the geoengineering projects are still in development), because there's nothing really to prevent them pursuing their own projects and having babies. Indeed, this will be easier than it is today, since they won't have to worry about the mundane concerns of staying alive. True, they won't necessarily be the most successful people on the planet... but there's no selection pressure against them either. So in Star Trek, not everyone is very intelligent, but everyone is successful. Intelligent people don't stop breeding just because stupid people are also breeding.

There's not much reason to think the same wouldn't happen in Wells' dystopia either; more cerebral desires and simple curiosity are not so easily crushed. The Time Traveller's argument that excess energy would become a hindrance is unconvincing, and lacks imagination. The great industrial projects of his own day were becoming more and more advanced, and not entirely dedicated to the base needs of humanity - it's not really a credible suggestion that if all our material needs were catered for, we'd stop being creative. More likely, as we'll discuss, the reverse is true.

So if the intelligent people won't be filtered out, where are they ? Did Wells simply make a mistake ? That, as it happens, is what the Time Traveller is about to discover. Tune in next time for the third and final instalment.

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