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Tuesday 30 June 2015

The Time Machine, again (III)

Part Three : Socialist Fiction

Let's recap. In part one, we looked at the surprisingly good science of The Time Machine. The most important aspect of which is that the Earth in the year 802,701 has been terraformed into a self-sustaining paradise. So perfect is the environment that the need for any kind of labour whatsoever has been eliminated.

In part two (which I strongly advise reading before this one) we looked at the effect this had had on the humans. Bereft of any requirement to work even to sustain their basic existence, humanity had degenerated into the stupid (but happy) child-like Eloi. We examined the plausibility of this and looked at why sating all our desires leads to a glorious utopia in Star Trek, but a ruined dystopia in The Time Machine. Star Trek posits that human ambitions will simply keep expanding as our mundane tasks are removed, and that universe has many reasons why intelligence must be maintained. The Time Machine does not. With no outlet for intelligence, it becomes a weakness.

But we also saw that this last point looked like it was on very shaky ground. Even with the mundane chores now a thing of the past, there's no obvious reason why intelligence should be a hindrance or why evolution would select against it. Or is there ?

Enter the Morlocks

The Time Traveller soon discovers that this false Eden really does have more in common with Star Trek's Risa - an artificial pleasure planet - than he first suspected. The conquest of nature is far from as perfect or as complete as it seemed (which doesn't invalidate the initial speculation - it just so happens that the world didn't turn out that way). Neither intelligence or the need for it has been eliminated after all:
I must confess that my satisfaction with my first theories of an automatic civilization and a decadent humanity did not long endure. Yet... I could find no machinery, no appliances of any kind. Yet these people were clothed in pleasant fabrics that must at times need renewal, and their sandals, though undecorated, were fairly complex specimens of metalwork. Somehow such things must be made. There were no shops, no workshops... They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping. I could not see how things were kept going.
The Time Traveller soon discovers the source of the Eloi's clothing : a foul race of pale ape-like creatures known as Morlocks who shun daylight and live underground. The Morlocks operate machines, although exactly what the purpose of the machines is is not made clear (beyond providing for the Eloi), and so are clearly more intelligent than the Eloi. But the extent of the underground caverns is vast (likely global), and the machines equally so. And how many sandals can they Eloi possibly need ? Have they also evolved into a race of shoe-hungry crazy people ?

My impression is that mankind hasn't managed such a perfect, self-sustaining Eden after all - it's the machines which are keeping everything balanced. If Wells were alive today, I think he would probably have them be devices for climate control.

Humanity, then, has split in two. The decadent Eloi have everything they need brought to them on a whim. The servile Morlocks are condemned to a life of squalor, servitude and darkness. The rich have gotten richer, and the poor poorer - it's the absolute epitome of social inequality, a speciation event. Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, while the Eloi are the masters of the Morlocks, they are also absolutely dependent on them. While the Eloi may initially have been the more intelligent of the two, that situation has long since been reversed. The Eloi have become so dependent on the products of the Morlocks that they have almost completely lost their own intelligence, while the Morlocks are still maintaining a global network of machines.
At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position... even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Industry had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end--! 
While the mere stupidity of the Eloi was enough to turn mankind's dream of an effortless future into a sad, ruined Utopia, this splitting of the species is altogether different and darker.
Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people--due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor-- is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land.
And this same widening gulf--which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich--will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour. 
The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man. 
The Morlock's likely experience the same evolutionary selection pressure to keep their machines running as in the technologically-dependent societies of Star Trek. It's just that here they are compelled to remain in perpetual servitude to the now brain-addled, over-privileged Eloi. But how can this be ? If the Morlocks are now more intelligent than the Eloi, surely they have the advantage. Of course, this turns out to be exactly the case.

The Time Traveller's initial speculations about the Eloi weren't exactly wrong - they do have all their desires fulfilled - just incomplete. And it's not an absolute triumph of man over nature, more an ongoing war. But although the Eloi have indeed degenerated, this is only in part because they no longer need or want much of anything - it is very far from a full view of the year 802,701. Something much more sinister is going on.

Om nom nom

The first scenario, in which the entire species has degenerated due to technological dependence, might be tenable if natural curiosity could be selected against. But the Time Traveller has only vague notions of why this might be, and indeed that turns out to be wrong. However the second scenario, of having a race of intelligent workers in perpetual servitude to stupid people, is far more difficult to support - the Eloi possess not one single advantage over the Morlocks. And of course, we soon find that the Time Traveller was being too hasty in his conclusions.
The Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants: but that had long since passed away. The Eloi, like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility. They still possessed the earth on sufferance: since the Morlocks, subterranean for innumerable generations, had come at last to find the daylit surface intolerable. And the Morlocks made their garments, I inferred, and maintained them in their habitual needs... They did it as a standing horse paws with his foot, or as a man enjoys killing animals in sport: because ancient and departed necessities had impressed it on the organism. 
But, clearly, the old order was already in part reversed. The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear. And suddenly there came into my head the memory of the meat I had seen in the Under-world.
The Morlocks are carnivores who rear the Eloi like cattle. It's the ultimate revenge of the downtrodden masses. Most likely, the reason intelligence never re-evolves in the Eloi (or for that matter they never become any stronger or faster, which would give them an edge over their Morlock predators) is because the Morlocks eat those who pose any sign of a threat. They are the selection pressure keeping the Eloi docile.

Importantly, the Eloi haven't fallen from grace because of some political revolution : they have fallen because of their own over-privileged position. Their utter dependency on their Morlock servants has been a fatal weakness. Sheer, unchecked wealth inequality has proven fatal not because the Morlocks objected to it but because it is an inherently flawed system.

One important detail that's somewhat glossed over is that initially the Eloi were indeed more intelligent than the Morlocks : "this same widening gulf--which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process". How then is it that Eloi have lost their intelligence ? While the Morlocks could easily maintain their Eloi flock in docile servility by eating the smartest, it's difficult to see how how they could have caused this state in the first place. Perhaps, as their lives got easier and easier, the Eloi stopped bothering to invest in the now-unnecessary education of their young - they all became like the twerps one might see on My Super Sweet 16. Maybe the Morlocks were consciously working toward this final state : after all, they think on global scales, so perhaps they think on long timescales as well. We'll have to let that one go.

And yet while the Morlocks are intelligent, they are also horrific. The Time Traveller is far more accepting of the Eloi, who, though stupid, have retained some vestige of warmth and compassion. But Wells was a socialist - why, then, did he make the workers of the far future into ghoulish monsters ? It certainly makes for a gripping story. But perhaps mainly it's a straightforward warning : carry on like this and it's not going to end well for anyone.

Relevancy & Conclusion 

The Time Machine explores several interesting scenarios about the way in which the future could develop :
  1. A return to Paradise. The cost of bliss is stupidity. This scenario turns out to be untenable in the novel : intelligence is a genie that's difficult to put back in the bottle.
  2. Uber-privilege. An unchecked growth in wealth inequality doesn't end well for anyone - it leads to degeneracy even of those supposedly at the top of the pile.
  3. Social "justice". The final, horrifying result of the second scenario is that the masters become the slaves - not through political revolution but simply because the system of massive inequality is fundamentally flawed.
All of these are of course still relevant. I personally don't see some measure of wealth inequality as a bad thing - people like and deserve rewards for doing good. But rampant, unchecked wealth inequality - totally unrestricted capitalism - is insane. One should remember (for several reasons) that the working conditions back in 1895 were considerably worse than today. There was no minimum wage. Child labour was just beginning to be abolished. There was no limit to the number of working hours an employer could set in a week. There was no National Health Service, overall hygiene was poor. These things didn't happen because the market demanded them*, they happened because of campaigns and government action. Without this, it was quite conceivable at the time that the rich would continue getting richer while the poor got poorer, in absolute terms.

* Mind you, it's important to remember while some industrialists were the stereotype oppressors, not all were

I don't propose to try and answer the question as to whether there is greater or lesser wealth equality now than there was in 1895, fascinating though that may be. Relative wealth is a difficult concept. But in purely absolute terms, in Western Europe it is simply not true that the poor have gotten poorer (generally speaking), though the rich have certainly gotten richer. The poor have access to a wealth of technology, resources and social safety nets that simply did not exist in 1895; it's hard to imagine Morlocks with smartphones and healthcare plans. It's that vital combination of compassion coupled with technology that Star Trek explores so well - sometimes technology makes manual labour unnecessary, sometimes laws prevent it. And so Wells' dark vision does not look likely to come to pass.

Or does it ?

Both Star Trek and The Time Machine present answers to the question : "What would it be like if we had all our desires fulfilled ?". Because of the details of the futures they explore, their answers are radically different. Star Trek says that we will keep changing our desires so that we always want something new; The Time Machine says maybe not. In both worlds, human intelligence is still required - except in the first scenario the Time Traveller concludes. In that situation, there is no differentiation of the human species but rather the reverse : a continuous trend toward uniformity and stupidity. It's not the horrific future of carnivorous Morlocks farming their Eloi stock, but it's a dystopia nonetheless.

There is currently an ever-increasing trend towards automation, as examined in Humans Need Not Apply. One may argue that the timescales are debatable, but like Wells, one should try and take the long-term view. It certainly will not take eight hundred thousand years to automate a lot of jobs that currently rely on human labour, nor even eight hundred - probably somewhere between eight and eighty, but no more than that. The wealth inequality Wells' feared won't come to pass, but the lack of a need to think just might.

There are possible solutions to the employment crisis posed by automation. One is a guaranteed universal basic income : all your most basic needs to survive provided by the state. And why not ? The point of robots is to prevent people from having to do manual labour; if people don't benefit from this then there's really no point in robots at all. There is surely no moral reason why you should be forced into doing things you don't want to do just to stay alive, especially in a world where everything can be provided for you with no human labour required. Life is short - it is morally bankrupt (pardon the cliché) to demand that people don't enjoy it, to insist that they suffer solely because of your ideology.

I'll admit that I was initially staunchly opposed to the idea of UBI and was slightly outraged by this famous Buckminster Fuller quote. Yet now I find myself in almost full support. I still think it needs more trials, but, when you get right down to it, what exactly is the point of making people do work they neither want nor need to do ? Perhaps a UBI wasn't possible twenty years ago - in another twenty it may be unavoidable.
A second approach is to trust technology to solve its own problems : perhaps we will all be able to live entirely independently. 3D printers could allow us to fabricate new items and even food, we might grow our own power sources, transport could be fully automated. Thus in both cases people might not need to work at all, but get on with doing things they actually enjoy. The need for a UBI is circumvented in this case - indeed it becomes difficult to see what on earth money itself would be used for in such a situation. This prospect is probably rather further down the line, but it no longer looks at though we'll have to wait for the 24th Century to reach a moneyless society.

But... both of these overlook the question of artificial intelligence. They assume that there will still be a need for people to maintain all this advanced technology because the robots won't be able to do much for themselves. At the very least, in these scenarios, humans will still be the only entities capable of philosophy and higher reasoning - a situation that many feel is, in reality, only temporary. Basic income doesn't necessarily solve a damn thing if machines can also do all your thinking for you. Can we still maintain human ambition (which as we saw was a vital element in Star Trek's utopian vision) if machines can do everything for us, even our thinking ?

Traditionally, sci-fi explores A.I. through killer robot uprisings. Perhaps a more interesting question would be not what happens if the robots take over, but what if the robots do exactly what we want ? If you had a machine that could answer any question for you, would you become more and more curious about the world, or would you stop caring altogether ?

Star Trek dodges the question since in the Trek universe only humans are capable of understanding. The Time Machine doesn't explore artificial intelligence, but does look at what happens if humans no longer need to think, which is basically the same thing. That is why a 120 year-old novel which doesn't feature artificial intelligence is directly relevant to the modern world. Would we really stop thinking if we didn't need to ? I mean a complete and utter lack of need - literally no problem a computer couldn't solve more quickly than a human.

I don't know. Even though I'm fortunate enough to enjoy it, there are certainly some parts of my job I'd happily let a computer handle all by itself. There are also parts of my art projects I'd like assistance with. But not all. That a computer could have emotions and express itself wouldn't prevent me from wanting to do the same.  But if I could formulate any question, say, "Is ram pressure stripping the dominant gas loss mechanism in galaxy clusters ?" and have a robot go away, plan the necessary observations, build the best possible instrument to answer the question in some time allotted, and knowing that its conclusions would be both better and faster than my own... would I even want to ask the question ? Without any effort on my part, what's the reward of knowing the answer ? That, not killer robots, is the real challenge presented by A. I.

A guaranteed universal basic income coupled with A. I. looks an awful lot like the scenario the Time Traveller first proposed : not just having all humanities needs fulfilled, but all its desires as well. Again, there wouldn't be any selection pressure against intelligence - but there would be essentially the reverse situation of Star Trek. Rather than encouraging intelligence, technology might, in this case, actually encourage people to be lazy, to not bother using their natural abilities and let them waste away. Instead of being born stupid but then educated into intelligence, the exact opposite might happen.

But would a world without any intellectual pressure simply degenerate into nothing but physical and emotional enjoyment, with no drive to self-improvement, no urge to explore, no need to seek answers to higher questions ? I don't know. Yet I cannot imagine doing nothing all day except lounging around eating fruit and having sex. Well, I say that...

I mean, fruit is rubbish, and I've got to watch Game of Thrones as well, right ?
I'm not saying a universal basic income isn't a very good idea in the short term, just that it might not a complete solution to all the problems on the horizon. Something more may be needed.

I don't know if we'll ever reach a state of total utopia or dystopia. There is, however, a glimmer of hope suggested from universal basic income studies : when people have their base needs provided, they don't become fat and lazy. Instead, they generally shift their goals to something more ambitious - entrepreneurship actually increases (video is worth watching if you've got a spare half-hour). Will this also hold when the machines can think as well as doing the dirty jobs no-one else wants to do - when absolutely every task can be automated ? Will we have no choice but to endorse cybernetics - preserving our will, our souls if you like - whilst gaining power that computers might otherwise take away from us ?

Maybe. Advancing technology, of course, doesn't necessitate a moral deterioration. For now at least, academic jobs aren't under the immediate threat that robots pose to physical labour - a UBI is still at least a valid solution. But make no mistake : you can't stop the future. The only sure conclusion is that to avoid a dystopian future, and to have any chance of a utopia at all, we need one thing above all : a beer-drinking cat. Err, compassion, I meant compassion ! Yes. And possibly a beer-drinking cat.


  1. Just as I've started reading the Time Machine, a long overdue read.

    Honor Harrington, for all its flaws, has one of the most interesting dystopias based on UBI I've read in recent times. It is nearly ruined by having the story focus on the worst possible choice of character, but I'd still (almost) recommend it for what happens to 'Ancient Régime' and revolutionary Haven.

    The main hurdle with it (other than actually having the economic and industrial infrastructure making it possible in the first place) is exactly what you described in the previous article: in Star Trek, the important is what we do, not what we get.
    This is the great lie of our society, and the reason why UBI can actually devastate populations. Getting more stuff is the Way to Hapiness, according to our contemporary consumerism, but it simply doesn't work - and it can be hard to realize. This lead to people having, wanting more and wasting their energy and life in envy or in misguided attempts to get more, without trying to actually do something.
    This leads to children raised in dysfunctional families, to people awkwardly seeking actual meaning to their act in simplistic ideologies (they are way easier to jump into, particularly when they tell you that it's someone else's fault). It's not specifically a problem of UBI, in fact, in my country, we also see the same problem with many low-ranking jobs in the public service and administration. The work culture is, the less you do the better you are (ex. you are rewarded with work hour decreases), and there are similar problems. And the 'getting more stuff' brings the same problems, to a lesser extent, in many other parts of society.
    This is why, in HH, we see far-left terrorist groups and bloody ideologues (ex. the Levelists that are insane extreme-egalitarians, and feel free to set nukes in the middle of cities to try and take power), but that's only a reflection of today's reality. That's why we see so many people following extreme far-right or far-left ideologies, that are 'dumb revendicatists' (ask what people think about public transport unions here, for example), or why some people seemingly randomly decide to go in Syria and fight for one of the worst organizations ever.
    It's an (rather poor) attempt at giving meaning to their life by doing something, without clearly realizing it.

    Also, technology is currently widening inequalities, as under our system, it is favouring concentration of wealth in the hands of those who control the most of it.
    It would be easy to get Marx back about how the capitalist system is inherently causing this, though that would be forgetting that Smith spent half of his work telling how a strong moral system should keep the purely economic side of capitalism in check. A fact conveniently forgotten by many economists claiming to hold Smith above all else...

    Those two points may be the root causes of most of today's struggles, and how we will get past it will be very interesting.

    In Star Trek, we overcome them: we give up on consumerism to go for a more viable philosophy where the act is more important (activicism?), and the law and economic system are retooled in favour of this. That's the way up.
    I would expect such society to have huge art patronage systems, as art is something personal, something you can do even if a machine can objectively craft something finer, more precise than you. Sure, a machine can draw someone better than you. This particular machine is called a camera. This doesn't make the painter stop painting.
    I would also expect to see many new artforms appear - something we are already beginning to see.

    In the Time Machine, the Eloi seems to have essentially neutered themselves into a near-animal state in all three scenarios, that's a way down. The Morlocks basically evolved from slaves, making their case less directly, but still indirectly very relevant as part of this way down.

  2. (By the way, thank you so much for this blog!)

    1. Thanks for the thought-provoking response ! I've never read Honor Harrington. May have to give that a go.

      Regarding work culture, I think right now many parts of Western society (especially America), but also the far East, have the opposite problem : work - any work - is seen as invaluable. Why would you need more than two weeks of vacation per year - don't you love your job ? How come you're not staying in work after hours even though all your colleagues are ? Why don't you answer emails at 9:30pm ?

      The fundamental problem that no-one seems to have a good answer to is : if you didn't have to work, what would you do all day to make the world a better place ?

      For me personally, the answer is "what I'm doing now, just a bit less". I would not choose to spend every day analysing data. I'd probably spend more time on art. On the other hand I certainly wouldn't have chosen to travel around the world in order to analyse data, which I have to admit would have many negative as well as positive benefits on my part. I like many of the people I've met and the things I've done. I have no doubt that with a UBI we would see a massive creative boom , but it's harder to say if we would we also see a scientific gain.

      Jobs that are now very competitive (like the sciences) might become much less so. Maybe you're good at your job but not at the top of the pile. You potential employer likes you, but doesn't have the money to hire you. But maybe they've got a spare desk and now they can let you keep working with them, and so you still get to do what you want to do.

      A UBI is probably going to have a lot of unintended consequences. I think a large-scale, long term trial in a Western city or country is needed. The issues are just too complex to guess at what might happen.

      AI makes things even more complicated. Right now, with a UBI I'd still be spending a lot of time analysing data because I enjoy it. There aren't that many people who could do that good a job of it (for various reasons), so I'm valuable. But a computer can be mass-produced. I have no idea if I'd still analyse data if I could have a computer do everything for me. The emotional aspect of art is different : if I paint, I express MY emotions - I don't really care if another person or a computer can do a better job, that's not the point. But with science, I'm not so sure.

      Then of course there are the millions of people trapped in jobs they don't want to do. A UBI might be great for them right now... but with AI as well ? I don't know.

      I agree that consumerism and the pursuit of "stuff" over "experience" is something that is largely negative. I also think that extreme left and right policies tend to be wrong; I am a socialist but I don't see competition as wholly bad. I like the Star Trek philosophy of giving people rewards (bonuses) for winning, but no punishments for losing. Being free to fail to vital.

      However, I am not so sure that it is technology that's widening the inequalities. The open source software movement is an example of how professional-quality tools are freely available to anyone. 3D printers are still expensive, but getting cheaper all the time; the "maker" culture is becoming popular (even biohacking). There are also a lot of exciting kickstarter projects that put control of even big projects directly in the hands of the people (e.g. Lunar One, small satellites). Social media, though very far from perfect, can be highly effective at reporting stories the mainstream media ignores.

      The quest to give everyone a meaningful, productive life was never going to be easy. :) I cannot resist adding a quote from Contact :

      "You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other."


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