Saturday, January 13, 2024

(Eclipse Phase) Panopticon

Waah! I read the Eclipse Phase books out of order and so spent most of my time with Transhuman talking about the fucked-upedness of uplifts, but then Panopticon gave me a whole lot more material to work with and now it feels like I can't talk about it again because I'd be largely retreading ground I covered before.

I guess I'll just have to accept it as a valuable lesson in researching publication dates before reading an rpg series. Take it from me - uplifts are even more fucked up than you're imagining. And if that means the book thinks I'm a neo-primitivist, then so be it.

Luckily for me, Panopticon is actually divided into three broad sections, and so uplifts are only about a third of the material. Unfortunately, the middle section is all about the various types of space habitat, and thus uplifts constitute roughly half of the interesting material.

No, that's unnecessarily harsh. The habitat chapter was fine. It's fairly inevitable in any highly-detailed science fiction setting that sooner or later you're going to get a 45 page filibuster about space logistics, and this compares well with similar sections in Transhuman Space. There's a wide variety of stuff out there in space, and we get to read about it in excruciating detail. Fair.

Which I guess just leaves the first chapter of the book to be the subject of the post, by default. By sheerest coincidence, it's also the chapter that is most in line with the book's title - Surveillance.

The most uncanny part of reading any Eclipse Phase book these days is its combination of radical anarchist politics with technological optimism. It feels like somewhere along the line, the left has just turned against the idea of technological progress. I don't want to overgeneralize or anything, but there are certain circles - largely kind, thoughtful, conscientious circles, mind you - where it feels like you can't be excited about the prospect of a self-driving car without someone going, "lol, just build a train." Somehow, "tech" became synonymous with "tech-bros" and everything that isn't full-on goblincore is now apologism for capitalism.

And all of that may seem terribly passive-aggressive of me, but you have to believe that it's only a little passive-aggressive. Sometimes something comes along (to pick an example totally at random - the first chapter of this book) that reminds you that the technological pessimists do actually have a point. The "Surveillance" chapter of Panopticon is like a fossil of the extinct dream of Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism.

It posits a hellscape of omnipresent corporate surveillance that tracks individual behavior through a hundred different channels, in every even remotely public space, to the benefit of governments, businesses, and technologically-savvy stalkers . . . but also, maybe it's not so bad, because the window goes both ways. You no longer have any privacy, but neither does your boss or your congressional representative. "Sousveillance" - monitoring from below, for the purposes of accountability.

And that's a very attractive dream for an anarchist. It's the idea that a decentralized structure, operating purely on people power, can act as a check on hierarchy. I will pause now to let you get the laughter out of your system . . .

Okay, if we've moved past that, I think the most instructive part of Panopticon's "Surveillance" chapter was the multiple times it comes just shy of outright saying "wikileaks will save the world." 

It's surreal at times. I'll read a line like "The arrival of anonymous leaks groups brought to light the sad state of mainstream journalism" and I'll think - this was written by someone who has not experienced the trauma of 2016 or 2020, who has not seen the democratized channels of "citizen journalism" co-opted by Russian state propaganda, nor the peer-to-peer feeds of social media degenerate into conspiracy theories, right-wing ethnonationalist propaganda, and science denial. Part of this is because or methods of communication (and thus our main avenues of cultural expression) exist entirely within a private property paradigm that guarantees they'll serve the philosophical and economic interests of the oligarchic ownership class, but part of this is that it was always misguided to fantasize about the possibilities of sousveillance without also grappling with the problem of vigilantism. The decline of social media was probably inevitable, even absent the threat of right-wing billionaires enshitifying it for profit. No matter how punk a leftist might get, they're never going to have the fascist instinct for vigilante justice.

But while I can look at the techno-optimism of something like Panopticon and say, "no, really, even in 2011 you should have had more foresight than that," I do also feel the nostalgic pain of innocence lost. The liberal response to the decay of the open internet has largely been to scoff at its ideals of openness and yearn for a return to professionalism. "The sad state of mainstream journalism" is purely a right-wing talking point. The explanation and rebuttal is that people need to be more willing to pay professional journalists what they deserve.

There's an element of truth to this, but whenever I see someone make this point, my fingers start to itch because they don't always make the distinction between billionaire owners who are unwilling to pay for quality investigative journalism and paycheck-to-paycheck working people who are unable to pay for quality investigative journalism. Similarly, "citizen journalism" could mean a distrust for expertise, but it could also be an attempt to escape from capitalist alienation through a process of despecialization and active engagement in public affairs. Are we really saying that you have to be a reporter in order to do reporting? Why can't a bus boy or a convenience store clerk be a dedicated amateur reporter in their spare time? Is it automatically disrespect for expertise to speculate that expertise might be decoupled from specialization?

Of course, there are objective benefits to specialization, it's not just a scheme to manufacture artificial scarcity in the labor market. But that's where technological utopianism comes in, with the notion that it's possible to create a set of tools that will allow a dedicated and well-meaning person to offset a lack of specialization. "Do your own research" not just as a slogan to justify ignoring the experts, but as an expression of the capacity to actually do your own research. That's what Eclipse Phase posits - that the tools put in place for capitalist exploitation might also be used for a more effective resistance. The government is surveilling you, but you are surveilling the government.

And I have to admit, sitting here in 2024, this does seem like foolish optimism. Counting on citizen journalism really seems to underestimate the amount of chaos available to the average citizen. And for all that ubiquitous cell-phone recording has exposed police wrongdoing and empowered the BLM movement, the professionals in charge of the levers of power have been doing a pretty good job of stalling progress indefinitely.

I think the lesson of the 21st century is that technological progress is not, in itself, a solution to anything. Without a renewal of society's values, and structural reforms that reflect those values, technology will mainly serve the interests of the ruling class. And I think Eclipse Phase gets that on some level, because the most powerful governments run roughshod over human rights and use its sci-fi inventions to further inequality. But even they are generally improved by the presence of things like ubiquitous surveillance, body swapping, artificial intelligence, and programmable minifacturing. And I wonder, were they just naive, or have I forgotten how to dream?

Ukss Contribution: The "Dyson Tree." It's a space habitat. It's a giant tree. It's two of my favorite things together at last.

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