Why the Culture books were bad SF

There’s a lot of buzz about Iain Banks’s Culture universe lately, what with Elon Musk naming his drone ships in Banksian style and a TV series in the works.

I enjoyed the Culture books too, but they were a guilty pleasure for me because in a fundamental way they are bad SF.

They’re bad SF because the Culture’s economics is impossible. That ship hits a rock called “Hayek’s Calculation Problem” and sinks – even superintelligent Minds can’t make central planning work, because without price signals and elicited preferences you can’t know where to allocate resources. What you get is accelerating malinvestment to collapse.

This is what happened to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Hayek predicted it fifty years in advance. Huge factories in Siberia destroyed wealth by producing trucks nobody needed from resources that would have been better spent on other things – but nobody could know that because there weren’t any price signals. Eventually the SU wore out its pre-Communist infrastructure, fell down, went boom.

The problem is epistemic and fundamental – can’t be solved by good intentions or piling on computational capacity. An SF writer is every bit as obligated to know what won’t work in economics as he is not to make elementary blunders about chemistry and physics. The concept of “deadweight loss” matters as much as “entropy”.

Banks’s lifelong friend and fellow Trotskyite Ken McLeod actually managed not to flunk this. In a long and revealing interview about the genesis of one of his early series (the “October Revolution” books IIRC) he once revealed that for years he read free-market economics on the know-your-enemy principle, then woke up one day realizing he couldn’t refute them. Subsequently his books took a decidedly libertarian turn. This demonstrates that Marxists can clean up their shit; alas, Banks never made it that far.

The Culture books also implied, though they never explicitly committed, a different fallacy. I often run into it in talking with people who want to defend the plausibility of the Culture. It’s the belief that superabundance is just a matter of being smart enough, that there are no fundamentally scarce resources.

Alas, no. What kills that dream is thermodynamic inefficiency of conversion. Even at the extreme where you have both nanotech and elemental transmutation, your limit will be the capacity to dissipate waste heat from your fabrication engines.

Banks wasn’t alone in this one. Lots of inferior SF writers make this mistake about nanotech by itself. They write as though it’s fairy dust you can sprinkle on scarcity problems and make them go away. Nope, nope, nope. Where’s the energy to drive your fabricators coming from? What about your feedstocks?

(And if you don’t understand those questions…what the hell are you doing writing SF? In that case all you’re actually good for is crapping out a Harlequin or something – stop bothering the adults.)

SF done right needs to understand and respect these limits. If you’re going to bust any of them, they count against the traditional one-McGuffin quota (you know: one strong counterfactual per story, but FTL doesn’t count) and you need to justify it to your readers lest you have a plausibility hole in your universe that destroys any possibility of suspension of disbelief.

EDIT: I should also have mentioned scarcity of human attention. Try to eliminate that and see where it takes you…

313 thoughts on “Why the Culture books were bad SF

  1. Mises (in his book Socialism) identified the problem of prices and inability to calculate, not Hayek (who wrote the short must read “Road to Serfdom).

    But Planet Marx has precogs and AI to tell them what to produce and when, so in the SF/F world socialism works. In the real world, Venezuela’s dystopia.

      • As I like to say in other contexts, if you assume one impossible thing it shouldn’t be a surprise that you get other impossible things as a result.

        If you really follow it through, transtemporal or precognitive anything amounts to the same set of paradoxes you get with time travel in general, since in fairly real sense it is time travel. Conventional time travel is just the special case where physical objects can travel to the past; information traveling to the past causes all the same issues, just ever so slightly less directly and more subtly. So I’d say that in general your question is unanswerable.

        • >If you really follow it through, transtemporal or precognitive anything amounts to the same set of paradoxes you get with time travel in general…

          I was going to post a reply very like this; you beat me to it.

    • The traditional reference is Hayek (1945), “The use of knowledge in society”, American Economic Review.

      • “Die Wirtschaftsrechnung im sozialistischen Gemeinwesen” [Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth] was published in 1920 in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaften 47 (1920). Hayek was certainly aware of it, as he reprinted it in his book Collectivist Economic Planning, published 1935 (Routledge), a decade before the article you cite. See also David Ramsay Steele, From Marx to Mises 1992 (Open Court), for the whole history of the controversy. If the Hayek article is the “traditional reference” I have to say that reflects poorly on the scholarship of American economists.

        • In general, the “standard reference” is not the first time someone said a thing, but the last time. Stigler’s law of eponymy and all that.

          I can confirm that the Hayek paper is the “standard reference”, in the sense that if someone wants to talk about these issues, they will typically cite it as an early example; and then, by frequent citation, it morphs into *the* early example.

          In general economists are not much concerned with spelling out the intellectual history of ideas, particularly when the participants are no longer around to object. Indeed, even the references to Hayek are typically perfunctory, and most work that cites that paper does not actually draw on the particular ideas set out in it except in a very general way.

  2. We call this sort of fictional novel by a different name than Science Fiction. Since it involves breaking physical and economic laws, it’s called Fantasy.

    • Ah, no, I don’t agree with that part. For one thing, there’s lots of science fiction that involves breaking physical laws; to start with, there’s the gross violation of having FTL or the subtler violation of having FTL without time travel. E.E. Smith, who may have been the first to propose drawing the line in this way, claimed that his “Lensman” books were sf, despite their FTL “inertialess drive”; Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, the first generally recognized hard sf novel, had human beings who got to Mesklin by FTL; and I could offer lots of other examples that no one considers “fantasy.” Then there is Larry Niven, the great star of 1960s and 1970s hard sf, who had human beings and other primates descended from Protectors, a species evolved on a different planet, despite their having exactly the same cellular ultrastructure (mitochondria, ribosomes, and so on) and genetic code as bats or insectivores or other mammals.

      Saying that if a story’s scientific rationale for its miracles and wonders doesn’t meet your standards of scientific accuracy or rigor, it’s fantasy, is like saying that if you cut off my arms and legs, I’m a snake.

      Biologists have recognized for a while now that categories defined negatively, by not having something, are not biologically sound; for example, “Invertebrata,” or animals without backbones, are not a meaningful taxon. I think literary taxa need equal rigor. I would define fantasy as fiction with (a) wonders and marvels (b) that are based on things that appear in myths, legends, or fairy tales, or are similar to such things in involving magic or the supernatural. That’s an affirmative trait, and one that fits at least the great majority of works in the fantasy genre. Perhaps a different trait would be a better fit, but I think we need to look for affirmative traits to define our genres.

      • >Ah, no, I don’t agree with that part. For one thing, there’s lots of science fiction that involves breaking physical laws; to start with, there’s the gross violation of having FTL

        The conventional rule they teach at places like the Clarion Writer’s workshop is “One McGuffin per story, but FTL doesn’t count”. If my memory is not misfiring, it was first stated in that form by Theodore Sturgeon. This is a historically contingent genre quirk which I can explain in constructive detail if you like. But in making your argument you should basically cross FTL off your list of blockers.

        Besides, there are cracks in the FTL wall. If you don’t know what an Alcubierre warp is, look it up. You’ll be amazed. This in a weird way less important than the genre history, but it’s true.

        >evolved on a different planet, despite their having exactly the same cellular ultrastructure

        Panspermia, dude. Not scientifically impossible, just not very unlikely. There are also scenarios in which Forerunners seeded compatible cytochemistries all over the place. So Niven wasn’t writing fantasy, though you have an argument that his SF was defective to the extent he failed to justify his premises.

        >I think we need to look for affirmative traits to define our genres.

        You are quite right, Mr. Stoddard. Here’s your affirmative trait: “SF is the branch of fantastic literature which affirms that the universe is rationally knowable.” (Formulation due to Gregory Benford c.1994; there’s a bit more to it that is not immediately relevant.)

        Let that sink in for a bit.

        The demand for scientific (and economic) rigor in good SF comes from the rational-knowability criterion. It’s not an accident and it’s not dispensable. If you as an author can’t get straight about the world as it is, how – under the rubric of rational knowability – can I have any reason to believe you about how the world might be?

        • [“One McGuffin per story, but FTL doesn’t count”] is a historically contingent genre quirk which I can explain in constructive detail if you like.

          I would like. Assuming, that is, that you’re claiming what I think. What I want to know is why FTL, of all things, got a special exemption in SF, as opposed to, say, matter transporters or anti-gravity or strong AI or room-temp superconductors any of the other “magic” tech out there.

          (Also: I’m aware of SF that is both good and has more than one MacGuffin. Why are they allowed to get away with it? E.g. Alderson Drive and Langston Fields.)

          • >What I want to know is why FTL, of all things, got a special exemption in SF, as opposed to, say, matter transporters or anti-gravity or strong AI or room-temp superconductors any of the other “magic” tech out there.

            Part of it was simple priority in time. FTL long predates any of the other candidates for exempted magic; it goes back to 1918, whereas the other candidates pretty much all postdate the Campbellian revolution and his explicit demand for scientific plausibility. (You could make a claim for anti-gravity if you wanted to include Wells’s Cavorite, but you’d be straining; Campbellian and later SF abandoned gravity shielding in favor of different conception of “anti-gravity” more like a reactionless drive.)

            An entertaining thing about the debut of FTL in SF is that E. E. Smith didn’t think of it as “FTL” because the genesis of “Skylark of Space” was pre-Einsteinian. Richard Seaton’s universe, with its orders of vibration, is actually that of 19th-century ether physics!

            In any case, FTL got its exempt status in Campbellian SF in part because it was grandfathered in, a well-established trope in the genre Campbell was busily reforming. Along with a lot of other non-impossible stuff like ray guns.

            I’ve also seen it convincingly argued that FTL got an exemption because, well, if you’re going to write stories about other worlds where humans can schlep around without spacesuits and then come back home to talk about it, some way for them to get there and back in a timespan short compared to a human lifespan is structurally required. If you have to use up your one McGuffin on that, what are you gonna do?

            >Why are they allowed to get away with it?

            Well, I could be snarky and say that if you were Larry fscking Niven and Jerry fscking Pournelle in 1975 there wasn’t much you couldn’t get away with in the eyes of fans. But there are a couple other ways to answer this. One is that the Alderson Drive was under the FTL exemption, so only the Langston Field would count.

            Another is to note that the One-McGuffin rule isn’t absolute. It suggests a limit on to how much counterfactuality a writer can normally insert without violating the genre fundamental of sustaining the sense of rational knowability. You can break it if you’re good enough at riveting down your universe to make it seem rationally knowable in spite of all the weird shit you put in. See Greg Egan’s “The Clockwork rocket” and sequels for an example of this taken to a dizzying extreme.

            • > if you’re going to write stories about other worlds where humans can schlep around without spacesuits

              Of course there were plenty of stories set on the other worlds of our solar system (and even Luna) before it became totally clear that none of them can support unprotected human life.

              It would be interesting to plot the emergence of FTL as a trope against the increasing degree of knowledge about the other Solarian planets.

              • >It would be interesting to plot the emergence of FTL as a trope against the increasing degree of knowledge about the other Solarian planets.

                Yeah, I’m ahead of you on this one. I’ve read a lot of stuff from just before the Campbellian revolution in the 1930s up to the beginnings of modern planetology in the 1960s and the correlation is really clear. Importance of FTL as a trope rises in direct proportion to the fading of notions that (in particular) Mars and Venus might be habitable.

              • Arnold Bennett compared the technique of Balzac, naturalist writing, with the technique of Wells, naturalist writing with numerate tall tales. A story set in 1780 with a character in a canyon big enough to hold Charles Town shooting bears the size of auroch with his twenty shot air rifle is a numerate tall tale.

                You need FTL to write interstellar stories with characters of 20th century human dimension. I don’t think Niven and Pournelle needed the Langston Field, but they still wrote good.

            • What do you think about the Hyyperion Saga by Dan Simmons? Is he violating your pardigm?
              He also has a seemingly omniscient entity the All Thing, though he preserves a general rich/poor structure in the novels.

        • That’s fine, but I don’t think it addresses the issue I was concerned with. Here are two different ways I think this is the case:

          (1) You have an sf story whose science is not rigorous, and doesn’t even try to be rigorous; a lot of episodes of Star Trek, for example. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t affirming that the universe is rationally knowable. It’s still saying that its wonders and marvels are accounted for by currently unknown scientific principles or by technological advances—which was quite uniformly true on the original Star Trek (I haven’t see all of any of the later series, so I can’t be as confident there). A series like the Culture is *wrong* about economic science, in the same way that Jules Verne was *wrong* about the possibility of sending men into space by shooting them out of a huge cannon, or about how much power primary batteries could supply to a submarine; but that makes it, at worst, “imperfect SF” rather than an example of fantasy, a different genre.

          (2) What is the affirmative trait that defines fantasy as a genre? One possibility might be “fantasy is the branch of fantastic literature that affirms that the universe is organized as a narrative.” (Yes, I’ve been rereading Pratchett lately, but I think this applies to Tolkien just as much.) Another might be “fantasy is the branch of literature that affirms that agent causation accounts for natural events in general.” Neither definition applies to the Culture, and I don’t think any other definition that applied to Zimiamvia, Middle-Earth, Earthsea, the Discworld, and the Old Kingdom would do so—unless it was so general that it applied to all forms of fantastic literature (which is a valid meaning of “fantasy,” but one that includes pretty much all science fiction).

          • >(1) You have an sf story whose science is not rigorous, and doesn’t even try to be rigorous; a lot of episodes of Star Trek, for example. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t affirming that the universe is rationally knowable.

            That’s SF, but it’s defective SF; it’s affirming rational knowability done badly, the same problem the Culture books have. Extended discussion in this post and its comment thread; here I’ll just say that the significance of “defective” may be clearer if you contrast with Star Wars which uses the stage furniture of SF but has little or no interest in affirming rational knowability ar all. The proper category is “space fantasy”.

            > One possibility might be “fantasy is the branch of fantastic literature that affirms that the universe is organized as a narrative.” […] Another might be “fantasy is the branch of literature that affirms that agent causation accounts for natural events in general.”

            That…is really rather brilliant. I have poked at the affirmative-trait problem for fantasy before but never came up with anything nearly as crisp or convincing as that. I think your first clause subsumes the second; agent causation means natural events are organized as a supernaturally-centered narrative.

            I particularly like the way this positively characterizes Star Wars as fantasy; the universe as Campbellian monomyth. Nicely done, sir; I’m adopting this one.

            • “Defective SF” is exactly my point; that’s why I said, “If you cut off my arms and legs, that doesn’t let you call me a snake.” I expect you know the story about the Greek philosopher who defined “man” as “a featherless biped”?

              Though I think there’s a spectrum in SF from the most rigorous hard SF, through a lot of worldbuilding SF, to out and out space opera. A lot of recognized classic works whose status as SF has never been questioned have scientific premises that weren’t sound by the science of their own times: the batteries of the Nautilus, the violation of square-cube scaling in The Food of the Gods, the Invisible Man’s ability to see with transparent eyeballs and retinae, the inertialess drive, Heinlein’s confessed handwave about the heat of fusion of water in the Martian canals, nearly anything by A.E. Van Vogt, the tunneling speed of Frank Herbert’s sandworms. “Defective” may be the wrong word.

              Years and years back, I interviewed Tim Powers when he was GoH at a San Diego convention, not long after the publication of The Stress of Her Regard. He described how he had talked with Greg Benford about silicon-based intelligent life, and Benford had first told him that it wasn’t possible for various reasons, and then said, “But if you want to make it sound plausible enough, here are some things to say about it.” That’s the magician’s trick of a lot of SF.

              I’m glad you like my proposed definitions of fantasy. And yes, I think the two versions are saying much the same thing. My practical definition is “This looks like a myth, legend, or fairy tale,” but I think Terry Pratchett’s idea of narrative causality identifies what those things have in common.

              An interesting converse to your comment about Star Wars is that The Lord of the Rings, even though it’s a classic of genre fantasy, in some ways works like science fiction—but the science is historical and comparative linguistics. That’s part of what gives Tolkien’s worldbuilding a solidity that few other works can approach.

              • >I think Terry Pratchett’s idea of narrative causality identifies what those things have in common

                Indeed it does. Damn, I miss Terry.

                >An interesting converse to your comment about Star Wars is that The Lord of the Rings, even though it’s a classic of genre fantasy, in some ways works like science fiction—but the science is historical and comparative linguistics. That’s part of what gives Tolkien’s worldbuilding a solidity that few other works can approach.

                I agree and have been making that exact point for decades, often in words close to yours.

                On the other hand, positioned as SF LOTR would be profoundly defective. See my essay Sex and Tolkien for discussion.

                I think the reason you’re having trouble with my classification is that you’re reacting to my category of “defective” SF as though I’m saying these works are not SF, or can never be canonical in the genre. Neither is the case. Serious fans are actually pretty good at maintaining a category of works that were defective as SF but were nevertheless seminal in the genre conversation; your example of Well’s invisible man seeing with transparent retinas is a particularly good one here.

                Part of my point is that, while we may choose to forgive Wells for them, we do experience those transparent retinas as flaws in construction. You story about Benford and Powers (very plausible, I know them both slightly) is also supportive; what Benford was saying is “here’s what you do to cast the spell that simulates rational knowability”. How does that exchange make any sense unless both participants grok that the genre’s underlying rule – the experience SF readers are seeking – is “affirm rational knowability”?

                Once you get that for, it makes sense to talk about SF in terms of its aspirations (“does it seek to affirm rational knowability?” and how good it is at achieving them – defective or not, and if defective in what ways.

                • My primary objection isn’t to your references to “defective SF”; I think it’s quite right in saying that the works in question are still SF. My primary objection was to Eric Cowperthwaite’s statement that “We call this sort of fictional novel by a different name than Science Fiction. Since it involves breaking physical and economic laws, it’s called Fantasy.” That way of drawing the line has been around for a long time—E.E. Smith supposedly said on that basis that Lensman was science fiction but Skylark was fantasy—but I object to it both because it defines “fantasy” negatively rather than positively, and because it excludes a large number of recognized classics of SF. Neither is the case with your definition.

                  I think the label “defective” may not be the best choice for what you’re talking about, because it invites the reader to suppose that the works in question are *bad*. But that’s an issue of connotation rather than denotation.

          • I like that definition of fantasy. Tolkien had an open affirmation of the power of narrative in LOTR:

            “There are other forces at work in this world Frodo besides evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring, in which case you also were meant to have it, and that is an encouraging thought!”
            – Gandalf to Frodo, in Moria

            Note that the SF and Fantasy definitions don’t directly conflict. Pratchett’s Hogfather was narrative-driven but provided a powerful moment of conceptual breakthrough in the dual explanations of the Tooth Fairy.

            • >Pratchett’s Hogfather was narrative-driven but provided a powerful moment of conceptual breakthrough in the dual explanations of the Tooth Fairy.

              Which makes more sense once you know the Pratchett was in his youth a techie with very strong ties to classic science fiction. Rational knowability was very important to him; he chose to play the fantasy game, but he was very good at the SF one when he wanted to be.

              His last couple of Discworld novels actually demonstrated this rather well.

              • Pratchett really almost treats narrative causality as a scientific mechanism that explains why the Discworld is what it is.

                It’s also worth noting that Pratchett’s political vision is a rather “modern” one; he may satirize human political follies, but there’s an underlying sense that societies with some measure of freedom, technological progress, and economic opportunity are desirable. His stories about Sam Vimes, among other things, provide a sympathetic look back to Cromwell and the Puritan revolution in England (akin to those provided by Stephenson in The Baroque Cycle and Flint in some of the Ring of Fire books—there seems to be an emerging sense in recent fantastic literature that in a strange way the Puritans were one of the early sources of “modernity”). He does have a “true king” figure, but where Tolkien’s hidden true king ultimately steps up and proclaims himself, Pratchett’s hidden true king stays hidden.

                Of course, you can have a “true king” figure in pure SF, too; Mike Martin in the Aristillus books fits the pattern. It just works better if you don’t call him a king.

                • >Pratchett really almost treats narrative causality as a scientific mechanism that explains why the Discworld is what it is.

                  Yes. Now go find a copy of “The Science of Discworld” (and its two sequels). Pratchett collaborating with science writers Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart to produce a really excellent – in spots quite brilliant – book on the philosophy of science.

        • I don’t think that SF “affirms that the universe is rationally knowable”. SF ASSUMES that the universe is rationally knowable. And that assumption itself borders on fantasy. We can’t perceive dark matter, by senses or instruments, only some shadows on the cave wall. We cannot begin to understand the universe(s) origin(s) and destination(s). Our theories, observations and instruments lead to knowledge constructs vaguely resembling the pre-Copernicus epicycles (especially in climate models and particle physics, both of which cost enough to send a manned mission to Mars and return). And the consensus or self appointed super-rational among us appear to spend most of their time in flame wars or political infighting.

          This can change in time – more technology, less ruling class, some social Darwinism and no WW III. So maybe people (see, I couldn’t say mankind, Twitter would probably suppress any tweets of this comment, if any) can become super-rational, or at least more rational in a few or many generations. I’m not optimistic.

          • >I don’t think that SF “affirms that the universe is rationally knowable”.

            Here’s how we can tell it does. The unique and central experience of SF, the “sense of wonder” moment, is the eeling that you have suddenly understood the universe in a new and larger way.

        • The just concluded Count to Eschaton series by John C. Wright is one without FTL. It does involve a whole lot of computational power (pan galactic and beyond) and timeframe (25 billion years). It’s highly recommended.

      • > who had human beings and other primates descended from Protectors, a species evolved on a different planet,

        Wait: wasn’t the Earth a terraformed (err….pakiformed?) colony world? It’s been a long time since I read that book, so I could be misremembering.

        If that’s not the case, Niven missed a bet. I can easily imagine the Pak routinely sterilizing any prospective colony world down to bedrock, lest a competitor or otherwise dangerous species arise in the future.

        • IIRC, not wanting to dig too deep into Protector tonight, Earth had native life that the Pak did not completely eliminate (although there’s mention of work on exterminating predators and bacteria).

            • Checking my copy of Protector, the 1982 Del Rey paperback:

              p. 56 says that the Protector colony had been established 2.5 million years ago.

              pp. 53-54 say there were 72 Protectors, a thousand breeders, and a careful selection of beneficial lifeforms.

              On p. 85, Brennan speculates that all primates are descended from mutated breeders. There’s no mention of other mammalian orders. And even “primates” is pushing it; primates go back over 50 million years in the fossil record.

        • That would be very difficult to reconcile both with Earth having a full set of phyla from bacteria to fungi to arthropods, including vast numbers of species that were predatory, parasitic, or toxic (yes, you could argue that all of these make for ecological stability, but the Pak don’t seem to go in for anything that subtle), and with Earth having a deep fossil record that contains many species identifiable as morphologically similar to present-day species. And the Pak colonizing ship was pretty small and didn’t hold much more than Pak and tree-of-life root.

          • In Niven’s known space the Galaxy was seeded with compatible life back during the Thrint (slavers) empire before the induced mass extinction event of all higher life forma at the end of the Thrint empire’s collapse a couple billion years ago.

            • Thus explaining why we’re tasty to kzinti.

              Then there was the “ranch” planet in one of Niven’s short stories (“Bordered in Black” was the title, I think) where the ocean was seeded with edible algae (or something of that nature), and hominid-like food animals were stocked on the continental coastlines. That one was a chiller.

              • If you think that’s bad, there’s a short story I read online about humans having figured out how to communicate two-way with orcas, and making a deal with them involving their food supply. I wish I could find it again. My web searches so far have failed.

          • The fossil record would be tough to fudge, certainly.

            However, we’re already able to create simple things (like smallpox virus) from raw DNA and various reagents. I don’t see an issue with Pak-level technology being able to carry a whole Pak ecosystem around in their ships.

            1) Slag surface of planet.
            2) After cooling, seed with generated Pak homeworld organisms.

            That would match what we know of the Pak’s weapons-grade paranoia.

            As I said, I think Niven missed a bet there.

      • Indeed …. One of the keys, to me, of science fiction is that the science is generally good. There may be, as ESR has said, a MacGuffin …. like FTL spacecraft …. but there is consistency. Even the MacGuffin should be explained in some internally consistent fashion. In fact, really good fantasy is better at that than this technobabble. Think Lord of the Rings, where the magic that enables the Elves and Sauron to make rings of power is consistent with the foundations of magic throughout all of Tolkien’s works.

        This set of stories should be called Technical Fantasy, not Science Fiction.

        • >In fact, really good fantasy is better at that than this technobabble.

          Recent example: Brandon Sanderson’s Final Empire books. Fantasy tropes and magic, but really logical magic – and a lot of the books’ plots turn on the rational knowability of it.

          This sort of thing was called a “technology of magic” story when it was pioneered around 1940. Nowadays it is sometimes labeled “hard fantasy”. Structurally it is more like hard SF than it is like the general run of narrativium-powered fantasy.

  3. This reminds me of a favorite economic story. After the Berlin Wall and East Germany fell, economists were able to get a look at the books for the factory that made the Trabant, the notoriously shitty car. A normal manufacturing business takes raw materials, adds labor, and sells the result at a profit. In this case they found that the steel, glass, rubber, etc. that went into a Trabant were actually worth more as raw materials than the finished car. It was a “value-subtracted” product! So much for the labor theory of value.

    • Well, a crass analogy is to force people to work on a submarine bicycle. The result has less value than the ingredients, because nobody demands it.
      Part of the problem with the Trabi is of course: Whats the price of such a car?
      In the DDR it was priced too low so that many people could buy it, while today it is priced acc. to the demand (mostly collectors).

      • You had a submarine bicycle example?? In my day, people had to do with talk of digging holes and filling them back up again!

        • My father was a bit of a…discipline problem in the army. He didn’t want to be there (drafted during the Korean war) and really didn’t see the need to play along.

          Until he was shown what happened when you took that sort of thing too far. Several soldiers working in a un-airconditoned warehouse (this was Ft. Bliss in the summer in the early 1950s.) They had two 10×10 squares. One had a bunch of old tires stacked on it. The other was empty.

          They moved the tires from the full square to the empty one, then cleaned and re-painted the outline of the first square. Then they moved the tires back and repeated the process.

    • The marginal value of a raw material is determined by its most valuable current use (which in a perfect market equilibrium is, of course, all uses to which a non-zero quantity is put). Thus, one would expect that most manufacturing in a Socialist planned economy would be value-subtracting, since a randomly-selected factory is more likely to be producing an overproduced good than the rare underproduced good whose scarcity drives those marginal values.

      It shouldn’t take much misallocation for this effect to overwhelm the factory’s labour, capital and rent inputs, which is what it takes for the production to be value-subtracting. Of course the Trabant was worth less than its raw materials; anything else would be a miracle.

      • Marx had kind of a half-clever way around that. He defined the “value” of a commodity as the amount of socially necessary labor that went into it. Labor that lowers the value of a commodity, of course, would clearly not be “socially necessary.” Then he says that in a socialist society, labor will receive its full product, which is the equivalent of all the value it yields. But he assumes away the problem of ensuring that all the labor that goes into a product is socially necessary, which of course in a capitalist society is dealt with by Darwinian natural selection against inefficient firms.

    • Related: Jordan Peterson explains why the best CEOs make such high pay by noting that 65% of managers add zero or negative net value to the company. I don’t know if his stat includes govt. managers, but I suspect Communist countries have a higher rate of this phenomenon than the freer economies.

  4. I’ve been working on a book where the “nanoenergy” problem has already landed. Basically, there’s a handful of superintelligent AIs, all competing with each other for the scarcest resources, and our hero gets to deal with high-powered nanotech that can’t be used by normal folks because they can’t afford to power it.

  5. And the USA is such a utopia of free market economics! Would you prefer to be poor in the USA or in Sweden (or just about anywhere in western Europe)?
    You are, of course, right about Venezuela and the GDR. That fine old democratic safety valve “Throw the rascals out!” isn’t available there and isn’t strong enough in USA (hence Trump) or the UK (hence Brexit)
    Banks was a romantic socialist/anarchist but nobody yet knows what an economy of almost infinite plenty would look like. Nobody has got close to it yet. Which is why its good SF, even if you disagree with IMBs politics.

    • “Would you prefer to be poor in the USA or in Sweden (or just about anywhere in western Europe)?”

      USA.

      ” nobody yet knows what an economy of almost infinite plenty would look like. Nobody has got close to it yet.”

      And nobody ever will. Because it’s not possible. It’s not even plausible. That’s why it’s not good SF (or anything else). For a story to be worthwhile (or even enjoyable) it has to have a modicum of plausibility.

      Suspension of disbelief isn’t infinite either.

      • And nobody ever will. Because it’s not possible. It’s not even plausible.

        I’m stickin’ to the Culture context here, note.

        Why isn’t it plausible, is my question? (“Sufficient plenty to make scarcity irrelevant”, which is not quite the same as “infinite”.)

        Remember, Banks already posits friendly AI (not implausible in itself, but a nice hedge against unfriendly AI), “free energy” (in the sense of ubiquitous fusion and, hell, antimatter generation and what IIRC is some subspace/hyperspace power source handwaving).

        Combine those two with his positing (and IIRC real-life evidence supports it) that human populations, given sufficient wealth, flatten out and become stable in size or shrink, as people don’t have lots of kids anymore …

        And you end up with immense power reserves, practically unlimited “asteroids and gas giants, oh my” raw materials, and a large but thoroughly finite number of people to serve with them.

        “Infinite plenty”, not technically true, no, nor does Banks posit it; his less-implausible universe posits “anything you want for creature comforts or ordinary consumption the ship will make for you”, more or less.

        (Yes, if thousands or millions of the billions of people on a large GSV all demanded “giant solid gold mansions covered in natural diamonds!!!”, suddenly they’d have scarcity, as the ship told them to wait in line or sod off or that the joke isn’t especially funny, per its personality.

        But for the terms of the economy of people and action shown in the series, that “not actually post-scarcity” aspect is irrelevant, eh?)

        It doesn’t matter how inefficient your allocation of resources is if you’re fantastically wealthy in terms of said resources, compared to the required outputs.

        Since that’s the least important part of the Culture books, it doesn’t bother me – and note, my economics are Austrian to the core.

        (We just have to remember it requires, well, benevolent super-AI and effectively unlimited free energy and FTL. Otherwise you get scarcity in resources/access or energy long before you reach satiety.)

        (His aside blather in one or two of them about cultures so primitive they still used money was irksome, though I suppose it’s literally what you’d expect from someone from a hyperplentiful AI-run society where a ship AI literally met your every daily whim or need for anything vaguely within reason, eh?)

        • See my comment above about a “wondrous device”. Friendly AI is that device. If you have it, everyone needs to have it, or else they will covet power they can’t have, because that power is scarce. If everyone has it, then that AI can’t model all the others well enough to predict all preferences.

          Meanwhile, it isn’t a foregone conclusion to me that wealthy people have fewer kids. I think, rather, that the cost of having kids has been artificially increased. Also note that as long as there are people who would like to have kids but choose not to, it is extremely likely that whatever is holding them back is a scarcity of something.

          Scarcity is hard to avoid.

          If the ship AI is what is keeping people from having children, then the thing people are short of should be obvious.

          • Fertility rates have been dropping all over the world, in rich societies and poor ones, in western Europe, east Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, eastern Europe, and even Africa (though Africa is lagging).

            Fertility in the US dropped by 1/3 from 1800 to 1850, and declined continuously until the post-WW II “baby boom” (and resumed declining a few decades later).

            So whatever is driving the decline in human fertility is not anything simple or local, such as increased wealth or discouraging socialism.

      • I don’t know about that. I do know that homocides in the UK are only counted as such if someone is arrested and convicted. In the US we count it as a murder regardless. You can imagine how this impacts statistics on violent crime between the UK and the US. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see counting poor being after government assistance. It makes it look better.

        If you were to count US poor based on actual indicators of wealth …. like size of home, air conditioning, car, cell phones, cable, expensive TV’s, etc …. I think you’d discover that the only poor in the US are the homeless.

        • >If you were to count US poor based on actual indicators of wealth …. like size of home, air conditioning, car, cell phones, cable, expensive TV’s, etc …. I think you’d discover that the only poor in the US are the homeless.

          I have lived in countries where there is actual poverty. I can certify that this is true. The “poor” in the U.S. are pampered kings compared to even the nominal middle class in most of the world

        • homocides in the UK

          *ahurm*…

          … are only counted as such if someone is arrested and convicted.

          What statistic does the UK keep to represent deaths for which no arrest and conviction exist? Is this something anyone can look up?

          • Here you go …. read down to Section II, Item 35. This report is extremely explicit:

            “Since 1967, homicide figures for England and Wales have been adjusted to exclude any cases which do not result in conviction, or where the person is not prosecuted on grounds of self defence or otherwise”

            Hopefully you will consider a report from the Parliament to be sufficient evidence.

            Also, I don’t know how easy it would be to find statistics on deaths that were excluded as homicides. I haven’t tried.

            https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmhaff/95/95ap25.htm

            • From that description it sounds to me like they only exclude cases where the killer is identified but either not prosecuted or not convicted. They would still include cases where it’s clear that a killer exists but is never identified.

              • That is incorrect. Read the actual report if you doubt. But that description makes it clear: no conviction, not counted in the statistics.

            • “Since 1967, homicide figures for England and Wales have been adjusted to exclude any cases which do not result in conviction”

              This myth is a stupid as it looks.

              When you read the whole text, it says that the exclusion is made for cases where the killer is brought to trial and not convicted. That is, the judge ruled it was not homicide at all. Even in the same paragraph, they write that they also collect statistics even including those cases rejected in court. This is just another of those attempts of the alt-right to ignore unwelcome information.

              If you look at the rules of the User Guide to Crime Statistics for England and Wales (https://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/method-quality/specific/crime-statistics-methodology/user-guide-to-crime-statistics.pdf) you see that they do count every homicide, whether or not there is a suspect. Also, different international organizations collect homicide statistics using uniform definitions. And they do not find much difference with the national statistics.

              Just live with it. The USA is a winner. It wins the murder game in the developed world hands down.

              • > This is just another of those attempts of the alt-right to ignore unwelcome information.

                And THIS is just another of those “if you disagree with the Left, you’re a raaaaacist!!!!!!!111eleventy” smears that gave us Trump, (and will give you Wilders or worse if you keep it up long enough). If your opponents are going to be smeared as raaaaacist anyway, then they might as well be actual racists. When that happens, you won’t like it one little bit.

                And I don’t mean “racist by association” because of not ritually denouncing the actual racists sufficiently. I mean actual racists who will kill Untermenschen if that’s what it takes.

            • > Also, I don’t know how easy it would be to find statistics on deaths that were excluded as homicides. I haven’t tried.

              You make it sound like you have to go on arduous investigation and painful investigation to find this out. In fact the very next sentence in that report says:

              “This reduces the apparent number of homicides by between 13 per cent and 15 per cent.”

              Based on the other statistics about available I conclude that they must mean that they are excluding cases where the court concluded that the death was not homocide, because it was a freak accident or self defence or similiar.

              • “Based on the other statistics about available I conclude that they must mean that they are excluding cases where the court concluded that the death was not homocide, because it was a freak accident or self defence or similiar.”

                That is incorrect. Read the report.

        • I would argue that even the homeless in the US aren’t really poor. My (walking) commute takes me through the somewhat seedy part of town, past three churches and half a block from the Salvation Army, and the homeless I see are universally adequately, if not cleanly, clothed and almost all of them have a backpack or cart with possessions.

          • Are the people in the USA proud that their poor are better of than those in India or Nigeria? That really is a low bar.

            • >Are the people in the USA proud that their poor are better of than those in India or Nigeria? That really is a low bar.

              Our poor are in most ways better off than the European middle class – more square feet of living space, higher rates of ownership for cars and air conditioning, lots of other measures.

              • I’m not sure who you’re counting as poor in the US– there really are homeless people, and it’s not as though they have a lot of living space in the normal sense of the phrase.

                • >I’m not sure who you’re counting as poor in the US– there really are homeless people, and it’s not as though they have a lot of living space in the normal sense of the phrase.

                  I don’t think homeless people in the U.S. really belong in a discussion of the economics of poverty in the terms it is usually conducted. A homeless person’s real problem is almost never that he or she doesn’t have a job or enough money to buy things; those are symptoms. In the U.S. (I won’t warrant it’s the same elsewhere) a homeless person is almost always crazy or profoundly drug-addicted. The exceptions are mostly transient in the wake of disasters, and the exceptions to both categories are so rare that the press has trouble finding them to use as mascots.

                  If we’re going to talk about “the poor”, I don’t think it makes sense to confuse the problems of people who are within the normal economic and social ambit of society with people who are so dysfunctional that they couldn’t function in almost any system. So, if you like, you may amend my previous claim to something like this:

                  There is no actual poverty in the U.S. among people who are even marginally capable of holding down a job. What Americans mistake for poverty, outside of the condition of a relative handful of nutcases and druggies, would be considered middle-class purchasing power almost anywhere else in the world including Europe.

                  Me, I’ve seen actual poverty with my own eyes – peasants in the Midi so work-worn they look eighty by the time they’re forty, tin-roof shantytowns around South American cities, cities in Eastern Europe where “middle-class” housing stock is mostly decaying Soviet shitblocks that would be demolished instantly in the U.S., back streets in Bangkok that never stop smelling of sewage. Americans are fucking clueless; they have no idea how good our “poor” have it.

                  • I’m working my way through “My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill “, and Clayton Cramer provides evidence of some of what you’re saying.

                    His brother was on various disability payments because of his schizophrenia–enough to keep him in a cheap studio apartment, but because of the mental illness and it’s attendant alcoholism and drug use he wasn’t able to plan far enough out to keep the rent paid.

            • We aren’t “proud”, we’re just pointing out that when *we* say “poor” we’re talking about an entirely different level of consumption and material comfort.

              The “poor” in the US generally have stable housing, adequate caloric intake (excessive in some cases), plumbing, heating, and in most parts of the US air conditioning. They own cars and cell phones, they usually have some form of health insurance/access to health and dental care.

              They aren’t generally living shacks (there are “homeless encampments in California where this isn’t true, but that’s a combination of the mentally-ill/drug addiction homeless, California’s regulatory state and fallout from massive illegal immigration taking the bottom out of the employment market), they don’t starve to death etc.

      • Depends on what you define as poor and governent assistance? Poor is defined below median income and that is calculated before taxes and social security payments (gross income not net income). So I am not sure that this is true.

      • >I’m also lead to believe that poverty rates in Europe are calculated *AFTER* government assistance, while in the US it’s *before* government assistance.

        That depends on motives of the person calculating the stats. I’ve seen a lot of stats about the UK (particularly) where they talk about how terrible poverty is and don’t mention the social security handouts that redress much of the balance.

        The key thing IMHO is not whether you’d rather be in the US or Europe but whether you’d rather be in the US/Europe as a poor person today or as a Rockefeller 100 years ago (and anyone who goes for the latter is almost certainly an idiot – see https://dawnsmit.com/wp/2018/01/wealthy-beyond-the-dreams-of-rockefeller/ ). This ties back to the whole Banksian Culture thing: the way to get to a post-scarcity society appears to be free market capitalism so it doesn’t make sense to then toss the market out once yo get there because you’ll simply end up back in a regular scarcity society

    • I’m reminded of Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom when it comes to SF about post-scarcity. In a sense, I think he gets some of it right – even after they figured out how to get basic stuff like food for free, the scarcity became one’s lifespan; once they managed to get that for free through rejuvenation tech and frequent self-backups, human creativity ended up as the new bottleneck. (Among others. I don’t want to spoil the plot. It’s free to download if anyone wants to read it.)

      In other words, no matter what, something’s going to be scarce.

        • Easy.
          “Telegraph companies are using their control over what messages may be rapidly exchanged intercontinentally to run an evil robber-baron conspiracy. One side wants the government to regulate them, the other side points to Elon Alcock and notes that a transatlantic air-mail service would solve the problem.”

          A hundred years ago is not nearly as far away, technologically, as we think (nor as far away as it should be! Add another 20 years and it gets a lot more than 20% harder…)

          • “Robber baron conspiracy” assumes a great deal not decided, perhaps not even under consideration, by a 19th century audience. Or even a 21st century one.

            So, on second thought, the analogy to “net neutrality” may be better than I first thought.

          • I took Christopher’s point as being that most people ca.1918 weren’t as obsessed about having access to a device to let them keep tabs on hundreds of neighbors, news and information from around the world, and be occupied with an endless array of Skinner boxes.

            In their world, post-scarcity meant having your own family farm and being confident that your children could have one, too. What was the saying? Prosperity is having the finest quality buggy whips?

            • Pretty much this. The very concept of the Internet doesn’t seem to have been proposed, and a hundred years later free Internet access is labeled a “human right”. We will always invent new essentials.

    • > Would you prefer to be poor in the USA or in Sweden

      Sweden is poorer than Mississippi. If they hadn’t offloaded a huge portion of their national defense costs on us, it’d be soup kitchen time over there.

      • I highly doubt that: Median income US 29 100 $ vs. 24 400 $ Sweden (similar to Germany). And this means disposable (net income) after paying a much higher tax rate. From these taxes they get a bit back and this bit is larger than the US (more efficient public services). However, I dont know of a study on how much you really get back.

        • Purchasing power parity.

          Sweden is SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive than the US.

          But it’s also got significantly more “middle class values” than the US. This means that when they spend the money they do it with more deliberation than “it caught my eye in walmart”. This is why they drive Volvo’s and Saabs for a *long* time rather than POS Fords and Chevys for a short time.

          I doubt the poor and middle class in Sweden by s*t like rims (picture 2000 bucks worth of rims on a 1500 hoopty.). This is partially why the Swedes seem to be doing better–they make better decisions with the resources they have.

    • Perhaps you haven’t spent much time in Scandinavia or Western Europe? I’ve been poor in the US. I’ve spent a lot of time in Scandinavia, Germany, UK, France. I’d far rather be poor in the US.

  6. Top-down, formerly collegial, University management doesn’t listen to “price signals”: “what would the people at the coal face know?”
    The predicted collapse is evidently well under way, I’m sorry to say.
    The strategic policy is global, so the collapse is irreversible.
    Fear the Educational Singularity.

  7. The scary part is that it appears we have a substantial fraction of an entire generation that understands none of this. And don’t know they don’t know. And wouldn’t have the intellectual foundation to grasp the explanation even if they would listen.

    As Dr. Pournelle was fond of saying, “Despair is a sin.”

    • The scary part is that it appears we have a substantial fraction of an entire generation that understands none of this.

      Let me fix that for you:

      The scary part is that it appears we have a substantial fraction of humanity that understands none of this. Never did, and never will.

      Better?

      • I like to say that the American right consists of those of us who have the mental defect that allows us to understand opportunity costs.

        • Another way to put it is that the Left speaks of “solutions” to problems, but we know that in the real world there are only “tradeoffs”. The question is always whether the tradeoff is worth it. And it’s easy for people who think they’re not paying the price for something to say “yes” to that question.

  8. If you don’t scale for intelligence then this argument also implies that homesteading is impossible. How can someone know how much of their day to spend tending their garden or chopping firewood without price signals? The answer of course is that a) their entire web of production fits within their own head, and b) they have no preferences to answer to except their own.

    If a greater intelligence can fit a larger production web into their head (or equivalent), then that expands the scale of affairs they can manage in the style of a homesteader. You can still make the argument on relative terms, about an economy of super-intelligences, but if a Mind’s “homestead” is a Type 2 Civilization by itself, that may not matter much on the scale of baseline humans.

    And, there is no need to elicit preferences if the production web doesn’t contain any preferences except your own.

    • Dying of starvation is perhaps the most basic price signal. Not to be too snarky, but good homesteaders should drive into overabundance of crops (or else you’ll die), which would lead to them not starving AND being able to trade and establish prices for their surplus.

  9. I haven’t read the books, but theoretically if you knew all preferences and how much it ‘costed’ without a specific, explicit currency price, you could still make it work. It basically becomes family economics, where you negotiate with each other to figure stuff out.

    Also with replicators, matter consumers (for stuff you don’t want anymore) and AIs, the effective cost of most things becomes something like the marginal cost of copying a file. That is effectively free, so you don’t have to think about the prices of almost everything except a few very basic commodities, which could be hidden from the reader as part of ‘high level AI negotiations’. Much like how parents hide the realities of basic economics from their 2 year old children.

    • >I haven’t read the books, but theoretically if you knew all preferences

      You don’t understand. You can’t “know all preferences” because human beings don’t even know their own preferences until elicited.

      • It’s worse than this.

        First, preferences change constantly, and there are those pesky marginal utility considerations to factor in.

        But even if you could say something like “we know everyone will need at least this much toothpaste every day, so we’ll multiply by population and distribute that amount”, you still wouldn’t escape ‘calculation problem’ problems.

        There still remains the issue of producing the toothpaste which, under communism, would have to be handled by the State. This means public ownership of the means of production, which means no prices in capital goods markets, which means literally no fucking way to know how to allocate the relevant resources.

        Should the necessary raw materials be used to make toothpaste (the required quantity of which we know for certain) or something else? Without prices we can’t know.

        • The way I like to put it is like this:

          If you had a wondrous device that let you model everyone’s preferences and allocate resources accordingly, then currently, you’d be the only one with that device. How unfair is that!

          So you solve that problem by using that device to make more of it, and distribute one to everyone. But since personal preferences are partially a function of others’ preferences, everyone’s now using their own device to get what they want more efficiently. But that means that your device has to model everyone else’s. And if you could beef it up to the point where you could do that, you’d be back in the same bind as in the previous paragraph.

          Modeling everyone’s preferences perfectly is impossible, so long as the economy in question has more than one agent. QED.

          • It occurs to me that we have an economy where everyone has a marvelous gadget that models other people’s preferences. That gadget is the human brain. Seriously, look at the biological research on the correlation between relative brain size and social group size/complexity. It looks as if a big part of what’s going on with big primate brains is enhanced modeling of what’s going on in other big primate brains.

            • >Seriously, look at the biological research on the correlation between relative brain size and social group size/complexity.

              It’s really easy to overrun the human brain’s capacity to do this, though. See Dunbar’s Number, though reasonable people can differ on the accuracy of Dunbar’s estimate.

              • Yes, of course. That’s kind of the point I was making: Giving everyone resources to model and plan for other people’s desires, plans, and intentions just makes the thing you have to model and plan for even more complex, just as it did in the evolution of primate brains.

            • Eric’s is a good way of putting it, I think. Additionally, I could simply say that any system is unable to completely simulate any system as complex as itself.

              I can imagine a response from the other side, that complete simulation is unnecessary; all I have to do with my big primate brain is model others’ brains closely enough that the preferences I predict are close enough that no one sweats the difference. By extension, I could argue that my big primate brain could fashion a clever program that does the same thing, but faster, because it’s made of transistors.

              Which leads into the point I was making above. If I can do that, so can all the other big primate brains. And, by extension, I can’t just model others’ preferences really well with my brain alone. If someone doesn’t sweat the difference, I contend that it’s because they were subconsciously aware that their personal preferences were rather broad, as a result of their not having thought about it very hard at the time. If they then think hard about what they really want, they quickly escape my capacity to predict what they’ll say.

              To me, modeling preferences is like picking out the perfect gift for someone, except you do it every day they would normally go shopping, and you predict their entire shopping list. How feasible do readers believe that is likely to be?

    • “That is effectively free, so you don’t have to think about the prices of almost everything except a few very basic commodities”

      Not so.

      Even if you had a fabricator able to shit houses out in neat little rows at the rate of a new subdivision a week, some people would still be willing to pay more for heavily-
      customized houses (for which you need prices) or for houses located closer to the water (for which you need prices).

      Even if sex bots are ubiquitious, some people will pay for the real thing (for which you need prices).

      ‘Scarcity’ is a relative term not escaped by ‘magical’ technologies.

      • I write books for Steve Jackson Games. There are large numbers of people who write material for RPGs for free; there are people who write for GURPS for free. For me to sell books to Steve Jackson Games, and for them to sell to customers, I have to write material that’s sufficiently more desirable than what other people will write so that people will pay to get it.

        And trying to satisfy those customers also is a big help to me in deciding what to write about, and how to approach it. Economic calculation enters into the inner workings of my creative process.

      • > ‘Scarcity’ is a relative term not escaped by ‘magical’ technologies.

        I wonder, though, whether there are some limits beyond which the majority of humans would be satisfied with the amount of physical goods they had. Marginal utility is a thing.

        Yeah, I’d like a larger house, but I don’t think I’d want one the size of an aircraft carrier. Nor, I think, would anyone else, in a situation where the size of one’s house provided only a weak signal of relative social status.

        Nor would I want 10,000 pounds of ultra-high quality chocolate, despite the fact that I love that stuff.

        • >Nor would I want 10,000 pounds of ultra-high quality chocolate

          Five thousand pounds for each of us, on the other hand…no! Bad thoughts!

        • It would roll over into something else, such as valuing authentic artisanal bric-a-brac, original artwork, and other quality indicators. Status-seeking is hard-wired, and we’ll find some way to differentiate.

          • Sure, people will always find ways to signal status, but we’re talking about physical limits to growth here, not status per se.

            Authentic artwork doesn’t use that much more energy or raw materials than mass-produced stuff (maybe a little, but not orders of magnitude more).

  10. > you need to justify it to your readers lest you have a plausibility hole in your universe that destroys any possibility of suspension of disbelief.

    Of course, suspension of disbelief isn’t a thing that a story or a universe has. It’s a relationship between a story and a reader. My suspension of disbelief will survive things that yours would not. (Which isn’t necessarily a compliment to me – it might just indicate that I don’t understand reality on a deep enough level to notice when it’s being violated. But it does probably mean I enjoy some things more than I might otherwise.)

    This doesn’t fundamentally change your point.

  11. Eric,

    I have been meaning to speak to you about a (probably unconscious) misattribution for a while.

    Mises, not Hayek, more or less invented the calculation argument out of whole cloth; I am not personally aware of any real antecedent in the Austrian or classical tradition (by all means correct me if I’m wrong here). It was he that sent the socialist intellectual world reeling by virtue of demonstrating that a lack of prices in capital goods markets made rational economic calculation literally impossible. Hayek and many others later picked up the thread, but that was after it had been conceived of and elucidated by Mises.

    Thanks to a 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics and an association with the Chicago school Hayek wound up eclipsing Mises in fame, but he certainly was not a superior intellect. His concept of the diffusion of knowledge and the organic nature of the economy are major contributions to the free market tradition, but I have grave doubts as to whether he could’ve produced “Human Action”

    Unless perhaps you know something about the history that I don’t know I think it would be right and proper to begin speaking of “Mises’s Calculation Problem”. :)

    • >Unless perhaps you know something about the history that I don’t know I think it would be right and proper to begin speaking of “Mises’s Calculation Problem”. :)

      I dropped a stitch. It was indeed Von Mises’s idea, but it was Hayek who came out and predicted that the SU would fail due to accelerating malinvestment.

  12. “Banks wasn’t alone in this one. Lots of inferior SF writers make this mistake about nanotech by itself. ”

    After my interview with Robin Hanson we talked a lot about how much low-hanging fruit there is in SF for writers with even a basic understanding of economics. David Friedman is currently compiling a list of fictional works in which economics plays a central part.

    • Allow me to plug for Bujold to that tiny segment of the readership here who might not already be reading the canon.

      “All true wealth is biological” is perhaps incorrect, but does provide an economic premise that drives fascinating thought and discussion. “Falling Free” may be a good place to start. (Bearing in mind the 1980s notion that all rich reserves of oil were located far, far away from industrial civilizations desiring to exploit them…)

  13. I’d add a point to your comments on scarcity: The concept of scarcity is well established in ecology (the science, not the political movement), where it’s called Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. The numbers of organisms of any species in any environment are limited by some specific resource that is less available than any other resource required by that species. Such limits are why species do not increase their numbers without limit, and thus why natural selection takes place.

    If scarcity did not obtain, then the species for which it did not obtain would increase its numbers without limit. And we don’t see that happening in the Culture. Therefore the Culture is not really “post-scarcity.” People who describe it that way don’t understand the concept of “scarcity,” in the sense of not having thought through its implications.

      • Are they? Five hundred years ago, pretty much any nonpoor household had servants, and a prosperous household had multiple servants. You can still see this on Upstairs, Downstairs, though I think they underestimated the downstairs population of the Bellamy household to keep the cast size manageable. (Hilaire Belloc has a rather long list of injured staff members in his poem about the boy who was given an Immense Balloon.) How many live-in servants does a typical poor household have now?

        I think that also you’re underestimating the imaginations of poor people. There is a fairytale about a fisherman who catches a magic fish, and lets it go, and it grants him a wish. His wife tells him to wish that they were well off. Then she gets dissatisfied with that. . . .

        • Wasn’t having servants simply a necessity? That long ago, with no technology to help with house work (feeding, cleaning, transport, maintenance etc), keeping a household running was beyond a single person, even with the housewife (who invariably did the work) doing it full time. So well-off people had servants, while poor people had big families where the children started to help around the house and look after siblings as soon as they were able.

          • More recently, middle class households may have had a hired girl to help with the mind-numbing toil of housekeeping, and farms had farmhands to do innumerable chores. But actually wealthy households had multiple servants, including some whose work was maintaining a lifestyle impossible to poor households: being a gentleman who kept his carriage on the premises rather than taking cabs, or a lady with an elaborate wardrobe of dresses that she needed help to put on properly. Not having all that still counted as not being post-scarcity—and we don’t have that, by and large.

        • Five hundred years ago, “non-poor” households might have had servants – but 95%++ of households were actually poor, as opposed to the current fashion of defining poverty as a relative number. They play around with statistics, and always come up with a number between 10% and 15%. They do not, however, include “off the books” income, which tends to push people out of poverty.

          If you define “poor” as “not enough money to eat and pay rent,” the US poverty cohort effectively shrinks down to “mentally ill homeless.”

          Nowadays, “poor” households have a higher standard of living, in almost all respects, than royalty had 500 years ago.

        • Approximate quote from Agatha Cristie: “I never imagined I would be rich enough to afford a car or too poor to be able to afford servants”.

          Also note that servants should generally be counted as among the poor.

          I gather that a lot of modern people don’t like the idea of having servants, and not for political reasons. They don’t like the loss of privacy.

          • Also note that servants should generally be counted as among the poor.

            Aye, there’s the rub. This whole subthread, I kept thinking: so where do the servants get their servants??

    • There’s another factor at work with humans (or *possibly* other intelligent species. I’ve never met another one, so I can’t really say).

      In our world the reduction in scarcity has come with it a concomitant reduction in the risk to offspring de-necessitating more than a couple “bets” to carry your genetic lineage forward.

      Now, I don’t know if it’s “merely” cultural, or what, but so far every culture–even the freaken mormons–have reduced reproduction rates based on decreased scarcity.

      We are now at the technological level that it is borderline “post scarcity” for basic necessities (real necessities–50 square feet of living space, 3 sets of clothes, 2 sets of decent shoes, a rain coat, a hat and a insulating layer, 3 roughly balanced meals a day, shower and toilet down the hall etc.) for a VERY small amount of money.

      And we increasingly see *zero* reproduction among those with lots of resources at their disposal, much less a population explosion.

      As noted earlier, this does not generalize to non-humans.

      • I think that in ecological terms that has to count as a situation of scarcity, at least in some cases. Much of Europe, and even more Japan, has fallen below replacement fertility; and Europe, unlike Japan so far, is having people from neighboring societies move in and occupy it. Ecologically, a species that cannot maintain its numbers is one that lacks something necessary.

        And this doesn’t seem to be a function of absolute wealth. Ancient Rome was perceived as a wealthy society, and arguably by the standards of the day it was; it could ship in huge loads of grain from Egypt and distribute it to the poor, it has public entertainments on a large scale—and it also had chronic worries about low fertility, to the point where Augustus imposed a tax on bachelors. And yet by our standards Romans were desperately poor. But they still had the falling reproduction rates that you point to.

        This should not be confused with a shift from a more r-selected to a more K-selected pattern of reproduction with better child mortality rates and improved adult longevity. Having two-and-a-bit children who all live to start families is not the same as having few children and many people having none. I don’t know what causes the latter, but I don’t think you can attribute it simply to increasing wealth.

  14. Awhile back I read about a problem in Japan where product-cycles were so fast, especially in food items, that they had a hard time coming up with product names that made any kind of sense.

    I imagine that would also be a huge problem in a nanotech/replicator economy.

    New things would be coming out so fast, that getting them named and setting up an advertising campaign so that people would actually know about the products’ existence would be incredibly difficult.

    Others would know better than I but I don’t think that’s the sort of thing you could automate. Sure you could set up a program to generate names but would it get nuance? You’d still need to sift through all of those to find good ones. There’s a horrible job, going through millions of auto-generated names to find the few that can be used.

    Most advertising is very likely beyond any algortihm’s ability. Too many variables to begin with and tastes will change so fast programmers couldn’t keep up.

    So how do you maximize sales under such conditions?

    If you’re having a hard time selling what you’ve already made why would you keep pouring resources into new things regardless of how easy they are to make?

    Sure that sciency-thing regarding heat that Eric mentioned would be a check on production but so would be market-congestion.

    • Awhile back I read about a problem in Japan where product-cycles were so fast, especially in food items, that they had a hard time coming up with product names that made any kind of sense.

      Is this why there’s a company with the puzzling name of “Tanpakun” selling “health food” which consists of vacuum-sealed chicken sausages?

    • > You’d still need to sift through all of those to find good ones

      I’ll bet a sufficiently good AI could generate catchy names. Heck, even a current-gen ML setup could probably do it.

      • And check to make sure it’s not a bad word/phrase in countries it is intended to be marketed to.

    • Fanfiction– there’s an immense amount of fanfiction– has solved the problem to some extent by an elaborate system of tagging and reviewing.

      That would help for new foods– in effect, a new food wouldn’t just have a name, it would be part of a hypertext system.

  15. The heat dissipation problem, even of nanotechnology, is not inescapable either. You wind up having to design all systems that use nanotech (and redesign other affected systems, eventually including the human body) to have mechanisms to transport all that heat away, and at some point you are forced to start dispersing them (and even people) farther apart from one another, but even that is not a limit unless space turns out to be not only finite but impossible to expand.

    So I believe William Simon’s idea still holds water, pending additional evidence.

    Which doesn’t mean the problem can’t occur locally, including on purpose as a weapon (Stephenson’s The Diamond Age comes first to mind here).

    BTW, I’m with Michael on the “infinite plenty” idea. Nationalize a technology such as nanotech and try to make work unnecessary, and at least one of the following will happen. (1) The economy will create jobs anyway because everyone wants something to do (and the public will probably redefine their “needs” to include things that the dole doesn’t supply, even if the only goods that it can’t are services from other persons that could be done by robots). (2) As the religious people used to say, the Devil will find work for all those idle hands, resulting in war until the horn of plenty is shut down or destroyed. Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage only scratched the surface of this possibility.

    • Mostly #2.

      Some people can’t not work.

      Most people need work to stay sane, but don’t *like* it.

        • Get together with each other and play roleplaying games. It’s possible to roleplay social interaction, relationships, and status hierarchies in a lot of detail; one of my best campaigns had four players each playing a senior aristocrat, a youthful aristocrat, a soldier, and a servant in an isolated community partly inspired by Gormenghast. I like RPGs because they give me a model of social interaction that enough slower and enough more explicit so that I can follow most of what’s going on.

          I remember the delight I felt when the first Miss Manners book came out. It told me that this social interaction stuff actually had rules, and somebody had written them down, and had explained the strategic thinking that was behind them, in a way that a gaming nerd could understand and enjoy reading. Brilliant! I’d put Judith Martin right up there with people like Robin Hanson as an inspiration for rational thinking. She was one of my big influences when I wrote GURPS Social Engineering a few years ago.

          (As I understand it, etiquette books became a genre when Victorian upward mobility produced a lot of people who aspired to be part of a higher social stratum, but hadn’t grown up with its rules from birth and needed cheatsheets. See also Pygmalion for the linguistic side of this.)

          • Right now, there are people that get paid to play role-playing games, or at least the bastard stepchild online versions.

            You can always create a virtual world with virtual scarcity and let the people that are doing the real world work trade the products thereof for virtual perks, and those that are doing the virtual work trade it for real world products. If the virtual work is gamey enough, it won’t even feel like work for those producing the virtual product.

            • I don’t think that’s quite right. I really like RPG: playing in them, running them, discussing them, creating settings for them, tweaking their rules, writing supplements for them. But nonetheless, getting money for writing them induces me to work a little harder and to do some tedious parts that I might not do otherwise. I’m fortunate enough to like the work I do, but the money pulls things above my “do I want to put time into this?” threshold that would otherwise be below it. If money is worth anything that’s going to happen.

        • The same thing that everyone else does.

          Drink, take drugs, f*k and fight.

          Which, if you’ll notice, is a lot of what the Culture books wind up being about…

  16. I think I’ve mentioned before that this does have a partial solution under specific conditions.

    Your production capacity needs to outstrip “demand” by orders of magnitude. Where “demand” is defined as the maximum a person is capable of consuming of that product. For every person. For every product. Then you have to only count people with low horizons as part of the economy: greater than baseline humans, as well as the god-AIs get their stuff through handwave. You probably also need to dull the minds of the “normal” population so they don’t start demanding spaceships.

    Of course even this can only go for so long. You run out of extropy. Or you choke on your own waste production.

    Pixar made a movie about this around a decade ago.

    • > You probably also need to dull the minds of the “normal” population so they don’t start demanding spaceships.

      Why? There’s plenty of mass in the Solar System for everyone to have their own spaceship.

      In fact…

      The current mass of the International Space Station is 419,455 kg
      The mass of the Earth is about 6E24 kg
      The population of the Earth is about 7E9

      There’s enough mass in the Earth alone to make about two billion Space Stations for every man, woman, and child currently alive.

      We won’t even go into Jupiter. :-)

      Yes, there are limits to growth with the solar system, but we’re not going to hit them with the current population. Not even if everybody gets an interplanetary megayacht.

      • [Engage snark drive factor 4]

        Oh my, how plebeian of them.

        If those low-brow dirt huggers are satisfied with a mere spaceship that is their business. I plan on making a high-C trek to Andromeda with the mass of a random moon in tow.

        [Disengage snark]

        Put another way: If you claim true “post-scarcity” you are stuck with fulfilling the whims of the most extravagant person in your civilization. Midas himself is a rounding error in a 256-bit float by comparison.

        If you limit it to baseline humans you can fake it for a while, but anything greater will have greater ambition. And if you are getting your post-scarcity through AI Gods, well, Gods have ambition on the scale of universes.

        • > If you claim true “post-scarcity” you are stuck with fulfilling the whims of the most extravagant person in your civilization.

          Arguing that extreme outliers negate a general principal is rarely convincing.

          Sarah Hoyt recently characterized this as a “Sally born without feet” argument. “It’s a good idea for people to wear shoes for health and safety reasons.” “But what about Sally who was born without feet? She could never leave the house!”

          • This is different from no-foot Sally (yes I read that post).

            When someone makes a claim of post-scarcity they are either making a claim of infinity (true post-scarcity), or a claim that basically no one starves (already have that today everywhere that isn’t a 3rd world hellhole). Since this concept is always promoted as something better than Capitalism, and all the rhetoric is based on Everyone Gets Everything! they must be claiming the first of those options.

            And then you start looking at the world they posit. And save for a favored few everyone has about as much as a lower-middle to middle-class American. And anyone who wants more than that has to jump through a whole bunch of hoops to get favor with the powers that be.

            The mere fact that everyone’s ambition is this pitiful is in itself evidence that they live in a poor society, or have perhaps been subject to mind control to stamp out anything that might exert pressure on the walls. At best we can say that that civilization has achieved reasonable comfort for all through poverty of mind for all.

            But wait! We aren’t done here: everyone is a baseline human. And this in universes where changing that would be easy. Once again everyone is mysteriously limited to what sounds nice to a person of moderate means living today.

            But wait; there’s more! Some “post-scarcity” settings handwave in some AI Gods to do all the providing. Ok, that takes care of the limited desires of the general population: subtle forms of mind control are easy when you are an AI God. Now you just have to explain how the AI Gods manage this system among themselves, somehow.

            Ignoring the snark in my previous posts I already know what I would do if I had infinite resources, and it is a lot more than even what the wealthiest people of today are capable of. The only question is whether to carve trollface.jpg, or Pepe into the near-side of the moon. Eh, who cares! I could bring in a second moon and do both. I’m not actually joking here: and they can’t even object as within their own system everyone becomes an artist.

            Arguing that extreme outliers negate a general principal is rarely convincing.

            If you are going to throw down the gauntlet of infinite resources you had better be ready to back it up. You don’t get to object anymore that someone’s request is unreasonable. No more than you get to object that an omniscient being can’t know everything.

            These supposedly hyper-wealthy societies barely even perform to the level of modern America. I’m only impressed in the sense that a Rube Goldberg machine is impressive in how ass-backwards it achieves its goal. Perhaps instead of writing science fiction these authors should go into lines of work more suited to their imaginative capacity. Maybe assembly line worker.

            • In other words, Ian Breune is really Bowerick Wowbagger. :-D

              Actually, that tells me there’s another “magic presumption” every SF author gets for free, in addition to FTL travel: to some extent, every single one of them is going to have to simplify their worlds in order to tell any sort of story. None of them will be able to free their minds as well as a society of billions, and predict every bright idea, every deus ex callidus simia that might have a substantial contribution to the events in their world.

              Or more glibly: no SF story survives contact with the universe.

            • I feel confident that the number of people who want to carve Pepe on the surface of the Moon is small enough to be characterized as “extreme outlier”, and that the inability to do this at will is comfortably outside the realm of what most people would consider “post-scarcity”.

              Maybe not. If that’s the case, there are plenty of Moon-sized objects in the universe. Heck, there are plenty in the local galaxy. Wikipedia says there are 100-400 billion stars in the Milky Way (I’m a little surprised that the estimated range is that wide).

              Again, there are about 7 billion people on Earth, so that works out to at least *fourteen complete solar systems* for each one of us, and possibly more than *fifty* (modulo some of that real estate being claimed by alien races).

              Find one and go for it. Heck, do the full set of rage comic images on Luna-sized bodies. Heck, do it on *planet*-sized bodies. No one will stop you.

              That’s just the Milky Way. There are 100-200 *billion* other galaxies out there.

              By the way, I never claimed *infinite* resources. As I mentioned above, marginal utility is actually a thing. It is not necessary for there to be an infinite amount of a resource in order for all demand for that resource to be satisfied. Not even close.

              • I feel confident that the number of people who want to carve Pepe on the surface of the Moon is small enough to be characterized as “extreme outlier”, and that the inability to do this at will is comfortably outside the realm of what most people would consider “post-scarcity”.

                Until the first guy gets on the international news for doing it, then EVERYBODY wants one.

              • You are falling victim to a mental defect I see as extremely typical of liberals, in my observation.

                You are assuming that NOW is fundamental and eternal. That the current state is reliable and fixed, except for the one thing you want to alter, of course.

                So they undermine the very institutions they are parasitic on, assuming those institutions are an unalterable part of reality.

                You are assuming the population now is, The Population. Um, no.

                Human ingenuity is remarkable for turning formerly unusable things into resources, yes. But we’re also even more ingenious at finding ways to use newly available resources. There will always be scarcity, of *something*, so long as life exists.

  17. > …even superintelligent Minds can’t make central planning work, because without price signals and elicited preferences you can’t know where to allocate resources.

    I’ve had a frustrating time explaining this to a few people; they understood that central economic planning has failed spectacularly in the past, but thought that it could be made to work now because of [something something] Machine Learning! I still can’t think of a concise way to explain that machine learning is not magic.

    > David Friedman is currently compiling a list of fictional works in which economics plays a central part.

    I’ve been enjoying those. Link, for anyone who’s interested:

    http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Fictional%20Economics/Embedded%20Economics.html

  18. There’s a very simple and coherent explanation for the Culture. The Culture Minds are the real members of the Culture and the humanoids are their pets. The Culture Minds exist in a market economy they don’t tell Fido about.

    • >There’s a very simple and coherent explanation for the Culture. The Culture Minds are the real members of the Culture and the humanoids are their pets. The Culture Minds exist in a market economy they don’t tell Fido about.

      I’ve run across this attempted explanation before. I don’t think it’s consistent with the internal evidence in the novels about how culture AIs interact with humans. Not unless you propose some unfalsifiable panchreston of an answer like the AIs perfectly simulating not treating humans like pets as part of a massive and inexplicable charade.

      • It hardly seems inexplicable to me: the AIs want their pets to be happy and the humans would be unhappy noticing that they were pets, so the AIs pretend to the humans that the humans aren’t pets.

      • > I’ve run across this attempted explanation before

        This explanation has two parts. It seems you latched onto the second to dismiss the first.

        The first part is that Minds run the show, don’t answer to humans, don’t rely on humans for subsistence in any way. The internal evidence for this part is overwhelming.

        The second part is that the status of humans is best described as “pets”. Maybe it isn’t. Clarity on this aspect, however, isn’t required to deal with your original economics problem. Part one is sufficient.

        • >This explanation has two parts. It seems you latched onto the second to dismiss the first.

          No, I agreed with the first. It’s quite clear that the Minds don’t answer to humans.

          That makes the question of why they don’t treat the humans as pets in the novels more interesting, not less.

          • Hmm, I thought it was pretty plain that the humans were pets, and maybe some (most?) were more or less aware of it. What behavior do the Minds exhibit that contradicts this interpretation?

            • >What behavior do the Minds exhibit that contradicts this interpretation?

              They treat humans as authorities on things at which they, themselves, are not competent.

              • Most dogs are pets. Some dogs are treated as authorities on things at which humans are not competent, like scent tracking, sniffing out drugs and explosives etc.

              • Yeah, that would count. I guess I read that as the Minds accommodating to the things that their humans thought were important, a higher-level version of throwing the ball over and over and saying, “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?” (Not to denigrate what humans think are important, just saying that the Minds have other priorities, but are superhuman enough that they could play along.) But it’s been a while since I last read one of these books.

  19. > what the hell are you doing writing SF?

    Most modern SF is fantasy with the magic tricked out in science like mumbo jumbo. Einstein is a pain for interstellar story telling, so most writers piss on his grave and move on. After that, you expect economics? Economics makes all things difficult, who wants that in a daydream?

    • Economics makes all things difficult, who wants that in a daydream?

      Very true, but the way around that is to make the economics (like the physics) as convincing as possible, and only violate that judiciously, for the sake of the story. If the economics of the story are impossible, it’s harder for readers to keep the suspension of disbelief going.

  20. Most SF breaks my SoD simply by not dealing with energy production and usage consistently and logically.

  21. “The problem is epistemic and fundamental – can’t be solved by good intentions or piling on computational capacity. An SF writer is every bit as obligated to know what won’t work in economics as he is not to make elementary blunders about chemistry and physics. The concept of “deadweight loss” matters as much as “entropy”.”

    Two more concepts for the Toolkit!

  22. I agree with you about the Culture books, but not on exactly the same basis – I simply find that if I read a Culture book I’m not that excited afterwards. They seem to be overmarketed drek. Not only science fiction without economics, but science-fiction without balls… Yeah, the ship names were clever.* The prose was pretty good, but I never felt like the world-building was anything more than warmed-over Star Trek (in economic terms) and the stories weren’t that exciting.

    To engage with you on the issue you’ve picked, I think you’re half-correct, and I’ll explain “half” further down, but first I need to add three caveats to your thinking: cheap transmutation, perfect recycling, and no planned obsolescence. So “in world” if you order something the materials get transmuted as necessary and a nano-assembler takes the feedstock and builds it. There are no prices involved, and thus the “pricing signal” is not “toothpaste is worth two quatloos to me,” but “I need toothpaste.” At that point some cheap material is transmuted into a toothpaste tube and other cheap materials are transformed into a light abrasive and minty-freshness. The whole thing is assembled by the nearest nano-assembler and delivered to my door. Then (and this is really important) the delivery drone takes my old toothpaste tube and drops it in the nano-disassembler once it gets back to the plant. They probably keep a small surplus of “ordinary items” in order to make sure nobody runs out of toothpaste. Or food.

    There’s probably a gigantic catalog and given the “enlightened” nature of The Culture there’s no status seeking through stuff, so once you own something you don’t exchange it (or buy a second one) unless there is an actual reason for doing so – it broke or you need something with better capabilities than your old one. Since there’s no planned obsolescence if you order a portable computer, for example, it’s essentially milspec so you won’t need another one for decades. There’s probably also a lot of lending. If you’re having a party The Culture will probably lend you a five-meter-wide monitor for playing video games, but you can’t keep it. (And where would you put it anyway?)

    With perfect recycling, no planned obsolescence, and cheap transmutation The Culture probably spends a lesser percentage of their resources on “stuff” than we do. That’s how it works “in world.”

    Despite this, however, you’re not wrong. The super-important thing you got right is that Banks isn’t an “honest” science-fiction writer and he doesn’t remotely justify his assumptions, particularly where energy is concerned. We can’t expect “cheap transmutation” or “infinite energy” to power cheap transmutation. (Assuming nano-tech we could get “perfect recycling” and “no planned obsolescence” is an ordinary design decision.)

    So Banks is right in-world because he can “cheat” with assumptions about transmutation and cheap energy. You’re right in the real world because those resources would still need to be allocated, probably by an algorithm which tells you you can’t have a sixth shirt without giving up one of your existing shirts, or that you don’t need a groundcar of your own and if you think you do, please talk it over with The Mind. But those compromises aren’t something Banks is willing to portray.

    I’m not sure, however, that you need price signaling in The Culture to get the right things produced. They’d certainly have a “just in time” economy which simply doesn’t build something until it is desired, plus warehouses full of essentials in case of emergencies. You probably get simple stuff like toothpaste within the hour, but might need to wait a couple days for a new computer.

    On the subject of Culture-as-metaphor you’re completely correct. An economy like ours needs “price signaling” because we don’t have the ability to quickly build someone a computer just because they say they need it. The computer I will buy in December (when I need it) starts getting built in January of the year before as HP looks at price signaling from the previous year and decides what kind of investment they will make for the year in manufacturing computers, and they build enough flexibility into their models and pricing that, for example, if there’s a recession next year they can lower the price or put in less RAM… Then there’s the whole matter of the computer store’s assumptions, plus the warehousing of the computer and the whole supply chain of trains, trucks, cargo-ships, etc., all of which works off price-signaling. I doubt we’ll ever make it to “just in time” price signaling where I ask for a new computer and its built immediately and delivered to my door a couple days later.

    Getting back to my feelings about The Culture, I think what it comes down to is that I’m willing to tolerate, and even enjoy, one single Star Trek-ish fictional universe, with the understanding that Star Trek is about humanity fulfilling our dreams of being an enlightened and exemplary species, and with the further understanding that this is presented as “something our species can aim for.” I’ll tolerate the poor world-building, teching-the-tech, and Spock’s Brain in order to have that good example. But The Culture is surplus to my requirements, and after enduring a couple of those books, I did the appropriate price-signaling.

    * I was very proud of the Culture-style ship-name I created for a diplomat’s ship: Rubber Chicken Beats The Alternative.

    • “… and given the “enlightened” nature of The Culture there’s no status seeking through stuff”

      I submit the biggest McGuffin of all is thinking you get to re-make human nature to fit your preferred reality.

      If someone wants to write a story about angels please go for it. I might buy it. But if you are writing about humans, please keep them “human”.

      • That’s why the word “enlightened” is in quotes.

        Also, a McGuffin is the object in a book or movie which everyone is chasing after, like the Maltese Falcon or the Holy Grail.

        • I think SF fans use a more expanded definition of McGuffin: “anything of unexplained significance without which there is no plot”.

          • Google’s dictionary-as-search says “an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot”.

            To be fair, something about Eric’s use of the word (btw: the ‘a’ in ‘Mac’ is optional) grated on me without me being conscious of it until Troutwaxer pointed it out, and I’m a big fan of being precise in my words, so I’d prefer the specific meaning of “thing that motivates the characters without requiring its own explanation”.

            “Tech that works without explanation” in a story, SF or otherwise, isn’t quite the same thing. The latter isn’t the primary drive; it’s just furniture (albeit presumably important furniture).

            • >To be fair, something about Eric’s use of the word (btw: the ‘a’ in ‘Mac’ is optional) grated on me without me being conscious of it until Troutwaxer pointed it out

              Ah. Interesting that you say that, because I am aware of two uses of the term McGuffin.

              One is your “an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot”. This is associated primarily, though not exclusively, with discussion of mysteries and thrillers. I think of this as the primary meaning.

              The other is specific to the phrase “one-McGuffin rule”. It seems to be used only by SF critics and writers. It probably traces back to some one individual who was riffing off the primary meaning from mysteries, either Theodore Sturgeon (whom I’ve heard cited) or someone earlier who influenced him. If it wasn’t Sturgeon my money would be on some (other) early post-Campbellian critic like Damon Knight.

              I think of the SF sense as a secondary meaning in restricted use, more in the nature of specialist jargon than the primary.

    • If you have to play games with the number of shirts (insert literally any item here) people can have you are admitting that you aren’t post scarcity; you just have a different, and apparently very crappy allocation mechanism.

      • I think the conceit of the Culture (admittedly sight unseen, since I haven’t read them) is that they’re “post-scarcity” with respect to the general kinds of goods that we have in the modern day, in those general kinds of quantities (modulo the tech improvements that make the basic quality of goods better). You could say that modern first-world nations are equivalently “post-scarcity” with respect to staple food, in that our civilization produces enough of it that everyone can get enough calories to survive on without much trouble. The analogy is instructive, in that one would strongly expect that in any world that is “post-scarcity” in that limited sense, society would immediately reorient itself around whatever is still scarce, and human nature would continue operating on that basis. Perhaps this is where Banks falls down.

        On the purely economic level, I’m more or less willing to grant that this “post-scarcity” world is possible; assume you’ve got universal matter assemblers that only take power and feedstocks, and material goods are recycled perfectly back to feedstocks when unwanted. Then you only need posit that their civilization provides enough power generation and enough new feedstocks to let every human in it have an allocation sufficient to make some minimum level of whatever material goods they want on demand (and the minimum level can be set higher than most modern people ever want). None of this is forbidden by the laws of physics.

        Of course, it’s a sleight-of-hand, because you’re looking only at one restricted subset of that universe, and ignoring the rest. Notably, there is in fact a necessary limit to what any given person can have, it’s merely high by modern standards. If instantiated in reality, one would expect people’s desires to run away with the available resources for various reasons (status signaling, jadedness, original sin), and quickly run into the ceiling on resource allocation, probably with no good social consequences. More, the piece we’re looking at is basically a playground provided by the benevolence of the Minds, and is unrelated to the actual provision of the civilizational infrastructure. If you were to analyze how that is built, you’d find that in order to allocate whatever resources are scarce at that level efficiently, you’d need some kind of market or market-equivalent mechanism anyway, which AFAICT in the Banks novels just disappears into a handwave.

  23. The trouble with not having FTL in sci-fi is you’re limited to your own solar system.

    In the profoundly awesome “The Expanse” books (the tv show is fantastic too) space travel is slow, unpleasant, and physically grueling.

    For interstellar travel the better approach for me is like in Dune where they “fold space”. Something that relies on physics we haven’t discovered or don’t understand yet. FTL via propulsion demonstrably violates known physics. Also good is where they have “trojan points”, like wormholes scattered about.

    I’ve been spending my evenings the last few weeks watching videos about the hard science in sci-fi concepts, amazing stuff. Isaac Arthur’s youtube channel. I had to watch the episode on orbital rings several times! Really great stuff.

  24. I could rationalize the “doesnt pass the smell test” of economics in The Culture, because the “humans” in The Culture were not humans, they were humanoid shaped artificial synthetic species created by the Minds roughly in the shape of past humanoid alien races that the Minds had encountered in the past, seduced, co-oped, and “patterned for storage and retrieval”.

    The actual economics of the Culture were those of the Minds who were gobbling up the free resources of a non-K3-civ galaxy like bacteria gobbling up sugar in agar or nomadic hunter gatherers eating the local game on a savana without moving on. When a real K-3 civilization gets established that galaxy, the Minds will be about as welcome as wandering nomadic outlaw robbers would be in ours.

    The thing I really couldn’t get past in the Culture was that the minds all swore like uncultured angry ex-Catholic drunkards, which I decided told me more about Ian Banks than I wanted to know, and less about any sort of utopian post-scarcity “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism” that a real SF writer would care to write about.

    Banks didn’t even create his setting. He very obviously had someone who could write fictional physics write an infodump about how the physics of that setting worked, and then dropped it into his novels with a few more adjectives added.

    • That’s largely my feeling about the series too. I’ve read Matter and The Hydrogen
      Sonata, and both left me feeling like, “Why did I want to read this again?” I’ll let go the unsatisfactory worldbuilding and the unsatisfactory characterization of the “humans.” But on one hand neither story’s plot had anyone pursuing any goal that I could regard as desirable; the less bad ones just struck me as utterly pointless, and it went down from there. And on the other hand, the conversation of the Minds seemed to be a celebration of the pleasures of expressing contempt through prolonged snark. If I’m going to read about godlike superior beings, give me the Norse gods, or the Endless, who have a wider range of motivations and modes of interaction.

  25. So, to recap:

    Suspension of disbelief in SF: Bad!
    Suspension of disbelief in the real world (trade and immigration barriers): Good!

    As a fan of the unintentional comedy of this blog, I thank you all.

  26. Banks deals with Trent Fowler’s objection (2018-03-04 at 21:41:38) in one of his books. The solution to people demanding too much stuff, like their own planet or spaceship or even overly fancy home, is that they can demand it all they want, but unless they can persuade a Mind that they should have it, they won’t get it. So most folks, or at least folks whom the minds feel like indulging, get nice big private homes at least on new Oribitals, and all the basic resources they want, but there still are limits.

    Within those limits, however, there are, for practical purposes, zero-marginal-cost supply hence no need for price signals. Then again, the limits are pretty high, since the Minds are engaged in a constant building program of new Orbitals and the like. (It wouldn’t take a lot of Dyson rings to make plenty of room for everyone….) and seem to have no shortage of raw materials. This does raise issues of the extent to which people live on the sufferance of the Minds’ benevolence, but alas Banks didn’t get a chance to explore that. (And Neal Asher’s priors are quite different…)

    Since Minds are capable of near-perfect efficiency in production, one could plausibly postulate either almost no waste heat, or that what there is gets recycled and put to good use somehow.

    • That’s still scarcity. “You can have as much as you want of what you’re permitted to ask for” doesn’t solve the problem of scarcity; it assumes it away by assuming that you are prepared to limit your desires to what Mommy and Daddy/your betters/your owner/God will permit you to have.

      If my choice is “Consider the lilies of the field: They toil not, neither do they spin” or “In the sweat of your brow you shall earn your bread,” I’ll take the second.

      • > If my choice is “Consider the lilies of the field: They toil not, neither do they spin” or “In the sweat of your brow you shall earn your bread,” I’ll take the second.

        So you toil, sweat, toil more—and everybody else is way better off. In the Culture novels, as in pretty much any advanced post-singularity scenario, the humiliating truth is that a baseline human is utterly, hopelessly worthless—economically speaking.

        Complaining about economic inefficiency in the Culture is complaining that the General Systems Vehicles don’t just displace the entire crowd of useless eaters into space.

  27. > Huge factories in Siberia destroyed wealth by producing trucks nobody needed

    Nitpick: I don’t think there were any major truck factories in Siberia beyond Urals. I couldn’t think of any and quick Wikipedia check also didn’t reveal any. There were a bunch of them in European part of the USSR, but not in Siberia.
    Also, there was an interesting effort to solve information problems by using computer networks – before ARPANET even existed (check out OGAS) – but the effort failed, mostly because top brass felt it would threaten their unmitigated control over the economy. I wonder what would happen if that has been built. USSR probably would still fail, but it might have happened in a different manner.

  28. Speaking of impossible economics, get ready for another refugee crisis. This is the new South African Minister of Finance:

    “South Africans continuing to be poor when we can print more money to ensure that everybody has it. Our people are poor because there is a shortage of money in the country. It’s not the shortage of jobs that makes people poor, it is the shortage of money. We have paper and ink, so we will print more money and give it to the poor, and make all of them billionaires if that is possible.” Nene said. The minister did not say how much more money will need to be printed. But he did reveal that this plan will be executed in the next two months or so, and that every South African will be rich.

    Note that the previous South African Finance Minister was caught playing a Candy Crush knock-off in Parliament.

    • That looks like a fake news site. I base that on two things:
      – The stories are almost perfectly designed to provoke outrage
      – The murder stories have pictures that are inconsistent with the text. (Very violent pictures).
      For that reason, I’m assigning near zero credibility to anything on that site. In fact, since you appear to believe — uncritically — what’s on that site, I’m now questioning whether you’re capable of thinking critically. I will assign less credibility to what you say.

  29. Banks is really playing with the one-McGuffin rule. His McGuffin is his concept of “hyperspace”. Minds are partially built in hyperspace, enabling them to process much faster than any conventional computation we know of; hyperspace is presumably where the waste energy from the foundries that supply near-infinite things gets dumped; and it’s also how ships go fast. So if FTL travel doesn’t count, the Culture novels actually use zero McGuffins!

    I know, I know. It’s a stretch. You don’t actually get a pass by waving your hands and saying “because hyperspace”. But that Banks tried is interesting. One might call it hackish.

    • This idea (the utility of adding monetary tokens to the market of no value other than “unit of account” — nor store of value via negotiated rate of exchange) shows up frequently in Eric Flint’s series of “1632” novels, even though the fan based collaborators work hard to ret-con and fix the problem.

  30. Some people write novels because they can’t keep the art inside themselves (personal expression and edification), others write in order to earn a living (serving a market), and still others write intending to promote an agenda (change the world). There are likely other reasons as well, plus various mixtures of motivation.

    In this context, words will ideally have stable meanings and the SF label should be consistent over time. Playing by these rules should confer integrity and credibility, and wanton violation should be met with suspicion and perhaps justified derision. Done right, SF educates and inspires valid creative thinking prowess. Done wrong, it inures stupidity and is ultimately harmful to the reader.

    SF is not a toy to be trifled with.

    • So it’s just like all other forms of writing. It’s something for the Gramscians to “trifle” the fsck out of, in order to make The New Soviet Man. They redefine words as a matter of course.

  31. Comment notifications are working for me. Does anyone else have this problem?

    I did get notifications for a few comments on a much older post.

    I’ve checked my spam folder and there are no comment sign-up notifications.

  32. I find Eric’s claim that most of what is called science fiction isn’t really science fiction very eccentric.

    Commercial genres are an effort to cut reality at the joints for a high proportion of readers.

    Van Vogt (little or no science, just making things up) was counted as science fiction from the beginning. Telepaths with golden tendrils in their hair isn’t science, but somehow it feels more like science than doing spells.

    There was plenty of pessimistic science fiction early on, with Kornbluth as a prime example.

    What exactly did Banks claim about his utopia of abundance? I’ve read a couple of Culture novels, and I found I just didn’t get involved. Weirdly enough, both Banks and GRRM make me feel as though I’m in the hands of a competent commercial writer, but I like a good bit of Martin’s writing, and not so with Banks.

    • >I find Eric’s claim that most of what is called science fiction isn’t really science fiction very eccentric.

      Um…Nancy, did you take a stupid pill this morning? This seems very, very unlike you.

      I never said, here or previously, that much of what’s called SF is not SF.

      I have said that much of what is called SF is defective SF – wants to be part of the genre and wants to do what good SF does, but is bad at doing it.

      “Not SF” and “defective SF” are not merely different categories, they are disjoint ones. How does the distinction between them remain unclear to a person of your intelligence?

      • I was careless at least to the extent of going on memory (possibly also inaccurate) of what I thought you’ve said about science fiction rather than checking on what was in this essay.

        A possibly more interesting aspect– what counts as affirming that the universe is rationally knowable?

        I’ve never liked James’ White’s Sector General stories (and have only read a few of them) because I don’t think he gives the reader enough clues to predict the solutions to the medical mysteries, even though the doctors are using logic.

        As I recall, The Demolished Man has Freudian or some other sort of unlikely psychological theory as part of the story, but it’s used for rational deduction.

        A distinction comes clear. A story might give a reader a chance to make deductions from their knowledge, whether of the world or of parts of the story. It might show the characters using reason, whether onstage or partially offstage. Rationality for the reader and the characters are not the same thing.

        • >A possibly more interesting aspect– what counts as affirming that the universe is rationally knowable?

          Good. This is taxonomy I should work out for the book I’m contemplating (“Rational Dreamers: An Anatomy of SF”).

          >I’ve never liked James’ White’s Sector General stories (and have only read a few of them) because I don’t think he gives the reader enough clues to predict the solutions to the medical mysteries, even though the doctors are using logic.

          Fair cop. I liked them, but I considered a defect it that rational knowability was being simulated in such a shallow way.

          >A distinction comes clear. A story might give a reader a chance to make deductions from their knowledge, whether of the world or of parts of the story. It might show the characters using reason, whether onstage or partially offstage. Rationality for the reader and the characters are not the same thing.

          Yes, exactly. And there’s a gradient of value here. Two different qualities add it:

          (1) The rational armature of the story is correct – no miscalculated orbits, no biological howlers, no supposing you can central-plan economies.

          (2) The rational armature of the story is visible to the reader – the audience gets to check the author’s work.

          At the low end of the genre you get stuff where rational knowability is fetishized in the characters but the rational armature is crap; a lot of TV SF is like this. In the middle you get the Sector General stories where rational knowability is affirmed and the armature is not obviously crap, but the author never shows his work – which means he might be cheating at the game. At the high end you get guys like Greg Egan who will, when required, put appendices full of equations and citations on a book. (“See? I’m not cheating. I’m playing the game right!)

          Thanks for eliciting this knowledge. I was not conscious about it before, and I think it’s important.

          • I think there could be a book about rationality and fiction, probably several books.

            I would tentatively add a category of reasonable. It’s reasonable for the people in The Left Hand of Darkness to have very distinctive legends and religion, but there’s nothing forcing any particular legend or mythology so long as it’s consistent with their biology. It’s not like orbits.

            I’ve found a science fiction novel which is in the spirit of the good old stuff– Semiosis by Sue Burke.

            It’s a lot human colony on a planet where life has been there for a billion years longer than on earth– some of the plants are intelligent, and more of them are quite dangerous.

            I’m not seeing any obvious scientific errors.

            The story is involving, but I’ll avoid spoilers here.

            The book is quite thoughtful about freedom and authority. It would be a plausible nominee for the Prometheus award.

            • I’ve finished reading Semiosis and I still recommend it. There are reasonable plot developments and a satisfying ending.

              The ecology should probably be more complex, but I can forgive that in the interest of keeping the story manageable.

  33. There’s no central planning in the Culture, is there? (I haven’t read the books, just checked out the Wikipedia page.)

    It’s a common assumption in political-economic discussions that central planning is the only alternative to prices. But why are prices the only type of signals that can facilitate decentralized decision-making?

    The Z3 Paradigm Framework gives some epistemological and ethical principles that can become the basis of a world that functions more optimally with neither central planning nor prices.
    http://zhergish.wixsite.com/zherg

    • They aren’t. But informal coordination of the sort that works in a human group of up to a bit over a hundred doesn’t scale up. Prices scale up really well. Central planning also scales up, but less well. I think it was Coase whose theory of the firm was that a business firm is an island of central planning in a sea of market; at a certain point the coordination problem becomes so severe that it’s less costly and more competitive to buy things from a different firm.

      One of the big advantages of prices is that they minimize bandwidth requirements.

      I won’t say that there can’t possibly be a better system for economic coordination than market prices. But I will see that I’ll believe a proposed alternative is superior when I see people voluntarily turning to such a system instead of relying on the market. If the decision is compelled, or subsidized, that argues that the alternative system isn’t actually superior.

      • >I won’t say that there can’t possibly be a better system for economic coordination than market prices.

        It’s actually provable that there isn’t a better system. See David Friedman’s Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life. The proof is general across several optimality criteria.

      • One of the big advantages of prices is that they minimize bandwidth requirements.

        The other is skin in the game.

  34. I have no dog in this hunt, never having read a line of either Banks, but there’s red herring in here.

    Price signaling isn’t a magic thing that is orthogonal to the computational problem. Price signaling is the method by which the computational problem is solved. The way a free market economy works is you build a big analog computer using people, vehicles, money, and a few other things. As it runs, it often calculates a pretty good solution to the problem of “let’s get enough carrots into the right places so people don’t starve”.

    As a side effect of the computation, because you’ve built the computer out of the actual carrots and people, the carrots (and trucks, and so on) are already there. So you’re done.

    As I understand it, The Culture’s macguffin is that infinite amounts of computation are free, so there’s no reason to suppose they can’t calculate better solutions than free markets tend to produce. For instance, they could simulate the whole ball of wax at whatever level of detail is required, and throw in an additional constraint that the biological bits aren’t greedy dickheads.

    • There are actually at least four different constraints on economic calculation:

      1) You need a complete inventory of all resources, all desired products and services, and all methods for turning the former into the latter.
      2) You need a complete list of everyone’s preferences regarding every possible product and service.
      3) You need the ability to solve the computational problem of resolving the various choices and figuring which one is best.
      4) You need a way to prevent people from misrepresenting their own preferences to gain advantages over other people.

      The second is problematic. I don’t believe, actually, that people know their own preferences. I think we carry around partial rankings in various domains, and strategies for comparing between different domains; but those strategies aren’t infallible. And the fourth makes them even more fallible; it’s sometimes to our advantage to misrepresent our preferences to OUTSELVES. The fourth is also difficult to avoid; if you give people an actual voice, they have reason to misrepresent. The knowledge that if you say you’d give a billion dollars for X you could have to actually pay a billion dollars is an incentive not to misrepresent too much, but if everything is “free,” you don’t have that mechanism.

      If a computer is capable of solving problems 2 and 4, then effectively it’s able to simulate all the minds of all the people it is providing for; in effect, they might as well be simulations internal to it. But if it’s simulating them as people, those problems are going to exist in the internal simulation too, aren’t they?

      • We don’t have #2 now, we just have data from the past, and past performance is not indicative of future results, but in many ways it’s the way to bet.

        Drink makers know what they’ve made and sold for the last N quarters, and they can make a reasonable seasonally adjusted bet.

        Restaurants do this all the time. Sometimes they miss and have either too much, or in the case of Homegrown Tap and Dough they have to tell me THEY DON’T HAVE ANY MORE OF THE THE PEPPERONI ROLLS GAWDDAMNIT.

        Ahem. Sorry.

        Anyway, we can predict the *reasonably* close future, and the closer the more accurate.

        • Yes, but we don’t do comprehensive, society-wide economic planning either. We have a lot of different people making economic plans, and the ones whose plans do a poorer job of anticipating other people’s desires and plans suffer losses, control fewer resources, and have less opportunity to plan. It’s not a completely precomputed course (as implied by the 19th century idea of economic laws of motion) but a process of course correction.

      • My aim is not to demonstrate a complete solution to the problem of central planning in the presence of Infinite Computing, but merely to demonstrate that esr is complaining on the basis of “but my politics don’t admit a universe in which your ideas work because, reasons and extremely strong wishing” rather than on the basis of a robust argument.

        If we have to resort to what are, to my mind, kind of nit-picky details about what Infinite Computing includes or excludes, then as far as I can tell I have been successful.

        • >demonstrate that esr is complaining on the basis of “but my politics don’t admit a universe in which your ideas work because, reasons and extremely strong wishing”

          Your ‘demonstration’ failed. You’re talking the same silly evasive “I will now shift the goalposts and define the problem out of existence” shit I’ve heard a dozen times before, and it hasn’t improved on the thirteenth repetition.

          • Nope. You appear to be making some “you cannot calculate this, you must have price signals” argument. I guess you could pretend that I’m misreading your original post or whatever, and it might even be true.

            Regardless, “price signals” is isomorphic to computation, so, that thesis is simply wrong.

            You and me, esr, we’ve been arguing on the internet about the same amount of time, so don’t bother with the whole “yawn, seen it all before” routine.

            • >Nope. You appear to be making some “you cannot calculate this, you must have price signals” argument.

              You keep not getting it. Price signals is not isomorphic to computation, because actual trades with skin in the game reveal information that nobody – not even the participants – had before the trade. Without the trades, the information on which to base efficient allocation isn’t there. The computation cost if you had accurate preference information is a distraction; you never get there.

              • It’s not like we’re actually trying to convince one another, Eric. It’s all just performance for notional audiences anyways. I have made my argument, you have made yours. Into the little marketplace of ideas they go, with no way of knowing which side wins! Huzzah!

      • >I don’t believe, actually, that people know their own preferences. I think we carry around partial rankings in various domains, and strategies for comparing between different domains; but those strategies aren’t infallible. And the fourth makes them even more fallible; it’s sometimes to our advantage to misrepresent our preferences to OUTSELVES.

        Nailed it. This is the core of the Calculation Problem, not contingencies about production inefficiency or transport or anything else.

        As I keep saying, humans don’t know their preferences until they’re elicited by an actual, skin-in-the-game trade. This effect is so powerful that the people who design all those cute behavioral-econ lab experiments with zero real stakes are now grappling with the fact that it does not give them an accurate picture of human behavior in real markets.

        Interestingly enough enough, one of the corrections is that people behave more like reciprocal altruists and less like short-termist selfish bastards in real markets than they do in pretend ones.

        • You may once have been a mathematician, but somewhere along the line you lost track of the difference between universal and existential quantifiers.

          The machinery of money is a method for, among other things, eliciting a more precise expression of a human’s preferences, I will grant you.

          You are silently converting this into a “it is the only way” without evidence and, in truth, probably without realizing it. Most laypeople don’t notice when they make this mistake.

          The existence of other methods is not even hypothetical, and proves conclusively that your typecast to universal is broken.

          • >The machinery of money is a method for, among other things, eliciting a more precise expression of a human’s preferences, I will grant you.

            Who said anything about money? The problem of unrevealed preferences is actually worse in non-monetized markets.

            >The existence of other methods is not even hypothetical

            Of course not. But none of them work as well as market allocation. This is actually provable in a strong sense; I gave the reference upthread. Market allocation is not merely better than central planning, it is provably the best you can possibly do under a very wide range of optimality criteria – Pareto, Joinville, and several others.

          • Set up an organization that uses one of those methods in a real economy, one without subsidies or prohibitions on using markets (note that here “libertarian free market” is being offered not as a political ideal, bu simply as a way of setting up accurate test conditions) and that outcompetes markets based on money, and we’ll talk. Until then the most you have is a laboratory model that works until artificial conditions.

            • Well, let me know when you get the Infinite Free Computing part of the scenario finished, because I confess I haven’t the faintest idea how to do that. I’ll get the other details sorted out, and then we’ll put them together.

              Seriously, dude, this is a comment thread about hypotheticals on a fringe blog, and you’re coming at me with “hey, set up a real functioning economy or GTFO”?

              Get real.

              • No, I’m saying “point out an example of this working in the real world,” if you want to claim there are organizational methods that can solve the problem of economic calculation better than markets. Of course I’m not asking you to devise it myself, other than rhetorically; I’m saying that I’d like to see empirical evidence that it can exist.

                • Well, I believe I was talking about methods for eliciting preferences.

                  A common approach here is to give people what they ask for, if only they can learn to ask. This appears to be a teachable skill. Systems that use this method include Marriages and Sexual Relationships.

                  One imagines that in a post-scarcity society, one might reasonably be rewarded for expressing a desire by having that desire met, which suggests a mechanic by which preferences could be elicited.

                  In much the same way that asking for a blowjob is way to, not infrequently, get a blowjob, one imagines that in a post scarcity society asking for a red fur lined coat might just produce such an item.

                  But, just to remind us all of context:

                  Eric is not even talking about the real world. Eric is engaged in Banks-fan baiting by making the claim that he has to suspend, roughly “too much disbelief” to make the economic system of The Culture work. On the grounds that this is “too much” he claims that Banks’ work is “bad SF”. Setting aside the multiple levels of absurdity here, we’re
                  NOT talking about the real world at all here, but rather how much disbelief we must suspend to makes Banks’ world work.

                  • In the first place, “post-scarcity society” is a different question than “alternative method of economic calculation.” In fact, if you have a post-scarcity society, then *by definition* you will not have any occasion to economize on anything, and economic calculation will have no function. I’d also suggest that if you are proposing to get to a post-scarcity society, you are not likely to do so through market processes, and so you need a different form of economic calculation, and so you need to spell out a method of economic calculation that will work better than markets under conditions of scarcity.

                    Of course there are methods of ascertaining people’s preferences other than engaging in market transactions. And they can work very well in marriages (or less formal liaisons) or in close friendships. But they don’t scale up at all well. You can’t possibly know even a thousand people well enough to anticipate their wishes in the way you refer to. Trying to coordinate an economy of a few million people by asking people what they want is likely to work about as well as asking your spouse how much money they want to fellate you.

                    I’d also note that it’s not simply a question of “eliciting preferences” (in the sense of “do you want X?”) but one of “eliciting relative preferences” (“do you want X enough to give up Y for it?”). The need to do so is inherent in the concept of economizing.

                    • Ok, so now we’re waffling about scaleup and whatnot, rather than laying down absolutes, so I think we’re comfortably in the territory of “well, OK, maybe that Culture thing could work after all” modulo certain fuzziness and elided detail. The point of something like Banks’ work is typically not to lay out every boring detail (that would be David Drake) but to sketch something that, modulo a couple of fantastical assumptions, is roughly believable. Feels like we’re there.

                      So, I think we’re done here, right?

                    • >Ok, so now we’re waffling about scaleup and whatnot, rather than laying down absolutes

                      You fail at engineering forever. Unless of course you actually know that sufficiently superlinear scaling can easily make an algorithm unusable, in which case you’re simply, um, prevaricating.

                      And oh, look! Inkstain weighed in upthread with a hard reference to an actual proof by Nassim Taleb that implies the calculation problem has vicious scaling. Which I have no doubt you will just ignore in the blithe way you have sloughed off several admirably patient attempts to explain the epistemic problem.

                      >So, I think we’re done here, right?

                      Yes, if you think you’ve made a sufficient ass of yourself. If not, by all means continue.

                    • You keep trying to make this about the real world, Eric, because you think you can win there. But it’s not about the real world.

                      You framed the debate yourself, it’s very specifically about how much disbelief we must suspend to make Banks’ world work.

                      Scaling is irrelevant is infinite computing is available.

                      I won’t bother to discuss your engineering skills.

                    • Wait, are you proposing ACTUAL infinite computational power? Because if you’re putting actual infinities into your assumed science or technology, I don’t think you’re doing science fiction, unless the science is theology.

                    • Well, I haven’t read any Banks, so I don’t know what he’s actually postulating. But you may freely substitute “unbounded” computational power, which isn’t quite the same as “infinite”, obviously, or even “sufficient” compute power for whatever problem is at hand. Possibly I have it wrong, of course, but it’s my impression that what Banks is postulating as his one “magic make this stuff work” is enormous computational power. And that is certainly my thesis, that, granted “sufficient” computational power, and maybe a few real-world-credible tweaks, a centrally planned economy might sensibly be possible. Which is precisely the opposite of what Eric stated, and precisely why he has characterized these books as “Bad SF”. Setting aside, as usual, the “SUPERMAN COULD BEAT UP SILVER SURFER” absurdity of the whole exercise.

                      I spent a moderate slice of my career working on products that proved things (well enough to be useful) about very large computer programs. This is a notoriously difficult problem.

                      So, I know a few things about attacking unpleasant scaling problems even with real world compute power. It turns out that even in today’s world we have stupendously huge compute power available, when compared against the terms that people who originally framed and thought about complexity of computation had available.

                      If we assumed, I dunno, 10 orders of magnitude more computrons available than we have here in the real world, a surprising amount of stuff (might) become feasible, if you were a bit tricky. And I am reliably informed that The Culture is full of fairly tricky entities.

                    • >Well, I haven’t read any Banks, so I don’t know what he’s actually postulating.

                      Well. I guess that’s a partial excuse. Why don’t you come back when you actually know what you’re talking about?

                    • Well, you can envision a centrally planned economy, though the devil is in the details. But there’s a different way to envision it: If computational power is effectively unbounded, then you give each individual person access to unbounded computational power. And then they use it to try to enhance their own well-being by seeking unexploited opportunities—for example, situations where different people’s desires are not in equilibrium, and they can engage in arbitrage. You have a society with vast numbers of entrepreneurs more skilled at economic modeling than any of us can be. (Such entrepreneurs might be called “matchmakers” or “art gallery owners” or the like, of course.) At that point, you have the Vast computational power being applied to run an incredibly efficient market economy.

                      Banks’s implicit model is one where the preferences of the masses are made known to a single entity, which aggregates them and plans how to act on them. In fact, it’s an elaborate metaphor for Leninist vanguardism: The humans are the masses and the Minds are the Party. But that setup suffers from informational bottlenecks: All information has to flow to one central point where it will be aggregated, processed, and acted on. A market economy where everyone has unbounded computational power gives you the benefit of parallel processing.

                    • Andrew, computing power is not the primary difficulty here. It doesn’t matter how many computer cycles you throw at a problem, when the raw data needed to solve it just can’t be learned. What Banks did in the Culture books is the economic equivalent of claiming that we can repeal the second law of thermodynamics if we have enough free energy.

                      The closest thing to the Culture that could occur in reality is Jack Williamson’s With Folded Hands – which is a SF horror story about the results of well-meant tyranny.

                  • Absolutely stipulated that unbounded (or even just Really Ginormous) computation would have interesting consequences in a market economy. There’s a lot of potentially interesting consequences.

                    I will also stipulate that in order to successfully paint a fictional story in which anything except a market economy arises in human society, you have to include a, um, “broad education” component in which people’s natures are made into something which today they are not. Drop a bunch of contemporary Americans into any system you care to imagine, and a market economy will arise almost immediately.

                    Call it brainwashing, call it education, call it religion, there are ways to successfully (to my eye) lump that under “real-world-credible” so it doesn’t count against Eric’s mythical “1 mcguffin” budget.

                    See also “The DIspossessed” which absolutely does not work without a population pretty much aligned behind a pretty alien philosophy. You could argue about whether that’s a bridge too far, but my experience and knowledge of history suggests that the human capacity for change and belief in a system is pretty broad. Personally, I am willing to, somewhat tentatively, lump that society’s philosophy under “credible” with the current version of the human organism, and therefore not charged against the mcguffin budget. As if LeGuin would have given the slighest damn about a mcguffin budget, of course.

                    • @Michael Brazier – sorry, the reply button is, at least in MY browser, simply not appearing on sufficiently low level posts.

                      Thank you for your cogent summary, I like your thermodynamics analogy.

                      My argument is, essentially, that I see nothing of the sort here. I don’t see anything with nearly the strength of a law of thermodynamics in play here. I think it is fair to say that economics is not nearly as well characterized as thermodynamics, for one thing.

                      Further, the only real difficulty I’m seeing being brought up is this business of human preferences and desires and, to be blunt, I simply don’t buy the arguments that only a free market can figure them out (yes, yes, Eric, I know that’s a “strawman” because it’s actually “eliciting behaviors that etc etc” or whatever. I don’t care, it’s shorthand and we all know what I mean,)

                      I think human preferences can be sorted out by other means, I think that it does not too much strain credibility that humans could learn to express preferences, to communicate them adequately, and so on.

                      Remember, we’re not talking about the real world, but an imagined one. We can imagine, without digging in to Banks’ “mcguffin budget” a fairly broad range of human behaviors. Humans have a demonstrated ability to behave in a broad variety of ways. How far outside of historical experience may we imagine before we have to draw another mcguffin? This is a subjective thing, of course.

                      Eric, naturally, feels that Banks’ has used up his notional mcguffin budget, but this is clearly motivated in part by his political leanings. Just as my suspicion that Banks may NOT have used a mcguffin is influenced by my political leanings.

      • Hell problem 1 isn’t solvable without total coercive control of all activity that might be ‘productive’. As in, total slave labor.

        Because time equals money, and people are notorious for finding an infinite variety of ways of turning one into another, and for non-stop continuous recalculation and adjustment of type and degree of use of those methods.

    • You seem not to understand economics (don’t worry, most people don’t). The problem with the calculation problem isn’t the calculation. It’s that the calculation changes your inputs. Imagine trying to do math at the level of a=3; print a+1; but the process of computing a+1 changes a.

      Arguably that calculation problem is mis-named. It’s not that we don’t have enough calculating power. It’s that you’re not doing a calculation at all, not in any sense of the word “calculate”.

      • That is actually a well known class of problems, and it’s still calculation. Fixed-point iteration is probably a relevant term here. They’re computationally pretty expensive.

        Anyways, to first order you can set up an economy as a linear programming problem, it’s just that it’s astronomical and not even close to tractable in any imaginable future of computing. But, if you could manage it, you could solve the problem of getting enough oatmeal into everyone’s cupboards and clothes on their back. The obvious formulation does not produce a fun place to live.

        The Culture, as I understand it, isn’t a slave society where the central planners force you to work, and in return make sure you get ample calories to sustain life, it’s a fair bit nicer. I guess. Which does lead in to this “eliciting preferences” problem, and opens up a whole ugly can of worms surrounding human nature.

        The Soviet system could not even solve the oatmeal+rough clothes for the slaves problem, for reasons that are now clear. You can definitely solve that problem with Infinite Computation.

        It certainly gets a bit murkier when you start trying to work in and to satisfy human nature, human desires.

        While it’s not clear that Eric’s blanket “No, you cannot do it, no matter how many computrons there are, so there” assertion is false, it is also not at all clear that it’s true. That is the point that I am currently litigating.

        • The problem is that the information needed to set up the linear programming instance that corresponds to the economy isn’t available without a market. It’s scattered across all the people who would participate in the market if it existed; no one of them has more than a small fragment of the data you would need. Never mind how long it would take to finish the calculation; you can’t even get started, because you don’t know what the calculation you’d have to make is.

          This would be an insuperable problem even for a society of agents with perfect self-knowledge, who all knew their own desires in complete detail before they talked to anyone else. Since real human beings don’t have that kind of self-awareness, some of the information needed to set up your calculation isn’t consciously known even to the people who have it – it comes out only in the actual market transactions. Which makes your proposal truly hopeless. If the one person who knows a critical bit of data can’t tell you what it is, how can you possibly act on it?

          • Yes yes, I have seen the previous discussion of how the human mind is unknowable unless you have a market economy. If you cast your eyes up a bit you will find that I have proposed the radical solution that maybe asking people might provide a useful approximation of their desires, which you could then set about optimizing.

            Especially with a bit of practice, people might, in theory, get better at it. They would be, notice, punished for not revealing their desires by not having those hidden desires optimized. They might, one theorizes, even develop some facility for introspection.

            At risk of being repetitive here, Marriages and Sexual Relationships function roughly along these lines, occasionally with some success.

            In general, the idea that ONLY THE MARKET can reveal the mind of man is honestly a bit weird to me. One might as well say that the markets have trained us to conceal our desires, even from ourselves. Given that we know very very little about how the Mind Of Man works, blanket statements about its behavior under circumstances radically different from our own seem, well, a bit risky.

            • >In general, the idea that ONLY THE MARKET can reveal the mind of man is honestly a bit weird to me

              Good thing nobody believes that. Er, strawman much?

              Nothing knows “the mind of man.” Until it’s elicited in behavior.

              • Eh, you know what I meant, now you’re just nitpicking so you can say “strawman!” which is basically “Hitler!” for people who style themselves above the fray.

              • Just to expand on my other reply:

                When someone disagrees with you on a comment thread someplace on the internet, there are basically two approaches.

                1. You can think about what they said a bit, try to get the gist of it and assume where ambiguity exists that they probably meant something more or less sensible. Then you can reply to that. This is “having a conversation” or “discussion” or even “argument”

                2. Which is what everyone actually does, is to closely read the offending reply and try to discern either an irrelevant error or a profoundly stupid reading, and then reply to THAT. This is not having a conversation, this is posturing for your posse, who will grunt and wave their clubs around in delight at what a badazz you are. It won’t fool anyone else, but whatever.

                I make no particular judgements about either approach. The latter gets rid of disagreements more or less by boring the annoying voices of discord into leaving, so, when what you want is an echo chamber of affirmative grunts and club slapping (which, let’s face it, this is the internet and that’s the one product it delivers REALLY WELL) 2 is the correct strategy.

                    • >Oh yeah I’m posturing for my posse bruh lookit um all around me.

                      Wow.

                      Has anybody ever told you that when you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging?

                    • You do realize that you sound like some 22 year old SJW on twitter who knows the bad man is wrong because something intersectionality, but she can’t put it into words, so she just says

                      “Wow. Just… Wow.”

                      don’t you?

            • What do you think the market mechanism is, if not a bunch of people asking each other questions? You appear to believe that allowing A and B to ask each other questions about what each wants and can offer can be improved on by interposing a third party C to ask questions of A and B, enter the answers into a database, and run a sophisticated algorithm to calculate a perfect bargain between A and B.

              Even for two parties this is already dubious, and it doesn’t get any better when extended to thousands or millions. It should be intuitively obvious that running a simulation, however elaborate, of a group of people trying to trade with each other can’t do any better at predicting what the group does than just letting the people do it – but that’s what you’re proposing: to simulate a market in a computer instead of just allowing one to form in reality.

                • Eh. Any one entrepreneur can exploit knowledge of one specific domain to carry out some transactions at less cost than the ultimate buyer and seller could without him. Nobody can do that for all transactions, though – that would require omniscience.

                  • Sure. That’s one of the basic fallacies of predicate logic: “For all problems P, there exists an agent A who can solve P” is not the same as “There exists an agent A who can solve P for all problems P.” All of us may have someone to love, but that doesn’t mean there’s someone that all of us love. . . .

  35. …even superintelligent Minds can’t make central planning work, because without price signals and elicited preferences you can’t know where to allocate resources.

    I think there’s another way–especially for the minds on the devices they “controlled” (at least one story the mind was running an artificial world rather than a space ship).

    If you have truly ubiquitous surveillance (which it is clear that the minds *could* have) tied in through a large enough AI, and production is relatively local (both spatially and temporally) you CAN know and can adjust fast enough. You’ll still have local scarcity of luxury goods (which they had in the culture) because “luxury good” is essentially defined as “good that is scarce”.

    Your inputs are not “what people are willing to pay”, but “what they ask for/pick up in whatever passes for a store and use *regularly”. A ship mind will know who is *acquiring* and *using* what and how much. This is essentially what “price” is a proxy for. In some ways it’s even better than price, because it tells you what people want *if price is not an issue*.

    Also, people can interact with/ask the ship mind directly for stuff, to include genetic and extreme biological changes, so they can ask for stuff that isn’t “on the market”.

    These even solve your “You don’t understand. You can’t “know all preferences” because human beings don’t even know their own preferences until elicited.”

    I bet that there’s LOTS of culture folks who’ve turned there metabolic rates up to 12 so they can eat however much they want of whatever they want.

    The only problem with 10,000 pounds of ultra-high quality chocolate is that you’d get bored of it pretty quickly. Now, 1 pound of high quality confections tuned specifically to your taste buds *every morning*? That would be…awesome in a way.

    See, communism works if you have a benevolent god and a ubiquitous surveillance state.

    This doesn’t get rid of the energy/heat problem, but I don’t know at what level that becomes a problem.

    • I think Eric’s right on this one in anything resembling the real world as it currently exists. (Oddly enough, I am a capitalist.*) But he’s right specifically because the whole problem of making and distributing stuff is handled in a certain fashion. Stuff is built in a factory according to an existing plan. It is shipped by air, rail, road and seas/rivers (which takes a certain amount of time, and the time required for delivery factors into signaling with prices) and the stuff is sold in “stores” (online or brick-and-mortar) to people who are paid for their work in the tokens we call “money.” The the purchased good must be brought to the place where it will be used.

      Even the Russians handled the problem in this fashion, (plan, build, ship, sell for money, transport to final destination) albeit with central planning rather than planning in response to price signalling, which as Eric correctly observed, works very poorly. But who and what does the price send a signal too? It sends a signal to the business entity (the “manufacturer”) which first creates the good which is being sold, and the manufacturer makes new decisions at the beginning of the next cycle based on the received price signals.

      But assume that humans become as advanced as “The Culture.” Now we have nano-assembly, something resembling cheap transmutation, cheap energy, perfect recycling (which means that we don’t lose valuable raw materials,) good ways to deal with surplus heat, and instead of building things in a factory, we do “just in time” manufacturing in a nano-assembly tank within 10-1000 kilometers of the person who ordered it (distance is dependent on the complexity of the item.) Also, “planned obsolescence” is now illegal. Then we deliver the new item as quickly as possible and collect any useful trash (ALL the trash, right?) for recycling in a nano-disassembler. We can even use nano-assembly on food if we need to. And humans have developed to the point where we’re not greedy dickheads and we can reliably distinguish between “wants” and “needs.”

      At that point we don’t “plan, build, ship, sell, transport to final destination.” Instead we “choose from a library of existing designs, build, ship, and use.” In this second scenario, is some business entity being signaled by a price? If so, I don’t see it. Our main concern becomes the issue of making sure that we retain a surplus of useful raw materials, and we do this my limiting the number of goods any one person can own, possibly by issuing each person a monthly supply of raw materials and a limited amount of nano-assembler time. (I’m deliberately not examining the issue of how new devices get designed/built/prototyped, or what credit might look like in such a culture.) So there is a possible future where Eric is “wrong,” but he is wrong because of a dramatic change in circumstances; I assume he would adapt his idea of how things work to a greatly advanced technology.

      * Anyone with even average observation skills has to know that planned economies don’t work. They just don’t.

      • >But he’s right specifically because the whole problem of making and distributing stuff is handled in a certain fashion

        Wrong. The calculation argument doesn’t rest on friction costs. It rests on the impossibility of knowing preferences well enough to fed them into a model before they are elicited by market transactions. You can never catch up – the reality of shifting preferences inevitably runs ahead of your model.

        I used to be a mathematician. When I say a problem is “fundamental” you should take me seriously.

        • That’s one of the problems. But I’d also point to the existence of problems in valuing producers’ goods, which result from not having a comprehensive model of how every set of productive resources will behave in every possible combination under every possible set of circumstances (input-output matrices based on data that average over a whole economy are laughably inadequate).

        • Big picture, than little picture:

          BIG PICTURE: The two most important things you did in your top post were 1.) to identify Banks as a writer who is not honest. (This was very helpful to me in understanding why I was not impressed with his work) and 2.) to note that Banks’ work was not good science fiction. IMHO the man’s work is badly over-rated and someone really needed to say so and explain why. You have very successfully accomplished this very task.

          Everything else I have to say about the matter is a quibble.

          LITTLE PICTURE: As to the quibble, while you’re right about the economics outside the world of The Culture, and about how those economics relate to the problem of critiquing Banks, inside The Culture’s fiction I think you’re solving the wrong problem. If there is a just-in-time manufacturing process involving nano-assemblers (or replicators, or whatever you call them) nobody cares about a model of preferences. Nobody is interested in “predicting the behavior of the market.” Someone orders $THING and $THING is immediately assembled and delivered. The big deal for The Culture is making sure that they have enough feedstock for their nano-assemblers, and in economic terms nothing else matters.* Once again, you order $THING and $THING gets built and immediately delivered. The end. No models or predictions are necessary.

          *With the small caveat that this does not apply to large bespoke items. It really helps to know how many starships your system is planning to build this year.

          • Keep in mind here that the original post isn’t about critiquing Banks, it’s about Eric wanting to talk about how great free markets are. Which is fine, whatever. Banks, The Culture, and McGuffins are just distractions, though.

            In 60 seconds on the wikipedia page about The Culture I can find half a dozen stronger candidates for a “McGuffin” than the economy. Banks, clearly, never attended a Clarion Workshop, but seems to have found some little success in spite of it.

            If Eric were truly trying to point out that Banks is overdrawn at the McGuffin Bank he would surely have pointed out several other items, since they pretty much fall into your lap if you look.

            • >Keep in mind here that the original post isn’t about critiquing Banks, it’s about Eric wanting to talk about how great free markets are.

              And nothing you’ve said is about anything but masturbating in front of us to show off the size of your dick.

              See? Anyone can play that game. Doesn’t sound any better when I do it. And loud assertion does not create truth.

              • And yet, the question remains, why did you pick two rather weak points to make instead of one of the several much stronger ones?

                You might have poked fun at machine interlligence, at mind/body interfacing, at the general infeasibility of nanomachines, just to pull the three I remember as I sit here on the floor arguing with my dog about where she can decently put her tongue, and where she cannot.

                If you stick to the 1 mcguffin rule, banks is overdrawn by dozens. Why pick on the economy specifically, unless it was economics you wanted to talk about.

                • >And yet, the question remains, why did you pick two rather weak points to make instead of one of the several much stronger ones?

                  Because planned-economy was the one that stuck out at me when I read the books. And Banks meant it to stick out,

                  We’re well on the away to having the other things you mention; Alpha Go taught itself to play in a few hours, I just read a news story about a deep-learning system that can read an fMRI and describe what the subject is looking at, and wet-phase nanomachines (tailored bacteria) are already used for drug synthesis.

                  But we’ll never have an economy without price signals that doesn’t misallocate itself into collapse. And yet Banks wanted you to believe this. A friend of mine put it colorfully: Banks was the literary evangelist for a “perfect gay space communism” shared fantasy that was widespread in the harder elements of the Anglo-Scottish left in the 1970s and 1980s. The crazy economics wasn’t just an incidental bit of stage setting that you could forget, it was foregrounded because in a real way it was the whole point of Bank’s game.

                  It took me a while to clue in about this. I knew the planned-economy stuff was a serious defect from the get-go, but didn’t understand how serious Banks was about it until I tripped over a long footnote in one of his novels in which the Culture descends from the stars to save Marxism from its utter failure on Earth. Put his work in a different perspective; I had seen the failure but not previously understood that it was a politically-driven failure.

                  (Maybe it will help if you understand that I don’t consider “Planned economies will never work” to be a political claim in itself. It’s more like a boundary condition that constrains the class of non-silly political claims. Actual political claims have a value element – they’re not just about what you can do, they’re about what you should do.)

                  • It will become obvious that I am lurching sideways into random things *I* like to talk about, I will try to be brief, and then to leave it alone.

                    Machine consciousness is as far away as FTL. There are fundamental breakthroughs necessary, and we do not seem to even know what questions to ask. E.G. Donald Hoffman has a model of a “Conscious Agent” about which he has proved some interesting things etc, but if you actually look at the model you notice that it models a stick exactly as well as it models a consciousness. Literally. What we see as “AI” these days it more accurately described as “heuristics which emulate certain human behaviors” This doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of money being spent, but then, there’s a lot of money being spent on tokamaks too. At least one tokamak, but it’s consuming enough money for a bunch of them.

                    If Banks is talking about superminds without consciousness, that are understood to be algorithms executing behaviors rather than “minds”, I take it all back. That would be an interesting Hard SF idea that I have not seen. Those stories always seem to end with the dumb thing “waking up.”

                    You run into the same “we have no idea what a mind even is” when you’re talking about mind/body interfaces. Bodies are pretty complicated too, but at least we know what questions to ask. Minds? Nobody has any idea what the hell is going on in there much beyond the basic “if you remove the brain, the mind seems to also vanish” which we knew quite a while ago.

                    Nanomachines in the traditional sense aren’t quite as far out. There are fundamental problems, breakthroughs that would be necessary (if they’re possible) but at least we know the questions to ask. Power and computation. Microprocessors remain persistently at visible scales. But maybe molecular computing or something. I’m cynical, having seen dozens of “new paradigm” things that somehow were never as good as CMOS once the hype died down. But, maybe. A couple of the right breakthroughs, and we DO know where to look.

                    I guess if you’re going to count bacteria as nanomachines, I might grant you that one, but honestly it’s a bit of a stretcher. But, sure.

      • “Planned obsolescence” seems to be functionally equivalent to “fashion”; that is, if you ban planned obsolescence, you are forbidding people to discard a garment because it’s last year’s style. But it seems that even if you don’t have an industry striving to sell people on wearing salmon pink this year, you are still going to have people who come up with new designs for what they’re going to wear, either because they like inventing things, or because they want to advertise their connections to the cool, trendy people. It seems to me that in a world of vastly increased wealth, it would be just as plausible to have people making sure they weren’t wearing last week’s style. I’m remembering R.A. Lafferty’s wonderful story “Slow Tuesday Night,” where people go through entire fashion cycles in eight hours.

        Of course, you could suppose that people just hang onto all those old clothes. But that could make storage space a scarce resource. And I’m not clear on why it conflicts with the model if you allow people to take an outfit they’ve worn once back to the recycling intake.

        More generally, your comment about not distinguishing between “needs” and “wants” making you a greedy dickhead is a moralistic rather than a scientific one. In economics there are only “wants,” ultimately. A “need” is for something that is a means to a “want.” I want to survive, so I need to eat and breathe and stay warm; if I did not want to survive I wouldn’t need to do those other things. And as a twenty-first century American, I spend a lot of time on things that even in moral terms would be described as “wants”: for example, over the past week, I’ve reread a couple of Discworld novels, I’ve read some of Aristotle’s works on biology for the first time, I’ve seen The Black Panther with my wife, I’ve run a roleplaying game, I’ve eaten Milanos, and I’ve taken part in this discussion on Eric’s blog; I think any of those would normally be classed as a “want” and not a “need.” I don’t think that makes me a greedy dickhead. And I’m not prepared to draw a line between “acceptably few wants” and “too many wants”; that seems to me to be at least relative if not subjective.

        • When I say “planned obsolescence” I mean the practice of designing something to break or become useless on a 3-5 year timespan in order to force someone to pay the cost of replacing it. When considering The Culture, I suspect they’ve long-since solved any computer problems which I, as a human consumer of computation might be worried about, thus if they build a computer to something resembling milspec it is still highly useful (what we might call a “gaming computer”) to 99 percent of users 50 years later.*

          In a Culture-like economy, you get a new shirt when you want it, probably as you turn in an old shirt (so you can maintain a high raw-materials balance in your account in case of a major need.)

          * Or “powerful server,” or “great desktop for a graphic designer.”

          • I can’t reconcile this talk of balances and accounts with the idea of a post-scarcity society. Surely in such a society you don’t have accounts to deal with, or balances; you just take what you want, as in the “open storehouse” model that classical communist anarchists used? (Or as L. Frank Baum put it, “Each man and woman, no matter what he or
            she produced for the good of the community, was supplied by the neighbors with food and clothing and a house and furniture and ornaments and games. If by chance the supply ever ran short, more was taken from the great storehouses of the Ruler, which were afterward filled up again when there was more of any article than the people needed.”)

            But as for planned obsolescence, surely a lot of turnover of consumer goods isn’t a matter of their being engineered to fail; it’s a matter of changes in style, such as the fluctuations in trendy colors that make it impossible for me to get shirts in some of the colors I like in some years. Even with automobiles, new models with new styling come out on an annual cycle, long before the old models stop running. The human desire to appear trendy and to emulate others who appear trendy can propel this sort of thing even without loss of functionality.

            • If your old shirt is out of style, you order a new shirt and turn the old shirt in for recycling.

              As to “accounts” a hypothetical Culture-like society doesn’t have infinite stockpiles of say… lithium for batteries. So each person would need to have an account for their nano-assembler feedstock. Unless there is very cheap transmutation available, some things would still be scarce. So next-best thing to a post-scarcity society is to give everyone an annual matter allowance, or a feedstock account, and they can spend it as they like.

              • Okay, so we agree that we are not actually talking about a post-scarcity society, because there are things people are going to want that don’t exist in unlimited quantities, or in quantities exceeding the amount they would ever want to use?

                • The other thing about The Culture is that nobody is a ridiculous greedhead, so everyone will show restraint in what they order built for themselves, so I’m guessing that whether they’re “post scarcity” is not a really important debate to the locals… it all just works out.

          • > I mean the practice of designing something to break
            > or become useless on a 3-5 year timespan in order to
            > force someone to pay the cost of replacing it.

            It doesn’t (normally) work that way.

            There is a cost and engineering trade off between “MTBF” and “price”. For (most) things we make you get a bathtub looking curve of failures, some/lots right off the assembly line (build failures), then a drop off in failure rates for some length of time, then as wear and tear cross the tolerances a ramping up of failures.

            This is why a Rolls Royce from whenever is probably still running/fixable, but a Trabant was effectively disposable.

            When engineering something (which may include “designing” or just “making”) you pick it’s duty cycle. There is no *point* in making a high-fashion dress or shirt with a long duty cycle, as Mr. Stoddard notes, it’s in the bin next year anyway.

            OTOH, a french blue or white Oxford Cloth Button Down shirt of a brand targeted at east coast middle managers? If you can make it last 300 washings without looking frayed you can price it at 2x the “regular” OCBD and you will sell them like hotcakes because that’s practically a uniform item in certain circles, and they’ll wear it until their wife throws it away and replaces it WITH ONE EXACTLY LIKE IT.

            In the 1950s and 60s auto manufacturers in the US made cars for a 30 to 50 thousand mile duty cycle because (a) making them LONGER was EXPENSIVE (The Checker Cab company at the same time was selling vehicles that assumed a 200k+ duty cycle IIRC) and (b) people WANTED a new car every few years.

            Note that the Toyota Land Cruisers, at least in the 80s and 90s, were built assuming a 500k (kilometers in this case) duty cycle. Most of they rusted out before the engines and transmissions died. I’ve got one in the driveway with 350 thousand kilometers on it and all it needs is a rebuilt fuel injector pump and a transmission oil top off to be back on the road.

            It wasn’t (usually) a deliberate attempt to screw people over (although I’m sure that’s happened), it was acknowledging what people wanted to spend and working in that budget.

            Notice today cars last a LOT longer than 1960s cars. Notice also that they change appearance a LOT more slowly (these days it’s grills and slight shape changes , rarely the large design changes seen in the 1950s and 1960s).

    • Well, the only level of surveillance that would really work would be for the AI to have full read access to everyone’s mind, which, admittedly, does turn up often enough in stories where hyperintelligent AIs exist.

  36. A few years ago I read a short story set in a world where central planning actually worked. One detail that I remember falling out of that was that the personal computer industry never took off, because (in this alternate universe) it was just plain better and cheaper to buy time on a huge mainframe than to have your own little toy computer. One gathered that their history was pretty much ours up until the big face-off between capitalism and communism, but the communists had outclassed the capitalists because (in this alternate universe) they had the right model of How Things Work.

    It had a similar feel to Harry Turtledove’s “Islands in the Sea”, though a very different setting, and when David Friedman was putting together his list I looked for it but failed to find it. I thought sure it was also Turtledove, or maybe Poul Anderson. Ring any bells for anybody?

  37. I think you’re assuming humans are more variable than they are.

    You could do it without read access, because you can get a lot of information via things like pulse/respiration, eye movement, sweat production etc.

    Couple that with the ability to directly “work” with the “factory” for any given product, and you can get the same information that price and markets would give.

    Eric is right that you *cannot* centrally plan an economy, but in The Culture the economy ISN’T planned by the minds, it’s driven by human (and associated species) demands, and except for really large things (ships big enough to house a mind) production is local, cheap, and demand driven.

    Eric is right that with scarce things price is critically important

  38. NOTE: The following was originally posted as a comment to the Google+ post. It’s slightly edited and expanded.

    —–

    Speaking of economics; I’ve recently come across N. Taleb’s paper (https://arxiv.org/abs/1802.05495) which demonstrates the sample size requirements when dealing with Pareto distributions vs. a Gaussian. Now given the computational scaling for linear optimization (central planning):

    (c+n)^(3/2) n^2 log(1/h)
    (n is the number of items you’re dealing with, c are the constraints of producing those items, h is the degree of error you’re willing to put up with) – more here: https://www2.isye.gatech.edu/~nemirovs/Lect_ModConvOpt.pdf

    This suggests to me that even if you can somehow determine intrinsic value through some act of handwavium, you’re still completely screwed because not only a) the scaling of n is ugly but also b) your constraints are literally impossible to accurately calculate; for Pareto distributions a statistically significant sample is over a trillion (not a typo) times larger than a Gaussian.

  39. Measure work and consumption. Keep track of what people do, and what they use. There are your signals. There are your preferences. The Culture seems like an ethically advanced enough scenario that this is plausible. But again, I haven’t read the books.

    I see the Zherg framework as a vehicle by which we might evolve toward such a scenario:
    http://zhergish.wixsite.com/zherg

    I realize that when I say these things, it may come off as curt or trite, given the gravity of the issues at hand. (I’d refer you to the Zherg project for more eloquent and robust formulations.) I am trying to be concise, but I’m very interested in discussing these matters seriously and at length. Thanks.

    • Having just read the Zherg framework, I can say with complete confidence that it is sentimental nonsense in which no trace of rational thought can be found. The only proposal made there that rises above the anodyne level of “can’t we all just get along?” is to encourage the use of marijuana and LSD – and I suspect the authors practice what they preach.

    • What are your units of work and consumption? In a market economy we measure them in units of “value,” which are dollars or pounds or euros or whatever. But that measurement is done by market pricing, and in fact the concept of “value” as such is defined by market pricing. If you want to have an economy without market pricing, you need to come up with units that don’t tacitly rely on it. Without such units, you have nothing to measure.

      For example, Marx proposed that the “exchange value” of any commodity was determined by the labor that went into it. But he also acknowledged that some labor was more skilled than other labor; and he proposed that skilled labor be regarded as “intensified” labor. And operationally, the degree of intensification was the ratio of the wage of the skilled laborer to that of an unskilled laborer—which meant that Marx had used market prices to measure the thing, labor, that he used to explain market prices. This doesn’t actually get you away from a market economy.

      • Thanks William,
        If we measure work and consumption (and other things like available resources) using units like work hours, quantities of materials, and so on, then I imagine market theorists will say this is inevitably much less efficient than putting everything into units of “value.” But I would question that. (On the face of it, we spend so much of our lives dealing with these units of value that one can imagine large gains in efficiency from eliminating them, though libertarians can point to government regulation as a prime culprit behind the bureaucratic/financial complexities we deal with.) I’d be interested to know the logic and assumptions involved in the proofs of the superiority of prices as a means of economic coordination. I can imagine how such proofs could work, if we assume that folks are going to be primarily concerned with maximizing their own wealth without nearly as much regard for others. The Zherg framework advocates valuing everyone as the primary ethical principle, and secondary to that, advocates a collaborative, sharing economy without quid-pro-quo transactions. In such a scenario, people involved with organizing work and distributing resources would presumably perform measurements and make recommendations, so that when people are doing the work and the consuming, it won’t require doing a research project before making every decision.

        • >The Zherg framework advocates valuing everyone as the primary ethical principle, and secondary to that, advocates a collaborative, sharing economy without quid-pro-quo transactions.

          Raaaadical. Pass the bong, dude!

        • You can compose a list of the materials Michelangelo used and the time he spent to paint the Sistine Chapel; but no matter how accurate your list is, studying it won’t give you the first idea why people value the Sistine Chapel.

          The value of a thing is a function of its purpose, not of how it was made. A labor theory of value has just as little coherence as a color theory of length or a beauty theory of time. It’s measuring the wrong properties.

        • Well, I can’t give a full exposition of this; it’s a complex subject. But an essential basic point is that ideas like the labor theory of value are based on an illusion: the idea that productive inputs (costs) determine value and value determines who gets something and what it’s used for. In fact it’s the other way around, and even the smarter classical economists knew it—David Ricardo, for example, said explicitly that labor was a good predictor of market price for a lot of commodities, but that there were some for which it had no predictive value—though Marx picked up on Ricardo’s statistical generalization, made it an absolute truth, and based an ideology on it.

          Let us say, for example, that a huge popular enthusiasm for lumpia arises, and that chains of lumpia restaurants all across the United States start competing with burger joints and pizza parlors for customers and storefronts. As a result, there is a big demand for ground pork. So people who bought ground pork, or suitable cuts of meat, for other culinary uses, now face higher prices, and experience this as “the cost of pork went up.” And since pig meat now sells for more, pig farmers raise more pigs, and buy more feed, and so people who raise other animals that eat feed with the same ingredients, or who make human food out of some of the same ingredients, find that they are having to pay more to bid the ingredients away from the lumpia industry. And this propagates through a vast network of economic relations, adjusting things all over, in a way more complex and more subtle than any committee of brillliant human minds could figure out. J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant biologist who was also a devout Leninist, wrote in “On Being the Right Size” that an economy such as that of the UK or the US was simply too large and complex for any group of human beings to plan.

          In programming, you can explicitly tell the computer that if A happens, it should do X, and if B happens, it should do Y. Or you can set up a neural network, and let weightings propagate through it, and end up with something that can make better decisions than you can. And markets are the neural net approach. What classical economists called “value” we now call “price,” and what “price” means is simply the lowest bandwidth signal we can use to make incredibly complex tradeoffs in producing huge numbers of different commodities.

  40. Come on, post scarcity is a very common sci-fi trope! You could make exactly the same criticism of Star Trek and countless other sci-fi universes, and the idea that a society may reach the level of post scarcity is a perfectly reasonable one.

    • >Come on, post scarcity is a very common sci-fi trope! You could make exactly the same criticism of Star Trek and countless other sci-fi universes,

      And, in fact, I often have. Doubtless will again.

      It’s a worse flaw in the Culture novels because it’s foregrounded. In the Trek universe the moneyless economy is is canonical but of so little importance to anything that happens that fans generally manage to forget it. It’s only a minor, peripheral embarrassment; while Star Trek is often very defective SF, this is not high on its list of sins.

      • In the Trek universe the moneyless economy is is canonical but of so little importance to anything that happens that fans generally manage to forget it.

        It’s of so little importance that the writers occasionally forget, too. For instance, we are first introduced to tribbles when Cyrano Jones attempts to sell them for “ten credits apiece”, or in in the Next Generation opening episode, while shopping at the mall on Farpoint station, merchants are asked that her selections be “charge[d] to Dr Crusher” aboard the Enterprise. (That’s not even counting the numerous times and places when use of some form of currency could be explained in context, like “repliator rations” onboard Voyager or Quark’s gambling den in Deep Space 9.)

        No, scratch that. I don’t think it’s that the writers forget in so much as they are not interested in visualizing the economic life of the Federation with sufficient clarity to show how precisely the most basic functions of money have been replaced / deprecated in this society, nor exploring why they find this task so difficult and updating their worldview to match.

    • Only if you don’t understand “scarcity” in the way the term is used in economics. The Federation clearly has to deal with problems of scarce resources; for example, they can’t maintain a thousand or a mbillion starships, and keep crews trained to operate them, just in case there’s an invasion from another galaxy or timeline (or build the first and train the second instantaneously). There are times when they have to say “If we want X, we have to give up Y.” Abundance of ordinary consumer goods doesn’t make them post-scarcity, any more than free public drinking fountains or businesses that give away matchbooks make our society post-scarcity.

      Not using the technical vocabulary of a science correctly is a flaw in science fiction. And not thinking about the conceptual issues that that vocabulary is intended to convey, when you create your future world, is often a bigger flaw.

  41. The biggest McGuffin is . . . the Ferni Paradox? Can human life really survive a trip across interstellar space? Does the long term exposure to cosmic radiation guarantee that our DNA cannot survive the journey, hence no known extraterrestrial visitors or contacts as yet?

    • > Can human life really survive a trip across interstellar space?
      > Does the long term exposure to cosmic radiation

      These are engineering problems that I suspect could be trivially solved with today’s technology if we *wanted* to.

      We don’t. We want to play antifa games and overpay defense contractors for shit products.

  42. Eric,

    I am 101% with you as the real world is concerned but I am willing to give SF writers a break. If they are allowed to screw the laws of physics 101 ways to heaven – like Niven with General Product Hulls and stasis fields – they can experiment with breaking the laws of economics as well.

    After all the economic calculation problem depends on the assumption of infinite human desires. This isn’t really true. Material/comfort human desires are quite limited and it is quite possible that a very advanced “post-scarcity” future can treat every possible creature comfort or material desire basically like drinking water or air: too cheap to bother putting a price tag on it, just ration it, but ration it at such an abundance level that no realistic complaints are possible.

    When humans have their material desires, creature comforts fulfilled, they will not generate crazy material desires ad infinitum. A very high tech socialism can ration me a 1000m2 house, 10 robot servants, any food I can imagine, all-senses entertainment, free travel where I want to etc. and tell me to shut up if I want more and it will not be a bad deal.

    Once that is fulfilled, human desires typically go towards relative social status, prestige, jockeying for position and fame and rank and influence. THAT is what Banks did not really get.

    Another way to look at the economic calculation problem is to focus on not consumer goods, but tools, capital goods, materials, things needed in production. I think that was Hayek’s true argument because it is not really that impossible to figure out how many spoons people need, the true impossibility is figuring out how to distribute steel along the whole supply chain, that is, give it for spoons or give it for spoon-making machines or give it for spoon-distributing trucks? That is the real Hayekian argument IMHO. But maybe with enough abundance not every consumer good reasonably needed but everything needed to produce and distribute them can become “post-scarcity” ?

    I think with enough abundance socialism is actually possible, when things are cheap enough that bothering to put a price tag on them can become obsolete. Energy can just come from Dyson spheres and yes, heat dissipation is actually an issue, but if SF is allowed to play around with the laws of physics, maybe the idea of heat sinks, sort of concentrating waste heat into small things that heat up to million degrees then launching them somewhere out to space is a solution.

    The true problem with “post-scarcity socialism” is thinking people will live happily in peace ever after. Actually the realistic outcome is that people will compete very hard for every tiny scrap of social status.

    The true problem with socialistic thinking in the far SF future is the assumption that human conflict exists only because of scarcity, because of unfulfilled material needs. Fulfill the needs via abundance and the conflict is over. Hayekian thinking replies that human needs, actually human desires are infinite. I don’t think they are infinite, there are no good reasons to think they are infinite because as every marginal utility scale gets fulfilled they diminish into so minor desires that they hardly register. However I do think once they are solved we get more conflict, not less, because the true source of conflict is jockeying for relative social position. Not unfulfilled needs. That is what Banks did not understand.

    Even in the real world economic calculation was only part of the Soviet economic problems. Jockeying for position was arguably a bigger part. Corruption was rampart, because every factory manager treated the factory as a tool for his personal ambitions. Stealing money because in a scarcicty society material goods give one relative positional status was one thing. Trading favors because producing whatever your buddy, the other factory manager needed, thus converting it into political pull and maybe political career, which gave the real social status was another. Rampant lying and falsifying stats, partially because yes the system sucked but partially because of political ambiitons was a third one.

    I think these matters are closely related as it is impossible to design controlled experiments for this. Maybe angelic humans would have gotten even on current tech levels the Soviet system far better. But real humans tend to convert every economic production, every economic resource they have power over into relative social status, prestige, favors, or power and that was a huge part of the system.

    Angelic AI? I don’t know. Ask Yudkowsky. I strongly suspect non-angelic humans will never make angelic AI, though.

    • >If they are allowed to screw the laws of physics 101 ways to heaven – like Niven with General Product Hulls and stasis fields – they can experiment with breaking the laws of economics as well.

      That’s not a fair comparison. We know why FTL mucks with physics; we know about the epistemic problem with preferences. We don’t know, in quite the same way, that matter with the properties of a General Products hull is impossible. And it is wise to be cautious here – NASA is testing things that look an awful lot like working inertialess drives.

      • But what is that epistemic problem? Why assume infinite or infinitely changeable desires? Why not assume desires originating in human biology, with diminishing marginal utilities, and below a certain level they hardly register consciously? Every material desire, every product can be understood as interfaces for the human body: chairs that feel comfortable for our butts or food that tastes good in the mouth and belly, and the biological sensors are not infinitely sensitive.

        As for preferences, I think the difference between a desire or preference is that a desire says I want X, a preference says I want X more than I want Y (I want this sandwich more than that sandwich or more than not paying five bucks for it). But the question is: by how much? If all the sandwiches are excellent I can simply choose randomly, as the difference in satisfaction will be very low so I don’t want to pay the cost of having to make a decision, and if I have fifty gazillion megabucks in my pocket then the difference between the sandwich being free or costing five bucks also does not matter, the cost of having to think if it worths it, the cost of the creation of the preference itself is higher than that.

        No, I think all these epistemic problems are fairly easy to disprove. Purely material, as in, NOT IN A SOCIAL CONTEXT, human desires and preferences are clearly finite and not generated randomly, when everything interfacing with out body and senses is pleasant enough that making it more pleasant would not worth the bother of thinking about it, the problem is solved.

        The reason our desires seem so hungry and near infinite is precisely this social competition, jockeying for relative status. The Joneses bought a weekend planet? I want one too! Heck I want *two* weekend planets! But of course in reality it is not the physical reality of the planets I want, but simply not keeping up with and perhaps getting ahead of the Joneses in relative social status. And of course if people play that game forever it results in infinite material desires.

        Beyond pleasantly tickling our fixed biological sensors, every preference is social, imitation or competition, keeping up or getting ahead.

        Once everybody is rich enough competing for social status takes other avenues, not conspicious consumption. Perhaps, more dangerous and harmful avenues. We are already seeing this actually. Conspicious virtue is overtaking conspicious consumption and Priuses give more status than Ferraris. This could be a good thing but actually it is very harmful in other ways.

        I don’t think it makes sense to treat preferences as daemonic, something unknowable generated by random processes. They are to a certain extent the pleasant tickling of fixed biological sensors, which beyond a certain level is just good enough, and beyond that level, they are relative social position.

    • The economic calculation problem depends on the infinity of human desires? I’m sorry, but no, that just seems crazy. I wonder if you’re thinking of the problem of scarcity being unavoidable? That’s a different problem—except in the trivial sense that if all goods exist in superabundance relative to human desires, there is no occasion to economize anything, and therefore there is no problem of economic calculation to be solved.

      If you want to talk about fairy godmother economics, though, then we need to talk about how increasing wealth affects the economy. Prices of things like food drop relative to income; people in the present-day United States spend a far smaller fraction of their income on food than people in ancient Rome did, even if the Americans are foodies, because food is just really cheap. On the other hand, services provided by human beings don’t get cheaper; they may well get more expensive, because wealthier human beings have less need to add to their incomes by providing services. This results in the Christie effect (“too poor to have servants”).

      And not all human desires come from either biological need or status competition. There are desires that come from cognitive and creative impulses. For example, Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenford wanted to “have at his beddes heed Twenty bokes, clad in blak or reed, Of Aristotle and his philosophye”; in his eyes that was a dream of wealth, and he would borrow from his friends and “On bokes and on lerninge he it spente.” Now, I wouldn’t claim that my scholarly drives are the equal of his, but C’s and my apartment contains 100 shelf feet of books, which would probably make the Clerk think he had ascended to heaven; and I regularly visit the nearby university library to extract more books. I don’t think I’m gaining significant status from this; there’s litttle to be gained from learning about Mesozoic birds or Roman horsemanship, except in narrow scholarly circles that I’m not part of. It’s “a private vice,” as Tolkien called his hobby of creating languages. As Nietzsche said it, “a curiosity such as mine is the most agreeable of all vices.”

      But setting aside this question of scarcity, the problem of economic calculation comes from other sources. There is the inventory problem. There is the problem of knowing the exact details of people’s preferences, when those people often don’t know those themselves, and when they change constantly. There’s the problem of eliciting statements of those preferences that people are unlikely to fudge for their own benefit. There is the problem of assembling all the relevant information in one central location. There is the problem of balancing all the different recipes for producing any given product with different resources. There’s the problem of needing to update constantly as all of these factors change. And only when you have resolved all of those do you get to the relatively minor problem of having sufficiently computational power to solve really huge multidimensional systems of nonlinear equations. These issues CAN arise because things are scarce; but they aren’t simply another way of saying “scarcity,” any more than the existence of life is simply another way of saying “thermodynamics.”

      Of course, I suppose if you had Vast enough computational resources, all human desires and behavior might seem robotically predictable and repetitious to you, just as the behavior of lizards or wasps may seem so to human beings. But I don’t think that can be reconciled with writing a story where human beings have anything that meaningfully resembles agency.

  43. I think we really don”t need to eat nanoparticles.. I mean, if the nanotechnology was used to keep the food bacteria-free or to thickening the food, and if we absorb it imagine how it can affect our DNA, molecular or cellular system. We have good bacteria in our bodies protecting our health. Nanotech in our food is disgusting for me. It”s not natural! And I think we all know processed food can cause cancer.

  44. William H. Stoddard writes, “, I suppose if you had Vast enough computational resources, all human desires and behavior might seem robotically predictable and repetitious to you,…”

    There’s a hugely mistaken assumption in this, a “big computing” edition of a not-uncommon trap clever people — and especially very clever people — tend to fall into. Computational (or intellectual) horsepower alone will not solve the problem: you need a large body of accurate data about the behavior of the population you’re hoping to predict, wasps or lizards or strange hairless primates. Since the latter are prone to self-serving fabulation and not generally introspective (as has been pointed out upthread), they’re not a terribly good source of trustworthy data about themselves and only slightly better sources of data about their peers. This will lead even the most sophisticated predictive model astray.

    You can try to take that into account, but now instead of a “thumb on the scales” from every member of your sample pool (which at least gives you the cultural average difference between expressed desires/perceived needs and actual desires and needs once you have run the thing long enough and compared results to predictions), it’s just your own bias, and as likely to be wrong as the initial sample, if not more so. If you run it long enough (multiple human lifetimes), the difference between expression/self-understanding and reality might give you a trustworthy fudge factor — but abrupt changes in external conditions will upset this and require recalibration, and we still haven’t solved for the Flynn-described problem (In “In The Country Of The Blind”) of effective prediction becoming yet another input to the system, one that becomes more and more significant as more players begin to practice it.

    While I suspect The Culture might be workable as a simple huge mess of smaller units of high-tech ad-hockery, sufficiently advanced that to most organic intelligences it is “indistinguishable from magic” in the Arthur C. Clarke sense, I haven’t read enough Banks to be confident such an interpretation can be supported by the body of his work in that fictional universe.

    • >I haven’t read enough Banks to be confident such an interpretation can be supported by the body of his work in that fictional universe.

      I’ve read them all.

      It’s sort of definitionally unclear. We see AI Minds get together in ad-hoc groups to decide things. One gets the vague impression there might be a sort of Senate of very high-level Minds at the top of the Culture’s authority hierarchy – it is capable of going to war as a whole and has done so at least once – but Banks never clarifies this.

  45. Question: Would the Culture books have been good SF if they had been written before Hayek and Mises published their work on the Calculation problem? Is sf based on obsolete theories good sf if it’s executed well?

    People seem to think “A Martian Odyssey” is good SF, even though the theories about the nature of Mars it was based on have since been disproven. Does this mean that any sf story written before 1920 can get away with ignoring the calculation problem? (Or maybe even later than that since it probably wasn’t widely known and accepted immediately)

    I tend to regard sf based on science that was accepted at one time, but is now refuted, as “good sf.” “The Logic of Empire” is still good sf even though we now know Venus isn’t covered in swamps full of life. “Blowups Happen” is still good, even though breeder reactors don’t work the way they did in that story. I believe that “The Midas Plague” is based on some weird quasi-Keynesian economic theory, the theory has been disproven, but the story is still a good exercise in speculation.

    I also regard as “good sf” stories that were written after a theory was debunked, but still use it as an act of homage. “In the Courts of the Crimson Kings,” for instance, is based on pre-Viking probe Mars, and is quite good even though we know Mars is uninhabited. So I don’t know if something is bad sf just because it’s based on a scientific theory that has been demonstrated to be false.

    • >Is sf based on obsolete theories good sf if it’s executed well?

      Yes. Because the genre goal of affirming rational knowability is achieved if you write in light of the best rational knowledge available to you, and that remains true even if the theory is later busted.

      There are some really odd edge cases around this. The Skylark sequence – the first books to take a spaceship out of the Solar System, and among the handful of works most influential in early SF’s development – are based, insofar as they are scientifically coherent at all, on pre-Einsteinian ether physics. Already obsolete on first publication in 1928…but Doc Smith may not have known this when he began writing in 1915, as special relativity was only 10 years old then and knowledge of it may well not have escaped to the general public.

      >“In the Courts of the Crimson Kings,” for instance, is based on pre-Viking probe Mars, and is quite good even though we know Mars is uninhabited.

      Right. Sterling dodged that bullet by dropping implications that the story takes place in a different timeline than ours. His one McGuffin is a timeline in which Earth’s history is almost the same, but the planet Mars is different. And under the many-worlds interpretation of QM that not only fails to be impossible but is necessarily true!

      • I’ve got to agree with Eric here. For another good example consider some of Heinlein’s early books. Podkayne of Mars is still a great book even though we know that Venus isn’t remotely habitable by humans.

        Of course, one of the things that makes Podkayne great is the underlying structure of Heinlein’s characterization. Each of the characters embodies one of Freud’s ideas about the Id, Ego, and Superego, and reading the book as an adult I was a little confused about how to interpret the story: Were there really three characters, or was there only one character who’s brain had fractured along Freudian lines?

      • For a hard SF example of obsolete SF, check out “Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” an unauthorized sequel to Wells’ War of the Worlds. Published in 1898, it has some of the earliest examples of ray guns, space suits, and reversing the polarity. Project Gutenberg has the original newspaper illustrations which add great flavor to the story (and it can use it–the characterization was not up to Gernsback’s level).

  46. Thanks everyone for the discussion. I still find the Z3 Paradigm Framework quite compelling. By the way, Z3 part 4 was posted March 21.

    People were interpreting me as advocating a labor theory of value, and I’m really not sure that I was. The Z3 theory of value is: let’s value the well-being of everyone. If we truly do that, then we can operate and organize on an all-volunteer basis. We can make all kinds of measurements, including quantities of materials, hours of people’s time – all the same measurements that we measure now, and others too – and operate more efficiently than we do with pricing.

    • > The Z3 theory of value is: let’s value the well-being of everyone.

      Google the phrase “utility monster”. You are beyond mere ignorance into a degree of clueless silliness which, if it were mass, would form a black hole and swallow anything near it.

      • I hope you’ll indulge me – I’d like to try to pinpoint the disconnect here.

        Would you say:
        (1) Valuing/loving everyone isn’t a good idea?
        (2) Not enough people are likely ever to value/love everyone for a post-market world to be feasible?
        (3) Even if everyone or nearly everyone valued/loved everyone, markets would still be useful/important/necessary?
        (“Markets” defined as tit-for-tat transactions)

        • >(3) Even if everyone or nearly everyone valued/loved everyone, markets would still be useful/important/necessary?

          In the presence of scarcity, there are only two ways to resolve resource contention at scale: free markets or force. Small groups like families can partly avoid this problem by being Becker altruists with respect to each other, but that doesn’t scale up.

          Your “value everybody” is inane because non-market ways of “valuing” anyone lead to all kinds of pathologies due to the implied ability of any party to make value claims without cost. This leads to many pathologies, of which utility monsters are only the most obvious.

          • Z3* advocates valuing or loving everyone, caring about/for everyone, which seems similar to what many have described using terms like agape, universal/unconditional love, etc. I don’t interpret it primarily as an economic method, but as an ethical orientation that we can cultivate, whatever the economic conditions/systems.
            It seems like quite a thing to imagine people truly, deeply, enthusiastically embodying such an orientation on such large scales that we might experience it as nearly universally pervasive. It’s an enormous “if,” but if we seriously consider that scenario… could we not hypothetically get past contending, get past making claims that don’t harmoniously take into account the consequences for everyone? At least, could we not overcome such contention and claims to such a degree that we’ll no longer find it useful, important, or necessary to try to systematically “balance out” our interactions, or transactions, with each other? If we, the people, are genuinely making everyone’s well-being the top priority, might we not find that it’s more efficient to stop trying to preserve such balances, such symmetries, on the micro scale of individual interactions?
            In the current context, such ideas seem likely to be interpreted as attempts to selfishly take advantage of others – if one isn’t expected to provide comparable value in return for a lot of the things one receives, then that may just seem like a great way to receive a lot and not give a lot. But if we practice universal love ardently, and pervasively, then when resources are scarce, we’ll truly do our best to use sparingly and give generously. We’ll do our best to make each interaction as pleasant and fulfilling as possible for all involved, but we’ll be fine with someone seeming to receive a greater quantity of resources than someone else in a particular instance, confident that it’s all working out well for everyone – making currency, for example, superfluous. We’ll take care of ourselves too — we’ll still know ourselves better than others know us, in many ways, so it will make sense to communicate one’s personal preferences. There’s also a sense in which “self-sacrifice” is sensible and could be one important feature of this scenario – we’ll sometimes forego short-term personal preferences (as is surely the case in any remotely sane scenario), and we’ll be more than happy to do so, knowing that the overall enterprise is going in good directions. I know it may sound like sentimental nonsense, but as they say, before you can achieve it, you must first perceive it!
            (Z3 paradigm framework: https://zhergish.wixsite.com/zherg/single-post/2017/11/17/Z3-Paradigm-Framework)

      • Ah the perils of the auto-didact. The concept is laughably obvious, I invented it myself. Who knew there was already a name for it? Ha.

        That said, to borrow a phrase, I think the utility monster was invented as a warning, not a how-to guide.

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