errorsandexceptions

Code, etc.

Category Archives: Reviews

Notes on the Mars Trilogy, part 3

The ecological themes of the trilogy centre around the question of the terraformation of Mars. Attitudes towards terraformation can be separated broadly into two camps: Reds, conservationists who oppose all attempts to drastically alter the Martian bioshere, and Greens, who want to alter surface conditions to make them suitable for human habitation by whatever means necessary. There are, of course, a great number of intermediate positions.

The Red camp are conservationists. The human presence, as far as they are concerned, should have minimal impact on the Martian landscape. Ann Clayborne, their de facto leader, is a geologist who supposedly prefers stones to people. Unfortunately (because it is the only false note I detected in over 2,000 pages), this propensity of hers is given a trite explanation in Blue Mars. Their point of view is that Mars is an object of study, and human interference pollutes the data. The question of whether life arose independently on Mars in the ancient wet phase of the planet’s history would undoubtedly be complicated by the presence of immigrant microbes. Their position is not based on solely scientific motives, nor are their motivations uniform. While the general thrust of the Red movement seems to imply a belief in the innate value of the landscape reminiscent of deep ecology, certain sections seem to be motivated by a misanthropic opposition to what they see as human pollution of a primal and unspoiled ecosystem. The catastrophic conditions on Earth lends backing to their cause, due as it is to the rapacious conduct of the human species. While the specific comparison is never invoked by Robinson, one cannot help but recall the humanity-virus equation of The Matrix. This is, in any case, a common theme, but it helps explain the Red misanthropy. A species that lives in permanent disequilibrium with its environment could not but defile the rocky stillness of the Arean plain.

For the Greens, on the other hand, humanity’s restless disequilibrium is a facet of its worth. Humanity’s expansionist tendencies are a result of its viriditas (a concept that owes as much to Dylan Thomas as to Aristotle).

The Reds and the Greens can be read as representing two opposing views on how to deal with climate change on Earth. There are those who say that in order to avert disaster we must reduce emissions, halt deforestation and decrease population through a massive effort of social reorganization. This view makes sense, but lack of international cooperation and the constant growth required by capitalism make it unlikely to be implemented in enough time to make a difference. The other group prefers to play dice. They bet that the human ability to manipulate the climate will keep pace with our destruction of it. They imagine deploying legions of carbon scrubbers like postboxes all over the planet’s surface, or pouring iron filings into the sea to reflect sunlight back into space. Oxygen-producing vegetation can be replaced with machines that replicate photosynthesis. These strategies are not necessarily bad ones. They require no magic, only an understanding of processes already going on in nature. Implementing them is a political and engineering challenge, nothing more.

As usual, the comparison is more suggestive than exact. In reality, there is no strict opposition between the two strategies and a composite strategy would probably be best. we can still salute Robinson’s prescience, however, in foreshadowing the growing interest in zero-impact living, taking modern earthly ecological positions and adapting them to Mars.

Notes on the Mars Trilogy, part 1

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is the story of the exploration, colonization and terraformation of the planet by an increasingly technologically adept human race. It follows the lives of the First Hundred permanent settlers as they build a new Martian society out of the red rock of the inhospitable world. It is also the story of the planet’s changing aspect, as it is transformed from a desert of iron oxide under a CO sky (Red Mars), through an expanse of extremophilic algae (Green Mars), to a leafy oceaned world with a breathable atmosphere (Blue Mars).

Robinson’s outlook is fundamentally more optimistic than pessimistic. While he does not fall prey to the sort of techno-utopianism that marrs something like Star Trek, he also eschews the dystopianism that characterises novels from, say, the cyberpunk movement. The future, for Robinson, is up for grabs. It will be decided by the outcome of the race between technological development and resource depletion in which one constantly leapfrogs the other.

That is not to say that he sees innovation as a panacea. The Tragedy of the Commons seems to be an almost inevitable consequence of a capitalist social structure where personal enrichment at the expense of the community is a possibility. There are really two problems to be addressed: scarcity and self-interest.
Space to build and materials with which to do it seem finite from the point of view of an earthbound culture. Expansion into space would change all that. In a world where space transportation is reliable and commercially available, resources are, for all intents and purposes, infinite. The ne plus ultra hitherto placed on economic development by the sum of the resources the Earth can contain is no longer relevant in a universe where interplanetary travel and cooperation is a possibility. For the moment, at least, we inhabit a planet of scarcity, but it is in a universe of abundance.

And a good thing it is too. Although the nascent Martian society that Robinson describes needs to adopt recycling and minimal use of resources due to the logistics of transporting raw materials, there is not attempt, at the start, to adapt their sustainable lifestyle to the Malthusian conditions on Earth. There, increases in efficiency and technology actually supercharge the process of depletion, as one would expect from the Jevons paradox.

(Jevons was an English economist who proposed that increases in the efficienty with which a resource is used tends to increase, rather than decrease, the rate of depletion of the resource.)

In a move that echos utopian thinkers of future political economy, Robinson predicts that the shift in human perspective from scarcity to plenitude and the end of resource use as a zero-sum game will result in an attendant change in social organization. If there is an explicit philosophy of history in the Mars Trilogy, this the kernel of it. Human culture progresses through a mixture of reaction and innovation, with scientific development being the driving force. Emancipation is the end to be hoped. This might sound like one of the cruder misreadings of Marx, but there are some crucial differences. There is no teleological force drawing humanity on. Its progress is not inexorable, but happens in fits and starts, and might not happen at all. The “Accelerando” that is gathering pace in Blue Mars (the settlement and flowering of human culture in the far reaches of the solar system) has nothing necessary about it. It is merely a strong possibility.

(I am not saying that this is what is in Marx, just defending Robinson from the charge that he subscribes to a caricature of Marxist philosophy.)

The overdetermination of culture by economic conditions that is a feature of most Marxisms is not a feature of Martian historical development either. While economic forces play a vital determining role in lots of ways, individual contributions, so absent in the tidal flow of dielectical materialism, often play a decisive role. So it is with Vladimir Taneev, whose gerontological treatment precipitates the world war and population crisis that shape the political destinies of Mars and Earth through the series.

A Review of WikiRebels, the Wikileaks documentary

This is a review of “WikiRebels”, a documentary on Wikileaks from SVT, the Swedish national broadcaster.

First let’s get something out of the way. The title, “Wikirebels”, is an embarrassment. Here we have another example of the propensity to coin neologisms by prefixing terms from IT and online culture. It is in the same vein as “cyberactivist”, “technoanarchist”, and other such monstrosities. In their defence, I should point out that this review is based on a rough cut posted on the SVT website, and the original Swedish title seems to be something different. I do not speak Swedish, so I cannot comment on whether it is better, worse, or equally terrible.

Another problem is the voiceover. It frequently strays into cliche and populism, all breathlessly delivered. Here is an example:

What we have here is a new breed of rebel. IT guerillas without a national base. Student digs, coffee bars and server rooms: these are their command and control centres.

I appreciate the necessity of making a documentary for people who do not necessarily know anything about Wikileaks, but I can’t see why in doing that they had to assume that the viewer has never even touched a computer. Again, criticisms aimed at the rough cut may not hold for the finished product. Hopefully some of the more egregious flaws will be remedied before the documentary is broadcast.

This documentary will appeal to two kinds of people: people who know nothing about Wikileaks and hardcore supporters. That is to say that it is not very substantial. People unfamiliar with the whistle-blowing website and looking to get up to speed will be well served by the hour-long portrait, while enthusiasts may be able to look past its faults. More critical viewers, meanwhile, might be frustrated by the lack of new information or insight into the inner workings of the organization.

Here is the root of the problem. Wikileaks is a clandestine group that can only do its work in secret. Julian Assange, and later Kristinn Hrafnsson, have chosen to be the public face of the organization. They are the ones willing to speak to cameras and take the considerable risks that come with media exposure. But this is supposed to be a documentary, not an interview, and the need for other talking heads and other viewpoints is filled by people who are no longer affiliated with Wikileaks or who never really were. Some of them have their own agendas. Others, such as PRQ CEO Mikael Viborg, give us an interesting glimpse into Wikileaks’s electronic infrastructure.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, aka Daniel Schmidt, features heavily. A lot of time is given to his criticism of Assange’s leadership and his new Openleaks project. It is said that Domscheit-Berg left Wikileaks of his own accord due to ideological differences with Assange. It has been alleged elsewhere that his resignation followed his being suspended for unspecified misconduct. While it is true that his earlier involvement in Wikileaks makes him a useful source of information, the circumstances around his departure and the conflict of interest created by his current project mean that he could hardly be considered an impartial commentator.

The same goes from Birgitta Jonsdottir. She was heavily involved in editing the Collateral Murder video and creating and promoting the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. All this makes her a valuable witness to Wikileaks’s recent history, but her vocal opposition to Assange’s leadership and remarks she has made about him in the press cast doubt on her reliability.

But it’s not all bad. The most valuable thing reporters Jesper Huor and Bosse Lindquist have done in this documentary is to give centre stage to the Collateral Murder video. Three or four minutes of the forty-minute video are shown. They have removed everything but the tough indigestible kernel. An Apache helicopter mows down a group of unarmed men, including two Reuters employees, then engages a van driven by a father bringing his children to school who has stopped to help one of the wounded. In the context of the longer video the footage was already harrowing, but here, edited, it is a stomach-churning vomit-inducing atrocity. If Huor and Lindquist’s intention was to galvanize support for Wikileaks, which I suspect it was, this part of the documentary will do the trick.

The elephant in the room was always going to be the allegations against Assange. The documentary devotes some time to them at the end, but very few details are given. The filmmakers do not pass judgement either way. Wikileaks supporters might have hoped to see some more investigative work here, but it is undoubtedly better to avoid public speculation about an ongoing criminal investigation.

Though this documentary is a worthy effort, it feels a little out of date. Assange’s arrest is mentioned, but none of the subsequent developments. There is also very little treatment of the technological developments that have taken place since the release of the State Department cables. The problems with hosting, the mass-mirroring efforts and the recent DDoS attacks are all neglected. Perhaps this is to be expected. This documentary is the result of several months’ work, and the television production cycle is not suited to such a fast-moving story. The nimbleness of blogging, Twitter, etc., makes the internet a better arena for information and discussion in this instance. “WikiRebels” left me feeling as if traditional media are merely playing catch-up.

You can watch the documentary on SVT Play until Monday, 13 December.