The Economics of Science Fiction
When we think of world-building in science fiction, the focus is often on technology (faster than light travel), aliens, or distant worlds. But the underlying substrate of any believable world is economics. How does the society function? How do things get done?
Jo Lindsay Walton is an editor of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, a writer of fiction himself and the man behind the Economic Science Fiction and Fantasy database — a repository of information relating to economics in, you guessed it, science fiction and fantasy. Jo and I recently had a wide-ranging conversation on the issue of economics in science fiction and well, once Jo got started, this turned into one of the most amazing, thought-provoking and fascinatingly entertaining conversations I’ve done at the Adjacent Possible. It’s a long read, but absolutely essential for someone who thinks critically about the genre.
So, grab a beverage, and maybe some popcorn, and get ready for one hell of a ride…
The AP: Can we start with some examples of science fiction where economics plays a vital role?
JLW: Hey, thanks for having me. I guess the first thing to mention is three collections, out this year, that are all about economics. Strange Economics, edited by David Shultz, is an anthology of original speculative fiction. Economic Science Fictions, edited by Will Davies, is a collection of academic essays mixed with fiction plus some weird hybrid stuff. Big Echo #7, edited by William Squirrel, is fiction and interviews responding to Marx’s Capital. I’ve got pieces in those. Also, Polina Levontin and I edit Vector, and the next issue (later this year) is all about economics.
But really, once you start looking, economics is everywhere in science fiction. Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, totally different in most ways, both preach libertarian economics. Karen Lord’s Galaxy Game and Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom both play with reputation-based currencies. In Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the Golgafrincham Ark Fleet Ship B confronts us with a compelling economic conundrum: what’s the difference between useful and pointless work? In a complex interconnected society, can we figure out that difference? Does a telephone sanitizer have, to use David Graeber’s term, a “bullshit job”?
Plus you also see a pretty strong correlation between economic themes and cyberpunkyness: authors like Cory Doctorow, Malka Older, Tim Maughan, Charlie Stross, Lauren Beukes, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Ken Macleod, Neal Stephenson, Karl Schroeder, Annalee Newitz, Pat Cadigan. It’s there in Samuel Delany’s Nova. If you put cyberpunkyness on the y axis and economicsyness on the x axis, you get an upward sloping curve that maybe eventually turns into a parabola.
And there’s a lot of science fiction where the economics is there, but it’s not in your face. Margaret Atwood has an interest in economics — she even wrote a non-fiction book all about debt — and you get economic themes all throughout her work. Oryx and Crake explores the objectification of girls and women, where sexual exploitation meets economic exploitation. The Secret Burgers in Year of the Flood remind me of how Karl Marx invoked Gallerte, animals boiled into a gelatinous mass, to try and convey the horror of the commodification of human labor. In The Handmaid’s Tale, when the Gilead regime wants to enslave women, what’s their first move? They freeze all bank accounts tagged “F.” Atwood wrote that in 1985, but it really resonates with contemporary controversies.
The AP: What do you mean? Debates around whether we still need cash?
JLW: Right. The digital payments industry tells us that going cashless will be harmless, super-convenient … and inevitable. They would say that. Starting to stamp out physical bills and coins is part of a much bigger transformation. More and more relationships are becoming datafied. So there’s more data about our interactions with one another, and more of our interactions are done with data.
The digital payments industry tells us that going cashless will be harmless, super-convenient … and inevitable. They would say that.
Physical cash gives us a little leeway to do stuff where it can’t be seen or messed with. It gives us a little breathing space from surveillance capitalism. When all our money transactions take place on computers owned by banks, what is left to prevent surveillance or manipulation? Mainly just laws. Laws may be hard to enforce in the first place, plus they can change over time. So — getting rid of cash? When somebody proposes a change, you can’t just ask, “What will this be like?” You have to ask, “What other changes will this make possible?” That is, of course, science fictional thinking.
The AP: So you think it’s a bad idea?
JLW: I mean, probably. Maybe there are good versions of it. If there are, it might take a bit of economic and science fictional genius to figure them out.
But maybe I’m just being a technophilistine. I still don’t believe contactless payments work unless you at least whisper “Beep!” under your breath.
The AP: But when you say “economics,” you mean far more than just currency of course.
JLW: Oh, sure. You can have moneyless economies. Things can be produced and distributed without money. Gift economies, barter economies, mutual aid economies, honor economies, some command economies, intricate hybrids of all those things. That’s something a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction gets wrong, I think. It’s easy to suppose that when money disappears, the only other options are a barter economy or a brute force free-for-all. But in fact if you look at historical examples of moneyless economies, they’re way more mixed-up and complicated and interesting.
There’s another book by Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, which I highly recommend to any crapsack worldbuilders. The other Jo Walton has already given glowing praise to Debt, so by the law of diminishing marginal utility, the value of one additional unit of Jo Walton recommendation drops. But still, check it out. Also Barter, Exchange and Value, edited by Caroline Humphrey and Stephen Hugh-Jones; Money and the Morality of Exchange edited by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry; and an article “Diverse Economies” by J.K. Gibson-Graham. In fact, if you want more reccos for writing ideas, I have a list here.
The AP: So if it’s not just about money and wealth, how do we define economics?
JLW: Economics is about money and wealth, but it’s also about labor, class, production, consumption, distribution, about risk, about the design of incentives or of organizations, and loads more. It’s about what gets done, what gets made, who gets what, and how and why. It’s about worldbuilding and world-rebuilding. Increasingly, I’d say, it’s about data. And it’s about smugness. No getting away from that. If you put smugness on the y axis and economicsyness on the y axis, you get a concave upward sloping curve.
The AP: Sounds like economics might be about almost everything.
JLW: Yes! And that’s what makes it hard to define. One response is to say that economics is basically a set of methods — for instance, positing utility-maximizing agents with fixed preferences — which you can then apply to any bit of that ‘everything’ that you feel like. Some economists go for that. But I think it’s a bad idea to freeze economics as a set of methods, because it leaves no room for those methods to evolve. Imagine if medicine had been defined as the application of leeches, and radium, and being forced to go on holiday to Brighton, to any subject matter. That said, it can be interesting for science fiction writers to take some longstanding principles of economics and rigorously apply them, not only to everything there is, but also to everything there isn’t.
We’ll get back to the interview with Jo in just a moment. I thought this might be a good time to take a brief intermission and let you catch your breath. It’s also a good time to suggest you sign up for the Adjacent Possible newsletter. In addition to alerts on future Q&As like this one, each issue features recent news items you may have missed from the worlds of science, technology, space, science fiction and anything else that falls into the space called the Adjacent Possible. It’s a must for sci-fi writers, aspiring writers, or just those who love to be on the frontiers of the amazing. Just click the link above.
The AP: I wanted to ask about how writers can use economics. But we still don’t really have a definition yet, do we?
JLW: Well, some older definitions of economics can make it sound a bit like sociology, like Alfred Marshall, who calls it the study of people as they “live and move and think in the ordinary business of life.” And then there are definitions that emphasize justice, welfare, happiness.
But by far the most influential definition, by Lord Robbins in the 1930s, puts scarcity at the heart of economics. Robbins says economics is the science of human behavior, considered as a relationship between ends and scarce means, especially scarce means which confront us some kind of choice … things that could be used in this way or that way, but not both …
The AP: So by “ends,” Robbins just means whatever that people want?
JLW: Yes, absolutely. Needs, desires, hopes, dreams. And this “ends” side of things is so important. We have to remember that scarce isn’t just a synonym for finite. Even if we only had one bottle of water, technically it wouldn’t be scarce, so long as that was all the water we could ever want.
The AP: You said it’s an influential definition of economics. Do you think it’s a good one?
JLW: It’s okay, I guess. “Means and ends.” In practice, I don’t know that mainstream economists really care that much about the “ends” side of things. For instance, when they talk about “demand,” they aren’t talking about how many people actually want something or how badly they want it. For these guys, “demand” is the quantity of a commodity that people are willing and able to pay for, at a given market price. If ten thousand people in a wasteland are dying of thirst, and they have no money and no way of getting any money, what’s the “demand” for a sip of water in this particular market? It’s zero.
I’m talking about mainstream economics here. Since the so-called marginalist revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline has tended to ignore idle speculation about why we value this or that. There are exceptions, like hedonic shadow pricing, or research on entrepreneurship, or maybe some market design stuff. But mostly we’re just too weird and ornery. And besides, everybody’s different! Friedrich von Hayek is the big cheerleader for this perspective. And that shift was part of a bigger shift whereby mainstream economics became increasingly mathematical and “scientific.” The word “science” appears in Robbins’s definition, for instance. Much of the discipline, some would argue, also became increasingly less grounded in reality.
By contrast, science fiction — and other kinds of literature — is obviously extremely interested in getting inside people’s heads and hearts, and figuring out not only what people desire, but also why and how, and what it feels like. And how desires might change. And the deeper significance of those changes. When you write a novel, you’re not going to start off saying, “Okay, I am going to assume that my characters preferences will remain fixed.” So maybe that’s one reason the meeting between science fiction and economics can be quite fruitful. Science fiction has the same love for abstraction and modelmaking, and shares a certain sense of what “rigor” is … but it’s fundamentally about actual human experience in a way mainstream economics just isn’t.
By contrast, science fiction — and other kinds of literature — is obviously extremely interested in getting inside people’s heads and hearts, and figuring out not only what people desire, but also why and how, and what it feels like.
Then again, mainstream economics isn’t the only game in town. Institutional economics, welfare economics, behavioral economics, game theory, feminist economics, Marxist economics, economic sociology, economic anthropology, economic geography, economic humanities, even future studies, computer science, data studies, social and political theory. Robert Shiller, who was influential in establishing behavioral economics as a field, has recently proposed there needs to be such a thing as narrative economics. I guess that might be particularly interesting to science fiction writers.
Once you really broaden it out like that, though, you might want to start calling it “political economy” instead of “economics.” Talking about political economy emphasizes that longer and more pluralist intellectual tradition, which has links with moral philosophy and questions about the good life. It emphasizes that we may come up against problems that don’t respond well to scientific and mathematical reasoning.
The AP: That seems more relevant to science fiction, somehow.
JLW: Well, I think science fiction is interdisciplinary by nature. For me, a good concept of “hard science fiction” isn’t whether it conforms to all these established tropes, like no whooshing in space or no FTL travel. It’s whether it makes sense and is interesting to the practitioners of whatever disciplines it draws from. Does it manage to create a real dialogue, even if it gets some details wrong? So that gives you a sense of what hard economic science fiction might look like!
But science fiction is more than interdisciplinary: science fiction can be metadisciplinary, it can make up its own little disciplines and fields. There’s something I don’t think I’ve really seen, but would be very interested in, and that’s imaginary economics, as opposed to imaginary economies or imaginary economic laws. Somebody should write an alt history, for instance, in which Bernard de Mandeville writes, “Public virtues, private pleasures.” Then imagine this whole topsy-turvy intellectual tradition obsessed with the idea that by pursuing the common good, individuals actually magically wind up promoting their own personal interests. Adam Smith could write something like, “It is not from my expectation of dinner that the butcher, the brewer, or the baker come to regard to their own interests, but from my benevolence.”
But science fiction is more than interdisciplinary: science fiction can be metadisciplinary, it can make up its own little disciplines and fields.
Really, it’s not just science fiction that needs to get its economics right. It’s economics that needs to get its science fiction right. Economics, or political economy, or whatever you want to call it, needs a strong and tender sense of what’s possible.
The AP: What do you mean by that?
JLW: Utopia, I guess. Could you write a utopia that doesn’t at least imply some kind of economic system that’s completely different to what we have today? I don’t think so.
Although, story prompt, obv.
Utopia, or even just a slightly nicer place to live. On one of his panels at EasterCon this year, Kim Stanley Robinson said something about functioning social democracy having become the new revolutionary aspiration. I can’t remember his exact words, probably not any of those, and he was kind of laughing at himself for saying it. But I liked the gist a lot. The way things are supposed to work in our societies, the way that we often act like they work, isn’t how they do work.
You know, the way things are supposed to work — private enterprises prevented from doing harm by law, regulation and concern for their reputation; private enterprises even giving a little extra back via corporate social responsibility; enterprises and individuals paying taxes; taxes funding welfare and public services to ensure everybody has security and dignity; the law protecting everybody from violence and extreme exploitation; if you’ve been treated unfairly, being able to seek arbitration and remedy; charities being just an additional layer of assistance grounded in altruisms and passions; freedom for the most innovative ideas and the most driven workers to flourish; trade associations and professional associations and unions ensuring that different forms of expertise and experience are well-represented in political decision-making; a public sphere where power is held to account; checks and balances and strong democratic institutions to keep government in check — none of that is, empirically speaking, how it goes down.
Yes, it varies from place to place and time to time, and those variations are seriously important. But as a fairytale, it’s played out. Whereas as a set of goals, even if they’re vague and badly expressed — or maybe especially because they’re vague and badly expressed — as a set of goals that aren’t yet possible, that require some really brave and maybe science fictional thinking and acting to progress toward, they’re … not bad.
The AP: Typically, though, utopian societies have economics that are quite different to our own.
JLW: That’s true, it’s not usually debugged or redeemed or rebooted versions of capitalist social democracy. The histories of science fiction and utopian literature — and dystopian, of course — are braided together. Utopian thinking implies speculative economies.
The AP: Any examples of those?
JLW: Tons. Thomas More’s Utopia has interesting stuff to say about money, which in his case basically means gold. Yes, money is abolished, but not by getting rid of the gold altogether. Instead it’s kept for children’s toys, and chamber pots, and the chains of slaves. So perhaps there’s something there about how you design the absence of an institution, how you make that absence sustainable. (Yes, there are slaves in that particular “utopia”).
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 is practically a treatise in political economy. Everybody’s “wages” are fixed at the same level, but there’s a kind of supply and demand mechanism, so if you work in a job few people are willing to do, you don’t have to work as many hours.
Labor and scarcity are big themes in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Annares is a communist anarchist society — no property, no government — and Le Guin is kind of stress-testing this idea. Instead of making things easy and imagining material abundance, she imagines famine and toil. Instead of focusing on the exemplary utopian citizen, she focuses on a gifted misfit. The Dispossessed focuses on how things like culture, education, the family, ideology and spirituality contribute to this ambiguous utopia. But there’s also a passing mention of this big computer which really interests me. The computer coordinates the division of labor and the distribution of goods. Maybe she’s describing what we’d now call platform co-operativism? Uber, but for anarcho-communism?
Anyway, it’s a fleeting thing, and there’s some suggestion of the dangers of centralization. That’s quite telling too. The Cold War really shaped the way we see the relationship between AI and economic planning. A computer-controlled economy tends to make us think of megalomaniac evil supercomputer taking over the world, till you burst it with a logic bomb like, “Omnitocom, what is love?” Occasionally you get more benign economic planning by AI — like in The Dispossessed where the computer isn’t personified at all, or in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, or most of the Minds in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. But generally we think AI in economics is kind of sinister, and we think it’s sinister because it’s centralized and it’s totalitarian. I don’t think that this imagery — this way of looking at things — has served us well over the past half century. Finance and computation have in fact grown more and more integrated, and we’ve missed too many of the dangers because we’ve focused so much on centralization vs. decentralization. Are gig economy platforms centralized or decentralized? Well, they’re both those things in different ways. It’s the wrong question to ask. A better question is, “Omnitocom, are the platform’s stakeholders empowered? Are the transformative processes unleashed by platformization subject to democratic scrutiny? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.”
One more example. Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing features a kind of energy currency. It also has different categories of sacred things, which have an intrinsic value beyond human usefulness. So there’s a kind of ecological economics, but it’s very different to the “ecosystem services” approach, which is usually about trying to quantify the value of nature, trying to cram it back into the calculations of policymakers and markets.
The AP: Let’s talk more about writing. As writers, we’re told to focus on creating three-dimensional characters, and worldbuilding often refers to what a place looks like. Why are economics given so little attention when people are creating the “universe” their stories will live in?
JLW: Well, economics does try to shroud itself in mystery … or more specifically, in boringness. So maybe some writers just bounce off the boringness?
I don’t think economics scholars are the main culprits there — they love it when non-economists show interest in their work, and sometimes they try hard to make it exciting and accessible. I think the main culprits are pundits and politicians, who appropriate economic language to enhance their power and authority. Plus some people in business and finance who cherry-pick bits of economics to avoid thinking about the ethical implications of what they do. But anyway, that boringness is definitely there. You don’t sit there thinking, “What my novel needs is some boringness!”
But actually, I’m not sure. I don’t know. A lot of authors really put a premium on building an immersive world that “makes sense.” They care about physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, sociology, law. Why not care more about economics? I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s just that there’s slightly less of a tradition of that. Maybe you need a few more economists to try their hand at writing fiction, and then happen to be really good at it. Or maybe it’s because authors don’t trust that economics is telling the same kinds of truths as, say, physics.
The AP: But it can undermine a story, can’t it? When the economics don’t make sense?
JLW: Yes and no. Some readers, I know, will hurl a book against a wall when they come across what they consider an economic blunder. “That is a completely unrealistic ultracred debit for synthesizing a potato. Does the author take me for a fool?” On the one hand, I find this hilarious. It’s this arbitrary refusal to suspend disbelief. It’s like you’ve been peacefully playing Chess with somebody for half an hour, when you move a particular knight, and suddenly they knock over the board in a passionate rage: “Twas a mere wooden carving! I know Lancelot when I see him! Do you take me for a fool?”
The thing is, reading any novel is an extended exercise in forgiveness, imagination, and collaboration. Nothing in any novel is realistic in any strong sense. Novels don’t show us trees or cats or faces or lochs the way we perceive those things. Novel dialogue isn’t the uh, you know, like, the uh kind of chaotic, fragmented *flaps hands around* filler-filled monstrosity of actual, actual speech. As for representing your inner thoughts, oh my days! Even modernist stream-of-consciousness writing, which made a point of trying to nail that, comes nowhere close.
So if I’m reading some science fiction, and the economics don’t make sense to me, I usually do one of four things. I smile — smugly, because that’s a smile from economics, and economics is smug — and move on. Or I think maybe I’m just being dumb, and move on. Or I figure out a way to make it make sense, even if it means adding in all kinds of things that aren’t explicitly mentioned. Or if I can’t do any of those things, then I take it as an invitation to consider how to improve it, and whether those improvements might throw up problems of their own.
On the other hand, there is a Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles-shaped hole in my wall right now.
And also, science fiction fandom does embody its own proud set of intellectual traditions and institutions — somewhat separate from universities — and maybe being flamboyantly pedantic and grouchy is part of what sustains that.
The AP: You mentioned how bad economics can be the seed of a new story …
JLW: Definitely. Isn’t that how a lot of science fiction works? You’re reading and you snag on a moment you don’t like, or that you do like but that lingers and nags and tugs. You think, no, it wouldn’t be like that, it would be like this. Or, that was cool, but it could have been this way. You were a reader, and suddenly you’re a writer.
I do think economics itself is a great source of science fictional ideas, and maybe one that’s still a little under-used.
Everyone’s process is different. Probably there are some writers out there who do get really into a kind of systematic worldbuilding, and enjoy letting their stories take shape while figuring out the details of markets and supply chains. I bet that might be especially fun if you were playing with exotic materials and processes and commodities. Maybe more rigorous fantasy than science fiction, exactly? Bezoars, frozen zephyrs, changeling futures, boiling ivory, swarms of glass magistrates, heart strings, etc. How do these things interact? How do the characters caught up among them interact?
I do think economics itself is a great source of science fictional ideas, and maybe one that’s still a little under-used.
But I also think economics can work as a well of weird ideas. So not just something to get “right,” but something to deliberately do “wrong.” Economics is filled with plausible assumptions. So make some implausible assumptions, and imagine what changes. Invent some aliens with some exotic cognitive biases, and extrapolate how their economy works. Think of the weirdest smart contract you can imagine your protagonist getting tangled up in. Imagine a biopunk world in which feelings can be literally bought and sold. Create a society in which the division of labor is done in some radically different way. Develop a world of great abundance — perhaps kind of post-scarcity — in which anything that is paid for is paid for a brief stint of on-the-spot labor. Or a society where tweets are used as currency. Or imagine there are no economies of scale. Or come up with a society where prices are probabilities rather than fixed points ($1d6). Or imagine a world where temporal discounting is reversed, so faced with two similar rewards, people tend to choose the one furthest in the future. Why are things like this, and what are the implications? And what are the implications of the implication? You know. Science fiction.
The AP: Are fictional economics easier to integrate in novels than in film? Are there inherent challenges in depicting a viable, fictional economy in certain media?
JLW: Hmm, interesting question. I guess so, in the sense that you can risk an elegant little info-dump, or even remove some of the detailed explanation to an appendix. And you can go inside a character’s head and tell the reader how something feels. But film speaks its own language. The battered, lived-in, blue-collar future of the Alien films. Or the way Blomkamp’s Elysium puts inequality on screen, I guess.
I think there are some very important experiences and phenomena that are challenging to render in either medium.
Capitalism itself is incredibly difficult to represent. Our minds can’t really cope with complexity unfolding at that scale. We tend to have to personify it, or aspects of it. The invisible hand. Price discovery. How the markets are “feeling.” There’s also a whole long critical tradition which understands capitalism as not just big and complicated, but also self-mystifying. “Agnotologic capitalism” is one recent term: the idea is that the system manufactures unknowledge. It’s not just hard to understand how the system works, part of how it works is by being hard to understand.
I kind of had to give credit to that film The Big Short … it really did do its best to dramatize and explain the 2008 financial crisis, and it did it in this kind of Brecht-lite way, with Selena Gomez breaking the fourth wall and stuff. (Brecht is important to science fiction studies, because of his use of defamiliarization).
I suspect that games of various kinds may have the edge here. There’s some economics that’s hard to communicate unless you’re actively involved in the process as it unfolds. You kind of have to learn by doing. I’d want to play something that’s like The Dispossessed meets Bladerunner meets The Parable of the Polygons.
Ok, one more break. If you didn’t use the first intermission to sign up for the Adjacent Possible newsletter, now’s the time. Consider it source material for sci-fi writers and fans.
The AP: What other ways does economics manifest itself in science fiction?
JLW: Sometimes, I think, it does so metaphorically. For instance — this is fantasy rather than science fiction, but — in many representations of magic, there is some notion of cosmic balance. Okay, that has a long history, going back way before the rise of capitalism and the birth of political economy. And when money became a big deal, we drew on our knowledge of magic to understand how it worked … so no wonder we now draw on our knowledge of money to understand how magic works. Nevertheless, if you look at the way many writers explore that balance, they do often use quite narrowly economic ideas. The exchange of energy. Everything comes at a price. Sometimes it’s even a zero sum game. Mana is like money. Wages for Mages! But the metaphors tend to be drawn from folk economics, from whatever’s dominant or popular or feels like common sense.
Does it have to be that way? I was at a convention a while ago, moderating this panel about healing magic. The authors mostly agreed that healing magic had to come with a cost. In fact, we kept circling back to that theme. The cost, the cost. No “free” healing magic. Otherwise there wouldn’t be anything at stake in your narrative, right? You’d lose all jeopardy, all tension. Readers wouldn’t find the characters relatable. They wouldn’t find the world plausible, because everything would just be a massive heal fest. People would be using Cure Light Wounds just to get high. Trying to be a nice moderate moderator, I suggested that maybe everybody on the panel was wrong. Maybe we’re just habituated to thinking about healing this way because that’s how healing is represented all around us, where we’re bombarded with propaganda against free universal healthcare. Everybody laughed, so I pretended I’d been in some way joking, ha ha ha cry ha ha ha ha ha.
If we promise to look after each other when we’re sick, won’t people get soft, refuse to take responsibility for their lives; where’s the tension, the jeopardy? I guess next we need fantasy novels where wizards cyberbeg their mana from networks of familiars and spirits, praying they’ll go viral before the dragon swallows them …
The AP: Cryptocurrency seems tailor-made for science fiction. Are you seeing writers incorporate crypto into their works?
JLW: I probably haven’t been reading enough very recent science fiction to really be able to answer that.
For a cryptocurrency to be a viable currency for your science fictional future, you’d probably need it to be a fairly stable store of value. (Although another good worldbuilding prompt is where there is hugely volatile inflation and deflation constantly).
I do think Charlie Stross was a bit pissed off that he chose the term ‘Bitcoin’ in Neptune’s Brood, juuust before anybody had really heard of it? And his Bitcoin definitely isn’t the Bitcoin that we all know and, you know, that we all know. Interestingly, stability is a big theme in Neptune’s Brood. Recently we’ve seen the emergence of stablecoins, which seek to redress the notorious volatility of Bitcoin and other cryptos. For instance, there are ongoing experiments with what you could call a Decentral Bank, which follows certain rules to try to stabilize the currency, as well as experiments in linking cryptos together or linking them to normal currency or other assets. For a cryptocurrency to be a viable currency for your science fictional future, you’d probably need it to be a fairly stable store of value. (Although another good worldbuilding prompt is where there is hugely volatile inflation and deflation constantly).
Another fascinating thing is the two-way traffic between economics and science fiction. So you could flip that question around. Maybe we’re seeing crypto incorporate science fiction. For instance, I understand that hardcore crypto people — I’m not one of them — sometimes refer to science fiction such as Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom™ when they discuss whatever it is they discuss (nocoiners and fiatsplaining, I guess).
Another fascinating thing is the two-way traffic between economics and science fiction. So you could flip that question around. Maybe we’re seeing crypto incorporate science fiction.
Of course, cryptocurrency is just one possible application of blockchain technology. The idea of smart contracts, which has been around since at least the 1990s, is now becoming a reality. With a smart contract, you can commit to taking certain kinds of action in the future, if certain conditions are met, in a way that you can’t really wriggle out of. So you can create a contract that is at least partly self-executing. There is no notary to witness it, there is no third party arbitration and enforcement. Although in a way, the whole population of blockchain users are acting as that third party. So if something truly terrible happened, everybody could maybe agree to do a hard fork to say it never really happened. Presumably a rare event? (Story prompt: a society where it’s not a rare event at all. Call it like “Ten Trillion Paths Diverged in a Yellow Wood”).
You could also think of a smart contract as a bit like a small simple robot or golem that you program and then can’t reprogram, except in the ways that you’ve already programmed it to be reprogrammable. If you take that up a notch, you have the idea of “companies” that run themselves. The big example so far is the DAO which crashed and burned in 2016. Maybe you could program these creatures to, among other things, create other creatures? Giving computer viruses financial capital and the power to hire humans to do stuff for them is definitely a great idea and nothing can go wrong.
You know “Uber but for”? Possibly we’re entering a fool’s golden age of “blockchain but for,” where it gets applied in all kinds of inappropriate ways. I think I would like to see some sharp near future dystopian fiction about bad blockchain use.
So, on the one hand, blockchain is probably a bit of a buzzword right now — I like the browser plugin that replaces the word “blockchain” with “multiple copies of a giant spreadsheet” — but nevertheless, I suspect that we’re on the cusp of blockchain-ish stuff becoming a standard part of the furniture of the future. In other words, the use of cryptography, and distributed ledgers on a peer-to-peer network, to take care of stuff that might previously have involved some central authority, might start becoming a basic trope that yells to the reader, “Don’t worry it’s the future!”
I’m not exactly sure what form that will take, partly because I suspect blockchains in reality are going to be more and more tucked away: you’ll be using an application and may not realize or care it has a blockchain behind it. But I hope that if blockchains do become part of science fiction’s basic building block(chain)s, writers are going to take a critical and creative look at the cyberlibertarian discourse that surrounds blockchain, rather than just swallowing it whole. There is some nasty bad utopianism out there.
The AP: On your website you mention Cory Doctorow as someone who tackles the issue of economics in science fiction. What does he seem to get that the average novel (or show, film or video game) misses?
JLW: Hmm. Well, he’s often got this light, cartoony, har-de-har, slightly zany way of constructing things, and a knack for concrete fables that illustrate economic principles. But one thing I think he does well — which is a virtue for pretty much any novelist — is that he’s still infuriatingly slippery. Yes, there are many nuggets of clear polemic, like when he takes on Digital Rights Management or something. But he’s also reasonably good at arguing with himself. So overall, he presents you with the messy contradictions, rather than some artificial solution that makes the problem appear easy.
Some of that messiness is where economics, technology, and law intersect. (And I guess psychology too, although maybe that’s a given for fiction). Even when you’re centered on some bit of finance or economics, it’s better for it to be “impure.” It’s would be a waste of fiction, to simply host pure, pristine abstractions, constructed from economic categories and nothing else. Bring in the rest of the world too! This expertise in peripheral matters is where he got that Spanglish nickname, Core y Dr. Rest Of World.
A bit more specifically, his economics is newsy: it’s involved with thinking through the datafication and platformization of big chunks of society, the bigger role algorithms are playing in our social reality, and stuff like that. I think he’s got a pretty good sense of what it feels like for a machine logic to grope its way through your life — rearranging things according to these opaque categories that you don’t understand and probably never could — in pursuit of its goal. (Which is a goal you maybe do understand, for instance “step 3: profit”).
There’s this one imaginary digital platform in Walkaway that’s designed for mass collaboration — construction work, things like that. He makes up (I think) this term “networked social disattention.” This describes how the platform is partly built around hiding things from people (or making them feel comfortable ignoring things), if that’s what it takes to get the job done more efficiently. So this algorithm doesn’t just make and manipulate information, it also makes and manipulates disinformation — or what George Simmel might call secrecy — to get to its goals. I think the platform in Walkaway is fairly nice, though. A kind of utopian version of agnotologic capitalism, maybe.
The AP: Some platforms are less nice, presumably? And by the way, by a “platform,” you mean something like Uber?
Exactly. Matchmaking digital services like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, eBay, Fiverr, Mechanical Turk, Baidu. On a really broad definition you might include big social media sites … Facebook spies on you socializing, and then tries to hook you up with somebody selling something. So there’s a kind of matchmaking function there. Amazon I want to say is a different beast? But I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just such a jumble of platforms, its platformyness is harder to construe.
There has been a tendency for platforms like Uber and Airbnb to pretend all they do is put people in touch with each other. They invoke this participatory ethic. It’s like, “Oh, we just enable people to do the kinds of things they want to be doing anyway, but more safely and efficiently and at scale.” So in terms of Cory Doctorow, I think he has a clear sense that platforms do far more than that.
When Uber and Airbnb come to a city, the city changes. They’re gatekeepers, disciplinarians, agenda-setters. They generate massive externalities. Pretending to be mere pandars is how they naturalize those externalities. They say, “You must have qualities x, y, and z to access this thing (job, practice, opportunity, service, good, infrastructure). Here’s the catch. It’s up to you to gain those qualities, and we take no responsibility for how you do or don’t do that.” So they create new incentives, new ways of behaving, new needs, new aspirations, new identities, new ways of feeling, new modes and means of production, new hierarchies, new solidarity networks, new patterns of inclusion and exclusion. They also gather huge amounts of data. That data can then be used in ways that have little to do with the platform’s supposed core function.
By the way, these days I don’t think anyone’s really buying the whole line about “we’re just disintermediators, we just connect people and enable stuff.” So the way platforms present themselves is shifting. It’s probably always been a little tinted with the discourse of “we’re going to disrupt everything and drag you kicking and screaming into the science fictional future which is your destiny.” So maybe they’ll just go with that.
Also I’m not an expert on Cory Doctorow’s work — there’s lots I haven’t read — and I have really mixed feelings about some things I have read.
The AP: You did mention Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom earlier.
JLW: Oh yes! Whuffie, from that book, is a fascinating conceit. I called it a digital reputation currency earlier, and that’s fair enough. The gist is that when you do something people like, that automatically generates Whuffie for you. You don’t exactly “spend” this Whuffie, but Whuffierich people have more power and access to resources. Everybody has their basic needs met though. So Whuffie is about quantifying and networking social capital, and it foreshadows real things like Sesame Credit, Peeple, the importance of ratings in the gig economy. And it foreshadows fictional things like that Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” by Michael Schur and Rashida Jones.
But you can also look at Whuffie another way, where it’s not so much about popularity, but about labor and recognition, and about how people can come together to do something. In that sense, Whuffie might instead foreshadow things like Kickstarter and Patreon. Or even better, fledgling projects like Delic, which aims for a very fine-grained, flexible, monetized relationship between anyone who makes or does something, and anyone who pays attention to it. So Delic is different from any ad revenue-based model. It’s different from the thing Spotify does, where revenue is partly pooled, and Ed Sheeran and Drake get a teeny paycheck every time you listen to Tierce de Picardie, or whichever secret band you hardcore love. It’s also different from that more traditional Bandcampy “I bought the song and now it’s mine” model.
In a way, Whuffie might even foreshadow something like Ecosquared, another intriguing project. Ecosquared tries to weave together financial transfers with content-sharing, and perhaps introduce a gift-economy-esque logic into how we use money. It’s quite hard to give somebody money as a gift. It usually doesn’t feel right. If it had a little cat video embedded in it, would that change things? And what if money circulating in this way could at any moment be whisked back to the content creator? Could Snegiryov more easily accept money from Alyosha under the pretense that Snegiryov will give it to Janelle Monáe if he likes her concept album?
In a way, Ecosquared — not in its current implementation, but in the overall conceit — offers a crude, partial solution to the impossibility at the heart of Whuffie. In the novel, the world is perfectly divided up into little acts, and Whuffie somehow magically connects everybody’s acts and everybody’s feelings. It perfectly gives credit where credit is due. That’s godlike AI territory, really. But imagine if it wasn’t quite that good, but the Whuffie you received was freighted with all this metadata — which you might interact with directly or which might plug into other automated systems — which amounted to a big, gnarled crowdsourced snapshot of what might, in the best collective guesstimate, be making people happy right now …
But I’m getting carried away. The surveillance implications are horrendous.
The AP: I bet. You mentioned “surveillance capitalism.” What’s that?
JLW: For me, I guess the first key thing is that data about apparently innocuous things — like what you did in your Pokémon Go game — has become valuable and soughtafter, since if you jam enough data together and analyse it, you can figure out ways to manipulate people and make money from them. (In fact — this is just occurring to me — maybe personal data even now has an exchange value per se, like a kind of marchandise banale that everybody just wants because everybody just wants it?)
The second thing is that our capacity to generate and gather data has far outstripped our capacity to secure it. So data sloshes between all kinds of actors, government and private sector and rogue. When you add the fact that a lot of government power is going to be exercised through some kind of private intermediary … well, basically “surveillance state” starts to feel like an outdated and misleading term. Hence the more inclusive term, “surveillance capitalism.” But Shoshana Zuboff talks about it in proper detail … how Big Brother becomes Big Other.
The AP: One last question. How and why were you drawn to economics in science fiction in the first place?
JLW: There’s a very specific answer to that.
I’ve been into science fiction and economics for ages, but 2008 was when they really came together. 2008 was the year of the global financial crisis, originating in the US subprime mortgage market. Good times. In the UK, 2008 also marked the end of the New Labour government, as suddenly the Conservative Party and their cronies swept to power. Suddenly, everyone was speaking a new political discourse. Everything was about the deficit in public spending.
We have to bring down the deficit no matter what!
Everywhere you went, everybody was yelling about the deficit and the debt. Politicians, journalists, fishmongers. It was like being trapped in some horrible musical.
This was an incredibly successful period of political marketing for the Conservatives. Under brand Deficit®, they could get away with the most extraordinarily foolish, wicked reign, doing things that made even many mainstream economists go pale. Even the International Monetary Fund suggested they cool it. Economic murder, that is. A recent study has suggested the UK government has so far killed around 120,000 people with austerity.
And for years, the Conservatives and their cronies could blame everything on the previous administration, who had left them this thing called “the deficit,” that magically justified anything. For reasons I don’t understand, Labour at that time agreed to speak the language chosen by the Conservative. So Labour staked everything on a game of, “Who can be the most cruel and brutal?” and their great secret strategy, “Be slightly less cruel and brutal.”
But, around that time, whenever I asked people to help me understand what the deficit was … nobody seemed to really know. What was the difference between the deficit and the debt? What did “too high” actually mean? Was this the highest the debt had ever been? What was debt-to-GDP ratio? What happened when you hit 100%, did the country explode? Do bailiffs come and confiscate the Queen? Wait, was this really somehow about inflation? Okay, but was inflation that bad? Was the UK really a hyperinflation risk? Like, was building some affordable housing really going to turn it into Weimar Germany? (Spoiler: it’d take a lot more). Could what happened to Greece in 2009 really happen to the UK, as every journalist ever seemed to be implying? (Spoiler: absolutely not no way, literally no). You’d ask people what the problem with the deficit was, and they could tell you that government spending was “too high,” but they usually never even mentioned growth or tax or inflation. It’s like those things were fixed. The deficit was just this objective, absolute proof that spending was “too high.”
And then I was like, wait: who’s the government been borrowing money from? — most people I talked to assumed “other nations” or “the banks” or something. I went to this website called Google. Most of it was borrowed from UK pension funds. Was it that terrible that UK taxpayers were paying interest to UK pension funds? And then, even weirder, a huge amount of the debt was borrowed from the Bank of England — the central bank of the UK, like the Fed. Actually wtf? Didn’t the Bank of England make money? Was the government borrowing from itself?
What was going on? On the one hand, the deficit was all anybody talked about. And on the other, they didn’t ever actually talk about it.
I probably should have stopped there. By then I knew for sure that the deficit didn’t work the way the Prime Minister was pretending it did — like a personal debt — and that it didn’t override all other economic, political, and ethical considerations. But I guess it was too late. I was peering into this incredibly boring and undazzling rock pool, and the tedious anemones pulsed, and I was entranced. And what was swimming around in there was science fiction as much as economics.
Every answer produced more questions. The only way I could begin to understand how it worked was to imagine what would happen if this bit or that bit were different. So science fiction emerged out of ignorance, distractability, slowness, fiction. Speculative friction. It was a bit like playing games, learning through doing, even if the “doing” was all in my head.
And what was swimming around in there was science fiction as much as economics.
For instance, I discovered that normal commercial banks actually create most money out of nothing, by loaning money that doesn’t exist before they make the loan. How does that work? Okay, sure, they split a zero into an asset and a liability, and then the liability floats off into the money supply and enlarges it … but is there something special about a bank that makes it uniquely suited to creating money? In theory, could you have a society that has “money creation offices” instead? Why or why not? Or what if banks weren’t legally allowed to lend more money than they have in deposits? How would that change things? Does the Treasury ever issue bonds that nobody wants to buy? In what circumstances? What would be the implications?
That’s still where I’m at. The process of struggling to figure stuff out becomes the process of creating these science fictional sketches. When you partly understand something, you might have a few different rival ideas about how it works floating around at the same time. A wad of overlapping ghosts. You don’t know which are real, which are science fiction.
The AP: That seems like a great place to leave it. Thanks, Jo.
JLW: Thank you!