The Prometheans: Introduction

I became aware, last week, of a pop-culture phenomenon that had previously eluded me – a book called Ready Player One, which is currently being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg. Many people were circulating extracts from it on Twitter, talking about how it was literally the worst book ever written, and certainly the extracts seemed like they could plausibly come from the worst book ever.

I’d never read the book, but the name seemed familiar. When I realised where from, a lot of things clicked into place.

I knew the name because the book was the winner, in 2012, of an award called the Prometheus Award. This is an award given by the Libertarian Futurist Society to science fiction novels which they consider deal with libertarian themes. (The authors of those books may disagree with that assessment – there was a joke in the mid-2000s that it was an award for “best Scottish socialist novel”, given the number of times that Ken Macleod and Charles Stross, neither of them Libertarians, were nominated for the award).

I have, for a while, wanted to engage on the project of reading the books which have won that award. There are a couple of reasons for that – many of my favourite books are on the list of winners, and even more are in their “hall of fame” list of classic works, so it’s reasonable to presume I might find at least a few more I’m interested in. And I’m particularly curious about this because these are books about ideas, many of which are books I like, which have been chosen by people whose politics are wildly different from mine.

But I’ve recently realised that there’s a more pressing reason for this.

I’ve been working on a novel for a while now, The Basilisk Murders, which should be out in a matter of weeks. It’s a cosy mystery with a side helping of satire, and what it’s satirising is a particular worldview – a combination of Austrian school economic libertarianism, a belief in the oncoming technological singularity, a belief that all problems are really just technical problems that can be solved by code, a hatred of the very concept of government, and a surface-level social liberalism which reveals a more deep-rooted pseudoscientific racism and misogyny. Geek technolibertarianism.

This is a real ideology, which is shared by a fairly small number of people, but those people have, in recent years, become hugely influential. They are, in effect, the intellectual figleaf for the Trump/Brexit programme.

This is not, of course, to say that Trump or the Quitlings’ policies match those the geek technolibertarians would advocate, but that the powerful people use the geeks’ ideas to justify them. See most blatantly the recent growth in popularity among truly hateful people of the term “virtue signalling”, which was coined by Austrian School economist and technolibertarian Robin Hanson (a man whose most recent book is an attempt to predict the future after human brains get uploaded to computers, The Age of EM, which may be one of the most inadvertently horrifying works ever created, both for the future it presents and for what it says about its author’s psyche).

These ideas are not shared by most of the Trump/Brexit coalition – which, like all successful political coalitions, is made up of many factions with conflicting goals and opinions. And indeed at least some of the technolibertarians wouldn’t consider themselves supporters of Trump or Brexit. But their ideas influence powerful people like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, help shape the rhetoric of people like Steve Bannon, and are a powerful force shaping the social media we all use – media in which content largely follows form, and whose content has caused the rise of these authoritarian-populist movements.

And the thing is…the technolibertarians are people like me. I’m very, very different from your typical Daily Mail reader or UKIP voter, to the point where there’s nothing for me to engage with there. But the technolibertarians share a lot of my cultural reference points, and even some of my individual policy positions (they’re very keen on basic income, for example, which is one reason you’ll have noticed an uptick in that policy’s visibility in recent years). I read a lot of the same blogs as those people, I share some of their aesthetics.

The difference is just…I used to like Dilbert, and I have most of the early Dilbert collections. But I’ve found it increasingly unfunny over the last fifteen years or so, and now Scott Adams has ended up posting barely-coherent blog posts about how Donald Trump is a master of hypnosis, and going on Fox News to talk about trying to fellate himself. And Dilbert is definitely one of the reference points of this group.

And a lot of these people’s ideas come from, and feed back into, science fiction. There’s a reason that it was “geek culture” that produced Gamergate and the Rabid Puppies, two of the early signs of Trumpism. One can trace direct lines from science fiction writers like Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein to the beliefs of many of the people who are actually benefiting from Trumpism (the billionaires like Musk and Thiel).

And the list of Prometheus Award winners and hall-of-famers seems like it could be a good proxy for “the stuff technolibertarians have been reading”, while also presenting a list of books which I could actually find interesting to read.

So, over the course of this series of essays, I’m going to try to read them all and write about them. (I say try, because we all know that I only complete maybe a quarter of my projects, though I’m getting better at that now writing is my full-time job). These essays will be in a mixture of styles, depending on the book – some will be standard reviews, some will be more about the cultural history of the ideas in the books, and many will be me treating the books as a wall to bounce my own ideas off.

My hope is that by doing this, I will be able to better understand the real aims and objectives of many of the people who have power over us. But more importantly, I hope to be able to construct a counter-narrative.

I believe that one of the reasons for the way Liberalism is being marginalised at the moment is that it has engaged too much on the level of individual policies, and not enough on the level of broad, systemic, worldview and values discussion. Which is a real shame, because Liberals have the strongest intellectual foundation to build on of any political tradition, and indeed the Liberal Party managed to do more to advance liberalism in the period when it more-or-less acted as a think-tank from which other parties (mostly Labour) would steal ideas than the Lib Dems have in more recent times when concentrating on electoral success.

It might seem that talking about a load of old science fiction novels would be the least practical possible way to build support for liberalism and representative democracy. And certainly on its own it’s not going to do much. But I think that in the long term we need to win an intellectual argument – one that is very easily winnable, because the other side’s ideas are very poor when they’re actually exposed to any kind of scrutiny, but one which our side has really not been engaging in for quite a few decades. And the very first step in defining our own ideas is to look at why they’re not the ideas that are prominent at the moment.

So consider this series of posts a very small contribution to that. And if it doesn’t work in those terms, well, at least I’ll be talking about some books with spaceships in, and that might be fun.

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10 Responses to The Prometheans: Introduction

  1. robinhanson says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase “virtue signaling.” I’d be interested to hear more from you, of course, about Age of Em.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      My apologies, then. I’ve seen it attributed to you, and I’ve seen you talk about signaling behaviours so often, and have seen the phrase used so often among the LessWrong/Overcoming Bias/SSC cluster of people (for many years, long before it came into general use) that the attribution seemed likely.

  2. robinhanson says:

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Were you asking me in a reasonable manner, I might well go into some detail. As it is, I’ll just point people to this *positive* review by someone *far* more sympathetic to your ideas than I am and let them decide for themselves. . Alexander doesn’t cover even a quarter of the problems I have with the book, but there’s more than enough there.
      Trying to start a social media pile-on when you have far, far, more followers and prominence than I will ever have, though, shows you’re not interested in discussion, just in bullying, so you can fuck off, and I’m blocking you from commenting further, and won’t be letting through any comments from anyone I believe has come via your Tweets.

  3. I am not... says:

    It strikes me that the techno-libertarians as you describe them are absolutely a branch of Liberalism, and would once have found themselves happily within its mainstream. But they’re the kind of liberals who would have followed George Goschen or Herbert Simon into the Conservatives, and are now much more comfortable there.

    I think the real question is why liberalism, with both a large and a small L, has narrowed so much. I don’t merely mean the Lib Dems themselves, although the incredible hostility of so many in the party to the idea of coalition was dumbfounding. Rather, I mean the tradition as a whole.

  4. plok says:

    Maybe the project is possible: “The Dispossessed” is on that list, and it sets its fictionalized science and its social/personal ethics in a feedback loop which manages not to instantly produce a technocratic totalitarianism. I re-read it recently and can’t get it out of my head: best I can think to say is that its anarchosyndicalism abhors scientism?

    That would be a start!

    Don’t know if I was hoping it was on the list, or hoping it wasn’t. The moon society isn’t exactly Heinleinian! But I suppose there is enough Galileo Myth in it to satisfy a technolib dude.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, it’s a really odd list — especially if you look at the nominees and hall-of-famers as well as the winners. Stuff like Illuminatus! or Pratchett’s Night Watch or Stephenson’s THe System Of The World or Stross’ Glass House is very far from the techbrolibertarian, but I can still see why it appeals.

      • plok says:

        A bit of a funny one in there is Lord Of The Rings, maybe. Not exactly hard to see what’s approved of in The Weapon Shops Of Isher or Alongside Night, but how LotR’s themes and characters and settings mesh with the libertarian thing…could be surprising.

  5. Simon Bucher-Jones says:

    Lord of the Rings, contains societies which appeal to the Conservative small ‘c’ mindset – and this has generated criticism from Michael Moorcock and others that it is as it were the Conservative Party in Fantasy, as The Church of England was once said to be the Conservative Party at prayer, but this is to miss the fact that while some of the societies fall or almost fall to Saruman’s ‘industrialisation’ others are dragged back by the failings of monarchy – the bad advice of Grima Wormtongue to Theorden, the absence of the true King in Gondar, the Evil Monarchy of Sauron. It can be viewed as a Liberal text by ‘libertarian’ inclined liberals in that the actions of individuals at liberty, not those acting within States achieve what states can not. Gandalf has a mission ultimately from Illuvatar but answers to no King, and the Council of Elrond is not a government but a parliament of equals. Also of course, everyone things they’re like the heroes, not that they’re like Sauron.

    • plok says:

      Ah! See, I had wondered if libertarian types would be hostile to the latent (not that latent) Toryism of Tolkien’s conception…the same people who like to say Scrooge Was Right might be likely to say the same of Saruman? But the “actions of individuals” thing, thank you, I couldn’t think how to put that exactly. I suppose you could dumb the whole thing down to a kind of Atlas Shrugged with elves, or something — many actors, involved in a contest of viewpoints.

      Of course one of those actors is Aragorn, who isn’t “magic” but does represent some sort of divinely-granted and divinely-upheld authority. The King can heal people by laying his hands on them, e.g. Why? Because he’s the KING, i.e. he IS the King, and miracles and authority go together and prove one another. So in asking myself about the identification figures for technolibertarian types in LotR, I thought, “well, he can look into the Palantir, reunify armies of the living and the dead, maybe they would like him because you can cast all that as an intellectual superiority that also proves a moral superiority and vice versa?” Rejecting the Ring’s promise of Big Government proves the Right To Rule, etc…

      I suppose the Scouring Of The Shire is probably the least complicated “fit” for all that…

      Hmm, maybe not as surprising as I thought!

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