2019-06-18

Liu Cixin Is Correct

Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds

(With that title I had originally hoped this would be about his Dark Forest hypothesis, but alas)

From this New Yorker article about the geopolitical stance of the most successful science fiction writer of our time:

When I brought up the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs - around a million are now in reeducation camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang - he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”

The problem is that he's not wrong, and I really do see this as a massive problem, he wouldn't even be wrong if the word "Chinese" would be replaced by most Western demonyms. It's a straight-forward, honest, and well-reasoned position. It's also despotic and dystopian.

The issue I see for the future of the entire industrialized world is that this particular brand of consumerized dictatorship is based on the lessons of hundreds of years of failed regimes, and in an evolutionary effect it seems "we" have now come up with a system that is both stable and totalitarian. It's an emerging system for the whole world, and the fact that no human on the entire planet can escape it without losing access to everything they care about, only enhances its stability.

This system is precisely tuned to offer us just enough so we do not mind what's being taken away. I'm personally no exception to this: I want a high standard of life and security as well. I want the luxuries afforded by consumer electronics and high technology. Through technology and international connectivity, I have more options for meaningful social interactions than ever before. The prospect of losing access to any of that if I ever act up against the system is a powerful mechanism that keeps me in line. Not that I ever brush up against the boundaries, mind you, because the system is well designed to appeal to my need for perceived autonomy: as long as I keep my head down, I'll be left alone.

Right now, in the West, the price of reasonable dissent is not very high. Yet. But you can already feel the thousands of little mechanisms working to discourage it. When I became active in protesting against the EU copyright reform, my first attempt at being political in decades, the game was so thoroughly rigged that I'll probably refrain from attempting to change the official narrative in the foreseeable future. Had protesting been actively discouraged by the government, I'm a bit ashamed to admit, I would probably not have shown up at all.

I'm struck by our collective inability to come up with a good alternative to this system. It seems to me this system is evolving on its own, and that development is synchronous world-wide. Sure, it's appealing to the powerful, who actively push it. But that's not what's driving it. I suspect it's the collective human spirit.