Robots and Empire

Personal Reflections on Science Fiction and Politics

Science fiction may not be the literary genre most commonly associated with political analysis and ideological critique, but there is political insight to be found among the space ships and robots. In this text I present some of the personal reflections I have made while reading science fiction novels.

Robots of Dawn

Ever since my first contact with Isaac Asimov's short story collection I Robot, his world of robots and robotics has fascinated me. Unlike the many writers who focus on their potential dager, Asimov presented robots as rational tools rather than monsters. He turns robots into a metaphor for the progress made possible by technology.

In the novel The Naked Sun, Asimov describes the planet Solaria, where the small human population lead lives of material luxury on their vast estates. The Solarians spend their time contemplating politics and culture while all manual labor is carried out by a large workforce of robots.

If we ignore the obvious parallels to slavery -- and instead regard the robots as willing machines -- this is a creative and intellectual Utopia. All forms of physical tasks are automated and all humans enjoy the freedom to concentrate on scientific, political and artistic endeavors. Food and resources are available in abundance without any effort.

When I read The Naked Sun in my early teens, the novel made me think of all the technological advances that we have already made. Although we don't have humanoid robots, the use of machines and computers has made most chores more and more efficient.

We have made some of the progress that made Solaria possible, yet we have received none of the benefits. We still work long hours and endure great pressure at the workplace. Some people even need two full time jobs, just to support their family. Nor have these advances made society more ecologically sustainable.

Why is this? Why does the profit from increases in efficiency end up in the hands (pockets) of the rich, while the workers worry of down sizing and the have-nots remain poor? The only reasonable conclusion is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the system.

Thus Asimov's robotic Utopia planted a subversive seed in my mind. This seed grew and over time it made me question the capitalist system as a whole.

Empire

Over time, I turned from the na´ve techno-optimism of Isaac Asimov to the dystopian visions of William Gibson.

As the most influential author of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, Gibson writes of cybernetics, designer drugs, biotech, computers and hacking. He coined the term cyberspace (the metaphorical place where digital communication occurs) years before the World Wide Web was created and the Internet became widely known.

While technology is obviously an important element in Gibson's stories, I found the depictions of society even more interesting. In the dark future he describes, technology has not improved the lives of most people. On the contrary, it has caused a concentration of power to global megacorporations and eccentric oligarchs while subjugating the population under increased control. Drugs and cheap entertainment keep the majority in economic and spiritual poverty, while a amazingly rich Úlite keep to themselves in guarded enclaves. Nations as we know them are gone and civil society has been replaced by economic interests.

When I first discovered Gibson's novels, this felt like a scary but hypothetical future. One, that I hoped I would never have to experience. But the more I think about it, the more I have come to realize that we are almost there already. Neuromancer and the other novels fit very well in the world described by Hardt & Negri's Empire and Naomi Klein.

While the nation state may not be completely obsolete, it appears to have lost much of its legitimacy: Governments worry more about trade agreements and how to attract investors than about promoting the well-being of their denizens or protecting human rights; Wars are waged for the benefit the military-industrial complex that master mind those same wars through corrupt politicians; Unaccountable private tyrannies, in the form of transnational corporations, have more real power than democratically elected representatives.

Circumstantial evidence to this effect is the fact that Gibson's latest novels are not set in the future at all. And besides, any one of Bill Gates, Paris Hilton and Halliburton could have been created by William Gibson's imagination.