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Denying Dystopia: The Hope Police in Fact and Fiction (rifters.com)
89 points by jseliger 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 40 comments

Stories of dystopia are valuable because they help us build threat models.

Stories of utopia are valuable because they give us a vision to aim at.

Stories that assume new technology will lead to a better world are anti-valuable. Those stories are the concrete truck of good intentions. The truck used to pave the route to hell. The stories inspire people — into creating things without any awareness of negative impacts. These inspired "builders" are often even oblivious to the idea that there might possibly be negative impacts! I've seen this play out with social media, with ML, and blockchain just to name a few HN relevant examples.

A good dystopia story seriously acknowledges some threat, and shows what it is viscerally like to live in that world, and perhaps how it came to be and what we might do about it.

A good utopia story seriously acknowledges some system problem or threat, and shows a way in which it is overcome on a large scale.

I think this is a great comment as it implicitly acknowledges that /stories/ are at the heart of everything we do. Every action we take expecting a reaction is based on a story we are telling ourself about causality.

I would argue that we need a healthy balance of dystopian and utopian stories but we also desperately need more complex stories. The human brain is already primed towards very basic linear cause and effect, when in fact we are embedded within very complex systems (social, economic, etc) that have very non-linear cause and effect loops.

The blindness you mention here is one that I often see as trying to create change with a very very limited set of causes and effects in the implicit theory behind it. I also think that much of the polarization towards "good actors" versus "bad actors" is a result of overly simplistic stories.

I'm not exactly sure how to create stories that help us build the capacity for understanding and appreciating how complex systems operate, but I think we desperately need them.

You hit the nail on the head about how we need more complex stories. I'm not sure if this is a result of me getting older but I think people in general are getting more prone to black vs. white thinking over time (which I suspect is due to becoming bombarded with ads which are always either very positive/funny/nice or vitriolic, or an increasingly polarizing and histrionic media, but I digress). Even movies made for adults usually have some fixed, obvious good guys vs. bad guys these days.

I don't think it's that nobody can understand things anymore, or even that people don't want to, I think people simply don't want to limit their potential sales by making things too difficult to understand. Big studios don't make movies like The Hateful Eight (which I thought was great because it didn't have good guys) because they don't appeal to enough people, and writers don't write with nuance anymore because you get the most impressions if you simply pander to a specific political camp.

There is also the issue of marketability, focus grouping, age group bracketing and the crafting of narratives that will appeal commercially across cultural boundaries.

We have these massive "story engines" but only the simplest stories can have predictable universal appeal.

Very true. I hope one day we can have a better premium media market than we have currently so that businesses feel less pressured to appeal to everyone. I don't think you could pay me to sit through a Transformers movie but I would have paid $25 to see the Hateful Eight in theaters.

> Big studios don't make movies like The Hateful Eight

It had a $50M budget, that is pretty big, just not in the blockbuster category.

But I simply don't think that blockbusters have ever or will ever care about more complex movies (there are obviously exceptions but not a significant amount). It's simply a numbers game, you make bland stuff that attracts the lowest common denominator and pays the bills with very little risk and then put the money you're left over with to pay for movies with higher risk.

True, but it was also directed by Tarantino, who was the one guy trusted enough to be able spend $50m on that kind of movie (and it still didn't pay off well by hollywood standards). I don't think many movies like that get funded anymore.

> I'm not exactly sure how to create stories that help us build the capacity for understanding and appreciating how complex systems operate, but I think we desperately need them.

This is exactly what I was starting to work on. Until May of 2016 when I realized our "story dissemination systems" were completely failing due to ~oblivious technologists with utopian visions (Zuckerberg is a great example — "oh lets just connect the world up without thinking about how this system will be used to manipulate and destabilize everything we care about"). No matter how valuable a story is, it doesn't matter if no one sees it because our systems show people less valuable things instead (it also doesn't matter if society collapses).

So I've been focusing on addressing dissemination issues every since, though I still personally care more about explaining complex systems. I think there is lots of opportunity to improve in this space, and I'll be back on it when and if this whole dissemination failure is sufficiently addressed.

What do you think the future of dissemination looks like? Right now I feel like we are all adrift in a sea of too much information and we cling desperately to targeted pieces of disinformation like life rafts.

Terry Pratchett called us Pan Narrans, "the story-telling ape".

I didn't understand that without a bit of context [0]:

> The science section suggests that, rather than Homo sapiens (Wise Man), we might be better described as Pan narrans (Storytelling Chimpanzee).

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Science_of_Discworld_II:_T...

Here's an example of a story from that anthology mentioned that does give a vision to aim at. https://medium.com/@aviv/degrees-of-freedom-d883f1265e89 (not by me; I got the authors permission to post). It's not perfect — definitely "over" optimistic.

But it takes a particular set of problems and outlines some comparatively interesting solutions that one can explore. I'd hope that a novel version would go into some externalities of the tech described, but as a short story it does the visioning well — and that's valuable in combination with some great dystopian threat modeling.

I don't think you've read many Utopian novels if you think they give a vision to aim at. Many are just criticizing modern society by use of a fantastic one; Butlers Erewhon is a utopia where you can be jailed for being sick, and forgiven for such things as embezzling. More's has slaves wrapped up in chains of gold, which is seen as worthless.

The ones that try tend to not really give us things to aim at, as opposed to things to avoid. "The cure is worse than the disease" comes to mind. They end up being a collection of the pet quirks of the author, often nasty ones.

Except of course for More, you seem to be describing dystopian fiction.

A while back I saw some comments on HN arguing that dystopic fiction writers are literally evil and a threat to humanity. That made me slightly but genuinely scared. When people start outright attacking caution, that is when the bubble is about to burst (sorry, been thinking about Bitcoin lately).

For some reason some people seem to take dystopia and cynicism as meaning we should give up on technology altogether and go back to living in caves. That is a false dichotomy. Please, hold some nuance. It's true that corporations and governments have shown themselves eager to abuse technology. The blame for that lies with those organizations, not with writers who merely notice the trend.

I think we can come up with some technical solutions to align the incentives of these organizations with the people they should be serving. To me, most dystopian fiction is pointing out the gap between that and internet refrigerators. Utopia is hard, let's go shopping.

The writer is Peter Watts. He writes science fiction, with arguably dystopic aspects. One of his books, Blindsight, is available to read for free on his website: http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm

In fact, it was HN that introduced me to this writer.

He's got quite a following here. :)

As for dystopic, I'd describe his works as... ananthropic. There are no people in his books, just collections of matter ambulating around according to their phenotype and the laws of physics. It's stark realism taken to its depressing conclusion. Fascinating stuff, though.

Edit: Fixed some broken causality.

Stark realism indeed.

"Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts." — James Nicoll

> She praises algorithms that analyze your behavior and autonomously order retail goods on your behalf, just in case you’re not consuming enough on your own: “We’ll be giving up our privacy, but gaining the surprise and delight that comes with something new always waiting for us at the door” she gushes

That has to be intended as a joke, right?

Possibly because I just finished reading "player piano" last night, but it's like someone took the main ideology of the engineers and managers in that book and said: "but what if we pretended it was a blueprint rather than dystopian satire...?"

I mostly agree with this, but the digression about carbon pricing in the middle makes absolutely no sense. As long as you auction a fixed pool of carbon credits, the prices will go up the more people are willing to spend to pollute. This is basically the simplest, most straightforward way to force capitalism to produce the amount of carbon you want.

I think the concern is that selling pollution credits is kind of like selling indulgences. If you offer the wealthy a fixed price for which they can destroy the entire planet then what else is not for sale? And since money is just created out of thin air, you can always make enough money to pay the price.

This enviromnentalism as religion attitude is hugely counterproductive. It might help motivate the believers, but it also contributes to the culture war that sees conservatives denying climate science.

Everyone pollutes; when we breathe, when we shit, let alone when we drive or fly, so there is no hard boundary between normal and "sinful" activities. The rest of your comment is simply wrong; Pigovian taxes and auctions are dynamic, so can adjust to any change in price levels, and in any case money supply is governed by central banks, not by polluters.

That assumes everyone is rational and nobody lies. Neither is true.

Lies can be made expensive via checks and fines. Rationality is not so important if you steadily decrease the amount of available carbon credits and your checking system works well enough to ensure that GHG production falls at roughly the same pace.

Fake news

How're those checks and balances working out for you these days?

I don't think his point is limited to SF. It seems to be a thing where if you criticize any sufficiently popular view, you get the hammer down much harder than before. The only things that can be criticized are unpopular things, because they are safe to do so.

Like in SF, no one says "oh, you need to show hope in dealing with religion!" That's because among that crowd, religion is beyond the pale and doesn't need to be appeased. There are other things, but there's an awful lot of true groupthink today, and since the culture is so connected, its easier to shout down or tire contrarians.

> Run like hell, even though it means abandoning your giant flatscreen TV

In this analogy, a steady diet of disaster shows has already convinced you that running like hell is pie-in-the-sky thinking and quite impractical, so anything you hope to do has to be prefaced with the acknowledgement that you can only manage a slow walk, and even then you can only expect to move a maximum of 15 meters.

The funniest part is that it's the rich folk up on the hill who pushed the boulder ;)

The Hope Police are typically fragile people. My favorite philosophical take on perspective and attitude is found in Jake Long American Dragon:


> The problem is not that we are paralyzed with despair; the problem, more likely, is that we haven’t really internalized what’s in store for us. The problem is that our species is already delusionally optimistic by nature.

> Not all of us, mind you. Some folks perceive their contextual status with relative accuracy: they’re better than the rest of us at figuring out how much control they really have over local events, for example. They’re better at assessing their own performance at assigned tasks. Most of us tend to take credit for the good things that happen to us, while blaming something else for the bad. But some folks, faced with the same scenarios, apportion blame and credit without that self-serving bias.

> We call these people “clinically depressed”.

Seriously? He thinks people are being too optimistic?

All I ever read anymore is how the dark forces of technology are coming to steal my private information and break into my house via my IOT.

Now I want to go buy Terri Favro's book, just because she's apparently not a total downer.

He's not talking about the noise people make to get clicks, he's talking about our actual decisions. And yes, in that domain people are outrageously optimistic.

If you've ever stuck your head up high enough, and invited the ire of the big boys, you would know that this dude is preaching the gospel.

They're either too optimistic, or say "can't do anything anyway". I'm generalizing, but generally, I'm missing that middle part, that actually valuable bit, a lot.

Not sure if other industries are the same but I find this sense of forced optimism almost oppressive in SV tech companies. The place where I work holds optimism as an explicit value. So when they cut a perk or change things in a way that makes everyone’s job more difficult, etc, there is a low-level pressure to talk about how it’s actually good. That type of thing.

Of course optimism goes out the window when we need to figure out how people will defraud the company, or when a change that would make employees’ lives better is considered. Very conditional optimism, you know.

>your giant flatscreen TV?

Yeah, I'm not taking advice about the future from someone who still thinks a flatscreen TV is somehow different from a plain TV.

Which is more likely: 1. Peter Watts added "flatscreen" because he believes CRTs are still popular. 2. Peter Watts added "flatscreen" because it makes the sentence flow better. ?

I read it as parodying the person in the scenario by implying that they think that flat-screen TVs are somehow particularly desirable.

He's clearly talking about flat-screen CRTs like the Sony Trinitron. /s

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