Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cultural imperialism (as it were)

I have become obsessed with the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. For those unfamiliar, the books tell stories (unrelated, so it's not a proper "series" and it doesn't matter in which order you read them) about a mostly humanoid galactic civilization called the Culture that is pretty well described as a post-scarcity, hedonistic utopia. And really a utopia, not a dystopia; they actually *have* figured everything out and are pretty much all happy. So of course it sounds like a boring setting for stories (where's the conflict?), except that all of the stories deal with the Culture's interactions with other civilizations, usually lower on the technological ladder.

If I have one complaint about the books, it is ideological. Banks is a bit of a technosocialist. Money and exchange are all outdated concepts, and the reason the Culture has so many nice things is because they are 'ruled' by benevolent artificial intelligences, called Minds. I'm a fan of artificial intelligence so I have no problem with that, but the Culture appears to have solved all its problems by brute force figuring by the Minds. There is no appreciation evident in Banks' writing (at least in the five books I've read so far) for any sort of bottom-up, organic processes.

The aspect of the books that I really want to bring up is related, though my complaint doesn't really extend to it. For someone so far to the political left, Banks displays a very Whiggish attitude. As I mentioned above, the conflicts in the book revolve around interactions with less-developed peoples. And these interactions are usually interventions to liberate people from illiberal and inegalitarian regimes.

To be fair, Banks isn't totally unaware of how this comes off, and he often addresses these criticisms of the Culture in the books. He at least pays lip service to the idea that unintended consequences are a threat in these interventions. But the Minds have almost always got their sums right. While it might be more interesting if, every once in a while, the Minds forgot to carry a 1 and the Culture damaged their intended beneficiaries, his world is interesting for coloring a thought experiment. If we ever live in a society that to a large degree has solved all its problems, and really does represent a flourishing way forward for all peoples, then how would our foreign policy change? If the United States, for example, were everything its more ardent admirers like to think it is, then would it be justified in militarily interfering in the internal affairs of other nations on humanitarian grounds, and to spread our spectacularly successful way of life?

To be sure, the assumption is rather hard to swallow. "Suppose we have solved essentially all of our own social problems and have vast wealth to spare, and further that we have a very good track record of nearly bloodless humanitarian intervention and nation building", where "essentially", "vast", "very good", and "nearly" are parameters that can be adjusted for the realism of the thought experiment. For appropriate values, I think interference would be perfectly okay and indeed it would be hard to argue that non-interference would even be ethical. Cultural- or moral-relativistic arguments that other peoples should be able to construct their own societies as they see fit without the interference of arrogant (call them "Western") outsiders would seem to be laughable collectivistic caricature. The thought experiment almost morphs into the Problem of Evil in theism. As far as this atheist has ever seen, there is no satisfactory answer to the trilemma of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent god so long as evil and suffering exist in the world. Replace "god" with "advanced society" and the only difference is that the advanced society didn't actually create its potential beneficiaries. But that fact doesn't even enter into the moral calculus as far as I am concerned. Fun to think about, anyway. Back to the real world of suffering and limited knowledge ...

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of foreign development aid as 'interference' by technologically superior 'cultures' - see my memoir of working in Tajikistan -