Pluralistic: 04 Jan 2022

Today's links

An old Ace Double paperback whose cover has been altered; it now has a fragment of an antique woodcut of Ned Ludd leading workers to battle, and has been retitled 'The Luddites' with the slug 'Smashing looms was their tactic, not their goal.'

Science fiction is a Luddite literature (permalink)

My latest column for Locus Magazine is "Science Fiction is a Luddite Literature," and it's my contribution to the burgeoning movement to rehabilitate the reputation of the Luddite uprisings, overturning the libel that Luddites were motivated by a fear of technology:

The Luddites were a 19th century guerrilla movement that smashed textile machines, burned factories and threatened their owners. But they were not motivated by a fear of technology, and they were not irrational.

Rather, the Luddites – who took their name from the mythological General Ned Ludd, whose legend included the smashing of weaving-frames – were engaged in the most science-fictional exercise imaginable – asking not what a technology does, but who it does it to and who it does it for.

The Luddites, you see, were skilled weavers, whose intense physical labor produced the textiles that clothed the nation. The difficulty of their trade – both in terms of esoteric knowledge and physical prowess – allowed them to command high wages and good working conditions.

All that was threatened by the advent of textile machines, which produced more fabric in less time, and required less skill. The owners of textile factories bought these machines with profits derived from the weavers' labor, and then used those machines to grind down the weavers. Their hours got longer, their pay got shorter, and many of them were maimed or killed by the new machines.

Here's where the science fiction part comes in. If you were a Martian looking through a telescope at Earth, it would not be obvious to you that these new weaving machines should benefit factory owners, rather than workers. There's nothing inevitable about that arrangement. The machines could just as easily have shortened weavers' working hours, increased their hourly pay, and made more fabric available at lower prices to the public.

One of my favorite stfnal aphorisms is that "all laws are local." The genre can be a toolkit for revealing the contingency of our innate assumptions, forcing us to confront our deeply ingrained biases and admit that they are choices, not laws of nature.

The great science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of an sf writer isn't merely to consider the car and the movie and invent the drive-in, but also to predict the sexual revolution that took place in the back seats of those cars at those drive-ins.

The Industrial Revolution's new weaving machines didn't just increase the supply of textiles, nor did it merely upend the balance of power between textile workers and their bosses. It also created unprecedented demand for wool, resulting in the enclosure of the commons and the eviction of farmers who'd worked the land for centuries, turning them into wandering internal refugees. It also drove demand for cotton and vastly increased the profitability of the slave trade.

Weaving engines are ingenious and delightful machines. The Luddites had no beef with the machines – their cause was the social relations that governed those machines. By painting Luddites as mere technophobes, we strip ourselves of the ability to learn from history. The lesson of the Industrial Revolution is that merely asking what a machine does and not who it does it for and to can lead to literal genocide.

Thankfully, the Luddites are enjoying a renaissance today, as the techno-critical left takes up their cause and demands that we apply Gardner Dozois's science fictional thinking to our contemporary technological fights.

I first encountered this on the excellent This Machine Kills podcast, and discussed the subject with the hosts when I recorded an episode with them:

More recently, I learned that Brian Merchant – who edited my book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM and came up with the title – is about to release a book on the Luddites and their application to the current tech landscape called BLOOD IN THE MACHINE.

Luddism is the frame we need today: not a technophobic rejection of new machines, but a demand to examine who they serve and who serves them.

The cover for Neal Stephenson's 'Termination Shock.'

Neal Stephenson's 'Termination Shock' (permalink)

"Termination Shock" is Neal Stephenson's ambitious, sprawling, engrossing latest novel – the tale of an eccentric Texas truck-stop magnate who unilaterally begins a program of geoengineering in a bid to cool the Earth by doping the stratosphere with sulfur.

As you'd expect from a Neal Stephenson novel, Termination Shock bristles with delightful ornaments and esoteric adventure scenes. For example, Stephenson uses a border skirmish between China and India to illustrate the geopolitical consequences of retreating glaciers – but not just any skirmish. This border war is governed by a treaty that prohibits the use of any weapons save sticks and rocks, and is fought by livestreaming teams of martial artists using Sikh gatka combat techniques against kung fu staff-fighting, all at altitudes so high that it's easy to pass out from moving too fast.

But the main events of Termination Shock revolve around TR Schmidt, the Texas truck-stop billionaire, and a giant gun he's built to fire giant sulfur capsules into the stratosphere every eight minutes, 24 hours per day, 7 days a week.

Schmidt's geoengineering experiment doesn't have the approval of the world's governments, but it's not an entirely unilateral affair. The story opens with Schmidt recruiting a very Stephensonian group of co-conspirators from low-lying places: the former Lord Mayor of the City of London; Singaporean technocrats; reps from ancient aristocratic Venetian families and the Queen of the Netherlands. These leaders come from lands threatened by rising seas, but not just any low-lying places: these are rich places.

Each of these co-conspirators becomes a lens to view different power blocs and their relationships to the climate emergency, but the main action is centered in the Netherlands. The queen – a delightful Stephenson character to rank with the best of them – is a vehicle to think about the role of colonialism (as she finds herself in former Dutch territories) and fossil fuels (she's the major shareholder of Royal Dutch Shell, after all) in the climate emergency. She has no official political power, but she is a powerful influencer, and her conflicts make her the perfect fulcrum for the story to turn on.

Because this is a Stephenson novel, there's a lot of delightful tech in it. A lot of the action revolves around the Maeslantkering ("the largest robot in the world") a massive pair of flood-gates that defend the port of Rotterdam and the lands beyond it. I read Termination Shock while I was in the Netherlands last month and it prompted me to take a special trip to see the Maeslantkering in person: a pair of horizontal, Eiffel-Tower-sized arms on 10m bearings that shut out the sea. It didn't disappoint!

And because this is a Stephenson novel, there's a lot of wild action scenes in it, too. Books about armaments tend to bore me stuporous, but not Stephenson's. The extended gun-battle at the end of REAMDE is both highly technical and incredibly exciting:

That kind of esoteric warfare appears in Termination Shock, too. One character – "the drone ranger" – is a haunted, traumatized veteran whose side business hunting feral hogs with drones turns him into a drone warfare expert, and makes for a string of escalating and stupendous action scenes.

Finally, because this is a Stephenson novel, there's a lot of political speculation. After all, geoengineering is a controversial subject – one that's so hard to grasp that my own view on it changes from day to day. Books like Oliver 's "The Planet Remade" make the case for a reasonable, cautious geoengineering as a necessary part of any climate plan:

But Saul Griffith's outstanding "Electrify" calls geoengineering "not a realistic or permanent solution," and paints it as a distraction at best:

Meanwhile, in Kim Stanley Robinson's seminal "Ministry for the Future," geoengineering is presented as inevitable, even if it might be unwise. Robinson suggests that as nations face existential threats, they will try geoengineering no matter what the risks:

In Termination Shock, Stephenson basically fuses all these views. His wildcat geoengineers are straight out of Robinson's Ministry. They make the same point as Griffith, that we are already geoengineering the Earth, by emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Stephenson also echoes Griffith's point that the big issue with geoengineering is the winners and losers it creates – cooling the world won't be a good deal for everyone! Stephenson goes farther, though, pointing out that any mitigation for the climate emergency is a form of geoengineering, from decarbonizing our energy to planting trillions of trees, and each of these measures will produce winners and losers.

This point comes into sharp focus in Stephenson's depiction of the fracturing of Dutch politics as the country's far right abandons climate denial and slides right into climate fascism.

This is a brilliant novel and a brilliant Neal Stephenson novel. It's heavily ornamented and has so many moving parts, and it mixes speculation with sociology and tech with action-adventure. It's one of those books that will stay with you.

What's more, it comes with a bibliography:

A Victorian gentleman in a three-piece suit enmeshed in a complex quack exercise machine.

Stellar images of quack exercise machines (permalink)

I am a sucker for vintage images of what once passed for cutting-edge culture and technology. As someone who lives in that world, these images serve as a memento mori, the skull on a poet's desk that signifies, "Someday, you will pass from this world, too."

A Victorian woman in heavy skirts with her arm poised on some kind of cantilevered weight machine.

Today on the Public Domain Review, Hunter Dukes recalls the quack exercise equipment and athletic wear of 19th century Sweden, as used by Gustave Zander in his Stockholm Mechanico-Therapeutic Institute.

A Victorian gentleman in spectacles and a three piece suit using some kind of pectoral exercise machine that uses an elaborate system of exposed pulleys.

Zander was a bona-fide Swedish steampunk fitness influencer, whose chain of gyms featured dozens of bizarre exercise machines.

A Victorian teen boy in spectacles and a three-piece suit with his feet lashed to a pedaling machine that powers a large flywheel.

These machines eventually went global, as Zander founded an export company that did a roaring trade in Russia, England, Germany and Argentina.

A Victorian gentleman with a beard and spectacles whose raised leg is pushing on some kind of resistance device.

As Dukes points out, Zander's pitch would be familiar to any of us today – he advertised his machines as a tonic against the degredation of the human body resulting from the sedentary lifestyle of office work.

A Victorian woman in heavy skirts and corsets makes a remarkable facial expression while some kind of thigh belt acts on her.

But this being Sweden, Zander's research into his machines was publicly financed and his gyms were open to all.

A Victorian gentleman, seen from the rear, straddling a mechanical saddle contraption.

Dukes reproduces 32 images in all, taken from "Görransson’s mekaniska verkstad," the company that marketed Zander's machines to international fitness entrepreneurs.

A Victorian woman riding a mechanical saddle, seated side-saddle.

They are reproduced in 1892's "Dr. G. Zander’s Medico-Mechanische Gymastik," by Dr. Alfred Levertin.

A Victorian woman in heavy skirts and corsets, hands on hips, sitting in a tall, peaked mechanical exercise chair.

As is inevitable with pictures of people engaged in strenuous exercise, these images are wildly, inescapably comic.

A pair of Victorian gentlemen in three piece suits; one has a percussive disc pressed against his abdomen while the other - bearded and mustachioed - looks on from a seated posture, his feet resting on the machine.

But they are also important reminders of the incredibly short shelf-life of high-tech gadgets and aethetics.

A Victorian woman in heavy skirts, seen from behind; she is pressed against a machine that appears to be pummeling her back with mechanical fists.

These machines were once the cuttingest of cutting-edge; today they look like something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

A bearded Victorian gentleman lying prone on a table-shaped exercise machine with some kind of crank handle at his feet.

Every one of these images is a treasure – and a reminder.

A Victorian gentleman lying supine on an exercise table, from which a pair of wheels depend.

Your lycra, your Peloton?

A beardless Victorian teen enmeshed in some kind of steampunk thighmaster.

These too shall pass.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Congress misses the Office of Technology Assessment

#20yrsago Fuji perfects 3GB floppy

#15yrsago Voting-machine certifier is de-certified

#15yrsago Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

#15yrsago Muslim Congressman to be sworn in on Jefferson’s Quran

#15yrsago Bruce Sterling’s state-of-the-world Web-conference

#10yrsago Bush-era whistleblower faced even more intense harassment under Obama

#10yrsago Canadian Parliament: a notorious pirate marketplace

#5yrsago Hyperface: a fabric that makes computer vision systems see faces everywhere

#5yrsago 2017: the medium-disastrous projection (as told by Charlie Stross)

#5yrsago Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky’s annual State of the World wrangle on The WELL

#5yrsago Leaked doc shows Trump Treasury pick presided over the “widespread” theft of Americans’ homes

#5yrsago The average FTSE 100 boss earns as much in 2.5 days as his (yes, his) median employee earns in a year

#1yrago Damon Knight's Why Do Birds is back

#1yrago The Data Detective

#1yrago Google's unionizing

#1yrago Ad-tech is a bezzle

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

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