Thursday, August 16, 2007

Masamune Shirow, Hierarchy and Science-Fiction

Masamune Shirow, Cyberpunk and the Big Man

In many ways, Masamune Shirow, the Japanese manga artist who writes such titles as Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, is the finest living cyberpunk author. More than just about anyone, he envisions a world where the awesome organizational skills of computers are interleaved in real time with physical action. In all obstacles the characters face, they are addressing both a hyperspeed information battle between their electronic brains and highly organized physical action.

But there's something that has long bothered me about Shirow's futurism, and I just thought out what it was -- it is a trait that is shared by many cyberpunk authors and, more generally, many science-fiction authors. The problem is the problem with the hero.

In Shirow's books, the protagonist is almost always a person who is the apex decision maker in the multi-layered confrontations I was talking about above. The underlaying proposition is that computer technology will further centralize decision making processes in powerful authority figures, that we'll become increasingly hierarchical by advances of computer technology. Perhaps this is merely a decision that Shirow (and other science-fiction authors) make to highlight things narratively, but it I think the facts bear out that technological innovation, broadly speaking, decentralizes decision making processes -- even extremely technical ones.

What this reminded me of is the nature of technological innovation in the United States. After World War II, the government built several huge laboratories to develop military technologies. But these highly centralized facilities were inefficient at creating better scientific information -- they decentralized scientific development to universities.

One of the key things to keep in mind that decentralized does not mean disorganized. Science, broadly speaking, is a highly organized endeavor and the decentralization of science was made possible by increases in organization. You're reading this very article on one of the key technologies that allows decentralization without disorganization -- the Internet. The deepening penetration of information technology into all levels of society allowed people to operate both independently but in an organized fashion, more rationally distributing workloads across more and more people. The speed with which consensus forms is shocking when the pressure is on.

So, for instance, in the disaster of 911, the people who survived were not those that followed instructions but those that used various wireless technologies -- such as Blackberries -- to create their own escape strategies. So, what I'm talking about isn't merely on the level of speculation. In a real world hazardous environment, decentralized decision making strategies lead to a better physical survival rate than obeying a centralized authority.

But Shirow, and most other science-fiction authors, don't even try to address this. Rather than decision-making being a consensus effort of many different elements, decision making is always a tightly controlled endeavor done by a powerful authority figure.

Going hand-in-hand with this is the believe that the people "in charge" have better and more reliable information than we do. Even today, for those of us who are online, that's not actually the case in most things. At one time, yes, centralized authority figures had a better overall picture of things than most people. In 14th century France, the king had ministers who were responsible for being knowledgeable about things of national importance, who learned what they knew, generally, through letter writing campaigns with various aristocrats. It took a tremendous amount of energy to get even general information to the King of France, and impossible to get everything the King of France knew to all of his subjects. Now, it is easy for a person to say something and have it be available to millions . . . to anyone that wants to get it. And, increasingly, we have comprehensive indices of information, allowing a person to more and more easily find relevant and concise information about whatever questions they want to ask. Additionally, of course, everyone can just talk to everyone else, now. It's trivially easy to strike up conversations with people all over the world, completely circumventing any hierarchical information networks entirely. I want to know what the situation on the ground in Baghdad is, I can write a Baghdadi, read their blogs and community news services. And that information will be at least as relevant for an understanding of the news as anything I read in The New York Times (indeed, considering how politically compromised newspapers are, I'd consider a blog of a Baghdadi to be considerably more relevant than the NYT or any other traditional newspaper). Lateral connections produce at least as good of information as hierarchical information providers. (I would even go so far as to say that, on whole, they produce much better information because they lack the institutional agendas of big news organizations.)

Indeed, I question the validity of all secret information because it passes through so few hands. The very value of secret information is, theoretically, that no one knows you have it -- but there's a flip side to that. You can't really check it out too well, either, because to do so reveals what you're looking for. So who corrects the data? Who knows! We don't even know the criteria for checking it. But when that same information is make public, everyone can check it, it can be debated, discussed, analyzed, proven or disproven. Indeed, this is the traditional model of scientific progress, which has been wonderfully successful -- by putting information out in public, it improves because people can either refute or support it. Secrets? You can't do that.

So, given that horizontal, lateral information connections are at least as valid as hierarchical information channels, the untrustworthiness of secrets, and the ability of decentralized by highly organized units to create meaningful consensus more swiftly than a top-down hierarchical command structure, the whole premise of Shirow's work, to my eyes, teeters. Perhaps it is merely the legacy of traditional narrative structure, where a key protagonist does everything. But I think the evidence is overwhelming that technology is decentralizing information and decision making processes, not embedding them in a hierarchy.

This is a common trend in science-fiction, though. How many science-fiction works have literal monarchies as the preferred government of the future? I understand that most people view their own culture as being the pinnacle of human achievement and never even try to imagine a superior form of government, but saying that in the future that monarchy will a viable form of government is akin to saying that in the future people will be using wood burning spaceships! Wood! The energy of the future!

And even when they don't have that sort of absurdity, the story almost always takes place around some tight hierarchical organization. So, even in the original Star Trek the socialism of the setting was undercut by the overt militarism of Starfleet. It's like . . . if you don't belong to some sort of top-down hierarchical organization, science-fiction writers (as a whole) aren't interested in writing about the characters or situation. Which doesn't seem to be the actual trend. The actual trend is for less hierarchy.

Still, that is my science-fiction observation for the day.

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