Kumbayah, Market, Kumbayah
Back in the summer, a Governor's School student of mine asked me about
economics in SF. I wish I had known about this list of classics of dismal SF on
io9 at that moment. It's a good starting point. Not on that list - and topical, given
the recent runs on the Chinese stock market - is Walter Jon Williams's This is Not
a Game, which opens (opens!) with a crash of the Indonesian economy.
A theme in that book, and one that runs through much of economic SF, is the idea
that money is not real. Many authors treat this as some grand delusion, like a
Faerie glamour affecting an entire civilization. I certainly won't deny that there
are religious aspects to economics. Forget the Bull and the Bear; forget Lady
Fortune; I hear people routinely talk about The Market as though it were a single,
sentient thing, making decisions for us, controlling our destinies in ways that are
sometimes cruel, but comforting in their predictability. If belief in that thing fails,
if everyone stops singing Kumbayah, there's a Lovecraft moment of cosmic horror
where this realization (money . . . is not real!) means that nothing makes sense
any more, and then the whole society goes insane with fear and collapses into
chaos. It's mysterious, and scary.
Or maybe it's not. Peter Turchin studies the growth and collapse of historical
empires through large-scale computer modeling. He wants to turn history from a
humanities subject, where the focus is on argument and storytelling, into a
predictive science that he calls "Cliodynamics," after the Muse of history. His
approach also strikes me as a very cool way to play with fictional societies as well,
to generate narrative surprises in a logical way. So how does he do it?
He starts with . . . wait for it . . . biology. It turns out that humans are an unusually
cooperative species, but mostly in small groups who know one another personally
or by reputation (one or two degrees of separation). Our brains, unaided, seem to
be capable of tracking relationships with an average of maybe 150 people. This is
not because we are stupid. A relationship with another sentient being contains a
large number of variables. Constantly updating those variables and negotiating
personal cooperation, moment by moment, consumes a lot of time and energy. I
have recent personal experience of the difficulties involved. At the end of July,
my own family of three went on a driving tour of the American West. There were
dozens of tasks, large and small, to be negotiated every day - putting up the tent,
taking down the tent, packing the roof bag, choosing what attractions to visit and
how long to stay, where to eat, what to eat, when to pee. It was a tiny window into
the mind of a hunter-gatherer. Maintaining cooperation is incredibly important,
and it's hard.
One way to speed up those negotiations is to collapse those many variables into a
single proxy variable, and track that instead. At the personal level, amongst
family and friends, we would call that variable trust. Rather than counting up all
the times we each got our own way, demanding a tit for every single tat, we can
relax and trust one another to be generous, to err on the side of cooperation rather
than selfishness. Mathematically, this is like averaging our relationships over
time, smoothing away the jagged noise of momentary frustrations, lubricating the
gears of the family machine. At the level of a larger group of people who are all
acquainted by reputation, we might call a similar variable loyalty. At the level of
groups of strangers who need to cooperate, but who have incentives to cheat one
another, we might call it patriotism. Turchin uses the Arabic word aasabiyah.
They all mean the same thing: a general index of the balance between cooperation
and competition. This abstractness means that it computes faster, but it also feels
sloppy to those of a quantitative mindset. The mystery starts to creep back in.
Another approach to fostering trust between strangers has been to make the
accounting not less detailed but more detailed, more concrete, to publicize
promises by writing them down where anyone can see them. Money is most
fundamentally a debt, a favor, a promise between individuals or groups,
embodied as numbers and in some cases as countable physical objects, for the
simple reason that they are less slippery than words. For humans at least, the trade
of physical objects that have actual functions is usually less important than the
social contracts that they represent and reinforce. This might not be true for other
species, and those differences could make for some good stories.
Early in the history of capitalism on our planet, each little economy produced its
own coins, in competition with all other economies. The way of relating these
coins to one another was their scientifically measurable gold or silver content.
This was an attempt to make money objective, as a way of holding people to their
promises. It also led to many attempts to secretly manipulate the content of coins,
thereby allowing one party to cheat on its promises. See the anime series Spice &
Wolf for deliciously devious and detailed plots of this type, or the Benjamin
Weaver novels by David Liss.
These days we've moved away from objectively measuring physical quantities in
relation to the economy, but a perfect example is all around us. An ecosystem is in
fact an objective energy economy. The sun provides the energy, and
photosynthesis fixes it into sugars, which are the currency of life on Earth. Plants
trade these sugars to the fungi that live on their roots, in exchange for minerals
that the fungi extract from rocks and soil. Parasites are the criminals who steal
these sugars from their hosts (I didn't say it was fair; I said it was objectively
measurable). There's a more or less constant exchange rate. One glucose
molecule yields up to 32 ATP molecules, which can be used to power most
enzyme reactions, at a usual rate of one ATP per reaction.
We can easily extend this idea outside of biology. One mole of the sugar glucose
releases 2880 kiloJoules of heat when burned. A particular solar panel array at the
University of Vermont converts sunlight into 2520 kiloJoules of electricity per
month. What if we based our planetary (and interplanetary) economies not on
imaginary "credits" but on measurable units of energy? What kinds of ripple
effects would that have on a society's aasabiyah? How would we value products
differently if we knew exactly how much energy went into making each one?
What issues would be resolved? What new ones would be created? Of course, it
would be great to get the plus and minus signs right, too.
Human nature is clearly not going to change any time soon - we may always be
obsessed with cooperation and betrayal - but how would the expressions of those
traits change if the rules of the economy were different in some arbitrary way? As
a quick example of what I mean, check out this free story from Escape
Next month we'll return to biochemistry, and bears.
Randall Hayes also organizes the Greensboro Science Cafe series and runs his
own education company, Agnosia Media, LLC.
The link to the excerpt of TINAG is broken, but the one to the sequel Deep
As an aside, see his essay on Dune
The first chapter lays out their basic argument. It is free as a PDF. These
same authors have written other academic books about game theory and
Unusual to start with the last chapter of a book, I know, but this is clear and
concise. Scroll down to the Introduction: What is Money?
PG-13 warning: Holo spends quite a bit of time naked in the first few
episodes. It's that soft-focus anime naked, not some crazy hentai thing, but still.
Just so you know.
Some might not consider these SF, but what's historical fiction, if not
Read more by Randall Hayes
We meet one Thursday a month to talk science.