Elysium, and the Generalized Resource Curse

Posted on | April 27, 2013

I was at an SF convention a few years ago, attending a panel with lots of my favorite writers on it: China Mieville, Charlie Stross, Ken McCleod. China dismissed the Singularity with a classic “Rapture of the Nerds” line. He said something to the effect of “Nerds evaporating through the smokestack of history.” I’m sure that quote isn’t precise, but I do remember the word “smokestack” clearly: Mieville is very much a socialist writer in the fin de’siecle mode, and dirty coal big machine industrialization is one of his favorite images.

This summer, the ultimate “The rich few live in a gated community, the poor live in shit” scenario will play across movie screens in the Jodie Foster / Matt Damon flick “Elysium“. The gated community is a large 1970s-style Stanford torus habitat high above the Earth, a place to which the hoi-polloi have no chance of getting. (An interesting choice as it cuts out an entire class of guard labor requirements.) The trailer implies near-singularity technology, but apparently hasn’t quite gotten there.

The other day, Steve Randy Waldman discussed techonolgy as a generalized resource curse. A resource curse is when an impoverished country discovers it has a commodity that everyone wants. Commodities require little labor to extract relative to a country’s population, and the “curse” is that a few in that country end up very wealthy and the rest of country ends up even worse off than they were before the resources was discovered.

The Generalize Resource Curse is easy to understand: between the cheap movement of goods and the widespread distribution of both intelligence and communication, “commodities” are becoming less “raw goods” and more automated manufacture “prefab goods”: machined parts, engines, motherboards, modular housing units. Until very recently in human history, education was rare; now it’s a commodity, but only a few exploit it well, know how to maintain it. Even as the world gets richer, fewer and fewer people are needed to keep the economic machinery going for the sake of the economic machinery.

If you listen to most politicians, you’d think the economy was the only real good. That there is no social institution of any moral worth compared to The Market. Unfortunately, this idea that juicing the economy is the only real benefit politics can provide, regardless of the cost to individual human beings, seems to have gripped just about everyone who benefits from it– but that number is shrinking. Relative wealth in the US has stagnated for 30 years; the rich have gotten richer, everyone else has gotten poorer.

It’s clear that Elysium is the pre-singularity endgame of a generalized resource curse: The wealthy require very few “middle class” to maintain their station; more importantly, there is a very small subset of people on Earth with the education and training needed to provide terrestrial resource support to Elysium, and it may be that they’re incapable of generating bargaining power relative to the economy that supports Elysium. (The easiest way to do this is to subsidize education in enough places to produce a viciously competetive underclass grateful for a chance to work at all.)

There are two strains of SF: the authoritarian one, stemming from “Science tells us human beings are like such-and-so, and any denial of this is folly and doom.” The writers from this tradition are Heinlein, Pournelle, Card, Weber, Neal Asher, among many others. The other is “Human beings, like the universe, are genuinely diverse and weird, and we should learn to learn from that weirdness and like it.” The writers from this tradition include Iain Banks, Ken McCleod, China, and a ton of women.

These two strains lead to different endgames: Elysium or The Cassini Division. The latter ultimately, if we don’t fuck it up, leads to The Culture. The former, well, I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to see Sean Connery in a red leather diaper ever again.


One Response to “Elysium, and the Generalized Resource Curse”

  1. interfluidity » The generalized resource curse
    April 30th, 2013 @ 2:48 am

    […] Elf Sternberg — Elysium, and the Generalized Resource Curse […]

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