MacLeod's Cassini Division

From: Robin Hanson (
Date: Mon Oct 02 2000 - 11:16:12 MDT

I read "The Cassini Division" by Ken MacLeod over the weekend. I couldn't
find any mention of it in the archives at
though I think I recall some discussion here once.

It was well written (or maybe it had been too long since I'd read SF and I
needed a fix). People like us are clearly the bad guys in the book, but it
was interesting to see what our worse crimes are from MacLeod's perspective.

MacLeod seems to favor some sort of socialist society, though he was never
very clear how it worked. He is, however, able to depict an
anarcho-capitalist society, and it isn't a terrible place -- just culturally
backward and unsophisticated.

**** SPOILER WARNING - I'm going to say what happens! ****

The people in his socialist society think uploads are just machines without
any inner life worth considering, but the main character of the book
eventually get temporarily uploaded and then realizes that she is wrong
about this.

It seems that according to MacLeod, our great crime is selfishness. When
Earth was in bad shape, the people in space split into two factions,
"beautiful people" who had lots of sex and wanted to help Earth, and
"outwarder" nerds who only cared about conquering the universe for selfish
glory. At some point the outward faction violently grabs a bunch of
resources, kills lots of the others, and uploads more of them to serve as
slaves. They go off to Jupiter, take apart a moon, create millions of
upload copies to do their dirty work, become huge million-mind-equivalent
creatures, and build a wormhole.

They then get stuck in virtual reality navel-gazing, and broadcast viruses
that destroy all computers and telecom on Earth, forcing Earth to from then
on use mechanical computers and no radio. Earth folk are about to destroy
them all, but then try to talk, and find creatures on Jupiter that seem
reasonable. Earth asks them to stop the viruses, and asks them to explain
how to use the wormhole to get to a distant colony of anarcho-capitalists,
and the Jupiter folk do both.

Many groups in the anarcho-capitalist colony then decide they want trade
with Jupiter and send ships there through the wormhole, ignoring Earth-folk
warnings about the viruses. Viruses from somewhere on Jupiter then take
over those ships, which is then a justification for killing all life/mind
on Jupiter.

So MacLeod's bottom line is that we're right about that technologies like
uploading and wormholes and anarcho-capitalism can work as envisioned, but
that our selfishness will do us in. It makes us get stuck in navel-gazing,
and when we are powerful it makes us so irresistibly grabby that others
will get together to kill us all. When we stay as weak humans we create
societies that work, but are culturally unsophisticated.

I suppose the image is similar to that of the Ferengi in Star Trek NG,
"ugly, greedy and sexist" traders -- useful to have around, but not the
sort you'd want to socialize with, or have sex with, and definitely not
the sort you'd want to allow to have substantial power. Which if you
think about it is the stereotype of the nerd. And all this fits with
my theories of why people don't like cryonics, and why they aren't
thrilled with our becoming superhuman.

Unfortunately these stereotypes do have a basis in reality. People
on this list do on average give the impression to outsiders of being
less sexy, less culturally sophisticated, more selfish, and more caring
about things and stuff out there than people around here. And ordinary
people do seem to have deeply ingrained fears of letting such people
have power.

My response to all this is not to deny stereotypes regarding values,
but to deny that the facts will make them very relevant. The common
SF scenario is a small group of people who have a huge influence over
history and society, usually via their access to technology, and whose
values are pivotal to the outcome. But this has almost never happened
in the past, and isn't likely to happen in the future either.

Most change is due to large broad social forces, and organizations
large enough to have substantial power over others are controlled by
coalitions of many types of people, with many types of values. SF
scenarios where a few nerds could take over the world with the tech
(AI, nanotech, wormhole, etc.) that they develop in their obscure lab
are just fantasy.

Selfish techie nerds are and will remain largely powerless, even
if all the changes we forsee and promote come to pass. We may be
pivotal in making people pay attention to these possibilities, but
if they happen after that it will be because of social forces and
widely shared values - our differing values won't matter much.

Robin Hanson
Asst. Prof. Economics, George Mason University
MSN 1D3, Carow Hall, Fairfax VA 22030-4444
703-993-2326 FAX: 703-993-2323

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