Marx, Replicators and the Future of Communism

Karl Marx. There is a name that conjures strong opinion. And whatever your opinions are it is undoubted that his thinking has had a major effect on the world for the last 150 years or so. For good or ill. At various points over the last century something like one third of the world’s population lived in states influenced by the Marxist ideas of socialism and communism.
Marx believed that people should be equal. He argued that eventually society would evolve to a state of communism where people would live equally. This would be a society with no ownership and no money. It would work by the principle of ‘to each according to need, from each according to ability’. In effect this would mean firstly that people would be provided for – all our needs would be provided for free; food, water, shelter, clothing and anything we need. Secondly it means that people would work at what they were good at, not for money, but for the satisfaction that they were helping others. A more altruistic, less selfish society would emerge.
I know there are lots of arguments about whether this is possible or even desirable but the problem I want to explore is how it may be possible that we get to this state of equality or communism or whatever you want to call it.
For Marx, getting there is problematic. His route firstly involves revolution (bloody or otherwise). Writing in the nineteenth century he predicted that workers would become so impoverished that they would rise up and overthrow the bosses who were exploiting them. The workers would then run things collectively for the benefit of everybody. This you could describe as socialism. Of course this didn’t happen in England, where he thought it would happen first, because this was where the industrial revolution was happening. His ideas did however influence revolutions in many other countries long after his death (Russia, China, Cuba etc).
Now the problem really comes with the transition from a socialist society, with ownership, money and where the state runs things on behalf of the people, to a truly communist one. In a truly communist one there would be no state, no government and things would be run communally and, as I have said there would be no money or ownership. Marx didn’t really explain how this transition would take place. It’s almost as if it would just evolve somehow by itself as people realised that it would be best.
And I would say at his point that such a society hasn’t happened. The nearest we have come, some argue, were the Kibbutz communes in Israel. On the scale of a nation it hasn’t ever happened. Don’t be fooled when people describe countries like China or Cuba or North Korea as ‘communist’; these countries are not. They may have ‘communist’ parties but at the very best they are socialist. At worst they are cruel dictatorships or oligarchies masquerading as communist in order to maintain power and privilege in the hands of the few (hang on…that sounds like capitalism…).
If you want to read a good fictional account of a communist world try ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula Le Guin. A damn good science fiction read.
Anyway, my question is whether a true communist society as Karl Marx described it is possible in reality? And if so how will we get there?
Well, I think the answer lies in a science fiction idea. Many of you will have encountered the idea of self-replicating machines. Scientists argue that future space exploration may be possible through self-replication. Imagine sending a spaceship out there that can mine resources from asteroids and make more spaceships.
On Star Trek they have replicators that can reassemble matter and make anything you desire, from a cup of ‘earl grey hot’ (Captain Picard’s favourite tipple) to component parts of a new shuttle craft.
Such machines seem far fetched but the beginnings of them are already here. For example there are computer controlled machines that have been built that can actually replicate themselves. Look up ‘RepRap’ machines on Google. Now these are not autonomous machines but they can replicate themselves and are pretty nifty 3d printers, where you can put plastic waste in one end and any shape you design comes out of the other.
Now imagine the future. Where machines collect all our waste and take it to other machines that recycle/reform those raw materials into anything we need. And all we have to do is ask them to. Machines could grow our food, transport us where we want to go, run the power stations and repair themselves. And these machines could make more machines to do all of this for us.
In this scenario us humans would not need jobs. We would not need money and everything would and could be provided for us. Capitalism would be over.
Now this idea has been used in science fiction for some time (check out the ‘culture’ novels of Iain M. Banks, for example).
It is not inconceivable that a society where machines do the work could well become a reality in some not too distant future. Some argue that we would become bored and our lives become meaningless. That we would have nothing to strive for. Perhaps we would be fat and lazy like those people on the spaceship in the animated film ‘Wall-E’.
But I like to think that human beings are more imaginative and intelligent than that. In such a future communist world of equality wouldn’t we be truly free to learn and create? Instead of selling most of our lives to someone else for the necessity of wages we could actually spend our lives pursuing the things we love…
What do you think?

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“Does my beard look big like this?”

© 2012 Simon Poore

Star Trek, Computers and Pulling out the Plug!

So…here is an idea. A science fiction idea? I will let you decide.
It is a fact that the processing power of computers is growing exponentially. And there is nothing to make us suppose that this will not continue to be the case. I still marvel at the things that can be done and continue to be done by computers.
I grew up watching Star Trek – in the early seventies I used to walk around the corner with my brother to my aunt’s house to watch it, she had that most wondrous of things; a colour television. Our TV was black and white and you had to get up from the sofa to change between one of the three (yes only three!) channels.
Anyway, my young self marvelled at the original series of Star Trek. It captured my imagination in many ways. Of course I loved the thought of travelling to distant alien worlds. I grew up thinking that if I ever got into a fight with an alien then the worst that could happen was that my shirt would get ripped and a small drop of blood would appear at the corner of my mouth, just like Captain Kirk. I loved the possibility of the Enterprise and all the technology contained within. Phasers and tricorders and replicators and communicators. All of that seemed so impossibly wonderful and distant to my young self.
And yet, here I sit, typing this on an iPad. Just like Star Trek. I can talk to my phone and it can talk back. Just like Star Trek. I can find vast amounts of information on the internet. Just like asking the computer on Star Trek. And some clever scientists and engineers are building machines now that might even mimic replicators (I will blog about that soon hopefully). I couldn’t have imagined those things would happen. And I can’t imagine the wonders of technology that my five year old daughter will experience in her life.
So, here’s the thing. The ‘Science Fiction’ idea. As I said, the capacity of computers grows ever larger as does the things they can do (compare the computers on Apollo 11 to an iPhone!). If this continues then it is conceivably possible that eventually computers will have the processing power to re-create everything within them. Yes, everything. A future computer could re-create our whole world for example, down to the molecular and sub-atomic level. Every animal, plant, human being and object re-created and modelled. And perhaps, the whole universe too.
Now I know this isn’t a new idea (I bet some of you are thinking about ‘The Matrix’). But here’s the part of this idea that gets me thinking; if that will be possible in the future (and we have no reason to suppose it won’t) then how do we know it hasn’t already happened…
I can envisage two scenarios:
1. An alien race has already done this, and our world and universe are part of some vast computer science project.
2. Humans develop computers in the future to do this and they re-create our world in order to study history.
In both scenarios I imagine that we are being watched and observed and studied.
If we are part of some vast computer project, then what will happen when we develop computers fast enough to create and re-create worlds? Worlds within worlds going on forever?
Some of you may think this idea is far-fetched and it probably is. Is this Science Fiction? The truth is that we have no way of knowing. You could be part of a computer generated world right now. And my question is this: what if someone pulls out the plug?

© 2012 Simon Poore

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“It’s life Jim, but not as we know it!”