Sunday, 3 May 2015

Utopia and Competition.


            Recently I have been rereading Masamune Shirow's Appleseed books. Shirow’s writing style can be intricate. Often the reader encounters events that appear to have no connection to the storyline. The motivation or consequence of certain actions and threads are often not clear. The true loyalties of certain characters can be unclear too. In some instances this may reflect the subjective viewpoints of the main characters. They are involved in actions and conflicts but the movements of the greater political wheels and gears that drive them are invisible to them. Certain parts of a thread evidently happen “off camera”. For example, the character “Doric” is introduced as an infiltrator in book 3 but does little except engage the protagonists in light dialogue. The next time Doric appears her allegiance to a foreign power seems to be well know and the relationship seems to be guarded but not overtly hostile.

            The reason I felt inclined to reread this work is a philosophical thread running through the first two books. The nation of Olympus is portrayed as being as near to a utopian state as mankind has been able to achieve so far. This, however, brings its own problems. Other nations resent Olympus’s influence and attempt to compete, undermine and subvert the nation in various ways. The rulers of Olympus identify a far greater problem with the potential to not only destroy Olympus but to plunge humanity ultimately into extinction.
 
            As one elder explains “The core problem is that you can’t have a perfect society without perfect people.”.... “The society creates the people, and when the people come together, they create the society........use ordinary people and all you get is an ordinary society”. In Olympus they have attempted to address this problem by making a significant proportion of the population, including its administration, of bioroids. Bioroids are a type of clone designed to be more rational and less emotionally extreme than “original” humans. Their duty and motivations are towards the welfare of the human species as a whole rather than towards themselves as individuals.

            Not being as ruled by extremes of emotion as humans, the bioroids find themselves at a disadvantage grasping the potential extremes that human behaviour can reach. Once they see the problem they debate it with the nation’s government computer, “Gaia”. The bioroid council are supposed to be the “emotional interpreters” for the computer. Unfortunately the Gaia computer concludes the best prospect for the human race is the destruction of the Olympus utopia. Humans in a utopia will either stagnate or human nature will cause its self-destruction and a conflict that will destroy the rest of humanity. One human character describes Olympus: “I thought it was good here too...at first. But it’s not dreamland. It’s..it’s a zoo. A zoo for those weird animals that build their own cages and hide inside them.”  How mankind would survive the likely word-wide conflict the power vacuum the destruction of Olympus would create is not explained.

            If we ignore the science fiction elements in the above scenario we still have some important concepts to consider.

            A utopian society implies that its members are immune to many of the harsher aspects of mother nature. Food, shelter and water are abundant. Children can be raised safely. Members are free from predation, both from their own species and other species. In some modern societies we can see some of these traits evident to a lesser degree. What we often see is that such advantages are not generally appreciated for the value they have. In many cases they are so much taken for granted that they are mislabelled as “rights”.  People become soft and complacent.

            One of Shirow’s characters briefly mentions a “domestication effect” and that members of a society would “channel stress into aggressive behavior”. “Stress” may not be the best translation here but I think we can understand what is being said.

             If we look at a creature such as a lion, it seems happy to spend much of its time sleeping and raising cubs. It hunts when it needs to. It defends its territory and competes for a mate when it must. If we consider a human living a similar bare subsistence existence we see a much greater inclination to competition. Despite the struggle of keeping the family fed, the human will still find numerous ways to compete with their fellows. Some of these competitions have obvious prizes such as status to win mates or the expansion of territory. Many, however, are games or pastimes where the reward is pride or some other abstract of no real value.

            The Romans summed things up neatly with “Bread and Circuses”. As well as food, shelter and other necessities humans also needed entertainment and distraction. “Bread and Circuses” is still a mainstay of government, the only difference being that it has now been realized the great unwashed can be made to pay money for such things. Many of our diversions are competitive in nature. When we do not have obvious tribal differences we create them. People invest their emotions into the fortunes of a particular sports team. They may not be from the region the team nominally represents, possibly not even from the same nation. I have met loyal Manchester United fans from as far away as China and Japan. The majority of a professional sports team are often not even from the same country, let alone the town they represent. When we lack actual competitors we will often create them. Sometimes this is simply following the fortunes of a particular team. Other times it can be based on divisions along social, economic, racial, religious, ideological and national groupings.

            Competition is necessary and unavoidable. Humans seem to have a need for it. A working utopian society would probably need to provide some form of healthy outlet for such inclinations. Ideally these would take the form of self-improvement activities whereby the individual challenges themselves and reaps some benefit in fitness or knowledge. Most likely for the majority this will be the easier route of following the exploits of some team of theirs against others.

            A key phrase in the above passage was “healthy outlet”. The human need for competition can be met by conflict and warfare. Historian Niall Ferguson has made the observation that many human conflicts, whatever the apparent economic or ideological motivations can be boiled down to a conflict between different ethnic groups. While some people will choose to interpret that as justification for racial conflict I believe it is simply division along the lowest common denominator of social grouping. In many village societies sports such as wrestling or singlestick were often important. It allowed the young men of the village to compete against each other or neighbouring villages without too much likelihood of bloodshed or permanent injury. Perhaps the correct solution to football hooliganism would have been to provide areas where “firms” of consenting hooligans could have fought away from innocent bystanders and property.

            Competition that disrupts a society is obviously unhealthy. So too is competition for disproportionate rewards. In the novel "Starmaker" by Olaf Stapledon the narrator observes of the civilizations he views:-

                “We were inclined to think of the psychological crisis of the waking worlds as being the difficult passage from adolescence to maturity; for in essence it was an outgrowing of juvenile interests, a discarding of toys and childish games, and a discovery of the interests of adult life. Tribal prestige, individual dominance, military glory, industrial triumphs lost their obsessive glamour, and instead the happy creatures delighted in civilized social intercourse, in cultural activities, and in the common enterprise of world-building.”

            We are persuaded to buy new cars and other products we do not need supposedly to impress friends, neighbours and strangers. Often the opinions of people that do not matter or should not matter to us. Nations and societies are just as guilty. Despite economic problems the UK spent thousands of millions to host the recent Olympic games, even though few Olympics have ever produced a profit for the hosting nation. The medals won have little real value. The army, health service and police services have all undergone funding cuts and downsizing due to the money wasted. Brazil has hosted the World Cup and will soon host the Olympics. Not only will the nation lose thousands of millions but the events are being used to steal property from some of the poorest elements of that society.

            The philosophical concepts Appleseed raises are though provoking and I wish Shirow had pursued these threads further. But, as he says himself, he is just an artist and does not have all the answers.

            Certain educators have tried to teach kindergarten children not to be competitive. Competitiveness is apparently an inherent and strong trait of the human psyche. Attempts to eliminate it are doubtless doomed to failure. What is needed is for our competitiveness to be educated along more rational rather than emotional imperatives. We need to learn to view competition and realize sometimes the result or prize does not actually matter! Warfare for defence is necessary. Warfare for national prestige/patriotism/religious dogma is seductive but false. Pride in your society/nation/self is a state of mind and should not require a vast expenditure of money that cannot be afforded.
            Fights are not the only conflicts that we need to pick wisely!

The Books
http://www.angelfire.com/art/enchanter/epsdbook.html