There Is Always An Alternative

Speech by Cory Doctorow: “…The human condition is…not good. We’re in the polycrisis, a widening gyre of climate emergency, inequality, infrastructure neglect, rising authoritarianism and zoonotic plagues.

But that’s not the bad part. Stuff breaks. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is not up for debate. Things fall apart. Assuming nothing will break doesn’t make you an optimist — it makes you a danger to yourself and others. “Nothing will go wrong” is how we get “let’s not put any lifeboats on the Titanic.”

Let me say, “to hell with optimism and pessimism.” Optimism and pessimism are just fatalism in respectable suits.

Optimism is the belief that things will get better, no matter what we do.

Pessimism is the belief that things will get worse, no matter what we do.

Both deny human agency, that we can intervene to change things.

The belief that nothing will change — that nothing can change — is the wrecker’s most powerful weapon. After all, if you can convince people that nothing can be done, they won’t try to do anything.

Thus: Margaret Thatcher’s dictum, “There is no alternative,” a polite way of saying “Resistance is futile,” or, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

This is inevitabilism, the belief that nothing can change. It’s the opposite of science fiction. As a science fiction writer, my job is to imagine alternatives. “There is no alternative” is a demand pretending to be an observation: “stop trying to think of an alternative.”

At its best, science fiction demands that we look beyond what a gadget does and interrogate who it does it for and who it does it to. That’s an important exercise, maybe the important exercise.

It’s the method by which we seize the means of computation for the betterment of the human race, not the immortal, rapacious colony organisms we call “limited liability companies,” to whom we represent inconvenient gut-flora, and which are rendering the only planet in the universe capable of sustaining human life unfit for human habitation.

The Luddites practiced science fiction. Perhaps you’ve heard that the Luddites were technophobic thugs who smashed steam-looms because they feared progress. That’s an ahistorical libel. The Luddites weren’t technophobes, they were highly skilled tech workers. Textile guilds required seven years of apprenticeship — Luddites got the equivalent of a master’s from MIT.

Luddites didn’t hate looms. They smashed looms because their bosses wanted to fire skilled workers, ship kidnapped Napoleonic War orphans north from London, and lock them inside factories for a decade of indenture, to be starved, beaten, maimed and killed.

Designing industrial machinery that’s “so easy a child can use it,” isn’t necessarily a prelude to child-slavery, but it’s not not a prelude to child-slavery, either.

The Luddites weren’t mad about what the machines did — they were mad at who the machines did it for and whom they did it to. The child-kidnapping millionaires of the Industrial Revolution said, “There is no alternative,” and the Luddites roared, “The hell you say there isn’t!”

Today’s tech millionaires are no different. Mark Zuckerberg used to insist that there was no way to talk to your friends without being comprehensively spied upon, so every intimate and compromising fact of your life could be gathered, processed, and mobilised against you.

He said this was inevitable, as though some bearded prophet staggered down off a mountain, bearing two stone tablets, intoning, “Zuck, thou shalt stop rotating thine logfiles, and lo, thou shalt mine them for actionable market intelligence.”

When we demanded the right to talk to our friends without Zuckerberg spying on us, he looked at us like we’d just asked for water that wasn’t wet.

Today, Zuck has a new inevitabilist narrative: that we will spend the rest of our days as legless, sexless, heavily surveilled, low-polygon cartoon characters in “the metaverse,” a virtual world he lifted from a 20-year-old dystopian science-fiction novel…(More)”.