Google's Gulch - Neoliberal Globalization Propaganda Masquerading as Science Fiction
I'm a politics junkie and a scifi junkie. So, when two books, Infomocracy (book 1) and Null States (book 2), that were touted as merging those two genres came out, I bought the books. But, after reading them, I was repulsed by their world government, libertarian, Identity Politics take on the near future.
I have come across blatantly political scifi, in the past. Notably, the four-time Hugo Award winner, Vernor Vinge, who bashes government and blatantly proselytizes for libertarianism. But the author of these two books, Malka Older, is not the maverick that Vinge is. She's clearly a well-groomed Establishment shill.
Older has an undergraduate degree in literature from Harvard University, and a Masters in international relations and economics from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Johns Hopkins University. She is currently a PhD candidate, and her doctoral work on the sociology of organizations at the Institut d’Études Politques de Paris
She was named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015.
- Wikipedia, Malka Older
Just FYI - Its the School of Advanced International Studies. Paul Nitze was a screaming hardliner throughout the entire Cold War. He was extremely influential, authoring the NSC-68 memo (1950) that set the US course against the Soviet Union and organizing the infamous Team B (1976) project. The eponymous school itself is one of the main centers of the neocons and has been since its founding by Nitze in 1943. With this organizational background, Ms. Older is no overachieving aid worker, no disinterested, well-meaning idealist. She is a neocon-blessed political operative.
Ms. Older’s current fellowship organization, the Carnegie Council, despite its Carnegie origins, is also crawling with neocon and neolib operatives.(The Carnegie Endowment HQ is literally across the street from the Nitze school.) Noted speakers there include: Zbig Brezezinski, Tom Friedman, Bernard Lewis, Bill Kristol, Michael Novak, Richard Posner, Max Boot, Natan Sharansky, Cass Sunstein, Ian Bremmer, and Samantha Power.
Nothing says Establishment like Harvard literature major and Johns Hopkins/Nitze school.
FAIR WARNING: This essay is a lengthy book review that tries to explain how Older's books push the three propaganda tropes cited above. For most folks, this essay will be TL;DR.
Older's highly praised (by the politically correct NPR, NYT, HuffPo) books are only slightly more subtle than Vinge. Just a preview: there is a one-world government which contains many corporate governments; there is a digital panopitocon named Information (with a capital "I") which is portrayed as a benevolent and neutral organization; there are mercenary armies.
1. WORLD GOVERNMENT (as an excuse for constant denigration of nations)
Nation states are roundly trashed as "outdated" in throwaway asides scattered throughout the books. For example:
Roz, whose family has had multiple tribal and geographic affiliations for at least three generations, finds the idea of a "people" hopelessly outdated - aren't we all people...
- Book 2, p 186
nationalists...consider some aspect of identity (ethnicity, religion, place of birth) more important than the government one chooses.
- Book 1, p 103
Roz is both horrified and fascinated by the situation...because she finds nation-states so difficult to comprehend She has never been able to get her head around why people and governments insist on clinging to the antiquated grab-as-much-territory-as-you-can philosophy. If they're splintering so rapidly...they might as well divide into centenals[Note] in an orderly way and be done with it.
- Book 2, pp 69-70
Wrong, Ms. Older, "grabbing territory" was pre-WW1 Imperialism, not nationalism. Nationalism, touted by Woodrow Wilson, wanted countries to correspond to the boundaries of cultures and ethnic groups. That's why the Versailles Treaty broke Austria-Hungary up into at least four countries. That's why Poland was created in 1919 by taking territory from three empires.
Note: a "centenal" is a compact statelet of population 100,000 people. The one world government is made up of ~100,000 centenals.
Micro-democracy is still very recent. We know it takes time for people's allegiances to shift away from simple geographic proximity.
- Book 2, p 126
Throughout the books, being forced to deny geography and to choose among, according to her, thousands of possible abstract forms of neoliberal-sanctioned government is touted as a feature, instead of the information overload bug that it is.
Unsurprisingly, the residual of historically and geographically separate nations are trashed for declining to participate:
the remaining Swiss nation-state clings to its territory, bitterly insular and anti-Information
- Book 2, p130
Switzerland, with all that cash and all those interesting safety deposit boxes is going to splinter into a bunch of micro-democracies and a rump of backwoods? In the next ten years? Homey, puhleeze.
And of course, Russia is portrayed as the most aggressive nation state left on the planet. Why are they aggressive? No explanation. Not even a Russian character to twirl his moustache. Just because.
Roz listens to centenal after centenal explain how Russia pushes the borders in day by day.
- Book 2, p 395
1.1 The backstory of world government fails, big time
The entire backstory upon which the world government narrative depends is a vaguely alluded to, and never described, worldwide agreement to have the entire planet surveiled by a digital panopticon of data feeds that takes action against anything it feels to be contrary to its interests, to guarantee the integrity and completeness of those feeds, and to make those feeds transparent (searchable by everyone on the planet). And all of that in place by 2030.
ROTFLMAO. The only part of Older's narrative that will come about by 2030 is a censored, non-transparent, crooked digital panopticon that enforces neoliberal economics and eviscerates governments everywhere, i.e., Google's Gulch. But, let me play along for a minute. Facebook (data grabbing, political influencing, censoring), Google (who sold out to China and the Pentagon), the megalomaniac Bezos, the CIA, the NSA - these guys are going to come together to create a benevolent, transparent digital panopticon over the next ten years? Right. Sure. I have a bridge on the moon I'm going to sell you.
With this laughable background conceit in place, the plot is nothing but a bunch of whodunits and chases engaged in for the protection of the benevolent panopticon and for the security of honest democratic elections for all. Even those detective stories and chases are full of deus ex machinas from the magical infotech that can filter an entire planet's data streams and deliver relevantly filtered summaries of them on demand in realtime to anyone anywhere.
But, if you pay attention, no actual politics is discussed in the books; only elections and threats to them by powerful factions. So, in addition to the political virgin birth of the panopticon, the stories are all about elections. They are free from policy and non-election politics throughout. What a perfect, if unintentional, parody of inside the beltway Washington.
Oh, and in this libertarian paradise, wars have just gone away. The massive piles of Weapons of Mass Destruction and conventional arms scattered throughout the world today just magically vanished in 2030 due to some dumbass tech called a Lumper that supposedly made metal weapons jam. Excuse me, but a nuke's moving parts are plastic explosive, not metal. Not to mention the fact that fusing metal could mess up so much other stuff, like engines, transmissions, precision machine tools, construction equipment, and so on. Computer viruses that crash machinery (Stuxnet) aren't made of metal. Nerve gas just requires you to turn a valve or break a jar.
The Lumper is a brazenly stupid deus ex machina that is used to bury the overriding issue of violence in global politics. The author is forced to acknowledge plastic guns in Book 2, but they are written off in the novel as being illegal - so no problem.
Given the ludicrousnenss of the backstory, IMHO, the entire point of the book is not the mundane computer detective work and chases and fights. The point is to create a platform to propagandize for Neoliberal Globalism. The books have the same M.O. as the infamous “Atlas Shrugged” whose skewed narrative and cartoon social oppression are there to indoctrinate the reader in libertarianism via John Galt.
The idea of micro-government has been done before. Ms. Older's books read like a serious version of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, which played globalist libertarianism for complete laughs. Stevenson had franchises instead of statelets, multinational corporate behemoths ran the chains of franchises. The Mafia was just another corporation. Gated community chains were countries with digital passports and rentacop security - the pizza delivery guy needed a separate passport for each franchise. Government was completely franchised, with private jail companies like "The Clink", and privatized expressway chains. MIlitary was supplied by "General Jim’s Defense System” and “Admiral Bob’s Global Security". One megalomaniac bought a surplus nuclear aircraft carrier. Another megalomaniac had his own personal nuclear warhead. It was all satire.
Stephenson was funny. Ms. Older is not funny, she is in earnest. Instead of humor, Ms. Older hectors you with condescension, contempt, and disingenuous incomprehension.
I just remember feeling sorry for people without Information
- Book 2, p 262
Micro-democracy is difficult. Often the availability of Information isn't enough to help voters participate in the system and keep it running smoothly.
- Book 2, p ??
Well, Duh. Given that the bulk of the population aren't tech gurus, offering them a pile of indigestible and largely irrelevant info does not guarantee anything, much less democracy.
One of the "smoothing" factors, mentioned elsewhere in the book, is the statement that people could easily move to a statelet where their ideas would be in the majority. (An example cited a person's desire for lower tax rates.)
But, in the not so long run, such a policy would recreate exactly the islands of cultural and ethnic tribalism known as nations, probably racist and sexist nations. So, Older's entire concept is self-defeating unless there is relentless propaganda to turn people in nothing more than Thatcherite hyper-individualist consumers with no loyalty to any locale or group or society. IOW, the standard libertarian caricature of a human being - one who moves because of marginal rate tax concerns.
This is what we do. We deal with the dangerous, sociopathic, power-hungry individuals the people elect.
Because no such person would ever try to climb the ranks inside your organization (i.e., Information). Libertarian organizations are, by definition, moral, idealistic, and benevolent - and always profitable. We should trust our globalist digital panopticon - despite the fact that both novels contained massive and dangerous conspiracies successfully operating inside Information.
Ms. Older has mercenary armies just like Snow Crash, except we're supposed to think of them as a good idea.
Most (small) governments would contract their security functions to LesProfessionnels or YourArmy...
What could possibly go wrong?
Q: What about our (Information's) security guards?
A: Due to the high costs, hiring challenges, and the prohibitive lack of capacity in running our own security program, we made the decision about two years ago to outsource to SecureNation. (FYI: Who then attacked Information from the inside.)
Comment: The smart people are wondering whether SecureNation acted alone (in shutting down a major Information nexus) or was subcontracted for the attack
p 256 (book 1)
It is the wet dream of libertarian authoritarians to hire mercenaries. But the world has experienced the opportunism, betrayal, and cowardice of mercenaries for millenia. Ms. Older knows that. So she presents the failure scenario just quoted to show some pro forma acknowledgment of the problem, and then quickly cuts away from it. This maneuver screams "innoculation" in the propaganda sense of the word.
Once I noticed that innoculation, I saw other examples where she innoculates against the obvious problems with global neoliberalism. She allows an anarchist character (not a believer in national government, perish the thought) from the statelet "Privacy=Freedom" raise a pertinent issue:
The problem with the feeds...is that they give us the illusion of a perfect truth, incontrovertible evidence, a flat, singular version of history. They are too easy to rely on, to believe in.
we know that recording everything is not exactly a guarantee against abuses by people in authority.
Maria, Privacy=Freedom, anarchist
And that's the end of that. The narrative just moves on. Later, in an internal monologue, Mishima, the character with "narrative disorder" muses:
Frustrated with the impossibility of getting people to make informed choices, stymied by the name-recognition problem and the celebrity factor and a million other quirks of neurobiology, the people who cared decided to manipulate the people who didn't.
p 364 (book 1)
Ms. Older puts all the issues about information overload, celebrity bias, and covert manipulation (Cambridge Analytical) on the table in one brief sentence. Then she sweeps them away as the character finds her resolve and decides that Infomocracy could never fail along those lines. Because faith.
It is a conceit of the books that the digital panopticon is neutral, but that conceit is belied by how Information distributes and emphasizes the truth:
News compilers are the most obvious way to tell the world that the new (government) is lying...They work it into talk shows, political features, telenovelas, serials, trade shows, cooking classes, tourist brochures, projection games, documentaries, educational programs, celebrity stalking, encyclopedia entries, and dance contests. Ken is paricularly enjoying the taks of spouting propaganda to whomever he meets.
p 360 (book 1)
Gee, she left out "working it into scifi books". I wonder why.
The above scenario is just like today, only way worse. News the government wants out there is blasted on all channels. Anything they don't want is buried in the noise of billions of feeds. The author justifies this bias as necessary to counteract crime. She tries to pretend that Information is nothing but a kind of "League of Women Voters" with a good detective agency attached. Here's her list of "duties" of Information:
Information's jobs: "tracking all campaign actions, official and unofficial; mediating disputes; managing the delicate, highly technical process of voting itself; promoting voter registration; helping smaller governments fulfill their transparency obligations.
-p 96 (1st book)
The author has to stand on her head to avoid the fact that Information is just another political player – one with enormous leverage held by no other player.
3. IDENTITY POLITICS
Finally, even more grating than the global neolibealism propaganda theme is the Identity Politics theme intertwined with it. The libertarian theme wants us to pretend that if evil big government were eliminated, economics would be a positive sum game, and that trouble could only arise from irrational human behavior. Since the main conceit of the novel has destroyed nations, tribes, and cultures as human groupings, the book pushes the reader to accept describing all the characters by little more than their Id Pol signifiers and their career aspirations.
The IdPol credentialing is as nauseating as a German reciting his family's Ayran ancestry. Here is the background for an extremely minor character:
The Information liaison for Policy1st is Gerardo Vasconcielos. Born in a EuropeanUnion centenal in Santiago de Chile, he was able to move without migrating to Brussels, where EuropeanUnion still holds a number of centenals as well as its global headquarters.
- Book 2, p 146
Book 2 is so off-balance with IdPol characters that I started keeping a list:
3.1 Significant Female Characters
1. Roz - a character in the Book 1 and the main character in Book 2 is African.
2. Mishima - a main actor (and superwoman) in both books, a spy, a martial artist, an environment desinger (i.e., propagandist), a person with the desirable "narrative disorder" that finds needles in data haystacks almost magically. She is described as "an Asian-Caucasian cross". (Geez, isn't that blatantly racist?)
3. Veena Rasmussen - co-head of state, Policy1st (a government)
4. Vera Kubugli - co-head of state, Policy1st, described as "not remotely white" (slaps forehead - could I dare to say that?) Also, this character is in a Lesbian relationship.
5. Valerie Nougaz - high-ranking person at Information and Lesbian partner of Vera K.
6. Nejime - another high-ranking woman at Information.
7. Maryam - data analyst at Information, friend of Roz, former Lesbian partner of Valerie N.
8. Cynthia Halliday - head of state, Heritage (and evil, murderous woman)
3.2 Significant Male Characters
1. Ken - contractor to Information. Love interest of Mishima.
2. Suyleman - minor governor in DarFur. Love interest of Roz.
3. Minzhe - Information worker from DarFur, son of female governor of DarFur corporate statelet.
4. Charles - Information worker.
5. Malakal - Information worker.
Let's do the totals:
Eight women, including three gays, two POC, and one half-Gweilo. All the women are powerful and have strong personalities.
Five men, two of them mostly used as love interests. One guy who is connected to another powerful female (his mother), and two nondescript characters that get minimal exposure and zero personality development. The men are mostly decorations.
Yeah, I get the inversion. But, really, the world of the future will be ruled by gay POC women? Donne moi une break.
By the end of the books, I did not care one bit about any of the characters. They came off as a bunch of elitist, cosmopolitan, careerist yuppies defined by their exercise routines and their fixations on food and clothing. Just like the author - if you recall the biography I gave at the beginning.
What more is there to say? Don't read this book naively. Look for the propaganda. Dissect the propaganda. Warn your scifi reading friends.