Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Consider Socialism

 “Robots can’t replace senior clerics, but they can be a trusted assistant that can help them issue a fatwa in five hours instead of 50 days,” said Mohammad Ghotbi, who heads a state-linked organisation in Qom that encourages the growth of technology businesses.   Iran’s recent history has been characterised by clashes between tradition and modernity. The country’s 200,000 Shia clergy — half of whom are based in Qom — have been the leading force in protecting traditional and religious values.   But with Iran’s leadership facing heightened calls to modernise in the wake of last year’s mass protest movement, the country’s clerical establishment views technology as a way to be seen to be welcoming development while strengthening the Islamic character of the country.    Ghotbi, who leads the Eshragh Creativity and Innovation House, affirmed the approach, arguing that the clergy should not oppose the desire of Iranians to share in global technological advances. “Today’s society favours acceleration and progress,” he said (ft.com, 24 September).

Oh, the irony!

The humanist and feminist author, 61-year-old Taslima Nasrin, who was born in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh, from where she is banished, her books banned and bounty placed on her head) would likely agree having once stated:  'The Quran can no longer serve as the basis of our law. A thousand years ago it may have been useful for fending off barbarism. But we live in modern times, the era of science and technology. The Quran has become superfluous. It stands in the way of progress and the way of women’s emancipation' (Index, September/October 1994).

The late, great writer of visionary science fiction, Iain (M) Banks, in one of his short stories Piece, wrote: 'Reason shapes the future, but superstition infects the present.'   Here he echoes the radical poet Shelley from over 200 years ago:

Let us hasten that glorious day
When man on man no more shall prey
When prophets priests and kings
Are numbered with forgotten things

But back to Banks.   Before his untimely death at the age of 59 in 2013, he wrote a total of ten novels which are of particular interest to socialists.   The Culture series is set in a galaxy-spanning, post-capitalist/scarcity future, featuring worlds and interstellar ships which are under the management of delegated sentient artificial intelligences or Minds.

These three short paragraphs from  A FEW NOTES ON THE CULTURE by Banks should be enough to whet your appetite for more:

'..Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited. It is essentially an automated civilisation in its manufacturing processes, with human labour restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby.

No machine is exploited, either; the idea here being that any job can be automated in such a way as to ensure that it can be done by a machine well below the level of potential consciousness; what to us would be a stunningly sophisticated computer running a factory (for example) would be looked on by the Culture's AIs as a glorified calculator, and no more exploited than an insect is exploited when it pollinates a fruit tree a human later eats a fruit from.

Where intelligent supervision of a manufacturing or maintenance operation is required, the intellectual challenge involved (and the relative lightness of the effort required) would make such supervision rewarding and enjoyable, whether for human or machine. The precise degree of supervision required can be adjusted to a level which satisfies the demand for it arising from the nature of the civilisation's members. People - and, I'd argue, the sort of conscious machines which would happily cooperate with them - hate to feel exploited, but they also hate to feel useless. One of the most important tasks in setting up and running a stable and internally content civilisation is finding an acceptable balance between the desire for freedom of choice in one's actions (and the freedom from mortal fear in one's life) and the need to feel that even in a society so self-correctingly Utopian one is still contributing something. Philosophy matters, here, and sound education..'.

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