Book review: Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human BeingClear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Humans: Okay, no killing people.
AI: Slavery is cool though, right?
Humans: No, no killing, no slavery!
AI: But you do it all the time. No fair!

Clear Bright Future is Paul Mason’s attempt to address the “value alignment problem” with regard to our society and the potential of AI. He sets out how we largely don’t have a set of values, thanks to things like neo-liberalism, post-modernism, and scientism, and how we desperately need to define our values. Those values, he argues, should be clearly defined, humanist, and done before the capitalists, authoritarians, or other ne’er-do-wells ruin the future.

I first became interested in reading Mason’s books when I saw his Google Talk about Post-Capitalism. He was one of the first people I’d heard make a clear argument for something that is lurking in every digital age IP lawsuit. Clear Bright Future jumped up my reading list thanks to my local library and an interview where Mason discussed the need for society/humans to decide what we value and to start making it a priority.

The overall point made in this book is valid and Mason does a reasonable job of making a convincing argument. Even if he is completely wrong about humanism, he is completely right about needing to define our values. Our values. Not someone looking to make a buck. Not someone looking to become dictator for life. Everyone.

And here comes the but. But, I think Clear Bright Future falls down as some points made are attacks on strawpeople or gross simplifications. He’ll swing between exacting explanations and diverse insights and then make quick leaps via these lazy tactics.

Take for example his comments about science moving from claims of hard objectivism to (a more realistic) subjectivism. Mason essentially engages in a confusing blend of scientism and anti-scientism. He talks as if science is simple hard facts (when it is within X% error, contingent on assumptions, within certain frames of reference, etc.) and then rejects the science that shows things are more complicated than that.

Another example is his criticism of postmodernism as anti-humanist and the foundation of a lot of today’s problems. Somewhere there is a philosophy professor shaking their head and chuckling at the idea that postmodernism texts have resulted in anything other than incomprehensible books and an industry of metanarrative loving critics blaming it for everything. At best, Mason is mistaking a part of the field for the whole. Sure, the rejection of the simplistic and metanarrative claims of earlier humanism is certainly a po-mo thing, but hardly the whole thing (e.g. see this)

These flaws do detract a bit from what is a very interesting book with a compelling message. Definitely worth reading and thinking about what our values are.

Other reviews worth reading:
Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason review – a manifesto against the machine
Review of Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Comments while reading:
You can sustain an economy on life support, but not an ideology. People were starting to ask when things would get better for them rather than for yacht owners. (Paraphrased)

Having seen some of Mason’s work before I’ve been interested in his take on things. He offers insights and ideas you haven’t considered. I also find I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions. In one part he was outlining the idea of material realism (materialism) which was a pretty decent lay explanation. But then he sort of created a strawman to suggest that modern tech economies claim to create value out of nothing (computers create their own data, thus value, without work). I’m not sure that the people who say that actually believe it, rather they are using a heuristic.

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Book Review: Humans Need Not Apply by Jerry Kaplan

Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial IntelligenceHumans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ABS brakes were the first step. The last will be us humans in observation cages next to the monkeys.

Jerry Kaplan is an expert in Artificial Intelligence and Computational Linguistics and attempts to guide the reader through what impacts AI and Robots will have on our future. In doing so, he raises many of the economic, ethical, and societal problems we are going to have to start addressing.

I first became aware of this book via CGP Grey’s short documentary of the same name (see below). To say there is a storm coming is an understatement. Kaplan guides us through the technological aspects of this topic with knowledge and skill. Where this book falls down is in his blind adherence to free-market solutions – ironically whilst pointing out several examples of where the free-market has failed in the past.

For example, some of his ideas about education are problematic. What he proposes with “job mortgages” is essentially traineeships and cadetships* that in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were paid for by employers, with his modern twist being that employees should take out a job mortgage for. In other words, all of the cost and risk is moved from employers to employees.** How can anyone suggest that sort of thing as though they aren’t talking about slavery or indentured servitude?*** Sci-fi has been imagining that sort of scenario for decades and they weren’t calling it a good idea.

His comments about how rich people being in charge isn’t all bad, like back in ancient Eygpt… Because monarchies worked so well for everyone, who was a monarch.

Another gem was the idea that the free market could be in charge of wealth redistribution… Because it does such a great job of that right now. Now, in fairness, his plan was actually pretty good, but there were built in assumptions he didn’t really question despite laying out the framework with his discussion of automation taking our jobs.

Kaplan spent most of his book outlining what amounts to a post-scarcity world, a world where human “work” would essentially cease to exist, and thus cost, value and products become meaningless. How can you maintain our current economic system in that world? Don’t we need to be rethinking about what utopia we wish to design and the machines that will make that happen?

The final chapter has some interesting questions and ideas about what role humans can play in a world that the robots run and own. Whilst the ideas aren’t new, since science fiction has been prodding that topic for the best part of 70 years, he has grounded them in reality. If there is one takeaway from this book, it is that we all need to start planning the future now.

Overall, this was a fascinating book that is well worth reading.

* A point he acknowledges he is updating to be free-market and more “beneficial”
** It could be argued that this has already happened and Kaplan is just taking it one step further.
*** Again, a point he acknowledges with reference to AIs becoming free of ownership.

https://www.reddit.com/r/Futurology/c…
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2…

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When is the future?

I came across a very cool article about when the future is for science fiction. The question is interesting because we often think of THE FUTURE as being a long way away, but as the saying goes, some infinities are larger than others.

In response to a Tweet, iO9 and researchers Ben Vrignon and Gordon Jackson decided to look at the proportions of science fiction set in the near-future (0-50 years), mid-future (51-500 years) and far-future (+501 years). They took a random sample of 250 science fiction works (books, comics, movies, and TV) created between 1880 and 2010 that were available in the USA in English. Because only the USA matters. Eye rolls are appropriate here.

The results are interesting and broken into decades:

17n10jse1jq77jpg

As you can see, some periods of time emphasise some futures more than others, whilst other periods are more equally spread. The most notable of these is the shrinking of far-future science fiction from the 1970s until the late 1990s. It could be argued that the lack of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s could have been due to the rapid rise of technological change in society, such that everyone viewed the future as being just around the corner. Then after that time, we start to realise the technology just gave us cat memes and we still had a long way to go.

In the original article, they suggest that the changes were due to uncertainty about the future post-2001.

It’s possible that during periods of extreme uncertainty about the future, as the 00s were in the wake of massive economic upheavals and 9/11, creators and audiences turn their eyes to the far future as a balm.

Now it would be remiss of me to draw too many conclusions from this, nor try to offer explanations for any “trends”. We are talking about a dataset that only covers an average of 2 works per year. Two is hardly enough to be representative of any year, and 20 works is at best a smattering of any given decade. E.g. Futurama could be the only representative of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s yet Asimov’s Foundation Series was still going (he wrote his final novel for the series in 1993), the Xeelee Sequence had just started, as had the Hyperion series. Clearly, there were many works not being counted.

It would be interesting to see someone add more data to this analysis and do some breakdowns by media type. Make it so.

Supplemental Materials: More Detail on Middle Future Dates

One of the interesting discoveries we made was that the mid-future (51-500 years in the future) seems to be the most popular period for science fiction, across the last 130 years. So Stephanie created this chart breaking out our data on mid-future SF so you can get a sense of which periods are most popular — you can see that the 100-200 year future is common.

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Is fiction actually fiction?

There has been an interesting duo of videos by PBS’ Ideas Chanel. Mike discusses some interesting concepts surrounding fiction, like the fact that fiction is as much real as it is made-up and vice versa. Worth a watch.


The two videos cover a lot of ground, but one of the more important points I’d like to highlight is the idea that we can’t have fiction without reality. We need something to anchor our ideas and make-believe, shared experiences that allow us to understand and accept these fictions. There are plenty of examples of this, but one of the cooler examples is looking at depictions of the future at various stages throughout history. Compare what sci-fi movies of the 50s thought computers would look like now to what they actually look like, and you see a 1950s computer. Our imaginations actually suck a lot more than we think.

But here’s an idea about our inability to imagine the future: what if our imaginations don’t actually suck, but instead we ignore the outlandish imaginings that are actually more likely in favour of stuff we already know? Think about it. Or don’t, I’m not your boss.